Monday, 30 November 2009

The Gang of Ten

I started making comments—friendly, mocking, complimentary, contentious or ribald—on other peoples' blogs soon after I started writing my own. Sometimes I used pseudonyms and then I realised that it would be amusing to link these to blogs which I wrote for them so that they might get some comments in return.

That was how it began, but over the past six years this has led me to devise a bunch of doppelgangers, each publishing a fairly convincing blog, so that I have a circle of non-existent people to play with. I suppose they're a bit like the imaginary friends that children sometimes dream up, in that they are me but not me. Since I lack sufficient imagination to create proper characters, they are only stereotypes.

Below are the details of the current cast. In most cases I give only the surnames since their first names are used as their IDs and I do not want them widely identified as fictional. They are listed alphabetically (any other order would cause dissension among them):

Ames is a Boston Brahmin and a keen yachtsman. He aims to be in the America's Cup Team before he is 30.

De Basil is a German/Russian collector of icons who lives alone in France. He writes about art and about his aristocratic relations, some of whom really did exist.

Frand is an English soi-disant artist whose pictures consist of digitally distorted photographs. He is, not surprisingly, virtually unknown in the art world.

Galinos is an anti-feminist, a Greek-born woman who now lives in Los Angeles with her attorney partner.

Hutchinson is descended from eighteenth-century immigrants to the USA. She is a writer and left-wing political activist who likes to quote examples of bigotry and racism on the net and then post comments on the blogs of the writers; this brings her a great deal of hate mail.

McGillivray is an elderly Scottish lecturer; his subjects are Scottish history, the Icelandic sagas and John Knox. He is very boring
Whittingham-Bohun is an an English country gentleman, stockbreeder and retired investment banker living in a Gloucestershire oast house; his grandchildren like to comment on his blog.

Riemenschneider is an amiable tough who lives in Bentonville AR. He is barely literate and is helped to write his blog by his partner Patsy, whom he describes as his "hot patootie". He recently inherited a fortune from his Uncle Herman who had owned an unspecified business which was "not 100 pacent legit".

Van Dilst (Created in association with Grumio.) Two brothers, Septimus and George, are Endtimers who want to warn the world that the Rapture will come in 2012, when the righteous shall be gathered unto the Lord and the sinful shall descend to the uttermost pit. Their blog has some impressive pictures showing exactly how it will be.

These people have between them a great variety of attributes—they are erudite, ignorant, coarse, sensitive, snobbish, misguided or just plain silly. What they have in common with their begetter is that they are, on the whole, well-meaning and without malice. I am really quite fond of them all.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Greetings to Auntie

No 25 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century

August 1908: Albert in Oldham is very free in writing to his aunt in Popeswood. I suppose we shall see you coming back about this size you blooming great squash. This is the girl I was telling you about she is 17st and 19 years of age we went to Blackpool Sat and had a ripping time don't get too saucy when the coom back or else the'll get theyead punching.

Saturday, 14 November 2009


I have been making a survey of unusual names for nether undergarments. My interest in this subject was sparked off by an instruction given to me the other day by a kindly nurse when I went to our local hospital for a small test: "Push your bangers down to your knees", she said; I guessed at once what she meant and complied. I then asked her what the derivation of this colourful term was; she told me that in her family that was what they always called them, and seemed surprised that this usage was unfamiliar to me, and, as I later discovered, to everyone else I know.

And the OED appears to be unaware of them. Under banger it gives: he who or that which bangs; an astounding lie; a bludgeon (U.S. slang, at Yale); a violent kiss; a sausage; an old motor vehicle; and a banjo (obsolete). Partridge's Dictionary of Slang has most of these plus, in the plural, testicles; I'm glad I didn't know this before, I might have misunderstood the nurse.

Both sources make no mention of underpants, so I might suppose that the term is used for these only within the nurse's family, but I will probably be told by some know-all that it is common currency in the East End of London, in the Gorbals, or in Sydney.

Before another test, later, I was offered a pair of huge blue things which they told me are known as Dignity Pants. I suppose they meant well, but this is a misnomer; I didn't bother to ask "Does my bum look big in this?" because I knew what the answer would be. Still, I suppose the intention is good; most hospital garments are designed to humiliate you and I am doubtful about the rumour that Armani has been commissioned by the NHS to create a new range of gowns.

