Saturday, December 23, 2006

"It's not so bad"

I've got a throat that wouldn't improve even if you slit it. A sort of laryngeal inferno, making me cough when I don't want to. The Munchkins had it, the nanny had it, and now I've got it. This morning it rained on my sore throat too. If I knew how, I would ask the San Diego Tourist Board for my money back.
Beziehungsweise - you see the influence of a German nanny - I have found a source of good and inexpensive red wine, a place that sells authentic bread (a rare commodity in these parts), and a way to play my daughter's keyboard while wearing headphones so nobody else gets incommoded.
So, all in all, I am enjoying myself here in SoCal. Just as long as I can keep swallowing....
PS You should see the turkey - a monstrous bugger that surely never managed to walk on two legs. Given that I will have to carve it come Monday, I wish they'd invent a totally cubic one.
Have a good one.

Put down

A tramp knocks on a farmhouse door. The farmer's wife answers. He tells her he is hungry.
She says: "Would you like some of yesterday's pie?"
He replies: "Yes."
She says: "Come back tomorrow."

I once had a business meeting after hours in a pub with a businesswoman who brought her young son along. While she went to the toilet, he said to me "Do you know how to keep a moron in suspense?"
"No," I replied.
"I'll tell you later," he said.

Oh yes, and by the way, have a great Christmas, or whatever.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Into the mouths of babes and sucklings

Verbatim as near as I can remember it.

Sophie: There's a girl in my class, Maya, and twenty-six boys love her.
Me: Wow, she must be special.
Sophie (dismissive): She burps a lot.
Me: Oh.
Sophie: But maybe the boys don't know that.
Me: Could be.
Sophie: And she puts things in her mouth.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Report from Munchkinland

It is overwhelming to find myself in a busy house again. There are just three children - Sophie, Kiki and Harry - but most of the time it seems like three hundred. Fortunately, there is a wonderful nanny, a German fraulein called Silke, to keep the little ones in some kind of order. And me too.There is also a neurotic cat called Gigi. Gigi thinks he is a dog and follows everyone everywhere. Given that he has had the snip - the unkindest cut of all - he is not into lady cats, so I guess following the children to school is what keeps him happy.The weather is unbearably glorious, forcing me against my will to take long walks round the 'hood - usually in the direction of a coffee shop, or, when the cholesterol mood is on me, to the Big Kitchen for the kind of breakfast that doctors warn you against. Yeah!So far I have had one trip to the beach - a walk along the sand with Sarah - and the sea is also unbearably glorious. How I envy those muscular young men (and occasionally women) surfing the waves. Well, not really. I am just glad I have the energy and strength to walk up the hill for the naughty breakfast once or twice in a while.Next week the children are on holiday, so it's off to the zoo and the park and the beach and the shop that sells gummy bears. It's a hectic life being a Grandpa.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Last Word

I take back what I said, Well, some of it. I have now found how to import Excel files into Word, how to hyphenate (At my age, that could be dangerous), and how to disable some of Word's more fascistic automaticalia.
I don't mind admitting I was wrong, so I will put the pins and wax away. But for the time being only: I hate to waste a perfectly good hate.

Is it dead yet?

Blown in by the gales from their pelagic fastnesses, Leach's Petrels have been turning up at inland waters in Britain. Our local reservoir, Grafham Water, reported one this morning. I was invited to go and have a look, but declined as I was too busy packing and hiding the booze from my cleaning lady.
About half an hour after the invitation, I had a phonecall from another friend asking my advice as to what he should do with one of the Grafham Leach's Petrels which had been picked up in a poor condition. I told him to go and make a cup of coffee and look at the bird again in half an hour. Of course it was dead within half an hour. Poor bird - and there were others later - probably hadn't eaten for 2-3 days and hadn't found anything nourishing at Grafham.
Fortunately, there was one there that seemed to be flying strongly, and in fact did fly strongly away. So, a "tick" for those who saw it. It's not sour grapes - I have never seen Leach's Petrel - but I really don't get a lot of pleasure from gawping at birds which, by definition, shouldn't be there, and which in most cases are exhausted and unlikely to survive.
I remember years back being told a tale about a group of birders who were driving late down the Great North Road from a twitching trip to Scotland when they noticed a bird on the tarmac. It turned out to be a now uncommon bird, a Corncrake, and clearly on its last legs.
"Can I tick it?" asked one desperate lad.
"Is it still warm?" said another.
"Yes, it is. It's dead, but its still warm," said the lad.
"OK, then you can tick it."
Personally, I'd rather be in Philadelphia.

E giunto il momento della partenza,,,

Time for Valete, Au Revoir, Auf Wiedersehen, Uf wieder luege, Arriverderci, Görüşürüz, ДО СВИДАНИЯ, Ma'a salaama, Viszontlátásra, Kwa herini, Até logo, and all the other abyssinia noises.
I am orff, I am outta here, and I don't know if I can keep this blog afloat in the next 44 days, a figure determined by the limit to the travel insurance I could secure. For 45 days I am actuarially ok, after that, I am a potential hazard, like a plague of locusts or a murrain on your cattle.
So, my beloveds, in the meantime, try to bear up without me. Think of me as a wind that blows over the land, cleansing the air, dispersing the locusts and giving people pneumonia. Well, not as far as the last is concerned: we are having bitter winds and driving rain, and there was even
a tornado in West London today. Global warming? More like the onset of another Ice Age.
Still, the sun is still shining in SoCal, and the Munchkins are getting ready to attack Grandpa the minute he sets foot over the threshold.
If I survive, I will endeavour to post to this blog - please come back and check in a few days' time.
PS They're not writing songs like that any more. Amazing that they ever did.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

My Word? Not MY Word, my word.

Hands up all those who get frustrated by Microsoft's word processing program, Word.

I think it is dangerous to HATE inanimate objects, and I don't know Bill Gates well enough to hate him personally. But.....
Word gets my goat
Word gets my dander up
Word, if it knew how to, would probably get up my dander.
Word gets up my nose, under my skin and on my wick
Word gasts my flabber.
Word induces involuntary acts of micturition (Forgive the bowdlerisation)
Word is driving me to the bottle: it is foisting my gumple.

When I find that you can't import an Excel file into a Word file, the boggle really enters my mind.
Generally, good people, it does no good at all to me or to my Blood Pressure, the krakatoa of these parts.

Word tries to do my thinking for me.
Word pops in headings.
Word pops in corrections.
Word changes font and point size without warning.
Word emboldens and underlines and italicizes without my permission.
Word is like fascism without the nice uniforms.
Word makes squiggly underscores, just because it doesn't know what an oriole is.
Word has less knowledge of syntax than a woodlouse (Don't ask me how I know that)
Word cannot spell for toffee. In fact, it probably can't spell "toffee".


I find today, that when I try to create a single document from all the chapters of the book that currently sit isolated, each in its own folder, there is a limit to the size of document that Word will allow.
I have 15 chapters, but it sighs at the tenth and then deletes the whole document, as if to say: "We may be big, but we don't do big."

Sod it, I'm off to the chandler's to get a supply of wax and to the haberdasher's for some pins, and then, just you watch out, William Bloody Gates, just you watch out.

This is WAR, and I just declared it.

Friday, December 01, 2006

"Hi, Jake, how's the book going?"

"Hi, Jake, how's the book going?" (For those of you who don't know, I am contracted by Poyser, with a co-author, to write a monograph on the Eurasian Golden Oriole, Oriolus oriolus).
So: "Hi, Jake, how's the book going?"
That's like, "Hi, George, hi Tony, going good in Iraq is it? Right? Right!"
Having experienced seven pregnancies, in none of which was I the main protagonist - thought I'd better make that clear - I think I know a little of what gestation is like. The pain, the sleepless nights, the morning sickness, the sheer tedium and heaviness as the ETA approaches....
In my case, the first scream of agony occurred at the moment of conception, and it's been pain every since. I am talking about the BOOK. of course.
Ah, the BOOK. There are days when I think it's going great, and there are days when I am sober. But, no mind, you who know me: good buddies, stout yeomen and sundry proud high-busted beauties, there's a dance or two in the old dog yet. Toujours gai, Archie, wotthehell. I will get the bugger finished if it's the last thing I do.
At this rate, I suspect it WILL be the last thing I do.

