Sunday, 30 November 2008

Great lines to overhear....

Today a colleague told me a merry anecdote of her time in Aleppo which included the line "So anyway, we jumped over a pile of skulls..."

My life has been far too sedate to match material like that. The nearest I came was walking through a pool of someone's blood, which was bad enough and gave me occasional nightmares for a year or so afterwards. And it wasn't even my blood.

For those with an interest in the Islamic world, my colleague's anecdote was in response to an office discussion of when exactly Idul Adha falls this year.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Nigella 1, Heston 0

Since our house contains an unfeasibly large number of recipe books, I feel I am sort-of qualified to comment on their relative usability. Many of them remain unused after a single disastrous experiment, others are cheerfully dog-eared and full of bookmarks, turned-down corners and scribbled pencil notes.

So here is a small selection of those we have found useful and those we haven't:

How to be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson.
It is only the barest of exaggerations to say that before acquiring this book I could not bake, and now I am infallible. Every single thing I've cooked/baked from this book has worked admirably first time of asking. Now I should stress that I grew up in a household where everyone was expected to cook, and did. I was non-negotiably assigned to helping in the kitchen from around the age of nine, and cooking has remained a pleasure rather than a chore all my life (one of the many varied things I have to thank my parents for). However, I wouldn't go so far as to claim to be an outstandingly good cook, and baking was always a stressful mystery. Nigella changed that for me - in her books I have at last found a cookery writer who explains things at my level, always giving easy-to-understand hints about judging whether things are ready or not. Her rhubarb grunt and baklava muffins in particular have been delightful revelations. The same principle goes for her other books too.

The Cranks Recipe Book/Entertaining with Cranks
My copies of these date back to the 1980s when my sister turned vegetarian and I then started going out with a vegetarian. This meant I needed reliable veggie recipes at my fingertips. My copies of these have been used so often, and had so many things spilt on them, that you could probably survive a week just by licking them. I still use them regularly, as my sister is still vegetarian.

The Covent Garden Soup Company recipe book
Like the ring-binder and wipe-clean pages; deplore the lack of an index. But the recipes are mostly fabulous anyway. Our copy has an interesting array of paper-clips/post-it notes sprouting from its upper edge.

The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner - Annabel Karmel
OK, we're into specialist territory here I admit; but for those struggling to feed a baby with healthy meals this is a goldmine.

Larousse Gastronomique - Prosper Montagne
The serious foody bible - great for browsing, but the recipes are often a bit hit and miss and require a clasical training to understand at times. They are also wildly extravagant, often turning on phrases like "three days before serving, make a stock out of 15lbs of wild venison and 30lbs or freshly picked vegetables..." or "take the yolks of 12 eggs..." Makes good reading outside the kitchen, though.

Anything by Heston Blumenthal
Probably magnificent if you're a brilliant cook to start with and can fathom what he's on about, but a path to dismal failure for the likes of me. I love his cooking - I've eaten once at the Hind's Head in Bray and it was one of the best meals I've ever had. It's just that his recipes are over my head - attempt them without being able to judge by eye when, for example, clarified butter is hot enough and you're sunk.

Gordon ****ing Ramsay.
Someone bought us a Gordon Ramsay book as a present. We tried one recipe. It was a disaster. As with Mr Blumenthal, this may be as much down to my native incompetence as Ramsay's impossibility, but the fact remains it was a mistake I won't be repeating.

Monday, 17 November 2008


No Good Boyo has developed a noticeable tendency to use variations on the phrase "agenbite of inwit".

I hereby propose the in the unlikely event of his ennoblement, he should take the title "Lord Agenbite of Llantwit".

Sunday, 16 November 2008

The Mouth of Orlac

I have something of a social disability: My mouth has a tendency to answer people before my brain has woken up and realised that someone is even talking to me.

This unfortunate tendency is, indeed one of the things that attracts me to blogging - I can edit my comments before releasing them to the world. There have been occasions in my life when I have sorely wished this could be done with spoken comments.

In particular, there was the unfortunate incident with the nun and the crucifix. The Jesuit college at which I used to teach had, as is the way with Jesuit educational institutions, rather gaudy painted crucifixes of considerable size fixed to the wall, over the blackboard, in each lecture hall or classroom.

