Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Bad news from Snoopy

No 20 in a series of extracts from The Postcard Century. There have been two for every decade of the 20th century, but now I will start to go through the book again and pick another twenty at random.

November 1995: The secretary of John W Pittman II, Deland, FL, sends an ominous note to Eldora M in Eucalyptus Drive, Orange City: Dr Pittman found a suspicious spot on the x-ray. He would like you to come back soon to double check.
I can imagine few more unwelcome cards to receive, even if enlightened by Snoopy from Peanuts. Schulz, the creator of Charlie Brown, died, aged 78, as The Postcard Century was going to press; his last drawing was published on the day of his death.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Squirrels in waistcoats and all that

Winnie-the-Pooh and Wind in the Willows aside, I never cared much for anthropomorphic children's stories, and I had heard only vaguely of Alison Uttley until I read in the Guardian recently about the publication of her diaries. Her creations strike me as singularly charmless and she herself sounds rather unpleasant, but I much enjoyed this story, also in the Guardian, by Gwyn Headley:

The private diaries of Alison Uttley, creator of the timeless children's characters Little Grey Rabbit and Sam Pig, edited by the author's biographer Professor Denis Judd, are published this month. She was apparently jealous of Enid Blyton's success - calling her "the Blyton", and describing her as boastful and a "vulgar, curled woman". Margaret Tempest, her own illustrator, received equally short shrift as "a humourless bore ... absolutely awful".

When I worked for Collins (the predecessor of HarperCollins) I was asked to accompany Uttley to the Children's Book Fair at the Royal Horticultural Halls in Westminster. I found her a sour little old woman, with no small talk, and I was clearly merely a minion.

But I was quite good at publicity, and I'd arranged for everyone attending the fair to be invited to come and meet Alison Uttley. At half-hourly intervals the PA system hollered out "ALISON UTTLEY! LITTLE GREY RABBIT AUTHOR! HERE AT 12!"

Teachers were whipping their charges into a state of frenzy. I just wanted to sell some books. We'd placed Uttley on a curtained dais, and on the dot of 12 the curtain rose. A howling crowd of excited children stormed the stage.

As Uttley hadn't bothered to listen to a word I'd told her, she was completely unprepared for this. Dimly, she perceived an overwhelming mob running at her and with British pluck she unhesitatingly grabbed her duck-handled umbrella and waded into the attack, felling infants right and left. The kiddies paused, briefly regrouped, then broke up and ran off, screaming in terror. Uttley strode among them, lashing out freely.

The Meet the Author session was abandoned, and I was asked to escort Miss Uttley out of the fair. She was perplexed and indignant, and ready to ask some questions. But I had told her the answers before we arrived at the venue. She simply hadn't cared to listen.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Kung Pao Kosher

I had no idea, until I read a fascinating piece by Patricia Marx in the New Yorker, that one and a quarter billion dollars in kosher-certified ingredients are exported worldwide from China each year. There is an abstract of the article here (you have to subscribe to get the full text), and here are some of Marx's observations:

...Dozens of mashgihim (kosher inspectors), have been crisscrossing China for decades, eyeing the goings-on in hundreds of factories to insure that the ingredients and the production methods are in accord with kashruth (Jewish dietary laws). Thus, they ask: Does the fish have fins and scales? (A must.) Are the bamboo Sukkoth covers strung together with cotton string or synthetic fibres? (Only material that grows in the ground is permissible.) Is the yak milk stored in containers that might have previously held meat? (A big no-no.)

If a mashgiah deems that the exacting standards have been met, then off to the four corners of the globe go the rice crackers, canned berries, dehydrated vegetables, frozen fruits, chocolate, tea, cooking oils, pharmaceuticals, dietary supplements, preservatives, garlic, food additives and coloring, and sundry other products. And, lo, it has come to pass that China is now the fastest-growing exporter of kosher goods on earth. And, verily, every party involved—the kosher-certifying agencies, the factory owners, the Chinese government, and the consumer--doth benefit, for I say unto you that the value of the worldwide kosher market has been estimated to be a hundred and sixty-five billion dollars per year.

Some of the inspectors work for the Orthodox Union, the largest kosher-certifying agency in the world. If you look carefully, you can see the little "O" with a "U" inside that is printed on every container of Haagen-Dazs ice cream and five hundred thousand other products. That is the Orthodox Union's hechsher (seal of approval). The first product to receive it was Heinz vegetarian beans, in 1923.

