Saturday, December 30, 2006

Auld Lang Syne

It’s that time of year and no doubt in a few more hours, many of you will be cavorting around with funny hats on and linking hands to join in the singing of “Auld Lang Syne.” You may notice that there is a break in the chain – this will be because I shall be at home and tucked up in bed, leaving you all to get on with it as best you can. I’m sure you’ll manage.

Both my friends attribute my lack of interest in this New Year business to a generally dyspeptic attitude but they’re wrong. When I was a lad and eternity stretched before me, rather in the way that the Sahara Desert must look to the leading camel in the caravan train, I would be out there celebrating with the rest of you. But after all, it does happen every year and it gets a bit repetitious.

I did stay up to see in the year 2000 in the hope that all the computers in the world would crash so we could go back to pens and pencils, but I was disappointed. And before television, at any rate you could just get your New Year over and done with and go to bed, but now you have to watch all those other nations going through the same thing over and over again, just because they weren’t smart enough to get themselves on the Greenwich meridian.

I’m fond of champagne although I would mention to my creditors that I don’t make it my lifestyle, more vin ordinaire, to tell the truth, but I can assure you that one minute past midnight on January the First is not the optimum time to enjoy it. And it wouldn’t be half as bad if, at the stroke of twelve, you weren’t supposed to kiss your neighbour who I can assure you will have turned into a pumpkin at the very best by that time.

But for me the biggest downside is that, like a birthday, it marks the passage of time in a rather depressing way. And you’ve then got to remember to put the new year on your cheques, just another notch in your memory cells. As the poem says:

“And all the while behind I hear,

Time’s winged chariot drawing near.”

However, far be it from me to spoil your fun, so here’s a couple of bits of trivia with which you can regale your fellow merrymakers, ensuring that you won’t be invited to their party next year.

“Auld Lang Syne” is generally attributed to Robert Burns but, in a private letter, he claimed that he had merely adapted it from traditional material he had heard, adding a couple of verses of his own. Personally, I think he realised just how dodgy his spelling was and was trying to shift the blame.

None of your fellow revellers will know the words, unless they are members of the Scottish Nationalists, in which case they will not get past the first verse. This is where you can score. At absolutely no extra charge I am attaching the full Monty, or in this case, the full Robert, of the verses in the vernacular. I believe these were originally in English but no doubt Burns transcribed them from drunken Highlanders which might account for it. The result is that “Auld Lang Syne” is sung world wide, every nation believing that the lyrics are in their own language as they can’t understand them anyway.

So no matter how much champagne you have guzzled, your performance will have the stamp of authenticity.

And by the time you’ve reached the last verse, it will be New Year in Hong Kong – and all the other guests will have left.

Happy New Year!

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind ?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne ?


For auld lang syne, my dear,

for auld lang syne,

we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,

for auld lang syne.

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp !
And surely I’ll be mine !
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.


We twa hae run about the braes,
and pou’d the gowans fine ;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin’ auld lang syne.


We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,
frae morning sun till dine ;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
sin’ auld lang syne.


And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere !
And gies a hand o’ thine !
And we’ll tak a right gude-willie-waught,
for auld lang syne.


Friday, December 29, 2006

Brought to Book.

It’s difficult to warm towards politicians. There’s the envy of their having got a pretty cushy job due to the lack of attention paid by the voters and the feeling that being paid for sitting on hard benches and occasionally saying “Hear, hear,” or possibly “Rubbish,” is not much in the line of hard work. But in my case, I make an exception for the blond, bicycling Boris Johnson, who is not only prepared to open his mouth and speak his mind but is also, in the tradition of all good contortionists, always likely to put his foot in it. And in spite of his ability to upset the pompous, much of what he says makes so much sense that I’m amazed he was even allowed into politics at all, commonsense being a quality normally eschewed in such circles.

My feelings are, of course, coloured by the fact that he often agrees with my own feelings. And, in a recent column, he spoke of the growing evils of computer games and the expensive and complex offerings that have been spawned by them.

It seems that this Christmas, sales of such devices have escalated and, as neither he nor I have shares in the companies involved, we are bound to deplore the fact. Children, and probably a few adults as well, prefer twiddling mindlessly with the controls whilst glued to the TV or computer screen with glazed eyes, to reading a book. And, under the circumstances, even the “Da Vinci Code” or “Pete – My Story” might be adjudged preferable (I appreciate that that’s a tough call).

Mr. Johnson’s concern is with the growing standards of illiteracy in a nation that has the most developed language on earth, the median skill now being the ability to decipher the menu at MacDonald’s. Things may be worse in the United States, for in New York, an African Grey parrot has been found to have a vocabulary of some 950 words, which is, I understand, 850 words more than the average New Yorker uses in everyday life.

It might be unfair to blame this lack of interest in the written word entirely on video games, television must shoulder some of the blame, but I don’t think Mr. Johnson has examined the full implications.

As I remember it, it all started with a game called PacMan, which generally filled in the time whilst waiting for your washing to dry at the Laundromat or similar social event. The idea that the little figure, presumably Mr. Pac, was cannibalistic indicated the violent trend to which the programmers were leaning. Now nearly all the games involve violence of some sort and, in a nation which has quite enough of this sort of thing on the streets, it’s odd that anyone would want to reproduce it on the screen in their homes.

Great civilisations have depended on the written word to develop. What if Homer had been down at the washeteria and had fallen under the spell of PacMan? Not much chance of an Iliad or two out of him, I suspect, although as he was blind, he might not have fallen for it.

And if Boccacio’s group had got their hands on a Nintendo during the plague, do you think they’d have bothered telling stories to each other? The Decameron would never have made it, they’d have been too busy squabbling over the controls.

Will Shakespeare and Ann Hathaway would probably have spent evenings at home, twiddling away, leaving him barely time to knock out Hen. V and get it on at The Globe.

And Dickens, who allegedly wrote his stuff whilst sitting in his own living room when he wasn’t off with his mistress, could hardly have concentrated while the kids were playing with Game boy in the corner.

So perhaps the dearth of modern writers of quality can be accounted for by the blossoming of alternative attractions to the book. The looming menace of the video game is a threat to literacy.

It is always good to look on the bright side, however, and we can but hope that somebody gave Dan Brown a Play Station Two for Christmas. With a bit of luck, that will keep him off his typewriter for a bit.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

New Year Dishonours

As Christmas recedes in the rear view mirror, it is fair to assume that the spirit of peace and goodwill to all men (and women) is diminishing also. Thus we can all get back to normality, hating our neighbour, coveting his wife or his ass ( please don't misunderstand me here), whichever one is the better looking, and behaving like rational human beings once again.

I rather enjoy the moratorium on everyday life that occurs between Christmas and the New Year hangover in Europe. In America, I always resented the back to work on the 26th. habit that prevails there.

Newspapers are forced to recycle old news and articles, usually resorting to quizzes of what happened during the year, something most of us would prefer to forget, and regurgitating that perennial piece of nonsense, the New Year resolution. I suppose for those who are less perfect than you or I, this might be a reasonable, if over lofty, aim, but in our case I feel it to be superfluous. Thus I propose not to make any resolutions for the coming year bar one, which is not to say to everyone I meet prior to the 15th. of the month or so, “Happy New Year.” Since, on a global scale, each succeeding year seems to get more miserable, I propose amending it to be “Better New Year.”