Coming in to class on the first day back after the Easter break, I was confronted with a dozen or so of my students who had turned up early (or more likely had been hanging around after an earlier class). Without planning, forethought - or indeed wisdom - I greeted them merrily with "Did you have a good Easter?"

So far so good.

I then turned to the crucifix and enquired "And did you have a good Easter?"

Most of them laughed in a slightly shocked manner. The main exception was the nun in the front row, who was clearly trying to judge my combustibility for a public heretic-burning.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

The dear old provost of my dear old college

A recent thread on Mrs Pouncer's Counsel caused me to recall my Oxford days, when my college - let us veil its identity by calling it Christnose - was presided over genially by a provost of the old school (or more to the point, the old wine-cellar). Let us veil his identity by calling him Lord Fnord.

Anyway, Christnose had a reputation (before more recent, academically-inclined killjoy management decided it wanted 'results') of having more gaudies (college feast nights) than any other house in either of the two universities. Some time after midnight on one of these evenings Lord Fnord emerged from the Hall and wove his way gently towards the Provost's Lodgings, past the library. A thunderstorm was in progress, and as he passed the library a bolt of lightning struck one of the carved stone eagles which decorated the roof. It detached itself from the fabric of the building and plummeted into the lawn.

Fnord stared at it for a while, then concluded he'd better tell someone. Turning around with difficulty, he wobbled all the way to the porter's lodge and tapped on the glass to attract the night porter's attention.

"Good evening your grace."
"Th'librarary eagle. 'Sh flown off the roof. Whoosh!"
"Yes of course it has, sir. Shall I get someone to take you back to your lodgings?"
"Nonononono - y'don't undershtand. Eagle. On liberarary roof. 'Sh f***ing flown orff."

The conversation apparently went in circles for some time before His Lordship gave up and went off to sleep face down in a flower bed. He was vindicated on the morrow, however.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Things people wouldn't say to my face...

... but might post on my blog.

Like, what do you think of my moustache? I mean, seriously?

I realise that there are those who hold strong opinions on the question of facial hair. My goatee, swordburns and pony tail are firmly in the past (to the relief of some, I'm sure); but I maintain the 'tache and would, indeed, feel naked without it.

Mrs Byard likes it (good enough reason to maintain it, one would think), but has set down strict rules about length. I am not permitted to allow it to straggle over my top lip, nor can I comb it out sideways and wax it in a manner reminiscent of Kaiser Wilhelm or Wilfred Makepeace Lunn (which I would if permitted to do so).

I originally grew it while living in Indonesia, where the moustache is a common attribute of manhood. Likewise, I am comfortably at home amid those of the Turkish or Middle-Eastern persuasion. Yet there is still unspoken prejudice against slug-balancers in the UK.

Why? What's wrong with having a 'tache, for Kitchener's sake?

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

In which I shock No Good Boyo...

The normally impeturbable Boyo blenches as he strides purposefully by and clearly overhears a treacherous isolated part of a sentence, in which I am apparently telling a colleague "... and kick the cr*p out of the Chinese!". Boyo's discomfiture may be related to the fact that the colleague in question is a Mr Zhang, late of Shandong Province.
"Ah - we need your expertise!" I call merrily to Boyo, but he demurs, fleeing what he clearly fears is an act of imminent violence.
Need I explain to the world that - a propos of the power politics that led to WWI, a fair enough topic for Remembrance Day - we were discussing the curiosity whereby France, Britain, Japan, Germany, Austro-Hungary and the USA were united in a single alliance against the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the 20th century?

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Let's hear it for Barry Soetoro!

As the USA gets it's first Indonesian/Malay-speaking president, let us pause to reflect how his experiences as a mixed-race man, capable of conversing in a real foreign language (as opposed to, say, Bush's mangled English or bloody Esperanto), and tracing his blood ancestry to a developing country (Kenya) may be a welcome tonic for the United States of Northern America, and help it to shake off its (unfair) image as the world's most geographically clueless nation.

