Monday, 30 June 2014

Lead-lined Knickers, Anybody?

One might have thought that plain common sense would have suggested to the pioneers of X-rays that something invisible which could pass right through you and leave pictures of your bones on photographic plates might not be frightfully good for you. Fortunately for the development of science, the arts, indeed almost all really interesting things, the one thing pioneers seem to have in common is a shortage of that boring overrated thing common sense. They carried recklessly on — I have seen a photograph taken in later life of one of the Curies’ hands; it’s like a still from the  ’fifties film ‘The Fly’ — and, not content with making short-exposure photographs they came up with the fluoroscope — great fun but (and) horribly dangerous.

In the fluoroscope the photographic plate is replaced by a glass screen coated with something that glows — usually green — when X-rays hit it. The subject stands between the screen and the X-ray tube, which by now was specially made for the job, using very high voltages to make the electrons move faster, and an anode cunningly designed to encourage them to miss it, whizzing past to hit the glass and be transmogrified. Soon there were fluoroscopes in all the fancy clinics, and patients would stand in front of the screen, perhaps moving about a little or breathing in and out, for ages while doctors peered, humming and hahing and rubbing their chins.

When I was a child the classier shoe-shops had things called ‘Pedoscopes’. Children were dragged kicking and screaming (I do wish parents would take more notice of what their children tell them) to poke their feet, clad in new shoes, into a hole near the bottom of the thing, and they, parents, and shoe-seller could peer in through the top as the child wiggled its toes and the adults nodded approvingly to see the growing-space. I found them fascinating and unlike other children had to be dragged kicking and screaming away from them. No wonder I have flat feet and hammer toes: these things, like the fluoroscopes used for chest examinations, were giving people vast doses of X-rays. Pedoscopes suddenly and quietly disappeared, almost overnight.

In the pioneer days imagination and courage to the point of foolhardiness were virtues. Now that the great virtue is caution to the point of pusillanimity — Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow talked proleptically of people being made to live in bungalows in case they fell downstairs — X-rays are done photographically again, even digitally, and exposures measured in milliseconds. No doubt there are now fewer cases of people being damaged by over-exposure to X-rays. But something less quantifiable has been lost.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

I Can See Right Through You

A while ago, frustrated by the sullen unresponsiveness of my readers, I put here a list of subjects, asking people to send it back with ticks against things they might like me to write about. So far just two people have responded, one of whom sent the marked list back, (I’ve told her privately what the plural of ‘Clitoris’ is), while the other suggested other things I might write about, among them ‘How X-Rays Work’. (It is pleasing to find I am not the only person with total, unquestioning confidence in my ability to explain anything and everything.) Here goes:

I described in my text ‘The Anatomy of Wireless’ (You can have the whole 37 pages in pdf — just ask) the way in which electrons can be ‘boiled off’ a hot wire inside an evacuated glass envelope, and how they can then be attracted across the empty — really, literally empty — space to a positively charged metal plate. (Electrons have a negative charge, you see — homophobes will be pleased to hear that they are never attracted to each other).

The electrons travel faster than a ferret up a trouser-leg, and many overshoot the positive plate, or anode, and hit the glass, and some of them in some sense get through it. What do you mean ‘In some sense’? Either they get through or they don’t. Well, yes and no. Oh, stop it. No, really: if we think about electrons at all, we probably think of them as tiny little tennis-balls. Most of the time that makes sense, but they are so really, really invisibly tiny they sometimes behave not as ‘things’ at all, but as waves. (If you think about it, a wave, unlike the water or whatever in which it occurs, is not really an actual physical ‘thing’.) Scientists for a while used the word ‘Wavicle’ for electrons and such-like. The electrons that get through the glass are wearing their wave hat rather than their tennis-ball hat.

You can’t see these waves of course, but researchers (that is to say, people fooling about with hot wires in evacuated glass envelopes) noticed that unexposed glass photographic plates, still in their light-proof wrappings, left nearby (all sorts of odd things tend to lie about in researcher’s laboratories, often with unexpected consequences) proved to be ‘fogged’ when they came to be used, as if light had got through the wrapping. It occurred to someone — I think it was one of the Curies — to put his or her hand on top of a still-wrapped plate and hold it near the electron-producing device. On development, there was the outline of her hand — and not just the outline; you could see right through and make out all the bones. Lo and behold, X-Rays. They called them X-Rays because X, or rather lower-case x, is the usual mathematical sign for ‘Unknown Quantity’; you may remember it from school maths lessons. No-one really knew what these mysterious rays were. I may say more about that in a future post, but I hope what I’ve said so far gives readers some ideas about the things. Or rather not-things.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

My Singing Career

What singing career? Precisely. There hasn’t been one. Yet. Nevertheless I am convinced, against or rather in spite of the lack of evidence, that I could sing. And well. I have just never done so.

You see, I had the misfortune to go to a minor English Public School. (In England a ‘Public School’ is a private school.) The music teacher in my time — such was the philistinism of the place that we were never told while I was there that a previous music teacher had been none other than Thomas Tallis — was a time-server who did no more than he was obliged to do, and one of the things he was obliged to do was test the voices of all new boys to see if they should be in the chapel choir. We queued up outside a small room containing music teacher and piano. When my turn came I went in and the teacher struck one note on the piano and told me to sing it. ‘La!’ I went. ‘Absolutely spot on!’ he said; ‘I’ll just try one more to make sure.’ Now I’m not certain what happened then, but I think I thought very quickly ‘Do I want to be one of those little boys in white surplices we see every morning in the choir stalls in chapel, and who are mocked by their peers and sexually molested by their elders?’ No. So I deliberately sang the wrong note. Sounds like hindsight wisdom, but I know I can, and could then, pitch a note with great accuracy. In the choir at teacher training college there was another chap like me, in fact he even had that mysterious thing ‘Perfect Pitch’, and we used to sit either side of an empty seat. When the enthusiastic but hopelessly out of tune Maths lecturer arrived — he was always a touch late — we would say ‘We’ve saved you a place!’ and then sing into his ears. He wouldn’t notice what we were doing, but would sing lustily in a powerful voice kept in tune by the efforts of Jim and me.