There'll be another one along in a minute...

Today, I decided to use public transport - my small contribution to greenery and saving the planet. Well, to be honest, I discovered that I had reached that stage of decrepitude where I was entitled to a free bus pass, which I did, so I did. I decided to try out the "Park and Ride" into the city of Cambridge, "buses leaving every 10 minutes". Great!
I parked my car and went to where there was a pretty red double-decker waiting. The reason it was waiting was that there wasn't a driver, and nobody knew when a driver would appear. After TWENTY-FIVE minutes, one did. Great!
So, into Cambridge, where I did a bit of necessary shopping, and also popped into Costa's in case a certain academic was there getting her caffeine fix, and then back to the bus stop to await the next ten-minuter. After FORTY-FIVE minutes, I gave up and took a taxi back to the Park and Ride. It cost me eight of the Queen's best. Great.
I love being a grumpy old man once a week, but this grump gives me no pleasure. It just makes me realise why, at least in England, people shun public transport.
And it's bloody raining again.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Putting the 'egg' in beggar

I drove up to the place that does tyres and exhausts, parked my car next to the entrance and, as I got out of the car, a shabby fellow approached me with a hesitant "Excuse me,..." I have long experience of bums, shnorrers and other derelicts, so I gave a dismissive wave of the hand and said something like "Not interested."
He persisted, "But, it's just...", so I turned to him and switched on the heavy irony.
"Listen, bro, if I give you money, promise me you won't spend it on food."
"It's not that, I just wanted to ask you if you could move your car over a little so that my wife can park her car."

I don't know anyone who has such a talent for getting egg on his face as me

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Pause dramatic

Peeple laughed ven I sat down at ze piano: someone had taken ze stool avay.

Macht nichts, I zink to meinself, 's isch mir egal, I am a provessional klavierspieler, ja. I lose dignity, I increase my fee. Zimple.

"Und now," I announced in mein best Zunday aksent, "Ladis'n'chentlmn, I vould like to play for you....

I pause dramatic.

".... Beethoven's Varsaw Concerto!"

I vait for applause. No applause. Filisteins!

I pause dramatic again.

"Unfortunately," I zay, vickedly, in mein second-best Zunday aksent, "he did not write one."

Vot a choke! Like Till Eulenspiegel, such a lustige Streich!


Zo. Fick 'em. I play Chopsticks instead.

And I zuddenly realise zat I am alone. Macht nichts. Who vants to listen to Chopsticks anyvay?

I sure don't.

Grandpa, there's a green van outside waiting to take you away.
Thanks, Sophie, would you like me to play something for you before I go?
No way!
That's my girl!

The Learning Plateau

Everyone experiences the learning plateau when learning a new subject, and it is specially true of language learning. Starting from zero, you make progress that you are aware of. It's a good feeling, but there comes a point - the "plateau" - where you begin to feel that, for all your efforts, you are not making the progress you made at an earlier stage. You are making progress, but there are several reasons why you have this negative feeling.
First of all, you are no longer dropping pieces of vegetable into a clear soup, where you can see every piece. You are adding pieces to a soup that has changed from a bouillon to a minestrone, so it's very difficult to separate the new bits from the old bits.
Secondly, it is much easier to devise tests which measure progress at lower stages of learning. It is no problem to separate, say, a beginner from an intermediate student, but much more difficult to devise test mechanisms which will distinguish, say, a good student from a very good student.
As this is a deeply boring subject, I will stop now, and ask you just to pause and admire Ebru's English Language Soup before going on to something more exciting, whatever that may be.

PS Today, I found out that I was a Rat. Funny how you can go through life ignorant of important truths about yourself!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Vive la différence?

When my daughter Sarah was not much more than a pair of scuffed kneecaps and a set of pigtails, someone asked me "What would you say to her if in a few years' time she came home and announced that she was going to marry a black man?" Now, me being a tolerant, unbigoted, prejudice-free, noble etc person gave what today I guess would be called a politically-correct answer. But there is no doubt that my true reaction deep inside me was "Don't do it!" and I spent a long time - and have spent a long time - working out why. And I will tell you why.
Quite simply, it is a hard hard business to make a marriage work. All sorts of factors create centrifugal tensions: money, children, in-laws, habits, ambitions, sex, and so on. If you are married, go on, tell me I am wrong. No, I am not wrong. So, every additional factor you add into the equation is another potential source of conflict. So, for example, marrying across race, religion, nationality or culture is adding a dimension, as is marrying someone much much younger or older than yourself. That is not to say you shouldn't do it, but it is important to be aware of what you are doing. Once you are aware, I guess your chances of making a good marriage - or a bad one - are just the same as everyone else's.
That is the answer I should have given. But, you know me, l'esprit de l'escalier. I am just a slow reactor. If I bang my knee, it's at least forty seconds before I cry "Ouch". But it's all academic, as my children - just like you and just like yours and just as I did - do what they like anyway.
Of course, the most devastating difference when you decide to marry is that one of you is a man and the other of you is a woman. Work through that.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Writer's block, or "Who gives a [censored]?"

Hands up all those who know what "writer's block" is. There you go, it's a universal phenomenon, whether you are writing your autobiography or a report for you boss. It starts with a blank sheet of paper, or in these days, a blank computer screen. The hardest word to write in the entire novel/report/autobiography is the first one. It's like putting the first footprint in virigin snow.
So, if you are like me, you take a really deep breath....and go and make a cup of coffee. Then you come back, determined to start, but first, you will just check your emails. That done, you really ARE going to start, but first, it might be a good idea to sharpen your pencils. That done, it's all systems go, but first, it might be a good idea to check your in-tray. OK, no more delays, this is it, we are STARTING. But first, didn't I promise to phone old so-and-so? Better do that, after all one shouldn't neglect one's social obligations. And so it goes, on and on and on. Meanwhile, the page stays inviolate. or unviolated, depending on the strength of your metaphors.
What's your problem? All you have to do is to press the first key to produce the first letter of the first word of your magnum opus. What's stopping you?
I will tell you what is stopping you. You are a victim of - and nobody has told you this - a syndrome known as "the best is the enemy of the good". You are so desperate to write a wonderful novel, or whatever, that you would rather write nothing than write something that is less than wonderful. So you sharpen your pencils for the nth time.
But listen, there IS a way out. You have to get up one morning, and, depending on your vocabulary and who is listening at the time, you have to say, loudly and aggressively: "[Censor] you, [Censor] everybody, [Censor] the whole [censored] world, I am going to write a really [censored] BAD BOOK, and I don't give a monkey's [censored] what anyone thinks."
And you sit down, gloriously defiant, and you start to write a bad book. Which, after all, is better than no book at all.
And it works. Believe me, it works. You might have to go back later and revise the first chapters, but you have overcome writer's block, you have made the first footprints in the virgin snow, and, as a bonus, you have an amazing collection of sharpened pencils.

More Munchkinalia

Mommy, is Grandpa coming for Christmas?
That's right, darlings, isn't that wonderful?!
I hope he doesn't expect a present, Mommy.
Eat your chopped egg and cilantro, darlings.

Mommy, is Grandpa American?
No, dear, he's English.
That's a dumb thing to be.
Well, I am English too, darling.
It's ok, Mommy, we forgive you.

