Monday, 27 December 2004

Richter 9

As I write this the death toll is already in the tens of thousands. And maybe a million homeless.

I think I will post no more until the New Year.

Sunday, 26 December 2004

The man with no name

I chose my fifty films from those I would like to see again but of course in later viewings one is sometimes disappointed. Bearing this in mind, I excluded all the great classics of the early cinema and some later films which I knew would have dated by now.

But a more recent film got in because I remembered it as being exciting. The first of two hundred spaghetti Westerns, Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, was a remake of Kurosawa’s splendid Yojimbo.

Seeing it on TV the other day, I found it boring and silly, with the Italian cast dubbed by rotten actors speaking poorly translated dialogue. Clint Eastwood did much better things later, both as actor and director.

Anyway, out it comes, and to replace it I chose The Way Ahead, Carol Reed’s memorable wartime semi-documentary, written by Peter Ustinov and originally intended as a training film.

[By the way, the character played by Eastwood in AFOD is actually referred to as Joe, and by different names in later films]

Friday, 24 December 2004

A Gladsome Yuletide to One and All

“It's always seemed to me, after all, that Christmas, with its spirit of giving, offers us all a wonderful opportunity each year to reflect on what we all most sincerely and deeply believe in - I refer, of course, to money.”
Tom Lehrer

Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens,
Mix the punch, drag out the Dickens.
Even though the prospect sickens,
Brother, here we go again.

But, all the same, here's a wish:
A prayer when dry: Tipsy as a charm. Amen.

Wednesday, 22 December 2004

But it was the way they said it…

Everyone knows a few of the classic lines from films – “Frankly, my dear…”, “Infamy! Infamy!..”, “Fasten your seatbelts…”, and most of the things Groucho said. There are certain rich veins: things said to Bogart (as well as by him), Alastair Sim's horrified yelps (e.g. "..and boys! Remember Nicky, the nark!") and, curiously, Brief Encounter which, besides the one below, has "Can I help? I'm a doctor" and the husband's remark as Celia Johnson comes out of her reverie: "I don't know where you've been, my dear, but thank you for coming back to me".

Here are a few that I treasure; some are in the popular collections of movie quotes, but most are not.

  • Alastair Sim to Trevor Howard, who had called him a flat-footed copper: “The police force does not have a monopoly of fallen arches, Doctor Barnes” (Green for Danger)
  • Lionel Barrymore to Greta Garbo when she had agreed to give up her relationship with his son: “Gawd bless yew, Marguerite Goad-i-ay!” (Camille)
  • Katherine Hepburn to Humphrey Bogart: “Human nature is what we are put on this earth to rise above, Mr Allnutt” (The African Queen)
  • Alfonso Bedoya to Humphrey Bogart, after being accused of not being a real policeman: “Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges!” (Treasure of the Sierra Madre)
  • Joyce Cary as the woman in charge of the refreshment room, bridling at a flirtatious remark: “I don’t know to what you’re referrin’, I'm sure…” (Brief Encounter)
  • Orson Welles to Joseph Cotton: “Sure, we’re speaking, Jed. You’re fired.” (Citizen Kane)
  • Marlene Dietrich to Orson Welles: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?” (A Touch of Evil)
  • Fortunio Bonanova as the music master trying to teach Kane’s wife to sing: “Impossible! Impossible!” (Citizen Kane, again)
  • Robert Newton calling his dog to be drowned: “Gammeeryeaough!”, possibly meaning “Come ‘ere you!” (Oliver Twist)
  • Moore Marriott, after a train runs over his watch: “It’s stopped!” (Oh Mr Porter)
  • Fred MacMurray, confessing on tape: "Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?" (Double Indemnity)
  • One soldier to another: “You essence of stench!(subtitle in a Kurosawa film)
  • French soldier to King Arthur’s knights: “Go and boil your bottoms, you sons of silly persons!” (Monty Python and the Holy Grail)
  • Jean Gabin to Michèle Morgan, as he lies dying in the street: “Embrasse-moi! Vite, on est pressé!” (Quai des Brumes)

Monday, 20 December 2004

If you’re called Arthur Wilkins I've no interest in you

If there is a defect in my character – and this is a matter much disputed between those who hotly maintain that there are none and those who with equal vehemence declare that there are several, citing in particular my excessive modesty, the gentleness of my nature which makes me easily cowed by stronger personalities and silenced by vociferous opposition, and, most of all, my predilection, probably stemming from exposure at too early an age to the works of Henry James, for the composing of sentences which, though perfectly coherent and of lapidary grace, develop such inordinate length and complexity that people reading them sometimes give up in the middle, believing that life is passing them by and that they would be well advised to go away and do something else – then it is my perverted romanticism or baseless xenophilia, call it what you will, which causes me to take a disproportionate interest in (or sometimes, even, feel unjustifiably attracted towards) people with exotic names.

This is a defect of no great consequence. I have never come to any harm through seeking closer relationships with people called, say, Chintaman Rambocus or Tarsilla Castelnuovo-Tedesco, nor did it prevent me twenty years ago from making a very sound move by marrying someone called Anne. So it is not disabling, though it is undoubtedly a misguided impulse.

I have been watching on TV an extremely silly spy series called Spooks. There are several women in the cast, including two who are both quite attractive though neither of them to such an extent as to fill me with uncontrollable lust. One of them, called Nicola Walker, is pretty in a conventional way; the other is not really pretty at all but has a vaguely sinister charm, with a slight lisp and cold, hooded eyes; her name, as I would have expected, is Olga Sosnovska. No need to ask which one I kept my eyes on.

The lunacy of my exotic-name fixation was brought home to me when, after the last episode, I examined the cast list more closely and found that I had got it quite wrong: it is the boringly pretty one whose name is Olga Sosnovska.

Saturday, 18 December 2004

Musical Family

The last of the Goossens family has died at the age of 105: Sidonie Goossens was a harpist of world renown for more than half a century.

This musical family, which came to England from Belgium in the nineteenth century, included three Eugenes—grandfather, father and brother to Sidonie. Another brother, Leon, was a famous oboist; here he is playing the Tarantella from Scarlatti’s Concerto No 1.
It is absolutely not true that he gave rise to the phrase ….wouldn’t say oboe to a Goossens.

Thursday, 16 December 2004

You don’t have to be pregnant

People have been rather sniffy about it, but I think the offer by the hotel group Travelodge, silly PR gimmick though it may be, is not altogether without merit. They will give a free night’s accommodation over the Christmas season to any couple named Mary and Joseph, “…to make amends for the failure of the Bethlehem hotel industry”.

Tuesday, 14 December 2004

Sixty years at the movies

I started to make a list of films that I have enjoyed with the intention of putting it into my profile, but I discovered that my Blogger template not only insisted on calling them Favorite Films, but limited the list to six hundred characters. This would restrict the number of films to be included to about twenty-five, and as during some decades I went to the pictures up to three times a week this would have meant leaving out many essential ones.

Anyway, for the moment I have selected fifty and put them on a separate page. They are listed HERE.


Each title has a link to a review, mostly from The New York Times, IMDb or the invaluable www.filmsite.org .

Sunday, 12 December 2004

God can harm your moral health

It has been my observation that strong religious beliefs do not make anyone more virtuous; few of the really good people I have known have been particularly devout, and few of the pious ones have been notably good. There is, as statisticians would say, zero correlation. Or, to put it another way, as a force for the moral improvement of mankind the Bible simply doesn’t work.

Further, I have long suspected that there is actually a negative correlation (i.e., the more godly, the less pure in heart), and an article in The Sunday Times by Andrew Sullivan, from which I quote below, suggests that there might be some evidence for this.
What is certain is that in the United States of America the god-fearing parts where "traditional values" are upheld are not those parts where traditional values are healthiest.

