Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The bonus illusion

The thing about bonuses (£10 billion in the City & £22 billion across the economy as a whole in the first quarter of this year) is that, essentially & mainly, they share out the spoils from inflation is asset prices among the deluded gilded few who really believe they are adding value in this way.

Meanwhile inflation in the price of goods & services - the production or provision of which is how most of us earn our keep - is stamped on, so our incomes just stagnate too.

Newspapers struggle


That was the rather surprising headline one day last week. On the day after the wedding I certainly could not get hold of a Times at any of the town centre outlets, nor any other paper either except the Guardian.

I should have taken note of the punctilious placement of the apostrophe in the headline.

The item was about the latest published results for the Daily Mail & General Trust which were disappointing in part because ‘advertising at the main newspapers was down 5 per cent in April & May, despite the Easter holiday period & the royal wedding.’ Looks like all those exhaustive, voluminous supplements failed to earn their keep.

None of this was helped by steep rises in the cost of newsprint which must compete in the market for recycled paper against Chinese demand for packaging.

And speaking of recycling, Shanks recently announced a £150 million three-year investment in plants which can sort waste into different types of recyclables & anaerobic digestion facilities for food waste – which at first sight sounded as though it might relieve us of a fearful chore.

But no. ‘A revolution in the domestic kitchen is needed to transform the country … separate food waste bins would allow us to more efficiently turn that into green energy & prevent a lot of contamination of recyclable goods.’

Well we already have separate composting bins, which take garden waste & cardboard along with food, but it is not easy to be sure that we are using them ‘properly.’

They do say we can wrap food in ‘a piece’ of newspaper, to help minimise seepage & smell while it sits waiting two weeks for the next collection. But does too much newspaper defeat the whole object of the exercise, & if so, how much is too much?

And don’t get me started on cardboard. I veer between ‘If it looks like cardboard & is used like cardboard it goes in the compost bin’ to ‘If it’s got some sort of waxy or plastic coating, better send it to landfill.’

And don’t get me started on plastic either – well I’ve already grumbled about that.

What we really, really want is to have it all just carried away & sorted in a magic plant.

St Patrick’s Soho Square

St Patrick’s Soho Square has had a £3million restoration.

The church is built on the site of a former music hall, once the home of an actress who gave birth to a child fathered by Casanova.

The Second Catholic Relief Act of 1791 eased the legal bans on Catholic worship & a year later the property was leased to a Father Arthur O’Leary & consecrated for his prosperous Irish parishioners.

Today many of the 700 attendees at Sunday Mass live outside the area but belong to the Chinese & South American chaplaincies which are based at the church.

The works include a new kitchen in the crypt in which volunteers can prepare the weekly meals for the homeless.

James MacMillan has composed St Patrick’s Magnificat for unaccompanied voices in four parts especially for the reopening mass which takes place this evening.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Cherchez-pas une belle-mère

While I am on the topic of 1950s home dressmaking, I can pass on a tip to help avoid those embarrassing revelations whipped up by the wind.

Frocks are back in fashion & frocks mean full skirts – reminiscent of those of the New Look, jazzed up in the age of jive& gingham by voluminous net petticoats. One dressed demurely in those days – not much flesh on display, & certainly not underwear, which was supposed to remain a part of the mystery of woman.

I am trying desperately to remember the English phrase that a schoolmate (or even a kindly stranger, discreetly, on the street) would use to warn you that your petticoat was dipping below the hem of your skirt; the French version was ‘tu cherches une belle-mere’

And even Marilyn Monroe did not want her skirt to blow right up to reveal petticoat, stocking tops & suspenders.

The dressmaker’s trick to avoid this was – lead in the hem.

You could buy special lead pellets in the haberdashery department. Of course it was a tremendous fiddly chore to sew them all the way round, but better than getting yourself a reputation.

I don’t suppose you would be allowed to use lead these days*.

But I expect that the Queen, who has had 60 years of avoiding this problem, was able to pass on some grandmotherly professional advice to Mrs Obama when the two of them stayed behind in Buckingham Palace for a cosy cup of tea after the ceremony in the garden.

You are - at least for use in the hems of curtains

Pippa passes

I can record my reaction to the wedding dresses now that the over-excitement has died down. Comments based mainly from viewing, on the Buckingham Palace website, the arrival at the Abbey.

Slight disappointment in the bride’s dress – concept fine, but there was too much of a hint of one of Madonna’s coned bras about the fit of the bodice. Difficult to say whether this was the designer’s intent, or a slight failure in the dressmaker’s art.
In my day, when the bride’s dress would most likely be made by the bride’s mother, auntie or neighbour or the local dressmaker, the sewer would almost always be present when the bride dressed, in order to make last minute adjustments to cater for the bride’s inevitable loss of weight.

We could not have anything like the modern affordable clothing industry if dresses still had to fit in the style of the New Look – snug & close, apparently, to the woman’s own contours. Fortuny pleats, elastic shirring or rouching might sometimes be employed to perform the function that lycra performs today, but the major change, since the 60s, in modern design has been a relaxation of silhouette, to cover a multitude of sins & allow a relatively small range of sizes to fit huge numbers of women.

Back-to-basics in dressmaking requires skills in cutting & sewing that overlap with those of the tailor, a combination of bespoke fit & disguising imperfections such as asymmetry or inconvenient folds of flesh.

Even amateur dressmakers learned the rudimentary skills of adjusting a mass-market paper pattern to fit. If you could afford it you had a dressmakers dummy as an aid otherwise you had to have someone else to help with the intricate pinning, pinching & tacking adjustments.

And the simpler the dress- fewer frills, plainer fabric, less to hide the multitude of sins - the more crucial it was to have a perfect fit.

The royal maid of honour’s dress could hardly have been simpler – except for the draped décolletage. And it took a genius to design that all-important view from the back

And more genius to adjust all the darts & seams to give it that perfect silky satin fit – which makes the illusion of a perfect body underneath, even though there are of course limits to illusion, silk purses & sows ears.

The final touch of genius – that row of buttons – depended on minute attention to size & placement to avoid vulgarity.

Demure can truly be dynamite

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Queen’s hat

Too much royalty perhaps recently, but I must just record that the Queen really does seem to be doing a bit of a Jenny Joseph with her hats these days, kicking over the traces just a little.

On a visit to the Chelsea Flower Show she wore a particularly fetching creation of bows & black lace – a very clever combination of the very girlish & something her great great grandmother Queen Victoria might have worn (at home) in her old age.

Wearing hats is what royals do. It’s what differentiates them from US presidents & Hollywood - Lisa Armstrong Times magazine 28 May 2011

I have been here before

Sudden Light

I HAVE been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

You have been mine before,—
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow's soar
Your neck turned so,
Some veil did fall,—I knew it all of yore.

