Saturday, 29 July 2006

Abroad is bloody

“Don’t go abroad,” George VI is alleged to have advised, “…abroad’s bloody”.]
In a piece* published in the New York Times Jan Morris notes that:
Travel, which was once either a necessity or an adventure, has become very largely a commodity, and from all sides we are persuaded into thinking that it is a social requirement too—not even just a way of having a good time, but something that every self-respecting citizen ought to undertake, like a high-fibre diet, say, or a deodorant.

Morris, the greatest living travel writer, understands that not everyone feels the urge to see the world:
Consider the advantages of purely vicarious travel—travelling, so to speak, at home. Readers sometimes thank me for my books because, having read them, they feel they need never go to the places they describe. I sympathize entirely with their point of view, even when, as occasionally happens, it is less than kindly expressed. ''You have quelled in me all desire,'' a woman wrote to me once, ''to visit the city of Venice. I hope you're satisfied".

If you stay at home, read the best travel books, and watch TV selectively, you can have nearly all the pleasures of travel without ever having to stand in line at the check-in counter. A flick of the page, and you are off that Patagonian Express and on to that Mississippi barge—pour yourself a coffee, and there is the Snow Leopard before your eyes—a martini or two, and all the sensualities of the East will be there around you, scented and salacious in your very apartment! (Almost all, anyway.)

Great minds have been fostered entirely by staying close to home. Moses never got further than the Promised Land. Da Vinci and Beethoven never left Europe. Shakespeare hardly went anywhere at all— certainly not to Elsinore or the coast of Bohemia.

Actually there is a great deal to be said, even by a professional traveller like me, against travelling at all.

Indeed, she should know. I went overseas about twice a month for thirty years, so I've done abroad, but mostly I did not go for pleasure. The nice thing about working trips is that you are not under the terrible pressure to enjoy yourself that you feel when you are on holiday: when you’re having a good time you think “and I’m being paid as well”, and when you’re not you can tell yourself “oh well, at least I’m being paid for this misery”. Nowadays, holidays abroad I can do without.

Having said all that, tomorrow we’re off to Provence for ten days.

[*It's O.K. To Stay At Home]

Friday, 28 July 2006

Awful old grub

A recent survey of changing food tastes has shown that many classic British dishes are set to disappear from the nation’s larder. No surprise there then, and good riddance to some of those mentioned. Anyway, I’m not sure that some of them were ever “classic”: squirrel casserole? boiled haddock heads stuffed with suet? Just because some miserable peasants were obliged to eat these things when the mouldy black rot had got their turnips and they had nothing else doesn’t really make them, as some maintain, “a powerful link to a bygone culinary era", with their recipes staying in the cookbooks for ever.

But of course some simple traditional dishes really should be preserved in the modern cook’s repertoire lest future children never have the chance of appreciating them: one such is English Toast, a good and almost forgotten recipe for which I published a couple of years ago. When this appeared two elderly readers were kind enough to post comments sharing their memories of clever variations on this old favourite, and these are included here.

Wednesday, 26 July 2006


I’ve seen this word a couple of times recently and assumed it was a recent American import; it certainly sounds like it, though of course they would spell it with a zee in that quaint way they have. Not so: the first use of it in print, as far as the OED knows, was as far back as 1968, and that was in the Guardian, of all places.

It means, as one might guess, motivate or encourage (a person, esp. an employee or customer) by providing a (usually financial) incentive. Also: to make (a product, scheme, etc.) attractive by offering an incentive for purchase or participation.

So it’s a slightly specialised variant of motivate, and is a word we can well do without. I can, anyway.

Monday, 24 July 2006

Sad News from Nepal

Last January I commiserated with God-King Gyanendra for the pudding basin he was obliged to wear on his head on ceremonial occasions.

The hot news from Kathmandhu is that by popular demand he is to be stripped of the major powers derived from his God-head and Kingship, and will in future be permitted to carry out only three ceremonial duties: accepting the credentials of new ambassadors, visiting a girl-goddess at the temple where he was formerly patron, and receiving a priest who flashes at him a bejewelled undergarment in a holy ceremony. None of these sound much fun except possibly the second.

There is perhaps some compensation for the poor fellow in that he may no longer have to wear that silly plumed thing on his head. However, ordinary Nepali hats do little for one’s dignity, and he probably won’t regard its replacement as much of an improvement.

Saturday, 22 July 2006

The Royals As I Knew Them

Two of Private Eye's regular features—OBN (Order of the Brown Nose) and Pseuds Corner—consist of egregious examples of, respectively, sycophancy and pretentiousness.

