NON ALIAS PLOT

For anyone who likes to waste their time on pointless puzzles here’s one, and it’s even more pointless than most because I can’t supply the solution.  If you can you’ll be saving me from even more grief.

The mysterious list
The mysterious list

In my sorting through old papers I came across a single typed sheet headed NON ALIAS PLOT with a list of various names which I soon realized were all anagrams of each other.  The typing was done on what looks like my old Olivetti portable and the paper size is quarto, not A4, which would seem to date it back to the early 1970s.  But what does it mean, what on earth was I thinking?  Above all, what are all these names anagrams of?

At that time I was doing illustrations and writing various things for some of the more adventurous (meaning small-time and unsuccessful) periodicals of the day, and it looks as though this might have been an attempt at some sort of avante-garde piece.  Perhaps these characters were to feature in a story or playlet; I can imagine Pat Lion Sloan as the very posh p.a. to a top executive and maybe Alan Tinspool as a rather self-important manager in the grocery business, but after them things take a more bizarre turn.  Lon (‘Piano’) Salt is obviously an itinerant boogie-woogie piano player, perhaps in a vague partnership with Pliant Alonso the eccentric dancer, while Spain O’Tallon, Nina Last Loop and Lopo Slantani seem to be denizens of the US underworld, but I can offer no clues about Polliana Sot or Alan T. Loopins. Maybe the denouement of my little tale was to have been that all these characters were actually the same person.  I was always trying to be clever in those days, with little success then and not much more now.  J.G. Ballard I was not.

I’ve spent more time puzzling over this than I want to admit.  The letters in these names obviously came from something, some key name or title or phrase — I wouldn’t have just chosen them randomly — but searching what’s left of my brain produces absolutely no memory of it.  I’ve also tried feeding the letters into various online Anagram Solvers but the solution remains a mystery, although they did come up with a few amusing variations: the onanist Pallo making a mess on the post-anal lino and getting a notional slap from his indulgent mum.  I feel that the answer is staring me in the face, that with a bit more effort it will reveal itself, and when it does I’ll cry out “Of course!  Why didn’t I see it?”

But so far it hasn’t.  If one of my devoted readers can figure it out please post the answer in the Comments and put me out of my anguish.

From a long-lost uncle

A few day ago I decided to try and make contact with my relatives in New Zealand.  There’s been a family feud going on for years but as I get older I realize how stupid these things can be so I sent what I hoped was a conciliatory email to my niece Juliet half expecting her to ignore it or to tell me to get lost — but no: her reply was welcoming and forgiving, and she also put me in touch with my nephew Andrew whose email address I had lost and who has proved equally accepting.

They live close to each other in Tauranga and both now have families that I’ve never met and whose existence I was only barely aware of.  Now we’re friends again and they have sent me photos, everyone looking so happy and healthy, and the little kids so damn cute:

Andrew's Madelyn and Isabelle
Andrew’s Madelyn and Isabelle
Juliet with Finn and Mia when younger
Juliet with Finn and Mia when younger

I’m as proud as if they were my own, and I’m tempted to print off copies and take them to the park to shove under the noses of complete strangers.  I won’t do that, of course, but I’m so damn pleased.  It’s a lift I needed because last weekend I was very upset by the antics of … never mind.  Finding that I have this amazing family and am not totally alone in the world far outweighs such nastiness.  It also means that next time the hospital asks for the names and details of my next-of-kin I’ll be able to tell them, and maybe bring out the photos.  I’m finding it hard not to wander about with a great big grin on my face.

Naturally I’m tempted to hop on a plane to New Zealand right now to go and give these people a big hug and possibly do the Lord of the Rings tour as well (would the kids like to come along? I’m determined to be a much better uncle from now on), but alas that’s not possible at the moment.  But it’s something to look forward to, something indeed to live for.

 

Uncle

Talking of uncles, I was once staying overnight in a cheap hotel and having checked in at midday and done the business I was there to do I realized that I had a long solitary evening ahead and had brought nothing to read. The local shops had nothing resembling a bookshop or even a decent newsagents but there was an Oxfam shop, so I had a look at what reading matter might be on offer there.

It wasn’t promising: the usual Jeffrey Archers, paperbacks by people I’d never heard of and knew I wouldn’t like, tattered gardening manuals etc. so in desparation I had a look at the children’s section and a book called Uncle caught my eye. I’d forgotten to bring my specs with me and the author’s name seemed to my blurred vision to be J.B. Morton who I knew and loved as Beachcomber, the humorous columnist for The Daily Express. Had he written a children’s book? I decided to take a chance and bought it.

After a nasty takeaway eaten sitting on the edge of the bed and with nothing on tv — only three channels and no Netflix then — I examined my purchase and found that it was in fact by a certain J.P. Martin whom the blurb informed me was a retired Methodist Minister, just like my dad. Not necessarily a good omen but I started reading anyway and was soon entranced.

Uncle is the fabulously rich owner of a sort of castle called Homeward, though ‘castle’ doesn’t do justice to this astonishing place with its towers, moat, private railways and wonderful collection of residents: Goodman the cat with a taste for detective stories, the little lion who can make himself heavy just by concentrating , the two Respectable Horses, and many many more.  Uncle is an elephant, by the way. On the other side of the moat is Badfort, occupied by a crowd of ne’er-do-wells led by Beaver Hateman, and they are Uncle’s enemies. They dress in ragged sacking, get drunk on Black Tom and Leper Gin, and they constantly plot and scheme to embarrass and bring down the Dictator of Homeward. Rev. Martin had an incredible, teeming, hilarious imagination, and if I’d worried that there might be some sort of moral attached to all this I needn’t have. It was pure nonsensical  bliss.

I was enjoying Uncle so much that I had to ration myself to a chapter at a time, going outside for a cigarette break in between bouts, and when I returned to London I wanted to know if there were any more of these amazing books. The good news was that there were six of them in all, and the bad news was that they were incredibly hard to find. I was a haunter of second-hand bookshops in those days and luckily found the second volume in a local one, the late-lamented Ripping Yarns in Highgate, but I could never find the others, even in dealers’ catalogues. There was a rumour that a wealthy American collector was snapping up any that copies that came to light, and it may have been true for I was never able to get my hands on one.

Years passed. Then out of the blue came the news that there was an omnibus edition in preparation: all six books in one handsome volume with the original illustrations by Quentin Blake (now Sir Quentin) and encomia by the likes of Neil Gaiman, Martin Rowson, Andy Riley, Kate Summerscale and Justin Pollard. Other famous fans of Uncle included Will Self, Spike Milligan, Philip Ardagh, Richard Ingrams, Ekow Eshun and David Langford — and I’d thought I was the only fan, the sole discoverer!  It was expensive but I had to have it and it didn’t disappoint. Lots more bliss.

