Saturday, 31 December 2011

New Year tomorrow

Tonight, Other Men's Flowers marches (staggers? crawls?) into its ninth year, having since January 2004 amassed (garnered? spewed?) 347,768 words in 1,213 posts, with 598 pictures, 1,290 links and 1,852 comments (not counting comment spam).

I know a dozen people who read every word of the blog, and there are perhaps a hundred more who glance at it from time to time. This is quite enough for me and the figure of 237,091 page views logged by one of my counters over the past eight years is of no interest, since the great majority of visitors will have stumbled on OMF when looking for something else, and there is no reason to suppose that more than a handful actually read any of it; I do not labour under the delusion that I am reaching out to a planet-wide community.

So why do I bother?

Well, actually, maintaining the thing is really no bother: I am committed only to publishing five or six posts a month (used to be fifteen) of any length, in any style and on any topic, and if I sometimes don't quite make it no-one will care or even notice. Also, only about 60% of the content is actually written by me: the rest is plagiarised or merely pasted wholesale from books, newspapers or elsewhere on the web, so there is no stress and little sweat involved.

The benefits to me are substantial:

First, it gives me something to do; Other Men's Flowers, a couple of websites and nine other blogs (rarely updated) keep me happily occupied and I am never bored.

Second, it brings me acquaintanceship with an extraordinary variety of people around the world: I never feel lonely.

Third, it is a modest intellectual exercise, helping to keep the mind alive.

Finally, after a few hours at the keyboard I have a sense of achievement, much more than I get from any of my other major activities such as emptying the dishwasher or watching old movies. I have done something, even if it was only drafting a paragraph of a post which I later decide is not worth publishing.

Oh, and HAPPY NEW YEAR to everybody. Fat chance, we are told.


Sunday, 25 December 2011

Twenty Questions More

This batch is intended to provide a refuge for those who find festivities and the current news equally depressing: not one of the questions is either seasonal or topical.

61   What would I rather do than join the army?

62   What ends "Shantih, shantih, shantih"?

63   The 1814 Treaty of Ghent ended a war between which states?

64   What links: Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, Ottoman admiral Hayreddin Pasha, German invasion of the USSR?

65   Which wireless technology is named after a Viking king of Denmark?

66   Robert Hubert was hanged for supposedly starting what?

67   What became England's 10th National Park last year?

68   Which global issue was resolved by the Washington conference of 1884?

69   Which Wimbledon finalist in 1983 became a nun?

70   Who was it said, in 1932, that "the bomber will always get through"?

71   Variations And Fugue On A Theme of Purcell is better known as what?

72   Which country has world's largest proven oil reserves, according to OPEC?

73  In 1996 the Austrian Robert Kalina won a competition to design what?

74   Which chain now has more food outlets worldwide than McDonald's?

75   The "adulterous" Bible of 1631 omitted which word from the seventh commandment?

76   Which film star became US ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia?

77   The Starlight Barking was a sequel to which novel?

78   "Yes, the surface is fine and powdery" - whose words?

79   What links Liliom, Green Grow the Lilacs, Sweet Thursday?

80   Who said "Twa piggles dinna mek a thrup", on what occasion, what was he prevented from saying, and by whom?


[Questions 41 to 60 are HERE] 

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Secular Britain

As long ago as 2004, a survey of the religious beliefs of 10,000 people in ten countries showed that the UK was among the most secular nations of the world. More recent polls have confirmed this, with the UK coming sixth, being exceeded in godlessness only by Sweden, Japan, Estonia, South Korea and the Czech Republic.

So not a lot has changed in the last few years. David Cameron apparently believes that nothing much has changed since the Reformation, except that our society has had a moral collapse this century, which could be put right if we reverted to the application of Christian values.

This month's British Humanist Association's newsletter comments on Cameron's idiotic pronouncement:   

This week, in a speech celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible,the Prime Minister described Britain as 'a Christian country'. He claimed that Christian values could reverse British society's 'moral collapse', stated that he disagreed with the arguments of secularists, and argued that Britain is only welcoming of other religions because of its Christian heritage. We believe the Prime Minister is mistaken.

As a simple factual statement, what the Prime Minister said is incorrect. Only a minority of people in Britain are practising Christians, and we know from last week's British Social Attitudes survey that over half of the population sees itself as non-religious. Although Christianity has undoubtedly had a sometimes positive influence on the cultural and social development of Britain, it is far from being the only influence. Many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces have shaped our society for the better, and Christianity has often had ill effects. So, on the factual level the Prime Minister’s remarks are simply bizarre. 

We see two interpretations of the Prime Minister's remarks. The most hopeful reading is that Mr Cameron doesn’t really mean it. His statements may be intended as a way to pacify the increasingly strident lobbying of a minority of Christians for more influence in our public life. This interpretation is supported by the fact that the Prime Minister repeated the myth that those of non-Christian religions are best off in a Christian society – a claim unsupported by history and logic, but one of the favourite arguments of activist Christian groups against a secular state.

If this is indeed the motivation behind the speech, it would at least give us less reason to fear any future policy initiatives shaped by these destructive ideas. But the far more concerning possibility is that the Prime Minister is serious. 

A politician and a government that tried to make Christianity and Christian beliefs the foundation of British values or a social morality would be building on seriously unstable foundations. All the evidence shows that religion makes no difference to a person’s social and moral behaviour – the same percentage of religious as non-religious people do volunteer work, for example. And people certainly don’t want to see it have more influence in government – in a 2006 Ipsos Mori poll, ‘religious groups and leaders’ actually topped the list of domestic groups that people said had too much influence on government. 

However you look at it, whether as a sop to appease increasingly aggressive Christian lobbies, or as a serious proposition to change public policy, his remarks are deeply concerning. We value reason and evidence in public policy, and fairness and secularism in our political life. The Prime Minister's remarks show why our work is so important.


