Saturday, April 30, 2011

A revealing photo

Thursday’s Times carried a very revealing photo of our new duchess, taken at Clarence House on Wednesday. It shows her, dressed casually but very stylishly in white jacket, dark jeans & barely pink jumper with a covetable tan leather bag hanging artlessly on her arm, in conversation with someone who, from her dress, must clearly be a member of the Royal Household staff.

The revelation is that Catherine is clearly putting her point across with absolute but charming confidence, looking the other straight in the eye. No trace of the shy looking up from under the eyelashes of someone meekly taking instruction.

The law of the dictionary

The Court of Appeal was recently required to consider the meaning of the word ‘teacher’.

Their Lordships were asked to do this because Parliament had failed, when they passed the Superannuation Act in 1972 & the Teachers’ Pension Regulations of 1997 (as amended in 2004), to provide any definition of who was entitled to such a pension.

So in the absence of any guidance from Parliament, they looked instead to the dictionary – referring to both Chambers the OED.

I wonder what will happen if they ever have to provide a legal definition of the word doctor. Will they revert to the Latin derivation of the word?

Friday, April 29, 2011


An epithalamion, or marriage song, is just such an obvious choice for today. By John Donne, of course.

This is obviously a young man’s poem. Nobody knows when it was written, but there’s a clue in the title. I like to think of him writing it when he was appointed Master of the Revels in 1593 when he was a 21 year old student at Lincoln’s Inn.

from Epithalamion Made at Lincoln’s Inn

Daughters of London, you which be
Our golden mines, & furnished treasury,
You which are angels, yet still bring with you
Thousands of angels on your marriage days,
Help with your presence, & device, to praise
These rites, which also unto you grow due;
Conceitedly dress her, & be assigned,
By you, fit place for every flower & jewel,
Make her love fit fuel
As gay as Flora, & as rich as Ind;
So may she fair & rich, in nothing lame,
Today put on perfection, & a woman’s name.

And you frolic patricians,
Sons of these senators’ wealth’s deep oceans,
Ye painted courtiers, barrels of others’ wits,
Ye country men, who but your beasts love none,
Ye of those fellowships whereof he’s one,
Of study & play made strange hermaphrodites,
Here shine, this bridegroom to the Temple bring.
Lo, in yon path which store of strewed flowers graceth,
The sober virgin paceth;
Except my sight fail, ‘tis no other thing;
Weep not, nor blush, here is no grief or shame,
Today put on perfection, & a woman’s name.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A tragedy foretold

I am not too keen on the modern political biography, memoir or autobiography, unless they have more to offer than self-justification & yet more pouring over the minutiae of events; for example the only New Labour contributions that I have read are those by Chris Mullin (funny) & Cherie Blair.

Others can acquire much more interest if read after a decent interval, for example those of Lord Donoghue, which brought back vivid memories of my own younger self & what I was doing during the years of power which he describes.

Just before the holiday I read another such: Gordon Brown: The First Year in Power by Hugh Pym & Nick Kochan. Another reader had left it lying on a library table, I picked it up for a skim & decided it was worth a read.

For there it all was, all the elements of the tragedy that unfolded when he finally got what he had wished for for so long.

Pym & Kochan make it very clear how Labour’s obsession with the manipulation of spin & controlling the headlines was, even in that first year, disastrous for them more than for others. For example their own stumbles over whether to join the euro led to self-inflicted wounds because of clumsy & hamfisted attempts to take everybody by surprise & control the reaction, to repeat the coup of their surprise move to give independence to the Bank of England.

The ‘revelations’ of a Blair/Mandelson betrayal of Brown after the death of John Smith had been thoroughly covered three years earlier in John Rentoul’s biography of Blair but blew up into a ferocious storm only after a farcical chapter of accidents over the publication of Paul Routledge’s book on Brown three years later. A row which was, on calmer analysis (when it was too late), was after all about ‘not very much.’

And as to those arguments over whether prime minister Brown had a temper? Well:
Colleagues know before they join the [Brown] team that he has a ferocious temper. He flies off the handle easily when challenged or obstructed, sending opponents into cold sweats & friends into embarrassed silences. Brown’s own silences are so awesome that colleagues know when not to speak out of turn.

All very well for colleagues who are after all also comrades in arms; not so good for others who were appointed to the team.

The language of flowers

In what I guess is part of a carefully controlled release of information, yesterday’s paper told us something about the flowers (& trees) for The Wedding.

Shane Connolly, 47, ‘the artistic director of flowers’ told us that
One of the things that has been very important to Catherine & me are the meanings of flowers & the language of flowers. Especially in the wedding bouquets, which you will see on the day, we’ve tried very much to make beautiful stories.

The trees which will make an avenue of the aisle include English field maples, symbolising humility, & hornbeams for resilience.

The bride would doubtless have had to learn much about this symbolic language for her degree in the History of Art, especially in the study of Medieval & Renaissance painting.

Which makes me think that the dress will be more Medieval than 1930s film star satin – slender, long sleeves & possibly even a collar.

And probably not white. Most probably golden.

I have had a premonition about it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Invitation to the wedding

Four former British prime ministers are still alive. Two of them have been invited to the royal wedding, two have not.

What rule of protocol or precedence could have brought this about? Length of service? Only the two most recent? Only if it is more than X years since they were in power, time to turn into a National Treasure, political enmity forgotten? Only if they have reached pensionable age?

Tony Blair & Gordon Brown have been snubbed, John Major & Margaret Thatcher have received their invitations. Surely – it can’t be – a favour granted only to Tories?

Thatcher & Major have accepted titles. Perhaps Brown & Blair have received, but declined offers – well we won’t invite them if that’s how they feel about it? No, too petty.

We are told that Lady Thatcher & Sir John are both also members of the Order of the Garter, that’s why. I haven’t checked whether this means that you have to be BOTH a former premier AND a member of the Garter to qualify as a wedding guest, or if in fact premiership has nothing to do with it – all Knights of the Garter get to go.

Perhaps that’s just the way the cookie crumbled. But I can’t help feeling that, even if no flunkey was delegated to find a rule which would produce this result, nevertheless there were smiles of quiet satisfaction when things turned out this way.

Among the irritations delivered by impatient New Labour’s modern manners & anti-flummery was this story told by Hugh Pym & Nick Kochan in their book Gordon Brown: The First Year in Power

At a barbecue at Goodfellows, the Brown family’s holiday residence on Cape Cod the Chancellor recalled how Whelan leaked to the press the fact that the Royal yacht Britannia was to be scrapped. Brown was transparently gleeful at Whelan’s talent for making mischief.

Well there were respectable reasons for scrapping the Royal Yacht, although the Queen in particular was very attached to it – had to fight back tears at the final ceremony.

To show such glee was just crass.

