Thursday, 30 April 2009

Part-time hack

Back in the sixties I wrote a letter to a local paper (I had a lot of time on my hands) expressing some trenchant views about a concert hall complex that had just been built in the town, and the Arts Editor rang me up and asked if I would like to be Architectural Correspondent. I was greatly flattered but confessed that I didn't know anything about architecture, and he asked hopefully if there was anything at all I did know anything about. I told him that I went to the pictures once or twice a week and he told me that they already had a film critic but they were always looking for people to join their panel of theatre critics. I said OK and thus began ten happy years of part-time employment.

The paper was part of a large group with half a dozen weekly titles circulating in an area with a population of 350,000, so they had a lively Arts Section and published critical reviews, not just puffs written by cub reporters, of nearly every theatrical production, amateur and professional, in the area. They also covered London theatres, so although I had to spend many hours attending school plays and such delights as the St Barnabus Players doing Quiet Wedding for the fourth time, and trying to think of something constructive and fair to say about them, I had my reward once a month or so when it became my turn to be sent two tickets for the third (provincial press) night of a new play in the West End.

Thus it was that for a few years I had some memorable evenings at the theatre, free, with my fares paid and a small fee. These included, for example, a new play by Harold Pinter, and here is my somewhat jejune review of it written forty-nine years ago:
I was paid a total of one pound four shillings and fourpence: one (old) penny a line, five and sixpence for fares and sixpence for a programme. This seemed quite a lot at the time and actually it was: today, the programme alone would cost several pounds, and with train fares from the suburbs an evening for two in a West End theatre would cost you at least sixty times as much as I got for writing this piece. Also, by contributing a weekly 500-word piece of whimsy for the same papers I brought my total earnings from journalism up to £5 a week, which in the early sixties represented a 40% bonus to my salary as an Export Manager.

Reviews often appeared in the national dailies before I saw new plays, and I never allowed myself to look at them before writing at least a draft of my own; not only would I have been influenced by the views of my professional betters, but I would probably have been tempted to lift some of their witticisms and pass them off as my own.

[By the way, none of the original cast of The Caretaker are still with us. Peter Woodthorpe was the last to go, in 2004; he had a brilliant career in Beckett and Shakespeare but did not often achieve the heights later and is remembered today chiefly as the gravel-voiced pathologist Max in many episodes of the TV Inspector Morse.]

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Books for children

Every two years the UK publishing industry chooses a distinguished writer or illustrator of children's books as Children's Laureate, and a £10,000 bursary is provided. To mark the tenth anniversary of the laureateship, the first Laureate (Quentin Blake) and his four successors have each chosen their seven favourite children's books.

Here they are; I have arranged them in the order in which they were written:

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838)
A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear (1846)
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868-9)
What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge (1872)
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)
A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson (1885)
The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde (1888)
Five Children and It by E. Nesbit (1902)
Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling (1902)
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1905)
The Railway Children by E. Nesbit (1906)
Just William by Richmal Crompton (1922)
Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner (1928)
Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers (1934)
The Box of Delights by John Masefield (1935)
Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain by Edward Ardizzone (1936)
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)
The Family From One End Street by Eve Garnett (1937)
Sword in the Stone by T.H. White (1938)
Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton (1939)
Stuart Little by E.B. White (1945)
Five Go to Smuggler's Top by Enid Blyton (1945)
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1947)
Lavender's Blue by Kathleen Lines (1954)
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken (1963)
Absolute Zero by Helen Cresswell (1978)
Not Now, Bernard by David McKee (1980)
Fairy Tales by Terry Jones (1981)
Rose Blanche by Ian McEwan and Roberto Innocenti (1985)
Daz 4 Zoe by Robert Swindells (1990)
Snow White by Josephine Poole (1991)
Clown by Quentin Blake (1995)
Queenie the Bantam by Bob Graham (1997)
Journey to the River Sea by Iva Ibbotson (2001)
Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear by Andy Stanton (2008)

• I find this list rather cheering, but it will probably be described as "worthy" (i.e. dull). It is sadly true that a selection made by children would not include many of these, but this is not so much because they would not appeal to today's children but because few of them have had the opportunity of reading many of them, and the power of marketing drives them (or their parents) to thinner fare: but the choice was made by authors who have demonstrated that they understand very well indeed what children like.

• There are probably hardly any books on the list which no adult could read with pleasure (Blyton, certainly and a few more), and several were not even written for children.

• Beatrix Potter, Milne and Grahame are absent; there is generally very little anthropomorphism.