Harry, eat your carrot.
I don't like carrot.
But carrot is good for you, dear.
I guess that's why I don't like it.
Hm, I think you've spent too much time listening to Grandpa.

Dear God,
I hope you don't mind me writing to You like this. Did you really make the WHOLE world in six days On Your Own, or did you have some help?
About Sunday: I don't blame you for taking a day off. It's a good chance to play with Your trainset too. If you got one. Which is what I will do too. If Grandad buys me one.....
Yours sincerely
Joseph Allsop, 7 years and 3 weeks.

Mein Gott, it rains dogs and cats!

Anyone learning a foreign language soon becomes eager to get a few idioms (fixed expressions) under their belt. The problem is that it is sooooooooo easy to ruin the effect by getting some tiny bit wrong. The Swiss boss for whom I worked for thirteen years was fluent in English, but, my goodness, he could fracture an idiomatic expression in the tinkling of an eyeball. Among his gems, bless him, was an exhortation that we should not "sit on our laurels", a warning that it would be very bad if we had to "start again from the scratch", and a statement that an interesting thought "has just stepped into my mind".
My favourite was from before my time, in fact in the first or second year after the founding of the school. One of his teachers, a lovely man called John Bagshawe, told me how he had gone to the boss with a request for an increase in salary. The response was on the lines that the school was new, times were hard, money was tight, so "This year, Mr Bagshawe, it is not possible." Pause, and then, brightly: "But next year: ..... out of the question!"
This post is not to say that you shouldn't learn idiomatic expressions, but it is just a cautionary reminder that you need to make sure you get them exactly right, and that you know the context in which to use them.
By the way, does anyone know the origin of the expression "raining cats and dogs"?

Monday, November 20, 2006

Unzip a banana!

I feel a bit like the man who one day discovered that he had been speaking prose all his life without realising it. Every morning I eat a dish or muesli on top of which I slice a banana. It seems now that I have accidentally been doing the right thing!
My thanks to Angit for sending the following to me:

Never, put your banana in the refrigerator!!!
This is interesting. After reading this, you'll never look at a banana in the same way again.

Bananas contain three natural sugars - sucrose, fructose and glucose combined with fibre. A banana gives an instant, sustained and substantial boost of energy.

Research has proven that just two bananas provide enough energy for a strenuous 90-minute workout. No wonder the banana is the number one fruit with the world's leading athletes.

But energy isn't the only way a banana can help us keep fit.

It can also help overcome or prevent a substantial number of illnesses and conditions, making it a must to add to our daily diet.
Depression: According to a recent survey undertaken by MIND amongst people suffering from depression, many felt much better after eating a banana. This is because bananas contain tryptophan, a type of protein that the body converts into serotonin, known to make you relax, improve your mood and
generally make you feel happier.
PMT: Forget the pills - eat a banana. The vitamin B6 it contains regulates blood glucose levels, which can affect your mood.
Anaemia: High in iron, bananas can stimulate the production of hemoglobin in the blood and so helps in cases of anemia.
Blood Pressure: This unique tropical fruit is extremely high in potassium yet low in salt, making it perfect to beat blood pressure. So much so, the US Food and Drug Administration has just allowed the banana industry to make official claims for the fruit's ability to reduce the risk of blood pressure and stroke.
Brain Power: 200 students at a Twickenham (Middlesex) school were helped through their exams this year by eating bananas at breakfast, break, and lunch in a bid to boost their brain power. Research has shown that the potassium-packed fruit can assist learning by making pupils more alert.
Constipation: High in fibre, including bananas in the diet can help restore normal bowel action, helping to overcome the problem without resorting to laxatives.
Hangovers: One of the quickest ways of curing a hangover is to make a banana milkshake, sweetened with honey. The banana calms the stomach and, with the help of the honey, builds up depleted blood sugar levels, while the milk soothes and re-hydrates your system.
Heartburn: Bananas have a natural antacid effect in the body, so if you suffer from heartburn, try eating a banana for soothing relief.
Morning Sickness: Snacking on bananas between meals helps to keep blood sugar levels up and avoid morning sickness.
Mosquito bites: Before reaching for the insect bite cream, try rubbing the affected area with the inside of a banana skin. Many people find it amazingly successful at reducing swelling and irritation.
Nerves: Bananas are high in B vitamins that help calm the nervous system.
Overweight and at work? Studies at the Institute of Psychology in Austria found pressure at work leads to gorging on comfort food like chocolate and crisps. Looking at 5,000 hospital patients, researchers found the most obese were more likely to be in high-pressure jobs. The report concluded that, to avoid panic-induced food cravings, we need to control our blood sugar levels
by snacking on high carbohydrate foods every two hours to keep levels steady.
Ulcers: The banana is used as the dietary food against intestinal disorders
because of its soft texture and smoothness. It is the only raw fruit that
can be eaten without distress in over-chronicler cases. It also neutralizes
over-acidity and reduces irritation by coating the lining of the stomach.
Temperature control: Many other cultures see bananas as a "cooling" fruit that can lower both the physical and emotional temperature of expectantmothers. In Thailand , for example, pregnant women eat bananas to ensure their baby is born with a cool temperature.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Bananas can help SAD sufferers because they contain the natural mood enhancer tryptophan.
Smoking & Tobacco Use: Bananas can also help people trying to give up smoking. The B6, B12 they contain, as well as the potassiu! m and ma gnesium found in them, help the body recover from the effects of nicotine
Stress: Potassium is a vital mineral, which helps normalize the heartbeat, sends oxygen to the brain and regulates your body's water balance. When we are stressed, our metabolic rate rises, thereby reducing our potassium levels. These can be rebalanced with the help of a high-potassium banana
Strokes: According to research in "The New England Journal of Medicine, 'eating bananas as part of a regular diet can cut the risk of death by strokes by as much as 40%!
Warts: Those keen on natural alternatives swear that if you want to kill off a wart, take a piece of banana skin and place it on the wart, with the yellow side out. Carefully hold the skin in place with a plaster or surgical tape!
So, a banana really is a natural remedy for many ills. When you compare it
to an apple, it has four times the protein, twice the carbohydrate, three times the phosphorus, five times the vitamin A and iron, and twice the other vitamins and minerals. It is also rich in potassium and is one of the best value foods around So maybe its time to change that well-known phrase so that we say, "A banana a day keeps the doctor away!"
PS: Bananas must be the reason monkeys are so happy all the time! I will add one here; want a quick shine on our shoes?? Take the INSIDE of the banana skin, and rub directly on the shoe...polish with dry cloth. Amazing fruit.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings.....

Mommy, why does Grandpa grunt so much?
Grunt, dear?
Yes, like when he gets up out of a chair.
I don't know, dear. Ask him.
Grandpa, why do you grunt so much?
It's my way of scaring off lions and tigers, sweetie.
- sigh - I don't know why I bother, really I don't.

Sophie, tell Harry lunch is ready.
Harry, mommy says lunch is ready.
What're we having?
I don't know, for goodness' sake! Snails and worms and cat poo maybe.
Mmmm. Yummy!
- sigh - Boys are just soooooooo disGUSTing!

Dear God
I think it's amazing You made the world in just six days. My dad hasn't finished repairing the Camper yet and he's been at it three weeks already. By the way, did You manage to work on Grandad about the trainset? I'd really like it by Christmas so I can celebrate YOUR birthday too.
Yours sincerely
Joseph Allsop, 7 years and 2 weeks

Friday, November 17, 2006

Have you ever had one of those days.....?

What's in a name?

Three stories about surnames, all of which are true.

In Tsarist Russia, the Duma had no real power, but one of its tasks was to adjudicate on requests for changes of surname. They would listen to the petitioner, decide if a name change was justified, and, if so, would allocate a new name. One such petitioner, who was burdened with the surname which translates as "HardFart", pleaded his case so eloquently before the Duma that they decided in his favour and changed his name to SoftFart.

