Saturday, 25 September 2010

The happiest days

When I was at school, during the Second World War, our teachers were men who had been drafted in because they were not in the forces. Some had been dragged back from retirement and the younger ones were there because the forces wouldn't have them. Most of them were senile, exhausted, ill, drunk or just sunk so deep in Weltschmerz that nothing much, not even sadism, held any pleasure for them. Some of them had been had up for indecent exposure before the First World War.

But, my word, they were a splendid bunch of characters who enriched our lives beyond measure. Even now, the names we gave them them still conjure up affectionate remembrance:  Little Man, Gloom, Daddy Parr, Uncle Tom, Golly, Hack, Stodge... Only those we really despised were not given nicknames; Holy Joe was an exception; he was despicable but we felt a bit sorry for him as he was a lone pious voice in a singularly godless establishment; as I recall, the Christian Union there had only three members, and one of these was deaf.

A few of them had been brilliant, with honorary degrees from several European universities, but they had forgotten much; one man had been fluent in a dozen languages but by the time he came to us had difficulty with expressing himself in English. But somehow they managed to impress us with the remnants of their erudition, for we knew no better. 

There was only one man who really couldn't cope, and that was our PE (we called it Gym) instructor. His problem was that he could no longer do many of the things he was supposed to demonstrate to us: "Now just pull yourselves up onto the beam with a nice easy movement, in this way.... EURARGGH!!! The sweat would pour off him and the veins would bulge out on his poor old forehead. We all spent every lesson praying that he wouldn't die before it ended. But he survived until we spent a whole term in arduous rehearsal of an intricate display we were to put on at the end-of-term concert; the morning before the great occasion, he was taken very ill, and we never saw him again. The item was replaced by a sixth-form barbershop quartet harmonising "Home on the Range". Ah, they were good times; funny how trivial events like these stick in the memory, as does the occasion when a tree blew down, a large branch of it fell on the headmaster and he was away for two months.   

The fact that no-one actually taught us anything much was unimportant, for wartime standards in public examinations were very low and you could pass them with little more than your name written neatly at the top of the paper and then some cheerful and confident-sounding ramblings with a vague relevance to the questions. This was one of the reasons why I later found myself trying half-heartedly to get a degree in a subject for which I had no talent and in which I had no interest.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Shattered Nerve du Pape

Now that Ian Paisley in his dotage has stopped masquerading as a ranting bigot and taken on the role of cuddly national treasure it is apparent that all the time he had been concealing a quiet and delicate sense of humour, typified by the friendly if disrespectful sobriquet  he gave to Joseph Ratzinger: Old Redsocks.
However, he may not be at all pleased to find that his friend was received in Scotland and England with some warmth, though clearly not by everyone. Whether the protesters in London numbered 2,000 or 12,000 depends on which newspaper you read.

Although many did not feel that we got much value from the pontiff's visit,  the police certainly pulled out all the stops to earn the £1 million we are paying them to look after the old rascal; within a few minutes of an allegedly sinister conversation being overheard, they had arrested six Algerian street cleaners, and only a couple of days later had found out who they were and established that it was all a misunderstanding and that these miscreants were not planning a terrorist attack, just having a giggle.

But it was a near thing, and JR must have been shaken by the non-incident. He can't say he wasn't warned before his arrival in Edinburgh that a majority of UK residents did not particularly want him here. The Scotsman suggested that rather than kissing the earth on arrival he ought to take a shovel and dig himself an escape tunnel.

Anyway, the small discomfitures he must have suffered at various points in his visit justify me in using for the title of this post a phrase which I have treasured for years. Sadly, it did not originate with me, and I cannot remember where I first saw it.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Friday, 10 September 2010

Six things to do in Andalusia...

...if you are seven years old:

  • Pay an official visit to the local Comisaria de Policias
  • Lead an underwater expedition
  • Try out the local delicacies
  • Learn dressage
  • Get a degree in Spanish literature
  • Make your first parachute jump
For further guidance, look HERE

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

One down, three to go

Andy Lewis (Le Canard Noir of The Quackometer) is bearing up very well after the recent demise of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, and has written its obituary. For the benefit of those who are pressed for time, I print below a slightly abridged version.

