30 December 2008

The Yule Days

This Scottish equivalent of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is from Popular Rhymes of Scotland by Robert Chambers (1870 version, though I would think the rhyme is much older than that). I’ve often thought that both songs could have served as a challenge in how well Christmas/ Yule revellers could carry their drink – especially as most people can’t even get the Twelve Days of Christmas straight when sober…

The king sent his lady on the first Yule Day
A papingo-aye*.
Who learns my carol and carries it away?

So far so easy. But by the end of the song, we’re up to

The king sent his lady on the thirteenth Yule Day
Three stalks o’ merry corn, three maids a-merry dancing,
Three hinds a-merry hunting, an Arabian baboon**,
Three swans a-merry swimming,
Three ducks a-merry laying, a bull that was brown,
Three goldspinks, three starlings, a goose that was gray,
Three plovers, three partridges, a papingo-aye.
Who learns my carol and carries it away?

*a parrot (as you do)

** don’t ask

And a Happy New Year to all our readers…

03 December 2008

Music on the Brain

This is something I’ve had for years – the tune or song or poem, usually in fragmentary form, that keeps repeating insistently in one’s head - though I only recently found out the word for it: earworm, from the German ohrwurm. Well, yes, OK, that’s how it gets in there in the first place, but that’s not how it actually works, of course. The thing is in your mind, not your ear.

Dr James Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati is credited with the Cognitive Itch theory – some tunes have properties which act on the brain as histamines do on the skin, and one instinctively ‘scratches’ (replicates) them. I’m marginally more convinced by Daniel Wegner’s theory of ironic process, which suggests a failure of mental control – in order to get the tune off the brain, you have to repeat it. But even that doesn’t sound like the whole story, if only because not all earworms, or indeed earworm hearers, are alike.

Some people call it ‘last tune’ syndrome because it often is the last one that you heard – but not necessarily. A true, really persistent, damn-this-bloody-tune-go-away earworm can be unbelievably hard to shift, even if you hear something else you prefer. Some people find that completing it (or listening to a complete version of it) does the trick; others manage to substitute a different one, or leave it to go away – but there’s no foolproof solution and probably no such thing as a welcome earworm in the end. I doubt that there’s anything that I could bear to hear in perpetuity, not even the tunes in Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.

In general the more persistent ones are well known to the hearer. You might get an attractive new tune in there, and even encourage it, but unless you hear it a quite a bit more very soon, it will often be ousted fairly quickly by something easier to remember. ‘Lisa Lân’, a Welsh folk song that I’d never heard before, though I managed to keep it for a while, was rapidly replaced by two much more familiar Irish ones with some similarities of tune and theme: ‘My Lagan Love’ and ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ (and yes, they were still there the next morning, along with bits of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, which is always quite persistent once it occurs).

The worst of it is when it’s something that you really can’t stand in the first place. There are some I run a million miles from, metaphorically speaking, and am courting disaster by even writing about. ‘Sugar Sugar’ by the Archies is one, and Middle of the Road’s ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’; just about anything by Abba is a risk, though I don’t mind those, really, but top of the list for me is almost certainly The Carpenters’ ‘Goodbye to Love’ – “No one ever cared if I should live or die…There are no tomorrows for this heart of mine” (why not just go and slit your wrists now?). Bah, humbug! I hate it!

A former colleague, of whom I was otherwise very fond, used to drive me distracted by singing her earworm out loud, probably quite unconsciously. She had just the one, and it was The Inkspots’ 1940s hit ‘I don’t want to set the world on fire’ – which would have been fine, if a bit repetitious, but it was just that one line of it, nothing more. One day I did try joining in with the next line to see if it would jog her a bit further, but it was no use. She was stuck in that particular groove and we just had to hope that the Welfare Officer would never hear her…

01 December 2008


You do have to wonder about what some people do, but still I’d like to know:

Why put on a pair of smart new (usually black) shoes or boots and leave the whopping great white price stickers on the soles for the rest of us to see?

Why stand on a cliff edge or go up a church tower if you know you can’t stand heights and don’t have to be there?

Or continue watching a television programme or reading a book that offends?