(And lest one think it is merely Kenya and Indonesia that are delighted at today's results - I just ran into the K-Man, sporting his 'Vote Obama' baseball cap, who proudly informed me that Obama is the 21st US president of Scottish ancestry. Plus there are apparently wild celebration in the Japanese town of Obama.)

While resident in Indonesia as a child, Obama went by the name 'Barry Soetoro'. There is, despite what right-wing US bloggers claim, absolutely nothing sinister in this. Many long-term foreign residents adopt - either formally or informally - Indonesian (or at least more pronounceable) names in the interests of social interaction (mine was Timbul Sentono). In any case, Indonesia does not recognise dual citizenship, so the possibility of his being considered legally Indonesian lapsed years ago.

Personally, I think that the election of a man who is not only aware of the existence of the rest of the world but has actually lived in it can only be a good thing.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Gyppo's critique of Marxism, aka 'Shut Up and Shave, You Sad Git'

I have long had considerable contempt for that self-important buffoon Karl Marx and his ignorant, piss-witted musings about things he clearly didn't understand; but until now have failed to engage in a dialectic with his unwashed, Socialist Worker-hawking minions. Partly this is because they steal the best pitches for lucky-heather selling in Britain's high streets and thus are the mortal enemies of all those with Romani blood, but partly it's because they simply have no idea.

Let me therefore lay out my intellectual objections to Marxism for them:
1) Marx was a continental philosopher. Now continental philosophers may have their uses - "draught excluder" and "ashtray" spring instantly to mind; but they are, to a man, self-important, incomprehensible geeks living in a bubble of their own tangled syntax and incapable of coming up with anything useful or relevant. Visit some cafes along the left bank of the Seine and you will see what I mean.

2) Marx was incapable of shaving properly. Have you seen pictures of the man's beard? I refuse to believe that either he or Engels were acceptably hygienic. There must have been stuff living in there.

3) Marx thought that you could understand the world from a corner of the British Museum Library. He made a number of crashingly wrong assumptions which Marxists twist themselves into knots trying to claim validity for.

Let me give you two examples:
Firstly, Marx claimed that primitive societies had no concept of property. While this may have been based on some of the "travellers' tales" produced by early and unscientific explorers, it turns out not to stand up to the glare of anthropological fieldwork. There is no society, however materially primitive, which has no concept of personal property. While one can almost forgive Marx this false assumption - after all, scientific anthropology had yet to get fully into its stride when he was writing - you can't excuse later generations of Marxists. I mentioned this lack of fieldwork recently to a socialist worker type in front of Reading Station and he replied petulantly "Marx did get out into the real world - he convened the first Communist Internationale!" So there you have it - for these whining losers, real life means holding a meeting with other saddoes. Now you see why I see Esperanto and Communism as two sides of the same autistic coin.

And secondly, he claimed that under capitalism wages would follow a downward spiral unless workers controlled the means of production. And did he do any research to find out whether the trend of wages under capitalism was up or down? Of course not "I am a European philosopher, zerefore I do not dirty mein hands viz facts!"

My academic field, when I had one, was ethnomusicology. This is culturally and psychologically a hipper and more laid-back twin of anthropology, and we as a breed tend towards an anthropologist's world-view. This means that our key challenge is "Nice idea; but have you done the fieldwork?" Philosophers never have. That's why they talk shite.

Tip for other academics and non-academics - if you see a rumble starting in the senior common room, side with the anthropologists. The philosophers may have silver tongues and cunning arguments, but we have a large collection of tribal weaponry and witch-doctors' curses.

Any Marxists wishing to critique the above may do so in person at my house, while I fiddle impatiently with my Dayak beheading sword.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Auntie Floss

I recently had cause to mention a great-aunt of mine who made it to the age of 100, and there was a rustle of desire to hear more. She was always referred to in the family as 'Auntie Floss' - she was actually my mother's aunt and her name was Florence; but the diminutive Floss stuck to her throughout her life.

She was the eldest of four girls born (in 1895) to a Midlands pub landlord. They travelled around much while young, shifting peripatetically according to the brewery's needs, but usually around Birmingham and the Black Country. My grandmother always claimed that as a small girl she was present in the room in their pub in Oldbury when, after hours, a visiting music hall artiste named Jack Judge composed a song on the pub piano that went "It's a long way to Tipperary..."