The omnibus is even more expensive now but some of the titles have now been made available as Kindles, for anyone who wants a taste without forking out too much cash. Uncle won’t be everyone’s bucket of cocoa but I think those who like him will like him very much indeed.

Home alone again

Back to Stroud Green, the beating heart of North London, with distinctly mixed feelings. I know that in the next few weeks I’ll have to do a lot of work if I’m going to get the house here a bit further along the way to selling it, but I’d been looking forward to seeing friends again and getting out and about a lot more now that lockdown has been eased and for many completely junked. I had pleasant visions of strolls in the park, pub lunches, outings to garden centres, evening drinkies — shopping! — and generally getting back to a more normal life, but as the new reality bites I realize that it’s not going to be like that at all.  Not for a while, anyway.  Not for me.

As an extremely vulnerable old person (cancer, chronic asthma and a few other jollies) I must continue to shield myself as best I can; I don’t trust the Government’s chaotic and contradictory advice on this as they seem much more concerned with refilling the Treasury’s depleted coffers than with looking out for sick fucks like me, especially when independent scientists with no political agenda are telling everyone to be much more cautious, wear masks, keep well apart etc.  A message arrives in my inbox from the (non-Governmental) Coronavirus News and Service Updates which reads in part:

We’re not back to normal yet. It is vital that you continue to keep a safe distance from others. Don’t put your loved ones at risk. In situations where you can’t keep two metres apart, stay at least one metre apart while taking other extra precautions.

and Professor Susan Michie from UCL (my alma mater) goes further:

The change [from two metres to one] is a disaster waiting to happen.  Opening indoor areas in pubs is probably the top of the level in the hierarchy of riskiness. If you look around at people trying to keep two metres apart, most are actually more like one-and-a-half metres, which is significantly safer than one metre. If you go down to one metre, actually that is about the distance that people you don’t know and are not intimate with are distant from each other just generally going around and about their business. So basically you have lost the whole concept of social distance. And once you have lost that, you really are in trouble.

Most of my family and old friends are now either dead or widely dispersed so I wasn’t exactly living in a giddy social whirl anyway, but I did manage to maintain a few contacts and find ways of enjoying a bit of social life now and then. All that now seems like a distant memory, and as I’m following the scientists rather than the Government my life will certainly not be back to “normal” any time soon.  I know that catching the coronavirus would almost certainly kill me.

Two weeks later

Pippa Kent, a sufferer from cystic fibrosis who has been shielding since the start of lockdown and whose experience is not unlike my own, writes in today’s Guardian:

“I have only ventured out three times in the first week and remain cautious. The guidance almost suggests that we should open our doors, simply forget the rhetoric we’ve had drilled into us over the past few months and get back to ‘real life’. But for those of us whose pre-existing medical conditions greatly increase the risk from Covid-19, we are naturally a little hesitant to embrace this sweeping change.

“Speaking to other high-risk shielders it seems experiences have been mixed. While a few have felt safe sitting outside cafés and restaurants or popping into shops, the majority are yet to take these steps.

“Some have had outings to normally quiet coastal locations, now crowded as people holiday in the UK, where social distancing seems completely non-existent. Others, during essential trips to a car mechanic, have found they needed to make several requests for staff to comply with putting on masks and gloves.

“Unlike at the start of lockdown, when most people seemed very willing to support those who were shielding, the reality is that many seem to have virtually forgotten the last three months; hugging for pictures on social media, crammed into bars, flouting the use of masks and ignoring ongoing guidance around distancing. They seem oblivious, or indifferent, not only to the risks to themselves, but potentially to those who are more vulnerable around them.”

Exactly.

As for me, in the intervals between the cancer treatment there’s gardening to be done, or I could just stay indoors and get on with the fucking plastering.  My hair needs cutting again.  It’s great to be home.

‘The Talk’

Yesterday the MP for Brent, Dawn Butler, was stopped by police while driving across North London to meet friends for lunch.  Ms Butler is black.  In the US it seems that black people are often prepared for such unpleasant encounters by what is called ‘the talk’.

Just about every teenager gets copious safe-driving tips from their parents when they get their first driver’s license. But for black teens, the freedom and independence that comes with driving necessitates an added conversation — one often referred to simply as “the talk.”

This one offers advice for safely navigating potential encounters with police.

Dwayne Bryant was inspired to write his book The Stop: Improving Police and Community Relations after having a positive encounter with an Indiana state trooper.  Bryant says the talk is necessary for black children and teens in particular because they bear a greater risk of harm in those interactions.

“The reality is the community can do 100% of everything the officer says and they can still get killed,” he said. “That is the reality of being black in America. So what I do is I talk to them about many things, from understanding their rights to being respectful, but also understanding what their future is, because ultimately you do not want to have a 20-minute encounter derail 20 years of your life.”

Child development specialist and Erikson Institute adjunct faculty Angela Searcy says “the talk” should not be just one talk, but a series of open-ended conversations throughout a child’s life — and not only black families should have them.  Searcy, the author of Push Past It: A Positive Approach to Challenging Classroom Behaviors, says it’s important to prepare all children for a world that often perceives black children differently from other children, and that having those talks can empower children, rather than scare them.

“Learning about racism and racial violence is not as scary as experiencing it … Just like a tornado can be scary, or a fire drill can be scary, if you know what to do when there’s a fire, you actually feel empowered,” she said. “Also not just talking about how black children may feel, but also including all children within this conversation that some children feel unsafe, what we can do about it, how we can support them, and how we can respond when there is a situation that is scary. This doesn’t lead to mental health issues, this actually stops us from having mental health issues.”

Reuben Jonathan Miller, associate professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and the author of the forthcoming book Halfway Home: Race, Punishment and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration, says his studies of criminal justice policy and mass incarceration primed him for these discussions with his own children.

“Black children particularly and black people have been stripped of our innocence. The research tells us this, we know that police officers view black boys as older [by] four years on average, it reports them being [perceived to be] less innocent,” he said.

Along with advising compliant and respectful behavior towards police to his children, Miller says it’s “very important for me to let them know, sometimes, in fact often, you’re stopped for nothing that you’ve done at all. You’re stopped for just being, just hanging around. So it’s about working very hard to make sure they don’t internalize that it’s their problem, that it’s something they’ve done.”

