Thursday, 30 December 2010

Tidings of comfort and joy

No, we had that one in the cookhouse a few days ago.

On a similar theme is the remarkable anagram devised for a crossword clue by that great compiler John Graham ("Araucaria"), who will be 90 in the New Year: O hark the herald angels sing the boy's descent which lifted up the world (5,9,7,5,6,2,5,3,6,2,3,6).

If you need a hint, I can tell you that you probably heard these twelve words more than once in the last week.

Yes, that's right: While shepherds watched their flocks by night all seated on the ground.

But my favourite crossword clue is this one, which is much easier to solve:  "-"   (1,6,3,1,4)

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Just for kissing

By all means make the most of mistletoe over the next few days, but pay no attention to the claims of the pathetic remnant which used to call itself the Liverpool Homeopathic Hospital but is now just a "department" at the Old Swan Health Centre. On its website it states that it runs "a complementary cancer clinic offering treatment with homeopathic remedies and Iscador". 

The manufacturers of Iscador assert, probably illegally and certainly without justification, that their product is a "mistletoe cancer treatment", the most frequently used of all such remedies in the world. Mistletoe, of course, has no connection with homeopathy, but quackeries generally support each other; the association of these two stems from one of the loony beliefs of the mystic quack Rudolf Steiner, who considered that mistletoe was a cancerous disease of trees, and therefore that, on the homeopathic Principal of Similars, cancer in humans could be cured by injections of a substance obtained from mistletoe.

The ancient pagan myths about mistletoe are more interesting and much more likely to be accurate than this pernicious drivel.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Monday, 13 December 2010

Brown Study

Amazing what a top embalmer can do.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Perfect for those with a short attention span

It is a truism that many top film-makers spend lucrative if uncredited time working on television commercials. It may be sad to think that their consummate talents are being devoted to trying to persuade people to buy one brand of toilet paper rather than another, but it is not entirely a waste: in a bad week on TV there may be more pleasure to be had from the occasional amusing commercial than from most of the dross purporting to be entertainment.

Here are three examples of advertisements currently appearing which, quite inexplicably in some cases, I have enjoyed watching:

1. A double-glazing company has a series of vignettes following the making of a commercial  to promote their services; most of these are fairly feeble and become tedious with repetition, but there is one in which the director asks the cameraman "How was it for you?". The cameraman, clearly a decent if boring fellow rather like Laura's very nearly cuckolded husband  in Brief Encounter, replies, with an ineffably lovely smile, "Oh yes, going really well, isn't it?".
Now, this is a very unlikely exchange between two film professionals, and I cannot explain why it makes me feel warm all over.

2. A supplier of fitted kitchens have a new version of their ad which features a male and a female dancer prancing around a fitted kitchen. This is serious high-class stuff—arabesques, glissades, fouettés, battements, pliés, tours en l'air, that sort of thing.
It is all completely pointless and tells you absolutely nothing about the ease with which their cupboards open or the quality of their worktops, but is a joy to watch.

3. This one begins with a rear-three-quarter shot of a girl's feet and ankles; she appears to be standing naked in a field. The camera moves upwards past her bare calves, knees, thighs and a pair of admirable buttocks then, as it moves further up, she turns her face towards us, gives a shy smile and, horror of horrors, we see that she has a tooth missing!
This brilliantly conceived and executed commercial has been made with a view to persuading us to buy some kind of product which stops your teeth falling out.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Has he or hasn't he?

Sly innuendo is not something you expect to encounter when you consult the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, in announcing the publication this week of the new version of the OED Online, its editor has given this question as an example of the kind of thing it can answer: Would Prince William have 'joined giblets' with Kate?

For the benefit of those sad individuals who cannot afford the subscription and do not belong to an English library or other institution which gives you free access to the OED, I will tell you what I found in the Historical Thesaurus now incorporated with it.   The answer is 'No, not yet'.  (To join one's giblets means to get married.)

On second thoughts, this is probably not the only instance of impropriety to be found in the great work. I haven't looked for others, but scattered among its thousands of pages there must surely be more examples of suggestive interpretations, definitions or etymologies. If anyone can find some and pass them on to me, I shall be happy to publish a list for the gratification of the more prurient of my readers.

I am referring of course only to gentle indelicacies. Everyone knows that the OED, aiming to be comprehensive in its coverage of the English language, contains on almost every page a plethora of explicit obscenity. I won't have any of that sort of thing in OMF: if you are keen on this, you will have to take out a second mortgage or join a library so that you can subscribe to OED online and search it for filthy words.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Bustling over large balls

For at least seven hundred years efforts have been made to stop people playing football. Sadly, this noble cause has never had much success.

In 1314 the Mayor of London issued the following proclamation on behalf of King Edward II:
For as much as there is great noise in the city caused by bustling over large balls...from which many evils might arise which God forbid: We command and forbid on behalf of the king, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in future.

In 1349, Edward III sent a letter of complaint to the sheriffs of London declaring that "the skill of shooting with arrows was almost totally laid aside for the purpose of useless and unlawful games such as football."  The danger attending the pastime occasioned King James I of England, in the rules drawn up by himself for the recreations of his son Henry Prince of Wales, to give the following instructions:
From this court I debarre all rough and violent exercises, as the foote-ball. meeter for laming than making able the users thereof; but the exercises I would have you to use, although but moderately, not making a craft of them, are running, leaping, wrestling, fencing, dancing, and playing at the caitch, or tennise, archerie, palle-malle and suchlike other fair and pleasant field-games.

Richard II in 1389 and Henry IV in 1401 tried again to little avail.

In 1424, under James I of Scotland, an Act of Parliament was passed outlawing the game:
It is statute, and the king forbiddis. that na man play at the fute-ball under the paine of fiftie schillings, to be raised to the lord of the land als oft as he be tainted. or to the scheriffe of the lands or his ministers if the lords will not punish sik trespassours.

(On the other hand, in 1526 Henry VIII ordered a pair of football boots of leather, handstitched by the Royal Cordwainer; they cost four shillings. But perhaps he was more serious about footwear than football: at the same time he ordererd seventy-seven other pairs of boots, buskins, shoes and slippers.)

It is regrettable that our later sovereigns did not attempt to continue this salutary if fruitless campaign, and it seems unlikely that the Windsors will ever renew it.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Yin, yang and qi in the workshop

In a post headed Karma Kanic the blogger Crispian Jago gives an account of the New Age Vehicle Well-Running Centre, which applies entirely new procedures to car maintenance. It is summarised as follows:
Unlike mainstream mechanics who seem to have little time for their customers and focus on the specific faults of your car, alternative mechanics will take a holistic approach to your car's well-running by using traditional and natural repair techniques that enhance your vehicle's whole engine, body and petroleum spirit.

The technical leaflet he reprints is a little difficult to read unless you enlarge it, but here are the headings to some of the notes detailing the various procedures used:

Drive shaft Manipulation; Torsion Healing; Ayurvedic Mechanics; Tyreology; Exhaust Candling; Wax & Polish Therapy; Anti Service.

The last item refers to the fact that the regular servicing of your car simply pumps it full of toxic oil and brake fluid and feeds the profit of conventional garages. Some studies have shown a link between new car servicing and incorrect valve clearance.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

When This Lousy War is Over

This song was not sung during any of the recent remembrance ceremonies.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Soldiers of the King, Part Three

Continued from  HERE . 
  
We stopped in Malta for a night and luxuriated in a fine drizzle, the first rain I had seen for more than a year. On landing in England we were deposited in Tottenham Court Road underground station which was being used as a rather cosy holding camp.

There we heard the news that Lilibet had replaced Bertie, which  meant that I had become a Soldier of the Queen. This made me feel rather Victorian; I imagined myself and my men, bayonets fixed, red jackets with brass buttons gleaming in the African sun, advancing fearlessly under a shower of assegais, ready to give the Matabele horde a real pasting. But, of course, I would have been no use at that sort of thing.