The Sunday Times, which is nowadays a kind of down-market version of Hello! but not so lively, prints in its review section today a long article of which almost every paragraph is a prime candidate for one of these features. It is written by an extremely dim royal lackey, a former equerry to the late Queen Mother.

There is much fascinating detail about the corgis, who were apparently “…rather like the Queen in the way they seemed to carry with them this touch of formality, if dogs can have such a thing. This was echoed in the Queen's demeanour. She was the Queen and she was never really off duty. Instead, she had to adhere to a clearly defined role that carried with it certain standards of behaviour and attitude” . Gripping stuff, and there is more: “…the Queen seemed to be closer to her dogs than she was to Philip”; not everyone could have found them so lovable, for “I saw them really go for some people. They would bite their ankles and things like that”.

I imagine that the writer of this drivel believes he is being frank yet respectful about the royals, and cannot see that the anecdotes he tells probably make them sound more crass, selfish and greedy than they really are; certainly he describes well the unutterable tedium of living amongst them. It seems some of them had a propensity for doing comic German accents, and they were “…sticklers for etiquette but also had this slightly wicked side”. There are many stories of them coming out with memorable remarks at moments of crisis: “…It took only about 10 seconds for the back of the Queen’s sister’s head to start blazing away….The Queen, in slight amusement, turned and said , ‘Oh look, Margo’s on fire!’ ”. I just love the delicacy of the Queen's slight amusement—I bet Philip was rolling about on the floor.

But not all was excitement and the smell of burning hair; there were heart-warming gestures: “…the Queen, if I ever turned up at one of her dinner parties [does he mean that sometimes he didn’t bother to go?], would always make a beeline for me and say: ‘Colin, how are you? It’s great to see you’ ”.

And there were other memories to treasure: on one occasion Princess Margaret made him take her swimming.

These and other delights are in a book by one Major Colin Burgess, enticingly called Behind Palace Doors. The bits I have quoted cannot give a true picture of the banality of what he writes and “The whole situation was bonkers” is typical of the juvenile way he expresses himself.

There must be a shortage of rights on the market at the moment: this is very poor stuff indeed even by the standards of Sunday Times serialisations.

Thursday, 20 July 2006

Then as now

Thurber's cartoons are timeless:

Tuesday, 18 July 2006

Roast Lamb

Writing about roast pork a few months ago, I found myself diverted to lamb: Charles Lamb, that is. Then, after reading the essay on roast pig, I was inspired to re-read some of his other essays, and was reminded not only what a marvellous writer he was, but how I have been trying for years—without much success—to mimic his style. I would have liked to have been described, as Lamb has been, in these terms*: [
…A gentle, amiable and tender-hearted misanthrope.
…His jokes would be the sharpest things in the world, but that they are blunted by his good-nature.
…His bantering way with strangers was often employed by him as a mode of trying their powers of mind.
…[His essay ‘The superannuated man’] looks charming on the surface and is beautifully written and is really perfectly horrible and disgusting.
…Lamb's combination of levity and seriousness …a challenge to the flexibility and sense of nuance in his readers
…The forgiving friendliness of his manner …and the odd combination of the colloquial and the erudite in his prose style
…His impressions against religion are unaccountably strong, and yet he is by nature pious.

Typically, in an essay called “Imperfect Sympathies”, he examines his own wide-ranging racial and religious prejudices with a frank and disarming apologia:
…I confess that I do feel the differences of mankind, national or individual, to an unhealthy excess ...In a certain sense, I hope it may be said of me that I am a lover of my species. I can feel for all indifferently, but I cannot feel towards all equally. …I can be a friend to a worthy man, who upon another account cannot be my mate or fellow. I cannot like all people alike.
…I have been trying all my life to like Scotchmen, and am obliged to desist from the experiment in despair.
…I have, in the abstract, no disrespect for Jews. They are a piece of stubborn antiquity, compared with which Stonehenge is in its nonage. They date beyond the pyramids. But I should not care to be in habits of familiar intercourse with any of that nation. I confess that I have not the nerves to enter their synagogues.
…In the Negro countenance you will often meet with strong traits of benignity. I have felt yearnings of tenderness towards some of these faces that have looked out kindly upon one in casual encounters in the streets and highways. I love what Fuller beautifully calls these "images of God cut in ebony." But I should not like to associate with them, to share my meals and my good-nights with them—because they are black.
…I love Quaker ways, and Quaker worship. I venerate the Quaker principles. It does me good for the rest of the day when I meet any of their people in my path. …But I cannot like them …"to live with them." I am all over sophisticated—with humours, fancies, craving hourly sympathy. I must have books, pictures, theatres, chit-chat, scandal, jokes, ambiguities, and a thousand whim-whams, which their simpler taste can do without. I should starve at their primitive banquet.

