Piles Of Trouble

clothes

OK, I admit it. I’m an unreconstructed man. A dying breed for sure but we still exist. I’m a relic from a time gone by. But hear me out.

I have mastered many of the skills expected of a man. I am great at opening doors, allowing the lady to enter first, doffing my cap and offering my seat, even to women who don’t sport those Baby On Board badges. I walk on that part of the pavement nearest the road to prevent splashes from the passing traffic from spoiling my companion’s dress, even though it is from Primark and my strides are from Boss, leaving my sword hand free to defend her honour – the streets around Blogger Towers are teeming with sword-wielding chaps looking for a duel.

I have been known to turn my hand in the kitchen, once I had discovered it five years after moving in. I am never happier than when washing up and drying the crocks – we have a dishwasher but there is something intensely satisfying about plunging your hands into brackish water containing the flotsam of a meal. Now I have more time, as well as soapsuds, on my hands I have reintroduced myself to the therapeutic joys of chopping up vegetables, peeling and scraping and, ultimately, mashing potatoes. What joy!

I am a dab hand at making teas and coffees and pouring out our evening caps of wine and gin. I was even corralled into doing a spot of decorating, a project I seem to have nodded through whilst preoccupied in reading my newspaper. It never crossed my mind that removing a 6 inch strip of wallpaper from the living and dining rooms would consume eight days of my life and subject me to the mindless idiocies of 96.4 Eagle, a radio station I never want to hear again the rest of my life. The experience reinforced my long-held belief that it is the duty of every man to sustain that endangered sub-sector, the professional tradesman.

But there are certain domestic tasks which are a mystery to me. I have never understood the need to move piles of dust from A to B temporarily via a vacuum cleaner. Indeed, I was only finally convinced that the delights of domestic bliss were for me when the strata of dust in my bachelor pad started to imperil my breathing. Nor the need to clean windows – isn’t that what we have rain for? The washing machine and tumble dryer are terrae incognitae on my particular domestic map.

And it is laundry which has convinced me that the logic of men and women are so fundamentally different that it is a wonder that we co-exist in any sort of harmony. I like to put on a clean shirt on each morning. Returning from the bathroom I blearily reach into the cupboard – a combination of the inevitable hangover and without my glasses having the optical powers that would shame a bat means that is all I can do. Inevitably, my reach is unerringly attracted to the most recently laundered shirt. Almost inevitably, this prompts the retort some time during the day, “Why are you wearing that? I have only just washed it”. To which the male response is “Well, you should have put it at the bottom of the pile”.

It is hard being an unreconstructed male.

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Book Corner – March 2016 (3)

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Undermajordomo Minor – Patrick deWitt

I had been unsure whether to get this book and then shortly after Christmas it appeared in one of those basement priced Amazon deals and so like a lizard spotting a careless fly I snapped it up. I found it a curious affair and didn’t enjoy it as much as I did deWitt’s other book I have read, the Sisters Brothers.

This book is something of a gothic fairy tale. Rather like in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, the landscape is dominated by a huge castle, the crumbling Castle von Aux, and the book is populated with strange, grotesque characters. Even the protagonist, Lucien Minor or Lucy – one of deWitt’s traits is to play on the sexual ambiguity of names – is an inveterate liar. The setting is probably somewhere in central Europe – you can imagine it as some dusty, forgotten outpost of the Holy Roman Empire – populated with people to whom morals are anathema. But the characters are not all bad – there is some strand of goodness or kindness hidden in them, you just have to look for it. Ambiguity runs through the book.

Lucy leaves home but not before one of his lies, about the boyfriend of the girl he loves, unravels in a humiliating fashion. He takes up the position of undermajordomo at the Castle, assisting the majordomo, Mr Olderglough, in his work, such as it is. Life in the castle has gone to rack and ruin since the Baroness left and the Baron has become increasingly insane, creeping around the castle’s corridors unclothed and eating rats and writing forlorn love letters to his wife.

Lucy engineers the Baroness’ temporary return and there is a riotous party in the Hall involving scenes of what can only be described as sado-masochistic sploshing. On the way to taking up his appointment Lucy observes two thieves working their way round a packed railway compartment. He fails to confront them but eventually becomes firm friends with them – Memel and Mewe – falling in love with Memel’s daughter, Klara.

Life at the castle is dominated by the Very Big Hole into which some of the characters, including Lucy, fall down. Is it supposed to be allegorical? It is difficult to tell but there is a sense that it symbolises rebirth.

The book has some funny moments but the humour is black and literary rather than laugh out loud. And too many of the scenes are only loosely connected to what plot line there is giving the book a bitty, episodic feel, a sense heightened by deWitt’s use of short, pithy chapters. The story is less structured and complete than that of the Sisters Brothers – there are too many loose ends. And to make matters worse, one of his stylistic foibles, to use a simile and then tack “because it was” at the end, gets irritating after a while.

It was an interesting modernist take on gothic literature but a pale imitation of Peake at his best. I didn’t dislike the book but was rather glad that I had bought it at Amazon’s bottom dollar price. It seemed like a thin story and that was because it was.