There is an abundance of earnest rabbinical discussion about what is permissible under kashruth: Is it O.K. to use toothpaste that does not have a hechsher? What is the kosher status of water buffalo? Can dishwashers be made usable for Passover by changing the racks? Despite such issues, the basic rules, as laid down in the Torah, are (arguably) straightforward. They include proscriptions against eating meat and dairy at the same meal, consuming bug-infested fruit or vegetables (though there are those who give grasshoppers and crickets a pass), and partaking of the flesh from a beast of the earth unless it has cloven hooves and chews its cud. Were these laws designed to keep Jews (a) healthy, (b) holy, (c) isolated, (d) fat, or (e) all of the above? Savants have opined at great length about these matters, and they agree on only one thing: the answer is not (e).

This business of certification is a mostly twentieth-century phenomenon. In the old days, we did not need anyone to tell us if our chicken was kosher, because we slaughtered it ourselves. We made sure that, as Deuteronomy more or less instructs, our supper was done in by a knife that had no nicks, with a quick, deep stroke across the throat which severed the carotid arteries, jugular veins, vagus nerve, trachea, and esophagus, at a point no higher than the epiglottis and no lower than where the cilia begin on the trachea. After that, we made sure that all its blood was drained within seventy-two hours.

That all seems quite straightforward but not something one wants to do every day. Nowadays, though, we can just look out for the little U in a circle and know that it's been done for us.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Forward into Europe

......or out of it, as the case may be.

Passed a pleasant half-hour at the hustings earlier this month. Our local tennis club was transformed for the day into a polling station simply by furnishing the clubhouse with a couple of trestle tables, some pencils and some rather flimsy voting booths. I am not sure if there had been a rush hour, but at the time I turned up I was the only voter making my mark (two marks, actually). However, there were a few people hanging about in holiday mood, and we enjoyed a bit of cheery badinage, steering well clear of political dispute, which might have led to unseemly behaviour or even fisticuffs, and concentrating more on critical evaluation of the names of the candidates for the ten MEP seats in the south-east.

The general consensus was that something called the Christian Party/Christian Peoples Alliance (who offer "a broad range of God-fearing policies") had the edge for originality. Putting up candidates called Je-Ran Cherub and Christabel Maclean-Bacchus may not have got them many votes, but suggests that they are at least an interesting and unusual bunch of people.

Nearly all the other names on the long ballot-paper were totally forgettable, which may have been one of the factors contributing to the very low turn-out. The Labour party did include one memorable name: whether one votes for him or not, who could ignore or forget someone called Silke Thomson-Pottebohm?

Such considerations are frivolous; what we should study are the candidates' policy statements, so that we know just what we are voting for and not merely who. Sadly, these were mostly banal and without much sparkle, the only exception being that composed by Jean-Louis Pascal of Reading. He has stood locally several times before, representing the Roman party (?), and is said to be a French bus-driver (? again) and a very nice chap. Here is his manifesto from the 2007 local elections:
In my first election of Reading on BBC Berkshire I suggested we should consider moving British jail to other Eastern European countries to run at less costs for the British tax payers we could seek permission of Vladimir Putin President of Russia. the reason for this is most British jails are run like hotels and sanctuaries. They are able to gain degrees without paying funds out of this type of education, yet we have school leavers and their families paying a substantial amount of money and also finding them selves in debt. This is some thing I feel need to be changed. We also supply them with cigarettes, newspapers etc.
-As For young offenders who disturb the community and rebels that break windows, create fire, and delinquents will be sent for 6 months in military for discipline and respect and learn how to live in society. I will use the military territorial barracks of Oxford Road in Reading. We could approach the Ministry Defence and local authorities for disused sites.
The money we save on jail overseas will be used for NHS and to care about elderly people who want to stay in their home and to have the same care than in hospital until a critical level of sickness. These are strong factor that need to be looked at by the government and local councils.
To put down the deficit of NHS we have to create an health option and also eliminate the salt in any food on the supermarkets in the process food.
Last summer there was a water restriction because we had a shortage of water in the reservoirs due to a lack of investments because we need a larger water systems rather than profit going to big fat cat. We must use this formula for the shortage of houses to let our children to gain access onto the properties ladder. So vote a law against 'gazumping'. Put the first buyer a priority to buy a house and decline any investors gaining more than three properties. I understand we all need to make a living. Not this 50/50 share home. But a low set price to those seriously first time buyers. All that until the house market takes a normal graphic of demand and quantity.
When a political leader leaves his position, he should leave copies of up to date accounts of all expenses occurred and how much debts he left to the country. Those things should be published in the local newspapers.
No politician should have access to pension funds to pay for any taxation or reduce the pension fund of the citizens of this country.
All Military Personnel must be bought back to our Home Land because its not in the interest of this country to be Involved.

