Sunday, 31 October 2010

Giving in to Temptation

Unable to control my dreadful pedantry any longer, I have started another blog here. On it, I post some of the things that I see in print that irritate me (not because of their content but because of their sloppy editing). I am hoping that this will be an outlet that will help me avoid future problems with blood pressure.

I do admit that it takes very little to annoy me, and I'm aware that for the majority of the population most of the things I highlight will seem utterly trivial. However, I believe standards are important when we write. Language is a vehicle for conveying meaning - if we allow its structures to erode, we risk making no sense.Worse than that, if we compromise language, we make it harder to think.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Freecycle - More Temptation

"Offer - Unwell Rabbit

One of our many rabbits has a bit of a cold (runny nose and eyes). If given a great diet and a happy home with lots of space to run around in, I believe she will probably get better. We cannot look after her anymore but do not want to put her down. If you can help, please let me know."

Translated into plain English, I think this is what this advert says:

"We have a myxamatosis-infected rabbit but we are townies and therefore too pathetic to just put the poor creature out of its misery. Please take the problem off our hands."

Maybe I've been spending too much time with my startlingly practical rural mother.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

A Quiet Stroll

Living up to the (largely undeserved) reputation (Shane Warne has a lot to answer for) of their human counterparts, Australian birds are a noisy, boisterous lot. Whereas a rural ramble in many parts of Europe is quite likely to be disturbed by aircraft noise - and, indeed, I seem to remember Gaw complaining a couple of months ago about the tiresome clamour of sparrows - you'd be hard pressed, given the racket that our native birds make, to notice, even if there was a flight path (let alone sparrows) above you on a walk in the Australian bush.

Sulphur-crested cockatoos are in many ways the worst offenders. While a flurry of the smaller types of parrots will shoot through the air, sounding no more offensive than a flock of squeaky rubber toys, cockatoos tear about in raucous crowds, ripping through the quiet dawn hours with cries like rusty barbed-wire.

Despite the purity of their white plumage, with its wonderful faint blush of yellow underneath the wing, (which always makes me wonder about the theory of evolution as an entire explanation for everything; I can't think what possible use that hidden, subtle bit of colouring could have), cockies are the thugs of the Australian feathered world. When not causing havoc, (they like to tear up plants and trees with a vandalistic, wanton pleasure), they lounge about in gum trees, biding their time. For a minute, it seems the mighty eucalypt ahead of you is strewn with bits of torn paper. Then, unexpectedly, the scraps erupt, their jagged shrieks slashing through the silence as they rise into the sky.

For those who haven't experienced cockatoo 'song', here is an individual in full voice:

(What does the woman at the end mean when she says, 'Do you want me to get him?' I don't fancy that bird's chances)

and here is a mob of them all screeching at once:

Much better known, abroad at least, are kookaburras, whose song, it seems to me, belies their essentially depressive natures. While they can party like the next bird when the mood occasionally takes them:

(Embedding is disabled on this one)

more often when I come upon them they are by themselves. They are rather stout birds and they tend to sit up unnecessarily straight, reminding me of a child who's been left out of something and is sitting on their own in a corner of the playground trying to pretend that they don't actually mind. They are not streamlined like their cousins, the kingfishers, but permanently fluffed up, and the feathers on their heads seem to be set to a default mode of tousled, somehow adding to the impression that they have just been mildly affronted . This video provides two good examples, except, unlike my local birds, these two seem to have posture problems - they look more as if they are loitering on a street corner with their hands in their pockets. The first one is less tubby than the ones I usually see. Still, like them, he appears pretty dejected, despite a rather feeble attempt to bung on a bit of false bonhomie. The second one can't even be bothered to do that:

Less rasping, but still fairly high decibel, are the cries of the Torresian crows. The sound they make is not beautiful, or even musical really. It is more the kind of sound husbands make when they aren't really listening. 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' they croak wearily (the Torresian crows, that is), 'yeah, yeah, yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.' Sometimes the birds interrupt this repetitive observation with a melancholy cry that combines the voice of the saddest baby in the world with that of an exceptionally depressed toad. 'Ah, ah, ah, ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooh,' they go.

Oddly, although their voices have a sneering quality, Torresian crows seem to be very sociable.  'I'm going,' one will shout, as he launches himself from a branch, 'I'm going, I'm going, I'm going,' his mates reply mockingly. 'Go on then, go on then.'  They sound like a bunch of drinkers at a bar, jeering at the one who manages to drag himself away. But almost immediately regret creeps in - they remember that they like to go about together. Before a minute is up, they're screaming after the original pioneer, 'We're coming, we're coming.'  They don't sound enthusiastic, just resigned. 'We're following, we're following,' they call as they sail through the air to their next perch, 'we made it, oooooooooooooooooooooooh.'

