Sunday, 25 April 2010

Display of humour deficit

A nice change from the Three Caballeros doing their respective unfunny stand-up routines was provided this week by the leaking of a Foreign Office memo suggesting ways in which the Pope might be encouraged to improve his image during his visit to England—marketing a range of own brand condoms, opening an abortion clinic, spending a night in a Council flat, apologising for the Armada and other ingenious ideas hardly likely to be acceptable to the top brass at the Vatican, let alone the old boy himself. Much huffing and puffing from those who thought this bit of drollery was a shameful attack on a much-loved institution.

It was even said that the authors were ridiculing Catholic teaching. This would surely be an act of supererogation: I mean, it would be like throwing mud at a sewage farm, wouldn't it?

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Large ones all round in Bodbury

It seems very likely that on the morning of 7th May almost no-one will be happy with the results of the election. This does not often happen; back in the sixties Michael Frayn noted that after the bye-election in Bodbury all three candidates were celebrating:

F. Muncher (Lab.) 14,931
J.P.R. Cramshaw-Bollington (Con.) 8,101
S.W. Dearfellow (Lib.) 7,123
Labour majority 6,830

General election:
Lab. 23,917
Con. 16,023
Lib. 9,980
Lab.majority 7,966

F. Muncher: "It's a wonderful result. Not only have we held the seat, but we have increased our share of the poll—a real smack in the eye for the Government. The voters of Bodbury have told Mr Macmillan and his friends in no uncertain terms what they think of the Government's record on such things as the Common Market (or will have done, as soon as we have actually decided which policy on this question it was that our supporters were voting for). And if you take our vote in conjunction with the Liberal vote, it's clear that there is an over-whelming anti-Tory majority in Bodbury".

J.P.R. Cramshaw-Bollington: "I am absolutely delighted with the result. At a time when the pendulum traditionally swings against the party in office, we've slashed the Labour majority in this Labour stronghold. I take this as a most encouraging vote of confidence in the Government—a message from the people of Bodbury to Mr Macmillan urging him to carry on with the good work, whatever it may be. And taking the increased Liberal vote into account, it is evident that there is a definite anti-Socialist majority in Bodbury".

S.W. Dearfellow: "The result couldn't be better. Our share of the vote is up sharply, while the numbers of votes polled by both the Labour and Conservative and Conservative candidates have slumped heavily. This is Bodbury's way of saying "a plague on both your houses—we want to have it both ways with the Liberals." And if you take the Liberal vote in conjunction with either the Labour or the Conservative vote, you can see that either way we've got a clear anti-extremist majority".

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Terrorism, a hundred years ago

No 29 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard CenturyJanuary 1911 The caption reads 'THE BATTLE OF STEPNEY: Mr Winston Churchill surrounded by Detectives and Armed Police'.
Anarchist was the sort of trigger word that terrorist is today. Churchill as Home Secretary puts on his top hat and rushes to Sidney Street where the police and Scots Guards are laying siege to the anarchist hideout. A fortnight later Bert in W.Hartlepool writes to Lil Briggs in Perry Hill: PPC and letter to hand thanks for same. Havn't got any W. Soon be with you just about frozen Love XX

Monday, 19 April 2010

The spirit of Nelson flashes forth

Rejoice, rejoice! The long decline of the British Empire has been halted; we are no longer a laughing stock among the nations, sunk in nostalgia, currying favour with Johnny Foreigner in the hope of being asked to once more to play a part in world affairs. We have been uninvolved too long in great events and no-one has expected us to act decisively to show our mettle in a crisis.

And what is more, we didn't wait to be asked; after only four days we took the kind of action— brave, wise and above all firm, which used to be typical of us and which made us universally admired and respected.

We sent, not one but THREE gunboats. At this moment, they are in all probability steaming at full speed, ensigns flying, to remote spots to collect thousands of British subjects who might otherwise have had to remain in tropical hell-holes for several days, missing the start of the school term and incurring heavy expenses. Arrangements are being made to welcome them on board Her Majesty's warships (including the Ark Royal, no less; now there's an Imperial echo); wardrooms are being quickly converted into buffets, junior officers are rehearsing their stand-up routines and the Marine bands are getting ready to switch from hornpipes to Tunes from the Shows.

