Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Let’s call the whole thing off

Eether/eyether, neether/nyether and tomahto/tomayto are fine, but the song gets silly because nobody ever says potahto. Someone will probably write pointing out that this is exactly the way the word has been pronounced for centuries in Adare, Co. Limerick, or Townsville, Queensland, but they needn’t bother because I shan’t believe them; Ira Gershwin must have searched desperately for another pair of words but in the end just gave up and hoped no-one would notice. And, of course, who cared about the lyrics when Fred and Ginger were doing their stuff?

There’s only one way of saying potato, unless you count spuds, tatties and so on. But the word banal, which has been around for a long time (though the OED can’t find it in print in its usual sense before 1837), has yet to acquire a standard pronunciation accepted by all. Sixty years ago, H.W. Fowler recommended rhyming it with panel, but hardly anyone does today. I’ve always said b’narl, but according to the American Heritage Dictionary only 14% (mostly English) do this, while 38% say baynal and 46% rhyme it with canal.

But none of this matters, since this attractive word is best in print, used to describe such things as politicians’ speeches, or the content of most blogs; it’s quicker than writing "devoid of freshness or originality; drearily commonplace and predictable; hackneyed; trite".

Monday, 27 November 2006

Corridors of Power

This phrase was first used by the novelist C P Snow fifty years ago. After it had been taken as the title of an article about his work by the critic Rayner Heppenstall, Snow decided to use it for a novel he was writing at the time. As he said, if a man hasn’t the right to his own cliché, who has?

This was one of a sequence of eleven he wrote between 1940 and 1970. They are essentially political novels depicting intellectuals in academic and government settings of that period; although the series has been read as a study of power, or as an analysis of the relationship between science and the community, it is primarily a perceptive and frequently moving delineation of changes in English life during the 20th century. The principal characters are mostly academics, scientists, politicians or civil servants.

This makes them sound pretty dull, and certainly they are not read much today. But I was impressed by them in my twenties and I am enjoying re-reading them now. They are not without their longueurs; Snow frequently has his narrator analyse a character’s motives and psychology at enormous length, based on a casual word, thus:
“Yes”, he said: he was not bitter, but quietly resigned, and with his memories of the events of earlier days still intact, though fading. I could tell that jealousy played no part in his sadness, and that given time he would probably be reconciled to the situation, and yet there was in his voice a hint not so much of regret but more of a dawning hope which….. And so on for half a page before the conversation continues. (This is not a quotation, just a pastiche.)

Corridors of Power is not one of his best, but is interesting in that the major public issue which arises in the novel is disarmament. The hardware was different (the atomic bomb rather than nuclear missiles), and the view that Britain should retain its “independent deterrent”, as it was, and still is, quaintly called, was easier to defend at the height of the Cold War than it is today, but the matter is topical fifty years later and it is fascinating how little the arguments have changed.

Apart from his novels, Snow is chiefly remembered for the Two Cultures debate which he initiated. This too is relevant today, though in a slightly different form, and gives me an idea for a later post.

Saturday, 25 November 2006

Turkey Day

This is how they sometimes refer to Thanksgiving Day in the United States (the picture shows the first one).

This year it was last Thursday (they have it on a different day in Canada) and we celebrated it on behalf of our American friends by having for dinner one of the other traditional ingredients of the feast: sweet potatoes (we had them as a purée with mascarpone and crème fraiche¹, to accompany not a turkey but a pork loin chop on the bone, and very nice it all was too).

Thanksgiving is the equivalent of our Harvest Festival², but we do not make much of that and we certainly don’t have parades or make it an occasion for family gatherings and tremendous nosh-ups.

It is an admirable North American celebration which we ought to have imported rather than adopting their Halloween nonsense and allowing it to overshadow our Guy Fawkes Night; fireworks, bonfires and burning the Pope in effigy are so much more fun than dressing up the children in stupid costumes and encouraging them to scrounge from the neighbours by making veiled threats.

One of the good things about Thanksgiving is that—in theory at any rate—it postpones the Christmas frenzy, which for us starts much earlier. But although since the 1930s the Christmas shopping season in the U.S. traditionally begins when Thanksgiving ends, most shops start to stock for and promote the December holidays immediately after Halloween, and sometimes even before. Those who deplore over-consumption protest against this practice by declaring an international Buy Nothing Day (in America it is the day after Thanksgiving, in the UK this year it is TODAY).