Has this been thus before?
And shall not thus time's eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore
In death's despite,
And day and night yield one delight once more?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Guests who came to dinner

A Times report of the Obama visit carried, on page 4, a box giving a selection of names of those invited to the state dinner. This very partial list named only two women – Helena Bonham-Carter (with Tim Burton) & Hillary Rodham Clinton (without Bill). We were directed to the Court Circular on page 55 for full details.

Virtually all the other women who attended were listed as with, & secondary to, their husband or partner.

I spotted a small number of women (not listed as ‘with’ a partner) in the president’s suite & among the US Embassy invitations, otherwise only Baroness Hayman as Lord (!) Speaker & ‘Ms. Deborah Turness and Mr. John Toker’.

Deborah Turness is Editor, ITV News, the first female editor of network news in Great Britain who, as a producer, spent part of her early career working in ITN's Washington bureau.

This tells us quite a lot about the role of women in these post-feminist days. Just a tiny number invited in their own right, though we cannot discount the idea that some of the couples were invited because the two together have a status that neither quite has on their own; even then, the man always comes first.

The events of the past few weeks have shown that a highly intelligent & independent woman can nevertheless achieve great respect & status by coming second & knowing her place – not speaking out of turn for example, or even at all. But she will be judged on her dress in a way that a man will almost never be. Perhaps we should learn a lesson from the Queen, Michelle Obama & Samantha Cameron: embrace it, don’t moan, & turn it to powerful symbolic effect.

Other fascinating facts:

Tom Hanks (& Ms Rita Wilson) were there as US Embassy invitations.

God’s full name is Sir Augustine O’Donnell.

Boris Johnson’s wife is styled here, so presumably styles herself, as MRS. Marina Wheeler – a combination of honorific denoting marital status & maiden name that I haven’t come across before.

Tony Blair & Gordon Brown (with wives) were not omitted from this guest list, as they were for the Royal Wedding. Did GB wear white tie & tails?

Sir John Major & Dame Norma Major also attended, though not Baroness Thatcher, whose health would probably not permit it. I would guess that protocol insists former prime ministers be invited to state occasions.

Perhaps that even explains Helena Bonham Carter, who, as the great granddaughter of almost the last Liberal prime minister, is practically political royalty herself.

Guest List

Related posts
Being free (to bring a friend)
Invitation to the wedding
A terminological debate

Friday, May 27, 2011

Speakers in grey suits

We have all become very aware of the political power of the visual image over these last few weeks.

So was it carefully planned, I wonder, that the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Lord Speaker, & the President of the United States of America, should process into Westminster Hall wearing what looks in the photographs, to be an identical shade of grey.

To point up the human diversity of the group: a black man, a short man and a lord who is a lady.

Last FM

It wasn’t just Blogger that was having problems recently – I could not get Last FM either.

Check headphones – OK

Check Radio Vlaanderen – no joy there either.

I just put it down to one of those things – maybe a problem with the library system.

Blogger has, a far as I know, been a bit cagey about the precise nature of their problem, but Last FM have been disarmingly frank

The technical detail is over my head, but it was very illuminating to read about the difference in emphasis, & technical challenge between start-ups which focus on making things work, and reliability which comes later, costs money, and adds complexity to systems – something government ministers might take note of the next time they dream of a vast all-singing, all-dancing computer project.

And after all that, Last FM’s problem was just dust.

They should get a mother-in-law with white gloves to come& run her fingers over all the surfaces.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

If it’s Tuesday it must be ?

All tourists know that feeling – what day is it, or alternatively, where are we today.

So we can understand why Barack Obama had to ask the dean what date it was as he signed the visitors’ book of Westminster Abbey. But what made him think it was 2008?

My guess is that 24 May 2008 has some special significance for him.

Actually, these days it’s very easy for all of us to be unsure of the date, now that we have to write it so much less frequently as so many of our transactions are automatically stamped with the time & date.

But even in the days when you did have to write it out for yourself, it was surprisingly easy to make a slip over the year – especially in the first weeks of January, but at other times too.

We once had a cheque returned, marked simply RD with no guidance at all as to where the fault lay. After the immediate panic – have we run out of money? – we checked & rechecked.

Signature – yes
Words & figures agree – yes
Date – yes

So what on earth was going on?

Eventually we spotted the problem – it was years out of date, long past the time when the electricity company could have presented it for payment. 1952.

Neither of us could assign any special significance to that year.

The future is safe

The Times recently alerted us to the names of those on the Young Power List – twenty five persons aged under 26 who are hell bent on changing the world.

The list includes a fixer, a party organiser, a socialite, a protester & a free education advocate.

Interestingly, although it is difficult to be sure, only three of the 25 appear to have had the university education which we are repeatedly told is the key to success in the real grown up world.

Sharing family histories

On Monday the President visited the home of Fulmuth Kearney, his Irish great-great-great-grandfather, in Moneygall.

On Tuesday the Queen showed the President her great-great-great-grandfather’s diary.

The bit which records that ‘America is lost!

The Queen has just surpassed her great-great-great-grandfather, George III, to become the second longest serving British monarch.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Feeding the world

It must have been the late 1970s; a large group of Chinese engineers were over in the UK on a prolonged cultural exchange/educational visit. I often saw them travelling up & down in the lift at work.

What was sad, or shocking or disturbing about this group of men, who after all must have been highly educated & from what we would have regarded as the ‘better off’ section of society, was that they all showed signs of malnutrition, most obviously in various slight skeletal malformations or sometimes downright deformity.

Well the history of famine in China constitutes a special case, but in 1960 when the population of the world was a mere 3 billion we were being taught that ‘Two thirds of the world goes to bed hungry each night’, & to be seriously concerned about the prospects for future food supplies. I particularly remember the scientists who promised the development of one small pill which could provide all we need, & talk about denatured protein (don’t ask).

Instead we humans went on to experience an astonishing increase in longevity.

It was the poor chicken what got it.

Or at least so I was thinking as I read one section of David Edgerton’s The shock of the old: technology and global history since 1900.

In 1960 there were some 4 billion chickens in the world.

By 2000 there were 13 billion.

And they have become nearly twice as heavy on only half as much feed as they used to need. They should exercise more!

The results are predictable – they live much shorter lives, killed at half the age they used to be.

The number killed for meat per year rose from 6 billion to 45 billion.

The question for those who would rather chickens were better treated remains – how would you have fed the people?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Waste reduction policies

When I went to live in the West Indies in the mid-60s air travel was just beginning to make it possible for West Indians to fly to New York to visit family & friends, or to get an education. It was not unusual for women to come home with a large suitcase containing plastic bottles – the large, brightly coloured ones which had contained fabric conditioner were especially popular.

Empty, of course; no one could afford the excess baggage for full ones. But the novel containers were valuable in themselves for all kinds of storage in a humid, insect ridden climate.

