Thursday, June 30, 2011

Things can only get worse

Well, we know Labour’s 1997 assertion that things can only get better wasn’t all it seemed, but this government has surely gone too far the other way –they tell us only that things can only get worse, & worse …


Cuts are one thing while we pay off the debt & rein back the growth in public expenditure. We have stopped spending as if there will be no tomorrow.

All of a sudden it seems as if there really might not be one – or one that has only misery or worse to offer.

Will there be any pension at all? Will I even have a job to keep me in the meantime? What would really be best for the children – a degree & a debt, or a job in the university of life? Who will look after me when I am no longer able to do it for myself - perhaps that’s another reason for keeping the children close to home rather than sending them up & off.

The government will really have to play this one more carefully – especially with women. This is not an old fashioned strike led by union dinosaurs; those teachers, care assistants are the hard working mums we all know.

Shops are closing because we are being more economical – bringing yet more worry to other mums who (used to) work there. It’s awful, but what else can I do?

Gordon Brown lost ‘that woman’. Mrs Thatcher won in 1979 in part at least because she offered a vision of a better future to women of the working & middle classes. This government, especially the Conservative part of it, will lose to all ‘those women’ if it carries on unable to find the right tone.

Francis Maude will not win any sympathy by complaining that some union leaders are earning more than he is getting paid in his current job. And Big Society just seems more & more like a way to get women back to doing for free all those caring jobs that they have begun to be paid for.

Mrs Thatcher won against the miners in the 1980s, despite widespread sympathy for their case, because people thought that Scargill’s tactics were just plain wrong &, above all, because the electricity stayed on, in stark contrast to what had happened during the 3 day week of 1974.

So far all I have noticed is a library overrun with teenagers let off the leash on a Thursday afternoon, but if it gets much worse …

Bad news can be no news

The Times report on the ‘chaos’ caused by a new ruling about how bail rules apply to suspects for questioning contains the following:

In a routine murder case that would probably have gone unreported, police were applying for the extension of a detention warrant

Murder? Routine? Unreported?

Does that say more about us or about journalistic values?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Dam busters

Such a lovely Sunday, wallowing in Light Music on Radio 3. Not an unalloyed joy – you can have too much of a good thing.

Private Passions was a compilation of the light hearted bits chosen by guests during its 800 learned episodes to date. The programme went out on one of my firm favourites, The Dam Busters March, chosen by Al Murray who spoke as if he had expected the piece to be unfamiliar to the erudite listeners. I wonder if Stephen Fry, (who was first up on this programme with his choice of Herb Alpert’s Black Forest, which he finds hilarious), will be using this music from the original film in his remake, or will that, along with the name of Squadron Leader Guy Gibson’s dog, have to be changed to Digger, as the original is unsuitable for modern ears.

In a fit of overambition & with a slight crush on Richard Todd I used some of my pocket money to buy the sheet music for piano; a very tasteful navy blue cover, with a black & white photo of bombers against the night sky.

What I cannot remember is if there were ever any official lyrics to the piece, or whether my conviction that one part goes “We who have won fame & glory” is just something inserted by my own brain, or somehow encoded into the music so that all listeners hear them.

I suspect that Sunday was a dam busters day also in the sense that tears trickled down many a cheek as memories of childhood came flooding back


Darren Williams, European economist in the Global Economic Research division at AllianceBernstein has put some interesting (& alarming) flesh on the bones of the argument about relative inflation in asset & consumer prices.

In the 10 years 1997 to 2007 consumer prices in this country rose by an average of 1.6% a year, say 17% in total.

But the increase in stock market prices was 48%, in broad money 111%, in bank lending 155% and, in house prices, a whopping 197%.

In the USA, between 1921 & 1929, money supply rose by 51%, bank credit by 46% & the Dow Jones rose by more than 300%, while consumer prices fell by 4%.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Assorted memories

I have quite vivid memories of a concert which closed the proceedings of a sixth form conference organised by the Council for Education in World citizenship; a large part of the entertainment consisted of dances from various eastern European countries – the first, & I think perhaps the only, time I have been able to appreciate how very intricate & difficult these can be.

So a video link on Floating Sheep Software Sorting Algorithms and Hungarian Folk Dance immediately invoked those memories

A second memory flashed back too; a conversation with a colleague in the early 1980s soon after Amstrads first PWC home computer had become available. He was surprised that I did not have one; I said it was a dust trap which didn’t really do anything useful enough to justify giving it house room.

His final suggestion, after I had continued to turn up my nose at Christmas card lists & games, was You could investigate some of these interesting new ideas about sorting.

I was tempted, but stubborn with it. Well, if I do that I’ll probably just get too interested & spend all my time doing that instead of the things I'm supposed to be doing.

Now I can just sit back & enjoy the full range of exercises in the visualization of opaque software processes created at Sapientia University on the AlgoRhythmics section on YouTube.

Indian telegraph

The sad news is that, since May, it has no longer been possible to send an international telegram from India.

The good news however is that the internal, domestic telegraph service is still in business, albeit that messages are transmitted from one telegraph office to another via e-mail. The telegram still has legal value because the sender’s receipt is admissible proof that the document has been sent (if not necessarily that it has arrived at its intended destination).

Monday, June 27, 2011

First catch your goose

I reproduce in full a NIB in The Times from Reuters:
Geese that pose a danger to aircraft on take off will be sent to Pennsylvania to be cooked as meals for the poor. City officials revealed the plans after a US Airways flight had to ditch in the Hudson River after it struck a flock of geese in 2009

So many questions. How many committees sat, how many options were considered? Was cost benefit analysis employed? Why Pennsylvania? How will the meals be served or delivered to the poor?

Will the geese be rounded up & assessed individually for their danger potential? Or will just being a goose in New York be evidence enough of guilt?

Trouble with the law

I have just been reading Val McDermid’s Trick of the Dark, a very long (over 500 pages) tale of murder & mayhem among Oxford’s dreaming spires, the Isle of Skye, Spain, & Northumberland.

Not at all my cup of tea really, far too Gothic, but I kept going out of sheer curiosity because of promises of a ‘fascinatingly rich & complex mystery’ & ’a workout for the grey cells’ which would keep me ‘guessing until the last page.’

Well, not guessing about whodunit, but what is it for? Until very near the end I thought its main value might be as an awful warning, to girls in particular, of the reasons for not going to Oxford, for not submitting oneself to that intense, enclosed, possessive place, with teachers who see it as their job to mould you in their own image, a place which, even without the mayhem, can crush & destroy those who need a less rarefied atmosphere with more space in which to breathe.

Or at least a place which could do that as recently as the early 1990s when there was still such a thing as an all female college with bitchy girls & scary, snobbish, disapproving but scholarly spinster dons.

I was however struck by the unusually explicit way in which ‘the moral of this story’ was expressed, in particular:
There’s a price we pay for being part of society. You don’t get to make rules that apply only to you … The law isn’t always fair … But it’s the best we’ve got

That seems only too apt a point for her readers to ponder & ruminate upon at a time when there is an unusual amount of discussion & doubt about our law, or at least around the workings of our legal system.

This week’s outrage has been over the cross-examination of Milly Dowler’s parents at the Old Bailey trial of Levi Bellfield, a man who was already serving life for two other murders & one attempt & has now been found guilty of killing Milly.

