Sunday, December 31, 2006

A Year End Review (Where in the world am I? [20])

I discover through a recent trawl of 'the blogosphere' (dread word!) that questionnaires and 'best of' lists relating to the year just past are thick on the ground at the moment. Many of these are tag-relay affairs - the blogging equivalent of chain-letter spam. Thank heavens I don't know any other bloggers who would dump such a thing on me.

However, without the unwelcome external pressure to provide such a summary of my year (and without the even more unwelcome pressure to foist a similar imposition on to a bunch of my other friends), I feel free to ponder something similar.

The problem with this is that most of these lists and questionnaires seem to ask for your "achievements" of 2006 (and your "goals" for 2007), and set an unreasonably large target - some 'magic number' such as 7 or 10 or 12, or even more. Oh dear - I really seem to struggle with this. I suppose I'm just not a very "achievement-oriented" person; my highest ambition remains to "Do no harm". (Most bloggers are American, aren't they? Very achievement-oriented, the Americans!!)

Ah, well, I gave it my best shot..... and came up with 5.

My Top 5 Achievements of 2006

1) I avoided death.

That might sound like quite a trivial accomplishment, but given the generally abysmal levels of hygiene and medical service out here (and the fact that I can't afford proper health insurance cover), and the homicidally incompetent standard of driving, and the notoriously short-fuse temper of the locals..... it's actually pretty amazing, and I am profoundly grateful. I did have one of my closest calls ever this week, on Christmas Day, when a truck came up behind me at a good 25 or 30mph without paying any attention at all to me as I walked along the side of the road: it damn near took my head off with its right wing-mirror - missed me by only an inch or two (and that only because, hearing the approaching rumble at the last minute, I reflexively swayed, flinched a little to one side). Constant vigilance is called for.

2) None of my friends died.

Again, the all-round level of risk here is just significantly higher than we are familiar with in the UK or the USA (unless you come from a really rough neighbourhood!). Foreigners have died out here, people within my spheres of acquaintance – too many for comfort, and often in particularly odd or sad or unexplained circumstances. And the police are no help at all. Someone tried to murder my friend The Chairman a couple of years ago; the identity of the culprit is common knowledge locally, but the cops on the case shrugged indolently and claimed they had "no leads". Another drinking buddy, The Choirboy, nearly died of a haematoma on the brain earlier this year: a fateful combination of a psychopathic nightclub bouncer, a flight of concrete steps, and some incompetent doctoring – that was a very lucky escape. But again, the police were apathetic, ineffectual, facetious: "You want us to arrest the bouncer? Oh, no – we couldn't do that. But if you can bring him down to the station yourself, we'll gladly ask him a few questions."

3.) I got over my broken heart (just about).

OK, it did take me 6 months, and I'm still a little brittle a year on, but.... this time last year, survival looked like a major challenge. To have recovered my equilibrium so fully, without (I hope) any lasting trauma, and while maintaining my friendship with the woman in question.... while regaining the ability to love someone else – that's a very considerable achievement.

4) I avoided serious illness or injury.

Again, pretty amazing. Not all of my friends have been so fortunate. 15 months ago, Tennessee Tom nearly lost a leg when he got knocked down by a truck. A few months ago, The Choirboy – while "defending a lady's honour" – got a beer bottle smashed over his forehead by a local thug. Yes, yes, The Choirboy is something of a 'trouble magnet'. But he is my friend; and if I keep on hanging out with him, one day the trouble is going to descend when I am with him. Constant vigilance is called for.

5) I have maintained a fairly regular jogging habit all year, and now consider myself 'a marathon runner'.

The high point of my running year – or the second half of it, anyway - came near the end of my summer break in the States, when I ran all the way from Old Town Alexandria to Mt Vernon and back again (and on a savagely humid July morning at that), a distance not far short of a full marathon.

I have reached a point where I can run a half-marathon at the drop of a hat, without even training for it (something that was quite unimaginable when I first started to get serious about running this kind of distance a little over three years ago); and I have several times in training in the last 18 months run close to, or a little beyond the full 26-mile distance in reasonably respectable times (my expectation for a competitive time is 3'50", and I have a number of times this year gone running for stints of between 3'30" and 4'30").

Alas, I have still only completed one formal marathon race (and in a fairly dismal time, after becoming badly dehydrated over the last quarter of the course); so, my claim to be 'a marathon runner' is still rather tenuous. Two other local events I had planned to enter this year, in March and November, both proved impossible to register for (another 'Where in the world am I?' all to itself!!); and the BIG event in May that I took part in – a super-demanding cross-country race involving several brutal hill climbs – er, well..... I was going really well in that, but then my left knee collapsed on me, and I had to drop out at the half-way point (although, there being no pick-up bus, I actually had to shuffle-jog & limp & hop another 8 or 9 miles back to the starting point – almost more gruelling than the first 13 miles of [mostly uphill] running!!). And I haven't done very much in the last three months (I've been working too many crazy hours), except for an impromptu 2hr run last month through one of the cities that wouldn't let me take part in their race officially.

I am, however, firmly determined to begin the New Year (as I have every year for at least the last 8 or 10) with an early morning run on Jan. 1st. The snow on the ground at the moment is somewhat problematical, but I'll find a way to address that somehow. Wish me luck!


My Top 5 Goals for 2007

Er, basically the same again - especially with regard to 1), 2), and 4).

Under 3), I suppose I'd like to enjoy a happy love affair (for once in my life!) - and it seems like I have a pretty decent chance of this.

Under 5), I shall be running at least one more official marathon, and, hopefully, 3 or 4. And I aim to post at least one time well inside 4hrs.

"The secret of happiness is to set achievable goals."

A New Year poem

I just had a little noodle around on the Net (nothing else to do this chill and snowy morning!) to try to find a seasonally-themed poem for y'all...... but, god, New Year's poems are crap, aren't they?

So, I offer you one of my own instead - another of my 'freaky fables'. OK, so there's only a very indirect thematic link to this time of year, but no matter. This is the best I could do.

I hope you like this. Bathos, pessimism, a skewed take on conventional forms, a sly humour.... extreme brevity - yep, it has all of my hallmarks!

Wishing Well

We dig a deep dark hole
To toss our hopes into
Dig it so deep, deep, deep
It can never be full

The hopes in the well
Grow old and stale
But if we run short
Of hopes at home
Grow dry with despair
We may try to slake our thirst
With these old hopes

We lower our wish-bucket
Into the well

But it has a hole in it

Saturday, December 30, 2006

My first Christmas in ***??*** (Where in the world am I? [19])

Where in the world am I?

I am in a country where the mass - and seemingly spontaneous - mobilization of labour can still sometimes take effect with a frightening thoroughness (and also a surprising efficiency).

The first year I was here, it snowed almost continuously for the 7 days prior to Christmas. It was the same thin, wet, unlovely snow we're suffering today..... but, over time, it gradually built up to a decent depth on the ground of 8 or 10 inches.