We had no municipal rubbish collection service out in the country – you had to be your own waste collection & disposal officer. Not a very onerous task since most food waste went to animal feed. Fruit peelings – pineapple in particular – were put into large glass carboys, covered in water & left out in the sun to produce a pleasant, slightly fizzy drink. Large tins of dried milk, with lids, made splendid cockroach-proof storage for rice & flour. Medium size tins which had contained butter, ghee or margarine could be used as cake tins or small saucepans. Bottles of locally produced beer or soft drinks could be returned to the shop for ¢ & the small bottles of imported Carlsberg found a ready market in those who used them as containers for home-made sauces for sale in the market – a new crown cork applied with a machine which looked rather like a giant stapler. Coconut husks made splendid fuel for a barbecue. Only small amounts of stuff had to be burned, bashed or buried.

Beware voters

The Lib Dems can already expect trouble getting re-elected to Parliament from constituencies in places like Sheffield, where there are large student populations, because of what is seen as a betrayal over the introduction of £9,000 a year fees.

In Manchester they may just have thrown away any (slim) hope they might have had of filling the gap with votes from those whose children are pretty unlikely (statistically speaking) to go to university.

They may not mind the Rich Footballer being cut down to size, but not all premiership players fall into this category.

Some of them fall into the category of Our Boy.

Such voters may mete out to arrogant MPs the same treatment they gave the Sun newspaper in Liverpool. You can’t expect to treat one of our boys like this & get away with it.

Especially not just before a very, very Big Match.

But John Hemming MP has different concerns. He doesn’t like anybody going after twitters. Internet security of all kinds is close to his heart - he was ‘the first person outside the USA to implement the main SSL World Wide Web security protocol. He is one of the world's leading internet technical experts and programs in eight different programming languages.’

And maybe he’s just sore about Birmingham City being relegated from the Premier League, while Manchester United are champions. Brummies are also sore that some people think that Manchester, not Birmingham, is England’s Second City.

Or perhaps he just does not know very much about football.

Note: Hemming (51), a married father of 3 plus 1, has always been honest about his extramarital affairs.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Water carriers of the developed world

A picture of women & children carrying containers of water on their heads is one of our enduring images of Third World poverty.

But we in the affluent world also carry an awful lot of water around, usually in supermarket trolley, shopping bag or the boot of the car. We rarely do it on our heads.

I am not talking about the strange conviction that water from plastic bottles is somehow better than, chemically superior to, & therefore better for our health than, the stuff that emerges from our kitchen tap, even when the liquid in the bottle comes out of a factory tap & is labelled as table water.

But we do carry water in ever increasing quantities, disguised as stuff.

Back in the 50s or 60s great hopes were pinned on techniques of freeze-drying as a solution for problems of world hunger, by its preservative properties & through increasing international trade in food by cutting transport costs by reducing weight & bulk.

For a while mash meant Smash, peas came in Surprise packets, & Knorr Swiss gave us fresh vegetable soup without the need to peel anything except the packet.

These were welcomed by mothers who had grown used to the convenience of cake & pudding mixtures & fruit juice squashed in bottles & reconstituted at home. Welcomed not least because shopping necessitated the daily chore of carrying it all home in a basket.

But now we all have cars & are time poor, so we prefer to buy stuff that comes ready prepared with added water.

Bottles of fizzy drink
Cartons of juice ‘fresh’ or reconstituted in a factory
Liquid soup is fresher
Laundry detergent - powder gums up the tray in the washing machine, so liquid, please.
Bar of soap? No, bath or shower or handwash liquid

Milk that used to come to your door in an electric-powered vehicle now uses its weight in your boot to reduce, at the margin, the miles you get for each gallon of expensive petrol or diesel.

Then all these waxed or plastic waterproof containers have to be washed & squashed & sorted into the right bin so that they can be sent round the cycle again.

How to name a Queen

One small surprise about the Irish coverage of the Queen’s visit – everybody called her Queen Elizabeth - something you never hear on this island, where she is always just The Queen.

One thing I remember being taught at school, amid all the excitement of having a new young Queen on the throne, a new Elizabethan Age & a Coronation to look forward to, was that the Queen Elizabeth of our history books would henceforth be known as Elizabeth I, now that we had Elizabeth II. So I am not sure that it would be technically strictly correct, in the same way that it is correct to refer to Queen Victoria, for us to call her plain unnumbered Queen Elizabeth.

Perhaps the Irish are just, ever so subtly, making the point that she is not the only Queen in the world.

Of course, until 2002 we in fact had two living Queens Elizabeth, since her mother, the widow of a monarch, remained a Queen.

And now there is the excitement of the Obama visit. I wonder if we should read any significance into the fact that he has brought stormy weather with him?

We marvel at how an old lady can say so much without saying anythingcontributor to RTÉ Radio 1

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Making headlines

LIBRARY PERVERT GETS LIFE screamed the advert for the local newspaper.

Ooh-er. What does one have to do to earn such a sentence in a library?

Turns out he wasn’t in a library but had amassed one of his own, which he was generously willing to distribute on-line to those who shared his extraordinary tastes.

We learned to take newspaper posters with a large pinch of salt in the days when the street seller’s stall would proclaim FILM STAR DIES, or even, sometimes, FAMOUS FILM STAR DIES. If you were foolish enough to accept that as a come-on you had to scour the pages to find, usually on the inside bottom of page 2, a small paragraph announcing the death of someone of whom you had never heard (though you might recognise the name of the film mentioned).

I carried that kind of scepticism with me on the day John Smith died, when I happened to arrive in Manchester late morning. Many shops had put up hand written notices in their windows announcing LABOUR LEADER DIES. No on-line social networks & precious few mobile phones in those days, of course; I assumed it must be an event of local, rather than national significance, until the shock of learning otherwise.

Personal history

A short sweet poem from Thomas Hardy this week.

One that tells of different ways of looking at history, & how, crucially, we are all woven into its tapestry by personal experience & memory which, like the dab of white highlight on a cherry, makes the whole picture come alive.

As we were poignantly reminded on Wednesday by A History of the World Special on Radio 4, which told the story of a picture painted by a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz for a Welsh soldier who had been sent as a PoW to work in the machine shop there. The picture hangs on the wall of that soldier to this day.

The Roman Road

The Roman Road runs straight and bare
As the pale parting-line in hair
Across the heath. And thoughtful men
Contrast its days of Now and Then,
And delve, and measure, and compare;

Visioning on the vacant air
Helmeted legionnaires, who proudly rear
The Eagle, as they pace again
The Roman Road.

But no tall brass-helmeted legionnaire
Haunts it for me. Uprises there
A mother's form upon my ken,
Guiding my infant steps, as when
We walked that ancient thoroughfare,
The Roman Road.

Thomas Hardy

A History of the World

Saturday, May 21, 2011


Here is something I eally liked - My favorite genera of ants - a physicist speaks about ants. As an added bonus it ends with a video of his favorite ant-themed song of all time.