One can see why he was admired and loved, though not by everyone. Who could be unmoved by this confession, from an 1815 letter to Southey?
"Anything awful makes me laugh. I misbehaved once at a funeral."

*Source: Peter Swaab, ‘Lamb, Charles (1775–1834)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 16 July 2006]

Sunday, 16 July 2006

Nothing to laugh about

Making an impression by wearing a ridiculous hat is not as easy as you might think. It’s not just a matter of putting some jokey piece of kit on your head: there are rules to be observed if you do not want to appear merely silly. There must, as I pointed out in connection with King Gyanendra’s pudding basin, be a strong element of incongruity in the hat’s design but still some mad logic about it. In other words, it must be foolish but not just for the sake of foolishness.
Also, there must be absolutely no suggestion that you are just fooling about and enjoying making a spectacle of yourself; the merest hint of amusement on your part will ruin the effect. It is essential that your expression makes it clear that you are not happy about looking a complete idiot: dignified sadness is the thing to aim at.
The Uzbek model pictured here clearly understands this, and the thing she is wearing introduces an element of mystery which makes her get-up even more appealing. What is it? What does it mean?

Friday, 14 July 2006

Men’s and women’s sana in corpore sano

An early rulebook of a sport in which I was involved professionally for some years had a preamble which contained the following charming statement: Throughout these rules, wherever the masculine gender is used it shall be held to embrace the feminine. This was later revised to read clumsily, as something like Where we say “he” we mean “he or she” and so on; obviously if one allows women to join in chaps’ games it must be made clear to them that the rules apply to them as well, otherwise they might try to take advantage.

The Guardian stylebook advises its writers that the word mankind should be avoided and humankind or humanity used instead. The 1926 Fowler’s Modern English Usage merely notes how the word should be pronounced differently to distinguish its two meanings ....with the accent on the second syllable for the ordinary sense of the human race but on the first for the special sense of the males of a family &c.

Those were innocent days. In 1968, according to the OED, the word sexism first entered the language, meaning “the assumption that one sex is superior to the other and the resultant discrimination practised against members of the supposed inferior sex, esp. by men against women; also conformity with the traditional stereotyping of social roles on the basis of sex”, and since then things have become much more complicated.

The modern Fowler (or at any rate Burchfield’s third edition, the best I can do) finds it necessary to provide numerous articles on particular instances of sexist language as well as an extensive essay on the topic in general:

….Feminists and others sympathetic to their views, from about the 1970s onwards, have attacked what they take to be male-favouring terminology of every kind and have scoured the language for suitable evidence and for gender-free substitutes. Their argument hinges on the belief that many traditional uses of the language discriminate against women or render them ‘invisible’ and for these reasons are unacceptable ….When reviewing the Handbook [of Non-Sexist Writing, 1981] the Irish writer Brigid Brophy complained about the ‘leaden literalness of mind’ [of the authors] and ‘their tin ear and insensitivity to the metaphorical content of language’ ….Other writers show in their works that they propose to ignore the shrillest of the advice of feminists ….In English Today (1985) the sociolinguistic scholar Jenny Cheshire concluded ‘There is a built-in masculine bias in English and this does have very serious implications for both the women and the men who use the language. And this bias will not disappear unless there is some measure of conscious reform in the language’
But where is the evidence that ‘conscious reform’ will be accepted by the English-speaking public? None of the significant changes to the language in the past century has come about by ‘conscious reform’. And none will in future unless the whole community singly and collectively decides, not by edict or proclamation, and not even by a vote in the House of Commons, to allow new fashions to be regarded as standard, or at any rate irreversible.

All that sounds unexceptionable, if a bit stuffy, but that was in 1998; some later writers may be more inclined to deplore the inherent sexism of the generic masculine. But most people (good non-gender-specific word, that) can probably see no real alternative.

Wednesday, 12 July 2006

A blank, my lord.

I can't imagine how civilisation first flourished in the Middle East, or China, or anywhere really hot, because there is nothing like brilliant sunshine for addling the brain and crippling the creative instinct.

So it is with me on this summer day. I shall not let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud, feed on my damask cheek, but confess straight away that this morning I can think of nothing to write and cannot even be bothered to search for something good which someone else has written and which I can copy.

I hope regular readers of OMF will not be gumple-foisted with me.