It finally stopped snowing late in the afternoon of Christmas Eve - but that day was brutally cold (one of the coldest I've ever experienced here), so there was no chance that it was going to melt.

Our first year in The Unnameable Country was going to be marked by a White Christmas! My foreign teacher colleagues and I were all quite charmed and excited by this.

There was no way that snow-clearing operations were going to get underway that night, in such extreme sub-zero conditions. And even when, if they did start, there was so much snow, it seemed likely it would take at least 2 or 3 days to clear it up thoroughly - especially when it was frozen so hard. And we expected that, in all probability, they would only attempt to clear the major roads.

Wrong. At the crack of dawn the next morning, the neighbourhood committees across the city initiated a vigorous snow-sweeping program: every man, woman, and child was shovelling away like crazy from 7am...... and by 10am, when the earliest of the hungover foreigners blinked expectantly into the Christmas morn, there was scarcely a speck of snow to be seen anywhere. Our White Christmas had been STOLEN!!

Remarkable. Terrifying. I think 'they' were trying to tell us something..... and it went rather beyond a Grinchly impulse to spoil others' fun.

Cabin Fever

Today, at last, we have snow.

We've actually had snow on or just before Christmas the last 4 years I've been living here, so things are a little late this season, and I was beginning to fear that this whole 'global warming' business was going to spoil the party this time, but.....

Today, it began snowing in the wee small hours. And it hasn't really stopped. Unfortunately, it is not pretty snow. It is thin and wet and feeble. It built up to a depth of about one inch well before dawn, but doesn't seem to have added to that since then (although it is plenty cold enough for it to stick - around 8º F below freezing, according to
Weather Underground). But it is very persistent. It has been falling, falling, falling, thinly, wetly, feebly for the 10 hrs that I have been up today, and it is showing no signs of ever letting up. It seems to have a faint beige hue to it - as if it is already sullied with dust and other pollutants before it even hits the ground. And the sky is opaque: it is still as gloomy in the middle of the afternoon as it was just post-dawn. Visibility is down to a few hundred yards.

I have scarcely set foot outside my apartment for the last three days as it is. Today was to be an active and sociable day..... but the will-power deserts me. Today now threatens instead to be another day of subsisting on nuts and satsumas and watching pirated DVDs of films I would never pay to see in a cinema.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Where in the world am I? (18)

I am in a country where they take a very eccentric approach to national holidays.

The choice of holidays can often be quite baffling - I was astonished to find that New Year's Day (the 'Western' New Year, that is - Jan. 1st) has long been a holiday here.... despite the fact that it means nothing in the local culture (like most of Asia, they follow a lunar calendar here, and celebrate their 'new year' a month or so later). My students are always surprised, somewhat disbelieving when I tell them that New Year's Day only recently became a holiday in England. I wouldn't be at all surprised if they adopt Christmas here too within the next 5 or 10 years.

In recent years, the government here has begun to embrace - with rather too much enthusiasm - the notion that holidays give a useful boost to consumer spending; on the other hand, it also deplores the lost productivity. And so, some bright spark came up with the novel (crackpot!) idea of trying to get the best of both worlds by decreeing 'make-up work days' on one or other of the weekends either side of a holiday. These proclamations probably don't actually have the force of law, but in this country the government's advice or exhortation is still treated as, well, strongly persuasive, at the very least. All government-run institutions and most major businesses slavishly follow the call to work a compensatory weekend.

Surprisingly enough, this scheme actually seems to work out OK for most businesses; but in schools and Universities, it is quite pointless to toss in one or two extra days of class (it just means that some of your classes have had an extra lesson; it's much better to try to keep everybody in sync, if you can). Most foreign teachers I know here always refuse to work these extra weekends: the brave ones openly defy the school authorities; the more cautious amongst us simply come to an arrangement with their more-than-willing students to furtively abandon the weekend classes. This has regularly caused me grief in years past, and I am so glad to be out of the local University system now.

Of course, the 'make-up days' ruse only used to be applied to the main, week-long national holidays. I wasn't aware that it had ever been employed before with any of the smattering of single-day holidays they have here.

But this year, we have a new experiment in craziness. Next week, Jan. 1st, 2nd, and 3rd will be holidays, but..... people are expected to work this weekend instead!! What the.......????

At least we found out about this bizarro plan a good 10 days or so ahead of time. Usually the government is still dithering about when or whether to schedule these 'make-up days' (and possibly even about how long the substantive holidays should be, or whether they should happen at all) until only days beforehand.

So, it's not easy to plan holiday trips in this country! However, most foreign companies - and more and more local ones - now give their employees a generous allowance of leave days in addition to the sporadic allocation of national holidays; at least people wanting to take long trips can bank on these (with the reasonably confident expectation that a certain number of them will turn out to be national holidays, and thus not to be deducted from the annual leave allowance).

As I've said many times before, it is a mad, mad, mad, MAD place.

A year's end haiku

Butterfly wings flex -
Beautiful, ephemeral
As the New Year's hopes.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

More craziness on the Internet front

Of course, the submarine earthquakes in the Pacific are being blamed, but..... the disruption of Internet access here seems so patchy, so inconsistent that it is hard not to suppose that some of the interference is once again being caused by the government censors (or the Kafka Boys, as I like to think of 'em).

For instance, we still have Gmail, but not Yahoo or MSN. We still have Blogger, but not Blogspot (you may remember, the last time this happened to me, it was censorship!). We still have Google search engines, although we can't actually access most of the pages returned in the search results. We still have Wikipedia (at least via proxies), but we don't have Amazon or YouTube (even via proxies).

Frustrating it is. And baffling.

I just hope to hell we get something like 'normal service' restored soon.

And a belated 'Poem of the Week'

Just because the world has ground to a halt during this holiday period, it doesn't mean I should neglect to bombard you with occasional literary offerings.

Such as this, a rather beautiful short love poem by an American called Robley Wilson (about whom I know absolutely nothing).

I wish in the city of your heart
you would let me be the street
where you walk when you are most
yourself. I imagine the houses:
it has been raining, but the rain
is done and the children kept home
have begun opening their doors.

A belated bon mot

"People who live in stone houses shouldn't throw glasses."

(You know it makes sense!)

Another favourite 'Hitch-Hiker' joke

At the beginning of the second radio series of 'The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy', Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect, marooned on prehistoric Earth, get caught up in a sudden volcanic eruption and find themselves trapped in an underground cavern, shut in by what appears to be an enormous boulder overhead which they could not possibly move, and with no possible hope of rescue.

Moments later, they are fortuitously rescued.

This - and indeed, most if not all of the second radio series - was ditched from the series of novels through which the story subsequently became better known around the world.

A pity - because this incident did prompt one of the finest ever comments from The Book.

Ford and Arthur need advice on their predicament, so they consult the 'Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' entry on
"What to do if you find yourself trapped underground by an enormous boulder which you cannot possibly move, and with no hope of rescue".

