Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Brideshead Revisited, revisited

I was not greatly impressed by Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel, which is not surprising as it "deals with the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to himself", which only a Catholic convert would find a fruitful subject for a novel. When he re-read it five years later he was appalled, excusing it as the result of the difficult wartime days and subsequently finding its attitudes distasteful.

But the 1981 TV serial does stick in my memory, if only because of the beauty of Castle Howard, which stood in for Brideshead, and the mournful trumpet which sounded in each episode, giving a worthy air to this glamorous tosh. The series was re-broadcast recently at six in the morning over eleven days, a desperate piece of summer scheduling, but I did record it and watched the lot. It was no less repellent than the novel but a lot more entertaining; none of the characters is remotely likeable and only the fact that most the actors playing them had enormous charm made the thing watchable.

I don't remember how Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons) came across in the book, but in watching the series I was struck by his silence throughout. The part cannot have taken long to learn because he has practically nothing to say, merely listening and somehow projecting sympathy and understanding, with a cigarette or a disgusting yellow pipe in his mouth, as the others go on about their problems; in real life people would get fed up with this and demand some sort of response from time to time, but almost everyone he meets falls about with admiration for him, especially the Marchmains who welcome him into the bosom of their awful family.

Typically, he and Julia sit by the fountain one night while she excitedly holds forth on her concerns about Sin, with interludes of sobbing. Throughout this long scene he says absolutely nothing and merely sits there looking glum. It seemed to me that each party had reason for giving the other a good clout, but at the end they inexplicably just walk away, without exchanging a word.

And another thing: Cordelia goes to Spain to tend the wounded in the civil war, but no details are given and which side she was supporting is not clear. By the time the novel was written Waugh wouldn't have wanted to show her as one of Franco's Fascists, but it is unlikely that Lady Cordelia would have been keen to change the dressings of a bunch of communist riff-raff.

Nowadays Waugh's snobbery and his veneration of the idle and pious rich no longer have the power to offend us; we can only marvel at his sincere and deeply felt regret that their days have passed.

Monday, 28 September 2009


The Companion to British History defines this as suspect linguistic usage in which familiar expressions convey different concepts from those generally understood.

The most important cases are (fam means the familiar meaning in English, ES the meaning in Eurospeak):

Council: (fam) a local authority; (ES) the European legislature.

Directive: (fam) an important rule requiring obedience enforced by a sanction; (ES) a direction to a member country to alter its law, but not in force until it does so.

European: pertaining to the geographical European continent; (ES) pertaining to the area of the EEC or EU for the time being.

Parliament: (fam) a sovereign legislature; (ES) an official discussion forum at Strasbourg.

Regulation: (fam) a minor rule made under law; (ES) the most important kind of rule, superior even to an Act of Parliament.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

On the banks of the cool Shalimar

By special request, another hippopotamus. This one is James Thurber's.

"What have you done with Dr Millmoss?"

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Faites simple

...or, avoid all unnecessary complication and elaboration. This was Escoffier's advice to chefs but it applies to websites as well as it does to great cooking.

If you own a restaurant which offers a lunchtime tasting menu at £75 (£6 surcharge if you want the Duck Egg Mimosa with Cornish Lobster Mayonnaise as your starter), or a hotel which is a stunning Elizabethan manor house surrounded by 35 acres of renowned historic gardens and set in 1000 acres of ancient and exquisite forestry land, then you will need to promote it with a stylish website. So you go to the top people in the website design racket and tell them you want something really prestigious.

The trouble is, they need to justify the huge fee they are going to charge, so that they will have to make your website look and feel as if it's worth every penny; it will come replete with videos, music and every kind of whizzy feature, all bearing the hallmarks of top international graphic artists and web designers. It will certainly look terrific; it may also be confusing, awkward and generally irritating.

I know two sisters who inherited from their mother a house by the seaside which they let by the week for holidays. They asked me to make them a website to advertise it and since I was—still am, actually—in a relationship with the younger of the two I was happy to do so without charge. I am not much good at web design but I could make a virtue out of necessity by producing something very simple, with ten pages merely giving all the necessary information and making it easy to book. It was done with a nine-year-old version of Microsoft's now obsolete FrontPage, using one of its rather naff "themes", and the whole thing nowadays looks a touch dreary and old-fashioned (the website, that is, not the house, which is a very nice one). If you're curious, you can see both HERE.

This post is not touting for business, either for the house or my websites: I make websites only for friends and charities, and after several years of almost continuous lets the house is fully booked for a long way ahead. Of course, if you're really keen there are still a few weeks available for next year....


Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The invasion of Afghanistan

Inhabited by some of the most warlike peoples on the face of the earth, the country has always been glowering, secretive and veiled in intrigue, little known to Europeans except by disrepute. The Afghans think trade an ignoble occupation and leave it to foreigners; their general character is at once savagely independent and desperately unpredictable. They can be lively, humorous, courageous and warm-hearted but can also be bigoted, sly and murderous. Split into tribal divisions subdivided into clans, they fight incessantly among themselves and are almost impossible to govern.