It is Torresian crows, I think, that also amuse themselves by making a repetitive noise that is a bit like the sound of someone trying over and over again to start a motor or a rather weak engined chain saw and another which mimics an old man trying to be sick.

These videos go only some way to capturing the full range of the Torresian crow's repertoire:

Currawongs are also big contributors to the great Australian cacophony. Surprisingly, given that she is a great lover of the animal kingdom (no, not THAT Animal Kingdom), my mother hates currawongs. I have to admit they are pretty alarming, especially when you stare too long at their terrifying beaks (the theory that birds are the most direct descendants of carnivorous dinosaurs, rather than reptiles, seems all too plausible after doing that for a while). It is rumoured that they will kill smaller birds, for pleasure. Despite this, they do have lovely voices and their songs are immensely evocative - when I'm abroad and see someone in Australia being interviewed, the sound of a currawong singing somewhere in the background can usually make me homesick:

Mind you, if anyone wants to guarantee inducing homesickness, it is the sound of an Australian magpie that they will need. These remarkable birds produce a song which has a carefree quality. It is the sound of someone singing in the shower when they don't know that they can be heard and of kids bursting out of an exam room on a sunny day. While none of the videos I can find do justice to the impression of impromptu delight that these creatures can produce, when at their best their voices make me think of crystal and honey and water all somehow combined. Apparently they have two larynxes, which means they can sing in harmony with themselves, a fairly impressive feature. Nevertheless, I hesitate to call them musicians, especially since learning about the black palm cockatoo of New Guinea, which snaps off a twig to make a drumstick and beats time with it on a hollow log while it sings. Our magpies are not that skilled (even though, in the second video below, the bird does appear to be treating the guitar as an accompaniment to its performance), but they are still a pleasure to hear:

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Everything You Wanted to Know About the Mess We're In, But Were ...

The amazing Mark Griffith, who very kindly employed me many years ago and is a man of many ideas and rather brainy, is about to publish a book called Collateral Damage, about the financial crisis that came upon us and doesn't seem to have entirely left (well, when I say us, I speak globally, rather than in an Antipodean sense, and I'm not tempting fate by making any further comments about our specific situation).

The book is the first to emerge from Mark's new publishing house and, to my surprise, given my complete lack of interest in or knowledge about economics, the proof copy has proved (proof-prove, geddit, sort of a play on words there, not bad eh? Oh all right, it's rubbish, I know that really and, yes, I will get on with it and stop mucking around) not merely extremely interesting but even, believe it or not, a riveting read.

For more information, go to this website (the name of the company comes from Alexander Pope, in case you're wondering) or follow Mark's twitter id, which is worldcrisisbook. Once the book comes out, it will solve your Christmas presents dilemmas/dilemmae/dilemme (take your pick - it will do them all). Buy it for yourself, buy it for all your friends and relations. They may be surprised at first but they will be grateful when they read it, for suddenly everything that is confusing them, worrying them and, perhaps, even upsetting them (at least where their money is concerned - possibly their marriages et cetera might be a bit beyond its remit) will be explained and the current state of the world economy will seem startlingly, almost high definition picture quality, clear.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Do Keep Up London

I was glad to hear that there is going to be a Radio 4 series, written by Ian Hislop, having a stab at making a few jokes at the expense of the coming UK Olympic Games. It's about time. After all the British are supposed to be the ones with the sense of humour, but so far very little opportunity has been taken to make fun of the coming event.

Before our Olympics, many people here thought the whole thing was going to be an utter embarrassment. Reflecting that mood, we had a wonderful series called The Games, involving John Clarke, Brian Dawe and Gina Riley:

Of course, during the actual proceedings, we had Roy and HG's superlative commentary, served up in The Dream:

And huge thanks to Brit, who, despite disapproving of Australian humour, provided invaluable technical expertise.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Beautiful and Strange

The photographs at this site seem very moving to me. I don't know if it's because I'm fond of the places in the pictures, but it seems to me the sense of the past being always present is conveyed rather wonderfully. Correct me if I'm wrong - they may actually be high kitsch. I don't think they are, but I'm never sure about my own judgement, especially when it comes to things visual.

More Worrying Signs

Going through next week's TV guide (no, there isn't anything worth watching - I'll get on with Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, which may or may not be great literature but is accurate, readable and wryly amusing), I saw a listing for 'Alzheimer's - the Musical'.

'Now, what is Alzheimer's again?' was my immediate thought.