And it says:
1) Consider how lucky you are that life has been good to you so far.

2) If, on the other hand - which, considering your present circumstances, seems more likely - life hasn't been good to you so far; consider how lucky you are that it won't be bothering you much longer.

More on The Ultimate Question

In 'The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy', there were, of course, a number of suggestions made as to what The Ultimate Question might have been. "How many roads must a man walk down?" for instance.

However, this - "What do you get if you multiply six by nine?" - was the only one that appeared to have any possible authority, since it was not merely a guess but a seemingly 'significant' coincidence - purportedly unlocking the secret of The Question buried deep in
Arthur Dent's brain, via a game of Scrabble played to while away the time when he and his friends found themselves trapped on a prehistoric Earth (at the end of the first radio series, the second book).

Many of HHGG's nerdier fans bombarded poor Douglas Adams with mail pointing out that this 'Question' does in fact yield the right Answer (i.e. 42) - in base 13.

Adams always maintained that this was pure coincidence, and protested wearily, "I do not write jokes in base 13."

Sunday, December 24, 2006

All I want for Christmas....

Ah, I used to have a mannequin once. I called her Cynthia. I wonder whatever became of her?

Happy holidays to all from your crazed correspondent.

A favourite Christmas joke

A rather macabre one - but such is my sense of humour. This, actually, was originally a cartoon in Punch, but I have been unable to dredge up the original from the Net.

On a snowy winter's night, a rather bemused middle-aged man in his pyjamas is walking reluctantly down the garden path away from his little cottage, meekly following behind the figure of The Grim Reaper. As he glances over his shoulder for one final look at his home, he sees, high above in the sky, Santa and his reindeer flying by.

The Reaper remarks: "I bet you didn't believe in him either."

Madness or wit?

A couple of weeks ago, I (foolishly) posed the question 'What is poetry?', and offered some of Billy Collins' observations on this.

Here's another 'answer', by the 17th Century English poet, Thomas Randolph.

From witty men and mad
All poetry conception had.

No sires but these will poetry admit:
Madness or wit.

This definition poetry doth fit:
It is a witty madness, or mad wit!

Only these two, poetic heat admits:
A witty man, or one that's out of his wits.

(Thomas Randolph, 1605-1635)

Which, I wonder, am I??

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Ah, Ludwig

I nearly forgot..... my result from that questionnaire:

Which Historical Lunatic Are You?

You are Ludwig II, the Swan King of Bavaria!

Born with the name of Otto, you became Ludwig at the request of your grandfather, King Ludwig I, because you were born on his birthday. You became Crown Prince at the tender age of 3, and soon after stole a purse from a shop on the basis that everything in Bavaria belonged to you. Tragedy struck when your pet tortoise was taken away; relatives thought the six-year-old prince was too attached to it. Your childhood was lonely and formal. Once, you were prevented from beheading your younger brother by the timeous [sic] arrival of a court official. From the age of 14 you suffered from hallucinations.

Despite striking an imposing figure with your great height and good looks, your speeches were pompous to the point of incomprehensibility. You became even more of a recluse, often spending hours reading poetry in a seashell-shaped boat in your electrically-illuminated underground grotto. You are most famous for building three fairytale castles - Linderhof, Neuschwanstein and Herrenchiemsee - at tremendous public expense. Declared insane and confined to your bedroom by concerned (and embarrassed) subjects, you escaped on 13 June 1886, but were later found drowned with your physician in Lake Stamberg in mysterious circumstances.

The perils of online questionnaires

I don't succumb to the allure of these things very often, but this one did seem rather more amusing than most - Which Historical Lunatic Are You?

I'm not sure that I like the result, though. I mean, I can see the points of similarity: the striking tallness and good looks, the isolation and introspection, the love of poetry, the tortoise..... Death by drowning while still in my prime, though - that doesn't appeal at all!

Maybe I should have ticked that "Fools - I'll destroy them all!" box?

Friday, December 22, 2006

Another little 'Christmas Card' for you all

I just turned this up on YouTube - the original 'South Park' teaser that Matt and Trey made to pitch the series: Santa v. Jesus. Not the best picture quality, but never mind.

Pardon my irreverence - I have a soft spot for these boys: I find them very, very, very funny.


Ho, ho, ho!

Now, if I saw this old wino emerging from my fireplace, it would scare the bejesus out of me!

At least he's giving himself up and coming quietly.....

A Merry Christmas to all of my readers!!

For those idle moments....

I don't usually waste my time on such fripperies, but.... my pal Glasgow Ali sent me this recently, and I confess it does have a strange, compelling charm.

A penguin waddles to the top of a pinnacle of rock. Click the mouse once and it executes a suicidal swan dive ('penguin dive'??) off the edge. Click the mouse again - at just the right time - and the Abominable Snowman thing waiting at the foot of the cliff whacks it with a huge club.... and the penguin FLIES.... then scuds and bounces across the snow and ice. The distance of your hit is recorded. Beautifully simple.

Look, the penguin enjoys it, OK? It cries with pleasure - "WHEEEE-EEE-EEE!" - when it's in flight. If you swing and miss, it buries itself beak-first in the snow (and probably dies)...... so please, HIT it!

This is one of the best games of its type I've seen. There's considerably more mileage in it, I think, than in that other old seasonal favourite, Elf Bowling (What do you mean, you've never heard of Elf Bowling?! Download it here, if you must - and find out how the rest of the world has wasted the last 6 or 7 Christmases...) .... largely because you can play it entirely online, without having to download anything to your desktop. And also because there is quite an amusing variety of different trajectories the poor penguin can follow.

So, go and check out
Penguin Baseball - and you may find yourself blissfully unaware of all the holiday madness going on around you for the next week or so!!

My current best is 325.4 m.

I can't hit for shit today - only managed a couple just beyond 300m. Some days you got it, some days you don't.

A Christmassy haiku

Presents and parties
Renew childish wonderment:
8 years old again!!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Where in the world am I (17)

I am in a country where the spreading of Western culture (and especially, I often fear, of all that is least worthwhile in Western culture) in not so much an insidious creeping as a spouting geyser.

Take Christmas. The locals certainly have. There are probably nearly as many Christmas trees on display in and outside shopping malls here as there are in any medium-sized city in Europe or America. In my neighbourhood supermarket (which I am the only foreigner ever to set foot in) all the checkout girls wear little red Santa hats throughout the month of December. That doesn't happen back in England! In fact, last year (it doesn't seem to be quite so crazy this year, thank heavens!) just about everyone in a service industry in the entire city - every waiter and receptionist and shop clerk and garage mechanic (yes, really, even garage mechanics - only the notoriously curmudgeonly taxi drivers refused to join in) was wearing them.

