Tuesday, 29 December 2009

A suitable case for treatment

They said that before they give me an ARR next month I must go and see the anaesthetist to find out whether he would be likely to do me any harm, so on Christmas Eve I trotted along to consult him.

After checking that I was me and not some impostor, he asked me to give him an account of my medical history. This was clearly not something which could be covered in a few words, as most of the items I had to list were double- or even triple-barrelled, and I was determined to give him the whole story. So I began with complete details of my OA and my Type 2 DM and then dealt with some of the less exciting elements such as my HH and my BKR, before finally touching lightly on my SD and my BPH.

Taken together, these seemed to me to be fairly significant, but the anaesthetist was unimpressed: it seems that in terms of increasing the surgical risk they are all irrelevant or trivial.

"Didn't really need to see you", he said, "patients sent to me for pre-assessment usually have some condition which makes an operation dangerous and I have to warn them that they might die under the anaesthetic, so that they can become reconciled to the idea, put their affairs in order, make a will, all that. For your age, you're one of the fittest people I've ever had in here".

Then I remembered to tell him that I am allergic to oysters, though I knew that Whitstable natives are rarely used in modern anaesthesia. Anyway, he said that, like me, he acquired the same allergy after eating a bad one, but his reaction had been far worse than mine: he had vomited all night and bled from the eyes.

So all in all, the consultation gave me quite a good feeling, even though it may not have been really necessary.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

A close thing

It gave me quite a frisson when I realised that the alleged perpetrator of yesterday's attempted terrorist attack on Northwest Airlines flight 253 as it descended towards Detroit Metropolitan Airport might very well have been a close friend of mine, if the incident had taken place much earlier.

The man currently under arrest had been a student reading Mechanical Engineering at University College London, as I had been fifty-nine years previously, and my Nigerian friend at that time, Charles Ogunsina, could have been involved; he was just the sort of chap who would burn his leg trying to mix two liquids together in the hope that they would explode. I always had a certain affection for him because he was the only student of our year whose technical drawings were more contemptible than mine and, in addition, always had dirty fingermarks all over them. Sadly, we lost touch after we both failed Part 1 of the BSc course and went our separate ways, he back to Lagos and I to National Service.

So it was with some excitement that I followed BBC Television News reporting on the developments at lunchtime today. Well, actually, 'developments' is not quite the right word because the reporter on the spot, broadcasting live, made several desperate and totally unsuccessful attempts to rack up the tension when in fact he had no idea what, if anything, was happening inside the premises in London where the student may have stayed earlier. He constantly announced new 'flurries' of activity consisting of policemen going into the building carrying packages and coming out, sometimes empty-handed and sometimes carrying the same packages, or possibly different ones. On one occasion the sharp-eyed observer spotted that some new arrivals were dressed quite differently from earlier ones and were wearing boots, but made no attempt to explain the significance of this. It was at that point that I guessed that nothing much would happen that afternoon, and switched off.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Ho-ho-holy Night

"Here I come, children! Look, no beard this year!"

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Music for magnetic resonance

They had told me that while you are having an MRI scan they can play you music to relieve the tedium; you can choose from their library or bring your own CD. Not fancying Mantovani or Cliff Richard or Songs from the Shows, when I went to be magnetised (or resonated) the other day I took along a nice Fischer-Dieskau/Alfred Brendel recording, but it turned out that I needn't have bothered because the machine makes so much noise that you can hear very little of the music.

But the CD was one that I hadn't listened to for a while so I played it when I got home. It includes that terrifying song called Der Doppelganger: Schubert's inexorable block chords and Heine's dark poem would give anyone the cauld grue.

There's this chap, you see, who is walking late at night in deserted streets. As he passes the door of the house where his beloved used to live, there is a man standing there, wringing his hands, overwhelmed with anguish. Then he sees the man's face in the moonlight and—horror!—it is his own.

"Der Mond zeigt mir meine eig'ne Gestalt.
Du Doppelgänger! Du bleicher Geselle!
Why do you ape the pain of my love
Which tormented me upon this spot
So many a night, so long ago?"

There are no more details given in the poem, but one might guess that his earlier self was tormented because she always kept him waiting at the door.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Brief but memorable

My initiative in making a telephone call sparked off an unusual encounter I had one night last week. A young Japanese woman answered and asked me to tell her all about myself, which of course I was pleased to do. She was very interested, and it was not long before she had taken over the conversation completely. It was as much as I could do to keep up with her questions and, later, her commands; she knew exactly what should be done and needed only a little co-operation from me.

For all her professional expertise she is clearly a shy person so I will not reveal her name; suffice it to say that its sound—and indeed her voice—made me think of a summer breeze ruffling the yuki yanagi (snow willow) which grows in the tsukiyama gardens of Kyoto.

As the evening wore on, her questions became more intimate and I found some of them difficult to answer. She was very patient with me and only once did she have to warn me about my behaviour: "No, don't do that, you're interfering with my movements".

She meant, of course, that I should keep my hands to myself while she was moving about on my desktop.

The matter turned out to be quite complicated, and it was over an hour before the task was completed. Finally, my emails started coming in and going out once more and she asked me if I was satisfied; I had to say yes, then I reluctantly let her go and we parted with expressions of mutual esteem.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Pankhurst arrested!

No 26 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard CenturyAugust 1909: The writer of this card quotes See the conquering hero come before going on to domestic greetings. The arrest and imprisonment of Mrs Pankhurst in February 1908 was perhaps the turning point in the annals of Women's Suffrage. This particular postcard has made a long journey from its London publisher to the Orange River Colony whence, from Bloemfontein, FM sends it to Mr Miller in Scotland. By the time it reaches him in Glasgow the strategy of hunger strikes and the horrors of forcible feeding had darkened the agenda.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

A woman of many parts

As we all know, you have to be careful not to be misled by what you find on the internet.

I have just become involved professionally with a consultant whom I had not met until yesterday. She is charming, youngish but hugely experienced and in every way a person on whose skills one might confidently rely. I did ask Google to tell me what they had on her (no, poor choice of words, I mean what information on her is available online) and what came back was, much as I had expected, most encouraging, and confirmed my impression.

This is fine, but there is more: it seems that she has a substantial presence on Facebook, with many friends among lively teenagers, and is fond of West Coast Cooler ("perfect for girly nights out") and Absolut Vodka. And finally, she was a big name in the Australian music scene in the 1920s, when she wrote a number of patriotic ballads about Ireland.

When I gave more thought to this, however, it occurred to me that all these attributes and achievements might not relate to a single individual, and that the websites to which Google had referred me may have been describing three people with the same name but nothing else in common.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Clouds for Christmas

There's still time to get some copies of this for your friends; for anyone who ever goes outdoors and looks upwards it is a nice present; even idiots who don't know their cumulus congestus pileus from their altocumulus stratiformis perlucidus undulatus, and don't care, will enjoy looking at the pictures.

The crepuscular rays of the latter are shown in the picture below. It will remind those whose thoughts at this time of year turn only to self-indulgence and excess that contemplating the glories of nature can bring inspiration and spiritual uplift to us all. It is, moreover, very cheap and doesn't give you a hangover.

Actually, some will find this one a bit commonplace and not in the best of taste; there are lovelier cloud formations illustrated in the book, and real cheapskates will find that much of its content can be seen online for nothing, here. But peering at a monitor is no substitute for lifting your eyes and gazing, gin and tonic in hand, at these wonders in the sky.

Happy Christmas from Cloud Appreciation Society Member No 8158 (out of almost 20,000)

Monday, 30 November 2009

The Gang of Ten

I started making comments—friendly, mocking, complimentary, contentious or ribald—on other peoples' blogs soon after I started writing my own. Sometimes I used pseudonyms and then I realised that it would be amusing to link these to blogs which I wrote for them so that they might get some comments in return.

That was how it began, but over the past six years this has led me to devise a bunch of doppelgangers, each publishing a fairly convincing blog, so that I have a circle of non-existent people to play with. I suppose they're a bit like the imaginary friends that children sometimes dream up, in that they are me but not me. Since I lack sufficient imagination to create proper characters, they are only stereotypes.

