Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Little Something For The Weekend

I know that many of my followers enjoy a good quiz (alright, my two followers but when you have as few friends as I do you need a bit of spin). Last night it was my turn to do the questions at the Friday Night New Spitfire Quiz. So for those unfortunate enough to miss the occasion, here are the questions. I will add the answers after the weekend.
ROUND ONE   
1  Edward White was the first American to walk where? 
2  Which car manufacturer introduced models called the Ventura, the Victor and the Viscount?    
3  What type of beer is served in Coronation Street’s Rovers Return pub?     
4  General Pinochet was a former ruler of which country?     
5  Which football team did Jock Stein lead to European Cup success?     
6  What is the name of the fruit which until the 1950s was known as the Chinese Gooseberry?    
7  What type of animal can be a Texel or a Romney Marsh?     
8  On what island were the Bee Gees born?     
9  James is the first name of which Beatle?    
10 What is examined using an otoscope?    
ROUND TWO   
11  In which American State is Death Valley located?     
12  Where did someone “leave a cake out in the rain”?      
13  What word can be used to describe a type of sword frequently used in modern fencing competitions and a extremely thin sheet of metal often found in the kitchen?     
14  Who won the best actor Oscar at the 2009 Academy Awards earlier this week     
15  What do the initials IMF stand for? (3 points available)   
16  Which group had consecutive No 1 hits with Keep On Running and Somebody Help Me?   
17  Which building in France has a famous Hall of Mirrors?      
18  Thailand was formerly known by what name?    
19  What is the second letter of the Greek alphabet?      
20  Blanket, back and buttonhole are all types of what? 
ROUND 3 The answers to the following ten questions are all capital cities. In each case you will get a point for the name of the city and another point for the country it is capital of. For example, the answers to the question “Author of The Call of the Wild” would be London and Great Britain   
21  Means “Good Air” in Spanish? 
22  1981 hit record by the group Ultravox?  
23  Name of the 1957 Treaty establishing the European Community?  
24  Name of a form of wild cabbage which is cultivated for its small, leafy, green buds? 
25  Name of Greek hero whose elopement with Helen led to the Trojan War?  
26  American television detective played by Peter Falk? 
27  Patron saint of Portugal, Bulgaria, Greece … and England?  
28  Victorious General at the Battle of Waterloo? 
29  Hymn based on a poem by William Blake? 
30  Composer of White Christmas? 
ROUND FOUR   
31  Where in England according to the author Bram Stoker, did Dracula first set ashore?  
32  On what object will you see the inscription "standing on the shoulders of giants"?  
33  To the nearest £50 million, how much did the new Wembley cost? 
34  How many books in the Bible refer to eve biting the apple?  
35  In what year was the United Nations Charter signed in San Francisco? 
36  Who rode Nijinsky to win the Derby in 1970? 
37  What is the world’s most sparsely populated country?  
38  Which is larger, a croquet lawn or a tennis court?   
39  In Greek mythology what did Prometheus steal from Olympus?  
40  Three groups of two US Presidents have shared the same surname, name each?  
 
ROUND FIVE   
41  Clive Rice played cricket for which country?  
42  Who wrote the novel “A Clockwork Orange”?  
43  What word can go after “salad” and before “gown”?  
44  In which city does Batman operate?  
45  Which canal links the Mediterranean and the Red Sea?  
46  Which former “Are You Being Served” star died this week?   (Point for real name, point for character)   
47  In ten-pin bowling how many pins are there on the back row? 
48  Who is Colin Dexter’s most famous creation? 
49  In “The Magic Roundabout” what type of animal was Dylan? 
50  Chelsea have had four managers in the last two years, name them?  