• Nor is there much fantasy or magic: no Rowling, Tolkien or C S Lewis; most of these books are about real people doing real things. This does not mean that they all feature familiar backgrounds or characters with whom modern children can identify: there are some exotic situations and unimaginable people here.

• Not all is sugar and spice: Mary Poppins and the Famous Five are there but not typical, and there are plenty of dark themes.

• Imperialism is clearly dead: no Henty or Buchan, and Kipling is represented only by his (anthropomorphic) fables.

• I have read only about half a dozen on the list; I probably didn't have the time, because in my early teens I was busy reading around thirty of Richmal Crompton's books about William Brown. This shows that brilliant writing and characterisation can bring alive scenes and characters quite foreign to the readers experience: the books deal with affluent middle class life in a semi-rural setting in the 1920s and 30s—William's parents had a cook!—though Crompton went on writing them up to the 40s. All this was very far from anything familiar to me, and yet I could appreciate his eleven-year-old view of life and share wholeheartedly in his concerns.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Ancient lineage

Fictional characters are rarely the subject of genealogical research, but the ancestors of Pilot-Officer Prune were thoroughly investigated in a scholarly 1942 treatise by Anthony Armstrong.

Percy Prune was a World War 2 fighter pilot who was noted for his fatuous exuberance and utter boneheadedness. These qualities he inherited from a line of forebears who exhibited them in spades, all of them being either affable dimwits or unpredictable lunatics; it is remarkable that any of them lived long enough to reach maturity and procreate.

The recorded history of the family began with the Piltdown Prune, about which little is known except that the small fragment which was discovered showed that the all round thickness of his cranium could not have allowed any room at all for anything in the nature of brain; later it was suggested the fragment was part of a hoax and was actually a lump of rock. Another early member was Proon the Druid (circa 100 B.C.), who died owing to a mishap with his last sacrificial victim; while explaining the sacred rites Proon gave the man his axe to hold and when he asked for it back he got it, but not just where or how he wanted it.

And so the family tradition of outstanding idiocy was established, and was continued by, among many others, Persius Prunius (A.D. 92 to A.D. 141), Sir Percivale the Prune (circa A.D. 450), Beowulf Prun (circa A.D.50), Percy de Prohun (1099-1120), the crusader Peregrine de Prunne (1166-1221), the illiterate poet Philander Prunne (1276-1322), and then on with a succession of useless idiots throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

In the Civil War two Prune ancestors, cousins, fought on opposite sides. In infancy the Roundhead Pruin (1622-1679) was patted on the head by Praise-God Barebones, who broke a finger, and was named, after the religious fashion of the day, Praise-him-all-ye-works-of-the Lord Pruin.

When Charles I heard that the royalist Percivall Pruin (1620-1671) had taken up arms on his behalf he at once expressed grave doubts of ultimate victory; later Percivall attached himself to Charles II and when captured by the forces of Cromwell was severely mishandled for refusing to betray the King's whereabouts, though actually he would have given away the hiding-place if he hadn't forgotten where it was. But he went down in history as one of the Pruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit.

In the second half of the eighteenth century Paul "Beau" Prune (1740-1786) spent most of his life hanging around Bath hoping make the acquaintance of the influential socialite and dandy Beau Nash, but on the only occasion when they came face to face, in the Pump Room at the Roman Baths, Nash, then in his dotage, was heard to remark "Who is that demmed scruffy nincompoop? Throw him out at once." and the relationship did not develop. Pruin died later in Penury, where he had gone for a holiday.

Thus ended the line of famous Prunes. The family is still extant but most of its members are extremely obscure, none of them ever having summoned up the energy or initiative to make any interesting mistakes, let alone to commit the monumental blunders which gave their illustrious forebears so proud a place in history.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Vorsprung durch Lachen

Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg loved a good joke but discovered during the First World War that these were not commonly found in East Prussia, where he had made his military career, and that worldwide appreciation of German humour was at a very low ebb in the 1920s. When he became President of the Weimar Republic in 1925 one of his first actions was to issue a decree establishing a government department called the Humorabteilung under the command of a powerful official, the Staatswitzmeister, responsible for organising training courses for aspiring comedians and taking measures to raise the general standard of German jokes.

This had moderate success in the following years until 1934, when Hindenburg died and Adolf Hitler came to power. None of the Nazi leaders had any sense of humour at all (Julius Streicher published a comic newspaper for some years but the cartoons were whimsical rather than funny). The Humorabteilung was closed down, the post of Staatswitzmeister was abolished, the Third Reich was declared to be a Lachenfrei state and jokes of any kind were forbidden.

