Thursday, 30 July 2009

Song of the Volga Burlaks

Even before you were liquidated by Stalin, it probably wasn't a lot of fun being a kulak. Even less, I would guess, being a burlak; they were mostly landless or poor Russian peasants who hauled barges and other vessels upstream from the 17th to 20th centuries. Those on the Volga had a good song, of course, though it was sung about them rather than by them.

A couple of years before Glenn Miller took an instrumental version of it to #1 in the US charts I was taught to sing it at my primary school, which was a happy place with an enthusiastic music teacher, though next door to the gasworks. We didn't sing the original Ey ukhnyem! Ey ukhnyem! Yeshtsho razik, yeshtsho da ras! and so on, but an English version, the words of which have stayed with me ever since. It included the lines:
Yo heave ho! Yo heave ho!
Toiling, moiling, Yo heave ho!

Moiling? It was only the other day that it occurred to me to wonder whether this was a real word or had just been put it to make a rhyme. Actually when I looked it up I found that it's rather a good word : (1350–1400) ME moillen to make or get wet and muddy. It also means drudgery; I haven't had much occasion to use it recently, in either sense.

I don't know what started me thinking about this song but having got so far I had to find the best recorded version. I thought this might be by the great Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff but although he sings it magnificently it is better just to listen and not watch the video; he has rather a shifty demeanour, starting dead-pan and then over-acting in a musical comedy manner. I prefer the recording of the Red Army Choir who have the great bass Leonid Kharitonov doing it perfectly straight.

[But I am told that the song is much older than the burlaks. It was sung by Russian farm workers when they were tugging out tree roots to clear the land for planting.]]

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

15,000 notes on 2,000 years

I enjoy reading obituaries, not so much in a morbid way, or with schadenfreude (good, I've outlasted him), but to marvel at the extraordinary things that have been achieved by people of whom I have never heard: Farewell then, whoever you were.

Anyway, my eye was caught the other day by the sub-head Prussian noble who wrote the Companion to British History.

Wolfgang Charles Werner von Blumenthal came to England with his English mother after she divorced his father, Baron Albrecht von Blumenthal; she later married a solicitor, Percy Arnold-Baker. Wolfgang, now Charles Arnold-Baker and a British citizen, joined the army as a private at the outbreak of the second world war, ended up as a captain in the Royal East Kent Regiment and was later recruited by MI6.

After the war he read for the bar but later became Secretary-General of the National Association of Local Councils. Then he was appointed a lecturer in law and architecture (in which he had no formal training). Around the same time he became deputy traffic commissioner for the east of England despite never having learned to drive.

He sounds worthy and slightly dull, OBE and all; he was clearly a Good Egg. But throughout his career he was compiling a masterpiece: he had been commissioned to write a Companion to British History. He worked on it almost every evening, getting by on four hours sleep, writing out at random the whole of British history from 55BC, then chopping it up into bits and putting it into alphabetical order. The project lay dormant for four years and when he returned to it at the prompting of his son he was distressed to find that 4,000 entries had disappeared but wrote them all out again, always by hand, ending up with 15,000 entries. He died earlier this month at the age of 90.

The definitive edition of the book was published last year to widespread acclaim. I have a copy, and if ever there were a book providing an almost inexhaustible source of quotations, this is it.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Common themes

Playwright David Edgar, in a fascinating piece in the Guardian, notes that the same summary can describe more than one play, film or story, thus:

A town is threatened by a malevolent force of nature. A leading citizen seeks to take the necessary action to protect the community from this danger, but finds that the economic interests of the town are ranged against him and he ends up in battle alone (Jaws, Ibsen's An Enemy of the People).

Two sisters are unjustly preferred over a third sister. Despite their efforts, the youngest sister marries into royalty and her wicked siblings are confounded. (The situation at the beginning of both King Lear and Cinderella.)

A husband and wife are at war. A younger influence enters their lives, providing a sexual temptation which threatens the marriage. But ultimately, they discover that, although they find it hard to live together, they cannot live apart. (A host of 19th- and 20th-century marriage plays, including Strindberg's The Dance of Death, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Noël Coward's Private Lives and John Osborne's Look Back in Anger.)