It is not at all hard to regard the parent’s ordeal with horror, to think that it should not have happened, or at least not in open court in the full glare of publicity. Until you start thinking about the alternatives.

Milly was a thirteen year old girl who disappeared suddenly nine years ago on her way home from school one sunny afternoon. Despite the fact that this happened on a busy street, minutes after she had left her friends in a station café, there was very little for anyone to go on, no witness to an abduction, no cctv, no body. One obvious line of enquiry, though by no means the only one, was whether Milly could have run away of her own volition, which involved police questioning the family closely. One really could expect nothing less.

There is also the point that, statistically speaking, the father/husband/boyfriend is a main initial suspect in the death of a family member.

I remember hearing another father speak of the long term effects of his daughter’s murder on the family – another notorious case in the leafy suburbs south of London, the girl had been murdered in her own bedroom while the family slept. The father fully accepted the reasons why the police had to go through the process of eliminating him as a suspect, rather than just assuming that of course he didn’t do it, & the case was ultimately solved with the real murderer convicted, but the scars were still there.

The problem in the Dowler case lay in the fact that the police uncovered evidence of the father’s sexual predilection which Milly had also found out about, & other written evidence of Milly’s teenage angst. In these days of careful record keeping & full disclosure, the defence also knew about this.

We have full disclosure because there have been too many past cases of miscarriage of justice where police & prosecution kept to themselves important evidence considered irrelevant to the case they eventually brought to court against the accused.

Milly’s body was finally found six months after she disappeared, but sadly in a condition which provided little in the way of evidence about how she died.

The case which was finally put before the jury was entirely circumstantial, consisting of little more than the fact that Bellfield lived close to the point at which she disappeared & had behaved oddly in the days immediately following her murder.

So his defence, which in part consisted of arguing that Milly must have run away & come to harm somewhere else, not at his hands, is a reasonable line to take in a system where the prosecution must prove its case.

There remain questions of whether the evidence about personal sexual peccadilloes should have been heard in open court & whether counsel for the defence were over-aggressive in their questioning.

Sexual privacy – the right to a private life - is another much debated issue which some say is bringing the law - & judges – into disrepute. Some have claimed that it is ridiculous to humiliate a grieving father in this way when the system grants a privacy injunction to a footballer anxious to keep his infidelities confidential. Nobody, to the best of my knowledge, is weighing this against another privacy argument still wending its way through the European judicial system, in which the press is claiming the right to publish details of a man’s sexual proclivities merely because of who he is & who his father was. In other words the press seem close to saying that they have the sole right to decide who gets the pointing, wagging finger of ridicule & blame & who gets left alone as an ‘ordinary person’

The argument seems further to be that if Levi Bellfield refused to do the decent thing & keep quiet about this, his lawyers should have – well what? Told him he could not invite the jury to consider evidence which had been considered by the police? Confined themselves to asking a mealy-mouthed question about whether his daughter had been upset by an unspecified discovery?

Of course you would never be in the dockbut if you were, knowing yourself to be innocent, what would you want your barister to do?

There is also, if we are honest, a way in which we simply do not want to know, to be told, all this. It doesn’t fit the story we want to tell ourselves about good, decent families living uncomplicated, decent, hard working lives, raising happy children who never suffer secret agonies, dark thoughts or struggles coming to terms with growing up & the meaning of life.

A happy story which can be disrupted only by evil people, who will be dealt with by the law.

As indeed has, finally happened in this case. Levi Bellfield is guilty, a jury has said so, & we are entitled to judge the conduct of his lawyers in the light of that finding.

There is an even more nasty possibility lurking in the background of this story.

It is being suggested that Levi Bellfield may have committed more murders, before he murdered Milly. Should these be investigated with renewed vigour, should he face yet more trials?

In particular, should he, possibly, if evidence becomes available, be tried for a crime of which another man has twice been found guilty?

Another story of a family whose idyll was brutally shattered, two even younger girls attacked alongside their mother in the English countryside. Another father who had, at least briefly, to endure coming under suspicion until his alibi could be checked, then making a life for himself & a daughter who miraculously survived.

The evidence against the man who was found guilty was also circumstantial; he was in the vicinity, he had more than his share of untreatable psychiatric problems; to say the least he was a scary nuisance.

But he had a sister who loved him & made the case that he was not capable of that particular evil, to no avail.

Suppose he is, after all, innocent. Where does justice lie here?

I started this by calling Val McDermid’s tale too gothic for my taste. Her book does at least end with closure of a kind, but what sort of reception would be given to a new book which reinterprets all the evidence, shows us that the Oxford-trained expert psychiatric profiler & her high flying policeman friend got it all wrong?

Added 28 June: There is a very useful & balanced summary of the legal underpinnings to the Dowler trial at Justice: RIP?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Perceptive childhood

This poem brings back memories of those dreaded visits to the great aunts. If only I could have been as perceptive & had the empathy of a Frances Cornford

I used to think that grown-up people chose
To have stiff backs and wrinkles round their nose,
And veins like small fat snakes on either hand,
On purpose to be grand.

Till through the banister I watched one day
My great-aunt Etty's friend who was going away,
And how her onyx beads had come unstrung.
I saw her grope to find them as they rolled;
And then I knew that she was helplessly old,
As I was helplessly young.
Frances Cornford

Frances Cornford 1886–1960

Saturday, June 25, 2011


Correspondents to The Times have been having some obscure fun recently with an argument over the habit of reading silently to oneself.

Somebody introduced the word hesychasm, purely to make the rest of us feel inadequate & ill-educated.

I finally succumbed & looked it up. Not after all very interesting, not as much as the fact that St Augustine found it necessary to remark upon Ambrose’s strange habit of reading without saying anything.

I can remember the day one of our primary school teachers said that, now everybody in the class could read fluently & silently to themselves, we should concentrate on, & practice, practice, to get up as much speed as we could. The faster you read, the more you could learn.

He said that in order to read fast it was important, not just not to move your lips, but not even to say the words to yourself in your head.

I tried dutifully to read by simply staring at the page; I might just as well have been staring vacantly into space.

By the end of the week I had given up all pretence of trying to read this way.

And yet I don’t read by saying the words to myself – in fact the definition of really good writing, in my book, is that you are not even conscious of reading at all. There seems to be a direct connection from the author’s neurons.

It is just the act of deliberately not talking to yourself which sabotages the process.

The statistical significance of height

Suppose we could organise a global census. A very simple one, to collect only one piece of information about each person: their height.

So we could calculate the height of the average human being. Say it is 160 cm. That is a simple fact – we have measured everybody.

As a scientist or statistician, would you want to put confidence intervals around that average: ‘we are 95% certain that the true average human is between A cm & B cm in height’? What would be the point, & how would we do it?

Suppose we repeat the exercise in ten years time. The height of the average human being is now 161 cm. Can we say that humans are getting taller?

Well again, we have a simple fact.

Or do we? Just how accurate are the estimates – how great is the measurement error on the estimate of height? Has something happened to the technology of tape measures which makes the number bigger so that people only seem to be taller?

We can perhaps set up experiments to establish the degree of measurement error in the estimate of height of an individual human today, & conclude that a difference of 1 cm in the measured average is not ‘statistically significant’. But how sure can we be that the errors were the same with the technology we used ten years ago?

