Saturday, 27 December 2008

Floored by a Rollmop! Or is it Rolled by a Floormop?

A few Christmases ago - three, I fancy it was - I was brought to my knees by a Rollmop; you might know it as a pickled or soused herring. Now, I have always been extremely partial to this particular piscine product, but this individual held a nasty surprise in store for me. I will not go into the gory details, but suffice it to say that, in that year, I celebrated Christmas by consuming nothing other than water. The effect of this event was profound. Although I still continue to consume all other kinds of seafood, oysters included, I have not, from that day to this, eaten a Rollmop. So, if a single run-in with an individual clupea harengus in acetic acid can produce such abstinence, why, oh why does it not work with alcohol?

When it comes to alcohol, it seems that the phrase, 'you learn by your mistakes' is written in some language indecipherable to many of us. Because, dear reader, I would argue that we don't learn from our past mistakes when it comes to drinking. Picture the scene; you're invited to some bash or other - perhaps a Christmas party, or a leaving do - and you know you've got to be up and out early the next day. 'I'll just have a couple', you say to no-one in particular, but then, a few hours later, having acquired the taste for whatever you happen to be drinking, there you are, quaffing and carousing, and making Shakespeare's bibulous old Sir John Falstaff seem like a tea-drinking Methodist.

Then you start making mental calculations. 'If I leave in half an hour, I'll be home by one. That'll give me five hours sleep, time for a quick shower, and then out.' But then someone buys you another drink, and the whole thing has to be re-calculated, at a time when your mathematical skills are not, shall we say, at their sharpest. This you have already demonstrated by handing over a large denomination note for every round you buy, because you've lost the ability to count out the right amount of change.

Eventually, you find your way home, albeit probably not at the time you intended. Your clothes are all awry, and your pockets bulge with 'drunk's change' - piles of low-denomination coins. You somehow divest yourself of your clothes and tumble into bed and into a dreamless sleep.

But, in the morning, comes the reckoning:

'He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning...his mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.'

Kingsley Amis' description of Jim Dixon's hangover in Lucky Jim encapsulates the whole experience rather nicely, I would say. In the course of my fifty-odd years on this earth, I've had more hangovers than you could shake a Martini at. The pounding head, the overwhelming nausea, the unusual perspiration...yep, I've had them all. And, as I get older, they seem to last longer, despite my best efforts to treat them. So, in the absence of something called will power that might actually stop me drinking to excess in the first place, I need one of two things; either (i) something to lessen the effects of the alcohol; or (ii) a surefire hangover cure. Interestingly, my researches indicate that most of our forbears' energy was expended in finding preventative measures, rather than cures for the subsequent effects.

The ancient Greeks apparently believed that drunkenness was caused by noxious fumes rising from the wine they drank, but thought that the effects of the fumes could be nullified by wearing a wreath around the head. These wreaths were generally of myrtle, roses or violets, but some also believed in the efficacy of cabbage leaves, ivy or parsley. I suppose that, if this preventative measure failed, you could at least chew on the parsley to make your breath a little less unpleasant!

Cabbage and parsley also make appearances in ancient Rome. Emperors drank boiled cabbage water to prevent intoxication, whilst the politician Cato favoured the vegetable itself. "It will make you feel as if you had not eaten, and you can drink as much as you like." Unlike the Greeks, the Romans were not foolish enough to believe that wearing a parsley wreath prevented drunkeness. Of course not; they made it into a necklace instead.
I think, perhaps, we should be indebted to Pliny the Elder for his tireless search for remedies to prevent intoxication. In his Naturalis Historia, he lists a number of these: two raw owls' eggs drunk in wine over the course of three days; roasted sheeps' lungs; eels 'suffocated' in wine; powdered pumice in one's drink; a mixture of ash from the burnt beak of a swallow and myrrh; and, if all else failed, deep-fried canary. It is, perhaps, ironic that Pliny the Elder died during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD, due, according to his nephew, to 'some unusually gross vapour, as I conjecture, having obstructed his breathing and blocked his windpipe'. In other words, inhalation of pumice dust.

Preventatives of, and cures for, drunkenness seem to have been in short supply during the middle ages. However, the one that keeps popping up is eels and bitter almonds. Raw eels were mixed with the bitter almonds, ground up into a paste and then served on bread. I suppose we can only hope that the almonds were cultivated rather than wild. Apparently, the ground up wild almond, unless roasted or treated in some other way, produces cyanide. A permanent hangover cure, I suppose.

I know I keep coming back to my old friend John Aubrey, but he does seem to have something relevant to say for almost everything I write. In his Brief Lives, he mentions the actions of Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher, and the method he employed to lessen the effects of alcohol:

'When he did drink, he would drink to excess to have the benefit of vomiting, which he did easily; by which benefit neither his wit was disturbed (longer than he was spewing) nor his stomach oppressed.'

So there you go. Drink until you spew. If you want.

Time marches on. In the eighteenth century, that Age of Enlightenment, we do, at last, find a hangover cure. And to my mind it's quite pleasant. Drip some clove oil onto a sugar cube and suck it, then chew a bit of parsley (parsley again!), followed by a nice cup of camomile tea, and round off the process nicely by taking a teaspoon of honey every half hour for two or three hours. By which time (to my way of thinking) the hangover will have gone of its own accord!

I'm not going to bore you with all the new-fangled hangover cures that involve paracetamol, or Alka Selzer. You've probably tried all of them at some stage anyway, with (I'm sure) varying degrees of success, and you might even be able to suggest some of your own that are more efficatious. All I will say is, if all else fails, knock out a quick prayer to St. Viviana. She's the patron saint of the hangover.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Christmas Greetings from England's smallest County

Hi All.

May I wish you and your families a very happy Christmas.

I have thoroughly enjoyed speaking to all of you in this my first year of blogging. I look forward to continuing our acquaintance in 2009.

Have a great day!

Friday, 19 December 2008

Io Saturnalia!

Sorry it's a bit late, but can I just wish you all a happy Saturnalia!

I seem to recall mentioning Saturnalia in passing a few posts back; mainly in connection with Christmas, and the fact that the latter festival's timing owes something to the pagan festival held in Rome. But I didn't really go into much detail, did I? Otherwise I'd have been off at a tangent (nothing unusual for me) and would have found it quite impossible to get back on track.

Saturnalia commemorated the dedication of the temple of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and the harvest. In Rome's mythology, when Jupiter ascended the throne of the gods, Saturn is said to have escaped to Rome and ruled the city, presiding over a period of unprecedented peace and harmony - a so-called Golden Age. It was in honour of this period that Saturnalia was celebrated at around the time of the winter solstice - December the 17th.

Originally, Saturnalia, like Christmas, was a single day of celebration, but it became such a popular festival (for obvious reasons, of which more later) that it ended up being a full week long, despite the attempts of emperors to reduce its length. As with all Roman festivals, there were 'official' celebrations; the emperor, in his role of Pontifex Maximus (high priest) would make sacrifices to the god, and priests of the temple would perform other rituals. The feet of the statue of Saturn, bound with woollen thread for the rest of the year, were unbound to symbolise liberation, and the image (which was hollow) was filled with fresh olive oil - one of Rome's agricultural bounties.

For the general population, Saturnalia was a family holiday; a chance to let the hair down and have some fun. Schools were closed, official government business was suspended, and prisoners on death row were spared...but only until the festival ended! Roman armies fighting abroad suspended all hostilities for the duration of the festival, although whether they played football with their enemies in Gallia or Germania is not recorded. The rather formal toga was abandoned in favour of a colourful 'dinner suit' (the synthesis), and everyone wore a pileus - a little pointed hat - which was symbolic of freedom (slaves were traditionally given one of these on being freed). Some sources say these hats were made of, what does that remind you of?

Families got together to eat and drink, and to exchange gifts. Houses were decorated with boughs and other greenery brought in from outside, and lamps were lit. In those households with slaves (in other words, most households except the poorest), the social order was turned upside-down. The master was expected to both cook, and serve, dinner to his slaves, whilst the slaves were allowed to treat the master with a kind of jokey contempt. Personally, I think it fairly unlikely that there were many masters in Rome who could even boil water, so I suspect the slaves prepared the food for the master to serve it up. The slaves were also exempt from punishment at this time of year, and were allowed to gamble with dice. Romans lived in constant fear of slave revolts, or of being murdered in their beds by their own household slaves, so were probably a bit wary of their slaves getting too much of a taste for freedom during this season of laissez-faire. A slave who was less than respectful to his master at some other time of year would be asked sarcastically, 'Is it December already, then?'

Of course, there were always a few that went over the top. The streets of some parts of Rome, albeit patrolled by the Vigiles (a cross between a police force and a fire brigade), were still extraordinarily dangerous by modern standards, and some used Saturnalia as an excuse for getting extremely drunk and performing random acts of violence upon innocent passers-by. Two such individuals who put on disguises, got drunk, and wandered around Rome's red light district picking fights and beating people up were emperors - Caligula and Nero. Although we cannot be sure that these acts were perpetrated during Saturnalia, it seems pretty likely with Nero. His birthday fell upon the 15th December; two days before the start of the festival. In his twenty-second year he had his mother killed, and celebrated his birthday by shaving off his beard. How better to round the year off than to dress down and inflict a bit of ultra-violence on your people?