Adulterated families

A Times leader last week, in another chunder about court-imposed gagging orders on the Press, complained about the apparent belief of one judge in particular that ‘an adulterous man deserves the same rights to privacy as the faithful one.’

The corollary of this is that The Times believes that the wife of an adulterous husband has fewer rights to privacy than the wife of one who is faithful.

After all, the husband of a proper wife has no need to stray. So she deserves what she gets, & it is just as much her fault as his if the children suffer from the publicity given to the tabloid plaints of the mistress who has been wronged.

Related post
Women behaving well

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Dressed for the occasion

Last week Thursday, page 3 of The Times was dominated by a large quarter page photo illustrating a much-redacted report about a Premier League footballer winning a legal gag against a topless model.

The caption does not make it absolutely clear, but the photo showed at least twenty photographers, all male, presumably outside the Royal Courts of Justice hoping to catch the combatants as they arrived.

My mental image of such a press pack shows them all in dress-down, even scruffy, casual; but not this lot. Every single one is wearing a smart, well-tailored dark grey suit. I was so startled that for a moment I thought it actually a uniform, but a closer look revealed subtle differences in the cuff buttons – some three, some four, some with buttonholes, some not.

Have we entered a new age of formality in the dress of the working London male, chinos, polo shirts & parkas banished to the country? Is it that, just like other professions, the top ranks of photographers are now dominated by toffs? Or are they perhaps just rehearsing, making sure that they can work in such clothes, de rigueur for The Abbey, The Palace & The Wedding.

But yet another look suggested that they were all also wearing white shirt & dark tie, so perhaps the day’s other major news story involved a funeral or memorial service.

Playing the part

I read at the weekend that Richard E Grant is playing the part of Michael Heseltine in film opposite Meryl Streep as Margaret, & Jim Broadbent as Denis, Thatcher.

Now that is one film I really must see

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Fat White Woman Speaks

I was reminded of GK Chesterton's admonitory response to Frances Cornford' when it was read on Radio 4's Something Understood the other week.

The Fat White Woman Speaks

Why do you rush through the field in trains,
Guessing so much and so much?
Why do you flash through the flowery meads,
Fat-head poet that nobody reads;
And why do you know such a frightful lot
About people in gloves as such?
And how the devil can you be sure,
Guessing so much and so much,
How do you know but what someone who loves
Always to see me in nice white gloves
At the end of the field you are rushing by,
Is waiting for his Old Dutch?

How to shock a feminist

I have just been reading David Edgerton’s book The Shock of the Old: Technology & global history since 1900.

I was led to this by a recommendation in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang

It certainly delivers on the author’s promise of being 'a book for grown-ups of all genders', rather than just for boys of all ages, & there is so much to think & mull over about economics & the ways of the world.

But for now, because it’s a holiday today, I am trying to work out what should be the good feminist response to the revelation that pioneer women flyers were supported financially by the aircraft makers because promoting the image of flying as safe was vital to the future of the industry.

What could bring that message home more vividly than one which showed that it could be managed even by a girl?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

James Thomson Spring

We are certainly having a splendid spring now – blossom & leaves in profusion.

There is after all something to be grateful for in a freezing winter – gives ‘the torpid sap, detruded to the root’ of all the ‘various vegetative tribes’ a chance to mount ‘in fluent dance’ when the sun finally arrives.

I feared that the rambler rose in the back garden had had it when the snow & ice finally disappeared to reveal just bare, black, wet & wilting branches, but now the leaves are back shinier, healthier, & in greater abundance than we have seen for years.

Unfortunately the same is true of the dandelions pushing up everywhere too.

This extract from James Thomson’s Four Seasons captures it all so well.

What is a little surprising is that all the plants named are familiar still today – the same would not be true for those that used to populate the meadows & hedgerows. But then the celestial florist has had a lot of assistance from the human cultivators of gardens with these species.

The Four Seasons: Spring

Along these blushing borders, bright with dew,
And in yon mingled wilderness of flowers,
Fair-handed spring unbosoms every grace;
Throws out the snowdrop and the crocus first;
The daisy, primrose, violet darkly blue,
And polyanthus of unnumber'd dyes;
The yellow wall-flower, stain'd with iron brown;
And lavish stock that scents the garden round:
From the soft wing of vernal breezes shed,
Anemones; auriculas, enriched
With shining meal o'er all their velvet leaves;
And full ranunculas, of glowing red.
Then comes the tulip-race, where Beauty plays
Her idle freaks; from family diffused
To family, as flies the father-dust,
The varied colours run; and, while they break
On the charm'd eye, the exulting florist marks,
With secret pride, the wonders of his hand.
No gradual bloom is wanting; from the bud,
Firstborn of Spring, to Summer's musky tribes:
Nor hyacinths, of purest virgin white,
Low-bent, and blushing inward; nor jonquils,
Of potent fragrance; nor Narcissus fair,
As o'er the fabled fountain hanging still;
Nor broad carnations, nor gay-spotted pinks;
Nor, shower'd from every bush, the damask-rose.
Infinite numbers, delicacies, smells,
With hues on hues expression cannot paint,
The breath of Nature, and her endless bloom.

Hail, Source of Being! Universal Soul
Of Heaven and earth! Essential Presence, hail!
To Thee I bend the knee; to Thee my thoughts,
Continual, climb; who, with a master-hand,
Hast the great whole into perfection touched.
By Thee the various vegetative tribes,
Wrapt in a filmy net, and clad with leaves,
Draw the live ether, and imbibe the dew:
By Thee disposed into congenial soils,
Stands each attractive plant, and sucks, and swells
The juicy tide; a twining mass of tubes.
At Thy command the vernal sun awakes
The torpid sap, detruded to the root
By wintry winds; that now in fluent dance,
And lively fermentation, mounting, spreads
All this innumerous-colour'd scene of things.
As rising from the vegetable world
My theme ascends, with equal wing ascend,
My panting Muse; and hark, how loud the woods
Invite you forth in all your gayest trim.
Lend me your song, ye nightingales! oh, pour
The mazy-running soul of melody
Into my varied verse! while I deduce,
From the first note the hollow cuckoo sings,
The symphony of Spring, and touch a theme
Unknown to fame,—the passion of the groves.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Publish and/or be damned

Anyone who joined the British civil service in the early 1970s remembers their induction film on security. There were different versions, but each involved a recognised actor giving a deliciously hammy performance as the hapless young civil servant trapped, usually entirely innocently & ludicrously, by a devious commie diplomat into a situation which could be used to blackmail them into becoming a spy. How we laughed at the ridiculous thing – but nobody ever forgot it, so perhaps there was method in the madness.

With all the publicity being given to super-injunctions I found myself wondering what might be the response of the police if some of those attempting to use an injunction to protect their privacy had instead complained that they were a victim of blackmail.

Of course this is an entirely theoretical speculation, not least because we have virtually no information to go on (excluding internet tittle-tattle) about any of the cases currently before the courts. But once upon a time plots involving blackmail over (alleged or actual) sexual peccadilloes were a staple of novel & film – think of the Dirk Bogarde film, Victim, for example.

