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Saturday, 8 May 2021

Short Shorts

In 1958, The Royal Teens had a hit in America with Short Shorts (in the U.K. we might be more familiar with the Freddie and the Dreamers version). The words repeat three times [YouTube link]:

Who wears short shorts?
We wear short shorts
They’re such short shorts
We like short shorts
Who wears short shorts?
We wear short shorts


Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Yip Harburg must have wondered why they needed to try so hard. But some people are not as daft as they would have you believe. The Royal Teens’ pianist later founded The Four Seasons and wrote many of their songs, and another member of the band founded Blood Sweat & Tears.

It seems there were times when lots of us wore short shorts, such as AC/DC guitarist Angus Young and Everton footballer Gary Lineker.


So why do I feel the need to curl up and hide under the bedclothes at the sight my shorts in the French High Cantal in 1978? 

I get a cringe attack just from the rest of the outfit alone.  

And if that’s embarrassing, take a look at this, not a pair of shorts in sight.

 Dare I scan in any more old colour slides?

Saturday, 1 May 2021

New Month Old Post: Bonking

(First posted 10th May, 2017)

Definition of bonking

I used to have a book by a pair of American educationalists called Curtis Jay Bonk and Kira S. King. Students used to call it the bonking book. The surnames of the two authors were juxtaposed on the spine in such a way as to make it look as if it was a book about bonking: “a bonking good read” perhaps.

The cover shows the first author’s name in full, but in the rest of the book and on his web site he goes by the shorter Curt Bonk. Does he know how that sounds to English ears? Perhaps he does. It might be his come on line.

Bonk and King: Electronic Collaborators

I’m not sure when I first encountered the word “bonk”. It wasn’t at school in Yorkshire. Bonk would then have meant hitting someone on the top of the head, or perhaps the percussive knock made by a large piece of wood. Runners and cyclists also now use it to mean running out of energy. I don’t think it emerged in the sexual sense until the nineteen-seventies. I can imagine Jo Kendall’s elegant but naughty voice saying it in “I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again”, but perhaps she never actually did. It would have amused me if she had.

The alternatives would have been completely unacceptable on broadcast media before the -seventies, despite the efforts of Brendan Behan and Kenneth Tynan who came out with the f-word on live television in the -fifties and -sixties, or even the music hall comedian Hector Thaxter who is said to have got away with “arse” on the radio in 1936.

Most of us don’t seem to notice swearing now. It was better when it was the exception rather than the rule. It was kinder when the worst we heard was “naff off” and “bonk”.

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

John Wyndham: The Chrysalids

John Wyndham: 
The Chrysalids (5*)

Chrysalids sound like some kind of horrible pupating insect things, yet the book contains nothing so nasty at all. 

The title must put a lot of people off, especially from a science fiction writer known for Krakens, Triffids and Midwich Cuckoos. In fact, even after reading it, I still have no idea what Chrysalids are, and hardly think of this as science fiction. Something less frightening might have been better. In America, it was called Re-Birth, but that misleads too. An early manuscript was called Time for a Change.

The story is set in a post-apocalyptic world that was ravaged by nuclear war so long ago that only vague memories of the previous civilisation remain. Descendant survivors live in an isolated fundamentalist agrarian community struggling to eliminate mutations from crops, livestock and people. Anything that is not normal is destroyed. Children with even the slightest deformities (such as the six-toed footprint on the cover) are regarded as abominations, “blasphemies against the true image of God, and hateful to the sight of God”, and are sterilized and outcast. This claustrophobic setting is brilliantly constructed and utterly believable.

Trying not to give away too much of the plot, a small group of children find they differ from others in that they are telepathic, which they must hide to avoid persecution and banishment as mutants. There follows a tense tale of questioning. near-discovery, escape, an anxious chase through the dangerous countryside of ‘the fringes’, and rescue – I won’t say how. It touches upon deep issues, such as religious bigotry, freedom of thought, social perceptions of normality, deformity, tolerance, discrimination and eugenics.

Many think Wyndham is remembered for the wrong book, that he should be remembered more for The Chrysalids than The Day of the Triffids. Others believe that by turning it into a clichéd chase with a ‘deus ex-machina’ finale he failed to make the most of the profound setting he had created. Both are probably right. A different author might have made more of the potential. Nevertheless, it is a compelling and exciting story. I nearly dropped my Kindle into the bathwater.

