Vehicle Of The Week

An unusual vehicle was spotted on the motorway in Bedfordshire the other day, sufficiently odd to warrant the attention of the Old Bill. It looked a bit like a boat with the nose of an aeroplane and the chassis of a motorbike held together with liberal quantities of gaffer tape and white paint.

After the police had made the usual checks, yes, it had a number plate, a MOT certificate, tax and insurance and no, it wasn’t causing an obstruction, yes, it had working lights and brakes and yes, it was keeping up with the other traffic, the owner, together with his boot full of shopping, was allowed to go on his way.

It doesn’t pay to be different in Bedfordshire.

Not so fortunate was Glyndwr Wyn Richards from Llanfairn in Ceredigion. He thought it would be a good idea to take a car down to the local scrapyard. Instead of using the tried and tested method of towing it he strapped it to the roof of his VW Jetta.

Not surprisingly he came to the attention of the Old Bill. His unusual method of transporting his old car cost him a £80 fine and three penalty points on his licence. For me, though, the incredible part of the story was how he got the car on to the roof and just how strong are Jettas.    

What Is The Origin Of (246)?…

All Greek to me

One of the, admittedly few, advantages of learning ancient Greek is that I cannot with any degree of honesty use this phrase. Figuratively, though, it is used to denote total incomprehension. But why Greek?

Before I unmask the origin, I need to debunk a commonly held misconception. As great a dramatist as William Shakespeare was and as inventive a user of the English language as he undoubtedly was, it is almost inconceivable that all the phrases that came into common currency in the Elizabethan era owe their origins to him. It is true that the Bard used the phrase in an exchange between Casca and Cassius in the play, Julius Caesar, dating from 1601. Casca reporting on a speech of Cicero’s says “I, he spoke Greeke”. When asked what the great orator said, Casca reported, “those that understood him, smil’d/ at one another, and shooke their heads; but for mine/ owne part, it was Greeke to me”.

There are, however, some earlier examples of the phrase in print. The poet, George Gascoigne translated the prose comedy of the Italian playwright, Ludovico Aristo, under the Anglicised name of Supposes and it was performed at Grays Inn in 1566. Balia, after asking Polynesta to explain herself, comments, “this geare is Greeke to me; either it hangs not well together, or I am very dull of understanding: speak plaine, I pray you”. Even if we don’t understand the word geare, it means talk, the meaning of the phrase is crystal clear. Interestingly, Gascoigne introduced the phrase into the text, it not being there in the original.

The Scottish historie of Iames the fourth, slaine at Flodden, written by the English author, Robert Greene and published posthumously in 1598, contained the phrase, “tis Greeke to me”. A year before Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Thomas Dekker includes this exchange in his play, Patient Grissel; “asking for a Greek poet, to him he fails. I’ll be sworn he knows not so much as one character of the tongue./ Why, then it’s Greek to him”. This usage is relatively rare, it is normally Greek to the speaker rather than a third party, but nonetheless there is sufficient evidence to debunk the attribution to Shakespeare and to suggest that it was in currency from at least  the middle of the sixteenth century.

Indeed, it is likely that the origin comes from the commonplace marginalia of a frustrated monk who cannot make head nor tail of the text that he is laboriously copying, Graecum est, non potest legi. In case that is Greek to you, it means it is Greek, it cannot be read. The phrase escaped the confines of the cloisters, perhaps aided by the destruction of the monasteries during the Reformation. And why Greek? The language was less well known and understood even among the educated classes, particularly in comparison with the lingua franca of the time, Latin. And the Greek script can be off-putting to a beginner to get their head around.

In the eighteenth century variants emerged. John Wesley, in Advice to a People called Methodist from October 1745, wrote, “To ninety-nine of them it is still heathen Greek”. And amongst the lower orders, at least according to Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, there was St Giles’s Greek, defined as “the slang lingo, cant or gibberish”. This was picked up in the rather snooty editorial introduction to a letter written in the vernacular which Jackson’s Oxford Journal deemed to publish on March 4, 1786; “we are desired to publish the following intercepted Letter to the Informer of the Robbery at Magdalen College, written, as it appears, by one of the Gang, in the Language which they call St Giles’s Greek”.

Unadulterated Greek won out, though. The Dutch have a similar phrase although the object of their incomprehension is the Latin tongue, whereas the Italians are baffled by Arabic and the French Chinese. Even the few speakers of Esperanto profess to be perplexed by Volapukaio. We all have our crosses to bear, it would seem.

Book Corner – August 2019 (4)

England, Their England – A G Macdonell

Writing a book that is actually and consistently funny is a tricky business. A comic idea is difficult to sustain and humour can date very quickly. But some writers manage to pull it off and the likes of P G Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh and Jerome K Jerome are firm favourites amongst aficionados of the genre. One author who has fallen by the wayside somewhat in recent times is A G Macdonell but his satire of English society, England, Their England, published in 1933, is worth a read.

