Monday, August 31, 2009

Fight for the right

This poem by Lord Byron seems only too apt for our time. Have we really no freedom to fight for at home?

When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home,
Let him combat for that of his neighbours;
Let him think of the glories of Greece and of Rome,
And get knock'd on the head for his labours,

To do good to mankind is the chivalrous plan,
And is always as nobly requited;
Then battle for freedom wherever you can,
And, if not shot or hang'd, you'll get knighted.


Huge thorn trees – adventurer – tree house home – swinging a club – guard the gems – down the mountain – concession – deep in the African bush – pet python – mining rights – white landowners – marauding lions – illegally digging – 30 men – like ants – ambush – unlicensed – dispute – Scottish – death threats – panga – bows & arrows – Kenyan employees – set upon – knives – gashed – spears – my men – machetes – beat back – renowned gem expert – thickly bearded – cut to ribbons – dirt road – fought his way – murdered – pronounced dead – wandering leopards – drag its kill – racing off – king

Those are about 10% of the words in a recent news item in The Times, rearranged in random order. They still seem to tell the story pretty well.

Such stirring language could have been published in The Times of 13 August 1909


Sunday, August 30, 2009


Two more to raise a smile, thanks to Arnold Silcock

The Young One

There once was a young metaphysician
Who claimed that he didn’t exist,
But when he opined his position
They exclaimed, ‘Well, you’ll never be missed’


The Perfect Reactionary

As I was sitting in my chair
I knew the bottom was not there,
Nor legs nor back, but I just sat,
Ignoring little things like that

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Cutting implement

It always irritates me when the press talks about ‘a machete’ being used in a crime. The word seems to be laden with meaning – you know, primitive, savage, uncivilised. Worse even than a knife, or even a gun. Too up close & personal. Only barbarous black men use machetes to make their point, when driven beyond endurance. higher civilisations use sophisticated technology, requiring much expense & years of training, to deliver shock & awe.

As far as I know there is no difference (except for local or personal preferences in the precise style & size) between a machete & what I always knew as a cutlass – a kind of all-purpose tool, used particularly for cutting sugar cane, but also just in your own garden. Low cost, low tech, efficient. Just use one to slice the top off a (green) coconut for access to natures own rehydration therapy. Or buy delicious sugar juice from the street cane seller.

The word machete is from Spanish & has been in use since at least Elizabethan times. The earliest reference found by the OED (which gives, as the definition: A broad, heavy knife or cutlass used as an implement or as a weapon, originating in Central America and the Caribbean) is in Hakluyt: “doozen of machetos to minch the Whale.”

It has an interesting history of pronunciation in English: a Frenchified machette to begin with, but today’s 3 syllables became standard in both British & American usage by the late C20th

Cutlass is related to the French word for knife – couteau. The OED remarks, a bit sniffily, that “The original coutel-as, coutel-ace, has undergone many perversions in English under the influence of popular etymology, which has transformed the first part into cuttle, curtal, curtle, curt, cut, and the second into ax, axe.” It has been thought of as an implement for thrusting, rather than cutting, & used to be particularly associated with sailors; Victorian police forces were also armed with cutlasses for riot control, though they tended to stay rusting in the armouries.

Since my current beef is with the press, I thought I would look back at Times Archive Online Newspaper Archive of The Times from 1785-1985 to see how the words used to be used.

I found 1,947 results for cutlass but only 465 for machete. Interestingly, in both cases, the largest number of the references came from advertisements – 1,203 cutlasses & 214 machetes. The very earliest reference to either is a front page advertisement in The Times of 1792.

Things are the other way round on the modern website Times Online News and Views from The Times and Sunday Times, which comes right up to date. Machete produced 420 results in the last quarter of a century - almost as many as it did in the two whole previous ones. Cutlass puts in a mere 89 appearances.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Duckworth & Duckworth

This morning I was listening to the 0826 Sports news with Rob Bonnet. He reported England’s win over Ireland at cricket, “on the Duckworth/Lewis method which is used to decide the outcome of matches affected by rain.”

Rather intrigued by that formulation, rather than the more usual shorthand version, I found myself wondering if the method would hold such a (horrid) fascination if some more common or garden surname than Duckworth were involved - even though the intricacies would still make our innumerate society prefer to roll their eyes at its mention & cling to the fond belief that there must, really, be some much simpler method, despite the evidence of the farce of South Africa playing England in the 1992 World Cup under a method devised by Richie Benaud.

The name of Frank Duckworth, co-devisor of the formula, is of course well known to statisticians as editor of RSS news.

Blow me down, moments later another Duckworth was introduced. Cecil Duckworth, Worcester Rugby Union Club’s chairman and benefactor.

Teeny tiny coincidence. But here’s another one. On Economix Edward L. Glaeser asks “Do economists underrate the value of human interactions?”

“Economics should be seen as a discipline that has spent centuries chronicling the enormous gains that come from people connecting with each other.”

Coincidences just remind us of the multiplicity of connections large & small.


A recent Times interview reports that Joanna Lumley – goddess of the Gurkhas – is a smoker: “quite a radical act in itself, now. ‘I know, it’s bloody mad. They picked on smoking as they didn’t dare pick on the alternatives, which were drinking and getting fat. They pretended smoking was the only thing that killed you.’”

A recent news report claimed that smoking rates are actually lowest among those aged 60 and over (only 1 in 8). But then earlier research also found that “old ladies are the most likely to ‘falsely deny’ to doctors that they are smokers

Not that Joanna Lumley has any intention of lying about it: “I've earned the right to be heard

Related post
Damned liars

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Blustery reception

It’s that time of year again. All week the radio has been going funny & I have had to twiddle with the aerial or try rotating the set.

Actually I would probably never have noticed the time of year if I had not written about it on the blog.

This year it has come a bit early, so I am wondering if perhaps it has to do with Atlantic hurricanes, which I understand are also a bit early. The remains of Bill certainly gave us a miserable time of it, & not just in radio terms.