Consider:

  • The states with the highest divorce rates are AL, AR, AZ, FL, GA, MS, NC, OK, SC, and TX. All voted for Bush in the recent election.
  • The states with the lowest divorce rates are CT, MA, ME, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI and VT. All voted for Kerry.
  • The Bible Belt divorce rate is about 50% higher than the national average.
  • There is no measurable difference in divorce rates between those who are “born again” and those who are not.
  • In Texas, where the religious right and its rhetoric against teen-age sex is strong, teen births as a percentage of all births are 16.1%, while in liberal, secular Massachusetts they are less than half, 7.4%.
  • In America, where the religious right ferociously condemn abortion, there are 21 abortions per 1,000 women aged between 15 and 44; liberal Holland has 6.4%, less than a third of this.
  • The leading members of the forces of social conservatism in America are hardly exemplars of the values they purport to espouse: Rush Limbaugh has had three divorces and an addiction to painkillers, Bill Reilly has just settled a sex harassment suit that indicated a highly active adulterous sex life, and Bob Barr, the congressman who wrote the Defense of Marriage Act, has had three wives.


The article was entitled: Where the Bible bashers are sinful and the liberals pure. This is perhaps a crude generalisation, as is the suggestion that Republicans are vociferous about sin but commit more than their share, while Democrats don’t talk about it so much but commit rather less. America is more complicated than that: as Sullivan points out, Bill Clinton was a product of a Republican state while Bush was for more than half his life a dissolute wastrel from a Democrat-state family.
Of course, all this is fairly incomprehensible from a UK standpoint. As the most secular nation of the western world, we do not expect, or even want, our leaders to be publicly devout. Religious zeal is regarded as bad form and our Prime Minister’s sanctimony is an electoral handicap (as are his wife’s dotty superstitions).

Friday, 10 December 2004

Not Very Interesting Facts

[No 162 in an occasional series]
“The best things in life are free” is an anagram of “Nail-biting refreshes the feet”.

Wednesday, 8 December 2004

Keeping our spirits up

Following the piece I wrote last week about Struwwelhitler, a friend has emailed to remind me of other jokes about the Nazis that were going round in the 1940s, most of which were either very feeble or excessively optimistic: we never actually did Hang Out the Washing On the Siegfried Line.

On TV in the seventies Private Pike repeated one of the childish wartime chants (“…Hitler’s barmy, so’s his army...”) in the presence of a captured U-boat commander, who angrily demanded to know his name so that retribution could be exacted after the war (“Don’t tell him, Pike!”).

Perhaps the most effective slander on the Nazi leaders was the one that was said to have been based on confidential information supplied by Unity Mitford, who knew them well; it went to the tune of Colonel Bogey:
Hitler…..has only got one ball
Goering…..has two, but rather small
Himmler…..has something simmler
And poor old Goebbels has noebbels at all.

Monday, 6 December 2004

No they don’t, and never did

If you put warm beer plus English into Google you get nearly ten thousand results. If you add John Major you still get a couple of hundred and I imagine that quite a few of the ten thousand stem from these.

In this way is a misconception perpetuated by a fatuous idiot’s misquotation.

Saturday, 4 December 2004

Shock-headed Führer

I wrote recently about a Victorian children’s book called Struwwelpeter. In 1941 Robert and Philip Spence wrote and illustrated a version of it called Struwwelhitler. Not only does it cleverly adapt Dr Hoffman’s stories to a twentieth-century wartime setting, but the style of both the verse and the drawings mimics the original very closely; the booklet is a little masterpiece of parody. It was published by The Daily Sketch to raise money for the War Relief Fund which provided comforts to the armed forces and to air raid victims, and the authors took no fees or royalties.




The Story of the Inky Boys has become the Story of the Nazi Boys, and the black-a-moor has become a little bolshevik boy. Stalin is the giant and dips them into red ink. I would guess that the booklet was written after his pact with Hitler but before Operation Barbarossa when the Russians became our allies, for although he plays the good giant who teaches the Nazi boys a lesson he's not presented as the cuddly old Joe which he later became. It was a confusing time.

The booklet has a special resonance for me in that it inspired the only really successful investment I have ever made in my whole life: I bought it in a second-hand bookshop in Malvern in 2001 and after having a colour photocopy made I sold it on eBay for three times the price I paid. When first published exactly half a century earlier it cost the same as my hardback Struwwelpeter had cost five years before that: 1/6d (7½p).
A slight shadow was cast over my satisfaction when later I saw that booksellers were offering other copies of the booklet for sale at five times the price for which I had let mine go.

Thursday, 2 December 2004

The ultimate question

Even the most eminent philosophers may be unaware that some complex questions have simple answers. There is an old and, sadly, apocryphal story told by a cabby: 'Only the other evening I picked up Bertrand Russell, and I said to him, "Well, Lord Russell, what's it all about, then?" And, do you know, HE COULDN’T TELL ME!'

The answer is, of course: You do the Hokey-Cokey and you turn around, and that’s……

There is also the story about Larry La Prise, who wrote it. When he died in 2002 his family had great difficulty with the funeral: they put his left leg in the coffin, and it was all downhill from there…

Tuesday, 30 November 2004

Shock-headed Peter

Our Victorian forebears would have been completely mystified about the proposal to make it illegal for us to smack our children, for what was inflicted on theirs makes smacking seem like a caress. I don’t mean just being sent up chimneys or down mines – that was only for the children of the poor – but also the punishments that middle- or upper-class children might suffer when they stepped out of line.

The only interesting relic I have of my childhood is a battered copy of an English translation of Struwwelpeter, with the wildly inaccurate subtitle Pretty Stories and Funny Pictures.



It tells of appalling things that happened to naughty or merely foolish children: Frederick, who was cruel to animals, was savaged by his own dog; Harriet played with matches and burned to death; Augustus wouldn’t eat his soup and died slowly of starvation, while Robert went out with a red umbrella on a windy day and was never seen again. Most frightening of all, when Conrad’s Mamma was out and he sucked his thumb, the “great, long, red-legg’d scissor-man” came crashing through the door and snipped it off, then did the same to the other one. I must have been given this book when I was about six, and it says much for the happy security of my childhood that although I was a nervous and timid little boy I don’t think I was at all terrified by the truly dreadful pictures.


One of the stories strikes me today as being very salutary: three little racists torment a “woolly-headed black-a-moor”, singing “Oh! Blacky, you’re as black as ink” and so on. A neighbourhood giant called Agrippa remonstrates with them but they take no notice, so he “foams with rage” and dunks them in his “mighty inkstand”.



“The black-a-moor enjoys the fun” and a final picture shows him marching perkily along while the three boys march behind him:
Quite black all over, eyes and nose,
And legs, and arms, and heads, and toes,
And trowsers, pinafores and toys,
The silly little inky boys.


So perhaps the bloodthirsty Dr Hoffman's heart was really in the right place, though many doctoral theses have been written about his castration complex and the phallic symbolism of his themes.

I shall write in a later post about a version called Struwwelhitler.

Sunday, 28 November 2004

Banning the “sport”

“We intend to eradicate this cruel, barbaric practice”, said a civil leader. More than 80% of the public supports an outright ban, and the government is on the way to outlawing it. But there are many who say that banning it will destroy a way of life and cause thousands of job losses, and that it’s an urban versus rural issue which many townspeople simply do not understand.

It is true that it originated before the birth of Christ and was popular in England, along with bull-baiting with dogs, for hundreds of years, but nowadays we are much less interested in it; few people enjoy watching two cocks fitted with sharp spurs slash at each other until one is dead or dying.

In England cockfighting was forbidden by Queen Victoria, but it is still legal in two American states, Louisiana and New Mexico, though there is a renewed effort being made to wipe it out altogether. However, there has been a petition to Congress, inspired by Gamefowl Breeders Of The U.S, to legalise it throughout the country, asserting that legalisation would “bring in millions of much needed tax dollars”. This is an argument which must be very attractive to the present administration.

Thursday, 25 November 2004

Which one is he, then?

It has been brought to my attention that even some of my literate, cultured, sharpwitted readers are having difficulty keeping up with the news from Ukraine, where there is headline strife and the possibility of worse to come. This is not because the situation is particularly complex, but simply because we are used to discussing world leaders who have nice crisp names like Blair or Bush, and while we could manage the World War II two-syllablers - Stalin, Churchill, Hitler - the troubles in Ukraine are requiring us to remember which protagonist is the one to cheer and which the one to boo-hiss when they are both called Viktor and both have surnames beginning with Y containing a joint total of SEVEN SYLLABLES.
But Other Men's Flowers is The Blog That Makes Everything Easy, so pay attention and don't fidget:

Viktor Yanukovitch is the official winner of the election for President, but this is disputed by the supporters of the opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, who say that the poll was fixed, while the still acting President Leonid Kuchma is keeping a low profile, as well he might, and the situation has been complicated by the arrival of dear old Lech Waleska (pron. Vawensa) of Solidarity (or Solidarnosc), who addressed the vast crowd in Polish.