Friday, February 27, 2009

Some Concert

The great thing about old postcards is that they can take you on such voyages of discovery. And the very best don't take you to Sunny Blackpool or Clacton-on-Sea, but take you back in time. Take, for example, this postcard which was printed by "The Printeries, Gorton Lane, Manchester" almost 100 years ago. Doing an Internet search for the card brings up just two references. One is an on-going eBay auction where the postcard is currently listed at $42 and the other is as an item held by the Museum of London. In both cases the card is undated and listed as a "Suffragette Card". The Museum of London catalogue describes it as follows "This satirical postcard was produced as propaganda for the pro-women's suffrage campaign. The programme for this fictional event at the House of Common ridicules MPs, including Lloyd George and the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, for their lack of support for women's suffrage". However, I am not sure that this is the case.
Dating the card is not too difficult - my best guess would be that it was published in 1912. The card makes several references to the "New Copyright Act" and this will have been the 1911 Copyright Act which came into force in July 1912. It also says that entry to the fictional concert will be "by Insurance Card" which will be a reference to the 1911 National Insurance Act which, again, came into force in July 1912. Other events can also be dated to around this time - the Siege of Sidney Street took place in 1911 and the Marconi Scandal (where Lloyd George and Sir Rufus Isaacs were accused on insider trading in Marconi shares)  came to light in mid 1912. 
Whilst the date of the card is fairly easy to calculate, it is less clear why it is listed as a pro-suffragette item. Whilst the suffragette movement is mentioned a couple of times this is not surprising : the activities of the  National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies reached a peak in 1911 and 1912. The claim that Home Secretary Reginald McKenna would sing "I Am The Softest Of The Family" and Prime Minister H H Asqith would sing "Wait and See" is more likely to be an attack on their lack of resolve in tackling what some saw as the threat posed by the Suffragettes and their campaign. It is far more likely that the card constitutes an attack on women's suffrage and also an attack on other "radical" ideas of the time such as National Insurance and Irish Home Rule.
Regardless of the politics involved, it would have been some concert.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

If Saint-Simon Has A Blog He Might Be Alive Now

A couple of weeks ago I added two new elements to the NfN site : a pair of Google widgets which display details of the blogs I am following and people who follow my blog. Having seen Reg Keeland's blog I thought I might usefully point other people in its direction and then I added the "Followers" element just in case anyone wished to do the same with this blog. Well, that's the official explanation. Actually, I just wanted it to look as though I had friends.
I have always been jealous of those people with Facebook sites who then have half a mile of "friends" listed underneath. In some cases these are just silly teenagers with half-drunken smiles, but in other cases they look like the kind of people you would like to boast about having as your friends : men with intellectual beards and women with world-knowing faces. The fear that I could never attract such friends has always been the main reason why I have shunned Facebook and similar sites.  I knew I was taking a bit of a chance when I incorporated the "Followers" element into the NfN sidebar, but after all, followers are not the same as friends. Genghis Khan had lots of followers, but not that many friends (well, at least, not many with all their limbs still attached).
So for the last two weeks I have sat back waiting for my many followers to declare themselves. And waited, and waited. During the long periods of boredom I have recalled the story of one of my favourite political philosophers, Saint-Simon, who in the early years of the nineteenth century became convinced that he had solved all the political and economic problems of the world. He hired himself a set of rooms in Paris and placed adverts in all the leading European newspapers inviting the political leaders of the age to visit him and learn to solutions to the ills of mankind. He too sat and waited alone through many a cold winter month until eventually, in the absence of any callers, he took a gun and blew his brains out.
Now don't get me wrong, I am not threatening to kill myself. I am not going to do a Saint-Simon. I have had visitors, plenty of them : I know this because I have also installed a clever element which tracks visitors to the Blog. In the last couple of days there have been people from London, Melbourne, Morrisville Pennsylvania, Wellington New Zealand, Blooklyn, Joensuu in Finland and good old Denver Colorado. They have all come calling at my virtual room, but nobody wants to follow me. Late last night, after pickling my sorrows in finest Single Malt, I went as far as signing myself up to be a follower, but in the cold and sober light of morning I decided that this looked just too sad and managed to get rid of it.
It's not that I am begging. It's not that I am desperate. But a few choice followers would be welcome. Nice people, good people, clever people, people with gravitas. Come on John Dee from Morrisville Pennsylvania, declare yourself.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

