Monday, 30 March 2009

The Pickwick Blogs, by Charles Dickens

Dear blogsters, this is my third and final foray into that alternative universe where literary giants from history had access to computers. I have settled this time upon Charles Dickens.

Many of Dickens' novels were published in weekly parts and, as such, were eagerly awaited by his public. It's my belief that Dickens would have embraced computers and the internet whole-heartedly, and would almost certainly have been an active blogger. It also seems likely that his instalments would have been made available as downloads, and the public readings which so delighted his audiences would no doubt have found their way into podcasts and YouTube. But this is all speculation by me.

Anyway, enough of my chat. Please note that this post contains innuendo as one of its principal ingredients, which I hope you'll not take amiss; the character of Sam Weller (a roaring success with Dickens' public) was given to a degree of irreverence in the original novel. I have merely projected his character traits forward through time for a 21st century audience. Please read on and, I hope, enjoy!

At precisely seven of the clock on the morning of the eleventh of July, in the year in which these voluminous papers are carefully recorded, Mr. Pickwick arose, refreshed, from his slumbers. Having made a most particular toilet, and partaken of the familiar view of Goswell-Street from his chamber window, Mr. Pickwick betook himself to the drawing-room. Mary, beloved spouse of Sam Weller, Mr. Pickwick's faithful servitor, was already bustling about, setting the breakfast-things upon the dining-table, buttering toast, arranging the napery, and performing all manner of other culinary and domestic evolutions of a most comforting nature.

After saluting Mary with his customary diurnal greeting, Mr. Pickwick went to his writing desk and withdrew a leathern case from a capacious drawer. Within the case was Mr. Pickwick's newest purchase; a lap-top computing device, obtained the previous day from Mr. Benjamin Tiggers, Computer Purveyor, of Golden-Cross. Mr. Pickwick beamed, and thought of the ease and alacrity with which he would henceforth be able to note down the perambulations of his beloved club. He was just about to place his noble index finger upon the switch that would bring this useful article to animation, when his action was halted by the arrival of the irrepressible Sam Weller.

'Vy, sir, there's a werry nice set o' equipment, as vun gent said to another ven they vos conwersing in the gentlemen's vash-room,' said Sam.

'Why, thank you, Sam,' retorted Mr. Pickwick, that gentle soul upon whom all innuendo was lost, 'I am rather proud of it. Do you know, this machine...'

'Is the werry latest in nineteenth-century computing technology,' said Sam, who had seen the hand-bill advertising Mr. Pickwick's machine in the window of the ingenious Mr. Tiggers' shop not four-and-twenty hours previously. 'Is is true that this 'ere machine comes vith the werry latest Vindows Wista pre-loaded?'

'Indeed so, Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick, 'but that's not the least of it. It is possessed of the most up-to-date processor yet available, together with a veritable plethora of software. Take Word for Windows, for example...'

'I have used that 'ere application,' declared Sam, 'on more than vun occasion, ven composing Walentine poems for my Mary, but I find it werry confusing.'

'Why, bless my soul, Sam, whatever is the problem?' said Mr. Pickwick. 'I have always found it quite straightforward.'

'Vell, sir,' said Sam, straightening his waistcoat and brushing from it the crumbs of his earlier breakfast of muffins, 'Vord for Vindows has this werry ingenious bit of kit called a spell-checker, but I'm werry much afeerd that it don't vork! Vy, every time I types the vord 'Veller', or 'Walentine', or 'vanker', blessed if it don't vant me to use a wubbleyou or a wee instead!'

At once, Mr. Pickwick's enormous brain perceived the answer to the seemingly insoluble problem with which the faithful Sam had been deliberating.

'My dear Sam,' exclaimed Mr. Pickwick, his countenance beaming like the sun that was streaming through the windows of the room, 'the solution is a very simple one. You have clearly been using Word for Windows. You should be using Word for Windows for Manservants. It has long been perceived that the class to which you belong habitually transpose the consonants 'v' and 'w'. The spell-checker within the program I have mentioned deals once and for all with this matter! Oh, how droll, Sam! How very droll!'

'Vell I'll be blowed, as the gen'l'm'n said, ven the young 'ooman in Drury-Lane asked him vat his particular pleasure vos on a summer's evening,' Sam said. 'Vy, I've been using a program as vos intended for my betters! Perhaps I should dismiss myself from your serwice for such wicious behaviour!'

'Not a bit of it, Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick, alarmed as the thought of imminent abandonment by Mr. Weller junior, and the notion of evenings alone in Goswell-Street with nothing but a bowl of gruel by way of sustenance, forced themselves upon his active mind. 'It is my earnest wish that you remain in my service for as long as you wish. Please banish all thoughts of resignation!'

'Wery vell, guv'nor,' said the irrepressible Sam, 'I shall be content to serve you until vun of us is struck dead, or taken to the Fleet, or transported, or hung.'

'Thank you, Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick, 'you may go.'

Sam executed a low bow and left the room. Mr. Pickwick was once again just about to switch on his computing device, when a knock came at the door. Mr. Pickwick heard a brief exchange of words in the hall. Then, to his inexpressible delight, the door opened to reveal his Pickwickian companions; the poetic Mr. Augustus Snodgrass, the sportsmanlike Mr. Nathaniel Winkle, and the amorous Mr. Tracy Tupman.