What's more, there's tinny, tacky Christmas music playing everywhere. Not just in the foreigner-oriented bars and restaurants. Everywhere. In my supermarket (again) they have a solitary Christmas compilation CD which they get out at this time every year, and play on a continuous loop for 12 hours a day for 30 days. Cruel and unusual punishment, I call it. This is a compilation of late-50s/early-60s vintage, and includes such wincemakers as "All I want for Christmas are my two front teeth" - which I hadn't heard for years before coming here (and have no wish to hear ever again!).

The locals are certainly embracing the rampant consumerism of the holiday with gusto. It is in danger of eclipsing their traditional winter holiday (a month or so later) as the year's major retailing peak.

Next thing you know, they'll be wanting a holiday as well. Christmas is not yet an official day off here. Although it is becoming so de facto. Most foreigners - even those in fairly lowly jobs where they have precious little power against their whip-cracking employers - generally just refuse to work on this day. And a great many of the locals - well, those who work for foreign companies, at any rate - are at liberty to take the day off, since almost all the foreign executives go 'home' or on holiday for a week or two at the end of the year, and the business world goes into a brief hibernation.

Of course, at this time of year, local friends, colleagues, and students are constantly assailing me with the question, "Are you going home for Christmas?" This prompts the shocking (NO, rather comforting, actually) realisation that.... I am home.

For all its strangeness and craziness and irksomeness.... I feel more at ease and more connected here than I have ever done anywhere else. I won't be leaving any time soon.

The Question to The Ultimate Answer

After mentioning dear Douglas Adams in a couple of recent posts, I thought I should confess that he is the only person to whom I have ever written a fan letter.

I never got a reply, of course. I was probably only one of several tens of thousands of people who wrote to him during the height of the 'Hitch-Hiker' craze, most of us claiming to have solved the riddle of The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. However, I like to think that I was the only one of them who got it right. Pity Douglas never got back to me on that!

Briefly, for non-HHGG buffs, the search for The Ultimate Question was a wonderful
MacGuffin (surely the greatest of all MacGuffins!) in the story. The Answer to the Ultimate Question had, of course, been worked out long before, by Deep Thought, a gigantic supercomputer constructed especially for the purpose. After many thousands of years of calculation, this computer pronounced with absolute confidence that The Answer was 42. The Question, however, remained beyond its grasp, and it declared that it would itself have to design another even more intricate computational device, incorporating living organisms within its operational matrix, in order to determine what that was. As it happened, this second computer was the planet Earth - which was tragically destroyed only moments before the 'program' was finally set to produce the answer..... or rather, The Question.

Now, this always seemed quite a simple matter to me. Adams, a self-proclaimed "devout atheist", was naturally fascinated with the notion of God, and there were many, many jokes about God (who was, it would appear, generally assumed to exist) in both the radio and novel versions of HHGG. There were also a lot of references to the overriding importance of the telephone and telephone numbers in people's lives, and to strange coincidences involving them (I seem to recall, for example, that one of the 'improbability factors' recited by the shipboard computer ['Improbability' providing the motive power for the stolen space/time-travelling starship Heart of Gold] was revealed by the narrator to also have been the phone number of one of the human characters in the story). Even more significantly, very early on in the radio series (I think perhaps even before the Ultimate Question plot strand had been introduced) there was a throwaway line about someone on Earth having worked out the secret of life (how to end wars, famine, promote brotherly love, etc.)..... and having been on their way to a payphone to tell someone about it - just as the Earth was destroyed! In one of the later books, this person becomes an active character in the story (a girl called Fenchurch, who, having been miraculously rescued from the Earth at the instant of its demise, eventually meets up with and becomes the lover of the only other human survivor, Arthur Dent, the story's chief protagonist).

And SO....... well, it is generally assumed that The Ultimate Question is whether or not there is a God; but in fact that is only The Penultimate Question, because this knowledge is fairly useless unless you also know how to get in touch with Him; so, if you find out, for an absolute certainty, that God exists, then The Ultimate Question that forms in your brain is inevitably, "Well, what's His telephone number, then?" The girl, Fenchurch, had had a revelation which showed her how to sort out all the mundane details of getting people to live in peace together; but what was she going to do with this wisdom? She was about to decide that the first person she should talk to about it was God Himself; but then she would realise that she didn't know his telephone number. But the Earth was destroyed seconds before she formulated that question in her mind - The Ultimate Question.

There we have it. QED.

What's God's telephone number?

You heard it here, on Froogville, first.

Another Freaky Fable

'Freaky Fables' was the name of a cartoon strip by an artist called Handelsman, which appeared in the front of Punch magazine throughout the '70s (the website appears to have survived the demise of the magazine itself four years ago, but the link to the Freaky Fables cartoons is down; there is an additional site where you can apparently buy classic Punch cartoons, but it's not searchable, and I haven't been able to find any Handelsman on it) and was one of my great childhood favourites - facetious, post-modern re-workings of well-known myths, legends, and fairy stories. That's probably where my own facetious, post-modernist tendencies came from!

It is a title I find myself privately giving to a certain category of poems I've written quite a few of over the past year. The following, for example.

The River

The river and the ocean had an argument

The river would not forgive, could not forget
She decided the ocean was too salty for her
And vowed never to mix with him again

By a huge effort of will, she stopped flowing
Closed up her mouth with silt
Made a barrier between them forever

The stilled river spread into a lake
The lake became an inland sea
And, in time, she grew saltier than her brother

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Another review!!

One of my local acquaintances, recently introduced to these blogs, has just sent me a delightful appreciation of them. She particularly likes my "gentle rebellion" and "elegant naughtiness".

I love "elegant naughtiness". I hardly feel that I am worthy of the description - but oh, how I aspire to be!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Crediting my sources

In my post 'Touch the monolith' the other day, I used the line 'Bang the rocks' together. A few of my correspondents have queried the origin of this; or, knowing the attribution, have chided me for not giving it.

It is, of course, from
Douglas Adams's 'The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy'. Well, at least, it occurred in the original radio series; I'm not sure that it ever made it into the books that followed. On the starship 'Heart of Gold' the guys are listening to an inter-galactic radio station, on which the DJ boasts that they are broadcasting to "intelligent life-forms throughout the Universe", then adds: "And to all the rest of you out there - the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys!"

Always one of my very favourite lines from the many, many great lines in that show.

I also mentioned the book
'The Meaning of Liff' the other day. This, and its sequel, The Deeper Meaning of Liff, were co-written by Adams and his friend John Lloyd, the BBC comedy producer who had commissioned the original HHGG radio show.

The other lines in 'Touch the monolith' were all mine, really.
(I particularly liked 'Eat the tapirs', a reference to the opening 'Dawn of Man' sequence in the film '2001' itself. The only Google return I can find for this phrase is for a detailed review/synopsis of the film.)

Well, apart from "Never give a sucker an even break", of course. This is famously associated with the bibulous, curmudgeonly comedian, W. C. Fields - although I'm sure I've somewhere seen it given an earlier attribution, I think to one of the legendary figures of the Old West. Wild Bill Hickok, perhaps?