It's Not The Answer, It's The Fact The Question Is Being Asked

Yesterday I had lunch with one of my oldest friends (well maybe he is not my "oldest" friend but one of my most long-standing ones, but as you get older the two, inevitably and depressingly, become the same). As Joe and I sat and talked of times long gone and mutual friends long lost, the topic of conversation soon worked its way around to politics. Joe and I have shared a fascination for politics for well over forty years and on several occasions we have fought side by side on obscure local Labour Party sub-committees. Politics has always been an essential element of our friendship and we have argued and disagreed over the years with an intensity that only good friends can. Our ability to have such constructive disagreements was always based on the fact of shared fundamental beliefs. From the day that we met - at, I recall, a Labour Party Flower, Fruit and Vegetable Show back in the early days on Harold Wilson's government - we have agreed about most fundamentals and disagreed about most of the details.
And yesterday, for the first time, the question was asked : "So who will you vote for in the next election?". It seems such an innocent question, the kind of question friends must ask each other on a regular basis. But it was a bombshell of a question for us : one that had never been asked before in almost fifty years. One which never needed asking before.
At the end of the day, the answer for both of us will almost certainly be Labour. But our support will not come from approval for what they offer, but rather disapproval of the alternatives. The Party has changed (and you can tell how I approach my relationship with the Party in that I give it a capital letter like some people do with God) and I fear it no longer is offering credible solutions. This is not a political blog and therefore I won't go on about individual policies, but the fact that I am no longer comfortable in my party political home has an effect which transcends the political. With both of us, it was not the answer, but the fact that the question was being asked that was so revealing.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Reading Innes In Venice

Jane sent a link to my Daily Photo Blog image of the "Three Graces" to Charlotte who now lives in America. In return Charlotte sent me an e-mail with news of her forthcoming book of poetry which is to be published by Finishing Line Press in May. I have already ordered my copy and I will return to the subject when it arrives in a couple of months. But if you would like to order your copy in advance of publication you can do so at the Finishing Line Press website. The title of the book comes from one of Charlotte's poems which she dedicates as follows:
"For my grandfather, Bernhard Einzig (1874-1945), who died in a German concentration camp at Theresienstadt. His books, a three-volume set of the 1902 edition of The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin, are my only tangible inheritance".
With luck, the book will arrive just before we set sail for Venice. I can think of no better place to read the poems.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

CompareCompare.com

In these troubled times a barometer comes in handy. And when the troubled times are economic, an economic barometer is the thing to have in your kit bag. I have a gut feeling that the current economic decline is quite different to any we have had before and therefore the usual barometers are of little use. When I tire of playing Spider Solitaire I turn my hand to developing new, more accurate barometers. Perhaps the most advanced - and potentially the most exciting - I have come up with so far is based on the occupancy of the Pennine Business Park (which, conveniently, is just a short dog-walk away), but I am reluctant to discuss this in detail before the article I have submitted to the Journal of Applied Economics is published. However, I was working the other day on an extension to the main theory which attempted to bolt-on  a mathematical conceptualisation of advertising spread when I came across an interesting idea which might just make me my fortune.
I had assumed that the largest exponential rise in television advertising by subject would have been debt agencies ("we can consolidate all your debts into just one manageable monthly payment") but what I hadn't recognised is that this category was primarily associated with phase 2 of recession - the MGWHNM (My God We Have No Money) stage - rather than phase 1 - the WMTOB (We Must Tighten Our Belts) stage - which most of us are still in. And the type of advertising most associated with the WMTOB stage is the price comparison site. You may have seen these things - gocompare.com or confused.com : sites which promise to instantly find you the best deal, the cheapest hotels or the lowest cost loans in the entirety of cyberspace. At one time, the promotion of such sites was a minority thing, carefully hidden away on Google sidebars. Now they are main stream and hold the place midway through Coronation Street that used to be reserved for soap powder or drinking chocolate. 
I am not suggesting setting up another price comparison site - the market is, I suspect, already flooded. There is however a need for a comparison site of comparison sites. Take a bow Gocomparecompare.com or VeryConfused.com. Within a few days my new site will be ready and will be able to direct potential clients in the direction of one of a dozen or more price comparison sites. All you will need to do is feed in certain items of information - eye colour, birth sign, distance between big toe and small toe in centimetres - and it will scientifically direct you to the best price comparison site for you. It will all be free and will be paid for by a small percentage fee of the small percentage fee taken by the first line price comparison site.
I recognise that there is a danger in announcing this idea on the internet. By the time I launch my site someone might already have stepped forward to fill the gap in the market. But I am prepared : I have just bought exclusive rights of the URL gocomparecomaprecompare.com. See you there.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Picture Worth 240 Words

