Saturday, 30 May 2009

Vanishing London

No 18 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century
November 1990: Dave and Sue to Mr and Mrs C in Merseyside. Arrived OK, Sue has cramp in her hands never out of her purse or writing cheques so I am writing this, very cold, very crowded and expensive see you Friday.
This looks a bit like rentabobby meets rent-a-punk-or-two. To make it even more of a London scene they stand in front of the all but vanished telephone boxes. As so often, the postcard depicts as typical that which is almost no longer there (which could also be said of policeman on the beat).

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Now hear this, serfs

More than four years ago Sainsbury's started calling their employees colleagues. This struck me as a bit soppy, and when I conducted a poll among the check-out girls I was not surprised to learn that only 14.29% of them (one out of my sample of seven) thought this was a good idea. Today, while I was in the store stocking up on comestibles and booze, I heard over the loudspeakers: "This is a Staff Announcement", so they have obviously gone back to the traditional appellation.

Clearly this decision must have been taken at the top level and one wonders what prompted it. Perhaps the suggestion was made by the newly appointed and ambitious Director of Corporate PR, and was rejected out of hand by the Head of HR (who back in 2005 had the silly idea of changing to colleagues ). After an hour or two of heated debate the matter was resolved only when the Marketing Director, who was in the chair, remembered that the HR man had opposed him over a proposal to allocate additional Head Office parking spaces to directors' wives, and came down in favour of reverting to staff.

It is unlikely that my poll had influenced the decision, but I was glad I had published a report on it because this led to some informative and wide-ranging comments on unrelated topics including the NHS, British Rail, Grandes Horizontales, Broadway brothels and the Dewey Decimal System.

Three weeks later: I have just learnt that they have now gone back to "colleagues". This is the kind of vacillation which has made us the laughing stock of the European retail trade. Just imagine what would have happened if our leaders had been as indecisive as this when we stood alone, defending civilisation against the barbarian hordes!

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Don't try this yourself

I saw on TV the other day a young woman called Danielle Da Costa explaining how to be struck by a car so that you are hurled across its bonnet, rolled along its roof and fall to the ground in a crumpled heap behind it. How to do it, that is, and then get up and go home.

She is a stunt artist and has had a distinguished career in films and TV by being run over, falling off horses and being knocked about in various other ways. Clearly she loves her work and must be pretty good at it because she has had only a few fractures, none of them crippling.

And how do you get safely hit by a car? She says that if you stand in front of a car travelling at 20 miles an hour and it hits you, it will break both your legs. So the trick is to jump up in the air a few inches just before the impact (timing it so that the jump can't be seen), then, provided you have padded your shins (and elsewhere, I suppose), you will come to no harm, in all probability. I will take her word for it, she seems to know what she is talking about

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Funny how things work out

As I mentioned the other day, I used to review West End plays from time to time for a chain of provincial weekly newspapers, and once I was sent to Les Trois Mousquetaires at the Piccadilly Theatre. This was a burlesque of 17th century swashbucklers devised by Roger Planchon's company, which had transferred from the Edinburgh Festival for a brief season in London.

[By coincidence, just after I had written the above but before I had posted it, I read that Roger Planchon has died aged 77.]

It was based on Dumas' play and had much of his plot going at a terrific clip, with the Cardinal Duc de Richelieu concocting villainy and an omelette simultaneously, Sa Grace le Duc de Buckingham bathing and being murdered in a barrel and of course the Musketeers, killing the wrong people and generally making pests of themselves. Around these, and a fatuous Louis Treize and his Queen with assorted hangers-on, revolved an engaging farce; for good measure, parodies of Brecht and Claudel were thrown in.

At one point Buckingham shouts, pointlessly, "My kingdom for a horse!", but apart from that it was all in French. I had been taught the language at school for eight years, but when I went to France for the first time I had found that I didn't know enough of it to buy a pack of cigarettes, let alone follow a play, so I thought I'd better get someone to come with me to help.

A French friend of mine was living in England at the time and introduced me to his sister, who had come over to stay with him for a while. She had previously lived over here as a child and gone to the Lycée Française in London, so I knew that she would be able to translate into English for me when necessary and I asked her to come to the play with me. She accepted the invitation, the evening passed off very agreeably and it was a long time before she returned to France.