Below are the details of the current cast. In most cases I give only the surnames since their first names are used as their IDs and I do not want them widely identified as fictional. They are listed alphabetically (any other order would cause dissension among them):

Ames is a Boston Brahmin and a keen yachtsman. He aims to be in the America's Cup Team before he is 30.

De Basil is a German/Russian collector of icons who lives alone in France. He writes about art and about his aristocratic relations, some of whom really did exist.

Frand is an English soi-disant artist whose pictures consist of digitally distorted photographs. He is, not surprisingly, virtually unknown in the art world.

Galinos is an anti-feminist, a Greek-born woman who now lives in Los Angeles with her attorney partner.

Hutchinson is descended from eighteenth-century immigrants to the USA. She is a writer and left-wing political activist who likes to quote examples of bigotry and racism on the net and then post comments on the blogs of the writers; this brings her a great deal of hate mail.

McGillivray is an elderly Scottish lecturer; his subjects are Scottish history, the Icelandic sagas and John Knox. He is very boring
Whittingham-Bohun is an an English country gentleman, stockbreeder and retired investment banker living in a Gloucestershire oast house; his grandchildren like to comment on his blog.

Riemenschneider is an amiable tough who lives in Bentonville AR. He is barely literate and is helped to write his blog by his partner Patsy, whom he describes as his "hot patootie". He recently inherited a fortune from his Uncle Herman who had owned an unspecified business which was "not 100 pacent legit".

Van Dilst (Created in association with Grumio.) Two brothers, Septimus and George, are Endtimers who want to warn the world that the Rapture will come in 2012, when the righteous shall be gathered unto the Lord and the sinful shall descend to the uttermost pit. Their blog has some impressive pictures showing exactly how it will be.

These people have between them a great variety of attributes—they are erudite, ignorant, coarse, sensitive, snobbish, misguided or just plain silly. What they have in common with their begetter is that they are, on the whole, well-meaning and without malice. I am really quite fond of them all.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Greetings to Auntie

No 25 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century

August 1908: Albert in Oldham is very free in writing to his aunt in Popeswood. I suppose we shall see you coming back about this size you blooming great squash. This is the girl I was telling you about she is 17st and 19 years of age we went to Blackpool Sat and had a ripping time don't get too saucy when the coom back or else the'll get theyead punching.

Saturday, 14 November 2009


I have been making a survey of unusual names for nether undergarments. My interest in this subject was sparked off by an instruction given to me the other day by a kindly nurse when I went to our local hospital for a small test: "Push your bangers down to your knees", she said; I guessed at once what she meant and complied. I then asked her what the derivation of this colourful term was; she told me that in her family that was what they always called them, and seemed surprised that this usage was unfamiliar to me, and, as I later discovered, to everyone else I know.

And the OED appears to be unaware of them. Under banger it gives: he who or that which bangs; an astounding lie; a bludgeon (U.S. slang, at Yale); a violent kiss; a sausage; an old motor vehicle; and a banjo (obsolete). Partridge's Dictionary of Slang has most of these plus, in the plural, testicles; I'm glad I didn't know this before, I might have misunderstood the nurse.

Both sources make no mention of underpants, so I might suppose that the term is used for these only within the nurse's family, but I will probably be told by some know-all that it is common currency in the East End of London, in the Gorbals, or in Sydney.

Before another test, later, I was offered a pair of huge blue things which they told me are known as Dignity Pants. I suppose they meant well, but this is a misnomer; I didn't bother to ask "Does my bum look big in this?" because I knew what the answer would be. Still, I suppose the intention is good; most hospital garments are designed to humiliate you and I am doubtful about the rumour that Armani has been commissioned by the NHS to create a new range of gowns.

In the army, Quartermaster's Stores used to issue large white things called Drawers, Cellular. I have no idea why this piece of information has stayed in my memory.

And finally, there are the voluminous things worn by ladies of a certain age and size; they might be called Widdecombes, but to the pious they are known as Harvest Festivals. I believe this comes from a line in the Harvest Hymn: All is safely gathered in.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Personal note

When I was born, which was on the same day that the great Cab Calloway recorded "Minnie the Moocher" (Jazz's first million seller), I weighed 2½ lbs (1400g), in those days a matter for serious concern. Years later I was told that they left me at the foot of the bed and the doctor said to the midwife in the hearing of my mother, "I don't give much for his chances. Good thing too, in the circumstances".

That was unkind, but one can see his point: my mother had been widowed a few months before, and had four other children and no money. But happily she didn't agree and asked if she might be permitted to give me a cuddle.

So I survived; she somehow managed to give me and my four siblings happy childhoods, and despite the bad start I had inherited a splendid constitution. This I persistently abused in adult life by my total rejection of sound dietary principles, the avoidance of all salutary pursuits such as sport and most kinds of physical exertion, and by devotion to indolence, gluttony, cigarettes and booze.

In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, I enjoyed sixty-five years of near perfect health during which I hardly ever gave a thought to the possibility of illness, followed by a further thirteen years during which I encountered only minor disorders calling for simple remedies like a daily cocktail of popular drugs, free on the NHS, and a couple of knee replacements.

So today I really shouldn't complain (though of course I shall, loudly) that over the next few weeks much of my time will be taken up with X-rays, scans, assorted tests and surgery. This may mean that I have to abandon for the moment the commitment which I imposed on myself in 2004, which is to post something in OMF every other day; I was getting a bit tired of it anyway. But though quantity may decline I shall try to ensure that quality will not: the unseemly levity, undiscriminating choice of topic, relentless facetiousness and poor taste will be just as unwholesome as always, but reduced in volume and frequency. No more tedious every-two-days sort of thing; as Samuel Johnson very nearly said, regularity is the last refuge of scoundrels.

A hard-earned reputation for egregious banality, paucity of imagination and profound untrustworthiness is not to be lightly tossed aside just because, for the first time for years, I shall probably be taking extended breaks from the keyboard; in between, my mouse hand and both of my typing fingers will be as assiduous as ever. So please go on watching this space, but not so often.

Further notes on this topic are here:
http://omf.blogspot.com/2009/12/they-had-told-me-that-while-you-are.html http://omf.blogspot.com/2009/11/knickers.html http://omf.blogspot.com/2009/11/full-life.html

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Little bits of stuff

A while ago I quoted from a report on the ridiculous kind of grub you get at three-star caffs in San Sebastián. I have not been to any of them, because I cannot imagine that either the expense, the months of waiting to get a table or the food will be really worth it. But very complicated dishes in tiny portions are becoming commonplace; no-one talks about cuisine nouvelle or cuisine minceur any more, but the influence remains.

At the moment, either from the goodness of their hearts or because they are doing poor business during the recession, most of the Michelin-starred restaurants in London are offering excellent deals on mid-week lunches; you can have three courses for half or even a quarter of the cost of their grand menus. The really elaborate dishes are excluded, but the quality is no less and the service just as assiduous.

Grumio and I, sometimes with our wives and sometimes as two old codgers, have been working through the best ones at the rate of one a month or so, and very enjoyable it has been. It is an intellectual as well as a gastronomic pleasure; one tries to guess what the dish of Ravioli of Lobster and Scallop with Caramelised Cauliflower, Peanut Butter and Smoked Whimberry Purée is going to look like, let alone taste like, and will the Confit of Pork Belly with Fricassée of Paimpol Bean, Pineapple and Coconut Sauce be as good as it sounds? Ah, and for dessert how about this Buckthorn Parfait with Fig Compote, White Miso Ice Cream and Yuzu Sauce?

It never disappoints, though sometimes it is not quite as one imagined. It may be surprising when something that was described lyrically in fifty words arrives in the middle of a huge white plate looking like a bloodstained golfball with a couple of tea-leaves on top; by then they will have taken your menus away and you may have forgotten what you ordered, but anyway the waiter is going to tell you again, at length.