'Gentlemen,' exclaimed Mr. Pickwick, 'this is indeed a happy meeting! I had no idea that it was your joint intention to come to my humble lodgings today.'

'But Mr. Pickwick, did you not receive my email? Why, I sent it two days ago,' said Mr. Winkle, who appeared to be fingering something deep within the recesses of his surtout pocket.

'My dear Mr. Winkle,' exclaimed Mr. Pickwick, 'I did not. I fear that you have sent it to my old in-box, as I have just made the acquaintance of a new internet service provider. It apparently has an excellent reputation for reliability, according to its proprietor.'

'Pray, Mr. Pickwick, who would that be?' Enquired Mr. Tupman. Tracy Tupman, to his regret still a bachelor, spent many lonely hours at his keyboard, attempting to engage suitable young ladies of breeding in conversation with a view to marriage, and spending not inconsiderable sums of money as a consequence.

'Why, our old friend Mr. Jingle,' Mr. Pickwick replied.

This information had a curious effect upon Mr. Tupman. He first turned very red, and then turned very white. A dangerous perspiration started from his brow, and he swayed visibly.

'Ah! Me!' swooned Mr. Tupman, as he remembered how Mr. Jingle had ingratiated himself into the company of Miss Rachel Wardle, and replaced Mr. Tupman in her affections. 'Mr. Pickwick, tell me it isn't true! Tell me that you have not chosen that snake as your new internet service provider?'

Mr. Pickwick's countenance showed marked discomfort at Mr. Tupman's words. He immediately rang the bell and within moments Sam Weller was at the door.

'Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick, 'would you please obtain a cool flannel for Mr. Tupman. I fear he is unwell.'

'That's a werry interesting colour as you've discovered, sir,' said Sam, addressing Mr. Tupman in relation to the hue of his countenance. 'I'm werry much afeerd as you are about to go off bang, as the young ooman said to her particular acquaintance the muffin man, ven she placed her hand upon his muffins.'

At this moment Sam's wife Mary entered the room, bearing a basin containing a length of calico, liberally sprinkled with cool water. Mr. Tupman allowed Mary to minister to him in his present state of discomfiture, and within minutes he professed himself much better. There was little that escaped the notice of the intelligent Mr. Pickwick. His gaze rested upon Mr. Winkle, who still appeared to be engaged upon some barely perceptible machinations within his pocket.

'Winkle! Why, whatever are you doing?' Enquired Mr. Pickwick. 'Is that a gun in your pocket?'

'Or are you werry pleased to see us, as the young 'ooman said to..'

'Pray be quiet, Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick. I insist upon knowing what you are doing.'

Mr. Winkle looked sheepishly at Mr. Pickwick, and withdrew a small object from the pocket in which it had been hitherto confined. 'It's a BlackBerry, Mr. Pickwick. You can use it to send emails and things,' said Winkle.

'Hand it to me, Winkle,' insisted Mr. Pickwick. 'I have had a desire for some time to purchase one of these devices. If you would allow me to peruse it for a moment, perhaps it would enable me to decide whether it would be useful to me.'

Mr. Winkle did as he was bidden. Mr. Pickwick took the BlackBerry in his hand and pressed a button.

'Ah, so there are your emails, Mr. Winkle. I'll just open one, thus,' said Mr. Pickwick, for whom technological matters held no fear. 'But what is this?' And so saying, Mr. Pickwick placed his spectacles upon his nose and recited, verbatim, the content of one of Mr. Winkle's emails:

Mr. Robert Posstot of 12, Mincing Lane, begs leave to suggest that gentlemen may increase their circumference by a considerable degree with the use of a patented device. This useful item is only available from the aforesaid Mr. Posstot for the consideration of half a guinea. Email

'Bless me, Mr. Winkle, whatever does that mean?' enquired Mr. Pickwick who, for the first occasion in his long life, was genuinely mystified.

Mr. Winkle turned very pale. 'Ah, um, well, Mr. Pickwick. I believe it is some item, intended to increase the appetite of a gentleman who is off his food. Hence the mention of circumference,' ventured Mr. Winkle, hoping this hastily-concocted explanation would satisfy Mr. Pickwick's curiosity.

'Begging your pardon, gen'l'm'n,' interposed Sam, 'but I ha' seen emails of this particular wariety afore. And there's a werry particular name for 'em as vell.'

'And what is that, Sam?' said Mr. Snodgrass, venturing into the conversation for the first time. Mr. Snodgrass knew nothing of computers and was content to compose his sensitive poems through the more traditional medium of ink and quill.

'Vy, sir, they are called Gammon,' Sam explained helpfully. 'Ven vun gent asks another gent to part vith his coin, on account of some vonderful thing as the first gent has inwented, ve calls it 'gammoning'. Vy, I get at least vun and tventy pieces of gammon a veek wia my Sony Waio! But, begging your pardon again, I think this 'ere bit of gammon has werry little to do vith a gen'l'm'n's vaistline. I rayther think it has more to do with this 'ere sporting gen'l'm'n's name.'

