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.