Monday, 10 July 2006

Book review

John Julius Norwich, in one of his collections of short literary items sent out to his friends at Christmas, includes this, from the American magazine Field and Stream, November 1959:
Although written many years ago, Lady Chatterley’s Lover has just been re-issued by Grove Press, and this fictional account of the day-by-day life of an English game-keeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor-minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant-raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional game-keeper.
Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous matter in order to discover and savour these sidelights on the management of a Midland shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion the book cannot take the place of J. R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeper.

Saturday, 8 July 2006


Smoking guns were first talked about in the middle of the last century, there was a famous tape so described in 1974, and Iraq was said to have been full of them a few years ago.

Just lately John Prescott’s activities have brought out a fresh crop. Yesterday smoking guns were mentioned on TV four times, by three different commentators. All these idiots used the phrase as if it meant the impending threat of a discreditable revelation, thus turning a merely boring cliché into a totally meaningless one. Clearly their minds were in neutral when they spoke; a moment’s thought would have made them realise that a smoking gun has just been fired and so has already carried out its threat.

Actually the phrase means, obviously, a piece of incontrovertible incriminating evidence.

Thursday, 6 July 2006

How’s the weather in Bangalore this morning?

Over the past five years many large organisations have moved their call centres abroad; apparently this can bring savings of up to 50% in operating costs.
Some, discovering that their customers don’t much like finding that they are speaking to someone in another country, are closing their Indian call centres (Powergen is one). Whether this will help them is doubtful, for their customers’ dissatisfaction with the quality of the service might still apply: companies running poorly performing call centres abroad will run the same in the UK, and vice versa.

From time to time I raise a telephone query with a financial services organisation and it is answered efficiently from the other side of the world by a lovely voice with perfect diction; today it was Ruchita who spoke to me, and if ever there were an excuse for using the word dulcet, her tone provides it. I cannot be the only caller who finds it soothing at any time of the day (or night) to listen to her or someone like her gliding gently through a prescribed script before getting down to the more intimate personal matters regarding my account.

So I would not be at all pleased if this company brought its call centre operation back to England or, worse, transferred it to some other distant country such as Scotland or Ireland where the natives' way with our common language is less pleasing. My only sadness is that although Ruchita and her colleagues all sound as if they are beautiful, which some of them probably are, and as if they have first class honours degrees, which some of them probably do, they are likely to be earning a—by our standards—derisory wage.

Tuesday, 4 July 2006

Grinding small

I once rebuked a friend for misquoting the line about the mills of God, but was chastened to find on looking it up that I had quite the wrong idea about the source: Blake, I had vaguely thought, or 1st Corinthians, or something of that kind. Not at all: the line is from a translation of the Sinngedichte of Friedrich von Logau ("Gottesmuhlen mahlen langsam....").
How about that? And how many people know the menacing second line?
Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small;
With patience He stands waiting, with exactness grinds He all.
....and if you say it out loud, tum-ti tum-ti tum-ti tum-ti, you can tell that the translator was Longfellow, as in:
And the gentle Mudjekeewis/Raven head submissive bowed/Takes her hankie very slowly/Blows her nose exceeding loud.

Sunday, 2 July 2006

Ock and och

One of the marvellous things about our language is the rightness of our words. Quite often they look or sound like the thing they represent: splodge or splotch, for example, explains itself; French has the feeble grosse tache.

The sound ock (or, in Scotland, och) is unpleasant, so many of the words that end with it have connotations which are either distasteful or, at best, uninteresting. The OED has 2,075 words ending in ock or och; here are a few of the two-syllable ones:
cheslock, a woodlouse; burdock, a coarse, weedy plant; castock, the stem of a cabbage; buttock, a rounded fleshy protuberance of the rump; luddock, another buttock; fussock, a fat, unwieldy woman; hemlock, a poison; pibroch, the sound of the bagpipes, cadlock, wild rape; carlock, which is made from the bladder of a sturgeon; fitchock, a term of contempt; dunnock, a rather dull bird; kittock, a woman of loose character; daddock, rotten or decayed wood; mullock, rubbish; brattock, a tiny brat; lobcock, a blundering fool; ale-pock, an ulcer caused by drinking; gralloch, the offal of a deer or, as a verb, to disembowel……

Nothing among those to give much pleasure to anyone. And, of course, there’s not a lot of joy to be had from pillocks or bollocks, is there?

Perhaps after all this nastiness I should end on a jollier note by mentioning bummock, which according to the OED is “a large brewing of ale for a merry meeting”. Cheers!

[No suggestions for additions to the list or exceptions, please. It was a happy hour with the OED but I’m bored with this topic now.]