Saturday, 28 March 2009

The Public Library smells of galanga

In a comment to a post published in Other Men's Flowers (by mistake) on March 19th, I mentioned a Balinese dancing girl who has become something of an embarrassment to me, and several readers have asked me for further details, preferably salacious ones. I must disappoint them, for our acquaintance has not ripened in any meaningful way and in fact I have been able to find out practically nothing about her: she has little English and is very shy.

However, I have been able to establish that her name is Suka Seriba Bulan (roughly translated, this means Moon of a Thousand Delights), and that she comes from the little town of Kubutambahan in the province of Buleleng (pop. 577,000).

What she is doing in a seaside resort in East Sussex remains a mystery, and I really cannot bring myself to ask her. I can see why a sloe-eyed beauty trolling around the local supermarkets and hanging about on the seafront dressed in a colourful kebaya is causing questions to be asked, and something even more disturbing, particularly for the older residents, is that she has taken to sitting on the promenade in the evenings singing the traditional song Cublak-Cublak Suweng, with its slightly obscene yet haunting refrain "Sir - sir pong 'dele bodhong-dhong-dhong-dhong..."

I really cannot accept responsibility for this woman: I've never even been to Bali and I certainly didn't ask her to come here and upset all my arrangements. The whole thing is a lamentable invasion of my privacy.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

And practically no blood

Just lately both large and small screens seem to have been offering me a diet very heavy on gritty realism, horror and steamy sex. But not everyone wants to be depressed, frightened or titillated all the time, with only turgid slabs of overdressed historic royalty or bonnet-wearers for relief. The other evening I found a corrective in a splendid bit of good-natured tosh from more than half a century ago: Call Me Madam.

The topical jokes mean nothing now (who remembers that Harry S Truman's daughter Margaret had a singing career?), but this was the second most successful of Irving Berlin's Broadway musical scores and the film is still a treasure: it's got Ethel Merman belting it out with much more style than Streisand, and, above all, it's got Donald O'Connor. Never mind about his cheeky, wholesome image, when he was not fooling about he had Astaire's kind of ineffable grace as a dancer: like Mozart and Gielgud, he was the type of artist which Nietsche called the Appollonian*: "the classic whose deepest and saddest utterances can never take a form that is not shapely and rounded".

*As opposed to the Dionysiac, "the blows of whose gigantic hammer and chisel are still visible on the marble of his noblest masterpieces" (Beethoven, Olivier).

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

How many are interested?

There's a lot of fun to be had playing with Google's Search Trends, which can count the the number of searches made for any key word over time, and thus enable researchers to monitor the level of public interest in people—Led Zeppelin, say, or a topic, like homeopathy. The graphs show that interest in the former has been very steady, with a huge peak at the time of their reunion show last year, while interest in homeopathy is 40% less than at the beginning of 2004.

Searches on Google are of course only one indicator of the level of public interest, but for homeopathy there is some evidence that appears to correlate with the search trend. You can read about it here ; the comments to the article generally support the suggestion that the popularity of this particular kind of quackery is on the wane and may indeed be in terminal decline, not before time.

In the UK there is a lower proportion of simple-minded people who believe in it than in the US, Australia, India or France, but if Prince Charles eventually becomes king he may well continue his efforts to promote it.

Bishop William Crosswell Doane (1832–1913) explained the posology of homeopathic nostrums many years ago:
Stir the mixture well
Lest it prove inferior,
Then put half a drop
Into Lake Superior.
Every other day

Take a drop in water,
You’ll be better soon
Or at least you oughta.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

An earlier Prince Charlie

"So it's agreed. We support your claim to the
throne if you appear on our shortbread tins."
David Haldane, 1982 (The Best of Punch)

Friday, 20 March 2009

And there'll be a raffle too!

I will not say how long ago I left school, except to note that the year was historically important not only for this reason but also because it was the year in which Chakravarti Rajagopalachari was appointed Governor-General of India in succession to Earl Mountbatten, and both Count Bernadotte and Mahatma Gandhi were assassinated.

