Friday, 30 January 2009

The Freedom Train

No 10 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century

November 1947: Ruthie in Syracuse, NY, to Priscilla Clarke in Marlborough, Mass: Dear Butch, Be sure to save this card for me! The Letter paper is absolutely lovely; hope I get a chance to use it soon, too!! Thanks a lot. I'm dying to see you in your scout uniform - I'll bet you look really sharp! The Colgate game was wonderful - I've never been so excited in my whole life!
The Freedom Train in red, white and blue livery started out on a two year journey in September 1947, stopping in all 47 states. In a manner paradoxically reminiscent of the Soviet Agitprop trains of the early twenties it was a travelling exhibition of democratic propaganda and patriotic memorabilia. The show included unique items that citizens in remote places would not normally get a chance to see, including a 1493 letter of Columbus, Washington's own copy of the Constitution, the Gettysburg address, etc.
Long queues formed wherever it stopped and many waited four or five hours to get to see the show. The millionth visitor was a girl in Oklahoma who travelled sixty miles in a blizzard to view the exhibited wonders.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Blokeism, laddishness and other specialities

Some blogs cater exclusively for those with particular professional or cultural interests: if you are a proctologist, say, or a Karlheinz Stockhausen fan, you can exchange news and discuss controversial issues with others with the same enthusiasm. These blogs are not widely read, and the only quality they generally have in common is that they rarely feature any good jokes or funny pictures.

There are other blogs which cover a wider range of topics but are still restricted in scope, and the most common of these are blogs which appeal to blokes or lads. The OED describes both these words as colloquial (mainly British), so for the benefit of North Americans who may be unfamiliar with their usage here are the OED definitions of them or their derivatives:

blokeish adj.
Characteristic of a man, or of men socializing together; straightforward, affable, bluff, down-to-earth (or keen to appear so); typically or stereotypically male in behaviour or interests. Freq. also depreciative (esp. with reference to the behaviour of all-male social groups): chauvinistic, boorish.

lad n.
A young man characterized by his enjoyment of social drinking, sport, and other activities considered to be male-oriented, his engagement in casual sexual relationships, and often by attitudes or behaviour regarded as irresponsible, sexist, or boorish; (usually) one belonging to a close-knit social group.

lad mag n.
a magazine aimed at young men, featuring esp. interviews with and pin-ups of female celebrities.

Then there are blogs for the opposite sex:
girly adj.
1a Characteristic of or befitting a girl; girlish. Also: effeminate. Freq. depreciative.
1b Involving girls or women and girlish or female concerns.
2 Of a publication, entertainment, etc.: featuring young women, usually naked or partially naked, in erotic contexts.

...and, of course, there are feminist blogs, which come under 1b above, but are really in a special category of their own.

Blogs written for any of these groups vary enormously in sophistication and literacy, but all are specialised and therefore with very limited appeal. Other Men's Flowers tries to straddle their constituencies and to cater for the interests of them all by providing the lads with notes on such topics as the latest weaponry, moustaches, powerful cars, skateboarding, lewd Ice Age implements, beach volleyball and booze.
...and the girls with comprehensive information on washing up, shopping, famous women writers and composers, where to find gigolos, astrology and crochet.

Monday, 26 January 2009


Edwin (suddenly, after a long pause): 'Darling!'
Angelina: 'Yes, darling?'
Edwin: 'Nothing, darling. Only darling, darling!'
[Bilious Old Gentleman feels quite sick]

In 1888 Gerald du Maurier drew this lovely picture for Punch. Later, with another cartoon, he created a phrase which is still used today.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

No news is bad news

In 2005 I lost contact with an internet friend; his blog had disappeared and his email address became inactive. He had set out to travel from Albuquerque to Oaxaca in a camper, and was describing on line, with wit and perception, his adventures and encounters on the road. The only possible explanation for his sudden silence was that something had happened to him before he reached his destination.