The Royal London Homeopathic Hospital of Great Ormond Street, London, has passed away after a long battle with science. It can trace its origins back to The London Homeopathic Hospital founded by Dr. Frederick Foster Quin, the first homeopath in England. Quinn was a pupil of the founder of homeopathy, Dr Samuel Hahnemann, and his entry to London saw him mixing with the aristocratic and wealthy, establishing royal connections for homeopathy that would last until today.

In its life, the RLHH has moved through several London addresses and became the Royal Hospital when King George VI granted the honour in 1948. In the same year it was subsumed into the NHS as part of the widespread post-war nationalisation of the health system.

In becoming a public institution, and no longer relying on wealthy benefactors, the hospital began its long and slow battle against the cancer of reality. Despite its long history, the homeopaths could not demonstrate that anything that was going on inside showed any sign of objective success. Instead of embracing the new world of trials and evidence, the hospital clung to its tried and trusted approach of relying on anecdotal stories of its success, a diet that would ensure its eventual demise. Despite other doctors’ warning that it had to kick the 60-a-day habit of anecdote after anecdote, the rot of pseudoscience was setting in.

After the Staines air disaster in 1972, which tragically killed 16 of its doctors on the way to a conference, the hospital started to become more and more diluted as it lost its ability to survive alone and subsumed its independence to its retirement home of University College London Hospitals. At the time of its demise today, only one small ward was still breathing and having to share its small room with unwelcome acupuncture quacks and reiki healers

Hope for a longer life flourished under the directorship of Dr Anthony Campbell, a homeopath who recognised that homeopathy was a form of counselling and was thoroughly skeptical of its more deluded claims. Unfortunately, this progressive form of homeopathy never took root and the current incumbents maintained the wilder fantasies of homeopathic healing, ensuring the spreading disease of reality would soon ensure the lights would be going out.

The Royal London Homeopathic Hospital has many admirers from abroad. Homeopaths in India, Africa and Cuba used the presence of a Royal Hospital, funded by tax payers within the NHS, to push quackery on some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world, replacing cheap and effective malaria treatments with sugar pills and water drops, pretending homeopathy can treat AIDS, cancer and TB and using it as justification to replace effective infectious disease control with superstitious nonsense. It is survived by similar institutions in Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow. We understand that they too are desperately ill and will not be able to attend the funeral

It is understood that the body of the hospital will not be donated to science, but instead will be occupied by a few remaining stragglers who will stick pins in patients, wave their arms around them and dish out vitamin pills. Known as the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine, it will survive for a few more months until it is realised that ‘Integrated’ is a misnomer and it is still practising superstitious nonsense.

No flowers.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Flavour Thesaurus

This is the title of a wonderful book by Niki Segnit subtitled Pairings, recipes and ideas for the creative cook. Published in June last year, it is original, witty and demonstrates a magisterial knowledge of food.

She chose 99 flavours, sorted them into groups (spicy, cheesy, sulphurous and fifteen others) and then wrote this manual to explain how and why one flavour might go with another, their points in common and their differences.

Some of the pairings listed are familiar: Bacon & Egg, Lemon & Chicken..., others less so: Apple & Horseradish, Coriander Leaf & Peanut (ugh!), Sage & Anchovy...  (One of my own favourites, Ice Cream & Sauerkraut, is unaccountably omitted.)

The recipes crop up in the book almost casually:
"To serve two [fried trout]...make a watercress sauce by blending a bunch with 150 ml soured cream, a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt and sugar".

I've tried this, and it works. Having bought the book as a gift for someone I knew would love it, I just had to read it, and there is now a nasty food-related stain on page 199, so I had to buy another copy to see if  Butternut Squash & Chestnut  ("sounds like a couple of fat Shetland ponies") is any good. But I shall not bother to find out whether Celery & Truffle make a good pair, as Segnit quotes food writer Elizabeth Luard reminding us that "truffles are an acquired tase, redolent of old socks, the locker-room after a rugby match, unwashed underpants, methylated spirits and a gas-pump on a wet Saturday".

Out of sheer curiosity, though, I might try Grapefruit ("lumbering old uncle of the citrus family") & Shellfish, or Rhubarb & Black Pudding.

Niki Segnit joins the tiny band of food writers (headed by Elizabeth David and Alan Davidson) who can  be read with enjoyment even by those who have no particular desire to try out their recipes.