And the beauty is that such lunching is an economy, really. Doing it once and then having a bacon butty the next day will cost no more than having a prawn cocktail, steak-and-chips and apple crumble sort of thing, twice. Provided, that is, that with your high class deal you have restricted yourself to one glass of the house wine and skipped the £7.50 aperitif.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Noblesse Oblige

Subtitled An Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy, this is an anthology of writings published more than fifty years ago. It all seems rather quaint to us now, but for some years the concept of U and non-U speech patterns spread rapidly from London to provide conversational pabulum at the dinner-tables of English-speaking Paris and New York.

It all started with a paper written by Professor Alan Ross of Birmingham University and printed in Neuphilologische Mitteilungen in Helsinki in 1954. The professor pointed out that it is solely by their language that the upper classes nowadays are distinguished, since "they are neither cleaner, richer, or better-educated than anybody else". He invented the useful formula: U (for upper class) speaker versus non-U speaker, giving examples of each.

Then one of the Mitford sisters (The Hon. Nancy, not the unrepentant fascist Diana, who married Oswald Mosley, or Unity, who shot herself for love of Hitler, or the communist Decca) wrote an article in Encounter about Ross's piece, which was followed by 'Strix' with Posh Lingo in the Spectator and attacked by Evelyn Waugh (a more sophisticated kind of snob) in Encounter. Christopher Sykes joined in with a piece called What U-future and finally John Betjeman wrote a poem satirising the whole U/non-U idea.

All this must have led many social climbers to worry about the words they used but of course it was all nonsense, though good fun. Anyway, aping your betters in this way wouldn't get you anywhere. It had to come naturally, you had to be born to it. If you needed to think about the words you used then you were irredeemably non-U.

[My copy of Noblesse Oblige is the Penguin paperback. Some booksellers offer "slightly battered" copies of this at £51. Mine is not battered but the cover falls off and the pages are very yellow, so I probably wouldn't get more than £30 for it; it cost me 2/6d.]


Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Three films

There were two films on TV recently which I vaguely felt I ought to see but which I didn't think would call for my close attention. They were both three hours long, so when I watched them I had a book and a packet of Lincoln Creams close to hand to which I turned when events on the screen were failing to grip.

One of them was Alexander, Oliver Stone's 2004 epic. Colin Farrell was grotesquely miscast as the great conqueror and the thing was more of a lecture than a drama, with Anthony Hopkins pottering about as the narrator. There were a couple of lively but repetitive battles and nothing much else to distract me from my book; I was looking out for the always excellent Tim Pigott-Smith who apparently played the part of an Omen Reader but sadly I must have missed him.

Lady Chatterley et l'Homme des Bois was Pascale Ferran’s 2006 adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s John Thomas and Lady Jane, the remarkably different second version of his celebrated Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It is a big improvement on Marc Allegret's 1955 version of the final edition, though this is not saying very much since the latter had Danielle Darrieux doing her I-am-beautiful bit with the ineffably gentlemanly Leo Genn speaking slow, careful French as the coarse gamekeeper. It was banned in the United States.

Ferran's shot at Lawrence features a couple of competent but unremarkable actors playing characters who could never conceivably utter the lines in the book, but as they are speaking French this doesn't matter; the subtitles wisely don't even try to capture the flavour of Lawrence's dialogue. I used the fast-forward button quite often—not, I hasten to add, to get to the soft-porn sequences, which are fairly risible, but only to skip the parts where nothing much seemed to be happening.

The director thought highly of her film, observing: “The story is literally overrun by vegetation.... To me, that’s the most beautiful thing: the story of a love that is one with the material experience of transformation”. This is a fairly obscure remark, but those who remember the lovers' way with flowers will know what she means. Certainly, the scenery is nice and for long periods there is nothing much else to look at. Perhaps the film should have been reviewed by Amateur Gardening, or, from a different aspect, by the American magazine Track and Field, which found the book inadequate fifty years ago.

By chance, earlier that week on the big screen I had seen another French film based on a famous novel: The Lacemaker, directed in 1977 by Claude Goretta and based on the 1974 Prix Goncourt winning novel La Dentellière by Pascal Lainé.

Isabelle Huppert, then only 22, was mesmerizing; she has never done anything better. I was glad to have seen it: in those days the French knew how to make films about love.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Chez Muse

Earlier in the month I published a post about Renoir's film La Bête Humaine and my happy discovery on the net of a song from it together with the lyrics. That recording was only one out of hundreds of French songs contained in a remarkable website which offers weeks of nostalgia to any francophile, or at least those who are out of puberty, for most of the songs are old and many of them ancient; some are unforgettable and others are deservedly forgotten; some are sung by famous singers and some by unknowns (outside France).

The site is here, but it is unwise to log on to it unless you have time to spare, for it is difficult to look up a single song: one thing leads to another...
Here are a few. Pour yourself a Dubonnet, light a Gauloise and relax.

Mon coeur est un violon
(both sung by Luis Mariano: I had forgotten how good he was)

Les Feuilles Mortes
(sung by Yves Montand)

Ma ritournelle
(both sung with incomparable elegance by Tino Rossi)

Le café au lait au lit
(written and sung by Pierre Dudan—who he? It's a very silly song)

C'est si bon
(sung by Fernand Gignac, not Eartha)

Les pieds de ma soeur
(sung by Claude Gauthier; exactly the sort of thing one would expect from a 1930s song with this intriguing title)

By the way, the song which I mentioned in a post earlier in the month, which became in French Les Adieux du Soldat, was Silver Threads Among the Gold. It has one of the cheeriest lines of any love ballad: "...life is fading fast away... "
Here's John McCormack.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

A new offer

There has been no announcement yet and details are hard to come by, but experienced kirkwatchers have picked up rumours of a generous offer to be made soon by the Church of Scotland to disaffected Roman Catholic priests, bishops and cardinals.

This will provide a new workplace and community of clerics, where they will be welcomed into a specially-formed subdivision of Eaglais na h-Alba. It will appeal particularly to those who have tired of the constant stream of encyclicals and other kinds of Papal Bull pouring through their letterboxes, or who find popery in general a bit of a turn-off, or who simply want to get married. Open to them there will be, within the Protestant/Reformist/Calvinist/Presbyterian church which traces its roots back to the beginnings of Christianity in Scotland, a new group, to be called NIH (No Incense Here).

One of the difficulties of finding out what the Kirk is up to is that it doesn't have any leaders who can speak authoritatively or, as the new recruits would say, ex cathedra: the Moderator of the General Assembly serves for one year as the public representative of the Church, but beyond that enjoys no special powers or privileges and is in no sense the leader or official spokesperson. The current Moderator, the Right Rev William Hewitt, is online at The Mod's Blog but confines his posts mainly to pastoral chit-chat and not ecumenical matters.

This means that there is no-one in authority who can raise the matter with the pontiff and find out how he feels about it, not that anyone would care very much. Similarly, it is not possible to find out what the consensus is among the Kirk's 1,200 ministers or its 600,000 members. It asserts that it welcomes all from around the world, but there may be many who will be doubtful about the prospect of being joined—let alone being ministered to—by a bunch of newcomers fluent in Latin but unfamiliar with Gàidhlig and knowing nothing of single malts, Burns, or neeps and tatties.

So the offer will not be a completely open one. Likely exclusions are Opus Dei members and anyone under investigation or already defrocked. Certainly, the wearing of red hats will be forbidden, as will the veneration of holy relics, though there might be concessions for those who have their own private collections of such things as the kneecaps of St Boniface, and undertake to do their venerating in secret.

But the greatest controversy is likely to arise over any attempt by the NIH group to adapt their places of worship to their own tastes, and here the rule will probably be nothing gold or fancy and, in general, nothing with which John Knox wouldn't have been absolutely comfortable.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Taking it slowly

Other Men's Flowers is sometimes accused of making up anecdotes about music or the theatre and publishing them in such a way as to suggest that they are true accounts of actual events. In reply to such calumnies I point out that it is not always possible to verify stories that one hears and that if they are good ones it seems a shame not to pass them on merely because they could possibly be apocryphal.

Everything depends on the reliability of the source, of course, and here is a story which is of undoubted authenticity because it was vouched for to me personally by Sir Edmundo Ros, at that time the Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.

