Friday 30 October 2009

In which I slam my fingers badly in A Little Knowledge.

Just passed a young guy selling poppies at King's Cross tube station, with the words: 'Poppies! Getcher poppies! All profits go to the armed forces!'

Er... no. No no no. To an armed forces charity. That's probably an important difference. I mean, it's not that I'm such a hopeless leftie I don't think we should have an armed forces, or even that they should be adequately funded, but I do think maybe buying a symbolic representation of a Flanders Fields poppy to help get the Royal Tank Regiment a new Challenger 2 might be ever so slightly missing the point.

Or so I thought. The above is what I composed in my head between hearing the guy and getting to my computer, but to my shame I realised I couldn't remember who wrote 'In Flanders Fields'. I assumed, however, that it was one of the Owen / Brooke / Sassoon / Graves gang, and I was absolutely sure - it didn't even occur to me to doubt - that the sentiment was of the 'Dulce Et Decorum Est' variety. Not at all, as I'm sure everyone but me knows. 'In Flanders Fields' is by the Canadian John McCrae, and ends:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands, we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Those don't sound to me like the words of a man who'd be unhappy if we all chipped in for a tank.

(The tattered remains of my original point still just about stand, though. That's not what we're doing, and I'm glad about that.)

Monday 26 October 2009

Lazy comedy cliche things that actually happened to me this weekend.

I was infuriated by the confusing instructions for assembling some flat-pack furniture.

I avoided work by needlessly alphabetising my DVDs.

I hit my thumb with a hammer.

Join me next week, by when I will have slipped on a banana skin, had my computer explained to me by a child, and enthusiastically slagged someone off before realising that she's standing right behind me, isn't she?

Tuesday 20 October 2009

First five things I thought on looking at this portrait in the National Gallery, which basically mean I don't deserve to go there.

* Wow. That horse has a really tiny head.
* Charles I and his horse have the same hair.
* If everyone had a small framed sign saying who they were hung up beside them wherever they went, would that be useful or irritating? It would certainly be good at parties.
* Did Charles pick the horse because it had his hair, or did he get the horse first, and then grow his hair out in order to copy his horse's signature look? Or hasn't he even noticed? I bet the rest of the court has. Van Dyke definitely has.
* Well. I'm hungry.

Wednesday 14 October 2009

More collaborations

If you read the comments on this thing (and you really should, I am blessed with great commenters), you will know that a correspondent has kindly pointed me to a whole book of these. Meanwhile, another correspondent points out that Housman should be careful about giving people ideas, given the tumpty rhythms and inviting rhymes of many of his own opening couplets, and a third correspondent brilliantly proves her point:

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say:
"You're twenty one, the numbers there
go round the other way."

This reminded me of another collaboration: the composer Thomas Beecham's grandfather made his money from a laxative named Beecham's Pills, and as a boy Thomas supposedly earned half a crown by writing the following Christmas advert:

Hark the Herald Angels Sing:
BEECHAM'S PILLS are just the thing!
Peace on Earth and Mercy Mild; 
Two for an adult, one for a child.

All of which makes me think it's a shame Housman didn't have a family business to promote...

When the lad of longing sighs
Mute and dull of cheer and pale 
Will restore him without fail!

Once in the wind of morning
I ranged the thymy wold;
Till I found a HOUSMAN'S awning
Where FIRST RATE PIES are sold!

Think no more, lad; laugh, be jolly:
Why should men make haste to die?
Especially when they've bought, by golly,

Monday 12 October 2009


A.E.Housman (probably, or at least possibly) once wrote a couplet to follow Wordsworth's lines in 'To the Cuckoo':

O Cuckoo! Shall I call thee bird,
Or but a wandering voice?
State alternative preferred
With reasons for your choice. 

Another four line poem is quoted by Keats in a letter, but doesn't seem to me to be claiming authorship of it. And where it crops up elsewhere, it's often as the punchline to a story in which an undergraduate calls on a friend, only to find he has gone out, but has left on his desk a pad on which he has written the first two lines of a new poem:

''The sun's perpendicular rays
Illumine the depths of the sea'

Which the visitor helpfully finishes off for him:

'The fishes, beginning to sweat, 
Cry 'Damn it! How hot we shall be!''

Monday 5 October 2009

Which means 'Growing' is still my best effort. Any advance?

So, it turns out you can have a whiter shade of pale, and grass that is greener on the other side. You can have redder blood than I; tell bluer jokes, and have a blacker heart. Your face can be pinker; browner; yellower; greyer or even purpler than mine. But... there's no such word as 'oranger'. What crazy system is this? How am I meant to compare two things, both of which largely reflect light at a wavelength between 585 to 620 nm, but one noticeably more so than the other? How am I supposed to differentiate between half-hearted and fervent supporters of the Dutch royal family? What sort of a impoverished tongue is it in which we cannot point out that both these oranges are orange, but this orange is the oranger orange? It's an outrage.

(I accept it is possible that to fully appreciate the enormity of this situation, you may need to be an occasional insomniac; to try to defeat your insomnia by playing word games in your head, such as the one where you build up a word by adding a letter at a time, each time creating a valid word; and to have believed last night that you had smashed your previous record with the sequence 'a, an, ran, rang, range, orange, oranger, orangery'. Until you checked the dictionary this morning, and discovered this OUTRAGEOUS GAP IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE. But even if such happens not the case for you, I expect you're pretty cross about it.)

Friday 2 October 2009

Forever Friends

Talking of London Zoo, this is the life-size statue that stands right in the centre of it, between the flamingo lake and the tiger enclosure.

Yep. Striking, isn't it? In case you can't read the plaque, it records that the sculpture was presented to the zoo by J. B. Wolff in 1906.

I see. So, in 1906, J. B. Wolff commissioned an enormous sculpture representing man and beast locked in their age-old conflict; the lion straining to rend the man apart with tooth and claw; the man armed with a primitive knife, desperately trying to disembowel the lion - implacable enemies locked in a fight for survival only one of them can win.

And then he gave it to a zoo.

You know what I think? I think J.B. Wolff simultaneously gave the zoo a large amount of money, on condition that they prominently display this statue in perpetuity. I think J.B.Wolff hated the zoo. You're a funny guy, J.B. Wolff.