Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Robert Chambers

Yesterday my wife's nephew died of cancer, aged 41.
Known professionally as Wobbly Bob, he was a gifted artist and musician, the guitarist, singer and co-founder with Pete Bennett of a band called Daddy Fantastic, and creator of the cartoon character of that name. Here is the cover page of one of his comic books.

I and all my family were very fond of him; we admired his gentleness, his good humour, his inability to bear a grudge and his total lack of malice or anger.

I have never met anyone else quite like him. He was much loved and we shall all miss him.

On 6th January in Brighton, over two hundred of Robert's friends joined his family for a last gig.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Let's face the music and dance

We were promised A Fortnight of Festive Viewing and this was no idle threat: we got Mary Poppins and then it was all downhill from there. The Queen's Address was an oasis of lively fun amid all the sad old rubbish.

There was one ancient clip, though, which justified its nth repeat. Throughout its thirty-two year history it has never been more topical than it was this Christmas:

Angela Rippon is reading the news: "A report on the economy has just come through from Number 11 Downing Street. The Chancellor's statement reads as follows: There may be trouble ahead..."

The newsdesk slides away revealing Rippon's gorgeous legs. She does a very high kick then dances and sings, while Morecombe and Wise join her and do their Fred Astaire act: "...but while there's moonlight, and music, and love, and romance..."

Friday, 26 December 2008

Playing choo-choos

I never wanted to be an engine driver. This showed untypical percipience on my part, for even then I could see that it was a matter of doing a hot, dirty, exhausting, job while under the appalling stress of being responsible for the lives of four hundred people being pulled at a hundred miles an hour by a machine which might be thirty years old, the design of which had been essentially unchanged since the nineteenth century.
But I had never realised what a difficult job it was. The picture shows just how much you had to do compared with modern train drivers sitting relaxed at their controls, which are barely more complex than those of a family saloon.
To get going, you had to test the brakes A and then release them, open the blower valve B and wind the reverser C clockwise. Then the fireman H opens the cylinder drain cock E; this releases a cloud of steam and he has to shut it off once the train starts so that you can see where you are going. You might blow the whistle F as you pull forward the regulator lever G which makes the engine move forward.
As the train picks up speed you gradually wind the reverser anticlockwise until the indicator D moves towards the middle: too far, and the train will go into reverse. You must keep an eye on the water gauge J and you may need to inject more with the injector control valve K.
At full speed the fireman is shovelling up to 50lbs of coal a minute into the firehole I [This reminds me of Peter Cook talking about a coal miner's life: "You can do whatever you like, you've got a completely free hand, so long as you get eleven tons of coal up every day".]
You must keep an eye on the water gauge J and if levels go down inject more with the injector control valve K.
To stop, shut the regulator G and apply the brake handle A. Finally, wind the reverser to the middle of the indicator.
Watch the speedometer L and keep peering through the tidgy little forward window for signals.

There is one luxury: the steam-heated mash pot M which keeps tea piping hot all day, though I cannot imagine when you have time to drink any.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

OED slashed!

Now is a very good time for buying things, particularly if you've got any money: huge discounts in the department stores, special offers in the supermarkets, Woolworths selling off their stock and bargains everywhere. Even the mighty Oxford University Press reducing prices, though this is not because of the global financial crisis but to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the publication of the last fascicle of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928.

The magnificent 20-volume printed set of the OED is now available at the special offer price of just 450 pounds sterling until 31 January 2009, or for US customers $895. This is a steal at 0.33 cents a word or 0.12 cents a meaning, but of little interest to those in the UK who have a public library ticket giving them free access at home to the online edition; this is even more of a steal. With this December's release of new and revised material the OED has passed a milestone, with a quarter of the third edition now published. Currently it contains 263,917 entries (741,153 meanings), illustrated by 2,931,547 quotations.

Among the new entries are:

ew int.
Joining a large family of imitative words expressing disgust or aversion, ew takes its place, alongside ugh, ough, auh, yah, pew, faugh, and many more, on the list of words which have attempted to tackle the age-old problem of how to represent in print what are essentially inarticulate sounds.

plus-one n.
A word of relatively unusual etymology and evocative meaning, plus-one is an invitational convention—that of indicating that a named invitee may bring one unspecified guest by following the name with the words ‘plus one’—made flesh, as a noun used to mean the extra person who attends an event or party under the auspices of these words.

podcasting n.
A very new word, for a recent phenomenon, and a great example of how technological change, especially that relating to the internet and the media, can be a driving force not only in generating new words, but in determining whether they survive and succeed. In this case the rapid adoption of podcasting (the technology) as a means of making audio material available has seen podcasting (the word) move quickly from its first tentative steps in 2004, as only one of a number of suggested names for the process, to near-ubiquity in 2008. The current OED quarterly release also includes other members of the same family: podcast as a noun and a verb, podcaster, and even the somewhat ungainly adjective podcasted.

rashomon n.
An indication of the wealth and variety of influences which are at work on the English language, as Japanese cinema gives us this word, which alludes to the method of storytelling used in Akira Kurosawa's 1951 film of this name, and is used attributively to denote things involving multiple conflicting or differing perspectives. The underlying simile is first invoked in English in the adjective Rashomon-like, which dates back to 1962, and is also included in this release of new and revised OED text.