And I know I have a good strong speaking voice, which I can ‘modulate’, (make pitch or dynamic changes to suit the text), having had sometimes to address large audiences, when I would turn the microphone away or off. It’s called projecting the voice; I was never taught it; it came naturally. (Yes I know this is all very egoistic, but if I don’t blow my own trumpet I doubt anyone else will. (The trumpet by the way was the first musical instrument I learnt to play.)) You don’t shout and it isn’t tiring; you just pretend you’re talking to that chap in the back row.

So surely if one puts all that together one has a singer? Wait a bit. One term at that ghastly school there was a ‘House Singing Competition’. Each house was to form a choir (just simple unison singing) and was assigned a song to practice once a week; at the end of term there would be a performance and someone would judge which house was best. It was voluntary (we were told) so after the first week I didn’t go. A house prefect saw me in the corridor and said ‘Why aren’t you at singing practice?’ ‘Because it’s voluntary and I don’t want to go.’ ‘Nevertheless you must’ ‘But…’ It doesn’t do to argue with house prefects; they will beat you. So I went.

So of course I’ve never really sung. But perhaps I will one day. I know I can. The song I shall sing, having carefully studied Enrico Caruso’s exquisite 1905 recording, will be ‘Una Furtiva Lagrima’ from Donizetti’s ridiculous opera ‘L’Elisir d’Amore’.  

Friday, 27 June 2014

Disposing of Dead Bodies, Part II

In England cremation is now the usual way of doing things. Relatives must then decide what to do with the ashes, which would fit in a shoebox. Very often they are scattered in the grounds of the crematorium; that is what my sisters did recently with our mother’s. Her sister, however, said shortly before she died some years ago (well she would hardly have said it afterwards) that she would like them scattered in the garden of the French painter Claude Monet, which are large and beautiful and open to the public: that is where he painted the huge water-lily pictures that are among the finest or at least most impressive things in London’s National Gallery.

Ashes are of course legally still a corpse, and so there are regulations about what one may do with them. Taking them home is all right, but taking them out of the country needs all sorts of permissions and papers. As for scattering them in someone else’s garden, that would certainly need special permission, and in the case of Claude Monet’s garden this permission proved impossible to get. (Incidentally it is typical of my aunt that even after death one of her whims should cause others difficulties.)

My uncle got round the problems with the directness of a Yorkshireman raised in a poor part of Hull. He tipped the ashes out of the fancy container in which he had been given them at the crematorium to take home, and into a supermarket carrier bag. Then he drove down to Dover and took the car ferry to France, drove to Monet’s garden, paid his few francs entry and, carrying his innocent-looking plastic bag, found a nice spot, looked round to make sure he wasn’t being watched, and emptied the bag into a flower bed. Job done.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Disposing of Dead Bodies

Yesterday evening Kyriaki, a.k.a. ‘Sunday’, had a business appointment, so Anastasia and I volunteered to look after the shop. We didn’t sell any books, but Anastasia told me about her visit to Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris; favoured burial place for all connected with the Arts. (All who can afford it, I mean.) Later we looked at the many photographs she’d taken of the often extraordinary tombs, but she was keen to tell me of a ‘freaky’ (there is a Greek word of the same pronunciation, and even, by coincidence, much the same meaning) experience she had there: as she walked past the back wall of some building she felt a blast of hot air and noticed an unusual cooking smell. She turned out of course to have been walking behind the crematorium.

Many Greeks are horrified by the idea of cremation. It has only recently become legal, and is still opposed by the Greek Orthodox Church. This opposition seems odd given the church’s claimed ecological commitments, but then churches have God on their side so needn’t bother with reason.

Different cultures’ different funeral customs can seem strange, even horrific, to each other, so here, mainly for the benefit of non-Greeks, is how it’s gone about in this island:

Mourners — often in very large numbers, so that the island’s bus is commandeered to fetch them up from the harbour town — gather in and around the little cemetery just outside the hilltop old village. Eventually, and always long after the scheduled time —  Εδώ είναι η Ελλάδα, here is Greece — a pick-up truck arrives with the coffined deceased and the closest relatives riding in the open back. The coffin is carried into the little cemetery chapel ‘The Dormition of the Virgin Mary’ and the lid lifted off, if indeed it has yet been placed on top. (It is rarely if ever screwed down.) A little later the priest arrives and there is a short ceremony in the chapel; often there has been a longer one in the big church down in the harbour town of Patitiri.

The coffin, still open, is carried out of the chapel, into the cemetery itself, and lowered into a grave — usually one that has been used many times before, more of that in a moment — just dug by Yorgos the big Rebetika-music-loving gravedigger who lives in a little house right there in the graveyard. The priest recites the words of committal, interrupted by the often very loud and prolonged lamentations of the female relatives of the deceased, and he places a small quantity of earth inside the coffin. The lid is put on, and people now file past the open grave, each throwing handfuls — usually three — of earth onto the coffin.

As people come out of the cemetery a relative gives each a plastic cup of Greek brandy or, more and more often, Scotch whisky — there is orangeade for those who prefer — and other relatives circulate offering sticky cakes. After some hand-shaking and conversation everyone drifts off to a taverna to have coffee or a ‘proper’ drink and reminisce about the deceased.

Three years later there is a more discreet ceremony when the body is dug up again. Usually decomposition is complete by then, but a recent fashion for elaborate marble tombs, which stop the rain getting in — the old style, mostly now followed only by the occasional foreigner, was a simple wooden fence — sometimes means it isn’t, so then the earth is hastily shovelled back in and one waits another year or two.