Reader, I married her.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Ayo gorkhali!

In these dark times it was heartwarming to hear yesterday that Joanna Lumley has been granted the right to take up permanent residence in England. After weeks reading about the unsavoury exploits of a bunch of unattractive people, a news item featuring a bit of absolutely fabulous posh totty came like a breath of fresh air, and it was unthinkable that she should be forced to take her kukri back to the Himalayas.

This reminds me of the one about the girl telling her friend that she was going to marry a Gurkha officer:

"But aren't they black?"

"Oh no, only the privates."

"My dear, how exotic!"

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Not since 1695

Scapegoat, n. In the Mosaic ritual of the Day of Atonement (Lev. xvi), that one of two goats that was chosen by lot to be sent alive into the wilderness, the sins of the people having been symbolically laid upon it, while the other was appointed to be sacrificed.

As I read it, the first was the luckier of the two: the desert was full of scorpions and dangerous beasts, and it wouldn't have been much fun to wander there alone, weighed down by the sins of the whole tribe, but, looking on the bright side, you would enjoy freedom for a little while and there was always the chance of finding a nice clump of ripe alfalfa to fill your four stomachs (goats are ruminants) or even a lonely scapenanny to spend a little time with, while your unfortunate colleague had already had his throat cut and his blood sprinkled on the mercy seat by Aaron to make an atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions in all their sin ... "and so shall he do for the tabernacle of the congregation, that remaineth among them in the midst of their uncleanness". That sort of caper must have been even less fun than the odd scorpion bite.

So being sent alive into the wilderness is not such a terrible fate and perhaps no more than you deserve if you have done your best to prevent the sins of the people from coming to light. Anyway, the constant repetition of this word over the last few days by people pretending to be familiar with Lev, xvi is becoming wearisome. And another thing: it has been said that many were against the old boy because he was, or had been, a rough-speaking Glaswegian sheet-metal worker. The reverse is true: there were always many more who supported him just because of that; he had few other qualities appropriate to the job.

Oh, by the way, for the benefit of people who live in Mooney Ponds or Wichita KS, I should explain that the last paragraph is not really about the iniquities of the people of Israel but more about the enforced resignation of the Speaker of the House of Commons in London, which takes effect from June 21st.

However salutary his departure may be, it has been sad to watch his recent decline; in addition to his customary muddled petulance, he had acquired the curious habit of calling out "Order! Order!" when absolutely no-one was being disorderly.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Baker's dozen

The following thirteen (fairly) eminent people have two things in common. What are they?

Christopher Fry, playwright
Jim Callaghan, prime minister
Margaretta Scott, actress
Cyril Fletcher, comedian and impresario
Moura Lympany, pianist
David Kossoff, actor and broadcaster
Norbert Brainin, violinist
John DeLorean, motor car manufacturer
Ronnie Barker, actor and comedian
David Sheppard, cricketer and bishop of Liverpool
Ted Wragg, educationist
Long John Baldry, singer and guitarist
George Best, footballer

Saturday, 16 May 2009

At the Wall

No 17 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard CenturySeptember 1989: David and Mollie in Jerusalem to Mr RM in NY. Very best wishes for good health and contentment in the New Year.
This is Hoshana Rabba prayer at the Western (Wailing) Wall. An ethnographic image of devotional intensity. The essence of religious ritual ritual is that no one except the initiated could or should have a clue as to what is going on.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

ID and DNA

It's not difficult to form an opinion about the proposal to introduce a universal ID card: reflecting on the enormous cost, the likelihood that, like most government projects involving advanced technology, it will be badly thought out and incompetently implemented, the probability that it will not serve much purpose, the possibility of misuse and the fact that our present government is greatly in favour of it, all help to lead to a definite conclusion.