And does any of this matter anyway? Would any decisions, any behaviours, any global politics, change if we are sure that people are now, on average, 1 cm taller? Or any scientific laws about human growth & development? Would we believe that in one hundred years the average human will be 10 cm taller & start to plan accordingly? And if a small number of obsessive people keep working away at this, how likely do we think it is that one day they will uncover some very important & widely applicable Law of Nature?

Let us go back to our first census. If we are going to go to all the trouble of measuring everybody it surely makes sense to record other information at the same time, so that we can make accurate estimates about the size of differences between various groups.

Well human beings come in two basic models, so it makes sense to record, alongside their height, whether they are male or female in form.

Of course we all know that men are taller than women, we do not need a census to tell us that, but it would be useful, for all sorts of reasons, to be able to put an exact number on the difference, which we expect to be round about 5 cm.

But – when the figures are compiled we find that the world’s average woman is 1 cm taller than the average man.

Somebody, somewhere in the process must have made a terrible mistake. Politicians, the press, ordinary people everywhere are delighting in the discomfort of the so-called experts.

Except it might actually be true, & if we could decompose, or analyse the figures in more detail, we could explain, if only people would listen, how it is that, even though it is true that in every age group, in every country, men are taller than women; the observer in outer space would be able to see that, taken altogether, earthling women are taller than the men.

We know that average heights vary according to which country & era you were born & raised in, for reasons which may be partly genetic & partly environmental. But the age structure, the proportions of men to women or even sheer numbers of people are not evenly distributed across the globe. We cannot decide, by reason alone, whether the relative contributions of tall women in countries conducive to growth, or tall young people in countries where recent birth rates have been higher, or superior survival of women in rich environments, have in fact led to this seemingly perverse result.

But is it ‘statistically significant’?

Why don’t people generally talk about height as being a political identity? … at any given time in any given place, we would not know where to find people of our own height & would not know how to find us … it is not entirely clear what we would talk about … our [shared] experience simply is not substantial enough to warrant a special meeting … for now they do not represent any kind of group from which one could claim a viable social identity

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Tube in Translation

Under the question ‘Ever wondered what life would be like if Germany had won the war?' The Times today reproduced a new translation of the famous London Tube Map. They offer a link to the full version on their website (behind the pay wall), but it is freely available through this link which I found on The Magistrate's Blog yesterday.

The translation is an avowedly ‘idiosynchratic’ one based on the pioneering work of Cyril M Harris in his book What’s in a Name?

This new map was lovingly compiled by Horst Prillinger, who works at the University of Vienna & has his own blog at The Aardvark Speaks

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Hedgehog names index: LI to LY

This is an (intermittently) on-going experimental project. No links are provided. If you want to follow any of them up, use the BLOG SEARCH box above↑

Abraham Lincoln
David Lindley
Elizabeth Linington

Marcus Lipton

Jerry Livingston
Ken Livingstone

Clive Lloyd
David Lloyd George

Carl Hans Lody
Gaby Logan
Nicky Lom
Mark Lomas

Robert Lowe
Percival Lowell
Joana Lumley

Charles Lyell
Mike Lynch
Humphrey Lyttelton
Lady Lyttelton
Lucy Lyttelton
Bulwer Lytton

Is the hedgehog responsible for curly hair?

Somehow my Googling around brought me to Hair cycle regulation of Hedgehog signal reception with a blurb which read:

Proper patterning of self-renewing organs, like the hair follicle, requires exquisite regulation of growth signals. Sonic hedgehog (Shh) signaling in skin controls the growth and morphogenesis of hair follicle epithelium in part through regulating the Gli transcription factors

Sonic hedgehog homolog (SHH) is one of three proteins in the mammalian signaling pathway family called hedgehog, the others being desert hedgehog (DHH) and Indian hedgehog (IHH).

Well I can’t pretend to understand what that really means but it immediately made me wonder if it could possibly mean that hedgehogs produce corkscrew-shaped follicles which do after all provide the explanation for curly hair (as we were taught in O level biology more than half a century ago).

And how, if at all, does it fit with the idea that (in dogs at least) it’s a variant of KR171?

I thought I had not come across the idea of a gene called hedgehog before, but it was one of those mentioned in a very enjoyable programme on Radio 4 about the namimg of genes.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Guy Boas reincarnated

I have just come across the YouTube site poetryreincarnations (formerly known as poetryanimations)

A recent addition is a version of The Omniscient Vet in which an image of the face of Guy Boas has been animated so that it looks as if he is actually reading the poem. Very clever, it is the work of Jim Clark.

I also learned that the poem was published in the Punch Anthology for 1935.

As well as being a poet & contributor to Punch, Guy Boas was a teacher & headmaster of Sloane School in Chelsea (whose old boys include Alan Johnson).

It is perhaps not totally inappropriate that a Google search today for “Boas” is likely to bring up a large number of sites related to Chelsea Football Club – only a short drive down the Fulham Road from the site of the old Sloane Grammar School.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Good news – no news

Radio 3 seems to have stopped inflicting its listeners with regular on-the-hour news bulletins. At least I haven’t heard one, even though I am listening more frequently now.

The schedule doesn’t mention regular news at all, but then the hourly headlines are not mentioned for Radio 4 either.

Perhaps I was just imagining that it used to be impossible to avoid these hourly inflictions, that Radio 3 never carried them at all, it was just my imagination. But I have found one website which confirms that they did.

What is more the BBC is releasing light music from its ghettos & redoubts - even allowing it back on Radio 3

Lugubriosity vanquished.

Related post
Radio 3

The good salad

I had forgotten about this recipe for salad dressing from the Reverend Sydney Smith (a man I should really like to have known for his wit & his ability to lift the spirits) until I heard it again on Poetry Please.

This despite the fact that I have actually used his recipe – albeit without the anchovy sauce & the double helping of salt.

Works well with hot English mustard, or wholegrain or Dijon.

Other kinds of oil are available.

Recipe for a salad

TO make this condiment, your poet begs
The pounded yellow of two hard-boiled eggs;
Two boiled potatoes, passed through kitchen sieve,
Smoothness and softness to the salad give.
Let onion atoms lurk within the bowl,
And, half suspected, animate the whole.

Of mordant mustard add a single spoon,
Distrust the condiment that bites so soon;
But deem it not, thou man of herbs, a fault,
To add a double quantity of salt.

Four times the spoon with oil from Lucca brown,
And twice with vinegar procured from town;
And, lastly, o'er the flavored compound toss
A magic soupcion of anchovy sauce.

O, green and glorious! O herbaceous treat!
'T would tempt the dying anchorite to eat:
Back to the world he'd turn his fleeting soul,
And plunge his fingers in the salad bowl!
Serenely full, the epicure would say,
"Fate cannot harm me, I have dined to-day."

Sydney Smith

Old-Tyme Eating
Related post
Down in the dumps

Monday, June 20, 2011

While the going is good

There was no sign of the usual holiday rush of families using the bus to get to the airport for the traditional Whit holidays this year – probably a mixture of no money & not wanting to get stranded by, if not a volcano then by something else unforeseen in this suddenly unpredictable world.