If all is well the bones are lifted out and brushed clean — I have sometimes seen them arranged on an old iron bedstead in something like their correct disposition, to make sure they’ve got everything — and put in a box which is added to the hundreds stacked in the little ossuary behind the gravedigger’s house. It is surprising how small a box will do for a full human skeleton. There they stay until no-one can really remember the deceased, or the box finally crumbles away. What is left is thrown into a deep pit at the back of the ossuary.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Storm in a Teacup

But a teacup from which many wish to drink, and that remains beautiful in spite of the best efforts of the stupid and greedy to make it as ugly as themselves. Readers in Argentina and the People’s Republic of China — just two of the places where people at least glance at this blog — might like to scroll down to an earlier entry while yet again I talk about an issue that mainly concerns inhabitants of and visitors to the little island of Alonnisos, Αλόννισος. I hardly need apologise for my provincialism on a day when a helicopter is shot down in Ukraine, more people are abducted by ‘Islamic’ terrorists in Nigeria, and America sends ‘Military Advisors’ into Iraq, but the BBC considers the most important world event to be one idiot footballer biting another idiot footballer’s ear.

Like many other frequent and long-term visitors to the island, I have been going to ‘Aerides’ bar and café ever since it first opened more than fifteen years ago. Situated in the peaceful main square of the Old Village, between the two churches of Christ and of Saint Athanasios, with seating widely spaced and taking advantage of the shade of old mulberry trees, it has long been my and others’ favourite place for morning coffee and evening whisky.

A couple of years ago it had to move out of its rented premises at the edge of the square, next door to the family home, when the lease was not renewed. For a year or so there was no ‘Aerides’, but then it triumphantly re-opened in premises in the family home, right on the square itself: things continued as before, or even, if possible, better.

Meanwhile another café and bar opened in the old premises, run by owners Christine and Jimmy. I must make it clear that I have nothing against these two, whom I have known for years; Jimmy, in his day job as computer expert, has been generously helpful to me many times. Understandably, the new bar, too, wanted seats in the square, and some confusion arose: people not in the know would order from one bar but choose seats belonging to the other. A gentle word of explanation usually overcame the problem.

Agreement on demarcation could not be reached, and eventually the Demos (Council) came up to ‘settle’ the matter. They arrived with tape-measures, a plan, and a big pot of paint with which to mark ugly lines on the natural slate paving.

Unfortunately the demarcation has been done in an incomprehensible and unfair way: suddenly there are ‘Roads’ (of which no-one had ever heard before) criss-crossing the square, cutting it up into little triangular traffic islands. Of course, tables and chairs may not be placed in these ‘roads’; ‘they would impede the traffic.’

Now, as heretofore, the only ‘traffic’ in the square is pedestrian, and perhaps the odd mule or two. ‘Traffic’ has never had the slightest difficulty making its way between the thoughtfully and elegantly placed tables. What is the origin of these ‘roads’? No-one knows. I asked in the Town Hall. (the Mayor himself was strangely unavailable). One of the people who works there suggested they might be the creation of ‘somebody’s’ imagination. A slightly odd imagination, one could be forgiven for thinking.

Then one looks a little more closely at where these ‘roads’ have been marked: exactly where Aerides has its tables, indeed one of them passes all along the front of the bar and the family home. They seem not to encroach much on the territory claimed by the new bar. The suspicion comes to mind that ‘somebody’ has not been as impartial as he or she should be: that, not to put too fine a point on it, person or persons unknown or at least unnamed wants to make life impossible for Aerides. The proprietor, Maria, is deeply distressed. Her mother Panayiota, who has lived on the square all her life, is in tears: she has in effect been forbidden to sit on the ‘Pezoula’, (the low stone bench at the base of the outer wall of most traditional Greek houses) of her own home. Our beautiful, peaceful village square has been turned into a jumbled mess of traffic islands and white paint.

I urge all who care for the Old Village of Alonnisos to go to the Town Hall to ask for explanation and justification.

Simon Darragh, 25th of June 2014.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Midsummer Miscellany for the Silly Season

The Voice of America informs us that a South Korean Soldier who recently ran amok, shooting several of his colleagues, ‘May have had psychological problems’.

Spinach and Beetroot are closely related plants. To help feed the USSR’s large population, Stalin decreed that biologists should produce a plant with the root system of beetroot and the leaf system of spinach. After much work, they produced a plant with the root system of spinach and the…

The authorities in the Greek island of Alonnisos have decreed that people may not sit in the shade of the mulberry tree in the centre of the Old Village’s main square.

The staff at Battersea Dogs Home were mystified by finding every morning that the dog-food store had been raided. All the dogs were sitting innocently in their overnight cages and there had been no sign of a break-in. This went on for some time, until they fitted a video camera to watch overnight, and discovered the culprit: a greyhound had discovered how to put a paw through the bars and lift the latch on her cage. What’s more she then went round every night lifting the latches on the cages of selected friends, and they all went to the food store and had a midnight feast. She then shepherded each dog back to its cage and relatched the doors before finally returning to her own, reaching out a paw and refitting the latch. ‘The odd thing is,’ staff said, ‘Greyhounds have the reputation of not being very bright.’ Needless to say this one soon found a new home.

When I had a collection of what are called ‘Post-Vintage Thoroughbred’ British motorcycles — Triumph, BSA, AJS, Royal Enfield, Matchless, and best of all the big black single-cylinder high-camshaft Velocettes — I asked my insurance company if, rather than insuring each one separately, I could have one policy covering them all, so that I could choose each day which one to ride. (I usually ‘chose’ the one that happened to be running properly.) After some humming and hahing they agreed — after all I had been riding motorbikes for many years, and didn’t often fall off or crash. Their one proviso was that I should refrain from riding more than one motorcycle at a time.

