Dreams and Liars


Jonathon is amongst the dreaming spires this week, as he considers Oxfordian slang…

I was in Oxford yesterday. Waiting for my train home I noticed that the marketing boys and girls have been in and that the old place is now labelled the city of ‘learning and culture’ which is I suppose a little harder-edged and 21st century than Matthew Arnold’s evocation of ‘dreaming spires’ and in any case as I recall the first one of those that looms into the gaze as one arrives stands atop of Nuffield, and lacking beauty is a construction more of nightmares than of scholarly fantasy. Oxford elicits mixed memories. I arrived in 1966, probably as clever as I would ever be, but ill-formed and compensatorily noisy as we often are and hard-wired to the use of verbal facility as both defence and  self-definition. Walking down Broad Street in a grey drizzle and a dark blue suit and recalling sunny dawns in grey velvet with a head still full of…whatever had kept me going through the nights of 45 years past, I wondered how much we ever change.

At which point MEGO even if yours don’t, and I shall move on. There is enough boue in the daily round to obviate the need to mix in nostalgie.

Oxford doubtless produced much slang, some of which, in the way of student coinages, will have been imported from school, and some created in situ. I do not recall very much in the late Sixties. Various thoroughfares were gelded of the suffix ‘street’ and in compensation prefaced with definite article, and there may have been the odd hangover as regarded nicknames for university or college officials. I cannot recall them and none were neologisms. What my coterie used was hippie stuff, which meant the ersatz adoption of 1930s African-American jazz terms, by now more than a little tattered; not, as I have admitted elsewhere, that most of us knew.

As I noted for my first Hero of Slang; Cuthbert Bede, who portrayed the mid-century Oxford freshman in his Adventures of Mr Verdant Green (1853), there had always been plenty of slang about. Verdant and his friend Mr Bouncer duly bantered to and fro, but at least some of their lexis seemed to have been borrowed from Tom and Jerry’s friend Bob Logic, he of the green specs and a fatal taste for what in 1821 Pierce Egan has termed Life in London. Whatever it was, we are not seeing what would now be called ‘campus slang’, an often transatlantic subset which was first catalogued in B.H. Hall’s College Words (1856).

Nor is there a single example of the one slang that Oxford undoubtedly popularised: the –er suffix. The one that still lingers on in rugger and fresher, but not in those absurdities that an American visitor wrote up in an edition of the Atlanta Constitution in April 1912: ‘Guest at a cupper last night. No brekker. Tried to keep a lekker at John’s, but got no farther than the Maggers’ Memugger when I felt queer [...] The wagger-pagger-bagger’s simply overflowing with bills [...] Heard that the Pragger-Wagger is coming up?’ In 1936 H.L. Mencken, German by ancestry and sternly Anglophobe by conviction, summed it all up as: ‘a series of childish perversions of common and proper nouns, effected by adding -er or inserting gg.’

J. Redding Ware, author of Passing English of the Victorian Era (1909) dated its emergence to ‘early in the Queen’s [i.e. Victoria’s] reign’. Its absence from Verdant  Green as well as from Arnold’s Tom Brown at Oxford (1861) militate against that, though Bede at least, who had no first-hand knowledge of the university, may simply have missed it. The OED is very specific, claiming that it was ‘introduced from Rugby School into Oxford University slang, originally at University College, in Michaelmas Term, 1875.’ Unfortunately the OED fails to offer an 1875 citation, its first example being 1899: perhaps its ongoing revision will amend the absence. Meanwhile I cannot so far find one before 1892.

Strictly jargon, given its use at Oxford (it never caught on at Cambridge or elsewhere), it has moved into wider areas, typically fresher, a university freshman, footer, football, soccer, football and rugger, rugby. The extreme uses, e.g. pragger-wagger, the Prince of Wales and wagger-pagger-bagger, a waste-paper basket remain strictly Oxford and 1900s–20s Oxford at that. The double-g expansion tends to proper names, e.g. the Internagger  Brigagger, the International Brigade or The Tagger Ragger of St Pagger le Bagger: the Rev. Talbot Rice, rector of St Peter le Bailey c. 1890. Still, it also provides condagger magger, condensed milk, and forgogger coclogger, a foregone conclusion. None, one feels, had wide circulation and of the last four terms google, usually so verbose, is wholly silent.

For a fuller discussion of what he terms ‘the famous, or perhaps one should say, notorious, suffix’ we need Morris Marples who published a dictionary of University Slang in 1950; it was a sequel to his Public School Slang of 1940. He suggests the importation came not from Rugby but from Harrow. There it had been used to create slangy formations of nouns by shortening the original and replacing the missing letters with -er. When the word was a monosyllable, this could be extended by the suffixes -agger or -ugger. He notes an Old Harrovian who had entered the school in 1884 and explained that ‘We had the habit of putting –er at the end of a word, and either making the word shorter or longer, no matter which, so long as we got the –er for common use.’ Another Harrovian, who went up to Oxford that year recalled finding the -er already in place. However Marples can also quote The Harrovian, the school magazine, for April 1870, which lists six –er words and as he says, ‘we may be sure that others, not mentioned, were also current.’ Slang being what it is, we can never really ‘be sure’ but even if there were only six terms, that undoubtedly predates Oxford.