Friday, 22 October 2010


The Macquarie Dictionary gives 11 definitions for the word 'text': "1. the main body of matter in a book or manuscript, as distinguished from notes, appendixes, etc; 2. the original words of an author, as distinct from a translation, paraphrase, commentary, or the like; 3. the actual wording of anything written or printed; 4. any of the various forms in which a writing exists; 5. the wording adopted by an editor as representing the original words of an author; 6. any theme or topic; 7. the words of a song or the like; 8. any group of utterances or sentences which show cohesion; a unified passage 9. a textbook; 10. a short passage of Scripture, especially one chosen in proof of a doctrine, as the subject of a sermon, etc; 11. ecclesiastical the letter of the Holy Scripture or the Scriptures themselves."

 I cannot see how any of these could reasonably be interpreted to include the meaning given to the word by Don Carter, the English inspector for the Board of Studies in New South Wales.

When this question:

appeared on this year's final English paper, Mr Carter explained: "We accept visual images are a text in their own right along with the written word. It's all part of the course. The paper is asking students to display their ability to explain and analyse, organise and develop ideas through their control of language and show an ability to explore connection between different texts."

When I read this my first reaction was to feel glad my children have already finished school. Then I remembered that there may one day be grandchildren.

Philip Hodgins

On 18 August 15 years ago Philip Hodgins died of leukaemia. He wrote wonderfully about rural life and also about sport. However, to (belatedly) mark the anniversary of his death I suppose it is fitting to have some of his poems about death and the world of illness:

Wordy wordy numb numb

Now there's a word.
He wrote it down

It didn't take up much space
you could say it was discreet,
and patient.

He couldn't remember
the first time he'd heard it.
It seemed to have been always there,

like something he owned
as a kind of right or inheritance.
But he wasn't sure if this was true.

He liked the way it rhymed
with breath,
its natural opposite

He liked it for many reasons,
and because of that
he wrote it down many times

in many different contexts
finding that it had
all sorts of meanings.

Later on, when words had passed,
he backed it up
by dying.

One thing

he had always remembered
was the arrogance of health,

those dumb days
when nothing can touch you,
when death is just one

of the familiar short words:
sun, moon, tree, bread, wine, house, love ...
you know them,

each one worn smooth
as a river stone
with the flow of language

and death the odd one out,
not so much worn smooth
as numb.

Better not to think about it then
and come back to it later
when it comes back to you

like an unpaid debt
gathering interest
infinitely greater than what was lent.

More Light, More Light

Sickly sunlight through the closed curtains
that are white but much thicker than a sheet.
Sunlight with all the life taken out of it,
diminished but still there, an afterglow,
like the presence of a friend who has died.
You're lying still and yet you're moving fast.

A nurse comes in to give the drip a shot.
He opens the curtains in a moment of revelation.
The sunlight is revitalised into an opportunist
and instantly takes over the room like a brilliant virus,
filling out even the places you had never thought to look.
Your life is changed. The room is shown to you as it is,
not as it dimly appeared to you all that time ago.
You're moving fast and yet you're going nowhere.


In the corner slumps
a sack of spuds,
brown as its contents

Covered in hernias,
it is hunched over
like an old drunk.

Below the window
freckled with flies,
stands an empty bottle

of homemade grappa,
the kind that creeps up
on you like the devil.

At the far end
of the wooden table
there is an open box

of tissues, one of them
partly standing up
partly folded over

white and triangular
like a stilled yacht
on the horizon

And at this end
lies the finished letter,
its hilarious news

relayed in lines
so wild they could be
graphs of emotion.

(Clive James's excellent article about Hodgins is here.)

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Advice for Writers

 I like this comment I read the other day, from a writer I've never heard of:
"Being a writer means having homework every evening for the rest of your life."

The one I'm less sure about is the remark by Jonathan Franzen that the one word no-one should ever use when writing is 'then'.

Is he right? Sometimes I think he is; then I change my mind.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

In the Garden

Just before I went away in June, I said to my mother, 'The one thing I'm sad about is missing the camellias.' They'd just started flowering and I thought they'd be finished before my return. They weren't, of course. They were still going when I got back a month later. I headed off to Melbourne a few weeks after that and, when I got back from there, the camellias were still blazing away. Then I left again, this time for three weeks. Sure enough, I came home to find masses of colourful camellias still appearing every day.

Meanwhile, the banksia rose remained unimpressive, a collection of leafy stems arching over our bedroom window. Only this Friday did it condescend to let a single flower emerge, high up among its foliage. The next day two more appeared. On Sunday, there were over a dozen. At last today when I got back from work I saw that it was covered in a mass of tiny buttery yellow blooms.