A novice BBC announcer, about to make his first important announcement, was expressing his anxiety to an older colleague: "How on earth am I going to get all these foreign names right? I mean, look at this one: Romsky Kirkasov or something... I know I shall get it wrong".

"Don't worry, it's dead easy," said his experienced friend, "just keep calm, take your time, think about what you are saying... RIMSKY... KORSAKOV... and you'll find it will come out easily and absolutely correct."

The novice felt a bit better and went away to practise. Then came the great day when he stepped up to the microphone.....

"Good evening, everyone. Tonight's concert is being given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under their conductor Colin Davis, with leader Paul Beard. The first item on their programme is a descriptive piece from the opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan, by Rimsky-Korsakov, entitled.......The Bum of the Flightle Bee."


Saturday, 24 October 2009

Quick question

...and quick answer required.

Suppose you are a manufacturer of wall calendars showing days and dates for twelve months (as calendars do). You have little imagination and always print them with the same picture.

You want to stock up for one hundred years. How many different kinds of calendar do you have to print?

If it takes you more than ten seconds to find the answer, you are probably on the wrong track.

The answer is HERE

Thursday, 22 October 2009

A soldier's farewell to his mother

What is the English title of the old song known to the French as Les adieux du soldat?

It goes:
C'est l'adieu, petite mère
De ton gars qui va partir
Il prévoit la peine amère
Que ton coeur devra souffrir
Mais je sais que ta vaillance
Portera ce gros chagrin
Mets en Dieu ta confiance
Pour garder ton benjamin

...and was originally a poem by Eben E Rexford set to music by Hart Pease Danks in 1872; it has been sung from that day to this by hundreds of tenors and barbershop quartets, and is still a popular peace anthem in Sweden as Varför skola människor strida? (Why do men fight?)

You may think you don't know the tune, but you do, you do. I shall remind you of the English title next week.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Embarrassment for Giuseppe

Went to a violin and piano recital last Friday in a beautiful Georgian church, now an arts centre. The auditorium is huge, so for a recital it can be set out café style; for me, this always contributes greatly to the pleasure of a musical event: resting one's elbows on a table with a glass of wine on it is so relaxing, and during any longueurs it is easy to read discreetly: who is to know you are not enhancing your understanding and appreciation of the pieces being played by glancing at Grove's comments on them?

Actually, at this recital there were no tedious bits: Mendelssohn's Sonata in F minor, which he wrote when he was 16, and Schubert's Duo in A Major are both very lovely. The Elgar sonata with its Brahmsian first movement is rather less so; it has been described as a rich and introverted English piece, and so of course was he.

But I was glad to be reminded that the tempo of its last movement, allegro non troppo, sometimes written allegro ma non troppo, has an interesting story behind its origin. In 1863 Verdi, then at the height of his fame, was given a lavish fiftieth birthday party attended by the Mayor, the Director of La Scala and all the rest of the civic and musical notables of Milan. Sadly, in old age Verdi's mother had taken to the bottle, and all that evening the sparkling Franciacortia had been flowing very freely. Verdi had watched anxiously as his mother became increasingly rowdy until finally she seized a bottle, put it to her lips and leaped onto the table. In anguish, Verdi cried out: Allegro, Ma, non troppo! (Steady, Mother, not too much!).

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Wilbur in France, 1908

No 24 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century

Aug 1908: America conquers Europe in this defining image in the public history of aviation. Wilbur Wright flies past the grandstand at Harandières racecourse to give the first demonstration of sustained and controlled powered flight. The brothers had made few flights since the 1903 triumphs at Kitty Hawk; while this display had a commercial motive it inspired a whole generation of heroic aviators, especially in France. Wilbur died young but Orville lived to hear of the Hiroshima bomb being dropped from an aeroplane.

Mr Munro in London received this card from J. T. Morgan in P.O. Seine, probably his first glimpse of a wonder of the age. Wright was showing the paces of the Flyer in the most advanced country in aeronautics at the time.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Getting down to it

The other day Prince Philip gave an interview celebrating the 50th anniversary of a Design Council prize which bears his name, and it was good to see that age has not diminished his notable lack of discretion.

The duke said that the quality of design had in some areas declined, and he picked television sets as an example. Harking back to an age when the sets were simple, he said that nowadays to work out how to operate a TV set you "practically have to make love to the thing".

And then he went on: ..."so you end up lying on the floor with a torch in your teeth, a magnifying glass and an instruction book".

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Sold down the river

The expression probably first appeared in print around 1837: it was applied to slaves who had been troublesome to their masters in the northern slave states and were sold into much harsher conditions in Mississippi. Since P G Wodehouse used it figuratively in 1927 it seems to have established itself permanently as a boring old cliché pointlessly replacing betrayed.

Sad to see it appear twice in the Guardian last Saturday, applied to football fans who were deprived of a television viewing of England's World cup qualifier, and to the English hacker who was refused permission to appeal to the supreme court against his extradition.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Who is this man?

...and what's his game?

For weeks now my tracker has been telling me that a Mac user whose ISP is based somewhere near Dartford in Kent has been a persistent visitor to Other Men's Flowers.

Most of my visitors have found the site by accident and move on very quickly, never to return, but this one (let us call him Arthur, though of course she may be a Winifred) seems to have been devoting a substantial part of his spare time over the past few weeks to splashing about in its turbid waters. Last Saturday, for example, he was here at mid-day for 16 minutes, at 1.30 for 54 minutes, at 3.22 for 67 minutes and at 5.16 for 60 minutes, having visited a total of 61 pages.

Do I know him? What does he want? Why, after all those hours of reading, has he no desire to make any comments? Did he arrive one day by chance, set himself the challenge of finding something interesting somewhere among its 230,000 words and is now determined not to give up until he does?

One possible explanation is that some sinister agency is paying him to read every post in the hope that he will catch me out publishing sedition, treason, filth, or incitement to murder. If so, then clearly his employers have so far been disappointed; this is nice to know, though slightly worrying, for if his visits suddenly stop I shall suspect that he has reported on something reprehensible I have written and it is only a matter of a day or two before my door is smashed open and heavily armed men burst in, shouting at me to lie down on the floor.

So, Arthur, if you do simply get bored and decide to cheese it, please drop me a line and tell me.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

La Bête Humaine

Zola's 1890 novel has been much filmed but the only memorable version was made by Jean Renoir in 1938; this greatly simplifies the plot and updates it to the 1930s. Jean Gabin plays the engine-driver Lantier, and it was said that Old Stoneface and his fireman spent much time rehearsing on a real engine so that the footplate scenes would carry conviction, which they certainly do.

It's not the all-time great film that the corny trailer says it is, but it's a thumping good melodrama. Lantier has a strange quirk which causes him to become homicidal at times of stress, or through frustration. He tries to sublimate his desires by being passionate about locomotives, as so many of us did when very young, but this doesn't really work; he becomes enmeshed in some splendidly sordid murders and finally kills himself by jumping out of the cab as the train speeds towards Paris. The fireman stops it and sadly walks back to find the body.

Zola's ending to the story is rather different. The train is carrying troops towards the front at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, and a fight between Lantier and his fireman breaks out; both fall to their deaths as the train full of happy, drunken, doomed soldiers hurtles driverless through the night.

There is one sequence which I could watch over and over again. They are holding a Railwayman's Ball, and there is much jollity in the dance hall while Lantier is strangling his mistress Séverine (Simone Simon) elsewhere. The scene cuts between the murder and the dance hall, where an orchestra is playing a waltz accompanying a man who is singing, beautifully, a song I have loved for years. His name was Marcel Veyran, but although he was a well-known actor/singer he was uncredited in the film and I could not find a recording. However, to my huge delight I have just found the tune—Le P'tit Coeur de Ninon—on the net, being sung in much the same style by Réda Caire.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

A bad night at the opera

Except when they are selling cars, post-war Germans have generally played down their reputation for efficiency, not wanting to be associated with a characteristic to which the adjective "ruthless" has sometimes been attached (in the case of the Nazis, inappropriately: ruthless, yes, but also outstandingly incompetent). Nowadays, the Germans are known to be efficient and generally nice with it, but like to exhibit occasional failings so as to avoid the stigma of unlovable perfection.