Some years ago my mother, who lived on a busy road just outside Canterbury city centre, was annoyed by people who parked on the double yellow lines (Where the Irish say you mustn’t park at all, at all) every morning, leaving their engines running while they popped over the road to buy their newspapers and cigarettes from the shop opposite. Eventually she complained to the police. ‘We’ll see what we can do madam’. She called at the police station a few days later. ‘Well madam we stationed a policeman outside your door all day yesterday and not a single person stopped there.’ ‘Was the policeman in uniform?’ ‘Oh, yes madam.’

Monday, 23 June 2014

The Creeping Ubiquity of Thatcherism

Now that America and its cronies are looking for Imams rather than Reds under their beds, people are less afraid to actually read Marx than they used to be, and the most staunchly conservative economists are saying ‘My God, the chap was right!’

Among the many things Marx said was that the ultimate end of capitalism would be the reduction of all human relationships to what his translators called ‘The Cash Nexus’. (I think it’s the only example I know of the use of the word ‘Nexus’). This seemed going a bit far, but then along came the lady with the iron fist and wooden head. Thatcherism could be succinctly defined as the doctrine that there are no values but monetary ones: that if it doesn’t make a profit, it’s worthless. Or as the poet Wallace Stevens put it, ‘The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream’.

What is even more remarkable than that a philistine psychopath should rise (if that’s the word — think of the case of Paderewski — ) to become Prime Minister of her country is the eagerness with which almost everybody, including those supposed to be her political opponents, have embraced this vile and immoral, indeed amoral, doctrine: like the dog’s fleas, like a computer virus, like huge football screens in bars, Thatcherism gets everywhere. Here is the first paragraph of a piece in the latest issue of ‘The Author’, the journal of the Trade Union for English writers:


Sunday, 22 June 2014

The Kindness of Animals

In discussing possible answers to the recent quiz, Jane (the only person who bothered to send me answers) suggested that when apparently fierce animals chase one they may not want to eat one but are simply asking for help in e.g. unwrapping a chocolate biscuit. This reminded me of the true story of the helpful kangaroo. This happened in Australia (duh) where a farmer had gone some distance from his homestead to cut down a tree. (Odd thing to do; I thought Australia was rather short of trees.) The tree fell on him and he couldn’t get out from under it. A passing kangaroo saw what had happened and boinged its way to the farmhouse where it thumped on the door until the farmer’s wife came out, and the kangaroo somehow conveyed to her that she should round up a couple of farmhands and follow him. Boing, boing back to the trapped farmer, whom they were then able to release.

‘Aw, shucks,’ the kangaroo told reporters, ‘any decent roo woulda done the same.’(O.K. I made that last bit up, but the rest is true.)

My own favourite clever beast story concerns the time I went to a little town on the borders of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire to look after a friend’s oriental rug shop while he went to Turkey in search of more stock. It was summer and one day after closing time I went for a long walk in the surrounding countryside. I was crossing a field near a farmhouse when two dogs came rushing at me, barking furiously, fangs bared. Now I have never been afraid of dogs (and have the scars to prove it; sometimes I should have been) and stood my ground. One dog, realizing that its hope of terrifying me was vain, slunk off home with its tail between its legs, but the other stood looking at me expectantly. Now I happened to have a tennis ball in my pocket, (my pocket contents resemble those of William in Richmal Crompton’s books), so I threw it and the dog and I played fetch for a while, until I said ‘I really must be off; the pubs will be open’, and the beast watched forlornly as I made my way back to town.

It must have been at least five years later — and in the interval I had not been in that part of the country at all — that I was again asked to look after the rug shop, and again I went for a stroll, and again the two dogs rushed out barking furiously. Again, the first dog sloped off. The second started sniffing in the undergrowth around us as if looking for something. Finally it came up to me and dropped at my feet a vaguely roundish rock it had found, and with this, faute de mieux, we played fetch for a while.


Oh, yes: as I said, Jane was the only person who responded to my quiz, so regardless of her answers (some right, some wrong, some surreally ingenious) she ‘wins’. I hadn’t really thought of a prize, but Jane’s thing is gardening, which interests me about as much as football does. However I feel no animosity to gardeners (unlike footballers and their fans) so her prize is honourable mention here of her website: Those who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like. It is:

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Is there a Doctor in the House?

Probably not.

Readers in the United States, Azerbaijan, and the far-flung Fulham Road may as well stroll/scroll through previous posts as today’s is concerned with a local matter: medical facilities in this little Greek island of Alonnisos.

Visitors, and those long-term foreign residents who wear some kind of mental blinkers, may need to be told that in the event of accident or illness they should go to the island’s medical centre: opposite the junior school, next door to the town hall, at the top end of Patitiri. The bus down from the Old Village will stop on the nearby corner if asked. (Well, ask the driver; not the bus.)

At the medical centre they will find a nurse, a trainee doctor, and a chap on full state salary whose job is to sit with his hands behind his head, rocking his chair, watching television. Nurse and trainee doctor between them will take care of day-to-day medical needs, and cope with people whose idea of holiday fun is to rent a motor-scooter then take off nearly all their clothes and roar up and down dirt roads until they fall off.

But where is Doctor Yorgos? Yorgos Athanasiou has been Alonnisos’s doctor for longer than most people can remember. He knows every one of his patients personally, and that is probably even more valuable than his full medical qualifications and his frequent attendance at medical seminars and conferences in cities such as Thessaloniki and Athens.

But most valuable of all is Yorgos’s whole-hearted commitment to the health of all — visitors, ex-pats, natives, newly-arrived Albanian building workers — in the island. And now he must retire. He doesn’t want to, but has been told in no uncertain terms that he must. Told not by someone concerned for his health — he has already sacrificed his own health for the sake of others’, but being prevented from working might kill him — No; by order of the state. He is no longer ‘allowed’ to work at the Health Centre in whose foundation he was instrumental; his tiny pension may be stopped if he persists in working there unpaid.

Well, OK then, where’s the new doctor? Ah. Um. Well, you know, the crisis… you can have a trainee… (No disrespect intended here: she is very competent, but quite rightly makes no secret of ringing up Yorgos about anything difficult.)