Banksia roses are not flowers that can be picked and enjoyed indoors. They don't have proper stems and anyway they last only a matter of days. The plant is, to quote a disparaging former neighbour, 'just a one-week wonder.' Which is precisely why I prize it so perversely. The luscious but long lasting camellia has not exactly outstayed its welcome, but it has made itself familiar and reliable. The banksia rose's arrival will always be a fleeting treat. Before you have a chance to even start to get bored with it, it vanishes.

And, of course, when the banksia's finished, I'll still have the steady, faithful camellias. Day by day, they will loyally unfold new blooms. There will be the pure white ones, the double petalled creamy yellow ones and the bright silky pink ones. They will all be beautiful, but that will make no difference. I'll be hankering after the one-week wonders. Although less spectacular, they have the seductive attraction of being quickly gone.

For Those with Hungarian Tendencies

Siesta of a Hungarian Snake by Edwin Morgan (who died on 17 August)

s sz sz sz sz sz sz zs zs zs zs zs z

Monday, 18 October 2010

Old but Gold

Heredity by Thomas Hardy

I am the family face;
Flesh perishes, I live on,
Projecting trait and trace
Through time to times anon,
And leaping from place to place
Over oblivion.

The years-heired feature that can
In curve and voice and eye
Despise the human span
Of durance -- that is I;
The eternal thing in m
That heeds no call to die

Words and Phrases that Make Me Cringe

'Empowerment' and all its iterations. No-one who uses that word ever has anything useful to say in my experience.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Wipe That Smile off Your Face

The Chilean miners' rescue was great news, wasn't it? I know it didn't matter in the wider scheme of things, but I still couldn't help feeling pleased. At last, after enduring the attentions of shrinks for several weeks, these men were free to do anything they liked.

And they seemed really thrilled to be out again, I thought. In one of the newspaper pictures, a miner was leaping into the air out of sheer delight. In another, one of the miners' children wept with joy. On the radio, they said a third miner teased his wife by asking, 'How's the dog?' before inquiring about anything else. Everyone appeared to be happy and the miners looked energetic and healthy. Everything suggested all would now be well.

Ha. Apparently that was just an illusion. The miners' ordeal hasn't actually ended at all. Those men aren't really happy; in fact, they are wretched. What is more, they face "years and possibly decades of potential psychological problems",  according to Philip Hodson, fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (Daily Telegraph, October 14).

Mr Hodson's comments reminded me of  this immortal Tim and Debbie exchange. To borrow a phrase from Tim, "They looked pretty happy to me".

And, while we're on the subject of people looking pretty happy, here are some Hungarians feeling ecstatic after their recent elections:

That's me in the pink quilted jacket, by the way, staring straight at the camera. As you can see, I was unable to contain my emotion. (They dug me - and my husband, on my left, bent double with excitement - up for the event.)

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Lost in Translation

Not long ago, a Scottish restaurant opened up in Budapest (no, not that Scottish restaurant).

Now I am not a Scot, but when I walked past 'T'he Caledonian' (as it is called) the other day and saw this:

I did wonder if perhaps the people that run it might not be Scots either. Of course, cream of haggis soup may be the most normal thing in the world in Glasgow. Somehow though, I doubt it. And, as I looked at the blackboard, I couldn't help thinking of a more than usually pompous tutor who attempted to teach me at university. 'What we have here,' he would have exclaimed, using one of his favourite phrases,' is a clash of registers.' I think that's a fancy way of saying that something's just not right.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

A Star in the Family

My friend Polly, (she of the jelly-phobic great-grandfather) has confessed to the fact that she is having trouble with her guinea pigs. Her announcement has reminded me of my first hamster, who had a brief but starring role in a then popular television programme. I never actually saw the episode in which my hamster (whose name was Andy) featured. I think it may have been aired during my short - some might say whirlwind - career as a child actress, appearing in advertisements during the Mad Men (well maybe just a little bit later, but let's stretch the facts to add a bit of topical interest) era (and that's a story for another time, perhaps.)

Sadly, later in his life - after he'd retired from screen activities - Andy vanished from our household. He disappeared, as it happened, while I was away, staying with my aunt. When I returned, I spotted immediately that Andy was not in his usual position. What was more, a quick stroll around the place revealed that neither Andy's cage, nor, indeed, Andy himself, was visible in any of the rooms.