I was never a keen Old Boy, though in the past I did occasionally attend dinners where I could renew acquaintance with all those whom I had most disliked at school and note happily what the passing of time had done to them. Sometimes I would encounter some doddery bald-headed old fool and think, "Hello! That must be so-and-so's grandfather", to discover that it was in fact so-and-so himself, his stupid face no longer smooth and smug but ravaged and pitiful*. But most of them are dead now so it wouldn't be so much fun.

I suppose I must have supplied my email address to the Old Boys' Association at some point, though I cannot think why. Anyway, I have received at intervals over the years messages advising me of the demise of extremely eminent Old Boys of whom I had never heard, or inviting me to attend functions which I know I should hate. One of these arrived the other day, suggesting that I should stump up fifty pounds for a ticket to a Spring Ball (Black Tie, Dancing to Big Band and Disco, Champagne Reception, Carriages at 12.30, you know the sort of thing). If this were not repellent enough, it seems that the purpose of the event is to raise funds for a rugby tour of New Zealand, than which there is no cause less dear to my heart.

So, even if the organisers had thought of providing some information about the venue (Murrayfield Stadium? Grand Hotel, Torquay? Brent Cross Shopping Centre?), this is an opportunity I shall not fail to miss.

*P G Wodehouse described this kind of thing: "Time had robbed him of the hair on his head and given him in niggardly exchange a large pink wart on the side of his nose".

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

...But only God can make a tree.

Most people know that blowing your nose is, to the Japanese, a disgusting practice. It is ironic, therefore, that they find admirable another activity which is very similar, in that it requires no skill, takes very little time and produces nothing of any value. This is the composition of haiku ; the word originally meant heavenly wind-breaking, but nowadays refers to
"a form of Japanese poetry, consisting of 17 morae, in three metrical phrases of 5, 7 and 5 morae respectively[1]. Haiku typically contain a kigo, or seasonal reference, and a kireji or verbal caesura. In Japanese, haiku are traditionally printed in a single vertical line, while haiku in English usually appear in three lines, to parallel the three metrical phrases of Japanese haiku".

[To understand this fully you really need to follow the links to morae and kireji, though this may not help you much.]

Quite clear so far?

The rules are often interpreted loosely when writing haiku in English, and the usual result is a piece of staggering banality, for example:
When it is snowing
It is good to stay indoors:
Writing stuff like this


Today is the day
For Grumio to have fun
Let us wish him well

Monday, 16 March 2009

Young Cliff

No 13 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century
November 1960: Miss Jay B at the Royal Deaf School in Exeter gets this card from Nailsworth. Did you get your sweets yesterday. I saw this card in Boots shop. I thought you'd like it. Hope you are well and happy. We love you very much. Mummy and Daddy xxx.
Cliff Richard represents and is idolised by a new and hitherto hidden constituency, youth. He is the home-grown version of more unattainable American models as only half-knowingly he leads the third revolt of the century. Workers are empowered, women long emancipated: now, the teenagers want their own domain, and, given their ever growing purchasing power, start to gain it. Apart from standard adolescent rejection of parental values there is no ideology, yet their cadres are formed in the now ubiquitous coffee bars of the land.
How many of those rebels without a cause, today turning sixty like Cliff Richard himself, followed him all the way and listened to the saccharin Christian of 1999 singing them into the Millenium with banality's ultimate double whammy, the Lord's Prayer sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne?

Saturday, 14 March 2009

The easy way to apostasy

It's a nice thought, but of course you have to have some faith to deny or some religion to forsake before you can be a proper apostate, and I don't qualify. Nevertheless, all those born to parents who condone or even encourage piety were probably signed up to one religion or another before they could talk, and were not consulted; often a couple of heavies were appointed at the same time to ensure that the undertaking made on their behalf was properly carried out.

It is easy enough at a later stage, when you are old enough to think for yourself, to simply forget the commitment. You can even reject it formally if you like: the National Secular Society can provide for only £3 (including UK postage) an attractive Certificate of Debaptism which you can sign, frame and hang in some appropriate room of your house; over 100,000 have been supplied since 2007.

Alternatively, you can design and print a simple one of your own like this; I have copied the wording used by the NSS but they are decent fellows and are not likely to sue me for copyright infringement; if they do, then I will immediately cease and desist.