Change The Record – Part Five

blindfaith

Super groups

I was never convinced by the concept of a super group. The idea was that you took the pre-eminent members of various groups that had split and formed a mega group. The result surely would be a mix of music that would be unsurpassable. The problem was, though, that you would increase the potential for the clash of super-sized egos. The dynamics of a group require some lesser lights who are prepared to put in the hard graft to allow the stars to do their stuff. Think of the Who, Led Zep and the Beatles where Ringo Starr always looked like someone who had found a jackpot lottery ticket in the back of his jeans.

Blind Faith whose eponymous album was released in August 1969 is one of the first manifestations of the short-lived phenomenon which was the supergroup. Comprising of two members of the recently split band, Cream, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker, together with Stevie Winwood formerly of Traffic and Ric Grech from Family, they lasted just seven months and the album had mixed reviews at the time.

What caused a major stir was the album cover, featuring a topless pubescent girl holding a silver winged object in her hands which some found to be phallic. In response to the stushie, their record label, Polydor, withdrew the cover replacing it with a more conventional sleeve showing the band members. Although the original image was dropped, the title given to it by photographer Bob Seidemann, Blind faith, became the group’s name. The version of the LP in our collection has the replacement cover so we won’t have the old Bill knocking on the door.

It must be over forty years since I heard the album so I was intrigued to see what I thought of it after all that time. Firstly the cover hadn’t withstood the ravages of time – the gum holding the cover together had dried out and the precious vinyl almost dropped on to the floor. Safely installed onto the turntable, the opening track, Had to cry today, gives a pretty good impression of what the album is going to be like and is a stunning showcase for Winwood’s vocals and Clapton’s guitar riffs. But it also shows that the musicians will break out from the track’s hard rock format to experiment and improvise. The classic example of this is the final track, over 15 minutes long, called Do What You Like which features extensive solos from each of the musicians. Winwood’s organ solo can only be described as freaky but Grech’s bass doodlings over chants give the impression that they are filling up time. Baker rescues the track with a fine drum solo.

Grech’s finest moment on the track is a wonderful violin solo on the opening track of side two, a Sea of Joy which draws influences in from country, folk and hard rock. Clapton’s first composition, Presence of the Lord, which completes the first side is probably the most flawless track – a sort of gospel meets rock song – and features some fine organ work by Winwood and some astonishing guitar work from Clapton with wah-wah peddle to the fore in the final verse.

They cover Buddy Holly’s Well All Right where Clapton plays a fairly subdued role, allowing Winwood’s organ work to shine and Baker and Grech to lead the jam into which the song inevitably moves with some funky rhythms. Can’t Find My Way Home has a more folky, celtic feel about it ending with fine interplay between Clapton’s acoustic guitar and Baker’s jazzier drum licks.

I was pleasantly surprised.

I Predict A Riot – Part Five

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The New York Straw Hat Riot of 1922

I am fond of wearing hats and I judge a panama suitable headgear to wear when I attend a game of cricket or when I am out in a tropical part of what was formerly the British Empire. I have not worn a straw boater, though. Nevertheless I was a little alarmed to discover the fury provoked in the Big Apple by the wearing of straw hats.

Although in the late 19th century it was not considered good form to wear a straw hat in American cities even in the height of summer, by the turn of the 20th century straw boaters had become acceptable, even for business men. There were, however, some unwritten conventions to be observed. Wearing straw hats was infra-dig on or after the first of September, the first day of autumn in the States, but later the cut-off date when men were expected to change their headwear to soft, felt hats moved to the middle of the month.

Anyone seen wearing a straw hat after the cut-off date risked opening himself up to ridicule and a tradition grew up whereby youths seeing someone flouting the convention would knock his hat off and stamp on it. So established was the practice that newspapers published articles warning straw hat wearers of the imminence of the deadline. But for some reason events took a more sinister turn in 1922.

The riot actually began two days before the conventional switch over date, on 13th September, when a group of youths began removing and stamping on the hats of factory workers in the Mulberry Bend area of Manhattan in what is now Chinatown. A brawl broke out when the mob turned their attentions to the headgear of some dock workers who, unsurprisingly, fought back. The ensuing melee stopped traffic on the Manhattan Bridge and was only quelled when the police intervened and arrested some of the protagonists.

The next evening the violence escalated as gangs of teenagers roamed the streets armed with large sticks with nails driven through the top, looking for men wearing straw hats. Anyone resisting was beaten with the cudgels and several were hospitalised. One victim whose hat was snatched claimed that there were upwards of 1,000 youths roaming Amsterdam Avenue.

The New York Times reported the riot extensively with headlines screaming, “City has wild night of straw hat riots” and “gangs of young hoodlums with spiked sticks terrorise whole blocks”. The report went on, “complaints poured in upon the police from men whose hats were stolen and destroyed. But as soon as the police broke up the gangs, the hoodlums resumed their activities elsewhere….the streets where such incidents occurred were strewn with broken straw hats. Hat stores which kept open last night were crowded with purchasers of tall hats…one complaint was made of a gang swarming on an open street car and attacking the passengers to get their hats”.  Even off-duty policemen had their hats stolen.