Peter Ustinov saw this diffidence manifested when he was directing an opera at the Hamburg Opera House, then the most technically advanced opera house in the world. There, whole sets wait at an enormous structure beside the wings and slide into place at the touch of a button. The technicians were quite incredibly efficient and yet there was one man who was totally hopeless. With him, everything went wrong. He dropped a hammer from the flies, narrowly missing the Stage Director's head. Whole sets fell down as he approached. The computerised lighting track went bananas and darkness fell over all.

Eventually Ustinov asked him to explain exactly who he was and why they kept him on. "Ah, you see, they keep me here to humanise themselves."

An admirable reply, but surely there must be more to it than that? Ustinov went on to ask, "But why do you in fact make all these incredible mistakes?"

"Ah, you see, it's a long family tradition."

"What ? You mean there are more of you, a whole family?"

"Oh yes, you should have seen my father. He was Stage Director of the Klagenfurt Opera and he made the most incredible mistakes, much worse than anything of mine. But, one day he achieved the impossible: he got it all right. The opera was William Tell, very much the thing for Klagenfurt of course, and watching from the stage manager's place in the wings he could see that all was perfect—all the sets in place, the chorus in position, the animals behaving, the prompters ready to prompt, the singers singing and the orchestra (audibly) playing."

"So what went wrong?"

"Oh, just one little thing—the curtain wouldn't go up."

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Towers of London

This was the name of a company started in 1946 by Harry Alan Towers, producer of cheap films, horror movies and soft-porn, and his mother. In 1961 he had appeared before a US grand jury on five counts of violating the White Slave Traffic Act; it was alleged that he had transported his mistress to New York for the purpose of prostitution, though she told the FBI that he was actually a Soviet agent "providing the Russians with information in order to complmise certain prominent individuals". Anyway, he jumped bail and returned to England to continue his productive, successful, and (the word must be used here) colourful career.

He recently died aged 88, still working on a film of Moll Flanders for which he had co-written the screenplay with Ken Russell; it stars Lucinda Rhodes-Flaherty in the title role, supported by Steven Berkoff and Barry Humphries in drag. This I wouldn't mind seeing, as well as some of his early TV movies, which included one with Basil Rathbone as Scrooge and one with Marius Goring as The Scarlet Pimpernel, but I am not particularly sorry that I missed the five which starred Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu.

For all the sleaze which often surrounded him, he was able to attract big name actors. His company sold various syndicated radio shows around the world, including The Lives of Harry Lime with Orson Welles, Horatio Hornblower with Michael Redgrave, and a series of Sherlock Holmes stories featuring John Gielgud as Holmes, Ralph Richardson as Watson and Welles as Moriarty. It is pleasant to imagine these three great men jostling each other round the microphone.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Return of Pooh

...to the Hundred Acre Wood. Well, he never went away, really: the last line of The House at Pooh Corner is : "... in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing".

Anyway, the title of a book being published tomorrow suggests that there has been at least a temporary (well, eighty-one years, actually) absence. The Milne estate has authorised a lifelong fan, David Benedictus, to write a new series of short stories. The cover adds to his name to those of A.A. Milne, E.H. Shepard, and Mark Burgess; happily, from the cover illustration it looks as if the latter's drawings, pastiche though they may be, pay proper homage to Shepard's originals, and we may hope that the text is no less admiring of Milne. Certainly, neither will owe any debt to Disney's charmless fat yellow blob in a red T-shirt.

E.H. Shepard's Pooh Bear at ease in the Hundred Acre Wood.

[Note: Since I wrote the above, the book has been published and reviewed to general acclaim. The US initial print alone is 300,000]

Friday, 2 October 2009

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Brideshead Revisited, revisited

I was not greatly impressed by Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel, which is not surprising as it "deals with the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to himself", which only a Catholic convert would find a fruitful subject for a novel. When he re-read it five years later he was appalled, excusing it as the result of the difficult wartime days and subsequently finding its attitudes distasteful.

But the 1981 TV serial does stick in my memory, if only because of the beauty of Castle Howard, which stood in for Brideshead, and the mournful trumpet which sounded in each episode, giving a worthy air to this glamorous tosh. The series was re-broadcast recently at six in the morning over eleven days, a desperate piece of summer scheduling, but I did record it and watched the lot. It was no less repellent than the novel but a lot more entertaining; none of the characters is remotely likeable and only the fact that most the actors playing them had enormous charm made the thing watchable.

I don't remember how Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons) came across in the book, but in watching the series I was struck by his silence throughout. The part cannot have taken long to learn because he has practically nothing to say, merely listening and somehow projecting sympathy and understanding, with a cigarette or a disgusting yellow pipe in his mouth, as the others go on about their problems; in real life people would get fed up with this and demand some sort of response from time to time, but almost everyone he meets falls about with admiration for him, especially the Marchmains who welcome him into the bosom of their awful family.

Typically, he and Julia sit by the fountain one night while she excitedly holds forth on her concerns about Sin, with interludes of sobbing. Throughout this long scene he says absolutely nothing and merely sits there looking glum. It seemed to me that each party had reason for giving the other a good clout, but at the end they inexplicably just walk away, without exchanging a word.

And another thing: Cordelia goes to Spain to tend the wounded in the civil war, but no details are given and which side she was supporting is not clear. By the time the novel was written Waugh wouldn't have wanted to show her as one of Franco's Fascists, but it is unlikely that Lady Cordelia would have been keen to change the dressings of a bunch of communist riff-raff.

Nowadays Waugh's snobbery and his veneration of the idle and pious rich no longer have the power to offend us; we can only marvel at his sincere and deeply felt regret that their days have passed.

Monday, 28 September 2009


The Companion to British History defines this as suspect linguistic usage in which familiar expressions convey different concepts from those generally understood.

The most important cases are (fam means the familiar meaning in English, ES the meaning in Eurospeak):

Council: (fam) a local authority; (ES) the European legislature.

Directive: (fam) an important rule requiring obedience enforced by a sanction; (ES) a direction to a member country to alter its law, but not in force until it does so.

European: pertaining to the geographical European continent; (ES) pertaining to the area of the EEC or EU for the time being.

Parliament: (fam) a sovereign legislature; (ES) an official discussion forum at Strasbourg.

Regulation: (fam) a minor rule made under law; (ES) the most important kind of rule, superior even to an Act of Parliament.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

On the banks of the cool Shalimar

By special request, another hippopotamus. This one is James Thurber's.

"What have you done with Dr Millmoss?"

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Faites simple

...or, avoid all unnecessary complication and elaboration. This was Escoffier's advice to chefs but it applies to websites as well as it does to great cooking.

If you own a restaurant which offers a lunchtime tasting menu at £75 (£6 surcharge if you want the Duck Egg Mimosa with Cornish Lobster Mayonnaise as your starter), or a hotel which is a stunning Elizabethan manor house surrounded by 35 acres of renowned historic gardens and set in 1000 acres of ancient and exquisite forestry land, then you will need to promote it with a stylish website. So you go to the top people in the website design racket and tell them you want something really prestigious.

The trouble is, they need to justify the huge fee they are going to charge, so that they will have to make your website look and feel as if it's worth every penny; it will come replete with videos, music and every kind of whizzy feature, all bearing the hallmarks of top international graphic artists and web designers. It will certainly look terrific; it may also be confusing, awkward and generally irritating.

I know two sisters who inherited from their mother a house by the seaside which they let by the week for holidays. They asked me to make them a website to advertise it and since I was—still am, actually—in a relationship with the younger of the two I was happy to do so without charge. I am not much good at web design but I could make a virtue out of necessity by producing something very simple, with ten pages merely giving all the necessary information and making it easy to book. It was done with a nine-year-old version of Microsoft's now obsolete FrontPage, using one of its rather naff "themes", and the whole thing nowadays looks a touch dreary and old-fashioned (the website, that is, not the house, which is a very nice one). If you're curious, you can see both HERE.