¹ I don’t think I’d want to try many of the dozens of (Southern US) recipes for sweet potatoes listed here, though Sweet Potato Cake with Coconut Frosting and Sweet Potato and Banana Casserole may be delicious. It seems you can also cook them with peanuts, honey, pineapple and marshmallows, though not necessarily all at once.

² I am told that the voluminous knickers worn by elderly ladies used to be known as Harvest Festivals, from a line in the Harvest Hymn: “All is safely gathered in”. Just thought I’d mention it.

Thursday, 23 November 2006

Blow, blow, thou winter wind

...and don't stop in the summer.

From one of our bedroom windows we can just see a little white three-bladed thing on the roof of a house half a mile away.

A chain of DIY stores has been selling these wind turbines for £1500, and apparently they are being bought enthusiastically by people who either wish to slow down global warning and save a bit on their electricity bills, or hope it will impress the neighbours.

Either possibility seems over-optimistic; most people have read by now that unless you live on a storm-lashed promontory of the Outer Hebrides such a device is likely to provide barely enough power to run a hair-dryer, and will take at least a decade to pay for itself, meanwhile making a irritating noise and possibly shaking your house to pieces with its vibrations.

But the one we can see won’t cause much trouble of that kind: it doesn’t seem to be rotating. Perhaps it is a dummy, like those cast-iron cats people put on the roofs of country cottages.

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

I shall enquire what time the inquiry begins

Americans have added many useful words to our (and their) language, but they have also lost a few. They use inquiry for all purposes and for them at least enquiry seem to be disappearing—Google offers 108 million pages containing the first and only 42 million with the second. (They sometimes pronounce either of them oddly to our ear: en-kwuh-ree, where we say en-kwahyuhr-ee.) In England we can, if we want and can be bothered, preserve a distinction: enquiry is used for asking a question, inquiry for making an investigation.

There is another distinction we can make which the Americans cannot. We can write programme when we mean a plan of activities, a radio or television performance, or a list of items, performers, etc in a theatrical or musical entertainment, or we can write program when we mean a sequence of instructions enabling a computer to solve a problem, while they can only write program, whichever they mean.

My programme for the rest of the afternoon is to launch an inquiry into the reasons why I have spent so much time on a matter of no importance to writers and of very little interest to anyone, including me.

Sunday, 19 November 2006

Where’d you get those eyes?

When you are in a really black mood there is no point in trying to cheer yourself up by listening to some jolly music: it will make you feel worse. Far better to play something reflecting your feelings rather than trying to find something that might change them: the Funeral March from Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35, say, or, even better, that chilling Schubert song Der Doppelgänger.

From a poem by Heine, this is about a poor fellow who, wandering in the deserted streets at night, passes the house where his lost love had dwelt before she left town. There is a grisly figure standing at the door wringing its hands in grief and pain. When he sees its face, he realises that it is his own ghost*. Let Fischer-Dieskau tell you about this and you will realise that others have been more miserable than you.

Or, again Schubert, there’s Goethe’s Erl-King, which ends: “…in his arms the child was dead”.

But if you’re merely feeling a bit low, there are any number of pieces which can lift the spirits. Here are three which never fail to work for me:

1. The patter duet Cheti, cheti, immantinente from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, sung with tremendous comic verve by Martin Lawrence and Mariano Stabile.

2. Tout Va Très Bien, Madame la Marquise. Ray Ventura and his band, in a variety of silly voices, are Madame’s servants telephoning her with news of gradually worsening disasters, ending with the suicide of her husband and the destruction by fire of the château…..
Mais, à part ça, Madame la Marquise,
Tout va très bien, tout va très bien

3. Johnny Mercer’s Jeepers Creepers. The late Nat Gonella (he was 90 when he died in 1998) and his American All Stars, with Nat on vocals and trumpet, Benny Carter on alto sax, Billy Kyle on piano and a sublime clarinet solo from Buster Bailey. Magnificent!

*...and the last verse is:
Du Doppelgänger, du bleicher Geselle!
Was äffst du nach mein liebesleid
Das mich gequält auf dieser steller
So manche nacht, in alter Zeit?

[You ghostly double, pale companion –
why do you ape the pain of love
that tortured me, in this very place,
so many nights in times gone by?]

Friday, 17 November 2006

A master mind

This year’s Mastermind competition has just been won by Geoff Thomas, a retired lecturer. We do not know his age for certain, but I would guess he is older man than I*.

