Thursday, 31 March 2011

The Blue Comes Through

A few years ago I wrote a post about my first employers and their products (or, rather, one of them; I omitted to mention another of our best sellers, an ointment for piles: blind, bleeding, itching, ulcerated or protruding).

And we sold all round the world other equally effective remedies for a variety of distressing maladies. Our advertising, though perfectly honest, was colourful and convincing; inevitably, it evoked a great number of enquiries and it was one of my duties as Export Manager to respond to them.

Many were from West Africa. In those days none of them were of the kind which asked for my bank details so as to facilitate the transfer to me of huge sums of money; some were heartwarming expressions of gratitude for having relieved the writer's discomfort or worry and others asked for advice or a free sample. Most included lurid details of the writer's symptoms, and some of these had to be kept out of the sight of the junior office staff, for these were prudish times; nowadays, of course, they would be pinned up so that everyone could have a giggle.

In reply I used a number of different standard letters, all of them ethically impeccable, giving sound advice where this could do no harm and always recommending consulting a doctor. Sometimes I would add a non-committal sentence of comfort or re-assurance.

I still have a file of the most entertaining letters that I received. It was all rather a waste of time, really. It would have been easier, and perhaps kinder, to have had a few hundred standard replies ready-printed for use in most cases, simply saying:

Dear Sir
You have the pox.
Yours faithfully....

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Salutations in Cochinchina

When visiting one of the many parts of the world where they speak a language of which I have no knowledge, I always try to master a few phrases before I go. To help me with this I used to use Babel Fish but now I find Google Translate is better, and will pronounce the phrase for you as well as translate it. It is important to practise: get an intonation only slightly wrong and, with Asian languages in particular, you might ask your neighbour at dinner to pass the salt and find that you have insulted the fellow's grandmother in a most unmentionable manner.

It is useless to learn how to ask for directions, or indeed any kind of question other than rhetorical ones, for you will not understand the answer: cheery greetings and courtesies are what you need. Here, for example, are translations into Vietnamese of some phrases which might be useful when you are strolling in the vibrant market streets of Saigon:

Get out of here
Có được ra khỏi đây

Why don't you get out of here?
Tại sao bạn không nhận được ra khỏi đây?

If you don't get out of here, I will knock your block off / kick you in the mouth
Nếu bạn không nhận được ra khỏi đây, tôi sẽ rời khỏi khối / đá bạn trong miệng

[For the technically minded:  Google Translate uses statistical machine translation, which has made substantial advances in recent years, while Babel Fish uses SYSTRAN rule-based technology.]

Wednesday, 16 March 2011


I have just discovered that several versions of this probably apocryphal story have been circulating for years. Why had I never heard it until now?

On a visit to the Elysée Palace, Dorothy Macmillan said to Mme de Gaulle: "Now that your husband has achieved so much, is there any particular wish you have for him?", to which Madame replied: "Yes, a penis."

There was a stunned silence until General De Gaulle looked up and said: "Ah yes, 'appiness is what we all want."

Friday, 11 March 2011

In Glorious Drearicolor!

The website World of Soviet Groceries is not nearly as exciting as it sounds, though it does give an accurate if depressing picture of what life in the Soviet Union must have been like

When I was there the USSR still had a few years of life left in it and I don't remember what I ate in Moscow so I suppose most of the dishes must have been along the same lines as those illustrated.

So indeed were the entertainments provided for us by our hosts, though I suppose they meant well: the high spot was an hour spent in a glum queue waiting to file past the embalmed corpse of Lenin, and a close second was a promised afternoon at the Bolshoi Theatre, which turned out not to be one one of the great ballets or operas but a two-hour talk on the history of the Bolshoi, in Russian.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Cab and me

Last Thursday was an important anniversary for me, and by an extraordinary co-incidence it was also an anniversary for the great Cab Calloway, for on 3rd March in the year I was born he published Minnie the Moocher, the first million-selling jazz record.

But sadly I could not invite him to join me in celebration because he died in 1994, and I certainly wouldn't want to invite his trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who stabbed him in the leg with a small knife in 1941 and died in 1993.

So to mark the occasion I had dinner with my immediate family, nine of us, at a restaurant in rural Sussex: no scat singing or HBTY, just a couple of hours browsing and sluicing.

As a matter of interest (my interest, that is) I ate:
Potted Herring, Slow Cooked Gloucester Old Spot Belly, Fennel Gratin, Chestnut Honey Tart, Green Walnut Ice Cream... and miscellaneous forkfuls from the plates of those who had something different: Barbary duck, onion jam potatoes, pigeon, that sort of thing. An eight-year-old grand-daughter had chosen Jacob's Ladder (illustrated below), but needed very little help from me in putting it away. 
It was a splendid evening.