Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Wherefore art thou, Homeo?

Homeopathy, according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, is a means of using a much-diluted substance to cure a person of an illness or condition, when a larger quantity of that same substance would produce the opposite effect or, indeed, kill them. The “inventor” of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, found that, by ingesting cinchona bark (a recognised cure for malaria at the time), he developed symptoms similar to that of malaria itself. He reasoned, therefore, that persons could be cured by drugs that exhibited similar symptoms to the disease suffered. The “artificial symptoms” produced by the drugs would enable the “vital force” of the body to neutralise the original illness and drive it from the system. I do not pretend to understand how it works, but have the utmost respect for those who practise it and have no argument with the tens of thousands who claim relief from illness and disease because of it.

The whole process of manufacturing homeopathic remedies is somewhat complex, but in a nutshell it involves the dilution of a substance in alcohol or water and the vigorous shaking (or succussion) of the resulting liquid. Because the process can involve a number of successive dilutions, it is possible to reach a point where the homeopathic remedy is chemically unlikely to contain any of the “active” ingredient. Apparently, some homeopathic practitioners believe that, the more dilute the remedy, the more potent it is.

So, this being the case, could we not turn the new health scare about drugs in our drinking water to our advantage? It would appear that heroin, diazepam and oestrogen are present in our water supply. Then surely it must also contain any amount of prescription drugs, unused and unwanted purchases from Holland and Barrett, chemical elements and compounds, and the essences of plants, animals and fungi. Amongst this lot, homeopathically speaking, there must be the basis for curing just about every affliction known to humankind. It just needs the right individual to process it for our consumption. Until then we’ll just have to put up with this chemical cocktail coming through our taps, turning gentleman fish into lady fish and being single-handedly responsible for the increased incidence of man-boobs.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Lady don't fall backwards

Those of you who dip into this blog from time to time could be forgiven for thinking that I spend all my time watching TV. Well, I don't, but I have developed something of a liking for the Sunday night Poirot dramas on offer at the moment.

In last night's episode, the eponymous Belgian detective uncovered a dastardly plot to relieve a young woman of her fortune. The girl's long-lost father proved to be a fortune-seeking impostor, and her half-sister a murderer, who attempted to frame said young woman for the crime.

One semi-regular character is Ariadne Oliver, played by Zoe Wanamaker. Ms. Oliver is a writer of detective stories and, as such, has developed a semi-professional relationship with Poirot. In this episode we hear that her latest book is Lady don't fall backwards. Now, this must be a complex work of fiction, as Alf Renny, Ms. Oliver's concierge, states he has read the book four times and still doesn't know who the murderer is. The title of the novel seemed strangely familiar to me. Eventually I realised that this title is a respectful nod to Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, writers of (among other things) Hancock and Hancock's Half Hour in the sixties. Tony Hancock, if you haven't heard of him, was a gloomy, po-faced British comedian of undoubted genius whose heyday was the 1950s and 60s. He committed suicide in Australia in June 1968. In The Missing Page, first shown around March 1960, Tony Hancock is reading Lady don't fall backwards, a whodunnit written by Darcy Sarto. The book features detective Johnny Oxford and the murder of no less than twenty five United Nations Organisation typists. Hancock arrives at the end of the book and, as the murder is about to be revealed, realises that some previous reader has torn the last page from the book. The rest of the episode follows Hancock's attempt to turn sleuth himself and deduce the identity of the murder from the clues in the novel.

I have since discovered that Lady don't fall backwards is also a book by Joan le Mesurier, dedicated to the memory of Joan's husband John (of Dad's Army fame) and Tony Hancock, and the title of a Babyshambles song. Isn't it amazing what can be triggered by a chance encounter with a half-remembered phrase.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

'Ee beunt from round 'ere, be'ee?

Photo copyright University of Reading

Sorry. The above phrase was the closest I could get to a kind of all-purpose Mummerset. Not sure where this is going? Well...

The Sunday papers plopped onto the mat a little earlier with the usual crop of inserts. There was an ad for laser eye surgery, a loan offer from one of the building societies that hasn't yet gone into meltdown, a brochure promising discounted kitchens, and a glossy little mag from Furniture Village.

Furniture Village, in common with DFS, always seems to have a sale on. Today, most stuff is up to fifty percent off, there's a zero percent finance deal, and hey, you can have it before Christmas if you order now! How is it that they can sell this stuff so cheaply? Could it be (dare I say it) that the discount price is a fairer reflection of the actual value? Quite clearly you'd have to be mad to pay full price for anything at The Village; there's probably one day a year when everything reverts to full cost, and an opportunity for H.M.Bateman (were he still alive) to produce a cartoon of The man who paid full price at Furniture Village. Take a look at Bateman's work here.