And, Edgar says, he's not the first one to spot the parallels between the tragedy of Hamlet and that of Diana, Princess of Wales:
With her father's encouragement, a young woman allows herself to be wooed and wed by a prince. Her brother moves a long way away. The prince behaves increasingly peculiarly, and, shortly after the death of the woman's father, leaves on board ship. The woman goes mad, alarms the royal family, gives everybody flowers, escapes from her minders, and dies in a suspicious accident. The brother returns, angry, at the head of a popular army. There is a contest over the funeral arrangements between family, church and state. The prince returns and he and the woman's brother end up fighting over the coffin.

Friday, 24 July 2009

La Grande Traversée

Tomorrow will be the centenary of Louis Blériot's crossing of the Channel in his eleventh contraption.
No doubt the Daily Mail will be making much of this anniversary, as it was this paper which offered the £1,000 prize for the first powered crossing; they will probably try to give the impression that modern aviation began when Blériot won it. The French will certainly pay appropriate tribute. But we might all join in saluting the exploit of this magnificent man in his flying machine.
He looks rather unhappy sitting in the cockpit in this photo but once he was on his way his thoughts, as he recorded later, were joyful: It's splendid. I'm frightened of failing but I'm confident. The engine purrs perfectly, the wind is carrying me.

Here you can read in a beautifully presented PowerPoint file the story of his life and all about his earlier attempts at building powered aircraft, and you can click through some fascinating photos of these, of the cross-channel flight and of his later contribution to the development of aviation. He died aged 64 in 1936.
This is Blériot XI, made of ash, bamboo, steel tubes and rubber sheets, in which he crossed the Channel on 25th July 1909, covering the 38 km in 37 minutes at a height of 80 to 100 metres.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Two films

Last week I went to see the touring production of Emma Rice's ingenious multimedia take on David Lean's film Brief Encounter. Afterwards I remembered that some years ago I had a stimulating argument with my friend Pavlovsky who, like me, had seen both the 1945 film and also a 1956 film called The Bespoke Overcoat.

We differed strongly about the relative virtues of the two, not so much in terms of their artistic merit—we found both of them satisfying—but as serious studies of aspects of the human condition.

Pavlovsky maintained that The Bespoke Overcoat dealt with the eternal verities of life, death and poverty, while Brief Encounter merely depicted hypocrisy and repression among the suburban middle classes and their obsession with respectability.

Nonsense, I said, Brief Encounter tackled profoundly the great themes of love and renunciation, and The Bespoke Overcoat was just an amusing bit of Jewish whimsy.

Looking back on the discussion, we were probably both right.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Reply paid

Not much junk comes through the letter-box nowadays and it's no great chore to transfer it from the doormat into the paper recycling box. One item, however, I like to take a little more trouble with, and that is the business reply envelope which is often enclosed. This might be to send back your entry form and a cheque for £10 for a chance to win AUD$4,000,000 in Australian Lotto, or there might be two envelopes from Readers Digest, one for your answer saying "NO, I do not want to win £250,000 pounds but I would like a chance to win a rubbishy book about nutrition" and the other for "YES, I could make good use of £250,000 or £50,000 each year for life".

It is the work of a moment to cram these with as much waste material as they will hold: BNP leaflets, flyers from the local pizza joint, or those cardboard tubes you find at the centre of toilet rolls (from which, if the story is to be believed, you can build a glider which will get you out of Colditz Castle).

Then you just post them. This achieves two things: first, it brings a little additional revenue to our beleaguered Post Office—27.5p for each inland envelope, apparently, or 52p for the overseas ones—and second, the people who sent you the circular will be the poorer by that amount.

If a substantial proportion of the millions of addressees carried out this simple procedure, perhaps it would give pause to the senders of this rubbish.

So this is a practice to be commended; please tell all your friends.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

New workshop for top judicial brass

Moving on, giggling, from reading about a man in Düsseldorf who tried to fix his air mattress using tyre repair solvent, causing an explosion which blew the wall of his apartment into the stairwell, I came to a news item describing the £56 million shed, formerly Middlesex Guildhall, which has been converted to house the new supreme court. Sounds pretty swish; the law lords, whom we have previously known and loved as "lords of appeal in ordinary" and must now call "justices of the supreme court", will have showers for use by those who cycle to work, state-of-the-art hand dryers in their loos, and some punchy words from the Magna Carta etched into the glass doors (of the courtroom, not the loos).

Well, bully for them. But how many of them are nervous, bearing in mind Parkinson's Law? Not the one about work expanding to fill the time available for its completion, but the one which states that the perfection of planned layout is achieved only by institutions on the point of collapse.

