Monday, 30 May 2011

More NS competitions

Writing a post the other day about the famous New Statesman competitions, I recalled some of the prizewinning entries in (much) earlier years. Not the long ones; I imagine there have been anthologies of winning entries, though I haven't been able to find one, in which I could have looked up such things as the winning entry for An Imaginary Discussion between Oswald Mosley and Ian Paisley Written in the Style of Hemingway. (I often wondered why anyone would expend the huge effort needed to write things like this in the hope of winning a small book token.)

No, it was the one-liners that stuck in my memory, such as:

Great Boasts:
At the wedding: "Yes, charming couple, I've slept with both of them."

Irregular Verbs, along the lines of I am firm/ you are obstinate/ he is a pig-headed fool:
"I am Oxford/ you are Cambridge/ he is London School of Economics."
"I like boys/ you are a scoutmaster/ he is in prison."

Announcements which make the experienced party-goer/ diner-out wish he had stayed at home:
"This is something rather special: we trod the grapes ourselves."
"And now, who's for some mead?"
"Oh goodie, Deirdrie's brought her zither!"

I wish I had made a note of some of the others; I could have made fifty posts out of them.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

True prophets

My friend Grumio and I were not among the countless billions who prepared to be whisked up to Paradise last week, or alternatively to be left down here to suffer a bit and then die miserably. You see, we knew that there was no hurry, because the smart money said that these happenings were still some way off.

During a trip to the States some years ago, we had had the privilege of meeting Septimus and George, two brothers who have made much more authoritative prophesies. You can tell from a glance at 
their lavishly illustrated website (and check out their profiles) that they are not misguided amateurs like that Camping fellow, but the real McCoy, top-level seers whose word is to be trusted.

We are advising all our friends to take their time to prepare properly, not forgetting provision for their pets, and then cash in all their investments and have a real good time in the coming months.


Friday, 20 May 2011

The one about three intelligent men

A friend asked me the other day if I knew the riddle about three men who had to compete in working out whether a black or a white patch had been stuck on their forehead. I remembered it, vaguely, and told him I would look it up and tell him how it went.

But I then found that it was not so easy to google something that contained no distinctive words. I tried various combinations, patch+ three+ black+ intelligent and so on, and eventually found a number of variations of this old puzzle, but none of them explained it well.

Finally I remembered that I had first seen it in a marvellous book my late sister gave me for my eleventh birthday: "The Complete Home Entertainer". It has a particularly fine section called Fun with Matches, Coins and String and this kept me happily occupied for a very long time, but I finally found  the puzzle I wanted under Brain Twisters. I could have scanned it and posted it as a picture but it was on more than one page so that would have been tedious. Instead I typed out a précis of the question and answer, and here it is:

The three most intelligent applicants for a job are given a test.

The interviewer tells them to shut their eyes and he will then stick either a black or a white patch on the forehead of each of them. He says "When I ask you to open your eyes, anyone who can see a black patch must raise his hand. If he can deduce whether his own patch is black or white he must lower his hand".

He then stuck a black patch on each forehead and told them to open their eyes. Three hands shot up and almost immediately one came down.

"Yes? What colour is your patch?"

"Black, sir"

"Correct! The job is yours!"

How had he worked it out?

Call the candidates X, Y and Z. X says to himself:

"Suppose my patch is white. Then Y has his hand up because he can see Z's black patch."

But also he sees Z with his hand up and, being intelligent, he asks himself: "Why is Z's hand raised? Answer: because he can also can see a black patch which must (Y will argue) be mine. IF MY PATCH WERE WHITE, the intelligent Y (and the intellgent Z) would work this out in no time. But neither has done so, since both still have their hands up. Therefore the problem is not as simple as that. Therefore my patch is black".

So X got the job.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Competitions and a raincoat

It is many years since I subscribed to New Statesman—in fact, I don't think I ever did, I used to read it in the library—but for some reason they often send me a free copy. This is nice, for although I would no longer want to buy it every fortnight, I enjoy seeing an occasional copy for nostalgia's sake.
I am happy to know that their competition is still going strong: it has reached No 4174, which called for poems on the subject of any well-known proverb and attracted many entries. There were several clever and elegant ones, but my favourite among the prizewinners was short and simple:
Don't keep a dog...

I kept a dog and barked myself
And now my throat is sore.
The burglars only laughed at me
And busted in my door.
They stole my money and my jewels.
They stole my private log.
I only wish they'd thought to steal
That stupid, silent dog.