Mmmm! Telepaths forcibly sterilised because they are a threat to society. I wonder what Salman Rushdie read before writing Midnight’s Children.


Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Different Lives

Click graphic to view on external site. It also has a transcript if the text is too small to read.
 
Someone posted one of our school class photographs on that web site – the one that would rather show you things it thinks you’ll like or agree with. 
 
There we are, over fifty years ago in our school uniforms, thirty-one adolescent teenagers, seventeen boys and fourteen girls with hopes and dreams and insecurities, some smiling, happy in their skins, others serious or awkward, the way we were. Should it be there with names listed? No one asked for consent. Some names are wrong. Some are missing. I’m just a question mark. Good! Was that really me?

There’s that nasty bastard whose main pastime was punching others in the face whenever he felt like it. Look, he’s left a comment. He must think no one remembers. You can see him now in his profile pictures with his arms round different women: “single, sixty, keeps fit”. He’s older than that. Hell! With his piggy eyes and thick ape-neck he looks like Harvey Weinstein. Too many hormones. Avoid! He probably thinks this post is about him.

Let’s not make it so. There’s the clever kid who got into Oxford, another who became a games teacher and the thin chap with glasses who was rubbish at sports. 

That lad killed himself on a motor bike. Went round a bend too fast. Slow tractor, plough blades on the back. Cut to pieces. We shed buckets over his empty desk until the teacher moved us round.

Look at the girls! Aren’t they lovely, every one. I hope they can see past our round shoulders, big noses, spots and collective gormlessness and think we’re lovely too.

Those three were scary, and inseparable. They all went to train as primary school teachers in Sheffield. That one became a social worker. There’s the blonde girl I dreamed about, who they paired me up with in a swimming lesson because there were unequal numbers of boys and girls. “Forget that she’s a girl,” yelled the swimming teacher when I was supposed to stand between her legs and support her thighs while she did back-stroke arms. I never dared speak to her again. And there’s the pretty girl with freckles who sat close and wrapped her leg round mine and asked if I knew of any dances I could take her to. How might things have been different if I’d said yes? Dream on. 

Dream on indeed. The chance of life! In theory, any possible pair of those boys and girls could have married and had children (married, yes, they wouldn’t have lived together then). Actually, one couple did. They went to America. What about the others? How many different pairings of sixteen boys with thirteen girls? Sorry, fifteen boys: I forgot about the motor bike. I make it 195. If each possible pair had an average of two children, then there are 390 different possible children who were never born, and three in America who were. 

Nearly four hundred sentient individuals like you and me, never born, never will be, never laughing, weeping, wanting, loving, having days of wine and roses. Never having children of their own.

Should we multiply that by 450, the number of eggs a woman ovulates during her lifetime, any of which might have been fertilised? That’s over 175,000. Should we multiply it again by another billion, the estimated number of sperm cells a man produces each month, any one of which might have fertilised one of those eggs? What’s that? A hundred and seventy five thousand billion. 

Who would these unborn souls have been? There would have been musicians and artists, drug addicts and dictators, scientists and imbeciles, leaders and thinkers, and billions upon billions of ordinary people like you and me. Some might have been bloggers. Each with a unique sense of  “me”. If any had been my children, they wouldn’t have been the children I have, they would have been entirely different children, and the two I do have would never have existed. Could they really never have been born? Could some have inhabited different bodies? No, there aren’t enough bodies. Are some stuck somewhere in a queue, in limbo?

A hundred and seventy five thousand billion distinct individuals who were never born. Three who were. From one school class.  

The numbers are bigger still in the wider world, as the linked graphic shows. It estimates the odds against any one of us existing as we do, as the equivalent of two million people each rolling a trillion sided dice and all coming up with the same number. 

It happened for me. It happened for you. “Now go forth and feel and act like the miracle that you are.” 


Sunday, 18 April 2021

Sungold

Question: if packets of tomato seeds contain an average of ten seeds, what is the chance that one will contain just four? I will come back to this later. 

Thirty years ago, the most popular television gardener in the U.K. was Geoff Hamilton. Here he is on the cover of the Radio Times wearing the same Marks and Spencer air force blue shirt as I had (Radio Times also lists TV programmes but has kept the same title since 1923).