In at least one version of the popular plot the victim suffered terrible consequences because of his cowardice in failing to go to the police; this was not only the Right Thing to do – to ensure the criminal got brought to justice - but also not to be feared because anonymity would be guaranteed, even if it were necessary to give evidence in court.

Nobody would have thought that the blackmailer deserved any sympathy whatsoever, no matter how much He might have done Her wrong.

Well I have no idea what would happen if a celebrity or politician went to the police to claim that the person with whom they had been having an affair was threatening to sell their story to the press unless the victim could match the financial offer. And almost nobody would believe that anonymity could be guaranteed, even if it were to be attempted.

Trying to get away from it all

Virginia Woolf, an educated middle class woman, yearned for a room of her own; George Formby sang of the working class man’s dream of a shed of his own.


I get no chance to rest indoors to make me fit for Monday
So planned a wooden toolshed for a quiet nook on Sunday.
I built it in the garden with a lovely southern view.
It's quite a stately edifice and very useful too.

It's really quite top hole for the firewood and the coal
Is my little wooden toolshed in the garden.
The dog can stretch his legs and the hen can lay her eggs
In my little wooden toolshed in the garden.

When my wife starts an argument at which she’s quite a knack
Begins to smash the home up and the crockery to crack
I tell her off quite safely for she cannot answer back
In my little wooden toolshed in the garden

It didn’t all end happily however – you can read the whole song here

Friday, April 22, 2011

Smart tickets

Another bus company which I use has installed smart machines which can check bus passes.

But they are not the same as the Stagecoach ones. And the driver asks for your destination & issues a ticket which records, among all the usual details, the 18-digit number which appears on the card.

I wonder what information is coded into this number?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Nuclear accidents, house prices & A levels

The nuclear accident in Japan has now been rated 7 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale which puts it in the same category as Chernobyl. Experts feel that this is in some sense misleading (see for example Understanding Uncertainty ) & therefore unhelpful in the sense that Sir Humphrey would use that word.

The problem is that the scale has nowhere else to go, no way of making any finer distinction between the serious, the very serious & the end of the world as we know it.

This is the kind of problem that quite commonly arises with scales & coding frames, just another example of man’s inability to foretell the future, to imagine all the possible outcomes that need to be catered for. And after all we, fortunately, do not have much experience of nuclear accidents to go on.

I remember a problem which arose with the old government house price index. This was one of the earliest computer projects, first designed in the 1960s. In those days space for both processing & storing data was ridiculously limited, compared to what we have today, & so statisticians had always to compress their data as much as possible before analysis began. (This of course is the same problem which led to programmers to omit, wherever possible, the 19 from 20th century dates, thus exposing the world to another threat to civilisation as we know it (allegedly) as the millennium approached).

The forms which came in to the department recorded the actual price at which houses were sold but these were collapsed before being put on to the computer into codes such as 1= less than £1,000; 2= £1,000 to £2,499 … 8= more than £20,000.

By 1975 it was clear that the time was rapidly approaching when no house would be sold for less than £20,000, & the whole system had to be redesigned.

And of course in the field of education we now have the situation where soon everybody will have a clutch of A*s at A level.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ωηερεφορε τηερεφορε

Another well we live & learn experience.

This piece was going to be about whatever happened to therefore, especially in its symbolic form of a triangle made out of three full stops.

That staple, useful shorthand, sine qua non of our school geometry textbooks, never seemed to appear as a symbol available for insertion into a Word document, whichever font you tried. Does this lack of a symbol mean that mathematicians do not even use the word 'therefore', or even the concept, these days?

But then, just doing a last minute check before finally committing to print, I find a Word font called Symbol which yes, does have a 

And just to add to the fun, when I typed my clever title (Wherefore therefore?) in the same font it came out in beautiful Greek.

That reminded me of the fun (& frustration) to be had with the old IBM golf balls when you forgot to change them when switching between typing formulae & typing text.

Except that none of this symbolism seems to want to transfer into Blogger.

Or does it, when published? There's only one way for me to find out

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Bus pass conundrum

I have been pondering whether to start paying for some or all of my bus fares. An empty gesture, or a contribution towards the reduction of the deficit?

Cuts have been made in the concessions for students, & our discount on local trains has been cut from 50% to 33%, but free bus passes cannot be withdrawn without a change in the legislation.

As I have pointed out before, bus passes bring real benefits to society, are not just an expensive perk for gallivanting grannies or elderly men with dreams of creating the beat on the road. The number of people who now use them for trips to the hospital continues to grow for example, reducing traffic & relieving the strain on hospital parking.

But should those of us who can afford it make a monetary contribution, & would it be one worth making.

Well I should have to think of what I should give up to make up the personal deficit.

How about giving up smoking, earning triple brownie points & a gold star thereby.

But it wouldn’t be that simple.

My personal finances would definitely gain – with all the recent rises in VAT & duty, a packet of cigarettes now costs more than the bus fare to town.

But there’s a catch: even just the tax on a packet of cigarettes now comes to more than the bus fare to town – quite a lot more than the discounted-for-bulk ticket price which is, I hope, negotiated by the council.

So the net effect would be an even greater call on the public finances.

And if, even at my age, stopping smoking would add a year or so to my expectation of life, then the Treasury would just have to foot the bill for longer for my pension, my medical care &, quite probably, my social care as well.

Young whipper-snapper

I was surprised the other day to hear someone use whipper-snapper in a context that made it clear they thought it meant someone who is in a position to crack the whip. It is normally used to describe a cheeky boy, ‘A diminutive or insignificant person’ in the words of the OED, ‘especially a sprightly or impertinent young fellow’.

Clearly someone who can crack the whip with the authority only of his dreams.

And yet the OED guesses that the origin of the term lies in a ‘jingling extension of whip-snapper, a cracker of whips.’

It seems obvious that the word derives from the hunting fraternity – & was applied to the sort of cheeky young pup of a hound who attempted to defy the authority of the whipper-in (a huntsman's assistant who keeps the hounds from straying by driving them with the whip) by trying to nip or snap his ankles.

Or so it has always seemed to me - can't remember if I was ever taught this, or just assumed it from the context.

But it was quite common in my childhood - used mostly it seemed by older, often old, men.

'Now then, young whipper-snapper, enough of that.'

It always seemed to imply affection, even a kind of respect:Yes he's young, he's cheeky, but there's something about him, he'll learn.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Wet, wet, wet

More news of research into Manchester rain by the indefatigable Dr Andy Russell.

It is getting wetter.

The rain is raining not more frequently, just more heavily, most likely on a Tuesday.

I heard Dr Russell mention in one radio interview that 'a place called Lyme Park' was getting the worst of it – without taking the opportunity to point out that one of television’s most iconic moments depended upon there being a good supply of rain in Lyme Park to keep the lake full so that Mr Darcy could go for that swim.