This post is not touting for business, either for the house or my websites: I make websites only for friends and charities, and after several years of almost continuous lets the house is fully booked for a long way ahead. Of course, if you're really keen there are still a few weeks available for next year....


Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The invasion of Afghanistan

Inhabited by some of the most warlike peoples on the face of the earth, the country has always been glowering, secretive and veiled in intrigue, little known to Europeans except by disrepute. The Afghans think trade an ignoble occupation and leave it to foreigners; their general character is at once savagely independent and desperately unpredictable. They can be lively, humorous, courageous and warm-hearted but can also be bigoted, sly and murderous. Split into tribal divisions subdivided into clans, they fight incessantly among themselves and are almost impossible to govern.

We British have known them longer and better than most, and at times have wished, on the whole, to preserve the independence of the nation, but when it became apparent that foreign influences at work there posed a threat to our interests, the decision was taken to invade, while proclaiming that "once the independence and integrity of Afghanistan is established, the British Army will be withdrawn".

The principal invasion force consisted of 9,000 troops, with 6,000 more not under our direct command. Progress was slow and laborious, for behind them there followed 38,000 camp followers. The army was to live off the country but nevertheless took with them thirty days' rations of grain and enough sheep and cattle for ten weeks. Every platoon of every regiment had its water-carriers, its sadlers, its blacksmiths, its cobblers, its tailors, its laundrymen, and there were the men who polished brasses, and the men who put up tents, and the cooks, the orderlies, the stable-boys—together with all their wives, all their children and often aunts, uncles or grandparents—and troops of prostitutes from half India, with fiddlers, dancing-girls, fortune-tellers, wood-gatherers—with herdsmen to look after the cattle, sheep and goats, and butchers to slaughter them. There were carts and wagons by the thousand, palanquins, drays, chargers, ponies and dogs.

All this great multitude stumbled away to war, each corps with its band playing, a regiment of Queen's cavalry, nine regiments of infantry, engineers and gunners. A mighty dust hung in the air behind them, as a sign that the British were coming.

As a military operation the invasion was a qualified success. Organized opposition seemed to be at an end, and on August 6th, 1839, the panoply of British imperial power entered Kabul. At their head was the king, Shah Shuja, whom the British had restored to his throne; he was a splendid sight, scintillating with jewellery, and rode a white charger accoutred in gold, but was greeted with sullen silence by the Kabulis, who didn't much like him.

Much of the army was now sent back to India, leaving a division of infantry, a regiment of cavalry and an artillery battery. The British settled in, built a racetrack, organised amateur dramatics and persuaded a few Kabulis to take up cricket. However, in 1841 a riot became a rising and the head of Her Majesty's Envoy and Plenipotentiary was paraded through the capital while the rest of his corpse was suspended from a meathook in the great bazaar. Despite this discourteous behaviour, General Elphinstone, who was in command in spite of being debilitated by a wound in his buttock, negotiated an agreement with the insurgents, who promised to see the army safely through the passes to Jalalabad on the Indian frontier. No-one really believed them.

On January 6th, 1842, the army began its retreat, the most terrible in the history of British arms, and some 16,500 souls struggled out of their cantonment. The retreat lasted just a week; by January 13th all had died or been slaughtered except for one army surgeon who reached Jalalabad hotly pursued by sabre-waving Afghans.

So the first of Queen Victoria's imperial wars came to its terrible end. The British returned to Kabul within the year, blew up the great bazaar as a reminder of their displeasure and subdued the Afghans until the next Anglo-Afghan war forty years later. Shah Suja was soon murdered, and Afghanistan provided perennial strife for the rest of the century.

The above was adapted from an account by the essayist Jan Morris in her trilogy Pax Britannica. She concludes:
As for the retreat from Kabul, though largely forgotten in Britain it is vividly remembered in Afghanistan. When in 1960 I followed the army's route from Kabul to Jalalabad with an Afghan companion, we found many people ready to point out the sites of the tragedy, and recall family exploits. I asked one patriarch what would happen now if a foreign army invaded the country. "The same", he hissed, between the last of his teeth.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Goldwyn apocrypha*

Yes, I know you've heard them all before and that there are dozens more. The chances are that he never said many of them, or that if he did he knew exactly what he was saying.

A verbal agreement isn't worth the paper it's written on.
Anybody who goes to a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined.
Don´t talk to me while I´m interrupting.
Go see it, and see for yourself why it shouldn't be seen.
I don't want any yes-men around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their jobs.
I had a monumental idea this morning, but I didn't like it.
If I could drop dead right now, I would be the happiest man alive.
If we do not succeed, we run the risk of failure.
If you don't disagree with me, how will I know I'm right?
If you want something for free, you have to pay for it.
I'll give you a definite maybe.
In two words: im-possible.
Include me out.
It´s more than magnificent. It´s mediocre.
It´s spreading like wildflowers.
Let's have some new clichés.
Never make predictions, especially about the future.
Spare no expense to save money on this one.
Tell me, how did you love my movie?
The scene is dull. Tell him to put more life into his dying.
This makes me sore, it gets my dandruff up.
We've all passed a lot of water since then.
We´re overpaying him, but he´s worth it.
Do you want me to put my head on a moose?
When I want your opinion I'll give it to you.
Why should people go out and pay to see bad movies when they can stay at home and see bad television for nothing?
You're going to call him William? What kind of a name is that? Every Tom, Dick and Harry is called William.

*[What you probably didn't know is that to use the word in this sense you have to be a Protestant, or at any rate not a Catholic.]

Friday, 18 September 2009


No 23 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century
May 1907: Minnie in Canada writes to her sister Melinda Ahearne in Lawrence, Mass.: this is you and little tommie in your auto, ahah.
Such giant highway speedsters must be what turned the head of Mr Toad. Motoring was new and lacked protocols: women drivers (in the postcard world) were almost as numerous as men.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears

This fits nicely into my series of helpful posts about things you can put into or on your ears (pins, candles, your little finger) but is in fact the title of a book I have just acquired. To a Russian the expression means I'm not pulling your leg.

Other idioms from around the world which are featured in the book are When dogs were tied with sausages (= very long ago, in Uruguayan Spanish), To distribute cardamoms (= to invite to a marriage, in Hindi) and To walk around hot porridge (= to beat about the bush, in German).

The book is amusing in a quiet way but not really of much practical use: it would be foolish to learn any of the quainter idioms in the hope of impressing a native speaker of the language, because the chances are that you would misuse them or that they are desperately old-fashioned or hackneyed expressions which would give away the fact that your knowledge comes from a book and that you don't actually speak the language at all; either way you would look silly.

The compiler cheats a bit by including a few proverbs; the English translation of some of these would make good conversation-stoppers, particularly as they are mostly incomprehensible. Come out with "Don't look for yesterday's fish in the house of the otter" and you are bound to get a mystified silence, unless there is a Hindi-speaker present who will recognise it.

So you could invent your own idioms which no-one could challenge. Having checked that there are no Albanians listening, you might say of someone you are discussing: I bet his elbows smell of horseradish and then explain that in Tirana this means that he is a man not to be trusted.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Back again

I am now connected to the internet again after BT cut me off from it for six days; bad scran to their management and all their shareholders.

I reported the fault at 8.30 a.m. on Tuesday 8th and since then have spent a total of eight hours on the telephone to what BT wittily call their Home Fault Help Line. At least, that was where it all began; two days and three or four calls later it had been established that the fault was at the exchange, and as the days went by I made new friends in various increasingly high-powered departments of the organisation, feeling greatly relieved when I was told that my problem had been moved upstairs to a high level Specialist Team in the Engineer's Department.

"Aha!", I thought, "now we're getting somewhere; these top people will get me back on line in a jiffy"; that was three days ago. I never actually got to speak to one of these real experts: after a chat with some lesser beings one of them would say "If you don't mind holding on please, sir, I'll get through to my colleague and find out the situation and then I'll come back and let you know"; then I would get music-on-hold again and after ten minutes he would come back and tell me the same thing I had heard the previous day, perhaps something like: "The Specialist Team have it in hand and have ordered a replacement part; this will take from one to three working days".