Thursday, 15 December 2011

Saturday, 10 December 2011

E-cards are AWFUL's an insult to send them: it shows that you can't be bothered to select a card appropriate to the recipient, write in it, put it in an envelope, address it, put a stamp on it, and post it by Royal Mail (or mail it through the US Postal Service). And the kind you find on the web are GHASTLY: repellent cartoon figures, twee pictures, revolting sentiments, pathetic doggerel, unfunny quips and often, worst of all, a bit of unutterably vile music. Yuck!  Poo!  Delete it before it befouls your inbox.

Yes, but there are exceptions...

There is a British company which produces charming and witty e-cards. It was founded by artist Jacquie Lawson in 2000, and she now leads a team of talented helpers—mostly her friends and family—including animators, a watercolourist, a musician and a web designer, based in Devon, London and the US.  They have a range of 196 cards for various purposes: you can see them at their excellent website,

There is still time to send out some of these for Christmas, or better still their magnificent 2011 Advent Calendar, a bit more expensive but very good value. If you don't want to buy this or anything else from them, you can pass a pleasant hour previewing their stock.

Other Men's Flowers is, of course, widely known for its venality; it will happily publish a plug for any product, however tatty, overpriced or downright fraudulent, provided the fee is right. But I can make an honest declaration of disinterest in Jacquie Lawson: I have no acquaintance with her or any of her associates and no financial interest in their company. I rather regret this, for they are clearly an agreeable bunch of people and have a deservedly successful business.


Monday, 5 December 2011

Nothing to add

It's not surprising that very few of the posts in OMF evoke any comments. The explanation could be that its most assiduous readers are diffident about expressing fulsome praise, or are merely stunned into admiring silence by OMF's forceful arguments and subtle analyses, or the erudition and percipience of its content.

My own view, however, is that after their biweekly perusal of the latest posts these readers simply have no time to spare to set out their own viewpoints, most of them being fully occupied by such things as chairing multinationals or ecumenical conferences, running major law practices, fulfilling their ministerial responsibilities or studying for their doctorates.

However, there are exceptions, and it is interesting to note that it is the posts dealing with the least interesting topics that seem to attract the most comments. For example, a boring and
facetious item I posted about an opinion poll some years ago attracted some two thousand words of comment. After a brief and relevant comment from an old friend, two other ladies joined in with lengthy dissertations on feminist issues. I felt impelled to insert some hot news about gastro-oesophageal reflux before drawing the stimulating discussion to a close.

I suppose all this happened because the word sex had cropped up in the original post; similarly, a
rather feeble post in which Jehovah was mentioned inspired a bit of tedious chat. Yet what I thought was a fascinating piece - lavishly illustrated - about the theatre in North Korea evoked no comments at all.

So you really can’t tell. Perhaps there are keywords other than the two I have mentioned which are bound to elicit a reaction from readers; I might try a few.


Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Again Twenty Questions

Either the questions are getting easier or standards of erudition and culture are rising; those who say they got ten right are not necessarily lying; the mendacity threshold is raised to fifteen.

41  What has Himmler got?

42  How will I love you, always?

43   Sabrage is  a: a generic term for desert scrub  b: a yearling hawk  c: a rank of officer in the Indian army  d: the art of opening a champagne bottle with a sabre

44   What links: larynx, flight data recorder, St Stephen's Day?

45   Which Commonwealth country is on mainland South America?

46   What is detected by the Scott test?

47   Elizabeths I and II ascended the throne at what age?

48   Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger founded which reference source?

49   Sarah Woodruff is the title character of which novel?

50   "The Monster's Mate...?" is listed in the credits of which film?

51   Which baking aid was patented by Henry Jones in 1845?

52   Who had friends called Ginger and Merrylegs?

53   Which British fortifications are named after a Corsican original?

54   Which car is named after the French founder of Detroit?

55   "It was love at first sight" begins which 1961 novel?

56   YKK is the world's largest manufacturer of what?

57   What sort of delicacy is kopi luwak?

58   Which trophy did an American club successfully defend 24 times over 132 years?

59   What is made in a chessel?

60   What do lazy jellyfish do?

Answers are HERE


Friday, 25 November 2011

And now farewell cartoonist David Langdon. I posted some of his cartoons in 2009 to wish him a happy 95th birthday and now comes the sad news that he died this week.

He contributed to the New Yorker from 1948 and to many other newspapers and perodicals during and after World War II. The bulk of his cartoons, however, were published in Punch for more than half a century, from 1937 until it folded in 1992. They include these three, which appeared in 1968, 1976, and 1982.

'No, I think he's all right to ask the way. It's the chaps in round black helmets who knock your teeth in.'

'He wants twenty-five per cent of the gross, with an agreed minimum advance guarantee, plus doing our own tidying up.'

'Sorry, madam—the chef says he cannot reveal his sauces.'

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Prizegiving

My CV (which can be found by going HERE and scrolling down), includes one item of which I always been particularly proud. This, the second in the list of my lifetime's achievements, is perhaps the most noteworthy, though it was only a runner-up prize.

Unfortunately photography was in its infancy in those days and no pictures of the presentation of the prizes are known to exist. However, to illustrate the item I have found a lovely contemporary print of a comparable occasion, though it has to be said that this was a much more lavish affair:

Had I attended that 1885 prize-giving ceremony (at Le Palais de l’Industrie, Paris) rather than the one in 1938 at Kingsley Road Junior School, just by the Croydon gasworks, I might have been standing behind the man about to receive the first prize, though of course I would have been wearing shorts.

Incidentally, the respective Guests of Honour at the two events were Hector Berlioz in 1855 and, of course, Miss Beamish in 1938.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Comedy and drama

There is a TV series running at the moment called Death in Paradise. It is described as a comedy drama but is in fact not in the least funny or dramatic. It has reminded me of something I once saw many years ago in Pyongyang, also with Paradise in its title; this was tremendously dramatic as well as funny, though the comedy was unintentional.