In 1996, he wrote a column praising the virtues of Thompson and Morgan’s orange ‘Sungold’ cherry tomatoes:

        Ever since I first grew Thompson and Morgan’s cherry tomato “Sungold” I’ve rejected all others. For me, it has just the right balance between sweet and acid that makes it melt in the mouth. Mind you, I can’t afford to be a stick-in-the-mud, so I shall try others…

The column has been folded at the bottom of our seed box ever since. Sadly, Geoff Hamilton died shortly after it was published. He may not even have got to try the Sungolds he grew that year. His gardens at Barnsdale, Rutland, remain a much visited attraction.

They are pretty expensive as seeds go. They only put a small number in each packet, and, being F1 hybrids, they don’t re-seed themselves true to type so you have to buy new ones each year. Nowadays, they work out at between 30 and 50 pence per seed, and would probably be more if the patent had not expired and they were still only available from Thompson and Morgan.

We followed the advice and bought some, and, being able to afford not only the seeds but also to be sticks-in-the-mud, we have since rejected all others too. They are as good as Geoff Hamilton said. 

To return to the question I started with, about the probability of getting only four seeds in packets that have an average of ten. After pondering for some time, I’m afraid I still don’t know the answer, and neither do you unless you work for Johnsons Seeds of Newmarket, Suffolk, and can say how accurately the seeds are counted and whether packets are just as likely to contain more than ten seeds as less than ten seeds (in other words the spread and skew of the seed-count-per-packet distribution). I don’t think the question can be answered without this information. So let’s just guess the answer is: “very unlikely”.

What I do know is that I was pretty annoyed when it happened to me. About a month ago I opened a packet of Johnsons F1 Sungold tomato seeds, average contents ten, and found only four seeds. I am not sure when and where I bought them. I got them early last year, forgetting I had some left over from the year before.

I complained to Johnsons and after a few weeks received a replacement packet, but in the meantime I had bought another new packet to get things started. Tip: have a good feel of the packet before buying. Even if the seeds are too small to count, you can certainly detect the difference between four and ten.

Here are this year’s seedlings on their way from the house to the greenhouse to be moved into bigger pots. I always grow six seeds on the assumption they won’t all come up, but, as you can see, this year they did. Now, what are the odds of that?

 

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Salman Rushdie: Midnight’s Children

Salman Rushdie
Midnight’s Children (5*)

Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize in 1981 and was judged the best of the Bookers both in 1993 and 2008. I anticipated something outstanding. It certainly seemed so in the early pages:

       “One Kashmiri morning in the early spring of 1915, my grandfather Aadam Aziz hit his nose against a frost-hardened tussock of earth while attempting to pray. Three drops of blood plopped out of his left nostril, hardened instantly in the brittle air and lay before his eyes on the prayer-mat, transformed into rubies. Lurching back until he knelt with his head once more upright, he found that the tears which had sprung to his eyes had solidified, too; and at that moment, as he brushed diamonds contemptuously from his lashes, he resolved never to kiss the earth again for any god or man.”

Yet, several times as I read through (and it is long), I began to think of it as a four star book rather than five.   

It tells the story of Saleem Sinai and his family, and the way that story intertwines with the bloody conflicts of the Indian subcontinent. We learn about the horror of the Amritsar Massacre in 1919 when the British Army opened fire upon a crowd of unarmed civilians killing 379 and injuring over 1,200, Indian independence and the partition of Pakistan in 1947, the Bangladeshi wars of 1971-72, and the bulldozing of the Delhi slums and forced sterilization programme of 1976. Country and family are intricately interconnected: Saleem believes he shapes history and that history destroys his family. This, though, is the fictional Saleem’s fictionalised version of history: “... in autobiography... what actually happened is less important than what the author can manage to persuade his audience to believe...” (p270)

It assaults the senses with all the terrible noise, dirt, heat and stench of India, and its awful, heaving inequalities. There are wailing widows, midgets, giants, army officers, magicians, film stars, black burqas, poverty, illness, deformity, addiction and disability. Old men crouch in the dust beside the road chewing betel nuts, expectorating streams of red liquid into a spittoon placed further and further away, while street urchins dodge past, playing chicken. Saleem Sinai has an enormous nose which is congested with mucus and constantly drips snot.

