Wazzock Of The Week

thatchblair

If anyone needed a contemporary illustration of Philip Larkin’s famous ode to parenthood – “they fuck you up, your mum and dad” – then you probably need to look no further than Rob Gledhill, a Tory councillor in the Essex borough of Thurrock.

Having been delivered of a sprog by his partner, he has only gone and saddled the poor boy with the moniker Thatcher Stephen Maguire, in honour of Essex man’s favourite politician. I pity the poor lad.

Still, it could have been worse. There are a fair number of Kosovan Albanians bearing the name Tonibler in honour of the former Labour PM who received hero status out there for encouraging NATO to intervene in the Balkans. Or Gledhill could have followed rapper Chief Keef who named his son after his record label to promote a new album. I doubt Sno Filmon Dot Com Cozart was any catchier than the track.

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Word Of The Week

trump

For logophiles Tuesday was the landmark day when the word wazzock entered the illustrious pages of Hansard, that verbatim record of parliamentary debate.

The subject being debated was whether to ban the Presidential candidate Donald Trump, he of the astonishing hair, from these shores. The MP for Louth and Horncastle, Victoria Atkins, conjectured that some of her Lincolnshire constituents might describe him as a wazzock. Too right.

Despite its bucolic sound – it is the sort of word you might find sprinkled in a Rambling Sid Rumpo ditty – the first recorded use of the term, defined by the Oxford English dictionary as a stupid and annoying person, is attributed to the folk singer, Mike Harding, who used it in his 1976 One Man Show.

Tony Capstick also used it to great effect in 1981, “you great useless spawny-eyed parrot-faced wazzock”.

Donald down to a T, I would say.

Tales From The Nursery – Part Thirty One

220px-Ring-a-round-a_rosesSmith

Ring A Ring O’Roses

There are a number of variants to this familiar nursery rhyme which was not published (in Kate Greenaway’s Mother Goose) until 1881. The version that English readers will be familiar with goes as follows, “Ring-a-ring o’roses/ a pocket full of posies/ A-tishoo! A-tishoo!/ We all fall down”. A common American version replaces the last two lines with “Ashes! Ashes! / We all fall down” and another, which dates from around 1790 in Massachusetts, went “Ring a ring a Rosie/ A bottle full of posie/ All the girls in our town/ Ring for little Josie”.

But the rhyme is not restricted to English-speaking countries. A very similar one was published in Germany in 1796 where three children sit under an elder bush and going hush, hush, hush (Ringel, ringel, reihe). There is a Swiss version where the children dance around a rose bush and in Venice, the rhyme gira, gira rosa features a game where girls dance round a girl standing in the middle of the circle who skips and curtsies as demanded by the narrative until the end when she kisses her favourite who then has to stand in the centre.

The game which is most closely associated with the English variant has a group of children forming a circle by holding hands As the rhyme demands they then mimic the act of sneezing and all fall down.  The Old Homestead, a novel by Ann S Stephens published in 1855, describes a game of Ring, ring a rosy played by children in New York. So the game, and probably the rhyme, is far older than its first English citing.

So what is it all about? Before I started looking into the subject I had assumed that it had something to do with disease, either the Great Plague of 1665 or, perhaps, the bubonic plague. Some have argued that the rosy rash was a symptom of the plague and that bunches of herbs were carried as posies to ward off the disease and protect against the smell of putrefying flesh. Of course, sneezing could be one of the symptoms of disease and the act of falling down could represent the death of the victim. At first sight, this explanation is very plausible. The ashes variant could refer to the either the burning of victims or the blackening of the skin as another symptom.

But there are a number of reasons to believe that this isn’t the real origin of the rhyme. Firstly, there are other variants of the rhyme which, together with the actions of the dance which accompanies it, suggests that the fall was not a literal fall but rather akin to a curtsey or some other form of acknowledgement. The European variants of the rhyme also suggest that the English version is not necessarily the original. The Great Plague of 1665 was a variant of the bubonic plague and the key symptoms were swellings of the lymph glands and vomiting and fever – not sneezing.

But the killer argument against this interpretation is that the plague theories have only appeared pretty much after the Second World War. Earlier attempts to explain the rhyme did not draw the connection. What we have, I believe, is a rhyme which describes a folk custom of dancing around a bush with accompanying actions and a conclusion which adds a dramatic end to the game or, as in the Venetian variant, a means whereby the next person to stand in the centre of the circle can be selected. Attractive as it may be I think we can consign the plague theory to the bin of rustic myths.

Change The Record – Part Two

acr

The vinyl records have now been sorted into alphabetical order and the cataloguing has begun. I have concocted a spreadsheet into which I am entering the name of the artist, the album, the record label, the year of recording and whether it is mine or TOWT’s and allocating each a unique reference number which will be used to store them and facilitate their retrieval. That’s the theory, anyway.

I have adopted only two rules in cataloguing, aside from the obvious one of observing strict alphabetical order, the principal one being that there is no definite article. So The Who are filed under W.  Perhaps more controversially, solo artists are filed under their first names. So Bob Dylan is filed under B. There was a long and lengthy discussion on this point but I was overruled!