I fear some of his ideas were not too well thought through, but he does sound like a nice chap and I was pleased to hear later that several people had voted for him.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Missing the draft

R H Brock, 1916

'How is it you're not at the Front, young man?'
'Cause there ain't no milk at that end, mum.'

During the First World War the cartoons in Punch were often beautifully illustrated but rarely funny, with lengthy captions usually featuring dialogue in supposed Cockney or upper-class speech leading to a laboured punch line. The gentle simplicity of this one comes like a breath of fresh air.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

A moment of calm

All too seldom do we take the time to pause, to free ourselves briefly from the pressures of modern life and quietly meditate. Well may we ask, as did the the one-legged Northamptonshire cricketer W.H. Davies:
What is this life, if, full of care
We have no time to stand and stare?
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

Or, as the Florentine poet Luciano Sparafucile put it: Durante le fermate nelle stazione รจ vietato servirsi della ritirata.

It's not easy, of course; we have lost the ability to relax, to contemplate, to enjoy silence and inaction. But music can always help us: a simple melody like this, soothing yet somehow inspiring, has the power to transport us to a place where the Weltanschauung is one of infinite tranquillity.

Thursday, 18 June 2009


photo taken by Ken Prior over Schiehallion, Perthshire

As Member No 8158 of the Cloud Appreciation Society, I am passing on to non-members (you can join for a tiny subscription) some notes by our founder, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, from the Society's website and recent editions of its newsletter:

Isn't it funny how fast things can spread through the world media these days? You may be aware that the society has recently been involved in proposing a new cloud classification. This came about as a result of member photographs, sent in to the society Photo Gallery, which we found ourselves unable to adequately identify. And now it seems the whole world is talking about the new 'asperatus' cloud. Since the cloud looks rather as if you are looking up at the surface of a turbulent, choppy sea, we decided to name it with the word used by Roman poets to describe the sea being 'roughened-up' or 'agitated' by the cold north winds.
No sooner had we started speaking with The Royal Meteorological Society in the UK about the proposed asperatus cloud to see how we might go about trying to add it to the classification system as a new variety, than media got wind of it. They couldn't resist the prospect of a new cloud on the horizon, and soon the story went viral. It has now appeared on radio, newspapers and websites in countries right across the world.

We propose that asperatus should be adopted as a new ‘variety’ of cloud, meaning that it is a particular characteristic that appears in one or other of the main cloud types. This would mean that the rough and choppy looking Altocumulus cloud shown above would become known as ‘Altocumulus asperatus’.
A week ago, no one had ever heard of an asperatus cloud. Now a google search leads to over 28,000* pages.

Today, 132,000 pages

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Women's role

No 19 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century
June 1993: On this Oxfam card Isobel in Blackheath tells Dan and Hilary R: Help and cakes required for people's day of 17th July.
The militant feminist quotation comes from a speech at the final conference of the UN Decade for Women. The woodcut style of lettering and picture harks effectively back to the earliest chapbook and broadsheet forms of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Prick up your ears

Hands up all those who had never noticed that an ear has much the same shape as a full-term foetus in the womb, head down.

Furthermore, there are no less than two hundred acupuncture points in an ear, each of which, when a needle is stuck into it, will send an electrical impulse via the brain to a specific part of the body. Therefore, "if somebody had a painful knee, for example, by treating the ‘knee’ acupuncture point on the ear, it would help alleviate the pain".

All this information and much more is to be found in the well-designed and admirably clear website of the College of Auricular Acupuncture. This body takes its responsibilities to the practitioners of this discipline very seriously indeed, with training courses leading to the Practitioner Certificate and the Comprehensive Diploma; recently they have announced their enthusiasm for voluntary regulation and have set up a working group to draft National Occupational Standards for their trade, which would enable them to gain membership of the CNHC.

This sets them apart from other professional bodies concerned with complementary and alternative medicine, most of which have been showing marked reluctance to give up any of their authority to the new council, so much so that the CHNC are desperate about their lack of progress and have become very secretive about how many registrants they have signed up. So they will be no doubt be grateful to have the Auricular Acupuncture crowd on board, even if they are only a fringe element in the acupuncture world. The other bodies concerned with the discipline will still have to be convinced, but it will be nice for the CHNC to get a few more practitioners clamouring to be registered and "regulated", even though what they practise is silly rubbish.