Oh, and the colour of the revolution (opposition) is ORANGE, while the other side favours BLUE and WHITE, which are also the colours of the Ukrainian football club Dynamo, but Dynamo fans are wearing orange because the club is owned by the unpopular Kuchma supporter Grigoriy Surkis.

All clear now? Carry on, then.

Wednesday, 24 November 2004

Watch out, Columbia SC

Yes, well, in the previous post I set out to report on a clever plan devised by an American religious organisation to enable their adherents to gain political power, but when I started to write about their target – South Carolina – I got sidetracked into going on about dining cars and Eartha Kitt. I shall start again:

The project is called Christian Exodus and if you find what follows hard to understand their website explains it in some detail. They believe that the US government under President Bush is committing atrocities by being soft on abortion, allowing the discredited theory of Darwinian evolution to be taught in schools, celebrating sodomy, and planning to outlaw the preaching of Christianity.

They are not at all pleased about this and have devised a strategy whereby, rather than spending resources in continued efforts to redirect the entire nation, they will redeem States one at a time. As they quite rightly point out, “millions of Christian conservatives are geographically spread out and diluted at the national level”. Therefore, they will concentrate their numbers in a geographical region with a sovereign government they can control through the electoral process.

What they are doing is moving thousands of Christian constitutionalists to specific cities and counties in South Carolina through a series of emigrations, believing “the values of this state to be very similar to the values held by our membership”.

The first move will begin when their organisation has 12,000 members, who will be “encouraged” to move to a selected city and county. “That number of activist émigrés, when combined with the present Christian electorate, will enable us to win the city council, the county council, elected law enforcement positions, and elected judgeships. We will then be able to protect our God-given and constitutionally protected rights within our local community.”

They reckon to move thousands into South Carolina by the end of 2008 and then start their political campaigns. This is only Phase One, of course; as migration proceeds, city, county and then state will fall, probably by 2016, and at that point there could be secession from the Union.

I can see several ways in which this plan may run into difficulties, but in a nation where, according to an opinion poll in the 1990s, 3.7 million people say they have been kidnapped by extra-terrestrials, anything is possible. It would be wrong for a foreigner to comment, but for the British there is some resonance with the 1980s misdeeds of Dame Shirley Porter, the "homes for votes" scandal, involving selling empty council houses and flats in Tory marginal wards to the professional middle classes and forcing the homeless to live outside the borough. But that of course was illegal, whereas Christian Exodus is presumably not; you couldn’t charge hundreds of thousands of migrants with gerrymandering, though the organisers might be at risk.

Monday, 22 November 2004

More brief encounters

Pardon me, boy, is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo?
Track twenty-nine…Boy, you can gimme a shine
I can afford to board a Chattanooga Choo Choo
I've got my fare and just a trifle to spare
You leave the Pennsylvania Station 'bout a quarter to four
Read a magazine and then you're in Baltimore
Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer
Than to have your ham an' eggs in Carolina


I think I remember reading once that it should be ….ham and eggs in “Carolina”, because that was the name of the dining car, not the state which split into two in 1729, but I can find no confirmation of this, though if there had been a dining car so called it might have looked like this.

Then again, it might not.


Talking of the state, Eartha Kitt was born in South C. and had a pretty rotten time there. I knew her before she was famous; at least, I went to see Katherine Dunham’s dancers in London in the early fifties and read later that she had been one of the troupe. I also saw her after she was famous, as the star of a variety show at a huge cinema in CROYDON, for God’s sake. I’m not sure Orson Welles was right to say that she was the most exciting woman in the world, and it would be an exaggeration to say that these encounters played a major part in my life, but later I did go several times to see her in New Faces, a film of an American musical.
(There used to be a simple test for sophistication. You just asked the question Which would you rather be: kissed by Marilyn Monroe or bitten by Eartha Kitt? )

She had the finest diction of any singer I have ever heard, with every consonant perfectly in place, and sang rather well in several languages, unlike, for example, the boring Joan Baez who always sounded exactly the same, in whatever language she thought she was singing.


For news of Eartha in 2007, go here.

I realise that I have drifted away completely from the important matter I intended to discuss in this post, which actually has nothing at all to do with dining cars or Eartha Kitt. It will make the post too confusing if I start covering it now, so I will stop here and start again in my next post the day after tomorrow, unless some more urgent topic supervenes.


Saturday, 20 November 2004

Opinion poll

Here are the results of a poll based on face-to-face interviews carried out in the south of England over three weeks last month:

Question: How do you feel about being called “colleagues” rather than “staff”?

Replies (percentage of sample)
“I think it’s silly” (or variations) 42.86%
“Well, it’s nice, really, isn’t it?” 14.29%
“Pity the pay stays the same” 14.29%
[Don’t knows 28.57%]
[Note: There was no need for statistical weighting by age, gender, ethnicity, political inclination, financial status or other variables since the sample was not random but consisted solely of representatives of the group affected, that is to say Sainsbury’s check-out staff (or colleagues). A total of seven interviews took place, six in the work environment and one in a car park. The interviewer noted in his report that all respondents replied clearly and courteously.]

Making this survey and noting the results have convinced me that only one thing matters about titles or modes of address, and that is whether the persons concerned are happy with them.

Some years ago I was working with a local medical-cum-social charity which announced that its policy was to refer to prostitutes always as sex workers. I had two problems with this: first, had anyone ever asked them whether they liked this? When I first heard of it I thought of old Lucy who (so I was told) used to do it in the recreation ground for half-a-crown, and her likely horse laugh: “Oh, I wouldn’t call it work, dearie”. Second, what do you then call their pimps: sex work supervisors?


.

Friday, 19 November 2004

Dear old Tony

Most people’s names get longer as they get older, accumulating titles and decorations and perhaps dropping their abbreviated childish names for a more impressive full version.

But Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn became the 2nd Viscount Stansgate and finally Tony Benn, now not even with MP after his name since he resigned his seat “to devote more time to politics”.

How good it was to see the old rogue, interviewed yesterday on Channel Four News, still in cracking form at 79! It was a brilliant idea to get him to talk about Prince Charles’ pronouncements on education and society, which he gently dismissed, and to get him to respond with a few coolly contemptuous words to Chris Woodhead’s toadying comments about them. The discredited Woodhead looks increasingly irritable these days; his hopes of a K must have nearly gone by now and parroting Charles’ Edwardian views is hardly likely to revive them.

Thursday, 18 November 2004

Our lives in their hands


Abide with me; fast falls the eventide.
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.

Wednesday, 17 November 2004

Sorry, everybody

Since I last looked (yesterday) another thousand messages have been added.

Tuesday, 16 November 2004

Sorry, World!

If you tell me you’ve broken both legs and have come out in boils all over, I might say “Oh, I am sorry!” but I am not apologising: it wasn’t my fault so why should I?
If Americans who did not vote for Bush say “Sorry!” they are not apologising, they are just regretting that there weren’t enough of them to ensure that Dubya was consigned to history.
It was a brilliant idea to provide webspace for them to express their regrets to the world, and already at SorryEverybody there are over four thousand illustrated messages (click "gallery"). This is the one that started it all off:

Their respective styles reflect the diversity of America: they are witty, sad, cute, ingenious, subtle, childish, profound, flippant, anguished, philosophical, hopeful, resigned, simple, elegant, or crude. But all of them, I would guess (I haven’t read the lot), are absolutely sincere.
It is heart-warming to read them; we knew all the time, while we were listening to the mouthings of the simple-minded bigots and the arrogant bullies, that Americans are not all like that, but it is salutary to be reminded.
And it is also good to see that the rest of the world has responded appropriately: there are many messages from non-Americans, saying, in effect : Sure, we know it wasn’t the fault of the 49% who voted against Bush. We admire them, and America still has our affection and respect.