Starting with A I came across two long lost gems in my collection. If I was pressed against the wall or had one of those Desert Island Disc moments and was asked who my favourite group was I would probably have to say Joy Division. At the time – we are talking about 1979 to 1982 – I was besotted by the sounds coming out of Factory records. Following Ian Curtis’ untimely and tragic demise and New Order emerging to pick up the pieces there was a bit of a hole in Factory’s armoury and a group of lads from Wythenshawe called A Certain Ratio manfully tried to fill the breach. Their name came from the lyrics of a 1974 Brian Eno track, The True Wheel.

When I got their albums out of the storage box I was a bit fearful. The cover to their first album, To Each, released in 1981, was a bit bent and warped. Clearly the pressure that it had been under over the years was above a certain ratio but, mercifully, the vinyl played without any problems. The hallmark Factory sound is there – thumping bass and distant, almost monotone, vocals but the funkier edge to their sound and in particular the trumpet seem to get lost in the mix. To my current tastes it led to an unsatisfactory listening experience.

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By the following year some of the balance issues of the band had been sorted out and Sextet, with its beautiful picture of a sunset sky, is a more satisfying album. It is still not an easy listen and has an even bleaker feel to it than the earlier release. But at least there is a more discernible funky feel to it interspersed with atonal piano and dissonant trumpet and vocals which seem to be struggling to keep up with the pace of it all. Undoubtedly, the stand out track is the two-chord seven and half minute wonder that is Knife Slits Water. It was good to give the album another spin but, God, I must have been depressed in those days!

defunkt

After that there was a dire need for some uplifting music. Now funk isn’t really my thing but I always had a soft spot for Defunkt’s Thermonuclear Sweat, their 1982 release for Hannibal records. The album’s title is apposite and they cook up a storm, their style being a mix of James Brown style funk and more conventional jazz riffs. The opening track, Illusion, was always my favourite with some stunning solo interplays between brass and guitar but listening again some thirty odd years after the second track, I Tried To Live Alone, really stood out and kicked some ass. The pace was such that it was a relief to move directly on to the more overtly jazz piece, Cocktail Hour (Blue Bossa). To add to my pleasure in rediscovering this album I found it was worth quite some money.

Book Corner – January 2016 (2)

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Greenmantle – John Buchan

It is astonishing how a book so resonant of its own time can still touch on issues pertinent today. Greenmantle, first published in 1916, is the second, and to my mine, the best of the five novels featuring the derring-do of Richard Hannay. Set in November 1915 the British have caught wind that the Germans with their Turkish allies are plotting to set the Moslem world aflame by creating a messiah-like figure (Greenmantle) who will unite them all in a holy jihad against the Brits. With just three clues, Karedin, cancer and v.1, Hannay and his three chums set out to foil them.

As a boy of around 10 and 11 I devoured books like this, surviving on a diet of Buchan and Captain W E Johns of Biggles fame. It was a full fat diet of jingoistic imperialistic fiction in which the plucky Brits overcame incredible odds to defeat the dastardly enemy and defend or expand its empire to the eternal gratitude of the indigenous peoples. Of course, I am slightly more mature now and have come to realise that this was all propaganda and that, unbelievably, many of the foreign Johnnies didn’t take too kindly to being under the British imperial yoke.

What this type of book did teach me, though, was to appreciate good writing and the ability to craft a fast moving plot, features which are very evident in Greenmantle. It is rollicking story which starts slowly with a consummately masterful opening chapter which sets the scene and, rather like a steam engine, builds up pace until it is flying at the climax, the battle of Erzurum, where disaster is averted (natch). It is easy to see how I was enraptured as a boy.

One problem with the book is that it is narrated by Richard Hannay which means that one set of questions, will they get out of this hole, is eliminated straight away, leaving us with just the how questions. I suppose this is less of an issue in these books as we can be pretty confident that with the fate of the British empire resting on his shoulders that Hannay, the prototypical James Bond character, will pull through, but some dramatic tension is lost.

The book has a couple of curious features. Hannay meets the Kaiser who, surprisingly, is painted sympathetically as someone greatly troubled by the war. In such an overtly pro-British story it is astonishing that the leader of the enemy, albeit the British king’s cousin, should be featured that way. And, at long last, we get to meet Peter Pienaar in person – Pienaar was Hannay’s source of inspiration to get through his ordeals in the 39 Steps.

As you might expect with a work of this vintage and with its mission to rally our war weary spirits, you have to fight your way through a lot of clichéd stereotyping and language which would today not pass the politically correct test. The British and American characters are portrayed positively. The Germans are negative clichés; Colonel von Stumm is an ox-necked bull-like bully with effeminate tastes masked by a blustering exterior. The one woman in the story, Hilda von Einem, is a powerful, cruel woman whose independence and asexuality frightens our hero more than any man or army he has had to face. That brief analysis says much about the cultural values that inform this book.

If you can get past the racism, anti-semitism and sexism endemic in the book it is the epitome of a page-turner – Buchan described his Hannay novels as shockers – and is probably up there as the best of its kind.