In Germany in the early years of the last century, numerous immigrants, many of them Jewish, applied for change of surname to something that sounded German. The fee for this was 500 marks. Shlomo Aniskovitch took himself to the appropriate department, where they gave him a new name. When he arrived home, his wife couldn't wait to find out what it was. "We are now Mr and Mrs Schleissloch", he said quietly. "Schleissloch??" screamed his wife. "You paid 500 marks for Schleissloch????" "No," he replied, "I paid 1500 marks. The extra 1000 was to get the first L .."

A young brave went to the tepee of the tribal elder whose task it was to name newborn children. "How do you decide on these names, oh Wise One?" asked the young brave. The elder explained how he always depended on inspiration from the world around him. "For example, if I see clouds scurrying across the sky, I might give the child the name Running Cloud." He paused and then added: "Anyway, TwoDogsScrewing, why did you want to know?"

Well, if the stories aren't true, they ought to be.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Houses on fire

I couldn't resist taking this picture a couple of mornings ago as I looked out of from my kitchen window. Most of the houses are white-painted, but in the first light of dawn, and especially given that angry sky, they were a fiery red that took my breath away. Minutes later, the light changed and the houses went back to normal. Most of the time, most of us at such photographable moments say "I wish I had my camera with me." On this occasion, I did. I stood on the parapet wall of the patio to get elevation and clicked away. I am glad my new neighbours didn't see me because I was in one of my more florid djellabiyahs, all a-flap in the morning breeze.

A Giggle of Geese

Our foreparents had a gay old time coining collective nouns: a gaggle of geese, a spring of teal, a wisp of snipe, a bevy of quail and so on. I thought it was time we brought the collection up to date, so here is my second offering for your delectation and, if I am lucky, your groans.

an alphabet of jays, a tangle of knot, a gargery of larks, a coven of merlins, a berkeley of nightingales, a chamber of nightjars, a suite of nutcrackers, a futility of nuthatch, a college of orioles, an evasion of ostrich, an ouch of owls, a library of pelicans, a tank of petrel, a phlock of phalarope, a pluck of pheasant, a stool of pigeons, a pteam of ptarmigan, a gasp of puffin, a rant of rail, a slash of razorbills, a blush of redstart, a pleasure of shags, an elevation of stilts, a delivery of storks, a lurk of wallcreepers, a design of wrens.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

We're off to SoCal!

My visit to San Diego is now confirmed. Ticket booked, insurance taken out, currency ordered, shoes polished. I will not tell you the exact dates because I don't want burglars and other rascals to find out and do wicked things to my house while I am away.
What I intend to do in order to protect my property is to instal 12 Rottweilers, 8 Dobermans, 2 Rhodesian Ridgebacks, a Tasmanian Devil (if it's not extinct by now) and a blown-up picture of Saddam Hussein (if he is not extinct by now). That ought to deter the scamps, scoundrels and scurvy knaves.
In the meantime, it's down to Toys'r'Us to find some suitable games and gizmos. They will be, of course, for Sarah and me. I might see if I can find something for the Munchkins while I'm there...
By the way, Balboa Park is about ten minutes' drive from where Sarah lives. Cool, huh?

Saturday, November 11, 2006

More Collectives

There is a book on this subject, entitled A Crash of Rhinoceroses. Sadly, the collective nouns for birds listed below do not appear. So, once again, we venture into the spoofery. My apologies to my Nearctic and Antipodean readers: I'll get round to your avifaunas in due course, unless, inshallah, you beat me to it.

a rancour of bitterns, a sentence of blackcaps, an envy of blackcock, a corrida of bullfinches, a curse of bustards, a delight of chough, a creak of crake, a rave of cuckoos, a fringe of curlews, a wick of dippers, a nullity of ducks, a duvet of eider, a picnic of fieldfare, a zip of flycatchers, a bother of godwits, a cling of barnacles, a dodder of greylags, a shnozzle of grosbeaks, a jump of harriers, a stew of hawfinches.

What I have done today

What I have done today
J Allsop, aged 70½

Made a chicken curry (to be reheated later. Yummy!)
Swept and washed the kitchen floor
Cleaned the cooker hob (properly)
Dusted the house to get rid of cobwebs
Vacuumed and polished the car
Vacuumed the Land Rover
Cleaned my workshop
Cleaned the shelving in the garage
Swept the garage
Cleared up all the fallen leaves down the side of the house
Wrapped the three garden chair cushions in black polythene and put them in the roof

It is three pm and I now feel aged 80½. I propose to take a break.

PS Who says that retirement isn't a fulfilling period in one's life?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A murmuration of starlings and all that jazz

If you have visited Fretmarks recently, you will have enjoyed the splendid photograph of a cluster of long-tailed tits being held by a ringer. It prompted me to think about collective nouns (also known as nouns of assembly) on the lines of a charm of goldfinches, an exultation of larks, a murder of crows and other Victorian coinages. During my CHOG days, we would huddle in the Ringing Hut during bad weather and pass the time inventing collective nouns. Here are a few of them, each pun worse than the one before. And, while you are about it, can you think up a suitable collective noun for long-tailed tits?
a gulp of swallows, an estate of house martins, a splinter of woodcock, a satire of swifts, a round of robins, a pastime of hobbies, a calvity of coot, a madness of ravens, a rage of crossbills, a minstrelsy of black terns, a lunch of sandwich terns, a kebab of skuas, a plunge of divers, a jib of cranes, a babble of chats, a grumble of grouse, a gluttony of gannets, a butchery of shrikes, a handful of tits.
Oh dear, aren't they dreadful?! That's what happens to ringers when they can't get their equipment erected. If you want to see proper collective nouns, please click here.

Feeding the birds

As the mild autumn weather gives way to chill mornings and cool days, the number of birds coming to the feeders in my garden continues to increase. The commonest at the moment are greenfinches (Carduelis chloris): yesterday I counted twenty. They really like the sunflower seeds. A close second are the goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis), with at least a dozen buzzing round the nyjer seed feeders. Other species are attracted by the excitement, the starlings being the noisiest and the bossiest. I know they are unlovely, but they are full of character. And of course, sparrowhawks (Accipiter nisus) regularly bombard the feeding station in the hope of catching a tasty breakfast.

A real bonus in the last few days has been the sight of a cock pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) picking its way across the lawn. This morning, I stood watching him for about twenty minutes, as if I had never seen one before.
Even in the field beyond, birds seem to become interested in what's going on, and it is not unusual for jackdaws, magpies and black-headed gulls to come down on the lawn to pick up scraps.
One day, when I am all grown up, I might stop frittering my days away watching birds, but, to tell you the truth, I don't intend to grow up. Ever.