The War Office Selection Board was not too difficult for me; my fellow candidates were mostly rather callow youths so although I lacked the aristocratic background of most of them my advanced age, deep tan and camel flashes gave me some kind of cachet which enabled me to compete. Anyway, I passed.

Then, finally, I found myself at last where I had been trying to get to for most of my military career, Mons Officer Cadet School, where I became one of the 40,000 cadets who passed through the hands of the legendary Regimental Sergeant-Major R Brittain, MBE, Coldstream Guards, a fearsome but basically kindly man. He had become the best-known soldier in the country, having appeared in a number of films, some in a character part and some as himself; he was very proud of this and if he saw eyes straying as he strolled down the ranks standing to attention he would bark "Don't look at me! If you want to see me, go to the pictures".

We spent a lot of time standing to attention and I still remember the mantra which tells you exactly how to assume the position:
HeadupChininChestoutStomachinEyestothefront*
HeelstogetherFeetatanangleoffortyfivedegrees
ThumbsinlinewiththeseamofthetrousersSTANDPUFFEKLYSTIW!


It is worrying to think that there are now two generations of young and not-so-young men who have no idea how to do this; lacking this skill and some others, they will be absolutely nonplussed if they are ever called up to defend us from Mongol hordes, or a nuclear-armed rogue state, or whoever.

I enjoyed the fourteen weeks at Mons and after it was over not only was I able at last to put on the hat I had coveted for so long (I lashed out and had one made to measure; it cost me a weeks' pay) and the little stick, and at the passing-out parade I got to carry a (blunt) sword and give the order to fix bayonets.

But my pleasure in such glories was short-lived: the only really remarkable thing about my two years' National Service was that after all the messing about on the Suez Canal only ten weeks elapsed between gaining a commission and being demobbed.

[*I have just seen in newsreel film of Cameron's visit to Beijing a shot of the Guard of Honour in their very pretty uniforms, being inspected. They do not keep their eyes to the front at all, but turn their heads Mexican-wave fashion as he passes. This is impressive but slightly creepy.] 

Monday, 8 November 2010

Così Fan Tutte, or most of them

In my last post I described a little test I made to see if it was true that women are more superstitious than men. Knowing that among my readers are a number of otherwise sensible women who would find it totally unacceptable that I should consider the suggestion valid, I fully expected that one or more of them would take issue with me.

But none have done so. On the contrary, one comment came from an irresponsible barfly friend of mine called Grumio, who treated the project with typical flippancy, and another from Outeast, one of OMF's wise and percipient regular readers who has taken the trouble to conduct some more serious research to confirm or disprove my point. He used a datafile from the American 1972-2008 General Social Survey, a very useful tool for this kind of research, though he points out that the data relates only to men and women in the USA, so it may be that any conclusion drawn from it 'reflects primarily a cultural construct rather than anything innate', and he makes a couple of other caveats.

My own conclusion seems to be well supported: Women believe in weird things more than men do.


[I know nothing of Outeast's background, as he has always refused to reveal anything at all about himself. He is probably male but for all I know may be a Harvard Professor of Philosophy or possibly a Uyghur herdsman. Anyway, I am grateful both to him and to Grumio: they have cheered me up after a week of bad news from the U.S.]

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

So you're a Scorpio? Wow!

Some time ago ago I carried out a little survey to try to establish whether or not women, in general, taking it by and large, on the whole and with reservations, might be thought to be—or tend to be—more, perhaps marginally, superstitious than men. This was a frivolous exercise, and I did not imagine anyone would consider it tendentious or even take it seriously.

But I was wrong. My conclusion ("Yes, possibly") evidently festered in the mind of an acquaintance of mine until she could rein in her contempt no longer, and now, four years later, she has sent me an email expressing the view that what I had written was monstrously unreasonable, bigoted, mendacious and shameful, though supplying no evidence to support her contention that my conclusion was wrong.

This attack has hurt me deeply. While I am prepared to admit that such strictures could be applied with some truth to much of the content of OMF, I do not believe they can be levelled at the post in question, so over the past few days during which I had few major commitments (any fewer, and there would have been no need for me to get up in the mornings), I have gone to the trouble of repeating the enquiry using a larger sample.

It was based on the same premise as the earlier survey: that the desire to reveal your astrological sign to the world by noting it in your blog profile indicates a belief that this information says something interesting about you. There is no reason to believe this unless you think that there is something in astrology and that it is not just silly rubbish; in other words you have at least one superstitious belief.

So I looked at a hundred blogs which feature a personal profile, fifty written by women and fifty by men. Of these, 11 (22%) of the men and 36 (72%) of the women list their astrological sign.

This does not prove that women are more than three times as likely as men to be superstitious, of course: such a conclusion would be quite unwarranted.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Going to the loo

Privy, jakes, house of easement, water-closet, lavatory, bathroom, toilet, bog..... The list is endless; supposed indelicacy is shunned, euphemisms develop, fashions come and go. Those who are scatologically minded can spend many a happy hour in research on the history of these terms, 99% of which are obsolete.

"Loo" is so common and seemingly long-established that some would be surprised to learn that the OED can find no written trace of it before 1922 (in Ulysses). And what is its origin?

The invaluable Oxford Dictionaries Online (formerly Ask Oxford) has this prim comment:
There are several theories about the origin of this common term for a familiar article of sanitary furniture. The first, and most popular, is that it is derived from the cry of "gardyloo" (from the French regardez l'eau or "watch out for the water") which was shouted by medieval servants as they emptied the chamber-pots out of the upstairs windows into the street. This is historically problematic, since by the time the term "loo" is recorded, the expression "gardyloo" was long obsolete.
A second theory is that the word derives from a polite use of the French term le lieu (the place) as a euphemism. Unfortunately, documentary evidence to support this idea is lacking. A third theory, favoured by many, refers to the trade name "Waterloo", which appeared prominently displayed on the iron cisterns in many British outhouses during the early 20th century. This is more credible in terms of dates, but corroborating evidence is still frustratingly hard to find.
Various other picturesque theories also circulate, involving references to doors numbered "00" or people called "Looe".
The OED will have none of these, and simply says "origin obscure".

Monday, 18 October 2010

Theft made easy

Did you know that if you want to get something for nothing you can do so quite easily? This is how:

You choose an internet retailer whom you know or suspect to be incompetent, negligent or just careless, and place an order with them for whatever you want, giving a name and address you have got from the telephone directory (or anywhere), an age, which can be your grandmother's if you like, and another address for them to send the goods to. They may well do so, though afterwards you might go to prison.

I am fairly certain that I would have little use for a Lipsy Built Up Shoulder Grecian Coral 8, even if I knew what it was, so when I received a statement from a company called Additions, of which I had never heard, telling me that they had supplied one to me, that I owed them £63.95 for it, and that late payments might incur a default charge, I guessed almost immediately that something was not right.

So I dialed the firm's premium rate number and after twenty minutes ("...Press 4 if you really really want to speak to someone..."), I spoke to someone. My news came as no surprise to them and the woman said calmly and without apologies that yes, it was clearly ID theft and they would cancel the account.

Then I had a letter from their Fraud Unit's "FPT Manager", saying: ..."after a thorough investigation, I can confirm that your name and/or address have been used fraudently by parties unknown....... I will be keeping a record of the account(s) for our own purposes to help us combat fraud. I look forward to hearing from you, Yours sincerely".