"Hello, sailor!"

"You'll find the ballroom just abaft the mizzen tops'l, madam"

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Rough talk

American authors Brett and Kate Mackay have written a book about The Art of Manliness and have included examples of manly vernacular from the nineteenth century. Here are some of them:

Admiral of the Red: A person whose very red face evinces a fondness for strong potations.
Bellows to Mend: A person out of breath; especially a pugilist is said to be “bellows to mend” when winded.
Blind Monkeys: An imaginary collection at the Zoological Gardens, which are supposed to receive care and attention from persons fitted by nature for such office and for little else. An idle and useless person is often told that he is only fit to lead the Blind Monkeys to evacuate. Another form this elegant conversation takes is for one man to tell another that he knows of a suitable situation for him. “How much a week? and what to do?” are natural questions, and then comes the scathing and sarcastic reply, “Five bob a week at the doctor’s— you’re to stand behind the door and make the patients sick. They won’t want no physic when they sees your mug.”
Blinker: A blackened eye. Also a hard blow in the eye.
Bone Box: The mouth. Shut your bone box; shut your mouth.
Bully Trap: A brave man with a mild or effeminate appearance, by whom the bullies are frequently taken in.
Bunch Of Fives: The fist. Pugilistic. [still in use]
Cat-heads. A woman’s breasts. Sea phrase.
Colt’s Tooth. Elderly persons of juvenile tastes are said to have a Colt’s Tooth, i.e., a desire to shed their teeth once more, to live life over again.
Drumstick cases: pants
Earth Bath: a grave.
Eternity Box: A coffin.
Fart Catcher: A valet or footman, from his walking behind his master or mistress.
Fimble-Famble: A lame, prevaricating excuse.
Fizzing: First-rate, very good, excellent; synonymous with “stunning.”
Flag of Distress: Any overt sign of poverty; the end of a person’s shirt when it protrudes through his trousers.
Floorer: A blow sufficiently strong to knock a man down, or bring him to the floor. Often used in reference to sudden and unpleasant news.
Follow-me-lads: Curls hanging over a lady’s shoulder.
Gentleman of Four Outs: When a vulgar, blustering fellow asserts that he is a gentleman, the retort generally is, ” Yes, a Gentleman Of Four Outs”—that is, without wit, without money, without credit, and without manners.
Go By The Ground: A little short person, man or woman.
Gunpowder: An old woman.
Half-mourning: To have a black eye from a blow. As distinguished from "whole-mourning”, two black eyes.
Heavy Wet: Malt liquor—because the more a man drinks of it, the heavier and more stupid he becomes.
How’s Your Poor Feet!: An idiotic street cry with no meaning, much in vogue a few years back.
Keep a Pig: An Oxford University phrase, which means to have a lodger. A man whose rooms contain two bedchambers has sometimes, when his college is full, to allow the use of one of them to a Freshman, who is called under these circumstances a PIG. The original occupier is then said to Keep A Pig.
Ladder: “Can’t see a hole in a Ladder,” said of any one who is intoxicated. It was once said that a man was never properly drunk until he could not lie down without holding, could not see a hole through a Ladder, or went to the pump to light his pipe.
Monkey with a Long Tail: A mortgage.
Muckender: A pocket handkerchief, snottinger. Nose-ender. A straight blow delivered full on the nasal promontory.
Nose in the Manger: To put one’s nose in the manger, to sit down to eat. To “put on the nose-bag” is to eat hurriedly, or to eat while continuing at work.
Perpendicular: A lunch taken standing-up at a tavern bar. It is usual to call it lunch, often as the Perpendicular may take the place of dinner.
Pot-hunter: A man who gives his time up to rowing or punting, or any sort of match in order to win the “pewters” which are given as prizes. The term is now much used in aquatic and athletic circles; and is applied, in a derogatory sense, to men of good quality who enter themselves in small races they are almost sure to win, and thus deprive the juniors of small trophies which should be above the attention of champions, though valuable to beginners. Also an unwelcome guest, who manages to be just in time for dinner.
Sneeze-lurker: A thief who throws snuff in a person’s face, and then robs him.
Rumbumptious: Haughty, pugilistic.
Rusty Guts: A blunt, rough, old fellow.
Saucebox: A pert young person, in low life also signifies the mouth.
Saw Your Timber: Be off!” equivalent to “cut your stick.” Occasionally varied, with mock refinement, to “amputate your mahogany.”
Scandal-water: Tea; from old maids’ tea-parties being generally a focus for scandal.
Sit-upons: Trousers.
Smeller: The nose; “a blow on the Smeller” is often to be found in pugilistic records.
Sober-water: A jocular allusion to the uses of soda-water.
Tune the Old Cow Died of: An epithet for any ill-played or discordant piece of music.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The hounds of spring arrived some time ago