What is notable however is the exodus of couples, without children but not necessarily past retirement age, who have been setting off on a foreign holiday which started in the days after the end of May bank holiday Monday. Even the bus drivers have been remarking upon it.

That’s one unexpected advantage of end-year exams. Holiday prices are lower because not even those parents who would be willing to take their children out of school to avoid the misery of travelling at the same time as everybody else would do it just now.

Nudging our rubbish habits

One day recently the bus was held up by a bin wagon on its rounds. Heart sink moment – we’ll be here for a while, there are not many places on the A6 where anyone, let alone a bus, can get round one of those; there are not even that many places where a bus can get round a cyclist - but that’s a rant for another day.

I was wrong about the bin wagon – it moved quickly on to the next stop, then the one after that where the bus had chance to go round, but not before I had chance to appreciate the efficiency of the operation these days.

Only two men, plus driver who had no need to get out of the cab to help as the wheelie bin was moved the few feet across the pavement by one man, onto the hoist, up, tip, down, back to the garden gate. Quiet, too. The second man had already moved on to the next house.

I could also see why an overfilled-bin with half open lid could disrupt the smoothness of the operation.

Which gave me an idea. Dustbins are a very touchy subject at the moment, hedged about as they seem to be by pernickety or incomprehensible rules, no more weekly collections of the smelly stuff, and possible fines for getting it wrong.

If everybody could see why overfilled bins are a problem, make life more difficult for everybody else, they would be less likely to grumble & instead take pride in doing their bit for the greater good & a reduction in our council taxes*.

We don’t need lectures, especially not from politicians (who produce more rubbish than we do & probably use their expenses to pay someone else to get rid of it) or over paid council officials with gold plated pensions, or yet more leaflets to put straight into the recycling bin.

But a funny video on YouTube might do it.

A bin man hero who remains philosophical & can smile through the trials & tribulations of a round, speeded up like that London to Brighton in 60 seconds film that the BBC used to use to fill the space between programmes & which everybody of a certain vintage will remember even half a century after they last saw it. Made, not by some hotshot director from a high priced ad agency but, in the spirit of the Big Society, by bin men possibly working with a group of college students.

If it was popular enough – especially with the young – it would do a lot to turn the scathing around to be directed at those who selfishly think that it is for others to deal with the thoughtless way in which they make their mess into an unnecessary problem for somebody else to cope with.

*In our dreams

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Tyranny of Choice

Choice or decision, tyranny or tease, the limits of mathematical probability.

Tyranny of Choice

Pick a card, any card
You’ll say. I love this trick –
The tease and tyranny of choice –
The dove’s tail tender
On your fine and hidden fingers,
And the thumb I’m under.

You know my Queen of Hearts
By the dog-ear on her top-left
Bottom-right corner;
By the voluptuous sad mouth
Which will not smile,
Whichever way you turn her.
Elizabeth Garrett

Books by Elizabeth Garrett

Saturday, June 18, 2011

When do you decide?

I was intrigued by a report in The Times which described evidence they have uncovered of some 40 examples of jurors making comments on sites such as Twitter or Facebook about cases in which they were involved.

Not the cases where the breach of the rules was a flagrant one, but those which broadcast to their friends their opinion that ‘the defendant is guilty’, & a legal expert was quoted as saying that this shows that the juror was ignoring their duty to decide, to make up their mind, to form a fixed & considered view, only after hearing all the evidence.

I am not saying that it is all right to let one’s opinions be known in this fashion, but I am rather taken aback by the notion that one can somehow have no view on the matter until it is over. This does not seem to fit with human psychology when you decide where to go on holiday, what to have for dinner, what to wear - & then change your mind. A match is not decided until after the last ball is bowled, whatever your earlier opinion of what the outcome would be.

I have never served on a jury but I have in my time sat in the public gallery through a number of court cases, in the 1960s as a student & more recently for a week in the Crown Court which I had originally entered, as part of my historical research, just to see what the interior of a Victorian courthouse looked like, & stayed to find out the outcome of various trials.

There had been a lot of changes since the 1960s. The most obvious being that there were no member s of the public in the galleries of the Courts I attended; apart from a group of earnest sixth form or college students taking diligent notes one day, & two well-dressed middle aged ladies one morning (were they training to be magistrates, I wondered?) the only people there were friends or family of the accused, or the victim, or on one fraught afternoon, both.

I was really taken aback by the amount of time that the well of the court & the bench were empty; there might be a clerk sitting there, lawyers wandering in & out, but otherwise no clue as to what was going on or when proceedings might begin.

On two occasions there was a defendant in the dock while we waited – one with no guard at all, until the case got under way. The other – a seasoned criminal as it turned out – was awaiting sentence & did have a guard sitting next to him. Three friends of his were up in the public gallery, & when he realised that no one was going to stop him he turned round to have a chat with them. After the judge had come, pronounced the complicated details of the sentence, & gone, it was the friends who called out to him how long he was actually going to have to serve – Oh, that’s good, he said. I was expecting more than that.

Nor were there any attendants in the corridors to tell you what was going on; I was completely free to roam, going in & out of the old courtrooms as the spirit moved me (though I always had to go through the metal detector at the entrance to the building).

It was completely different in the modern extension. Security was tight here, corridors short & there seemed to be only one entrance to each court; all I could see, through the small window in the heavy door, was a bewigged barrister on their feet.

I studied the incomprehensible schedules on the wall in the entrance lobby – pushed aside sometimes by a barrister in a hurry checking which court they were in; no comprehensible information about what was going on inside, so I went to the busy reception desk.

It was clearly a great novelty to be asked which court might actually have a trial going on that I could go into as an ordinary member of the public. After consulting her colleague, the lady said that Court X should be in session, a case of armed robbery; all I had to do was open the door, bow to the judge & move towards the seats at the back.

I did not have the nerve for that.

Now if I really wanted to observe a full trial I could have used friends & contacts to be my guide, pull strings, whatever, but I was interested in finding out how anyone could get to see justice in action. It is, to put it mildly, difficult. For a whole variety of reasons the system seems to have turned in on itself, something for lawyers & accused, with a distant nod of concern to those who have been on the receiving end of criminal behaviour.

But in no case that I have observed, whether back in the more open 60s or at the turn of this century, did I feel that I would be taken completely aback by the jury’s verdict – whatever it turned out to be.

There are three basic questions to be decided before the final Guilty or Not Guilty: did the event complained of actually take place? Did the defendant do it? And, if so, did that amount to the crime with which they are charged?

No jury went for what seemed the least likely verdict.

The longest trial I witnessed spread over three days & seemed set for one or two more the next week, but I had had enough.

The main feeling I was left with from the most recent experience however is that I should not like to be on a jury – they were shockingly badly treated. Presumably they have no more idea of what is going on, of when they might be called into court, than I had as a spectator.

The jury box seemed unchanged from Victorian times, dreadfully uncomfortable to have to sit in for more than about 10 minutes at a time. Fortunately though they quite often had a chance to get up & stretch their legs as they were sent out while lawyers made legal submissions, then led back in again in single file, like naughty school children.

Many cases these days spread over weeks or months, which must make it especially difficult for some jurors – those who seem surgically attached to their mobile phone & Twitter feeds – to obey the injunction to keep completely quiet about what is occupying so much of their time in between long bouts of boredom & just sitting around waiting.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Over here, over there

It is not just in this country that judges take guidance from the dictionary for the interpretation of points of law – the US Supreme Court does it too, & with increasing frequency.

