Monday, October 31, 2005

Szybkiego powrotu do zdrowia, Daquise

We were sorry to hear that one of our favourite restaurants is closed following a kitchen fire. Daquise, in South Kensington, has been serving good, cheap Polish food for nearly 60 years; according to this article, it was a gathering place for the Polish government-in-exile during the Communist era. Just two years ago, the restaurant survived a proposal to knock down the block where it was located and build luxury flats.

Daquise is our favourite place to go after a Prom or a visit to the Kensington museums. We hope it will be back in business soon.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Passport for Planet Woman

I think I'm shopping above my demographic. Since we started having our groceries delivered by Ocado, they've been giving us free samples that seem designed for someone else's lifestyle entirely. It was all very amusing when we were getting cognac and flavoured soya milk, but recently they've switched to introductory issues of upscale women's magazines and catalogues.

I don't often visit the land of women's publications, and these keep giving me culture shock. It's not the fluff about clothes and diets, which I expect; it's the offhand remarks and images that reveal an utterly foreign outlook on life, making me wonder: Do most women really think like that? Did I miss the initiation?

I first encountered this with a sample of
Easy Living, a new magazine aimed at women between 30 and 50. The feeling of foreignness came upon me during an article claiming that women often buy things based on ambitions that they will never fulfill (for example, joining gyms they will never go to, or buying elaborate cookbooks when they live on takeaways). I could just about go along with that until the author revealed what she considered to be the ultimate example of this failing: subscribing to The Economist.

Now, I subscribe to The Economist, and I usually read the whole thing; and what's more, I find it more interesting than Easy Living. But the author and editors clearly thought this sentence would make the average 30-to-50-year-old woman nod and chuckle in self-recognition.

Our next delivery included a
Boden catalogue, featuring pictures like this:

I'm afraid my first impulse on seeing these models is not to pick up the phone and order the clothes they're wearing. My first impulse is to call a doctor. I don't expect or want a mainstream fashion catalogue to feature Dawn French, but it's certainly possible to find lovely, slim models who don't look like they're about to fall over from emaciation. Here are a couple of examples from catalogues that I actually get by choice, Lands' End and Traidcraft:

Lands' End model Traidcraft model Of course, Lands' End is a former sail manufacturer that specialises in a sporty, casual look, and Traidcraft is avowedly for granola-muchers, so neither of them could be called typical of fashion-land. Perhaps folks in that strange country really believe that the models above have the perfect shape, which would mean that those at left are bloated and grotesque. I'm not familiar enough with their customs to say.

Last and worst was
Grazia, 'Britain's First Weekly Glossy,' which arrived last Thursday. Inoculated by my previous encounters, I held out for a while. I got through the stupid celebrity news. (It seems that when actresses pop out for a pint of milk, they often don't look as good as they do at film premieres. A team of dedicated editors is working around the clock to unravel this mystery.) I coped with the fact that the only dress in the magazine I liked appeared in a still from Bleak House. But I could no longer bear it when the magazine praised a celebrity for wearing a skirt suit without 'looking like Condoleezza Rice.'

Excuse me? I disagree vehemently with Dr Rice on most issues and I hate where she and her boss are leading my country, but it never occurred to me to criticise her clothes. In every picture I've seen of her, she's been dressed like a grown woman doing an important job -- which is, of course, precisely what she is. However you feel about Dr Rice and her politics, you can't deny that she is one of the few women in this world who is always assured of being taken seriously.

It's a well-known misogynist strategy to undermine a powerful woman by questioning her 'femininity' or attractiveness. Such attacks are meant to keep not only the woman in question, but all women, in their proper place. Yet here we have a magazine allegedly produced by and for young, modern, forward-thinking women, mocking Dr Rice for not dressing sexily enough -- unfavourably comparing her to a bit of bone-structure-for-hire who probably didn't even choose that skirt suit herself.

If that's how they do things on Planet Woman, I'm content to be an alien.

Nailing one's colours to the mast

This morning I woke up to Radio 4's announcement that one or the other candidate in the terminally boring Tory leadership contest had 'nailed his colours to the mast'. (Apparently he promised to cut taxes, if you can imagine a politician taking such a courageous stand.) This made me think once again about the evolution of that metaphor. The phrase comes from the navy and originally meant 'to rule out the possibility of surrender'; as the 1898 edition of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says, 'When the colours are nailed to the mast they cannot be lowered in proof of submission.' (This is not always a good thing, as readers of Patrick O'Brian's novel The Mauritius Command will know.)