It was a sort of musical, though in The Democratic People's Republic of Korea they call them revolutionary operas. As I have noted before, the musical theatre thrives in Pyongyang as nowhere else; this production was in 1976, but there is no reason to suppose that this and similar productions are not still going on and on like a lot of mousetraps.

It was, and probably still is, called Song of Paradise, a "heightened paean for the advantages and great vitality of our socialist system... another monumental masterpiece adding radiance to the great flourishing Juche art... a high tribute to the illustrious line on literature and art enunciated by the respected and beloved leader".

The number being sung here is the first act closer, called A Love Much Deeper Than the Deepest Sea, and they sing:
Our fatherly leader's love that is warm and unlimited...
Our hearts throbbed with emotion profound
When he hugged us still damp from the sea-wind.

... though no doubt it has lost something in translation. The scene comes at the moment when "Deep-sea fishermen are moved to tears to hear the glad news that they will enjoy one-month holidays with their families in Mt Kumgang-san thanks to the Great and Respected Leader's loving care and attention."

It looks to me as if two quite separate announcements are being made simultaneously, one stage left and one stage right, and I cannot remember why this was, but anyway it was a splendid ensemble number. They all seemed very happy in their stylish deep-sea fishing uniforms.

The G and R Leader referred to here is, of course, the late Kim Il Sung whom we called Chubby-Chops when none of his subjects were listening, and it may be that by now the lyrics have been amended to transfer the credit to his son Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader.


Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Style Invitational

Under this title The Washington Post has offered, every week since 1993, a wordplay contest, "an irreverent mix of highbrow and lowbrow—haughty and potty—in genres ranging from neologisms to cartoon captions to elaborate song parodies".

In week 610 (June 2005), readers were asked to "mash" two movies, TV shows, etc., into a single work of art and describe it. There were over 4,000 entries; below, from The Post's archives, is a selection of the winners and runners-up:  

The Wizinator: A steroid-fueled cyborg pursues Dorothy and her companions as they attempt to reach the Emerald City in time to take their court-mandated drug tests. But along the Yellow Brick Road there were some poppies ...

Please Don’t Eat Miss Daisy: Hannibal Lecter lands a job driving for a prim southern spinster.

Pollyanna Karenina: "Oh my, isn’t that the most beautiful train?”

Terminators of Endearment: At last, the perfect “compromise” date movie.

Valley Girl With a Pearl Earring: There’s this girl, Julie? She gets to be a model for, like, a famous photograph or something.

It’s a Wonderful Life Is Beautiful: A man sees how depressing a Nazi concentration camp would have been without him.

My Left Footloose: A dancer with leprosy sees the imminent end of his career.

The French Lieutenant’s a Man and a Woman: Confused sexual identity threatens morale in Napoleon’s army.

The Americanization of Amelie: The cute, quirky French girl finds herself getting a big butt.

Soylent Green Acres: Two rich urban retirees find out the real meaning of being “put out to pasture.”

The Man With the Golden Gunga Din: James Bond finally meets a better man than he.

The Lion in Winterminator 2:
Eleanor of Aquitaine can’t be bargained with. She can’t be reasoned with. She doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And she absolutely will not stop. Until you are dead.

2001 Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: A computer attempts to get out of work by acting crazy, but things get out of hand and he ends up with a circuit-otomy.

Love Toy Story: Woody, an old favorite, feels threatened by the arrival of the new battery-powered Buzz Lightyear.

Das Booty Call: When the German sub fleet puts in to port, they’re ready for some action!

A Bullet Is Waiting for Godot: Let’s just say Vladimir and Estragon have had it up to here.

Man on Fire Down Below: An educational film about STDs and their symptoms. 

Inherit the Wind in the Willows: Did Mole descend from Rat? Or was it the other way around? Let a jury decide!

Gilligan’s Island of Dr. Moreau: A mad scientist’s plans to perform experimental lobotomies on seven castaways are spoiled when he realizes that someone has already beaten him to it.

DracuLa Recherche du Temps Perdu: Memories of his past life come flooding back when a vampire bites into Madeleine.

Independence Day After Tomorrow: Aliens stupidly attack Earth right after global warming has rendered the planet uninhabitable.

Bob & Carol & Ted (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore): After the divorce, Ted settles into a ménage à trois.

You Only Live Twice, Pussycat: The other cats gang up on Felix and say nasty things to him.

Tequila Sunrise at Campobello: Suddenly Eleanor starts looking pretty good.

The Thin Red Blue Long Grey Line: A bus company offers an extended tour of the American political landscape.

My Fair Lady Sings the Blues: “Cocaine, I’m sayin’, stays mainly in the vein.” 

Die Another Day After Tomorrow: The world ends not with a stir, but with a shake.

[Every Friday there is a new contest; HERE, for anyone who wants to enter, are the Rules.]


Saturday, 5 November 2011

Bad Faith Awards

These annual awards are a means of dishonouring each year's most outstanding enemy of reason; winners in previous years have included Sarah Palin and the Pope.

Candidates for the 2011 prize have now been nominated, and the public are invited to vote for the candidate they think would be the most deserving winner. For me, the choice was not too difficult: dismissing Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann (why pick on two American politicians when their ranks include so many who deserve the award?), and ruling out two of the others whose idiocy has not impinged much on me, I was left with Nadine Dorries and Melanie Phillips.

From the first, Dorries looked likely to be the winner, so rather than merely adding one voice to the majority I chose the Daily Mail's deluded columnist to receive my vote. Now that over three thousand votes have been cast, Rick Perry has overtaken Phillips in second place and may well finish as runner-up.

Voting is open until 28th November. Vote for Mad Mel and help her to put the American into third place!


Monday, 31 October 2011

Who's tops today?