Do nothing day

Do It Yourself stores & garden centres are objecting to government plans to replace the May Day Bank Holiday with one either in April (St George) or October (Trafalgar).

Conservatives have always been keen to get rid of the workers special day, though to be fair we do have too many holidays at this time of year, especially when Easter is late & we have a royal wedding to boot.

But May 1 has become DIY Day, one of the most important trading days of the year for certain stores.

I think I am going to start a campaign for a national Nothing Special Day. One when you can just do what you like, whatever. No need to go out & spend money or indulge in any activity if you don’t feel like it

Sunday, April 17, 2011

So needful it is to have money

This poem by Arthur Hugh Clough, from the mid-Victorian age of boom & bust & banking failures, is a reminder that there is nothing new in the parvenu money-raker lording it over both the nobility & the poor.

As I sat in the Café I said to myself,
They may talk as they please about what they call pelf,
They may sneer as they like about eating and drinking,
But help it I cannot, I cannot help thinking
How pleasant it is to have money, heigh-ho!
How pleasant it is to have money.

I sit at my table en grand seigneur,
And when I have done, throw a crust to the poor;
Not only the pleasure itself of good living,
But also the pleasure of now and then giving:
So pleasant it is to have money, heigh-ho!
So pleasant it is to have money.

They may talk as they please about what they call pelf,
And how one ought never to think of one’s self,
How pleasures of thought surpass eating and drinking—
My pleasure of thought is the pleasure of thinking
How pleasant it is to have money, heigh-ho!
How pleasant it is to have money.

I cannot but ask, in the park and the streets
When I look at the number of persons one meets,
What e’er in the world the poor devils can do
Whose fathers and mothers can’t give them a sou.
So needful it is to have money, heigh-ho!
So needful it is to have money.

I ride, and I drive, and I care not a d—n,
The people look up and they ask who I am;
And if I should chance to run over a cad,
I can pay for the damage, if ever so bad.
So useful it is to have money, heigh-ho!
So useful it is to have money.

It was but this winter I came up to town,
And already I’m gaining a sort of renown;
Find my way to good houses without much ado,
And beginning to see the nobility too.
So useful it is to have money, heigh-ho!
So useful it is to have money.

O dear what a pity they ever should lose it,
Since they are the people that know how to use it;
So easy, so stately, such manners, such dinners,
And yet, after all, it is we are the winners.
So needful it is to have money, heigh-ho!
So needful it is to have money.

It’s all very well to be handsome and tall,
Which certainly makes you look well at a ball;
It’s all very well to be clever and witty,
But if you are poor, why it’s only a pity.
So needful it is to have money, heigh-ho!
So needful it is to have money.

There’s something undoubtedly in a fine air,
To know how to smile and be able to stare,
High breeding is something, but well-bred or not,
In the end the one question is, what have you got.
So needful it is to have money, heigh-ho!
So needful it is to have money.

And the angels in pink and the angels in blue,
In muslins and moirés so lovely and new,
What is it they want, and so wish you to guess,
But if you have money, the answer is Yes.
So needful, they tell you, is money, heigh-ho!
So needful it is to have money.

O please do not kiss

There is a bit of a kerfuffle going on about a couple who were thrown out of a pub for kissing too enthusiastically.

Maybe I just don’t get out enough these days, but it has always struck me that we don’t see very much public kissing & cuddling going on these days, & certainly nothing like what was common in the 1950s & 1960s, when young couples, especially, would canoodle on buses, trains, tubes & & the back rows of cinemas had double seats. In summer parks & beaches were full of couples lying close.

Partly it was because there was a distinct lack of places to go to do it in private, but also perhaps as a guard against getting too carried away.

Billy Graham excoriated the behaviour he observed in Hyde Park, though he apparently saw more than was actually going on.

But then people got cars, the pill became available to all, & old people lost control of young people’s sexual behaviour.

So now, it is the young, or so I once heard in a discussion on Radio 5, who instruct their peers to ‘go get a room’ if they threaten to frighten the horses.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Irish Census

It was census Day last Sunday in Ireland. Today I heard an advert on RTE Radio 1 reminding people to have their form ready for collection – there was no mention of any online alternative.

But there was a thank you in advance to everybody, ‘For Making Your Mark’

So much better than threats of a fine

Irish Census

Related post

When Miliband takes the mic

Over the summer I think they must have done something to the microphone used by the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons – Ed Miliband sounds very different these days, even Ann Treneman has commented on it. If it is something he has done deliberately – to sound more authoritative & mature? - then it does not have the same effect in other surroundings, on other microphones.

It is in some ways louder & clearer, cutting out the surrounding noise, but with a slightly muffled echo, distinctive & immediately recognisable, So much so that I was bemused to come across it suddenly on Radio 5 on Wednesday morning – I was only clicking through on the way to another station but stayed for a couple of minutes to confirm it - & remove my confusion over whether parliament was in recess.

A touching experience

There was a poignant item about pregnancy tests on Radio 4’s In Touch this week. (Tues April 12)

About how there is no way that a blind woman can check the results of a home pregnancy test for herself, in private, & so be the first to know, be it welcome or unwelcome news.

To be honest I was not very sympathetic to the trail – I belong to a generation which had no option but to go to the doctor, other of course than to wait until Mother Nature made it absolutely plain. And the standard advice was to wait until you had missed two periods, to save wasting the doctor’s time on false alarms – in itself an agonising wait, especially if you were not on a clockwork 28-day cycle.

It was possible to get early confirmation from a lab test (memory tells me this involved toads), but a test would only be offered to those who had a really important need to know, or could afford to pay.

We are now into the second generation of women who take home pregnancy tests for granted, & one of the stories we heard was from a woman who can still, a quarter of a century later, hear the sharp intake of breath by the person who read to her the unwelcome news of a pregnancy which would mean, among other things, that she would be sent down from college.

From more enlightened times we heard of a young woman’s disappointment that she could not be the one to break the happy news to her husband, because he was the one who checked for the blue line.

We heard from an expert who said that it ought not be too expensive or difficult to incorporate some kind of bleep into the test. However this could not become a requirement to be enforced by anti-discrimination law, which does not apply to medical products as such.

It was news to me that packaging of such is now required to carry Braille labels – I had thought, if I thought about it at all, that the dots on the box of aspirin were there as some sort of stock or quality control code – which in a sense they are, though for the benefit of the consumer rather than the manufacturer or retailer. I did a quick check of other products in the house – antiseptic cream has Braille too, but only on the box, not the tube, & the rules do not appear to apply to vitamin supplements.

Of course we are all getting used to more tactile methods of getting information these days. Even cigarette packets are going tactile now. I have been puzzling over the reasons for this – I doubt if that is somehow to make things easier for the visually impaired. I suspect it may be a crafty step in the battle over logos on tobacco products.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Going out without a skirt

Talking about going out less well dressed than one would wish reminded me of the day I went to work without my skirt on.