Lifting the mood

I have just got round to looking at a report which was published 18 months ago - A framework for Defra’s work on pro-environmental behaviour.

In it I was intrigued to see a graph showing the numbers of “Passengers uplifted by UK airlines from UK airports” still on the rise.

Now I ought to know better than to mock the need for specific, precise terms to make clear what & how you are counting, but I would have thought that, because of all the security rules & checks, passengers were more likely to be downcast these days


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A VERY happy bus

For one awful moment I thought I had caused an RTA last night.

As I got to the front of the bus for my stop I could not resist saying to the driver (an old hand, whom I know well): You’ve got a very happy bus now.

He was so startled, he turned his head all the way round to check. Not one other passenger left. Fortunately we were already slowing & no car made a sudden speed-limit busting appearance, so all was well.

Neither of us can remember that happening for a very long time now.

Ever since my time has been more or less my own I have made it a rule to stay away from buses between 3pm & 6pm.

First, there’s the schoolchildren (& the school run). Then all the students (& the college staff). Then the commuters. Everybody is scratchy, & the grind through all the congestion (& the August roadworks) only make things worse. Plus I really do appreciate the luxury of a seat to myself these days. So half past 6 is the earliest I set off for home.

Actually though, I have noticed that the 6 o’clock bus is often passing by near empty (& bang on time) in recent weeks. That bus was particularly used by people who worked in retail – except for supermarkets, most local shops still close at 5.30. But so many of them are shut all day, completely out of business now.

Yesterday was a very quiet day all round town – Monday, surprisingly, was not. And the weather was not good. So lets hope the fall off in traffic is not permanent.

At least the buses are (too) full during the day, with all those gallivanting pensioners.

Related post

Doctors’ orders

Doctor Bell fell down the well
And broke his collar bone.
Doctors should attend the sick

Out of the box

Right at the end of Peston and the Money Men on Monday Jim Chanos was asked where he might next look for an industry in trouble. Health care, he replied, without hesitation, is heading for disaster.

Not because of Obama’s proposed reforms, but because the current system is obviously in deep trouble & does not work. At 16% the USA spends the largest chunk of its income of any country in the world, but for worst outcomes as measured by infant mortality, cancer incidence etc, etc.

The system is already socialised, but for the producers, not the consumers. (In this he echoes Galbraith’s acid description of American Socialist industrialists landing once more at Washington to seek a government handout - & this was years before the current crisis). The costs are way too high.

Or, as Daniel Finkelstein wrote recently, “the startling fact [is] that the US Government spends more on healthcare per head of population than the UK Government does ($3,076 in the US compared with $2,457 in the UK).

Earlier in the Peston interview Chanos had said that short selling needed a special cast of mind, different from that which normally brings success in the world of financial industries. From schooldays on most people learn that success breeds opportunity & success, whose upward trajectory finds expression in the self-reinforcing idea that money is made from ever rising prices & values. It needs a kind of quirkiness to recognise that money can be made from failure.

Funnily enough this idea is very similar to one put forward by Martin Chalfie, Nobel prize winning chemist, on Bridget Kendall’s World Service Forum on Sunday night. He said that true success in science came from the ability to be a little bit different, that science can be wedded to its orthodoxies just as much as any other area of human endeavour. The important thing was to have ideas – even if they are wrong, as were many of his own

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Magic number

Price points have evolved to meet the exigencies of the credit crunch. The magic number is no longer 99 but a nice round £1.

Shops & supermarkets all have special red round stickers to draw the eye to these special deals.

The village newsagents even has a big red circle in its window, though the bus goes past too fast for me to make out the small print of the offer.

Related post

Hymn And Prayer For Civil Servants

O, Lord, Grant that this day we come to no decisions, neither run we into any kind of responsibility, but that all our doings may be ordered to establish new departments, for ever and ever. Amen.

O, Thou, who seest all things below,
Grant that Thy servants may go slow,
That they may study to comply
With regulations till they die.

Teach us, O Lord, to reverence
Committees more than common sense;
To train our minds to make no plan
And pass the buck whene'er we can.
So when the tempter seeks to give
Us feelings of initiative,
Or when alone we go too far,
Chastise us with a circular.

Midst war and tumult, fire and storms,
Give strength O Lord, to deal out forms.
Thus may Thy servants ever be
A flock of perfect sheep for Thee.

Originally published anonymously in the Daily Telegraph, another poem from "Verse and Worse, A Private Collection by Arnold Silcock".

Monday, August 24, 2009

The poem without a ‚

This was a well known schoolboy punctuation exercise, in the days when we had to get these things right.

Caesar entered on his head
A helmet on each foot
A sandal in his hand he had
His trusty sword to boot

Related post

1960s traffic

This is a photo from The Times Archive which was recently published in the paper paper.

It was taken in 1962 in Corfe, Dorset, showing the long distance bus on its way to Penzance in Cornwall. Compared to today it might just as well be the Middle Ages.

The absence of traffic in many of these archive photos is often striking. Even in London – remember the opening shots of Julie Christie racing round Trafalgar Square in a sports car. OK, they had to film early in the morning, but you could not have done that in any later decade

Not long before this picture was taken I had a very happy week in Dorset on an A level geography field trip – I wonder if the bus which carried us down from the North looked like this one – I suppose it must have done. The driver did a superb job of negotiating some very narrow, bendy & occasionally steep country lanes.

One day, when we were split up in pairs for individual adventures, my best friend & I daringly went in to a pub for lunch – a half pint of cider & a cheese sandwich. On our last evening the whole group of us tried to recreate the famous prank when some society bright young things impersonated a group of Arabs – we were very let down when the good townsfolk of Swanage seemed to see straight through our disguise.

Last week’s Womans Hour drama was Villette which I was surprised to find myself enjoying – even as a child I could not abide Wuthering Heights (nor Jane Eyre, nor Rebecca). One surprising test of Lucy Snowe’s growing confidence after she went off to find new life in London was the fact that “I have braved the perils of crossings” – the horse-drawn traffic was alarming & dangerous.