Assuming my mother, always a houseproud woman, had tidied both the cage and its occupant away, I spent my first week back searching the place, floor by floor, failing each day to locate any sign of my pet or his home-within-a-home. I should have simply asked my mother, but, as well as being houseproud, she was in those days unpredictable in temper. I was afraid, if I came right out and demanded to know where exactly she'd stashed my tubby friend, she might snap my head off or tell me I shouldn't ask stupid questions.

It wasn't until I'd run out of even faintly imaginable hiding places (surely she couldn't be storing him in the washing machine?) that I plucked up my courage and raised the question of Andy's current whereabouts. 'I thought you'd never ask,' my mother replied immediately. 'I was so worried about your being upset, but you obviously didn't care about him at all. It's taken you a whole week to even notice he's gone.'

Although I never did convince her that I wasn't completely heartless ('What makes no sense is why you wouldn't have just asked me - I'm not some kind of ogre or terrifying monster'), I did in the end persuade my mother to explain what had gone on. Apparently, Andy had taken his usual stroll around the sitting-room one evening. Then he'd scampered up the curtains, as he often did. Unfortunately, my mother, on this occasion, let him remain sitting on top of the pelmet for longer than normal, only too late noticing that it was the delicious (to hamsters) flakes of paint he'd found between the window frame and the top of the wall that were the cause of his long delay. Those tasty morsels, it appeared, had gone on to poison him. Certainly the next morning he was found belly up, stiff, on the floor of his cage.

Poor Andy - as far as I know, there isn't even any footage left of his brief moment of fame on the television. All there is, in fact, is the clip on this site of his co-star, Mr Pastry, whose show Andy's cameo appearance was on.  It is a rather charmingly ridiculous clip, I have to acknowledge, and, were anyone to suggest that highlighting it was my main reason for telling the whole sad - but true - story of Andy, I probably wouldn't be able to disagree.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Freecycle - more tempting offers

I've been saving these up:

Offer - fridge (not working well)
Offer - old tyre (flat)
Offer - The Spirit of Golf and How it Applies to Life
Offer - Worms
Offer - Tatty sleeping bag/quilt, with broken zip
Offer - 2008 Children of Vietnam calendar
Offer - Fertility Monitor
Offer - Pregnancy tablet
Offer - Turkish van cat
Offer - a dozen whistles

Monday, 11 October 2010

New Business Venture

Since Gaw's announcement that he's launching into publishing, I've been thinking that I ought to have an initiative too. So, after much consideration, I've decided to go into the travel business, although, to be honest, I have no idea when. In fact, I would have to acknowledge that bits of my 'business plan' are not yet completely sorted out - oh all right, I admit it: I've only got as far as the basic idea. Still that didn't stop EL Wisty from going down to the Patents Office, so why on earth should it hold me back?

The essence of my plan is founded on my conviction that, in the wake of Dutch Elm Disease, there is a yearning for the 'mellow whispering calms' of elm trees sweeping the nations of Europe (particularly now that October is upon us). To assuage this longing I am, (for what I'm sure will be seen as a very modest fee), prepared to lead parties through the south-eastern states of Australia, visiting what may now be the world's finest, most venerable elms.

You see, not many people know this, (to quote someone or other), but elms in Australia go back to at least 1803. It was then that Governor King, the third governor of New South Wales, had some young elm trees sent over from England. Whether any of those original specimens are still surviving, I don't know - I'm not sure what the lifespan of an elm tree is. What I do know, however, (thanks mainly to Wikipedia) is that within the City of Melbourne alone there are 6,300 elms in parks and boulevards, while within the whole state of Victoria there are 33,789 of the trees on council-controlled land alone - with the number on private land estimated to be at least the same again.

Given the weight of numbers in that state, therefore, I think we might start in Victoria, making our initial stop the Royal Botanic Gardens where we will visit the elm planted there in 1846. We'll also go to Royal Parade, Victoria Parade and the Fitzroy Gardens, all of which are chockablock with nineteenth century elms. Then, when we've had our fill of Melbourne, we'll head off to Camperdown, near where my mother was born.

Camperdown has a noted avenue of elm trees ( I should point out that we will avoid nearby Mortlake, where the trees - not elms anyway - are so hideously pollarded that the only suitable greeting for strangers at certain times of the year is, 'Welcome to Mortlake where the trees grow upside down.').

Rather than that, we'll go on from Camperdown to Ballarat to see the 22-kilometre post-World War II commemorative avenue of honour, consisting exclusively of English and Dutch elms. Then we'll head interstate to Bowral (visiting the Don Bradman Museum, if there are any cricket lovers amongst us) and Orange and Wagga, which are all thick with elms as well. If we have time, we'll double back to South Australia and Tasmania, to see the plantings in the Barossa Valley (and possibly manage to down the odd dozen or so glasses of wine while we're there) and those in Hobart, Launceston and Port Arthur.