Such a certificate is nice to have as a modest sign of inner rationality but of course it has no legal or other significance (neither does the one supplied originally by the organisation which baptised you). Also, you have to bear in mind that your name is probably recorded somewhere, and it will not be easy to have it deleted. It is uncertain which, if any, provisions of the Data Protection Act apply to parish records, and it is unlikely that the Freedom of Information Act will help you to find out what the churches have got on you.

Those who have tried have met with a variety of responses. Generally, the replies from both the Roman Catholic and CofE authorities were courteous (the Archbishop of York promised to pray for one enquirer) but generally not very helpful. Some of the exchanges of correspondence are described here. For Catholics, excommunication is an option (you just fill in a form) but this may not achieve the removal of the original entry in their records.

I don't think I would bother too much about getting my name expunged from any baptismal databases where it may be listed: the possibility that I might one day be called upon to take up arms and defend Christendom is a very remote one.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Again the Cham

I see that OMF contains five posts which refer to the great Dr Johnson, but none have appeared in the past three years, so some extracts from his Dictionary are long overdue.

For all its faults—absurd etymologies ("May not spider be spy dor, the insect that watches the house?"), inaccurate definitions ("pastern, "the knee of a horse", confessions of ignorance ("stammel, Of this word I know not the meaning")—A Dictionary of the English Language, or one of its countless abridgements, revisions and adaptations, was the dictionary that English readers turned to between 1755, when it was written, and 1928, when the OED, its great successor, appeared.

A selection from it by Jack Lynch is a thundering good read; a single page taken at random illustrates perfectly the charm and quirkiness of some of the entries in the Dictionary, especially those which are now obsolete or have dramatically changed their meanings:

cabaret n.s. [French] A tavern
to cabbage v.a. [a cant word among taylors] To steal in cutting clothes
cachexy n.s. A general word to express a great variety of symptoms; most commonly it denotes such a distemperature of the humours, as hinders nutrition, and weakens the vital and animal functions, proceeding from weakness of the fibres, and abuse of the non-naturals, and often from acute distempers.
cackerel n.s. A fish, said to make those who eat it laxative.
cadger n.s. A huckster; one who brings butter, eggs, and poultry, from the country to market.
caisson n.s. [French] A chest of bombs or powder, laid in the enemy's way, to be fired at their approach.

And then there are others which are so fascinatingly specialised that one wonders how much they could have been used, and why it was ever necessary for them to be coined, or adopted into English:
camisado n.s. [Ital] An attack made by soldiers in the dark; on which occasion they put their shirts outward, to be seen by each other.
caudebeck n.s. A sort of light hats, so called from a town in France where they were first made
cerulifick adj Having the power to produce a blue colour.

And if you glance through at random you might learn about anatiferous (producing ducks), parbreak (vomit), circumferoneous (wandering from house to house) and to snudge: (to be idle).

That's enough from dear old Sam for the moment; I feel a touch of cachexy coming on. Clearly, someone has been abusing my non-naturals, so I must stop snudging and be off to the cabaret in my caudebeck; perhaps a snack of fried cackerel will put me right.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Jollity in São Paulo

Number 143 in the collection Hats That Bring Happiness, here is a picture which captures the exuberance, the joie de vivre, the sheer fun of the Samba Carnival. The hat does, anyway.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Early Day Motion

No, this has nothing to do with getting up at crack of dawn to kick-start your digestive transit.

Early day motions (EDMs) are formal motions submitted for debate in the House of Commons. However, very few EDMs are actually debated. Instead, they are used for purposes such as publicising the views of individual MPs, drawing attention to specific events or campaigns, and demonstrating the extent of parliamentary support for a particular cause or point of view.

For example, here is Number 754, submitted on 10th February:
That this House expresses its support for the use of the combined MMR vaccine; notes with concern the re-emergence of measles and the loss of life and long-term health problems which will afflict children as a result of the decline in the vaccination rate which followed Dr Andrew Wakefield's now discredited research paper suggesting a link between MMR vaccine and autism; expresses its disappointment that ill-informed comments by presenters such as Jeni Barnett on her LBC radio show will continue to cause unfounded anxieties for many parents and are likely to result in some parents choosing not to vaccinate their children; recognises the right of Jeni Barnett as a parent to make her own judgement about vaccinations for her own children but implores her and others in the media to act more responsibly when making comments in the public domain; and further expresses its hope that in the future reporting the issue of MMR will be less sensationalist and more evidence-based.