I had no real hope that he would renew contact, but I really wanted to know what had become of him. So I wrote about him in a post a couple of years later, imagining that perhaps someone who had encountered him on his travels, or who had known him before he set off, might read it and leave a comment. Of course this was a preposterous notion; I heard nothing more, and lost hope. Sadly, I had never downloaded and kept any of his blog.

So this is just a valediction. Farewell, Miguel: it was a privilege to know you.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Cream of the cream

It is hardly surprising that nobody outside Norway knows much about römmegröt, which is porridge enriched with sour cream (römme).

Sour cream is a traditional ingredient in Russian, East and Central European and German cooking, and over the last fifty years has become a staple in Western Europe, North America and elsewhere. Smetana is a mixture of sour and fresh cream and is probably not named after the self-interested Czech composer who knew which side his bride was bartered.

Sour cream used to be be made by letting fresh cream sour naturally but nowadays is made by pasteurising and homogenising light cream and inoculating it with a pure culture of selected bacteria, keeping it warm to facilitate their growth and then re-pasteurising it to stop the process. This is not the same as crème fraîche.

I had intended to write an authoritative survey of cream and crème in all their variations, covering French and English official regulations (e.g. crème fraîche must contain at least 30 grams of fat while crème légère need only have 12), but I really couldn't be bothered to look up all the EU regulations which may have superseded them, or to explain the French Chantilly, fluide, épaisse, à café, and aigre and what we call double, whipping and clotted.

And then there are all the other French crèmes: anglaise, patissière, au beurre, frite, renversée, brûlée and caramel, and the English creams: crackers, soda, puffs and eggs.

Easier perhaps merely to quote the OED's definition of cream, though it is singularly unappetising:
The oily or butyraceous part of milk
[ME. creme, creem, creyme, a. F. crème, in OF. cresme, Pr. cresma. By etymological conjecture crème, cream, was in 16th c. referred to L. cremor, and latinized as cremor lactis, crema lactis.]

Sunday, 18 January 2009

We can all look forward to despair

Noel Coward wrote a song in 1952 which could well be the theme of 2009:

There are bad times just around the corner,
There are dark clouds hurtling through the sky
And it's no good whining
About a silver lining
For we know from experience that they won't roll by,
With a scowl and a frown
We'll keep our peckers down
And prepare for depression and doom and dread,
We're going to unpack our troubles from our old kit bag
And wait until we drop down dead.

There are bad times just around the corner
And the outlook's absolutely vile,
There are Home Fires smoking
From Windermere to Woking
And we're not going to tighten our belts and smile, smile, smile,
At the sound of a shot
We'd just as soon as not
Take a hot water bottle and go to bed,
We're going to untense our muscles till they sag sag sag
And wait until we drop down dead.

The fourth meaning of pecker given in the OED is the one intended here:
Brit. colloq. Courage, resolution. Chiefly in to keep one's pecker up: to remain cheerful or steadfast.

There is a fifth meaning categorised by the OED as slang (chiefly U.S.).

Coward was well aware of this and substituted "spirits" when he sang the song in Las Vegas; in fact, he wrote a completely new version.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Happy times

No 9 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century
December 1943: Margaret to TMW Napier in Buckland Monachorum, Devon: To wish you a very happy Xmas and to say that Richard and Diana's present for you hasn't come yet, but it is coming.
This must be the dreariest of all the wartime views of Piccadilly Circus: what a miserable-looking crowd!

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Remembering poems

From the Guardian, September 2005:

Lord Wavell was unlucky, a manager of retreat in the first years of the second world war and absent from its later victories. Lying didn't come easy to him and, unlike Montgomery or Mountbatten, his successor as viceroy of India, he cut no dash. His great love and solace was poetry, the reading and reciting and not the writing of it, and it's for one book of poetry that, outside the realm of military history, he will be mainly remembered.

In 1944 Jonathan Cape published an anthology of Wavell's favourite poems. It became a large and unlikely success: it has been rarely out of print since and by 1979 had sold almost 130,000 copies.