Another word that should exist, but doesn't


After all, if one can derive 'churl' from 'churlish' (although, in etymological terms, I suspect 'churl' came first), it seems quite reasonable to create 'surl' from 'surly'. We are, sadly, all too familiar with the ill-tempered, overbearing unfriendliness that is 'surliness'; but it would, I feel, sometimes be handy to be able to use a related noun to denote an individual piece of behaviour, or utterance or gesture, which encapsulates or communicates this attitude.

, it is. As in 'Service with a surl'. Enormously useful.

On the other hand, there are some words which have been needlessly spawned and are rapidly gaining unmerited currency, acceptance. 'Standee' got my goat the last time I was in England - it is supposed to mean 'a person standing', and is used on the safety notices on public buses listing the maximum occupancy. It seems to me that, if it means anything at all, it ought to mean 'a person or thing that has been made to stand in a place (by some unnamed external agency)', and therefore should not be applied to people who just happen to be standing somewhere.

I suppose there might perhaps be a useful compound form of this to be derived from the phrasal verb 'stand up': the victim of a cancelled assignation could be a 'standee-up'. Then again, perhaps not. The word just doesn't sound good, dammit - there's no music in it.

I can see where the impulse to create the word came from, at least. Those notices on buses are rife with potential hazards. For example, you can't really list the maximum number of seated passengers thus: Capacity - 32 persons (not with standing)

But enough of this silliness!

Well, one more nomination for my 'Abolish this hideous word' campaign: I absolutely loathe and detest the current darling of American business-speak, 'leverage'. Is there something somehow inadequate with the numerous pre-existing verbs that do the same job? Like 'use', for example? Have you ever seen 'leverage' used as verb in a situation where it could not have been replaced by 'use' (with advantage to the sentence)??

I've just met a chap whose online training business claims to be "leveraging connective technology to enhance education". Aaaaaaarrrrrgggghhhhh!!!

Monday, December 18, 2006

And yet another bon mot, slightly longer

On a related note to that last post, this is a great line from G. K. Chesterton on the insanity of having too much respect for the past:

"Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about."

Another bon mot

Insight is worth a lifetime's experience.

Another of the wise saws I remember from a series of desk calendars with improving (or, more often, intriguingly subversive) quotations for each day of the year, which I enjoyed throughout much of my childhood (they were a regular Christmas gift from one of my father's client companies, I suppose).

I've always been rather irked by the (depressingly common) assumption that 'experience' is acquired automatically by the simple process of living - and the further assumptions that 'knowledge' equates to 'experience', and that 'wisdom' equates to 'knowledge'. It would be wonderful if we became steadily smarter just by avoiding dying, but the fact is there are lots of middle-aged and elderly people who've lived rich and varied lives..... but who are still dumb as a post. Insight is the thing.

Saturday, December 16, 2006


Not a typo! Well, kind of a deliberate typo, anyway. It was originally the result of some random keyboard clumsiness, but then I decided I rather liked it.

If it were a word, what would it mean? It occurred to me that it might be a plausible plural of insominum (all neuter plurals end in 'a' in Latin and Greek - the Classical education: it never leaves you!)..... which could perhaps mean one of those deranged pensées that occur to you when you're suffering from insomnia.

As I am now. I have been burning the candle at both ends too much for the past two or three weeks, working long hours during the day then staying out late partying at night - and my body-clock is completely screwed. I find myself waking up at 4 or 5 in the morning, no matter how late I went to bed (seldom before midnight; usually more like 1am or 2am). It doesn't help that I have had a really evil cold - sniffles, sore throat, fever, persistent cough - for the past week and a half: that has been seriously undermining the quality of any sleep I have been getting. The black rings around my eyes are now as pronounced as a panda's. I feel as though I want to, need to sleep for 48 hours around the clock..... but it just won't happen.

But enough of that. I was going to write a little piece about invented words. It was a game that was popular with some of my buddies at University - perhaps inspired by a book that came out around that time,
'The Meaning of Liff' (a stocking-filler mini-dictionary which proposed that quaint-sounding British place names could be usefully pressed into service as nouns [sometimes as verbs or adjectives], and provided a treasure trove of humorous examples).

One particular favourite in my undergraduate circle for a while - it became quite an entrenched part of our slang, presumably rather to the bafflement of anyone else - was ept (derived, of course, from 'inept'); any piece of clumsiness or tactlessness being described as having a lack of ept or as being not very eptful.

I also rather like misle (which often seems like a more sensible back-formation of the Present Tense of 'misled' than 'mislead' does - at least to me, in my insomniful state). Also, perhaps usefully reminiscent of 'mither' (which really is a word, meaning to irritate with persistent inquiries or reminders).

Then again (an old favourite of toilet wall humour, this, long before my friends adopted it as part of their argot), there is lert. As in:
"Be a lert. Your country needs lerts!"

There are many more examples I could share with you, but my insomnified brain is suddenly coming up blank. Perhaps this is another theme I shall return to....

Or perhaps not.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Touch the monolith

I have long had a notion to try to establish a website called something like - referencing the sinister, totemic black gravestone in 2001: A Space Odyssey. (I hope nobody's snagged the domain name already.)

I'm not sure if it should be an entirely black page, or a depiction of the monolith from the film (surrounded by screeching prehistoric primates) - but the idea would be that you click on the black mass somewhere, and are treated to a succinct burst of life-changing, civilization-evolving wisdom.

Something like.....
"Bang the rocks together."

"Eat the tapirs."

"Marry outside your immediate family."

"Use an alphabetic script."

"Press 'Control-Alt-Delete'."

"Never give a sucker an even break."

I should work on this more seriously. The advertising revenues could be huge.

It's haiku time...

A more 'traditional' one again this week - contemplation of Nature inspiring or encapsulating a philosophical rumination.

Tiny markers show
The unseen passage of Time.
Leaf on a river.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

My Own Private Spy

I was waiting for a friend in one of my favourite neighbourhood bars, the 'Yacht Club', the other day when a young local guy suddenly started to engage me in English conversation.

This was somewhat unexpected, since English is not widely spoken around here - at least, not to a very high level. This guy was near native-speaker standard. You don't encounter that very often. Certainly not in a policeman - which is what he introduced himself as. In fact, he claimed to be a middle-ranking cop in the 'Foreigner Supervision' department, and kept on 'joking', "It's my job to keep an eye on you."

Given my recent hassles in securing Internet access and in sending & receiving e-mail (to say nothing of the strange clicking on the phone line), I was not inclined to find such remarks amusing.

It's hard to believe that anyone in the security services in any country in the world - no matter how flawed their intelligence assessments or how extreme their control-freakery - would judge that I was a sufficiently interesting potential threat to merit individual surveillance. But then, this is an utterly f***ing crazy country! If it could happen anywhere, it could happen here.....

