Sunday, 31 August 2008

Pinnacle of a career

Some years ago a former housekeeper of the Duke of Westminster sued him at an industrial tribunal for unfair dismissal. It came out at the hearing, the Daily Telegraph reported, that her duties had included ironing the duke's monogrammed sheets, taking the Duchess her breakfast and and looking after such visitors as the Prince of Wales and princes William and Harry. "She once," the newspaper added, "pressed a pair of trousers belonging to the countess of Wessex."

A pair of trousers belonging to the countess of Wessex! Clearly she should have resigned immediately afterwards, since surely no other experience in the service of the Westminsters could ever top that. As she put the iron away she might well have felt, as Churchill did in in 1940, "... that my whole life had been but a preparation for this moment."

Friday, 29 August 2008

Vandalism then and now

We often wring our hands about today's widespread vandalism and yobbish behaviour, and speak nostalgically of the days when there wasn't so much of it. But there was never a time when there was none; a local newspaper described without much surprise how Derby day was celebrated in 1882:

As usual a large number of Croydon people attended the great race at Epsom on Wednesday, finding their way thither by road and rail. In the evening the main roads leading from Epsom were crowded both with returning racegoers and persons who had walked out from Croydon to see the 'sport'. This 'sport' consisted of the throwing of turf, dirt and flour bags at the drivers and occupants of vehicles and more than one accident was occasioned by this dangerous practice.

[From Croydon to Epsom and back is twenty miles, a long walk just to watch—or even to participate in—turf and dirt throwing. Flour bags would surely be useless as missiles; did they mean 'bags of flour'?]

Then there is this, ten years later:

But this is by no means mindless vandalism, so 'wilfully and maliciously' seems a bit strong. Clearly this was just good honest theft. The evil-disposed person or persons were after illicit profit: seventeen cushions would yield an awful lot of stuff. Did they have a specialist horsehair fence standing by with a cart to receive it, or did they face the task of hawking huge armfuls of it round the shady sofa manufacturers?

Wednesday, 27 August 2008


This is an unsatisfactory word, since it applies not to one who has cuckolded somebody else, but to one who was passively cuckolded. I think the verb is at fault, not the noun—why not use cuckoldise, or cuckoldate?

You might say that there is a parallel case in dupe: a dupe is someone who's duped just as a cuckold is someone who's cuckolded. (Like cuckold, dupe derives from a French word for a bird, in this case the hoopoe.)

French troops in the first world war used to impress the British by singing a popular song the chorus of which contained the assertion: "Il est cocu, le chef de gare". Sadly, I have been unable to discover the rest of this interesting story about the infidelity of the stationmaster's wife.

The French word occurs again in one of Georges Brassens' songs, Le Mauvais Sujet Repenti, in which a rotten salaud has acquired une maladie honteuse from the girlfriend who provides him with his income, and:
Après des injections aiguës d'antiseptique,
J'abandonnai l'métier d'cocu systématique.

I do not know whether this rather witty description of a pimp's function is widely used, or whether Brassens coined it*.

[My Harrap gives bastard, bugger, sod or louse for an English salaud (I suppose rotter is only in Wodehouse nowadays), but in Swedish he's a lortgris or a snuskpelle, and in Dutch a stinker. Just thought I'd mention it.]

*[Céline has kindly resolved this doubt for me: see comment below.]

Monday, 25 August 2008


Well, that's what it's been, so those who were actually there have been telling us for the past sixteen days. No doubt about it, this was the word for everything: the records broken, what it feels like to get a gold medal, the warmth of the welcome, the facilities, all those drums in the opening ceremony, that little girl.....

Some of these things might well have been described by athletes being interviewed, or commentators telling us what we were watching, as splendid, wonderful, marvellous (or, by Americans, marvelous), fantastic, delightful, amazing, astonishing, awesome, excellent, extraordinary, fabulous, fantastic, great, magnificent, outstanding, prodigious, sensational, stupendous, super, superb, terrific or any of the other nine thousand English words which express approval. Few of these were employed, though: incredible served as the universal term expressing admiration or pleasure. Those whose find themselves watching the repeats or highlights might try counting the incredibles (including incredibly), possibly adding in the almost as popular unbelievable. During and after one event alone I got up to seven.

Oh, and I regret my sniffiness about the plans for the eight-minute GB slot after the hand-over. I was quite wrong: they gave us people on bikes and several others dancing about, a zebra crossing, a bus which had things coming out of the roof, including a singer, a guitarist and David Beckham holding up a football and then kicking it. It was absolutely incredible.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

The curtain will rise...