By 1908 the British Medical Journal was bemoaning the dangers of the motor car. But oddly, in the 1950s & 1960s London’s roads were remarkably clear of traffic, at least outside the rush hour. At weekends & evenings, especially in August, most of central London, especially the City & those parts of Westminster around Parliament & Whitehall, were quiet. Even so, my intention of using my bike to save on bus fares did not survive my first term of trying to negotiate the Elephant & Castle.


Buses on Screen - Films D-Dl

Related posts
Job queue

Plus ca change

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The * Itself Has A History

I was looking for a bit of nonsense to lift the mood brought on by such dismal weather. Where best to start than with Arnold Silcock’s Verse & Worse. I was delighted to find this one. It is attributed to an anonymous author & was published in Canadian Good Housekeeping

The * Itself Has A History

An author owned an asterisk
And kept it in his den
Where he wrote tales which had large sales
Of erring maids & men,
And always, when he reached the point
Where carping censors lurk,
He called upon the asterisk
To do his dirty work!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Examination strings

In a discussion of A level results on the Today programme John Humphrys remarked that, until the 1960s, results were ungraded, you simply passed or failed; this surprised his interviewees.

He also mentioned a history of A levels by Kim Catcheside, which I went to in order to check my own recollections on this point.

Disappointingly, it rather skates over the years before the late 1980s, although it gives a very useful explanation of the pressures that have developed since then, as A levels have changed from being (mainly) a university entrance exam to meet a much wider range of aims.

The system also changed half a century ago, between the time I took my O & A levels (slightly complicated by the fact that I also moved schools half way through & did them with different exam boards). These changes were in part a reaction to the revised arrangements for maintenance payments – you no longer needed to sit the higher level Scholarship exams to qualify for a full grant.

At O level, the Northern Universities Joint Matriculation Board reported the results to the school as % marks, rounded to the nearest 5. These were however kept confidential – I had to report to the headmaster’s office to be told mine because I was late back from my summer in France. The certificate (and the results for individuals reported in the local paper) showed merely that you had “satisfied the examiners in the following subjects.” The school however could pass on your marks with your university application.

We had been told by our teachers that although the pass mark was fixed at 45%(?), the marks were in fact adjusted at the end of the process to maintain the overall pass rate at a fixed % of the number of candidates – memory tells me this was 75%. The justification for this was that exam marks could vary from year to year for all sorts of contingent reasons, but the overall proportion of bright pupils was more stable.

It was then announced that in future years the NUJMB was to move to an alphabetical grading system, already used by some other boards.

We thought this unfair. Everybody who got more than 75% would get an A, but everybody knew that there was all the difference in the world between 75% & 95% (the highest you could normally hope to get, at least in arts subjects. More than 100% was, theoretically, possible in maths). The A level grades were recorded on the certificate.

But context is all, in any marking scheme.

At university the pass mark was 40%, but 60% was good enough for a First. And only the best 5 of your 8 finals papers counted towards the overall degree classification.

In my more recent experience of university, “everybody got very nervous” about awarding any mark over 80%, which led to a distinct clustering of marks around 78% to 83%.

When I was briefly a teacher in a school which followed an English GCE curriculum, the American nuns who ran the place were concerned if marks for schoolwork fell below 80% - 70% was virtually a fail, & showed that the teacher was not doing a proper job.

Three summers ago, in the smoking area outside the main railway station, at about 4 o’clock one sunny afternoon, I could not help but overhear the conversation which the young woman standing next to me was having with her father on her mobile. She had come up for the day to discuss her first year results & was reporting the outcome. By dint of her representations to her tutors she had succeeded in getting adjustments so that, overall, she had achieved a 2.1

Friday, August 21, 2009

As he is wrote

Some fifteen per cent of long-term NEETS are dead within 10 years, one of England’s top civil servants has claimed.

A NEET is someone aged between 16 and 24 who is not in education, employment or training.

This is being touted as evidence that (formal) education is a matter of life & death. No figures, or sources, are given to back this up, nor is any comparison made with non-NEETS, though we do know that mortality is much higher among boys than among girls in this age group.

But it does not show that more ‘education’ beyond the age of 16 is the answer. Indeed it suggests that the formal education they have received before the age of 16 has somehow failed them. More of the same may only make matters worse, since it has so clearly failed to give them any sense of purpose in life.

The recently released SATS results for 11 year olds show achievements in English falling for the first time since the tests were introduced 15 years ago. A quarter of boys fail to each the expected level, but curiously there is a noticeable difference between reading & writing – writing is much the poorer.

There is some suspicion that this difference reflects a marking problem rather than anything real. I suspect that it may reflect the fact that SATS pays too much attention to ‘writing’ in a sense which is rapidly becoming irrelevant – to adults as well as to children.Mary Beard has written about how even Oxbridge students do not have to write by hand any more – except when it comes to exams: “After years of typing, how on earth do they write by hand for three hours? (Answer I fear is that some of them write dreadfully -- and they would be well advised to get some practice.)”

Children & others may increasingly take their tests on a computer, but this is not at all what I mean. Information now comes in many ways other than solid blocks of text, still less do people have to write it all out first by hand. There seems distressingly little in the way of teaching children about this – about how to provide & present information (or stories, or argument) which is going to be accessed via a computer screen.

Learning how to write for the web does not mean abandoning every old fashioned rule about grammar or style. It just takes into account that reading a screen is different from reading a page in a book or an A4 document & requires some different conventions.

And just as we learned there are different rules for business letters, stories, history essays … so there are different rules for different kinds of computer writing. Computers are not there just for producing well laid out & legible English compositions or academic essays.

Engage children’s – especially boys’ - interest in this way & their desire & ability to learn will follow.

Mind you, its not always easy to keep up. A group of boys – aged I guess around 12 – were using the library computers one afternoon. Obviously making an afternoon of it, they had been to the swimming pool first. As they came to the end of their sessions one came to talk to his friend just finishing up next to me.