Edison, Baker & Sprocket

Danny Baker is back on Saturday mornings, just as lively & full of ideas as before he got ill. But his voice has changed – thinner somehow, lost some of the lower harmonics & roughness, much less resonant as if it were coming from smaller, thinner tubes. I was wondering if it might be yet another of those strange side effects (like curly hair) of chemo, when he let slip that he no longer has saliva glands.

The human spirit, eh.

This morning’s little gem, for me, was learning that Edison claimed to have invented the sprocket, demanded royalties from anyone using them to project films & so was responsible for the nascent American film industry’s migration to the West Coast (I summarise Paul Merton’s account of his upcoming series on BBC television)

I just love that word sprocket. I think I must have first been introduced to it when my father insisted that I become a competent cycle mechanic (at the age of 10) before I was allowed out unaccompanied on my bike. I think I remember having something like a circular sprocket fixer in my saddlebag toolkit – I certainly had something with which to tighten a loose chain.

The OED finds the earliest use of a sprocket way back in 1536, when it meant ‘a triangular piece of timber used in framing, esp. one fastened on the foot of a rafter in order to raise the level of the eaves.’

It appears in 1750 to mean ‘A projection (either forked or simple) from the rim of a wheel, engaging with the links of a chain’, and by the 1890s is being used (in the sense of sprocket wheel) in the literature of both cycling & cinema.

I wonder if Edison got the idea from a bicycle?

Interesting to note that wheels played a part in cinema from the very beginning, when Roget wrote his paper on the persistence of vision after observing what happened to the wheels of passing carriages as he watched them through the railings surrounding his basement kitchen

Well said

The Queen’s visit to Ireland hasn’t closed the book on history, but it has turned the page.

Denis Murray former BBC Ireland correspondent Radio 5 Live 20 May 2011

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Jam generation

The first episode of a Radio 4 series about the new young generation of people at the top of politics is called The Jam Generation because of their (in some ways) surprising shared affection for the pop group of that name.

One point stood out for me which casts current politics - coalition etc – in a new, more comprehensible light.

Our prime minister & others at the top of politics were all teenagers (or, in some cases, even younger) in the early years of the Thatcher government, culminating in the miners strike of 1984, & including on the way Labour’s ‘long suicide note’ of a manifesto for the 1983 election.

Having witnessed all that, they determined that that kind of divisive politics did nothing for the greater good.

But they are learning – fast – that just doing the opposite to your parents does not make everything come out all right

Ireland & the Queen

A young Irishman spoke to the BBC about what the Queen’s visit meant to him & his generation.

For me, the most significant moment was when she got off the plane, looked up at the sky & really smiled. She was obviously genuinely happy to be here.

Although the Queen always looks happy when we see her these days, it was good to know that the solemnity did not overcome her smile.

Another person interviewed said that she could not believe it possible that the Queen could be wearing green. Of course monarchy, if it understands anything, understands symbols.

It is good that the visit should be seen to be going well. I have been listening to a lot of the coverage on RTÉ Radio 1.

The words symbolism & reconciliation are much heard.

Some will even see symbolism in the death, yesterday, of Garret Fitzgerald.

It is odd how some people do seem to decide I can let go now.

One commentator on RTÉ recalled how they had been concerned for the former Taoiseach when his wife died in 2006 – a time at which many (including my own grandfather) seem to decide they just want to go to the one with whom they shared such a long, close & happy life.

Garett Fitzgerald was born in the same year as the Queen & had for long been working towards a time when the Queen could visit Ireland.

Mission accomplished.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The nature of love

According to a French man interviewed on The World Tonight, friends & colleagues of a French politician recently spoke to him about his amorous adventures – perhaps he should be more cautious while going for the presidency.

I love women – what’s the problem ? was his alleged reply.

He loves women in the same way that I love vanilla ice cream. I cant get enough, or resist any opportunity to consume yet more. Doesn’t matter whether it is cheap air-filled fat or expensive organic (if someone else is paying), or best of all, home-churned.

I also love vanilla custard.

And vanilla slices.

And vanilla smoothies.

But never for one moment do I stop to consider if they love me

As to whether they want to be eaten – what sort of question is that? That is just what they are there for, their sole reason for existence.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Self preservation

One effect of the Blogger outage of 13 May has been to make many reconsider their backup, to suddenly doubt the wisdom of relying solely on the cloud.

When I first began working with computers storage consisted only of paper tape or punched cards (for input) & concertina-folded, green-lined sprocket-holed paper for output. Some of this information may survive today in the form of extracts in printed reports or bundles of cardboard files in the archives.

My personal computerised archive dates back to the early 90s when I acquired my first Amstrad Notebook. Hard lessons, learned when technological changes in computing almost always brought some crisis over lost or unusable data or programs, meant that I was scrupulous about back-up from the beginning – the pain of any loss now would be personal – at first on 5” then, as I moved on to Windows, 3” floppy discs.

And so my personal archive remained reasonably secure right up to the Sunday of the week in which my last laptop expired – backing up was a slow & tedious affair, relegated to an end-of –the-week chore. I was totally off-line at home (no broadband).

And remained secure for a couple of years after that, while I searched fruitlessly for something that wasn’t an Apple, but was lighter than a 5-lb bag of potatoes, to carry around with me.

The public library came to my rescue as far as internet access went, but was, understandably, unable to provide disc space for personal storage, so I was delighted to discover Google Documents; for once I was quite an early adopter & began the slightly tedious business of transferring files from more than 20 floppy discs to cloud.

Until disaster struck. The library closed access to the computer for a couple of days for a system upgrade. Next time I went in the floppy disc drives had disappeared.

But the libraries in a neighbouring authority still had them, & I also found out that I could buy an external floppy drive if necessary, so the remaining files were transferred.

The next emergency was caused by an attack of malware on the library system, which eventually had to be closed down for about a week for cleaning & reinforcement of the defences. Even after it was opened up again we were barred from using anything like memory sticks or mp3s &, far worse from my point of view, barred from access to Google Documents on the public side of the desk, though not, for some strange reason, to Blogger. I learned the value of e-mail attachments for temporary storage.

But it also made me re-evaluate my reliance on the cloud.

Paper, after all, remains the safest, more durable & go-anywhere medium.

I have never kept a personal diary. The few attempts I made as a teenager, when I thought it was a compulsory thing for a girl to do, ended in abject failure. How on earth could I sum up all the experiences of each day in a few well chosen words? And I was only too well aware that some emotional reactions – so & so was horrible to me … I love X … it’s NOT FAIR … would just be embarrassing to re-read. Some things were even too private to commit to paper or formulate in words at all, must just remain hugged or buried somewhere internally.

Then I learned about commonplace books & after several false starts began a series which continues to this day, over 40 years later.

For about 25 of those years they are purely manuscript notebooks, changing in character to match both the changes in me & the exact format of the notebook I was using at the time. Some didn’t really work & were abandoned – left on the shelf. What started as just quotations from other people expanded to include, at various times, my own thoughts, overheards, recipes &, in the age of Pritt Stick, cartoons, pictures, interesting bits of graphic art.