'What do you mean, Sam? What on earth is meant by increasing the size of a Nathaniel?' Enquired the innocent Mr. Pickwick.

'Vy, bless your old boots and gaiters, guv'nor,' said Sam, 'I vos talking about the name of Vinkle.'

At Sam's retort, the three visiting Pickwickians looked decidedly ill at ease. Mr. Tupman attempted to cram a leathern riding glove into his mouth in a not altogether successful attempt to hide his amusement at Mr. Weller's explanation of the unsolicited electronic missive from the inventive Mr. Posstot, Mr. Snodgrass allowed a flicker of a smile to creep across his other-worldly countenance, which he contrived to conceal behind a small nosegay of flowers, whilst Mr. Winkle simply fainted away.

'Sam,' said Mr. Pickwick, 'I believe that we will be requiring calico and cold water once again.'

'Vell I'll go to the foot of our stairs, as the old gent said ven his vife kicked him down two flights and into the cellar by vay of recreation,' said Sam. 'I think Mr. Vinkle vill be needing something rayther stronger to rewive him.'

'And what would that be, Sam?' enquired Mr. Pickwick.

'Vell, sir, I received an email from my dear old father this werry morning. You know, him as drives the Dorking coach and is ved to the circus acrobat?'

'Yes, Sam, I do recall,' said Mr. Pickwick, who had met Mr. Tony Weller at the start of an eventful journey to Dingley Dell in Kent. 'Pray tell us how we can revive Mr. Winkle?' Even now poor Mr. Winkle remained supine, but was showing signs of returning animation.

Sam remained silent for a few moments, to ensure that the full attention of the Pickwickians was focused upon him. He folded his arms, uttered a gentle cough, and then said, 'Vy, sir, it's a remedy as the old 'un svears by. It's called Wiagra. And, thanks to the Vorld Vide Veb, Mr. Vinkle can awail himself of a supply vithout limit from a werry nice on-line sawbones in Wirginia!'

Saturday, 28 March 2009

The Canterbury Tales ver 1.3

Yesterday, you may recall, we met Sir John Betjeman, and speculated on the way modern technology might have influenced his poetry. Today, I'm going back a bit further; to the 14th century, in fact. I have read (and enjoyed) Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, both in modern and middle English. So, I wondered, how would the poet have viewed one of our present-day computer users? Read on, but first an apology. I don't regard computer users as geeks, necessarily. But the word 'Geake' leds itself so well to Middle English.

Would Chaucer have used a computer, had there been one available? Probably. A laptop would be far easier to use on the back of a horse than the conventional quill pen; no need to carry around the water, oak galls, iron nails and gum arabic necessary to make the ink; and no need for a bag of pounce to prepare the parchment for writing. But he might have had a problem using Microsofte Worde; Middle English spelling was rather random, so I think a spell-checker would have been out of the question.

I've done now. Oh, but a quick note on Middle English pronunciation. You pronounce every letter. For example, 'manne' is pronounced 'mann-er'; 'lappe-toppe' is 'lapper-topper'; and so on. Otherwise the verse doesn't scan properly. Now I've really done.

A Geake ther was, a manne from neare Brightonne
That ynto cybere systemes had y-gone.
His cloothe was chepe, a teeshirte clad his breste
Wyth Thunderbirds are Go writ on the cheste.
A payre of Convers traynours dyd he weare
Than semeth hadd ben maulyd by a beare.
His breeches wer ful lowe, and dyd hys arse
Shine lyk the Moone to folke that dyd y-passe.
And now that I do thinke it, sooth to saye
This moost hav bene a dressen-downe daye.
A lappe-toppe holden he in honde
And typen texte that no wight understonde.
Hys conversatioun was nat for me
It was in trewth like talkynge wyth a tre.
He spook in Englysshe, but with wordes straunge
As 'Blog' and 'Twitter' like a manne deraunge.
This worthie man hath fiftie poundes a yeare
But sooth to sayn had naught betwixte his eare.
This wight dyd not to Caunterburie go
To seek the Hooly Blisful Martir; no.
Hys purpose was but pagan I recalle
He wended there a netwoork to installe.
But, nathelees he kepte our companie
Unto the inne at holy Caunterbrie.
Herein we dyd essaye to mak hem drinke
But he was jooste a lyte-weet, I doe thinke.
For after only oon smal disshe of ale
He turnyd grene and vomit yn the payle.

Friday, 27 March 2009

The Laureate and the Laptop

On the 19th May 1984, that great and (in my view) most English of poets, Sir John Betjeman, died. He was laid to rest in the quiet churchyard of St. Enodoc in Cornwall, a place he loved. Sir John's death came less than four months after the introduction of the Apple Macintosh computer. The 1980s saw great leaps forward in the computer industry; the inception of MS-DOS, the introduction of the floppy disc, and the launch of the Commodore 64, allegedly the best-selling computer of all time.

I'm not entirely sure that Sir John would have been comfortable with computers, had he lived to see their development and the development of the other technology that now surrounds us. I always saw him as a 'fountain pen' sort of poet; scribbling on sheet after sheet of paper, blobbing ink everywhere, scratching out the bits he didn't like...

