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...

....to 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.

Ağya Sofia

In the Autumn of 1951, my future lay in the balance. At 16, many boys from my grammar school left to go into fulltime employment. Despite the lack of money at home, I was able to stay on, that is, to go into the Sixth Form for two years to prepare for A Levels, the necessary qualification for getting into university.
Your life changes once you are in the Sixth Form. Quite apart from your chosen specialist subjects, you have a great thirst to expand your knowledge, to acquire what the Italians call your “bagaglio culturale”. Alongside this, you acquire what some people have called “a Sixth Form vocabulary”, learning words like egregious and cathartic and phrases like Gordian knot and Occam’s Razor to add an air of erudition to your adolescent intellectual mumblings.
To help me to acquire my cultural baggage, I was introduced to the works of two notable polymaths. One was Lancelot Hogben, who was the driving force behind a series called “Primers for the Age of Plenty”. As a good Marxist, he saw the need to provide useful Knowledge (with a capital K) to the masses, and wrote, or caused to be written, books with titles like "Mathematics for the Million" and "Science for the Citizen". The book in this series that made all the difference to me was “The Loom of Language”, a gallop round the world’s languages ending up with a series of strategies for rapidly acquiring a batch of them. I particularly liked the chapter called “The Diseases of Language”, in which the good Hogben rails against highly inflected languages like Lithuanian and Russian. What is the use of all those endings, all those declensions and conjugations? he asks (I had to part company with him here: after years of Latin, I LOVED inflections, and shortly after leaving university started to learn Russian).
The other guru of the age was Hendrik van Loon, a most prolific author. The book of his that made me catch fire was called “The Arts of Mankind” (originally "The Arts", published in 1937). The book took a Hogben-style romp through the history of the arts (which for van Loon included the crafts), accompanied by many line drawings that I loved. I loved them because they were accessible: I felt I could do drawings like those. And indeed I did. One that most captured my imagination was a line drawing he did of the basilica of Santa Sofia in Constantinople (now Ağya Sofia in Istanbul). I stared at that drawing till my eyes watered, I read the text again and again, and I even tried to copy the van Loon drawing. But I knew that I would never ever see the real thing. It would only be a dream in my head.
And then, against all my expectations, I found myself many many years later in Turkey doing a lecture tour, part of which included Istanbul. I had to see Santa Sofia. Of course it had ceased to be a Christian basilica with the taking of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, after which it became a mosque. As I approached it, I felt a wave of disappointment washing over me: it seemed drab, tawdry even, and it was lost in a mess of other buildings. And then I entered. The magnificence of it took my breath away. I cried. Literally. Tears running down my cheeks as I tried to absorb its beauty. It was beyond anything I had ever imagined. It was as much as anything a monument to the human spirit. It renews your faith in mankind to see what beauty we are capable of creating. Moments like that don’t come often in your life.
Santa Sofia is neither a Christian basilica nor a Muslim mosque now. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk wisely decreed that it should be a museum. This means that, according to your taste, you can read the inscriptions in Arabic praising Allah, or study the frescoes celebrating the Christian saints. Or both. Or simply wonder at the human spirit that inspired this House of God.
I still have my copies of Hogben’s Loom of Language and van Loon’s Arts of Mankind. Long dead, mostly forgotten, but they will always be heroes to me.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Wyken Hall and The Leaping Hare

Yesterday, I had lunch with my dear friend and co-author Tricia Aspinall at a place called Wyken Hall, which is near Bury St Edmunds in the county of Suffolk. The Hall itself is a fine Jacobean pile, with beautiful gardens and a whole lot of interesting domestic animals roaming the place. There is also a working farm and, best of all, a splendid restaurant called The Leaping Hare. The weather was perfect, the company excellent, the meal superb and the walk round the grounds afterwards memorable. I wouldn’t normally post a pic of my knobbly old face, but I thought you should know what a man does when he is sublimely content: he leans on his stick and smiles.

They're at it again again

How are you, Grandpa?
Thank you, Sophie, I am fizzing like a bottle of pop!
What's pop?
It's like Coca Cola without the imperialism.
Grmpff. Why can't you just say "I'm good" like everyone else?!

Dear God
We read about Cain and Abel at school today. I think if you'd given them their own rooms, they would have got on much better. It works for me and my brother Matthew anyway.
Yours truly
Joseph Allsop

Kiki. would you like to hear another riddle?
You'll like it, I promise.
No, I won't.
What has four legs and flies?
A horse.
Damn, why are kids so smart nowadays?!

Harry, clean you teeth!
I cleaned them already, Mommy.
No you didn't.
Yes I did too.
Then why is your toothbrush dry?
Hey Mom, this is California, right?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Tell me about it

What is it, dear?
Are you awake, Grandpa?
Oh ok, I'll talk to you later.

Harry, I know a secret.
What secret?
I can't tell you, it's a secret.
Well, I got a secret too, so there.
What's your secret?
Go fish.

Sophie, can you spell Mississippi?
Who's she, Grandpa?
Who's who?
Mrs Hippy.
Forget it sweetie. My brain hurts.