One reason for not liking Hallowe'en much is that its feeble modern version has been imported from America (never mind about Walpurgisnacht and all that) and has come to overshadow our fireworks on November 5th. This good old British anti-Catholic festival (originally a pagan celebration) is much more fun than silly trick-or-treat and pumpkins, and gives us the opportunity of burning in effigy whoever we want to stand in for the Pope or Guy Fawkes (Nadine Dorries? Bashar al-Assad? David Tredinnick? Simon Cowell?).

Another reason is that it is condemned by some Christians who consider it a satanic ritual. Catholic parents are being advised to celebrate Hallowe'en by dressing up their children as popular saints instead of witches and devils: "...they should kit out their youngsters to look like St George, St Lucy, St Francis of Assisi or St Mary Magdalene rather than let them wear costumes that celebrate evil or occult figures", according to a campaign endorsed by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, and at a season when people are expecting a knock on the door their accompanying parents can take the opportunity of doing some proselytising. This sounds like a splendid opportunity for a bit of fun for all the family.

But let Jesus and Satan fight it out over October 31st: a plague on both their houses, and a few days later we can commemorate the pathetic attempt of poor old Guy and his friends to replace King James 1st with a dynasty of Papists. Even those who dislike the Windsors would not maintain that we would have been better off had the plot succeeded.


Sunday, 30 October 2011

Another Twenty Questions

The mixture as beforequestions suited to people with ragbag minds. Some of the questions are dreary, some obscure and some merely silly.

Three correct answers is a good score, five is outstanding, ten is a lie.

21    What is love not?

22    What is Other Men's Flowers?

23    What did George Holliday videotape on 3rd March 1991 in LA?

24    What links: Lake Manzala, Lake Timsah, Great Bitter Lake, Little Bitter Lake?

25    Why must I wayle for Witherington?

26    What did she cry before she died, after lifting up her lovely head?

27    What are the trees where you sit going to do?

28    Whom should you not trust when you can't find your way home?

29    Which psychological condition was defined after a 1973 Swedish bank robbery?

30    Which astronomical event is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry?

31    The King, or Kitchener?

32    Why did the Earl of Oxford leave Elizabeth I's court for seven years?

33    Magnetite, hematite and goethite are ores of which metal?

34    Fingal O'Flahertie Wills were the middle names of which writer?

35    Whose mother and sister are cured of leprosy in a biblical epic?

36    What became the largest country in Africa this year?

37    The USS Phoenix at Pearl Harbour was sunk 40 years later under what name?

38    The Parsi people practise which religion?

39    What restriction was introduced on 8 January 1940?

40    What's it all about?

Answers are HERE

[Sources: Guardian Weekend, Ask a Silly Question (Goswell Frand), New Statesman, Wikipedia, The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, The Public School Hymn Book, The OED, The Washington Post, The Bible, etc.]


Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Our new destroyer

It used to be said that no ship, not even a warship, could be ugly....

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Making a note of it

I have never been plagued by superstitious obsessions: I do not feel compelled to avoid walking on lines in the pavement, or to wash my hands more often than is necessary. But there is one completely pointless thing which I have been forcing myself to do from an early age, and that is to record my activities, however uninteresting, in a succession of diaries.

Of course this can be a salutary exercise; what the great diarists wrote is fascinating to us all, and any diaries, however inept or fragmentary, can be helpful to biographers and historians, or at the very least interesting to the families or descendants of the writer. However, mine are not a bit like Tony Benn's, which he started in his adolescence and has added to every day since then, and which, full of rich insights into political events over all those years, now fill a whole room. Eight volumes of them have already been published, and they will provide nutriment for biographers and historians for years to come.

Nor are my diaries in the least like Boswell's, featuring crisp descriptions of amusing incidents such as his note on 13th April 1763 which begins: Did meet with a monstrous big whore in the Strand....

No, mine are never going to do me or anyone else any good, consisting as they do merely of curt lists of things I did or which were done to me. The only reason for my diaries' existence is the ridiculous feeling that somehow if I haven't recorded something then it never really happened. So I have been setting down no comments or observations or thoughts, just the bare facts.

The tone was set from the very beginning, with a few entries for the year during which I reached the age of eleven; these were along the lines of Went to library or Aunt L came to tea. Later in the year the entries became very sparse and after the entry for 4th May, which was Forget what did, there was a long gap.

Eventually the regular notes resumed their onward march of relentless triviality, but even in later years the entries were hardly more interesting, still with a flat, uninformative style which gave very little away. Day in Brighton with Charles R and Rosemary, for example. Why? Did we have a good time? Who were these people? No-one reading the diaries today, not even I, would be able to answer these questions, or would ever bother to ask them, and posterity certainly won't be interested.

Later on, of course, I did have some moderately interesting experiences in slightly exotic places, but reading my curt notes on them doesn't really bring them back to me: Almost spoke to Duke Ellington at Bangkok Airport is perfectly accurate but doesn't conjure up the excitement I felt during that historic non-encounter.

A few years ago I found that I was being reminded of the pointlessness of this mammoth effort every time I came across the box containing the collection of diaries of all sizes and colours, every one carelessly filled in, sometimes illegibly, and never subsequently glanced at.

I could never bring myself to throw away the scruffy old diaries, with their rotting elastic band round each decade's volumes, for I felt I ought to have all the facts at my fingertips if I suddenly needed to know when my uncle Horace had died or in which year it was that I fell off a narrowboat into the Oxford Canal.

Then, a year ago, I found that writing had become so difficult for me that I really couldn't keep on with the diaries. Happily I can still type quite well using a large-key keyboard, so I am typing them into something I grandly call a Journal. It continues with current entries, two or three a week, as boring as ever. I am also working laboriously backwards with some help from a daughter and a grand-daughter. I have now reached 1997; more than fifty or so of the old handwritten volumes still leer at me from their carton, awaiting transcription.

The thing that makes the labour almost worthwhile is that the Journal is in Excel so that I can search for names of people or places, or words like "lunch" or "film", to produce instant listings. With a couple of clicks I can find, for example, the titles of the thirteen films I saw in 1997. This is an illustration of the spectacular futility of the whole enterprise: about most of them I can recall nothing at all.