Why break the news of your parent’s death to a family friend by inscribing it in a birthday card you send them, especially when prefaced “I know you won’t like to hear it this way, but…”

Why stop the minute you step off an escalator? It’s about as sensible as slamming on the brakes on a motorway, especially without checking who’s behind – what are they supposed to do to stop being moved forward? For those behind the one who suddenly stops, it’s frightening enough on a short escalator (in a department store, for example) and bloody terrifying on a long one, like some of the London Underground ones. And infinitely worse going up, of course – much further to fall. And before anyone says it, in my experience it never is people with e g mobility difficulties or small children who are the perpetrators.

Why tell a secret to someone at the top of your voice in public? An extreme version of this is the person who feigns sick leave and then brags about it on the web, or even worse, the person who is being interviewed for television, and naively adds at the end of some indiscreet comment “But I could never tell my mother/ husband/ employer/ whoever” – oh, right, but haven’t you just done that? Even if they’re not watching, somebody will tell them. It’s not advisable to assume nobody can understand you, just because you’re not speaking the language of the country you’re in, or you’re with non-natives. Yelling secrets to somebody above the noise of the tube or train isn’t terribly bright, either: “Do you know X?” ”Ooh, yes, I had a fling with him once – but don’t tell anybody!!!” Don’t tell anybody? Don’t tell anybody???? She’s just told a hundred people, but her mate’s supposed to be sworn to secrecy? Of course a carriage full of passengers doesn’t count, and it won’t mean anything to anyone. Except that it may well do…

16 November 2008

If Only It Were Always That Easy…

Yesterday morning I finally got round to taking the cats to the vet for their annual jabs and check-up, and six-monthly anti-flea shots. I always do this with a slight reluctance, since it can be quite an undertaking. For one thing, these days the vets have an appointments-only system. Can’t blame them for that, as the surgery almost always used to overrun, but it does mean that it matters if we’re late or don’t make it (can’t find cats, cab arrives late or not at all). It also means doing it on a Saturday (and they, and we, get very booked up) or taking half a day’s leave because my place of work is the other side of London and I can’t otherwise get home in time (OK, so that’s my choice). Then Sally finds the whole business so stressful that she often arrives with a soiled container, which I feel equally awful about on three counts: the cab driver has to get rid of the smell from his vehicle, the nurses always clean and reline the container (even to the extent of replacing the towel once recently), and it causes Sal extra distress. So I starve them after midnight and try to encourage use of a soil tray before we go, all of which they are deeply unimpressed by. Then the appointments tend to run late, which means sending the cab driver away and often having to wait quite a while for another when we’ve finished.

But anyway. Yesterday it went just about as smoothly as could be. Found and boxed the cats – OK, so it took two of us, and there had to be Deep Excavations (Sally from behind a pile of boxes, Harry from behind the television). And just how is it that when you try to put them in their carriers, the cats always have eight legs apiece, each of which is at least a foot long and at right angles to their bodies? But we set off in good time (even if I did forget their record books in the euphoria), arrived early with no mishaps of any kind, and were seen early, too, for oce. They haven’t put on any weight, despite eating for England at the moment, and passed their checkups apart from the fact that Sally will need a tooth extracting (Louise the vet tells me that there have been attempts to fill cats’ teeth, but that they tend to lick the fillings out!). Harry (world’s huggiest cat) had his usual fan club session with the female members of staff, who fell for him in a big way earlier this year when he spent some weeks with them having a bladder problem sorted out. A short wait for our driver to return, we arrived back and the mogs were tucking into breakfast, all within an hour of leaving!

I’m sure that at least part of what helped was that we were being chauffeured by our friend Les, who drives a Mercedes, thus providing a smooth ride. You can’t say our cats don’t have good taste!

08 November 2008

Autumn Bites!

Autumn Bites!

As the weather has been so iffy recently (it’s a bit much when we can’t even have a decent September!), time to bring on the appropriate sustenance. Recently on the menu here:

‘Beef and Salad’ casserole (beef, tomatoes, peppers, fennel, onions, garlic)
Garlic potatoes
Red cabbage
Ham and pasta, with olives, tomatoes, garlic
Jacket potatoes with chilli beef
Home-made soup
Vegetable curry (has to include potatoes and butterbeans)
Lemony roast chicken
Mince pies
Apple and cherry brandy crumble (seriously good!)

Which reminds me - mince pies, like hot cross buns, can be bought all year round these days, of course. An interesting way of wiping out a seasonal custom!