 So I wrote back to them as follows:
Thank you for your letter. This raises more questions than it answers.
It could hardly have taken a “thorough investigation” to establish that fraud had taken place; that was obvious from the information I gave you. What further investigations have you undertaken? You appear to be saying that you opened an account for someone who provided nothing more than (my) name and address, a false date of birth, and an accommodation address for delivery of the goods. Can this be true? Did you take no action at all to verify the details, for example by checking with the electoral register that someone with my name lives at the delivery address, or by other means? If not, why not?
If this is your normal policy then it means that anyone can look up a name and address in the phone book and order goods from you with no further verification of his identity, but perhaps there is something I do not know, in which case please enlighten me.
Anyway, I assume you have reported the matter to the police. If you have not, I will do so myself, so please provide me with the address of your local police station (or if you prefer I can do so through my local police) .


There was no reply, so I wrote again, twice, and still had no reply. Finally, after three weeks had gone by, I telephoned their Fraud Unit. Asking by name for the "FPT Manager", I was told that the person who had signed the letter was in fact their "Operations Manager" but never wrote letters or spoke on the phone (clearly she is a PR fiction and does not exist). I resisted the temptation to ask whether their Operations Manager's responsibilities covered only the waste bins and toilets, and instead asked why they had not replied to my letters. In reply I got an obvious lie: "Ah well, we tried to phone you but couldn't get through". In three weeks? And why didn't they leave a message?: "Not allowed to:  Data Protection Act".

By now I was getting a little restive, so I dropped this and asked my original question: whether it was true that they had sent off the goods without asking the thief for any proof of identity. She said yes, and that this was normal practice among internet retailers. I found this difficult to believe and said in quiet, measured tones: "Bollocks".

She took umbrage at this mild expletive and we parted with expressions of mutual distaste.

But I had asked Chelmsford Police about this and a week later, I had a phone call from a charming and able woman police officer. She told me that only the victim's local police could do anything about such an incident and since in this case it was not me who had lost any money then only the retailer could report it. And further, that this was indeed a very common occurrence: many retailers simply don't bother to make checks but reckon that if it's not a big item then it's better to suffer a small loss than get involved with an investigation.

So what the Applications woman who had last spoken to me told me was quite right and I perhaps I should apologise to her.  I don't feel inclined to do so because my comment was justified; it is appalling that this is allowed to happen; besides, I had spent money on the first phone call and wasted a lot of time writing letters.

Anyway, I didn't care for her tone.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Religious war breaks out

It is not surprising that the only incidence of bad feeling, arrogance and selfishness among the miners and all those involved lin the astounding rescue in Chile was on the part of the representatives of competing religions who each claimed exclusive credit for the success of their appeals to their respective deities.

A Seventh-day Adventist pastor announced "God has spoken to me clearly and guided my hand each step of the rescue; he wanted the miners to be rescued and I am his instrument".

A Catholic bishop celebrated an outdoor mass facing the TV cameras, and asserted "God has heard our prayers; I have received comments of encouragement from all over the world.."

The most modest of the claimants was an evangelical preacher who serenaded the families with a guitar and songs of praise. "He listens to the music", he said.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Work Songs

Back in 2004 we had a good time singing twenty love songs , but one can tire of these. Let's have some songs about work;  here are lines from a dozen of them. Do you know what the songs are?

I'm an old cowhand...

A thing of shreds and patches...

He sleeps all night and he works all day...

Ridin' out on a horse...

From the rise of sun to the set of moon...

Oh, 'tis my delight on a shiny night...

In my profession I work hard, but I'll never stop...

You can bet these don't grow on trees...

Trumpets are tearing my eardrums...

The quaint and curious costumes that we're called upon to wear...

You give me some whiskey, I'll sing you a song...

Where a million diamonds shine...

Answers are HERE

And here's one which epitomises the pride, patriotism and sheer grit of the British working man:

I am an oxy-acetylene welder
Welding the whole day through
Life's great in oxy-acetylene welding
Welders, we know that's true...
Then there follow some details of the skills deployed and the technology used, and finally a rousing paean:

 Among the world's great welders, we English are the best
So give us a little bit of oxy-acetylene and we will do the rest!
This is the perhaps the most inspirational of all work songs; it is sad that the complete lyrics do not appear anywhere on the net, and no-one at the OAWU, not even the retired  officials whom I questioned, seems to have heard of this great song. Does anyone out there know it?

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

I bambini del Duce

No 32 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century
January 1928  Not waving but saluting. The two elder sons of Mussolini are already adept at the fascist salute. Bruno became a pilot and died in action in 1944. His younger brother Vittorio survived the war and went to live as an exile in South America. The third brother, Romano, was their junior. He inherited their father's musical gifts, became a popular pianist and bandleader and married the sister of Sophia Loren. Their daughter Alessandra alone continued to serve the fascist cause as an Allianza Nationale deputy in the Italian parliament. We do not know what Emilie Ascoli means when writing from Carrera to Mrs Perkins in Durban: he adds to his conventional message of greeting: I think this P.C. will interest you.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Warm Heart

Winter is not yet upon us, so why am I making use of a piece of equipment designed to help Antarctic explorers type up their diaries when it's -20°?

At the moment I am totally deprived of fingerspitzengefühl (in the literal sense, not the figurative—there's nothing wrong with my strategic intuition). This is caused by peripheral neuropathy; it may not be permanent but means that at present my hands are cold and my fingers are numb. My friend Grumio (the Bruton Boulevardier) has very kindly sent me a pair of Heating Gloves; plugged into a USB port, these suffuse my hands with a pleasant warmth. This is not only comforting but enables me to achieve my normal level of clumsiness in bashing the keys.

This post must be a short one. Like Captain Oates, I have to go outside and may be some time.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The happiest days

When I was at school, during the Second World War, our teachers were men who had been drafted in because they were not in the forces. Some had been dragged back from retirement and the younger ones were there because the forces wouldn't have them. Most of them were senile, exhausted, ill, drunk or just sunk so deep in Weltschmerz that nothing much, not even sadism, held any pleasure for them. Some of them had been had up for indecent exposure before the First World War.

But, my word, they were a splendid bunch of characters who enriched our lives beyond measure. Even now, the names we gave them them still conjure up affectionate remembrance:  Little Man, Gloom, Daddy Parr, Uncle Tom, Golly, Hack, Stodge... Only those we really despised were not given nicknames; Holy Joe was an exception; he was despicable but we felt a bit sorry for him as he was a lone pious voice in a singularly godless establishment; as I recall, the Christian Union there had only three members, and one of these was deaf.

A few of them had been brilliant, with honorary degrees from several European universities, but they had forgotten much; one man had been fluent in a dozen languages but by the time he came to us had difficulty with expressing himself in English. But somehow they managed to impress us with the remnants of their erudition, for we knew no better. 

There was only one man who really couldn't cope, and that was our PE (we called it Gym) instructor. His problem was that he could no longer do many of the things he was supposed to demonstrate to us: "Now just pull yourselves up onto the beam with a nice easy movement, in this way.... EURARGGH!!! The sweat would pour off him and the veins would bulge out on his poor old forehead. We all spent every lesson praying that he wouldn't die before it ended. But he survived until we spent a whole term in arduous rehearsal of an intricate display we were to put on at the end-of-term concert; the morning before the great occasion, he was taken very ill, and we never saw him again. The item was replaced by a sixth-form barbershop quartet harmonising "Home on the Range". Ah, they were good times; funny how trivial events like these stick in the memory, as does the occasion when a tree blew down, a large branch of it fell on the headmaster and he was away for two months.   

