Sunday, 30 May 2004

Never take yes for an answer

The most argumentative man I ever met was a Croatian called Mischa. He disapproved of almost everything and everyone, and had even developed a special sound to express his contempt, something like Eeurgh!.

He was quite literally disagreeable, in that he would never let you agree with him. Once, in the middle of what had turned out, inexplicably, to be an acrimonious discussion, I said to him, "Mischa, why are we arguing? I wholeheartedly agree with you".

"Eeurgh," he replied, "it's not a question of agreement".


Saturday, 29 May 2004

No, I'm Kevin

Any news item beginning with the words "Scientists in America....." is probably going to tell you something you'd rather not know (and "Scientists in Japan..." is even more ominous). This time, the news is that they are asking permission to go ahead with face transplants.

Among the possibilities which may arise are face-donor cards, though there would have to be a code of practice for people walking around with someone else's visage, recommending that they do not, for example, burst into the funeral of the donor and shout: "Surprise!"

And of course you won't have to be dead to lose face; people who fancy a change after a few years will be able to stick their passport photos up on eBay and see if anyone wants a swap.

Friday, 28 May 2004

Chirac never says "gosses"

Where have all the children gone? When did you last see one?

Headline writers can be excused for abandoning them, because they take up too much space. But the Prime Minister at the Guildhall, the Chancellor at the despatch box, judges on the bench, headmasters, Ministers of Education, distinguished academics on TV, leader writers……?

Nowadays, none of them ever have children.
It’s always KIDS.
"Suffer the little….no, sorry, I mean: Over here, kids!"

Wednesday, 26 May 2004


Here's comfort for septuagenarians feeling OK now but wondering what they'll be like in ten years time. Or perhaps not, for this is an exceptional case.

Here is my (much) older sister. She was only eighty when this photo was taken but looks just the same now, at eighty-three with ten grandchildren, still running classes teaching mere sixty-year-olds how to Keep Moving. Her belief is that if you keep properly active throughout your life then mere advancing age does not necessarily immobilise you.

Still moving almost like a twenty-year-old, she has demonstrated this in her own person. Her career as a dancer helped (though it ended sixty years ago), and proved an advantage in another way: having been on the stage since she was 14, she didn't have much academic achievement to offer the WAAF when she was called up in 1943. She might have been drafted as a cook/cleaner, but one of the interview panel said "Dancer? Must have good rhythm; let's give her a test.". This did indeed show that she had an aptitude for Morse, so they trained her as a Wireless Operator.

It had not been easy to start a dancing career at fourteen. She had been at a church school, where they tried to stop her leaving and warned that going on the stage would lead to a Life of Sin. Back came a firm but perhaps slightly misleading response from her (our) mother:"But it's what she's always wanted!".
[There is a 1932 photo of Audrey HERE and another picture of her HERE.]

Monday, 24 May 2004

Sport for nearly all

The next few months will be very trying for those of us who have no interest in sport: Euro 2004, the Olympics (sorry, The Games of the XXVIII Olympiad), Wimbledon…… We can only hope that some of the old movies on TV will be good ones.

And we shall once again hear people saying that politics should be kept out of sport, as if this statement actually meant something. Having a national team and cheering it on are political gestures, and all international sporting events are festivals of nationalism. The only kinds of sports totally free of politics in the usual sense are ones like village green cricket and pub darts, though these may well have all the other attributes of international sport (greed, corruption, cheating and so on).

Keeping sport free of harmful manifestations of politics is another matter, but few sports have ever had (or now have) leaders with either the will or the political nous to try. However, the world governing body of one sport demonstrated such political sophistication and skill over the last seventy years that until relatively recently it was able to keep itself immune from the worst effects. Some people may read most of the following description before they work out which one it is.

Beginning in Victorian times as a middle and upper-middle class sport, it dropped out of fashion in the early years of the century and came back in the twenties as a proletarian activity. The international governing body was founded in 1926 by the Marxist younger son of an English peer, who was its president for the next forty years.