Nowadays, however, I most often hear the phrase used to mean 'state one's opinion' or 'make one's position clear' (although, strictly speaking, that's hoisting one's colours). I don't know when the popular usage changed, but it seems to have happened sometime in the past 75 years. (The 1922 edition of
Roget's Thesaurus lists 'nail one's colours to the mast' with synonyms like 'throw away the scabbard,' 'set one’s back against the wall' and 'burn one’s bridges,' suggesting that 'no surrender' was still the predominant meaning then.)

There are enough people around who know the original meaning to make the phrase ambiguous in some contexts. Take David Whoever's statement about taxes. If he was 'nailing his colours to the mast' in the modern sense, then he was simply saying, 'This is what I think.' But if he was doing it in the original sense, then he was saying, 'This is what I think, and I'll allow myself and my supporters to be destroyed rather than compromise.' Personally, if I were a Tory, I would be wary of a leader who took the latter position. But on second thought, if I were a Tory, I might find it refreshing to have a leader who actually had a reason for letting the party sink.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

He knows I'm gonna stay

Radio 2 documentaries - you've gotta love them haven't you? Well, OK you don't have to, but if you cook on Saturday nights, you have to listen to something.
This weekend just gone, in their continuing mission to narrate the history of every band ever to exist, they reached the
Mamas & Papas - certainly not a bad act, and one with a dramatic enough history, but with Mama Cass and John Phillips having gone to the great free festival in the sky, so to speak, there was no way we'd get the complete inside story, and instead there was plenty of room for the usual filler : music writers. Now I think music journalism is a more derided profession than it always deserves, but the written word is its natural home. And if, as in this case, they weren't there at the time, it seems a little presumptuous of them to tell us what Lou Adler felt. Of course they've researched this, but I could have done that too, and frankly they might as well have added the information to the presenter's script.
Worse still, the presence of the microphone seems to turn critics who are no doubt perfectly fine in print or in person into showboaters, desperate to get themselves into the trailer by suggesting that Mama Cass "let it all hang out - literally" [because she was a bit overweight - geddit!!??!!] or that she had a voice like "liquid honey".

Best of all was this assessment of their first hit,
'California Dreamin'' from a scribe I've never heard of before. Apparently it's "like the Beach Boys but without Brian Wilson's angst." We'll leave aside the fact that the reference to angst is hardly the most accurate depiction of Wilson's music circa 1965 (there's sadness to be sure, but it's not that sort). He seems to have missed the point of the song altogether - you know and I know that they were in California when they recorded it, but the viewpoint is that of someone pining for the Sunshine State; hence "I'd be safe and warm if I was in LA". The brilliance is in the line "If I didn't tell her I could leave today" - you know the protagonist never is going to go, and she (or he) probably knows it too: the preacher certainly does. And yet having the dream there is a comfort and it's valuable for that alone; I've always thought that the myth of California was more exciting than the real thing.
Perhaps this is part of the reason why the version that the Beach Boys eventually did release fails so spectacularly - they're just so deeply and irrefutable Californian that the imagery falls flat. Admittedly, the biggest problem is that they recorded it in 1986 (and for a Greatest Hits collection to boot)by which time they were a spent force in the studio, and the ugly production values of the time do it no favours. Still, the version that I remember the
River City People performing on Pebble Mill At One seemed to count for more.

New James Lileks book

Damn Lileks, always finding ways to separate me from my money. He didn't even trail this one on the site. Still, it should tide me over till the Joe Ohio book comes out.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Glory glory hallelujah

It looks as if Wikipedia's entry on the schoolyard classic 'Mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school' is going to survive a vote on its deletion. It's good to see that those who don't consider such matters worthy of encyclopedists' attention are outnumbered by those who do.