Saturday, 15 October 2011

By the mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed

Rotten of Hamlet to tease the silly old fool Polonius, getting him to cravenly correct himself and say that yes, it was like a weasel, or a whale...

Clouds are things which often look more like other things than many other things do. This is a picture of a cloud having a chat with a tree....

You can find HERE 31 pages of clouds looking like something else.

This is from the absorbing website of the Cloud Appreciation Society, of which I am proud to be member No 8,158. Our current newsletter confirms that we now have 27,827 members in 94 countries.


Monday, 10 October 2011


Some of my friends have noted that I have several things in common with pregnant women. It is true, of course, that I have never actually been pregnant or anything of that kind, but I do feel rotten most mornings and am disinclined to take up the pole vault. Also, like many an expectant mother, I sometimes have a sudden craving for some exotic comestible or extraordinary combination of foods.

My fancies are not dramatically perverse; no dill pickles with raspberry ice cream, or hot chocolate with minced ox kidney stirred in. Nothing like that; for example, it came to me the other day that what I hankered after at that moment was a snootful of Aalborg Jubilæums.

I am speaking of Danish akvavit. Nothing exotic about that if you live in Scandinavia, but it's not easy to find in leafy rural Sussex where I live. It's years since I used to sit all evening in a café near Copenhagen harbour with an old havnearbejder and his friends, a bottle of the stuff and a bowl of herrings between us, singing many a chorus of Det Var En Lørdag Aften and then perhaps a few rude verses of Den Sag Er Aldrig I Verden until some kindly politiman told us to go home.

But I can still remember the effect as the first tiny, bitterly cold glassful is knocked back: the aaah! of delight, the instant clearing of the nasal passages, and the feeling that you had been struck violently on the back of the neck by a large soft object. It has a mere 42% of alcohol by volume, but somehow it feels like more.

I suppose I could get a bottle on the internet, to have ready for whenever I am next overcome by a fancy for it.


Wednesday, 5 October 2011

It's the rich what gets the pleasure

The internet – particularly the blogosphere – provides great opportunities for sociological study. One can compare and contrast the aspirations, tastes and viewpoints of people from either end of every kind of spectrum – social, political, geographical - simply by reading what they write about themselves.

Take Top People, for example: what does Hugh Massingham-Bohun in Gloucestershire have in common with Edward Cabot Ames III in Massachusetts?

Is it the fact that both have a great deal of money, as does the Non-Top Person Luke Riemenschneider of Arkansas?  Other than that, nothing much, I suppose, except for the desire to tell the world about their lives in the mistaken belief that the world will find them of interest.

Actually, unlike most blogs I find these three are not particularly boring since the writers all seem to enjoy with gusto what they do; I am not envious of any of them, but some aspects of their lives sound as if they might be fun...


Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Total drivel

Heartwarming compliments on my post of 30th September have poured in from all over the world: such perceptive observations as "fatuous entertainment", "very silly man" and "pointless rubbish", as well as some rather critical comments, have made me realise that there is a demand for more of this sort of thing, and I shall not fail to provide further helpings, starting with Another Twenty Questions, to be published on 30th October.

Several readers were kind enough to write and tell me which of the first twenty they were able to answer correctly without googling. Top Guns among them were Grumio (London), Froog (Beijing) and dandd (Oregon), though none of these mighty intellects got into double figures. Still, congratulations; if there had been any prizes I would have awarded one to each of them.


Friday, 30 September 2011

Twenty Questions

These are suited to people with ragbag minds. Some of them are dreary, some obscure and some merely silly (I mean the questions, not the people who can answer them; well, I suppose both, really).

The first and last questions are very silly.

Three correct answers is a good score, five is outstanding, ten is a lie.

1    Who was in whose what and how many miles awhat?

2    The Watsons is an unfinished novel by which author?

3    Which feature started to appear in Mayfair streets in 1958?

4    What links David Bowie, Rod Steiger, Telly Savalas, Michael Palin?

5    Which monument lists 558 generals of the first French Empire?

6    Piedmont white and Perigord black are prized varieties of what?

7    Traditionally, who would wield an estoque?

8    Who were liberated on March 3rd 1861?

9    Where are we treading, brothers?

10  What, according to Noel Coward, are just around the corner?

11  37 in Europe, 38 in the US: what?

12  Methuselah plus Salmanazar equals what?

13  One hundred agorot make what?

14  Where was Ferran Adriá head chef?

15  What's a caret?

16  Pertussis is better known as what?

17  What afflicted London from 5-9 December 1952?

18  The dandy Eustace Tilley is the mascot of which magazine?

19  Capten, art tha sleeping there below?

20  Where, by whom and when was the game known as Ragamadolio or Tumble-cum-Trivy played?

Answers are HERE

Sunday, 25 September 2011

The brilliance of engineers

I consider myself fortunate to have failed dismally, twice, in my half-hearted attempt to get a degree in Mechanical Engineering, for I know I would never have been any good at it However, this has not in any way affected my admiration for engineers, which has not been shared by many of my countrymen since Victorian times when Brunel and his peers were working wonders. The Germans have always respected engineers and allowed them to distinguish themselves with an appellation, so if I had graduated and gone to live in, say, Stuttgart (where they invented the automobile), I could have called myself Herr Ing. Heinrich Fußboden, though this is not actually my name.

It was not to be. But even now, after a career in which engineering featured not at all, I still think how nice it might have been if I could have made things like this; full instructions are given so anyone who wants to can do so, though not me.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

A major feat

It is difficult to list groups of unpleasant people in order of detestability, classifying them from the utterly wicked to the merely sleazy. Everyone has his own idea about which are the worst: double glazing salesmen, pornographers, Tories, evangelists, bankers, homeopaths, muggers? Which of these most deserve to meet an unpleasant end?