Yes, you'd have to be mad to pay full price. But have you noticed how these home stores actually admit to having lost their minds at sale time? "We've gone mad at CarpetRight!" they exclaim. "Crazy prices!" says another whose name I can't readily remember. So why don't Furniture Village go the whole hog? I'd like to see a fully-fledged Furniture Village Idiot in every store, smock-frocked, stinking of cider and equipped with a bladder on a stick, lolling on the Sealy divans or Montserrat sofas, and springing upon any customer unwise enough to linger in the aisles. "Ee beunt from round 'ere, be'ee?" He would drawl, tugging on their sleeves whilst explaining the benefits of a vi-spring bed or the latest interest free deal. At the end of the encounter he would pluck some ludicrous and unbeatable price out of the air and propel the customer towards a less insane member of staff to formalise the deal.

I'm at a loose end at the moment, what with being retired. I think I'll pop down to Furniture Village. I've got a proposition for them.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Mind your language

I read recently that the Collins Dictionary is to introduce around 2000 new words into its forthcoming edition. Everything comes at a price, however. The dictionary has published a list of twenty four words that are in danger of being removed unless we start using them.

Some celebrities have taken up the gauntlet. Stephen Fry has adopted "fusby", which apparently means short, stout or squat, and Poet Laureate Andrew Motion favours "skirr", which describes the whirring sound of a bird's wings in flight. My own particular favourite is "Recrement", meaning waste matter. How wonderful to have a language where you can describe someone as an agrestic, olid, niddering old fool. The full list of words can be found here.

I've always been interested in languages. I learnt a bit of French at school (which I can still remember), and also a bit of Russian (which, sadly, I can't, other than to tell you when there is an octopus under your table, comrade). I make it my business when I go abroad to learn a smattering of the language. Apart from giving additional interest to the whole experience of being in a foreign country, I think it's simple politeness to make the effort to converse with persons in their own language. It's certainly far better than the alternative - shout at them in English and they're sure to understand. And speaking the language pays dividends. Why, in Crete, an elderly smallholder gave me a big box of fresh, juicy tomatoes, and all I'd done was wish him a good morning and point out politely how hot the day was.

Another language I learnt at school was Latin. It was that kind of school. It was fascinating to an eleven year old to discover that many of our English words are borrowings from Latin and other languages. The very word language is derived from the Latin lingua. And, were you to use profane language, you would, once again, be borrowing from the Latin. Profane didn't originally refer to something to something "rude" or "dirty". The Latin word profanum literally means "in front of the temple", so in its early modern context, profane meant "something not belonging to the church". For example, any song that wasn't religious (in other words, a hymn, carol or psalm) would have been referred to as a "profane" song. This borrowing of foreign words did not, and does not, always go down well. Back in the 16th century, Sir John Cheke had a particular dislike of the practice. He said:

I am of this opinion that our own tung should be written cleane and pure, unmixt and unmangeled with borowing of other tunges; wherein if we take not heed by tiim, ever borowing and never paying, she shall be fain to keep her house as bankrupt.

So there. In fact, our dear Sir John went as far as to suggest some sturdy, if rather unwieldy, English words designed to combat the Roman invasion. Thus, impenetrable became ungothroughsome, and imponderable was substituted by nottobethoughtuponable.

Despite the long standing differences between England and France, Sir John would have found a firm ally in the shape of the Academie Francaise, the country's body governing the grammar, vocabulary and usage of the French tongue. Its dictionary is regarded as having official status and, albeit the Academie's declarations do not have the force of law, it can and does make pronouncements upon the introduction of "foreign" words. I gather they got their pantalons in a twist over le weekend, but there are no reports on their views of le parking, le chewing gum or le hold up (although I'm not sure whether this refers to a crime or a traffic jam). Apparently the Academie is beside itself with rage at the moment. Why? Because the French government has decreed that a woman minister will be addressed as Madame la Ministre, despite the fact that ministre is a masculine noun, prefaced with le.

Perhaps we should have a British equivalent to the Academie. Once they had excised curry, bungalow, divan, bistro, spaghetti, schadenfreude, espadrilles and every other word we've borrowed over the last couple of thousand years we probably wouldn't have a whole lot left. But, as they say, Ç'est la vie.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

That's magic!

The first episode of the BBC's new Saturday evening drama, Merlin, has just finished.