The story is not yet done. A further list, culled from the OED, finds a variety of terms, the first of which six-pounder, a maid-servant, thus christened from her usual wage per annum, is found in 1780, beating both educational institutions. Thus, Marples suggests, whether Harrow or Oxford was the earlier adopter, it was adoption, of ‘a popular tendency rather than inventing something new.’

image ©Gabriel Green
You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.

How I Found America’s Most Wanted (painting, that is)

Belgium & London 2005 283

Rita discovers the Platonic Ideal of an American painting…

“You want to see modern art? Here” said my cousin, opening the door to his garage with a flourish and gesturing towards metal shelves stacked with the usual detritus of utility rooms the world over.  We were in Ghent, Belgium, home to one of the greatest paintings of all time, Jan Van Eyck’s altarpiece The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (Aanbidding van het Lam Gods), a work we had seen many times.  Now we planned a different art experience, a visit to Ghent’s famed S.M.A.K. Museum (Stedelijk Museum Voor Actuele Kunst).  My cousin was issuing a warning.

S.M.A.K. did not make a good first impression.  In the middle of the lobby janitors had abandoned a large trolley piled with cleaning supplies and garbage bags.  Only as I drew closer did I see the plaque – this was one of the art exhibits!  As we gasped and giggled in shock, a self-appointed art expert in our midst murmured repressively “he is a very important artist.”  Apparently so was Joseph Bueys, the creator of the metal shelving installation (Wirtschaftswerte) my cousin had mocked, and the “artist” who rolled up a filthy old mattress with a tape inside playing the sound of a man snoring.  The glass bowl containing muddy water with a few strands of greenery clinging to life like a school botany project gone wrong?  “A seminal work.”  A little of this and you start to feel like an unlettered rube just because you prefer the Impressionists, or het Lam.  Is art really in the eye of the beholder, or can experts successfully persuade us that works like Wirtschaftswerte or Damien Hirst’s chopped up cows suspended in formaldehyde are, indeed, art?  To find answers I turned to art critic Robert Hughes’ classic book The Shock of the New.  There is no better survey of art in the twentieth century, but Hughes does have a distinct point of view. He argues that no subsequent artist could outdo Marcel Duchamp’s iconic 1917 work Urinal.  According to Hughes, in the moment of its creation modern art simultaneously experienced its birth and its apogee and arrived at a dead end.  The point was to shock and provoke the viewer into questioning the definition of art.  The shelving installation certainly succeeded in that regard.  My morning at S.M.A.K. convinced me that the real art lies in the wording on the plaques that describe and interpret these objects for the viewer.  Hughes wrote that Damien Hirst’s real skill lies in manipulating the art world into taking him seriously.

Leaving art critics out of it, what kind of art is most popular?  Following my S.M.A.K. experience I came across a book on the library shelves, The Art Instinct by Dennis Dutton, which provides a fascinating answer.  Surveys taken around the world to discover what features people most like to see in a painting found that, across all cultures, the most popular painting is a landscape with trees, an open vista, and some water, a river, lake or stream.  Dutton argues that this preference is an instinct dating back millennia to our hominid ancestors, because it precisely describes the most favorable habitat for early man.  The ideal painting includes plants and animals to provide food, and Americans add another element: they like to see a Founding Father standing somewhere in the landscape!  Using the results of the surveys Russian artists Komar and Melamid painted a series of Most Wanted Paintings for various cultures.  Here is America’s Most Wanted, with George Washington surveying the ideal terrain:


On my next visit to Ghent I decided to give S.M.A.K. a pass – it was back to Sint Baaf’s Kathedraal to see the Van Eyck altarpiece once more.  In the eye of this beholder it has no peer.  But on my dining room wall hangs proof that I am firmly in the popular tradition of our hominid ancestors, a reproduction of a Constable landscape.  Vista – check, trees – check, water – check, animal food source – check.  Grazing cows, very much alive, in one piece, and not suspended in formaldehyde!

Rita Byrne Tull is an ex-pat librarian who lives in Maryland.

Fancy lunch?

Food, glorious food www.ShopCurious.com

Solo Twister, fried chicken and good old heterosexual tactility in Susan’s diary this week…

‘Rebecca – 3 miles away’ keeps popping up on my computer screen, looking for a date – I’m just trying to work out why. I understand that men have occasionally been known to feel attracted to women. I’m not sure I’d fancy Lord Rennard playing footsie with me, though I may well be flattered by the attention. Pervs and misogynists aside, what’s wrong with a bit of good old heterosexual tactility?

Some years ago, at a lunch at the House of Lords, I was persistently kicked under the table by my host. The first nudge of brogue-toed shoe against stockinged shin was somewhat soup-spluttering – but I was soon battling to restrain giggles, whilst conducting a serious conversation with a totally straight-faced Japanese businessman. It reminded me of being back at school.