20 October 2008

Outside in

As the media hunts desperately for some way of refuting the charge that they are stoking up the economic crisis, and the accompanying anxiety, alarm and despair, I thought I’d try something a bit more traditional.

On my desk at work is a Thorson’s pocket edition of some of the Dalai Lama’s writings, and I sometimes open it at random, in the way rural communities used to use their Bibles. The results are never less than interesting, and sometimes strikingly appropriate – unsurprisingly, as this is a form of dowsing “Please give me what I need”. Today I found myself reading a passage which contained the following

…No matter how forceful [suffering and anxiety] is, it cannot destroy the supreme source of my happiness, which is my calmness of mind. This is something an external enemy cannot destroy. Our country can be invaded, our possessions can be destroyed, our friends can be killed, but these are secondary for our mental happiness….

He goes on to say that the ultimate source of mental happiness is a person’s peace of mind, and the only thing which can destroy that is their anger – very Buddhist, yes, and it takes a lot more detachment than many of us have (me included) to achieve that level of serenity. The Christian approach is God-centred – external but not of this world: my Bible similarly opened at random came up with “I will mention the loving kindnesses of the Lord…in all their affliction he was afflicted…and he bare them and carried them all the days of old” (Isaiah chapter 63). Or if u knowz Lolcat , hooz God is Ceilin(g) Cat:
Im gonna tell ov teh kindnesez ov the lord…In all their distres he 2 wuz distresd…He liftd them up an carrid them All the dais ov old…”

But whatever you feed it with, my instincts are that the mechanism for happiness is internal, which is by no means confined to Buddhism. My personal anthology also contains a Wiccan tenet that I wrote there many years ago:

If ye find it not within, so ye shall find it not without.

06 October 2008

In the first year at Grammar School in 1963

So many new things to learn: parsing, theorems, contours, declensions, hockey, javelin-throwing, threading a sewing machine…and later on, magnetic poles, precipitation, dinghy sailing, paper sculpture, soused herrings, and Rumanian dancing, among other things.

Recently I managed to decipher our first year timetable from a sheet in my geometry set*, and it looks pretty hefting stuff for a bunch of eleven-year-olds. Day 1 was the real killer: Maths, Geography, French, History, Latin, English, and more French, all in the same room. The other days did at least have a small amount of moving about, and some less academic subjects (double Art on Day 2, Singing and PE on 3, Art and Music on 4, double Games on 5, and double Needlework on 6, although it’s debatable how much light relief some of that was). This was a rotating timetable, which I can't believe was unique to my school, but I've never heard of anyone else using it: first week days 1-5, second week days 61234, and so on).

*The geometry set was, needless to state, a proper one, with a pair of compasses which had a good long sharp metal point, and a pair of dividers which had two good long sharp metal points (all the better to prod things with, my dear). I recently bought the current version by the same maker (Helix) – the compasses have a pathetically tiny point, to the extent that I’m surprised it holds position on the paper at all, and the dividers are conspicuous by their absence. It does at least still come in a metal box, not a plastic one, which was a pleasant surprise, although you don’t get the nice stencil with the retorts and flasks and things any more (presumably because nobody in their right minds is going to let the little dears loose with real scientific experiments and equipment these days).

Months and Days

Oh dear – time running away again. I’d intended to post these weeks ago…

There is a whole clutch of rhymes, sayings and beliefs relating to months and days, apart from the well-known ‘Thirty days hath September’ and Monday’s child is fair of face’:

A man had better ne’er been born
Than to have his nails on a Sunday shorn;
Cut them on Monday, cut them for health;
Cut them on Tuesday, cut them for wealth;
Cut them on Wednesday, cut them for news;
Cut them on Thursday for a new pair of shoes;
Cut them on Friday, cut them for Sorrow;
Cut them on Saturday, see your sweetheart tomorrow

Some, but not all of which are similar to a rhyme about days for marrying:

Monday for health,
Tuesday for wealth,
Wednesday the best day of all.
Thursday for crosses,
Friday for losses,
Saturday no luck at all.