Judging by the costumes and the castle (actually Chateau Pierrefonds in France), Merlin would appear to be living in the middle ages. This being the case, it's interesting to note how modern the Albion of Uther Pendragon appears to be. Not only do they seem to have invented the sandwich a good few centuries before the gambling Earl of that name, but they also have access to rotten tomatoes (all the better to pelt Merlin with whilst he is in the stocks), a fruit that I believed had not actually been discovered until 1519 by the explorer Cortez in South America. Just shows how wrong one can be!

Initially, I thought they'd got it wrong when I noticed King Uther tucking into a strawberry, but I have since discovered that the Bishop of Ely was growing the things in the 1400s, and there are references to the Streowberige, Strea Berige, Streowberge, Streaw Berian Wisan, Streberi Lef and StrebereWyse dating back to Saxon times.

The whole thing is really nothing more than a bit of fun. It was nice to see Richard (One foot in the grave) Wilson playing the part of the court physician, Gaius. Watch how Merlin, using the power of his mind, moves a bed to break the fall (and thus save the life) of Gaius, who has just fallen from a balcony in his laboratory. As the bemused Gaius lifts himself off the life-saving truckle bed, I really wish we could have heard him exclaim, "I don't believe it!"

Friday, 19 September 2008

Does anyone know?

"Peperami. It's a bit of an animal".

But which bit?

Sunday, 14 September 2008

I left my heart in Sutton Coldfield

It's my yearly habit to watch the last night of the Proms, and this year I was able to do so in glorious HD for the first time. Curiously, the promenaders didn't seem quite so raucous or eccentric this year, but the music was up to its usual standard. I particularly enjoyed Sea Songs arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams (it being the 50th anniversary of his death) and, of course, the old favourites - Rule Britannia and Jerusalem.

There was a lot of flag waving; mostly union flags, but I also saw a fair smattering of Welsh dragons and Scottish lions. I also noted a Kentish one (a rampant white horse on a red background) and, curiously, a Brownie Guide banner. With this overt display of patriotism, I'm quite surprised that the BBC still screens it. One might have expected that, by now, some producer would have condemned the whole thing as "hideously British" and either relegated it to a sound-only broadcast on Radio Three or removed it from the schedules altogether.

Patriotism isn't a problem in America. You'll see the Stars and Stripes on many a house lawn; children unselfconsciously pledge allegiance to the flag; and note how citizens place hand on heart whenever the national anthem is played. But then the Americans have a great sense of pride about everything American. Take their towns and cities, for instance. Most of those I have seen are entered on long, straight roads with tyre shops, second hand car lots and diners on either side. The city centres are for the most part concrete jungles of modern or semi-modern offices and apartment blocks, with not a medieval church or fifteenth century merchants' hall in sight. So how come there are so many songs extolling the virtues of these cities? "I left my heart in San Francisco"; "New York New York"; "Chicago"; "Do you know the way to San Jose?" The list is pretty well endless. It's all down to patriotism again; being proud of what you've got, even if it is an ocean of steel and glass.

But it's not quite the same here in the UK, is it? We have a long, rich history that America can only dream of. Celtic, Saxon and Roman remains abound. We have a long tradition of literature, poetry and music. We have many genuinely beautiful cities - Bath and York are two notable examples. Now, you'd have thought that our catalogue of music would be bursting at the seams with songs, good, memorable, whistle on the way to work songs, about these places. (I'm not talking about folk songs here, but what the Americans would call 'standards'.) So, what do we have? "Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner"; "I belong to Glasgow"; "I'm gonna leave old Durham Town"; "In my Liverpool home." And then you branch out a bit. "Billericay Dicky"; "London calling"; and (gulp) "Long haired lover from Liverpool". I couldn't see any of these being sung in some Vegas casino to thunderous applause. Perhaps we should start hijacking some of the old US standards and replacing their city names with our own. "Dungeness" has the same number of syllables as "Galveston". How about "New Cross New Cross, it's a wonderful town"? Or "Do you know the way to Colwyn Bay"? I think it would work. Or perhaps not.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Imitation is the sincerest form...

I have been reading the estimable Stevyn Colgan's blog and, more particularly, his most recent post. According to Prof. Wiseman, my first name suggests that I should be in the second most lucky group of males (still waiting for a lottery win!), and my surname, whilst not putting me in the "alpha" camp, is at least high enough up the alphabetical hierarchy to ensure any prospective employers don't die of boredom before they get to my CV.

I like my name. I can't think of any circumstances where I would want to change it, unless some eccentric millionaire offers me a fortune to become Xerxes Z. Zyzzyx. But people can and do change their names, and here I am thinking particularly of actors. I know it's going over old ground, but would John Wayne have been as successful if he had remained Marion Morrison? And John Charles Carter doesn't have the same ring to it as Charlton Heston, does it? And, if he had kept his own moniker, would Spartacus, AKA Kirk Douglas, have been as memorable if he had said, "No, I'm not changing my name to suit the studio bosses, I want to stay as plain old Issur Danielovitch Demsky!"