One of the best examples of man's tendency to hold on to an ideal long after experience has rudely shattered it may be seen in our attitude to the theatre bar in the interval. In the practical daytime, when the anticipation of a night at the theatre flits into our minds, we see ourselves, like people in an advertisement, in some elegant foyer with palms and flowers and flunkeys; men are clean-cut, in beautifully tailored clothes, with that standard, young lieutenant-colonel kind of face, one hand in trousers-pocket. Girls are in ballet-length dresses, smiling up at escorts.

In this mental picture we have, there seem to be about twenty-five minutes for relaxed, sophisticated talk about the play. No rude bells sound in this dream, no-one ever has just beer, or coffee. And, most of all, there is no hint of the sordid struggle by which drinks are actually obtained in real life. The mind closes over this aspect of it like a self-sealing petrol tank.

Now I come to think about it, though, nobody else does seem to have this struggle except me, because all the other people in the bar are terrific personalities. It is only I who seem to be a normal, humdrum man, unable to attract the servers. Every time I try to get a drink in a theatre bar I make a resolution to come next time on stilts, making myself nine feet high, to wear a red beard, and to demand drink with Latvian oaths. I stand sideways on to the bar and gradually work forward until I have one elbow on it, and finally two. But before I can do this the man in front, holding two glasses, steps back from the counter. I politely make way for him and somebody on the other side of him immediately steps into his place.

When I do get to the front, I am always faced either by a large bowl of flowers or I am in a kind of no man's land between two servers who, if they ever hear my despairing cry, "two gin and—", hiss "Just a minute" crossly at me through teeth which are holding a twenty-pound note. Normally they don't say anything at all; they are too busy flying up and down whisking bottles open for people who seem to be ordering enough refreshment for a Watteau country picnic.

Yet the other people have such personality that they can get served simply by speaking in cool, authoritative voices from wherever they happen to be. "Six champagnes, please," says a plummy-voiced well-bathed man in a velvet jacket who is standing directly behind me. I have a strange feeling that I am getting smaller and smaller.

Sometimes, when I get a seat at the end of a row, the moment the curtain has come down on the first act I rush to what is sometimes called the saloon, which usually turns out to be on the other side of the theatre. Then after I have rushed up and down flights of stone steps so long and untheatrical that I am surprised not to find myself coming out under Blackfriars Bridge, the place is already full when I get there.

Acknowledgements to Paul Jennings

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Top knife

It was thought worth noting in the Guardian obituary of a distinguished rabbi who died the other day that his older brother had been for many years "the senior religious slaughterer of the Manchester community and one of the city's leading circumcisers".

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Naughty boy

Extract from
The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London's Central Criminal Court, 1674 to 1913
(You can search these HERE)

20th May 1681
Offence: pocketpicking
Francis Russel, a Boy of about 8 years of Age, was Indicted for picking eleven Guineas, and seven shillings in silver out of a Gentlewoman's Pocket near St. Dunstans Church, and Convicted of the same by his own Confession.
Punishment: Death

Many death sentences were not carried out and it is not possible to find out whether this one was. However, mitigation was usually through benefit of clergy or use of pardons, and respited sentences due to pregnancy, or in order to perform military or naval duty. To claim benefit of clergy it was originally necessary to appear tonsured and produce letters of ordination but by 1681 one could prove clergyhood by demonstrating an ability to read; pardons could only be given by the king.

Pregnancy and imminent call-up were obviously not relevant here, so it looks as if this offender was unlucky and never reached the age of nine. However, young offenders were sometimes fined and then sentenced to a period of imprisonment in the London Refuge for the Destitute which was, in effect, a juvenile reformatory. Perhaps this happened to young Francis.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Injuries bravely born

I see that last weekend yet another footballing big girl's blouse received a bit of a knock and collapsed writhing in pain until he was comforted and put on his feet again.

Back in the fifteenth century sportsmen were made of sterner stuff. There are several versions of a ballad called Chevy Chase (i.e. a hunt in the Cheviots) celebrating a dispute over hunting rights which led to a mighty battle. After a careful start....

The bowmen mustered on the hills,
Well able to endure;
Their backsides all with special care
That day were guarded sure.

....the fighting was fierce and long, and at close of play only 108 had survived out of the 3,500 huntsmen and warriors involved. Both team captains were slain, the Scottish Earl Douglas by an arrow and the English Earl Percy by a spear.

I doubt if there were any among all the grievously wounded who collapsed in petulant tears like footballers; typical of those who didn't was one English squire who was perhaps the inspiration for an incident in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

For Witherington needs must I wail
As one in doleful dumps.
For when his legs were smitten off,
He fought upon his stumps.