But one thing is certain about Sir John. For all his apparent other-worldliness, he knew how his fellow-citizens ticked. His poems are full of the ordinary, the mundane, the trivial. How many other poets do you know that have written about the Metropolitan Railway? That's probably why I love his work so much.

I'm probably going to regret this. I've written a little poem in Sir John's style. It fondly imagines that he is still around today, and is (of course!) fully aware of the available technology and its importance to us. And, if you're reading this from somewhere, Sir John - sorry!

Janet, on the train to Ruislip,
Opens up her MacBook’s lid
Takes the dongle from her pocket,
Plugs it in and emails Sid.

‘Are you coming round this evening?
I’ve a brand new shoot-em-up.
And, if you bring round your X-Box,
We’ll replay the last World Cup.’

Sid is deaf to Janet’s missive;
(Hard drive’s melted like ice cream)
And he contemplates the message -
‘Fatal error’ on the screen.

Sadly, Janet, in her bedsit,
Eats a micro-meal alone.
Rests her MacBook on the duvet
Whilst she texts Sid from her phone.

Where are you, you lousy bastard?
Why are you ignoring me?
Sid replies with explanations.
Janet texts, ‘Well, I’m still free.’

But this evening must be fated,
Janet’s credit’s down to nil.
Sidney’s signal strength is zero;
He is angry, she feels ill.

Gentle reader, don’t feel sorry
For this quite unlucky pair
Sidney only lives two minutes
From young Janet’s pied-a-terre.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Singing like a canary

Well. I've finally bowed to the pressure of no-one in particular and signed myself up to Twitter. No, it isn't a magazine published by the RSPB, but rather a kind of micro-blogging service which asks the question, what are you doing? Users can send and receive messages of no more than 140 characters (known as Tweets) to their circle of acquaintances, and have the opportunity to follow the ramblings of others. It certainly seems to have taken the internet world by storm, including within its members Barack Obama, Richard Branson, Stephen Fry, and many other stars of stage, screen and surgery.

Remember the fun we had with the word blog? I think we could make a go of Twitter and Tweet as well. Is a user of Twitter just a Twit? Would the comments of a gentleman who makes bread be a Baker's Tweet? How many users are there in the little Welsh town of Lllantwit Major? And, if there are any French users out there, will we be able to read the Tweeties of Versailles? This has endless possibilities for someone like me who has an infinite capacity for wasting time when I should be doing something else. Like decorating. I did point out to the worthy Stevyn Colgan that I really needed something more personally appropriate; a micro-blogging site called Gibber, perhaps. But, until someone far more computer-savvy than me comes along to do the honours, I'll be twittering along from my small twig in Sussex.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Castor, Fratercula, Rissa...and Mater

Sunday was Mothers' Day in the UK. Or rather, it wasn't. In reality, this day when young children make appallingly bad cards, and take their long-suffering mums a cup of cold tea in bed, is properly termed Mothering Sunday.

Mothering Sunday is a moveable 'feast'; its date is dependent on that of Easter, but it always falls on the fourth Sunday in Lent. For this reason it was sometimes called Mid-Lent Sunday. Another alternative name for the day was Refreshment Sunday, as Lenten rules were relaxed for this one day only. Boys and girls in service were given the day off in order to visit their mothers, taking with them a little cake or a bunch of wild flowers. A far cry from today's blatant commercialism that encourage sons and daughters to spend outrageous sums of money on presents.

Lent is held by Christians to be a time of penitence and fasting in preparation for Easter. In the middle ages the Lenten diet was strictly controlled, and meat, eggs and dairy products were effectively banned during the forty days. But, not surprisingly, there was a way round the ban, and, sad to say it was the church that found the way round it. Well, monks, actually. These devious tonsured gentlemen determined that the beaver (then still living wild in the UK) was actually a fish, because it spent so much time in the water and had a scaly tail. Puffins, with their exclusively piscine diet, were also looked upon as fish. One presumes they stank of fish as well, so perhaps the monks can be forgiven! But the most curious 'fish' was the barnacle goose. This creature was thought to develop from the gum or sap of fir trees tossed into the sea. As the 'goose' grew, its beak would hang downwards in the water, it would develop feathers and eventually break free of the tree and fly away. What our monastic mates were looking at was the goose barnacle; how they came to associate the one with the other can only be guessed at. But not by me.

There were no beavers, puffins or barnacle geese in evidence during our post-lunch walk along the beach yesterday; just a few noisy gulls and the wheeling kittiwakes that form a colony at Seaford Head. These birds were apparently considered good eating by the islanders of St.Kilda, that most remote of Scottish islands, and about as far from Seaford as it's possible to get and still be in the United Kingdom. It's a surprise to me that kittiwakes were not regarded as fish by our forbears, because they apparently smell and taste every bit as bad as puffins. But there's no accounting for these things. I'm glad I went for the liver and bacon.

Friday, 20 March 2009

The Widdle of the Sphinx

It's strange, the things you come across on the internet when you browse idly. Not that I have time to be idle, of course. A house move, a shed load of decorating to do, wine to why did I type Ancient Egyptian Urine into Google? I'm not sure. But I did discover something interesting. The ancient Egyptians had a pregnancy test involving urine and wheat and barley seeds. They would steep the seeds from these two plants in the urine of a woman who was believed to be pregnant. If the wheat seeds sprouted, a boy was predicted; if the barley put forth green shoots, the child would be a girl. If neither sprouted, it was 'sorry, Mrs. Rameses, but I think you've made a mistake.'