And though black families have extra reason to speak to their children about police encounters, Miller says that when it comes to criminal justice, white families have every reason to have “the talk” too.

“Mass incarceration does not stop at the threshold of the black family. Thirty-nine percent of white boys will be arrested before they turn the age of 23 in this country,” he said. “So this is a national problem of epic proportions. Black folks are stopped at a much greater rate, but white families are not absolved from needing to address this crisis.”

[Adapted from an article by Erica Gunderson: https://news.wttw.com/2020/06/08/having-talk-how-families-prepare-black-children-police-interactions%5D

Charles Dickens and the flying pigs

Going through some old papers I found various letters and cards from my father which he had signed “from the Aged Parent” or just “Aged P.”  Dickensians will of course recognize this soubriquet from Great Expectations which as a family we knew from the TV version, one of the classic serials that the BBC showed at Sunday teatimes in the 1960s.  The scene in question occurs when Mr Wemmick is showing Pip round the odd little wooden house that he has built for himself and his father in the manner of a tiny castle complete with battlements, a flagpole, a minuscule moat with a drawbridge, and a small cannon on the roof which is fired every night at nine o’clock to please the otherwise deaf old man, whom Wemmick refers to as the Aged Parent.  This greatly amused my father who promptly adopted the title for himself, even though he was then only in his fifties — considerably younger than I am now, I realize with some shock.

Wemmick's house
Wemmick’s house

I think I dimly perceived at the time that Dickens was playing games here and that Wemmick’s house was a sort of manifestation of the expression “An Englishman’s home is his castle,”  but I thought no more about it and read no Dickens until I was obliged to when Our Mutual Friend was set as one of our A-level texts: not one of Dickens’s greatest hits (and why were our set books so damn long?  There was also Nostromo, another monster), though Our Mutual Friend has its delights early on.  One that sticks in the memory is the hapless young man at the Veneerings’ dinner party who keeps trying to start a conversation in French but gets no further than “Esker…”.

It did make me realize, however, that Dickens ought to be read rather than seen in film and tv adaptations, which may portray the characters and settings brilliantly enough but inevitably miss the language games that Dickens loved to play when he wasn’t rushing to meet a deadline.  And so, with the additional encouragement of a university tutor, I became a sort of part-time Dickensian, and when I happened upon Craig Raine’s essay ‘Dickens and Language’1 I  gobbled it down and was soon made aware of how much of Dickens’s cleverness — and fun — I had missed in my all-too-casual reading of his novels.

It’s a brilliant piece of analysis.  To quote one of his examples, of Miss Tox in Dombey and Son he writes:

She is a genteel lady in reduced circumstances, someone of “limited independence”. But before Dickens discloses her financial circumstances, we are shown Miss Tox’s inability to make ends meet: “it was observed by the curious, of all her collars, frills, tuckers, wristbands, and other gossamer articles – indeed of anything she wore which had two ends to it intended to unite – that the two ends were never on good terms, and wouldn’t quite meet without a struggle.” The indirectness of Dickens’s method seems itself an example of tactful decorum totally suited to Miss Tox.

Raine finds many other examples of Dickens “literalizing the commonplace”, as he puts it, including Mrs Grandgrind in Hard Times being ‘a bit dim, not very bright’, Wilkins Micawber’s singing in David Copperfield, and

In Bleak House, there is Phil Squod whose experience of life’s vicissitudes has literally made him ‘go to the wall’, as the expression is: “He has a curious way of limping round the gallery with his shoulder against the wall, and tacking off at objects he wants to lay hold of, instead of going straight to them, which has left a smear all round the four walls, conventionally called Phil’s mark.”

Putting the book aside I turned on the tv and found myself hooked into a rerun of Minder, a particularly fine episode featuring the wonderful Richard Griffiths as the hedonistic and totally irresponsible custodian of a rock star’s mansion2, but I had forgotten the subplot in which Arthur Daley is cojoled into investing someone else’s money in three mechanical flying pigs: the sort of coin-in-the-slot machines that used to be positioned in playgrounds and supermarket car parks for kids to ride on.

One of the flying pigs

It’s clear to the viewer that this is one of Arthur’s dodgy deals and very unlikely to pay off, and of course it doesn’t, but in discussing its chances no-one ever says “And pigs might fly.”

For popular tv writing this is pretty subtle stuff, and Minder was always worth watching not just for its characters but also for its language, especially in the episodes written by Leon Griffiths, the creator of the series (no relation to the actor Richard), who gave the world ‘Er indoors (often mentioned but never seen) amongst other delightful things.  Griffiths always denied that he had invented the rhyming-slang expression ‘pork pies’ for lies, but no-one believed him, and he should probably be given credit for actually adding a new expression to everyday speech.  Practically everyone in the UK knows what’s meant if someone is accused of telling porkies.

With these things in mind I’ve been trying to think of any such Dickensian metaphors in my own eclectic reading, but the only one that comes to mind is in Charles Platt’s The Garbage World 3, the world in question being an asteroid called Kopra (geddit?) where other worlds discard their very unpleasant rubbish.  It could be seen as a novel-length literalization of being dumped on from a great height.

1  in Craig Raine: Haydn and The Valve Trumpet (1990), currently available as a Kindle for £3.99.  A snip.

2  Minder, series 3 episode 5, ‘Dreamhouse’, written by Andrew Payne and Leon Griffiths (first shown in February 1982).

3  The Garbage World (1967), first serialized in New Worlds in 1966.

Lexicon for a Pandemic

Neologisms for coronavirus communication, by Jay Martel, from The New Yorker (print edition), July 20, 2020.

Maskhole  An individual who wears a mask in a way that makes it completely ineffective — e.g., below the nose, under the chin, on the back of the head.

Face naked  The state of facial exposure that occurs when an individual declines to wear a mask in public. For example, “Pence went all face naked to the Mayo Clinic.”

Body mullet  What most people wear on Zoom calls: a nice top and, below the waist, underwear or less. (“Business up top, party down below.”)

The NOVID-19  The nineteen minutes after a too-close interaction with a maskless stranger during which you experience a thickness in your throat and a certainty that you’re dying. This sometimes lasts longer if frantic hand washing, antiseptic gargling, and estate planning are not readily available.

Overdistancing  When the guy in front of you in line has a metric understanding of the six in six feet, allowing twenty feet to open up between him and the next person in line, which then allows others to interpret that next person as the end of the line and to cut in front of you.

Domino distancing  When the person behind you in line stands too close, causing you to crowd the person in front of you, and on and on until everyone dies.

Emotional distancing  Deciding that now really isn’t the time to make big decisions about a relationship or, for that matter, to have a conversation about it.

