Tuesday, 17 May 2016

But Does it Work?

But Does it Work?
In one of his films the character played by Woody Allen is worried about a possible injury to his brain. ‘But that’s my second favourite organ!’ he protests.

Allen is an exception, but in general Americans often manage to combine an excruciatingly embarrassing frankness with a maiden-auntish prudery, and as so often with American’s less attractive behaviours, many Brits are slavishly copying.

Someone in America has just had a dick transplant (the BBC used the cold medical term ‘Penis’, but let us talk like ordinary people), and he happily told an interviewer all about it.

All? Well, not quite all. Not once did news announcer mention, interviewer ask, or transplantee tell us what is surely the most important thing about a dick, the thing we all want to know, the thing no-one mentions.
(I wanted to add a picture of an erect dick, but it seems such pictures are regarded by the internet as pornographic, and I don't feel like looking at pornography just now.)

Monday, 16 May 2016


Today is the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot agreement.

The what? Well, much as the Americans find it more convenient to fight their wars on other people’s territory, so the French, English and Germans fought much of the First World War in the Middle East. When the Germans and their allies were defeated and driven out of the area, the French and English agreed to carve up the area between them.

The leaders of the various Arab, Syrian etc. nations, such fierce but honest, loyal and honourable people as Feisal of Iraq, having been promised their independence, felt betrayed. (Gosh, really?) T.E. Lawrence felt himself forced into the rĂ´le of betrayer and freaked out completely.

Now of course the Middle East is ruled by America, with France and England as its pawns or cat’s paws, but the whole ghastly mess stems from Sykes-Picot.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Only in Hampstead

Recently a friend was walking through NW3 -- where the middle-class intellectuals live -- and overheard a child ask 'Mummy, is there a silent "T" in "Lego", like in "Merlot"?'

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Opera for Greeks

Over Easter I was talking with an Athens publisher, and he told me that he has been unable to find any Greek guide to the plots - silly as most of them are - of well-known operas. He commissioned me to write such a guide, in English, which he or a colleague will then translate into Greek. Here is a sample which I wrote this morning:



Many consider ‘Cosi’ the finest of Mozart’s operas, despite the spectacular silliness — some would say vicious misogyny — of the plot, by Mozart’s favourite librettist Lorenzo da Ponte.

Two young men, Guglielmo and Ferrando, are boasting of the sterling qualities, especially the faithfulness, of their respective girlfriends, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi. (It doesn’t really matter which is which, as we shall see.) Enter their cynical older friend Don Alfonso, who laughs at them and makes a bet that, provided the two young men follow his instructions, he can prove the girls faithless. They accept enthusiastically.

The scene changes to the boudoir of the two sisters, who are drinking hot chocolate served by their maid Despina. They too are telling each other how wonderful Guglielmo and Ferrando are.

Enter Don Alfonso, bringing terrible news: Guglielmo and Ferrando have been called up for military service; they must set off at once to fight the Turks, or perhaps the Albanians. Enter the young men; there is a tearful farewell. They leave, ostensibly to board their ship. Dorabella, Fiordiligi and Don Alfonso sing the trio ‘Soave sia il vento, tranquillo il mare’ (May the winds be gentle, the seas calm’) It is typical of Mozart that the hidden pretext for this heartrendingly beautiful trio — there is rarely a dry eye in the house — is a cruel practical joke.

Don Alfonso, having first suborned Despina into helping him with the ‘joke’, leaves the sisters to their sorrow. The down-to-earth Despina suggests they ‘divert’ themselves with a little flirtation during their beloveds’ absence; she is roundly rebuked by the indignant Dorabella and Fiordiligi.

Nevertheless, Don Alfonso brings in two eligible young men, apparently members of the occupying Turkish (or perhaps Albanian) forces, but in fact of course Guglielmo and Ferrando in disguise. There is a socially awkward tea-party, and eventually the two ‘Turks’ declare their love for the sisters. They are angrily rejected, and go to claim their winnings from Don Alfonso, but he says they haven’t tried hard enough. The men return to the girls and, in ‘despair’, ‘take poison’. They are revived by the ‘Doctor’ (Despina of course, whose disguise includes a grotesque high-pitched croak). The kind-hearted women relent slightly, and it is with very mixed feelings that, quite soon, each young man finds that he has succeeded in seducing the other’s girlfriend.

A double marriage is arranged, presided over by the ‘Notary’, (the disguised and croaking Despina again of course) but at the last moment Don Alfonso rushes in, telling the ‘Turks’ to hide because Guglielmo and Ferrando have returned from the wars.

After a flurry of backstage quick changes, ex-notary Despina brings in ex-Turkish soldiers Guglielmo and Ferrando. During the joyful if anxiety-ridden reunion, one of the men ‘happens to find’ a marriage contract on the table. The enraged Guglielmo and Ferrando confront the penitent Dorabella and Fiordiligi, but once the girls have confessed to their faithlessness they are forgiven; after all they are only women, and ‘Cosi fan Tutte’.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016


Some popular musician whose stuff no-one really liked drops dead in the lift (!) of his vastly expensive house, and everyone rushes round with flowers and protests that he was a great influence on the development of popular music (though I hated his stuff) and they ‘feel’ quite devastated by his death and must weep publicly and ‘show their sadness and respect’. Not a word about the technicalities if any of his music.
Or a mathematician succeeds, after years of struggle with notebooks and log tables and differential calculus, in proving, say, Fermat’s last theorem. He is interviewed for Radio or TV. Is he asked ‘What does Fermat’s last theorem state?’ or ‘Give us the outline of your proof’? Is he heck. The interviewer is asked ‘Well, it must have been an emotional moment when you heard you’d got the Nobel. Tell us, how did you feel?’
Who (with more than two brain cells) give’s a nun’s wimple how he ‘Felt’. Feelings are neither here nor there; they are private and should be kept so; any interest in other people’s ‘feelings’ is impertinent and prurient. They don’t matter; they get in the way of what really matters. Cease this vulgarity; engage brain.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Easter -- A Martian View

It has been Greek Orthodox Easter. The Paschal lamb (in fact a goat) is slaughtered, roast whole on a spit, and eaten; the best wine is opened and drunk, loud music is played, people gather and talk, or rather bellow at each other; all these things to gross excess.

Sometimes, after a drink or two, or when feeling especially exasperated, I whisper confidentially to someone what torture I find the whole business. They whisper back ‘Actually, so do I, but you have to do it.’ I’ve had that secret, sotto voce, corner conversation with so many different people, on so many Easters, that I have to begin to wonder — is it possible nobody in fact enjoys it, that everybody is pretending?

At midnight on the Saturday, after we had been deafened by a friend’s double-barrelled twelve-bore loosed off in a vaguely upward direction, and the dogs and cats had been reduced to abject terror by the fireworks outside the main church, we settled down to eat our Mayiritsa — a soup made from the liver and intestines of the goat. Yes. As we did so, a friend — he publishes Greek poetry in English translation, so is clearly a daring man — said quite openly, fully in the hearing of the rest of the company, ‘Simon, you must realize we don’t do all this for amusement: it’s a duty.’ No-one contradicted him.

So the visiting Martian anthropologist will have to report back: ‘The humans are all masochists: they spend their special feast days doing things they really hate doing, and woe betide anyone who doesn’t frantically pretend to be having a lovely time.’