The fact that no-one actually taught us anything much was unimportant, for wartime standards in public examinations were very low and you could pass them with little more than your name written neatly at the top of the paper and then some cheerful and confident-sounding ramblings with a vague relevance to the questions. This was one of the reasons why I later found myself trying half-heartedly to get a degree in a subject for which I had no talent and in which I had no interest.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Shattered Nerve du Pape

Now that Ian Paisley in his dotage has stopped masquerading as a ranting bigot and taken on the role of cuddly national treasure it is apparent that all the time he had been concealing a quiet and delicate sense of humour, typified by the friendly if disrespectful sobriquet  he gave to Joseph Ratzinger: Old Redsocks.
However, he may not be at all pleased to find that his friend was received in Scotland and England with some warmth, though clearly not by everyone. Whether the protesters in London numbered 2,000 or 12,000 depends on which newspaper you read.

Although many did not feel that we got much value from the pontiff's visit,  the police certainly pulled out all the stops to earn the £1 million we are paying them to look after the old rascal; within a few minutes of an allegedly sinister conversation being overheard, they had arrested six Algerian street cleaners, and only a couple of days later had found out who they were and established that it was all a misunderstanding and that these miscreants were not planning a terrorist attack, just having a giggle.

But it was a near thing, and JR must have been shaken by the non-incident. He can't say he wasn't warned before his arrival in Edinburgh that a majority of UK residents did not particularly want him here. The Scotsman suggested that rather than kissing the earth on arrival he ought to take a shovel and dig himself an escape tunnel.

Anyway, the small discomfitures he must have suffered at various points in his visit justify me in using for the title of this post a phrase which I have treasured for years. Sadly, it did not originate with me, and I cannot remember where I first saw it.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Friday, 10 September 2010

Six things to do in Andalusia...

...if you are seven years old:

  • Pay an official visit to the local Comisaria de Policias
  • Lead an underwater expedition
  • Try out the local delicacies
  • Learn dressage
  • Get a degree in Spanish literature
  • Make your first parachute jump
For further guidance, look HERE

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

One down, three to go

Andy Lewis (Le Canard Noir of The Quackometer) is bearing up very well after the recent demise of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, and has written its obituary. For the benefit of those who are pressed for time, I print below a slightly abridged version.

The Royal London Homeopathic Hospital of Great Ormond Street, London, has passed away after a long battle with science. It can trace its origins back to The London Homeopathic Hospital founded by Dr. Frederick Foster Quin, the first homeopath in England. Quinn was a pupil of the founder of homeopathy, Dr Samuel Hahnemann, and his entry to London saw him mixing with the aristocratic and wealthy, establishing royal connections for homeopathy that would last until today.

In its life, the RLHH has moved through several London addresses and became the Royal Hospital when King George VI granted the honour in 1948. In the same year it was subsumed into the NHS as part of the widespread post-war nationalisation of the health system.

In becoming a public institution, and no longer relying on wealthy benefactors, the hospital began its long and slow battle against the cancer of reality. Despite its long history, the homeopaths could not demonstrate that anything that was going on inside showed any sign of objective success. Instead of embracing the new world of trials and evidence, the hospital clung to its tried and trusted approach of relying on anecdotal stories of its success, a diet that would ensure its eventual demise. Despite other doctors’ warning that it had to kick the 60-a-day habit of anecdote after anecdote, the rot of pseudoscience was setting in.

After the Staines air disaster in 1972, which tragically killed 16 of its doctors on the way to a conference, the hospital started to become more and more diluted as it lost its ability to survive alone and subsumed its independence to its retirement home of University College London Hospitals. At the time of its demise today, only one small ward was still breathing and having to share its small room with unwelcome acupuncture quacks and reiki healers

Hope for a longer life flourished under the directorship of Dr Anthony Campbell, a homeopath who recognised that homeopathy was a form of counselling and was thoroughly skeptical of its more deluded claims. Unfortunately, this progressive form of homeopathy never took root and the current incumbents maintained the wilder fantasies of homeopathic healing, ensuring the spreading disease of reality would soon ensure the lights would be going out.

The Royal London Homeopathic Hospital has many admirers from abroad. Homeopaths in India, Africa and Cuba used the presence of a Royal Hospital, funded by tax payers within the NHS, to push quackery on some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world, replacing cheap and effective malaria treatments with sugar pills and water drops, pretending homeopathy can treat AIDS, cancer and TB and using it as justification to replace effective infectious disease control with superstitious nonsense. It is survived by similar institutions in Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow. We understand that they too are desperately ill and will not be able to attend the funeral

It is understood that the body of the hospital will not be donated to science, but instead will be occupied by a few remaining stragglers who will stick pins in patients, wave their arms around them and dish out vitamin pills. Known as the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine, it will survive for a few more months until it is realised that ‘Integrated’ is a misnomer and it is still practising superstitious nonsense.

No flowers.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Flavour Thesaurus

This is the title of a wonderful book by Niki Segnit subtitled Pairings, recipes and ideas for the creative cook. Published in June last year, it is original, witty and demonstrates a magisterial knowledge of food.

She chose 99 flavours, sorted them into groups (spicy, cheesy, sulphurous and fifteen others) and then wrote this manual to explain how and why one flavour might go with another, their points in common and their differences.

Some of the pairings listed are familiar: Bacon & Egg, Lemon & Chicken..., others less so: Apple & Horseradish, Coriander Leaf & Peanut (ugh!), Sage & Anchovy...  (One of my own favourites, Ice Cream & Sauerkraut, is unaccountably omitted.)

The recipes crop up in the book almost casually:
"To serve two [fried trout]...make a watercress sauce by blending a bunch with 150 ml soured cream, a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt and sugar".

I've tried this, and it works. Having bought the book as a gift for someone I knew would love it, I just had to read it, and there is now a nasty food-related stain on page 199, so I had to buy another copy to see if  Butternut Squash & Chestnut  ("sounds like a couple of fat Shetland ponies") is any good. But I shall not bother to find out whether Celery & Truffle make a good pair, as Segnit quotes food writer Elizabeth Luard reminding us that "truffles are an acquired tase, redolent of old socks, the locker-room after a rugby match, unwashed underpants, methylated spirits and a gas-pump on a wet Saturday".

Out of sheer curiosity, though, I might try Grapefruit ("lumbering old uncle of the citrus family") & Shellfish, or Rhubarb & Black Pudding.


Niki Segnit joins the tiny band of food writers (headed by Elizabeth David and Alan Davidson) who can  be read with enjoyment even by those who have no particular desire to try out their recipes.

Monday, 30 August 2010

A cheese too far

Cheese seems to attract poetasters, for there are hundreds of odes to it. Here is one written by Deric Guest, and published in Wine and Food, André Simon's Gastronomic Wine Quarterly, in 1950:

How shall my palate aught but fickle be
Confronted with such wealth of choice choice—in Brie,
Blue-veiny Dorset, Wensleydale and Dutch,
Stilton and Gruyère, Shabzieger and such
Exotic brands—for Nature sets no term
To the emulgent products of the lactic germ!
To wash down hunks of cheese from Lancashire;
Broaden my vowels, don corduroys and foster
The yeoman spirit bred on Double Gloucester?
Or, with abandoned braggadocio, dare
The cloying decadence of Camembert?

Passing over the pleasure of finding aught, emulgent and braggadocio cropping up in a bit of facetious doggerel about cheese, it is interesting to note that while most of the named cheeses are not exotic to us now (this was written in the grey postwar days when we still thought olive oil was only for pouring into your ear), one of them is no longer widely known.