In essence, it is a travel memoir, written by a young Scotsman, Donald Cameron. Whilst in the First World War he shares a pill box with a Welshman and publisher, Evan Davies, and they discuss, during a lull in the battle, the unfathomable nature of the English character. Davies suggests that Cameron should write a book about it. Their paths separate and Cameron returns to Scotland to help his ailing father farm. When Cameron’s father dies, the terms of the will force our hero to seek his fame and fortune south of the border. Initially, he writes for a number of newspapers before bumping into Davies again and accepting the commission to write about the English from the perspective of a foreigner.

If the book is known for anything these days, it is for the wonderful chapter describing a cricket match between a team of topers and literary types from London and a team of Sussex locals. It is a tour de force and even if you are not a student of the game or haven’t tried your hand at it, your enjoyment of the humour of the description is unlikely to be dimmed. Perhaps it is true that the foreigners’ perception of the English is coloured by this strangely eccentric game with its formal conventions and sense of timelessness. If so, Macdonell has struck the middle timber with a yorker.

The book, however, is more than the cricket match. Cameron saunters around English society in the 1920s taking in a country house weekend (natch, although there is no murder), a visit to a village pub, and a boat trip to Danzig where his only fellow passenger is an insufferable bore with a stock of preposterous stories of amazing derring-do and ingenuity. Macdonell is withering in his critique of the pretentiousness of modern theatre during his description of a trip to the theatre. Cameron even inveigles himself on a diplomatic mission to Geneva where he sees the wizardry of the English diplomat, their actions undetectable by the human eye.

Cameron also acts as a political agent and the description of the level of political discourse has disturbingly modern parallels – “you don’t need facts or tommy-rot of that sort”. Cameron tries his hand at golf and being a Scot is more than a match for his fellow players, even though he hasn’t a clue about the scoring conventions they are deploying. He also discovers that his fellow Scot, the club professional, takes great delight in ripping the locals off. Other sporting events are sampled, including the Varsity rugby match and a game of professional football.

The book does suffer from the attitudes and views of the time which may upset those readers who think writers should have the foresight to anticipate the sensibilities of future generations and in places it does seem like a rather elaborate inside joke. I’m sure that Macdonell is satirising some of the illuminati of the English literary and social scene of the era but the specifics rather passed me by. It also ignored the majority of English society, the working class.

That said, I found it a witty and strangely uplifting book, much needed in these increasingly gloomy times.

What’s Brewing In Alaska?

One of my hobbies, if you can ascribe it with that name, is to sample as many locally produced beers as I can when I visit a new area. I call it drinking with a purpose. A recent trip to Alaska provided me with ample opportunity to prospect for beers previously unknown to me. And what a treasure trove it proved to be.

Technically, under the laws of the state drinkers can only purchase 36 fluid ounces of beer per day for onsite consumption. I cannot say that I saw this in operation and clearly it could be circumvented by moving from one drinking establishment to another. That said, it may explain why in comparison with British beers those to be found in Alaska are considerably stronger, with Alcohol By Volume (ABV) percentages ranging from 5% to in excess of 8%.

The starting point of my exploration of Alaskan ales was a beer tasting event on board the MS Niuew Amsterdam as we were cruising up to the state, featuring six beers from the Alaskan Brewing Company of Juneau. They have been brewing since December 1986 and today produce beers in a wide range of styles. My particular favourite was their Amber which was deliciously malty and hoppy, rather like a good English bitter, although it was brewed as a German Alt ale. With an ABV of 5.3% it could hardly be described as a session beer but it was a pussy cat compared with my second favourite, Husky. This is an India Pale Ale with a gorgeous golden hue to it and quite citrusy. I found it very refreshing but at 7% ABV it packs quite a punch.

The Alaskan Brewing Company, whose strapline is “we brew the way we brew because of where we brew”, claim that they are the only brewery in the world to use their spent grain as a fuel for their brewery. Naturally, they use local water fresh from the Juneau icefields. When I was in Juneau I did not have time to track down the brewery but I did pop my head into the Red Dog, a tourist trap, if there ever was one, allegedly recreating the atmosphere of a saloon during the prospecting days. Still, the Amber was on fine form and after one drink, I made my excuses and left.

On my visit to Skagway, Jack London’s Skauway, I visited the Skagway Brewing Company. Their signature brew is Spruce Tip Blonde Ale, which, as the name suggests, uses tips from the ubiquitous spruces in the area. Apparently, a hundred grams of spruce tips mixed in water to create a tea creates 50 milligrams of Vitamin C. Captain Cook, when he was sailing around the region in 1794, deployed two of his sailors to create a beer from the spruce tips as a precaution against scurvy. And it seems to work. Looking around my fellow drinkers, I didn’t notice a single case of scurvy. The beer, with an ABV of 5.5% was piney in aroma, light gold in colour and malty and surprisingly sweet in taste.

It was refreshing to see local businesses care about the environment and the quality of the air in their state. The Skagway Brewing Company diverts any Carbon Monoxide produced during the brewing process to their aeroponic indoor garden in which they grow some of the vegetables used in the restaurant and brewing ingredients for their beers. They also convert used fryer oil into bio diesel which then fuels the boiler which produces the steam for the brewing process.

To be continued…