Could I leave it there? Dear bloggy friend, what do you think? I had to see what use my old chums the Romans had for that (almost) inexhaustible supply of liquid we carry around with us. And it came back to pregnancy again, but this time, a way of preventing it. Apparently, if a woman could somehow get her gentleman friend to imbibe his own urine in which a lizard had been drowned, this dubious drink would act as an antaphrodisiac. It's the lizard I feel sorry for.

This was only one use for Roman widdle. Their ladies used it to clean their teeth, and it was also popular as a mouthwash. Apparently, Portuguese urine was the best for this purpose, but there is no record as to whether some kind of breath freshener was employed in conjunction with this bodily by-product, or how Romans managed to persuade the Portuguese to part with it in the first place; but it seems likely that the process involved threats of some kind. A slightly more palatable use for urine was in the cleaning of clothes; the ammonia apparently got Roman togas whiter than white. The dry-cleaner, or fullonica, would place large vats outside his premises into which passers-by could relieve themselves, and use this product to bleach these peculiarly Roman garments. Bingo! Citizens who were caught short were always sure of a place of easement, and the fullers acquired a completely free supply of cleaning fluid. Did I say free? Sorry. The emperor Nero devised a tax on the urine collected by the fullers - the vectigal urinae. And, although it didn't last long, a later emperor, Vespasian, re-introduced it. Perhaps this is why public toilets in Italy are referred to as Vespasiani.

Have you heard of the constellation of Orion, the hunter? Apparently, Orion means urine. The Boeotians (who lived near the Gulf of Corinth) had a myth that involved Zeus, Poseidon and Hermes urinating on a bull hide to provide King Hyrieus with a son. Poor old Orion. I wonder what sort of time he had at school? As he was the son of a king, did this make him the Royal Wee?

Sadly, as always, I seem to have omitted the New World in favour of the Old, so I should perhaps redress the balance by giving the Aztecs a mention. It appears that they too used urine for cosmetic and medicinal purposes. One such remedy for 'Roughness of the Face', otherwise referred to as Ixchachaquachiviztli (good grief), involved washing the face with hot urine and then smearing it liberally with powdered yellow chilli. This would be followed by another dousing in hot urine or wormwood sap and azpan sap. Sounds delightful, but I think I'll pass.

I suppose I could continue this post by looking at urophagia. It's interesting to note the number of websites that promote the drinking of one's own urine, and that provide detailed recommendations of the way in which this should be undertaken (in a glass, in a cup, lukewarm, hot and steaming, with/without rituals or incantations...). But I think you'll agree that enough is as good as a feast. And, as this blog is generally characterised by its sense of delicacy, I think I should spare you from the less palatable aspects of human behaviour.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

An absence of barbecued haddock

It's the Ides of March today. It was on this day in 44BC that Gaius Julius Caesar was done in by a number of senators who were attempting to save Rome from his (alleged) ambitions to be king. Except that, to Caesar, it wasn't 44BC. I rather think it was 710 AUC (anno urbis conditae - from the founding of the city) as this was one of the methods the Romans used to denote what year it was. Ironically, this method of dating was introduced by Caesar only a couple of years earlier, and it was taken into use only a year before his assassination. They also used consulships as an aide memoire - for example In the year of the Consuls Tiberius Claudius Nero and Publius Quinctilius Varus.

Now, the sharp-eyed amongst you will notice that the Romans I've mentioned above all have three names. This was referred to as the tria nomina (erm...three names!) The first, the praenomen, was a bit like our forename; it was a given name, individual to you. Except that it wasn't that individual. There were only around seventeen of these names in common use, ranging from Caius (the most popular) to Vibius (the least so), with Caia and Vibia as the feminine equivalents. There wasn't any room for innovation, so you couldn't go out on a limb and decide to call your son Brian, or your daughter Doris.

The second name, the nomen, indicated the gens (or clan) you belonged to; in other words, you were loosely associated with every other family with that nomen. Thus, Caius Julius Caesar belonged belonged to the gens of the Julii, and Mr. Varus, the consul I mentioned above, to the Quinctilii. Which sounds like a painful condition. There were a good many families in Rome, so plenty of family names, starting with Acilius and going all the way down to Volumnius. Sadly, there was no Biggus Dickus (as per Life of Brian) but the nomen Fannius might raise a chuckle among the more childish. It made me laugh...

The third name of the trio was the cognomen. This was almost, but not quite, a nickname. It would quite often refer to the physical characteristics, personality, career or place of birth of the first ancestor to bear the cognomen. Thus, the poet Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso) must have had an ancestor with a big nose (that's what Naso means!); and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus is likely to have had a red-bearded forbear. I was initially confused when it came to the orator Marcus Tullius Cicero. 'Cicero' means 'chick pea'. Does this mean that our Marcus had an ancestor who was a chick pea? Or who farmed chick peas? Or who thought he was a chick pea? No. Apparently, said ancestor had a little cleft at the end of his nose that made it look like a chick pea. Just imagine the time he had at school. When Cicero entered politics, he was advised to change his cognomen to something a bit more serious, but he refused, saying at least he wasn't a Scaurus (swollen ankled) or a Catulus (puppy).