(In response, some of the other 51% have set up websites of their own. Most of them, as one might expect, contain mainly illiterate and obscene abuse.)

Sunday, 14 November 2004

Lunching aloft

This is what it was like in 1927:

LUXURY IN AIR TRAVEL: Passengers enjoying a meal while rushing at 100 miles an hour, high through the air, on a journey between London and Paris.

And this was the aircraft. Is that the pilot's windscreen near the front, on top?

A TRIPLE-ENGINED "ARGOSY". Twenty people can be seated.

Nowadays of course, things are quite different. The flight takes a quarter of the time and the whole London-Paris journey twice as long. Bring your own sandwiches.

Friday, 12 November 2004

Bad guy, good guy

Watching Once Upon a Time in the West the other day, I realised that Henry Fonda’s role was as untypical as it could be; I had never seen him as a real baddie before. Good old blue-eyed Hank, for years he played the man you could trust, decent, honest, kind, Mr Integrity. In real life he was a difficult husband to his four wives and a rotten father to Peter and Jane, whose mother killed herself.

Another fine actor was Robert Ryan, who spent much of his career playing sadistic killers, self-pitying racists and assorted bullies. He played them brilliantly, without insinuating a trace of redeeming charm or humour.
But he was a concerned liberal in politics (“I have been in films pretty well everything I am dedicated to fighting against”, he once said) and lived happily and modestly for thirty-three years with his wife and his three children.

Tuesday, 9 November 2004

First Lines

I described in an earlier post the total lack of imagination which renders me incapable of writing a novel. But I did try once or twice, always to be overcome by a feeling of futility after penning a few depressing sentences.

I have recently been looking at the first lines of some highly successful pieces of writing to see if they have anything in common. They don’t, of course, except that they nearly all captured my interest in one way or another and made me want to read on, unlike my own attempts at opening sentences, which would make anybody want to close the book and do something else.

Here are twenty-five of them. Anyone who can identify (or guess at) the titles and authors of, say, fifteen is an ardent reader and has a good memory. This list wasn’t originally intended for a quiz so some are absurdly easy and others impossibly hard. Anyone who claims to know them all has either read the same books as I have or is a liar.

  • “We’re going through!” The Commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking.
  • The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls Royce Super Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.
  • Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.
  • There were four of us – George, and William Samuel Harris, and myself, and Montmorency.
  • The truth is, if old Major Dover hadn’t dropped dead at Taunton races Jim would never have come to Thursgood’s.
  • Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Four shots smashed into my groin, and I was off on the greatest adventure of my life.
  • During the whole of a dull, dark and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country…
  • At the first glimpse of light the aerodrome wakes to life. As a matter of fact it never sleeps.
  • For several successive days, the scraps and tatters of a routed army had been moving through the city. (translation)
  • I have never begun a novel with more misgiving. If I call it a novel it is only because I don't know what else to call it. I have little story to tell and I end neither with a death nor with a marriage.
  • Twilight over meadow and water, the eve-star shining above the hill, and old Nog the heron crying kra-a-ark!..
  • It began with an advertisement in the Agony Column of the Times. I always read the Agony Column first and the news (if there is time) afterwards.
  • Madam, I sit down to give you an undeniable proof of my considering your desires as indispensable orders.
  • The suburb of Saffron Park lay on the sunset side of London, as red and ragged as a cloud of sunset.
  • Of course, I have no right whatsoever to write down the truth about my life, involving as it naturally does the lives of so many other people…
  • It is doubtful whether the gift was innate. For my own part, I think it came to him suddenly.
  • It is a curious thing that at my age—fifty-five last birthday—I should find myself taking up a pen to try to write a history. I wonder what sort of a history it will be when I have finished it, if ever I come to the end of the trip!
  • It is cold at six-forty in the morning of a March day in Paris, and it seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad.
  • I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog's blanket and the tea-cosy.
  • The sky grew darker and darker as the morning wore on. By the time the coffee came round it was like a winter evening, and there were lights in all the windows that looked down on Hand and Ball Court.
  • "I wonder when in the world you're going to do anything, Rudolf?" said my brother's wife.
  • Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork.
  • At daybreak Billy Buck emerged from the bunkhouse and stood for a moment in the porch looking up at the sky.
  • I am going to take you back a matter of four or five years ago to an August afternoon and the race track at Saratoga, which is a spot in New York state very pleasant to behold.
  • "The marvellous thing is that it's painless," he said, "that's how you know when it starts".

  • Answers are HERE


    Monday, 8 November 2004

    Phone company launches foolish and illegal war

    There's no doubt about the winner of this month's Being Out of Touch With World Opinion Prize.
    A company called Toucan, "part of major global telecoms provider IDT", is running quarterpage advertisements with the theme:

    What do BT and John Kerry have in common?
    They both came second.
    And look who came first.
    (uSwitch Service Ratings November 2004: 1st Toucan, 2nd BT)

    I wouldn't have thought it was possible, with one ad, to give your company a thoroughly unsavoury image and at the same time make people feel warm towards our own much disliked BT. Bravo!

    Or are they well aware of the extent to which most of the world despises George W Bush, and this is intended as brilliant irony? Shall we all try to find out by calling 0800 0613535 and asking Toucan's Press Office?

    Sunday, 7 November 2004

    Writers’ limitations

    I started serious writing when I was ten, with a very short story called A Cumbersome Carthorse. When I re-read it in later years I realized that the plot was unrealistic, the dialogue feeble and the characterization nil. It barely deserved the 7 out of 10 that I got for it, and apart from its other weaknesses I accepted the justice of a comment which I much resented at the time, which was simply: Handwriting!

    By then I had also realised that I was never going to be able to write fiction. I had become a competent amateur hack and earned a few pounds from a quarter of a million words of criticism, whimsy, and parody, but I knew that thinking up interesting characters, and exciting things to happen to them, and amusing lines for them to speak, would forever be beyond me.
    Even some great writers may recognise their limitations, though few have described them with as light a touch as James Thurber. He knew that he was not a novelist and, further:

    “… Of course, there is always the drama, but that is just as difficult for me. I have tried a couple of plays and I always run into appalling problems. One of these is that my plays are always over at the end of the first act. There is never any reason in the world any of the characters should ever see each other again. Another problem is that although the people I put in plays talk quite glibly, they don’t do anything. They just sit there. I once wrote a whole act in which nobody moved. The expedient of going back over such an act and having the characters shift from chair to sofa and back again, smoking cigarettes, is not much of a help.
    It is also extremely difficult to get characters on and off the stage dexterously. It may look easy, but it isn’t easy. I have frequently had to resort to dogfights. 'I must go out and separate those dogs' is not, however, a sound or convincing exit line for someone you have to get off the stage. Furthermore, you can only use the dogfight device once unless the dogs are total strangers who have been tied up together in the back yard, and that would have to be explained. You can’t explain the relationship of two dogs, particularly two dogs your audience hasn’t seen, in less than thirty seconds, and thirty seconds is a long time in the theatre. The critics would write that the play was a noisy prank which nobody need go to see if he has anything else to do at all."
    The New Yorker, 1934

    Thursday, 4 November 2004

    The morning after...

    Now that all the too-close-to-calls have ended, there are new topics for the commentators to get their teeth into, such as: What has been learnt? and What now? Here are brief extracts from, and links to, three of the best pieces which have already appeared:
    Divide and rule ... for now
    “It's a bitter pill to swallow, but one that should hopefully lead to a brighter future. Bush owns his messes, and now he'll be forced to clean them up. He won't be able to hide behind 9/11 seven years into his term.
    So how did Bush even get this far? By demonising an entire group of people -- gays and lesbians. By cynical appeals to religion. By slandering a true war hero. And, most importantly, by scaring people. You see, terrorists would detonate a nuclear bomb in a major city if Kerry were elected. Only Bush can protect us.”
    Divided nation
    “….four out of five voters who cited moral values as their key issue voted for President Bush - as did the same proportion of those who cited terrorism.
    In contrast, those most concerned about the economy voted four to one for Senator Kerry, as did three in four of those who cited Iraq as their main concern.”
    Demonic nonsense
    “A crucial legacy of the past year is the experience of political engagement that vast numbers of Americans have gained for the first time. Among my friends in the States, who by their own admission were stupendously inactive under Bush senior and Clinton, I now notice a stiffening of the sinews and a sense that politics can be affected by mass involvement. Something has dropped into place - principally, an understanding that if you don't pay attention, a man like Bush can get away with murder.”