Order was eventually restored and there were many arrested and some spent a few days in chokey. The tradition of hat snatching continued for a few years – in 1924 a man was murdered for wearing a straw hat and in 1925 several arrests were made. But the straw boater went out of fashion following the Wall Street Crash, presumably because they were seen as symbols of the irresponsible twenties, and this rather aggressive form of fashion policing went the way of many a fad.

Book Title Of The Week

naked

It’s hard to get a book accepted by a publisher these days, unless you are a celeb, that is. I was once told the sure-fire winner was to make sure that the title of your magnum opus contained a reference to Hitler and a cat.

But some books do make it and the Diagram prize, now in its 38th year, celebrates those tomes with the weirdest titles. Reading the liver: Papyrological texts on Ancient Greek extispicy and Reading from Behind: A cultural history of the anus sound as dull as ditch water. Behind the binoculars: Interviews with acclaimed birdwatchers and Soviet Bus Stops don’t cut it with me. Transvestite Vampire Biker Nuns from Outer Space: A consideration of cult film and Paper Folding With Children – I prefer using paper but I’m probably an old fogey – at least piqued my interest.

But the stand out winner had to be Allan Stafford’s biography of a music hall troupe, Too Naked For The Nazis. But where’s the cat?

Democratic Moment Of The Week

boaty

It was Winston Churchill who said the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. The pragmatic politician – and we have not had one of those for some time – would only hold a vote they knew they were going to win. But there is a new mood abroad where voters seem increasingly eager to demonstrate their anarchic tendency aka inherent stupidity.

The latest victim of this trend is the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) who have a new multi-million pound research vessel. Some bright spark thought it would be a good wheeze to ask the public via the world-wide web to suggest and vote on a name for it. It has worked from a publicity perspective – the NERC has emerged from its erstwhile worthy obscurity – but they must have been taken aback by the frontrunner in the poll. Instead of some anodyne but safe as houses name like the Endeavour or the Sir David Attenborough, there is a tidal wave of support for Boaty McBoatface.

Fortunately, the NERC had the good sense to bury in the terms and conditions of the exercise that they were not obligated to accept the winning entry. Now why didn’t the Republicans think of that?

What Is The Origin Of (86)?…

barking

Neck of the woods

Our language is wonderfully idiomatic and we use words and phrases without giving much thought as to their derivation. Take neck of the woods, for example, a phrase we use to indicate a certain place or neighbourhood, usually associated with the speaker or writer.

The earliest usage of the word neck I have found in print was in John Lowthrop’s Philosophical Transactions and Collections 414 of 1705, “that part which is now standing is part of the End of that Neck of Land which runs into the Sea”.  It would seem that neck was used in this context to denote a strip of land, perhaps analogous to the human neck which is narrow in comparison with the head and trunk.

It was not until 1780 that neck was used to describe woods. A Young in his Tour of Ireland wrote, “You see three other necks of wood…generally giving a deep shade”. By 1871 it had not only assumed its figurative sense of neighbourhood or place but also had become to be regarded as an Americanism as M Schele de Vere showed in his Americanisms, “He will…find his neighbourhood designated as a neck of the woods, that being the name applied to any settlement made in the well-wooded parts of the South West especially”. Perhaps, the early American settlers who had the daunting task of naming, or perhaps we should say renaming, a new continent for a bit of variety used an archaic English word to add a bit of variety to their range of sobriquets.

Bill Bryson in his book Made in America has an alternate origin; that it came from the Algonquian word naiack which meant point or corner. The settlers took their land so they may as well appropriate their language. There is some attraction in the theory, particularly as the use of neck as a geographic descriptor, at least in literary form, only dates back to the 18th century, long after the colonisation of the Americas started. But the late usage of neck in literature doesn’t necessarily mean that it wasn’t used in everyday language well before then. Another option is that it comes from the German for my neck, meine ecke. I am less sold on that one.

The problem with etymology is that you can easily bark up the wrong tree, a phrase we use to indicate the making of a mistake or a false assumption. The allusion is simple enough; hunting docks having chased their quarry up a tree surround the wrong one, yapping. It first appeared in literature in its figurative sense in James Kirke Paulding’s Westward Ho! Published in 1832, “..so I thought I’d set him barking up the wrong tree a little and I told him stories…

Taking a wrong step and things can go haywire, meaning go wrong or, perhaps, become deranged. Thin, light wire was used in baling machines to bale up hay. At the turn of the 20th century the pejorative term a haywire outfit was used to describe those who patched up machines with wire or, as we might say, made a bodged job of it. The US Forestry Bureau Bulletin of 1905 defined a hay wire outfit as a contemptuous term for loggers with poor logging equipment. By 1920 haywire was defined in volume 82 of Dialect Notes as “gone wrong or no good. Slang”.

So now we know!