How did you get on?

Oh – OK. Well no, not really. I’ve just been rubbish. Thing is, I’m no good with a mouse – I’m only used to the laptop

Prevailing classes

In a recent Womans Hour item about beach huts Jane Garvey mentioned that such things are a rarity on the west coast of England. Her expert guest tended to agree, but offered no explanation.

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that you just have to spend too much time cooped up inside your rabbit hutch with the doors closed while the prevailing wind from the Atlantic throws the rain against it.

This meteorological fact is often cited to explain why the West End is the posh end of London – the wind blew all the polluted smokey air over to the poor so-and-so’s living in the East End.

On the other hand you might think that, despite the rain, the west coast offers a view of some spectacular sunsets for you to admire from your armchair in the cosy little hut.

I recently heard an explanation, based on sunrise & sunset, for the apparent world wide tendency for the west side to be the posh side of a city, whatever the prevailing direction of the wind. But, senior moment, & I cannot persuade Google to jog my memory. Perhaps it is because the rich do not get up early in the morning & so prefer to be able to have an unrestricted evening view of the sun. Meanwhile the poor, their servants, need an early morning awakening

Merchants and bankers are necessarily the prevailing classesInternational Review January 6 1874

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Doing the honours

I was very surprised by my finals results. I was quite certain I had failed.

In fact I rather hoped I had – the alternative was a mere Pass & that was regarded as worse than a fail - with that you could always pretend you had simply found more exciting things to do than work at your books.

When my husband came home to say the results were up on the notice board (days earlier than expected) I would not believe what he told me. Switched off the oven & made him take me down to see with my own eyes.

I was sure they had made a mistake. In fact, for the best part of 5 years afterwards I expected a letter to tell me so. Then I could start to laugh at my foolishness – Such things do not happen! And realise the gulf which lies between a first & lower class degrees.

A few years ago something of the sort happened to a girl in Scotland, who was informed of the mistake in her degree classification a few weeks after she had taken up the job which had depended on it. Crikey, such things do happen after all. I just thanked my lucky stars.

And now we hear that it has happened with doctors.

Are examiners getting more careless, too overburdened with marking, or were earlier generations just lucky to get away with it?

Related post

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

More curlers

There was an article about Trevor Sorbie, & his work to help women have decent looking wigs to wear after chemotherapy, in The Times on Saturday.

I was particularly fascinated to read that "As well as loss of hair, chemotherapy can damage the hair follicles so straight hair may grow curly" – which was certainly news to me. If this has always been known, why did I get treated as some kind of oddity when asking questions about my experience with hrt?

Because “There doesn't seem to be any proven answer” according to Jennifer Griggs, M.D., MPH on the website.

Jonathan Torch, founder of Toronto’s Curly Hair Institute, has his own theory, according to the site:

He believes changes in the muscles at the base of every follicle are the key to the changes in hair texture that take place over time. These muscular changes, he says, often come during puberty, chemotherapy or menopause, when hormones and medications may affect the muscle tone.
Sometimes these changes can be extreme, says Torch, who has witnessed many a client go from curly to straight and straight to curly.” I can’t prove anything medically,” he says. “But I have a philosophy that genetically, the muscles are changing. And this changes the shape of the follicle

Well, particulalry if you have cancer I guess there are far more important things to worry about. Thing is though, as well as having a major effect on how you feel, it's disturbing to know just how many of the basics science & medicine just do not understand


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Making life worth it

In what she calls “a gory indicator of inequality in access to health care in the United States” in Insuring Hearts (and Kidneys, Lungs and Livers), Nancy Folbre reports that “a recent study by the physicians Andrew A. Herring, Steffie Woolhandler and David U. Himmelstein based on hospital data for 2003 finds that 16.9 percent of organ donors were uninsured, compared to 0.8 percent of transplant recipients.

Perhaps even more startlingly the report (p644) shows that “Most transplant recipients (60.7%) were men, while men accounted for a minority of donors (43.9%)“

Even with our NHS however we are not necessarily free of such imbalances. I do not know if anyone has compared donors & recipients for characteristics such as social class, income or level of educational attainment, but we might find that not dissimilar differences arise here, even though these cannot be related directly to insurance status.

A Radio 4 programme The Call, broadcast yesterday told the story of someone waiting to be told that a heart was available for transplant. As I listened I thought – it would be very difficult to cope with all that if you were not living in fairly comfortable circumstances. And sure enough, the consultant who spoke stressed that ‘good family support’ was a necessary prerequisite for getting accepted on to the transplant list.

I was reminded of another Radio 4 programme some time ago, which looked into the question of why men are (allegedly) much less likely to go to the doctor, even when they have grounds for some concern about their health.

One of the interviewees was a man who worked in the construction industry – not a youngster, probably past 50 from the sound of his voice. He said that he would not go, even if he suspected cancer, he would prefer to just keep going for as long as possible then accept his fate. For him, being ill, being off work, living on benefits, would be next to unbearable, & he doubted that he could expect to recover to be fit enough ever to return to the kind of work he was trained for & used to.

That reminded me of another article I once read in an upmarket magazine about the difficulties of being a cancer patient, the need for the support of friends, & the (expensive) kinds of treats, amusements & unguents which would help.

Of course a good income is neither necessary nor sufficient for a good quality of life. Plenty of people could settle, even with the loss of their job, for other pleasures & compensations from family, friends & hobbies.

But it is important to remember that it is not just politicians who need a hinterland.

Related post

Clever clogs

An answer to my question about whether any small English grammar school has ever produced 2 Nobel Prize Winners

Under the inspired heading ‘Clever Clogs’ (Todmorden was in prime country for the wearing of clogs), a letter from Peter Farthing in today’s Times tells us that both Sir John Cockcroft & Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson were educated at Todmorden Grammar School

Monday, August 17, 2009

The history of a ●

I am trying to break myself of a bad habit I have had for well over a decade now.