[This last word is not yet widely used and is therefore a useful addition to the armoury of critics who like to impress with the sophistication of their vocabulary: "The new sit-com looks at life in a home for the criminally insane as it is seen by the inmates, the staff and some men repairing the roof, making it something of a rashomon de nos jours."]

Monday, 22 December 2008

Tight-lipped in Ystad

I wrote the other day about a marvellous Argentinian actor who expertly conveys a whole range of emotions while remaining almost totally expressionless. Kenneth Branagh gave a fine demonstration of this skill in three stylish films which the BBC has just broadcast. They are adaptations of novels by the Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell; here there is an exhaustive description of the background to the filming.

Branagh played the detective Kurt Wallander and almost succeeded in giving him an interesting if not attractive personality: scruffy, unshaven, diabetic, a self-confessed crap dad and not smelling very nice, he also lacks social skills and tends to converse by twitching his thin lips in silence while you try to guess at what he might be very slowly thinking, if anything. Often, he just wanders away without a word when he gets bored with whoever he is talking to. So of course women fall about with admiration for him, and his chief (male) assistant is madly and secretly in love with him until he is brutally murdered by a transvestite: the assistant, that is. It's a rich full life in the quiet little town in southern Sweden where the stories are set.

Although he can run quite fast and shoot straight when necessary, Wallander is totally exhausted most of the time, or possibly in some kind of coma. This introduces a note of real suspense: one is constantly wondering whether he is going to make it to the end of the episode before he drops off to sleep.

The plots are preposterous, and it is all brilliantly done. There is talk of another three Wallander adaptations being made in a year or so, and I eagerly await them.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Two years at the pictures

Over the last two years I saw these films in the cinema:

Notes on a Scandal — Becoming Jane — Curse of the Golden Flower — Children of Men — Atonement — Michael Clayton — When Did You Last See Your Father — Elizabeth: The Golden Years — Les Témoins — Into the Wild — The Magic Flute — Earth — I Am a Legend — The Golden Compass — Bee Movie — The Valley of Elah — No Country for Old Men — Le Scaphandre et le Papillon — There Will Be Blood — 10,000 BC — The Other Boleyn Girl — My Brother is an Only Child — Wall-E — After the Rains — Man on Wire — The Duchess — Il y a Longtemps Que Je t'Aime — Dean Spanley

I have completely forgotten several of these and it is too early to say yet whether any of the others made sufficient impression be added to a list of all-time memorables. I do remember clearly several of the hundred or so films which I saw on the small screen in the last couple of years, including these two:

Vatel (Roland Joffé, 2000), for its extraordinary lavishness (it lost money); you can get an idea of just how lavish from the trailer (ignore the childish commentary). Gérard Depardieu as the seventeenth-century cook is not at his best in English, but the spectacular goings-on are hugely enjoyable.

El Aura (Fabián Bielinsky, 2005). I think we would all agree that playing the part of an epileptic taxidermist calls for great subtlety and restraint; Ricardo Darín handles it superbly by remaining almost expressionless for most of the time, though he does frown quite a lot and at one point almost smiles. One critic described the film as being "overly freighted with symbolism and meaning". That's as may be, though I have to say I didn't notice it, but this is an exceptional heist movie in that you have no idea of what is going to happen, but you want to find out. This trailer gives you the flavour.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Border incident

Exactly thirty years ago, in December 1978, I took the train from Beijing to Pyongyang. No doubt nowadays it is full of happy tourist parties off for a jolly time with Our Dear Leader in the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, but at that time no-one much wanted to go there or could get a visa if they did.

Clearly I was going to be the only gweilo on the train, and I nervously asked the Chinese minders seeing me off in Beijing how I would manage about ordering food and so on. "No problem", they reassured me, "the guard speaks Russian". In the event I just ate whatever came round, which wasn't much.

I can remember nothing of the twenty-four hours as the train rumbled through Manchuria; there were some stops but only one of them was at all memorable. Bleary-eyed, I stumbled out and stretched my legs along the deserted platform while they were changing the locomotive, and a Chinese border guard hurried towards me. There was nothing menacing about him and when he accosted me in passable English I found that he was not going to check my passport and visa, or arrest me for some unspecified crime, but simply wanted to talk.

He seemed to have some managerial responsibilities, but with only two trains a day and apparently no-one getting on or off them his duties could not have occupied much of his time: after he had polished his belt, boots and pistol holster the days must have dragged terribly. Generally my impression is that Chinese people cope well with boredom, being inured or impervious to it; this young man had spent his time teaching himself English. As I was the first native Anglophone he had ever met he was determined to make the most of an opportunity to practise.

I have heard other European travellers in China say that earnest students met by chance often demand answers to difficult questions about such things as the proper use of the mandative subjunctive, but happily the problem which had been bothering my new friend was easy to for me to solve. He was supervising the installation of some new bins to keep the station tidy: should he have them labelled TRASH or GARBAGE?