I am not sure where I would have put rustlers; a certain romance about their crime still clings from the days when you could be hanged for it, though it's no joke for Farmer Giles, struggling to keep his farm going in difficult times, being robbed of some of his precious animals by townie gangs: a nasty surprise for him to find them gone after he has spent a long night wrestling with Defra and EU forms, but nowadays, of course, he is likely to be the CEO of a mammoth corporation with plenty of staff to do the paperwork, make the insurance claims and even look after the sheep.

I was amazed to learn that, according to the BBC and the always readable Farmers' Guardian, thieves recently stole 579 ewes and 901 lambs from a field in Lincolnshire.

Someone who knows about sheep (and rustling?) says that two articulated trucks and a number of men and dogs must have been involved, in the dark. The noise! And the people! It may have been a thinly populated area, but didn't anyone tumble to the fact that something was going on?

Then there are the crooked shepherds, slaughtermen, butchers, vets and officials who must have had a hand in the huge operation. This was a major crime, and it is to be hoped that one of the villains will grass and that the whole bunch will go inside, but one cannot help feeling some sneaking admiration for the highly competent and hardworking gang who carried it out.

Thursday, 15 September 2011


Tasting menus in restaurants, basically a lot of little bits of stuff served consecutively, apparently became increasingly popular during the recession of the late 2000s and early 2010s. It is hard to imagine why, because now they are usually aimed at the well-heeled, not at those suffering from the economic decline of those years.

In 2008 I described a couple of such menus offered in San Sebastian, and how an intrepid (or foolhardy) journalist just managed to eat them both in a single day.

Earlier this year my friend Grumio took some friends to the American equivalent in California. Here is the menu:

Often a tasting menu gives you no choice, you eat whatever turns up, but in this case you can choose one dish from most of the nine courses; in the case of the Maine Lobster Tail there is no alternative, but they probably don't get many complaints about that.

The wine list comes on an iPad which isn't a bad idea, but choosing wines by the bottle to balance nine courses would not be easy, so wise guys take the sommelier's choice by glass.

The price mentioned is in US dollars, though they don't actually say so.

Grumio tells me they didn't spurn the supplements ("Who turns down the foie gras, ever?") and the bill for four was 2000.  American dollars, of course: what other currencies are there?

Saturday, 10 September 2011

The New Germany

No 34 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century
January 1934   From Louis Landsberg in Aachen: Thank you for your kind Christmas wishes. I read in the newspaper that these postcards are being exhibited today and tomorrow in relation to the past years work of new structure of Germany. I hope it will be of some use to your collection - there is only a small amount being issued so I think it will be a rare specimen... It was pretty hard to paste up these two stamps neatly. The one pfennig stamp was issued in December. How are you? Your girl? Everybody?
This anniversary card of Hitler's  year-old chancellorship was hot off the press and Hitler makes his first appearance on a stamp. The control exercised over all the semiotics of power, masterminded by Goebbels, already marked Hitler out as in a different league of dictatorship from Mussolini who only made one philatelic appearance in Italy (and then on a stamp which also features Adolf Hitler). The Brandenburg gate in Berlin retains its symbolic appearance at the end of the century.

Monday, 5 September 2011

The skull on the mantelpiece

N.F. Simpson, who recently died aged 92, wrote a play called The One Way Pendulum; I have treasured lines from it for years, including these:

"What's it for?"

"Oh, it's a memento mori. Supposed to remind you of death."

"And does it?"

"No, damn thing hasn't worked since we got it."


Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The last days of homeopathy

I have affectionate memories of Professor David Bellamy, OBE; he was always a bit of a clown, but his zest was endearing and his 400 TV programmes were entertaining and did much to popularise his enthusiasms, particularly botany.

Sadly, he later espoused the cause of climate change denial and more recently became the patron of the British Homeopathic Association, lobbyers for more quackery in the NHS.

This letter by Professor David Colquhoun asks Bellamy to appeal to the organisation, as one of its trustees, to take a firm and unequivocal stance against homeopaths using their products to either prevent or treat serious diseases such as HIV, malaria and to make a firm statement that they condemn this murderous use of homeopathic products.

It is indeed sad to see that dear old Bellamy (he is 78) needs to be advised not to support an organisation like the BHA. However, Colquhoun's letter gives some heartwarming comments on the increasing decline in the popularity of the absurd nostrums which they peddle:

"According to the Telegraph today, spending on homeopathic prescriptions has plummeted eightfold since 2000. If this decline continues, we can expect no prescriptions to be written with public money within a year or two....

I am not sure why homeopathy has declined so precipitously. But the very vocal campaign over the past few years against the provision of this superstitious form of medicine with public money may have played a part.

Homeopathy within the public sphere has been declining since the formation of the NHS with it almost disappearing entirely in the ‘70s. There are not any real homeopathic hospitals left at all now – just a few small clinics clinging on. Tunbridge Wells homeopathic hospital closed down a few years ago and the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital had to stop pretending it was a real homeopathic hospital in its own right and changed its name to the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine. Maybe we are just seeing the tail-end of a long decline."

Thursday, 25 August 2011

A jug of wine, a book of verse...

I don't like poetry much but have always been a keen versifier. I set a couple of sonnet-writing competitions some years ago (this is an example) but didn't enter them myself. However, I did once enter another competition, which called for a poem about either chlamydia or some form of contraception. I wrote:

There was a young lady called Lydia
Whose sex life just couldn't be giddier.
She gave not a rap
For the pox or the clap,
But was terribly scared of chlamydia.

This got an honourable mention but at the time I published the post I did not know that my poem was going to be really published. Then the branch of the pharmacy which had sponsored the competition produced a booklet containing all the best entries, and mine was one of them.

It occurred to me when I came across my copy of the booklet the other day that I had never announced to my friends that I had been given this signal honour, so I am doing so now.

The name of the sponsoring pharmacy, by the way, was Laycock Chemists. 