    Some of the comments in these articles made me feel fractionally less pessimistic about the future, and the thought that 48% of the voters of the most powerful nation on earth are in substantial agreement with 95% of the rest of the world's inhabitants can't be bad and cheered me up a little.

    Wednesday, 3 November 2004

    Brief Encounter

    Looking up the script of Citizen Kane the other day to check a reference reminded me that a few years ago one of our Sunday columnists was writing about great passions, in literature or real life, and asking his readers which one they thought endured the longest following the shortest contact. This was my nomination:

    Everett Sloane as the aged Bernstein:
    One day back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on a ferry, and as we pulled out there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I bet a month hasn’t gone by since, that I haven’t thought of that girl.

    Tuesday, 2 November 2004

    Big day for His Imperial Majesty

    Today is a religious holiday in the Rastafarian calendar, marking the date of Haile Selassie's 1930 coronation as Emperor Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, King of Kings of Ethiopia.

    One of my young grand-daughters bears his name, though she is no relation, has none of his titles and spells it differently.

    Monday, 1 November 2004

    An Evening of Love Songs

    At the beginning of the twentieth century there were 27,000 cafés in Paris. 150 of them had begun to provide shows where “..audiences came and went at whatever point in the night's entertainment they pleased. Almost any attire was acceptable. Food and drink might be served during the performances, at which the audience commented freely and sometimes participated. The performers had to be aggressive to compete with the smoke, noise, waiters, flower sellers, and buskers”. Such an establishment was called a café-concert or café-conc’ (be careful not to abbreviate it further).

    In my town something similar still flourishes………
    Once a week at a local café there is some kind of show. It might be cabaret, a recital, a jazz concert, a demonstration of belly-dancing or almost anything that people would pay a little to watch. For £10 you get the entertainment and a good simple meal; the performers get a free supper and maybe a small fee, and everyone has a whale of a time.

    Last November the group providing an evening’s entertainment consisted of one distinguished professional singer, one pianist, six talented amateur singers, and me; our ages ranged from eleven to ninety.
    We had intended to present twenty of the greatest love songs of all time (excluding opera), but we found we could only select from those songs which one or another of us was willing and able to sing. But there was still plenty of choice: here were the ones we chose and some notes about them. Each one was supposed to illustrate one of the many aspects of love.

    1 As Time Goes By (Love Nostalgic)
    No-one ever actually said “Play it again Sam”, but when Ingrid Bergmann turned up in Rick’s Bar, of all the bars in all the world, she said to Dooley Wilson “Play it, Sam”, and he did.

    2 Come Into The Garden, Maud (Love Waiting)
    If you take a distinguished poem and set it to magnificent music you can make a beautiful song. If you can do this more than six hundred times then you were probably born in Vienna and your name is Franz Schubert. If, on the other hand, you were born in Ireland and your name is Michael Balfe, then you cannot aspire to this achievement, but you can take an extract from a rather piffling monodrama by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, set it to music and create a charming little song.

    3 Hymne à l’Amour (Love Committed)
    Many marvellous songs depend almost entirely for their effect on the interpretation, but (for example) Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Elvis Presley couldn’t be there, mainly because they’re all dead. But one song of this kind we really had to include, so we cheated and played Edith Piaf's recording of it.
    In 1949 she was in New York preparing for a concert at Carnegie Hall when she heard that the great love of her life, the boxer Marcel Cerdan, who was flying to join her, had been killed when his plane crashed into the Atlantic. She had many other lovers and husbands before she died in 1963, but when she sang this song it was always for Marcel Cerdan. (Sung in French)

    4 None But the Lonely Heart (Love bereft)
    A song by Tchaikovsky based on a poem by Goethe. (Sung in Russian)

    5 The Boy in the Gallery (Love confident)In this one the singer knows where her boy friend is and knows that he loves her.

    6 Pretty little Polly Perkins of Paddington Green (Love Spurned)
    All too frequently it happens that the love of a good and honest man is spurned by a proud and ambitious woman, and we all know how that feels. This song tells just such a sad story.

    7 Silent Worship (Love hopeless)
    A beautiful song of really hopeless love. We were half expecting that after that song some small-minded idiot would cry out “Why did you include Silent Worship? You said you were excluding songs from opera and everyone knows that this was originally an aria from Handel’s 1728 opera Tolomeo.” (We had a good answer ready for this: we would have replied “Why don’t you shut up?”)

    8 O Sole Mio (Love Neapolitan)
    A woman called Helen Lawrenson once put in a great deal of international fieldwork on the subject of love and then summarised her conclusions in a book called Latins Are Lousy Lovers. This presumably included Neapolitans but at least they have some nice love songs and this is one. (Sung in Italian)

    9 Frühlingstraum (Love longing)
    Of course we had to have a Schubert song. Its English title is Dream of Spring and it is from Die Winterreise, a cycle of poems by Wilhelm Müller.(Sung in German)

    10 The Foggy Foggy Dew (Love illicit)
    A traditional song arranged by Benjamin Britten.

    11 A la Claire Fontaine (Love lost)
    An old traditional French song often sung by old traditional French men after they’ve been dipping their beaks in the Beaujolais. (Sung in French)

    12 The Man I Love (Love hopeful)
    In this song the girl not merely gives a detailed specification for her future love, but describes exactly what she believes will happen when they meet. One can only wish her the best of luck.

    13 Ochi Chornya (Love admiring)
    An old Russian song called in English Dark Eyes. We had hoped that the accompaniment would be provided by a famous balalaika player who had agreed to fly in for this evening but unfortunately his flight was held up in Tbilisi by a band of marauding Azerbaijanis, so we had to improvise. Our baritone introduced himself as follows:
    I am famous old Russian singer. For many years the Theatre of Moscow and the Theatre of Petrograd were disputing about my singing. The Theatre of Petrograd wanted me to sing in Moscow, and The Theatre of Moscow preferred that I stay in Petrograd. That is why I sing Ochi Chornya for you tonight in Hastings, Sussex. (Sung in Russian)

    14 Send in the Clowns (Love wistful)
    From Eine Kleine Nachtmusik: not the Rondo Allegro with words set to it, but a song from Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.

    15 Plaisir d’Amour (Love betrayed)
    A French song in which the singer tells how he gave up everything for Sylvie but she left him and took another lover. Not surprisingly, this gives him a jaundiced view of love. (Sung in French)

    16 Greensleeves (Love complaining)
    We didn’t sing this, but told the story of its origin while the melody was played on the piano. There is a fuller version HERE.
    According to Michael Flanders, 1542 was a very bad year for the theatre. Gorboduc was doing poor business at The Globe, and people were obsessed with cock-fighting and bear-baiting and didn’t give a fig for the live theatre.
    But a leading London producer, the Cameron Mackintosh of the day, came up with the idea of putting on a musical. So he hired some top minstrels and acquired the rights to some good tunes, and they started to prepare the production. But they were stuck for a good number to end the first half—a First-Act Closer, as it’s called. The Musical Director tried out some tunes on the virginals but none of them was up to much until they came to this one. The producer listened and said “Verily, 'tis a passing melodious roundelay, but I doubt me an it will get into the charts. Who wrote it, anyway?”. And a voice from the back of the auditorium called out “We did!”. They peered at a large figure in the darkness and asked “Who are you?”, and the reply came back: “We are Henry the Eighth, We are”.
    After that of course they put the number in the musical and it ran for years under the title Don’t Look Now Ladies of 1542.
    And that is why, nowadays, in plays or films set any time between, say, 1500 and 1750, for incidental music Greensleeves is always played. And the royalties go to....Royalty.