So they are intensely personal, occasionally taken down & re-read. The surprising thing is that they provoke, stimulate, evoke memory more intensely than any contemporary private account could ever do. I may remember where I was, who I was with, why I was reading that source, even the cover or details of the book.

Then I moved to Word documents, all printed out at intervals, in the days when I had a dot matrix printer (never ink-jet, the invention of the devil), then laser printer in the library.

I still make commonplace books, though to some extent this blog has taken over some of their function, & even intertwines & makes use of some of the stuff recorded in the old manuscript ones.

After the malware attack had made me acutely aware of the vulnerability of my blog for so long as it was stored purely electronically, I started to think about ways of downloading that on to paper too.

Current practice is to dump it each month into a Word document, edited down to pure text with all the furniture removed, then print it out in black & white at 10p per page.

After the latest shock of the Blogger outage I have begun the process of downloading all my stuff from the cloud & onto a memory stick – something which, compared to the uploading from floppy disc is extremely fast & will probably be finished in no time at all. It is also jaw-dropping to find that what I have done so far still does not produce a noticeable blue line on the cerise pie chart that represents the amount of available storage used – I just have no mental image of what 4Gb is (are?), but I can say that I have so far downloaded nearly 200,000 words & have only just begun.

Some time ago I also began the process of transcribing the old commonplace manuscript notebooks into machine readable form – a very as-&-when activity to fill the idle moments when I had nothing better to do, which may be speeded up now that I have the Notebook. The advantage of doing this is the ability to FIND or SEARCH these memory banks even when I am far from home.

What all these upsets have done however is to reconfirm my feeling that I do not want to be my own online IT manager at home. As things stand, when disaster (major or minor) befalls I can get up, walk away & leave it to the professionals to sort out, without having to worry about whether all is compromised or there will be a big bill to pay. Irritation & frustration are small prices to pay. Nor do I have to concern myself with security, the need for software upgrades, or any of the other mysterious messages which sometimes appear on the screen.

The public library fills that gap now that I do not have the backup of an IT department at work or university, as it does for many others who never had those advantages in the first place.

Martha Lane Fox, founder of lastminute.com & now the government’s internet champion with a target to get the ten million people in this country who have never used the internet on line by 2012, allowed in an interview with Stephanie Marsh published in Saturday’s Times Magazine that she had been irritated by that same government’s attack on public libraries, making it seem that these are fusty old places which offer only fusty old books to customers who are mainly elderly, while allowing that a few had modernised by turning themselves into coffee bars which attract teenagers. She thinks that public libraries will have an important role top play in getting everybody on line. Even though I think that phones & tablet computers – when the price & the technology settle down – I agree with her.

There was a time, starting in the Seventies & extending even into the Nineties when public libraries did seem to go into decline, the haunt of the sad, mad & lonely, offering books which were often in a condition which made you reluctant to take them home & which anyway were easily available in paperback or, for increasing numbers, in the library at college or university.
Then came the internet & Amazon & enough money to spend on as many books as you wanted. Who needs public libraries, the more affluent decided. I was even one of those myself.

The politicians seem to have missed the changes. The picture they were so busily describing this spring – well that was by a Salon Painter in the Age of Impressionism.

Public libraries have been offering free internet access & free taster courses for years now. I am surrounded by users of all ages, including pre-schoolers, those learning citizenship, people searching hard for jobs (there is no charge for printing out your cv), researchers into family or local history, people pursuing very specialist interests, online gamers, student researchers, grandparents needing access to a scanner to send photos as email attachments, a lot of Facebook users, people watching films & video & highlights of football matches, a few typing diligently.

The librarians can all offer friendly help & advice in all this, while making it perfectly clear that they cannot do your searching for you.

Librarians keep adjusting to all the changes that take place in the world – which after all is their world – of information. There are still lots of books on offer – a very well-edited selection of them on display either on shelves in the old fashioned way, ordered in accordance with the Dewey system, or in eye-catching displays on different themes or subjects, or in the goldmine of the basement, retrievable in a few minutes, no need to wait around at home for the delivery van.

There are coffee mornings, advice sessions, book groups, stories & singing for babies, help with homework.

The only complaint I could possibly make is that they are not open long enough, or indeed at all on Sunday.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Radio 3

Last Friday – the thirteenth – was a really rotten day, what with the Blogger outage & the return of the rain.

So home, knotted up, wet & miserable in unaccustomed gloom.

But Radio 3 has had a makeover.

Every so often, in recent years, I have thought of writing a post asking the question of why Radio 3 should always sound so lugubrious.

Didn’t matter what work they were playing, even pressing the buttons or turning the knob blindfold the station was instantly recognisable, & never to be lingered over except for certain specific speech programmes.

Now we have a live concert every weekday evening. Why this should make such a difference I am unable to say. It may be something highly technical – I remember once hearing a discussion about how Radio 3 was the only BBC station not to use a certain kind of compression (I think it was) which led to some complaints about inaudibility.

Whatever it was, lugubrious was the only word to describe it.

It was not always this way. I used to listen a lot in my younger days. I particularly remember my introduction to Mahler.

If even Stravinsky was considered a bit too modern & difficult back then, Mahler was just unplayable, or at least unplayed. Too gloomy, Germanic, or something. So when I was doing the ironing one Friday just after lunch & they announced that Mahler was next I almost went across the room to turn my transistor radio to another station, until I thought at least to give it a go, it might be Good For Me to learn.

I suppose I must have finished the ironing, carried away with the experience of hearing that music for the first time.

Friday evening brought the most joyous performance of Bach’s B minor mass by Philippe Herreweghe with his choir and orchestra. The music soared & filled the space of St John’s, Smith Square in a way that the music for the Royal Wedding could not fill Westminster Abbey, even listening on the same old bedside radio.

For the second half the lights were just switched off, & we lay back listening in the dark while all the tension drained away.

Bach's B minor Mass from the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music

Related posts
Rite of passage
Wedding music

A relief for tired arms

The Saturday Times has had a redesign. The old broadsheet Saturday Review has been combined with the listings magazine in a tabloid – sorry, compact – format.

Hurray. The broadsheet gave the editor & designers lots of scope for spectacular layouts combining pictures & text, but it was too much for an old lady.

Perhaps it was just a plot with the makers & sellers of varifocal lenses, but it was impossible to read whole, & difficult to fold into a handy format because of the way the text was distributed over the page. It made my arms ache trying to hold it at the correct focal distance.

Bede & Islam

While Bede, as he neared the end of his life, was worrying about the threat posed by personal immorality to the future of Christianity in Northumberland, commentators have noted that he never wrote anything about what many saw as perhaps a greater danger – the Islamic incursion into Spain which had begun a quarter of a century before his death.