EDMs are listed here, where you can search for them by number, description or topic, and see which ones have been signed (i.e. supported) by which MPs. In the 2008-09 session of Parliament, just over one thousand have so far been published and it is possible to get an idea of the breadth of an MP's interests (or belief in the value of EDMs) by seeing which ones, and how many, he or she has supported. The figures show a wide variation: John McDonnell (Lab, Hayes and Harrington), managed 672, while Gerry Adams (Sinn Fein, Belfast West) and several others signed none at all.

My own MP signed a creditable 333. This includes the one about the MMR vaccine; I had sent him an email urging him to support it but he would probably have done so anyway.

You can find out a great deal more about what your MP thinks and does by looking here. In this way I discovered that my own MP has:

Voted against a transparent Parliament.
Voted strongly for introducing a smoking ban.
Voted strongly for introducing ID cards.
Voted very strongly for introducing foundation hospitals.
Voted strongly for introducing student top-up fees.
Voted very strongly for Labour's anti-terrorism laws.
Voted moderately for the Iraq war.
Voted very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war.
Voted very strongly against replacing Trident.
Voted very strongly for the hunting ban.
Voted very strongly for equal gay rights.
Voted moderately for laws to stop climate change.
...and has occasionally rebelled against his party line.

For me, he seems to have been on the side of the angels with slightly more than half of these issues; this is more than any other future candidates in my constituency are likely to be so if he stands at the next election I suppose I'll give him my vote.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Built-up area

Michael Flanders, without Donald Swann this time, notes that a Stone Age man watching from the observation platform on Salisbury Plain doesn't think much of the project:

Well wot's this then? You're not going to put up these great ugly stone blocks 'ere, are you? You can't do that! I've got Ancient Lights on my cave! Well, what is it anyway? A henge? Well, what's a henge? You may call it megalithic culture, I call it vandalism! I suppose you realise this is about the last nesting place for mammoths in the whole of Wessex?

What with them building up the long barrows and the round barrows and the bell-shaped barrows... They've started cutting out these white horses on the hillside now, have you seen that? I don't know - it's some sort of ad for mead, I think. They don't call 'em the Beaker Folk for nothing! And then you come dragging along these great prefabricated dominoes all over the roads! They're not meant for that sort of traffic. Every fine weekend it's the same story: ox-carts nose to tail all the way from 'ere to the coast.

I don't know where you get that stone from anyway - that's not local stone - I can tell. You get it from where? The Preseli Mountains? In Wales? I know it's in Wales - I've been abroad. Ooh, what'd'yer want to bring it all the way... You're bringing it the wrong way anyway: you want to bring it round the Chanctonbury Ring road, avoiding earthworks at Avebury.

What a horrible lookin' thing! That's all there is to it, is it then? Just two up and one across the top all the way round? Well if that's modern architecture, roll on the Ice Age I say! Well, you'll never get a roof on it for a start - never get twigs big enough! Yes, we 'ad a wood henge here once but it rotted. These big picture windows you've got all the way around the bottom: oh, they look very nice, yes, I grant you but what about the draughts? What about the lack of privacy? Who wants to live in a thing like that? Will you tell me when they start movin' in, won't yer? We get a pretty rowdy crowd in some of these new developments. I don't want to end up under the altar stone in a crouching position!

It's not going to be lived in? Well, that's something anyway. What is it then? It's a what? You're pulling my... a calendar? Well, it's a bit big for a calendar isn't it? I mean, you'd look a bit silly with that on your desk, wouldn't you? Well, how'd you work it then? You come up 'ere every morning before dawn - well better you than me, mate - and when the rising Sun throws a shadow of that big stone onto this flat one 'ere, then we shall know if it's Summer. Well, that will be very helpful, I must say. But is it Summer? You can't tell. Well, I'd better come and help you shovel the snow off it then...