The central conceit is that the thousand and one children born during the hour after midnight on the 15th August, 1947, the moment of Indian independence, have magical powers. One can change sex at will, another can eat metal, one can travel through time and yet another can perform real magic. Those born closest to midnight have the greatest powers: Saleem, born on the stroke of the hour, is telepathic and can read minds. All of the Midnight’s Children are able to communicate through him. He hopes that they will work together towards the good of India, but they disagree, and their powers are seen as a threat. Later, Saleem loses his telepathy but gains a hyper-sensitive sense of smell.

Saleem portrays politicians as ridiculous and corrupt. Prime Minister Morarji Desai drinks his own urine for its health benefits (absolutely true, “the water of life”; and if you think that’s disgusting you might prefer bottled cow urine instead, available from at least one London shop on the shelf underneath the naan bread; Desai, by the way, lived to the age of ninety-nine; one wonders what he would have reached had he not drunk so much of his own pee).

The Nehru-Gandhi clan comes off worst. Indira Gandhi perpetrates electoral fraud, economic corruption, wars, genocide, and the destruction of the Midnight’s Children. With them she destroys all promise and hope for a better India. She is “The Widow”, portrayed as a wicked witch with centre-parted hair “snow-white on one side, blackasnight on the other, so that, depending on which profile she presented, she resembled either a stoat or an ermine”, an analogue of her economy. Her 1975 State of Emergency brought about the suspension of civil rights, the jailing of political opponents, slum clearances and the compulsory sterilization of over six million lower class men. The sterilization programme was overseen by her eldest son, Sanjay Gandhi, who has “lips like a woman’s labia” (you will never look at photographs of him in the same way again). 

During the 1982 Festival of India in London, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had clearly not read the book, invited Salman Rushdie to lunch with Mrs. Gandhi. Rushdie declined. The lunch went ahead without him, during which Mrs. Thatcher said that she thought Midnight’s Children “a fine contribution to the Anglo-Indian cultural bond”. Indira Gandhi sat impassive and stony-faced.

The passage Mrs. Gandhi found most offensive was an accusation that she caused her husband’s death by cruelly neglecting him. She sued for libel at the High Court in London, and won. The passage was removed from all future editions. Libel by a fictional character is still libel.  

Why did I doubt the brilliance of the book? The problem lies in its length and complexity, the frequent digression, the unfamiliar cultural, religious and geographical references, and the enormous cast of characters. It is like a Victorian or Russian novel. I think Rushdie must have done this deliberately to reflect the disorder of crowded, intermingling lives. Despite him giving them distinctive names such as Hairoil, Nussie the Duck and The Brass Monkey (names which sometimes change), I found it hard to remember how they all fitted in, or to care.

I did find myself thinking about the story a lot after reading (always the sign of a good book), and writing this has helped clarify things. Having now found lists of characters and vocabulary, I would get more out of it a second time, perhaps in a year or so. 


Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Friday, 9 April 2021

Council Tax

It is once more that time of the year when the charges for council services and water go up. I have a note of what we have paid in this same house over nearly 30 years. 

Charges (£)
 1993-1994    2021-2022    increase
 Council Tax     562   1727    x 3.07
 Water and Sewerage    225   758  x 3.36


According to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator, these bills would have multiplied just 2.08 times had they increased in line with consumer price inflation: i.e. the figures for council tax and water would have been £1,170 and £469. In other words, we are now paying half as much again as we did in 1993.

It feels like we are paying half as much again for half as much. There used to be better bus services, the dustbins were emptied more often, roads and footpaths were better maintained, there were more libraries and they were open for longer, there was an enormous choice of adult education classes in arts, crafts, sports, languages and practical subjects at a wide range of locations, there were literary and arts festivals, and concerts with visiting orchestras.

As regards water and sewerage, why should that be so much more expensive (I know, it will cost less with a water meter when the kids have finally left)? Is it because of leaks, or because of privatisation and profits?  

I don’t want to get into the murky, smoke and mirrors world of local government finances (especially the funding of schools and the police) other than to summarise Which? magazine in that the money raised from council tax goes towards funding local services such as maintaining roads, collecting bins, providing bus services, cleaning streets and social care. 

That last category accounts for one heck of a rapidly growing proportion, now approaching 60%, nearly £26 billion per year. The Local Government Association adds: “As a result, councils may have no choice but to spend much less on other important services like fixing roads or maintaining parks and libraries.”