Not putting a ● at the end of a paragraph.

Blame Sir Alan Sugar (sorry, Baron Sugar). My first ‘home computer’ was an Amstrad Notebook which, on price & size, suited my needs perfectly – I had ample access to more complicated machines for jobs other than just writing, & other ‘home computers’ were just oversized, expensive, clunky dust traps.

But I ran into a very annoying problem. When I printed out my efforts (on a dot matrix machine – I never took to inkjet) I would find a symbol something like έ at the end of paragraphs – on the page but invisible on the screen.

The only way I could find to remove it (other than Snopake) was to remove the ●.

Then I realised that – aesthetically – this was rather pleasing. The ● is superfluous, redundant, at the end of a paragraph which will usually finish before the end of a line & will be followed by a pleasing white double space.

So, Out, damn’d dot!

But then, only recently, I saw one of my blog posts on some kind of rss feed or readerOh dear! The spaces had been suppressed or compressed, so paragraphs run togetherIn a most disconcerting wayJust like this.

Not helped by the way my writing style has changed because shorter, punchier points are, I fondly believe, easier to read on a screen than are densely argued paragraphs.

So, I am trying to remember to put the ● back in.

Another small lesson about how technology changes how we do things in ways that we do not, cannot always, anticipate when we sweat over the feasibility studies, specifications & instructions to systems analysts & programmers.

Technology changes the style, not just the possibility, of communication

How very true

"We are going to have to understand what makes a terrorist bomber tick"

Terrorism expert Andy Hull on the Today programme this morning

Sunday, August 16, 2009

God is born

This is a surprising poem to have been written by DH Lawrence. For some reason it is always associated in my mind with MacNeice’s Prayer Before Birth

God is Born

The history of the cosmos
is the history of the struggle of becoming.
When the dim flux of unformed life
struggled, convulsed back and forth upon itself,
and broke at last into light and dark
came into existence as light,
came into existence as cold shadow
then every atom of the cosmos trembled with delight.

Behold, God is born!
He is bright light!
He is pitch dark and cold!
And in the great struggle of intangible chaos
when, at a certain point, a drop of water
began to drip downwards
and a breath of vapour began to wreathe up
Lo again the shudder of bliss through all the atoms!
Oh, God is born!
Behold, He is born wet!
Look, He hath movement upward! He spirals!

And so, in the great aeons of accomplishment and debacle
from time to time the wild crying of every electron:
Lo! God is born!

When sapphires cooled out of molten chaos:
See, God is born! He is blue, he is deep blue,
he is forever blue!
When gold lay shining threading the cooled-off rock:
God is born! God is born! bright yellow and ductile
He is born.

When the little eggy amoeba emerged out of foam and nowhere
then all the electrons held their breath:
Ach! Ach! Now indeed God is born! He twinkles within.

When from a world of mosses and of ferns
at last the narcissus lifted a tuft of five-point stars
and dangled them in the atmosphere,
then every molecule of creation jumped and clapped its hands:
God is born! God is born perfumed and dangling and with a little cup!

Throughout the aeons, as the lizard swirls his tail finer than water,
as the peacock turns to the sun, and could not be more splendid,
as the leopard smites the small calf with a spangled paw, perfect.
the universe trembles: God is born! God is here!

And when at last man stood on two legs and wondered,
then there was a hush of suspense at the core of every electron:
Behold, now very God is born!
God Himself is born!

And so we see, God is not
until he is born.

And also we see
there is no end to the birth of God.

DH Lawrence
Related post

Budding development

I thought of writing this post a few weeks ago, when we had an all-too brief burst of sunny weather. But it all seemed so tenuous … I left it.

A boy of about 8 was playing in the fountains. Not at all plump – certainly not obese – just a skinny boy, healthy & lively enough, if anything a tad undernourished, definitely not steak & vegetables & Afternoon Games.

But he definitely had shadowy breast buds, such as you might see in a girl that age, on the verge of development.

Then, last week, with another brief burst of sun, I saw two more boys like this.

One thing that strikes me is that, unless you go to the swimming pool when children are there, or holiday on the kind of beach where lots of families go, you virtually never see small boys dressed only in shorts these days. In hot weather you may see grown men shirtless in town or the supermarket, but not their young sons.

Perhaps it is just the fad for football shirts.

Perhaps the warnings about skin cancer have been heeded.

Or about paedophiles.

Perhaps it is just faulty memory which tells me that boys used to have nipples which were next to invisible.

Then last week Womans Hour carried an item about a Danish study which found that the age of breast development in girls had been declining. The rate was not matched by the decline in the age at menarche, nor did it seem to be related to obesity, as measured by BMI. It is suspected that some environmental agent is at work.

The studies report results only for girls. They should look at boys too.

And is anyone looking closely at the (very low) rate of breast cancer in adult males?


Related post
Breast cancer

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Pill

Reports that too many women are on the Pill, or the wrong sort of Pill, backed up by a personal story in The Times from a young woman who is still only 20.

How things have changed.

At the same age, as a brand new mother, I asked my GP if he could help me avoid having another straight away.

Sorry – can’t help you there. Go to Family Planning.

This was in the Swinging Sixties. But – uncomplicated pregnancy & birth meant no clinical indications for a prescription (even though I was Rh-) – plus he was an Evangelical.

But I have been so glad of that. The doctor I saw at Family Planning, a young woman who had just had her own second child, asked if I needed a 100% guarantee.

No, I said (in truth a part of me wanted to repeat the whole experience As Soon As Possible; I wanted to have babies young so I would have plenty of time later to get on with a career).

Good, she said. I don’t have to put you on The Pill.

Oh – you mean clots? (There had already been front page headlines about a young mother who had died).

No – I don’t think there’s enough evidence for that. It’s just that it interferes with you in a very fundamental way, & nobody really understands how.

The thing is, I think we still do not really understand how.