Nor are upper class interns an extraordinary phenomenon of the British class system – the Americans have them too, though they just come straight out with it & call them entitled.

Who says Americans don’t do irony?

CV or CR?

The On Probation blog has a thoughtful piece about whether it is or is not a good idea for an ex-prisoner to try to lie (by omission or commission) in a cv in order to get a job. I find it heartening that he says there are still good very reasons for not lying, that the search will not necessarily be a hopeless one.

But it made me remember, & wonder what happened to, the young man who sat next to me in the library that day just before Christmas in 2007.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Hedgehog names index: MEA to MYN

This is an (intermittently) on-going experimental project. No links are provided. If you want to follow any of them up, use the BLOG SEARCH box above↑

In order to find all references it is probably best to use surname only in the search.

Jonathan Meade
Hughes Mearns
Peter Meinke
Katie Melua
Pauline Melville

Patrick Mercer
Arthur Meyerhoff

Carol Midgely
Earl Midleton
Alice Miles
Oliver Miles
Rufus Miles

David Miliband
John Stuart Mill
Arthur I Miller
Ernest Millington
Chris Milroy

Aasmah Mir
Helen Mirren
Adrian Mitchell
Warren Mitchell
Nancy Mitford
Edgar Mittelholzer

Deborah Moggach
Lord Rees Mogg
John Mole
Geert Molenberghs

Egas Moniz
Marilyn Monroe
Sarah Montague
General Montgomery

Caitlin Moran
Michael Moran
Sir Thomas More
Augustus de Morgan
William Morris

Richard Morrison
Carl Mortished
Sir Claus Moser
Max Mosley

Andrew Motion
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Robert Mugabe
Bazuki Muhammad
Chris Mullin
Lewis Mumford
Herman Munster

Joe ‘Spud’ Murphy
Deryck Murray
Jenni Murray
Judy Murray
Edward Muybridge
Julie Myerson
Lord Myners

Opportunity lost or cost

I found myself in need of a replacement bus pass.

This turned out to be a bit more complicated than I expected, given the simplicity of obtaining the original, but finally I presented myself at the Town Hall, having declined the opportunity to pay by debit card over the phone – a procedure which would have incurred a charge of £2.50 on top of the £5 for the new card.

It was only at the point of taking out my cheque that I was asked: Did you just lose it, or was it stolen? Because there’s no charge if it was stolen - & you have a crime number.

We ended by agreeing that it was much simpler, all things considered, for me just to pay & have done with it

The interesting question was whether I would have thought it worthwhile going through the procedure of getting a crime number, whatever that is these days, if I had known from the start that it might be ‘worth’ £7.50.

Or would I have thought that my time, plus the avoidance of irritation & exasperation is worth more than that, given that reporting it to the police was highly unlikely to have resulted in the return of my original card.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hedgehog names MAA to MAY

This is an (intermittently) on-going experimental project. No links are provided. If you want to follow any of them up, use the BLOG SEARCH box above↑

In order to find all references it is probably best to use surname only in the search.

Robert Maas
Bronwen Maddox
Bernie Madoff
John Gillespie Magee
Kevin Maher

Eddie Mair
John Major
Samina Malik
Shahid Malik

Duchess of Manchester
Peter Mandelson
Hilary Mantel
Sarfraz Manzoor
Princess Margaret

Olive Margerison
Alfred Marks
Leo Marks

Christopher Marlowe
Andrew Marr
JJ Marric
Cathie Marsh
Arthur Marshall
Malcolm Marshall

Dean Martin
R Montgomery Martin
Speaker Martin
Harry Edmund Martinson

Karl Marx
James Mason
Karen Matthews
Marc Matthews
Shannon Matthews

Garrett Mattingley
Francois Mauriac
Maxwell brothers
Simon Mayo

Change of direction

I covet, in a purely theoretical kind of way since I do not have £1.2 million to spare, a pair of small elephants which appear, in the black & white photograph I am looking at in the newspaper before me, as if they may have ivory tusks.

They form part of a collection of 16 jade ornaments which, a recent auction established, is worth more than the English stately home which was their home for the last 60 years.

Wealthy Chinese collectors are using the mechanisms of free market globalisation to reclaim their looted heritage.

I am going to link this to a remark made by one of the participants in last Thursday’s Bottom Line: production is beginning to shift from China back to Europe. Turkish manufacturers of clothing for example, who lost out to the even lower-cost labour in the Far East, are regaining their advantage because the price of labour becomes less critical when set against the rising costs of raw materials (cotton especially) & long distance freight.

At this rate we may soon be back to the time when it was the Lancashire mill girl who clothed the world. And the Far East economies will prosper through the industries of technology & knowledge.

After all many western university departments of science & technology would be struggling to remain open were it not for the large proportion of students – especially postgraduates – which they attract from the East

Where will the £12.5 million proceeds of the sale end up?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Prurience, privacy & scatology

We have, on both sides of the Atlantic, been subjected recently to acres of newsprint & comment about the private lives of the great, the good & the not so good.

Hugo Rifkind wrote a witty column about it in The Times last Friday (no link, since it’s behind the pay wall) which ended:
It’s not the State that wants to peer into our lives. It’s all of us wanting to peer into the lives of each other. Whether we admit it or not.
having earlier claimed that that is the way the world is going – no secrets anymore.

Well I beg to differ. As yet another report last week on how we are ruining our children pointed out (as if we didn’t know), we live in a highly sexualized society.

There are limits to what we claim a right to know. We are prurient, but not at all scatological, for example, unlike those who revered the Gillray cartoons (though Peter Brookes does his best sometimes).

Not so long ago a report in the BMJ told us that a surprisingly large proportion of medical professionals (including doctors) are too embarrassed to discuss such subjects with their patients.

Guts & bowels can seriously affect behavior. I personally have been convinced for years (on the basis purely of his public behavior) that one senior politician gets himself into scrapes because of dyspepsia, though I do not think any journalist would think it their duty to inform the public on the truth or otherwise of this speculation.

And, although it is a close run thing, we generally are fairly respectful of someone’s right to privacy about their physical health – unless it’s cancer when we like to know so that we can admire their bravery in battle.

In the mood

The subjunctive … appears mainly in clauses about hopes, doubts, wishes, demands, proposals & other contexts that are not facts. The present tense of the subjunctive … has the same form as the infinitive of the verb, but without the ‘to’. It takes that form for all three persons, singular & plural …

Thanks to Oliver Kamm in The Times of Saturday 4 June for that.

Next lesson: Imperfect & perfect tenses of the subjunctive

Lesson 3 (advanced students only): the French subjunctive

If I was you I’d give them a miss

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sun go round the world

There were remarkably few arguments when my father was teaching me to drive, something which is generally warned against.

We did however both get into quite a state when it came to reversing round a corner:

… ... & then you turn the steering wheel in the opposite direction.

But – you turn it exactly the same way, said I.

Obviously, if you are proceeding in a forwards direction & want to turn the car into a road on the left, you turn the steering wheel to the left, & if you want to reverse round a corner to the left of the car, you turn the wheel to the right.