Well, I hope your winter celebrations involve something a little less confrontational. Io Saturnalia!

Thursday, 18 December 2008


I used to be a smoker. Not, I hasten to add, a large receptacle full of glowing oak chips, designed to impart a delightful flavour and colour to trout or salmon. That would have been useful. I mean a smoker of cigarettes. But it didn’t end there; oh no. During my smoking career I tried pretty well everything. Ordinary cigarettes, roll-ups (with and without liquorice flavoured cigarette papers), cigars, cigarillos, black Russian fags, pipe tobacco smoked in rosewood pipes, in meerschaum pipes, and in long clay pipes that made me look either like Gandalf or some comic villager from a Thomas Hardy novel. The low point was Heath and Heather smoking mixture. Concocted from something called coltsfoot and other (legal) herbs, it stank like a bonfire.

Equally, it wasn’t unusual for me to try foreign cigarettes. I smoked Bisonte in Spain, Drava in Jugoslavia (the packet was made of brown paper with a picture of a toiling blacksmith on it), and the curiously-named N.E. Lunga in Italy. These latter were so appallingly dull that, on more than one occasion, I was forced to shout, ‘I can’t stand this N.E. Lunga!’

On the whole, my favourite foreign cigarettes were Gaulioses, which hail, of course, from France. When you lit up one of their Disques Bleues and took a lungful of thick smoke, which felt for all the world as if you were inhaling a lump of garlic and herb Christmas cake, you knew you were smoking a cigarette. This week, I noticed, predictably, that the French have handled the smoking ban in the same way they deal with pretty well all the legislation that comes out of the EU - they have ignored it, and continue to smoke in cafes, bars and restaurants. Although I no longer smoke, and welcome the smoke-free atmosphere that now pervades our pubs, I can’t help feeling a sneaky bit of admiration for the French.

This Gallic spirit, which could be characterized as ‘us against the rest of the world’, is nowhere better exemplified than in the Asterix cartoons. Created in 1959 by Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, they follow the fortunes of Asterix, the plucky, moustachioed little Gaul, Obelix, his lumbering, menhir-delivering companion, and the rest of the inhabitants of their little Gaulish village as they resist the incursions of the Romans, led by Julius Caesar. Their village has a secret weapon in the war against Rome - a magic potion, prepared by resident druid Getafix (originally named Panoramix in the French version) that gives the Gauls temporary superhuman strength when fighting. It is Obelix’s constant regret that he is not allowed to drink the potion; his strength is permanent since he fell into a cauldron of the stuff as a baby. And I mustn’t forget Obelix’s little dog, Dogmatix (or Idéfix - meaning obsessed - in the French version).

If you’re new to Asterix, you’ve probably noticed something about the names. They are invariably a play on words. Asterix sounds like asterisk; Obelix is a play on obelisk; and Getafix…well, I’m not sure how The Youth of Today would interpret this one! Other villagers’ names are a pun based on their trade or attributes; Geriatrix is an old man, Unhygienix is the fishmonger, and Cacofonix is the rather unmusical village bard).

Of course, this is a game we can all play. Gaulish mens’ names end in an ‘x’; womens’ (generally, but not necessarily) in an ‘a’, and the name chosen should reflect the individual in some way. And Christmas is traditionally the time when people get together and play silly games.

C'mon! Let’s play!

Masochistix - A downtrodden villager who, curiously, is happy to be so.

Dominatrix - His wife who, not unsurprisingly, takes advantage of the situation.

Aviatrix - A young druidess with dreams of flying. When she can get hold of some of the magic potion, that is.

Backsacncrax - Owner of The Village Spa, a place of calm and relaxation.

Plucka - His wife, who takes an active role in the business.

Botox and Collagena - Their trainees.

Horlix - The village 'bike' (suggested by a person who claims to be my daughter).

Egomaniax - A self-obsessed Gaul.

Monomania - His rather dull wife .

Weetabix - A spelt farmer.

Goneballistix - A villager with a very short fuse.

Consiliata - His wife, who is constantly apologising for him.

Prefix and Suffix - Identical twins. One is always ridiculously early for everything, whilst the other is always terribly late.

Psychotix - the village axe-maniac. Every village needs at least one

Backtobasix - a putative politician, who believes in traditional Gaulish values.
Vitalstatistix watch out!

Panicattax - A terribly nervous Gaul; probably frightened by Romans at some time .

Starbux - Purveyor of an alternative potion to that made by Getafix, which he sells from a small tavern.

Insomniax - Starbux’s best customer.

Cantrelax - Starbux’s second best customer.

Macrobiotix - The village weirdo. No-one is quite sure why he consistently refuses to eat wild boar.

Fixeruppa - the village’s only handywoman.

Earlier today, whilst wandering through the echoing halls that are The Internet, I thought, ‘Let’s have a look at the Parc Asterix website. It’s a theme park, fairly near EuroDisney, and devoted to all things Gaulish. A good place for children from all over Europe to visit, you’d think, especially as you can buy Asterix books in just about every language, including Latin. And guess what? Unlike its American owned rival, it steadfastly refuses to provide site information in anything other than French!

Image copyright 1959 - Goscinny and Uderzo.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Sanctuary much

Hello, and may I be the first to wish you a happy St. Jodocus’ Day. Perhaps I should warn you now that this post contains religion, but is not, in or of itself, religious. To those of you who have beliefs - please do not be offended. To those of you who do not - I say the same!

A couple of posts back, chatting as we were over the garden fence about wishbones, you may recall that I mentioned a gent called John Aubrey. He was a noted bon viveur, and author of Brief Lives, a series of pen-portraits of his contemporaries and near-contemporaries in the 17th century. Some of these are inaccurate, some scurrilous, and some downright naughty, but all are fascinating and I hope one day to introduce you to a few of the more interesting characters from his Lives.

Sadly, Mr. Aubrey is no longer with us, having passed away on the 7th June 1697. But it is not the date of his death that concerns me here, but rather that of his birth. According to his autobiographical notes, he was born on the 12th of March, 1625, which he claimed to be St. Gregory’s Day. Now, I took a brief trip into a Calendar of Saints, and discovered that Gregory died on the 12th of March, but that this was not his feast day; that actually falls upon the 3rd of September.

Being a rather maggoty headed individual, not unlike Aubrey himself, I couldn’t leave it there. Oh no. I just had to find out the name of the saint (if any!) whose feast day actually fell upon the 12th of March. And it turns out that there a great many of them. Alphege of Winchester, Bernard of Carinola, Dionysus the Carthusian, Egdunus, Joseph Tshang-ta-Pong, Luigi Orione, Maximilian, Mura, Paul Aurelian, Peter of Nicomedia, Peter the Deacon, Seraphina, Theophanes the Chronographer and Vindician.

Anyway, back to St. Gregory. Now, you probably all know about patron saints - St. Christopher for travellers, St. Francis for animals, and so forth. But St. Gregory is a true multi-tasker. Amongst other things, he is the patron saint of choirboys, gout, musicians, popes, stone masons and the West Indies. Quite a mixture, you might say, and probably spectacularly useful if you are a musical port-drinking sculptor from Barbados. But these are by no means the strangest people or places to be ‘patronised’ by a particular saint. Are you, perchance, afraid of mice? Then you need to have a chat with Gertrude of Nivelles. (Oh, and she does rats as well). Are you a comedian? If so, St. Vitus is your man. Do you suffer from haemorrhoids? St. Fiacre would probably be able to lend a hand. Do you have an unreasoning fear that you will be killed by artillery fire? Call St. Barbara. Perhaps you’re thinking of setting up a business; maybe a coffee shop? Then give St. Drogo a shout.

St. Drogo is an interesting chap. Apparently he had the ability to bilocate; in other words, he could be in two places at the same time, being seen both at mass and out working in the fields. And not only is he the patron of coffee house keepers. He also keeps an eye out for the hard of hearing, for those afflicted with gallstones, for midwives, orphans, sheep and (this one’s for me!) unattractive people. And speaking of unattractive people, let’s not forget St. Wilgefortis (otherwise known as St. Uncumber) who prayed so hard to be rid of a tiresome suitor that she was able to grow a luxuriant beard and moustache. She is the patron saint for ‘difficult’ marriages; the saint to whom women prayed in the middle ages if they wished to be rid of their husbands.

If you can name it, there is a patron saint for it. Everything from the city of Aachen (Apollinaris) to zoos (Francis of Assisi). And, in between, thieves, paratroopers, murderers, boxers, blackbirds, dog fanciers (eh?), motorways, coin collectors, soap boilers and people who whitewash things for a living. However, try as I might, I can’t find a single saint who sticks up for us pensioners (albeit there are no less than three for Old Maids - a term which I thought had long since died out!) But no matter. In my other incarnation as a Blogger (I have devised a new word for what we are - Blognator for a gentleman blogger, Blognatrix for the female of the species) I do at least have St. Isidore of Seville, who is patron of computer users and the Internet!

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Frensm is as frensm does

Whatever the hell that means.