I always like to write about spring, and, inspired by some glorious weather, I spent some time last week assembling a little spring anthology. Then I realised that it was too late for publication; historically, spring starts on the day of the vernal equinox, which usually occurs on the night of 20/21 March. There is a school of thought which says it should be 1st March; ridiculous antipodeans have it on that date but call it the first day of autumn.

So the Other Men's Flowers Festival of Spring will have to wait until next year. Meanwhile, here is a reminder of two well-known celebrations of the season.

One version of the anonymous Spring In The Bronx goes:
Spring has sprung, the grass is ris.
I wonder where the boidies is?
Some say the boid is on the wing,
But that's absoid; the wing is on the boid.

Seven hundred and fifty years earlier W. de Wycombe (or, more likely, someone else) composed a piece of six-part polyphonic music. In the Wessex dialect of Middle English, the words are:
Sumer is ycomen in,
Loude sing cuckou!
Groweth seed and bloweth meed,
And springth the wode now.
Sing cuckou!

Ewe bleteth after lamb,
Loweth after calve cow,
Bulloc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Merye sing cuckou!
Cuckou, cuckou,
Wel singest thou cuckou:
Ne swik thou never now!

This is fairly comprehensible to us today except for the activities of the bulloc and the bucke: "sterteth", "verteth"—what are they up to? (It's a bit like Paul Jennings' fictitious proverb based on place names: Woman erith, Man morpeth.)

Apparently the line means the bullock stirs, the stag farts; the current critical consensus is that the stag is making "a gesture of virility indicating the stag's potential for creating new life, echoing the rebirth of Nature from the barren period of winter".

Oh, right.


It would be interesting—well, fairly interesting—to know how many words we have in English to express approval or admiration.

One way to find out would be to look up, say, "good" in an online thesaurus or synonym dictionary, then follow the trail of all the words you get through all the other thesauruses you can find online and paste all the lists into a database. Write a few lines of code to eliminate the duplicates, then decide how far you go in excluding obscure, obsolete, slang, dialect 'gradely'), and facetious coinages ('splendiferous'), and you will finish up with a very long list. Anyone who would like to attempt this task (or has a better way of doing it) should send me his or her list, and if it has a total of two thousand or more (and I agree with the principle of the exclusions) I will send a cheque for $50 to some appropriate charity.

Some readers may ask why I am doing this.

Having obtained such a list I would present a copy of it to certain moderately well educated people of my acquaintance (no names, they know who they are) in order to shame them by pointing out that they demean themselves by the way in which they always use the same adjective when they want to tell you that they like something. With thousands to choose from, they cannot be bothered to find something fresh and really apt, so from laziness and habit out comes the same tired old word, time after time, whether they are describing the weather, a play, an ascent of Everest, a steak, a pole vault, a book, a hat, a pile ointment, a lover, or whatever....he (she, it) is (was) FANTASTIC!