Shabzieger? Haven't seen that in Tesco's. Surprising, when Wikipedia, spelling it slightly differently, tells us that it was first made by Swiss monks in the 8th century, that it is produced exclusively by Gesellschaft Schweizer Kräuterkäse-Fabrikanten (well, it would be, wouldn't it?), contains blue fenugreek, and is sold abroad under the name Swiss Green Cheese. It was introduced into New York pharmacies in the 1800s under the brand Sap Sago: perhaps they tried to sell it under that name over here too, which would account for its lack of appeal nowadays.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Great inventions of the last hundred years

Much of my long life has been devoted to the preparation and execution of deeds of unsolicited benevolence, with occasionally, for a change, some completely justified malicious actions causing great distress to the ungodly. In between these tasks I have had many utterly brilliant ideas come to me, often when I am having an attack of OAB. Any of them would make the world a better place. Sadly, it was never possible for me to take any of them forward to a patentable or even marketable stage for various reasons, the most usual one being that to achieve this would call for great energy, hard work, drive, some relevant skill or knowledge, and iron determination. None of these things are within my range and that prevented me from getting any further.

Here are four of them; skip the first if you are easily disgusted:

1  Pukejoy
Everyone knows how awful it is when you think you are about to be sick; you dread the pain and humiliation and the horrid taste you are left with. If you sip a glass of Pukejoy it will neither bring on nor delay the event, but it will ease the expulsion and leave in your mouth une sensation de fraicheur agréable with an overtone of  lemon, spearmint or kiwi fruit.

2  Tyresave
When an aircraft's landing wheels hit the tarmac there is a puff of smoke; this is the tyres burning rubber as they have to accelerate from zero to the landing speed in fraction of a second, and is why the hugely expensive tyres have to be replaced frequently.
It would be quite simple to fit vanes to the wheels, so designed that they will start to revolve in the slipstream as soon as they are lowered. The speed at which they revolve will depend on the speed of the aircraft, so with careful design they will hit the tarmac at exactly the speed needed to ensure that there is no puff of smoke.

3  Styenka Razin
This is the name of an old Russian song to which I intended to write some English lyrics and HERE I explain how Dusty Springfield's brother stopped me from doing so

4  Patients' Symptom Reporting System
This is based on three undeniable facts: that doctors' time is precious, that the waiting room reading matter is always depressing, and that an increasing number of patients would like to tell  tell a computer what is wrong with them rather than a doctor.
In the waiting room there would be a couple of old PCs donated by local firms and a notice would ask patients if they would like to record their symptoms. Those that do can sit down at a screen and switch on: there is no logging on and they are not asked to type in their name: instead, a question appears: What seems to be the trouble? There are a dozen answers offered and the patient chooses one, perhaps my elbow hurts. More questions come up: what they are depends on  the answer given to the first; these might be all the time?, or just when you bend it?, etc. Then so on until the questions have been answered, or the patient is called by the doctor, or just gets fed up. The last button is pressed and the program prints a report and deletes all the information that has been put in. The patient trots into the doctor with it; reading it takes him 30 seconds and he can then carry on the consultation, having saved himself the first  three minutes.

As I explained, none of these brilliant ideas will ever be exploited by me. Of course, someone else might take them up and try, and unless he can produce a document dated prior to this post proving that he thought of them himself then I shall call in m'learned friends; I might well be open to offers over 40%.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Soldiers of the King, Part Two

Warning:  Here are more maudlin reminiscences, continued from  HERE; two clicks on Page Down will move you on to something that may be more interesting.

...After a while it occurred to me that I could have another go at getting a commission, and so I asked to be put in front of a Unit Selection Board. This consisted of the CO and the adjutant, and much to my surprise they agreed that I should be sent back to England for a War Office Selection Board; this was probably because they couldn't find much use for me in the Middle East. While I was waiting they made me a corporal ("umbasha" in Arabic, I rather liked the sound of that) with the idea of giving me some experience in leadership. This was well-meant but very silly: anyone can be a subaltern, but NCOs need to be made of sterner stuff, which I wasn't.

They also posted me to the GHQ Car Company in Fayid, which was a rather up-market affair which had the task of driving senior officers up and down the Suez Canal Road in Humber Super Snipes. It was a nice change, and it was there that I picked up a remark that gave me more pleasure than anything else I ever heard said during my two years service.

We were taking down to Alexandria a brigadier who had just flown in to Suez with his family. I was sitting in front with the driver and the brigadier, his wife and his two small children sat in the back. A few hundred yards ahead we  saw some sort of disturbance going on: no shooting, but a crowd of fellahin throwing stones and generally getting stroppy. We stopped, I cocked my (empty) sten and we sat there and thought for a bit; the children started to chatter with excitement, but the brigadier remained utterly calm and took control:
"Quiet, dears," he said "Daddy's trying to make an appreciation of the situation".

And so the days dragged on, the only event worth recording being a bad attack of Gyppo Tummy which kept me busy during the whole of my twenty-first birthday and the night that f0llowed.  I began to realise that if I was to get home in time to go to Officer Cadet School,  something had to happen soon. My CO, a pompous double-barrelled ass, gave me a cheery greeting from time to time but clearly wasn't interested in furthering my military career. So I did what any ambitious aspiring officer would have done and wrote to my mother; with the help of my brother-in-law she concocted a letter to our MP pointing out that if they didn't get a move it would soon be too late for me to fulfil my destiny. He replied that he was putting my case to the Secretary of State for War, who in turn promised to send a "hastener" to my unit.

To my huge surprise, my mother then received another letter saying that I was to be sent  to England within three weeks. The CO sent for me a couple of weeks later: "Good news, corporal, you're going home!".
"Oh, yes, sir", I replied, "I know, my mother told me last week". He never spoke to me again.

By the end of that month I was on a flight to England.

[Continued HERE 

Sunday, 15 August 2010

A list of gullible idiots

After the Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, and later the BMA, have clearly and unambiguously recommended that homeopathy should not be financed or supported in any way by the NHS since it is of no value other than as a placebo, it is surprising that the coalition government appears to be evading the issue.

Or perhaps it is not so surprising, since this two hundred year old quackery still has many adherents, most of whom have no idea of its principles, which are clearly nonsensical. For a list of people who believe that magic water with no active ingredients remembers what it once contained and can cure almost anything, look at this petition, now closed after gathering 3,907 signatures.

And there is also an Early Day Motion submitted  by the absurd David Tredinnick and signed by 27 MPs calling on the government to ignore the BMA's recommendation and let homeopathy flourish.  Sadly, among the deluded signatories is Caroline Lucas, the Green Party's sole MP; this may discourage some from voting for her party, which presumably shares her superstitious beliefs.

Somewhat diffidently, I must note that a glance at the list of petitioners suggests that the great majority of them (twenty out of the first twenty-five) are women. There is absolutely no conclusion to be drawn from this, except that in my frivolous little poll a few years ago I was wrong about homeopathy being equally appealing to both sexes, but spot on in my conclusion: that women are more superstitious than men.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Vulnerable men in danger

I have been closely following a worrying case which is currently being investigated by the state police in Massachusetts. A fifth grade student named Betty (to protect her family, her surname has not been published) has been accused of grooming a middle-aged man on the internet. His name is given as "Fatso" Schlegel, and he is an unemployed steel worker aged 54. For months, Betty had been carrying on an email correspondence with him, masquerading as an imaginary steel worker called "Plug" McCory, a man with an unpleasant skin disease and a criminal record.

She gained Schlegel's's confidence by pretending that her (Plug's) interests—shooting craps, pool and possum-hunting—are just the same as his, while concealing her real obsessions, which are Barbie, Sweetie Belle's Gumball House and Snickers.

Her object, of course, was to lure him into a meeting, and she even sent him a photograph of some of the men she tells him that she hangs out with, promising that she would bring them along so that they could all play seven-card stud together. She did not intend to molest him, but was intent on enjoying his disappointment when he came face to face with an adorable golden-haired poppet rather than the bunch of smelly overweight thugs with whom he had been hoping to bond.

Fortunately the police stepped in before the meeting could take place, and we may hope that a stiff custodial sentence for Betty will be a warning to others who might attempt such cruel impostures.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Let me have men about me....