Judging solely by his best known work, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, one would think Bede lived isolated on the very edge of civilisation with ‘only small sources of illumination like bonfires seen across a valley’; as Judith McClure & Roger Collins, who edited the World Classics edition noted, a map of places he mentions confirms this view. Their number & geographical concentration dwindle as one moves south with Rome as the most distant point.

But his Greater Chronicle shows a much wider range of interest & knowledge, extending across Spain, North Africa & the eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire, with Rome at the centre, and his textbook on how to use your fingers as a calculator remained in use throughout Europe for half a millennium.

Threads run through history in a complicated braid or tapestry.

Over 1000 years after the age of Bede a young man, born, bred, & living in that very same Christian archdiocese of York, outraged perhaps in part by the personal immorality, particularly of women, that he saw around him, became a radicalised Islamist & imposed his own indiscriminate punishment on those of any religion or none who happened to be in London on 7 July 2005


I really am not a conspiracy theorist. But.

There is a lot of politics around the head of the IMF who is now (Sunday 15 May) all over the headlines because of alleged sexual offences in New York.

Of course he has form, you know (nudge, nudge) – an inappropriate relationship with a member of staff as one news broadcast reminded us. Whatever that means.

I cannot help but think that since he is widely thought to be about to run for election in his own country, where political shenanigans are not unknown, & thereby will free up a post coveted by another [virtually ex] politician from this country, also known for his association with dirty tricks – well, I cannot help but wonder if there may be dots to join up.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


I finally got round to hearing Amy Winehouse’s version(s) of Monkey Man on YouTube.

Horrible – the beat is all wrong & one video, taken at some outdoor festival, reminded me of the really bad old days of Top of the Pops in the 1960s – gormless teenagers bobbing up & down out of time even to tha rhythm

Related post
Monkey man reggay

Trumpet Player

This poem really speaks for itself.

It sings for itself too.

The purity/clarity of the high notes rides the roughness of the embouchure around & below, carried along on the rhythm.

Who else could find the beat in hypodermic syringe.

The cry of pain that can never be thrown off or away, only fade & haunt.

The Trumpet Player

The Negro
With the trumpet at his lips
Has dark moons of weariness
Beneath his eyes
Where the smoldering memory
Of slave ships
Blazed to the crack of whips
About thighs

The Negro
With the trumpet at his lips
Has a head of vibrant hair
Tamed down,
Patent-leathered now
Until it gleams
Like jet—
Were jet a crown

The music
From the trumpet at his lips
Is honey
Mixed with liquid fire
The rhythm
From the trumpet at his lips
Is ecstasy
Distilled from old desire—

That is longing for the moon
Where the moonlight's but a spotlight
In his eyes,
That is longing for the sea
Where the sea's a bar-glass
Sucker size

The Negro
With the trumpet at his lips
Whose jacket
Has a fine one-button roll,
Does not know
Upon what riff the music slips
It's hypodermic needle
To his soul -

But softly
As the tune comes from his throat
Mellows to a golden note

Langston Hughes

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Gun salutes

For some reason I found myself remembering the first time I was ever ‘close to’ an IRA bomb when it went off.

My boss was already in the office, & I was hanging up my coat when we heard the bang, a few yards away in a Home Office building next to the old Westminster Hospital in Horseferry Road which was on the corner directly across from us. I had just walked past it on my way from the bus stop

At first we thought the noise must come from Hyde Park – when the weather was right we could hear the gun salutes.

Which set me wondering - do they still fire salutes, I can’t remember hearing of one. Have they been discontinued because of the alarm they might cause these days.

Well no they haven’t & yes they do still take place, according to the Buckingham Palace website.

What has changed is they never seem to count as worthy of a mention in the news in these less deferential days.

Paying for health

The bus had to manoeuvre its way past a large white van parked in the village.

HEALTH CHECK was emblazoned on its side.

The providers are a bit confused though. They offer fixed-price screening.

FROM £159

Is this the first sighting of the new NHS?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Unlucky 13

Blogger is clearly still having problems, cannot cope with scheduling posts.

They have made a complete pigs ear out of everything I did yesterday - lost some, duplicated other stuff.

Will I be safe if I decide it's time just to go home?

After all, it is Friday 13

Blue black & silver

The sky was spectacular last night – though best looked at through the big kitchen window than from outside where it was blustery & very cold.

The moon is nearly full & the high sky an inky blue; a few straggly pieces of stately cumulus hovered, bathed in silvery light.

But underneath flat black clouds raced from the west, looking like clods of earth washed off the edge of a continent. There did not seem enough of them to threaten rain however, & there were no sings of any late morning.

This Friday afternoon we have been treated to a few real deluges however. Almost seems like old times are back.

Spring's mixed blessings

Not all plants are thriving this spring. The pink horse chestnut by the side of the old railway track is looking very depressed & poorly, its candles scant & petals mostly brown.

Perhaps it just needs more water. This last week we have had our first rain for a month. I am grateful that it has been quite light & intermittent, & hope that will actually work out better all round by soaking well into the earth, not just rushing downhill over parched ground in a race to the sea.

The fire brigade have been busy with grass fires, of which we had the first even before Easter, though thankfully I haven’t heard of any moorland fires yet.

This spring is also notable for the large numbers of birds – small ones, which I am unable to identify. They are most noticeable when you walk past a stand of trees, where they can be seen darting around under or between the lowest branches.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The waning power of pink

On Monday Kat Arney examined the curious recent obsession for ALL things pink for a girl.

Thankfully it seems to be on the wane, judging purely by the latest offerings of clothes in the girls departments of our high street stores – a lot of yellow & green around, as well as other colours. And, although the baby boom continues apace, offering plenty of opportunity for indulgence, many new parents seem happy to settle for just a pair of pink socks or some other discreet indicator that yes, their’s is a little girl.

As Kate Arney found, concentrating on pink alone became ultimately self-defeating. By the time they get to age 8 or so girls tend to turn from even age-appropriate toys because pink = babyish.

Meanwhile boys as young as six know, perfectly well thank you, that pink is only for girls.

And another monk

Suddenly monks are everywhere, or maybe it’s just another case of once you notice something you notice other examples which were there all along.

The latest monk in my life is the hero of Philippa Gregory’s short story, Bread & Chocolate, an unworldly man who gets drawn into a tv cookery programme because of his expertise in making good wholesome bread for his brothers.

He is paired on the show with a beautiful, confident experienced tv chef who is there to make Devil’s Food Cake.

Brother James learns more about the world & all ends happily as he returns to his monastery a wiser & more tolerant man.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

From monks to millers

For me the death of Osama bin Laden will not resonate, have the same sort of memories associated with shock, as did the deaths of John Kennedy & Princess Diana. Perhaps that just reflects age – you can have only so many memories like that – or perhaps the fact that, for me, Osama has always been an almost mythic character, like the man who sat stroking his cat in that James Bond film, never too sure if he wasn’t just a figment of the imagination of spies.