But thank you, young woman doctor. I am eternally grateful.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Free Lance humour

I have been meaning to put on the record that the anecdote about Miss Lydia Becker comes from a magazine, Free Lance, published in Manchester by John Heywood of Deansgate & by Beresford & Havill of Corporation Street from 1866 to 1880

Described as A Journal of Humour & Criticism, Political, Municipal, Social, Literary & Artistic, it is a kind of cross between old fashioned Punch & today’s Private Eye, mixing satire & straight reporting with a measure of literary pretension - it introduced itself on Saturday 22 December 1866 with a long (nearly 2-page) poem in the style of Geoffrey Chaucer

So the story about Lydia Becker is probably – but not, absolutely definitely - a joke

Lhude Sing Tishu

Benzedrine - speed, amphetamine - seems to have started out as a cure for hayfever!

I looked it up in the OED. The earliest recorded quote, from The Lancet of 16 December 1933, informs us that:

A new drug has recently been introduced into rhinology under the name of benzedrine. It is a synthetically prepared compound, the carbonate of benzyl-methyl-carbinamine, which is described as a racemic mixture of bases having the formula C6H5CH2.CH.NH2.CH3.

And that, by 1935, Trade Marks Journal, 22 May reported on Benzedrine, a medicated preparation consisting of benzyl-methyl-carbinamine, oil of lavender and menthol.Smith, Kline & French ... Laboratories ... Pennsylvania. That must be why Microsoft Word always tries to capitalise it.

By 22 June 1938 it had reached the august leader columns of The Times, where, under the excruciating heading of Lhude Sing Tishu (is that a double pun?) ‘the victims [of hay-fever] … fumble for the benzedrine’.

The non-sufferer gives them the name of a new treatment, adding that she is afraid it is very expensive & that it only works in about 30 cases out of a hundred; & then the thin woman in the corner, who has not yet spoken, says that of course they can risk it if they like, but have they remembered what happened to poor Laura?”

That’s when they turn back to the benzedrine.

Then the writer compares the miseries of hay fever to those of unrequited love, both of which are “especially liable to attack ‘persons of active temperament & high mental development’ – a fact which some sufferers find faintly comforting & others merely ironical.”

Both complaints have … been the subject of much painstaking research: but so far with negligible results”

Not much has changed in the way we look for cures or ways of attributing our afflictions to some kind of superior/inferior psychological trait

Related post

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Better weather

I think it was on Radio 5 yesterday that I heard of the 4 year old whose mummy had told him that grass was green because some elves once wanted a blanket so they stole some green from a rainbow & snuggled underneath it.

That strikes me as a perfect answer, at that age, though one hopes not all his questions are answered thus. His father said that he seemed satisfied at the time.

Anyway “because of the chlorophyll”, or whatever is judged to be scientifically correct, is not a complete answer – it just prompts a follow-up question such as Well why isn’t chlorophyll red?

The blue is certainly back in the chlorophyll this year. It was such a lovely sunny morning today, I left home in good time to have a good look round. The leaves are plentiful, but almost blue-grey, not yellow at all. No hint, in the morning light, of them beginning to turn.

There were a few butterflies hovering & flitting around the culvert – a lot of vegetation, including Himalayan balsam, is beginning to grow around the spot where the ground was churned up & the wall damaged when the giant sycamore fell down. We have not seen very many butterflies this year – too wet, I suppose.

I think that they were Cabbage Whites – there were only 3 or 4, but unusually large. And their wings too had a definite tinge of green

Looking out for the children

Richard Morrison quoted the claim of an anonymous Times correspondent of 1909 that ‘uncontrolled & prolonged paddling is one of the most frequent sources of infantile paralysis’. From his general tone, Morrison seems to think this an absurd & misguided part of the correspondent’s comments on ‘The provision made in Kensington Gardens by the First Commissioner of Works for children’s play & pleasure’.

My mother never used to let us go to the town swimming pool & open air lido on August Bank Holiday weekend; in fact she often made us stay away on any hot sunny day in August when large crowds could be expected to be there.

This seemed like absurd risk aversion to us – she was worried about polio (still called infantile paralysis by some), but what were all the chlorine, the footbaths & showers (before you went in to the pool) for, if not to kill germs? We had never heard of anyone catching polio there.

Until the day it happened to a girl in my class. She had been a very promising swimmer – had represented the county – so she kept up her training come what may.

Fortunately for us it was not long before mass vaccination came in & we all lined up for our jabs at school.

It was round about 1980 that I decided that most of the recommended jabs for travellers are unnecessary – at least for the kind of places I travelled to. But I have always made sure that my polio was up to date.

Incidentally, the Times correspondent demonstrates in other ways that child elf’n’safety is not just a modern concern: ‘Parallel bars & vaulting horses are hardly suitable to untrained children of varying ages without more supervision than it would be possible to provide’

Related post


It is funny how, once you have thought about a word (unusual to you) it suddenly seems ubiquitous.

So, having written that I hadn’t known about the ‘indecent’ meaning of twat, I dropped in at the lending library for something easy to read, thinking maybe Ruth Rendell’s Portobello. No luck, but I picked up a book by a crime writer new to me, Sheila Quigley to find this:

With an exaggerated sigh Peggy screwed her face up. “Aye, mebbe, but that was before that horrible twat Mark Cummings dropped me for that pole dancer, down Newcastle quayside, remember?”

Before l’affaire Cameron I would have missed that

Then benzedrine – a word it seems I had barely thought of since the 1950s; indeed that evening I suddenly thought: Are you sure that’s the right word? Isn’t it that highly pungent dry cleaning fluid?

So. Lo & behold.

Joan Bakewell, challenged by Kirsty Young about what she meant by “not much” drug taking in 1950s Cambridge, said Oh, just benzedrine to keep you going all night to write an essay

And then Muriel Spark’s biography on Book of the Week told us how her health had been blighted in the years after the break up of her marriage by an over use of Benzedrine – “these days called speed”

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Triple espresso

So I got a bit aereated about the starring role which Peter Hennessy gave to the Gaggia espresso machine & the influence on Britain of the coffee bars it inspired.