So Yorgos, a life-long socialist and supporter of socialized medicine, has been forced by his own devotion to his people and by the state’s blind application of inappropriate rules to open a private clinic. He has been helped in this by a haematologist in Volos; blood analysis is among the things offered by the new clinic. It is opposite the upper chemist, in the basement of the building housing the courier office and the traditional sweets shop. Go to Yorgos if your blood needs checking or you have, or suspect you have, medical needs beyond the common or garden. Hours are as follows:

8 — 12
8 — 12
8 — 12

Continue of course to go to the Health Centre in case of accident and for
run-of-the-mill medical matters. Oh, yes: the TV-watcher is the ambulance driver. Yes I know.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Answers to the Quiz

According to Google, no-one at all even bothered to look at the quiz I set the other day. However I happen to know that at least one person did; I may discuss her answers — right, wrong, bizarrely ingenious — in a later post. Meanwhile here are the ‘official’ answers:

1)      Which English word has six consecutive consonants?
The word I had in mind was ‘Latchstring’, but Jane came up with ‘Catchphrase’, which will do nicely.

2)      Write a proper English sentence containing the word ‘and’ five consecutive times.
When writing the caption to that picture of Adam and Eve, make sure you leave enough space between Adam and and and and and Eve.

3)      What is the difference between 2 cubic feet and a 2 foot cube?
6 cubic feet.

4)      What is one foot by one foot by one foot and covered in short curly hairs?
A Pubic Foot.

5)      Why does water go down the plug-hole clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and anti-clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere?
Because it doesn’t. Try a few sinks and wash-basins and see.

6)      What is a hemisphere?
Half a sphere.

7)      Why don’t Polar Bears eat Penguins?
Because their paws are too clumsy to get the silver paper off.

8)      If the chemist cannot dispense with glasses, should he dispense with glasses?
Well there could be several answers to this trick question, according to the senses of ‘Glasses’ (Spectacles, glass containers) and ‘Dispense (with)’ (Manage without, mix and supply medicines).

9)      In what well-known opera does a stone statue come to dinner?
Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’. And even if you think you hate opera, do find and watch Joseph Losey’s magnificent film of this one.

10)  How much is that doggie in the window?
Priceless. It is wrong to buy and sell our fellow-creatures.


Here seems as good a place as any to mention with pleasure that one other person has said that he liked something in the blog: the other day I had a long e-mail in Greek from one George Christodoulakis (His name, incidentally, means ‘Little servant of Christ’) whom I didn’t know: he is a student of literary translation, and was asking me about the translation from Greek to English of dialect and ‘uneducated’ speech, and of sailor’s slang, the last of which I happen to know a bit about. In a PS he said that he liked what I had said in earlier posts about the strange discord in Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’. Thank you, Yiorgos; yours was the only evidence that anyone at all was interested in such things.


Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Great or Platonic Year

Recently I gave a list of things I might write about here, with an invitation to readers to pick a subject, or indeed suggest another. A day or two later I set a ten-question quiz.

Number of people sending in answers to quiz: 
Number of people suggesting blog subjects: 

That's not even two people, but one, in the dual capacities of subject-suggester and quiz-answerer. So I shall write about what she asks about, and one of the things she asks about is the ‘Great’ or ‘Platonic’ year.

As with most things called ‘Platonic’ the connection with Plato is remote or non-existent. Plato did, like many philosophers, entertain the idea of cycles of time: everything happening all over again hundreds or thousands of years later exactly as it happened before, or perhaps, as Marx said, first as tragedy and then as farce. But Plato’s astronomical knowledge or speculation has little to do with how the term ‘Platonic Year’ is used now, because this depends on that impressive-sounding thing the


Gosh. Don’t be frightened. The Earth goes round on its own axis once every twenty-four hours, and round the sun in a great big oval once every year. But as most people know, the axis from North to South Poles on which the Earth does its daily spin is slightly tilted, so that at different times of year we get more or less sun; more or fewer hours of daylight. We get seasons in fact. And on two days of the year — one in Spring, one in Autumn — it happens that the hours of daylight and the hours of night-time are the same. (Twelve hours each. (duh.)) These are the equinoxes.

The equinoxes ‘Precess’ — that is to say, they happen a little later each year. (Or is it a little earlier? I’ll come back to that, as they say.) So it really is true that Spring (and every other season) comes later and later year by year, but by an amount so small only an astronomer could measure it. (Astronomy might almost be defined as the science of the very very big or long and the very very small or short). But why do the equinoxes precess? Well, think of a child’s spinning-top: when you first set it going it looks quite stationary and stands up straight, spinning fast. But as it slows down a touch, it starts to wobble: looking from above, you see that the top of the top — the handle, if it’s one of those clever ones that work on a sort of barley-sugar pushy rod through the centre — is describing slow circles, which get bigger and bigger until the whole thing falls over.

The Earth is doing much the same. The axis is already tilted, and that axis is, ever so slowly, going round and round. The picture below might make this clearer. It was kindly supplied by NASA. (Kindly my arse: they want people to be interested in astronomy because then they’re less likely to complain when NASA spends a fortune sending a couple of golf-playing overgrown schoolboys to the moon.)


Oops! I’m not sure, but the picture seems to suggest that the precession is in the opposite direction to the Earth’s spin. Yes, I rather think it must be: watch what happens when a top finally falls over. So then the equinoxes occur that teensy bit earlier, not later, each year? I dunno. (Ignorance, madam; sheer ignorance.) But anyway I hope you get the idea.

Oh, yes: the time taken for the axis to complete a full circle is, then, the Great or Platonic year, and it’s about 26,000 ‘ordinary’ years long.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Joseph Conrad, Solitude, and Silence.

I crave solitude and silence. In particular I dislike unnecessary noise, and I abhor cheap music being played simply because it is expected; simply because, I suppose, people are somehow made anxious by silence.