Personally, I find children's lore fascinating. Until very recently, kids didn't have the Internet; they've never had a voice in traditional media (sure, children's entertainment abounds, but it consists mainly of adults talking to children, not children talking to each other); they don't write down their playground chatter for future generations, and until the 20th century most scholars considered such things beneath their notice. Yet many schoolyard parodies, rhymes and sayings manage to spread from child to child throughout the English-speaking world. In
The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (the book quoted at the bottom of this page), Peter and Iona Opie describe a striking example of this contagion from the 1930s:

A notorious instance of the transmission of scurrilous verses occurred in 1936 at the time of the Abdication. The word-of-mouth rhymes which then gained currency were of a kind which could not possibly, at that time, have been printed, broadcast, or even repeated in the music hall. One verse, in particular, made up one can only wonder by whom,

Hark the Herald Angels sing,
Mrs. Simpson's pinched our king,

was on juvenile lips not only in London, but as far away as Chichester in the south, and Liverpool and Oldham in the north. News that there was a constitutional crisis did not become public property until around 25 November of that year, and the king abdicated on 10 December. Yet at a school Christmas party in Swansea given before the end of term, Christmas 1936, when the tune played happened to be 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing', a mistress found herself having to restrain her small children from singing this lyric, known to all of them, which cannot have been composed much more than three weeks previously. Many an advertising executive with a six-figure budget at his disposal might envy such crowd penetration.

I did some work on the 'burning of the school' article after finding it via the votes-for-deletion page, but it still needs improvement. I'd particularly like to know when the song's existence was first recorded. I would guess that the parody appeared not long after the writing of the Battle Hymn itself -- and perhaps versions of it were being sung even earlier. Some children in Lincolnshire whom the Opies interviewed sang 'Glory, glory, hallelujah/Teacher hit me with a ruler' and identified this as a parody of the Battle Hymn's predecessor, 'John Brown's Body'.

(Chris had never heard of the song, however; seeing the lyrics to 'Mine eyes have seen the glory ...' on Wikipedia, he asked me, 'Who wrote this stuff, 50 Cent?')

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Get Fuzzy quiz

Chris and I got the same result, which doesn't really surprise me. Mind you, Chris does have certain Satchel-like characteristics, too.

You are Rob Wilco!  You own Bucky Katt and Satchell Pooch, even if it doesn't seem like it at times.  You are very sarcastic and do your best to co-exist with your pets.
You are Rob Wilco! You own Bucky Katt and Satchel
Pooch, and put up with their antics constantly.
You work in an Ad Agency, and do your best to
balance work and dealing with your pets. You
listen to Leo Kottke and like the New Zealand
All Blacks along with many other great things.
You are very sarcastic and generally wear

Which Get Fuzzy Character Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

(The cartoon panel leaves out the punch line, in which Satchel says, 'No, I think it's a plain old conger eel.')

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Pottos stay put

I've heard back from London Zoo, and it seems the pottos will be staying there and will be on display in the old elephant pavilion. So I can keep up my regular visits to them, which is good to know.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Whither the potto?

London Zoo's pottos, like the rest of their small and nocturnal mammals, have recently had to move house so that their building can be refurbished.

The question is, where have they gone? Some of the animals are going to be displayed in another building during the two years of renovation; others will stay at the zoo, but remain off exhibit; and still others will stay temporarily at different zoos. The zoo's press release doesn't say which group the pottos are in. This isn't just bizarre curiosity (though it is that as well); I've adopted a potto for two years running and hope I'll be able to continue. I've e-mailed the zoo, so I should find out soon.

The small-mammal house refurbishment is one of many
changes coming to London Zoo. They're planning to do away with cages and glass enclosures, keeping the animals in more natural 'environments' where they are separated from visitors by moats or low fences. They've already completed two sections: walk-through exhibits of squirrel monkeys and African birds. We've been through both of these, and they look great. Around the time that the small-mammal house reopens, the zoo will also be starting a frog centre, from which they'll run captive breeding programmes for some of the world's most endangered amphibians. Give me all this and pottos, and I'll be in zoo heaven.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Breakin' the LAW!

Over at Volodymyr Campaign, we're planning to take part in tomorrow's international walk for Belarusian democracy. Eastern European politics aren't a fashionable cause in Britain. I won't say how many people we're expecting; it sounds much better to say that we've doubled the numbers since our last event. Ahem.

Last night I was alarmed to receive this e-mail from the Metropolitan Police:

Your website, & details of the walk on the 15th October have come to my attention...
This unit is responsible for helping organisations manage their marches/demos safely & we plan the police response to all major events in Central London.

We are a little concerned as we know nothing about your proposed event. Certain events require the organiser to provide police with 6 clear days notice. There are certain areas of Central London where marches & other events are restricted.