In fact, I'm not really sure I believe that he was a cop. I suspect it might have been just a conversational ploy or a practical joke. He certainly wasn't your typical cop profile: well-groomed, well-educated, well-dressed, impeccable English..... no, he's not going to fit in with the indolent, semi-literate bottom-scratchers down at the station house at all.

He was, however, an unashamed sleazebag. When my drinking buddy The Choirboy showed up, with his new local girlfriend, the "cop" made a point of getting all of our e-mail addresses and mobile numbers, and he promised to drop us a line soon so that we could stay in friendly contact. The only one he actually called was The Choirboy's girlfriend..... to ask her out on a date.

A cop??? Well, maybe. The jury is still out on that one. I'm sort of hoping I don't run into him again....

Ouch!! (A killer putdown/potential epitaph)

Browsing the Wikipedia entry on F. E. Smith the other day, I was reminded of this caustic comment on him by Margot Asquith:

"F. E. Smith is very clever; but sometimes his brains go to his head."

Now that is another possible epitaph for me!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Caught short

My last post on loos reminded me of another cherished anecdote about the early 20th Century English barrister, F. E. Smith, whom I mentioned last week.

Public toilets in London are woefully few and far between; and those that there are, are often wretchedly dirty and/or beset by 'cottagers'. Smith, then, if he found himself having to answer the call of nature when he was at large in London (en route between his chambers and the Royal Courts of Justice, I suspect), developed the habit of popping into a conveniently situated gentlemen's club. (I forget which one; a distant, nebulous memory suggests either The Garrick or The Reform. Come to think of it, are any of the great London clubs anywhere near The Strand?? I really wouldn't know.) Smith was not a member; but he was an imposing enough character, and such a regular visitor, that none of the staff thought to challenge him.

That is, until one day a new doorman became suspicious of his hasty visits, and summoned up the courage to ask him, the next time he appeared:
"Excuse me, sir, but are you a member of this Club?"

To which Smith, quite unfazed, and feigning elaborate surprise, replied:
"My God! Do you mean to say it's a Club as well?"

Where in the world am I? (16)

I am in a country where people seem to delight in pissing in the street. And not discreet pisses, behind a wall, against a tree, in a dark corner. No, people seem to prefer to whip their willy out in the middle of a busy sidewalk - ideally, close to a functioning streetlamp.

Now, in some places in this expansive country, this might be more understandable. In the 'other place', for example, the competitor city which I visited a couple of weeks back, public toilets are comparatively few and far between, and there is a small - but irritating (and, for the severely impecunious, decisively discouraging) - charge to use them.

But in my home city, there is a profusion of public toilets; all of them readily locatable (even when hidden away, as they so often are, in discreet little back alleys) by their distinctive, pungent smell; and all of them absolutely FREE.

And yet I regularly see people taking a leak against the wall of my local park - in the middle of a busy sidewalk, underneath a functioning streetlamp..... and less than 100 yards from the nearest (very prominent, completely FREE) public toilet.

Perhaps it's a case of "You can take the peasant out of the countryside, but you can't take the countryside out of the peasant"? If you've been pissing al fresco all your life, it must seem a little bit strange to go indoors to do it.

The degree of compulsive, defiant exhibitionism about public pissing here, though, does seem to require further explanation.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A bad time of the year

The calendar is a minefield - unexploded anniversaries litter my path, forgotten, hidden, lying in wait for an unlucky step.

A favourite 'beachcombing'

It's been in my head (on my mind?) to include this for a while, a fabulous piece of whimsy from one of my boyhood literary heroes, J.B. Morton, one of the greatest of all English humourists.

Morton had a recurring fascination with the comic possibilities of cabmen: arguably his crowning achievement was the 'Directory of Huntingdonshire Cabmen', an irregular feature in his rag-bag funny column 'By The Way', which ran for over 50 years in The Daily Express; the 'Directory' was nothing more than a list of names - for the most part, not even particularly remarkable names - and yet, in the context of the column, it somehow became irresistibly, excruciatingly funny.

Many of Morton's fans, however, consider this to be his finest moment:

The Dancing Cabman

Alone on the lawn
The cabman dances
In the dew of dawn he kicks and prances
His bowler is set on his bullet head
For his boots are wet and his aunt is dead.

There on the lawn
As the light advances
On the tide of the dawn
The cabman dances.

Swift and strong as a garden roller
He dances along in his little bowler
Skimming the lawn with royal grace
The dew of dawn on his great red face
To fairy flutes as the light advances
In square black boots the cabman dances.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Bon mot of the week

I have from time to time been accused of being 'tactless'. This is, I hope (I insist), an unfair charge. I believe, on the contrary, that I am an extremely tactful person; it's just that I like to 'push the envelope' sometimes.

I have long been inspired by this desk calendar aphorism I discovered in my childhood, attributed to Jean Cocteau (although, if he said it at all, presumably he said it in French):
"Tact consists in knowing how far we may go too far."

An Isadora Duncan moment

The weather has turned nippy of late. I was enjoying wearing my new woollen scarf. I was walking innocently down the street in it the other day, when...... aaaargh: sudden strangulation!

One end of the scarf had somehow got caught in the handlebar of a bicycle which was parked pointlessly in the middle of the sidewalk (Where in the world am I?!) - although the scarf is neither very long nor very floppy, and I had sure as hell been giving the bicycle as wide a berth as possible.

I have said this before: bicycles are animate, sentient, malevolent. They wait for the moments when you are slightly off your guard - and then they pounce! BEWARE.

Sunday, December 10, 2006


I've always loved that word - the Greek for 'word-flow'; suggestive of a helpless, incontinent verbosity.

I was discussing the word - and its applicability to us - with a writer friend a little while ago, and that conversation prompted this little poem. A nice little summary, I think, of the way most writers feel, and of the modest wish we share to make some contribution, however small and indirect, to posterity.


I am full of words:
They surge through my veins
They pulse in my temples
Press on my heart
Burst in my brain
Gush out upon the ground

When all my words have leaked away
I will cease to be

But the words I have spilled
Sink deep and spread
May yet enrich the earth
Feed some unknown future flowering forth

A chastened quiz-aholic

I am aware of something of a weakness for, almost a fatal fascination with trivia and trivia quizzes. There was a period - when I was living and working in Oxford back in the early '90s - when I was playing regularly for one of my favourite pubs in the local quiz league, and playing in 2 or 3 prize quizzes around town every week (and winning quite a few of them: my buddies and I established such a domination of the event at the 'Lamb & Flag' that they introduced a rule that the winning team had to sit out the following week and provide the questions instead; so, we could only win in alternate weeks).

I came to think that that was overdoing it rather, and I deliberately stepped back from a potential addiction (I am a very anti-addictive personality, on the whole).