There’s no doubt about it, when you’re down nothing goes right for you, even if you’re the Prime Minister of a nation. And for A. Blair and family, trying to sneak off for yet another freebie vacation with the rich and famous, British Airways managed to put another crimp in their happiness by clipping a few runway lights at Miami airport. “Prime Minister in airport drama,” ran the headlines (it was a slow news day) and thereby deposited another blob of dirt on the Blair escutcheon.

Nobody, I think, begrudges them a holiday. But why do they always have to be sucking up to the celebrities, especially those that have desirable residences. Are the BeeGees in line for a knighthood one wonders? Or is it just a matter of some delicate negotiations (started last year at the home of Cliff Richard in Barbados) to extend the payment of royalties?

From what I’ve heard, BeeGee music is less objectionable than most that pollutes the atmosphere, but I doubt that Messrs. Gibb and Co. provide much in the way of sparkling conversation. I once had lunch with the late Maurice Gibb, nice enough fellow, although I suppose my admitting that I had never heard any of his music put a bit of a damper on the conversation, but I never lusted to spend a week with him.

It must be admitted that Blair is not the only Prime Minister to lunch with show business personalities. During the war, Winston Churchill expressed a desire to lunch with Isiah Berlin, the noted economist and philosopher. Now Churchill was notorious for not getting names right and, by one of those strokes of fate, the songwriter Irving Berlin was visiting Britain at the time, entertaining the troops. Nobody has ever admitted whose mistake it was but Irving got the invitation to lunch with the great man. Predictably, things did not go well. After receiving some rather unsatisfactory answers to his questions, Churchill asked “What do you consider to be your most valuable contribution?” Irving Berlin considered for a moment and said “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” The meal was finished in icy silence.

On hearing later of the mistake, Churchill thought it hilarious but I doubt that Berlin felt the same. However, at any rate, Berlin was an excellent writer of song lyrics and, as Churchill appreciated such things, had he known who his guest was, things might have gone much better.

Which brings me, a segue, as they say in the music business, to the case of W.S. Gilbert. My daughter having given me DVD’s of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Mikado” and “Pirates of Penzance,” I was struck by the fact that Sullivan got a knighthood and Gilbert a raspberry. Seems very unfair to me, but then so do most of the New Year Honours. Bracketing Sullivan with Elton John shows just how far things have got out of hand, so who’s up for it this year? Kate Moss and Pete Doherty, I predict.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Greetings of the Seasons

As reported reliably in this column, now that Christmas is actually visible on the horizon as opposed to being a target in the retail industries calendar, in the words of the old song “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” as far as I’m concerned.

So to all of you who have been muttering “Scrooge” behind my back, I say, “Bah” and even “Humbug.”

For I am filled with the spirit of peace and goodwill, if not to all men, at any rate to a far larger percentage than is my wont.

Our house is “en fête,” the tree, albeit plastic, is resplendent and Christmas music pipes in the background. This year we are, unfortunately, missing that solemn anthem, full of pathos and feeling, “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer,” but most of the other favourites are in place. In the kitchen, the turkey can’t wait to be told to get stuffed, the chestnuts, if not roasting on an open fire, are resting peacefully in the can, just waiting for the opener and the cranberries are eager to be sauced.

Even Jack Frost showed up to provide a suitable meteorological touch by nipping at the odd nose or two and, as a special gift to both of my readers, I’m giving you the holiday off from reading this stuff. What more could anyone wish for?

As I am now classified as an adult by the authorities, I do know roughly what presents I have stacked beneath the tree but I’m still hoping Santa will spring a surprise or two. We do enforce a strict policy of “not to be opened before Christmas day” with the threat of an ASBO to anyone who fails to comply.

I’m a little concerned for Santa Claus in his visits to the UK this year as, with their crusade against obesity taking precedence over deporting illegal aliens and dealing with crime, I’m afraid he may be in for having his stomach stapled personally by Miss Hewitt. Imagine an anorexic Father Christmas! And then Elf’nSafety are on his case about diving down those chimneys with a licence from the Department for the Granting of Chimney Diving Licences, plus in London there’s the congestion charge to pay for all those reindeer.

However, these minor incidents aside, I’m going to have a good time.

I noticed that the television stations were winding themselves into a frenzy to provide entertainment for Christmas Day. As most of the population spend 364 days of the year watching, I would have thought that they might have welcomed a day off to celebrate. After all, Christmas is the time when families gather together around the festive board and realise just how much they get on each other’s nerves and how glad they are that everyone lives in a different part of the country. Watching television dilutes the social impact of this, as it stultifies any acrimonious conversation. Many do, of course, flee the country and spend a good deal of the holiday in airport lounges. I suppose they find it more enjoyable.

Family units are smaller than in days of yore. In many this year, the youngsters will be out on Christmas Day stealing iPods, mugging old age pensioners, selling drugs and practising similar laughable japes on the citizens, watched over by an avuncular police force. “Now, now, then. If you kick her in the head once more, I shall have to issue you with a warning.”

Of course, if the magistrate likes the person’s music or the culprit is a TV or sports personality, all will be forgiven. I think this is what Dickens was predicting when he wrote of the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Unfortunately, all those rattling chains don’t seem to be being attached to the right members of society.

But in our house we are having an old fashioned, traditional Christmas as usual and I hope you all do too. It’s time to re-read “A Christmas Carol.”

As Tiny Tim said, “God Bless Us, Every One.”

(Sigh – I suppose here I have to explain that by Tiny Tim I am not referring to the banjo-playing alleged entertainer but to the character created by Charles Dickens.)

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Crikea Ikea!

It was refreshing to hear that Ingvar Kamprad, the octogenarian founder of IKEA, does not necessarily furnish his house in Switzerland with the stuff. No doubt he could get a hefty discount but, in a recent interview, admitted that his favourite chair was some 32 years old and most certainly did not come from their catalogue, a catalogue which now outsells the Bible.

As the richest man in Switzerland, it is understandable that he does not want to lumber his house with the flat-pack-put-it-together-yourself-wobbly-furniture that his company specialises in.

It seems his wife says his chair needs re-upholstering, and most of us do, after 32 years. Every time she dumps it outside for the trash collection, Mr. Kamprad nips around the back and drags it back in again.

I can sympathise. My own favourite chair I found in a garage sale in Michigan some thirty odd years ago. It was sitting disconsolately, surrounded by the usual pot pourri of rubbish one finds at such events, and its former owner was sitting even more disconsolately in it.

The price tag was $30, about ten times the going rate for the other junk on display. It seems he had been told by his wife to get rid of the thing and, as it was his favourite chair, he had upped the price in the hope that no-one would buy it. I did, promising that I would take good care of it, a promise which I have kept. I wish I could let him know, but he’s probably gone to an even more comfortable place by now.

I’m reluctant to ask its age, as I was brought up to believe it was impolite to ask such a question of a lady, but I’ve got a feeling that she has seen a good deal of life.

Physically, she’s in great shape. Large enough to accommodate myself plus a cat or a dog comfortably whilst reading a book and, even better, has those wings on the back to keep out any draughts. For some reason, modern furniture designers seem to think that draughts were abolished with the death of Queen Victoria.

I defy any whizz kid from the IKEA design department to produce anything a fraction as comfortable.

My first experience of the do-it-yourself furniture business was when I ordered a wardrobe. A week or two later, I took delivery of what I wrongfully assumed was a load of firewood. Calling the company, they said, no, it was the wardrobe and that the instructions were somewhere in the package. We unearthed them and spent a couple of days, hovering on the edge of divorce, putting the thing together. Eventually we had a construction resembling a parallelogram on end that looked like the sort of thing one might see in the background of an existentialist painting. Shortly afterwards, we reverted to the original idea that it was just a load of firewood.