In mitigation I should point out that I was wearing a very demure full-length petticoat.

I had actually been up bright & early, with time for a sit down breakfast. But I was wearing a very nice lightweight wool suit in oatmeal cream – did not want to risk dropping anything on to the skirt, so I left it off till later.

Then as usual, I started to think of other things, half listening to the Today programme (de rigueur for civil servants after Mrs Thatcher said that she always listened to find out which of her ministers (& hence ministries) was doing a good job) & suddenly – I was going to be late.

Put on my raincoat, grabbed my handbag, & ran.

It was a very nasty shock when I took my mac off in the office.

Fortunately in those days there was still a parade of small shops directly over the road. One was an old fashioned drapers with a small dusty window revealing a display of knitted nylon tops, knickers, nylons, & polyester skirts. A kind colleague went across & bought me a permanently pleated skirt in navy blue. It felt like school uniform, but at least it covered my embarrassment.

I don’t think I ever wore it again, but hey – it cost only about £7. Much better than the alternative of sending my apologies to those at the meeting I was due to attend, to give me time to rush round to the Army & Navy for something with more class.

The wheel of fashion

I love it when the dictates of fashion change, & those who advise us tick us off about our old fashioned fusty & inelegant ways.

So now pashminas ‘make most of us look 104 years old, they spoil the line of an outfit’.

Oversize bags kill an outfit.

A skirt which falls below the knee is ‘rather avant garde’, so why not throw caution to the wind in a mid-calf dress.

Those of us who don’t possess an elegantly turned ankle are so much better off in trousers.

And if you want to look sexy, keep it mysterious & covered up – the merest flash of leg will then work wonders

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Power cut

We had another power cut on Monday – though this one was planned, to allow some work to be done. Amazingly, we got through all the bad weather without a single one.

Problem was, I had forgotten about it, & since I remain wedded to my just-in-time ironing policy, I had to go out in a clean but unironed t shirt, quite glad that our brief spell of sunshine & warm weather had come to an end, so I had every reason to put a jumper on top. And rainjacket too, as it turned out.

This time of year is the cruellest for sufferers from raynauds disease. In the depths of winter, wrapped up in jumpers, padded waistcoat, down-filled jacket, three pairs of gloves – no problem.

Out comes the sun, balmy & warm. Tempting to do like everyone else, wear just a simple cotton top & light jacket.

But balmy equals breeze, treacherous little zephyrs zipping out of nowhere. Or the sun disappears for a minute behind one of those fluffy high clouds, casting its shadow over you. Suddenly your hands are colder than they ever were standing at the bus stop in winter, or trying to rush past the chiller cabinets in the supermarket.

So long sleeves & a jacket which can fasten right up to the neck, even gloves, are essential.

And that’s how you recognise immediately if someone is a fellow-sufferer.

The price of the times

The recent Times supplement on royal weddings carried little boxes giving, among other snippets of information, the price of the newspaper at the time.

1795 4½d
1816 7d
1840 5d
1863 3d
1893 3d
1922 2d
1937 2d
1947 3d
1981 48d (20p)
2011 240d (£1)

What a story that tells:was the high price of 1816 the result of post-war inflation? – then little change for a century after 1863, (when prices dropped because of the abolition of taxes and improvements in the technology of printing) until the great twentieth century inflation after the oil price shock of the 1970s.

Things get even more interesting when w e look at the circulation

1795 4,465
1816 6,222
1840 16,218
1863 63,246
1893 38,546
1922 163,107
1937 192,220
1947 241,816
1981 297,787

I wonder what happened in 1893? My guess is competition from the more popular press, from papers such as The Daily Mail.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Some things beginning with B

I needed assistance at Sainsbury’s self-checkout the other day: Where do I find ‘sprouts’ so that the machine knows how to price them?

Silly me – they’re under B is for Brussels, not S is for Sprouts.

Now I think about it, you hardly ever hear anybody call them Brussels these days; not in the old days, either.

Market traders & greengrocers often left out ‘sprouts’ & used the B-word as verbal or written shorthand, complete with the intrusive apostrophe which causes such pain to some.

We children used to struggle with getting our tongue round the double ‘s’ sounds in the middle of Brussels sprouts, Brussel sprouts came much more naturally. These days they are just sprouts.

Is there another, non-Brussels kind?

My handy Chambers bedside dictionary was not much help:

Sprout: A new growth; a young shoot; a side bud, as in Brussels sprouts (see under Brussels) … OE sprutan (found in compounds). Dutch spruiten. German spriessen.

Brussels sprout (also without cap.) a variety of the common cabbage with many heads, each like a miniature cabbage, an individual head from this.

Well there’s a fashion now for buying sprouts still on the stalk – truly a cabbage with many heads & inedible trunk. Perhaps only in this form should they properly be called Brussels sprouts.

Back on the computer with access to the historical quotations in the online OED, I find that, one way or another, sprouts have formed part of our diet for centuries. In fact, if you think about it, sprouts of all sorts of vegetation must have formed part of the diet since human time began, but coming closer to our own age we find Sprowts of nettles (1639) then tender roots of cabbages (1699), sort of young coleworts (1721), small shoots of old Cabbage, in Winter, when they begin to bloom & head (1726), & roots, especially of Swedish turnip, abundant through February & March (1842).

Sprouts of the kind we would recognise today put in their first appearance in the mid-C19th in a reference to ‘stems & remains of cabbages that have supplied you with sprouts’.

Still no clear reason for the association with Brussels however. A wider, but by no means exhaustive, search of the web fails to locate any authoritative explanation – one suggests that their spread in popularity around Europe came as a result of WWI. Flanders poppies, Brussels sprouts.

What a very funny set of associations in the English language with Brussels – sprouts, carpets, lace & Bendy Bananas

And then there is the problem of the Anglicisation of the name of the city which today causes us so much irritation & frustration with its daft laws.

A deft compromise between the Walloon & Flemish versions?

Perhaps the greengrocers’ apostrophe is a subtle indication that these are sprouts which belong to Brussel.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Previously in favourite quotations (13)

Never believe what you want to believe until you know what you ought to know - Sir Eyre Crowe

To speak of a better understanding among nations is to speak of harmony & goodwill, not of successful mutual prying & spying - Mary Midgley

Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking together in the same direction - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

All politicians are abnormal - Joseph Stalin

It takes in reality only one to make a quarrel. It is useless for the sheep to pass resolutions in favour of vegetarianism while the wolf remains of a different opinion - Dean Inge

Elephants googling about

The garden of a pub in Wales is being dug over in search of the remains of a dead elephant. The, to me, most improbable part of this story is that the elephant is said to have died from lead poisoning from the polluted local water that it drank.