I hope I was never as nerdy as many quiz-obsessives become (the star player on our league team at 'The Black Swan' actually used to read Burke's Peerage and the Encyclopedia Britannica in idle moments!). And I don't believe I am as ruthlessly competitive as..... well, the Nemesis who stole our glory from us last Monday, for example (a rather lovely lady journalist - but man, she's mean when she's quizzing!!).

However, my girlfriend, The Artist, after reading of my misadventures in quizdom this week, commented quite aptly that quizzing seemed to bring out a side of my personality that she hadn't seen elsewhere - a scary single-mindedness, a steely focus. She said I became "something between a bloodhound, a racing driver, and an assassin".

I am duly warned. I shall try to steer clear of the dratted events in future.

I think "assassin" was a bit harsh, though.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

A footballer anecdote (or three, or four)

I thought I'd pick up from yesterday's courtroom stories by recording my favourite tale about George Best.

Best was a magical football player - he could dribble, cross, tackle, score goals, was impishly inventive; and he exhibited an arrogant swagger in confronting defenders, his close control being so perfect that he would often simply defy his opponents to try to take the ball off him.

Sadly, his national side, Northern Ireland, was too weak ever to give him the opportunity to show off these skills in a major international competition. He was signed by Manchester United as a teenager, and almost immediately had a sensational impact. 5 years later, when still only 21, he almost singlehandedly won the European Cup Final for them (a feat the club was not able to repeat for 31 years). In his native Belfast, they like to say, "Maradona good; Pelé better; Georgie best."

Alas, his career soon went downhill. His brooding good looks and sly charm made him one of the first 'pop stars' of the football world, and he became an incorrigible ladies' man - and also a hopeless alcoholic, a problem which blighted the second half of his football career, and the whole of the rest of his life, finally causing his death - at not yet 60 - earlier this year.

The best of many stories about his wild days:

In the early '70s, when Best's football career was already in decline, he was asked to be one of the judges at the finals of the 'Miss World' beauty contest. Naturally, he got off with the winner. The next morning, room service was summoned to his luxury hotel suite to bring yet more champagne and caviar. A tired-but-happy George opened the door, wearing only a bashful grin and a bath towel around his waist. Looking over Best's shoulder into the room, the waiter saw a tableau of debauchery: designer clothes torn off and dropped on the floor, wads of cash (from a brief but evidently very lucky visit to a casino) strewn around, a small army of empty bottles.... and a gorgeous blonde sprawled naked on the bed.

The waiter, a devout football fan, could not contain himself. Shaking his head sadly, he said, "Oh, George, George, George - where did it all go wrong?"

Best always seemed quite unrepentant about his self-destructive lifestyle. One of his most famous lines (from a TV chat show appearance, I think) was:
"I think I must have spent a good half of all the money I ever earned on women and drink. The rest I just wasted."

And while on the football theme, I've always loved this story about an archetypally bluff and pragmatic English football manager.

The star striker is sparked out cold by a clash of heads. The trainer runs on to administer the smelling salts, and the big lad comes around, but is very woozy. The trainer reports back: "It's no good, boss. He's got no idea who he is."

"Marvellous!" retorts the gruff manager. "Just tell him he's fucking Pelé and get him back out there."

Surely an apocryphal tale? And yet, and yet.... I can imagine it being true. I wonder if it ever has been attributed to a particular manager. I can well believe it of Jim Smith or Joe Royle, or maybe the notorious Ron Atkinson.

Ah, and that reminds me - one final football-related line. In recent years, Joe Royle has become one of the UK's most distinctive and insightful match commentators on TV. Describing Poland's burly pair of central defenders (painfully slow on the turn, and regularly being slaughtered for pace) in a game in the European Championships a few years ago, he came out with the brilliant phrase:
"They do look a bit like the Terracotta Army at times, don't they?"

Friday, December 08, 2006

I nearly forgot!!

It's Haiku Day!!

Hmmm, how about this? A slightly more 'experimental' style.....

Missing missing you
Craving yearning needing you
Wanting wanting you

A legal anecdote (or three)

The archaic formula "Who, pray, is.....?" is supposed to be much favoured by doddery old British High Court judges - who traditionally affect a magnificent indifference to, nay, a complete ignorance of current affairs, or at least of the reviled 'popular culture'.

There are a number of well-worn anecdotes (forgive me: I used to be a lawyer, once upon a time) on this theme, perhaps the best-known of which is this:

At some point back in the '60s, a witness in court happened to mention The Beatles. The judge rolled his eyes in bafflement. "Who, pray, are the Beatles?"
One of the barristers helpfully explained (while disguising, apologising for his own shameful familiarity with such base matters): "M'Lud, I believe they are a well-known skiffle band."
[In some versions of the story, the barrister's explanatory phrase is "popular beat combo" - but I'm really rather sceptical as to whether 'combination' was ever a common term for 'band'; and I'm damn sure no judge would have allowed the slangy contraction 'combo' to pass in his court.]

In another (more recent) one I like, the exchange supposedly went like this:

A witness had mentioned the legendary Brazilian football player, Pelé; so, the judge, of course, asked....
"And who, pray, is Pelé?"
The barrister responded: "M'Lud, he is widely recognised as the second greatest football player in the history of the game."
The judge rose to the bait: "And who, then, is the greatest football player?"
The barrister (touting a personal preference shared by many British people of a certain generation) boldly replied: "That, M'Lud, would unquestionably be Mr George Best."
[If any of you said 'Maradona' - SHAME on you!]

However, my favourite courtroom anecdote has long been this fine riposte from one of the most celebrated advocates of the turn of the 20th Century, F.E. Smith (who went on to a distinguished political career, and became Lord Birkenhead).

Smith had taken great care in his closing speech to explain the key points of a long and complicated case with great clarity and simplicity - for the benefit of a notoriously dim judge (and there are a lot of those!). However, when he had finished, the judge shook his head in befuddlement, and sighed sadly:
"Alas, Mr Smith, I fear I am still none the wiser."
"Indeed not, M'Lud - but you are at least better informed," came the barbed reply.

You can't often get away with a remark like that in court. Perhaps never. But oh, how we all used to dream of achieving such a moment ourselves!

Yes, even lawyers have dreams....

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Who, pray, is....?


Yes, it looks like an ancient Greek name, female.... but rather odd in form, and utterly unfamiliar. Is it perhaps just an extravagant mis-spelling of 'Erinyes'??!!

I took part in a trivia quiz last night. My first in a long, long time. (Well, OK, actually it was only my first in 5 or 6 weeks - but before that, it was a long, LONG time!) Much to my surprise and exultation, my team won. (Well, OK, we didn't quite win officially - in that there was a superfluous 'buzzer round' play-off with the second-placed team at the end, in which we were royally abused by both Fate and the quizmaster...... gripe, gripe, gripe. But, you know, morally, WE WON.)