I have lived pretty happily ever since.

The problem with flat pack furniture is that it has only one significant advantage over more conventional products. It is flat and easy to transport. Since it has to be designed to be put together by a chimpanzee with average levels of DIY skills, the design is perforce minimal, a restriction which means that comfort and stability are pretty secondary considerations. I sympathise with the IKEA design department. Flat and comfortable rarely go hand in hand – take bosoms, for instance. I suppose they start off as pancake makers and work their way up (the IKEA designers, I mean, not bosoms) until they can squash a whole suite of furniture into a box at a graduation ceremony.

Years ago, an up-market furniture company in London, Heals, ran a series of adverts featuring a small car with an enormous piece of furniture strapped to the roof. The caption was “Heals, For that can’t wait to get it home feeling.” From IKEA this does not, of course, present a similar problem. That is if you like minimalist wobbly furniture.

Me, I’ll stick with my comfortable old chair, sadly in need of upholstering. I’ll probably die in it, it’s so comfortable.

Our dining table took three strong men to carry in but it doesn’t wobble, an invaluable characteristic unless you like the idea of whitecaps on your soup. So you can see that I’m probably not going to be flicking through the IKEA catalogue in the near future.

And I have a suspicion that, if you did an inventory of Mr. Kamprad’s house, you might not find too much from his own store there either.

A man after my own heart.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Return of David Irving

David Irving, the author and dubious historian who gained notoriety by claiming that The Holocaust never happened, has been released from his Austrian prison. The law that placed him under lock and key, and one that is applicable in a good many countries, is a particularly unfortunate one, impinging on the right of freedom of speech. However reprehensible one feels it might be to deny The Holocaust, if someone is potty enough to go about saying so, surely they should be allowed to do so? The only ones who will be listening are those who are equally barmy.

Irving probably should have been incarcerated for sheer stupidity. He knew full well that the law existed and brazenly defied it. Perhaps he thought it was like The Holocaust in his opinion – it didn’t exist.

I always had a slight empathy with him if only because we went to the same school. I was in the same form as his brother, John, who in those days was known as “The Prof.” John was a very different character who, after a long and distinguished career in the Royal Air Force, now farms sheep in Wiltshire. Ironically in view of his brother’s racist capers, he is a prominent member of a Race Relations Board. I can’t recall him ever mentioning his younger brother, who must have been a pretty unpleasant gum-boil, one would have thought.

On gaining a school prize, he had asked for a copy of Mein Kampf. I’ll give him points here for honesty, though. When I was awarded the one and only prize I ever attained, I was standing in line to tell the School Governors my choice of book. I was in a quandary, feeling that my requested title would not get me many points. At the time I was reading P.G. Wodehouse’s “Young Men in Spats,” not the sort of literature the Governors would have in mind, I thought, but I would dearly have liked to have another of the old master’s works. Finally, as I wrestled with the problem, I heard the boy in front of me say, “Sir, I would like to receive a copy of James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans.” It seemed to be received with approval, so as my turn came, I stepped up smartly and said “Sir, I would like to receive a copy of James Fenimore Cooper’s, “The Last of the Mohicans.”

There was a bit of consternation. “Good Lord,” I imagine them saying, “This James Fenimore Cooper seems to have a best-seller on his hands this year.” But they beamed upon me approvingly in a way that I doubt they would had I asked for a copy of “Tales from the Drones Club.”

I duly received my copy of “The Last of the Mohicans,”, beautifully bound, making my mother proud. Personally, I never got past page 83 and the only thing I can remember is that there was an Indian called Chingachgook in it. My son now has the book. I don’t think he’s ever made it that far.

David Irving has been the stormy petrel of the book world almost throughout his career. His first brush with the law courts came over his book on the PQ 17 convoy disaster. In it, he placed the blame fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the convoy’s master, Jack Broome. Broome, rightly objected; it was, after all, due to a failure of many others, and sued the young Irving. He won substantial damages of £40,000.

Irving continued to mix considerable writing talent with an unfortunate lack of objectivity, that particular gift which must be exercised by all serious historians. His earlier account of the raid on Dresden, his first book, excellently written and researched though it was, proved to be just as prejudiced, but it was with his biography of Adolf Hitler that he developed his theory that The Holocaust had been a myth and consigned himself to literary obloquy.

When Deborah Lipstadt pointed out in another book, the stupidity of denying both the physical and oral evidence of this, he sued – and lost, spectacularly. Bankruptcy followed, but even worse was the fact that he was also bankrupt of sensible ideas. When arrested in Austria whilst on his way to deliver a lecture espousing his defence of the Nazis, he hastily performed a volte face and said that he had been wrong. The court were not convinced and jailed him.

His greatest contribution to history was almost certainly his exposing of the forged “Hitler Diaries,” and the most damning condemnation of his work came from Professor Richard J. Evans, who wrote:

“Not one of Irving's books, speeches or articles, not one paragraph, not one sentence in any of them, can be taken on trust as an accurate representation of its historical subject. All of them are completely worthless as history, because Irving cannot be trusted anywhere, in any of them, to give a reliable account of what he is talking or writing about. ... if we mean by historian someone who is concerned to discover the truth about the past, and to give as accurate a representation of it as possible, then Irving is not a historian.”

The sad part is that David Irving was a genuinely talented writer and a genuinely unprofessional historian. His books are extremely well written, very well researched but coloured by a strange obsession for defending The Nazi regime and an openly racist attitude that he has never bothered to deny.

It reminds me of Siegfried Sassoon’s description of fox-hunting: “The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.”

Irving now returns to England, disgraced and impoverished. He still has his talents and it would be good to hear that he has genuinely seen the error of his ways. Perhaps he will move along from his rather childish fantasies of the Hitler era and write of subjects on which he can express himself objectively.

I’m sure a publisher somewhere would take a chance – I understand Judith Regan is looking for another project.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A Litany of Lies

The British detectives who travelled to Moscow to attempt to unravel the mysterious death of a former KGB man in London were probably under no illusions as to the difficulties they would face. Dealing with the Russians has never been a straightforward process, it never is with totalitarian states, and this is admirably illustrated by a study of a Russian publication, “The Hitler Book.”

There must be over one thousand books on the subject of the life and times of Adolf Hitler and, in spite of the excellence of many of these, none have come close to penetrating the mind of the man who called himself The Fuhrer. Much of the problem stems from his rarely having committed his thoughts to paper. Mein Kampf was merely a wordy diatribe of half-baked notions and revealed nothing of the man. Had “The Hitler Diaries” not been total forgeries, they might have shone some light, as have Goebbel’s on his devious character, but Hitler seems to have kept no diary. Martin Bormann attempted to record, surreptitiously, Hitler’s table talk but this proved to be totally inconsequential ramblings on a variety of subjects. Perhaps this was the true mind of Hitler, inconsequential.

It may have been the enigma of the Nazi leader that prompted Joseph Stalin to commission a biography of his dictatorial counterpart in 1947. A team of writers under the leadership of Feodor Karpovitch Parparov were given the dubious honour of preparing the material for their notoriously prickly boss. The ultimate raspberry award for any ghost writer, Siberia must have looked like a holiday camp to them. They did have two sources that should have been of immense value. Heinz Linge and Otto Gunsche were two SS officers who had been captured by the Russians shortly after the suicide of Hitler. Both had been in daily contact with him over the past few years. The British author, Hugh Trevor-Roper, had interviewed both men in 1945 when he wrote his authoritative work, “The Last days of Hitler,” which has remained substantially the most accurate description of those turbulent days. Now the Russians turned to them as a main source for information.