I recently acquired a new postcard which shows Manningham Lane in Bradford in 1902. On the left of the Francis Frith card are the Royal Standard Hotel, the Theatre Royal, and the Theatre Tavern, all of which are now sadly gone. The grand building in the centre background was the Bradford office of the Yorkshire Penny Bank. The last time I checked - about a year ago - it was occupied by a bar called "Brass" which had, thank goodness, retained a fair amount of the internal decorations.
All the buildings in the foreground were still in existence until the 1980s and 90s when they either burnt down or were demolished to make way for a monstrous new inner ring road. The Royal Standard was originally built as a Turkish Bath which came to have its own licenced refreshment rooms. Eventually the refreshments superseded the bathing and it changed its name to the Royal Standard Hotel. Towards the end of its life the Royal Standard became a bit of a dive (the whole Manningham Lane area had fallen on hard times by then) and it was a regular haunt of Peter Sutcliffe, more famously known as The Yorkshire Ripper. 
The message on the reverse of the card is not particularly interesting ("The schools is near to here. This is a fine street. I hope you are well and happy"). In this case, it's the picture side which tells the story.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

King Tutankhamen and a Jug Of Moonshine

Although I have not mentioned it for some time, I am still a grateful recipient of NewspaperARCHIVE.Com's Daily Perspective Newsletter. Today's features story was the discovery in February 1923 of the tomb of King Tutankhamen and the featured newspaper was the splendid "Daily Northwestern". The lead story is headed by the rather terse headline "Reach Sarcophagus of Ancient Pharaoh", but as always with these old newspapers, it is the minor stories on the same page where all the interest is to be found.
For example, there is a piece headed "Hearing In The Todd Divorce Case Is Set For Wednesday In Winnebago County Court" which tells part of the story of the divorce between the Rev, Edwin W Todd and his wife Jeanne. The final paragraph on the page is headed "Gossip Has Been Active For Some Time" and gets to the point where the gossip is about to be discussed and states "continued on page 2". There is a strange story about a California man, Phil Katz, who had been left 1,000 Francs in the will of a Frenchman for whom he once explained the meaning of the word "pershicacity". One can only assume that Mr Katz's perspicacity did not extend to spelling. There is a story about a Bellot policeman, one Walter Lovelace, who had been arrested on charges of selling moonshine whiskey (Prohibition was well underway in 1923). 
Like all old newspapers, it is a fascinating read with the ability to bring history to life. Where else could you find King Tutankhamen enjoying a jug of moonshine whiskey.