While we’re heading for the church (or equivalent):

A January bride will be a prudent housewife and sweet of temper
A February bride will be a gentle and affectionate wife and a loving mother
A March bride will be a frivolous chattermag, given to quarrelling
An April bride is inconstant, not overwise, and only fairly good looking
A May bride is fair of face, sweet-tempered, and contented
A June bride is impetuous and open-handed
A July bride is handsome but quick of temper
An August bride is sweet-tempered and active
A September bride is discreet and forthcoming, beloved of all
An October bride is fair of face, affectionate but jealous
A November bride is open-handed and kind-hearted but inclined to be lawless
A December bride is graceful in person, fond of novelty, fascinating but a spendthrift

And if you want to wash your best clothes for the occasion:

They that wash on Monday have all the week to dry;
They that wash on Tuesday, they have pretty nigh;
They that wash on Wednesady have half the week past;
They that wash on Thursday are pretty near the last;
They that wash on Friday wash for need;
And they that wash on Saturday are sluts indeed.

Whatever would Mrs Beeton have said?

30 July 2008

A few more scribblings from the notebook

Odd words (more than they look, perhaps?)

Places which are things:
Ash, Ebony, Rye, Beer, Ore, Ham, Stone, Cork, Rock, Bean, Minster, Capstone, Tong, Wainscot, Boot, Leek…and of course, Chipshop.

Places which sound like people:
Leonard Stanley, Margaret Marsh, Terry Lugg, George Nympton, Cherry Hinton, Edith Weston, Martin Husingtree.

Prompted by Jilly over at Jillysheep writing about odd names, some right names for the job (all encountered in the course of my first job many years ago):
Mr Roach the fisherman, Mr Stamp the postman, Mrs Waterman the baths attendant, Mrs Nursey the child-minder, Mr Highway the driving instructor, Mr Lockett the prison warder…

23 July 2008

Tiger Tails, anyone?

The other day I came across a list of what the tuck shop at my school stocked in May 1968:

Crisps (plain, cheese and onion, salt and vinegar, Oxo, chicken, and smoky bacon)
Wagon Wheels
Captain Scarlet biscuits
Chocolate digestive biscuits (plain and milk)
Capri biscuits
‘Tiger Tails’
(Twiglets too, sometimes)

So that’s the healthy eating options taken care of, then…

Not that school dinners at the time were a whole lot better, as just about anyone who ate them will remember. They should really have been described as ‘heritage food’, as they still fairly faithfully reflected their Edwardian origins:

Monday: Liver and bacon, potatoes, carrots; jam tart, custard
Tuesday: Rissole, potatoes, peas; jam roly poly, custard
Wednesday: Shepherd’s pie, swede; blancmange
Thursday: Steak and kidney pie, potatoes, carrots; rice and apple
Friday: Fish and chips; fruit salad, custard

But then as now, the financial pressures on the school cooks who fed us were considerable. They had derisory budgets to buy the food with, and perhaps it was no surprise that they occasionally came up with the odd, well, oddity, such as hamburger shortcake (scones on greasy mince) or fruit cocktail flan (a few pieces of tinned fruit in a glutinous sauce on stiff pastry). They did some good things too - the fish wasn’t bad, actually, and always fresh, as school was in the east coast port of Lowestoft; but my real favourite was cheese and potato pie, which was so smooth I think it must have been made with mashed potato and cheese sauce.

Anyway, see you at the tuck shop afterwards…

06 July 2008

A few translations, or what you see is not always what you get…

Occasionally it’s handy to wrap up what you’re saying, as in

Thank you for your helpful fax/ letter/ e-mail [You mean I’ve got to do something about this?]

Sorry, I evidently didn’t explain that well [Listen up, Cloth-Ears]

We’re having limited success with x [It isn’t working]

It was good of you to go into so much detail [I can’t believe that anyone can whinge at such length]

See what support X needs [Find out what X is doing and stop him or her]

I feel someone else should be given the chance to do this [I don’t want to]

Can you improve on that price, please? [I want to pay less]

(Special one for contractors, this) Can I help you? [Who the hell are you and what the blazes do you think you’re doing?]

03 July 2008

A book meme

which kcm at Zen Mischief Weblog has tagged me to complete:

So many contenders for most of these, mind…

One book that changed your life: The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, first read as a library book when I was eight, and many times since. It was perfect for me, and the first book that I loved so much that I wanted to buy it for myself.