Is that possible? How much lead does it take to kill an elephant, or even to make it poorly?

A question which seems destined to remain unanswered, though I did find a reference to Lead Poisoning in Waterfowl (with a note on elephants) in the section on Diseases reported only from Experimental Infection, or as a Host with no Clinical Signs on the website of the Wildlife Information Network.

Elephants also figure – one as metaphor, one a soft toy - in two recent papers on still-existing concerns about lead poisoning in children in America.

We live & learn

Monday, April 11, 2011

That dress

The Times treated us to a special Saturday supplement containing extracts from their coverage of past Royal Weddings. Starting, inauspiciously, with that of Caroline of Brunswick to the future George IV in 1795.

Was it the style of the age or a desire to suck up to royalty which inspired such hyperbolic prose?

The Princess was ‘a lovely stranger’, the King gave his son ‘a hearty shake of the hand … which brought tears to his eyes’.

The Archbishop of Canterbury read the whole of the marriage service with ‘great minuteness & solemnity’. The King gave the princess away with ‘the strongest marks of satisfaction’. The Princess said I Will with ‘great emphasis’ & repeated the oath with ‘great distinction & expression’. The Prince repeated the ceremony with ‘great clearness & recollection’.

Just before midnight the day’s proceedings were brought to a close with ‘a very magnificent supper of 22 covers’ in the Grand Saloon of Buckingham House.

The Royal Dress was ‘very superb indeed … the most costly that could be made’.

Silver tissue, rich cord & tassels, finest point lace, silver Venetian net, crimson velvet, ermine, no diamond hair ornaments but a superb Coronet of diamonds. Finished off with a very rich ornament of brilliants … fastened by a brilliant bow … long brilliant tassels … & a rich epaulette of brilliants.

That last is the clue to the fact that, rather than getting carried away with deathlessly brilliant prose, the writer was merely describing the materials of which all these ornaments were made, though it is not clear whether those were diamonds, or the ‘silken fabrics such as brilliants and pulerays, antherines and bombazines’ given in one of the definitions in the OED.

The country had to wait 68 years for another wedding of a Prince of Wales.
This time the great William Russell provided the eyewitness report (& later got a best-selling book out of it). He took a more world weary, but gallant, view of That Dress:

On these occasions, we believe, the dress of the Bride ranks in general estimation as only second in importance to the celebration of the ceremony itself, which is to be regretted, for a lady’s dress like a lady’s beauty, can only be described by its effect

He knew his duty & went on to describe the dress, but in a mere 100 or so of the 14,000 words of reportage in next day’s paper.

I dare say that there is an even more lavishly illustrated version of this history hidden behind the Times pay wall.

Related post
Taj Mahal


I came across this lovely word while doing something, turning the pages of a printed reference volume, which used to be an almost everyday activity but is now rare in these days of fully-searchable on-line dictionaries.


But I was quickly reminded of the frustrations of doing things the old fashioned way. See spoil, was the brusque instruction. More page turning & hunting to do.

Turns out to be a variant spelling of spoilfull from Edmund Spenser, that great contributor to the English dictionary. Means full of spoil. Therefore plundering.

I wonder if William Russell ever used it in his despatches describing the behaviour of victorious British troops in India.

In future, should I feel the need to describe anyone as a spoilt brat, I hope I shall remember instead to call them a spoylefull child.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Le Fiacre

Another favourite song from childhood. I’m not sure we were really supposed to understand the story – the horse’s hooves & the ‘Hu, dia, hop là!’ were the real attractions.

The memories came back when - very unexpectedly - it was playing on Radio 3 last Sunday just before Private Passions began.

Googling to check my memory that Uncle Mac really did use to play Le Fiacre for us on the Saturday morning BBC Light Programme, Children’s Favourites, I found this gem of a nostalgic website

from Le Fiacre

Un fiacre allait, trottinant,
Cahin, caha,
Hu, dia, hop là !
Un fiacre allait, trottinant,
Jaune, avec un cocher blanc.

Derrièr' les stores baissés,
Cahin, caha,
Hu, dia, hop là !
Derrièr' les stores baissés
On entendait des baisers.

Mais i' gliss' su' l' sol mouillé,
Cahin, caha,
Hu, dia, hop là !
Mais i' gliss' su' l' sol mouillé,
Crac ! il est écrabouillé.

Du fiacre un' dam' sort et dit :
Cahin, caha,
Hu, dia, hop là !
Du fiacre un' dam' sort et dit :
"Chouett', Léon ! C'est mon mari !

Y a plus besoin d' nous cacher,
Cahin, caha,
Hu, dia, hop là !
Y a plus besoin d' nous cacher.
Donn' donc cent sous au cocher ! "

Chicken & football

If a players’ strike means that no NFL football matches are played this season, the chicken industry will be in crisis.

The American National Chicken Council was expecting to sell 13.5 billion chicken wings this year, but fans may not bother with the ½ billion lbs or so that they consume on each Thursday, Sunday & Monday during the 17 weeks of the season.

What happens, to the rest of the chicken?

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Girls & boys

The radio was playing quietly in the background late one evening this week, I was listening with only half an ear at best, when I was suddenly grabbed by what sounded like an old Pathé newsreel. It said something like:

Before the birth the whole country was praying for a boy. But now we are over our disappointment & everybody loves Princess Margaret Rose

This in the same week that the newspapers were reporting that the latest census results show a further deterioration in the Indian sex ratio.

These days selective abortion is blamed, but I first became aware of this phenomenon back around the mid-1970s, when looking at a UN digest of results of the 1970/1 round of censuses, which showed that India & China were the only two (of the reporting countries) with a population consisting of more men than women.

I discovered the sex ratio, which the demographic textbooks put at a natural 105 boy babies born for every 100 girls, in the early 1970s; although this fluctuated, across time & space, it was said rarely to go outside the range 102 – 108. Higher mortality in males means that at some point females start to outnumber males, by a factor of 2 or more by the time you get to the highest age groups. In this country at that time there were more than three times as many women as there were men aged over 75, so the overall result is that typically the population of all ages in a country splits about 52 women to 48 men.

Selective abortion was not an option in those days, since there was no easily available, reliable method of determining the sex of a foetus. Was infanticide still widespread?

One contemporary study I found (just in Madras, if memory serves) said not, except possibly in a few isolated rural areas. The explanation lay in the fact that poor families just took less care of girls, in the sense that they got to eat only after their brothers had fed from the best the family could offer. And, if they were ill, the family would not pay for expert medical attention, scrape together the money to take them to a hospital – perhaps involving a trip of many miles & several days’ absence from working in the fields for at least one parent. The village healer was the best it got for a girl.

We express outrage at the modern attitude to the value of a girl, but just look at how recently the English could openly express such sentiments. Princess Margaret was born in 1930.