Both men were prisoners and almost certainly their first priority would have been to give their interrogators information that they wanted – not necessarily the information that a strict adherence to facts would involve. And who could blame them? Neither man could be classified as particularly erudite and their contributions seem to consist mostly of tattle-tale stuff, interesting enough if its accuracy could be relied upon, but little more than court gossip. Once again, we are missing the essence of the man.

If the authors of “The Hitler Book” had read any of the existing works on the life of their subject, it does not show up in the final version. By 1949 they had polished it for presentation and it reads as being the submission of an amateurish student thesis to an especially cantankerous professor. The shadow of the Lubyanka prison seems to have been hovering over them.

Providing one bears in mind the provenance of the information, the book is pretty interesting. Some of the personal details are almost certainly factual, neither Linge nor Gunsche, who seems to have been the less forthcoming of the two, would have had any reason to have invented these, it is only in the presentation of material that might have been less than flattering to the Soviets that there would have been a reason to obfuscate.

Apart from the errors of fact, which are numerous, the blatant misinterpretation of recorded history, most especially that of the US/UK contribution to the war, makes for startling, and sometimes laughable, reading. It is an undeniable fact that the Soviet Union bore the brunt of the casualties and it is arguable that they contributed the major part in the defeat of Nazism but the book virtually ignores any actions on the part of its allies. The amazing thing is that Stalin accepted it without demur. As commander in chief of his own armed forces, he was well aware of the true facts and was also on reasonably good terms with Churchill who was open enough in exchanges of information, giving him an accurate overview of the situation, a view which was hardly reflected in the subsequent book. But, devoid of all criticism of the Soviet Union, the book was to become the official Russian version of the life of Adolf Hitler.

This gives one a pretty good idea of the Soviet attitude to truth, an attitude that seems to have changed little since the days of Stalin.

Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that the British detectives find themselves spinning their wheels in Moscow.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Is It Painful?

Whilst in London, I had one of those minor incidents that provide so much colour to our lives. Using an earpiece to a bit of electronic equipment, the little rubber thingy on the end became detached and came to rest in my ear. Now I don’t know about you, but unless you are a founder member of Contortionists Anonymous, the chances of being able to see in your own ear are pretty slim. And I wasn’t even sure that’s where the little rubber thingy was. All I knew was that it was no longer attached to the earpiece and I thought it felt as though it was in my ear.

I toddled down to the concierge and explained the position to him.

“Is it painful?” he asked.

“No, I just want someone to winkle it out – a nurse or even a concierge would do," I suggested.

“We don’t have a nurse,” he said, not offering his conciergeral services, no doubt a union problem, “but I can get our doctor on call for you. He’s £65.”

It seemed pretty cheap for a fully qualified doctor until I realised that the price was for merely a very brief encounter. I declined the offer and went for a walk.

Passing a pharmacy, I went in and ran through the script again.

“Is it painful?” he asked. I assured him that it wasn’t. He peered in. “Can’t see anything,” he opined.

“Perhaps you could have a prod around?” I suggested.

“More than my job’s worth,” he said vehemently. Now I had often heard of this new English word, jobsworth, and it was a pleasure to hear it for the first time in context.

“There’s a walk-in clinic down the road. They charge £65.”

I told him that I knew of a doctor who was probably a close relative to those running the place and that it seemed a lot for for the job in question.

“Then you need to go to the A & E,” he suggested.

“I’ve been to the V & A – thought it was a pretty boring museum. Is this much the same?”

“Accident and Emergencies,” he muttered through gritted teeth. “Just round the corner.”

By chance my route took me past this establishment which was a hive of activity. It seemed as though a large percentage of London’s population had got themselves involved in some sort of A or possibly E. Brightly coloured ambulance were shipping supine and prostrate bodies in by the cartload. My ear problem did not seem to be in the same category. Nonetheless, I wandered in through the doors of this modern Scutari and tackled the on-duty Florence Nightingale. This heavily disguised angel of mercy said, “Is it painful?”

By now I had the answer to this off pat.

“It’s not really an emergency, you know,” she said disapprovingly. “Anyway, it’s an ENT job.” “Oh no, it’s not,” says I, lightly, “It’s an EAR job.”

There must be something in the Hippocratic code that discourages airy badinage with patients. She turned distinctly icy.

“You’ll have to go to your GP and get him to send you to a specialist.”

“I don’t have a GP – I’m just visiting.”

“Then you’ll have to go private. But there’s a walk-in clinic nearby.”

I told her the price and of the close relationship with the doctor on call together with my opinion of their estimate for the business, suggesting that any experienced winkle eater with a pin could do the job far more economically.

Just then, another load of casualties arrived from Balaclava and she ushered me out.

I went back to my hotel and turned on the television.

On the screen, the Minister of Health, Patricia Hewitt was being interviewed. I’m sure this lady is much beloved by her immediate family but she addresses her audience rather in the manner of a vicar’s wife dealing with a bunch of juvenile delinquents at the garden fête. Her speech was an extract from the Book of Blair, Chapter 27, Verse 11, and aimed at those with an IQ rather below sea level. The interviewer asked a pertinent question and was immediately put in his place.

“Please, now if you will just let me finish,” she said, fixing him with a beady eye and going on to explain that the hospitals were in fine shape – or would be if it were not for patients and their insistent clamour for admission. It was all very upsetting. All that was needed was to weed out the sick and ailing and the hospitals would be bright and cheerful places once more and able to cope. She concluded with a toothy, self-satisfied smile and one got the impression that she would then dig into her handbag and dish out lollipops all round as soon as the camera was off her.

After I had arrived back home in France, I called up my GP who promptly made an appointment for me that afternoon with a specialist.

By now I was conversant with the argot of the business. “An ENT man, I suppose?”

“Non,” he said in a puzzled voice, “ Un ORL.”

Well, what’s in a name. The upshot was that the Oto-Rhino-Laryngologiste was clearly an experienced winkle-eater since he did the job in about ten seconds and I fancy he was practising his putting with his spare hand at the same time. It took him longer to write out his bill which was for €28.

So my advice to any traveller who finds himself in need of medical attention whilst in the sceptred isle is to not play down your condition.

Roll on the floor in agony by all means, speak in a language that will convince your hearers that you are an illegal immigrant and this should get you free and immediate attention. And, in all the clamour that will be generated as they cart you off to the A & E (or possibly the V & A, if the ambulance is using their GPS system to find the way), you may imagine that you hear the fluting tones of Patricia Hewitt chanting the health service anthem:

“Please, now if you will just let me finish.”

Monday, December 18, 2006

Celebrities Rule!