Parkinson based this on his observation of what happened to the Papal Monarchy at the height of its power: the really powerful popes had reigned long before St Peter's, the Basilica and the Vatican were built, and the later popes lost half their authority while the work was still in progress. The great days of the Papacy were over before the perfect setting was even planned.

Then again, the justly admired Palace of the Nations in Geneva, with its carefully planned secretariat and council chambers, committee rooms and cafeteria, was opened in 1937. It had been designed for the League of Nations, which had been seen to have failed by 1933 at the latest, and had practically ceased to exist by the time the Palace was ready to house it.

Or the Palace of Blenheim, built for the victorious Duke of Marlborough as the perfect place of retirement for a national hero. Sadly, it took a long time to build because the Duke was in disgrace, and even, for two years, in exile, and by the time it was finished he was dead.

It could be said that Buckingham Palace, the Palace of Westminster, the Palace of Versailles and Lutyens' New Delhi similarly commemorated the mighty institutions they were designed for rather than housing them. To find out why you will have to get a copy of C. Northcote Parkinson's book of essays. Mine cost 3/6d; yours may cost rather more.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Stairway to Heaven

No 21 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century
February 1905: Lottie to Miss Hollands in Higham, Kent from Rochester: Hope you will like this one of course my dear you know the history of this place... The Jezreelites temple had no rooms but formed a huge ladder from which on the Latter Day they would be drawn up to heaven by their hair (which like their nails they never cut).

[The full story of the Jezreelites is here. They sound like one of the varieties of religious fruitcakes which infest the US—and we have a few here too—except that they obviously lacked the money-making skills of their modern equivalents: they went broke.]

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Top of the titfers

Only two hat-wearers have been featured more than once in the Oxford Enchiridion of Egregious Headgear. The first is our Queen, who has maintained her quiet simplicity and grace into her eighties while her hats have become ever more manic, and the second is Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi, Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. He has always been a bit of a show-off hatwise, but has recently acquired a sense of style, as demonstrated by this little gold number.

Facially he hasn't changed much, however; he is still a dead ringer for one of Tenniel's creations.

Sunday, 12 July 2009


Ballymackleduff, Derryfubble, Benburb: Address of subscriber in the Northern Ireland Telephone Directory

Oh, the world was full of grievin’, an’ when I’d had enough
I packed me bag and set me face towards Ballymackleduff;
White houses nestle there, all far from toil an’ trouble
(O the lough an’ the sea birds, an’ sweet Derryfubble!).

I thought me heart would melt for joy, an’ nothin’ might disturb
The peace that I’d be findin’ in beautiful Benburb.
O, the friends of me youth was there to make me comin’ merry,
First I drank with Mick the Tanner just a mile from Fubblederry

An’ Roaring Pat was waitin’ in the bar at Mackleben.
‘Begod,’ says he, ‘have one with me’; three jolly Irish men
With all the pints o’ porter, the gossip an’ the cackle.
’Twas dancin’ in the road we was that goes to Berrymackle.

Then up spake Mick the Tanner that was born in Fubblemack:
‘The boys at Ballyfubble will be glad to see ye back –
Let’s be goin’ to O’Reilly’s, where the Fiddler of Benbally
An’ the Fubblederry Fluter is in his Dancin’ Palais

An' the girls from Ferrymackle an’ from Bubblefurbyduff
Is doin’ all the jiggin’ an’ the rock-an’-rollin’ stuff.’
Ah, hadn’t we the time at all at Glubbymacklederry
With all the folk from Grabble an’ from Ballygubble ferry

An’ Mackledubblegurgle, an’ Blubberderryglen
An’ the lasses from Dubmackle, an’ the rantin’ Burble men,
The Squintin’ Men from Brackle, an’ Mrs Tom Macnally
An’ the seven black-haired sisters that live over in Duffbally.

An’ wilder came the music from the Fubblederry Flute
An’ Mick was drinking Guinness from the Widow Leary’s boot
An’ Roarin’ Pat was fightin’ with a man from Derryburble
That laid him out and wrote a sign that said DO NOT DISTURBLE.

Oh, shut was all the factories, and open all the bars,
There was laughter in the lamplight and kissin’ by the stars,
Delight in Derryfubble; and Benburb was full of song;
Ah, Ballymackleduff! Why did I stay away so long?

Paul Jennings

Friday, 10 July 2009

In the midst of death...