It occurs to me that the pioneers of this discipline must have spent many weary months of trial-and-error in identifying (pinpointing?) the exact location of each point, and that the training courses for aspiring Auricular Acupuncturists must be long and arduous, and their examinations extremely rigorous. You can't just jab away carelessly, for with all those two hundred points jostling in the ear you could be in serious trouble if you got any of them a bit wrong: just a millimetre out, and you might find you had relieved your patient of the pain in his elbow instead of curing his piles as he was paying you to do. (On second thoughts, though, this couldn't happen, because only the placebo effect actually works, so your patient would be bound to feel the benefit in the place where you had told him he would.)

One advantage of Auricular Acupuncture is that treatment does not involve taking your clothes off or even lying down. Another is that if the patient suffers from a number of different maladies, they can all be cured in one go.

Note: The Quackometer explained the background to this remarkable technique in much more detail back in January. The note is admirably clear and comprehensive, but I think my post has the better title.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Back from the Orient

Welcome home, Beatrice and Grumio. Fitzrovia was not the same without its Golden Couple.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Rotten ideas

I have long enjoyed Martin Gardiner's notes on ridiculous or pointless devices which someone must have been so proud of, or so hopeful for, that he spent money on registering them with the US Patent Office records; there are some examples described here.

Half the fun of these is that their inventors are absolutely serious; these are not jokes or hoaxes, there really are talented and industrious engineers who believe that the world is waiting for their machine for washing animals, or their pillow with breasts, but I have recently discovered a long-established website called Halfbakery featuring equally ludicrous inventions which are not to be taken seriously. In this case the point is that it is, "a community-based ideas bank used by people who wish to propose and develop (not always serious) half-baked inventions. Among many similar such sites (e.g., WorthIdea, ShouldExist, whynot.net, globalideasbank.org, idea-a-day.com), it has distinguished itself by minimalism, irreverence, and a cast of regulars whose takes on suggested inventions are often funnier than the original submission". Wikipedia describes it in more detail here.

An example is the Hullaballoon, a tractor-balloon driven airship:
"A personal airship both lofted and propelled, at a leisurely pace, by a series of balloons tethered to a conveyor belt which moves along the vertically-oriented perimeter of the longitudinal axis of the craft. Each balloon inflates as it moves from the underside of the ship, up around the prow, reaching peak inflation above the center of the ship. The balloons then deflate as they move around and down the backside."

Monday, 8 June 2009

No Brunel

I have already described why I would never have made an engineer; it is a sad story, but I was cheered recently by reading the biography of a man who did have some talent in this direction but who is remembered chiefly for the many things he constructed which later turned out to be defective; this would undoubtedly have happened to me had I persisted in following the career I mistakenly started.

CULVERT, Sir Roderick 1801-1882.
Civil engineer, born in Manchester and largely self-educated. He early specialised in canal construction, and his experience in passing water under roads and tramways served him well when he threw himself into the problems created by the rapid expansion of the railways in the 1840s. His work both in Britain and in the United States often suffered from hasty execution and poor materials. He was knighted in 1865.
James Cochrane

Saturday, 6 June 2009

A thin crop of new words in the OED

Not merely are the new words being added to the Oxford English Dictionary in March this year a dull lot, they are also fairly useless; I cannot imagine that anyone needs them, or that they will often crop up in conversation, appear in print or even be written on walls. This is what the OED says about them:

bird-dogging n.
This North American colloquialism is interesting in its own right, the work of a dog trained to retrieve birds for hunters finding figurative expression in the sense 'determined searching or pursuit' as early as 1933, but a side note adds extra fascination. The 1972 quotation in this entry seems to point to a possible explanation of the hitherto somewhat obscure origins of the name of DOGGING as an exhibitionist pastime. However, caution must be urged: the gaps in time and distance between this 1972 U.S. use and the first 1986 use in Britain of dogging argue that perhaps nothing more than coincidence is at work.

achy-breaky adj.
Inspired by the title of the 1992 hit "Achy Breaky Heart", written by Don von Tress, and performed by Billy Ray Cyrus (now perhaps more famous as the father of Miley Cyrus, TV's Hannah Montana), this adjective has found life after the pop charts in a variety of contexts, possibly aided in this by a capacity to prompt either extremely positive or extremely negative reactions in the people who hear it; not unlike the song itself.