A charming young lady from one of the major news bureaus interviewed me the other day. The subject was ghost writing, but more specifically the glut of ghost written biographies of what now pass for celebrities in this world.
Her first question was why did I not write any of these and also why did I have such a poor opinion of them in general? The inference was that there might have been a touch of sour grapes in my dismissive attitude towards these. And I must admit, the money would come in handy!
But realistically, I have never been approached to do the work, which is not surprising since I immure myself in rural France, never watch British television and only read the on-line newspapers. Hardly the sort of circle in which the nouveau celebrity revolves to rub shoulders (or other parts) with their prospective biographer.
There is also the problem that it would hardly be much of a boost to one of these to find that his or her proposed biographer had never heard of them. Hardly the basis for a happy relationship, I might suggest, something of a sine qua non for the job. And, apart from any financial reward, I would not find much personal satisfaction in working on a story whose appeal would likely be in the order of nano-seconds and whose subject will be probably be consigned to the dustbin of pseudo celebrities within a year or two.
But her next question gave me pause for thought. She asked did I think that the British public had an unhealthy obsession with such instant celebrities? As I said, not watching British television, I had not realised the extent of this phenomena but I now started to take a closer look. And it seems that, on a certain level, the affairs of TV artists (and I use the word loosely) and sports personalities were of greater import than world events.
I acquired a copy of The Sun. As I feel that Rupert Murdoch is adequately provided for, I nicked the copy that had been left behind by a fellow breakfaster.
The front page was filled with a murder story. Fair enough. Page three was completely taken up with a picture of a nubile young nobody with an inadequate wardrobe, something which I would have thought that nowadays would only have been of interest to a retarded teenager with testosterone problems. Makes one wonder just who are the readership of The Sun.
But the centre spread was entirely devoted to pictures of “celebrities.” If I remember rightly, the storyline that was used to hang this together was, “what were they doing for Christmas?” They all appeared to be participants in some form of television, film or sporting event, and why on earth anyone else should care what they were doing for Christmas is beyond me. Not one of the names registered with me as having contributed anything to society – but that may, of course, be my misfortune.
Some of the other items were extraordinary. Much excitement there was apparently over who was to be in the final of an oddly titled BBC programme, “Strictly Come Dancing.” No doubt the winner will shortly be publishing an autobiography and hopefully will be able to explain why it’s “strictly.”
The rest of the edition was pretty much a repetition of such stories and later, a copy of the Daily Mail (also stolen), reinforced my view that, as far as the British public were concerned, news was now running a poor second to celebrity gossip.
As I am often accused of being a grumpy old man, it was with some relief that I read in Sunday’s Daily Telegraph that I am not alone. The traditional game of Trivial Pursuit, whose questions in the past have not been noticeably trivial, has now succumbed to this obsession with personalities. Questions of general knowledge have now been superseded with piffling ones that, as the article says, appear to have come straight from the pages of Heat or Hello! magazines.
They quote some samples:
“Who heckled Madonna at an awards ceremony for miming?”
“What is Prince Charles’s nickname for Camilla?”
“What whisky mixer does Paul Burrell recommend to neutralise dog urine?”
“What were young people said to be buying less of according to a 1998 report, due to the Jeremy Clarkson effect?”
“What did lesbian Rosie Read sell on E-Bay for £4800 to help pay off her university debt?”
“How many stones of weight did David Blane lose during his 44 days in the plastic box above the Thames?”
“Which former “rock” came second to Joe Pasquale on I’m a Celebrity – Get me Out of Here?”
“What 7ft. wide, 6300lb. vehicle did Arnold Schwarzenegger purchase the first civilian example of?”
Clearly, families who felt that a copy of Trivial Pursuit might be good for the education of their offspring should cross this off their Christmas list.
The more serious question is why the British public should have such an obsessive interest in such essentially uninteresting people? (I would exclude Prince Charles and Arnold Schwarzenegger from that category – at any rate, they have actually accomplished something) Every nation has, of course, its show business personalities but these are usually performers with genuine talent. France only seems to have one at a time and Johnny Hallyday must surely be approaching his “sell by” date, especially now he is moving to Switzerland for tax purposes, and Gerard Depardieu has faded from view. Must be a vacancy there.
But Britain is an oddity. The raising to iconic status of a cocaine snorting model and her sometime associate, a repeat drug offending musician, who, in any sensible society, would long ago have been consigned to jail to reflect upon their miserable, if financially rewarding, lives, symbolises the sort of examples being set for future generations. And as the gap between the have and the have-nots widens, more resort to the never-never land dreams of instant wealth and fame offered by such programmes as Big Brother. The below navel cavortings of the “stars” of soap operas become of prime interest and the whole foundation of society becomes debased. Much excitement was engendered the other day over the winner of a competition known as the X-Factor. This was apparently a 21 year old by the name of Leona, who will no doubt now be enshrined in the pantheon of celebrities. Watch out for her autobiography!
Trapped in that limbo known as the departure lounge at the airport on my way home, I studied the shelves in the bookstore marked biography. The names and faces of innumerable inconsequential subjects stared at me from the covers. Almost all were stories of the lives (usually of only a few years to date) of those who had made a brief appearance on television or in the scandal columns of the tabloids. Flicking through the pages, there was a depressing similarity to the stories – stories which in my view hardly qualify as biographies. A biography is defined as “an account of someone’s life.” Twenty something years is hardly a lifetime.
But thankfully there does seem to be something of a decline in the public enthusiasm for such twaddle and publishers are now taking a more lively interest in genuine stories of real people.
I’m currently working on such a book. It’s the story of a retired Chinese lady who has ridden over 100,000 kms on her shopping bike around China, visiting 889 cities, 2300 towns and meeting the real people of China.
Now that’s a story I think it’s worth writing home about! But I bet you won’t read about her in The Sun or Hello! Unless, of course, they invite her to appear on Big Brother, Strictly Come Dancing or the X-Factor.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Per Ardua........

As far as I’m aware there is no record of the check-in time for Wilbur and Orville on that day at Kittyhawk when they started all this nonsense. Nor is there any mention of Louis Bleriot having passed through security controls on his way to England, although judging from the expression on the face of the Bobby who greeted him in the grounds of Dover Castle, he may have been in breach of a few regulations.

There is, however, ample documentation and evidence concerning my recent trip back home from London.

At Liverpool Street Station, I boarded the midday copy of the Stansted Express and settled myself in amongst the detritus left behind by earlier travellers. Foreign visitors may be tempted to look up the word “express” in their English dictionaries feeling that they may have misinterpreted the adjective as the train saunters its way eastwards. This sedate progress is probably just as well as the tracklayers appear to have taken a pretty liberal attitude toward the commonly adopted four foot, eight and a half inch gauge that most of the other railways have put in place. Or possibly, judging from the rocking and rolling, there was a heavy sea running.

But the discarded sandwich bags, crisp packets and old newspapers gave one a comfortably homely feeling. No doubt it was the cleaner’s day off.

Thanks to the skill of the driver, we reached Stansted Airport without incident, the train only needing to stop a couple of times to draw breath.

As airports go, Stansted is a pretty good one and, if we could only get rid of the passengers who clutter it up, one could have quite a jolly time there. I was in good time for my 15:15 departure and, having bamboozled security, had ample time to enjoy what is euphemistically referred to as the departure lounge. Not being much of a shopper, there’s not a lot to amuse me here, other than watching my fellow sufferers, but eventually I am allowed to board the big tin tube and have the entertainment of watching people trying to stuff obviously oversized bags into obviously too small spaces. It is the highlight of my day.

We arrive an hour later overhead Poitiers, which is by now shrouded in fog, and our driver announces that he’s all for going on to Limoges without taking a vote on the matter.

To put all this into perspective, here are a few statistics. In a straight line from London to my home is 487 kms. To Poitiers, 550 kms and to Limoges, 650 kms. We arrive in Limoges some five hours after I left London – and I’m still 200 kms from home.

The bus journey from Limoges back to Poitiers is enlivened by the fact that the fog has now rolled further south. Then from Poitiers, it’s another hour and a half crawl through fog to home.

Thankfully sucking down a glass of wine, I calculate the average speed for my journey from London to be about 27 m.p.h.