Hallowe'en... the Eve of All Souls, 31 October, the following day being All Souls' Day. In my first year in Italy, I was startled to be told that 1 November was "Il Giorno dei Morti" - The Day of the Dead. Until a few years ago, Hallowe'en was moreorless unknown in Britain, outside of the Christian calendar. Now it has been hyped and commercialised, so that pumpkins and dressing up and "trick and treat" are now as familiar to our youngsters as they are in the States.
All of which is an excuse to post photographs of the San Diegan munchkins in all their Hallowe'en finery: the twins, Harry and Kiki, holding a suitable cat; and Sophie, the Sarah Bernhardt de nos jours, kitted out as, I am told, a mermaid.
Go on, indulge me, let the Old Scrote have his proud grandpa moment!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

"Sitting up like a citizen"

I just received these photographs from my son, Jeremy. It has provoked a serious attack of nostalgia. When I moved to Cambridge in the early eighties, I bought myself a Volkswagen Camper. Not the oldest version, the "split screen", but the bay-fronted version. The vehicle had already had eight owners and was venerable, to say the least. The camper conversion was, I think, a Danbury, but its main value was that it gave me a table and seat at which I could sit to eat and drink after a hard morning's birdwatching. Katy (from the registration plate KTY) was painted a bilious green, and flaked with rust, but I loved her (If a van is called Katy, I guess she has to be a she). I finally sold her for £50 to a lunatic who rebuilt her and took her to the south of France and back.
After two years without, I bought another bay-front, a white one this time, called - a bit of imagination failure here - Katy Two. After more years of great enjoyment, "sitting up like a citizen" and starting to sing as soon as I got behind the wheel, I sold her for £100 to a local farmer who wanted her reconditioned engine.
And now, mes potes, years on, Jeremy has bought himself one. Just look at it! Pristine, rustfree, spotless. This is what happens if a VW Camper spends its life in a dry climate like Australia, and latterly in New Zealand. I am envious. I have my Land Rover Discovery, of course, which can do two things the VW Camper cannot: it can go anywhere, and it can get up a decent speed if you need it. But there is something magical about the VW Camper. I know of no better way to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, lift the spirits and fluff up the kidneys.
But what really eats me up are the roo bars on Jeremy's camper. OK, I know we don't have a problem with kangaroos in the UK, but it would have been a real pose to have had roo bars on my two Katies.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Nine Weird Things About Myself

This meme appeared in HeartinSanFrancisco's blog. I have given the gist of each of her statements in inverted commas. I recommend that you go and read the whole posting on her blog: like all her postings, it is beautifully written and very thought-provoking. I have added my comments below each quote.

1. "I usually keep new clothes for a while before wearing them."
Me too. And not just clothes. If I buy bed linen or electronic gadgetry or a DVD or a book, days, weeks and sometimes months can go by before I pluck up the courage (or whatever it is I need) to open the wrapping and use the contents. I think I know why I do this, but it's so painful to admit it that I shall just put it down to my natural weirdness, ok?

2. "Most of my best friends have been four-leggeds. The only animals I fear are humans."
Almost true for me too. Near where I live there is a lane where people walk their dogs, as I used to before my old black lab Betsy died. I know most of the dogs, but not their owners. Anyway, it's more satisfying and less controversial to pat the dog than its owner. The animal category that has been most important to me is the two-legged feathered variety. Birds are the joy of my life and, one way or another, take up a great deal of my time.

3. "I don't drink because I'm allergic to liquor."
Not true for me, although I have long periods - months sometimes - when I go on the wagon. My tipple is red wine, and I owe it to my liver to abstain from time to time.

4. "My father cared little for me because I was a girl"
My father cared little for me, because.....well, I don't know why, except that he was already in his late forties when I was born, and had probably had enough of children by then.

5. "I never deliberately kill things. I will go to great lengths to catch and free an insect, but cannot bring myself to take a life. I do entertain homicidal fantasies about my next-door neighbor, though, as discussed earlier. When I clean, I remove cobwebs or not, as the mood strikes me."
Me too. I keep a plastic pot and a postcard so that I can extricate spiders from the bath or insects from the window pane. I draw the line, though, at saving mosquitoes.

6. "I have far too many houseplants."
Not true for me. I have a few cacti and succulents, but anything more delicate takes a delight in dying on me before I can so much as breathe on it.

7. "I fear haircuts more than dentistry or surgery."
Well, I used to detest going to the barber's until a very attractive young woman opened a barber's shop in the village. Now it is a pleasure to sit and be pampered by her while she snips at the few remain hairs on my head. I think the time is nigh when all she will need to do is to polish my pate.

8. "I don't wear polish on my fingernails, but feel naked without toenail polish."
Well, it may be bad for my street cred, but I don't use polish on any of my nails. Maybe I should wax my moustache, Poirot-style, so as not to be considered eccentric.

9. "I love extreme weather conditions, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados. Thunder, lightning, wind and pelting rain make me feel more alive."
Me too. I love huge waves and thunderstorms. Apart from anything else, these natural phenomena are something the government can't control and can't tax. Although they are probably working on it....

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Origato, Negishi San!

This morning I had a noisy breakfast. It all began some years ago in the Japanese city of Kanazawa, where I had gone to run a training workship together with a Tokyo academic called Negishi San. Kanazawa is the only city not to have been bombed in WWII, and for this reason it has wonderful traditional architecture. But that has nothing to do with noisy breakfasts. One evening, Negishi San took me for a stroll round a district not far from where we were staying. I guessed it was what we would call a working-class district.
"Do you feel peckish?" he asked me suddenly. Never one to refuse food, even though we had eaten earlier that evening, I said ok. With this, we pushed through the door of an anonymous building and that was when I discovered the Japanese Noodle House. Huge portions of noodles in steaming bowls were placed in front of us.
"I know in England it is impolite to slurp your soup," he said gently, "but in Japan you are expected to make a slurping noise when you eat noodles."
So I joined the general slurpy cacophony in this unassuming eatery, trying to blend in with the nightworkers, truckers and assorted flotsam slurping at the long counter. I felt very un-British, and gloriously liberated. Slurp slurp slurp SLURP SLURP....
So, thanks to Negishi San, I sometimes have noisy noodles for breakfast.

Monday, October 30, 2006

More munchkin mania

Grandpa, why did God invent wopses?
Invent what, dear?
Wopses.Why do I have to repeat myself all the time?
Oh, wasps!
-sigh- That''s what I said, for goodness' sake!
I don't know, honey. Why don't you ask Him?
Well, I just hope He has better hearing than you, Grandpa.

Mommy, Is Grandpa is going deaf?
I don't know, Sophie dear. Ask him.
Grandpa, are you going deaf?
DEAF!!!! DEAF!!!! DEAF!!!!
There's a jar of it in the cupboard, dear.
-long sigh- Never mind, Grandpa.

Dear God I understand about Noah's Ark, but I wish you hadn't saved the mosquitoes. I just got bitten. By the way, any news about the train set?
Yours sincerely

Joseph Allsop, nearly 7

Mommy, Harry bit me!
Harry! Why did you bite Kiki?
I didn't. She put her finger in my mouth just as I was closing it.

1956: Hungary and Suez

In 1956, I was in my second year at university when these two events occurred almost simultaneously: the Hungarian uprising; and the Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt to recover the Suez Canal and to oust Nasser.
In the broad thoroughfare called St Giles, where the Martyrs' Memorial is situated, two rallies took place within yards of each other. The first, in which I took part, was in noisy support of the Hungarians who were trying to shake off Soviet domination. The second, equally vociferous, was in support of the invasion of Egypt.
What stopped me in my tracks was the sight of my Senior Tutor, a man to whom I owed a lot and who later became President of my college, waving his umbrella assegai-style and calling down curses on the head of Gamal Abdel Nasser. My cause was righteous, my Tutor's was hideously wrong. Well, that's how I saw it. Why wasn't he with us shouting for the Hungarian patriots, instead of rubbing shoulders with a load of imperalist reactionaries railing against the man who had overthrown a corrupt monarchy and taken back what was rightfully Egyptian? Well, that's how I saw it.
For my Marxist father, the politics of the two events were simple: the Soviets were helping their Hungarian comrades to put down an American-inspired revolt by fascist reactionaries; Nasser was giving the capitalist imperialist running dogs a bloody nose. What it is to have a faith that accounts for everything. What a pity it is that such faiths tend to get so many things wrong.

What were I and my Senior Tutor doing in St Giles that day? Helping to change the world? When it comes down to it, our actions were nothing more than self-indulgence. I suppose it's important to stand up and be counted, but neither of us counted for much.