Anyway, I'll tell you a story. A little earlier I went to pay my respects to the Comedy Goddess, in order to make a small jocular remark about Glogg, a Swedish punch which she is currently promoting. Whenever I wish to comment upon CG's blog, I am required to copy a group of apparently random letters, termed 'word verification', before I can post my ramblings. Now, generally speaking, the letters make very little sense, and do not, as a rule, spell out anything that can be found in the OED. But today, another of CG's visitors, Ann (of Ann's Rants) found herself being asked to input the word unpubast, which she thought sounded like the technical term for a bikini waxer.

This, of course, got me thinking. Could we create a whole new dictionary, based solely upon the apparently random output of the word verification gnomes? By Jove, I think we could. The following have all been generated from CG's post a comment box, just this afternoon, and the definitions were the first things that came into my head. Well, almost:

Bakerni - A Croatian oath, similar to the English cry of ‘knackers’.

Scrimpor - Cartoon super-villain, whose special power is an ability to spend very little money.

Ating - The act of stranding someone on a small island in the middle of the River Thames.

Sherrea - A little-known law from a tiny religious sect that insists upon all its adherents drinking fortified wine.

Frensm - An East Anglian dialect word, incorporating friendly and handsome (in the sense of ‘generous’) - eg That’s right frensm of ‘ee! Generally used to thank someone for purchasing a drink.

Coothe - Common name for the North American Lisping Pigeon

Siffist - Someone who shuns the Seattle International Film Festival (there is such a thing, I swear!)

Inegur - An authentic-sounding Icelandic name, generally used with a following adjective (eg Inegur the Strong, Inegur the Skull-splitter, etc.)

Corturts - (i) the pain experienced when injected into an elbow joint with cortisone; or (ii) the actual words uttered by the unfortunate individual in receipt of the injection.

Extusice - The act of expelling a member of a fitness club from the membership list.

Gatiomen - An unusual Japanese noodle dish, made piquant by the addition of a small amount of kitten meat.

Eazed - The sense of relief afforded by the application of a soothing rub or cream.

Grallin - An ocean fish, noted for its passing resemblance to Sarah Palin, former vice-presidential hopeful.

Over to you. I'm hoping this even-lighter-weight-than-usual posting will buy me some time until I have something really useful to say.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Now, there's a Merry Thought.

When I was a child, way back in the 1960s, chicken was regarded (in ordinary families like mine, at any rate) as an expensive luxury. Chicken was something you ate on high days and holidays only. Easter, birthdays, a visit from nan and grandad; these were the kind of occasions where a visit to the butcher's shop was essential, and the purchase of a box of Paxo sage and onion stuffing mix an absolute must. Things have certainly changed over the years. Intensive farming and high density breeding of birds has resulted in ridiculously cheap chickens being available at most supermarkets. I can't vouch for their quality or flavour, however. Rightly or wrongly, I tend to go for a free range organic bird; one that, to the best of my knowledge, has been reared in more 'natural' surroundings, able to scratch around for worms and insects, wander in or out of doors to its heart's content, and lead an altogether better existence than its battery counterparts...right up to the moment when its little neck is wrung.

One thing that I'm fairly sure hasn't changed is the tradition concerning the chicken's wishbone. Quite simply, one individual takes hold of one side of the wishbone, and another person the other. Sometimes the thumb and forefinger are used; in our family it was the little finger curled around the bone. The two pull in opposite directions, and the wishbone snaps. The person with the larger portion of the bone is then permitted to make a wish, but must not reveal what is wished for.

Superstitions concerning the wishbone date back a very long way. The Etruscans, who inhabited Italy before the Romans, believed that chickens were able to divine the future, and 'sacred' birds were used in ceremonies where they were permitted to peck at little piles of grain representing different letters of the Etruscan alphabet. As they pecked, the appropriate letters were noted down, and used by priests to foretell the future. For some unaccountable reason, the furculae, or fused clavicles (aw, alright, wishbones!) of these sacred birds were thought capable of granting wishes. Once dried in the sun, an individual was allowed to hold the unbroken bone and make a wish.

The Romans also regarded chickens as sacred. Publius Claudius Pulcher, given command of the Roman fleet against Carthage at the Battle of Drepana, had a cage containing sacred chickens on his flagship. The behaviour of these birds would determine when battle should be joined. Apparently, the chickens appeared to be off their food; a very bad omen. Foolishly, Pulcher threw the birds, still in their cage, into the sea, saying, 'If they won't eat, let them drink'. Needless to say, the battle resulted in a spectacular defeat for Rome. On his return to Rome, Pulcher was tried for sacriledge, convicted, and exiled, dying soon afterwards, possibly at his own hand. So let that be a lesson to anyone who chooses to ignore their chickens.

I digress. The Romans continued the Etruscan tradition regarding the wishbone. One source claims that citizens of the Republic fought over possession of these bones because they were in short supply. During the course of these brawls, the wishbones were accidentally broken, thus kick-starting the trend for snapping them in two that continues to this day. But this seems a little fishy to me. Chickens were by no means a rare bird in Rome. The ancient author and cook Apicius had no less than seventeen recipes involving chicken; eggs, hard-boiled and otherwise, found their way into many dishes; and Columella, in his De Re Rustica, suggested that flocks of chickens should ideally consist of around two hundred birds. So the idea that our little feathered friends were hard to come by seems unlikely. The idea of Roman Citizens having a punch-up over a clavicle seems equally implausible. The preferred method of getting one's own way in Rome involved either (i) sticking a dagger between your opponent's ribs, taking whatever it was you wanted, and then dumping his body in the Cloaca Magna (Rome's main sewer), or (ii) paying a group of ruffians to do the job for you. If you had a wishbone, and someone bigger and tougher than you wanted it, the chances are they'd get it, and without a single bone (other than yours, of course) getting broken.

Empires rise and fall, but chickens go on for ever. So, it seems, do superstitions. In 15th century Germany, it was the (unbroken) wishbone of the goose that was used for divination. In 1455, a Bavarian physician named Hartlieb wrote: 'When the goose has been eaten on St. Martin's Day or Night, the oldest and most sagacious keeps the breast-bone and allowing it to dry until the morning examines it all around, in front, behind and in the middle. Thereby they divine whether the winter will be severe or mild, dry or wet, and are so confident in their prediction that they will wager their goods and chattels on its accuracy.' The good doctor also remarked that the bone would be used to determine when battles should be fought; a link back to poor old Publius Claudius Pulcher. The tradition of pulling the wishbone flourished in England too. The Seventeenth century diarist and raconteur John Aubrey, in his work The Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme, relates the correct method of dealing with the Merrythought. I make no apology for quoting him in full:

Tis common for two, to breake the Merry-thought of a Chick Hen, or wood-cock, &c and the Anatomists call it 'Furcula': 'tis called Merrythought, because when the fowle is dissected, or carved it resembles the Pudenda of a Woman.

The manner of breaking it, as I have it from the Woemen, is thus, viz: One puts the merrithought on his nose (slightly) like a paire of Spectacles, and shakes his head till he shakes it off his Nose thinking all the while his Thought: then he holds one of the legs of it betweene his forefinger and Thumbe, and another hold the other in like manner: and breake it: he that has the longer part, hath got the Thought: then he that hath got the Thought putts both parts into his hand and the other drawes (by way of Lott) and then they both Wish: and he that lost his Thought drawes: if he drawes the longest part, he getts his Wish: if the shorter, he looses his Wish.

Did everyone get that? I hope so, as I'll be asking questions later.

It is, perhaps, unsurprising that the traditions surrounding the wishbone were carried to America by the Pilgrim Fathers. An excellent account of the fortunes of the furcula on the other side of the Atlantic can be found in Willow's blog here. American tradition pays homage to the turkey rather than the chicken, the latter beast being plentiful there.

It is worth noting that the first settlers in North America enjoyed (if that is the right word) a precarious living for the first few years; so it is likely that many of them were vegetarians by dint of necessity rather than by choice. However, in these latter days, many people are vegetarian by choice, and this creates a problem. How do vegetarians keep alive the old custom of breaking the turkey wishbone? The enterprising Lucky Break Wishbone Corporation has produced a fully synthetic turkey wishbone that looks and breaks just like the real thing!

There now. I bet you wish I'd found this before Thanksgiving, don't you? Never mind. You've still got time to make that last minute order for Christmas.

Image © 2004, The Lucky Break Wishbone Corporation.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Blogger me!

I've been at this blogging game for just under four months now. Those of you who have been 'at it' for considerably longer would probably regard me as something of a Late Developer. Be that as it may, blogging has given me something to sharpen up my mind (probably not a bad idea for a retiree - it's either this or fall asleep in the local library), and has also encouraged me to write; somthing I hope to do more of in the new year.

I've had some very nice comments from all of you out there, for which I thank you. I'm struck by the extraordinary range of talent, intellect and humour that runs through the blogs I have read. I hope that I may one day reach your dizzy heights. At the moment I'm a rather scuffy albatross flapping around outside the third storey of the massive skyscraper that is the Empire Blog Building.

I like the word Blog. It has an onomatopoeic feel about it. Take a plastic bucket, turn it upside down and push it down into a swimming pool, so the air can't escape. Then slowly turn it over. The rush of air to the water's surface sounds something like blog. Although it's really more like bluuuog. Repeated over and over again, blog can sound like the diesel engine of a canal boat. Or, when whispered a number of times, like boiling coffee in a percolator. Blog could also be pressed into service by cartoons or graphic novels. We're all familiar with wham, biff, boing and splat. Blog seems to me equally serviceable, perhaps as the sound of a villain being brained by a railway sleeper wrapped in a duvet.