Joseph Conrad, originally Konrad Korzeniowski, was born in Poland, but like several other non-native writers he became a master of fine English prose writing. His novel ‘Victory’ concerns a chap called Heyst, a sea-captain in the Malay archipelago who gives it all up to live alone on a desert island. Understandably I sympathise with him, and never more so when some business calls him to the mainland, where he must wait some days in a cheap hotel with a cheaper string orchestra before he can get back to his island. Here is that page from the book:  


 One evening Heyst was driven to desperation by the rasped, squeaked, scraped snatches of tunes pursuing him even to his hard couch, with a mattress as thin as a pancake and a diaphanous mosquito net. He descended among the trees, where the soft glow of Japanese lanterns picked out parts of their great rugged trunks, here and there, in the great mass of darkness under the lofty foliage. More lanterns, of the shape of cylindrical concertinas, hanging in a row from a slack string, decorated the doorway of what Schomberg called grandiloquently "my concert-hall." In his desperate mood Heyst ascended three steps, lifted a calico curtain, and went in.  The uproar in that small, barn-like structure, built of imported pine boards, and raised clear of the ground, was simply stunning. An instrumental uproar, screaming, grunting, whining, sobbing, scraping, squeaking some kind of lively air; while a grand piano, operated upon by a bony, red-faced woman with bad-tempered nostrils, rained hard notes like hail through the tempest of fiddles. The small platform was filled with white muslin dresses and crimson sashes slanting from shoulders provided with bare arms, which sawed away without respite. Zangiacomo conducted. He wore a white mess-jacket, a black dress waistcoat, and white trousers. His longish, tousled hair and his great beard were purple-black. He was horrible. The heat was terrific. There were perhaps thirty people having drinks at several little tables. Heyst, quite overcome by the volume of noise, dropped into a chair. In the quick time of that music, in the varied, piercing clamour of the strings, in the movements of the bare arms, in the low dresses, the coarse faces, the stony eyes of the executants, there was a suggestion of brutality--something cruel, sensual and repulsive.  "This is awful!" Heyst murmured to himself.  But there is an unholy fascination in systematic noise. He did not flee from it incontinently, as one might have expected him to do. He remained, astonished at himself for remaining, since nothing could have been more repulsive to his tastes, more painful to his senses, and, so to speak, more contrary to his genius, than this rude exhibition of vigour. The Zangiacomo band was not making music; it was simply murdering silence with a vulgar, ferocious energy. One felt as if witnessing a deed of violence; and that impression was so strong that it seemed marvellous to see the people sitting so quietly on their chairs, drinking so calmly out of their glasses, and giving no signs of distress, anger, or fear. Heyst averted his gaze from the unnatural spectacle of their indifference.  When the piece of music came to an end the relief was so great that he felt slightly dizzy, as if a chasm of silence had yawned at his feet. 

Monday, 16 June 2014


1)      Which English word has six consecutive consonants?

2)      Write a proper English sentence containing the word ‘and’ five consecutive times.

3)      What is the difference between 2 cubic feet and a 2 foot cube?

4)      What is one foot by one foot by one foot and covered in short curly hairs?

5)      Why does water go down the plug-hole clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and anti-clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere?

6)      What is a hemisphere?

7)      Why don’t Polar Bears eat Penguins?

8)      If the chemist cannot dispense with glasses, should he dispense with glasses?

9)      In what well-known opera does a stone statue come to dinner?

10)  How much is that doggie in the window?

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Greece Expelled from Common Market

That was a cheap attempt to get your attention; as far as I know (though at the moment if it isn’t football it isn’t on the news) it hasn’t happened yet.

No, in my frustration at the lack of what is now called ‘feedback’ to this blog, I said I would offer a list of things about which I could write, so that readers might copy it, add ticks, and send it back to

Here then are 26 totally arbitrary subjects, in alphabetical order of key term. I’ve never done it before, but I’ll try to put little tick boxes beside each one for you:

□ The Aardvark; a limerick.

□ The Brough Superior motorcycle.

□ The plural of the word ‘Clitoris’.

□ A Definition of ‘Rebarbative’.

English as spoken by the BBC.

Fairies at the bottom of the garden.

Great Expectations.

□ Earthquake-proof houses.

I know more than you about almost everything.

□ The near-impossibility of getting Greeks to make the ‘J’ sound.


□ The difference between a Llama and a Lama.


□ It’s never too late to learn.

□ The story of O.

□ Is it ever too late to learn the piano? (See also ‘N’).

□ The two meanings of ‘Quite’.

Really, that’s quite enough, So That, you Understand Very Well, is all for today; sorry about x, y and z.


As I said, copy this list and tick it and send it, or just pick a subject and tell me you’d like to read about it. Or think of another subject. You may like to know that the Google ‘overview’ thingy tells me that no-one whatsoever has looked, even by mistake, at either of the entries about the Tristan chord, not even the one called ‘Sex and Drugs and Rock-and-Roll.’

Saturday, 14 June 2014

So what do you want then?


I write this blog mainly for my own satisfaction, but part of that satisfaction is the belief, or at least hope, that some people read it. But sometimes it feels like standing in front of a classroom full of bored children or indeed ‘adults’ who would rather be playing with themselves in front of a pornographic video. With one honourable exception, (thank you, Jane), no-one writes in to congratulate or condemn. (It’s in case you hadn’t noticed.)

Perhaps you’re all voting with your feet, or rather mice? Well, Google does provide me with something called ‘overview’ which purports to show me how many people, and in what countries, are reading which pages, during the last hour, day, week, month, or ‘all time’. Early yesterday morning, for instance, it told me that so far that day three people had looked at the blog, of whom two had looked at the entry for the 12th of June this year, (the one about the swan in ‘Lohengrin’) and the other two had looked at the entry for the 11th of May 2011. Hmm. No wonder the founders of Google had trouble spelling googol.