Its rules from the beginning forbade distinction between amateurs and professionals, which accounted for its exclusion from the Olympics until the IOC had seen where the really big money was and changed its views about all that. At its championships, flags and anthems were forbidden and teams were considered to represent not countries but merely Associations. This sounds like playing with words, but it was a device which enabled the international body from the thirties onwards to unite more member associations than any other sport except football and athletics. Later, at the height of the cold war, no other international sports federation had delegates at their Biennial General Meetings from East and West Germany, the USA, China, nearly all the Soviet bloc, Israel and most Arab countries, North and South Korea and almost everywhere else (though not South Africa, whose application for membership of the international federation had been refused in the early thirties for obvious reasons).

In 1979 their 35th World Championships took about a thousand players, spectators and officials into Pyongyang, including the first large party of Americans to visit the town since the B25s bombed it flat a quarter of a century earlier. You don’t achieve that level of international co-operation by believing that sportsmen are somehow above the restraints of politics.

And, in perhaps the most farsighted, morally right and important of all their policies, they banned racial discrimination among their members in the thirties, long before the word apartheid had been heard outside South Africa. Twenty years later they were enforcing the rule rigorously while most other sports were still waffling about building bridges and generally agonising over how to deal with their members who held strong nineteenth-century views about race.

Go to this entry to see which sport all this is about, if you don't know already.

Sunday, 23 May 2004

Calling Ashgabat...

The hit counter I use for this blog also provides statistics which include an analysis of hits by time zones. From this I learn that about 39% of visitors to Other Men’s Flowers are from the East and West coasts of the USA (none from the Bible Belt), 27% from Europe, 26% from the Far East and Australia, and 6% from New Zealand. (Also, curiously, a tiny, almost uncountable, number from the zone which appears to cover only the eastern tip of Siberia: who is this man?)

It seems that my blog has been a complete flop in Central Asia. I would like to give it some appeal there, so I have been on the lookout for ripping yarns from Tajikistan, or rude poems in Turkmeni.

All my friends have come up with so far is a story from Steve Bagnall, who swears it is true. When he was visiting Tashkent some years ago he had an afternoon inspecting a very dull dam and then declined (as who would not?), an invitation to visit a cheese factory, and went to a school instead. The 12-year-olds seemed to be having many lessons in English and bombarded him with questions, mostly about football, and when he told them he came from Walthamstow one said “Oh yes, on the Victoria Line, the one after Blackhorse Road”.

It occurs to me, though, that if I do acquire some readers who live in Tashkent they might not find that an extraordinary story; perhaps they quiz each other on such things every evening as they sit round their gzchokas knocking back great mugs of styush.


Saturday, 22 May 2004


Joyce Grenfell's understanding mother:
"Darling, Daddy and I aren't in the least worried about you, I mean we know you're quite grown up and very sensible, and it isn't that we don't like Ernest, we're really very fond of him, and Daddy says those tricks he does are so clever, but we're wondering whether you've thought, really thought I mean, what it would be like to be married to a middle-aged Portuguese conjuror..."

Friday, 21 May 2004

No poster in the window

We live in a quiet neighbourhood and there's no real need for canvassers to go round in pairs, so it was evidence of some keenness that the two Labour councillors standing for re-election in our ward came to our door together.

On local issues there was little to argue about. Our local LibDems aren't up to much and the Tories don't bear thinking about. But Labour promise to clean up the town, and I have agreed that they will have my vote if before June 10th they do something about their own offices, which are in sore need of a wash-down at the very least.

Their take on national matters was interesting. One of them had already told me in an email that he "would hope that George Bush does not get re-elected in November" (while adding with absolute truth that "such events are out of our control at a local level").

It seems to me that if that is your feeling about Bush, then since Blair entirely shares his views on what is right for the world, it follows that you should be looking for a new leader for your party. Of course, I couldn't get the two candidates to agree with that on the record, and they spoke without much conviction of how well Blair used to get on with Clinton and what a great relationship he might have with Kerry, while maintaining that he has had a salutary influence on Bush, citing Libya but skirting round Iraq.

During the course of the conversation it was suggested somewhat diffidently that I might like to join the Labour party, for whose candidates I have never failed to vote. Ironically, I might well have signed up at almost any time during the last forty years, but after the Bush/Blair war they will never again get a vote from me in the national elections, let alone a subscription.