We will give you any advice & assistance you need for the event but it is in your interests to let us know what you are doing.

I need to know how many people you expect, whether or not you propose to walk on the road, & a number of other factors concerning your event.

Please call me on the numbers below as soon as possible.

[Name and number removed]

I spoke to the police officer, who explained that the Public Order Planning Unit had found our website and concluded that we must be a large organisation with the potential to bring London to a halt. After I stopped laughing, I assured him this was not the case, and he told me we would be OK to go ahead with the walk.

The fact is, though, we're still breaking the law. According to the Public Order Act 1986 (laws made before 1988 aren't online, but here's a Home Office
memo discussing the relevant section), organisers must give "six clear days notice" of any procession intended 'to demonstrate support for or opposition to the views or actions of any group; or to publicise a cause or campaign; or to mark or commemorate an event.' According to this site, there is no minimum number to constitute a procession. If you and your grandmother plan to walk down Main Street to give the mayor a letter about a traffic crossing, you need to inform the police a week beforehand or you could be fined up to a thousand pounds.

Needless to say, the police don't have the time or interest to go around enforcing this law. But it's there whenever the government wants to use it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Mice All Over

A few days ago, an old post on Google Groups called my attention to a fascinating-sounding book called Mice All Over by Peter Crowcroft. Apparently it's a study of the behaviour of mice in the wild, and every review I've found (a couple of examples are here and here) agrees that it's well-written and charming. Unfortunately, it's also long out of print (yes, you can buy it secondhand, but it's the principle of the thing).

It occurred to me that this is exactly the sort of book that
Dover was designed to rescue, so I suggested it to them today. I have no idea how seriously they take such suggestions, but we shall see.

Peter Crowcroft's son Simon has started a
memorial page for him.; it seems he had quite an eventful life, including a brief marriage to Miss Tasmania.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Earthquake in Kashmir

Kashmiri blogger Samir Bhat has a must-read post about the aftermath of Saturday's earthquake:

Quakes shake consciences. It shook the whole of valley and Pakistan to its innards. Hundreds of thousands died. They say more than 15,000 may have perished in Muzzafarabad alone. One of our relatives -- living in Muzzafarabad -- told my family over telephone that his teacher wife was missing. He fears the worst. She is among the countless unaccounted for. Nature's fury is cadaverous, merciless. It leaves children and the sick trampled in its tracks. Thats exactly what happened in Kashmir. School children are still buried in the rubble of their classrooms and dormitories,the state administration is dazed, too paralysed to act.

I talked to my family many times over on Phone. I called up my friends in Kashmir also. They are all in a state of shock. Traumatised and scared. I think it is natural after a major accident for people to behave like that. I'm stressed out -- away from home -- watching the horror unfold on my TV. Sheer imagery of people, blood still dripping, being carried away, of women wailing, of the sick shivering in the cold. It looks a slice of the Armageddon but this pain is too real to be passed over.

I was informed that my bedroom -- back home -- has developed cracks. All books fell off my book racks and piled up on floor. "Only a copy of the Holy Q'uran remained on the shelf," my little sister added. I could only gasp. I don't believe in such stuff but in times of great adversity, only the unpalatable becomes palatable.

Read the whole thing.

Pickled Politics has a good list of organisations accepting donations for the relief effort.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Church and the Bible

Ekklesia reports:

Roman Catholic bishops have published a teaching document which points out that sections of the bible can not be taken literally, and challenges many ideas held by some Evangelicals about both creation and the end of the world.

“We should not expect to find in Scripture full scientific accuracy or complete historical precision,” they say in The Gift of Scripture.

Some Christians want a literal interpretation of the story of creation, as told in Genesis, taught alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution in schools, believing “intelligent design” to be an equally plausible theory of how the world began.

But the first 11 chapters of Genesis, in which two different stories of creation are told, are among those that this country’s Catholic bishops insist cannot be “historical”.

In the document, the bishops acknowledge their debt to biblical scholars. They say the Bible must be approached in the knowledge that it is “God’s word expressed in human language” and that proper acknowledgement should be given both to the word of God and its human dimensions.

The Bible is true in passages relating to human salvation, they say, but continue: “We should not expect total accuracy from the Bible in other, secular matters.”

They go on to condemn fundamentalism for its “intransigent intolerance” and to warn of “significant dangers” involved in a fundamentalist approach.