It is not so easy to know what to think about the retention of DNA records. This is illustrated by the headlines of two articles which appeared in the same newspaper earlier in the month:

Dear Jacqui, please keep my DNA for as long as you like


Innocent will be sentenced to 12 years on the DNA database

In the first, the writer says he cannot see how a universal DNA database could limit his liberties or freedom, notes that there have never been any miscarriages of justice due to the presentation of DNA evidence, while there have been many—and there will be an increasing number—of injustices corrected by it, and that it is hard to imagine how anyone could be harmed by it. He asks what indignity is visited upon those whose DNA profile is kept on a database and points out that we surrender many pieces of information in order to make ourselves safer: we cannot get a passport without providing many personal details far more intimate than that.

These seem to me to be compelling arguments; the second article, and others in similar vein, have nothing much with which to counter them except the slippery-slope, the affront to our dignity, "No More State Intrusion" and so on, none of which are applicable in this context. This is harmless information with a potentially immense power to do good. There are real battles to be fought about our rights, about being innocent until proved guilty, against more state interference in our lives, but this is not one of them.

Provided, of course, that there is no discrimination, and that everyone's DNA profile is logged; then there would be no threat to the principle of the presumption of innocence.

So ID cards NO, universal DNA database probably YES. Unsurprisingly, the compromise now being proposed by the government will no doubt provide the worst of all possible solutions and please nobody.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

The Man with Three Balls

The French were a little hasty in congratulating themselves on escaping the worst effects of the credit crunch through their aversion to credit cards and their generally prudent attitude towards debt, but it was without a trace of schadenfreude that I read of the recent increase in demand for pawnbrokers' services in Paris—30% in the last year—where in the Marais, among the designer shops, Parisians are furtively using them. Five hundred a day are pawning possessions, and these are not just the poor but also the well-heeled, raising cash on clocks, jewellery, stamp collections and paintings. Next week Le Crédit Municipal will hold its first auction of pawned grand cru wines.

They still use a euphemism which dates from the nineteenth century, chez ma tante, whereas we were talking of uncle in the middle of the seventeenth. The New York Times recently republished an 1855 article noting that "on this side of the water we have not the art of cloaking unpleasant things so skilfully; in the two great Old-World cities, there is a pleasant sort of romance woven about 'my aunt' and 'my uncle'".


Sunday, 10 May 2009

Taking the bigger slice

Last Sunday's's edition of a terrible TV game show called Beat the Star (originally Schlag den Raab; sixteen episodes on German TV since 2006 and still running) featured a game which, unlike the show, deserves to be more widely known.

It is played with two identical lengths of salami, and I should mention at once that it is in no way connected with the constant references Kenneth Williams used to make to his old friend Maudie Fittleworth (Fun-With-A-Frankfurter), particularly in a radio show called Just a Minute in which he starred together with assorted drolls such as Derek Nimmo, Clement Freud and Peter Jones, who vied with each other in keeping up a flow of off-the-cuff conversation, displaying great erudition and wit.

But I digress. The salami game is for two players, each of whom chops off a slice of his salami: the one whose slice is the heavier wins the round. A game consists of five rounds. These are the only rules.

Can tactics in this game involve mathematics, or can you win when you have played many games with the same opponent by recognizing and exploiting non-random behaviour, as it is said you can in Rock-Paper-Scissors?

After a game, of course, you can celebrate its conclusion by eating the consumables. You just need to add a baguette, radishes, butter (you already have the knife for spreading it), parmesan, salad, and a bottle of wine; this is not true of other games like croquet or bowls. You can do something similar when you have been using chocolate chessmen or playing Go with jelly beans, but it's not so much fun.

I suppose if Maudie Fittleworth's cryptic subtitle referred to some sort of game one could finish a tournament in the same way, but Kenneth Williams has left us, alas, so we shall never know.

Friday, 8 May 2009

The POTUS writes

I haven't watched The Daily Show very often recently; Jon Stewart is a bit pleased with himself and the sycophantic laughter sometimes grates, but his heart is in the right place and his satire only rarely misfires. To the English, the news that the show has been "criticized as having a liberal bias" is incomprehensible until you remember that in north American right-wing parlance "liberal" is a term of abuse.