    17 Spring Song (Love vernal)
    Most of the songs we sang have words which tell a story or paint a picture, But there are songs which need no words. If you want to describe a really despicable person, you might say that he is the sort of chap who would sell his grandmother to the old clothes man, or you could say that he is the sort of chap who would put words to Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words.
    The one we sang was originally called Camberwell Green, because that is where it was written, in June 1842. Nowadays it is called Spring Song. But what's it got do with Love? Well, first, in silent films when the heroine was tripping dewy-eyed through a cornfield to meet her lover, the pianist always played this. Second, we all know what a young man’s fancy lightly turns to in Spring. (Piano)

    18 Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine (Love tolerant)
    A woman in love with a man of bad character has three options if she wants to stay with him: she can shut her eyes and pretend she doesn’t know of his faults, she can try to believe that she can improve him, or she can accept his failings. The woman in this song takes the third and most sensible course.

    19 What Then Is Love (Love urgent)
    From a Book of Ayres published jointly in 1601 by Thomas Campion and his friend Philip Rosseter.

    20 She Was Poor, But She was Honest (Love betrayed)
    We ended with another sad story. This is a Victorian song, but some may feel that that the injustice described in the refrain persists until the present day.
    (Tutti)
    It's the same the ‘ole world over.
    It's the poor what gets the blame.
    It's the rich that gets the pleasure.
    Ain't it all a bleeding shame?


    By the time we finished the wine had been flowing freely for three hours so we got a standing ovation, but no-one has yet asked us to do it again.

    Saturday, 30 October 2004

    Every picture tells a story

    The most disappointing present I ever had was given to me for Christmas when I was eleven. Gift-wrapped in thick brown paper tied with string, it had promising heft and solidity: a chemistry set with a real Bunsen burner, perhaps; certainly not anything boring to wear. But it turned out to be a Holy Bible, from a pious aunt.

    It had a dozen or so full-page coloured illustrations, and these implanted in my mind a totally mistaken idea of what the people of the Middle East were like in biblical times. Not until years later did I realise that they were actually not a bit like the rather wet characters in the pictures, hanging around carrying out godly activities like praying or watching sheep. Nor did I notice at the time, for I dipped into the text only very lightly, that many of the things they got up to in those days were very ungodly indeed. I was not then familiar with a bawdy Sunday School song which would have corrected my misapprehension. I mean, of course, a bawdy song about Sunday Schools, not a song which they sing at bawdy… oh, never mind. Anyway, its refrain was:
    …Bring your toffee apples and sit down upon the floor
    And you’ll hear some Bible stories that you’ve never heard before…..


    Had the internet been available to me in those days, I could have got a much more accurate picture of what really went on in the Holy Land by studying this website. Launched in 2001, it was conceived and created by the Reverend Brendan Powell Smith (his priestly status** is unclear: the matter is discussed under faq on the website), and what it contains must surely be the most comprehensive and attractive set of Bible pictures ever published; there are hundreds of colourful and detailed illustrations of quotations from the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, with 431 covering stories in Exodus alone! Not surprisingly, it has had over two million hits since it was launched in 2001.

    The Eighth Plague (Locusts): Exodus 10, 12-15
    A very useful feature is that, in view of the adult nature of many Bible stories, every chapter and indeed every story is rated according to its content: N for nudity, S for sexual content, V for violence and C for cursing; of course, a substantial proportion are rated with three or four of these letters.
    Parts of the website have been published in book form and would make ideal Christmas presents for eleven-year-olds.

    **A note on the back of the books says "Though it remains unclear why Smith has been chosen to illustrate the Bible... most scholars and theologians agree it is of little use to question such matters". As The Rocky Mountain News (Colorado) commented in October 2003: Amen to that....

    Thanks to martin g for the link.

    Friday, 29 October 2004

    Treason and plot

    In a few days it will be time once again to burn someone in effigy, and we each have our own idea about who it should be, now that we have generally forgotten that 5th November was originally an anti-Catholic festival and we can let Guy Fawkes rest in pieces (he was cut into several after the usual torture).

    We have been letting off fireworks on this night ever since 1605 to celebrate the failure of his plot to blow up Parliament, but nowadays some Englishmen wonder whether we are celebrating Fawkes' failure or honouring his attempt to do away with the government.


    Anyway, at this time of year we nowadays, sadly, involve ourselves in Halloween, the commercialised version of which (£100m a year) we imported from the USA around ten years ago (they will spend $3.12bn this year). The worst element is Trick or Treat which can be very nasty extortion; in contrast, Penny for the Guy was irritating but harmless.

    It seems that the huge demand for the paraphernalia is not so much from children but from 20-something singles who believe that fangs are sexy. In the States powerful groups of witches have complained that the whole Halloween business traduces their creed, and are threatening to take legal action. No such problem here, where there exists only one smallish coven, led by a man called Michael Howard, and its curses are entirely without effect.

    P.S. Trick-or-treating is certainly an American import, but Halloween originated in England when the poor would beg for food on All Souls' Day and beggars would receive special treats in exchange for prayers for the dead. In time, children began "begging" for treats on Mischief Night.

    One has to be very careful about condemning anything as a reprehensible American custom. If one criticises, for example, one of their grammatical usages or peculiar words, it is bound to turn out that it was very common in England five hundred years ago, that Milton used it all the time, and that we had merely forgotten it.

    (Germans associate witches and devils with Walpurgisnacht, April 30th, but Walpurgis was an ENGLISH nun, so there .

    Wednesday, 27 October 2004

    Lies, damned lies, and websites

    Many websites are full of inaccurate information. Whether this is because of the authors' laziness, carelessness or ignorance, the regrettable result is that it is impossible to determine which sites are trustworthy and which are not.

    However, it is refreshing and heartening to find that there are some sites about which there can be no doubt whatsoever: they consist entirely of falsehoods, having been set up with deceit as their sole purpose. I list below examples of four such misleading sources, three British and one American, which have cast aside all restraints of decency and honour and flagrantly pretend to be something which they are not. I include links to them and brief quotations from their often offensive distortions of the truth.

    Be prepared
    Official advice
    “In an effort to worry the public and convince them to vote for us again next year, and because George Bush asked us to, this website includes the common sense advice found in our Preparing for Emergencies booklet, and information on what the government is doing to protect the country as a whole. (Hint: we're praying really, really hard.)………..”

    Information on the Security Services
    MI5 exposes itself
    “The past decade has seen an enormous shift in the direction of global politics that has in turn caused a radical reassessment of MI5's goals and operational behaviour. This reassessment is now complete, and we've decided to carry on doing things exactly the same way as we did before.
    We hope that these pages will give you some insight into the vigorous work done by MI5 to keep Britain in its rightful place as the seventeenth most powerful nation on Earth…….”

    Eponym
    The story of aluminium (or aluminum)
    “A Staffordshire iron-founder named Joshua Aluminium invented in 1844 a process for extracting the metal from bauxite, and it was named after him…….”

    The Onion
    The daddy of all unreliable newspapers
    “BAGHDAD—After 19 months of struggle in Iraq, U.S. military officials conceded a loss to Iraqi insurgents Monday, but said America can be proud of finishing a very strong second…..."

    Monday, 18 October 2004

    Very faint praise indeed

    A Tory life peer died recently, full of years, and there was a four-column piece about his achievements which, however, noted that:
    X will be best remembered for his chairmanship of the Conservative parliamentary finance committee (1979-92)…..

    Obituary writers can be very cruel without meaning to be.

    Friday, 15 October 2004

    Ninety-six today


    Happy Birthday John Kenneth Galbraith, former advisor to Presidents F D Roosevelt and J F Kennedy, and the most widely read economist in the world.

    He needs a stair lift and is hard of hearing, but is otherwise in fighting form and the new book he is working on is going well.

    A journalist who visited him the other day was presented with a car bumper sticker with a picture of George Bush and the slogan ‘Some things were never meant to be recycled’.
    See also HERE and HERE.

    Thursday, 14 October 2004

    Check up on it

    …or check it out. Americans use more prepositions than we do; our own consumption is increasing but we still sometimes just check something. And we wash where they wash up. Or rather, when we wash up we mean what they call doing the dishes.