Blow me down, suddenly Gaggia is all over the place.

The Partisan Coffee House, a New Left enterprise of the 1950s, met its demise, in part it is claimed, through competition from the nearby Gaggia Coffee House. Italian espresso gave the lefties more of a kick than wimpy French filtre.

Sadly, however, Friday brought the news that Gaggia UK is itself teetering on the brink of administration.

SAECO (an entirely separate company) which owns the global Gaggia brand, was itself recently taken over by Philips, the Dutch electrical giant. That makes me feel optimistic; in my father’s opinion, Philips was one of only 2 trustworthy makers of electrical goods, because they were a ‘proper’ engineering firm.


Thanks to another entertaining romp through the English language with Stephen Fry I have learned the propernym for quantum words, which is contranym. The example used in the programme was sanction

Interestingly, (or confusingly) I cannot find contranym in the online OED, though I was under the impression that it was introduced in the programme by Jeremy Butterfield, a lexicographer & an OUP author.

And, just to round things off perfectly, my first attempt to find “Jeremy Butterfield” on Google led to - Quantum Entanglements, Rob Clifton, Book - Barnes & Noble

Catch 25


A rule which requires proof that age>25 is indirectly discriminatory against the short in stature;

And – therefore – indirectly discriminatory against women;

Then such a rule is contrary to law

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Are you under 25?

Signs in supermarkets ask this question, something to do with sales of alcohol – which, as far as I know are still legal to anyone over the age of 18. Better safe than sorry.

By the time she was 25 Tracey Connelly had lived with a mother who had drink & drug problems, born to a father who had a conviction for sexually assaulting a girl. At 15 she was given the choice of being taken into care or going to a school which is variously described as a ‘special’ or a ‘boarding’ one. She left at 16 & within a year was in a relationship with a much older man whom she married at 23.

But when she was 26 Tracy’s marriage fell apart, others moved in with her & her children & soon her youngest son was dead, brutally tortured & killed.

Whatever the failings of social services in this case, they didn’t start in the few short months during which Haringey are deemed to have failed Baby P. It might not have taken much of a change in her circumstances to make her the BabyT of 1983

But then, as Gaynor Arnold has pointed out:

One reason why social workers fail some children may be this very ability to establish a rapport with difficult & abusive parents … Many of the parents we deal with are very young – it may be only a week since they were officially children themselves, yet, if they have a child of their own, that child must be the focus of our intervention

I was surprised to hear on the BBC news at midnight that “It can now be revealed” that the 2 men in the case are brothers. At least one newspaper slipped up on this one in the early days of the trial – even carried a photo of one of them & named him. I know because I saw it. I think I know which newspaper it was, but I can’t be 100% sure, so better keep quiet about it


Seeing is believing?

Recent research suggests that beetroot juice boosts stamina and could help you exercise for 16 per cent longer because the nitrate it contains reduces oxygen uptake which makes exercise less tiring.

In a double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study, eight males (aged 19-38 yr) consumed 500 mL per day of either beetroot juice (BR, containing 11.2 ± 0.6 mM of nitrate) or blackcurrant cordial (as a placebo, PL, with negligible nitrate content) for six consecutive days.

My question is – how on earth can you ‘blind’ anyone to the taste of blackcurrant & beetroot?

Related pst

Monday, August 10, 2009

Statistical feelings

There was a translation of a nice Chinese poem about statistics to bring More or Less to a close last night – part of a campaign by China’s National Bureau of Statistics

I haven’t been able to find a written copy on the web – I shall have to try & find time to listen again

Tim Harford gives an extract on his blog - Outside Edge: Learn to love that statistical feeling

No news is good news

Despite all the rain we have had no worries at all about flooding this year – the clean up has really worked

Not everybody has been so fortunate


Related posts

Sunday, August 09, 2009

What if?

This is a lovely poem by Coleridge about the world & the imagination.

Mind you, you have to be a bit careful introducing it to a child - some are scared by it, scared to go to sleep

What If

What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
You dreamed

And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower

And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in your hand
Ah, what then?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Missing women

I have just started to read Peter Hennessy’s Having It So Good: Britain In The Fifties.

It has not been a very good start – much to my surprise, for I am an admirer. Things may change, but I suddenly find myself going all feminist outraged.

The first chapter ‘The British new deal and the essentials of life’ is mostly about food & clothes. It was the food part especially which set me going – the main impetus to change being seen as coming from Italy via espresso & pasta. There is a nod to the fact that most food was still cooked at home, but little that anybody I know would recognise. But then the quotes are from Richard Hoggart's Uses of Literacy, based on Leeds, & we all know that there is nowt so queer as Yorkshire folk

Now I realise that Hennessy is mainly talking about the big cities, & mine was mainly a rural childhood. But to the extent that foreign influences were apparent in towns, large & small, they were Chinese, or, increasingly, Indian. Italians did run many snack bars or milk bars, but the menus consisted mainly of the familiar English staples with maybe a spaghetti bolognese or napolitana for the more adventurous. Coffee bars were the province of dangerous boys - or jazz musicians. There were even rumours of drugs in the back room - benzedrine to keep you going

And most food was still provided in the home, cooked by mother. Elizabeth David gets a mention – as usual – but Marguerite Patten’s influence was much greater. Though not as great as that of the women’s magazines – especially the weeklies. These magazines sold in the millions & were full of advice on nutrition, new foods to try, & feeding a family on a budget.

I checked Hennessy's index to see if any of them were there.

Not only does the index not mention them, there is only a grand total of 2 entries under ‘women’: ‘role of’ (1 page cited), & ‘university education’

I will reserve final judgement, in the hope that things can only get better

Friday, August 07, 2009

Will we remember?

Was Harry Patch a victim?