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Actually, books don't always smell nice

Monday's Guardian had a thoughtful and fairly objective article by Sam Leith about the relative virtues of books and electronic books. Most comment on this topic is special pleading of one kind or another: Ebook Sceptic, for example, is written by a bookseller (Tom Campbell) and unsurprisingly presents few arguments in favour of reading off an electronic device; Kindle-Schmindle describes Campbell's piece as "collating scientific research which adds rational support to his - our - instinctual [sic: he means instinctive] rejection of this new technology", but in fact it is cherry-picking: proper research should not merely set out to justify views already held.

I could set out the many advantages of reading devices (such as the fact that some books - and all thick paperbacks - have to be held open with both hands, which is uncomfortable) but this would be special pleading; I am biased because I love reading but a combination of arthritis and sensorimotor axonal polyneuropathy made it difficult until I discovered the iPad; now it is once again a joy.

Monday, 15 August 2011

This Sporting Life

I have been taken to task by one of my nearest and dearest for having expressed mild irritation at the brouhaha over the English cricket team’s recent success. It had seemed to me that for the result of a game of cricket to feature for several days as a major item in every TV news broadcast was excessive; the spectacle of smirking newsreaders telling us over and over again how epoch-making it all was – Georgeous George Alegiah was particularly gruesome – must have palled even for some sport-lovers.

I was accused of meanly resenting the “general happiness enabling people to forget their miserable dull lives”. This is not true: I like people to be happy, and if all it takes is a sporting victory then good luck to them. What I do resent is the way in which the bullying majority assume that those who do not share their enthusiasms must be perverse, unpatriotic or effete, or all three; I do not demand that they  share, say, my passion for early Assyrian stringed instruments, so why do they think I ought to enjoy listening to them wittering on about their silly games?

I suppose it is partly my fault for having nowadays stopped concealing my total lack of interest in all forms of sport. For many years, while I was making a living in a field related to sport, I had to dissemble and at times actually pretend that watching some contest or other, when I didn’t understand the rules and didn’t care much who won or lost, was my idea of fun.

But, I hear you cry, why did you ever get involved in something so unrelated to your inclinations? The answer is simple: in many jobs, the end product doesn’t really matter too much. Suppose you are the CEO of a multinational employing 4,000 people making mild steel flanges; must you be devoted to mild steel flanges? Would you necessarily want to spend your leisure time watching TV programmes about them or discussing them with your friends? Of course not, but running the company could be fulfilling work at which you were fairly competent and which you thoroughly enjoyed doing.

So it was with me, but of course all my colleagues naturally assumed that I was as fascinated by sport as they were, and it would have been churlish (and a poor career move) to have let them know how much it bored me. Sometimes the pretence was a strain.

The first time I went to Beijing (or Peking as we called it then) my interpreter told me when I got off the train from Lo Wu that my hosts had decided to honour me the next day by granting me a rare privilege. I was already excited just to be in China and I tossed about all night wondering what this surprise treat would be: a confidential talk with some of the party leaders, perhaps? A private visit to part of the Forbidden City not normally shown to foreigners? Dinner with some of their top circus stars at the biggest of the famous Roast Duck Restaurants, the one that serves 5,000 meals every day?

No. It was a seat (admittedly a good one, with arms) at a football match. The Red Army versus Albania. Three hours in a scruffy sweltering stadium with twenty thousand spectators screaming, spitting and generally carrying on, while I tried hard to pretend I was having the time of my life.

In later years I devised various stratagems for keeping up the pretence of my keen interest in all things sportive; I picked up from experts a few phrases relevant to each sport which I could trot out when at some dreary event I was woken from a light doze by someone wanting to know what I thought about it. One of those for football, I remember, was: “…well, of course, they’re keeping it very loose in midfield, aren’t they?…” Or, for cricket, something along the lines of: "...just like Gooch, really; he was always flashing at rising balls on the legside... "

I had no idea what these things meant, but neither did anyone else and I said them confidently, so they usually went down quite well.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Taken for a ride

It has occurred to me that it is a long time since I have added a new titfer to my "Hats" category. This will be OMF's 50th hat and I have chosen it to contrast with all the spectacular, soppy or frightening ones in the series

Actually this one isn't new. I posted this photo of one of my grand-daughters before, as hat number 41, but so what? It's a gentle, pleasing image, and I've nothing else to post today. 


Thursday, 4 August 2011

Passing likeness

They both have that piercing look of hard men, as if they might have had something in common, but they probably didn't, apart from having had tough childhoods. 

 Yehudi                               Philip

Saturday, 30 July 2011

At last a personal approach

I get a couple of dozen spam or scam messages every month in response to one of the eleven hundred posts this blog contains, sometimes one I published five years ago or more . But they're no trouble really: they pile up in my junk folder and every few weeks I just delete the lot, though I have to glance at the headings in case a real message has somehow got wrongly identified as spam.

Today I was charmed, and not a little flattered, to receive a comment on one of my recent posts, which was about the royal visit to Canada. This is not one of those sent out at random, by the million: it has been composed with some care and is clearly for me personally:
Greetings Mr. Flowers Sir;
Do you have the address of Wills and Kate?
I am a Nigerian Princess and would very much like the banking details of the Royal Family.
Thanking you most sincerely,

Lynn from Canada

[On second thoughts, perhaps this was not an attempted scam at all but merely a bit of fun by some jokey friend. If so, please reveal yourself, fool; there is no need to be so formal, you may call me Other Men's if you wish.]

Monday, 25 July 2011

Peace in our time

In September 1938 my mother wrote to my sister Audrey, who at that time was a dancer, on the stage in Scotland; she had her ninetieth birthday last March.

My mother first passed on some family news: my other sister and I were about to be evacuated (they brought us back to London later, in time for the Blitz) and my elder brother in the RAFVR had been told to report for operational training.