Kiki, would you like to hear a riddle?
What goes up a drainpipe down?
I said no.
Go on, it's easy! Just think about it.
An umbrella.
Grandpa, you are really weird.


About sixty klicks north of Bangkok is the Asian Institute of Technology. I was fortunate to run four-week summer workshops there over several years, the trainees being from various neighbouring countries, including Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia and Cambodia, as well as some local delegates from Thailand. AIT is in a beautiful setting, with parklike gardens, a golfcourse with lots of rough areas, and a large area devoted to experimental agriculture. In other words, a paradise for a birdwatcher. I used to get up every morning at first light and take my morning bird walk before breakfast, and then go out every evening for an hour or so before dark. One summer, I was joined on my evening walk by one of my Vietnamese students, a very serious young woman called Mai. Mai asked me what I was doing. I told her. She accompanied me round the experimental farm, where I pointed out various species of birds. She said – her exact words – “You are a very strange man”. And she met me most evenings after that to walk round with me, listening solemnly to what I said about the birds, although she never wanted to look at them through my binoculars. I thought she was the strange one.
Some years later, by coincidence, I ran two workshops at her university in Hanoi, but sadly couldn’t make contact with her. I loved AIT, and I loved the birds I watched in the grounds there.
I liked Mai too.

Dawley dialect: a postscript

If a man wanted to tell his girlfriend/wife/fiancee how much she meant to him, he would say to her: I wudna swop thee for a big black pig!
It seems a long way from "I love you", but the sentiment is genuine. In those days a man who owned a big black pig was a rich man in the community

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Let's go to the pictures

Not "the cinema", definitely not "the movies". No, when I was a beardless lad, we went to "the pictures". In my village (Hadley) we had a "fleapit" called The Regal, housed in a former Wesleyan chapel. The films changed three times a week, and always consisted of trailers, a
short (often a cartoon), and the main feature. The cheapest seats were the ones at the front, the ones where you ended up with a stiff neck from looking up at the screen. The cost was 2d, that is, two old pennies, an amount now so small that it doesn't even register in tne new pence system.
In fact there were even cheaper seats, available to any of us who managed to "sneak in". The trick was to get past the cashier unseen, and then try to persuade the usherette that you had just been to the toilet, which was conveniently situated outside the picture house. A more time-consuming dodge was to hide in the building during the day when it was unlocked for the cleaners. I can remember hiding under seats for HOURS, and then carefully emerging as the place started to fill up with its legitimate clients.

The films I can remember were musicals, love stories, westerns, gung-ho war films, and comedies, all of which were U rated, that is, suitable for young sprogs like me to see. It's sobering to think that many of the old movies they show on daytime television are ones I first saw in the old Regal Cinema in the forties and early fifties. Remember Meet Me in St Louis? I sneaked in to that one!

A-rated films like The Maltese Falcon or The Wicked Lady were only for youngsters accompanied by an adult (Ah, Margaret Lockwood! A Wicked Lady with a Wicked Cleavage). You could hang around outside the Regal and hope to get an adult to take you in - a risky business even then. In fact, I didn't get to see The Maltese Falcon till they showed it on TV a few years back. I didn't feel the least bit corrupted by it, and it was safer than going into the dark with a strange man.

The horror films were H-rated, and I had to wait till I was able to pass for 18 to get my fill of Frankenstein and Dracula and Things-that-Crawled-out-of- the Sea that looked like John Prescott in a wet suit. A great merit of the H films was if you took a girl with you, you could be sure she would cling to you at moments of great terror. Ah, the thrill, the first time Rosemary Ricketts grabbed my hand, and I made sure we stayed holding hands for the rest of the picture.

For, my beloveds, the picture house started out as a place merely to enjoy films, but as I progressed through hairy adolescence, it became a sort of passion pit, where the fleas biting were of the amorous, even libidinous, kind. It all seems so innocent now, but it was the lifeblood of our young existence then. Ogden Nash caught the spirit:
The local cinema emporium
Is not just a sensory sensorium

But a highly effectual


Mutual masturbatorium.
Hands up those of you who never had a snog in a cinema. Yep, I thought so.

Who's on First?

If you want to see this classic, go to http://www.youtube.com/
Create an account (it's free), Click on CATEGORIES. and select HUMOUR, then enter Abbott and Costello in SEARCH and there's the video clip.
For some reason, I cannot get authorisation to post video clips to my blog, so you will have to do it the hard way; but it will be worth it.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Happy Bunny

Today, I am serene because I have masses of Red Admiral butterflies on the ivy that grows in my thorn hedge, and which is now in flower. Not only Red Admirals, but Peacocks, Painted Ladies and a Comma as well.So, I find it hard to compose this week's Grumpy Old Man posting. The Buddha said: "If you cannot say good of a person, say nothing." I have been making a mental list of the people about whom, if I follow the Buddha's teaching, I have nothing to say.
Is it a function of getting older that there puts more and more people on the no-thank-you list, and fewer and fewer on the yes-please list?
I can remember my Headmaster putting a comment on my School Report to the effect "He does not suffer fools gladly." It has taken me until now to realise what he meant, and also to realise that it is not a compliment.
Time enough to be grumpy; maybe next week, when the dark season sets in.
But today, my beloveds, the sun is shining on the ivy, and on the jewels feeding thereon, and also on this Old Scrote. Why not be a happy bunny for once?