No, on second thoughts let me not. Samuel Johnson noted a useful word for the one in four men and one in three women in the UK who are overweight:

gorbelly [from gor, dung, and belly, according to Skinner and Julius. It may perhaps come from gor, Welsh, beyond, too much; or, as seems to me more likely, may be contracted from gourmand, or gourmand's belly, the belly of a glutton.] A big paunch, a swelling belly. A term of reproach for a fat man.

(According to the OED, Skinner and Julius were right.)

Saturday, 31 July 2010

My drug habit

I came very late to drug addiction: in my teens and twenties I was too innocent to notice what was going on. Once at a party a girl passed me a lighted cigarette, which I obligingly stubbed out for her; she told me irritably that it was her last joint and I felt an awful fool.

Later, when travelling overseas, I found out what kif, ganja, blow, toot, christina, dagga, Miss Emma and all the rest were, by being offered them or by being told about them by knowing friends, or learning that the rather pleasant smell I had noticed was caused by the airheads puffing away around us.

But in the last few years, and particularly in the last few months, I have become a major player on the drugs scene, not as a burnout or a paper boy or a pusher, but certainly as a user. When people notice my erratic behaviour and ask me what I'm on I usually reply "Oh, just a bit of pot at weekends", because to give the whole list would take too long. Here it is:



Swallowed daily: Metformin, Ibuprofen, Simvastatin, Ramipril, Finasteride, Lansoprazole (Omeprazole), Tamsulosin (Stronazon), Nembeterin (Cholisterin)
Swallowed three days in every fortnight: Odansetron, Dexamethason
Swallowed when required: Metoclopamide, Loperamide
Dripped in for two hours once a fortnight: Oxaliplatin and calcium folinate (folinic acid)
Pumped in for two days in every fortnight: Fluorourcil

(Curiously, there is very little main-lining involved and no sniffing up the nose, so I suppose I'm not considered a serious user.)

I shall be finished with some of these substances in August (I dread the cold turkey), but the rest I must continue with until I go to that great pharmacy in the sky. The cost of all this to the NHS must be enormous, perhaps equivalent to the maintenance of a medium-sized primary school or a battalion of the Coldstream Guards. But still, if I had become addicted to, say, crack cocaine, I might have taken up mugging or burglary which would have cost the taxpayer much more in the long run, so I don't feel too bad about it.

(I do not want OMF to lose its hard-won reputation for frivolous and trivial writing; it s widely respected as The Blog That Cannot be Trusted. The above list is perfectly accurate except for one drug I have included which does not yet exist. It will be used for the treatment of obstreosis of the ductal tract (tertiary), if someone invents it.)

Monday, 26 July 2010

Soldiers of the King, Part One

Warning: This post consists of personal reminiscences, and is therefore of no interest whatsoever to anyone except my family and close friends, and very little to them. Some names have been changed to protect the guilty, though the chances are that these are all dead.

Two years into a degree course I was asked to leave University College London, mainly because I was no good with Meccano. This meant that my deferment from National Service expired and I was invited to carry out two years of it. I didn't mind much because I hadn't been enjoying myself learning to be a Mechanical Engineer.

During basic training I applied to be sent on a WOSB (War Office Selection Board for Officer Cadet School). I wanted to be an officer, not from any inflated ideas about my leadership qualities but because I rather fancied myself in the hat, with, under my arm, the little stick they give you, presumably for striking recalcitrant private soldiers lightly on the face to enforce discipline. And anyway, I suspected that many junior officers are asses and that I would not have much difficulty in keeping up with them. I must have explained this rather badly, because the members of the board smiled gently and suggested that it might be better for everyone if I finished my training and then became a driver, or something.

In a fit of pique I volunteered to be sent abroad as soon as they had taught me to drive; I was not seeking adventure but merely thought that spending the rest of my two years military duties in some exotic spot might be more enjoyable than languishing in Aldershot. The choices were limited to Korea, where there was a war going on, and Egypt, where a General Neguib (Nasser's predecessor) was being disrespectful to us.

I chose Egypt and was quickly despatched to a Field Bakery unit at Ismailia on the Suez canal. There I shared a tent with five other conscripts. I had little in common with them but after initial suspicion they decided that I was harmless and they treated me with an amused contempt. Actually, we became good friends; I helped them with writing letters to their wives and girl friends and they treated me as a sort of mascot, calling me 'Perfessor'.

They were a colourful bunch of characters but only two stay in my memory: Paddy Reilly, who thought 'the murtherin' British' ought to leave Ireland forthwith, and Filthy MacDonald, whose speciality when dealing with men who did not share his opinions was 'gi'ing 'em the heid'. I taught him a bit about writing and he taught me a bit about how to use a shiv.

The unit was equipped with AEC Matadors, 10-ton diesel trucks used for pulling mobile ovens when we drove out into the desert and baked 50,000 loaves for practice, or at other times for carrying loads of dough-encrusted 'whites' down the canal road to the laundry. They rather optimistically let me drive one, but not for long; to change gear you had to put both hands on the gearstick, brace your foot against the dashboard and heave. I was no good at all at this sort of thing and was soon transferred to the company office as a clerk.

There I had nothing much to do; I practised calligraphy with my letters home and filled in the time with little jobs like making out a Certificate of Competence to Drive for myself and getting it signed; of course I had had a test after my driver training, but this was given by the man who had taught me, and he wasn't going to fail anybody, was he? So, quite reasonably, you had to get the army to confirm that you could drive in order to obtain a civilian driving license, and this I was happy to do for myself.

And so the days wore on. It wasn't a bad life really, though some found it so: some sad boy in a neighbouring unit couldn't stand it and one day ran amok with a sten gun, killing several of his fellow-conscripts. I heard that Albert Pierrepoint, then nearing retirement, was flown out to hang him, but I couldn't confirm that this was true.

I learned a few words of Arabic, none of which were of the slightest use to me in later years when I had to visit the Middle East frequently. There were also songs which we sang in raucous chorus: some of these were slanders on the private life of the Egyptian royals at the time, King Farouk and Queen Farida, while others were sentimental ballads with such refrains as You're My Little Gyppo Bint, You're Kuwayyis Ketir. These were mere fantasies, for penned up in our camps we never encountered any local beauties, and for most of us romance of any kind was just a dream: at that time there were 30,000 British troops in the Suez Canal Zone, so the few dozen NAAFI girls also serving there were not short of offers of one kind or another.

[Continued HERE. The next instalment will include what the brigadier said to his children and how my mother made the CO look a complete prat, which he was.]

 

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Cheerio everybody!

No 31 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century
July 1927:  Dear Nellie, writes Ada to her friend, also in Tunbridge Wells. Congratulations on you reaching the age of discretion. Now you are able to think for yourself. 
The good-time Prince of Wales has a smoke, or perhaps (for once) not, since the cigarette looks to be added. What then was airbrushed in would now be airbrushed out.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Angel hair football coach?

Much has been written recently about one Fabio Capello, and some confusion has arisen about him, many people arguing that he is a kind of pasta and others saying that he is connected in some way with football or some such game.

For an authoritative answer to this question we can turn to that veritable vade mecum of sporting lore, Alan Davidson's Companion to Food, where Capello appears in the plural as:

Capelli d'angelo ('angel hair), capellini ('little hairs'), the thinnest form of the spaghetti family.

So that clears that up. While we are on the subject, let us note the names of a few other kinds of pasta which also have no connection with sport. Skipping those we all know like LASAGNE, MACARONI, VERMICELLI and so on, here are some of the less familiar (in England at any rate) ones:

BIGOLI, a thick spaghetti from Venice; BOMBOLETTI, a short cylindrical form with a smooth exterior; ELBO MACARONI, an American term for short, curved macaroni; LUMACHE, like snail shells; ORECCHIETTI, 'little ears'; SIDANI, a S. Italian sort of macaroni ridged like celery; ZITE/ZITI, a tubular pasta from Naples.