    The authoritative Oxford Companion to Food deals at some length with this chore in an entry, not intended to be taken very seriously, which appears between the entries for Washington Clams and Wasps (the latter is included in this book about food because Australian Aborigines eat their larvae and the Japanese of Nagano eat their pupae).
    It goes as follows:
    Washing up has in most cultures been seen as an activity which is not an intrinsic part of preparing, cooking, and consuming food. Nor has it been highly regarded, although the truth is that it is a skilled business calling for a natural aptitude, a discriminating attitude to the various means available, and considerable practice. However, the idea that it is somehow separate from the meal is the greater and more pervasive error.


    A better way of regarding it is as the climax of the whole cycle (gathering, preparation, cooking, eating) and as a piece of ritual which should have engaged the attention of anthropologists and the like to a much greater extent than the questions which have tended to preoccupy them such as whether food is boiled or roasted. The purification of the utensils has to be the final, culminating stage of any meal, the stage which in effect sets the scene for the next meal and permits life’s processes to continue.


    It follows from this that the choice of person to do the washing up is no light matter, and that the person or persons chosen should be viewed as having a privilege. Whether they use traditional techniques or harness modern machinery to help them is immaterial; the responsibility has been given to them, and the honour of praise for a job well done awaits them.


    The sight of a washer-up standing, dominant, at the sink while the other celebrants of the meal, typically, loll in chairs recalls irresistibly the similar scenes enacted so often in places of worship – the priest standing before the altar, the congregation seated, the timeless ritual unfolding for the thousandth time but charged with as much significance as on the first. As the utensils begin to emerge in pristine purity, as the dancing mop-head and caressing linen cancel out any recollections of the grosser aspects of appetite and eating, even the proudest shoppers and cooks, exalted by witnessing the true climax of the meal, must acknowledge the precedence of these acts of completion.


    I guess the author, Alan Davidson, after twenty years of work writing the book, felt as he neared the end that he could relax and include this tongue-in-cheek item.

    Tuesday, 12 October 2004

    Wild Cards

    The excellent Réseau Voltaire has produced a deck (“pack” to the English) of cards featuring The 52 Most Dangerous American Dignitaries, giving brief but telling CVs and photos of the whole bunch, from Ace of Spades Donald Rumsfeld down to Two of Hearts Gary Bauer, an executive director of the Christian Coalition. Someone called George W Bush is King of Diamonds, and the Joker is former CIA agent Osama Bin Laden.

    The deck was available in English or French, but are currently sold out.

    No rewards are currently being offered.

    Sunday, 10 October 2004

    L'esprit de l’escalier*

    The French call it staircase wit: the flashing rejoinder that would have had everyone reeling with admiration if you had thought of it sooner, before you left the party and descended the stairs. In my case they were never very flashing and usually came to me even later, say in the taxi halfway home.

    But on just one occasion a good one entered my head in time and not too late.

    It was at a meeting of international sports officials. In the coffee break a group were discussing the relative merits of various sports, all of them, of course, asserting that the one which they were there to represent was the finest, most important and most worthwhile. A very senior person involved in boxing said that his sport had three thousand years of history behind it and was called the Noble Art, but he was nastily put down by the swimming man who said that noble was a funny way of describing an activity consisting essentially of punching a man with the object of mashing his brain to a jelly. Calm was restored when an Eminent Horsy Lady pointed out coolly that actually equestrianism was the oldest sport of all and therefore had status above all others, so there.

    Lurking on the fringe of the group as befitted my junior position, it came to me that I could make a memorable contribution to this rather fatuous debate.

    “Yes, ma’am”, I said, craning forward, “but antiquity does not always confer prestige. I mean, it doesn’t with professions, does it?”

    It would be nice to relate that this sally was followed by a puzzled pause and then, as the point sank in, laughter and possibly even a round of applause.

    But it was not to be, and I shall never know whether the EHL would have appreciated my observation, for as I started to speak some idiot gave forth, loudly and confidently, with a remark of utter banality and pointlessness, and nobody heard what I said.

    I never again had an opportunity, or indeed a thought, as good as that.

    *Pedant’s Corner: If you think I’ve got the phrase wrong you will find that Verlaine wrote it this way and not d'escalier. I looked it up and apparently either is OK.

    Friday, 8 October 2004

    Not on your Nellie

    A consumer and marketing analysis company called CACI has developed a means of predicting the likely age of someone with a particular first name (UK only). Thus, if you are a Percy or a Horace, you fall into a group with an average age of 75.

    Some names are recurring after a fall from fashion: a third of all Emilys are aged over 60, but more than 40% are under 25; many Claras are in their 80s but there are quite a few under 25.

    Tracey began to appear about 45 years ago and remained popular for a decade, and Darren was popular for about the same length of time.

    Sadly, it seems that Sissie, Bessie and Nellie are hardly ever chosen nowadays, though the latter might have a renaissance if the Canadian singer-songwriter Nelly Furtado stays well-known for a while. Just one celebrity, even a C-list one, can have a huge effect on a name’s popularity: Selina suddenly became popular 25 years ago when a woman called Selina Scott achieved modest fame as an announcer.

    Footnote about Nellie/Nelly:
    The one I remember is the great Nellie Lutcher; I guess that puts me in the same age group as the Percys and Horaces.

    The title of this post means not on your life. It was originally not on your Nellie Duff; via rhyming slang duff=puff, then puff=breath, and life and breath are inseparable, as we may gather from Acts, 17,25: He giveth to all, life and breath. Got that? Oh, and puff may be the origin of poof, via powder-puff.

    For this supremely useless information I am indebted to Eric Partridge’s marvellous Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Its eighth edition, 1984, has 1400 pages, with treasures on every one. I look forward to writing a post about it soon.


    P.S. Perhaps the name was originally made famous by a schooner named Nellie Duff which sank in 1895, but the OED cannot find the phrase not on your nellie in print earlier than 1941..

    Tuesday, 5 October 2004

    As I was saying to Tom Cruise...

    Here’s a picture, taken in Seoul in 1988, of me at a sporting event, explaining some of the finer points of the game to a lady spectator. I won’t say who she was (still is, for that matter), because one thing I really cannot bear is name-dropping.

    When Denis Healey was Foreign Secretary he was once taken to task by a fellow MP, who said “Denis, you really are a terrible old name-dropper”. He replied, apologetically, “Yes, I know, that’s exactly what the Queen Mother said to me the other day”.

    The neatest dropping I ever heard was done by an elderly Italian lady who had moved in distinguished society all her life. She was telling us at dinner about her love of horses and how when she was eight a family friend gave her as a birthday present her first pair of jodhpurs.

    Then it just sort of slipped out that the family friend happened to be the Maharajah of Jodhpur.

    Friday, 1 October 2004

    A cliché gone mad

    This was the title of a piece by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian last month (except that their subs are not permitted to put an accent in cliché and they eschew the capital "T" in the name of the paper. Ya-boo to their stylebook, even though my daughter-in-law is quoted in it).

    The piece was about the phrase political correctness gone mad, which apparently has appeared at least 631 times in British national newspapers since 1993:

    Since the concept of PC is mainly rightwing doublespeak anyway, you can make some reliable predictions about those instances where it is held to have gone mad. First, the level of outrage will be out of all proportion with the allegedly mad policy, which will either be perfectly sensible or, at worst, a bit oversensitive to other people's feelings—hardly a war crime. Second, the story will be more complex than it appears. Third, the "slippery slope" argument may be used, with some furious everyman complaining that, now you're no longer allowed to hurl racist abuse in the street, it can only be a matter of time before they ban breathing.

    All in all, it's time for a moratorium on 'political correctness gone mad'. Perhaps we should ban it.

    Wednesday, 29 September 2004

    Guest for breakfast

    It would be difficult to think, offhand, of a simple explanation of why a young woman, a total stranger, wearing only a nightdress, rang our doorbell at 7.45 in the morning.

    But the answer was simple indeed: her name is Esther, she comes to England for an English course, checks in with her host family (of which, husband and children away on holiday at Disneyland, wife goes to work at 7am), gets up the next morning, strolls outside to see what the weather is like and the door swings shut, locked. No key, so she runs next door to see if anyone can help.