I seem to have got rather bogged down in this Roman stuff. I had originally planned to talk to you about drains, barbecued haddock, and an afternoon walk along the beach, but all this can wait. At the risk of ruining your day, I'm going to tell you how to pronounce Roman names properly. In Latin, the letter C at the start of a word is always 'hard'. Thus, Caesar is properly pronounced Kaizar; and Cicero (not surprisingly) Kikkero. Yes, I know they always say Caesar on the History Channel. But what do they know?

Thursday, 12 March 2009

London Sur Mer

I'm conscious of the fact that this is my second posting this month with a French title. I apologise. I shall try to be more inventive demain.

We took a little trip to Brighton today. Brighton, beloved of the Prince Regent, and the first resort to make sea bathing popular. This latter claim to fame was a the result of a paper published by Dr Richard Russell, MD FRS, in 1750, 'Glandular Diseases, or a Dissertation on the Use of Sea Water in the Affections of the Glands'. The good Dr Russell recommended that those who wished to be cured of such ailments should not only bathe in the sea, but drink the stuff as well. Russell himself lived in Lewes, but recommended his patients take to the water (and take the water) at the nearest seaside town...Brighton.

Our visit today did not involve the imbibing of sea water; no. It was to see the comedy Lloyd George knew my father at the Theatre Royal, a 'proper' theatre with gilded mouldings, etched glass, velveteen seats...and very little leg room. Were Victorian Brightonians tiny people with little legs, I wonder? If so, then they must have suffered alongside London theatregoers, for I have never found an old theatre with anything approaching a decent amount of leg room!

We went to the matinee performance. Now, in London the matinee is beloved of the student on a budget. In Brighton, however, the pensioner is king (or queen) of the matinee. Dear friends, it would probably not be an exaggeration to say that Mrs. Hale and I were a good two decades younger than the bulk of the audience. We were surounded by sweet old ladies reminiscent of Miss Marple, who probably live in Rottingdean or somewhere equally pleasant, and their husbands, decked out in crimplene slacks and those light-coloured shoes beloved of the elderly. I felt as if I had wandered onto the set of the remake of Cocoon. All around me I could hear prostates popping like champagne corks, and the crackle of newly-permed hair. None of which is true.

The play, which starred Edward Fox (at his spendid best) and Claire Bloom, was a gentle drawing-room comedy of a type I haven't seen for years, and seemed ideally suited to the (mostly) elderly audience, who roared with laughter at the jokes and applauded politely for just long enough at the final curtain. I did say to Mrs. Hale before the play started that I hoped it would not be too dramatic, as some of our fellow theatregoers didn't look as if they could stand anything too shocking. But I needn't have worried.

Afterwards, we sallied forth onto the streets of London on Sea, as Brighton is sometimes called. And yes, I can see why. We encountered Big Issue sellers, a couple of Greenpeace Chuggers who greeted us like long-lost relatives, saw a small posse of street drinkers engaged in polite conversation within the environs of a bus shelter, and came across The Temple That Is Primark. But get away from all of these things; wander round the jewellery quarter that is The Lanes, visit the quirky shops in North Laine, or just enjoy a couple of hours looking at Brighton's distinctive architecture, its narrow streets and squares before rounding off the day at a decent seafood restaurant. That's the Brighton for me.

I think I'm going to like living down here. And the Tourist Board aren't paying me a penny. Honest.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Six of the Best

Now, you probably thought Madame DeFarge was a Dickensian invention from his Tale of Two Cities, who knitted at the foot of the guillotine as the upper classes were led to their messy deaths at the hands of the good Dr. Guillotin's invention. But you'd be wrong. She is not a hatchet-faced tricoteuse, but rather an astute and highly literate servant of the peepul, and she's jolly well tagged me to list six things or habits of no real importance about myself, thus:

1) Put the link of the person who tagged you on your blog. Yep, done that.

2)Write the rules. Yep, done that too.

3) Mention 6 things or habits of no real importance about you. Please see below.

4) Tag 6 persons adding their links directly.

5) Alert the persons that you tagged them.

Here are my Six Things:

(i) My first soft toy was a stuffed Eeyore, whom I insisted upon calling Gooby.

(ii) I have a particular interest in the seventeenth century diarist and Bon Viveur John Aubrey. It could be something to do with us sharing a birthday. Albeit he was born before 1752 when the calendar changed. So we don't really share a birthday at all.

(iii) I am almost totally omnivorous, but the one thing in the world I will not eat is a toffee apple.

(iv) I have just eaten half a bar of Milka chocolate. It is currently a bargain at 99p at W.H.Smith.

(v) My hair is now the longest it has been in more than 33 years.

(vi) I have never ridden a horse.

And now, it's time to tag...

Rob - For a Canadian perspective on the ordinary.

Comedy Goddess - Because I think she will come up with some very quirky answers.

Stevyn - For an ex-pat Cornish writer's sextet of mundanities.

Derrick - He's led such an interesting life; now let's hear the dull stuff!