As did the huge lunch I had the other day at a pub called The Crabtree (in the same street as the River Café, where for a huge amount of money I could have enjoyed a more minimalist and certainly much tastier meal). I was with a girlfriend who lives around three miles away (no, not Rebecca).  My friend really should write a blog, as she’s quite an authority on food issues – or at least issues she has with food. She informed me that Waitrose use halal lamb in their readymade meals, without ever mentioning so on the packaging. She also volunteers at a food bank run by a charity. People on benefits are given vouchers they can use there. One chap came in his car to collect two weeks’ worth of food. Another woman with Afro hair extensions and elaborately manicured nails was annoyed that they’d run out of disposable nappies for her three year old.


Meantime, according to The Mirror, more than 7000 adults in Britain are being paid sickness benefits because they are too fat to work. The taxpayers’ bill for their welfare payments came to £28 billion last year. Last week a leading doctor suggested that obese children should be offered stomach surgery.  Having been a chubby child myself (with all the associated bullying) I feel well qualified to comment on this subject. My own obesity was largely due to pure greed – though my parents’ attempt to love me to death may also have been a contributory factor.

And my response to endless taunts of ‘fatso’ was to become a fitness fanatic. My weekly exercise regime now includes two bouts of pure torture – one, branded as bootcamp pilates, uses something called a ‘reformer’ machine to stretch the body into submission; the other, a dynamic yoga class, is strictly for die-hard (as well they might) yoga enthusiasts. Last week, I received an intriguing email from the House of Yoga, inviting me to a ‘flying into arm balancing workshop.’ Having recently had a cortisone injection in one shoulder, I wasn’t tempted, though it looks rather fun – a bit like playing Twister… by yourself. I just hope state funding is still available to replace multiple joints in my body when that time indubitably comes.

A healthy dose of of constructive criticism may help more of us get off our fat arses. Parents should be educated on what constitutes wholesome food and sensible portion sizes –  and it would also help if school exercise sessions were regular, and fun. How about Zumba-style dance classes and aqua aerobics? Or making exercise a daily ritual, like they do in China? Plus, compulsory home economics lessons for all. And no more glorification of chicken nuggets, please…

I managed half of the day-in-a-life of a chicken shop show the other day before switching off. As much as I wanted to cosy up to the media world’s average man on the street, I just couldn’t. I grew up eating fried chicken and chips, but soon learned better. In view of the surfeit of Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall et al on television, I’m surprised anyone is inclined to eat fast food. Is it ridiculous to suggest that horsemeat should be used to feed the poor? It’s surely more nutritious and less fattening than fried chicken?


That being said, the Victorian poor lived on basic fats and carbs – bread, dripping, potatoes, beer and tea – but were rarely fat. And wealthy Victorians consumed gargantuan amounts of food by today’s standards, yet many lived to a ripe old age – probably with very little exercise at all.  As for hygiene standards, hedgehogs were sometimes kept in Victorian kitchens to eat insects. A dirty house was seen to produce dishonest people. I discovered this on a visit to the Charles Dickens Museum – a great place to go if you’re in central London with an hour to spare… or a bit longer, if you want to indulge in tea and cake in the adjoining café.

I enjoyed being temporarily transported back to 1837, but seeing the Dickens’ kitchen, scullery and wash house helped me appreciate the modern day luxuries we so often take for granted… In a bid to avoid the invariable grocery substitutions, I finally managed to go food shopping this week, instead of ordering online. But I opted for the convenience of home delivery – so bags of spinach arrived looking as though they’d been ironed – and Greek basil (above), as if it had been used to test aircraft engines.

Susan Muncey is a trend forecaster, blogger and founder of online curiosity shop, ShopCurious.com.

Spinning Around – Life on Glasgow’s Clockwork Orange subway

Glasgow City2

Exclusively for The Dabbler, writer Karen Campbell takes us on a trip on Glasgow’s unique underground railway…

Getting around Glasgow – Scotland’s biggest city – can be a delight on sunny days, as you stroll by the city’s seventy-odd parks, glittering shops and sandstone boulevards; it can be an assault course on a rainy Saturday evening, vying with clubbers, pubbers and all-round nutters to scramble on the nightbus; or it can be a self-contained, circular, slightly spiritual experience – if you board the Clockwork Orange.

Hailed as the world’s third underground railway (after London and Budapest), the much-loved Glasgow subway opened in 1896, on two adjacent circular lines – which accounts for the clockwork bit. But it didn’t earn the ‘orange’ moniker until the seventies, when all the trains assumed the bright citrus livery of the local transport authority. Aged ten, I have a vivid memory of my dad taking me for a ‘hurl’ on the subway before it closed for this big refurbishment. (Please note – a hurl is Glaswegian for a ride; my father did not plan to chuck me from a moving vehicle. ) I remember the weird notion of a staircase taking me underneath the pavement, like something from the  Enid Blyton adventures I had just discovered. I remember my city above my head,  leather seats and wooden floors. But , as I stood by the mouth of the tunnel – don’t put your toes over the edge ! – the thing I remember most is the smell: damp-earth and strange; a funnelled wind blowing up from distant places. Places I wanted to go.