In the army, Quartermaster's Stores used to issue large white things called Drawers, Cellular. I have no idea why this piece of information has stayed in my memory.

And finally, there are the voluminous things worn by ladies of a certain age and size; they might be called Widdecombes, but to the pious they are known as Harvest Festivals. I believe this comes from a line in the Harvest Hymn: All is safely gathered in.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Personal note

When I was born, which was on the same day that the great Cab Calloway recorded "Minnie the Moocher" (Jazz's first million seller), I weighed 2½ lbs (1400g), in those days a matter for serious concern. Years later I was told that they left me at the foot of the bed and the doctor said to the midwife in the hearing of my mother, "I don't give much for his chances. Good thing too, in the circumstances".

That was unkind, but one can see his point: my mother had been widowed a few months before, and had four other children and no money. But happily she didn't agree and asked if she might be permitted to give me a cuddle.

So I survived; she somehow managed to give me and my four siblings happy childhoods, and despite the bad start I had inherited a splendid constitution. This I persistently abused in adult life by my total rejection of sound dietary principles, the avoidance of all salutary pursuits such as sport and most kinds of physical exertion, and by devotion to indolence, gluttony, cigarettes and booze.

In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, I enjoyed sixty-five years of near perfect health during which I hardly ever gave a thought to the possibility of illness, followed by a further thirteen years during which I encountered only minor disorders calling for simple remedies like a daily cocktail of popular drugs, free on the NHS, and a couple of knee replacements.

So today I really shouldn't complain (though of course I shall, loudly) that over the next few weeks much of my time will be taken up with X-rays, scans, assorted tests and surgery. This may mean that I have to abandon for the moment the commitment which I imposed on myself in 2004, which is to post something in OMF every other day; I was getting a bit tired of it anyway. But though quantity may decline I shall try to ensure that quality will not: the unseemly levity, undiscriminating choice of topic, relentless facetiousness and poor taste will be just as unwholesome as always, but reduced in volume and frequency. No more tedious every-two-days sort of thing; as Samuel Johnson very nearly said, regularity is the last refuge of scoundrels.

A hard-earned reputation for egregious banality, paucity of imagination and profound untrustworthiness is not to be lightly tossed aside just because, for the first time for years, I shall probably be taking extended breaks from the keyboard; in between, my mouse hand and both of my typing fingers will be as assiduous as ever. So please go on watching this space, but not so often.

Further notes on this topic are here:

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Little bits of stuff

A while ago I quoted from a report on the ridiculous kind of grub you get at three-star caffs in San Sebastián. I have not been to any of them, because I cannot imagine that either the expense, the months of waiting to get a table or the food will be really worth it. But very complicated dishes in tiny portions are becoming commonplace; no-one talks about cuisine nouvelle or cuisine minceur any more, but the influence remains.

At the moment, either from the goodness of their hearts or because they are doing poor business during the recession, most of the Michelin-starred restaurants in London are offering excellent deals on mid-week lunches; you can have three courses for half or even a quarter of the cost of their grand menus. The really elaborate dishes are excluded, but the quality is no less and the service just as assiduous.

Grumio and I, sometimes with our wives and sometimes as two old codgers, have been working through the best ones at the rate of one a month or so, and very enjoyable it has been. It is an intellectual as well as a gastronomic pleasure; one tries to guess what the dish of Ravioli of Lobster and Scallop with Caramelised Cauliflower, Peanut Butter and Smoked Whimberry Purée is going to look like, let alone taste like, and will the Confit of Pork Belly with Fricassée of Paimpol Bean, Pineapple and Coconut Sauce be as good as it sounds? Ah, and for dessert how about this Buckthorn Parfait with Fig Compote, White Miso Ice Cream and Yuzu Sauce?

It never disappoints, though sometimes it is not quite as one imagined. It may be surprising when something that was described lyrically in fifty words arrives in the middle of a huge white plate looking like a bloodstained golfball with a couple of tea-leaves on top; by then they will have taken your menus away and you may have forgotten what you ordered, but anyway the waiter is going to tell you again, at length.