Covideo  A short video featuring a quarantined individual’s child doing something adorable and/or profane, the public sharing of which falls somewhere between cute and a cry for help.

Stockholm syndrome  The assumption that everyone would be just fine without any government restrictions.

Someday, Noneday, Whoseday?, Whensday?, Blursday, Whyday?, Doesn’tmatterday  Days of the week.

Parenting  The ability to figure out why the PlayStation isn’t working with the Wi-Fi.

Body Zoom-morphia  Finding your own image on a group video call so unappealing that you are unable to focus on anything else.

Quorumtine  The minimum number of family members necessary to decide what to watch on TV.

Pan-demic  A potentially dangerous increase in the baking of bread in a quarantined home.

COVID-30  Formerly COVID-15; the amount of weight gained by an average adult during quarantine. Sometimes related to a pan-demic.

Helter shelter  That moment in the quarantine day when everything seems dirty and chaotic and you feel like saying, “Fuck it, let’s go outside. I don’t care if we die and a bunch of other people do, too.”

Flattening the curve  Trying to fit into your jeans after three months of sweatpants. (See COVID-30.)

Germophobe  Formerly, crazy people (e.g., Howard Hughes); now everyone except crazy people.

Going viral  No longer used. ?

Hopper

Every day in my inbox amongst the spam and those persistent emails urging me to buy another solid oak coffee table is one from an outfit called Delancey Place1 with an excerpt or quotation from a book that these people view as interesting or noteworthy. They are pretty good at choosing from books that are interesting to me too, and as I have always admired the paintings of Edward Hopper this recent post intrigued me. Hopper, they say, “was able to masterfully convey powerful emotions through genuinely American landscapes and scenes that were simple, stark and spare. Among those themes most often recurring in his work were disenchantment, solitude and eros.” and they quote this extract from Gail Levin’s book.2

When he wanted to convey disenchantment, Hopper turned to melancholy of dusk. In Summer Twilight (1920), he presented a man standing before a woman seated in a rocker, a sleeping dog lying by her side. The man appears tense, his head angled downward, his hands in his jacket pockets, although the woman’s fan implies that it is hot. She looks away, refusing to meet his gaze; a distance exists between them. The twilight of the title suggests not only the end of day and onset of night but, by allusion, the end of something, an impending termination, bringing with it uncertainty and gloom. With a pessimism that would later become characteristic of his work, Hopper captured a summer romance in its waning hours; the couple’s idyllic summer setting will inevitably yield to the harsh realities of winter. Hopper’s working sketches of Cape Cod Evening (1939) reveal that the painting evolved through several stages. Initially, he considered having only one figure: a woman seated on a doorstep with a dog standing close by, facing her. Then he tried the woman standing in blowing grass with the dog. His resolution — a man beckoning to the distracted dog from the doorstep with a morose-looking woman standing before the window — changed the entire content of the painting. We now confront a disenchanted couple: she detached, in a world of her own thoughts and dreams, he trying to communicate with the dog instead of with her. The evening here once again alludes to the twilight of a relationship.

Communication does not work, and as Hopper commented on his inspiration and intention in Cape Cod Evening, even the dog listens only to a distant whippoorwill. The presence of a dog, both here and in the etching Summer Twilight, suggests that Hopper relied on this familiar symbol to make his own ironic comment on the couple’s deteriorating relationship. Certainly, he knew and admired what he called “the honest simplicity of early Dutch and Flemish masters,” embodied by Jan van Eyck’s fifteenth-century Arnolfini Marriage Portrait, in which the dog is a symbol of fidelity and devotion. But Hopper may have also been aware that later, in Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century, a dog often connoted lasciviousness or gluttony, in an ironical reversal of the original symbolism.

In Hopper’s 1947 painting Summer Evening, the time of day again corresponds to a stage in a couple’s relationship. The young couple in the painting — she scantily clad for the summer’s heat — seem engrossed in an unpleasant discussion while they lean against the wall of a porch with only the overly bright electric light — no romantic moonlight for them. The porch of the clapboard house recalls Hopper’s boyhood home in Nyack, suggesting that his conception in Summer Evening was based on distant memories.

Indeed, he claimed that the painting had been in the back of his head “for twenty years.” The woman’s face is twisted in a grimace, while her shoulders are arched defensively — like the back of a provoked cat. The man, the focus of her discontent, holds his left hand on his chest as if protesting. Hopper poignantly expressed the torment of a passion gone sour: the fresh excitement of spring about to turn into the disillusion of autumn. As in Summer Twilight and Cape Cod Evening, dusk here symbolizes the melancholy of lost desire, opportunity surrendering to inevitable decay.

1  DelanceyPlace.com sends ‘a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy.  Eclectic excerpts delivered to your email every day.’  Subscription is free and all DelanceyPlace.com proceeds are donated to children’s literacy projects.
2  Gail Levin: Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography (Knopf, 1995)

Books, and what to do with them

I have books the way some people have — what?  I was going to say mice but who has 2000 mice? Every feasible wall in my house is lined with bookshelves and every corner has a bookcase in it, but the books have long ago overflowed these and they lie in piles on the floor, on the stairs, all around the bed and sometimes in it. I have an awful lot of books.

There is some excuse for this. My career was in publishing, and publishers do tend to accumulate books as well as spawning new ones, but I think it would have been much the same whatever I was doing. The fact is that I like books.  A lot.  I could read before I went to school at the age of three and have been reading voraciously ever since.  My very first reading memory is of Mary Mouse, one of Enid Blyton’s early creations, and soon after that came Rupert, Molesworth (did you know that Hogwarts is a place in one of those still-funny books?), Just William and The Beano … but this isn’t a nostalgia trip: it’s about books as physical objects and what the hell I’m going to do with them all now I’m moving to a smaller house.

I give them away when I can. Lots have gone to charity shops and freecyclers, and I’ll press a few books onto anyone who seems even vaguely interested, but this is like chipping away at an iceberg with a penknife: it makes no discernible difference to the vast bulk of the thing.

Didn't work for me
Didn’t work for me

When I’m driving down to the new house in Dorset I load the car with boxes full of books, and I’ve been fitting as many bookshelves as I can cram into the place to house the books I want to keep. It turns out that I want to keep quite a lot of them, but there are very many left behind in London.

I’m looking to sell the London house, so I need to clear it out and most of the remaining books have to go — but where?  If anyone out there knows of some charity or organization that would welcome a lot of books, all good and all free, please contact me.

It would be a shame to put them into a skip.