Then, an update on the national news: " ...trenches and dug-outs are being dug in the parks and even in the cemetery ...we have all been fitted for gas masks...".


"Things certainly seem a lot brighter this morning. It seems that our Premier, the French Premier, Mussolini and Hitler are all meeting again today to discuss the situation, so perhaps war will be averted after all."

My brother died in May 1940, when his Armstrong Whitworth Whitley crashed in France after dropping its cargo of leaflets.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Bat of Burning Gold

So England’s cricketers “will take the pitch to a rousing rendering of Jerusalem”.
This will disappoint those who, in a poll carried out by a digital music channel asking 2,000 people in England what song they would choose to represent their country, chose A Candle in the Wind, All You Need is Love, Vindaloo (what?), Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Abide with Me and several other songs proclaiming England’s sporting prowess, or something.

Jerusalem got 51% of the vote. It’s odd that Blake’s poem should be thought to inspire patriotic fervour, beginning as it does with four questions to all of which the answer is a resounding no. Of course, it’s not to be taken literally, it’s just a metaphor, but surely a rather outdated one: all our dark satanic mills are now loft apartments with designer kitchens and real teak floors. But bits of England are still green and pleasant enough and the idea of building even a metaphorical Jerusalem here has some pretty unpleasant connotations.

But if you forget the ludicrous suggestions it’s a jolly good tune, and there aren’t many other choices. There’ll Always Be An England isn’t really saying very much: there’ll always be a North Pole, if it comes to that, unless we go and melt it.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Fooling around with a trout

It is axiomatic that musical jokes are never funny; this may be because great composers rarely had much fun. But great musicians sometimes do, and this is nicely illustrated in a film made about the 1969 recital given in London by Daniel Barenboim, Itzhak Perlman, Zubin Mehta, Pinchas Zuckerman and Jacqueline du Pré, at which they played Schubert's Piano Quintet in A major D.667, "The Trout".

The film covers the rehearsals and the background to the event and includes their complete performance of the quintet, you will have to buy the DVD. It costs £24.95, but for this you also get a documentary about Schubert.

All five had been friends since they began their careers and had made names for themselves by the time they had the idea of meeting in London to perform together. After that all of them became world-famous and are still with us except Jacqueline du Pré, who performed very little after 1971, when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and stopped altogether in 1973. She died in 1987, aged 42.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

A new 419

Emails from gentlemen offering me 10% of $3 million if I use my bank account to carry out a small service for them have not been reaching me for some time.

They are like buses,really: you can wait ages for one and then three come at once. Or rather, the same one comes three times, at two-minute intervals. But this time the approach is slightly different: 

Hi, Corporal Mary Ann MacCombie(E-4) here.
I am an American soldier with Swiss background,serving in the military with the army 3rd infantry division. Please  I am seeking your kind assistance to help me move the sum of Three million,two hundred thousand united states dollars to you,as far as  I can be assured that my share will be safe in your care until I come out of hospital here in Germany ,where am receiving treatment on my injuries,this is no stolen money, and there are no danger involved.
I am presently in a hospital recovering from injuries sustained in a suicide bomb attack,
Please view website for confirmation: http://www.xxxxxx
Please if your willing to assist me contact me for more details at .
Yours in Service.
Corporal Mary Ann MacCombie (E-4).

Clearly, there is some original thinking here. 419s used to involve a request from help from a senior bank official, or a fatal accident to an intestate millionaire, or perhaps a grieving widow seeking to get her inheritance out of Nigeria. Now the plot has changed: a suicide bomber, a female Swiss/American corporal? Is she really In Service, like Mrs Bridges and Rose?

And although her share would certainly be safe in my care, and it is good to know that "there are no danger involved", there do seem to be some uncertainties. How much is my share, exactly? And why doesn't she use Western Union?

These are deep waters, and I shall not offer my help until I have made further enquiries.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The Palace, Ottawa

It seems that most Canadians have taken the Cambridges to their hearts, and everyone knows what warm hearts Canadians have. Some Québécois did hold up some handmade banners: "Parasite go home", "Kate go UK yourself" and so on, but most did not strongly oppose the visit, merely grumbling about its cost. And the prince got an undeserved cheer for his schoolboy French.

This raises an appealing possibility. When the time comes for the by-then ageing couple to take their thrones, why should they not become permanently resident in Canada? Presumably they will be considered King and Queen of Canada anyway, as well as of Britain, and there seems no reason why they would have to go on living over here: they could appoint a Governor-General to represent them here, and of course they could come over and make a state visit whenever they felt like it.

This scenario is rather less unlikely than the one that Nevil Shute set out in his novel In the Wet. Shute wrote it in 1953 when he had become disenchanted with socialism and such vile institutions as the National Health Service, and he describes how the Queen had become frustrated by her government's treatment of her. While she is on a visit to Ottawa the heir to the throne indicates that he will not succeed her while this situation persists and then, with the support of the "heavily royalist" Australia and Canada, leaves England. The Government falls and the Prince of Wales becomes Governor-General while the Queen confines herself to Commonwealth matters.

(Actually, the plot is much more complicated than this; Shute was strongly anti-racist, and though a naive or even simple-minded writer in some ways, had some ideas which were ahead of his time (metal fatigue in aircraft, for example) and an extraordinary ability to tell preposterous stories with conviction: in Round the Bend he describes the life and death of an aircraft engineer who founds a new religion and may indeed have been divine.)

Australia in recent years has not been strongly royalist, but Canada with a bit of encouragement might one day be persuaded to give a permanent lodging to Kate and Wills, for this would do wonders for their tourist trade and be one in the eye for the Americans, who would be green with envy.

We could still use all our experience of mounting gorgeous spectacles and pull in the tourists every year or two when the couple and their offspring make state visits, while saving ourselves the huge sums of money they cost us as long as they go on living here, and the BBC could dispense with whoever has replaced Nicholas Witchell as Royal Crawler Pursuivant.