On my first trip to Hungary in the early 70's, I met an Irredentist*, although, of course, he was unable to express his opinions openly. I found out about his beliefs when I asked him about a plaque he had on his wall showing the boundaries of the old (pre-WWI) Hungary with a legend that read NEM NEM SOHA (No, no, never). His grievances thus pre-dated the Soviet Empire. I didn't ask him what part he had played in the events of 1956.
*In 1920 the Treaty of Trianon was signed, fixing Hungary's borders. Compared with the pre-war Kingdom, Hungary lost 71% of its territory, 66% of its population, and with the new borders about one-third of the Magyar population became minorities in the neighbouring countries. Therefore, Hungarian politics and culture of the interwar period were saturated with irredentism (the restoration of historical "Greater Hungary").Source: Wikipedia

Sunday, October 29, 2006


The following is an actual exam question given on a University of Washington chemistry mid-term. The answer by one student was so "profound" that the professor shared it with colleagues via the internet, which is of course, why we have the pleasure of enjoying it as well.

Bonus Question: Is Hell Exothermic (gives off Heat) or Endothermic (absorbs Heat)?

Most of the students wrote proofs of their beliefs using Boyle's Law (Gas cools off when it expands and heats up when compressed) or some variant. One student, however, wrote the following:

"First, we need to know how the mass of Hell is changing in time. So we need to know the rate at which souls are moving into Hell and the rate that they are leaving. I think we can safely assume that once a soul gets to Hell, it will not leave. Therfore, no souls are leaving. As for how many souls are entering into Hell, let's look at the different religions that exist today. Some of these religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, you will go to Hell. Since there are more than one of these religions and since people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that most souls go to Hell. With birth and death rates as they are, we can expect the number of souls in Hell to increase exponentially. "

"Now,we look at the rate of change of the volume in Hell because Boyle's Law states that in order for the temperature and pressure in Hell to stay the same, then Hell must expand proportionately as souls are added. This gives two possibilities:

1. If Hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls enter Hell, then the temperature and pressure in Hell will increase until all hell breaks loose.
2. If Hell is expanding at a rate faster than the rate at which souls enter Hell, then the temperature and pressure will drop until Hell freezes over.

If we accept the postulate given to me by Theresa during my freshman year, that "it will be a cold day in Hell before I sleep with you," and take into account that the fact that I have not succeeded in having that event take place, then #2 cannot be true, and thus I am sure that Hell is exothermic and will not freeze."

This student received the only A in the class.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Police Hour

I don't know if it is still the case, but there was a time when Ireland had a rather odd law regarding the opening times of pubs. In effect they could stay open for as long as they wished, but were required to close for at least one hour in each twenty-four. This compulsory hour of closing was known as the "police hour".
The story goes that one hot summer's afternoon a weary traveller entered a country pub and ordered a pint of beer, only to be told by the landlord that he was very sorry but he couldn't serve him just yet because it was the police hour, the one hour in each day when he was required to close the bar.
"But," continued the landlord sympathetically, "it's only another forty minutes. Why don't you just sit down and rest yourself? You look worn out."
The weary traveller sank down into a seat and heaved a deep sigh. The landlord paused for a moment, contemplated the man and then said:
"Would you like a drink while you're waiting?"

I do hope this story is true.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Thanks a million... HeartinSanFrancisco for this meme.

Five things I would do if I were a millionaire
1 Not tell anyone about it. Then I could do good by stealth.
2 Pay off the kids’ mortgages and set up trusts for the munchkins.
3 Collect my friend B from Alaska and take her birding to Costa Rica.
4 Buy a new pair of slippers. Hell, I might even buy TWO pairs.
5 Can’t think what else I would do. So many of the things worth having are things that money can’t buy.

Five bad habits
1 Putting off till next week what I could do tomorrow, or the day after.
2 Finishing people’s sentences for them.
3 Starting sentences but not finishi......
4 Preferring what I am not doing to what I am doing at any given moment.
5 Saying things in a foreign language which my listeners don’t understand.
Mi dispiace, dovrete scusarmi.

Five things I hate doing
1 Making a list of things I hate doing.
2 Cleaning windows. How DO you get rid of the smearing?
3 Putting together the work of fiction known as my Annual Tax Return.
4 Being polite to officials in order to get what I want out of them.
5 Using antiseptic mouthwash. I know I know: No pain, no gain.
Five things I would never do
1 Fart in church, well not aloud anyway.
2 Fondle a lady’s bottom, well, not in church anyway.
3 Say anything uncomplimentary about a person’s appearance, well, not to their face anyway.
4 Drink a cup of coffee from the other side of the cup.
5 Ask my neighbour Mrs W how she is, because she would tell me. At length and in great clinical detail.
Five things I regret doing
1 Letting the midwife cut my umbilical cord without my permission.
2 Not making better use of my time at university.
3 Making a horlicks of my marriage.
4 Being nasty to people who didn’t deserve it. Sorry, guys.
5 Putting my favourite woollen sweater in the “Hot Wash”.
Five favourite things
1 Writing this blog and hoping for comments.
2 New notebooks - I keep buying them even though I don’t need them.
3 Indian curries, Italian cuisine, Turkish cuisine, Thai cuisine... OK, let’s just say EATING.
4 The curiosity and enthusiasm of children. Pity these qualities don't last.
5 Being in the presence of experts who know how to communicate their knowledge.
Except for economists and chartered accountants.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Another Beardie

The good news is that Pluvialis is back from Central Asia clutching a Bearded Vulture. The beard is really a set of splendid bristles on either side of the face (from the lores). Its alternative names tell us more about it. The German Lammergeier refers to its habit of scavenging, including the carcases of lambs. Its Spanish name Quebrantahuesos - "bone breaker" - refers to its habit of dropping bones from a height on to rocks in order to break them to get at the marrow. You'll need to go into a mountainous area to have a (slim) chance of seeing one. I was lucky enough to see four species of vulture in one day at a place called Kizilcihamam in Anatolia - griffon, Egyptian, black and bearded - but that was only with the help of a good local man, Tansu Gurpinar. For the record, I also visited the slaughter house to watch kites and other scavengers feeding on the hillside where all the offal was dumped daily. As a result, I contracted a malaria-like arbo infection and ended up nearly dead in Addenbrookes Hospital. That really was too high a price to pay for beauty.
Another piece of good news is that P has learned to make plov, a speciality of the Turkic Republics and now even more widespread. To say that it is rice dish with onions, carrots, lamb and spices gives little clue as to how delicious it is. It's all in the method of cooking, as usual.
As a bearded vulture myself, I am hoping to get an invitation to P's next plov banquet

Monday, October 23, 2006


Older Woman: Is there a problem, Officer?
Officer: Ma'am, you were speeding.
Older Woman: Oh, I see.
Officer: Can I see your license please?
Older Woman: I'd give it to you but I don't have one.
Officer: Don't have one?
Older Woman: Lost it, 4 years ago for drunk driving.
Officer: I see...Can I see your vehicle registration papers please.
Older Woman: I can't do that.
Officer: Why not?
Older Woman: I stole this car.
Officer: Stole it?
Older Woman: Yes, and I killed and hacked up the owner.
Officer: You what?
Older Woman: His body parts are in plastic bags in the trunk if you want to see.

The Officer looks at the woman and slowly backs away to his car and calls for back up. Within minutes 5 police cars circle the car. A senior officer slowly approaches the car, clasping his half drawn gun.

Officer 2: Ma'am, could you step out of your vehicle please! The woman steps out of her vehicle.
Older woman: Is there a problem sir?
Officer 2: One of my officers told me that you have stolen this car and murdered the owner.
Older Woman: Murdered the owner?
Officer 2: Yes, could you please open the trunk of your car,please.

The woman opens the trunk, revealing nothing but an empty trunk.