Thursday, 20 May 2004

Harper’s and A & L

George in San Francisco tells me that 2,000 people are injured every year in France while opening oysters. I can think of no comment to make on that, but apparently he saw it in Harper’s Magazine Index which he finds “rather useful for a sense of the Zeitgeist” (they talk like that all the time over there). Be that as it may - and all of us need to check on the old ziggers from time to time (though I am more of a Weltenschauung man myself) - the source was a revelation to me. Perhaps I had never encountered it before because I confused Harper’s with Harper’s Bazaar, which is not at all the same sort of thing.

Anyway, the Index is fascinating as a fund of statistical snippets (not all as trivial as the one above). Harper's Magazine itself, an “American journal of literature, politics, culture, and the arts published continuously from 1850”, is as wide-ranging and literate as the online-only Arts and Letters Daily, which more ambitiously claims to cover “philosophy, aesthetics, literature, language, ideas, criticism, culture, history, music, art, trends, breakthroughs, disputes, and gossip”. (What, nothing about plumbing?)

But the latter is only a digest, or rather a free library of well-displayed and tempting links, while Harper’s is mostly fine original writing, well worth the small amount it costs. With very little advertising, it is hard to see how it survives. But then, it is hard to see how any “literary, brainy, and left-leaning” magazine (Amazon’s description) survives in Bush’s America.


Wednesday, 19 May 2004

Our Fish Tastes Quite Nice

There has always been a variety of styles in advertising. A hundred years ago approaches ranged from the forthright, where you were told "Take Brown's Tincture Or You Will Die", to the euphemistically genteel, where a dress shop might offer "Inexpensive Models For The Maturer Figure" when they really meant "Cheap Clothes For Fat Old Women".

Nowadays, the range is from the subtle and incomprehensible (e.g. many TV commercials...."What was that one all about?") to the terse and often pointless. One retailer has become the biggest in the country with the help of an extremely feeble slogan displayed throughout their stores, sometimes inappropriately:

Tuesday, 18 May 2004

The Stag at eBay

For a couple of years I enjoyed myself selling a huge variety of items on eBay. I gave up because the experienced antiques dealer I was working with decided to retire from the trade; he had nobly undertaken the packing and despatch of everything we sold, and apart from missing his expertise I didn’t fancy spending much of my spare time with bubble wrap and brown paper.

I found that completing a successful sale usually involved sending or receiving about a dozen emails. Most buyers are friendly and efficient and I had some happy exchanges of correspondence; I am still proud of the blue star I got for my eighty positive feed-backs. There was one buyer who dithered for four weeks, then sent a cheque (or rather, check) for the wrong amount, then said he wanted to cancel the deal. However, I forgave him when he wrote '...sorry for the incontinence'.

I have been greatly taken by an eBay story passed on to me by a Californian friend, P J Tafka, about a man in Seattle who put his divorced wife’s wedding dress (sleeveless, large, looked like a shower curtain) up for auction last month, no reserve. This produced a first bid of $1, then 113 more bids, a final winning bid of $3,850, five invitations to ball games in other states, and five proposals of marriage. The first part of the story, now widely known in the States through the talk shows, is told on a lavishly illustrated website.

Sadly, things then got complicated and less happy; there is now a book based on the story.

Sunday, 16 May 2004


Everyone knows Ogden Nash's bespectacled girl who doesn't get her necktacled. Here are some other tortured assonances.

Tom Lehrer's Wiener Schnitzel Waltz has:
Your lips were like wine, if you'll pardon the simile,
The music was lovely and quite Rudolf Friml-y...

A song about a masked ball has:
...Take off your false face
So I can waltz face
To face with you..

And in Noel Coward's Nina from Argentina (Who Wouldn't Dance)....
She refused to begin the beguine when they besought her to
And in language profane and obscene she cursed the man who taught her to
She cursed Cole Porter too...

Saturday, 15 May 2004

Et son copain Grosses-Oreilles

Francophiles were disappointed to learn that the awful Noddy is more popular in France than Babar or Asterix.
Over there they apparently call him Oui-Oui.