Wild City

One of the incidental pleasures of starting a blog is that it’s putting me in touch with old friends that I’ve neglected for much too long. One of them is Charles Platt* who I’m delighted to find is alive and well and posting some fascinating material on Facebook, including this recent piece which I include here with Charles’s permission.

Tonight I watched Wild City on Bluray, the penultimate film from the amazing Hong Kong director Ringo Lam, whose movie City on Fire was ripped off by Quentin Tarantino when he made Reservoir Dogs and established himself as an “innovator” by copying a director who almost no-one had heard of at the time.

My favorite Lam film of all time was Full Contact, which pushed the Hong Kong gangster genre beyond all previous boundaries, featuring Chow Yun Fat up against a totally deranged knife-wielding gay gangster in a gold lamé jacket.

Wild City was made in 2014, seemingly 100% on location in Hong Kong and environs. Like all Ringo Lam movies, it shows people under extreme personal stress, trying to make ethical decisions. In this case an ex-cop is struggling to do the right thing with his no-good half-brother, when they get mixed up with a mainland Chinese woman who has a suitcase crammed with cash belonging to a corrupt lawyer ex-boyfriend. The complexity of the plot is astonishing by comparison with typical Hollywood action movies, yet Lam still has a kind of naïve, almost clumsy charm which creates a sense of realism even when the action escalates to extreme levels.

US critics were condescending and snide about Hong Kong action movies in the 1990s, and twenty years later they were still condescending toward Wild City when it was released, with the added bonus that they complained it was not as good as Lam’s early work (which they had forgotten they trashed at the time).

For me Wild City is a wonderful extension of those 1990s movies (which I loved), using the capability of modern movie equipment to display scenes of such detail, there is a feeling of deep immersion. I almost feel I don’t need to visit Hong Kong, now that I have watched this movie. And, of course, it is very poignant in view of recent political developments. Those wonderfully crazy, extreme action and kung-fu movies were so much a product of exuberance in a city that was enjoying wild growth as a function of minimally controlled capitalism. We’re not going to see anything like that under CCP control.

The cover image at left is inappropriate, failing to show any of the three principal actors. I suspect it was used only on US-region exported versions of the disc, to avoid showing Asian faces to American buyers.

* See my earlier post ’Nigel aka Simon’. Charles has been a prolific writer since the 1960s and is currently writing his autobiography; the second volume, An Accidental Life, Volume 2, 1965-1970: The New Worlds Years, has for various reasons been withheld from distribution in the UK so far but may be made available here soon, and if it is I’ll let you know.

PHEW! WHAT A SCORCHER!

Today has been the hottest day of the year so far, and like a fool I got tangled up in traffic for three hours during the height of it.

I’d spotted a post on the local Freecycle network1 offering a pair of beds for nothing, and since I hope to have guests to stay here when I’ve got the place sorted out I thought I’d like those beds. Although there are two bedrooms in this small house there is at the moment only one bed: a small single bed for myself when I’m here. In London I have a big double bed — a relic of happier times! — which I was planning to bring down, though with the state it’s in I think it’s probably fit only for a bonfire, but what was on offer here was two single beds that could somehow be combined into a double, which seemed ideal to accommodate guests in whatever combinations they might arrive, or me when there are no guests and I feel like stretching out a bit, and I wanted them.

So I phoned the Freecycler, Debbie, and arrangements were made and directions given. I would drive over to her place at Bay View on West Cliff, Bournemouth, to pick up the beds at one o’clock. I set off from Broadstone at 12:30 as I like to be punctual — Bournemouth isn’t far away — and thought I’d take the coastal route which in normal times is a pleasant, quiet road affording fine views of the sea. Big mistake. Huge mistake.  A mistake with poison-tipped spikes all over it.

When I got to Bournemouth it was already getting hot and the road leading down to the beach was jammed solid with cars which showed no signs of moving, and the drivers were getting impatient and sometimes aggressive, so I did a three-point turn — tricky in the circumstances, and not a popular move with the queuing drivers — and drove up a side-road away from the coast. I suffer in hot weather anyway, and being stuck in the car on a day like this was becoming distinctly unpleasant. I drove around the maze of quiet residential streets for a while with an increasing sense of desperation, looking for a sign or any clue that might get me to West Cliff and I realized that I was going to be very late for my date with Debbie.  The heat was now sweltering.

Eventually, and more by luck than judgement, I came to the big roundabout that Debbie had described on the phone and by taking the second exit as she had suggested I thought that I’d soon find Bay View, the newish development where she’d said she lived.  Oh yeah?  There was a Bay View Lodge, a Bay View Tower, a Bay View This and a Bay View That, but nothing called just Bay View. I was getting seriously hot and bothered — I was now more than an hour late, and these roads were very busy — and realized that I needed help, so I pulled up outside one of these Bay View places and asked a passing youth if he knew Bay View itself.

He didn’t, but he was a nice bloke and looked for it on his iPhone, and was able to give me some detailed directions. Since he was on his phone anyway and mine was packed away I asked him if he would ring Debbie and tell her that I’d be there shortly, which he kindly did, with me yelling “Sorry!” from a socially-acceptable distance away. But the detailed directions just took me back to the jam-packed streets that I’d already been round several times, and when I braked only slightly too hard it caused the driver behind to rear-end me. These sun-seekers are fucking maniacs. The damage wasn’t too serious but it took another half-hour to sort things out with Mr Impatient Suntanned Bastard — and at this point, with sweat running in rivulets down my face and desperately thirsty, I decided that I’d had enough. I wanted to phone Debbie to apologize again but realized that the helpful youth had walked off with the bit of paper that had her telephone number on it, so I turned the car round again, wound down all the windows, and headed home by a fast inland route, with no beds and a shiny new dent on the rear fender of my car.

Bournemouth beach earlier today
Bournemouth beach earlier today

Once home I glugged down a pint of orange juice, showered, drank more juice and turned on the TV news. The Sky cameras were showing hordes of people thronging the Bournemouth beach and the lockjammed roads where I’d just been, with the reporters deploring such irresponsible behaviour and the police declaring it a Major Incident. Now, in the late evening and after some stabbings have been reported the TV pundits and politicians are giving it their two-pennorth. Appalling, Irresponsible, Dangerous, Police are some of the words I’m hearing. Yes, but this is more than just relief after the easing (not the end) of two months’ lockdown. It may be partly that, but there’s also some sort of herd instinct at work here. From my days as a psychologist I recall a book called The Madness of Crowds.2 Must look it out.