The idea for its publication came not so much from Wavell himself as from the traveller and writer Peter Fleming, who was on Wavell's staff in Delhi during his pre-viceregal days as the army's commander in chief in India. In the evening, under a fan and over a drink, Fleming would listen to his boss recite, and talk about Browning and Kipling, and eventually suggested that Wavell compile an anthology and send it to Cape, which had published Fleming's pre-war travel accounts. Cape wasn't impressed. Wavell, far from home and a good library, had quoted many of the poems from his formidable memory. There were frequent mistakes. Cape sent a humiliating letter of rejection in which the general's choice was described as "familiar school recitations advancing in close formation". The situation was retrieved only after Fleming lobbied a Cape director, Rupert Hart-Davis, who reproved the publisher by telling him his letter was "tantamount to a sock on the jaw" to a shy man who had delivered "the complete bones of a tremendously saleable book".

What accounted for its success? My guess is that it made poetry respectable for manly men—Wavell's section on war is called Good Fighting but his section on love is a tongue-tied Love and All That—in an age when reciteable poetry still had a popular appeal. He wrote in his introduction that while, nearing 60, he couldn't claim he could repeat by heart all the 260 or so poems in the the anthology, he thought he could safely claim that he once could.

He apologises for his notes on the poems, saying "'The Notes' are not altogether my fault, the publisher asked for them." But he was far from a bluff fool who kept himself going on the march with a few verses of Kipling. He knew that a key to poetry's success—you might say its departed success—was its memorability, but he also knew that that wasn't its only quality. In 1961, 11 years after his death, TS Eliot wrote, "I do not pretend to be a judge of Wavell as a soldier ... What I do know from personal acquaintance with the man, is that he was a great man. This is not a term I use easily ..."
Ian Jack

[For those who don't know the book, I should mention that Wavell called it Other Men's Flowers: "I have gathered a posie of other men's flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is my own"—Montaigne, 1533-1592]

Monday, 12 January 2009

Eating at sea

In 1937 the diarist and critic James Agate went to New York on the SS Bremen, one of a pair built for the Norddeutsche Lloyd line which sparked the building of the large and luxurious express liners of the 1930s.

He wasn't much interested in the ship but complained that there was no-one on board he had ever heard of except Max Schmeling, and noted on the first day that the food was "excellent beyond belief":

For lunch we had the most decorative hors d'oeuvres, langouste and a German family dish of chopped beef. How these Germans eat! A man at the next table breakfasted off grapefruit, a haddock, a dish which the menu described as "Sautéd chicken liver in claret with mushrooms" and fresh strawberries. At eleven o'clock they bring round soup and rich-looking delicatessen, after which you are supposed to be ready for lunch at twelve-thirty. At two oclock they begin with coffee and cakes, tea at four, and the rest of the day is a thick-coming procession of kickshaws with, at seven o'clock, an eight-course dinner to relieve the monotony.

Agate was not much of a traveller, or he would have known that gluttony across the Atlantic was by then well-established not only on German liners but on all their competitors such as the Queen Mary and the Normandie. The transatlantic liners are no more, but today's cruise ships continue the tradition; this probably started only in the thirties, for the kind of food that was served at sea in earlier years was very different.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Charles wins the prize


We can now announce that the winner of the Counterknowledge Award for 2008 is HRH The Prince of Wales. Prince Charles received 25% of the 2000 votes, beating the Church of Scientology by just over 2%.

The Counterknowledge Award goes to the person or institution that has done most to disseminate dodgy science or bogus history during the year.

In early January, the Prince became the longest-serving king-in-waiting in British history—not one of the most sought-after sobriquets. But Prince Charles isn’t one for twiddling his thumbs, so what did the old boy get up to?

In August, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, the Prince announced that food corporations were “conducting a gigantic experiment with nature”. Totally disregarding, or perhaps ignorant of, science, the future King of England remarked, “if they think it's somehow going to work because they are going to have one form of clever genetic engineering after another then again count me out, because that will be guaranteed to cause the biggest disaster environmentally of all time.”