John Soanes - Because This Oscar Wilde Lookalike Can Always Be Relied Upon For An Apt Comment...And Lots Of Capital Letters.

Raph - Because giraffes must sometimes encounter les choses ordinaires.

Over to you, boys and girls!

Blatant Apart Height

Those of you who are kind enough to visit this blog occasionally may well have formed an opinion of the kind of person you think I am. This opinion will be partly based on my damn-fool ramblings, and partly upon the tiny image of me attached to my profile. Through my photograph you may detect a kind of inner calm, rather like that possessed by the skipper of a trawler in rough seas. I like to think it shows a person of character; insightful and thoughtful, but at the same time approachable and affable. But there are things it doesn't tell you. My height, for example.

Now, I'm not particularly tall. Like my friend and fellow blogger Mme Defarge, I legs. But then neither am I particularly short, and I am not self-conscious about my height. But there was a time, dear reader, when things were very different.

On Sunday the 13th August 1978, I arrived at Hendon Police College as a (very) young and nervous probationary law enforcement officer. And it wasn't until the following morning, waiting in line to be 'sworn in', that I suddenly realised how many tall people there were in this world. I felt, with hindsight, a bit like Lemuel Gulliver in the land of Brobdignag. And wasn't I reminded of the fact for the next sixteen weeks!

This was back in the days when drill staff would seize, with delight, upon any supposed 'flaw' and exploit it to the full. Apparently, I already had a character defect because I had what was called a football moustache (five hairs a side), as did many of my fellow inmates. But with my height they had a field day. Alternative career paths were suggested; apparently, I could have been a fighter pilot for Airfix, a racing driver for Scalextric, or an Action Man with realistic gripping hands. According to one member of staff, my uniform would be supplied by Mothercare because the Hendon Stores didn't have anything small enough! A few people asked how I'd managed to get in , and I said I'd lied about my height. I also told anyone who would listen that the Metropolitan Police were looking for officers who could keep a low profile, and you couldn't get a profile much lower than mine! Nowadays, equality officials would probably say that I was being complicit in my own oppression; rather like a member of an ethnic group who professes not to mind an apparently inappropriate nickname.

I suppose this 'banter' did test me a little at the time. But, in law enforcement, you learn to develop a rather thick skin to deal with the kind of inventive and comprehensive insults that get thrown at you pretty well every day. And, believe me, the Great British Public can be pretty insulting, especially when it's had a few glasses of something. Thirty-odd years on, I can look back with a degree of affection at the ribbing I got at training school. In recent years, equality laws meant that police forces had to scrap height restrictions, so it came to pass that, before I retired, average height me was able to tower over some of my younger colleagues! But these five-foot-somethings were among some of the bravest officers I have ever worked with.

But doesn't it sometimes seem that the world is designed with tall people in mind? Most models, male or female, tend to be on the tall side. Clothes, unless you have them made to measure, look better on tall people. Apparently, tall people, on average, earn more money than us shorties. TV ads do not, in general, feature men who are around five foot seven inches tall (unless it is to portray them as dim-witted and in thrall to their taller and more intelligent wives!) And why is it that short people with attitude are told they have a Napoleon complex? It's apparently alright to be stroppy, forthright or demanding, but only if you're tall.

Of course, there are advantages to being short. You don't get too uncomfortable in the economy seats on a plane, you suffer less from acrophobia because your head is closer to the ground, and, if you trip over, you are less likely to suffer serious injury as you don't have so far to fall. So, on the whole, I'm reasonably happy with my five-seven, even if it does mean I have to use the step-stool to dust the top of my bookcase. But it is quite a tall bookcase...

So, what lessons have I learnt from all this? (i) Size matters; (ii) Size really doesn't matter; (iii) If in doubt, lie about your height; and (iv) if you really have a problem with your height (or lack of it), make friends with a tall person (or giraffe) today. Hi Raph!

Friday, 6 March 2009

Proper Job!

When I lived in London I was very partial to LBC. Describing itself as London's Biggest Conversation, LBC is a 24 hour talk radio station, where listeners are invited to call in with insightful comments, rant, rave, ramble or witter on aimlessly as the fancy takes them. I would often have this station on in the background as I tapped away at my keyboard, and it almost became like audio wallpaper for me.

All this ended when I moved. You can't get LBC in Sussex, other than on Sky or online. And, as these two methods of access are not always convenient, I have rediscovered the joys of Radio Four.

I had forgotten how much I enjoyed Radio Four. The Archers, The World at One, the Afternoon Play (sci-fi week this week, with an offering from Iain M. Banks), the Shipping Forecast (especially the late night edition, preceded by a wonderful piece of British light music, Sailing By, composed by the fabulously-named Ronald Binge)...and Front Row.

Front Row, presented by Mark Lawson, is, let's not deny it, an arty-farty programme. Lots of media people extolling the virtues of other media people, or explaining in five minute interviews their motivation for the latest play/film/poem. Last night's edition focused, among other things, upon actors who came from 'ordinary' families. Actor Anthony Sher told of his down-to-earth South African father who had never met an actor until he sired one. Mr. Sher senior dutifully attended his son's plays, but invariably fell asleep only minutes into the first act, on one occasion slumbering peacefully in the front row whilst the rest of the audience gave his son a standing ovation for his Richard III. It seems that, as an ordinary bloke, he found it difficult to come to terms with his son's thespian status.