The Meaning Of Life – Part Forty One Of Forty Two

birdsleep

How do birds sleep?

I must admit a certain fascination with our feathered friends. I admire their beauty, their ability to fly and their song. I’m even corned that our constant invasion of their natural habitat is reducing their numbers to critical levels. But there is much I don’t know about them including when, if and how they sleep.

A common misconception is that they all retire to their cosy nests when the sun goes down, have a bit of a chirrup and then settle down for a good night’s sleep. The principal purpose of a nest is to have somewhere to rear their young and mature birds will only sleep there if it is particularly cold and only to keep their brood warm. If you think about it you can understand why. The nest will pretty soon be full of droppings, undigested food and, perhaps, the carcass of one or more of the chicks that didn’t make it. Not the place you would want to go to to catch up on some zeds.

The principal for a bird that wants to take a nap is that they are a sitting duck for predators. For smaller birds this means that they cannot sleep on the ground as cats or other ground-based hunters will get them and they can’t sleep in branches as owls and hawks will easily get them. So their place of choice for a night’s repose is deep inside a bush which is why you can’t see them.

Some birds’ physical features dictate where they can sleep. Wading birds, ducks and the like have webbed feet which means that they cannot perch on trees or bushes. They are also slow and cumbersome taking off which means that they cannot sleep on the ground safely. Their place of choice is the water and they have evolved sensory powers to detect vibrations in the water to protect them from surprise attacks by predators.

Evolution is a wonderful thing and one of the neatest tricks birds have developed is that they can switch off one half of their brain. Our brain is in two parts conjoined by a bundle of nerves called the corpus callosum. What we see with our left eye is processed by the left side of our brain while the images from the right eye are processed by the right side. For birds it is different. The left eye sends signals to the right side of the brain and vice versa. To get a good night’s sleep they can close one eye and switch off one part of the brain. They can do this at will so if they are sleeping in a large flock, the birds in the centre will sleep with both eyes closed and their brain completely shut off whereas those in the outer reaches of the flock will sleep with one eye closed and one part of the brain switched off.

The other trick that nature has bestowed on those birds which are categorised as passerines, sparrows, warblers and the like, is special flexor tendons. When they settle on a branch the tendons lock automatically on to the branch and provided that they have bent their legs, they are locked into position securely all night.

So now we know!

I Don’t Want To Belong To Any Club That Will Accept People Like Me As A Member – Part Eighteen

hazard

Crockford’s

In the general scheme of things Crockford’s had a rather short life, opening in 1828 and closing in 1845. Its principal attraction was gambling and earned itself a reputation for raffish and raucous behaviour.

The club was established by William Crockford who started his working life at his father’s fish shop adjacent to the original site of Temple Bar. The youngster found that his skills for calculation were second to none and soon took to gambling. Over the course of a number of years he had won himself a tidy sum, estimated to be around £100,000, sufficient to commission Benjamin and Phillip Wyatt to build a gaming house at 50-53 St James Street in the heart of London’s club land. It was designed to be the city’s most opulent palace of gentlemanly pleasure and was soon the most famous gambling establishment in Europe.

According to contemporary reports it rose like a creation of Aladdin’s lamp. The genii themselves, it goes on, could not have surpassed the beauty of the internal decorations. The club house consisted of two wings and a centre, with four Corinthian columns and entablature, and a balustrade throughout. The ground floor had Venetian windows and the upper large French windows. The cuisine was of the highest class and the menu offered the opportunity to charge for extras. One member ordered red mullet which was accompanied by a delicious sauce. When presented with a bill for 2 shillings for the fish and sixpence for the sauce, the member objected leaving the exasperated chef to exclaim, “does he think they come out of the sea with the appropriate sauce in their pocket?”  There is no pleasing some.

Its success was phenomenal and in order to preserve some sense of exclusivity Crockford established it as a members’ club. Soon every English social celebrity and distinguished foreign visitor to the metropolis sought membership. Even the Duke of Wellington joined, although it is said that his principal motivation was to blackball his son’s membership if he ever had the audacity to apply.

The game of choice was a rather complicated game called hazard involving two dice. Hazard is mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales on a number of occasions, particularly in the Pardoner’s Tale and the Cook’s Tale, and so had a lengthy heritage. The game of craps is a simplified version. Essentially, it is a game that can accommodate any number of players but the key person is the caster who is the only one to have control of the dice at any one time. The caster specifies a number between 5 and 9 which is known as the main, then throws the dice and the resultant score determines whether he has won or not. The betting activity is restricted between the caster and the bank, known as the setter, who may be the other players acting as a consortium.

Crockford did well out of his establishment, whether by fair means or foul. By 1840 he was able to retire having amassed a fortune estimated to be around £1.2m. A contemporary, Captain Rees Howell Gronow, remarked that he had “won the whole of the ready money of the then existing generation”. Another contemporary reported that “he retired much as an Indian chief retires from a hunting country when there is not game enough left for his tribe, and the Club is now tottering to its fall”.

And so it came to pass.