Of course I said it should be RUBBISH; REFUSE would have confused him. I wrote it for him on the back of my card (ming pian) and we parted with a handshake and expressions of mutual esteem. I like to think that he kept my card as a souvenir and that he retains as happy a memory of our encounter as I do.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

About to be Führer

No 7 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century
January 1934: From DW in Berlin to Reginald Braad in Gordon Street, London: I send you this without comment. Don't show it to Derek it might encourage him.

This short message makes a present day reader bristle with speculation. Few comments are as loaded as 'without comment', and Derek becomes a tantalising figure (perhaps on the fringes of Mosley's British version of fascism). Hitler has been Chancellor for a year and the Third Reich is only six months old, yet the familiar imagery is all in place with a proliferation of swastikas and uniforms and the beginnings of the Hitler Youth.

The caption on the reverse reads 'Reichschancellor Hitler greets his young people'. These boys will be ready for the war when the call eventually comes. The Führer himself (though he will not assume that title publicly until Hindenberg's death later that year) is iconically complete, the often parodied walk and salute and compelling charm perfected. Was this received with a dismissive chuckle in Gordon Street and did Derek catch an all too exhilarating glimpse of it?

Sunday, 14 December 2008

God Trumps

Here's one of the twelve cards from a cut-out-and-keep metaphysical card game that gives you the low-down on the world's top sects, cults and religions. Try it at home as fun for all the family, or take it down the pub and have a stimulating evening of good-natured dispute and friendly banter!

Friday, 12 December 2008

Bollywood poster

No folk-art is livelier than an Indian film poster, which characteristically includes a space rocket, a clutch of skyscrapers, a distant view of Kashmir, a group of skin-divers, a submarine, two or three Mercedes cars and a fattish young hero, centre front, who, while gazing moistly into the eyes of his beloved, seems to be searching her long black hair for nits.
from An Indian Journey by Jan Morris

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Episcopal charmer

A new biography of Rowan Williams suggests that he was—perhaps still is—very attractive to women, to whom he seemed surrounded by a "great white light" and "gave off an aura". A modest man, he was totally unaware of this, even when one besotted admirer killed herself, mentioning his name among her last words to a friend.

For many of us this is difficult to understand. One can see how having a roguish smile and spectacular eyebrows, and being an all-round nice chap, as well as a theological heavyweight and Primate of All England, would give him a certain charisma, not to mention his reputed ability to wrap one of his legs around his neck, but none of these qualities seem likely to have inspired such extreme devotion.

Perhaps de gustibus non est disputandum is the explanation, though Julius Caesar made this observation in quite a different context, referring to the cockroach-eating habits of the Helvetii.

Monday, 8 December 2008

A sonnet for the New Year

Last year the OMF sonnet-writing competition generated world-wide excitement (well, five people entered); there is a report on it here, together with a link to all the entries.

We are fast approaching the season when post-prandial torpor afflicts many and there are long periods during which eructation is the only physical activity that can be undertaken, so a new competition is launched today which may keep a few minds alive. Well, actually, it's not a competition this time; all entries which comply with the conditions will be published and I will send a cheque to the Save the Children Fund for five pounds for each accepted entry, excluding the really rotten ones.

The rules are the same as last year except that there is a new set of line-endings:
might sway sight day
ill deeds skill exceeds
more hate abhor state
me thee

Closing date is 1st January 2009.
At 11th December, four entries have already been received

All entries will be published on 8th January.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Paris Belle Epoque

My friend Thierry Fournier has lived in England for 57 years, and, together with his wife Ginette, is completely attuned to the twenty-first century zeitgeist of the Home Counties; nevertheless they remain cent pour cent lyonnais and parisienne respectively.

The other day Thierry sent me a link to this website*. It is a slide show of magnificent black and white photos of twenty-four great buildings of Paris, published as postcards between 1902 and 1904.

The clothes and the traffic have changed but many of the buildings have not. This one, sadly, is no more; called the Palais du Trocadéro, it was constructed in 1878 for the third Paris World Fair and in its garden the completed head of the Statue of Liberty was on display. It was pulled down in 1937 when the present Palais de Chaillot was built.

[The website* is a PowerPoint file. Before you run it you might want to switch off your loudspeakers; if you do not, while clicking through the pictures you will have to listen to Charles Trenet warbling the title song from a terrible 1941 musical called La Romance de Paris, with its "whimsical gallic appeal... enchanting airs and loveable characters".]

Thursday, 4 December 2008


The mention of Raymond Chandler's fondness for Bourbon in one of last month's posts reminded me of a story:

The scene is a glittering reception at the U.S. embassy in Vienna. An American matron dripping with jewels is clearly having trouble with the barman and becoming more and more agitated.

A white-haired gentleman, his chest covered with the insignia of noble orders, approaches her and asks if he can be of help:

"Yeah, I wanna Bourbon!"

The old gentleman inclines his head in a courtly bow:

"Would a Habsburg do?"