The way in which a name is spelt, contracted or expanded can also make a difference. Take Burt Reynolds, for instance. Real name Burton Leon Reynolds, Jnr. Burt...manly, tough, rugged. But change it to Bert Reynolds and, hey presto, he becomes a dustman! Or Bertie Reynolds, and he begins to sound like a character from a P.G. Wodehouse novel. Have a think about some of the other Hollywood stars, and how it would have been, had they taken less care over their first names; John Depp, Dick Gere, Willy Murray, Bill Smith, Tommy Hanks, Rick van Dyke, and not forgetting good old Mick Douglas.

I'm suddenly aware that my list is male-centric. Let's hear it for Betty Hurley, Ange Jolie, Jessie Alba, Jools Roberts and Nikki Kidman!

Sunday, 7 September 2008


I watched an interesting programme last night.

It was simply called "Guilty". Stephen Fry, chatting to an unseen and unheard interviewer, confessed his guilty love for a number of things. In his long list he included Abba, the television series Howard's Way (but mainly for the shouty-school-of-acting portrayed therein), darts, Delia Smith and Farley's rusks.

Mr. Fry also, it seems, enjoys a good swear. "The sort of twee person who thinks swearing is in any way a sign of a lack of education or of a lack of verbal interest is just f***ing lunatic. Or they say, 'It's not necessary.' As if that should stop one doing it. Things not being necessary is what makes life interesting." Mr. Fry certainly does not lack education or verbal interest, that's for sure. If I had one tenth of his command of the English language I'd be pretty blooming happy. And that's swearing!

I recall some years ago a radio programme in which Stephen Fry spoke about British vs American English. One topic discussed was emphasis, in which he referred to the outlaw Robin Hood. Now, we Brits say "Robin Hood" (emphasis on surname), whilst our American chums say "Robin Hood" (emphasis on first name). To paraphrase Mr. Fry, it's as if an American wants to tell you about one of the many thousands of Mr. Hoods in existence, and places the emphasis on Robin just to make sure you know who they are talking about. To any American friends who may be reading this, it is by no means a criticism; merely an observation. In many ways, American linguistics are far more sensible than ours over here. Think about it; what best decribes the thing we walk on by the roadside? Pavement or sidewalk? And the bit of the car that we put stuff in - boot or trunk? One tip - if you need to erase a written mistake, don't ask an American for a rubber. Or ask if they would like some ginger nuts.

And what about American spelling? Honor, mold, center, catalog; all eminently sensible, but they wouldn't give you as big a score as the English versions when playing Scrabble.

I seem to have strayed somewhat from my topic. Guilty pleasures. We all have them. Even me. OK, so I've done a few Carpenters' albums in my time. I've watched and enjoyed The Little House on the Prairie (and Howard's Way, so Mr. Fry and I would have something to talk about, should we ever meet). Every now and then I get a craving for a microwaveable chicken tikka masala, despite the fact that it has enough fat and salt to supply the recommended daily intake for an entire battalion of soldiers. Oh, and I still have a fascination for aircraft, albeit I don't stand at the end of a runway with a pad, pencil and flask.

Guilty pleasures, anyone?

Friday, 5 September 2008

All about me

Stevyn Colgan has tagged me to tell a little about myself. Here goes...

1. Although I am right-handed, I can write equally well, if not better, with my left hand. After some considerable time performing a job that involved a lot of writing, I contracted what I thought was RSI, and taught myself to write left-handed. I now switch from hand to hand as my mood dictates.

2. I once sold a sink plunger to a member of the cast of Upstairs, Downstairs. Whilst working as a Saturday boy in an ironmongers' shop, I sold aforesaid useful item to Jenny Tomasin (who played the unfortunate maid Ruby in the series) who was having problems with her plumbing.

3. I was highly commended in a "twist" competition. As a small child I was taken to Butlins holiday camp at Clacton. It was the first holiday I ever had and I'm pretty sure it was in 1964, as I can remember Lulu's "shout" on the jukebox. I had to do the twist up on stage in front of parents and the Butlin Redcoats. Curiously, I suffered no embarassment, probably because I was only nine.

4. I worked as a stagehand at a production of Spring's awakening by Frank Wedekind at the Cockpit Theatre in London. The cast and crew were taken from my school and our "sister" school in Hammersmith. A production that would have sunk without trace was unexpectedly very well attended. It could be something to do with the News of the World describing it as a "blue sex show." Which, dear reader, it wasn't.