At least for just today my memories of this event in Abbottabad are strangely linked to a very precise smell & some water colour pictures.

The smell, of old railway carriages, is made up principally of coal dust plus the musty fusty smell of upholstery that has hosted myriad tweed-clad human backsides.

These were old-fashioned carriages. In a train without corridors each had its own narrow slam-door with a dumbbell-shaped brass handle & a window which could be opened via a broad leather strap like a belt with holes to hold it open to the required depth. Passengers sat side by side on long couches under an overhead luggage rack made of string netting. Above the back of each seat was a poster showing a yellowing water colour poster of a local scene.

This was the London Midland & Scottish Railway service from Millers Dale to Buxton, a local service which linked with the main line service from London’s St Pancras to Manchester & which I used to take to visit my grandparents – often travelling & changing trains all on my own.

I loved those pictures, would pore over them in detail, was disappointed when the carriage didn’t have them.

Millers Dale was also a popular destination for one of our Sunday picnics, especially when the weather was sunny. There was one particular spot, the site of a derelict stone mill which we could scramble through & over. I always rather assumed it must have been a cotton mill, but now think perhaps it might have milled wheat. Probably been turned into a highly desirable holiday cottage by now.

Millers Dale, Monks Farm, Abbot’s Abode, Abbottabad.

What grows on trees

The sudden shower of leaves, some still attached to their branchlets, took me by surprise. They fell on my head just as I boarded the bus at the stop up the hill – not a tree nearby, certainly non overhead.

Must have come off the bus roof as I lowered the step for you, said the driver. Are you ok?

Oh Yes, I was just trying to work out what it was.

Well it certainly wasn’t money, unfortunately, he said.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The name of Bede

Thinking of abbots, abodes & abads, as well as bade, bid, bide & bode led me to think about Bede. Where does that come from?

According to Chambers it’s the same as bead in its old sense of a prayer.

Thus we can have a bead house (chapel), a bead roll (list of the dead to be prayed for) & a beads- or bedes-man/woman bound or endowed to pray for others.

In Scots it can also mean a licensed beggar.

But that raises the interesting question of whether Bede acquired his name because of his job or whether that is just another coincidence.

A profusion of abbots & abodes

This is throwing up some surprises.

I got in a muddle with the number of t’s in the name of Abbott of Abottabad. Trying to put it right I typed Abbott’s Abode into Google to bring up the Language Log post

But what comes up top of the list?

Abbot’s Abode - yes, with just one t.

And that’s not all. There is a local connection. This Abbot’s Abode is the largest of the Monks Retreat cottages, holiday lets at Millers Dale, a place in Derbyshire which holds a very special place in my memory.

Well I might get around sometime to calculating the probability of this event, taking account of my poor typing & proof reading ability, the number of places called Abbot's Abode in England & Google's increasingly sophisticated ways of tailoring search results to the searcher, but for now I just need a bit of a lie down.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Bede & false monasteries

Thinking about abbots, having asserted that Major (later General Sir) James Abbott must have got his name by descent from one, I suddenly found myself wondering how an abbot could be an ancestor – were they not supposed to be both celibate & chaste?

Then I remembered how the Venerable Bede, towards the end of his life, was always worrying about so-called false monasteries.

I had imagined that these false monasteries were really just an Anglo-Saxon tax avoidance scheme – get your family estate declared a monastery & be spared the expense of keeping any bridges on your land in good repair and be freed from all obligation to provide men to go off & fight for the king.

I took down The History of the English Church & People to look for a quote, & realised that the World Classics edition also contains his Letter to Egbert, the bishop of York, probably Bede’s last surviving work, written 734, which I have never read before.

Bede was indeed concerned for the future, afraid that “with the diminishing of our military forces those who should defend our borders against barbarian incursions disappear.”

But he also feared that religion could come to an end, because the people in these false monasteries provided no pastoral care whatever. Even worse

There are … laymen who … give money to the kings & obtain lands under the pretext of building monasteries, in which they can give freer rein to their libidinous tastes … also with equal shamelessness they obtain places where their wives may construct monasteries …

Nor can these be dismissed solely as the rantings of a man who was ill & possibly fearing his own death; in a passing reference in his great history of the church & people he tells the story of the fire which destroyed the abbey at Coldingham, which Bede uncritically reports as divine retribution for the immoral behaviour manifest in the fact that the nuns were reputed to entertain the brothers in their rooms. Further proof of laxity was provided by the nuns practice of 'weaving elaborate garments'.

Double monasteries rather than female-only convents were the norm in that still unstable, violent age, and Bede was far from being the only church official to express this sort of concern. Bede however was proposing an extraordinary remedy – he wanted the charters – the deeds of ownership - of unsatisfactory monasteries to be torn up & the property given to others, because

There is nowhere that the sons of the nobles or retired soldiers can take possession of. In consequence, wandering & without a spouse, & having passed the age of puberty, they live without commitment to continence, & in consequence they either leave their homeland for which they ought to be fighting in order to go overseas or, with even greater wickedness & lack of shame, because they lack intention of being chaste, they give themselves up to indulgence & fornication

These are not the sturdy, democracy-loving Anglo-Saxons I learned about at school! But it does explain how abbots could have descendants

Sunday, May 08, 2011

The boy on the bus

The boy on the bus said that if he did do it he would feel as though he had just blown £30k on an expensive three year holiday.

OK, if you wanted to be a professional like a doctor or a dentist, then pay for the training. Otherwise, there were apprenticeships & other schemes where someone else paid you to learn. It’s a no brainer.

He then went on to explain that they must plan the arrangements for their first all-boys holiday together. It isn’t just as simple as turn up at the airport & get on a plane, there’s all sorts of other stuff you never thought about, like passports & getting there in time, because your mum & dad just took care of it all.

A boy to make any mum or grandma proud.

Mind you, I would have preferred it if he weren’t shouting all this into his mobile right next to my ear.

There is no God

Another poem by Arthur Hugh Clough.

Even in my younger days the view that non-believers would turn to faith at the end of their life was quite a common one. You do not hear that view expressed much now, unless people prefer just to keep quiet about it

There is no God

"There is no God," the wicked saith,
"And truly it's a blessing,
For what He might have done with us
It's better only guessing."

"There is no God," a youngster thinks,
"Or really, if there may be,
He surely did not mean a man
Always to be a baby."

"There is no God, or if there is,"
The tradesman thinks, "'twere funny
If He should take it ill in me
To make a little money."

"Whether there be," the rich man says,
"It matters very little,
For I and mine, thank somebody,
Are not in want of victual."

Some others, also, to themselves,
Who scarce so much as doubt it,
Think there is none, when they are well,
And do not think about it.