At last, for our grand finale, we'll end up with a trip to my mother's place not far from Yass.  She is such a tremendously sociable and hospitable woman, (as readers who have met her will appreciate) that I know she will be thrilled to greet us warmly as we all crowd around to view the vast specimen which grows directly in front of her house. She will also be delighted if every member of the party digs up one of the tree's many suckers and takes it away as a souvenir (ideally, shooting a cockatoo, surreptitiously, and adding its body to the take home loot).

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Workers' Playtime

In Frankfurt last week, it dawned on me that my plan to learn better German by watching White Ribbon over and over again may have been mildly flawed. As it turned out, there was very little call for the phrases, "Could you take a fish to my father?", "White is the colour of purity", "I hate you and your breath stinks" and "Now you have really disappointed me: please fetch the cane" during my 24-hour stay. As a result, I have switched my attention to Hungarian and am now attempting to improve my understanding of that language through close study of a book of grammar that was printed in 1961. The current lesson I am working on contains this evocative dialogue:

"The Trade Union Congress - Arrival

- Budapest, Keleti Railway Station!
- What time is it?
- Half past nine. The train is already here.
- What a lot of people are here - travellers, porters, railway workers!
- Look! There are the Hungarian comrades!
- Hello. I am ironworker Joseph Kovacs. These men on my right are miners and these men on my left are textile workers. Are you ironworkers or miners?
- I am the only one who is an ironworker; they are all miners, and that comrade there is a Soviet newspaper reporter.
- And, you, lady comrade, are you also a newspaper reporter?
- No, I'm not a reporter; I'm an English textile worker.
- Hello, we are Czechoslovak ironworkers.
- Are you Canadian ironworkers?
- Yes, we are ironworkers from Montreal.
- And you, dear comrade, are you the delegate from the Bulgarian trade union congress?
- Yes, I am.
- Are you Bulgarian as well?
- No, I am a Rumanian engineer.
- Is that person over there an Austrian newspaper journalist?
- Yes, that's him there. He works on a Vienna paper.
- But where are the Poles? Aren't there any Polish workers here?
- But of course, here we are!
- Are there no French miners with us?
- Yes, there are some, there at the back.
- And where are the Italian comrades?
- They are over there on the left.
- How many trade union delegates from England are there?
- There are two delegates from England, eight from Poland, five from Czechoslovakia and four from Canada. The three delegates from France are miners. There is one Austrian journalist and one Soviet journalist.
- And the Canadians and the Czechs - what do they do?
- They are railway workers. The Italians are textile workers and the Poles are ironworkers.
- Where are the comrades from London and from Vienna?
- The comrades from London are here at the front, the comrades from Vienna are up the back, and these young miners are Bulgarians."

Happy days (hem hem).

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Yum Yum

We timed our visit to Budapest pretty cleverly - our local restaurant has taken the trouble to translate its list of events for the benefit of English speaking tourists. It turns out this weekend is Knuckle Fineness Weekend and the whole of next week is Wild Week. Can't wait.

Friday, 8 October 2010

The Lives of Others - Wisbech

There are times when I am talking and I hear my voice speaking and I realise that I am simply droning on. After a recent visit to Wisbech, however, I have to face the fact that I am mediocre even in my dullness. Everywhere I went in that town, I encountered truly talented bores. One or two might even have attained world-class status.

Here are two of the conversations that led me to recognise that I face extremely fierce - possibly insurmountable - competition:

"I can't remember what that road turns into."
"Is it the A31?"
"I'm not sure. It could be, although I think it might have been a B road. It could have been the B2027, although I'm not at all certain.  What I do know though is that it joined the North Circular and, where it used to take four hours, you can do it in under two and a quarter now."

"It's all down to confidence isn't it, swimming?"
"Yes, if you've always done it, then you can."
"It's like riding a bike, you don't forget it."
"Jake's not keen on it, but Emma and Robert are."
"John's dad goes teaching swimming on a Sunday."
"Where's he do that then?"
"Yarborough. He doesn't go in though. He just stands on the edge and shouts."
"It must be lovely though, to be able to really swim."
"It's like riding a bicycle, isn't it, you don't forget it."
"I never go in the deep end."
"I'm quite happy if I can just puddle about in my own depth."
"I have to be able to touch the bottom with my toes."
"Believe it or not, my dad was a good swimmer."
"Was he?"
"Yes, he was, because I remember the first holiday we had we went to Scarborough and my dad had a proper black bathing costume and he went in and I started screaming. I thought  he was going to drown."
"It's a necessity these days."
"It's like riding a bike, you don't forget it."
"There weren't the opportunities were there for us?"
"We used to go to South Park - it's not called that any more, it's a technology something or other - we used to go there on the bus on a Friday from school."
"It's like riding a bike, isn't it, once you can do it, you don't forget it."