Very often I was required during the button game ("If you are suicidal, press 4", etc.) to key in my phone number once or twice (on one occasion four times) before I got to speak to a real person, who would then ask me what my phone number was.

At least the calls were to free numbers. I switched to hands-free while the music played and this meant that I didn't have to go into a trance while I waited: I could fill in the weary hours with such things as watching on TV the 1962 film of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. This has Ralph Richardson's embittered actor, Katharine Hepburn's drug-addicted wife and their sons, one an alcoholic and the other consumptive, tearing each other apart in 1912 Connecticut: a veritable light-hearted feast of fun and gaiety compared to my conversations with BT.

Everyone tells me that I should find another ISP. Well, yes, I suppose so, but I have had ADSL for nine years now and my experiences with other ISPs and webhosts have not led me to believe that any of them are much better than BT; some would certainly be worse. In fairness I have to say that over the last six years I have had only one other period of down-time, and that was a brief one.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Advice for country vets

Samuel Johnson exhibited a rare lack of self-assurance when he gave this definition: "A disease, I suppose, of cattle".

We shall never know whether his supposition was justified, for the word has disappeared from our language; at least, the OED knows it not, though perhaps in some dark corner of rural Somerset that terrible scourge headgargle is still rife and therefore the word remains common currency.

Anyway, the doctor's doubts about its exact meaning did not prevent him from quoting the remedy: "For the headgargle, give powder of fenugreek. Mortimer." He does not tell us which Mortimer made this recommendation but it is worth committing to memory; every vegetarian cook worth his Noirmoutier salt has powder of fenugreek to hand (for flavouring his purée of mung beans) and should know how handy it will be if headgargle breaks out.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

The old ones are the best

Paul Crum (Roger Pettiward) drew this for Punch in 1937. I always used to think of it as one of Thurber's; perhaps I confused it with his similarly hippo-based "What have you done with Dr Millmoss?"

"I keep thinking it's Tuesday."

Friday, 4 September 2009

How's that again?

Newspaper headlines are there to catch readers' attention and make them marvel, or at least excite their curiosity. Here are four recent ones which worked on me:

Police arrest 21 after woman in tent is injured by lawn roller

Trial shows new drug better than rat poison at preventing stroke

Pit bull saves four as blaze sweeps toilets

Bus-pass Briton, 67, back fighting bulls

Actually, I wasn't very impressed by that last one. This fellow is very proud of his titanium knee: well, I've got two titanium knees and if only my traje de luces still fitted me I'd be off to the plaza de toros in a flash.

And there's also:
Sixty horses wedged in chimney
.....but this one was invented by Beachcomber and the story to fit it hasn't turned up yet.

And finally, Claud Cockburn claimed to have won a competition in The Times for the dullest headline with:
Small earthquake in Chile. Not many dead

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Try it with cornflakes

Japanese knotweed, fallopia japonica or sachalinensis, has arrived in the UK and established itself over the last few years; huge and costly efforts are being made to eradicate it and there are even proposals to introduce an insect from overseas which might act as a predator and eat the invader.

This seems very risky. Supposing this evil foreign bug takes a fancy to one of our honest British plants, and we woke up one morning to find the country denuded of runner beans, delphiniums or even oak trees?

It might be better to consult the ever-useful Oxford Companion to Food, which notes in its article on Knotweed: "The young shoots make a pleasant vegetable, whose acidity can be tempered by the addition of a little sugar in the cooking. Or, they can be steamed and made into a purée, which can in turn serve as the basis of a sweetened cold soup. The mature stems, peeled, can be treated like rhubarb and it is even possible to make jam or a pie from them".

The trouble is that all this sounds pretty unappetising and it is hard to imagine that people will chomp their way through enough of the stuff to make any substantial inroads into the hundreds of acres of 2-metre shoots already growing. I suppose the TV chefs will have to tempt us with it, demonstrating Knotweed à la Japonaise, Barbecued Knotweed Kebabs or even Knotweed Crumble.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Shamed by your English?

Or, "Does your English let you down?". These are alternative headlines to the longest-running ad in newspaper history. It was placed in national newspapers, often on the front page, in 1963, and has been appearing regularly ever since. The text claims that the answer to the problem posed is to take a correspondence course in speaking and writing from a company based in Cheshire.

It was, and still is, hugely successful: the course has been taken by 400,000 people. The original ad was based on one written—rather well, it has to be said—by an American copywriter and has remained virtually unchanged; the publishers tried different versions, but none proved as effective as this one. It is, quite properly, headed Advertisement, but clearly many readers take it as editorial because it reads like a newspaper article and uses typefaces matching the newspapers in which it was published.

Perhaps that is a little bit sly, but it is hard not to admire the ad, which is basically a simple and honest one for a worthwhile product, and has outlived the greatest marketing campaigns of our time. It would be interesting to know how much the content of the course has been updated over the years; it may not have changed very much, for a piece of good English written half a century ago—like the ad itself—will still read well, give or take a few changes in fashion.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Uncle Stephen reassures us

In a current TV commercial for a car insurance company we hear the warm, avuncular voice of cuddly old Stephen Fry telling us: "...we're not on any price comparison websites, oh crumbs no...".

Is it excessive cynicism or just common sense that makes us wonder what reasons the company could possibly have for this abstention, other than their fear that comparison would not favour them?

Monday, 24 August 2009

One thousand up

What to publish for the millenary* post in Other Men's Flowers? How about some pointless statistics such as that every month for five and a half years around fifteen Omfposts (as aficionados call them) have been published, each month's batch containing on average 4,151 words, 14 links and 8 pictures, and eliciting 22 comments?

No, those figures are all quite accurate but not at bit interesting; better to list a few Omfposts which typify the style and content of the blog. Here are some:

The Story of Ginger Biscuits;
A frank account of an embarrassing experience I had in 1958;
Twenty-five questions about obscure Victorian novels, with answers;
Something scurrilous about a well-loved national figure;
Some thoughts on people who profess enthusiasm for the Tory party or Jesus or homeopathy;
A rude limerick in Portuguese;
A selection of witticisms lifted without acknowledgement from the works of Frank Muir;
A review of a play which I very nearly went to see last week;
Key paragraphs from Schopenhauer's Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung;
Some notes on ringworm from an article in the British Medical Journal, August 1925;
A nice photo of a man in a funny hat;

These are imaginary, but all are typical, and redolent of the profound superficiality, the careful insouciance, the consistently erratic approach and the gentle Schrecklichkeit which have made Other Men's Flowers essential reading for top international Leichenbegleiteren ever since it started publication in January 2004. The list itself gives a good idea of the blog's flavour, so I will leave it at that: THIS IS OMFPOST 1000.

[*i.e. one-thousandth, not to be confused with posts about millinery (women's hats), of which there are many among these.]

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Euskaraz badakizu?

No, you probably don't. There's not much point in anyone asking you this question, because it is unlikely that you are one of the handful of adult foreigners who have ever managed to master the Basque language.

This is apparently related to no other language, except perhaps one of the lesser Hungarian dialects. It has a congested look to it, being technically described as agglutinative and polysynthetic, and it is full of Xs and Zs making frightening words like Lerdokiztatu, Edantxar and Xintexuketa.

One must think in an altogether different way to talk Basque, for each transitive verb has fourteen different forms; one word means she gives it to him, another they give it to us, another you give it to them, not to speak of the words for she will give it to us or you would have given it to me or even, for all I know, it might have been given by us to her.

It is an ancient, puzzling and nerve-wracking language but powerful and flexible enough to express even to most recondite of concepts, such as Nire aerolabangailua aingirez beteta dago (My hovercraft is full of eels). The unambitious could always just memorise a few phrases for use in emergencies, like Non dago komuna (where's the lavatory?)

Thursday, 20 August 2009

More things to put in your ear

Most of us remember fondly the final, poignant episode of the World War I Blackadder series in which it was made clear that walking around with a pencil hanging from each nostril would be unlikely to get you excused from going over the top to be shot, though it may have worked for some.