And the beauty is that such lunching is an economy, really. Doing it once and then having a bacon butty the next day will cost no more than having a prawn cocktail, steak-and-chips and apple crumble sort of thing, twice. Provided, that is, that with your high class deal you have restricted yourself to one glass of the house wine and skipped the £7.50 aperitif.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Noblesse Oblige

Subtitled An Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy, this is an anthology of writings published more than fifty years ago. It all seems rather quaint to us now, but for some years the concept of U and non-U speech patterns spread rapidly from London to provide conversational pabulum at the dinner-tables of English-speaking Paris and New York.

It all started with a paper written by Professor Alan Ross of Birmingham University and printed in Neuphilologische Mitteilungen in Helsinki in 1954. The professor pointed out that it is solely by their language that the upper classes nowadays are distinguished, since "they are neither cleaner, richer, or better-educated than anybody else". He invented the useful formula: U (for upper class) speaker versus non-U speaker, giving examples of each.

Then one of the Mitford sisters (The Hon. Nancy, not the unrepentant fascist Diana, who married Oswald Mosley, or Unity, who shot herself for love of Hitler, or the communist Decca) wrote an article in Encounter about Ross's piece, which was followed by 'Strix' with Posh Lingo in the Spectator and attacked by Evelyn Waugh (a more sophisticated kind of snob) in Encounter. Christopher Sykes joined in with a piece called What U-future and finally John Betjeman wrote a poem satirising the whole U/non-U idea.

All this must have led many social climbers to worry about the words they used but of course it was all nonsense, though good fun. Anyway, aping your betters in this way wouldn't get you anywhere. It had to come naturally, you had to be born to it. If you needed to think about the words you used then you were irredeemably non-U.

[My copy of Noblesse Oblige is the Penguin paperback. Some booksellers offer "slightly battered" copies of this at £51. Mine is not battered but the cover falls off and the pages are very yellow, so I probably wouldn't get more than £30 for it; it cost me 2/6d.]


Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Three films

There were two films on TV recently which I vaguely felt I ought to see but which I didn't think would call for my close attention. They were both three hours long, so when I watched them I had a book and a packet of Lincoln Creams close to hand to which I turned when events on the screen were failing to grip.

One of them was Alexander, Oliver Stone's 2004 epic. Colin Farrell was grotesquely miscast as the great conqueror and the thing was more of a lecture than a drama, with Anthony Hopkins pottering about as the narrator. There were a couple of lively but repetitive battles and nothing much else to distract me from my book; I was looking out for the always excellent Tim Pigott-Smith who apparently played the part of an Omen Reader but sadly I must have missed him.

Lady Chatterley et l'Homme des Bois was Pascale Ferran’s 2006 adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s John Thomas and Lady Jane, the remarkably different second version of his celebrated Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It is a big improvement on Marc Allegret's 1955 version of the final edition, though this is not saying very much since the latter had Danielle Darrieux doing her I-am-beautiful bit with the ineffably gentlemanly Leo Genn speaking slow, careful French as the coarse gamekeeper. It was banned in the United States.

Ferran's shot at Lawrence features a couple of competent but unremarkable actors playing characters who could never conceivably utter the lines in the book, but as they are speaking French this doesn't matter; the subtitles wisely don't even try to capture the flavour of Lawrence's dialogue. I used the fast-forward button quite often—not, I hasten to add, to get to the soft-porn sequences, which are fairly risible, but only to skip the parts where nothing much seemed to be happening.

The director thought highly of her film, observing: “The story is literally overrun by vegetation.... To me, that’s the most beautiful thing: the story of a love that is one with the material experience of transformation”. This is a fairly obscure remark, but those who remember the lovers' way with flowers will know what she means. Certainly, the scenery is nice and for long periods there is nothing much else to look at. Perhaps the film should have been reviewed by Amateur Gardening, or, from a different aspect, by the American magazine Track and Field, which found the book inadequate fifty years ago.

By chance, earlier that week on the big screen I had seen another French film based on a famous novel: The Lacemaker, directed in 1977 by Claude Goretta and based on the 1974 Prix Goncourt winning novel La Dentellière by Pascal Lainé.

Isabelle Huppert, then only 22, was mesmerizing; she has never done anything better. I was glad to have seen it: in those days the French knew how to make films about love.