We even, in the 1980s, breathed a sigh of relief that Princess Diana managed to get all that out of the way by producing an heir & a spare in almost the shortest possible time.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Power to the People

I have just started to read Gavin Weightman’s book Children of Light: How Electricity Changed Britain Forever.

To begin with we are introduced to Eileen Murphy, the author of a 1934 pamphlet. Mrs Murphy was anxious not to be thought of as ‘a rabid opponent of electricity’, because it certainly had its place in factories & workshops & in the production of neon lighting for decorative purposes, BUT

I dislike any attempt to stampede the housewife by extravagant promises into buying electricity for household purposes in which it has not been proved to be either economical, healthy or efficient.

So come on ladies, cling to your dolly tub, mangle & posser, your broom & feather duster, flat iron & coal-fired kitchen range until you can be reassured on these points.

In fact England had been slow to electrify, despite the pioneering work of Davey & Faraday; America & Germany had embraced the new technology, & the industries that go with it, as early as 1870, leaving Britain struggling to catch up.

A story which sounds all too familiar, one partial explanation for which is the English class system & the idea of the gentleman as one who can, in the words of Sir Thomas Smith in 1565, ‘live idly & without manual labour’ who would not welcome anything which helped the lower orders share, & therefore devalue, this privilege.

Thus the sons of the northern industrial pioneers of the early C19th moved south, after their gentleman’s education at public school & Oxbridge, discovered a love of Nature & did not deign to add to their fortune by bothering about the manufacture of ever more toys, trinkets or devices to delight, or ease the back-breaking, health-destroying labour of the masses. Their wealth would trickle down through payments for personal services, not trickle up to augment their fortunes through the garnering of the pennies of the common man & woman as consumers of the cheap & cheerful.

For, as the Marchioness of Londonderry warned at the end of WWI, the introduction of industrial methods into the conditions of domestic service was ‘liable to react in a disastrous manner on the whole foundation of home life.

Well, it has been a struggle, but the lure of all those gadgets & gizmos & labour-saving devices proved too great, so that now none of us could live our lives without electricity.

Electricity may be clean & safe at the consumer end, but it has always been anything but clean & safe along the whole of the chain of production & supply. Most of us don’t like to bother our heads about all that – just keep it out of our sight, please.

It is no surprise that some are using the problems with the Japanese reactors to claim that we should abandon the idea of building new nuclear power stations in this country. Argument – end of.

It is of course disappointing that the continued uncertainty about the outcome in Japan is leading only to increased anxiety, particularly for those living close to the problem, exposed to higher than usual levels of radiation, &, especially, for the families of the brave engineers who are wrestling to bring things under control.

There have been some very useful programmes on the radio about this – for example Material World - which helped to put the issues in perspective. For example, the fact that astronauts are exposed to (1000) times the levels considered safe for the rest of us.

Lessons will be learned – as they have already, leading to changes in design since the first nuclear power stations were built. They will be safer, just as modern domestic or industrial boilers rarely explode.

And I do not mean to sound flippant, but if the worst comes to the worst in the current emergency the number of lives ended or foreshortened by the nuclear accident will be only a small fraction of those lost to coal, or indeed the earthquake & tsunami which started this tragedy.

One fact which has not been given much publicity. Three of the four nuclear facilities in the vicinity are operating as normal, having survived the shaking, & are providing the electricity so badly needed to help care for the sick & injured & keep life going in an approximation of the normal.

In stark contrast to what might have been the case had Japan been relying on off-shore wind or tide generation, which no amount of clever design can make immune to an earthquake, let alone a tsunami.

The Times ran a fairly disgraceful story about ‘the first victim’ of the leak – a dejected middle-aged cabbage farmer who committed suicide because he foresaw the loss of his livelihood. More a case of the first victim of the precautionary principle which dictated an immediate ban on the sale of all broad-leaved green vegetables grown within a wide area around the leak.

To be fair, The Times did carry a comment piece by David Aaronovitch making this point.

But last Saturday, as prime page three news, under the headline Way clear for pylons to blot landscape, & alongside a reproduction of Constable’s Dedham Vale, doctored to include no fewer than 8 pylons, (which, done properly to scale, would probably have to be the size of dinky toys) Ben Webster, Environment Correspondent, conveyed the alarming news that electricity from new power plants, whether nuclear or green, will have, somehow, to be carried across some very beautiful landscapes if we are to make any use of it where we live.

Earlier last week they ran a special advice supplement for young people, about how to choose the GCSEs, A levels & university courses which would lead to a satisfying career; not one of these involved maths, science or engineering. What’s the point of those to the gentlefolk of the twenty-first century?

Well those Chinese, Asian (& Arab) chappies seem quite interested, don’t they – I hear they’re taking up a lot of our university places. Paying high fees, too.

The sad fact is that electricity, unlike radio waves or microwaved digital signals, cannot just be propelled though the air from a distant transmitter. And, as with water, an unacceptably large amount leaks away during transmission. Unlike water, we have not yet developed efficient ways of storing it in large amounts for use during times of shortage & an awful lot of it is wasted during or after use, producing heat we do not need, or locked up in rubbish sent to landfill.

Nevertheless, over the last century and a half, a mere fleabite on the skin of time, we have made huge strides in efficiency & the mitigation of harm from electricity. We learn by trial & error, our brains are not big enough to work it all out in advance.

We do not have to go back to a time when we had only man, woman & horsepower to rely on; the Stone Age did not end because the world ran out of stone. The Oil Age will not end because we run out of oil. The Electric Age will end when we discover a new form of reliable, reproducible & distributable energy.

Until then, pessimistic nostalgic Greens & optimistic can-do Climate Change Deniers should make common cause, chipping away at thoughtless & unnecessarily extravagant usage while applying our skill, ingenuity & imagination to narrowing the margins of difference in the equation between energy inputs & outputs.

Halcyan day

The sky has been perfectly cloudless today, apart from a few stray wisps of contrail marking the descent of planes to the airport.

So the suspicion that cloudless days are a thing of the past – or of a future when jet planes are just a memory – is unfounded.

Mystic Masseur

I have just been re-reading (after an interval of getting on for half a century) VS Naipaul’s first novel, The Mystic Masseur.

For very nearly one-third of the book I feared that I just was not going to find it funny any more, though I did enjoy the masterful way in which Naipaul was able to blend the creolese used by his characters when talking to each other with a Standard English narrative so that the joins don't show.

One quote however did jar at first:

“If it ain’t Suraj Papa, is the children. Look at my hands, Ganesh. You see how smooth they is. They can’t even leave fingerprints now.”

Fingerprints? That doesn’t sound like something anyone would really say.

Then it came back to me; even in the 1960s you could see people, most likely elderly, rural, female & of Indian ethnic origin, transacting their business in the bank with thumbprint for signature - the ink pad was standard at each desk.

And, for the record, once Ganesh finally discovered his mystic powers, I rediscovered the humour in the tale.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Unanswerable questions

How long is a piece of string?