Cheerful and chubby, the trains of the Clockwork Orange are an essential artery for Glaswegians, running on a six mile loop that extends north and south of that other vital vein– The River Clyde. That six-mile loop has taken me to the bijoux boutiques and record stores of trendy Byres Road; once (and believe me, once was enough) to the football at Ibrox with my Rangers-daft grandpa; to hidden gems like the Mackintosh school-turned-museum in Scotland Street; to university in the days before computers where I literally  ‘cut and pasted’ an essay with scissors and Pritt-stick, sitting on the shoogly Clockwork Orange and praying I’d make it by the twelve noon deadline. The Clockwork Orange has nursed my heartbreak on a long, spinning, meditative afternoon, where I curled up and did the full circuit until my tears became sniffles, then sighs, then resolve. Better off with out him said the thrumming of the rails. And they were right.

clockwork orange 1

That’s the thing about the Clockwork Orange: climb on, and switch right off. Buy your ticket and you can sit there all afternoon. Unlike the clever, gridded interweavings of other transport systems, there’s only one way you can go on Glasgow’s subway – round. There are no ‘zones’ or termini: stay on long enough and you’ll come right back to the start. Which makes  it perfect for people-watching, or day-dreaming. Or not getting lost. When I wrote my recent novel ‘This is Where I Am’, about a Somali refugee trying to carve out a life in Glasgow, I thought a lot about how we navigate our cities. For the local, it’s all short-cuts and bus-hopping. For the stranger; you want signposts and safety. You do not want to be lost: which made the Clockwork Orange a perfect way for my hero Abdi to get about. Keen to get the detail right, and no longer living in Glasgow, I made a pilgrimage back to the subway;  I  went with my daughter,  only to find it’s undergoing yet another refurbishment. We step inside.  Bright white tiles, state-of-the-art ticket machines, and escalators sweeping you down. Standing there again, on the platform.  Admiring the view, all different, gleaming, slick; but hoping that they haven’t changed the trains.  We wait in the white-tiled tube,  the city above our heads. There is a slow shift to the density of air inside, the noise building, the distant rumble becoming a roar; here it comes – don’t put your toes over the edge – snub-nose emerging from the tunnel, snuffling: ORANGE! Yes, still orange, and the smell…the smell, thankfully,  is exactly the same. As is the only way you can go.

Full circle.

Glasgow City

Karen Campbell’s new book This is Where I Am is published by Bloomsbury Circus — £12.99

Non-Rotten Rock n’ Roll Side Projects


Are rock side-projects always self-indulgent rubbish? Not necessarily, says Daniel Kalder, who can think of four non-rotten ones…

Ah, the rock n’ roll side project: in any long career it’s difficult for a rock star to resist the temptation to indulge. Weary of their official identities, worn out by fan expectations, they seek in a change of name or collaborators a reinvigoration of the creative juices.  So yes: while Mick Jagger’s Superheavy was indeed pretty rotten, it is easy to understand why he joined up with Dave Stewart, Joss Stone, one of the Marleys and that chap from Slumdog Millionaire.


So too we can understand why U2 briefly dabbled with the idea of being Brian Eno’s backing band under the name Passengers, why David Bowie became Tin Machine and why Paul McCartney fiddles about with synthesizers as The Fireman (highly recommended by Ozzy Osbourne in his autobiography). Those among us who know he exists may even sympathize with country singer Hank Williams III, who at one time moonlighted as bass guitarist in Phil Anselmo’s heavy metal band Superjoint Ritual.

But we probably wouldn’t want to listen to too much of that stuff.  And yet is the rock side project always so unnecessary? No. In fact, pop pickers, I can think of at least four that I enjoy.


Let’s start with Thom Yorke’s 2006 solo album The Eraser. Clearly wanting to pursue more of the mildly experimental electronic sounds of Radiohead’s Kid A, Yorke temporarily stepped away from his day job so that he could be free to indulge his interest in glitchy beats, fragile fuzzy synth noises, and paranoia. I have vague recollections of Paul Morley mumbling a withering comparison to the likes of Aphex Twin and Squarepusher, but Yorke’s album resembles the work of neither artist, however much he may enjoy their music.

These are still songs, but shaded by Yorke’s taste for sounds more radical than his own – just as Bowie’s Low sounds nothing at all like Kraftwerk or the hyper-experimental Cluster, both of which Teutonic outfits he reportedly drew inspiration from. Anyway, I like The Eraser more than most of Radiohead’s output and still play it fairly regularly. Here’s the main single from the album, which was inspired by David Kelly, the government scientist who killed himself after appearing before the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee in 2003:


In 1997 Nick Cave released an album of sombre piano ballads, The Boatman’s Call, instantly propelling him from his status as a junkie nutcase singing about murder to serious, fairly literary singer songwriter. The Guardian started camping out in his doorstep and he has never quite recovered. In 2006 however Cave stepped away from his band The Bad Seeds to form Grinderman, a group consisting exclusively of members of The Bad Seeds, only not all of them.  In spite of this, Grinderman was a distinct beast as the songs were not through-composed by Cave in his office (his usual m.o.) but rather the result of lengthy group jams in the studio with Cave playing guitar instead of piano, and improvising lyrics.