I phoned Debbie to apologize for my no-show and she was very nice about it. We thought we could maybe try again next week when it might be cooler. I suggested that very early in the morning might be a good time, when there would be none of these demented sun-worshippers about.  We got chatting, and it emerged that before moving to Bournemouth recently she had worked in the Crouch End branch of Barclays Bank in London, where I’ve been a customer for donkey’s years. When — if — we eventually meet we’ll probably recognize each other.

Small world.  Small, horrible, crowded, stinking, sweltering world today.

 

1  The Freecycle Network™ is made up of 5,327 groups with 8,926,497 members around the world and next-door to you. It’s a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving (and getting) stuff for free in their own towns and neighborhoods. It’s all about re-use and keeping good stuff out of landfills.  Join us now!

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay (1841)

An interview with Madonna:

Bold Hussy-Woman or Test-Mouse?

In 1996 she was in Budapest filming some scenes for the movie Evita and she granted an interview to the local newspaper Blikk. Since the interviewer spoke little English and Madonna no Hungarian, an interpreter translated the questions from Hungarian into English, then translated Madonna’s replies from English into Hungarian. The result was published in Blikk, in Hungarian of course.

Then USA Today wanted to publish the interview and needed a copy of it, urgently. There was no time to go back to the original tape, so Blikk’s version was translated from Hungarian back into English — and not too well, happily for us. USA Today published only a part of it. This is the whole version from the re-translation.
—————————————————————
BLIKK:  Madonna, Budapest says hello with arms that are spread-eagled. Did you have a visit here that was agreeable? Are you in good odor? You are the biggest fan of our young people who hear your musical productions and like to move their bodies in response.
MADONNA:  Thank you for saying these compliments (holds up hands). Please stop with taking sensationalist photographs until I have removed my garments for all to see. This is a joke I have made.
BLIKK:  Madonna, let’s cut toward the hunt: are you a bold hussy-woman that feasts on men who are tops?
MADONNA:  Yes, yes, this is certainly something that brings to the surface my longings. In America it is not considered to be mentally ill when a woman advances on her prey in a discothèque setting with hardy cocktails present. And there is a more normal attitude toward leather play-toys that also makes my day.
BLIKK:  Is this how you met Carlos, your love-servant who is reputed?  Did you know he was heaven-sent right off the stick? Or were you dating many other people in your bed at the same time?
MADONNA:  No, he was the only one I was dating in my bed then, so it is a scientific fact that the baby was made in my womb using him. But as regards those questions, enough!  I am a woman and not a test-mouse! Carlos is an everyday person who is in the orbit of a star who is being muscled-trained by him, not a sex machine.

Madonna with Carlos Leon. Their daughter Lourdes was born later in 1996.

BLIKK:  May we talk about your other “baby”, your movie then? Please do not be denying that the similarities between you and the real Evita are grounded in basis. Power, money, tasty food, Grammys — all these elements are afoot.
MADONNA:  What is up in the air with you? Evita never was winning a Grammy!
BLIKK:  Perhaps not. But as to your film, in trying to bring your reputation along a rocky road, can you make people forget the bad explosions of Who’s That Girl? and Shanghai Surprise?
MADONNA:  I am a tip-top starlet. That is my job that I am paid to do.
BLIKK:  OK, here’s a question from left space. What was your book Slut about?
MADONNA:  It was called Sex, my book.
BLIKK:  Not in Hungary. Here it was called Slut. How did it come to publish?  Were you lovemaking with a man-about-town printer?  Do you prefer making suggestive literature to fast-selling CDs?
MADONNA:  There are different facets to my career highway. I am preferring only to become respected all over the map as a 100% artist.
BLIKK:  There is much interest in you from this geographic region, so I must ask this final questions: How many Hungarian men have you dated in bed?  Are they No. 1?  How are they comparing to Argentine men, who are famous being tip-top as well?
MADONNA:  Well, to avoid aggravating global tension, I would say it’s a tie (laugh). No, no. I am serious now. See here, I am working like a canine all the way around the clock!  I have been too busy to try the goulash that makes your country one for the record books.
BLIKK:  Thank you for the candid chitchat.
MADONNA:  No problem, friend who is a girl.

————————————————————————————

Authentic?  Fake?  Either way it makes me laugh.

Who was Betty?

In the north of England, Bettys Cafés1 are famous — indeed, they are celebrated.  Well-known people such as Alan Ayckbourn, Jilly Cooper, Alan Titchmarsh, James Herriott and Ian McMillan have all sung the praises of Bettys. and Alan Bennett has namechecked the Harrogate café in one of his wonderful plays.

Bettys is celebrated because it’s good: “the nearest thing that Yorkshire can do to produce one of those lovely continental pastry shops … But more than that, it caters for the northern appetite, which is very, very important, and offers value for money. High tea –- that is a very northern thing. And it’s getting better and better — their cakes are lovely and it is very well done. It is elegance at its best –- you have your little tea strainer, your pot, your lovely cake stand and I think it is beautiful. The staff are very courteous and it suits the smart town of Harrogate.” 2

But who was Betty? My family was closely involved in the creation of the cafés in their early days (there are now six of them, all in Yorkshire), but since no-one seems to know about this let me tell you what I can and who I think Betty actually was.

According to the official version of the story Frederick Belmont, a baker and confectioner, arrived as an emigré from Switzerland in 1919 speaking little English, and somehow found himself in Bradford. He liked the Yorkshire countryside and decided to stay and start his own shop in Harrogate, which became the first Bettys.  Since then it has gone from strength to strength. So the tale goes, but in fact Mr Belmont had a partner: my grandfather, who bore the illustrious name of John Smith.3

How this began I know only in bits and pieces from what my mother told me. She was proud of having been involved in the formative years of Bettys and often boasted about it.  To her it was always ‘our firm’.  She had spent her childhood in the village of Laycock, where my grandfather had a small farm and owned the village bakery. He probably had other business interests in the area too. By all accounts he was a very kind chap, a good man to do business with. He was certainly very kind to me as a child. Anyway, at some point he met Freddie Belmont and they evidently hit it off, becoming partners soon afterwards. To him Mr Belmont was ‘Binkie’ by analogy with the theatrical impresario Binkie Beaumont who was well-known at the time. Binkie Belmont married a local girl who was known to them as Bunny.  Binkie and Bunny.

As Bettys prospered the Smith family moved into a spacious house in Harrogate, where my mother spent her teenage years. She told me that she accompanied her father on scouting expeditions for new premises for Bettys and, once they were established, helped out as a waitress and in the kitchens during the school holidays. Among her effects after her death I found a bound carbon-copy of the original Bettys recipe book, which she used from time to time when making cakes etc. in later life. She kept this in her bedside cabinet and obviously regarded it as very precious.