But I digress. One night in his 42nd year, my great-grandfather went to bed complaining of a headache. Forty-eight hours later he was dead of meningitis. His widow and four young daughters were generously given two days by the brewery to pack up and leave. For a time the family was split up among various lodgings and relatives; Floss as the eldest was most affected since she was the one expected to "take responsibility". It was a trauma that marked her for life; even in her old age and having amassed a considerable fortune (of which more anon) she never felt entirely secure and came over to strangers as a curmudgeonly miser.

All the girls went "into service", as girls of their class often did, working as domestic servants in various houses. Escape for Floss came via the First World War, when she became a "clippy", working as a condictress on buses in Birmingham for the duration. During this period, being an independent and enterprising soul, she learnt to drive (a relatively rare accomplishment for a woman at that time) and subsequently found employment as a chauffeur (chauffeuse?) to a wealthy businessman named John Thomas Hyde Legge, a man personally responsible for electrifying most of South-Western England. He was considerably older than Floss and married, but his wife had been committed to a mental institution some years previously and was never released. As we enter the "Roaring Twenties", I think you can predict the plot twist - Floss slipped seamlessly from driving his Rolls-Royce to becoming his constant companion and mistress. (And to head off Boyo's obvious query, she never said whether she wore the leather chauffering gear in bed).

The 20s and 30s passed by, judging from her photo albums and home movies, in a whirl of society parties, ocean trips and visits to Switzerland, Nice, Monte Carlo and Amalfi. It came as a surprise when, a few years ago, my uncle had the surviving home movies (taken on a baby Pathe 9.5mm cine camera which we still have) transferred to video and found them to feature the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) and Charlie Chaplin. And they were just the ones we recognised.

Mr Legge had a gorgeous house named 'Upover' in the Somerset village of Shipham, just outside Bristol. It was a magical place of my mother's childhood, often visited during school holidays. Later it had the same function in my childhood, but more of that later. Mr Legge - a "proper gent" of the old school - had a huge influence on my mother. He taught her to drink and speak French, among other things (a more suspicious age might view these contributions to her education cynically, but she has always spoken highly of him as a civilising, avuncular influence).

At the outbreak of WWII, my mother was evacuated to Shipham to stay with Floss and Mr Legge, it being thought that this would be safer than staying in the West Midlands and facing the blitz. Shipham is not far from Bristol's Filton Airport, then a place of military significance. The powers that be decided that Shipham's contribution to the war effort should be to light a fake flarepath on the fields outside the village in order to lure the Luftwaffe to bomb Shipham rather than Filton. So much for 'evacuation to a safe place'. If she was good, my mother would be allowed to help light the decoy. It says much for either the innacuracy of German bombing or the Luftwaffe's failure to be fooled that no bombs fell on Shipham.

Anyway, some time after the war the first Mrs Legge passed away and Mr Legge finally married Floss before passing away a few years later. My mother married and produced my sister and me, and from before we can remember we were being taken several times a year down to Shipham to stay in the huge, rambling, time-capsule of a house that Upover became. For kids it was an almost perfect place to go on holiday - enormous, untended gardens with delights that were hidden and needed to be unearthed and rooms full of mysterious old-fashioned books, furniture and devices.

Floss's eccentricity by this stage took two memorable forms: stubborn independence and a complete inability to comprehend changing prices. The independence was manifested by her acquisition - well into her 80s - of a flock of sheep to keep her lawn short. I remember seeing her actually pick up a young ram bodily and chuck it over a fence when it dissed her in some way or other. The incomprehension of prices was less admirable. My Uncle Peter still cannot discuss the question of her car without tear coming to his eye. It was a 1930s Rolls-Royce. In the 1960s, the local garage man told her it wasn't worth much and offered her £100 "to take it off her hands". She accepted on the spot, in an act deeply and lastingly regretted by the rest of the family, mercenary lot that we are. Her catchphrase by the 1970s was "I'm not paying that for a [fill in blank]!"