This improbable success was largely down to a first round on literature, in which there was an optional 'specialist subject' section of frightful trickiness - having to identify the 'odd men out', the 5 bogus characters from a list of 30 or so appearing in..... either 'Romeo & Juliet' or 'The Canterbury Tales' or 'The Iliad'. Since I wasn't confident of getting more than 3 out of 5 on either the Shakespeare or the Chaucer, I had to dig deep into my buried memories of undergraduate study of Classics..... but I could only come up with 4 out of 5 ('London' was a mark for everyone!). I eventually decided that Eurynaes - if it were really a name at all - must be a character from The Odyssey (Nausicaa's mum, perhaps??). Well, we got 5 out of 5. Which was considerably more than anyone else. (I think we might have been the only team to take on the Homer question. Most of the others attempted the Chaucer, and suffered for it.) And that section turned out to be worth DOUBLE marks. Woo-hoo!!!

That helped to give us a commanding lead from the get-go, a lead which our somehow slightly-less-formidable-than-usual rivals were never quite able to overhaul.

I won't let it go to my head.

I suffered one of the great salutary lessons in quizzing many years ago, a dire warning against succumbing to too much pride or ambition in regard to these silly little competitions.

During my teacher training year at the University of Durham, I discovered that quizzing was BIG in the pubs in those parts. One evening, I took a bunch of my fellow trainee teachers to try out the quiz at my local, The Loves. We won. This was obviously not supposed to happen. The quizmaster found a way to dock us a point, leaving us tied with the resentful resident champion team. The tie-break question was: "How many rivers were there in the Greek Underworld?"

Three of us were Classicists..... and none of us had a bloody clue! (Though I really think that whatever answer we came up with would not have been acknowledged as the 'right' one: the purpose of this exercise was to put the insolent intruders in their place, and reaffirm the old world order.)

To this day, I still don't really know. It depends if you count Phlegethon - which is a river of fire.

And again, is Lethe really a river, in the watery sense? A river of Valium, maybe??

The first time this bizarre thought occurred to me, I got Boney M stuck in my brain for the rest of the day.

By the River of Valium,
There we sat down.
Yea, and we slept,
And we forgot about Zion.

Oh, dear - it's happening again. Must.... get..... that...... annnoying...... tune..... OUT..... of...... my...... head!! Aaaaaaaaahhh!!!!

Monday, December 04, 2006

My favourite non-native speaker mistake of English

A few years ago, when I had been living for several months with a friend in the Pimlico area of London, I happened to be wandering the streets in the middle of the day (I used to do that a lot back then - I had quite an extended period of unemployment, followed by an even more extended period of becoming a student once more), when a rather attractive young German girl approached me and asked, "Are you well-known around here?"

What she meant, of course, was, "Do you know this area well?" (She was looking for the nearest laundromat.) However, I found myself reflecting for a moment on the question she had actually put to me, and I realised that I probably really was quite well-known.... if you went into this bar or that bar, or that corner shop, this cafe, then probably quite a few people would at least recognise me, and perhaps even smile in greeting.

It is sometimes rather gratifying to be able to count on that sort of familiarity.

That's probably what I enjoy most about the place where I am living now: after four-and-a-half years, I am very well integrated into the place, widely recognised in all of my regular haunts, warmly welcomed in most of them.

Or, in the words of the legendary Ron Burgundy:
"I don't know quite how to put this, but.... I'm kind of a big deal round here. People know me."

What is poetry?

Ah, now there is a question that has tied up better minds than mine in knots for quite a while.

I recently found this rather nice piece - on the nature of poetry, and on the difficulties of teaching it - by the American, Billy Collins. He was the US Poet Laureate a few years ago, and seems to be widely disparaged as too 'popular', too 'accessible'. I haven't found much of his stuff yet, but what I've seen, I like. 'Popular' and 'accessible' are not bad things!

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say, drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
Is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it;

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Billy Collins

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Traffic Report - the blog story so far

I've just been conducting a brisk review of my output on these two blog pages of mine, and the findings are these:

Rather to my surprise (given my absurdly heavy workload of late, and my general disdain for the whole blogging concept), I have managed to develop a pretty regular blogging habit, adding something to one or other of the pages almost every day. With the exception of my recent out-of-town jaunt, which led to an interruption of nearly a week, I have rarely gone more than 24 hours without a post. (On the two or three occasions where Blogger asserts that I have gone three days without a post, this is down to a glitch in the site's clock/calendar: my posts are sometimes timed and/or dated somewhat inaccurately. I have never, in fact, gone more than 48 hours without a post. Well, not more 49 or 50 hours, anyway.)

The average frequency of contributions is 8-10 per week on Froogville, and 5-6 per week on Round-The-World Barstool Blues. However, since my pieces on the latter often tend to be more substantial, the overall word count is pretty similar on both blogs: around 8,000 to 9,000 words per month. At this rate, I'll soon have a book!!

In November, despite the unusual hiatus at the end of the month, there were 39 new posts on Froogville and 25 on Barstool Blues – almost identical to the preceding month.

By the end of November, there were 60 posts on Barstool Blues and 104 posts on Froogville (well, it did have a head start of 8 or 9 days on its brother). Not a bad total, considering I started them less than 3 months ago.

According to the Hit Counter I set up through, there have now been around 680 visits to each of the sites (in the 9 weeks since I installed the counters, that is; that was 2 or 3 weeks after I launched the blogs). Early on, I was registering a dozen or so hits a day, but that seems to have tapered off to 8 or 10 a day (although there is something of a peak at the weekends!). Tallies for the two blogs are uncannily identical: I can only assume that you are all loyally reading both together. Thank you.

Also, curiously, I am averaging nearly two page views per visit to each site. Since you can read almost everything on the main page, and nobody ever leaves me comments, I am somewhat mystified by this stat!!

Average page view time is around 4 minutes, so I guess you are taking the trouble to read quite a bit of what I'm putting up there. Again, thank you.

I'm not sure about this (how can I find out??), but I suspect visits through proxies are not registering on the counters – which could be quite a problem since, in my vexingly censorious country of residence, Blogspot has only been accessible via proxy sites like Anonymouse over the past month or so. And this isn't by any means the only country which suffers such problems.

There may also be a problem with Sitemeter itself. The counter has frequently been failing to appear on the bottom of the Froogville blog over the past couple of weeks, and my most recent weekly 'traffic report' recorded 0 visits to the site (although the counter itself – when it deigned to show itself again – showed 70-odd). I didn't receive a report for Barstool Blues at all this week.

Maybe I need to get some better traffic-monitoring toys……

Anyway, I deduce that I have a fairly solid readership base of somewhere between 30 and 60 – most of you already on my regular e-mailing list.

I hope you will stay with me, to see what else oozes out of my overfull cranium in the coming weeks and months.

And I hope you'll spread the word to your friends. It would be nice to see that weekly hit count going up rather than down!

And I do urge you to leave me a comment once in a while.

So far, only 6 people have done so. And one of them was me! Come on, people – let's get interactive!!