After the Second World War glumness prevailed throughout Germany and very little laughter was heard for some years. Then, in 1949, Konrad Adenauer became Chancellor of the Federal Republic of West Germany at the age of 79. He had been a popular stand-up comedian in Berlin nightclubs in the 1920s ("History is the sum total of things that could have been avoided” was one of his quips, but it sounded better in German and anyway it was the way he told it). Under his leadership a Lustspielhaus was set up in all major cities and the bierkellers echoed with Teutonic chortling once more.

Today, of course, Germany has regained its place among the top joke-making nations of Europe, and every German institution or company has its Lachenbüro with a qualified Witzleiter in charge, turning out a stream of comedy which in quality and scope has not been seen since the days of the Hohenzollerns.


Wednesday, 22 April 2009

No title

Actually he has nine major ones and many others; it was just that I couldn't think of a caption for this magnificent picture.

Please, no comments.

Monday, 20 April 2009

King Bill

By way of light relief to the discussions about the world economy, we might give some thought to another current news item, the prospect of amending the 1701 Act which bans Catholics from marrying into the royal family. Gordon Brown is said to be in favour of this and of the proposal to amend the primogeniture rules, which state that the first-born son of the monarch takes precedence in the succession over older sisters. Both these ideas are likely to evoke a great wave of indifference in the British public, but it is the second which is the more interesting, not because it is likely to have any effect for many years, but because one can speculate what would have happened if it had become law during Victoria's reign.

For a start, her eldest daughter, Princess Victoria, would have inherited the throne in 1901. She was the dowager Empress of Germany at the time and died only seven months later. Her son Kaiser Wilhelm II would then have succeeded her and although his upbringing had made him less than enthusiastic about the British he might after a few years have got to like us better and prevented his two realms from going to war in 1914. He might even have changed his family name to, say, Hohenzollern-Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-Balmoral (he liked the Scottish castle: the photo shows him and his father Frederick III there, heavily be-kilted*, in 1862).

The Kaiser-King-Emperor lived on until 1941, and his son Frederick would then have reigned over the vast Anglo-German Empire until he died in 1951, to be succeeded by Princess Marie-Cécile (or Louis-Ferdinand? I've lost track). It is possible that all this would have been worse than keeping the Windsors, though of course not having two world wars wouldn't have been altogether a bad thing.

*mit der Schottenrock

Saturday, 18 April 2009

It passed over at nightfall last Wednesday

You are allowed to eat matzos even if you have never made the acquaintance of a mohel, and I quite like them; it came as a shock to me three weeks ago when I found that the familiar packs now had a red background and not the usual blue; this apparently means that the Beth Din had approved them for Passover. But this started on April 8th, 5769, so it seems that for several days earlier this month I had offended YHWH, Elohim, El Shaddai, Adonai, El Elyon, Avinu and all that lot by spreading my rillettes du Mans on matzos not made under orthodox rabbinical supervision. However, as a balabatisher yock I need not fear retribution, though I may be censured as a chazzer.

In searching the web for further information about all this I found an article about Jaaber Hussein, an Arab living near Jerusalem, who has a nice little earner once a year when he buys up huge quantities of unleavened bread, pasta and beer which should not be consumed or even kept in the house by the faithful during Pesach. Then he sells it all back later and everyone is happy, most of all Mr Hussein.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Style icon takes over Wales

No 15 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century

January 1970: A cryptic message from EP in Kensington to Mr Keatey in Brooklyn: So far no action. Everything else is AOK.
One almost feels sorry for the young Charles in the mad regalia of the investiture, whose symbolic staff and sword he grips as if his knuckles would break. He is trying hard to look like someone in history. Norman Parkinson, a royal regular, was responsible for the high camp of the photograph. The fatal design mismatch is the old style ermine cape over a modern military uniform, making neither look distinguished or convincing,

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Protecting us

In the groupblog BoingBoing I read the other day about a random stop-and-search carried out on a Londoner by two officers of the Transport Police Counter-Terrorism Proactive Unit, one polite and slightly embarrassed and the other surly and menacing.

The officers admitted that they had no suspicion of him and no reason to search him and told him he'd be arrested and handcuffed if he refused. They riffled through his books (looking for terrorist words?) and went through his bag.

BoingBoing's comment was: Welcome to Britain: now spread 'em.

The victim was carrying a videocamera and had the presence of mind (and the nerve) to record the encounter. His video is here; most people will find it both alarming and depressing. However, his name was Terence Eden and he doesn't look or sound remotely foreign, so it is good to reflect that this was a truly random search and there was no element of racism or xenophobia involved, though I suppose they might have disliked his hair style.