One book that you have read more than once: Cotillion by Georgette Heyer. Funny and well plotted and the (early 19th century) clothes worn and bought by the characters are to die for!

One book that you would want on a desert island: The King's England, edited by Arthur Mee (all forty-odd volumes!). If restricted to a single volume, then one of John Hadfield’s anthologies such as A Book of Beauty.

One book that made you laugh: Where Did It All Go Right? by Andrew Collins, about being a child in the 1970s.

One book that made you cry: Rose in Bloom by Louisa M Alcott – the deathbed scene is a real three hanky job.

One book you can’t read: War and Peace, though admittedly it’s a long time since I tried.

One book you wish you'd written: Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones.

One book you wish had never been written: I wouldn’t say that of any book, but there are some I wish I’d never read, like The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams, which I find profoundly disturbing. If that’s a classic children’s book, thank goodness I never came across it as a child!

One book you're reading: Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

One book you're going to read: Barnard Letters, edited by Anthony Powell

21 June 2008

21st JUNE 2008

Having said previously that parts of Barons Court seemed so dead, I suspect that some of the problem is that there aren’t enough of the useful businesses that help to define an area and make a community flourish: no banks/ building societies, no post office, no branches of chain stores like Boots or Woolworths. I don’t entirely agree with those who wring their hands over the sameness of our high streets: we need a balance of individual shops and the things you find everywhere. If you don’t have any of the latter, people tend to shop outside the area, which just sends it further into what my mother used to describe as ‘bankruptcy terrace’ syndrome – where no business tends to thrive, large numbers of shops stand empty and increasingly shabby, and anyone trying to open a new one is unlikely to succeed. The other thing I find over-simplistic in all of this is the idea that lots of independent shops must mean that the area is well provided for. Again, we need balance: if what you have is primarily ‘pound shops’ and general dealers, that’s just as bad as too many supermarkets and chain stores. And what many areas are now missing are the really useful independent shops which often provide a far better service than the supermarkets and chain stores anyway: bakers, butchers, chemists, greengrocers, shoe shops, and so on.

Still, it’s no good just blaming Tesco and Starbucks. If we want something different, I think something needs to be done about the costly bureaucracy independent retailers have to cope with. I grew up with my parents’ floristry business, and it was bad then, but it’s worse now: VAT returns, punitive bank charges, credit card fraud and the more insane bits of hygiene and health and safety legislation, to name but some of what faces the local shopkeeper.

Finally, on a more positive note, and to give credit where it’s due, there’s an absolutely cracking independent butcher’s shop close to Barons Court station: H G Walter, in Palliser Road (020 7385 6466). It cheered me up no end to walk in there and see the display of superb organic meat, ranging from the beautiful plain steaks and joints (like venison from Windsor Great Park) to the restaurant type fancied-up (stuffed noisettes of lamb etc). Not as cheap as the supermarket, of course, but handled with much more respect throughout – and I don’t think good meat should be cheap because that invariably means poorer quality rearing. Good value is more to the point: a small amount of their meat would satisfy even a hungry appetite far better than a large amount of the factory-reared stuff, and if necessary you accompany it with other filling things like bean salad or more veg.

09 June 2008

9 JUNE 2008

My, how time flies when you’re enjoying yourself! That’s right, work has just got in the way of normal life for some months. Though I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit that I have enjoyed some of it at least: rediscovering some skills I haven’t used for some time and actually finishing two major (book-related) projects, for instance. There was also the challenge of working for a month off-site and fitting into a different group of colleagues. Character-forming, eh?

But it was weird the way it ate into real life, cumulatively, sneakily. In the end I found myself with no time or energy to do a lot of the things I would normally do: go to the bank, get my hair cut, shop for anything other than essentials, go out at lunchtime to get something to eat and some fresh air. And the second project, the off-site one, left me with a deep loathing of the trek between Barons Court tube station and Blythe Road, which is odd, because I usually enjoy walking, and even took some photos of the area. I’ve been over there briefly before and remember I disliked it then, though not as much – but the area just seems so dead. As far as I know, practically the whole of Kensington was fields and market gardens until the mid 19th century, but undoubtedly Peter Ackroyd is right and areas of London have distinct atmospheres, some of which are easier to live with than others. This time it eventually made me explore a bit and find other routes I’m happier with.