His fund of general knowledge was remarkable, and even more remarkable was the speed at which he produced the answers. In earlier rounds he had chosen for his specialist subjects William Joyce and Edith Piaf. For the final he chose Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind, and in preparation had made a trip to Atlanta. He did quite well with this but not outstandingly so—15 correct answers—but in the general knowledge round this is what he was asked, and the answers:

1. Burke and Hare provided medical specimens for a medical school in which city?

2. A codling is an elongated variety of which fruit?

3. Which American harmonica player was largely responsible for raising the instrument to classical concert status?
Larry Adler

4. Brian Boru was high king of which country from around 1002 to 1014?

5. In business, what name is usually given to an individual or company which makes a welcome bid for a company as opposed to an unwelcome or hostile bid?
White Knight

6. Which playwright’s works include the Wild Duck and the Master Builder?

7. Which actor played The Good in the film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly?
Clint Eastwood

8. Which common name for a tree closely related to the birch comes from the Old English for “hard wood”?

9. Which England wicket-keeper was born in Papua New Guinea of Welsh parents and played his early cricket in Australia?
Geraint Jones

10. In the Bible, what’s the name of the sister of Lazarus and Mary who lived with them in Bethany?

11. Which Wagner opera is based on the legend of the minstrel who after spending time carousing at the court of Venus goes to Rome to seek absolution for his sins?

12. Who used the codename Formal Naval Person in correspondence with Franklin D Roosevelt during World War Two?

13. Which artist, one of the foremost exponents of abstract art, was born in Barcelona on 20th April 1893?

14. What is the meaning of the Latin phrase tempus fugit?
Time flies

15. The river Po runs for more than 400 miles before it enters which sea?
The Adriatic

16. Who has presented Radio 4’s Loose Ends and the quiz show Counterpoint since they both began?
Ned Sherrin

17. What’s secreted by the sudoriferous glands?

18. Who in February 1981 announced that his News International Organisation had purchased Times Newspapers from the Thomson Group?

19. Which Vickers aircraft was used by BEA to launch first sustained passenger service operated by turbo-prop airliners in 1953?

20. For which film did Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray win Best Actress and Best Actor awards at the 2004 BAFTA ceremony?
Lost in Translation

21. Which animals are particularly affected by the contagious disease glanders?

22. Who wrote the autobiographical poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage?

23. In the French revolution, what name after the department their leaders came from was given to the moderate republicans who were prominent in the Legislative Assembly during 1791?

Given a quarter of an hour to rummage among the windmills of my mind, I would have got eleven of these right, and been rather proud of it. Geoff Thomas answered 23 questions, getting only two wrong (8 and 13), in two minutes.

When Magnus Magnusson presented him with the engraved glass bowl, he recalled that in an earlier edition Geoff had said he had two ambitions: to win Mastermind and to live to be a hundred, and went on “Good luck with the second, you’re nearly there.” I think Geoff muttered “...just ten years”, but I’m not sure.

Anyway, if he does make a century I bet that by then he will still have better recall and reaction speed than most of us had in our twenties. Not fair, is it? Still, he is losing his hair.

* I was right.

Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Mid-term elections

A friend, knowing of my interest in things American, asked me today why Other Men's Flowers has had nothing to say about last week’s elections.

The reason is simply that the media—at any rate the parts that I follow—have for the past week been bursting with expert, wise, perceptive and thoughtful comment on the results, and it is not for me, a specialist in the trivial, facetious and frivolous, to add my two pennyworth.

But I must say that I have been humming a merry tune for several days now. Every week or two I participate in an online poll (they give you 50p each time!), and a recurring question is: How positive do you feel about the way things are going in the world? (answer 0 for not at all, 9 for extremely positive). My answer has usually been 2, but in future it will be 6 (not 9, because Blair is still there and we have no Congress to restrain his idiocy).

Monday, 13 November 2006

Special Note: there are no special notes on this page

I like self-referential jokes like that one, and the sign that reads: It is forbidden to throw stones at this sign.

Here is another one I saw in an illustration of a British-born rabbi’s office in Berlin. It may well be a Hassidic joke from the beginning of time, but it was new to me.