Thanks to Grumio for the link.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Squalus acanthias and pollack

To say that the Belgians call them zeepaling (sea eel), the Germans call them seeaal (sea eel again) and that they are known to the French as saumonette is only a footnote to the long and complex story of the names for the spiny dogfish. These sad creatures labour under the handicap of being a kind of shark and being a member of the family squalidae; this is off-putting enough, but when you find out that they have no anal fin, that the males are identified by a pair of pelvic fins modified as sperm-transfer organs, or "claspers", and that gestation then lasts 22-24 months (long than with elephants, for God's sake), it is hardly surprising that only a great variety of names (in the UK, they can be huss or rock salmon>) ensures that people will want to eat them.

Similarly, coley and pollock (or pollack) never really cut the mustard for the marketing of fish in the Pollachius genus, because the first had long been firmly associated with something that cats eat and the second reminded one either of bollocks or of the derogatory name (in North America) for a gentleman from Warsaw, neither being something one would want to find on one's plate. Now we are being urged to eat them in order to preserve cod stocks, a cause dear to all our hearts, and Sainsbury's are telling us bossily that the word should be pronounced as the French do. This is confusing, since in the OED colin refers only to the American partridge; better if they had put it about that it is an English word like Bryan or Derek, or that it should be pronounced like the former four-star general C. Powell: coe-lin.

Anyway, Sainsbury's are really gung-ho about this fish, and are selling it in special packaging in bold, bright colours "inspired by Jackson Pollock". The designer has said " ...the new-look colin sleeve will be the star of the Sainsbury's store; we expect coachloads to travel by land and sea to see it". This seem a very modest expectation for such a bold venture: surely charter flights from New York will soon be on offer, combining private viewing of the bold bright pre-packaged fish shelves with a look at the latest thing in Gerhard Richter-inspired wrappings for the four-pack beetroots, and a night at the Heathrow Sheraton?

Since the news (or rather, the PR handouts) got round earlier this month the media have been flogging this extremely uninteresting story for all, or much more than, it's worth. And Sainsbury's have got it all wrong, anyway: colin is actually hake, and pollack is lieu jaune.

Friday, 10 April 2009


Living in Paris in the early years of the twentieth century can't have been much fun. The Métro was being built and most of it wasn't tunnelled like the London Underground but by various cut-and-cover methods, particularly using steel caissons which could be assembled on the surface and then lowered into a trench. They even froze the Seine at one point so that they could bury a caisson under it. The construction was supervised over three decades by a one-armed man called Fulgence Bienvenüe.

1900-1905: Final assembly of a caisson to be buried in the place St-Michel

1900-1910: Digging a trench in the avenue de l'Opéra

That this was possible was due to the work of Georges-Eugène Haussmann who, under a commission by Napoleon III, created a new Paris with wide tree-lined boulevards and extensive gardens which replaced the narrow twisting streets of the old Paris. Thus, much of the Métro could simply run in straight lines down the centre of the wide roads. But of course this meant that for years Paris was a building site. From these two photos you can get an idea of how awful this must have been for the residents.

Better still, open this PowerPoint file which has more photos of Paris with the work going on. You don't have to click through all 85 of them, but they are worth a look. And if you have your loudspeakers switched on you will hear Le Trou de Mon Quai, "une p'tite chansonnette métropolitaine", a manic but charming ditty written and recorded in 1906 by someone called Dranem who cackles away as if he was having a really good time amid all the suffering of his fellow-citizens.

Thanks to Thierry Fournier for the link

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Fitba' crazy

After being caught (momentarily) last Wednesday by a hoax news item, I merely smiled indulgently when I saw in the same edition of the Guardian a rather silly joke in the last paragraph of an article by their Arts correspondent about an exhibition of Henry VIII's armour and weapons at the Tower of London:
Another quirk to the exhibition is the display of what is thought to be the oldest football in the world. It was discovered in the 1980s in the roof above Mary Queen of Scots' bedroom at Stirling Castle, and it is thought that Mary—a keen football fan and possible player—may have put it there to ward away demons.

It was cheating a bit, I thought, to slip an April Fool joke into the last paragraph of a perfectly serious and accurate, if boring, article. But I was wrong, for it was not a joke: Mary's love of sport has been quoted by her biographers since the sixteenth century, though it is definitely not true that she was the highest scorer ever for St Mirren.

The song from which I took the title of this post goes as follows:
Noo ye a' ken my big brither Jock,
His richt name is Johnny Shaw,
We'll he's lately jined a fitba' club,
For he's daft aboot fitba''
He's twa black een already
An three teeth oot by the root,
Whaur his face did come in contact wi'
Some ither fellow's boot.
He's fitba' crazy fegs,
He's clean stane mad,
His fitba' capers robbed him o'

Whit wee bit sense he had'
It wid tak a dizen servents
His clase tae patch and scrub,
Since Jock's become a member o' the Dooley fitba' club.