Not for the first time, this got me thinking. Is the arts a 'proper job'? Very few would disagree that bricklaying, coal mining or car assembly are 'proper jobs'. But what about acting? Can the actor return home to his humble cot, exhausted with the honest toil of pretending to be someone else for a few hours? Is bashing out his or her lines equivalent to bashing dents out of the bonnet of a Fort Cortina? Or is it just a bit of a lightweight pastime that some are lucky enough to get paid for? And whilst we're on the subject, what about poets? Is there a nobility in knocking out a few stanzas or verses that these days don't even need to rhyme? Doesn't this not-rhyming-thing smack of a lack of effort? I mean, if you're a poet, and that's all you have to do, you're got all the time in the world to find something that rhymes with 'silver' or 'cadaver'. I'm not a poet, but even I can manage a non-rhyming poem; viz:

There was a young lady called Janet
Who used to support Queen's Park Rangers.
At a match in the rain
She caught a bad cold
And had a stiff neck for a fortnight.

And I can even cope with the odd haiku. Here's my offering acknowledging the existence of shredded carrots:

Have you noticed that
Every pre-packed salad has
These orange bits in?

All of a sudden T.S. Eliot (an anagram of toilets) and Seamus Heaney aren't looking quite so clever, are they?

Don't get me wrong. I have the utmost respect for the arts. I've got a degree in some arty subject or other, and always found science a bit of a trial at school, especially those equations where you had to balance up the molecules of oxygen or sodium or similar. But I do think 'arty' people sometimes think (and talk) too deeply about what they do. You only have to watch the 'extras' disc of any Hollywood movie DVD to realise this. When Dustin Hoffman was cast in Marathon Man, he prepared for the part by doing a large amount of running. When he told Sir John Gielgud, the noble knight remarked, 'Dear boy, why don't you just act?'

I went out to post a letter today. As I was returning home, I saw an elderly gent with a zimmer frame (Comedy Goddess - you know what this is now, don't you?) Now, zimmer frames in Sussex are not exactly as rare as hen's teeth; they're very common, in fact. But not so common was this old gent's appearance. He was wearing red shoes, a pair of grey trousers with a generous four inch gap between top of sock and bottom of trouser, a ladies' pink anorak with an orange hood, and, to top off the ensemble, a child's red school cap.

What, you may ask, does this have to do with LBC, or Radio Four, or Anthony Sher, or even poems that resolutely refuse to rhyme? The answer, of course, is absolutely nothing. But, dear fellow blogger, I had to tell someone...

Monday, 2 March 2009

Le Chien Noir

Winston Churchill, that great wartime prime minister, suffered terribly with depression. He called it The Black Dog. When the dog was upon him he was almost unable to move, so great was the weight of depression upon his shoulders. Commentators have pointed out that any politician of our present age who suffered similarly would be unlikely to make high office, so it's probably just as well that parliament in the 1940s was rather more accommodating.

If you trawl the internet (as I'm sure some of you do some of the time!) you'll find a good many references to the black dog of depression. But what you'll also find is a very different kind of black dog. I'm talking about the spectral hounds that seem to be very common in Britain, including Sussex, my new home county.

These canines are generally very large, albeit some apparently have the ability to change their size, if not their shape. They are often described as having glowing eyes, very large eyes, very large heads, more than one head, and sometimes no head at all. They also have the rather worrying ability to disappear and then re-appear somewhere else entirely, especially if you happen to be passing by that somewhere else when they do their re-appearing act!

Black dogs can appear pretty well anywhere, but are commonly encountered at crossroads (a place of burial for witches and murderers), footpaths, roads, graveyards, and in areas where ancient barrows and burial mounds are common. These latter locations suggest that the dogs are attracted to ley lines, the supposed ancient lines of power that criss-cross the country and supplied our long-dead ancestors with spiritual energy.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, to see a black dog portends the death of the viewer or of a close relative. In Peterborough in the 16th century a black dog somehow managed to wring the necks of a number of parishioners in two churches, and set fire to a similar number. But not all are so homicidal; tales are also told of spectral hounds that have protected travellers or saved them from harm.

This being Britain, you would not, of course, expect black dogs to be Dogs. Curious names for them abound. Here in Sussex, they are generally referred to as Witch or Wish Hounds. But elsewhere you may be unlucky enough to encounter Black Shuck, Barguest, Guytrash, Yeth Hounds, Shriker, Black Skeff or Moddey Dhoo.

Just south east of the village of Ditchling in Sussex, a headless dog haunts an old 'corpse road'; a track along which coffins were taken to church for burial, giving rise to the suggestion that this particular beast may be a guardian of the dead. And at a wood near Henfield, tales have been told of a dog the size of a calf with flaming red eyes, albeit it is believed to be an invention of local smugglers, who wanted to keep prying eyes away from the wood where they stored their booty!

I've only just started researching the subject of these nice doggies, so I don't know whether they appear in folklore elsewhere in the world. All I will say is, if you should happen to be out walking when you encounter a black labrador the size of a horse, with six heads, two tails and fiery breath, do yourself a!