    People next door (us) don't know where (host) wife works, nor do language school, so (my) wife lends her some clothes, I deliver her to the language school for her first day's study and all ends happily.

    It made rather a jolly start to the day for us, but such an experience would have reduced many a young person to a gibbering panic. Fortunately, Esther is Swiss, a people renowned, like Yorkshire folk, for their phlegm. Of course she was concerned and embarrassed, but by no means panic-stricken.

    I told her later that when she goes back to Switzerland she can proudly tell her family and friends that on her first day in England she has improved the British perception of the her compatriots beyond measure. We have tended to think of the Swiss as efficient, well-organised people who never make foolish mistakes, admirable but not especially lovable. Since Esther's arrival, however, we have realised that they are just like us, and feel much warmer towards them.

    But Esther at twenty-three has good English, impeccable French and German, and her studies in written and spoken Arabic are well advanced as she is planning to go and teach in an Arab country. Not at all like us, really.

    Monday, 27 September 2004

    Our Great and Respected Leader: Part 3

    …continued from Part 2
    I was taken to the theatre three or four times during my visits to Pyongyang. The productions I saw were not only all much the same, but had been performed unchanged for decades, and are no doubt still being performed, with occasional changes of cast. They were described as revolutionary operas, and certainly had some rattling good tunes, with titles like Infinite Is the Raftsman’s Honour and Let Us Send More Rice to the People’s Revolutionary Army.
    These operas were by no means monotonous, with some very lively ensemble work…

    The Sea of Blood

    …alternating with quieter interludes when the entire cast stands about immobile as if stricken with a palsy…

    A True Daughter of the Party
    (Note some interesting touches: the gentleman second from the left is NOT standing to attention, and the lady with the Sonja Henie hat has not quite succeeded in getting her feet into the first ballet position.)
    continued in Part 4

    Saturday, 25 September 2004

    United Kingdom

    An elderly lady of whom I was fond died last year. Our relationship had been founded on mutual affection and respect combined with utter contempt for each other’s politics and views on society, and I miss our occasional disputes. She was actually a kind and generous person, but often gave voice to the most bloodthirsty pronouncements: I do not believe she would really have wanted the death penalty applied to, for example, Liberal voters, but it sometimes sounded as if she might have done.

    She did not have all the prejudices one might expect in someone of her class and generation, and those she did have were not at all predictable: “Why do they have to come here, we don’t want them, why can’t they go back to their own country?” she would say…but she was talking about the Scots.

    This was entirely because she could not always understand what they said when they were on TV as newsreaders or commentators, and resented being given English news in her own home by people with foreign accents.

    But her strong feelings on this matter did reflect the sad truth that the Act of Union in 1707 (proposed a hundred years earlier) has not yet resolved the suspicion and mistrust between the two countries which had prevented the union throughout the 17th century.

    (The Scots feared that they would simply become another region of England, being swallowed up as had happened to Wales some four hundred years earlier. For England the fear that the Scots might take sides with France and rekindle the 'Auld Alliance' was decisive: England relied heavily on Scottish soldiers and to have them turn and join ranks with the French would have been disastrous. So there were some financial incentives offered which convinced some dithering Scottish MP's of the many potential benefits of a union with England, and the deal was done.)


    And now? Perhaps Michael Flanders spoke for us all:

    The rottenest bits of these islands of ours
    We’ve left in the hands of three unfriendly powers.
    Consider the Irishman, Welshman or Scot,
    You’ll find he’s a stinker as likely as not.
    The English, the English, the English are best
    I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest…..
    …The English are noble, the English are good,
    And clever, and modest, and misunderstood.

    Those are sentiments on which I think my friend and I would have agreed.

    Thursday, 23 September 2004

    Thou’ll hae to corn thy sheep

    I have long since stopped minding when Americans comment on my quaint English accent, and I no longer bother to explain to them that I don't have an accent, they do.

    Dialect, though, is another matter. I do urge anyone who loves the infinite variety of spoken English to listen to the warm and lovely voice of Jim Wade, a Lancashire sheep farmer recorded in 1953, talking about the techniques of breeding sheep. You will have to listen very carefully to catch his drift, but a glossary and some notes on the quirks of his grammar are provided.

    But I should warn those logging on to this marvellous website not to do so unless they have time to spare, for Jim goes on a bit and there are several hundred others beside him in this collection, whose voices cover topics ranging from Killing Pigs in Lowick to Growing Up on Holy Island.

    The collection is called Accents and Dialects, part of Collect Britain on the gigantic British Library website. The first time I logged on there was after dinner one evening, and I later had to be told that it was half past two.

    Tuesday, 21 September 2004

    A life of crime

    At the time of her marriage in 1999, my daughter-in-law Wendy never dreamed that the next five years would put her into so many unhappy situations. Covering up a patricide, involved in a mail order bride scam, working with a gang of snakeheads and then accessory to another murder, she was in constant trouble, and for much of that period was also masquerading as a blind physiotherapist.

    Happily, these difficult times are now over and on 22nd September she starts work as a Detective Constable in The Bill (on her last visit to Sun Hill nick she was on the other side; they gave her a rough time and quite right too). This will be no sinecure, of course, as anyone who has observed the goings-on since 1983 will know; criminals there probably stand less chance of coming to a nasty end than the officers attempting to catch them (and as one of the latter you are also almost certain to become romantically involved with someone totally contemptible).

    But I am told that DC Suzie Sim makes a good start on 22nd, so it may be a few weeks before some appalling disaster strikes.

    Wendy is not an actress, by the way.

    Sunday, 19 September 2004

    Words of wisdom

    Many blogs feature in their heading a maxim, aphorism, saying, adage, axiom, saw, proverb, epigram or precept (thank you, Dr Roget). Sometimes there are several, in little boxes, listed down a left-hand or right-hand column. The trouble is, they are nearly always of the most stupefying banality.

    For some time I tried to find an wise or witty one to insert at the head of my home page. I considered the Marquis of Chamfort's A man must swallow a toad every morning if he wishes to be sure of finding nothing still more disgusting before the end of the day, and the cryptic and charmingly brief Scots proverb Twa piggles dinna mek' a thrup.

    Then there are spectacularly confused pronouncements like A roaring lion is a calamity unto his father but the cautious man cometh not again.

    In the end I came to the conclusion that any saying, however wise or witty, fails to amuse when you have seen it twenty times, so I dropped the idea.

    Friday, 17 September 2004

    And only UHT milk

    It would be absurd to assess the qualities of a holiday destination solely on the basis of what there is to eat when you get there.

    However, if the sun isn't shining, the insects are biting, and the baroque churches are beginning to pall, then the prospect of a splendid lunch is really all that there is to make you want to get out of bed in the morning or to stop you from wishing that you'd stayed at home.

    I have to say that from recent experience I have the feeling that in these circumstances northern Portugal is not the very best place in the world to be. It's not that Portuguese cooking is bad; the goat stew is, well, OK, the sardines are nice (though not always properly gutted, and apparently best eaten early in the summer), and we had a few pleasant dishes and a memorable octopus in red wine. But some misconceptions are cherished here: for example, that boiled potatoes and rice, together, are a perfect accompaniment to any meal, that stewed pork is made more exciting if you throw a few clams in with it, and that if you call cod bacalhau it automatically becomes interesting, however boringly you cook it.

    So, kind and friendly as the Portuguese people are, there is no denying that their cuisine is among the dullest in Europe.

    My wife can be counted on to get the very best out of any situation, but there she could only make a rather sad proposal as we pored over a depressing menu identical with a dozen others we had seen: "We really must investigate the vegetable soup" she said, brightly.

    Saturday, 4 September 2004

    Ate mais tarde

    Off to Portugal so no more posts for a couple of weeks.

    Northern Portugal, not the Algarve. I hear they've had mosquitos there, blown over from North Africa and carrying the Nile Virus. It is estimated that about 20% of people who become infected with West Nile Virus will develop West Nile Fever, the symptoms of which include fever, headache, tiredness, and body aches, occasionally with a skin rash. While the illness can be as short as a few days, even healthy people have reported being sick for several weeks.


    Don't like the sound of that; I mean, one can get all those sensations just by sitting on an English beach, without having to get on an aeroplane first.