This is the first known song about organised football but it was written by one James Curran in the nineteenth century so Mary couldn't have sung it on the terraces.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Climax of an empire

It's a pity that photography was still in its infancy on June 22nd, 1897, when 50,000 troops marched through London, for this picture makes the procession look a rather dull affair. They were marching in two separate columns, converging on St Paul's for a service to celebrate the sixty years of Queen Victoria's reign over the largest empire in the history of the world, covering 11 million square miles with 372 million inhabitants. Actually, it couldn't have been at all a dull affair; it was a superb display of braggadocio:

One half of the procession was led by Captain Ames of the Horse Guards, at six foot eight inches the tallest man in the British Army, and looking stupendous wearing his high plumed helmet, swelled out with breastplate and cuirass, and astride his tall charger. The other half was let by Field-Marshal Lord Roberts of Kandahar.

Before, behind and among these champions marched a weirdly imperial force of arms. There were cavalrymen from New South Wales—gigantic soldiers, the papers reported, with an average height of five feet ten and a half inches and an average chest of thirty-eight inches. There were Hussars from Canada and Carabiniers from Natal, camel troops from Bikaner and Dyak headhunters from North Borneo, weaing bright red pillbox hats and commanded by Captain W. Raffles Flint.

The seventeen officers of the Indian Imperial Service were all princes, and the Hong Kong Chinese Police wore conical coolie hats. There were Malays, and Sinhalese , and Hausas from the Niger and the Gold Coast, Jamaicans in white gaiters and ornately embroidered jackets, British Guiana police in caps like French gendarmes, Cypriot Zaptiehs whose fezzes struck so jarring a chord that some of the crowd hissed them, supposing them to be Turks, and a jangling squadron of Indian lancers led by a British officer in a white spiked helmet. One of the Maories weighed 28 stone. One of the Dyaks had taken thirteen human heads.

It was a properly Roman sight, a pageant of citizens and barbarians too, summoned from the frontiers to the grey eternal city. The British-bred colonials, said the Golden Issue of the Daily Mail, printed thoughout in gold ink and sometimes breaking into exultant cross-heads, were 'all so smart and straight and strong, every man such a splendid specimen and testimony to the
that there was not an imperialist in the crowd who did not from the sight of them gain a new view of the glory of the British Empire'.
Pax Britannica

Yes indeed, though I daresay there are some today who do not altogether share the Daily Mail's reverence and awe. But who, imperialist or not, would want to miss a show like that?

Saturday, 4 April 2009

New York, 1960

No 14 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century,
November 1960: From Margaret to the Brierleys in Stockport, Cheshire. Dear Aunt Maggie, Uncle Eddy. I find America quite fascinating with many modern sky-scraping buildings but so Victorian decorations They are a very kind and generous people but oh, so sentimental.
Well, that's America dealt with, and this is an unusual view of New York from the East Side showing the new Air Terminal.

Thursday, 2 April 2009


Look, I can't really be criticized for being fooled yesterday, can I? It was only for a few seconds; well, say half a minute. I mean, I hadn't been up for very long, and hadn't yet had any coffee, so it was with bleary eyes and half my attention that I was glancing at the Guardian while dispiritedly chewing some of those polystyrene granules which, with a little dried fruit and semi-skimmed milk, masquerade as a healthy breakfast.

Thus, it was with mounting horror that I started to read a news item to the effect that the paper will in future be published via Twitter, the social networking service which enables anyone with an internet connection to tell the world when they are feeling sad, or thinking about having a cup of tea. Further, a project is underway to rewrite the whole of the paper's archives, stretching back to 1821, in the form of 140-character text messages, known as "tweets".

But I had realised what the date was before I reached the bit about the archive.

The rest of the news article was very nearly convincing. I read on to learn that some major archive items already twitterised include "1832 Reform Act gives voting rights to one in five adult males yay!!!"; "OMG Hitler invades Poland, allies declare war see for more"; "Berlin Wall falls! Majority view of Twitterers = it's a historic moment! What do you think? Have your say" and "JFK assassin8ed @ Dallas, def heard second gunshot from grassy knoll WTF?"

And Martin Luther King's legendary 1963 speech appears in the Guardian's twitterised archive as "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by", eliminating the waffle and bluster of the originals.

The whole story is here and seems to me to be worthy to be ranked with the classics such as the BBC 1957 spaghetti harvest and the Guardian's 1977 seven-page supplement about San Serriffe. These and others are discussed here.