It's that bike woman I admire. I reckon she could keep making the same point for hours - possibly days.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

From an Ant Heap in Budapest

In a review of a book about Arthur Koestler that I read recently (yes, in an old copy of the London Review of Books - yes, the same issue, in fact, that I've mentioned here and here ), Cyril Connolly is quoted, describing Koestler thus:

"Like everyone who talks of ethics all day long, one could not trust him half an hour with one's wife, one's best friend, one's manuscripts or one's wine merchant - he'd lose them all. He burns with the envious paranoiac hunger of the Central European ant-heap, he despises everybody and can't conceal the fact when he is drunk."

Curiously, when I read those words, Slavoj Zizek sprang to mind. Noseybonk at the Dabbler has also been thinking about Zizek, rather more creatively than me.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Who Started It?

Driving out of London the other day, we happened on a radio station that was broadcasting a recording of TS Eliot reading The Waste Land. As we inched our way up the Edgware Road, we heard this bit:

"When Lil's husband got demobbed, I said -
I didn't mince my words, I said to her myself,
Now Albert's coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He'll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,
He said, I swear, I can't bear to look at you.
And no more can't I, I said, and think of poor Albert,
He's been in the army four years, he wants a good time,
And if you don't give it him, there's others will, I said.
Oh is there, she said. Something o' that, I said.
Then I'll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look.
If you don't like it you can get on with it, I said.
Others can pick and choose if you can't.
But if Albert makes off, it won't be for lack of telling.
You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.
(And her only thirty-one.)
I can't help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It's them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.
(She's had five already, and nearly died of young George.)
The chemist said it would be all right, but I've never been the same.
You are a proper fool, I said.Well, if Albert won't leave you alone, there it is, I said,
What you get married for if you don't want children?
Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,
And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot"

I don't know why I've never noticed before, but isn't this very Pinteresque? And, if it is, doesn't that mean that it is in fact Eliotesque and Pinter was just a pale imitation?

Monday, 4 October 2010

Back by Popular Demand

In view of the overwhelmingly positive response - at least from Nurse Myra - to the last lot, here are some more letters to the editor from point scoring snobs and assorted other bloody minded types:

Sir - In my youth, I used to visit some family friends in the East End of London. Mary was an out-and-out cockney married to an Irishman called Paddy.
Paddy was fond of saying things like "I tink it's this," and  "I tink it's that", whereupon Mary would say to him: "Paddy, 'ow many times must I tell ya, 'it's not 'tink', it's 'fink'."
Stephen Woodbridge-Smith, Tavistock, Devon

Sir - I met a junior doctor in the corridor of my hospital and asked after the health of a seriously ill child.
"Oh, he is dead well," he replied.
Richard George, Halesowen, West Midlands

Sir - At a parents' evening at my daughter's school, I was told by her teacher, "The main thing is we're learning her".
Margaret Bowman, Shrewbury

Sir - In his review of the Fish Shed, John Lanchester says it sells only fish caught that day and landed in Lyme Bay, and goes on to extol the virtues of its haddock.
I wasn't aware of any haddock to be caught in the bay, or anywhere near it, unless a shoal was on holiday.
Rob Goodwin, Beeston, Nottingham

Sir - Andrew Anthony says the new Misubishi Shogun is bound for Windsor Safari Park. He clearly did not use a satnav: it closed more than 10 years ago. Or is he still driving round Berkshire trying to find it?
Brian Boyland, Maidenhead, Berkshire

Sir - What is the trait Hussein Chalayan most deplores in himself (Q&A, 25 September)? "I am an idealist, which can be tiring." What is the trait he most deplores in others? "People taking themselves too seriously."

Professor Alan Alexander, Edinburgh

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Worrying Signs II

I've had a bash at learning several languages. Subsequently, I have forgotten almost every one of the foreign words I crammed into my head. Disturbingly though, there is one noun in all of them that I never forget. It is 'disappointment'. I have no idea why.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Stop Me if I've Told You This Before

One thing Britain manages so much better than Australia is letters to the editor. The supply of people prepared not only to put pen to paper but also to find an envelope and stamp and to pop down to the postbox appears to be far greater here than in our fair commonwealth. I suspect in daily life the majority of individuals who do this would be regarded as first class club bores (as we shall see, letterwriters love quoting their fathers, so I shall follow their lead and mention my father's story about someone in his club, unable to stand another moment of some bore's monologue, exclaiming, "That's right, tell me more, more, more about your boring bloody self." )

The letters that get printed all share a tone of swotty eagerness - me sir, please sir, choose me, oh sir. Generally, their subject matter falls into one of three categories.