But country folks who live beneath
The shadow of the steeple;
The parson and the parson's wife,
And mostly married people;

Youths green and happy in first love,
So thankful for illusion;
And men caught out in what the world
Calls guilt, in first confusion;

And almost everyone when age,
Disease, or sorrows strike him,
Inclines to think there is a God,
Or something very like Him.
Arthur Hugh Clough

Wedding music

I was left feeling disappointed by the music at the royal Wedding – too heavy, even gloomy, Victoriana not enough Handel or Purcell.

Mind you, I was only listening, on a tinny bedside radio. In the Abbey it must have worked much better, soaring to fill all that space. Even watching it live, seeing the pictures to give that sense of a space to be filled, would have changed the experience for the listener.

A BBC Radio 4 programme on Thursday explored the continuing attraction of 78 rpm records. Jenny Hammerton pointed out that shellac has served as the longest lasting format for recorded music – from 1895 to 1960 (1967 in India), compared with no more than 40 years for the vinyl LP & just 15 years for CDs (that makes me even more glad that I never spent my money on building up a collection to replace my lovingly acquired albums). Who can say how long downloads & streaming will last.

It was also pointed out that the quality of 78s is much better than many suppose – one microphone in a room gives a real sense of music filling the space & you can hear some instruments inaudible even on CD. For me however these qualities were always outweighed by the sheer fag of having to change the record, or even just turn it over, sometimes right in the middle of a movement.

Yesterday came more interesting news about music & the wedding from Last FM blog :
“About 1 in every thousand listeners in Britain scrobble God Save The Queen on a typical day (not counting Last.fm radio listens), which isn’t bad going. But on the day of the Royal Wedding it hit nearly five times that, far more than on any other day in the last 12 months.”
Perhaps for some people it has become a patriotic song of celebration of all things royal.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Revolutionary London

In last Tuesday night’s Radio 3 Essay about Gandhi - Home Rule for the Soul - Professor Sunil Khilnani revealed the small but untriguing detail that Gandhi arrived in England in 1909 just four days after the murder of Sir Curzon Wyllie.

For much of his stay Gandhi 'went native with radical young Indians in London', who believed that only through violent means could they achieve their aim of independence for India.

But on the ship home to South Africa Gandhi wrote his first major work, Hind Swaraj, a critique of modern civilization and a defence of non-violent resistance.

It was banned by the British who viewed it as a seditious manifesto.

The Abbot of Abbottabad

Language Log yesterday carried a very informative piece by Victor Mair about the origins of the name Abbottabad.

We can easily dispose of the Abbott bit, he said, as the name of the English colonial official who founded the town in 1853. There then follows a learned explanation of the origins of the abad part of the name.

Yes, but hold on, can we dispose so easily of Major Abbott who must, after all, have got his name from an ancestor who was an English abbot, the male head of a Christian abbey?

I am writing this at home on Friday night, with no internet access, just my trusty bedside Chambers Dictionary (1993 edition) for enlightenment.

From which I learn that abbot comes, via Latin, from the Aramaic word abba, or father (applied to God), & that Aramaic relates to the language of Aramaea – roughly, modern Syria.

And so last week’s event in Abbottabad adds just another twist to the complex intertwining of politics & religion, as revealed in language, which has connected us all for millennia

Friday, May 06, 2011

Shopping for health, long life & happiness

I read in yesterday’s Times Eureka magazine of Taiwanese research which found that people over 65 years of age who shop every day are more likely to survive the next ten years than those who do not. Even though this is a science magazine, no details of where to find the research were given, but I was able to track down a summary via the BBC news website.

The research was based on data from a sample of ‘1841 representative free-living elderly Taiwanese people’ collected in 1999-2000, linked to official death records. After adjusting for other factors, such as physical & mental health, statistical analysis revealed that those free-living spirits who shopped every day had reduced, by over a quarter, their risk of dying during the nine years of the study period.

That’s as far as I can get without a subscription to BMJ journals, so I cannot find out how many more years my daily shopping habit might give me, nor if it makes any difference what kind of shop you go to, what kind of goods you buy & whether you walk, drive or use the bus to get there, or even if on-line shopping counts, but I shall cite the evidence to anyone who challenges me about what they see as unusual behaviour. Many people I know think that it is bad enough having to go to the supermarket once a week.

For me however, being able to shop every day from the very late seventies or early eighties came as a real liberation after well over a decade of having to cope with a full time job in the days when shops were open only 9 to 5 Mondays to Saturdays, with early closing on Wednesday. Some small shops even closed for lunch.

You had to do your shopping on Saturday, then ironing & cooking for the week ahead took care of most of Sunday & that was your weekend – gone.

I still find that rhythm of daily shopping much more relaxing than alternative routines or timetables

The wheel of health

It was a remark by Shelagh Fogarty during Tuesday’s lunchtime programme on Radio 5.

Isn’t it getting to be the case that doctors these days have just one prescription, whatever the disease: eat healthily, take exercise, don’t smoke.

Or, even more pithily perhaps, be of higher social status.

All this research is just another way of saying what has been painfully clear for years – mortality is intimately related to occupation & social class.

And no, of course we don’t mean that either poverty or mortality is the fault of the poor or the sick. But they could do an awful lot to help themselves do better, if only they would learn.

This modern, evidence-based prescription was known even before the new philosophies threw all in doubt, but even John Donne knew that it was not enough

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Shrinking baskets

The typical grocery shop has one less item in it. It doesn’t sound much, but that’s a huge change that might have taken years that’s happened more or less overnight. The surprise is just quite how sudden that has taken place. It’s like people came out of Christmas & said ‘Right, now I’m going to have to do things differently.’
So said Justin King announcing disappointing results for Sainsbury’s on 23 March.

In fact ‘one item less per shop’ would represent about a 1% drop in quantity if the average of nearly 500 items per month bought by the average family is spread over 5 separate trips to the store.

A snide person might therefore conclude that Sainsbury’s latest marketing campaign is aimed at encouraging families to purchase more of their items in their stores.

How to feed a family of four three meals a day for a week for a mere £50.

Actually I think this goes a long way to meeting a real need for decent practical advice about nutrition, of a sort that used to be a staple of women’s magazines when I was young (along with other sources such as school & family). We all need inspiration & information to cope in this changing world, without feeling that we are being patronised, nagged, told we are just not good enough.

There is detailed information on the website, apps are available, as are leaflets in store.

The meals look nice enough, though the breakfasts look a bit meagre – just cereal or toast – no sign of the boiled egg being eaten by the little cover girl.

But there are no puddings or sweets – not even fruit! I can’t decide whether this is just to duck arguments about sugar - “We’ve worked with nutritionists at the BNF”, & the fine print includes caveats about ‘may not be suitable for very young children’ - or whether it is just a sign that times are hard, treats just are not in the budget.

I was however impressed to note that “Where whole packs are not used in the recipe, we have still included the full pack price in the calculation.” This is the kind of thing my mother warned me of: You may think you know how to manage the housekeeping, but you’ll find it very hard to begin with when you realise that you have to buy whole packets of things like salt & spices, even just for basic cooking.’