Apart from silly jokes like these, self-reference is not a particularly amusing literary contrivance: Wikipedia has a rather boring article about it. But it does include some good examples, such as "This sentence contains threee erors". Are there only two? In that case the sentence is an error in itself, in which case there are three errors, in which case it is a true statement, in which case.... I believe there is a special name for this kind of circular confusion, but I cannot think what it is.

Saturday, 11 November 2006

Cutting a cake

“The paper is a joint study from three mathematics professors at New York University, Montclair State University, and the University of Graz , Austria, and explores the subtle, yet crucial, differences between Proportional equitability, Pareto optimality and Envy-freeness.”

To find out what that is all about, you will have to consult Really Magazine, which gives some brief extracts and a link to the full paper (seven pages plus references).

This website is justly much-admired; its author must be joking when he refers to drawing “our reader’s attention…” to the post from which I lifted the above, and claims that the placing of the apostrophe is correct. If this is so, then it seems grossly unfair that Other Men's Flowers consistently attracts three times as many visitors as Really Magazine.

Thursday, 9 November 2006

Steadily, and blade by blade…

Skip this one, unless maudlin reminiscence turns you on.

Fifty-five years ago, I was languishing (exactly the right word in this context) in Ismailia, in the Suez Canal Zone. There had been a long bureaucratic delay in sending me home for a WOSB (if you don’t know what that is you shouldn’t be reading this), so I wrote to my mother and asked her to write to the Minister for War (they had honest titles in those days). He replied courteously, saying that “a hastener” was being sent to the War Office.

A few weeks later, my CO, a pompous double-barrelled ass who had done nothing to press my cause, summoned me and announced ceremoniously that I was about to be flown back. I replied: “Yes sir, I know, my mother has already told me”. He never spoke to me again, not even to wish me luck.

I passed the WOSB, just in time to go to cadet school and buy the hat (£5 10s 0d, made to measure) before my undistinguished two years of National Service drew to its close. Not long after, the rest of the 30,000 brave lads guarding the Canal were also brought home, but a couple of years after that Nasser nationalised the canal and Anthony Eden cooked up a plot with the Israelis and the French to provide an excuse for parachuting troops in to seize it back again. This led to what many referred to as The Suez Debbakull; if Eden, and later Tony Blair, had consulted me about the wisdom of invading Arab countries on flimsy pretexts, they might have avoided such idiocy and the world would now be a safer place.

Then, in 2003, it was announced that a medal was to be awarded to all those who had served in the Canal Zone (presumably the cheapskates had delayed this for half a century in the hope that many of those eligible would have died and so would be unlikely to ask for one), and as I wasn’t at all dead I applied. Two years went by and then I wrote to ask why it hadn’t come, to be told, “Now look, there are thousands to be sent out and it will take time”.

Another year passed and then I read the other day that there is now a Minister for Veterans, one Derek Twigg, MP (imagine, a whole minister just for us!), so I sent him an email. He didn’t reply, but ten days later —today—my medal arrived.

It’s a pretty thing, and I shall wear it with pride in the unlikely event that an appropriate occasion arises.

P.S. And the next day there came a charming letter from Pamela Kay, BSc (Hons), Secretariat Officer 1a, The Armed Forces Personnel Administration Agency, on whose desk my email to young Twiggers had evidently landed. "Problem with the computer system... completely unacceptable delay... really sorry... far short of the standard we strive to achieve and to which you are entitled... please accept my apology..." The letter also told me that I may apply for a free Veterans Lapel Badge.
Also, it confirmed that my application "was received on the 21 February and approved on 12th April", though it didn't actually mention the year, which was 2004.
But I was not being sarcastic when I said it was a charming letter—it was not short and had clearly been composed with some thought, and not merely by stringing together the standard phrases. And it was on cream laid vellum: I take back what I wrote about cheapskates at the MoD.

Tuesday, 7 November 2006

Saddam not pleased with verdict

...but had an even more arresting headline yesterday:
Silent plane would cut airport noise

and Grumio offered me another "Well, I never" headline, from BBC News Online:
Death row man 'glad to be home'

Sunday, 5 November 2006

Blue men

Although the Blue Man Group originated in New York in the 1980s and now has many shows running in the States and elsewhere, it would be pleasant to imagine that its successful current run in London’s West End is in recognition of the fact that there were blue men among the earliest inhabitants of our islands; the woad they painted themselves with is now being used again in the UK in inks for inkjet printers—it is biodegradable and safe in the environment, though the Ancient Britons probably didn’t care too much about that.