Davidson describes thirty-eight types of pasta. It is easy to see why it is said that 'Surface-to-volume ratio is important; marrying a particular form of pasta to a particular kind of sauce is an art instinctively acquired by Italians from an early age but needing to be learned by others'.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

A cooler London

Londoners cursing the heat may like to be reminded what London has been like from time to time in earlier years: "In its long history the river Thames has been frozen solid forty times", wrote Helen Humphreys as introduction to her book containing forty vignettes based on events that actually took place each time the river froze between 1492 and 1895. Here is part of one of them:

1684
An entire village has been built upon the ice. Booths have been made from blankets and the oars of the watermen. The main thoroughfare between the booths has been named Freezland Street. There are coffee houses and taverns, booths that sell slices of roast beef. An ox has been roasted whole and a printing press has been set up so that one can have one's name printed in this place where men so oft were drowned. The Frost Fair is visited by a royal party that includes Charles II in what will be the last week of his life.

The watermen trade their boats for sledges and pull people across the river for the same price as when they had rowed them over. A whirly sledge twirls passengers around a stake set in the ice, Coaches are pulled by both horses and men. There are games of football and bowls, horse and donkey races. There is music and a large bear garden. A fox is hunted on the ice and a bull is staked out in a ring by the Temple Stairs. Dogs are tossed in to bait the bull and many are gored to death before the beast is brought down. Men have skates to slide over the river, and horses have have their hooves wrapped in linen to prevent this very same thing. Three cannons are brought out upon the ice to commemorate the royal visit, and boats are sent over the frozen Thames with their sails set and wheels fastened to their hulls to keep them upright.

What is remarkable about about the Frost Fair is that it does not operate by the same rules that govern life on land. It is a phenomenon and therefore free of the laws and practices of history. The poor and rich alike inhabit the same space, participate in the same sports and diversions, and are, for a very brief moment in time, equal citizens of a new and magical world.


Bull and bear baiting aside, all that sounds like a lot of fun, certainly better than sweaty old London as it is this week,

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Hi-de-hi-de-hi! Ho-de-ho-de-ho!

The other day I watched The Blues Brothers, the best musical comedy of all time; among the cast were Ray Charles, John Belushi, Aretha Franklin, Twiggy and Cab Calloway. Although I had seen the film before, I had forgotten that Calloway was in it and when I wrote an autobiographical note which mentioned him I had recorded my connection with the great man but not referred to the film. The connection was a tenuous one, being simply that I was born on the day he published Minnie the Moocher.

Forty-nine years later there he was in The Blues Brothers, still singing it with undiminished verve. He died in 1994 at the age of 86.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Meredith!

Is Cameroon a mightier nation than Denmark? Can a graceless Scotsman beat a Frenchman called Jo-Wilfried Tsonga?

All those of us with little interest in such matters have had a hard time over the last few weeks; television has been pandering to the national addiction to a couple of sports so that these and many other similar questions have been exercising the minds, if that is the right word, of the addicted.

But there has been one consolation: it has been worthwhile to switch the TV on from time to time if only to catch one or two of a series of commercials currently appearing on TV3 which are impeccably written, casted, acted and directed. The fact that it is doubtful if I shall ever be seduced by them and buy the product is irrelevant: they have given me enormous pleasure.

They are for Birds Eye frozen meals, products of a company founded by Clarence Birdseye; the first retail sale of his frozen foods occurred on March 6, 1930, in Springfield, Massachusetts.

The principle of these little gems is quite simple: you are shown a scene of violence or romance and it is then revealed that one of the participants is uninterested in the action and is giving total attention to a frozen dinner, presumably thawed and cooked . For example, a line of riot police rattle their shields while the rioters attack them; then the camera pans to show that one of them, absolutely calm, is enjoying his meal. In another, two men crouch behind a car which is being struck by a hail of bullets; one of them is ducking and flinching but tucking in with gusto.

My favourite has a man in period costume entering through French windows with a girl over his shoulder; he looks behind him and gives an anguished cry of "Meredith!". Then he exits right and as he turns we see that the girl clasping him round the neck has a plate of food in one hand and, quite expressionless, is wielding a fork with the other.

What is going on? Who is this Meredith person and why is he or she so urgently required? Now those are questions which really do exercise the mind.

Brilliant!

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Riffage, n

This is a word which has been added to the Oxford English Dictionary in its June quarterly update. The OED says of it:

One surprise of this range was the fecundity of riff, n (and riff, v) in producing new nouns referring to the playing of catchy musical phrases. Besides riffage, this update also includes new entries for the whimsical riffola, n. and the retro rifferama, n. These words entered the English language amid an explosion of popular music journalism in the second half of the twentieth century, coined by critics who apparently felt limited by the staid predictability of riffing, n. The three new entries are only the tip of a neologistic iceberg: OED's files also contain examples of riffery, riffdom, riffmongery, and riffology, among others which may eventually be considered for inclusion in future updates.

I would never have thought of harmless little riff in terms of "the tip of a neologistic iceberg", and I daresay that neither would the great players of them (Buster Bailey, clarinet, for instance). I must let the editors know that in listing other derivatives for possible future inclusion they have failed to mention many important ones such as: rifflike, rifferoo, riffmanship, and of course the ever-popular if slightly vulgar phrase riff off, all of which have appeared in print and therefore qualify for an entry.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

One lovely black eye

It was not until I acquired this the other day (an accident: no other parties were involved) that I realised just how much amusement the sight of one of these evokes: half a dozen total strangers smiled at me when they saw mine and some ventured a friendly jibe such as "Auditioning for the panda role, are you?"; my retort in every case was the feeble "You should see the other guy".

I knew that two of these were the subject of a comic song made famous by Charles Coborn in 1886, Herman's Hermits, and others, and that the original tune was Italian, so I looked it up. It was called Vieni Sul Mar, and to my delight I found that there was a recording of it made by Tito Schipa, whose incomparable elegance and style made him my favourite tenor years ago. When you listen to a modern tenor (or three) giving his all you might well think "What a marvellous voice!", but when Schipa sings you think only "What a beautiful song!".

You can find the recording HERE, together with the Italian words, which make no mention of any lovely black eyes.

[Очи чёрные is sometimes translated as Black Eyes so this gives me an excuse for providing a link to a loud and passionate version of the song, in Russian with English subtitles, with an incomprehensible video in which a half-naked hussy prances about, putting a silly hat on one young man and then hitting another one in the face. It is sometimes described as a Russian gypsy folk song; in fact the words and music were written respectively by a Ukrainian poet, Yevhen Hrebinka, and a German composer, Florian Hermann. The poem was first published in 1843.]

Friday, 18 June 2010

Dream Couple

No 30 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century

August 1920 Annie sends this luxury tinted card with embossed borders from Hendon to Florrie Cowdery in Newport, Isle of Wight. I thought you would like this photo of M.P. and D.F. as you will see it was taken while they were here in London.
Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were the great romantic stars of the silent screen and their marriage was made in Heaven and Hollywood. But they also knew how the business worked. They teamed up with Charlie Chaplin and the director of epics, D.W. Griffith, to form United Artists, a distribution company which has survived to this day as a major name in cinema. It was responsible in more recent years for the James Bond films.

Monday, 14 June 2010

The end of ties

We lay our railway lines on sleepers; over there they lay their railroad tracks on ties, while our ties are neckties to them.

But all this is now of no interest, if indeed it ever was, for at last the utter pointlessness of the bits of cloth we (and they) used to put round our necks has been realised, and the things are going the way of spats, turnups and shirts with tails.