As the moving funeral service showed, the answer to that must be NO, despite what he had been through as a very young man

The service was very well judged, I thought. Mr Patch had turned down the idea of anything fancy, but something more than a private burial by family & friends seemed called for. And so we had it in the beautiful Wells cathedral, with Where Have All the Flowers Gone sung by 15-year-old head chorister Folasade-Nelleke Lapido and a moving tribute from his friend Jim Ross, who called him “an ordinary man”

Many have commented on how such men tended never to speak of what they went through. Although, at least to begin with, this must have been their own choice, before we get too smug about it we should remember that the Sixties generation tended to treat such men with something approaching contempt – like Albert Tatlock in Coronation Street, boring on about his WWI. Their choice of jacket & tie, with grey or cavalry twill trousers, hat & highly polished shoes was mocked

By the time we got to significant anniversaries of WWII attitudes were changing - Percy Sugden was treated much more sympathetically, even though he was a bore

Citizen's complaint

It was while listening to a news item about the argument over rape laws yesterday that it hit me with real force: STOP CALLING THEM VICTIMS. Not just of rape, but of every crime I mean

The use of this word in this sense seems quite recent. The earliest meanings in the OED involve sacrifice, death & destruction, cruel or oppressive treatment. Then, & only “In weaker sense: One who suffers some injury, hardship, or loss, is badly treated or taken advantage of

It also rather presupposes that the crime has actually taken place

Although nobody would deny that there are problems in the prosecution of rape cases, we ought first to concentrate on how these are investigated, because it is becoming increasingly clear that it is not true that even in cases of what we now call ‘date rape’ there is only the word of the two people directly involved to go on. Just recently there have been cases where the police clearly failed even to attempt to trace witnesses who could have had something useful to say about the alleged perpetrators actions around the relevant time

But if we keep on calling ourselves victims – whether of rape, mugging, or any other crime, the perpetrator has won. The criminals hold us in their power - our future health & happiness lies in their hands. The best revenge is a withering look of contempt & getting on with a good life, better than they will ever know

Words such as prosecute, impeach, charge are no longer available to describe what we do when we go to court to explain what crime has been committed on us, because those have been taken over by the professionals

I was thinking about whether we could switch to using the word complainant, so that one function of the police becomes that of citizens’ complaints department. But complain itself has become more of a whinge

For now I favour the adoption of accusator

Related post

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Correct form

(Mostly male?) media commentators have been having fun with "Hattie Harperson" in the wake of her comments about the need for compulsory women at the top in politics & finance.

Now it has been pointed out before – it really ought to be Harperdaughter.

And our other stand-in PM is henceforth to be known as Lord Perdaughterde’daughter.

La di dah!

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

A great little country

Stryker Mcguire gave us his views on Britain in The Times yesterday:

“Suddenly the country is having to rethink its role in the world — perhaps as Little Britain, certainly as a lesser Britain.”

I have been wondering if either of those is better than the Little England which John Mander foresaw in 1964?

Stryker McGuire is contributing editor of Newsweek magazine. Its rival, Time magazine, was on the case in 1963:

“For all its resources of political experience and industrial skill, Britain, nearly two decades since war's end, has yet to adjust to the realities of its new place in the world, or even to accept them. Thus, warned the usually pro-government London Times last week, "the mood in which the general election is fought could be even more important that who wins it. To the outside world, Britain now seems something of a psychological case."

Things staggered on, but:

"History has been closing in on Britain for some time … Tony Blair made a final stab at greatness — London achieved an importance it hadn’t had since Churchill.”


Death notices

Richard Allsopp was given an obituary in The Times yesterday (he died on June 3). For some reason they refer to him as British Guiana-born, which was of course true at the time, but it would have seemed neater to write Guyana-born, if they insist on the hyphenation.

It shared the page with the obituary of Lady Bustamante, widow of Sir Alexander, the first Jamaican prime minister – she died on July 25.

In one of those great examples of the obituarist's art “It is sufficient to say that she stood by the side of her flamboyant husband and was not overshadowed” – although they do go on to expand that in over 600 words.

Related posts
Richard Allsopp

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Divided by common language

Anthony Howard chose a bad hair day story from Barbara Castle on With Great Pleasure this morning

As Secretary of State for Health Mrs Castle was visiting, under the full spotlight of the media, the site of an old peoples home which had been destroyed by fire, when her wig was lifted off her head by a piece of debris. She re-assumed her dignity as quickly as possible, with her entourage doing the decent thing of pretending not to notice

She was relieved - & surprised – to find that the media did not make use of any pictures they had of the incident

It is hard to imagine such a reaction – for any active politician – these days

But sometimes an attempt to cause bother or embarrassment does not work – such as with David Cameron’s Twitter gaffe

Rack my brain as I might I cannot be sure that I ever knew that this word had an offensive meaning. If I did, it was only from something like one of Eric Partridge’s dictionaries or Peter Fryer's Studies in English Prudery

I am sure that I heard it regularly from a colleague in the 1980s who used it in the same sense as did Cameron. It was offensive: even worse than wally

It is interesting that in the specific business of the naming of the part (the one allegedly called twat by some) we English have no generally accepted common, or even anatomically correct, term which can be used in polite discourse

I had West Indian friends who were genuinely astonished that large posters could go up all over London in 1964 proclaiming Pussy Galore. In the Caribbean the word was in very specific common use.

It was interesting that in the Womans Hour discussion not one participant mentioned pussy, even as a word used within the family. And yet we accept with seeming equanimity the double entendre, even on family tv in Are You Being Served

Not all cultures however understand the English use of language related to the Cameron sense of twat

My mother in law once gave me a real roasting:

Don’t call my son an idiot. I keep on hearing you do that. He is not an idiot, he’s very clever, he’s got [all these qualifications]

I did my best to explain that, where I came from, idiot was a term of affection & endearment; that the worst insult anybody in England could throw at a man, then at least, was that he was too clever by half

A point of which Lord Rees Mogg yesterday reminded Lord Mandelson

Related post