Officer 2: Is this your car, ma'am?
Older Woman: Yes, here are the registration papers. The officer is quite stunned.
Officer 2: One of my officers claims that you do not have a driving license.
The woman digs into her handbag and pulls out a clutch purse and hands it to the officer.
The officer examines the license. He looks quite puzzled.
Officer 2: Thank you ma'am, one of my officers told me you didn't have a license, that you stole this car, and that you murdered and hacked up the owner.
Older Woman: I bet the liar told you I was speeding, too.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Sakal keçide de var

I have had a beard moreorless continuously since my twenties. Above is a pre-beard photograph for those who want to see me naked (PS To my children: that really is your mum and dad in the picture, taken on Bournemouth promenade a loooooooooooong time ago. It's called being in love).
For a long time, my beard was a fullset naval beard, and then, in imitation of someone I admired, I reduced it to a sort of imperial, that is, a moustache and chin beard only. A friend then remarked It's like the man whose name was Bossom: it's neither one thing nor the other. He was right. I still have to shave the rest of my face.
So, why do I have a beard, albeit a truncated one? I can give you some good reasons for NOT having a beard, the first of which is, if you are woman........
Another reason for not having a beard is "guilt by association": look at the dweebs, plonkers, anoraks, trotskyists, weirdos and poseurs who have beards. Don't want to be mistaken for one of them, do we? "Guilt by association" is a logical fallacy, of course, but it gives me an excuse to refer you to a favourite website of mine.
OK, I will come clean (erm, not sure if a bearded scrote can use that expression). First, I grew it to celebrate a very great man whom I admired, who taught me a great deal and who had a beard just like the one I have had ever since I last saw him in Paris in the 60's. Coincidentally, he was born on the same day as me: 5 June, 1936. I wonder if he's still alive.....
Secondly, I am told that I am a good kisser (or was), but in repose my lips are rather thin, which tends to make me look like the Gestapo nasty in a WWII B movie who says Ve haff vays of making you talk, englische Schweinhund!
Thirdly, men who have beards, like men who smoke pipes, are generally regarded as knowledgeable and wise: men to be trusted. Useful in the teaching profession, where you have to use every asset you've got.
The title of this piece is a Turkish saying meaning Even goats have beards. That buries reason number three, but I still remember my Parisian guru, and I still like to think of myself as a bit of an old goat. Magari! Ojalà! Keşke! Wenn nur!

More from the Munchkins

Grandpa, I'm a feminist.
Good for you, Sophie. I'm a masculinist.
What's a masculinist?
What's a feminist?
Shall we go eat icecream, Grandpa?
Good idea.

Grandpa, what's a Muslim?
It's a person who believes in Islam.
What's Islam?
It's what Muslims believe in.
Thanks, Grandpa. You sure know a lot.
That's ok. If you don't ask questions, you don't learn anything.

Dear God
Just to let you know that I am keeping an open mind on the doctrine of Transubstantiation.
PS Any chance I'll get a train set from Grandad for my birthday?
Joseph Allsop, nearly 7

Da Vinci Code?

Many films are adaptations of novels. The usual bleat, from people who have read the novel, is that the film is bad, not true to the novel, etc. Over the years, I have seen many such films (usually having read the books too), and I am very tolerant of the need to make adaptations. After all, we are talking about two different media. Some adaptations have created works of art in their own right, independently of the original novel. Some Dickens novels and some Bronte novels, for example.
Which is why it is no pleasure for me, having read with pleasure Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, to say that the film version is atrocious. Apart from some splendid visual effects, it falls down on almost every count. The plotline is very difficult to follow, even if you have read the book. There are some grotesque non sequiturs. The female lead, Audrey Tautou, has a French accent so thick it is almost impossible to penetrate. She specialises in lines like "zhon squirr zillu dadidoo".
As for Tom Hanks, he plays the whole thing in a state of squeamish embarrassment, his slovenly unshaven appearance making it all the more obvious that he had to drink a quart before he could screw up enough courage to go on the set. Poor bugger.
Whole chunks of the novel necessary to the understanding of the plot have been omitted. Some of the casting is totally misplaced, the albino monk, Silas, being the prime example. And, worst of all, the incidental music is so intrusive, so unnecesary most of the time and so sickeningly religioso that I would recommend that the musical director be locked in a room for a year and - pace Woody Allen - forced to listen nonstop to operettas. That should cure him. If you think I'm alone in my judgment, click here.
In view of all this, and assuming I am right, I think the Vatican can relax: Christ is alive and well and suitably celibate.
Well, I guess that's my grumpy-old-man piece over and done with for the week. Have a nice one.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Red Admirals - a postscript

During the big butterfly "invasion" at the beginning of October, Geoff and Evelyn Bailey paid a visit to Haddenham's Old Burial Ground, now a pocket nature reserve, and witnessed zillions of Red Admirals, many of which were resting on tombstones. One supposes that the insects were getting mineral salts from the stone. Or maybe they were just basking in the warm autumn sunshine. Anyway, it makes a splendid picture. Thanks, Geoff, thanks Evelyn, for the photograph.

Anamorphic Illusions

Anamorphic illusion involves the use of distortion to produce amazingly realistic three-dimensional drawings. One of the great masters of this technique is the pavement artist, John Beever. If you want to see more, click here.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Hadnam-on-the Hill

The name of the village where I now live, and have lived for the last 22 years, is Haddenham in Cambridgeshire. It is a typical "fen edge" village, not pretty, but very active and a good place to live. Above is a picture of the village green. Haddenham even has its own website. If you are curious, take a peek by clicking here.
The local name for it,"Hadnam-on-the-Hill", is ironical. Given that the surrounding fens are well below sea level, Haddenham is special because at the top of the village, it is all of 105 feet (about 30 metres) above sea level. They say that you can buy cylinders of oxygen at the "Top Shop", and, the cruellest joke of all, they say that a "fen tiger" (ie, a denizen of the fens) gets dizzy standing on a folded newspaper.
Go on, take a peek!

Free Hug

My thanks to Angit for posting it to me. Don't miss it (And don't worry about the Turkish: it's only a foreign language).

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Books shmooks


I found this list on a lovely blog. Please read what she has to say. For myself, I found the whole exercise totally scary. To every question, I have multiple answers. Maybe it's being a Gemini that makes me divide everything into at least two, three or a thousand pieces
1 One book that changed my life? At least five titles come to mind. One that changed me professionally was "A Way and Ways" by Earl Stevick, but I will not bore you with the details. One book that has given me a lifelong passion for languages was "The Loom of Language", but who's ever heard of it these days? And I learned a lot about human relationships from stuff written by Eric Berne ("Games People Play"), once fashionable under the umbrella of "Transactional Analysis", but old hat now, as indeed I am myself.
2 One book that I have read more than once? There are lots! At this moment, I am wearing a pair of shoes that I bought TWENTY-SEVEN years ago. I am hooked on the familiar and the comfortable. OK, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" springs to mind, a book I have read a zillion times, and not only in English. Twainian wisdom has helped shape my life. I love Tom's courtship of Becky Thatcher and the episode with the cat and the nasty medicine.
3 One book that I would want on a desert island? Anything edible.
4 One book that made me laugh? Anything by Spike Milligan or Alan Coren, but they are so culture-bound that nobody outside of the Queen's Realm is likely to have heard of them.
5 One book that made me cry? Made me sad, yes, for example, The Diary of Anna Frank". But cry? Movies can make me cry. In fact, I can well up watching a bad weather forecast. Best not to go there...
6 One book I wish had been written? I'm working on it right now, let's leave it at that.
7 One book I wish had never been written? That's a nasty question. I have no love for Das Capital, Mein Kampf or The Traffic Warden's Handbook, but I am not in the book-banning business. No, I cannot answer this question, although I did write a potboiler many years ago that I hope nobody reads today.
8 One book I am currently reading? I only read fiction when I go on long-haul flights and stay with distant family. Then it's Michael Crighton, John Grisham and others of that ilk. At the moment, I am reading several non-fiction works. Do you have several books on the go at the same time?
9 One book I have been meaning to read? I refuse to tell you because it is "Simplified Swahili" by Peter M Wilson, and you will assume that I have finally lost ALL my marbles. But, entre nous, Swahili, being a Bantu-based language, is unlike anything you have ever experienced, unless, of course, you have been sleeping with a Hungarian these last thirty years.
10 One book I am glad I own? One book I wish I still owned, but which disappeared during the Great 1982 Tsunami, more prosaically known as The Divorce (I swear I will never do that again) was a 19th century vellum-bound edition of "La Divina Commedia" with pencilled marginal notes. I couldn't decipher the notes but I was so happy to know that someone had trodden "la via smarrita" before me.
11 One book that must be read aloud? Any book of poetry, for goodness' sake. Too many to mention, but there is one anthology that profoundly affected me. It is called "Other Men's Flowers", with poems selected by A P Wavell, or, to give him his full title - wait for it - Field Marshal the Right Honorable Earl Wavell. Can you imagine - a fricking military man, a fricking aristocrat to boot, selecting fricking poetry: must be a load of jingoistic fascist gung-ho rubbish. In fact, not. Beware the "fallacy of origins". If Adolf Hitler performed a kind act, it is still a kind act regardless of the fact that he was the bastard who performed it. Hard to take, I know. So it's possible for a high-ranking officer to have good taste in poetry. I once asked a friend about who invented some gizmo or other, and he replied "Uno stronzo qualsiasi", which is very vulgar but essentially means "What does it matter, it's the invention that matters." Or, as a colleague of mine once said "Don't bite my finger off, look where I'm pointing".