When I was a kid, the English equivalent of John Doe was Fred Bloggs. And there was a famous lifeboatman from Cromer called Henry Blogg. But none of these things have anything to do with this post. When I wrote Greetings from Lower Blogworthy, I made a quick trawl through cyberspace to see whether there was, in fact, a village of that name or similar. There wasn't, but I did find the word 'Blogworthy' in the Urban Dictionary, which defined it as 'literally, worthy of blogging'. This started me wondering. Were there other words or phrases that could be adapted using the word blog, in order to describe blogs themselves, the people that created them, their contents, how they were written, and the etiquette surrounding their use? My previous post on the Common Smurf prompted the question once again. So, at the risk of your Humble Author's blog becoming even more lightweight than it is already, I have devised a short list of bloggy words or phrases. Here they are...

Ablogate - to deny any responsibility for the contents of your blog.

Blogarithm - the act of getting into one’s stride in the art of blogging.

Blogart - Either (i) the pretty pictures on your blog; or (ii) an online aficionado of 1940s films.

Blogdan - a suitable online name for a male Polish blogger.

Bloggery - an all-purpose swear-word (eg it’s raining like bloggery)

Blog flume - the torrent of comments following an interesting or controversial post.

Blogmanlike - a no-nonsense blog; sturdy and reliable.

Blognoxious - an unnecessarily offensive blogger.

Blogotá - a Colombian blog.

Blography (or Autoblography) - your online profile.

Blogsworth - a petty-minded blogger

Blogthario - one whose sole purpose in blogging is to make the acquaintance of women online.

Blogue - a blog with a strong Gaelic theme.

Oblogation - the feeling that you must post regularly so as not to disappoint your readership.

Obloguy - An abusive blog post.

Spaghetti Blognese - the act of tying yourself in knots by attempting to stick to your own principles and views, whilst at the same time trying not to offend your followers.

So there you have it. You can't get much more lightweight, can you? Next thing you know, I'll be telling you how you can increase the size of your blog by seven inches. Or offering you a genuine online degree. Or (less credible) a Readers' Digest cash prize that actually arrives.

All this typing has worn me out. I'm just popping down to the library for a snooze.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Happy Smurfday

Let's get one thing out of the way first, shall we? I have no particular affection for Smurfs. I have always found them to be rather irritating little creatures. But I couldn't let their fiftieth birthday (albeit I'm a bit late with this virtual greeting) go unrecognised. So, Joyeux Anniversaire aux les petits Schtroumpfs - which is, of course, their original name.

One thing that does amuse me, however, is their penchant for using the word 'smurf' as a substitute for some other word. You will note the title of this post - Happy Smurfday - as a relevant example. You could also, for instance, say 'smurftastic', or 'I'm just smurfing down to the shops'. Apparently the Smurfs were a divided tribe by virtue of their language conventions. When describing a bicycle pump, Northern Smurfs would say 'bicycle smurf', whereas their Southern counterparts would use the expression 'smurf pump', an object which sounds both unpleasant and uncomfortable.

I would really like to have seen the Smurfs forget their differences and go the extra mile (or one and a half kilometres, if you are a BBC employee reading this) by using the word 'smurf' in a whole variety of ways. For example, 'smurf' could operate as an expletive, an adjective, a noun and a verb, thus:

Oh, smurf it! The smurfing smurfer's completely smurfed!

The Smurfs always seemed to me to be a bit old-fashioned as well. Now, being an old-fashioned sort myself, I can't really take issue with this. However, there seems to be an overwhelming need these days to make things 'relevant' to our times. Comics that we all enjoyed, like the Dandy and Beano, have been sanitised and politically corrected. Dennis the Menace and Roger the Dodger no longer get a good whacking for misbehaving. Nowadays they're more likely to undergo some other humiliation, like a jolly good dose of after school detention, or the temporary loss of a games console for a week. But the Smurfs have always been pretty correct. So how to we update them? I suppose the younger ones could spend their time smurfing the internet? Or indulging in the other kind of smurfing down at the beach (have you heard Smurf's Up by the Beach Smurfs?). But if they went into a shop and asked for a smurfboard, could they not end up with a skateboard, a breadboard or some cardboard? I suppose they'd be better off calling it a surfsmurf.

It's likely that our twenty first century Smurf (sounds like a film studio, doesn't it!) might fall prey to some of our worst vices. Binge-smurfing, smurf-eating (clarification: binge-eating), suffering from body dysmurfia. Younger smurfs could end up in gangs; there would be 'smurf' wars' when members inadvertantly strayed across invisible boundaries. And, just as bad, wholesale redundancies and financial meltdown when there's a credit smurf. Or a smurf crunch.

I think it's high time Hollywood woke up to the fact that a live-action Smurf movie is long overdue. After all, they've done it with Batman, Thunderbirds and the Flintstones, to name but a few. Casting might be a bit of a problem; after all, there aren't that many blue actors around, albeit I suppose some makeup could be employed. But the opportunity for endless innuendo, brought about by the liberal use of the 'S' word, would surely make such a venture worthwhile (although I hope even Hollywood would baulk at the use of the expression 'mothersmurfer'). There is, however, one thing of which I am certain; the actress who should be cast in the role of the Smurfette. Why, it should be none other than that excellent Irish actress...Victoria Smurfit.

Image borrowed from Apropos of Something blog.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Greetings from Lower Blogworthy

Greetings from the little village of Lower Blogworthy. It's a pretty little place; a small, narrow street with picture perfect thatched cottages on either side, their gardens filled with fragrant flowers. At one end of the street stands the Dun Cow Inn - it's an old traditional English pub selling proper beer; none of your nasty fizzy stuff. The landlord's name is George, a good solid English name. He is a ruddy-faced host, resplendent in waistcoat and side whiskers, and probably wouldn't look out of place in a Dickens book. The pub's furniture is a bit of a mish-mash, with odd chairs and tables picked up from here and there over the years, but these, the roaring log fire and the chatter of a few old locals playing dominoes or crib just add to the atmosphere. To be able to approach the bar and ask George for 'the usual' indicates your acceptance into village life.

Just across the way from the pub is the village store, run by old Mrs. Morris. Dear old Marjorie Morris, the village's oldest inhabitant, has been doling out papers, sweets, foodstuffs and all manner of good advice to Blogworthians for what seems like forever. She knows everyone and everyone knows her. This is the true centre of the village; people stop for a chinwag, for a moan about something or other, and generally make time to set the world to rights. Everyone has great respect for Marjorie; so much so that they wouldn't dream of addressing her by her first name. It would be like addressing the Queen as Lizzie Windsor. And even the cheekiest village kid wouldn't think of stealing so much as a boiled sweet from the shop; it would be like stealing from your granny.

At the other end of the street, up a well-worn track, stands the old village church of Saint Something-or-Other; I forget quite who. They say some parts of it are eleventh and twelfth century, and certainly it's been fortunate enough to escape the 'improvements' to some of the other nearby parish churches during Victorian times. Golden moss grows on its ancient tiled roof, pigeons coo from the belfry and, in the churchyard, generations of Lower Blogworthy's folk lie at rest, their labours (some easy, some grindingly hard) at an end. The vicar (who seems almost as ancient as the fabric of his building) preaches to an ever-dwindling congregation. But the little old ladies who make up the bulk of the congregation are for ever busying themselves with one project or another, be it jam or wine making for the village fete, fetching bits of shopping for the infirm, and generally looking out for each other. You wouldn't be in the least bit surprised to find Miss Marple's bike propped up outside around the time for evensong

Just across a babbling brook stands the village of Upper Blogworthy. Now, this little village used to be as tight-knit a community as its Lower twin. Regrettably things have changed over the last few years. The old Manor House (home to generation of squires) is now an expensive holistic healing centre, with Jags and Porsche Cayennes on the gravel drive, its stables turned over to office space. Many of the pretty little cottages are now second homes for city dwellers in IT or some such, shut up and empty for weeks on end. They bought into the country expecting the kind of lifestyle they'd read about in the Guardian (endless dinner parties, Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall selling venison pasties at the nearby farmers' market, an endless supply of reliable cleaning ladies at a ridiculously low wage), but actually ended up isolated, and complaining about the noise of chickens from the nearby farm and the pealing of church bells on a Sunday. And the village shop is up for sale. The population is now so small that the shopkeeper can no longer sell enough to keep the business going.