This is about the same speed that the Wright brothers achieved on day one among the sand dunes of Kittyhawk.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Come Fly with Me

There’s an old Frank Sinatra song that goes on about how nice it is to go travelling etc. and I suppose that for many it is. But my life has been so peripatetic that it’s no longer anything that I much look forward to. But needs must when the devil drives and so tonight I am off to London to interview a client for a new book. London used to be a city I was very fond of, after all, I pretty much grew up there but somehow the charm has faded. Apart from anything else, I find it difficult to cope with the transport system that I once thought was the best in the world.

Take the buses. In my day there used to be a cheerful chappy or chappess standing on the rear platform who would not only tell you if their bus was heading in the direction you fancied but would also sell you a ticket and give you change if necessary. It was an admirable system and so clearly could not be allowed to continue. Now as I understand it, one has to buy your ticket from a machine before boarding. I say, as I understand, since I have never been in a position to try as I always only have £20 notes on me, this being the smallest denomination that seems to be of any use in town.

Then there’s the Underground. These used to have rows of automatic ticket machines from which you could select your destination, bung your money in and go. Now I have to know is my destination in A, B, C or D Zones? I don’t know and I really don’t care but it means that I have to go and stand in line at the booking office to get my ticket. I do get change though.

The good news is that the cabs still work. London cabbies are kept in line by the simple fact that it takes so long to gain their licence that only a complete idiot would do anything to jeopardise it. I suppose it’s only a matter of time before authority realises just how iniquitous this system is, depriving innocent Central Europeans and others, unmindful of the topography of Central London, of the chance to earn a living. No doubt “the knowledge” will soon be modified, making the ability to find the way in Transylvania or Islamabad, good enough to become a London cabbie. So far the government seem blind to this injustice.

So that’s my preferred option for travel in London. It is, of course, where the £20 note comes in handy.

I arrive by air from Poitiers. The airport here is just about my size – small. In the years BR – "Before Ryanair" as every French provincial airport now dates itself - Poitiers was an aero-club with a runway sporadically used for training by the l’Armée de l’Air. With the arrival of a daily service to Stansted, they immediately built a bar and restaurant, followed by a small terminal building. The French have a penchant for getting their priorities in order.

Ryanair, much maligned in my opinion by those who seem to forget just how little they have paid for their ticket (In my case here, less than the fare on Stansted Express (!) into London). The flight crews are highly professional and I speak as one who was, for many years, one of these super-annuated bus drivers, the aircraft are modern and clean and I’m not sure what passengers expect from the service. Obviously too much! They climb on board as though on a trans-atlantic flight, not one of less than an hour. Ryanair modelled themselves upon South West Airlines in the US, a first class outfit whose seating assignments are best described as being “ get on, sit down, shut up.” Their pragmatic approach is perhaps best described by the solution to a problem that arose. A small Mid-West operator threatened to sue, claiming that they had rights to the logo. Rather than going to court over matter, the president of South West challenged the president of the Mid West operator to an arm wrestling match. He lost – but he saved a fortune in legal costs.

And so tonight I arrive at Stansted and ride the totally misnamed Stansted Express into town. If, of course, it’s running. Last time I tried, they were digging up the line and so I was put on board a coach. Having paid in advance to ride the train, my protests that the bus fare was considerably cheaper were brushed aside.

As I said, London’s not what it used to be. Although I suppose nowhere is.

But anyway the cabs still work.

I’ll be back on Friday, RV (Ryanair Volonte) and normal service will be resumed.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Grounds for Divorce

Writers of contemporary history and current events are always faced with an almost insoluble problem. The pace of modern history is such that, by the time their thoughts have been transcribed into print, time and tide have probably negated all of their best efforts. The situation will have changed, rendering their carefully worded theses and erudite prognostications only a matter of record – and probably an inaccurate one at that.

When I started to write my latest book, “Grounds for Divorce,” it was a problem uppermost in my mind. Some three years ago I had conceived the idea of a parallel history of the United States and Great Britain, emphasising that, although their respective peoples were on the best of terms, the relationship between the two governments had not been quite so hunky-dory over the years. While the project was still very much on the back burner, the war in Iraq made it a matter of far greater interest and the manuscript was more or less completed by the time of the run-up to the election in the United States that would result in a second term for George W. Bush.

Since the result of this would possibly change so many of the arguments predicated in the book, the decision was made to delay publication.

Unfortunately for the rest of the world but happily for my book, subsequent events have done little to alter matters. Of course, it is always regrettable that last minute changes are not possible. For instance, the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq would probably deserve a greater emphasis, but the essential argument remains the same.

Britain and America are good friends – but not brothers-in-arms.

The United States owes its current pre-eminence in the world due to two reasons. The gritty determination of its citizens who have inherited the pioneering spirit of their forefathers and their nation’s fortuitous geographical location.

Not until 2001 had any enemy succeeded in attacking the homeland, excluding a trivial attempt by the Japanese with their balloon bombs during the Second World War. War only came home to America through casualty lists and stories of the returning fighting men, representing a miniscule proportion of the population. Cities had not been laid to waste, manufacturing facilities remained untouched and starvation had never threatened its peoples. War meant something totally different to the average American than it did to the British.

During the war, the British fought alone following the defeat of France. Churchill, half American himself, saw only too clearly that in order to shorten the conflict (at the time he could not have foreseen Hitler’s rash decision to invade Russia), he would have to bring the United States into the conflict. In order to encourage a reluctant President Roosevelt, he made some extraordinary concessions, concessions which would have long-term lasting effects upon the British peoples. The myth of the Trans-Atlantic Alliance was born and has remained ever since in the minds of the government of Great Britain.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Blair and President George W. Bush re-iterated this in their support for a war that was both illegal and unnecessary.

For once, it’s comforting to see that my book on contemporary history has not been in error. Current events make it as viable an argument as it was those years ago when I first put pen to paper.

Now for the commercial:

“GROUNDS FOR DIVORCE” –The Separation of Blair and Bush.

Now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble etc. and your local bookstore!

ISBN 0-9548883-5-9, 396 pages. Soft Cover.

This book is a powerful plea to the British to relinquish the governmental ties with a nation whose interests are so very different from their own. The present American administration has proved to be a dubious friend to their former allies and, by their actions, have endangered a genuinely warm and close relationship between their two peoples. The relationship of Tony Blair to George Bush is one of subservience. Now that the president’s powers and abilities have been questioned by his own electorate, the book argues that it is time to review this trans-Atlantic alliance.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

"Water, Water everywhere........

........and not a drop to drink."

According to the Book of Genesis, God said: "Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures." As Britain is surrounded by oceans of the stuff and bucketfuls descend regularly on the nappers of the inhabitants, it’s surprising that the nation seems to be running out of fish. Even a predilection for fish n’ chips can hardly explain this away, much as I used to live on them when I was a student.

Perhaps it’s all part of this love-hate relationship with matters aqueous. Even with the vastly improved summers of recent years, a triumph of government policies, no doubt, visitors are still surprised to hear, as the rain drips off their sou’westers on to their sandwiches, that there is a water shortage.

They fail to understand that this announcement actually comes from a government office where, having finished the Daily Telegraph crossword (the quick version) they have become bored with watching the raindrops trickling down the window panes and decide to have a bit of fun at people’s expense. It is a relief to find such a sense of humour in high places.

The mystery of the water shortage in Britain continues to exercise the minds of some of the world’s finest thinkers. Had Charles Berlitz not got hung up on the Bermuda Triangle thing I’m sure he would have tackled it and Albert Einstein would have been a shoe-in for the job but no, it’s left to a couple of jokers in a Whitehall office to issue dire predictions on the subject. They’re probably the same ones who are responsible for the kipper shortage.