The original Betty's Cafe (left) and as Bettys today (right)
The original Betty’s Cafe (left) and Bettys today (right)

The Smiths were good friends with the Belmonts as well as business partners, taking several holidays together in Switzerland before the war. On the walls of the house in Harrogate were pictures of the Swiss lakes and mountains — tinted photographs in gilt frames, as was the style of the time — and various souvenirs. One of these particularly delighted me as a child. It was a carved wooden match-holder in the form of a hollow tree-stump with a wolf beside it, a momento of Berne. This eventually came down to me, and it sits on my mantelpiece now.

My mother was very bright, and on leaving school she went to London to work in the Civil Service — but war was looming and the family wanted her back home, so she returned to Harrogate and trained and worked as an accountant, marrying my father during the war and having me when the war was over. My sister followed four years later. We lived first in Wakefield and then in Leeds, and made frequent visits to Harrogate to visit the family there.

On one of these visits I was taken round the Bettys factory by my grandfather — I’d have been 4 or 5 at the time — to see the cakes and sweets being made. Great to have a grandpa with a chocolate factory! but those were less indulgent times and at the end of the tour I was allowed to help myself to just one sweet.

From the same period I also recall a gathering at my grandparents’ house in Harrogate, where I was presented to the assembled Bettys clan. Mr Belmont and his wife were there, of course, and some others too, probably relatives of theirs. My main memory of this is of the ladies present, who all seemed to be dressed in black and lace in a very old-fashioned style, but what really fascinated me as a gawping child was their wobbly double-chins. Too many cream cakes, perhaps! My apologies to their memories.

My grandfather had married a young woman named Elizabeth Gill, a teacher in Keighley. According to family legend he had courted her by walking five miles to chapel every Sunday in the hope of having a few moments with her after the service, then walking the five miles home again afterwards. To him she was Betty; to my mother she was Mum; to me and my sister she was Nana. I can’t be sure, but my mother insisted that she was the Betty after whom the original café had been named, and in the absence of other plausible candidates I think it quite likely.

Sadly, my grandfather died suddenly in 1951 at a relatively young age . There was no-one then to take over from him, as his son (my Uncle Ray) was committed to farming and the outdoor life, while my mother was now married to a clergyman and busy being the minister’s wife, and of course a mother to me and my sister. So the Belmont family bought out my grandmother’s share of Bettys and our connection with the firm ended.

My mother was very regretful about that. The settlement gave us a little nest-egg, certainly, which probably paid for my education, but in later years she would sometimes say ruefully that if my grandfather had lived longer I would have had a secure future with the firm. I wasn’t so sure that I’d have wanted that or been very good at it so I tended to keep quiet at these times, and since Bettys seems to have been extremely well run since then I think it has worked out fine, though I’m sorry that my grandfather has been written out of the firm’s official story when he did so much for it.

As for Betty herself, I have been greatly amused by the speculation as to what she was really like — there has even been a book about her 4 — but I can tell you what our Betty, my grandmother, was like. She was not at all the buxom, rosy-cheeked lass that some have imagined her to be, but a tall, slender, extremely intelligent and sophisticated woman. Photographs of her taken in the 1920s show a very cool presence, elegantly gowned and hair shingled.

John and Betty Smith

She occasionally smoked Du Maurier cigarettes, a rather superior brand, and spoke fluent French. She was very kind and generous, though she would stand for no nonsense, and she was modest, never wanting any publicity as the ‘real’ Betty. She would have considered that vulgar.

I knew her well, as she came to live with us after my grandfather’s death and continued to do so until her own death many years later, and I came to love her dearly.  When I was young she helped me with my homework and let me watch cartoons on TV, which my parents disapproved of.  When I was a music-mad teenager I built a super-powerful hi-fi from kits and bits of wood that I salvaged from here and there, but the one thing I couldn’t make was a turntable. Nana kindly stumped up for a very good one, and the completed sound system annoyed the neighbours for years afterwards.

My last memory of her is from Christmas 1967, when the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour was first aired. She had a colour TV in her room and we had only a black-and-white one, so the whole family gathered in Nana’s room to watch it in colour. When it was done she said “Well, I didn’t think much of that.”   A blunt Yorkshirewoman to the end.

1  The name was originally Betty’s but the apostrophe was dropped somewhere along the way.
2  Quotation from a comment by Frances Atkins on the Bettys website: https://www.bettys.co.uk/timeline
3  No connection with the brewery of that name. My family were all staunch Methodists.
4  Who Was Betty? A Whimsical Collection of Tall Stories edited by Samantha Gibson (2011)

 

What’s going on

As I write this the TV is showing pictures of the demonstrations in London, the cameras hunting about for outbreaks of violence and destruction that they can show on the news later. This is in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a cop in Minneapolis three weeks ago and here in Britain the toppling and proposed removal of several statues of notable men deemed to have been racist and Not OK in various other ways.

That black lives matter I take as obvious, self-evident, a no-brainer. Of course they matter, as all lives do, but some black writers are saying things like “If I hear one more white person say ‘Black Lives Matter’ I think my head will explode,” * so I won’t bang on about my own patchy white-bred credentials in this regard, though I hope one day to be able tell you about my experiences when helping to run an adventure playground in Notting Hill in the 1970s and 1980s, which proved to be a very practical education in racial tensions and much more complex than I’d ever imagined.

Have things changed since then? Check out this song from 1971, with a new video made last year, here.

About the statues I was undecided at first. I understand the argument that removing them can be seen as erasing history, destroying our heritage etc., but I also understand that some people find them very offensive, and I personally don’t particularly want to gaze on the features of Cecil Rhodes or Edward Colston — though one of my fondest memories is of bunking off school to go to a concert by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra at the Colston Hall in Bristol — an event fraught with ironies in retrospect. Maybe they can change the name and keep the hall.

I live most of the time in London but at the moment I’m taking a break in Dorset after two months of lockdown, and a couple of miles down the road there’s been a kerfuffle about the statue of Baden-Powell that stands on Poole Quay. It’s there because Brownsea Island is just offshore in the harbour, and this is where Baden-Powell (B-P) took twenty boys camping in 1907 and thereby started the Boy Scout movement. I was a Boy Scout myself once, and apart from the marching I greatly enjoyed it and have always regarded the Scout movement as broadly speaking a pretty good thing. I can still tie several different kinds of knots. I never knew much about B-P but have learned a lot more about him in the last few days as the local and indeed national media have argued his merits and demerits to and fro, and think that he’s not quite as bad as some people have painted him.