Wednesday, 12 May 2004


This is the Estonian for "hello". My son, just back from a few days in the capital, Tallinn, reports that it is a lovely town and the Estonians are on the whole an agreeable lot with a very relaxed attitude towards the rest of the world (though they don't much care for the Finns who come every weekend for the cheap vodka) and are fairly underwhelmed by their membership of the European Union.

So clearly we should not worry about the threat to our culture and way of life that will arise if there is a flood of immigrants from there. It will probably be no worse than the situation in 1973 when we joined the EU and allowed unrestricted entry to the nationals of the other member countries. Many of us remember the problems caused by the swarms of Dutchmen and women coming over here, cycling about speaking perfect English, with windmills springing up everywhere and the whole place reeking of tulips.

Saturday, 8 May 2004

So many cheeses...

...And only one decent limerick:

Il y avait une personne de Dijon
Qui n’aimait pas trop la religion
Il disait ‘Ma foi!
Ils m’emmerdent tous les trois -
Et le père, et le fils, et le pigeon.’

Now see HERE.

Wednesday, 5 May 2004

A lump of red leather

Most alleged tongue twisters are ridiculously easy, but I know very few people who can repeat, reasonably fast, this simple girl's name:

Monday, 3 May 2004

Poor orientalism

We have had a spate of samurai films recently and they have inspired some ill-informed comments. One of the critics demonstrated his profound ignorance of things Japanese by referring to the writer Yukio Mishima’s obsession with an old samurai practice known as Bunburyodo, translating it as "the dual way of literature and the sword”.

This is nonsense. Mishima’s philosophy was romantic-militaristic twaddle, and he never really understood Bunburyodo. Those familiar with the seminal essay called The Importance of Being by the Japanese-Indian philosopher Osikawai-Oudh will know that the word means, literally, “The Way of Earnestness”, and refers to the ancient Japanese tradition of travelling to give succour to sick friends.

Sunday, 2 May 2004

Si vieillesse pouvait...

It’s not quite true to say that when it comes to the capacity to acquire new mental skills it’s all downhill from the age of twelve, but it’s not far off. This was clear to me the first time a child took a Rubik’s cube out of my hand and went twist, twist, twist, twist....... “There you are, Daddy”.

I first encountered computers twenty-eight
 years ago, when I was already on a downward slope of mental capacity. Since then I have spent around 30,000 hours playing with them, working with them or just staring at a monitor waiting for something to happen, so even allowing for an extremely shallow learning curve I must have picked up a good bit.

Indeed, there are several things I can now do with a computer. But here is a frustrating thing: With all my laboriously acquired skills, and all the marvellous equipment I now possess, I cannot reproduce a program which I wrote in 1982 for my Sinclair Spectrum; I would love to be able to do so because, apart from its sentimental value, it was really quite good in a trivial sort of way.

There is a note HERE of what it does—and a summary of how I spent the 30,000 hours . I have a printout of the program in 700 lines of Sinclair Basic but there is simply no way I can rewrite it, since my programming skill consists only of the ability to write bits of clumsy and verbose VBA code by trial and error. And I have only the printout, not the cassette I recorded the program on, so I can't use an emulator and anyway I have no wish to enter the world of retro-computing.

So now, with years of experience, two PCs with quad core CPUs and vast amounts of RAM, a MacBook 4.1, a Time Capsule, Apple TV, an iPad and a couple of grand’s worth of software, I am incapable of doing something which I could do all that time ago using a little thing the size of a paperback.

Isn’t that sad?

Saturday, 1 May 2004

Ich Dien

Eligibility regulations for the "" web domain state that "Registration is limited to UK government departments and agencies, local government bodies... and other associated and non-departmental public sector organisations. It is not for use by individuals."

So how did "" get registered, hey? Did the Clarence House Press Office nip in quickly before the guidelines were laid down, or did Mummy send Black Rod on his behalf to knock on ICANN’s door?

Or perhaps this is just Charles saying: if that Blair person carries on like a royal, then I’m jolly well going to be a government department, so there.