There are some desultory attempts made to catch the stuff (water not kippers) as it falls from heaven and stuff it down pipes for the benefit of the populace. Most of it leaks out of the holes, cracks and crevices of these, causing no end of grief to the water works companies. These have now decided to charge their customers for these unfortunate losses on the grounds that if they hadn’t wanted the water in the first place, there would have been no need for the pipes and hence no leaks would have appeared. This fine example of logical thinking has clearly been taken from some government White Paper.

But back to the fishy business. It is said that the shortage results from over fishing. But this must surely come from a result of over eating, yet I don’t see too many chomping on a halibut regularly. I’m very fond of fish but I don’t eat it every day and I don’t think most people do either.

Much of the stuff comes from faraway places with strange sounding names, as the old song went. And that’s a pretty scary thought. Once in Japan I stayed at a place called Chigasaki, just outside Tokyo which my hosts said was “by the seaside.” It was and I went to take a look at the sea. It was the colour and consistency of used engine-oil, something that I reflected upon as we had our mandatory dose of Sushi that night.

In Istanbul, I was rather enjoying a fish dish at a restaurant alongside the Bosphorous. Idly, I enquired of my host, “where had the fish come from?” “From there,” he said, cheerfully waving his arm at the river. The Bosphorous is an interesting river and seems to have cornered the market in a varied collection of detritus and dead bodies in about equal proportions.

And around Britain, the mackerel are always at their finest and fattest around the sewage outfalls.

Maybe if people thought a bit more about this, the fish stocks would recover, although I still can’t believe that the world population is eating its way through the entire piscine population.

Along with Britain’s failure to trap enough water for its population, this is something that needs looking into.

Something fishy here, I feel.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Here is the News.......

For the past fifteen years or so, the English speaking world has obtained its global news and information from two main sources. The United States based news channel, CNN, and the London based BBC. Both have done a more than adequate job of relaying events and happenings in an objective manner but, inevitably, have both been subjected to the limitations that apply to us all when we claim to be objective.

It’s a bit like criticism. Everybody claims they want it but nobody really does. “Tell me, honestly,” is an open invitation for you to lie blatantly.

To claim to have absolutely no personal feelings or opinions concerning a subject is an obvious nonsense, unless you are possibly a vegetable and even a lettuce might have some ideas of its own, so it is safe to say that all the news purveyed has been, to some extent, as seen from the viewpoint of either the United States or Great Britain. Although both are officially independent of officialdom, they are both, in different ways, obligated to toe the line to their respective governments.

Thus, when earlier this year, an upstart Arabic broadcasting station, Al Jazeera, went global, a few feathers were ruffled, not the least in Turkeyville, where their transmission of videos allegedly from Al Quaeda apparently led the president to suggest that a couple of stray missiles should be sent their way. Although no doubt he had been told by God to do it, fortunately wiser heads prevailed and Al Jazeera, probably thought by him to have been run by a guy called Al, has gone from strength to strength, not only in the Arab world but also in the English speaking community. Their status as a news organisation has led to many seasoned reporters defecting to them.

This evening, France launches an ambitious programme, TV 24, on similar lines. For a long time, president Jacques Chirac has grumbled that the English speaking world only hears news as disbursed by Britain or the United States. His own many and often sensible attempts to intervene in world affairs have been submerged and thus gone unnoticed. TV 24 is designed to present, much in the way that Al Jazeera presents news from an Arab viewpoint, the attitude of France.

It will not be, however, a government mouthpiece. Ownership of the station has been split between government subsidy and private investment with strict rules that there shall be no input from government on its content. Much of the format will be that familiar to many French viewers, the round table discussion, an extension of the sort of conversations that take place daily in bar-tabacs and dining rooms around the nation.

But for the first time, many of these will be conducted bi-lingually, in English and French. Arabic is planned to be added early next year.

The BBC, who seem to have taken a slight dose of umbrage over the idea, hardly ran the inauguration of the service with banner headlines, consigning it to one of their sidebars on the website. Sniffily they said, “Ironically, this French station will be broadcasting in English.” As the whole object of the exercise was to reach English speaking people, it’s hard to see what was so ironic about it. The BBC are proud of the fact that they broadcast to the world in more tongues than the Tower of Babel had on a good day, and so they should be. It’s a marvellous service – but it still relays the news as seen from a British standpoint.

So good luck to TV 24 and Al Jazeera. Once more, the BBC had to point out that it was to run on a mere shoestring compared with CNN. And so it may be, but they have attracted some of the brightest and best multi-lingual talent in the news gathering business.

And I remember when CNN started up and was about the same size. The other stations referred to it, disparagingly, as “The Chicken Noodle Network.”

I wonder what they call it now?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

My Word!

Finding a telephone number in the UK just got more exciting. Finding that subscribers to a paid service were unwilling to cough up more money for the pleasure of finding the number they wished to call, one of the directory enquiry services has now instituted a free service. Not only is it free of charge but it’s also free of human intervention. Voice technology has come to the phone directory.

Some years ago, I was given as a present, a copy of some of this super software that would enable you simply dictate your thoughts and words to the computer. The instruction book had glossy pictures of happy dictators (not the Hitler, Mussolini type – the other sort), headsets and microphones akimbo, chatting away to their computer. Every one is smiling, I noted, although at the time I did not know what they were smiling about.

Having read the introduction, I was on the point of tossing my keyboard aside as being of no further use, everything could now be done by my word alone it seemed.

Understandably, however, it pointed out that the software would have to get to know my voice. This was reasonable, clearly we were going to have a long and intimate relationship and I could not expect us to become close pals without a discussion of some sort.

It suggested that I read to it, a sort of computer bedtime story, and gave me an example that was going to take 45 minutes it said. It was the most boring piece of literature one could imagine and, on thinking about it, perhaps the troubles I later experienced were due to the computer nodding off whilst I was in midstream.

Having got through this, I then found that, in order to alert the device to my instructions, it was necessary to speak to it in a peremptory fashion, a fashion far removed from my usual tone when dictating.

“No, Miss Witherspoon, for the last time, there is no F in elephant.”

Instead, I was expected to say, sharply, “Wake up,” to get the thing going or “Go to sleep,” when I wanted it to stop. Not your usual approach to a secretary if you want to keep them, and likely to lay yourself open to charges of sexual harassment.

There was a bit in the instructions that said, “Don’t be surprised if there are some mistakes.” As I dictated my first paragraph, I realised the wisdom and foresight of the writers of the manual in including this admonition. However, they had not gone far enough, I felt. What I found surprising was, not that there were any errors, but that any of the words had come out right at all. It seemed that the software and I were not as good pals as I had hoped. In fact, it looked as though the device was, frankly, taking the Mickey. For a moment I wondered if I had made an error and got the Assyrian language version, some of the words looked vaguely familiar.

I turned to the “Help” section of the manual. “Enunciate your words clearly,” it said. I was hurt. The only prize I had ever gained at school was for elocution.

I re-read the sample passage to it again. This time I nodded off half-way through.

The software proved its versatility by providing a totally different interpretation this time, more in the manner of Ancient Greek, I thought.

There is the old joke about setting a lot of monkeys to work with typewriters (word processors now, I suppose) to write a novel. Here, perhaps, was the answer. If I talked to it long enough, surely it would produce some ideas of staggering originality, a novel in a new and exciting genre. The Booker Prize gleamed in the far distance.