[Or, in an earlier and more elegant version:
For Wetharryngton my harte was wo,
that euer he slayne shulde be;
For when both his leggis wear hewyne in to,
yet he knyled and fought on hys kny.]

Friday, 15 August 2008

Woman's Constancy

A young person of my acquaintance who has no respect for age and infirmity has pointed out that Other Men's Flowers, while purporting to be a vade mecum for intellectuals, currently contains 49 posts about food and drink and 40 about hats but only 33 about poetry and 17 about art, thus suggesting that eating, drinking and comic headgear are more important to me than than other, more cultured, enthusiasms.

That may well be the case, though I could point out that music gets 69 and literature 57. Still, many of the posts in these categories are merely frivolous or facetious so it is true that the general tenor of OMF is not such as to give sustenance to those in search of edification.

Well, tough titty for them. Anyway, to raise the tone a bit here's a picture of John Donne, and a poem he wrote called Woman's Constancy in which the poet suggests some excuses his lover might make for dropping him. He isn't really being kind, he's just showing that he might well drop her first:

NOW thou hast loved me one whole day
To-morrow when thou leavest, what wilt thou say
Wilt thou then antedate some new-made vow?
Or say that now
We are not just those persons which we were?
Or that oaths made in reverential fear
Of Love, and his wrath, any may forswear?
Or, as true deaths true marriages untie,
So lovers' contracts, images of those,
Bind but till sleep, death's image, them unloose?
Or, your own end to justify,
For having purposed change and falsehood, you
Can have no way but falsehood to be true?
Vain lunatic, against these 'scapes I could
Dispute, and conquer, if I would;
Which I abstain to do,
For by to-morrow I may think so too.

(I discovered this poem in the marvellous website of Anniina Jokinen of Philadelphia, who has translated some of Donne's poems into Finnish but in the case of one of his rude ones was not satisfied with the result.)

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

The right words for praising God

The trouble with having a personal deity rather than thinking of it (or, rather, him) as some kind of abstract force is that if, like most gods, he is the sort of deity that demands constant praise then there are a limited number of nice things one can say say about him.

Take Jesus, for example; there are few words you can use which don't seem inappropriate. Loving is OK, but friendly is not; understanding is probably just about acceptable, but sympathetic doesn't seem to hit the right note. There's even less you can say about God: he can be all-powerful, merciful, eternal, or just, and there are many other compliments which are perfectly in order, but you could never call him charming, keen, shrewd, cheerful, tidy, clever, sporting or brave.

In fact we've got into a rather tongue-tied state about our gods altogether, considering that medieval theologians used to maintain that God was the sum of all possible perfections. That should have provided plenty to say about him, but they didn't take the opportunity to describe, say, his powers of deduction, command of languages or infinite capacity for hard work.

And quite what's being asserted of God when it's said that he's merciful, etc, it's difficult to know. If one queries whether God is quite as merciful as he is cracked up to be, given the astonishing number of quite merciless things which occur under his jurisdiction, and which in any other organisation would lead to vociferous demands for his resignation, religious people are astonished at the naïvety of one's interpretation.

'Good heavens!' they cry, often laughing cheerfully as well. 'When we say that God's merciful we don't mean that he's merciful in any merely human sense of the word. With our miserably limited understanding and our pathetically inadequate language, we couldn't hope to make anything but the most incomplete and misleading attempt at describing him. There's no way of knowing what we mean when we say that he is merciful. For all we know, God's mercifulness may consist of just those very things which we, with our poor understanding, think of as merciless!'

Gods weren't always as indescribable as this. The Greeks didn't hesitate to characterise their team as lecherous meaning lecherous, jealous meaning jealous and drunken meaning drunken. God is very clearly characterised by the Old Testament too: he invents his laws as he goes along, he insatiably demands flattery, he bullies his courtiers and plays cruel tricks on them, he murders individuals and destroys whole communities who step out of line. Most of the time he is in a vengeful, smiting kind of mood.

Now that's what you might call a God. Nobody could read the Old Testament without being stirred to wholesome indignation. But then it was felt that this didn't reflect the changing tastes of the age and that it might be having an anti-social influence, so they tried to make the chief character turn on goodness instead of sheer power. They stopped him murdering people, and had him helping them in distress instead, though not of his own accord; you still had to ask him nicely.

This is an implausible depiction, and a weaker piece of characterisation; it may go some way to explaining the decline of religion in recent times.

Acknowledgements to Michael Frayn's A Question of Character

Monday, 11 August 2008

George Antheil

Since some of the following sounds unlikely and Other Men's Flowers is sometimes suspected of adopting a less than serious attitude to the truth I must preface this note by firmly attesting to its accuracy; if you doubt it there is always Google.