lifestyler n.
This word, first appearing in 1970 (the word "lifestyle" itself dates back only as far as 1915), forms rather a nice microcosm of these themes with regard to the later 20th century. The quotations at the first sense reflect a selection of (often unconventional) lifestyles characteristic of the time, and the increasing familiarity of these to an audience broader than the actual participants. The second sense focuses on a specific social phenomenon, urbanites moving to the countryside in search of a (frequently somewhat idealized) simpler life. This is as familiar in Australia and New Zealand as anywhere, but only there have such people earned the epithet lifestyler.

humanly adj.
This last item, as well as being a good example of an old word which is new to the dictionary, is interesting precisely it appears not to have caught on at all. It's logically formed, its sense ("characteristic of human nature") is easy to divine intuitively, and its two obvious parallels in the language, manly and womanly, both went on to flourish in the language; in fact humanly owes its origins to a translation of the Dutch equivalent of the former. The reasons for its failure relative to these words perhaps lie in the ready availability of human itself as an adjective by this time, denying a suffixed adjectival form the room it needed to grow.

The New Words Editor, in these notes on the new words in the OED's latest Update email, tries hard to make them stir the blood, but it's not easy. I mean, saying that a word 'has 'extra fascination' because it may be associated with improper activities but probably isn't, and that another is interesting because it has never caught on—that is to say, no-one wants to use it—smacks of desperation. (Actually 'humanly' has caught on, at least in one common phrase: 'not humanly possible'.)

Anyway, there is no need to defend the addition to the dictionary of uninteresting or unnecessary words. Many of the 60 million words already in it could be characterised thus, and many millions more are actually obsolete. But it's nice to have them there.

Gosh, wasn't that boring? I wish I'd never started writing it. The next few posts aren't up to much either. But please don't give up on Other Men's Flowers: there's an exciting one coming up on 14th, lavishly illustrated, all about sticking pins in people's ears.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Regulating the charlatans

An organisation was set up last year with £900,000 of the Department of Health's (i.e. our) money channelled via Prince Charles' lobby group, the preposterous Foundation for Integrated Health, which also got a million pounds from the King's Fund. The aim is to provide a system of voluntary regulation covering the practitioners of such things as Reiki, Aromatherapy, Chiropractic, Craniosacral Therapy, Homeopathy and all the rest of the unproven alternative or complementary healing techniques; there are said to be 150,000 of these snake oil salesmen in the UK.

Inevitably, the organisation has been dubbed OfQuack, and if you click on that name in Google you are taken straight to the official website of The Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council, or CNHC.

From the start, this project attracted the scorn of both sides in the argument between believers or vendors of quack remedies or therapies and those who put their faith in evidence-based medicine: the professional bodies who claim (falsely) to regulate the alternative disciplines and who fear interference from the new body, and those who believe that voluntary "regulation" can serve no useful purpose.

By now it is clear that most practitioners of alternative medicine have no intention of applying for registration by the CNHC, who had hoped to register 10,000 of them during 2009. Five months after the CNHC register opened, only three professional bodies have registered and are encouraging their members to sign up to it (homeopaths, the largest group, are firmly opposed), and a very small number have actually done so. This is only guesswork; no figures are available, for having initially promised to be open and transparent in their dealings, the CNHC have now become very secretive, understandably wanting to conceal just how badly the whole enterprise is failing: their website gives no details, and enquiries are unanswered or met with vague assurances that all is well.

Even their funders, the Department of Health, who might have been expected to be keeping an eye on them, are tight-lipped and assert that they have been given no reports of progress from the CNHC and have not even asked for any. However, there are currently four requests for information lodged with them; under the Freedom of Information Act the DH is obliged to respond within twenty working days of the requests being made, so we might eventually learn something from their responses.

Meanwhile, I wrote to the CNHC's Board Chair asking why they had apparently dropped their commitment to openness. This was her reply:

Thank you for your recent email regarding the CNHC Board notes which were recently placed on the web site. Your views have been noted regarding their content.
Despite your obvious misgivings, I would re-iterate CNHC's wish to be as open and transparent as possible. To this end I have already put an item on the July Board agenda to re-look at our commitments in this respect.
I note that you have copied your letter to me to all the Board members and will, of course, also forward to them a copy of my response to you.
With kind regards, Maggy Wallace

They need a Board Meeting to decide if openness means reporting their progress?