As examples of passages not to be taken literally, the bishops cite the early chapters of Genesis, comparing them with early creation legends from other cultures, especially from the ancient East. The bishops say it is clear that the primary purpose of these chapters was to provide religious teaching and that they could not be described as historical writing, reports the Times newspaper.

Similarly, they refute popular interpretations of the book of Revelation, which see it as predicting contemporary events.

(I've tried to find a copy of the document online, but so far all I can find are offers from the Catholic Truth Society to sell it to me for four quid.)

Naturally, the media's knowledge of religion being what it is, The Times has given this story the inflammatory headline
'Catholic Church no longer swears by truth of the Bible'. (Check out the list of 'true' vs. 'untrue' passages. Are journalists actually required to hand over their brains when they sell out to Murdoch?)

In fact, the bishops are merely reiterating the Church's long-held position on scripture. The Catholic Church has never believed in a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible; that is a Protestant idea, and a relatively recent one.
St Augustine read the first chapters of Genesis as an allegory.

I for one am very glad to see this document. I've recently been disturbed to find fundamentalist tendencies creeping into individual Catholics' reading of the Bible. I remember one Scripture group where a couple of us were discussing factors in the Johannine community that might have caused the author of John to write about the washing of feet rather than the institution of the Eucharist. We were interrupted by horrified cries of 'But John wrote this! It's an eyewitness account! Maybe he was just distracted when Jesus broke the bread!'

For too long, the Church has failed to provide guidance to lay Catholics reading the Bible. Meanwhile, fundamentalists have loudly proclaimed themselves to have the only true interpretation of Scripture. The lack of an effective response by churches with more liberal interpretations has led to Christians far outside the fundamentalist tradition being influenced by fundamentalist ideas, and has even affected the reputation of Christianity as a whole. (It's very frustrating and painful to hear people speak disdainfully of 'Christians,' when what they really mean is 'Pat Robertson.') I hope that this document is just the start of a new trend.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Curious George Cashes In

There's a new Curious George movie coming.

The animated George looks like

The movie stars Will Ferrell and Drew Barrymore and has a soundtrack by 'alternative rock singer/songwriter Jack Johnson.'

I hate Hollywood.

(Also, someone needs to tell the USA Today reporter that there are tail-less monkeys -- the
Barbary macaques of Gibraltar, for example.)

Saturday, October 01, 2005


I've written before about our troubles with Royal Mail/Parcelfarce. So when I got home yesterday to find a 'sorry we missed you' card on the doormat, I thought I could look forward to a few days of arguing with automated telephone lines, sitting on hold to the depot, and having at least one redelivery request ignored before finally managing to collect my Amazon purchases (the next three Aubrey-Maturin novels) on Tuesday or so.

When I got upstairs, however, I realised that the card wasn't from Royal Mail, but from a company I'd never heard of called Parcelnet. It gave a local number to ring for redelivery. I called it expecting to be greeted by a computer; instead, I got through to someone's house.

'Erm ... hello,' I said to the elderly woman who answered the phone. 'Sorry to trouble you, but someone wrote this number on a card ...'

'Oh yes,' she said. 'He won't be able to redeliver until tomorrow now; is that all right?'

Tomorrow? As in Saturday? 'Yes, that's fine.'

She had a quick discussion with someone else in the room. 'Will you be home in the morning?'

'Yes, we should be.'

'He'll be there before 11.'

And shortly after 10 this morning, a cheerful man who looked spookily like Patrick O'Brian arrived with my books.

I couldn't find out much about
Parcelnet from their amateurish website, but from other sources I learned that the company employs local people to work part-time making deliveries in their area. As Pete Ashton explains:

Parcelnet, on the other hand, employ mothers with large cars. I know this because I worked at one of their depots for a few days. Deliveries for the local area are split up by postcode and in the morning a bunch of normal looking people arrive in their normal looking cars and pick them up. I imagine they're parents with kids in school looking to earn a bit of part time cash. Drop the kids off, pick up the parcels, deliver them, pick the kids up.

Or, as in our case, the couriers are retirees looking to supplement their pensions.

I'm very happy with the service we got, but it doesn't say much for Royal Mail that Amazon thinks its parcels can be delivered more effectively by a company using a slightly more sophisticated version of the paper round.