George Antheil, born in Trenton, PA, bounced into Europe in the twenties as a precocious pianist, playing his own avant-garde compositions in several major cities. They provoked mild enthusiasm and sometimes riots; he took to having the doors locked and keeping a pistol on top of the piano.

Such works as Ballet Mécanique, scored for pianola with amplifier, two pianos, wooden and metal aircraft propellers, tam-tam, three bass drums and a fire siren, became hugely popular, but Antheil's reputation in France declined and in 1927 he took his masterpiece to New York, where it was performed under the baton of Eugene Goossens; it now featured ten pianos, one played by Aaron Copland. Sadly, the publicity had led the audience to believe that they were in for a bit of fun, and when the wind driving the propellers hit the audience, blowing off hats and toupees, and the fire siren, cranked up too late for its cue, didn't stop when it was meant to, many New Yorkers collapsed with laughter or left the hall.

Back in Paris, Antheil was out of fashion, though he had some success with an opera, Transatlantic, about a US presidential election. He returned to the USA, broke, in 1933 and turned his hand to various ways of making money, writing a lonely-hearts column with his wife, studying endocrinology and writing articles about glands for Esquire, and then went to Hollywood where he produced thirty-three much admired film scores.

So far, then, a fairly conventional sort of life. In 1942, however, it took a turn for the unusual when he collaborated with the sex-goddess film star Hedy Lamarr in designing a radio-controlled torpedo which they patented. It never actually went into production, but the principle of frequency-hopping on which it was based has various uses today in modems, satellite transmissions and mobile phones. In 1997 the US military revealed that the Lamarr-Antheil device was the basis for their secure communications system.

A survey in 1947 found Antheil to be one of the most performed US composers, so I am ashamed that until yesterday I had never heard of him. But I wish I had been at the Carnegie Hall concert in 1927, and I much enjoyed reading his story.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Beijing: the great show begins

The Olympic Games opened last Wednesday with the Women's Association Football tournament.

FIFA, which governs women's football as well as men's, may have hoped to upstage the opening ceremony of the games by putting on the women's Olympic event two days before, but although there were some nail-biting matches—notably the one in which a goal by Canada's Candace Chapman sent her side on the way to a 2-1 win over Argentina—there was little doubt that it was Friday's show which had the edge for spectacle and excitement.

The organisers of London 2012 will have difficulty in matching it, but no doubt they will do their very best. Rehearsals are already taking place for Great Britain's part in the handover ceremony which will take place after the end of the Beijing games, and, as the picture shows, this promises to be something really special.

Then when it comes to the opening ceremony in four years' time we can expect something on the scale of Churchill's funeral or even the Queen's coronation. Plans are still under wraps, but those in the know are fairly certain that the ceremony will feature, among many other colorful symbols of our history, culture and achievements, top personalities from the Women's Institute, the College of Arms and Coronation Street, the massed bands of the Brigade of Guards, the Yeoman Warders of the Tower of London, and, of course, Cliff Richard.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Top columnists

Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times, though still dressed up as a serious broadsheet, is actually a pale imitation of Hello!, largely concerned with celebrity gossip and the doings of the extremely rich. It has assembled a team of some of the worst columnists writing today; all of them are remarkably consistent in projecting their respective personalities, which range from the repellent to the merely dull.

Any Sunday one can marvel at the sort of thing which ST readers apparently enjoy. Most weeks, there are, for example, the cheap sneers of Rod Liddle, the banalities of India Knight, and several doses of the proudly oafish Jeremy Clarkson; a measure of the depths to which the paper has sunk is that it gives over a large part of the back page of its main section to the appalling Michael Winner.

But there is one who stands out even among this despicable bunch by his insufferable arrogance and stupidity. The former head of OFSTED, Chris Woodhead, was almost universally loathed by the profession—not only by the 15,000 teachers he described as incompetent—but survived in the post for six years until resigning to much rejoicing in 2000.

He is now chairman of a company that runs independent schools, and continues to write on educational issues. This week in the Sunday Times he had a long piece about the "reforms" he promoted; we still suffer from the effects of his ill-thought-out tinkerings but he explains that he believes that they "made basic sense" while admitting they have done more harm than good. This, he says, is because he did not fight hard enough to enforce their application.

I think it needs more than one photograph to do justice to Woodhead's qualities, and on the advice of someone familiar with the man's achievements I have selected these two, one clearly part of an expensive portrait, redolent of dignified self-satisfaction, and the other just a nasty smirk.

But perhaps he is best represented by the stunningly asinine statement he makes after asking the question "How much am I to blame...." in a feeble and disingenuous mea culpa attempting to show that he was right all the time: "With hindsight, what has happened is utterly predictable."