But I’ve decided that I don’t care much about statues, unless they’re by Michelangelo or Bernini or Rodin. They are just lumps of metal and stone and if people want them removed that’s fine with me, though I hope it can be done without violence. The important thing is to get beyond the symbolism and try to deal much better with the reality. I hope that the politicians will soon stop pontificating about the violence and see the point: that things need to change, which amongst other things means that we honkies have to get more involved with our local communities, and if that’s not possible we can make a donation to one of the organizations that are trying to change things for the better. Here are a few:

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/black-lives-matter-charity-donate-uk-stephen-lawrence-stop-hate-a9544786.html

  • Joseph Harker in The Guardian, 11th June 2020.

Put-downs

Heard a good one on TV the other day. It was in one of those true-crime things with a retired detective talking about some of the murder cases he had solved, and he amuses me because in his pieces-to-camera he occasionally goes into a sort of tough-guy lingo like a private eye in a 1940s movie:

Whenever someone would ask me if I felt any sympathy for the people I was arresting I used to say “The only place you’ll find sympathy round here is in the dictionary between shit and syphilis.”

Rather surprising to hear this on afternoon telly and probably the invention of a scriptwriter, but it’s one I’m storing up for possible future use myself, so if someone should come running to me saying “Wah, I’ve lost my wallet and I don’t know what to do!” I’ll have my response right there ready.

I once thought of compiling a book of put-downs, those crushing remarks also known as squelchers that put the other person firmly in their place, and started collecting examples — like this early one attributed to King George V who apparently said it to a guest who had arrived at a grand function wearing the newly-fashionable turned-up trousers:

We were unaware, sir, that the corridors of our palace were damp.

Rather unfair as the poor guest couldn’t answer back (“Oh, go fuck yourself, your majesty” would have been nice).

More modern instances can be more directly abusive, like this one from Kurt Vonnegut Jr:

If your brains were dynamite there wouldn’t be enough to blow your hat off.


and these unattributed ones:

Here’s a nickel. Go call up all your friends.
People clap when they see you. They clap their hands over their eyes.
If I throw a stick, will you leave?

and my little anthology would have included a few classics: certainly a few by the wonderful Dorothy Parker, e.g.

Dorothy Parker
Dorothy Parker

This wasn’t just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.

Tell him I was too fucking busy — or vice versa.

and some from Groucho Marx (or his scriptwriters):

Don’t look now, but there’s one man too many in this room and I think it’s you.

A child of five would understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five.

I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.

But my collection foundered because to make it a decent length I would have had to pad it out with more over-familiar quotations from the likes of Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, Thomas Beecham and other historical wits so I reluctantly put it aside. That was a few years ago, though, and the put-downs go on.

Hecklers sometimes come up with good ones as when U2 were playing a gig in Glasgow and Bono decided to give the audience a little lecture.

A pause between songs, the lights go down. Bono begins clapping his hands together slowly . . . once . . . twice . . . three times . . . four times . . .
Bono says: “Every time I clap my hands, a child dies in Africa.”
Voice from crowd: “Stop fucking clapping then!”

But It can be dangerous to mix it with a sharp comedian like Paul Merton who once responded to a heckler with

Excuse me, I’m trying to work here. How would you like it if I stood yelling down the alley while you’re giving blowjobs to transsexuals?

But pride of place here goes to what Gershon Legman described as “the worst insult a woman can offer a man”:

Is it in?

Words 1

A quotation in an earlier post included the word sympathy and in passing I noted how seldom we see it these days as it is supplanted by empathy, which has become what Fowler called a vogue word. In a recent review section of The Guardian I counted no less than seven instances of empathy or empathetic in its various articles, and I see that the dictionary-makers have been busily playing catch-up to re-define its differences from sympathy.

Anything wrong with empathy? Not really, though I think that many of the writers who use it do so without much thought, precisely because it’s the fashionable term. Has sympathy gone? No, it’s just lurking in the shadows and may re-assert itself one day. The problem with vogue words is that we get sick of them.

Another current one is decimate, which classical scholars will know means ‘to reduce by one-tenth’: not to one-tenth or to wipe out altogether, though that is how it tends to be used these days. “The whole area has been completely decimated” says a TV reporter describing the charred after-effects of a forest fire, and a sports commentator once said that Mo Farrah had “simply decimated the opposition”, meaning that he won the race easily. Decimate in this sense is attractive because the speaker can stress the first syllable and its concluding sibilant — DESS-imate — giving it a dramatic ring, which is not the case with destroy or any other synonym. And of course we know what the reporters mean even if they don’t know or respect their Latin.

Then again: Once upon a time an enormity was an outrage, usually of a criminal nature. A Victorian maiden happening upon the scene of some hideous murder might have exclaimed “Merciful heavens, what heinous fiend can have perpetrated such an enormity?” but these days the word is generally used to denote great size, as when an astronomer speaks of the enormity of a galaxy or of the universe itself, as Brian Cox has sometimes done.

It sounds right. Everyone knows what enormous means, and in speech the central o-sound of enormity (which actually has a somewhat different derivation) can be stretched out to evoke wide open spaces (the arms may also be stretched out to illustrate the concept visually), while the alternatives are much less appealing: vastness and immensity are altogether too hissy for the purpose, while bigness, hugeness and indeed enormousness are awkward and ugly formations, colossal and stupendous generate no manageable nouns, and many hold that massive should have at least something to do with mass.

Purists may disapprove, but I think we must surrender to the forces of common usage and accept that big-enormity has ousted bad-enormity, and that use of the latter should now be confined to works of historical fiction, time-travel and possibly steampunk. It can go too far, though. In a recent TV programme about the excavation of some hitherto unknown tombs in Egypt the archaeologist in charge spoke of “the enormity of the discovery”, by which she presumably meant its great importance. I think this is an enormity too far, a bad-enormity in fact.

And while we’re on the subject of vogue words here’s a list of some words and expressions that I guarantee will never be used by me in this blog:

  • awesome (unless it really does inspire awe)
  • from the get-go
  • elephant in the room
  • epicentre (unless it’s about an earthquake)
  • going forward
  • meme (unless it’s from Richard Dawkins)
  • perfect storm
  • proactive
  • quantum jump or leap (except in physics or SF)
  • scenario (unless it’s a film treatment and not a worst-case)
  • sea change
  • step change
  • trope (unless it’s a figure of speech)
  • viral

I’m still debating whether someone like me should ever say or write heads up. There’s nothing more ridiculous than an old guy trying to be hip, as we used to say.