So, what am I wittering on about? Do Upper and Lower Blogworthy exist? Of course not, but they do bear a startling resemblance to what's happening in the English countryside. There are still many hundreds of picture-perfect villages, complete with shops, pubs and thriving community halls, but sadly there are an equal number where the pubs and shops have closed for ever and the population has dwindled in the face of second home purchase. Of course, you can't always blame the incomers - for every weekender in a cottage there's a local who sold it to them in the first place. But aside from all that, I have a request to make of you: get out into the English countryside. It has its own special beauty at this time of year, especially as the Christmas lights are fished out of their boxes and hung up, and George the landlord stokes up the fire at the Dun Cow. Have a pint of best in the snug. Enquire after old Mrs. Morris' health as she weighs up your quarter of sweets. And pop into St. Someone-or-Other to admire the brasses and the medieval stained glass. It's got to be done. And a message to those of my blogging chums who are far away - I hope that, whether you are in Canada, Australia, the US or anywhere else, my pen picture of Lower Blogworthy makes you feel just that little bit closer to home.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Sex, pies and videotape

The first episode of Channel 4's new drama, The Devil's Whore, was aired on Wednesday. Set against the backdrop of the English Civil War in the seventeenth century, the series follows the fortunes of the fictional Angelica Fanshawe, wife (in the first episode, anyway) of her childhood sweetheart Harry, who was also her cousin. As a child, Angelica's Catholic mother abandoned her to join a convent in France. Unable to prevent her mother from leaving, Angelica cursed God and was shortly afterwards confronted by a vision of the Devil in a tree; a vision which seems set to recur as the series progresses. It is this vision, coupled with the fact she seems to enjoy sex rather too much for husband Harry's liking, that he gives her the not altogether flattering cognomen of The Devil's Whore. Husband Harry later faces a firing squad, having incurred the displeasure of King Charles after surrendering his family home to Parliamentary soldiers without a fight.

What is all this stuff about women not being allowed to enjoy sex back then? My researches suggest that this wasn't necessarily the case. It was understood in the 17th century that women, as well as men, had sexual desires, and some (un)conventional wisdom of the time suggested that a woman deprived of sex would become ill, and might even fall prey to madness. Of course, the only lawful sex was that which occurred within marriage; everything else was strictly off-limits. On the 10th May 1650, Parliament passed An Act for suppressing the detestable sins of Incest, Adultery and Fornication, 'wherewith this land is much defiled, and Almighty God highly displeased'. Under this Act, incest was punishable by death 'without benefit of Clergy', as was adultery, unless the woman could prove that she was victim of a 'case of Ravishment'. Prostitutes and brothel keepers could expect a whipping, a spell in the pillory, a branding on the forehead with the letter 'B' using a red hot iron, and three years in prison. A subsequent offence meant death. Straightforward fornication (if there is such a thing!) attracted the comparatively light sentence of three months in prison for both the man and the woman, and this applied whether the woman was a virgin, unmarried or a widow.

If you couldn’t have sex (either because you weren’t married, or feared the consequences of being caught, or both), there was always Christmas to look forward to. You’re probably aware that the 25th December was not the actual date of the birth of Christ. The date had been chosen to attract pagans (who celebrated the day as their own midwinter festival) away from the ‘old’ religion and into the arms of Christianity. The Roman festival of Saturnalia had also been celebrated at around the same time and, like the pagan midwinter ‘do’, was characterised by feasting, drinking, jollity, and the turning of normal society on its head; master became servant, servant became master (in the armed services, it is still traditional for officers to serve their men/women at Christmas), and all manner of other foolishness and japery was indulged in. Christmas in the 17th century helped people to get through the long, cold, miserable winter by injecting it with a bit of jollity.

Characteristically, however, the Puritanical Parliament had something to say about this too. On the 19th December 1644, an ordinance, insisting that Christmas Day be characterised with fasting rather than feasting, was issued. As with all 17th century documents, the ordinance rambles on, but this bit explains their thinking:

That this day in particular is to be kept with the more solemne humiliation, because it may call to remembrance our sinnes, and the sinnes of our forefathers, who have turned this Feast, pretending the memory of Christ into an extreame forgetfulnesse of him, by giving liberty to carnall and sensuall delights, being contrary to the life which Christ himselfe led here upon earth, and to the spirituall life of Christ in our soules for the sanctifying and saving whereof Christ was pleased both to take a humane life, and to lay it down againe.

Cheery lot, weren’t they? But the population at large had a way of dealing with such laws; they simply ignored them. So much so that, On 8 June 1647, it was decreed thus: ‘Be it ordained, by the Lords and Commons in parliament assembled, that the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, and all other festival days commonly called Holy-days, be no longer observed within this kingdom of England.’ Guess what? The common folk still ignored the ban, and there was a near riot in Canterbury when an attempt was made to force shopkeepers to open for business on Christmas Day. Ten years later, on 22nd December 1657, the Puritan Council ordered Justices of the Peace 'to see that the Ordinance for taking away festivals is observed, and to prevent the solemnities heretofore used in their celebration.’ Effectively, (although I cannot find chapter and verse) this meant troops and officials paying surprise visits to households to ensure that no-one was eating mince pies (termed ‘an abominable and idolatrous confection’) or other Christmas fayre. One rather liberal Puritan wrote of the mince pie in 1656:

Idolatry in crust! Babylon’s whore
Raked from the grave and baked by hanches, then
Sewed up in coffins to unholy men;
Defiled with superstition, like the Gentiles
Of old, that worshipped onions, roots and lentils!

I wish we knew what he really thought.

I feel sure that the majority of the population was heartily glad when the Merrie Monarch, King Charles II, was restored to the throne in 1660, ushering in a less straight-laced era and, best of all, the return of Christmas. It would have been nice to think that his return would have brought to an end once and for all the mean-spiritedness and interference in everybody's business that characterised the interregnum. But you only have to look at our lives now - electronically tagged wheelie-bins, householders fined for putting rubbish in the wrong bag, wall-to-wall CCTV cameras - to get the sneaking suspicion that Oliver Cromwell is alive and well, and living in a town hall somewhere near you.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

My Mate...but is it yours too?

We spent an hour or so trundling round the supermarket this morning. Sainsbury's, as it happens. The place is currently undergoing refurbishment, and, to facilitate this, it appears necessary to move shelves and freezer cabinets around from time to time. Thus, where yesterday beer could be found, today that particular spot is home to Aunt Bessie's frozen scones, or some such. It's only when when things like this happen that you realise what a creature of habit you are, being 'thrown' by the movement of baked goods from one aisle to another.

We bought all the usual stuff; bread, milk, the organic tinned tomatoes I like to use in curries. No need to get any Marmite; I already have a whacking great jar of that at home. 'They' say of Marmite, 'You either love it or you hate it'. However, I recently heard a late night radio presenter descibe it as 'alright', which would seem to fly in the face of the popular folkloric view of love/hate, and could possibly throw the company's promotion of the product on that basis into confusion. It is a very clever campaign. How many other products advertise their goods on the basis that half the people watching the commercial are likely to hate whatever it is they are selling?

I'll nail my colours to the mast. I love Marmite, particularly as a component of a Marmite and peanut butter sandwich on white bread. To some people this seems to be a rather unusual sandwich, and others have described it as downright disgusting. But why? I have heard tell of Marmite and bean sprout sandwiches, a mixture of Marmite and butter smeared over fish and chips, Marmite and mashed potato on toast, Marmite and broccoli sandwiches, hot cross buns with margarine and Marmite. One correspondent on the Guardian's food blog recommends Marmite and 'mucky fat' sandwiches. You know the dripping and jelly you are left with after roasting a joint of meat? She advocates a layer of meat jelly, a layer of dripping, and a smear of Marmite on top. And if that's not food porn I don't know what is. It makes my Marmite and Sun-Pat sound quite pedestrian.

Marmite was first produced in 1902 at a factory in Burton-on-Trent in Staffordshire, a town known for its breweries; not surprising, since Marmite's main component is brewer's yeast, originally obtained from the Bass brewery. During the brewing of beer, yeast is added to a 'mash' of malted barley and hops, the fermentation process starts, and the sugar in the malt is converted to alcohol. At the conclusion of the process a large amount of sludge is left. This is the used brewer's yeast, which is subsequently broken down, filtered and concentrated, and combined with the other ingredients to make Marmite. The brown stuff is high in vitamin B, apparently helping to regulate the liver, kidneys and nervous system. Its health-promoting properties saw it issued to soldiers in the first world war as part of their ration pack, and to british prisoners in the second world war as a dietary supplement.

As you would expect, Marmite trundled on for years unchanged in its familiar jar (a 'marmite' is the French name for a two-handled cooking pot, a picture of which appears on the label), but then marketing stepped up a gear. We have since had squeezy Marmite, Marmite with champagne and another version with Guinness. Crisps, biscuits, rice cakes and sausages have all recently been available flavoured with Marmite, and Paddington Bear was persuaded to forego his marmalade sandwiches in favour of Marmite in a recent TV and radio advertising campaign. And, in an ultimate expression of love for yeast extract, sculptor Jeremy Fattorini took two and a half weeks to coat a copy of Rodin's statue The Kiss in champagne Marmite, using 420 jars in the process.

I think the love/hate thing lies in the fact that Marmite is umami, the Japanese word for savoury. When I was at school, it was thought that there were only four 'tastes' - sweet, salt, sour and bitter - but umami has been acknowledged in the East for many years. The tongue receptors for umami pick up natural amino acids, glutamic acids and glutamates which are present in such foods as Worcestershire sauce, anchovies, parmesan cheese, soy sauce...and Marmite! You might want to check out the company website here, and at the same time one of the anti-Marmite sites.