We British have known them longer and better than most, and at times have wished, on the whole, to preserve the independence of the nation, but when it became apparent that foreign influences at work there posed a threat to our interests, the decision was taken to invade, while proclaiming that "once the independence and integrity of Afghanistan is established, the British Army will be withdrawn".

The principal invasion force consisted of 9,000 troops, with 6,000 more not under our direct command. Progress was slow and laborious, for behind them there followed 38,000 camp followers. The army was to live off the country but nevertheless took with them thirty days' rations of grain and enough sheep and cattle for ten weeks. Every platoon of every regiment had its water-carriers, its sadlers, its blacksmiths, its cobblers, its tailors, its laundrymen, and there were the men who polished brasses, and the men who put up tents, and the cooks, the orderlies, the stable-boys—together with all their wives, all their children and often aunts, uncles or grandparents—and troops of prostitutes from half India, with fiddlers, dancing-girls, fortune-tellers, wood-gatherers—with herdsmen to look after the cattle, sheep and goats, and butchers to slaughter them. There were carts and wagons by the thousand, palanquins, drays, chargers, ponies and dogs.

All this great multitude stumbled away to war, each corps with its band playing, a regiment of Queen's cavalry, nine regiments of infantry, engineers and gunners. A mighty dust hung in the air behind them, as a sign that the British were coming.

As a military operation the invasion was a qualified success. Organized opposition seemed to be at an end, and on August 6th, 1839, the panoply of British imperial power entered Kabul. At their head was the king, Shah Shuja, whom the British had restored to his throne; he was a splendid sight, scintillating with jewellery, and rode a white charger accoutred in gold, but was greeted with sullen silence by the Kabulis, who didn't much like him.

Much of the army was now sent back to India, leaving a division of infantry, a regiment of cavalry and an artillery battery. The British settled in, built a racetrack, organised amateur dramatics and persuaded a few Kabulis to take up cricket. However, in 1841 a riot became a rising and the head of Her Majesty's Envoy and Plenipotentiary was paraded through the capital while the rest of his corpse was suspended from a meathook in the great bazaar. Despite this discourteous behaviour, General Elphinstone, who was in command in spite of being debilitated by a wound in his buttock, negotiated an agreement with the insurgents, who promised to see the army safely through the passes to Jalalabad on the Indian frontier. No-one really believed them.

On January 6th, 1842, the army began its retreat, the most terrible in the history of British arms, and some 16,500 souls struggled out of their cantonment. The retreat lasted just a week; by January 13th all had died or been slaughtered except for one army surgeon who reached Jalalabad hotly pursued by sabre-waving Afghans.

So the first of Queen Victoria's imperial wars came to its terrible end. The British returned to Kabul within the year, blew up the great bazaar as a reminder of their displeasure and subdued the Afghans until the next Anglo-Afghan war forty years later. Shah Suja was soon murdered, and Afghanistan provided perennial strife for the rest of the century.

The above was adapted from an account by the essayist Jan Morris in her trilogy Pax Britannica. She concludes:
As for the retreat from Kabul, though largely forgotten in Britain it is vividly remembered in Afghanistan. When in 1960 I followed the army's route from Kabul to Jalalabad with an Afghan companion, we found many people ready to point out the sites of the tragedy, and recall family exploits. I asked one patriarch what would happen now if a foreign army invaded the country. "The same", he hissed, between the last of his teeth.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Goldwyn apocrypha*

Yes, I know you've heard them all before and that there are dozens more. The chances are that he never said many of them, or that if he did he knew exactly what he was saying.

A verbal agreement isn't worth the paper it's written on.
Anybody who goes to a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined.
Don´t talk to me while I´m interrupting.
Go see it, and see for yourself why it shouldn't be seen.
I don't want any yes-men around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their jobs.
I had a monumental idea this morning, but I didn't like it.
If I could drop dead right now, I would be the happiest man alive.
If we do not succeed, we run the risk of failure.
If you don't disagree with me, how will I know I'm right?
If you want something for free, you have to pay for it.
I'll give you a definite maybe.
In two words: im-possible.
Include me out.
It´s more than magnificent. It´s mediocre.
It´s spreading like wildflowers.
Let's have some new clichés.
Never make predictions, especially about the future.
Spare no expense to save money on this one.
Tell me, how did you love my movie?
The scene is dull. Tell him to put more life into his dying.
This makes me sore, it gets my dandruff up.
We've all passed a lot of water since then.
We´re overpaying him, but he´s worth it.
Do you want me to put my head on a moose?
When I want your opinion I'll give it to you.
Why should people go out and pay to see bad movies when they can stay at home and see bad television for nothing?
You're going to call him William? What kind of a name is that? Every Tom, Dick and Harry is called William.

*[What you probably didn't know is that to use the word in this sense you have to be a Protestant, or at any rate not a Catholic.]

Friday, 18 September 2009


No 23 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century
May 1907: Minnie in Canada writes to her sister Melinda Ahearne in Lawrence, Mass.: this is you and little tommie in your auto, ahah.
Such giant highway speedsters must be what turned the head of Mr Toad. Motoring was new and lacked protocols: women drivers (in the postcard world) were almost as numerous as men.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears

This fits nicely into my series of helpful posts about things you can put into or on your ears (pins, candles, your little finger) but is in fact the title of a book I have just acquired. To a Russian the expression means I'm not pulling your leg.