But, whichever the direction of travel, however the gears are engaged, the front of the car turns in the direction you turn the steering wheel, while the back turns in the opposite sense. When you are reversing to the left you want the front of the car to go right, so you turn the wheel in the same direction as you always use when you want the front of the car to go right.

It all depends on which way round you are looking at it. (Though it is advisable to be looking where you are going)

We were sorting laundry one day when my daughter was not yet three years old & Helping Mummy was a favourite game – clean laundry, pressed & folded, which just needed to be sorted into piles according to which cupboard or drawer they were destined for. We were doing this in a room with two beds, one double, one single.

Daughter wasn’t sure where one item should go. Oh, put it on the big bed, I said.

She put it down on the single bed.

Bemused, I said, No, I said the big bed.

She picked it up, had a think, then put it back down on the little bed, giving me a quizzical look.

Now my daughter of course understood the difference between large & small, big & little, & there was nothing at all in her demeanour, on this occasion at least, to show that she was exercising the tyranny of a Terrible Two to see how far she could go. She was genuinely puzzled.

Then I realised. The single mattress stood a good 6 inches higher off the floor, so from where she stood, her head so much closer to the ground, that was the big bed. She simply had not yet learned the adult convention that you judge the size of a bed by its width.

It all depends on your point of view & an understanding of how others see it.

I see the sun go round me, & my house. Since the latter, at least, stays firmly rooted to the earth, it is reasonable to assume that, or at least to talk as if, the sun goes round the earth. Although much in my daily life might not be possible if nobody understood that, looked at another way, it is the earth which goes round the sun, there do not seem to be any unfortunate consequences which flow from my own insistence on thinking & talking as if it were the other way round.

Even the scientifically trained talk about a sun which rises & sets.

It’s an honour, Sir

It is an old joke, but a good one.

Under our arcane system of honours, members of the diplomatic service may be awarded a rank in the Order of St Michael & St George.

In ascending order these are:
CMG (Companion)
KCMG (Knight Commander)
GCMG (Grand Cross)

The initials are said to stand for:
Call Me God
Kindly Call Me God
God Calls Me God

There is also, in these days of sexual equality, DCMG (Dame Commander). I have not heard any rumour of what that stands for – Don’t Call Me God, perhaps.

‘Home’ civil servants may get the Order of the Bath, with the same progression from C to K to G.

It is quite rare to be given the GCB but this year that honour has gone to Sir Gus O’Donnell, who of course has always been God.

Perhaps in this case God Called Back.

Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, has also been awarded a knighthood in this list, but in his case it is in the Order of the British Empire, namely GBE.

Perhaps because God Beats Economics.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


This is the weather the cuckoo likes,
And so do I;
When showers betumble the chestnut spikes,
And nestlings fly;
And the little brown nightingale bills his best,
And they sit outside at "The Traveller's Rest",
And maids come forth sprig-muslin drest,
And citizens dream of the south and west,
And so do I.

This is the weather the shepherd shuns,
And so do I;
When beeches drip in browns and duns,
And thresh and ply;
And hill-hid tides throb, throe on throe,
And meadow rivulets overflow,
And drops on gate bars hang in a row,
And rooks in families homeward go,
And so do I.

Thomas Hardy

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Ric rac

It really can seem quite odd, how life – or ones mind – seems to move through clusters of coincidence, most of them very tiny.

And so I have spent a fair portion of time recently writing & thinking about 1950s home dress making, sewing, fashions, petticoats & laundry, bumping into unexpected connections, recovering memories which seemed long forgotten or uncertain.

On Friday I read The Ebony Hand, a short story by Rose Tremaine, a tender, elegiac evocation of life in 1950s Norfolk. Ordinary, simple people with complex internal lives & emotions; love, pain, madness & coping.

A plain spinster aunt who takes in her half-orphaned abandoned niece and manages to get to the point where ‘My efforts to love Nicolina were succeeding fairly well.’

Nicolina however discovers sex to the soundtrack of Paul Anka playing on the radiogram, with predictable results.

The aunt loses her job when the old fashioned draper shop where she has served for twenty years finally closes down. She thinks about all the familiar objects which she will not see again.

Including ric rac

And there I was, lost again in my own memories of sewing & dressmaking, this time as a small girl having to endure the fitting of a dress my mother was making for me.

Ric rac, which the OED defines as a decorative zigzag braid, though I would call it curved – like a sine curve in fact. Nobody knows how it got its name.

A virtually compulsory form of decoration on a little girl’s dress in the 1950s, it seems to be inspired by a kind of edging used in crochet patterns & became commercially available in the USA at the end of the C19th.

It certainly saved an awful lot of work with the crochet hook – needed only a single line of machine stitching to hold it in place as either surface pattern or decorative edging.

I hadn’t thought of ric rac for years, nor, I think, seen it. Though I expect that, now I have remembered, I shall start seeing it on little girls dresses everywhere – it seems to fit quite well with current fashions.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Duchesses & dresses

According to the report in the paper the Wedding Dress is to go on display at Buckingham Palace this summer at the specific request of the Duchess of Cambridge.

My, that sounds confident of her. But then I did think she looked triumphant as she turned & waved to the crowd when she arrived at the Abbey on the day.

Which reminds me of an earlier report about why she could not have become a Princess.

As things stand she would have had to be, officially, Princess William; you have to be born a princess to be able to keep your own name, which would not have gone down at all well at a time when some have been agitating for the line of succession to be changed to ensure that their first born child, whatever its gender, should be next in line to her father for the throne.

Reportedly the question of changing this fuddy-duddy rule was considered, but vetoed by the Queen.

In making this decision Her Majesty may have been being both wiser & more kind than the report implied.

One of the reasons given for stripping Diana of part of her royal status after the divorce was to do with protocol & precedence, in particular the delicate question of who – in the royal family – would be obliged to curtsey to her every time they met.

Although the Queen long ago made it clear that she does not expect people to curtsey to her (so the rather ostentatious declarations by some that this is something they will not do are superfluous), there are still some delicate family issues.

The Duchess of Cornwall is not called princess, although she is legally The Princess Charles, Princess of Wales; she uses the title Duchess of Cornwall, & to suggest that she should do other at this time would stir up an awful lot of rather unnecessary & hurtful trouble. It would also be unnecessarily hurtful to make her new daughter in law her senior in this regard.

My armadillo

On In Our Time this week one of the contributors mentioned that armadillos can be leprous.

Gosh, that brought back a sudden memory – plus a certain amount of pointless retrospective trepidation.

I used to have an armadillo shell, acquired I know not how or where; it had not been made into anything else, I think it was just used as a sort of bowl or decorative object, or maybe a toy – perhaps used in dressing up games.

I am now wondering why I am so sure it was mine, & not just something that belonged to the family. Perhaps I bought it at a jumble sale.

And what happened to it?

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Hand jive

We didn’t get much chance to dance to rock’n’roll in the 1950s, despite being dressed for the part.

First because it wasn’t considered decent or proper (especially for grammar school girls), all that swinging around in a full skirt, & secondly because, trained as we were to dance to the strict ballroom tempo of Victor Sylvester meant the rhythm did not come that easy. Only a few brave boys would dare to risk it, & then they would ask only the most confident extrovert girls.

Or we might be exposed to the music only in the cinema – we weren’t teddy boys, dancing in the aisle & ripping up seats to make space. But you had to do something with all that rhythm.