In the first of these we find the namedroppers and show offs. The authors of these messages jostle forward like aspirants at the Antiques Roadshow, pathetically keen to display their hard-won snippets of arcane knowledge or their third-hand brushes with fame:

Sir - The mention of Sir Edward Elgar's interest in football (report, September 27) reminds me of a story told by my father.
A friend of his had been at Cheltenham Town Hall where Elgar was attending a rehearsal for a performance of his cello concerto. During a break, my father's friend went to the lavatory and found himself standing next to the composer.
He expected Elgar to make some profound comment on the idyllic music. But other things were on the great man's mind: "Do you know who won the 3.30 at Ascot?" he asked.
Roger Porteous, Owselbury, Hampshire.

Sir - G Barnes says that Mozart was not German but Austrian (letter, Sept 27), but was he? Salzburg only became part of Austria after the Napoleonic Wars, two decades after Mozart's death. In his day, it was an independent, German-speaking, Prince-bishopric. He may have moved to Vienna but then so did Beethoven, who is not considered Austrian, and, for that matter, Metternich, who is.
In Mitteleuropa, even now, German is as much a cultural and linguistic, as a national, descriptor. In these contexts, most Austrians are Germans.
Peter Urben, Kenilworth, Wales 

Sir - About 100 years ago, when dress code really was important (Letters, September 25), David Lloyd George was due as a guest of honour at The Savoy Hotel and was greeted by my father, who was maitre d'hotel.
The look on my father's face must have said it all, for Lloyd George, despite being dressed in a smart morning frock coat, apologised for his lack of evening dress.
The crisis was averted when he was seated at a table with a screen hiding him on three sides. I've often wondered if more recent prime ministers would have succumbed to such treatment.
Charles Mutty, Poringland, Norfolk

Sir - Sir Peter Westmacott, the British Ambassador to France, shows good taste in serving cremant rather than champagne (report, September 27). The latter is mainly wasted by racing drivers.
Cremant de Saumur is drunk by the elite regiments of the French cavalry, which are based in that splendid town. However, I would advise Sir Peter not to stock too much. It is undrinkable after five years.
Simon Waters, Guiting Power, Gloucestershire

Sir, I could not disagree more with Belinda Price (letter, Sept 28). I would be highly affronted if my half pint were to be served in a bowl-shaped glass. Real ale should be drunk from a pint (or half-pint) glass, or, better still, from a traditional glass tankard with a handle. Bowl glasses or goblets are for Belgian beers and lagers.
Kay Bagon, Radlett, Herts

In the second category are those who, unable to get anyone they actually know to laugh at their feeble jokes, decide they might have more success if they hurl them before the readers of the country's daily newspapers:

Sir - A young woman wishing to alight from the train asked me if the next station was "like Sevenoaks".
I was pleased to be able to inform her that it was in fact Sevenoaks itself.
Teddy Shorter
Tonbridge Kent

Finally, there are the pettyminded malcontents, who appear to spend their lives in a perpetual state of outrage:

Sir - If Ed Milliband cannot find the time to marry the mother of his children (report September 27), how is he going to find the time to be Leader of the Opposition, let alone the prime minister?
Caroline Barr, Wenlock, Shropshire

Sir, In my local supermarket recently I noticed that the raspberries were grown in Fife and were labeled “Scottish raspberries”, while the blackberries were grown in Kent and were labeled “British blackberries”.
Why is Kent considered to be British rather than English? I am fed up with being called British, as I consider myself to be English. Can you imagine a rugby game at Murrayfield with Union flags waved by Scottish supporters?
Maggie Osborne, Thakeham, West Sussex

A few years ago in the Sydney Morning Herald a heated exchange developed after a gentleman called Eddie Raggett took it upon himself to criticise the nation's capital ("That's right, Eddie Raggett" one unhinged Canberra resident responded, "you go ahead and bag Canberra. We all know it's the best place in the world to live [this claim never fails to bring a smile to my lips - not that I don't like Canberra, but steady on, old boy], and the fewer people that come here, the more there is for us"), but generally speaking there is very little to amuse in the letters column of newspapers at home. The desperate desire for recognition, the petty minded snobbery, the hopeless attempts at comedy displayed in the equivalent sections of British publications are all things we can aspire to, while acknowledging that in reality we can never hope to rival them at all.