Or, often, absolutely fantastic!

Friday, 9 April 2010

Jackson's crazy ideas

No, not that Jackson.

When stupid, ignorant people tell you that they believe in something very silly there's no point in arguing with them; that's what stupid, ignorant people do, they believe in very silly things. What is really depressing is to discover that a person for whom one had respect or even admiration has inexplicably picked up some crackpot notion and is enthusiastically promoting it.

I sent this email about three weeks ago to the star of Women in Love, Elizabeth R, A Touch of Class and many other acclaimed films and plays:

(An open letter: to be posted on the internet early in April)

Dear Glenda Jackson

I was surprised and disappointed to find that your name appears on the list of MPs supporting David Tredinnick's Early Day Motion dissenting from to the recent Science and Technology Select Committee’s report on homeopathy. The motion calls for this quackery to be encouraged and funded by the government and the NHS.

Looking at the record of your distinguished career in Parliament I do not see that you have ever before espoused so disreputable a cause, and it is very hard to believe that you have thought seriously about what exactly it is that you are supporting, and just who it is whose ridiculous views you appear to share.

A glance at any of these webpages will perhaps give you some reasons why you should think again:

I understand that you will be seeking election in the revised Hampstead constituency. I am not now a resident but I do have family, friends, and acquaintances who live there. Many of them might well be voting for you, and I will be writing to all of them before polling day making them aware of your views on this matter. However much they admire your stance on other past and current issues, it may be that they will not be at all keen to return to Westminster an MP who subscribes to these absurd and harmful superstitions.

Yours, etc.

[I don't really expect to get an any response to this. Most MPs, particularly those who are celebrities outside parliament, have no time to engage in correspondence with non-constituents, though I suppose conscientious ones might get someone to glance at their messages in case any are of interest.]

Thursday, 1 April 2010

The Quiet Man

I find no mention of Julian Horsecroft in any of the news bulletins or newspapers today, and once again it looks as if the anniversary of his death will pass without any kind of acknowledgement.

This is not at all surprising and just as he would have wanted, for this man, who for all anyone knows may have been one of the greatest Englishmen of the twentieth century, contrived with extraordinary self-denying modesty throughout during his long life to keep every one of his remarkable achievements hidden not only from the general public but even from his many friends and large family, most of whom weren't at all sure who he was.

A promised biography of him was never published, and plans for a film of his life were dropped because so little was known about what he had actually done. After his death from tertiary obstrecosis of the ductal tract (in itself worthy of note: this painful disease had never been been heard of until then and is still very rare) a few facts came to light; I am recording some of them here, though it may be that not all are completely accurate.

His co-direction of Citizen Kane with Orson Welles was uncredited, as was his joint authorship with Alan Davidson of the magisterial Oxford Companion to Food, and his work on the double helix structure of the DNA molecule was not mentioned in Watson and Crick's Nobel Prize citation. The title role in the early film The Invisible Man was a natural part for him but he is said to have insisted that a young actor called Claude Rains was named as the star.

No photographs of him are known to exist, though in a group photo of the John Major cabinet and another of the board of the then Imperial Chemical Industries there is a figure in the middle row which may well have been Horsecroft, though it is difficult to be sure for in both cases the man was blowing his nose and thus obscuring his face. It was once asserted that he was sitting next-but-one to the Archbishop of Canterbury at an important ecumenical conference but no proof has ever been given that this was not someone else. What is beyond doubt is that if he had indeed been present at all these events then he must have made a contribution at the highest level to the important political, business and religious developments of the day.

He may well have been the winner of the silver medal for the pole vault at the Barcelona Olympics, but if so then in accordance with his invariable practice he was participating under an assumed name, so we cannot be certain.

He died as he had lived, virtually unknown, having achieved the total lack of recognition he sought so ardently. It can hardly be said that he is sorely missed, for no-one much ever heard of him. Following his death there was noted one final instance of his extreme shyness and reluctance to reveal himself: from that day to this his ghost has never been seen.

May he rest in peace.