I tried “No, Miss Witherspoon, for the last time, there is no F in elephant.”

The software puzzled over this for a minute or two. Then typed:

“No missing with the spoon, four the last timer, therein no effing elefant.”

My copy of the software is available to the highest bidder.

It seems the telephone directory service is having similar problems. Those that have tried it reported that it seemed to be singularly obtuse, exactly the opinion I had formed of my software.

They would do well to outsource the service to Mumbai. And, of course, they know a bit about elephants there. Perhaps I’ll give them a try for my novel.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Finely Seasoned

“Why don’t you like Christmas?”

“But, I do.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Yes, I do.”

“No, you don’t.”

It was one of those typical domestic debates, full of erudition, wit and deep philosophical meaning that I’m sure we’ve all had from time to time. On this occasion, I let her have the last word. Making the odd concession, however unreasonable it may be, is conducive to domestic harmony, I find.

For I do enjoy Christmas. In fact around the 20th. of this month you will catch me being almost fanatical about it. But not in the middle of summer when the retail industry think I should be savouring the chances of opening up my wallet for them.

In the United States they have a trial run around the third week in November which leaves them so sated and exhausted that they can only take December the 25th. off, the next day it’s back to work for them. Hardly time to build up their strength for the January sales.

My maternal grandmother celebrated in a big way with children’s parties for all and sundry. She was nothing if not imaginative. On one occasion she converted a bedroom into an artificial garden, complete with trellis arches, pergolas and paper flowers. The flower beds were made of brown paper. The children were given a paper flower which they matched with one in the garden, attached to which would be their present. Another time, she engaged a carpenter to cut a hole in the floor to accommodate a “magic wishing well.” A nephew, stationed in the cellar beneath, would place a gift in the bucket lowered to him. I suppose carpenters and floorboards were easier to come by then but I bet the Health and Safety people would have something to say about such a hazardous procedure nowadays. Heavens, one of the kiddies might have tumbled in!

In my household, my father had one of those jobs full of prestige, social standing, bacoodles of vacation time and very little cash. As he believed in only buying the best, it meant that we had few of what would be known nowadays as consumer goods, i.e. throwaway items. Thus I usually only had one present per Christmas but it would be one that would probably keep me busy for the year. I can’t remember whether or not I believed in Santa Claus but I know I had more confidence in my parent’s taste than in that of a mythical old geezer with a long beard.

Our house would be decorated, not with tinselly, papery trash, but with holly and laurel cut from our garden. And our tree would be decorated with berries. I remember it still.

Now I find a sort of nausea overcoming me when I look at the store shelves groaning under the weight of incredibly shoddy plasticity, toys for children that do little for their imagination and which they are mostly likely to discard after a few days from sheer boredom, if the plastic hasn’t snapped in the meantime.

At the other end of the price scale there are the computerised game things, devices of incredible cost and complexity, once again dedicated to removing any trace of creativity from a child.

A recent article I read gave a lot of advice on which mobile phone to buy for one’s child this Christmas, presumably for the one who has all the other electronic gizmos. It seemed to advocate the more elaborate devices that did everything. For my part, I had just wasted a lot of time trying to find one that did nothing except allow me to make telephone calls. I failed. I now have one that has, for reasons know best to the manufacturers, a built-in digital camera. So far, I have, inadvertently, taken a photo of my left foot and, when I figure out how to do it, I’ll be happy to send you a copy. I’m sure you’ll appreciate it. The camera could come in useful to record the event when being mugged on the street whilst being relieved of it, perhaps. But you better figure out how to send the picture first whilst struggling with your assailant.

However, I do remember with pleasure the simple Christmasses of my childhood.

So you see that I am in favour of Christmas, if in a quirky, old-fashioned way. There will be only the two of us this year, plus a rather obese little dog by the name of Joe, but we shall celebrate quietly and enjoyably. The breakfast champagne will be of the best, the Scottish smoked salmon, the finest and, over dinner, a bottle of the best wine in my collection, not the everyday Chateau Collapso 2005 we normally drink. In a way it’s a pity I don’t smoke, since a good Havana would go down well with the Remy Martin afterwards, I feel. But one can’t have everything.

Mr. Pickwick’s Christmas with the Wardles at the Manor Farm, Dingley Dell, would have suited me perfectly, as would, on a lesser scale, the Cratchit’s (the turkey, or was it a goose?, seemed to be big enough to accommodate both me and Scrooge).

But come the 20th., I’ll be looking forward to our own little celebration.

Scrooge took until Christmas Eve to get into the spirit of things. I know exactly how he felt.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Just in Time

As it is with most of us in this day and age, my life has been ruled by the clock for a good many years. Recently, I’ve been able to dodge the issue by taking up a life style where it’s mainly a matter of getting up with the dawn and going to bed at sundown. Time doesn’t matter much.

But having to shuttle to Paris occasionally on the TGV train has changed all that. For as with most European trains, they leave on time and without ceremony. As the clock hands reaches the appropriate hour, the engineer opens the throttle and pulls out of the station. Not much in the way of whistle blowing or shouts of “All Aboard” that enliven the Atcheson, Topeka and the Santa Fe as celebrated by Judy Garland.

This no nonsense approach caught out the wife of a friend once. Used to the elaborate ceremony of train departures in the US, she had boarded a train in Zurich and planted her two children down whilst she hopped off for a newspaper. She returned to see the train gliding out of the station, complete with offspring. They reached Geneva before they could be located.

And the TGV is no exception. You’d better synchronise your watches before attempting to travel on this. Arriving at 8.39 for the 8.38 departure, you will be greeted with the sight of the back end of your train disappearing around the bend.

Measuring time was a lot more academic in ancient history. Water clocks were hardly portable, sundials were notoriously subject to interruption from clouds and sand glasses needed a lot of attention. It was the need for an accurate and portable timepiece in order to be able to establish longitude that sparked the development of the chronometer. Dava Sobel’s book “Longitude,” is a marvellous recounting of this – I wish I’d written it.

Even so, personal timepieces and watches remained the “bling” of the wealthy until the coming of the railway. Then, Mr. Bradshaw’s publication made the accurate telling of time a matter of some concern. No longer did you hang about at the milepost waiting for the afternoon coach as Tom Pinch did in Martin Chuzzlewit, you had to be on the platform at the time dictated.

It took the airline industry some time to break this subservience to the clock by hardly ever leaving on time. But the Gestapo of their staff still insist that you show up at the appointed hour so that they can inspect your shoes and underwear.

The introduction of the quartz digital watch would seem to have solved the problem of accurate time keeping and I was surprised to hear that the British Telecom venerable Speaking Clock was still in business. Apparently suffering from a touch of hoarseness, a new voice was introduced on this service which had been in operation since 1936. But I suppose you have to check up occasionally, although why one would need to for travel on the British rail services, I can’t imagine. A calendar might come in handy though.

In the Caribbean, watches are an almost mandatory piece of decorative adornment but are rarely consulted, no West Indian business meeting has been known to start on time and they don’t have any railways, but the Gold Rolex is a statement of one’s success, usually in some clandestine business.

So it is the European rail traveller who would seem to have the greatest need for an accurate timepiece and is, I suppose, the reason that the great British clockmakers are a dying, or even dead, breed. Where, now, are the Joseph Knibbs and the Thomas Tompions? I suspect that their successors have defected to France and have been organising the TGV timetables for them.

Surely the French can’t have managed to create such an efficient rail system all on their own?

But I, for one, am very glad they did.