That 11th of May 2011 entry, by the way, has for some time been looked at several times a day (if one is to believe Google), or 40 odd times a week. So I had a peek myself, and found that that day I had put in my English translation of a poem by Nikos Kavvadias. What should I conclude from that? My translations of Greek poetry are popular? Kavvadias is popular? Or that the word ‘lover’, which is in the translation, is often googled, so that people actually looking for something rather different flit briefly and impatiently past that page on their way to ‘Shoe lovers: the site for pedal-wear fetishists’?

Perhaps I’ll publish a list of things I could write intelligently, wittily, and eruditely about. (Oops! ‘About which I could write…’ etc.) It would be a very long list. You sullenly reticent people could copy it, tick things, and send it back to

But you won’t, will you?

Friday, 13 June 2014

Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll

Well not entirely: the title was suggested by a friend in an effort to get people to at least look at the blog.

I was saying recently that Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’ is a four-hour erotic wind-up, but also that Wagner’s genius did not express itself in words or stage action. All he had was music. How did he use music to express mounting, almost unbearable tension? Like this:



That, in a much simplified reduction for piano, is the first few bars of ‘Tristan’. (Incidentally I rather think they’ve got Wagner’s death year wrong.) And there, that first big chord, at (not counting the up-beat) bars 3 and 4, is the notorious ‘Tristan chord’: from the bottom up, F, B, D#, G#. If you can get to a piano or guitar or other instrument capable of playing four notes at once, try it.

Sounds like nothing ever heard before. It scandalized its first hearers 150 years ago. It still sounds pretty disturbing, even after we have heard Webern, Stockhausen, Duke Ellington and Black Sabbath.

Chords are any combination of two or more notes, and are usually divided into concords — the ‘nice-sounding’ ones — and discords, which sound nasty. So you’re saying, quite rightly, ‘Well what sounds nice to me might sound nasty to you’; we need something a touch more objective. There are complex ways, involving such things as the harmonic series, of accurately if arbitrarily defining concord and discord, but as they say they ‘Need not detain us’:

Somewhere between the technical definition, and talk of ‘nice’ and ‘nasty’, comes the notion of ‘resolution’: a discord, we say, is a chord that ‘needs resolution’: one on which you can’t just stop, say ‘That’s all folks!’ and shut the piano lid. The audience will feel, and perhaps react, like a man whose girlfriend flirts provocatively with him all evening then suddenly gets up and goes home.

The Tristan chord cries out for resolution. Looking with the eye and hearing with the mental ear of one who has studied a bit of formal harmony, I’d say our best bet for releasing the tension of the Tristan chord is to raise the top voice to an A. Rules of counterpoint (made to be broken, but this one is still useful I think) say that in that case at least one of the lower voices should move down. Wagner does indeed lift the top note — the ‘tune’, in so far as there is one — and takes the other three down, but he sees, or hears, that going up to A in the top voice is not quite far enough to release the tension, so just as he hits us with the new notes in the lower voices, he takes the upper voice one little chromatic step higher, to A#.

But we’ve still got a discord: E, G#, D natural, A#. The tension remains unreleased, unresolved. We, or rather Wagner, take(s) the A# up one step further still, and this in one way increases the tension still further, as upward steps in melody tend to, but in another way there’s a slight decrease: only slight, because what we have now is still a discord; just a rather more acceptable one because it’s been around since before Bach; it’s the (dis)c(h)ord known as a dominant seventh, in this case E7th, which has for hundreds of years been standardly resolved onto the nice comfortable chord of A major or perhaps A minor.

So that’s what Wagner ‘ought’ to give us at this point, and I need hardly say he doesn’t: he leaves us hanging; he does ‘nothing’, but it’s a highly-charged nothing, like the uncanny calm before a thunderstorm. For seven beats in slow time, not a note is played. Those seconds of silence are among the most brilliant bits of composition in the history of western music.

To be continued, after a break to allow any remaining readers to recover.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

The Lighter Side of Wagner

You didn’t think there was one, did you? you’re right of course, but performances of Wagner certainly lend themselves to pantomimic hilarity. Before I hit you with the continuation of that serious stuff about the Tristan Chord I’ll just mention one.

In Wagner’s opera ‘Lohengrin’ our hero first appears borne onstage by a swan. (Yes I know.) The usual arrangement is that some sort of boat-like fairground-type swan is drawn across from (say) stage left to stage right, fairly far upstage, by a cable in a concealed track in the stage floor. On one occasion a famous tenor came dashing into the wings a few moments too late; the cue had been given and the swan, empty, was trundling across stage. Our tenor turned to a stagehand and said ‘Excuse me, do you happen to know what time the next swan leaves?’

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Tristan Chord. (Wait for it...)

Tristram and Yseult become Tristan and Isolde in German. The story is found in one form or another in Celtic, Norse, and no doubt other mythologies. Chaucer tells it, and Wagner does it in what for my taste is one of his less unsuccessful attempts at a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ —something more than an opera; an attempt to combine ‘all’ the arts in one vast work.

The story is guaranteed popularity, being — like so many in the late and slightly lamented News of the World — about forbidden love. In crude outline: the young knight Tristan is sent to Ireland by King Mark to bring back Isolde, whom Mark plans to make his queen. But on the return journey Tristan and Isolde ‘accidentally’ drink a magic potion together and fall helplessly — hopelessly — in love: Tristan is honour bound not to lay a finger on Isolde, who desperately wants him to. The whole opera is, as Stephen Fry forthrightly put it in a six-minute film (well worth finding on YouTube), a four-hour coitus interruptus. Only right at the end, in the ‘Liebestod’, is their passion at last consummated. You don’t need much German — Liebe=Love, Tod=Death, to get the idea.