Our liberal Guardian has been assiduously satirizing the US administration throughout the Bush years and has not stopped doing so just because the White House it is now occupied by a less sleazy bunch. The paper asserts that, "in a unique experiment in democratic transparency", they are being sent copies of all Obama's confidential emails, of which this is one:

To: Arlen Specter []
Subject: welcome aboard
Just wanted to drop you a line to welcome you personally to the Democratic party, and to say how much I appreciate this courageous act of naked self-preservation. Not everyone would have the nerve to abandon an affiliation of some 30 years standing in order to avoid a tough primary race. I've long admired your independent spirit, but you won't be needing it any more. Good Democrats toe the line. I'll drop by the debriefing if I get a chance - in the meantime I'm getting some bumper stickers and stuff sent over to your office. Update your website, and cover your mouth when you cough.

[Not having kept up with the political news from the USA for a week or two, I was puzzled when I first read about Specter's recent defection. Why should the Democrats welcome a convicted murderer into their ranks, even if he had been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Then I realised: silly of me, wrong spelling and different first name]

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Writing it down

I have never been plagued by superstitious compulsions: I do not feel compelled to walk on (or to avoid walking on) lines in the pavement, or to wash my hands more often than is necessary. But there is one thing which I have forced myself to do from an early age, and that is to record my life in a diary.

Of course this can be an admirable thing; what the great diarists wrote is fascinating to us all, and any diaries, however inept or fragmentary, can be helpful to biographers and historians, or at the very least interesting to the families or descendants of the writer. However, mine are not a bit like Tony Benn's, started in his adolescence and added to every day since then, which, full of rich insights into political events over all those years, now fill a whole room and have been distilled into many volumes of biography and autobiography. Nor are they like Boswell's, featuring crisp descriptions of amusing incidents, such as his note on 13th April 1763 which begins: Did meet with a monstrous big whore in the Strand...

No, mine are never going to do me or anyone else any good, consisting as they do merely of bald lists of things I did or which were done to me. The only reason for my diaries' existence is my ridiculous feeling that somehow if I haven't recorded something then it never really happened. So I set down no comments or observations or thoughts, just the facts.

The tone was set from the very beginning, with a few entries in the year when I reached the age of eleven along the lines of Went to library or Aunt L came to tea. During the following year the entries became more and more sparse and after the entry for 4th May, which was Forget what did, there was a long gap.

Eventually the regular notes resumed their onward march of relentless triviality, but even in later years the entries were hardly more interesting, still with a flat, uninformative style which gave very little away. Day in Brighton with Charles R and Rosemary, for example. Why? Did we have a good time? Who were these people, anyway? No-one reading the diaries today, not even I, would be able to answer these questions, or would ever bother to ask them, and posterity certainly won't be interested.

Later on, of course, I did have some moderately interesting experiences in slightly exotic places, but reading my curt notes on them doesn't really bring them back to me: Almost spoke to Duke Ellington at Bangkok Airport is perfectly accurate but doesn't conjure up my feelings of excitement at the time.

A few years ago I found that I was being reminded of the pointlessness of this mammoth effort every time I came across the box containing the collection of diaries of all sizes and colours, every one laboriously filled in, sometimes illegibly, and never subsequently glanced at. This was depressing, so as I was practising Visual Basic at the time I spent a few weekends making a database and then copying six hundred or so of the least insignificant entries into it. It was designed so that it could be filtered to extract various subsets such as Births/Marriages/Deaths, Travel, Employment, Moves and so on. This meant that I could throw away the scruffy old diaries, which I had often wanted to do but never dared, and still have all the facts at my fingertips if I suddenly needed to know when my uncle Horace had died or in which year it was that I fell off a narrowboat into the Oxford Canal.

I still keep this up and I suppose it's still pretty pointless, but after submitting to this obsession for a lifetime I can't just drop the whole thing, can I ?

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Lest we forget…

No 16 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century
December 1972: The title of this fine card, despite its solemn echo of the Remembrance Day ceremony it depicts, has acquired an ironic ring. Edward Heath (right) remained Prime Minister until 1974 and Harold Wilson resigned in 1976, the year when revelations about the private life of Jeremy Thorpe amazed the nation and started his decline into terminal disgrace. Thorpe’s head, the only one entirely surrounded by black, is an especially impenetrable mask. Collectors of modern British postcards regard this little masterpiece as a classic.