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Jūs esat brīnišķīgs dejotājs!

While spending a few days in Rutland last week (now there's an opening phrase to entrance the reader!) we had an excellent dinner in a pub/restaurant kept by a family of friendly Latvians in the little town of Uppingham. When I paid the bill I gave the waitress a polite Liels paldies! (thank you very much) and she seemed pleased and a little surprised; probably very few of the regular customers address her in her own language.

Later she may have discovered that I had acquired the phrase only ten minutes before, by asking her father. Since then I have looked up a few more which might be useful if I meet any more of their compatriots and I look forward to an opportunity of using the one which I have used as the title of this post, which means You are wonderful at dancing!

Wikipedia has a fascinating article on the Latvian language, from which I learn that Latvian and Lithuanian are closely related but mutually unintelligible, and that there are several contests held annually to promote correct use of Latvian. Notably, the State Language Centre holds contests for language mistakes, named "Gimalajiešu superlācis" after an infamous incorrect translation of Asiatic Black Bear. These mistakes, often quite amusing, are both grammatical and stylistic; sometimes also obvious typos and mistranslations are considered to belong here. Organizers claim that mistakes are largely collected in areas heavily populated by Russian-speakers, as well as from Lithuanian-owned chain stores. Mistranslations are not necessarily grammatical, but also stylistic and vocabulary mistakes, such as literal translations from the English language.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Theme tunes

I have always thought that Zoroastrianism has never really caught on in England—except, of course, in North Devon and parts of Dorset—largely because it doesn't have any good tunes. Every creed, party, society, club or institution should have some noise, musical or other, which believers, adherents, members or subscribers could sing or shout whenever they foregather, but Zoroastrians, or Zarathustrians, as it is fashionable to call them, don't appear to have anything with which they can jolly themselves along.

Among their beliefs they have the concepts of asha, (truth and order) and its antithesis druj (falsehood and disorder), so it might be a good plan for them to devise a chant, something like a college yell, along the lines of:
Asha rules, down with Druj! Zoro! Zoro! Zoro!

Everyone should know at least a few of the words of the traditional morale-boosters in case they find themselves among a crowd of people singing one of them and do not wish to remain mumchance and thus give themselves away as spies, heretics or gatecrashers, so here are some of the important ones:

The Internationale (1870, lyrics Eugène Pottier, music Pierre De Geyter) is a useful one to know because it serves or served as the anthem of the International Socialist Movement, the International Anarchist Movement, the International Communist Movement and the International Democratic Movement. Here it is in a variety of languages, but it is best to learn the original French words and these four lines will be sufficient:
C'est la lutte finale
Groupons-nous et demain
Sera le genre humain.

Then there's The Red Flag, written by Irishman Jim Connell in 1889, normally sung to the tune of the German carol O Tannenbaum. It was adopted as the Labour Party's anthem when the party was founded but is rarely sung nowadays and you can easily pass as a member (though few would want to) just by mouthing it as if you knew the words. Actually, the words are quite inspiring, if you like that sort of thing:
The people's flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyr'd dead
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts' blood dyed its ev'ry fold.
Then raise the scarlet standard high,
Within its shade we'll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We'll keep the red flag flying here.

No-one nowadays would want to sing the charming We are the Ovaltineys (.wma) or the vile Horst Wessel Lied so let's move on to the sacred numbers. There are too many of these to list so here are just three:

I couldn't find a link to a decent audiofile of Cwm Rhondda but everyone knows this mighty tune and if you want them to keep a welcome in the hillsides you could always learn the original words:
Arglwydd, arwain trwy'r anialwch,
Fi, bererin gwael ei wedd,
Nad oes ynof nerth na bywyd
Fel yn gorwedd yn y bedd:
Hollalluog, Hollalluog,
Ydyw'r Un a'm cwyd i'r lan.
Ydyw'r Un a'm cwyd i'r lan

This is not a good time to select an anthem for the C of E (though Through the Night of Doubt and Sorrow comes to mind), so let Protestantism, if not Anglicanism, be represented by that jolly hymn the Sally Army used to sing and perhaps still do. Sadly, I could find only a dreary midi file of the catchy tune.
Whosoever heareth, shout, shout the sound!
Spread the blessed tidings all the world around;
Spread the joyful news wherever man is found:
Whosoever will may come.
Whosoever will, whosoever will,
Send the proclamation over vale and hill;
Tis a loving Father calls the wand’rer home:
Whosoever will may come.

Of course, the Roman Catholics have their own song, and a cheerful little ditty it is too.