You could always stay decorously seated & do the hand jive, even with just a group of girl friends.

Another quote from the OED:
The fossilised remains of juke boxes and female frolic skeletons in paper-nylon slips.

Rain, rainbows & drains

We have been experiencing more of this very non-English type of rain over the last few weeks.

The day starts bright, before clouds begin to gather late morning. Sometimes the sky turns black & there is a very localised & fortunately short-lived deluge. I have managed to avoid being outside underneath one of these, though we have twice been through one on the bus when it has seemed that the driver might have to stop, & another driver told me of going through one on Monday when he couldn’t see, despite the wipers being on full.

Although we think of this kind of rain as belonging to the tropics rather than temperate climes, I remember having to pull up at the side of the road on several occasions during the summer I spent in the Ardennes in the early Sixties – but then windscreen wipers were much less efficient back in those days.

On Wednesday I wasn’t quite so lucky – the sky was black when I got to town & rain was beginning to plop. I judged that I had a better chance of keeping dry if I scurried across to the shopping centre rather than take the time to retrieve rain jacket & umbrella from my bag. I just about made it, though not before there was an almighty clap of thunder.

I was standing safely under a roof as the rain came really sheeting down, being blown across the open surface outside by a stiff squalls coming from the west.

I realised that my foot was getting wet, despite the overhead protection. Looking down I found I was standing on one of the small drain covers – no more than 6” square - which dot the brick-paved surface; water was bubbling up round the edges.

Two more claps of thunder & then it was over in not much more than 10 minutes.

But there has been lots blue sky in between, with scattered cumulus & sun. And some magnificent rainbows.

By about seven o’clock every evening the squalls have disappeared completely, leaving sun, clear skies & a stunning evening light.

There was another rainbow just as I arrived home on Wednesday. Viewed through the windscreen of the bus it made a perfect semi circular arc above the hill & the transmitter, seeming to reach down to end exactly where our house hides on the valley floor below.

Though if the rainbow left a crock of gold, I haven’t found it yet.

Imperial Leather

Soap is obviously the most environmentally friendly thing to use to keep your body clean. It does not come in a plastic bottle, it is not mostly water, & has no detergents to strip your skin of natural oils; it can be recycled in the home until nothing is left to dispose of in any way. Its value has even been recognised by computer literate as a Simple Object Access Protocol

Imperial Leather is the emperor & empress of soap.

It is nicely hard & solid – will not melt into a gooey grey mess in the bottom of the soap dish. It is pleasantly but lightly, unisexly perfumed – will not fight with any other scent you choose to wear.

So why doesn’t everybody use it?

And why, in particular, have they stopped demanding anything bigger than the 125g bar? Or at least I have not been able to find the 200g family size bar since before Christmas.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Bean sprouts

On the day we were told that it was the bean sprouts what done it, I heard Hugh Pennington on the radio telling us that bean sprouts are still safe to eat when thoroughly cooked, say in a stir fry.

I don’t do stir frys & I don’t eat raw bean sprouts – at least not at home - but there is one dish I like when feeling lazy & my appetite is not that good.

Just cook a whole bag of bean sprouts in a pan with a well fitting lid, having added some light soy sauce, brown sugar, lemon juice & oil (& perhaps a small piece of dried red chilli). Done in minutes.

Can be eaten with various other things you have to hand if you need more calories. Buttered cream crackers; broccoli; crumbly white cheese; ham.

I once ate it with some grapes – their cool sweetness went very well with the salty bite.

Related post
Organic cucumbers

How do you travel?

On a bus, train or plane, but in a car?

Do you ever travel in a train or a plane? Small children love going in a train.

On foot or on pavement? By car or by road or on the road?

By train or by rail? On the railway? By plane or by air? In the air?

Do you drive even if you’re not the driver? Do you fly even if you’re not a pilot?

Do you take the train or the plane?

Have you ever taken a car?

Related post
The enemy

A recipe for ants in the pants

I have found that I was not suffering from false memory syndrome when I thought I could remember putting sugar water on my petticoat.

Since my Chambers had no record of paper nylon I tried the OED

There I found a quote from the Independent of 19 March 1999*:

Each generation found natural means to improve their fabrics; a strained potato water to clean silk, a tealeaf rinse for linens, sugar and water to stiffen paper nylon petticoats.

The funny thing is though, that I certainly have no recollection of using sugar water on paper nylon – we must have known that it would be impossible to sit down on that. My memory tells me that it was only nylon net that got the treatment

* Even better, the article is available on line at Helene Wiggin: Historical Notes: The relentless tyranny of the sink

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Recreating radical London

I came across a pile of newspapers when I was doing some tidying up on Sunday, somehow hadn’t got around to reading them & putting them in the recycling.

Well they date from last Christmas, when we had Weather to cope with on top of all the usual.

And so I have only just read an intriguing report from Rhys Blakely in Mumbai.

It tells of a house newly constructed in Mandvi, Gujerat in memory of Shyami Krishna Varma, the radical, Oxford educated lawyer who lived in London in the early years of the 20th century, a replica of a substantial house at 65, Cromwell Avenue in London’s Highgate – except that the red brick exterior is painted pink (“the navy blue of India”*). Varma bought it in 1905 to be a hostel for Indian students & a place where they could be radicalised as anti-colonial nationalists. He gave it the name India House. Gandhi visited it in 1906.

Varma left Britain in 1909 after one of his followers, Madan Lal Dhingra, assassinated Sir Curzon Wyllie at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington.

Two points to take from this story – England has, historically, taken a rather relaxed attitude towards foreign radicals, be they visitors, political refugees or living in her midst, most often regarding them as falling somewhere along a line from lunatic to incompetent clown, but sometimes as heroes fighting against injustice or oppression at home.

Those attitudes will turn, all sympathy will be lost, the moment the threat directly affects even just one of us. And then life can & will get very uncomfortable for those who are regarded as ‘one of them’.

Hence the national panic against the Irish who had been living in our midst who suddenly seemed all to be Fenians after the murder of Police Sergeant Brett in Manchester, & the way that Scotland Yard made life in Highgate’s India House uncomfortable after the assassination of Wyllie.

The other thing that can turn the authorities against a radical is any sign that they are becoming too popular with the populace – even if the exasperation is just with the need to provide crowd control & protection from those foreigners ‘on the other side’ who might try to make their point through an assassination on English soil.

The second point is that these incidents will be remembered by the other side long after we have forgotten about them, or at least ceased to talk about them.

And I cannot think of a previous example where the government has taken it upon itself to instruct universities to police or control discussion on their premises of these ‘extreme’ ideas, to adjudicate between the correct & mistaken interpretations of a religion other than the one to which they themselves cleave.

The architect of the Mandvi house is called Hiren Gandhi.

Cane & paper nylon

Perhaps because of the problem of not being able to starch a 1950s nylon net petticoat to a stiffness which would show off your very full skirt to full advantage, there was a brief vogue for another method, one which borrowed from the Victorian crinoline.

This technique was particularly popular for petticoats made of paper nylon – a fabric whose name is not considered worthy of record in my 1993 edition of Chambers Dictionary.