Some of the best Punch cartoons had no captions. Here is Ronald Searle, 1955.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Finding the area of a circle

Having made an abortive attempt to get a degree in mechanical engineering, I did get far enough advanced in pure mathematics to be able to appreciate how beautiful some of it can be, even if—or perhaps especially if—you don't quite understand much of what's going on.

For example, I remember how awed I was—silent, upon a peak in Darien, you might say—when I was shown one of the ways of calculating the area of a circle using calculus. At that time I did have a hazy notion of what calculus was about; it's all gone, of course, and nowadays I couldn't tell the difference between an integral coefficient and a packet of soda mints.

No great disgrace in this. Ever since the Rhind papyrus, thought to be based on a document dating from 1800 BC, the greatest minds have wrestled with these concepts. Archimedes and others had a shot at squaring the circle, but it took Newton or maybe Leibnitz to make calculus really useful.

Anyway, never mind about that. What I do remember is that the particular method of finding the area of a circle that I was shown consisted of only a few lines of ineffable elegance. It went like this:

You take a slice across the circle, of thickness x and width y. Then, and this is the bit which will cause anyone who knows any serious mathematics to fall about with uncontrollable laughter, you can say that the area of the strip is d(x) times d(y) and when d(x) tends to zero and d(y) is twice the radius of the circle then the area of the circle is obtained by giving the whole thing a thorough differentiation and then integrating between the limits of something or other. The answer, as everybody knows, then works out as πr(squared). (How do you do superscript in Blogger?)

All the above is of course meaningless gibberish, but it should give enough of a hint to enable someone with a bit of maths (or math) to identify the particular method that I so vaguely remember and then to spell out the few elegant lines which have swum out of my ken.

If there is a Senior Wrangler out there who can remind me of them then I shall be happy to reward him for his trouble by sending a cheque for twenty pounds sterling to the Save the Children Fund.

[Oh no, I see that the last Senior Wrangler, who was admitted a hundred years ago, died in 1946, so he won't be much help. Anyone else, then?]

Monday, 6 July 2009

The End is Here

I am usually pleased to get emails from The Reverend Brendan Powell Smith, but the one that came this week brought some rather sombre news. He writes:

Greetings, friends of The Brick Testament.
Ever performed a magic trick for your friends? Committed adultery? Worshipped an idol? Are you cowardly? How about filthy? Have you ever told a lie? If so, bad news. You are going to be ceaselessly tortured for all eternity. Good news, though, if you are a male Jewish virgin. A lucky 144,000 of you are going to get to live on the New Improved Earth with Yahweh. Sound fun? Did I mention the whole place is made out of gold? And has good water and 12 kinds of fruit all year round? Pretty sweet, huh? Plus, there will be no crying, no pain, and no death. And everybody gets a cool tattoo of Yahweh's name on their forehead and worships Yahweh to his face! But guess what? No chicks. And no being sad about your loved ones being eternally roasted in flames while you bask in Yahweh's glow. Yes, folks, our final four illustrated stories from Revelation reveal God's ultimate plan for humanity in full.

And what a plan it is! Sure, you may have been wondering what all that crazy build-up was leading to, what with all God's elaborate killings and tortures of the vast majority of humankind. But when you finally see that all those people who were tortured and killed on Earth are also going to be tortured in burning hot flames for ever and ever after they died horrible deaths, it all just suddenly comes together. So go now, read the final stories of Revelation and have your own A-ha! moment. Happy epiphany!

Obviously neither I nor anyone I know are among the lucky ones, so the outlook doesn't look too good for me and mine. However, I did take a hasty peep at the final illustrated stories from Revelation and it seems to me that they contain many errors, so that God's ultimate plan for humanity may not unfold exactly as it is promised. For example, in the one entitled 'God Tortures a Whore' it is clearly stated: 'And the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her will see the smoke from the fire that burns her, and they will weep and mourn over her.'

Now, we all know that most kings are quite keen on adultery with whores, but: 'weeping and mourning' over them? This seems very unlikely, and such howlers must cast doubt on the accuracy of the whole farrago. So I shall take a relaxed attitude towards all these pronouncements.

Saturday, 4 July 2009


There are one hundred people at a party. Everybody shakes hands with everybody else. How many handshakes are there?

This is quite straightforward and is not a trick question. I have a theory about what kind of person will answer this without difficulty and what kind of person will struggle with it or get it wrong. It is not a matter of intelligence.

Write down your answer, put it in a sealed envelope and leave it in the hands of someone of the utmost integrity, if you know such a person. Then, and only then, go here.