Since we've grown to know each other a little better, I think I can let you into the secret of my other yeast extract based vice; a thickly-spread fried Marmite sandwich, topped with a runny fried egg. Yum!

Sunday, 16 November 2008

What the Dickens?

Miss Dorrit and Little Dorrit - Illustration by Phiz, 1855

What the Dickens, indeed. But what does this expression have to do with Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812 - 1870)? As it turns out, absolutely nothing. Its first appearance (or so I am led to believe) is in William Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, Act III Scene II, where Mistress Page is moved to say:

I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my husband had him of.

And that was around 1597. 'Dickens' (variously Dickin or Dickon) is thought to be a diminutive of the forename Dick, and was generally used as a euphemism for the Devil, as was the word 'deuce'. Back then people felt very uncomfortable uttering the D-word itself, and so came up with a long list of synonyms; Old Harry, Old Scratch, Horny, Rodger, Clootie, Black Donald, and, of course, Old Nick. What seems curious to me is that some of the names are almost affectionate.

But enough of this talk of the Devil. It is Mr. Charles Dickens I wish to discuss today (Albeit there is a link - Ebenezer Scrooge is referred to as 'Old Scratch' and Fagin as 'The merry old gentleman', both of which are also names for the Devil). No doubt you will have seen Andrew Davies' latest offering, Little Dorrit, on the BBC. I believe that the Beeb is at its best when it comes to drama, factual programming and natural history, and Dorrit doesn't disappoint. What may irritate some viewers is Davies' decision to slice the novel up into half-hour chunks when we are used to such offerings occupying a one hour slot. In a sense, however, Davies is mimicking Dickens himself, many of whose novels were not published as a single volume, but rather in monthly parts. The Pickwick Papers was so published, and circulation increased dramatically after he had introduced Mr. Pickwick's cheeky cockney manservant, Sam Weller. The plots were followed, and the next instalments as eagerly awaited, as are the latest episodes of Coronation Street or Eastenders by our contemporaries.

In common with some of our serial dramas (and here I'm thinking of Spooks, currently running on the BBC), Dickens was not afraid to kill off some of his more important chacters; Paul Dombey (Dombey and Son); Dora (David Copperfield); and Little Nell (The Old Curiosity Shop). [About the last, Oscar Wilde is believed to have said, 'One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.'] In so doing, Dickens was, of course, reflecting the high mortality rate of the time, particularly amongst the young. The average age of mortality, mid-century, was 22 years for the working classes, and around half of all funerals were of children under the age of ten.

Many of Dickens' characters are drawn from life. It is fairly well known that Mr. Micawber was based upon the author's own father (who, like Little Dorrit's father, was imprisoned in the Marshalsea for debt in 1824), and David Copperfield upon himself. However, what is less well known is that the author spent many hours wandering around the less savoury and downright dangerous parts of London, observing at first hand the drunkenness, violence, poverty and squalor that existed there, and which inevitably found its way into his novels. Of Seven Dials, an area close to the now fashionable Covent Garden, he said, 'What wild visions of prodigies of wickedness, want, and beggary, arose in my mind out of that place.' He once told a journalist, 'The amount of crime, starvation and nakedness and misery of every sort in the metropolis surpasses all understanding.' It was from these forays that he was able to create such an accurate picture of the London of King William the fourth and the young Queen Victoria.

Not only did Dickens provide us with a sense of place, but was able to people his novels with accurate portrayals of the city's inhabitants; old clothes sellers, cabmen, actors, boatmen, the military and the criminal classes. He had encountered all such people in his wanderings. And, as an excellent mimic, he was able to bring the language of the streets, alleyways and public houses to his public readings, given later in life.

One of Dickens' early jobs was as a court reporter. Perhaps it was in the Police Courts, where he saw savage sentences meted out to those who stole out of poverty or want, that the author acquired his distaste for the law in all its forms; the interminable Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit in Bleak House that destroys all whom it touches; the puffed-up 'jobsworth' parish beadle Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist; and the terminally obstructive attitude of the staff in the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit. Heaven alone knows what he would have thought of our twenty first century police, tied up in knots by government targets and unable even to tackle violence head on without conducting a 'risk assessment'.

Anyway, if you haven't seen Little Dorrit yet, do try and catch up with it somehow. And, as Christmas seems to be perpetually associated with the author, I can thoroughly recommend that there is no better time for you settle down with a glass of Genuine Stunning Ale, put another coal upon the fire, and immerse yourself in one of Mr. Dickens' novels. Go on, I dare you!

Saturday, 15 November 2008

You've been memed

Yep, I've been got, by none other than Mr. Colgan, in the following terms:

Sod Richard and Judy. Sod Oprah. What would you advise people to read? Name your favourite:

(a) Fiction book
(b) Autobiography
(c) Non-fiction book
(d) A fourth book of your choice from any genre.

Explain why the books are essential reads in no more than 30 words per book.

Hmm...not the easiest thing in the world to choose your favourite books. I always have several on the go at any one time and tend to dip in and out of them as an ephemeral mayfly dances across the shining waters of the stream, just before it is gobbled up by the trout. Word limits are easier, of course. Hell, as an Open University student for umpteen years, I think word counting is now part of my DNA! Any, here goes:

Fiction: A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Tight-fisted Ebenezer Scrooge is converted from miserly old devil to beneficent, merry old gent in one night by three spirits. The inimitable Boz at his best, and required Christmas reading.

Autobiography: Brief Lives, by John Aubrey. Seventeenth century raconteur and “maggotie headed” antiquarian Aubrey wrote a series of lively pen portraits of his contemporaries. Truthful, scurrilous and occasionally downright crude, he brings historical figures to life. (Yes, I know it's not strictly an autobiography, but I'm sure you'll let me off!)

Non-Fiction: The English Way of Death, by Julian Litten. Fascinating history of the common funeral from the middle ages to the present day. Litten visits burial vaults, funeral parlours and coffin makers in this chilling reminder of our mortality.

And any other book: Trains and Buttered Toast. A Betjeman anthology, but not a poetic one; rather, a selection of his radio broadcasts on all things English. You can almost hear Sir John’s measured tones as you read.

So there you have it. Ask me tomorrow and you might get The Pickwick Papers, Angry White Pyjamas, One thousand notable thinges of sundrie sortes and Bert Fegg's Nasty Book. But please don't ask me tomorrow.

I'd like to meme those who have been kind enough to drop in on this late developer (in blog terms) over the last few months: Rob, Janet, Punk in Writing and Mr. Soanes. I look forward to your input.

Thursday, 13 November 2008


It's Children in Need time again. And every year I ask the same question. If they've managed to raise so much money, why haven't they sorted Pudsey's eye yet? That spotted hanky must be getting pretty grubby by now, and many hobby-type shops sell teddy bear eyes that can be quite easily sewn on. Give Pudsey back his binocular vision, I say!

Did you have a teddy bear when you were small? Or was it some other animal, or perhaps a doll? And did you literally love it to bits? The pristine little bear that Santa gave to you probably ended up threadbare (excuse the pun!), minus an ear or an eye, and leaking sawdust here and there (back in the days when kids' toys really were filled with such materials). Yes, it took a good deal of cuddles, rough love (in a good way), and being dragged by the sticky paw through muddy puddles, piles of leaves and nameless filth to achieve Mr. Ted's ultimate dishevelled appearance. I suspect Pudsey may well have been a victim (or perhaps more properly, a recipient) of such unwitting treatment.

In a effort to overcome the hard work required to get from pristine panda to bedraggled buddy, no.1 daughter has come up with what I think is a winning idea - Badly Made Toys. No more bouncing soft toys off the wall until they split their stitches; these felt friends are already rough round the edges. And the eyes? One will already have been conveniently removed for you, leaving only one black button to be swallowed or pushed up a nostril!

These are her first efforts; small mock-ups of larger, more luxurious pieces. You will note that they are of indeterminate species, apart from the one that appears to be a Y chromosome with an eye patch. Other similar 'pre-loved' toys are at the design stage. I will keep you posted with future product developments in what is, dear reader, nothing less than a thinly-veiled attempt on my part to drum up some customers for her.

Random thoughts of a random fellow

I freely admit that the title of this post is adapted from Jerome K Jerome's work, Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, which I was fortunate enough to pick up in a second hand bookshop some years ago at a very reasonable price. However, Jerome squared, middle name Klapka, is not the subject of my latest offering. He deserves a post all to himself and I hope one day to do him justice.

The other day I was both pleased and proud to attend No.1 daughter's graduation at The Barbican in the City of London. Amongst those receiving awards was writer and broadcaster Victor Lewis-Smith, upon whom was bestowed an honorary doctorate. We were informed by the Vice-Chancellor during her speech that Mr. Lewis-Smith had once telephoned the Monopolies Commission to ask why there was only one of them. Now, to my knowledge, this particular piece of drollery was vouchsafed to me at least twenty years ago by none other than Stevyn Colgan, which leads me to one of two conclusions. Either Victor Lewis-Smith is a monstrous thief and plagiarist, or, quite independently of the (then) young Mr. Colgan, became possessed of a random thought regarding said Commission, which he subsequently went on to broadcast and (presumably) make money from.

To date, I have never made any money from my random thoughts, but this does not stop them from crowding in upon me, like onlookers stooping over a man collapsed upon a pavement. Here I offer some of them to you freely, to use as you wish (or not) without let or hindrance.