So, as you can see, there is no way I can give answers to those eleven interesting questions, but that is no reason why you shouldn't have a go.

Can I do you now, sir?

I once saw a cartoon showing a woman in a shabby coat and carrying a shopping bag. She was standing on the doorstep of a very elegant house in some very posh part of London. Standing in the doorway was an elegantly dressed lady, looking down at the shabby creature on her doorstep. The caption was the question addressed by the one on the doorstep to the one in the doorway. It read: "Are you the woman who advertised for a cleaning lady?"

And now, I will relay to you something told to me by my cleaning lady, who is a sort of salt-of-the-earth mother. She worked nights in a nursing home for the very elderly. One night, as she was patrolling the corridors, one of the inmates, a frail old biddy in her nightdress, came up to her and asked, in a bewildered voice: "Am I dead?" Since then, I often wake up suddenly in the early hours with a similar question on my lips.

My previous cleaning lady was a bit, erm, flamboyant, god bless her. One day, she arrived in a splendidly decollete blouse, white embroidered with blue and red flowers. . I said admiringly: "That is a very pretty blouse," to which she replied: "If my husband heard you say that, he would kill you."

I have tried all my life to understand and value women, but when it comes to cleaning ladies, I am never quite sure what to expect.

Monday, October 16, 2006

All That Jazz

During my secondary school years, I played B-flat Clarinet in the school orchestra. I loved whatever we were asked to play - light classics, folk music, Christmas carols, even, God help me, Gilbert and Sullivan. But my heart was somewhere else. I wanted to play like Pee Wee Hunt. I wanted to play Twelfth Street Rag" the way he did. My first tutor was a formidable Jewish lady who had fled from Austria after the Anschluss. Her name was Frau Schroeder, and she was formidable both in appearance - grey hair pulled back severely and the sort of bosom you could rest a dinner service on - and in manner: don't even mention jazz in her presence. My second tutor was an ex-army musician who played in a local jazz group to make a few extra bob. Don't talk to him about jazz either: he played it but he preferred military marches.
Well into my teens, I had a yen to learn to play the piano. My mother, bless her, bought me a second-hand piano and became my teacher. The first popular piece I could play - from the dots, of course - was called "Whispering", and I can to this day remember the exact chord sequence and all the ornaments (the twiddly bits that add texture: accacciature to the cognoscenti). It's one of the few popular tunes that I never try to improvise: a sort of respect for my mother, I suppose.
An important breakthrough came when I went to work in Italy, in Naples to be precise. Because I didn't have a piano - a hard thing to slip into a suitcase - I bought a guitar and gradually became proficient in playing chord sequences, although I never had the digital dexterity to pick out much of a melody. My "tutor" was a fellow-lodger called Mario (We lived in a pensione in Via dei Mille run by an overweight pederast and his even overweighter sister). Mario was in fact Mexican, studying agrononomy at the local university. Three things about him made him special for me: his full name "Mario Antonio Acosta y Gonzalez"; his business card on which his profession was given as "Agronomo y Domador de Ostiones" (Agronomist and Ostrich Tamer); and the fact that he taught me so much about chord sequences, knowledge I could later apply to the piano and the keyboard.
In my mid-twenties, I fell in with a group of undisciplined amateur musicians and was introduced to some wild stuff, as it seemed to me then: strange time signatures like 5/4 time (Remember Dave Brubeck's "Take Five"?) and 7/4 time. They were all infected, I am sad to say, by the popular music of the day, but rock is rock, Chuck Berry was King, so I played along with them. But it was jazz that I really loved.
The heart and soul of jazz is improvisation, that is, taking a basic melody and chord sequence and experimenting with them. You can always "play from the dots", that is, read sheet music and do exactly as it tells you to. But for a jazz musician, the melody line and its chordal structure are there to be "deconstructed". There is an immense exhilaration to be had from exploring all sorts of crazy variations and still arriving, after a dizzying switchback ride, at the proper conclusion. If you are playing solo, as I do mostly these days on my keyboard - you can go anywhere, do anything, change time signature at any moment, go for a pee, whatever you want to do. But if you are playing with other musicians - as I used to when in my 20s and 30s - you are constantly listening to the others, seeing where they are going and going there with them. The "sonnet" form of jazz is the "twelve-bar blues", providing a familiar chord sequence that is, exactly like a sonnet, the underlying structure that you must obey even though what you are doing all the time is STRUGGLING AGAINST the form, trying to break out from it, but in the end always coming back to it. Without form there is no freedom.
Over the years I have learned a few tricks which make my pianistic efforts seem more polished than they really are (With the onset of stiffness* in the fingers, I need all the help I can get). What does it matter? If I am happy, I fire up the keyboard and play like a lunatic, although I am fully aware that my enthusiasm far outstrips my ability. And if I am sad, I fire up the keyboard and play like a lunatic.........
Well, it's better than starting street riots, vandalising telephone kiosks and molesting dwarves on their birthday, isn't it?

*For the Germanists amongst you, savour this short poem about stiffness by Heinrich Heine:
Der Zeiten gedenk' ich
Als die Glieder gelenkig
Bis auf eins.
Die Zeit ist vorueber
Steif sind die Glieder
Bis auf eins.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Moths again

As the Autumn arrives, the number and variety of species diminishes, but there is still time for some surprises. Forget the drab Epirrita species, four of them, and even they don't know who they are, and we can only be sure if we examine their goolies. Forget those drab little brown jobs. Let's look at the goodies which can still find their way into our traps.
The Thorns are very pretty, and last night I caught a Feathered Thorn. Look at its antennae and you can see why it is called feathered.
Consider the Yellow-line Quaker. A modest little moth, but as sexy as they come.

Look at the Satellite, that white planet shape with a small satellite moon circulating round it. Perfect name for a perfect insect.
Look at the Green-brindled Crescent, such a complex plumage. If there is anything in metempsychosis, I want to come back as a GBC.
And now, feast your eyes on the Merveille du Jour. If ever a moth deserved its name, it is this one. My guru said today that I didn't deserve this moth after only eighteen months into mothing: he had to wait six years. Well, there you go.
If it wasn't for all the beautiful women in the world, I think I could be quite contented with moths like these.