5. I was once a part time fish mender.

6. I am the co-author of the perpetually unpublished Middenshire Chronicles, an account of the history and eventual demise of the smallest county of England. I'll let you make an inspired guess as to the identity of my fellow co-author.

There. That's me. I've yet to tag anyone else as I am so new to this blogging lark that I haven't acquired any avid readers at this time. My search for suitable virtual chums goes on.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Mrs. Malaprop ahoy!

Here I go again, picking people up on their inability to choose the right words.

I've just heard Jeni Barnett on LBC, ranting about the selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate for the US presidency. Ms Barnett pointed out that someone running for high office should have "the whole spectre" of experience for the job.

Incidentally, what is it about people with names like Jacqueline or Jennifer, who feel the need to spell their names as "Jeni" or "Jakki"? Or "Linzi" instead of Lindsey? Do they think it makes them sound kooky (there's a word you don't often hear now), zany or arty? Be suspicious of anyone calling themselves "Dee" (or the more archaic "DeeDee"); they are more than likely a Debbie (Debi?) or Doreen.

I'm equally confused by people that describe themselves as "bubbly", "dizzy", or "eccentric". Anyone who does so is unlikely to be so. I'm sure neither Boris Johnson nor Patric Moore would ever describe themselves as "eccentric" or "off the wall".

Personal descriptors like "bubbly" often appear in lonely hearts ads. The best lonely hearts ad I ever saw was in the underground International Times mag in the sixties. It simply read, "One legged guy seeks one legged chick. Object - continental motoring holidays." But that's beside the point. I'd like to share with you some of the more common descriptors that appear in these ads, together with their true meaning. Some I have cleaned up and altered slightly for the UK market, but I take no credit for the information itself.

Women seeking men

30 something = 41 years old
Wild = Gets drunk easily
Beautiful face = Face like a robber’s dog
Seeks knight in shining armour = Husband has run off with a younger model
New Age = Hairy and smelly
Headstrong = Argumentative
Enjoys pubbing & clubbing = Alcoholic
Curvy = Fat
Cuddly = Fat
Voluptuous/Rubenesque = Very fat
Likes eating out = Lazy and fat
Emotionally Secure = On medication
Fun = Annoying
Gentle = Comatose
Outgoing = Loud and Embarrassing
Passionate = Sloppy drunk
Romantic = Looks better by candle light
Social = Has been passed around like an hors d'oeuvres tray
Young at heart = Old bat

Men seeking women

40-ish = 52 and looking for 25-yr-old
Athletic = Watches a lot of sport on TV
Average looking = Unusual hair growth on ears, nose, & back
Educated = Will patronize the hell out of you
Free Spirit = Will sleep with your sister
Good looking = Arrogant
Very good looking = Thick and arrogant
Honest = Pathological Liar
Huggable = Overweight, more body hair than Chewbacca
Likes to cuddle = Insecure mummy's boy
Mature = Older than your father
Sensitive = Cries at chick flicks
Very sensitive = Gay
Spiritual = Involved in a cult
Stable = Arrested for stalking, but not convicted
Thoughtful = Says "Excuse me" when he breaks wind
Wants a soulmate = Stalker

I'm sure there are more lurking out there somewhere.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Hair today...

One of the drawbacks of being part of a disciplined organisation for three decades is the need to have, and maintain, a spanking short haircut. On the other hand, it might be a positive advantage. It means that your mode of coiffure is mapped out for you years hence, and you have a ready excuse not to indulge in the more extreme styles that might be momentarily fashionable. One less thing for you to worry about, or make a decision about.

Having now left said organisation, the pressing need for a haircut has faded somewhat into the background. I haven't had a trim for around three months, and the results are rather interesting. Davy Crockett's hat springs to mind; or possibly a fat Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. I have deliberately chosen not to post a photograph at this point. I'm waiting for the rug to settle down a bit, and for the ends to stop flicking up like the model in some sixties knitting pattern.

I'm already discovering downsides to having longer hair. It takes longer to wash, and uses more shampoo, thereby contributing to global warming. It also tends to blow about in the wind and look rather untidy, and I haven't yet reached the stage of nicking my wife's hairspray. That is definitely a bridge too far. But by far the worst is how it looks first thing in the morning. Think Captain Mainwaring's wig inadvertently plugged into a 30,000 volt cable, or roadkill tabby cat. It just looks impossibly awful, but I shall persevere.

The goatee beard is also a little privet hedge-ish at the moment. I suspect I shall end up looking like the Witch Finder General. Oh well...