Grinderman 2 is better than Grinderman 1, and both records are better than the mystifyingly overrated Bad Seeds record Dig Lazarus Dig! Meanwhile if you took all the best songs from both records and added them together you would have ¾ of an excellent album. By and large the Grinderman sound is raucous, lascivious, profane and even a bit proggy, suggestive on the second LP of 70s German rockers Amon Duul II.  But since this is Sunday I’ve selected a more laid-back tune, The Palaces of Montezuma – one of Cave’s best songs over the last ten years, it contains the marvelous line: “The spinal cord of JFK/Wrapped in Marilyn Monroe’s negligee”.


Next we come to Mark Lanegan, onetime front man of extinct grunge rockers The Screaming Trees who has long since outgrown his musical roots. Lanegan’s career is tricky to chart as it consists primarily of side projects. He started Continue reading

Rocket Mail

regulus missile
These days with our lightening fast internet connections it’s easy to forget how people were always thinking of ways to shift their envelopes around the place that little bit faster, and what could be faster than blasting it into orbit in an enormous rocket?

Rocket mail has been attempted by various organizations in many different countries, with varying levels of success. Sadly it has never become a viable option for delivering mail, due to the cost of the schemes and numerous failures.

Freidrich Schmeidel launched the first rocket mail with 102 pieces of mail between two neighbouring villages in Austria. Specially printed postcards marked in German with “Flown in Instrument Rocket” bear stamps from the flights. Another teuton, Gerhard Zucker, experimented in the 1930s with simple powder rockets similar to fireworks. After moving to Britain, Zucker attempted to convince the General Post Office that postal delivery by rocket was viable. After initial demonstrations on the Sussex Downs in southern England, rockets were launched on 28 and 31 July 1934 over a 1600-metre flight path between the Hebridean islands of Harris and Scarp. Around 1.07 m long with a diameter of 18 cm, the fuselage was packed with 1,200 envelopes. Unfortunately for Zucker both rockets exploded, though most of the smaller second cargo, which included survivors of the first, was saved.

The first successful delivery of mail by a rocket in the United States was made on 23 February 1936, when two rockets that were launched from the New Jersey shore landed on the New York shore, some 300 metres away. Previously there had been some less successful attempts…


In 1959 the US Submarine, USS Barbero assisted the Post Office in its search for faster mail transportation with their first and only delivery of “Missile Mail”. On 8 June 1959, Barbero fired a Regulus cruise missile (as shown in the top picture)— the nuclear warhead having earlier been replaced by two Post Office Department mail containers — at the Naval Auxiliary Air Station in Mayport, Florida. Twenty-two minutes later, the missile struck its target.

The USPS had officially declared Barbero a branch post office, and delivered some 3000 pieces of mail to it before Barbero left Norfolk, Virginia. The mail consisted entirely of commemorative first day covers addressed to President Eisenhower, other government officials, the Postmasters General of all members of the Universal Postal Union, and so on. Their postage (four cents domestic, eight cents international) had been stamped “USS Barbero Jun 8 9.30am 1959″ before the boat put to sea. In Mayport, the smouldering Regulus was opened and the mail forwarded to the post office in Jacksonville, for sorting and routing.


Upon witnessing the missile’s landing, Summerfield, the Postmaster General proclaimed the event to be “of historic significance to the peoples of the entire world”, and predicted that “before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”

In reality the Department of Defense saw the launch more as a demonstration of U.S. missile capabilities. To this day, most experts believe that the cost of using missile mail could never be justified.

However, some Technologists like Robert Zubrin, of Mars Society fame, think that rocket mail, or at least ultra-elite business package delivery may become commercially viable with the development of fully reusable rocket systems, particularly single-stage to orbit vehicles. Such systems would allow package delivery anywhere in the world in 30–45 minutes. 

The collection of stamps and envelopes used for rocket mail, including envelopes sent to space, is a specialist, and rather obscure, branch of aerophilately known as astrophilately.


It’s Raining

February and it’s still raining.

It’s raining, it’s pouring,
The old man is snoring,
He went to bed and bumped his head
And couldn’t get up in the morning.

As someone said, my favourite rhyme about a lonely old person dying in their bed in a storm. Like much else in the nursery repertoire, a strange thing to encourage one’s children to learn by heart.