It would take better stage and literary craft than Wagner’s to maintain the tension of a four-hour prick and pussy tease. Wagner’s genius was — and passionate Wagnerians won’t like me for saying it — almost exclusively musical, though he could do more with ‘pure’ music one would have thought possible. There are more valid reasons than short attention-spans and the superficiality of popular taste why the wordless and static Prelude (and of course the ecstatic Liebestod) are the only bits of the opera most of us can stand.


Hmm… Wagner’s lengthiness — ‘Monsieur Wagner a de beaux moments, mais de mauvais quart d’heures’, said Rossini — is infectious. I haven’t even got to the chord of my title. Tomorrow, barring such irritating  distractions as the little earthquakes we’ve been having lately, I’ll dive straight in with a music example.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Don't Try This At Home

On the 10th of June 1752 - I think it was 1752 - Benjamin Franklin did, or is alleged to have done, that lunatic thing with a kite. He went out and flew a kite right up into a storm cloud (I believe he took shelter in the porch of his house - though still holding the string - once the kite was up) and was able to gather a bit of the cloud's electric charge.
Now if he really did this, then how? Surely the string would in fact have needed to be wire? Was there wire of sufficient length and strength available in Philadelphia in 1752? Well, let's allow that string, when wet, as it must soon have been, would have been a good enough conductor at such high voltages. But wouldn't any charge coming down it run to earth through our Ben, with perhaps unfortunate results? Did he wear wellies? Had wellies been invented? I have seen a picture suggesting that he tied a key by the big oval loop of its handle to the end of the string. Also tied to the handle was a nice dry length of blue silk ribbon, which Franklin held. The rest of the key hung downwards to contact the knob of a Leyden Jar (Yes all right, another day perhaps) in which the charge was gathered.
Well, perhaps. Personally I have doubts that Franklin ever did this thing. Certainly if he did he was either very brave or very foolhardy.

--- ~ ---
On the 10th of June 1865 Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde' got its first performance. Only try listening to the whole thing at home if you are feeling brave or foolhardy, and have either good earphones or very tolerant (or no) neighbours.
Monty Python once did a Proust-Summarizing Competition, and discussing 'Tristan' to any purpose in a mere page or two would be just as silly. I might - perhaps tomorrow - (you lucky people) say a bit about one seemingly small technical detail that is in fact crucial to the whole magnificent work.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Charity Begins at Home

Oxfam has just said that during the past year it has distributed either 20,000,000 or 2,000,000 (I can't remember, but anyway an awful lot of) free meals to people in need (i.e. danger of starvation) in the United Kingdom. That, they said, is 54% up on the previous year.
They attributed the huge increase to '"Changes" in the Social Security Benefit System.'
BBC World Service reported all this on their news broadcasts at 3 and 4 am BST, but in later bulletins, otherwise identical, that last phrase had mysteriously disappeared.

Oh, by the way: I now notice that I forgot to say in yesterday's post that Kyriaki's superb little bookshop / cafe is in the Old Village, at the top of the hill, in Alonnisos, Northern Sporades, Greece.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Attention Aegean Culture Vultures

Kyriaki ('Sunday') has at last opened her bookshop/cafe. (That 'e' should of course have an acute accent, but this illiterate blog system won't let me do that today.)
Here is a close-up of its sign:
The Greek word Στέγη translates literally as 'Roof' but is of course here a synecdoche for 'Home'. At the moment the only non-Greek books in stock are translations into English, German, Italian and Russian of the works of well-known Greek authors. Kyriaki has serious taste in literature, but as the season continues she will no doubt start to stock some lighter foreign language (especially English) holiday reading. (She has to make a living.)
Here are some more pictures, including one of a surprised-looking (perhaps a customer had come in) proprietor:

The picture above shows the coffee part of the shop.

Please support Kyriaki's brave venture. You don't have to buy a book, you can just come and browse over a coffee.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Chaise Short

Visual clichés have the advantage of being short cuts, immediately recognizable, to concepts, and the disadvantage of imposing limits on that concept. If you see a drawing of someone lying on a chaise-longue, while someone else sits near him, often with notebook and pen, you think at once ‘Ah, psychoanalysis.’ There has probably, for instance, never been an issue of the ‘New Yorker’ without at least one such cartoon. Yet ‘New Yorker’ readers are just the sort of people one might hope would take a more open view of what psychoanalysis is all about.
Of the dozen or so psychoanalysts and analytic therapists I have known, either as ‘Patient’ (the wrong word; ‘Analysand’ is semantically better but lexically ugly (and of course unrecognized by the barely literate Microsoft Word Spell-check)) or as friend or acquaintance, some but not all have had couches in their consulting-rooms, but they hardly ever use them, except perhaps to rest between sessions. Nevertheless the cliché dies hard. Here are the covers of two books in my present heap of bedside reading:

Friday, 6 June 2014

Brownie Points

Possibly even the odd free drink. The astute reader (yes, that's you) will have worked out by now that the small Greek island in which I spend much of my time is Alonnisos in the Northern Sporades, near Skopelos and Skiathos. As the season is just starting, I thought I'd draw people's attention to a few of the island's businesses, mostly the ones here in the Old Village. More later, when people get round to giving me their cards.
There is also of course 'Aerides' bar in the main square of the Old Village; an establishment so well-known, and yet at the same time so select, that its proprietors Maria and Ianni feel no need for the vulgarity of business cards: refined people will find it by instinct.
I have not forgotten that today is the 70th anniversary of D-Day; please see my posts of the last couple of days.
Exactly a hundred years earlier, that's to say on the 6th of June 1844, the first YMCA opened, in London. Ironically, at least in view of the later reputation of the New York one, the intention of the founder was to provide sin-free accommodation for young working men. Actually it has, mostly, succeeded in this: it didn't even come to the attention of that malicious madwoman Margaret Thatcher when she got so excited about the 'Active promotion of homosexuality.' And if some tenants are sometimes naughty, well, boys will be boys. I stayed in one many years ago and no-one even groped me, dammit.