How do you cut it into pieces?

Into how many pieces can you cut it?

Spying on the buses

Stagecoach buses in Manchester have now been equipped with machines that can check bus passes. They still do not ask for your destination however.

Turns out that the card has had an electronic chip in it all along.

Wonder if, in theory at least, a record can be kept of all my comings & goings?

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Standing on the bus

The wailing family reminded me of another crying toddler, from several years ago, whose story has stuck in my mind.

She was about three years old, going in to town with mummy.

She thought it more fun to stand in the gangway. Mummy warned her, but she knew best.

Until the inevitable. The bus braked, she sat down, hard.

A second’s shock, then she cried & scrambled on to mummy’s knee for a cuddle. Fortunately you could tell that only her feelings were injured.

A few moments of comfort, then she sat up, rubbed her eyes & said, indignantly: That never happens when I stand on the train.

Out of the mouths …

Our local trains travel in stately fashion, only a few miles between stations, not much call for accelerator or brake, particularly not unexpectedly.

Even long distance trains rarely accelerate suddenly, but they do often brake quite forcefully.

That’s why, if you have a back problem, it’s better always to sit with your back to the engine, even if you feel you are one of those who needs to see where you are going, rather than from whence you came. Better to be thrown back against the cushions than to jerk forwards.

Funnily enough, although I have no problem on a train, I can no more sit comfortably facing backwards on a bus than I can on a plane.

Inside if wet

They say that there is a north/south divide in enthusiasm for street parties to celebrate the royal wedding. Republicanism, or at least Roundhead Puritanism, has been blamed.

But given the weather we have had for two years now, nobody up here would be optimistic about holding a party outside before May is even in, never mind out.Besides which, we have the Rose Queen Carnivals to be thinking about.

A new Doris Day

Marks & Spencer have a new advertising campaign for the summer


Presumably hoping we will feel like film stars dressed in the deceptively demure cotton frocks they have to offer.

I wonder if the person who came up with this ever heard the Eddie Mair spoof?

Related post
National Doris Day

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Monkey man reggay

The other Saturday I was making my way home through the shopping centre, just before closing time, when I was stopped in my tracks outside HMV.

They were playing our tune, which I hadn’t heard for years.

I had to go in to ask.

Oh yes, they said, it’s a compilation, on special offer, handed me a copy.

I’m afraid the name of the artist rang no bells with me at that moment; I explained that I had really been after a copy of the Byron Lee version, which I had on an unplayable LP. Nothing showed up on the computer.

On the offchance I asked after another one I should like to have – Elizabethan Reggae, spelt R-E-G-G-A-Y; still no luck. But thanks for your help.

The version which they did have was by Toots & the Maytals, & the song was Monkey Man. This had a special place in the family because of a much-loved soft toy made by my mother, originally for my sister, passed to my daughter, & which has now acquired the status of family heirloom.

When I got to check, I found that the song has frequently been covered – even by Amy Winehouse – but obviously I just don’t listen to the right kind of radio stations.

What did puzzle me is that Wikipedia lists a cover by Byron Lee, but only in 1975, & my LP must have been a good few years before that, possibly even before the 1969 version by the Maytals? And, according to Wikipedia, the group had recorded with Byron Lee in 1966.

A wet Sunday afternoon pushed me into a search for the record. It looks like a real historical curiosity now. There is no date that I can see, but there is a pretty good clue in the title - Reggay Blast Off - & the front cover illustration – a rocket blasting off with a small inset photo of a man walking on the moon - & the exhortation to “Do the moon walk to Jamaica’s latest dance beat!”

Further clues – if needed – come from the notes on the back:

Lik [sic] it back – hawk it to the very last drop – Pop a Top – Sip a Sip – These are the genuine phrases of Jamaica’s ethnic beat REGGAY. Spawned in the embryo of Rock Steady & Ska, REGGAY has now matured. Hold Me Tight & Israelite invaded the International charts with such great force that they influenced the Beatles who recorded Ob-La-Di* & Give Peace a Chance**, both REGGAY. Now BYRON LEE & the DRAGONAIRES introduce an extension of the REGGAY – the “MOON WALK”, & if you are curious, turn your record player on & get ready for – “REGGAY BLAST OFF”
Signed: Andy Capp
*1968 **1969

Record producer Lynford Anderson had adopted the name of a well-known cartoon character from the north east of England.

But my original question, about whose was the original version – definitely the Maytals, who get the credit on the label.

Further details from the notes:

Byron Lee & the Dragonaires Jamaica’s & Caribbean’s Number 1 Band
Dynn 3310 stereo

Produced by: Andy Capp & Junior Gray
Cover design: Spartacus
Recording Engineer: Dynamic Sounds Studios
Technical supervision: Byron Lee
15 Bell Road, Kingston 11, Jamaica

Side One
1 MONKEY MAN (Maytals)
2. POP A TOP (Andy Capp)
4. FIRE FIRE (Gaylads)
5. WHO DUNNIT (Jackie Mittoo)
6. SPACE FEVER (?Grey?)

Side Two
1. THE LAW (Andy Capp)
2. SWEET SENSATION (Melodians)
3. LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT (Serge Gainsbourg)
4. BIRTH CONTROL (Lloyd Chalmers)
5. BONGO NYAH (Little Roys)
6. MOONLIGHT GROOVER (Winston Wright)

Monday, April 04, 2011

Wailing on the buses

I join the smallish number of passengers on the 7 o’clock bus home from town, among them a family with three young children – dad right at the back with the two toddlers, mum trying to pacify a fretful baby in a double buggy at the front.

Soon the middle child starts to wail – he wants to go to mum. The baby joins in.

Suddenly dad comes down the bus, carrying the wailer. He threatens to get off: I just can’t deal with it Sue*

She hands him the baby & packs him off back to the back. The toddler, having got his wish, goes quiet.

Not for long. Now he wants to go back to the back.

Soon all three children are wailing.

I am not the only passenger who thinks we’ll all be wailing soon.

We reckoned without the bus driver, a married man approaching middle age. He stops the bus & suggests that mum might like to move to the back: So you’re all together, like. There’s nothing in the pram, is there?

Mum accepts the suggestion. Peace descends as the bus proceeds on its way.

As I turned back to my paper I heard dad say: What do you think of that, Sue?

They weren’t bad parents, just very short on resources, monetary & otherwise. Their only tactic to quieten the toddler was to insist (over & over again) that it was important, for safety’s sake, to sit down on the bus. If he wouldn’t stay in his seat he would have to be strapped into the buggy.

If only there were always someone around to teach such a deft lesson.

*Names have been changed

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Radio 3 had an interesting 45-minute programme on Sunday (available on the iplayer) about the Electrophone – a way of listening to music, opera or news, down the wire, in the comfort of your own home before radio was invented.

It was big in France – Proust was a devoted listener