Monday, October 02, 2006

Curried favours

When you get to a certain age, and especially if you live alone, the most important thing in your life is to have a reason to get up in the morning. I still have a few reasons, thank goodness. And one of them is the joy I get from making and eating Indian curries.
You may think, as I once did, that there are only three kinds of curry: [1] mild, [2] hot. [3] put-a-toilet-roll-in-the fridge-for-next-morning.
In fact there are so many variations and subtleties that I now have enough reasons to get up in the morning to last me till I am a hundred and fifty.
Thank you, India, you have done a great service to us palely loitering Brits.

Curried favours

When you get to a certain age, and especially if you live alone, the most important thing in your life is to have a reason to get up in the morning. I still have a few reasons, thank goodness. And one of them is the joy I get from making and eating Indian curries.
You may think, as I once did, that there are only three kinds of curry: [1] mild, [2] hot. [3] put-a-toilet-roll-in-the fridge-for-next-morning.
In fact there are so many variations and subtleties that I now have enough reasons to get up in the morning to last me till I am a hundred and fifty. Here are a few of them: balti, bhuna
biryani, dhansak, dopiaza, jalfrezi, korai, korma, Madras, Moghlai, pasanda, pasia, rogan josh, saag, tikka masala and vindaloo.
Thank you, India, you have done a great service to one palely loitering Brit.
PS Sorry about the British Raj and all that: it was before my time.

Down with oology!

If you meet a man who says he is an oologist, wait till nobody is looking, and push him off a cliff. Oology sounds like a serious scientific study, but it isn't. An oologist is just a collector of birds' eggs. A thief, a destroyer. Believe it or not, there are still a few of these scoundrels operating in Britain.
There is a dwindling band of ageing collectors, most of whom live in south coast resorts. Fortunately they are dying, one by one, and good riddance. Then there are the fit young men who do the actual collecting for these geriatrics. These young men are good at what they do: they can find the most difficult nests, climb the most impossible trees and cliffs, and deliver their booty to the old guys for thirty pieces of silver. A very few collect for their own amusement, and these are the most dangerous. And the most difficult to catch. The RSPB has a whole department devoted to hunting them down.
The worst of it is that the rarer the bird, the more the collectors want its eggs. And they don't just take one egg: they take the whole nest with the clutch in it.
I helped to warden the last Red-backed Shrike's nest in England, because we knew that it was the only one left in the country and therefore a target for the eggers. The bird is now effectively extinct in Britain.
Birds' eggs can be stunningly beautiful, especially in the case of species which nest in exposed places and therefore need to camouflage their eggs. Waders (AmEng Shorebirds) and seabirds like Terns and Auks are good examples. The problem is that these are the eggs most likely to show interesting variations, so the egger doesn't want a single example, he wants a whole series.
Nowadays, egg collecting is not just illegal, it is generally regarded as morally reprehensible. No youngster today would dream of making a collection, which is very different from my young day. If you want to see birds' eggs, visit a museum; that's where all these ill-gotten collections belong.

Grandpa, did you collect birds' eggs when you were a boy?
Like George Washington, I cannot tell a lie. No, I didn't.
I don't believe you.
Well, ok, maybe I collected a few. Just a small collection, you know.
Grandpa, let's take a walk along the cliff top...


If the BBC ever strands you on a Desert Island, they will give you two books: the Bible and The Complete Works of Shakespeare, these being considered essential to a cultured person. Without taking anything away from those two works, I would ask to be allowed to take the Complete Works of Asterix. If you don't know Asterix, visit the official website to see what a treat is in store for you. My favourite story is when Asterix and his companions visit Britain, and are mystified when, in the middle of a battle, the locals put down their weapons and walk off the field. They explain that it is five o'clock and time for their refreshment: une tasse d'eau chaude avec un nuage de lait (a cup of warm water with a dash of milk). Later, once the peace has been agreed, the Druid from Asterix's village gives them a herb to add to their afternoon drink: he tells them the herb is called "tea", something he collected on a recent trip to India.
How many people in Huntingdon know that that is how the cup of tea came to be a British institution? It's the kind of information you won't find in Shakespeare or the Bible. For that, you need your Asterixopaedia.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Ebru Art

I have just been introduced to this traditional Turkish art form by one of my blog readers, whose name, coincidentally, is Ebru*. The simplest way to describe Ebru Art is the creation of "marbled paper", but that doesn't do justice either to the complex techniques involved, or to the wonderful variety of effects that can be produced. The one at the head of this posting is typical marbling; the one below involves written script. For further information, please visit the main Ebru Sanati website. It is in English as well as Turkish, and it's a simple matter to join. Enjoy!
*ebru means eyebrow, but the ebrusanati website gives a range of etymologies for the word as applied to marbled paper art.