A Bloggers' Dilemma : Learn Swedish Or Live

I have not posted to any of my blogs for a week now and some kind people have been enquiring as to whether or not I was ill. I have not been ill. Perhaps, others have suggested, I have been busy with tasks of the real world such as paying bills and returning my library books. No, I have not been getting my affairs in order. The more insightful of my correspondents have recognised that my wife has been on leave from work for the last week and therefore concluded that I have been subjected to a route-march based on that popular coffee-table book "1001 Shopping Centres To Visit Before You Die". Indeed over the last few days I have become intimately acquainted with all types of carpet sample books, fabric swatches and bathroom catalogues : but, in truth, this is not the real reason for my absence. The truth is that during every spare moment I have been reading the second book in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy which has only just been published in English.
Mindful of the fact that second books by authors who have achieved stunning debuts can often be disappointing, I approached the book with a degree of trepidation, but I should not have worried, it is superb. All the tautness, suspense, characterisation and good, old-fashioned thrills which were in the first book are there again in the second. Within a few pages it has taken you over and each spare moment has to be devoted to working your way through the 500+ pages. Blogs don't stand a chance.
Steig Larsson was a campaigning Swedish journalist who wrote a series of three novels for his own pleasure. In 2004 he decided to take the manuscripts to a publisher to see if they would be interested in them. Shortly afterwards he died of a massive heart attack. He never saw the books published and he never knew that they would go on to become an international publishing sensation. The first two books - "The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo" and "The Girl Who Played With Fire" - have been translated and published in English, the third is expected to be ready later this year.
Many years ago I was mid-way through reading Len Deighton's "Game, Set and Match" trilogy of books when I was told that I might be quite ill. At the time we were fairly poor and an occasional paperback book was a rare luxury. I had never bought a hard-back novel in my life. By the time of the diagnosis, I had read the first two books in the series but the third was only available in hardback. The first thing I did after receiving the somewhat disturbing news was to go out and buy the hardback.
As it turned out the diagnosis was based on a wrongly-calibrated machine and I was as fit as a fiddle, but I had been taught a lesson about priorities. As I have got older I have tended to buy more novels in hardback form (you never know how long you have left), but with the Millennium Trilogy I have a problem as the hardback of the English-version of the third novel won't be available until September at the earliest. It looks like I will either have to learn Swedish, or to live a bit longer. I think, on balance, I will live a bit longer.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Not Enough ... But Close

When you look back into history you have to wonder occasionally "how on earth could people do that?". Take public executions, for example : what kind of person could sit and watch the slow torture and death of another human being? Can you ever get into the mindset of the kind of person who can take pleasure at the suffering and misery of others?
Yes you can : just watch the House of Commons Treasury Committee interview the chairmen of the big UK banks. Enjoy their humiliation, take pleasure at their discomfort, rejoice in their anguish. As Hooker said to Gondorff at the end of "The Sting", "You were right, Henry, It's not enough ... but it's close"