Mind you, the rainy winter we’re currently enduring is enough to make you want to bump your head. I like to think I suffer from a touch of SAD and it’s particularly bad this winter, in contrast to the last one when we enjoyed lots of sunny weekends (and a drought, remember?). This being the case I’m looking for consolation and found some in this evocative poem by Ivor Gurney:

Soft Rain Beats Upon My Windows

Soft rain beats upon my windows
Hardly hammering
But by the great gusts guessed further off
Up by the bare moor and brambly headland
Heaven and earth make war

That savage toss of the pine boughs past music
And that roar of the elms…
Here come, in the candle light, soft reminder
Of poetry’s truth, while rain beats as softly here
As sleep, or shelter of farms

This seems to me to be a very fine evocation of a time, place and mood, and in sound as much as sense: I like the sibilance and aspirations, the lack of punctuation which flattens and opens out, the mystical ending.

Poor Gurney needed consolation more than most of us, this work being written in the asylum in which he spent the last fifteen years of his life. A talented composer and poet, an innate instability led to a series of breakdowns and ultimately insanity; the process most likely being hurried along by a failed love affair and the trauma of the WWI trenches.

He’s often bracketed with Edward Thomas, another pastoral poet whose appreciation of his native countryside was made more acute by his time at the front. Here’s one of his, inspired by the same meteorological effect:


Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

Roll on Spring!

Crazy Horses

Frank reveals the true story behind the origins of the Osmonds’ (horse)meatiest song…

Those of us old enough to recall the days when the Osmonds were titans of pop have probably blocked from our memories most of the mawkish drivel with which they assaulted the charts. One song, however, remains indelibly lodged in our brains. I speak of course of Crazy Horses, an unhinged classic unlike anything else they ever recorded. The circumstances of its composition make for an intriguing story, the details of which I have been able to exhume through a process which I am afraid I really should not tell you about.

It is New Year’s Day 1972. In the White House, President Nixon is having breakfast with the First Lady, the saintly Pat. In New York, the ex-Nazi officer Kurt Waldheim is preparing to take the reins of the United Nations, succeeding U Thant as the new Secretary General. Also in New York, a gang of half a dozen ne’er-do-wells is making final preparations for the Pierre Hotel Heist, which will net them approximately four million dollars from the hotel’s safety deposit boxes. Across the Atlantic Ocean, in Paris, the capital city of France, the entertainer Maurice Chevalier is facing his last hours. He will not see the morrow.

Meanwhile, at the Osmond family homestead, the Osmond family is gathered around in a conclave. Pa and Ma Osmond are sitting at either end of the table. On one side sit Alan, 22, Wayne, 20, and Merrill, 18. Facing them on the other side are Jay, 16, Donny, 14, and Marie, 12. The runt of the litter, Little Jimmy, 8, is squashed in at a corner between Marie and Ma Osmond. All the males are wearing their Mormon underpants, as you would expect. Pa Osmond has just finished reciting aloud a sensible and inspiring passage from The Book Of Mormon. The mood around the table is equally sensible and inspiring, yet also solemn.

“Well titans of pop,” says Pa Osmond, “What are your plans for today?”

Alan pipes up.

“Well sir, I was thinking it would be fun if I took Wayne and Merrill and Jay and Donny and Marie and Little Jimmy over to the paddock.”

“What is this paddock of which you speak, son?” asks Pa.

“Well sir, I have heard tell that over beyond the salt flats past the temple there is a paddock. It might be fun for us to go and investigate, to see what the paddockist keeps in his paddock.”

Pa Osmond rubs his chin thoughtfully.

“This paddockist, who is he?”

“That I don’t rightly know, sir,” says Alan, blushing slightly, “But perhaps while Wayne and Merrill and Jay and I look into the paddock, Donny and Marie and Little Jimmy can question the paddockist as to his bona fides.”

At this, Ma Osmond interjects.

“I would have thought it more appropriate that you older boys interrogate the paddockist and let the younger ones frolic in the paddock.”

“If you say so, Ma,” says Alan.

Pa Osmond thumps his fist on the table.

“No,” he says, like the forceful patriarch he is, “You should all interrogate the paddockist together, each firing at him one judicious question chosen to winkle out of him his bona fides. Then you can all go to the paddock together, to see what is in there.”

“Yes sir!” says Alan.

But Ma Osmond throws a spanner in the works.

“I like the plan as far as it goes,” she says, “But what if, upon their arrival, Alan and Wayne and Merrill and Jay and Donny and Marie and Little Jimmy find that the paddockist is already in the paddock? Then they will not be able to separate out the questioning from the seeing. And I would aver that he is very likely to be in the paddock. If I had a paddock out beyond the salt flats past the temple, that’s where I would be, and no mistake.”

“Good point, Ma,” says Pa Osmond, “This is something of a pickle.”

“I have an idea,” says Alan, his brow furrowing as he thinks, “What if… what if we lured the paddockist out of the paddock? Then we could fire our questions at him, establish his bona fides, and, having done so, we could enter the paddock to see what he keeps in it.”

Ma and Pa Osmond look at each other from either end of the table. Long years of Mormon marriage mean they are able to communicate without speaking. Gazing into each other’s eyes, they agree that Alan’s suggestion is flawless.