When it comes to pushing things into your ears, there is a whole range of objects which can be deployed to achieve a variety of aims. Other Men's Flowers has already dealt in detail with two of the principal ones, here and here; in the first case a modest function is fulfilled and the second is amusing in a quiet way but completely pointless unless you believe in qi forces and other magic.

In this blog I aim at encyclopedic coverage of every aspect of modern life so I am pleased to be able to report on yet another therapy which works wonders when you shove something in your ears. This also requires firm faith in the preposterous: it is called Hopi Ear Candling.

The Hopi tribe have repeatedly requested the manufacturers of the candles sold for this purpose to refrain from using their name since their healing practices do not include any such thing as ear candling, but their plea has fallen on deaf ears (presumably full of wax of one kind or another), and much money is made by selling the things with the assertion that lighting one end while the other is in your ear canal will improve your health. Medical research has shown the procedure to be both ineffective and dangerous.

There is a website called healthypages which has a forum where proponents of alternative medicine can entertain one another with anecdotes about their experiences. Not all of these are encouraging; here, for example, a lady from Ireland reports, with no apparent remorse:

I finally got to do some ear candling on my husband last night. I used the Biosun ones and was really looking forward to his reactions. Immediately after the treatment he got very irritated. Now he has told me that he had nightmares all night, have not gone into the details of these as yet. While I think this is a good sign and he is releasing blocked emotions, he is not too impressed. I used them to relieve sinus and to give him a nice relaxing treatment, I doubt if he will allow me to do this again. Has anyone any ideas on this or had similar experiences??, must go now as I can hear a lot of clattering and swearing in the kitchen.

Yes, I bet. She may need to try out her skills with aromatherapy, reflexology and Hot Stone therapy to save her marriage. Or perhaps a crystal will quieten the poor fellow; crystals will cure anything. Another lady posts in the forum: Is there a crystal that can be placed near walls to help with noisy neighbours please can anyone help? She gets a very sensible answer from someone who suggests asking them to shut up, but then spoils it by recommending getting hold of a piece of haematite and ...when you have found somewhere quiet and secluded, grip the stone tightly, focusing all your anxiety and uncertainty onto the the stones shining surface....then imagine the stone shrugging off the problem of the noisy neighbour with sublime confidence!

Haematite, you see, is used by mineral and crystal healers in their rituals for treating blood-related illnesses such as haemophilia, anaemia, heart, kidney and liver diseases, cardio-vascular weakness, menstrual cramps, and nose bleeds. They also recommend it "for use in treating the stress of jet lag, birth and surgery, tumours, insomnia, leg cramps, nervous disorders and fevers. Haematite was also a Native American remedy for pimples, alcohol abuse and dental problems".

Was? Did they find out that it didn't work, or are they all nowadays smooth-skinned moderate drinkers with flashing smiles who no longer need to carry lumps of rock about?

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

First of many

No 22 in a series of extracts from The Postcard Century.
July 1906: ...you see I have got you a P.C. like you wanted writes EC in Faygate to Mrs Vine in Newdigate, places local to Britains's first major road accident. On the Kent fireman's outing everyone wanted to sit on the open top of the double decker. When the brakes failed the bus lurched out of control and ten were killed.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Summer eating

At this time of year the magazines are full of ideas for tossing dreary salads and burning stuff on the barbecue, trying to excite us with beautiful photographs of depressing food. Isabella Beeton, though well aware of the importance of eating what is appropriate to the season (in her day you had to), saw no reason to limit the choice just because the sun is shining.

Here are her suggestions for a week of Plain Family Dinners for 6 in July:

Sunday: 1. Julienne soup. 2. Roast lamb, half calf’s head, tongue and brains, boiled ham, peas and potatoes. 3. Cherry tart, custards.

Monday: 1. Hashed calf’s head, cold lamb and salad. 2. Vegetable marrow and white sauce, instead of pudding.

Tuesday: 1. Stewed veal, with peas, young carrots, and potatoes. Small meat pie. 2. Raspberry-and-currant pudding.

Wednesday: 1. Roast ducks stuffed, gravy, peas, and potatoes; the remains of stewed veal rechauffé. 2. Macaroni served as a sweet pudding.

Thursday: 1. Slices of salmon and caper sauce. 2. Boiled knuckle of veal, parsley-and-butter, vegetable marrow and potatoes. 3. Black-currant pudding.

Friday: 1. Roast shoulder of mutton, onion sauce, peas and potatoes. 2. Cherry tart, baked custard pudding.

Saturday: 1. Minced mutton, Rump-steak-and-kidney pudding. 2. Baked lemon pudding.

A little heavy for our tastes, perhaps, and vegetable marrow with white sauce doesn't sound much fun for a pudding. It's all a bit dull, but this is only for the family so there are no guests to impress. Much more interesting is Isabella's menu for a dinner party of eighteen:

First Course
Soup à la Jardinière, Salmon Trout and Parsley-and-Butter. Fillets of Mackerel à la Maître d’Hôtel.

Lobster Cutlets, Beef Palates à la Italienne.

Second Course
Roast Lamb, Boiled Capon and White Sauce, Boiled Tongue, garnished with small Vegetable Marrows, Bacon and Beans.

Third Course
Goslings, Whipped Strawberry Cream, Raspberry-and-Currant Tart, Meringues.Cherry Tartlets, Iced Pudding.

Dessert and Ices

And very nice too. But goslings for afters? My first thought was that these must be some kind of joky sweet in the shape of a bird, made out of sponge cake and fondant icing, but the dictionaries have no mention of such a thing; the OED gives 1: A young goose 2: A foolish inexperienced person 3: A catkin or blossom on a tree.

Perhaps they were real baby geese, fried in butter and eaten as a savoury: you pick them up by the head, dip them in anchovy sauce, pop them whole into your mouth and crunch them up. Yum!

Mrs Beeton's great work was originally published in 24 monthly parts and then as a bound volume in 1861. The meals she writes about seem a bit excessive to us, but it would be another forty years before the Edwardians began serious gormandising with 24-course dinners.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Tough questions

Professor David Colquhoun has been looking at the examination set in January this year by the University of Salford, which was intended to lead to a BSc (Hons) degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (Acupuncture). You can find all the questions in a .pdf file here

Here are some taken, word for word, from the exam paper. If you've got a pen and paper handy, try jotting down your answers to them:

Jing/body essence is vital to the maintenance of life. In 100 words, explain the role of Jing plays in the cycle of human life.

In the "liver wood overacting spleen earth", explain it in detail.

In Chinese medicine, anger is associated with liver and the suppression of anger causes liver qi stagnation. Explain your understanding of the statement in 100 words.

If you feel that all this is the sort of thing that the late, great Ted Wragg used to call "world-class meaningless bollocks", then you will be happy to know that the University of Salford has at last tumbled to that fact and closed this and their other courses in similarly idiotic subjects. Several universities are busy shutting down their worthless degrees in alternative medicine, now that the ridiculousness of what is taught has been exposed. They have been shut down entirely at the University of Central Lancashire, and even the University of Westminster is working on closing them.

So it will soon be very difficult to find any place of learning which provides a course enabling you to become a Bachelor of Silly Rubbish (Hons).

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Outstanding value

Global recession has clearly brought out the Dunkirk spirit in us, with ordinary people putting their noses to the grindstone, shoulders to the wheel (not like this), best feet forward, thinking caps on and all the other sternly heroic things we British do in difficult times, unlike lesser breeds who just sit around saying how terrible it is.

The other day I saw a splendid example of the drive, ingenuity, courage, inititiative and sheer grit which make us what we are. Driving along a main road I passed a row of houses; in one of the tiny front gardens there were two little tables and half a dozen chairs of assorted design, and leaning against the wall a carefully-written sign offered BACON SANDWICH AND CUP OF TEA 99p.

There appeared to be no customers and if I had not already been invited elsewhere to lunch I would have pulled up and supported this brave venture. As it was, I just drove past, worrying about the profit margin and the sadness of the proprietor if no-one at all ever stopped.