Monday, February 09, 2009

Take A Seat, It Looks Like Bert Was Right

Some forty years ago I was a student at Fircroft College in Birmingham. Fircroft was a hotbed of left-wing, working-class, revolutionary fervour and its student community had representatives of almost every radical grouping in existence at the time : from Stalinist to Trotskyite, from syndicalist to anarchist. If you added the staff into the mixture there was a sprinkling of Labour Party members and even the odd Liberal. And there was one unrepentant Tory - Bert the Gardener. 
At some stage in the early history of the College, someone had the bright idea that the intellectual endeavours of the students should be counter-balanced by physical activity. The physical activity chosen was gardening : each student had to undertake at least two hours of gardening every week. The grounds of the College were quite extensive and could easily soak up the gardening efforts of the fifty or so students. But we students considered ourselves at the vanguard of the new revolutionary spirit of the times. We should be up and about building barricades, marching down streets and leafleting the workers : not weeding the cabbages. We turned all our youthful energy into trying to get out of our gardening duties.
Our weekly efforts were recorded in an exercise book which was kept by Bert the Gardener in his hut. Outside working hours the hut was safely locked up. Each week, the College Principal - a splendid man called Hopkins who once handed out copies of Hobbes' Leviathan to the students who were occupying his office - would inspect the gardening book to ensure that everyone had completed their two-hours' worth. I'm not sure what the punishment for not doing your gardening time was, but I recall it was something we all wanted to avoid.
And so it came to pass that one night I was part of a raiding party which had a plan. We would break into Bert's hut after he had gone home and "doctor" the book. Originally the idea was to burn the book and so strike a blow against bourgeois convention, but eventually we decided to just forge the relevant columns so it looked as though we had done our gardening for the week. We crept up to the hut in the dusk of the evening and prised open the window. The smallest and slightest member of our gang (I can't remember of it was Irish Tom or Singapore Mike) was hoisted through the window only to discover Bert sat there, smoking his pipe and reading his Daily Telegraph.
We received a lengthy ticking off and a punishment which, I seem to recall, included a double dose of gardening that week. If we didn't accept the punishment, details of our twilight raiding party would be passed on to the Principle. We took our punishment like men but I couldn't resist getting a parting verbal shot in. "You Telegraph-reading Tory bastard", I said, "you will see that we are victorious in the end". "No", replied Bert with a calmness that was wonderful to behold, "in the end you will finish up reading the Daily Telegraph as well".
It was game and set to Bert and this morning, if he had been watching from his gardeners' hut in the sky, he might have thought it was match as well. I went to the shop and bought a copy of the Daily Telegraph. But just in case you are smiling with a gentle satisfaction up there, Bert, let me explain. Isobel has got her eye on a new settee from M&S but she is unsure whether it would be too big for our room. Eventually I suggested that we should cut a paper pattern the size of the settee and try it out for size. The Guardian has now gone Berliner size, and the only relatively suitable alternatives - the Indie or the Times - are tabloid. So when I got to the shop this morning I had to break a promise I made myself forty years ago. I bought the Daily Telegraph.
LATER : Having bought it to cut it up, I couldn't resist having a little read whilst I drunk my morning tea. And actually, there is some quite good stuff in there. Might even buy it again at some stage. So, today, there will be one happy gardener in heaven.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

A Bit Too Much History

I have always been fond of "bitty history". To celebrate the end of the twentieth century, the BBC commissioned a long-running radio series called "This Sceptred Isle" which, by means of 216 daily 15 minute episodes, told the story of Britain from Roman times to the death of Queen Victoria. The format suited the task wonderfully and suddenly history became as digestible as a fresh chocolate eclair. Spurred on by the success of the series the BBC followed it with "This Sceptred Isle - the Twentieth Century" which, by means of a further 100 episodes, brought the story up to date. Next they came up with "This Sceptred Isle - Empire" which attempted to tell the story of the British Empire in a similar way, but which - for me - never quite worked. That bitty chronological approach which worked so well with a coherent whole such as the British Isles, did not work with something as complex and multi-faceted as the British Empire. 
More recently the BBC has launched "America : Empire of Liberty" which will tell the history of the United States in 90 15 minute episodes. As I write the series has just dealt with the Civil War, and - based on the first forty episodes - the series marks a return to the form of "This Sceptred Isle". But whilst gaining my daily fix of "Empire of Liberty", I have also been listening to another BBC offering (this one from BBC Radio Ulster) : a programme with the extraordinary title of "A Short History of Ireland in 240 Episodes". 
I have to say that I have really tried with "A Short History", listening to the first fifteen or twenty episodes and trying to remember the difference between the late Celts and the early Vikings, and the significance of Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf. But the more I listen, the more my head spins and the more I forget. At the moment it is a "Bit Too Far", so perhaps I will put it aside until after I have got America out of the way.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Partition walls

Our development is excitingly having the new rooms created - on the ground floor, to start - i.e., partition walls built.

Very difficult to photograph to show the effect... but I thought this photo (above) was quite a pleasing effect in its own artistic way.

At least in this one you can see its a wall on the right and a doorway straight ahead!

A little way to go still, I guess....