In 1949 the competition was for parodies of Graham Greene's writing style; famously, the author himself submitted an entry under the pen name "N. Wilkinson" and won second prize. In 1965 Greene again entered a similar New Statesman competition under a pseudonym, and won an honourable mention.

I too entered a few times but never got even an honourable mention. However, as with all literary competitions the prizes were miserably small book tokens (they are still only £25 and some Tesco vouchers) so I soon gave up trying and later my pride was salvaged when I did win £50, a lot of money in those days, in a newspaper competition.

This was in the Observer and was for a parody of one of their regular feature writers; I chose Pierre d'Harcourt who wrote on travel (merely a slim column—lavishly illustrated colour supplements were way in the future), aimed squarely at discriminating travellers, not the holiday-making masses. Fifty years later I recycled my entry as one of the first posts in Other Men's Flowers.
I spent my winnings on a Gannex raincoat; Harold Wilson quickly followed my example and wore one on a world tour in 1956. They became fashion icons, and were worn by Lyndon Johnson, Mao Zedong and Nikita Khrushchev, as well as the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and the royal corgis. In addition they were worn by Arctic and Antarctic explorers, Himalayan climbers, the armed services, and police forces in Britain and Canada, and the success of the new fabric made Joseph Kagan a multi-millionaire, while Wilson made him a life peer.

He was later charged with tax evasion, though the formal charges were styled as "theft" and "false accounting", to comply with extradition treaties which did not cover tax offences. After a stay in Israel, he was arrested in Paris. On December 12, 1980, he was convicted of four counts of theft, fined £375,000 and served a ten-month sentence. He lost his knighthood, but his peerage could not be forfeited and on release from custody he returned to the House of Lords and spoke on prison reform.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Why the Sunday Times is rubbish, Part 163

Last Sunday's edition was typical. The front page was dominated by a photograph and an article on Kate McCann, and the "News" Review devoted pages 1 to 3 to an extract from her forthcoming book and six more photos.
Everyone sympathises with Mrs McCann, and no-one would blame her for keeping alive the tragic story of the disappearance of her daughter Madeleine, but it was disingenuous of the ST to push these non-revelations with the subhead: "Here she tells what really happened that terrible night". After four years it would certainly be good to know what really happened, but of course the extract, and presumably the book, contains nothing new of any importance.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

A weekly shot of sense

I have a PVR which enables me to record TV programmes for watching at convenient times (for example, when I am not dozing, or eating, or training for the pole-vault in 2012). Most of the time there are a couple of dozen items waiting to be watched and inevitably when starting to work through them I find that in many cases I had been unjustifiably optimistic in thinking they might be interesting. So I have watched only the first five minutes of many programmes which looked promising but turned out to be rotten; this often happens with old films which I remembered with affection but which, when viewed with a more mature (or blasé) eye, are unutterably tedious.

I said rotten, not rubbish: one of the pleasures of advanced age is being able to watch rubbish without feeling guilty; I do a lot of that. I will not, therefore, list the items of which I am currently watching a series, but there are some which I can recommend without incurring contempt.

One is Dateline London, a round table discussion between media correspondents based in London, some British but mostly foreign (12.30 on Saturdays, BBC News 24). They talk about any issues of the day in a relaxed and non-adversarial way, often disagreeing but often reaching a consensus. None of them ever expresses any opinion which makes me want to punch him, or her, in the mouth. Hard-ass journalists they may be, but they argue as if they actually like and respect each other, a refreshing thing; Gavin Essler chairs admirably

And, of course, most of them know something of which they speak, having studied and reported on it. After I watch this programme I am often still confused about the matters which have been discussed, but confused in a much better-informed way, if you see what I mean.

Their discussion on April 30th was typically rewarding. They talked with appropriate gravitas about the situation in Syria, the West's attitude to dictators, and the alternative voting system, but before that with an equally appropriate lightheartedness about the previous day's royal wedding.  

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown of the Independent had spent the day in a deserted Epping Forest and then at a (very small) republican party, Brian O'Connell of the Irish RTE said that they had given it three hours on TV, up to the balcony kisses, Dr Vincent Magombe of Africa Inform International said that he doubted whether anybody in Uganda had watched it because the situation there is so dire, and the splendidly named Stryker McGuire of Newsweek said that most of his compatriots had thoroughly enjoyed the magnificent spectacle, knowing that they didn't have to pay for it.