It got to the point where she could no longer look after herself, let alone a huge rambling house. It was sold off for development, the magic gardens of my childhood flattened and covered in a 'development' of boxy little houses. She was moved to the same private nursing home as her younger sister (my grandmother). And there they sat out their final days, tragically failing to recognise each other. So many conversations ran along these lines:
Floss: "How's your mother/nan?" (depending on whether she was adressing my mother or me)
Visitor: She's sitting next to you.
Floss (adamantly): That's not her! That's an old woman!

At length my grandmother passed away and Floss was alone. My last sight of her was her 100th birthday party. She could no longer speak intelligibly by that point, but she obviously registered that something out of the ordinary was happening. The thing she most enjoyed was the champagne, tipped gently to her lips in a plastic cup (for health and safety reasons). It was her last taste of a good life she had enjoyed decades before.

We were curiously unsurprised to get a phone call from the home exactly a week later. She had passed away peacefully in her sleep. Only family came to the funeral, since she'd outlived her social set. I read a lesson for her.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Esperanto - a final sideswipe

Lest my blog turn into a gathering place for anorak-wearing saddoes, this shall be my final word on Esperanto.

After my previous post, I learnt two important things:
1) Being rude gets you more readers and more comments than being nice; and
2) I was correct in my predictions about how Esperantists would react.

Let me expand upon the second point for a moment: I had a sinking feeling that they would say "but it does have songs, literature, folklore etc". Which is true in the sense of 'stuff made up my Esperantists to amuse other Esperantists', but profoundly untrue in a deeper sense. No, there isn't a folklore; unless you start twisting definitions until they scream. Because there are no "folk".

Esperanto has dwindled, whatever its proponents claim, from merely obscure to wilfully bizarre. It has approximately one sixth the number of speakers as Albanian, and nowhere you can go to actually learn it for real, on the street, from native speakers. Esperantists may decry my shallowness for being able to flirt and eat in Bahasa (it says much about there own tragic geekiness that they regard good food and relationships as beneath them; 'beyond them' might be closer to the mark); but of course that isn't all I can do - in my 15 years of working as an occasional freelance translator/interpreter I have wrestled with TV subtitles, mobile phone menus, liferaft instructions, sauce-bottle labels and reports on coconut palm cultivation, to name but a few. In much of this I have been aided and abetted by my handy sleeping dictionary, Mrs Byard. We work as a bilingual team (and in the interests of political correctness I should point out that I am her sleeping dictionary in English). I wouldn't have been able to do the dull and worthy stuff half so well had I failed to get the important things - enough food to keep me alive while studying in Indonesia and a native-speaker partner - sorted first.

Secondly, I am reassured that I am not alone. This chap makes the pertinent point - something that occurred to me to, years ago, when first getting to grips with Bahasa - that Esperanto is simply too obscurely Eurocentric to make it as a genuine international language. If one were to decide on a medium of global communication, it wouldn't be Esperanto. Even regularising conjugations and declensions misses the point that neither are necessary to construct a perfectly adequate language. Zamenhof was unable to stand back from his Indo-European cultural context and imagine something simpler and easier; Esperanto is at root a failure of either imagination or knowledge of the world of languages beyond Europe.

Let me explain what I mean. In Bahasa, verbs don't change according to subject. I go - Aku pergi; he goes - dia pergi. Why should the verb change? Furthermore, the verb doesn't change according to tense or mood either; these are indicated by single words which are dropped into the sentence. Instead of learning a tense, you learn one word, which can then apply to any verb (in fact, any predicate regardless of part of speech) - sedang for the progressive, sudah for the present perfect, akan or hendak for the future.

Once you have liberated yourself from the tripwires of grammatical endings (ack), however regular, you begin to perceive them as a non-functional frippery; a sort of linguistic peacock's tail - magnificent if you like that sort of thing, but a total ****ing encumbrance in real life.

I'm not suggesting Bahasa would necessarily make the best global language (although it has around 300 times as many speakers as Esperanto - many of them strikingly pretty - and a genuine culture behind it including a fabulous cuisine); merely that a truly 'easy to learn' global language would not look like Esperanto.

Melayu sederhana sekali
Mudah bisa menulis pantun
Aku tak mau diikat tali
Tatabahasa Esperantun