1. It is not possible to make a proper haiku from Tweety-Pie's song. I'll prove it:

I tawt I taw a
Puddy tat a creepin' up
On me. I did, I...

Told you.

2. What's the big deal about swimming with dolphins? They smell of fish and have that harsh, grating voice that Flipper demonstrated so well. I'd rather swim with tuna. They're quieter and you can eat 'em.

3. Obama spelt backwards is Amabo, a Latin word meaning 'I will love'. I'm not sure what this has to do with anything at all. McCain spelt backwards is Niaccm. NI, AC and CM are the elements Nickel, Actinium and Curium respectively. Again, I'm not sure where this is going.

4. Why aren't we genetically programmed to enjoy the foods that are good for us? After all, dolphins (here we go again) eat tuna, not Snickers bars, albeit it could be that their access to that particular sweetmeat is restricted by circumstances.

5. How do they manage to translate English songs into other languages? Take three English words that rhyme; love, dove, above. Now translate them into French; l'amour, colombe, la-haut. At best with l'amour and la-haut you get a para-rhyme (a bit like murder and mother) à la T.S.Eliot (an anagram of toilets). In German, you get liebe, taube and oben. It don't work. Surely you must end up with some horribly convoluted piece of work that bears no relation to the original.

6. Here's one that will annoy a large number of people. Why do folk support football teams? Why pay £50 to watch players who earn more in a week than they do in a year, and who have no compunction in leaving for another team if they get a better offer? And why do all Newcastle United supporters (who live, let's face it, in an area of high unemployment where cash is hard to come by) insist upon wearing team shirts (£29.99 plus VAT) at matches? Do they think they might get a game if someone goes sick? Ultimately, football fans are supporting just one thing; the name of their team, the only constant set against the ever-changing list of players and managers. I suppose it's a bit like my broom, I've had it for twenty years, and it's only ever needed two new handles and five new heads.

7. Why do the crews of UFOs only seem to abduct people who are already clinically insane? And why does the incidence of UFO sightings and photographs seem to have reduced dramatically since the almost universal possession of mobile phone cameras?

8. Why would anyone choose to go skiing? Picture the conversation: 'Hey, let's go to Austria. I can see it now; Viennese waltzes in a chandelier-lit ballroom, the music of Mozart, the Oberammagau Passion Play, sailing the glittering waters of the Blue Danube, dining on Weiner schnitzel and apple strudel whilst being serenaded by violins, the Sound of Music tour...' 'Nah, I'd rather spend a fortnight on a frozen hillside near Salzburg, thanks all the same.'

9. If someone ate a single oyster and it made them violently ill, they'd never eat another one. So why doesn't it work the same with beer?

10. Why does the town centre CCTV record only a fuzzy image of the mugger, whereas the speed camera's picture of your car numberplate is pin sharp?

All this is really just a ruse to give myself thinking time to reply to Stevyn's meme. And I will get round to it. Honest.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

English as she is pronounced

Hello. I'm from west London; pronounced Lundun. I live fairly close to a place called Uxbridge, pronounced Uxbridge, and not far from another place called Ruislip,

This country of mine has a fascinating array of place-names. Here's just a few you can find in any road atlas: Cold Christmas, Sixpenny Handley, Lower Slaughter, Freezywater, Kingston Bagpuize. Depending on the area, the name may be Saxon in origin (Hastings, Reading, Middlesorough), Viking (Whitby, Derby, Lowestoft), or even much older. Penzance and Penwith, to name just a couple of places in Cornwall, are almost certainly Celtic.

Often there isn't a problem pronouncing place-names, although (I'm sorry to say) we do have a bit of a titter when we hear Americans say Birming-Ham or Lie-Cester Square. Sometimes, however, there can be a deal of difference between how the place would appear to be pronounced, should Her Majesty attempt to do so, and the local pronunciation. Take first a couple of castles; Cholmondley and Belvoir. Are they pronounced as they appear? Not a bit of it. Say Chumley and Beaver and you're pretty close. Let's go one step down from castle to stately home, and to the seat of the Earl Spencer - Althorp. Easy, you might say. But no; the buggers insist upon pronouncing it Althrop for no readily apparent reason. Now we go sideways to Oxbridge; first to Gonville and Caius (pronounced Keys) in Cambridge, and then Magdalen (pronounced Maudlin) in Oxford. Is this a conspiracy by the upper classes to mock us common folk, so they can laugh at us when we mispronounce their places of abode, just a surely as they would when we say Featherstonehaugh instead of Fanshaw?

No, it's not a conspiracy by the posh folk. Plenty of ordinary people are just as ready to flummox us with their place-names. Groby in Leicestershire is Grooby, Alnwick in Northumberland becomes Annick, and Fowey in Conwall is Foy. But the good people of East Anglia seem to have the most fun at our expense. From the top, there is Aldeburgh (Olbur), Costessey (Cozzy), Happisburgh (Haizbro), Hautbois (Hobbies), Stifkey (Stewkey), Tivetshall (Titsorl), Wymondham (Windum). The list is almost endless. The Friends of Norfolk Dialect have produced a full list, in case you are interested.

I don't think there's a deliberate attempt to make us ordinary mortals feel foolish because we say Bunwell instead of Bun'll. And it does have its practical uses. On at least one occasion in the recent past a murderer was captured because he used a local pronunciation when asking a passer-by for directions. But in these days of increasingly 'standardised' English, and the incursion into young people's language of the street slang of the drug dealer or gang member, the retention of 'old' language fosters a sense of belonging. A feeling that, despite the ever greater encroachment of the outside world, the community can still, through its use of language, proclaim its separateness and retain its sense of identity. Long may it continue, I say!

Oh, by the way. Ruislip. It's Ryeslip. I think.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Screaming slippery bald beaver, anyone?

First, let me lay my cards on the table. I’m not much of a one for cocktails. I think it’s a generational thing. I’m of an age where an evening out is more likely to involve the consumption of some kind of beer. It is my children’s generation who seem to want to imbibe this litany of sticky (an usually overpriced) cocktails that just about every pub pushes these days. On reaching drinking age (when, incidentally, I was still in full-time education), I would have been no more likely to order a cocktail in a pub than…well…ask for a half pint of beer. There was one chap I vaguely knew who had a penchant for pink gin, but he was pretty much out on a limb. Beer by the pint was part of the rite of passage from boyhood to manhood; a bit like splashing on Brut 33.

I suppose the closest I get to cocktails now are gin and tonic and the odd Bloody Mary, so I was only vaguely interested when I stumbled across This website allows you to search for cocktails by ingredients, albeit it seems to be broken at the moment. It will not, perhaps, surprise you that I wasn’t bothered to find out how many bourbon-based drinks there were; no. I was far more interested in cocktails with, shall we say, unusual ingredients.

Here are just a few you may wish to try. The names are a bonus, but please excuse their rudeness:

Burning Demon Piss - Tequila, Peach liqueur, Rum (dark and white), Tia Maria, coffee, hot pepper sauce.

Hate - Gin, rum, Bourbon whiskey, vodka, tequila, peppermint liqueur, dry vermouth, irish cream, Tabasco sauce.

Flaming Anus - Sambuca, high proof rum, curacao, coffee, brandy, grape juice, Tabasco.

Mud and Blood - Carrot juice, beef bouillon (ie stock), orange juice, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, pepper vodka.

Camel Piss - Lager, tequila, dark rum, ouzo, fizzy lemon.

T-Bone - High proof rum, A1 steak sauce.

Oh, and the aforementioned beaver drink? Vodka, butterscotch schnapps, Bailey's, and a mixture of kiwi and strawberry juice. What it has in common with a nocturnal, semi-aquatic rodent I have absolutely no idea.

Way back in 1976 I read a book called Beer and Skittles. It was written by the late Richard Boston, and I recall that, in one chapter, he described some of the nastier beer-based cocktails he had encountered, the worst in my opinion being Guinness and Advocaat. He also mentioned a pub landlord who, after hours, would sit down with his cronies to concoct the worst drink possible. And the winner? Gin and the juice from a jar of cockles.

I think I’ll stick to my pint of bitter.

Monday, 27 October 2008

I scream for...

Ice cream. I also, for some unaccountable reason, quite like Pepto-Bismol. But I would never have thought of doing what some enterprising chap has done. He has come up with what he thinks is the perfect marriage; Pepto-Bismol Ice Cream!

Read all about it here, and, if you have time, take in the 150-odd comments that follow. Who knows, you might decide there's a use for that almost out of date packet of Ex-Lax or half-drunk bottle of Robitussin cough linctus after all. Don't thank me. Just consider it a public service; a way of combatting waste during this credit crunch.

Sussex by the sea!

I thought it about time I livened this blog up a bit by sticking in a few pictures. Acres of print can be deadly dull. For anyone who doesn't know, this is a series of cliffs called the Seven Sisters. They lie on the East Sussex coast to the west of Eastbourne. I took the photo a few months back when summer was still with us. You may have noticed them briefly in the film Atonement, or in any one of the many calendars available extolling the beauty of Britain.