Which is not really surprising, since its disadvantages considerably outweighed the benefits claimed for it – quick swish in the wash tub, then hang on the line where it will literally drip dry creaselessly, so there is no need to iron. A major selling point, supposedly, for hubbie’s shirts.

These were so vile that they are, I believe, entirely & solely responsible for the continuing, wrong-headed notion that man-made fibres are to be regarded with horror, spurned by all right-thinking people in favour of something natural, & preferably organic.

There were three main problems.

The first was that it didn’t absorb moisture – an advantage in the sense that dirt & stains were only on the surface, so easily removed by gentle washing, but unpleasant in the way the material just clung to any patch of even slightly moist skin. Totally impossible in summer, even as a short sleeved sports shirt worn loose over the waistband, not tucked into the trousers.

The second was that it quickly went yellow or grey, partly or mainly I think because of a photochemical reaction which could not be counteracted by old-fashioned laundry soap powders. In an age when a woman’s whole moral character was judged by the whiteness of her whites hanging on the line, this was disadvantage indeed.

The third was that they generally came only in white – it took time for the dyers to find dyes that would work. Nothing more subtle than royal blue, scarlet or black was available as an alternative to this so-called white.

But – no ironing! That was a real attraction for one of those multi-layered petticoats with yards of fiddly gathered frills to be pressed free of creases.

They still needed to be stiffened to do their job of holding out your skirt, however.

There was, as it happened, a 1950s fashion for cane or basket weaving as a home based craft or hobby for all ages, all the family. Plant pot holders, small handbags, even lampshades. Thin cane was easily available in all lengths.

It was also the age of the hula hoop.

Inspiration struck somebody.

An ingenious binding along the inside seam of each frilled layer made a channel pocket into which you could fit a piece of cane cut to the required length – cane to be removed for washing or to allow your petticoat to be folded into a drawer if you did not have space to hang it.

I made myself one in royal blue.

Soon there was an alternative to cane on the market – thin plastic strip, very similar to the kind that, in much shorter strips of course, was used to make the stiffeners in the collars of mens shirts.

But fashion changes – thank heavens. The skirt was fine for dancing or parading around town, but you really did not want to sit down too much, partly because of the problem of sweating but also because if you were not careful the act of sitting would push the front of the hoop to lift your skirt to an altogether too revealing height in front of your nose.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Thou shalt not

Over on Language Log there was a discussion of the use of ‘may cause’ & ‘can cause’ in reports of the outcome of medical research. Is there a difference between the two, & if so, what is it?

In my childhood a frequent adult response to a question such as ‘Can I get down now … go out to play … have a biscuit’ was ‘Well you can, but you may not.’

Meaning that you may be physically capable of doing such a thing, but it would not be polite to leave the table before everyone else has finished, or good for your school marks to neglect your homework, or you will ruin your appetite for the dinner which your mother has gone to so much trouble to cook. So permission denied.

Or it was just a tease to make you think about the use of language.

I was pondering how this distinction could be applied to the results of medical research.

Smoking can cause lung cancer. Bacon sandwiches can cause bowel cancer. Cream cakes can make you fat.

So why don’t we refuse to allow, deny permission to, the tobacco, meat preservatives & animal fats to carry on producing these effects, instead of concluding that it is we who may not smoke, or eat bacon sandwiches & cream cakes.

It may have been Voltaire who said ‘il faut cultiver notre jardin’, but it has been the English, not the French, who have been most assiduous in heeding his advice.’
Times leader 24 May 2011.

So did Voltaire say it or was it someone else?

Sunday, June 05, 2011

By the light of the moon

Walter de la Mare is out of fashion these days, but he was another of the poest we learned a lot of in primary school.

This one was a great favourite - especially the little mouse scurrying by.

We don't see nearly enough of the moon these days, with the skies being so constantly ovecast.


Slowly, silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon;
This way, and that, she peers, and sees
Silver fruit upon silver trees;
One by one the casements catch
Her beams beneath the silvery thatch;
Couched in his kennel, like a log,
With paws of silver sleeps the dog;
From their shadowy coat the white breasts peep
Of doves in a silver-feathered sleep;
A harvest mouse goes scampering by,
With silver claws, and silver eye;
And moveless fish in the water gleam,
By silver reeds in a silver stream.

Walter de la Mare

Organic cucumbers

The outbreak of e coli poisoning is no laughing matter, especially not to those who have been made ill & the bereaved relatives.

But it does no harm to get a reminder that Natural Nature is not the reliable benign cuddly alternative to cold cruel chemical Science.

Nature impales men, breaks them as if on the wheel, casts them to be devoured by wild beasts, burns them to death, crushes them with stones like the first Christian martyr, starves them with hunger, freezes them with cold, poisons them by the quick or slow venom of her exhalations, & has hundreds of other hideous deaths in reserve
John Stuart Mill on Nature

It is no laughing matter to the growers of Spanish cucumbers, whose business has been seriously damaged on what seems to have been not much more than a speculation. Another example of damage done by the precautionary principle.

I was startled to hear one news headline which suggested that most of those who have suffered were middle aged women. A later interview, with a man who sounded German & was clearly struggling a little with the translation, called them ‘women of the middle ages, that is 25 to 34.

Hence the speculation that the source was likely to be salads.

But who would want to be a German public health official at this time.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

The Black Irish

When, over a decade ago, I came across the detail that Sir Arthur Sullivan was, in modern parlance, black, my reaction was that a lot of people would be put out by that – or at least they might have been back in the 1950s when his Savoy Operas (with WS Gilbert) were immensely popular, performed regularly by Amateur Operatic Societies up & down the land, & seemed quintessentially English.

The Dictionary of National Biography however considers that his maternal grandmother’s Italian origins probably explain William Allingham’s 1863 description of Sullivan's ‘short and tight’ appearance, ‘with dark complexion and thick curly hair’, dismisses suggestions of a part-Jewish origin as unsupported by any evidence, & makes no mention of Francillon’s Mid-Victorian Memories of 1913.

In all this I was rather disregarding the fact that Sullivan was also, through his father, half Irish.

Now that we are all basking in the warm glow of the Queens ‘shared heritage’ & Obama’s ‘shared multiculturalism’ perhaps we should trumpet & celebrate Sullivan. We got there first with our very own Black Irish Italian English hero.

But then we have been multicultural & multiracial since at least Roman times.

But would we be taking a chance with the label Black Irish, which has certainly at times been used as an insult? Let us take advice from the Ireland-Information site.

It seems more likely that 'Black Irish' is a descriptive term rather than an inherited characteristic that has been applied to various categories of Irish people over the centuries.

One such example is that of the hundreds of thousands of Irish peasants who emigrated to America after the Great Famine of 1845 to 1849. 1847 was known as 'black 47'. The potato blight which destroyed the main source of sustenance turned the vital food black. It is possible that the arrival of large numbers of Irish after the famine into America, Canada, Australia and beyond resulted in their being labelled as 'black' in that they escaped from this new kind of black death.

While it at various stages was almost certainly used as an insult, the term 'Black Irish' has emerged in recent times as a virtual badge of honour among some descendants of immigrants. It is unlikely that the exact origin of the term will ever be known and it is also likely that it has had a number of different creations depending on the historical context. It remains therefore a descriptive term used for many purposes, rather than a reference to an actual class of people who may have survived the centuries.