Other idioms from around the world which are featured in the book are When dogs were tied with sausages (= very long ago, in Uruguayan Spanish), To distribute cardamoms (= to invite to a marriage, in Hindi) and To walk around hot porridge (= to beat about the bush, in German).

The book is amusing in a quiet way but not really of much practical use: it would be foolish to learn any of the quainter idioms in the hope of impressing a native speaker of the language, because the chances are that you would misuse them or that they are desperately old-fashioned or hackneyed expressions which would give away the fact that your knowledge comes from a book and that you don't actually speak the language at all; either way you would look silly.

The compiler cheats a bit by including a few proverbs; the English translation of some of these would make good conversation-stoppers, particularly as they are mostly incomprehensible. Come out with "Don't look for yesterday's fish in the house of the otter" and you are bound to get a mystified silence, unless there is a Hindi-speaker present who will recognise it.

So you could invent your own idioms which no-one could challenge. Having checked that there are no Albanians listening, you might say of someone you are discussing: I bet his elbows smell of horseradish and then explain that in Tirana this means that he is a man not to be trusted.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Back again

I am now connected to the internet again after BT cut me off from it for six days; bad scran to their management and all their shareholders.

I reported the fault at 8.30 a.m. on Tuesday 8th and since then have spent a total of eight hours on the telephone to what BT wittily call their Home Fault Help Line. At least, that was where it all began; two days and three or four calls later it had been established that the fault was at the exchange, and as the days went by I made new friends in various increasingly high-powered departments of the organisation, feeling greatly relieved when I was told that my problem had been moved upstairs to a high level Specialist Team in the Engineer's Department.

"Aha!", I thought, "now we're getting somewhere; these top people will get me back on line in a jiffy"; that was three days ago. I never actually got to speak to one of these real experts: after a chat with some lesser beings one of them would say "If you don't mind holding on please, sir, I'll get through to my colleague and find out the situation and then I'll come back and let you know"; then I would get music-on-hold again and after ten minutes he would come back and tell me the same thing I had heard the previous day, perhaps something like: "The Specialist Team have it in hand and have ordered a replacement part; this will take from one to three working days".

Very often I was required during the button game ("If you are suicidal, press 4", etc.) to key in my phone number once or twice (on one occasion four times) before I got to speak to a real person, who would then ask me what my phone number was.

At least the calls were to free numbers. I switched to hands-free while the music played and this meant that I didn't have to go into a trance while I waited: I could fill in the weary hours with such things as watching on TV the 1962 film of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. This has Ralph Richardson's embittered actor, Katharine Hepburn's drug-addicted wife and their sons, one an alcoholic and the other consumptive, tearing each other apart in 1912 Connecticut: a veritable light-hearted feast of fun and gaiety compared to my conversations with BT.

Everyone tells me that I should find another ISP. Well, yes, I suppose so, but I have had ADSL for nine years now and my experiences with other ISPs and webhosts have not led me to believe that any of them are much better than BT; some would certainly be worse. In fairness I have to say that over the last six years I have had only one other period of down-time, and that was a brief one.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Advice for country vets

Samuel Johnson exhibited a rare lack of self-assurance when he gave this definition: "A disease, I suppose, of cattle".

We shall never know whether his supposition was justified, for the word has disappeared from our language; at least, the OED knows it not, though perhaps in some dark corner of rural Somerset that terrible scourge headgargle is still rife and therefore the word remains common currency.

Anyway, the doctor's doubts about its exact meaning did not prevent him from quoting the remedy: "For the headgargle, give powder of fenugreek. Mortimer." He does not tell us which Mortimer made this recommendation but it is worth committing to memory; every vegetarian cook worth his Noirmoutier salt has powder of fenugreek to hand (for flavouring his purée of mung beans) and should know how handy it will be if headgargle breaks out.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

The old ones are the best

Paul Crum (Roger Pettiward) drew this for Punch in 1937. I always used to think of it as one of Thurber's; perhaps I confused it with his similarly hippo-based "What have you done with Dr Millmoss?"

"I keep thinking it's Tuesday."

Friday, 4 September 2009

How's that again?

Newspaper headlines are there to catch readers' attention and make them marvel, or at least excite their curiosity. Here are four recent ones which worked on me:

Police arrest 21 after woman in tent is injured by lawn roller

Trial shows new drug better than rat poison at preventing stroke

Pit bull saves four as blaze sweeps toilets

Bus-pass Briton, 67, back fighting bulls

Actually, I wasn't very impressed by that last one. This fellow is very proud of his titanium knee: well, I've got two titanium knees and if only my traje de luces still fitted me I'd be off to the plaza de toros in a flash.

And there's also:
Sixty horses wedged in chimney
.....but this one was invented by Beachcomber and the story to fit it hasn't turned up yet.

And finally, Claud Cockburn claimed to have won a competition in The Times for the dullest headline with:
Small earthquake in Chile. Not many dead