During half a century of working life I put a tie on nearly every day (say, three hundred times a year) and until recently I somehow believed that I should keep them all, because occasions might arise when I needed to wear one again. However, I now see that my collection of a couple of hundred of them is a waste of space and two or three would be plenty, so a major cull is in hand.

Throwing away the wine- or gravy-stained ones was easy and I am left with those shown here. Sorting them out would have been a pleasant trip down Memory Lane, except that most of them carry no memories for me and with some exceptions they are an unappealing lot. I do not need to apologise for my taste, for few of them were actually bought by me. There are some lovely ones from my N & Ds, but most were gifts from sporting or business friends and colleagues. [A few nice Hermès ones came from Japanese contacts; as anyone who has visited Japan knows, gift-giving plays an important role in social intercourse there; apart from ties, there were watches and cameras, long since gone, and we have stored a great number of beautifully packaged knick-knacks in what we rather ungraciously call our Japcrap drawer.]

But back to ties. The sporting ones, Olympics apart, mostly commemorate transitory contacts with associations or visits to obscure events. I expect I had a good time at Asztalitenisz Budapest 1982, but I cannot recall the details; and how I acquired the ties of sports in which I never had any interest—Volleyball, Badminton, Pelota Vasca—I cannot imagine.

The business ties with their sad logos are the ones I am least likely ever to wear; the most outstandingly repellent is for an unidentifiable multinational and has motifs looking like festering sores on a background of pus. Others are subfusc and drearily discreet.

I have one tie which puzzles me. It has a picture of the door of No 10 on it and a facsimile signature of Margaret Thatcher. I have no recollection of the occasion when I received it; perhaps the whole shameful episode, whatever it was, has been mercifully blotted from my mind.

As I said, I shall keep just a few of the nicest ties and the rest can go to a boot sale, 3p each or 50p the lot. There is only one in the collection which I am likely to wear regularly in the future: it is the dark one lying across the middle of the picture,

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Casanova in the Convent

It has always been widely believed that monks and nuns do not lead lives of consistent virtue, and thus their transgressions have frequently been portrayed in literature and art for the gratification of the prurient.

In literature there have been many great writers who have strayed near—or even crossed—the borders of pornography in recounting tales of goings on among the devout: Chaucer and Boccaccio (and Balzac who imitated the latter's style in Les Contes Drolatiques) are in an ancient tradition of story-telling of this kind. In art there are of course many illustrations of misbehaviour in the cloisters such as the erotic watercolours of a certain Viennese painter (I give no link to these: OMF is a family blog).

But in opera, improprieties committed by members of religious orders are seldom explicit: nun/monk love arias are rare and never sung in flagrante delicto. No doubt someone will remind me of exceptions to this, but I can think of only one example of a naughty musical nun, and even then she is probably only thinking about it, or trying not to. In an operetta called Casanova, written by Ralph Benatzky in 1928 to music by Johann Strauss II, there is a nun's chorus; the operetta is hardly ever heard, but a few years ago a recording of this chorus made in 1932 became hugely popular and after a period of deletion had to be restored to the HMV catalogue owing to public demand.

We first hear the nuns at their devotions; the music melts into a waltz rhythm, and presently a single nun (the one Casanova is after?) begins a seductive, swaying tune. As the others join in, she soars higher and higher in voluptuous ecstasy (though the words indicate that she is praying to the Virgin Mary) while a solemn bell tolls, until finally a prim chord on the organ reminds us that we are still in a holy place.

There is a later recording of it here by the Viennese soprano Hilde Gueden; others, including Gracie Fields and Joan Sutherland, have recorded this delicious piece of bad taste with varying degrees of reverence and sexiness.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Under surveillance

Why is Google spying on me?

Well, of course, Google spies on everybody in the known universe, and many outside it. But few people have a watcher as assiduous as the one who looks at Other Men's Flowers. My hit counter tells me that almost every day, and sometimes several times a day, someone in or near Mountain View, California (pop. 70,700), logs on to this blog and has a good read. In some cases he (or she) goes to only one page so it is not possible to tell how long he was logged on or to what pages, but at other times he visits several pages and is there for much longer.

For example, on June 1st he logged on to OMF half a dozen times, mostly short visits but including one of 25 minutes, looking at two pages, and one of 66 minutes, looking at seven pages. From the record of the entry and exit pages it looks as if this person is working his way through all the 1,093 posts currently in the blog, a substantial task.

Just because his domain is googlebot.com and Mountain View is the home of Google does not mean that Larry or Sergey is taking a personal interest. It may be that a number of top Google operatives who are nearing retirement after years of undistinguished service have been formed into a team, the OMF Unit (or Squad), and given this tedious but very easy job as compensation for never having quite made it up the promotion ladder. This will keep them happily and uselessly employed for several years; their final report will, of course, be binned unread as soon as it is submitted.

Or perhaps this has nothing at all to do with dear old Google, but is the cherished project of some elderly resident of the Mountain View Sunset 'n Smiles Rest Home who works at it for hours every day and sometimes far into the night.

But what is his game? What does he want? Why has he never sent me a Christmas card?

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Anyone want a child's pushchair, needs painting?

Anyone who visits the internet knows that a large proportion of what you find there is garbage, and sometimes dangerous: get involved in it and you may be cheated, robbed, corrupted, or just waste a great deal of time. So it is pleasant to be able to note the existence of some enterprises made possible by the net which are in every way salutary and make all those who use them happy.

These are the sites for giving things away, things you no longer need but which you cannot be bothered to try to sell on eBay or take to a boot sale. The largest and most successful one originated in Tucson, Arizona (like many much less admirable ideas such as deep-fried peanut butter 'n jelly on rye): the Freecycle Network™ is now made up of 4,775 groups with 7 million members in over 85 countries. It is an entirely non-profit movement, run by volunteers, of people who want to give away and acquire things in their own towns. No money is involved.

It works like this: you email a description of something you want to get rid of, or that you want to acquire. If acceptable it will be published; you give only a nickname and your email address is not published but the group will forward replies saying "yes, please" or "OK, I've got one you can have" and you can make contact by phone or email, give your address, and arrange the collection (or, if you're polite, say "sorry, its already gone"). Should you suspect that they are coming to case the joint, you don't even need to let anyone into your house: you can simply tell them that you will leave it on your doorstep at a certain time.

My town has one of these groups with 5,291 members, and entries are currently being listed at the rate of around 250 a week.

The entries are moderated, of course. If you attempt to offer (or ask for) a Heckler and Koch MP5 in working order or a set of coloured photos of Ann Widdecombe in the nude (or clothed, for that matter), your entry will never appear. But offers of items that look as if no-one could possibly be bothered to drive over and pick them up will be happily published, for it is amazing what people might find useful: "two 6-foot planks with some nails and holes in them", or "bag of baby socks, clean, various colours" may well be taken up by someone who has a need for exactly those things.

There is an example here of the website of one typical local group in the UK

Over the last few months I have made a lot of use of a local group. I have replied to only one offer, and this was a mistake: it was a laser printer, and I found after a week or two that I didn't really want it, but no harm done: I put it back as an offer and someone was delighted with it. But I did offer the following:

A CRT colour monitor; 83 LPs; two hundred audiocassettes; a vintage wind-up portable gramophone with 38 78rpm records; a coal-effect gasfire; a scanner; a collection of software; a cast-iron firebasket; a videocassette recorder; 70 videocassettes; a box of electronic cables & connections; a 14" TV; a 22" TV and seven years back numbers of Private Eye.

For some of them I had half a dozen or more requests, and in nearly every case the items were taken up within a few hours, collected within a day or so and the takers expressed themselves very happy with what they got.

This has all been very rewarding but I still have a lot of things cluttering up the house which I don't need, such as two thousand books I shall never read again (or in some cases never have). But books look nice on the wall and I simply cannot give them away.