“Off you go then,” says Pa, “And we shall gather in conclave around this table upon your return, so you can tell Ma and I who the paddockist is and what is in his paddock.”

Later that evening, the Osmonds regather just as Pa decreed. This time Little Jimmy sits scrunched in a corner between Pa and Jay. All the males are still wearing their Mormon underpants, as you would expect.

“Tell me first of the paddockist’s bona fides,” says Pa.

“Well sir,” says Alan, “On our way to the paddock out beyond the salt flats past the temple we devised the questions we would ask the paddockist. Shall we run through them, each asking his, or in Marie’s case, her, question?”

“I think that would be a fine idea,” says Pa. Ma nods her assent too.

“OK, me first then,” says Alan, “Hello there, paddockist, what is your name?”

“Are you a Mormon?” says Wayne.

“Are you aware we are titans of pop?” says Merrill.

“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” says Jay.

“What brings you to these parts, stranger?” says Donny.

“Are you mad and bad and dangerous to know?” says Marie.

“What is that unholy and terrifying whinnying and snorting we can hear from within the paddock?” says Little Jimmy.

“A well-chosen set of questions designed to elicit replies sure to establish his bona fides,” says Pa Osmond, “What were those replies?”

“We could not hear them sir,” says Alan, “For he was a soft-spoken paddockist and was drowned out by the unholy and terrifying whinnying and snorting we could hear from within the paddock.”

“And did you enter the paddock to find out what it was that was making such a deafening din” asks Ma Osmond.

“No, Ma,” says Alan, “We ran away as fast as our feet could carry us.”

“All well and good,” says Pa, “Well, that’s New Year’s Day over and done with. It is bedtime. Don’t forget to include President Nixon and the saintly Pat in your prayers.”

And the Osmonds troop upstairs one by one to bed. And in the night, while Ma and Pa sleep soundly, Alan and Wayne and Merrill and Jay and Donny and Marie and Little Jimmy toss and turn in the grip of terrible dreams, dreams that will surely do cataclysmic and irreparable damage to their fragile young psyches . . . unless, when they wake the next morning, they can parlay those terrors into a pop song.

‘And Only Man Is Vile’ – Review: The Twyning by Terence Blacker


Jonathon reviews Terence Blacker’s new novel – and contemplates the role of rats in fiction…

These are the primary stereotypes with which slang burdens the rat. All are negative, none may be observed in the actual animal. They are, as should be apparent, the characteristics of human beings. Those, in every case, are all too well attested. An unpleasant person; a person who changes allegiance out of self-interest;  an informer; a worker who undercuts standards established by unionized labour; a cunning, deceitful person; a prison thief; an incompetent. The quittance of sinking ships is overlooked but slang is ever-practical and why should any sentient being not wish to save its life from danger. The Black Death does not lend itself to slang equivalencies but we all know about ‘you dirty rat’. Nor does the list include parity with the Jews, but the Nazis reveled in the identification and acted towards their victims as humanity has invariably acted towards rats: with both calculated and hysterical barbarity.  Barbarity but not ‘inhumanity’: such actions seem to me to epitomize humanity in relation to those it fears, too often unjustifiably, and thus hates, with that particular cruelty born of terror.

I have no idea whether Terence Blacker, whose book The Twyning tells the story of a needless, vicious, politically motivated war of extermination carried out by humans upon rats, embraces the full extent of my pessimism – the war is lost and the ending thus relatively ‘happy’ – but these are the thoughts that his book promotes in me. Nor am I quite sure at whom his tale is aimed. The story of two rats – one who for a while becomes marginal to his strictly ordered community, the other a pet rat, a ‘fragile’ in Blacker’s terminology – and two young humans, equally marginal, equally fragile, set against a world that suggests Dickensian London – seems to elude classification as that publisher’s confection, the ‘young adult novel’, but is neither children’s story nor wholly adult, other, perhaps, in the grimness of its themes.  It is touted as the rodents’ equivalent to Watership Down but I failed to embrace that flopsy  fantasy, while Mr Blacker’s book reduced me at times to anger, to horror, even to tears, and, in its climax, to elation.

Even including the work of James Herbert, and I offer no animus, the rat does not bulk large in fiction. The usual trope is slang’s: wholly negative, typically the rats of Orwell’s Room 101 in 1984. Poe uses them as rescuers in ‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’ but they are not heroic, merely hungry. And while the Jews are portrayed as mice in Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the Poles are drawn, less sympathetically, as rats.