Travel a little further west and you come to Hope Gap. A ricketty set of steps takes you down to a shingle beach full of rockpools and seaweed. We took a few photos whilst we were there, but it wasn't until we downloaded them onto the computer that we saw something rather strange about this one:

Look at the rocky outcrop in the centre of the photograph. It looks for all the world as if there's someone standing there. He is facing out to sea, and has his left arm raised. He might almost be holding a pistol. In fact, the whole thing is a trick of the eye, brought about by the shapes and colours of the rocks.

In a more recent visit to Sussex, whilst atop Seaford Head, I came across something even stranger:

I thought it might make a useful addition to Stevyn Colgan's I see faces theme. I wonder who he is. Someone called Rocky, perhaps? Or one of The Stones?

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Something useful for a change

You'll have to excuse the previous post. I had just returned from the Hadrian exhibition at the British Museum, which featured some of the aforesaid tablets, and matters Roman were much on my mind.

All that aside, something equally Roman that will perhaps be a little more useful. A recipe for fish sauce. Now, it's not nuoc nam or nam pla, or even our own Worcestershire Sauce. I'm talking about the Emperor of all fish sauces - garum (also sometimes known as liquamen).

Garum was a very popular condiment in the Roman Empire. You know the way some kids slosh tomato sauce on just about everything? Well, the Romans did that with garum, not only on most of their savoury dishes, but also the sweet ones. You might like to try pears poached in wine and honey...with a dash of fish sauce. Mmm!

Anyway, the following recipe will probably give you a lifetime supply of the stuff.

Get yourself a big stone trough with a drain hole near the bottom and drag it out into your garden. An old enamel bath would probably work just as well. Now sprinkle a good layer of aromatic herbs in the bottom; coriander, fennel and oregano are fine. Next, pour in a decent selection of fish (dead ones, of course). You can use tuna, sprats, anchovies or anything else that comes to hand. If you have some fish guts and blood, tip that in too. Now cover with a liberal sprinkling of salt, about the depth of two fingers' width. Add another layer of fish, guts and blood, then more salt, and carry on like this until the trough is almost full.

Next, pray to the gods for some decent weather, because you need to leave your fish sauce in waiting exposed to the sun for about twenty days, or longer if you want extra piquancy. I suggest you stir it thoroughly every day; a broom handle would make an excellent stirrer.

After around three weeks the stuff should be ready to bottle. Acquire some clean bottles or earthenware jars and tap the liquid that runs from the trough into them. Seal up your containers and keep them in a cool, dark place until you need to use them. The residue needn't be wasted, either. This can be squeezed and pounded into a popular fishy paste called allec.

Finally, some words of advice and of warning. First, the advice: I can't in all honesty tell you how long your garum will keep, because it smells and tastes exactly the same, whether it is fresh or "off". And the warning: if you intend making a career out of garum, you might want to consider moving to an unpopulated area.

Enjoy, and do let me know how you get on.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Postcards from the Edge

Read the two short paragraphs below. The first one is an invitation to a birthday party; the second looks like a note from a concerned mum to her son serving with the military somewhere in the Middle East:

On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present.

I have sent you socks from Sattua, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants, two pairs of sandals...

Nothing particularly surprising about either of them, is there? Until you realise that they were written around 1900 years ago. These are just two of the many letters and other documents that form part of the remarkable hoard that is the Vindolanda Tablets.

Vindolanda was a Roman fort, built to control the passage of people and goods across the border marked by Hadrian's Wall. It was a few miles from Newcastle and about a mile south of the Wall, the northernmost outpost of the empire in Britain. The garrison consisted mainly of non-Italian auxiliary troops; Gauls, Germans, Dacians (present day Moldova and Romania) and possibly even some Greeks. What the latter thought about being transported from their sunny lands to some cold, wet and barbaric bit of north Britannia can only be guessed at! The officers were Romans from Italy, and were often accompanied by their wives and families, so one can imagine them trying to make the best of a bad situation by carrying on as if they were in Rome. This explains the birthday party invitation from Claudia Severa, wife of a local commander, to Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of the commander at Vindolanda.

The auxiliary troops were not Roman citizens. However, they were generally granted citizenship when their military service came to an end. And although Vindolanda came to be almost self-sufficient in terms of the necessaries of life (probably obtaining from the local Britons those things they were unable to produce or make for themselves), one could never have too many socks or underpants; hence the second letter.

The Vindolanda Tablets themselves are not tablets at all, but very thin slices of wood, on which the occupants of the garrison wrote in ink in a style called 'Old Roman Cursive', a form of handwriting that is incredibly difficult to read. There are apparently over a thousand of them, and they survived due to a happy accident. When, almost two millennia ago, some tidy Roman administrator had a clear-out of his paperwork and dumped the tablets in the open air, they were soon afterwards covered by a thick layer of clay from building works. This clay blocked out the oxygen that would have allowed bacteria to thrive and destroy the tablets, leaving them, if not perfect, at least good enough to be conserved and translated by the Vindolanda archaeological team.

I don't think the Romans were that keen on the local population, despite the fact they probably relied upon them fairly heavily for goods and services. One tablet contains the expression Brittunculi. This has been translated as Little Britons. I leave it to your imagination as to what the Britons may have called the Romans in return.

The 'Little Britons' letter. 'Brittunculi' is the first word on the penultimate line. See? I told you it was hard to read.

The last extract I have decided to copy in full. It shows two things. Firstly, that cash flow in the second century AD was just as much of a problem as it is now; and secondly, that Roman roads weren't all they were cracked up to be!

Octavius to his brother Candidus, greetings. The hundred pounds of sinew from Marinus - I will settle up. From the time when you wrote about this matter, he has not even mentioned it to me. I have several times written to you that I have bought about five thousand modii of ears of grain, on account of which I need cash. Unless you send me some cash, at least five hundred denarii, the result will be that I shall lose what I have laid out as a deposit, about three hundred denarii, and I shall be embarrassed. So, I ask you, send me some cash as soon as possible. The hides which you write are at Cataractonium - write that they be given to me and the wagon about which you write. And write to me what is with that wagon. I would have already been to collect them except that I did not care to injure the animals while the roads are bad.

The Vindolanda Tablets are on display at the British Museum. Do go and see them if you are able. They bring the past to life in a way that no dusty old history book can. Or you can find out more about the tablets and the fort here.

Image copyright © Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents, The British Museum and other copyright holders.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Keepe Deathe off the Roades

The University of the West of England has carried out a comparative study of deaths on the UK's roads across the centuries. Coroners' records from Sussex covering the years 1485 to 1688 reveal that thirty percent of deaths as a result of injury were attributable to road travel. This compares with World Health Organisation figures for the year 2000, where the percentage was closer to twenty five.

In Tudor times, it seems that being knocked down by galloping horses, crushed by runaway carts or falling off the back of farm wagons was something of an occupational hazard for travellers. Roads weren't brilliant (dusty in summer, thick with mud in winter) and no-one took responsibility for their maintenance. In fact, it wasn't unusual for the peasantry to dig up bits of a nearby road to repair their houses. There are recorded instances of people falling into such holes and either breaking their necks, or drowning. Equally, horses could blunder into these "pot holes", throwing and killing their riders. There was also danger from overhanging tree branches, the carcases of butchered animals simply dumped in the road and, of course, murderous footpads, outlaws or sturdy beggars, ever-ready to bump off the unsuspecting traveller for a few coins and leave his bleeding body for the wolves to devour (well, up until 1486 anyway, when the last English wolf is said to have been killed).

What would it have been like if strict traffic regulations were in force in the days of Good Queen Bess? Would we, perhaps, be privy to the following originall notes of some zealous constable?

Constable Thuck doth reporte that, on the Sabbath past, one John Thatcher, carter of Easte-Chepe, was seene to drive his carte in a wantoun and furiouse manner in the streete called Fleete-Bridge Streete, to the common daunger of the inhabitants or passengers. The same constable doth reporte that the saide Jon did at the first faile to stoppe when soe required by the constable, and furthermore dyd calle the sayd constable Whore-Monger, Blinde-Sinke and Crinkum-Crankum and dyd aske, hast thou nought better to doe with thy office when London is fulle of bellie-dauncers, doxies, punchable nunnes and priggers of prancers. And the sayd John dyd then offer to strike the saide constable with a bille-hooke valued at fourpence. And John Thatcher is even now lying at the common Bridewell untill his matter doth come to triall, whereby he shall have leisure to contemplate the fate that doth awaite him. Constable Thuck hath an engraving, marvelously delineated by himself, of the sayde John Thatcher falyling to observe his signall for to stoppe, the near-bye Gadzooks Camera Obscura being for that tyme utterly broken-downe.

I know what you're thinking. I should get out more.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Heave-ho me hearties!

I know. You thought it was Captain Pugwash, didn't you? But I'm pretty sure it's Captain Pugdog.

Now, this is a terrible example of what can happen when the urge to celebrate Hallowe'en gets out of hand. Not content with dressing themselves as Freddy Kruger or Hannibal Lecter (did Thomas Harris christen his homophagic anti-hero thus, simply so that he could rhyme it with cannibal?), dog owners in the US have now taken to inflicting all manner of vile costumes upon their poor canines.

Thanks to no.1 daughter for providing me with a link to more of the same.