In November, Prince Charles caused consternation by telling Jonathan Dimbleby that when he is monarch he will speak out on “matters of national and international importance”. Now we’re not 100% clear on what those matters might be, but December saw the Prince’s organic food company, Duchy Originals, announce the imminent arrival of a “herbal remedies” line. According to Duchy, it will be available early next year and reflects “the prince’s passion for adopting an integrated approach to healthcare”. Gawd help us.

As promised, the prize, a bottle of snake oil, will be delivered to Clarence House in January.

The National Health Executive (the Independent Journal for Senior Health Service Managers) asked for an article about quack medicine and David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at UCL wrote this before Christmas. Here is a paragraph from it describing some of the major quackeries, several of which Prince Charles recommends for consideration as part of his "integrated approach to healthcare".

Homeopathy: giving patients medicines that contain no medicine whatsoever.
Herbal medicine: giving patients an unknown dose of a medicine, of unknown effectiveness and unknown safety.
Acupuncture: a theatrical placebo, with no real therapeutic benefit in most if not all cases.
Chiropractic: an invention of a 19th century salesmen, based on nonsensical principles, and shown to be no more effective than other manipulative therapies, but less safe.
Reflexology: plain old foot massage, overlaid with utter nonsense about non-existent connections between your feet and your thyroid gland.
Nutritional therapy: self-styled ‘nutritionists’ making unjustified claims about diet to sell unnecessary supplements.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Top Sonnets 2008

The OMF Annual Sonnet Bash has come round again and, as promised, I am publishing today all those which were submitted.

These were not numerous, but I knew that in today's world it would be difficult to seduce many readers of OMF away from their questionable pursuits to undertake an intellectual challenge. Happily there were five who did take up their quills and then sent in the results of their labours, and in four cases these were very creditable or even admirable. I am very grateful to the writers of these four.

It has been suggested by cynical and unkind acquaintances that it is all a prank and that I wrote some of these sonnets myself, so I must state clearly that this is a despicable calumny, though all except one I would have been proud to have composed. They were written by 1: Elizabeth; 2: Anonymous; 3: Outeast; 4: Grumio (and friends); and 5: The Dark Lady.

I know only one of these personally and have no connection with any of the others. Honestly.

So here are the five sonnets.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

On the good ship Lollipop

No 8 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century

August 1936:
Dorothy in Weymouth to Mr and Mrs Heard in Bristol: The sun is grand...we are sitting under the walk not a chair to be had. Spot is quite good and loves the water. Tons of love.

A ray of sunshine during the depression, Shirley Temple sang and skipped her way through a host of films, including, this year, Captain January. Thirty years later she was (as Shirley Temple Black) to stand for Congress.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Victor's chef-d'oeuvre and mine

This week, Other Men's Flowers enters its sixth year and passes the quarter-million word mark.

Les Misérables has more than twice as many words and these were all written by Hugo, whereas only about 40% (at a guess) of the words in OMF are mine, and the remainder are other men's (or women's). Another difference between the two works which critics have noted is that OMF is mostly in English, unlike LM, which is virtually all in French; the latter has been translated into English seven times and into many other languages, while translations of OMF have been made only by Google and are totally incomprehensible.

OMF is divided into 881 posts, while LM comes in 5 volumes, 48 books and 577 chapters; no editions of it contain, as OMF does, 1,291 comments, 883 hyperlinks and 466 pictures. However, the picture reproduced here, Cosette by Emile Bayard, also appeared in the original edition of LM and is thus common to both.

Hugo's great novel tells an epic story and covers an enormous canvas; OMF is less ambitious, consisting as it does of little snippets of this and that, most of which exhibit a facetious banality—or, as some critics maintain—a vapid flippancy; LM is noted for its total lack of flippancy. It is widely considered that both works contain some passages of memorable prose and many long and tedious sections which are totally unreadable and quite irrelevant to the main theme.

LM features characters called Marius Pontmercy and Ultime Fauchelevent, a.k.a. Urbain Fabre or Jean Valjean; these people have never been mentioned at all in OMF until today.

Since 1907, there have been about fifty film adaptations of Les Misérables and so far none at all of Other Men's Flowers, but it is early days yet.