On the positive side there is Beatrix Potter’s Roly Poly Pudding, in which Samuel Whiskers and his wife Anna Maria traumatize the hapless Tom Kitten, though some, myself included, might suggest that reforming a bullying feline is no bad thing. The book is dedicated to Mrs Potter’s own ‘sammy. The intelligent pink-eyed Representative of a Persecuted (but Irrespressible) Race!’ And there is Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents. This, of course, is set in Discworld and is based on magic. The plot is not wholly dissimilar: rats v. humans, but then no surprises there. To his fans – I am one – Mr P. is possibly a genius; let us leave it at that. Like the Educated Rodents Mr. B’s rats, in their home in the Great Hollow, have the power of speech, or rather ‘revealing’, a form of telepathy which can stretch to fortunate humans. Mr Blacker has observed or perhaps read up rats and some of their characteristics are those that have been recorded. They are hierarchical, as rats are, but their councils, tribes and King are inventions. Efrem, our philosophical hero, is eventually offered the Kingship, but as a thinker rejects it in favour of a warrior. In the end, having inspired his community to win a war that they did not choose, he opts for domesticity alongside his ‘fragile’ partner Malaika. The Twyning itself is better known, and found in nature, as a rat king, whereby a number of the animals’ tails merge together and result in a multi-headed, multi-bodied entity.

The Pratchett humans vary as to type, they are far from universally unsympathetic and generally more fools than knaves. They are biddable and bidden. The Twyning is less forgiving: other than the young duo, barely any humans are not venal, self-promoting, prone to the empty fanaticism of moral panics or gleeful devotees of some degree of cruelty, whether as vivisector, rat-hunter or ‘sportsman’. As Mr Blacker writes, ‘While [humans] remain in this world, no other living creature is safe’ and notes that ‘The need to terrify is part of their natures.’ This is sad and shaming and I shy from the condemnation: I may be a rat de bibliotheque but I am in the end a human. Still, I would suggest that it is also true. Paradoxically the two exceptions are themselves a rat-catcher, who like some of those whose job is to kill ‘beasts’ still understands their virtues, and a publican who initially hosts the now outlawed ‘sport’ of ratting, whereby groups of rats were pitted against a succession of dogs. The winner was that dog who massacred his targets in the shortest time. The rats, like the victims of human genocide, were not offered an alternative to death.

Where Messrs Blacker and Pratchett meet again is in what must be termed the moral of each tale: that rats and humans, however grudgingly, have to live together and had better work something out. If for a moment we had forgotten that we are in a world of fiction, then surely this is the reminder. The practice is that rats and humans do indeed live parallel, even symbiotic lives; the theory remains the opposite. The rat has drawn the short straw. It may be clean, intelligent, its does good mothers, its relations to humans, at least when companions, loving, but none of this is acknowledged. The rat is an enemy and treated as such.

The reviewer should be neutral. I fear I am not. I have lived with rats, albeit ‘fragiles’, and one of these I mourn every day. So The Twyning works for me – how could it not – and I revel in its intelligence and empathy even if I regret the role played by my own species. Mr Blacker gets the tail and whiskers. And I mean that in the best possible way.

image ©Gabriel Green
You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.

Ever Decreasing Circles, cricket and quiet English despair

Richard Briers died on Monday. By way of a tribute, here is a repeat of Jon Hotten’s post about an episode of Ever Decreasing Circles and its “quiet, unacknowledged and deep-running despair”, which features, naturally enough, a game of cricket…

You might remember Ever Decreasing Circles, a British – make that English, because it could only be English – sitcom of the early 1980s, the fading final years of a genre that quite often looked at notions of class and aspiration and then gently took the piss out of them.

Ever Decreasing Circles, like Terry and June, The Good Life, Brush Strokes, Keeping Up Appearances and several others, featured the nascent middle classes, dwellers in the cul-de-sacs of the 70s boom-burbs; commuters, middle managers, golf club members, with their dreams of conservatories and souffles and the company dinner-dance. These pretensions were easily speared, but not often as darkly as they were in Ever Decreasing Circles.

It’s contextual, of course: the show is a thing of its time, written by John Esmonde not Chris Morris, but there’s a quiet, unacknowledged and deep-running despair to it that in retrospect seems quite daring. Richard Briers plays Martin, a pedantic, obsessive-compulsive valve salesman with a photocopier in his garage and moral code as inflexible as a periodic table. In 2012, he would reside somewhere on the autism spectrum; back then he was just funny, and not unrepresentative. Most people knew someone like him.

His neighbours were Howard and Hilda, a couple that seem weirder now than they ever did then, a middle-aged, guileless pair who wore matching jumpers and thought the same thoughts at the same time. In 2012 they would have been hounded to death by Jeremy Kyle kids or under the care of social services. The jeopardy came from Paul, a new arrival in the close who was handsome, urbane, funny, good at everything, and – most shockingly of all – the owner of a successful hair salon. Martin loathed Paul of course, not just for who he was, but for what he represented. There was a darker subtext, too. Martin’s wife obviously fancied Paul, to which Martin was oblivious (thus making any hint of betrayal all the more devastating).

Ennui, boredom, acceptance, resentment, disillusionment, loyalty – it was all there, just alluded to rather than highlighted. The other day I stumbled on an episode, in three parts, on Youtube (above, and continued below). It’s a about a cricket match. The set-up is classic; like all sitcoms, it telegraphs its ending while allowing it to be savoured. Martin is the team’s skipper. He has run the side for Continue reading