These brave people were over-run by successive invaders throughout two millennia, but those who take this as a reason to deplore recent and current waves of immigration have failed to realise that, compared to earlier ones, they have all been fairly benign, from crafty Huguenots, clever Sephardim and industrious Ashkenazim and so on, all the way up to the last sixty years‘ assortment, and none have come anywhere near to destroying our native culture as did those who arrived before, say, 1100. By then we had had the Romans bossing us about while playing out their decline here, hairy great Vikings with their axes, Saxons, Angles and Jutes pillaging away and finally the Normans imposing yet another language on us.

I say “we” and “us”, but of course we are nearly all descended not from the real natives but from one or another of those gangs of rapacious foreigners. Call yourself a Briton?

The least we can do is to honour the true original owners of the land that our forebears seized. This song, though anachronistic, admirably expresses their defiance and courage; let us sing it loudly, to the tune of Men of Harlech.
(It was written by an unknown hand and first appeared around 1921—though spats had gone out of fashion decades before—and may have been a Scout song; the perfection of its rhymes puts it in a different class from most.)

All together, now:

What's the use of wearing braces, vests and pants and boots with laces
Spats and hats you buy in places down the Brompton Road?
What's the use of shirts of cotton
Studs that always get forgotten?
These affairs are simply rotten, better far is woad.

Woad's the stuff to show, men, woad to scare your foemen.
Boil it to a brilliant blue and rub it on your chest and your abdomen.
Ancient Briton ne'er did hit on
Anything as good as woad to fit on
Neck or knees or where you sit on.
Tailors you be blowed!

Romans came across the channel all dressed up in tin and flannel
Half a pint of woad per man'll
Dress us more than these.
Saxons you can waste your stitches building beds for bugs in britches
We have woad to clothe us, which is not a nest for fleas

Romans keep your armours, Saxons your pyjamas.
Hairy coats were made for goats, gorillas, yaks, retriever dogs and llamas.
Tramp up Snowdon with our woad on,
Never mind if we get rained or blowed on
Never need a button sewed on.
Go it, Ancient Bs!

Friday, 3 November 2006

Scratching your head

Ask Google about nits and they give you 3,710,000 pages to consult. If I were not so pressed for time I would check to see how many are referring to each of the main meanings of the word:
A unit of illuminative brightness equal to one candle per square metre, a Dutch band, the National Intelligence Test, and Pediculus humanus capitis.

But it is only the last of these which is a really absorbing topic, and for everything you need to know about it you have only to go to the magisterial website of the (American) National Pediculosis Association, Inc., called

What riches are here! Current Lice and Scabies News, details of the LiceMeister Kit and, best of all, a section for kids which offers Head Games, animations and Bug Fun Activities. And with one click you can send this page to a friend!

Tom Lehrer was joking when he told us about National Gall Bladder Week, but National Bug Busting Days are for real. There are no less than three of them: 31st October, 31st January and 15th June every year. I cannot think how I missed the recent one, which everyone else celebrated last week.

A Guardian columnist writing about it on Monday referred to the “trained, strong-stomached stoics who went into schools, checked every child and then informed the parents about what to do”, and rightly regretted the fact that the state is no longer nannyish enough to employ them; she said they were known as Nitty Noras, but at my primary school we were more respectful: we called them The Ladies What Look for Lodgers.

Photos of pediculus humanus capitis tend to be rather scary, so I have chosen one of the prettier ones, showing the adult male at the salute.

Wednesday, 1 November 2006

The chance of a lifetime

Substitute Executive
Would you like to make at least 1.5K to 3.5K daily just for returning calls? If you have a phone and can return calls you are fully qualified. Call us - 888-701-3877
Goodbye, Lloyd Jones

Gosh! At, say, twenty calls a day, that's $75 to $175 each time you answer the phone!

I was greatly taken with this proposal, which sounds quite legal and makes a nice change from the usual lengthy and ill-written requests for help in money-laundering. Its simple and direct approach is really appealing: in the middle range of the likely income, the job will, if accepted, bring you in around a million bucks a year.

I thought long and hard about it, but although returning calls doesn’t sound too onerous, and is certainly well within my capabilities, it seems likely that some of them might come in at an inconvenient time (such as when I am having my breakfast), and the admittedly generous rewards would not be worth the resultant stress. So in the end I decided not to offer my services, and to leave the opportunity to someone who needs the money more than I.