Friday, 2 November 2018

Vanishing Acts

Vanishing Acts

I should have been a magician, a conjurer. Some people swear I already am because they know no one who can make things disappear so quickly, without trace. My things. Especially ones I particularly want. And in a hurry.

Now I don't think this particular skill is something you can learn from a book, a correspondence course, classroom or other people. I can only ascribe it to natural talent, something in my genes. So don't ask me how it's done. I don't know. And don't tell me it is something only acquired with age, for I have been doing this as long as I can remember. (OK, I know what you're thinking, so don't tell me my memory doesn't extend very far, for I can clearly recall being frightened by a dog – in my pram.)

What in particular have I made vanish? Answer: everything from gadgets to keys, books and documents that are urgently needed. Even my glasses (admittedly later found on my nose). Normally, it all happens without any thought or effort, but once, when I was going away for several months, I carefully locked my desk and hid the keys. To great effect, for when I got back, weeks of desperate searching passed before I could open the drawers again.

Perhaps I should follow the example of someone I once interviewed (about something quite different). He told me his office had been burgled several times and he no longer locked the door or anything else as the thieves only created more havoc in breaking everything open. He didn't exactly put up a welcome sign outside, but had learned a lesson in damage limitation. What his insurance company said the next time there was a break in he didn't mention, but I guess they would have been glad to get rid of him, although the likelihood is that he didn't bother about insurance any more either. He could at least save himself the steeply rising cost of the premiums.

To refer back to my desk, I have now succeeded in doing something worse than mislay the keys. I have lost them! I foolishly kept them loose in a pocket together with other things and must have accidentally pulled them out and dropped them when retrieving something else. Where, I do not know. So I am now faced with the choice of getting a locksmith to come and help me, at great cost, or drilling/cutting my way out of the problem – or problems, as there are drawers on either side, for which there were separate keys.

At least I now what the alternatives are. But what to do about the unconscious, unwitting vanishing acts? All suggestions welcome.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Change the sporting rules

Imagine that there were no weight classes in boxing, weightlifting and wrestling. Who would compete? Certainly not the lighter athletes, no matter how good they may be. Not even the not-so-light. They would be events solely for heavyweights.

Unimaginable, you might say. Yet there are sporting events where that principle is not only imaginable but the rule, particularly in athletics (track and field). Take the high jump, for example. If you are not built like a beanpole, you are best advised to try something else, regardless of your talent and ability.

So here is how I would change the rules. Clear your own height and you get say ten points, with an additional point for every centimetre above that level and minus one for every centimetre below. The competitor with most points, wins.

Everyone would then be competing on equal terms. OK, if you are very heavily built you are still not likely to jump high, but there can hardly be any legislation for that, just as the very slightly built are not likely to make good shot putters or discus throwers. But those events could nevertheless be divided into weight classes, if not as many as in weightlifting, for instance.

Basketball is another sport dominated by players who tower over most of us. Why, in New Zealand, famed for its rugby team – the All Blacks, the national basketall team is known as the Tall Blacks. So what about all those who can't stretch up and dunk the ball in the basket? Yes, I know there may be one or two shorter players in a side, but a team entirely without its giants would stand little chance against the others, certainly at elite level. So I would have a seperate class for those below a certain height. And the same principle would apply to any other sport where height or weight give a decisive advantage.

Don't you agree?

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Boycotts, Silhouettes and Bloomers

What has an estate manager in Ireland and an American who refused to brand his calves, in common with a French infantry inspector under Louis XIV, an ardent follower of Napoleon, a 19th century English social reformer and an inept First Lord of the Admiralty?

Answer: their names have all become common words in the English language.

Charles Cunningham Boycott was a retired captain in the British army and became an agent for the Earl of Erne’s estates in County Mayo. Following one of Ireland’s disastrous harvests, the Land League, formed to combat unfair rural rents and evictions, called for a twenty-five per cent rent reduction. That was in 1880. The League, which advocated non-violent action, urged everyone to refuse to have anything to do with those who turned down the demand. And Boycott was the first to be targeted.

Samuel A. Maverick was a US pioneer whose insistence on going his own way and refusal to brand his cattle put his surname into everyday speech.

Jean Martinet became known by drilling Louis XIV’s infantry into such an efficient force that his name has been associated with strict discipline ever since. And later, but still in France, Nicholas Chauvin’s blind patriotism and fanatical admiration of Napoleon gave us “chauvinist” and “chauvinism”.

Then there was Samuel Plimsoll, who came from Bristol in England and was a Member of Parliament from 1868 to 1880. He was instrumental in getting legislation passed that provided for compulsory inspection of ships and for a line to be painted on their hulls to show they were not overloaded.

Finally, John Montagu was such a disaster at the Admiralty that he was blamed for the shortcomings of the British navy at the time of the American Revolution. Montagu? No, we don't talk about ‘montagus’, but he was also Earl of Sandwich and an inveterate gambler. So much so that he had food put between two slices of bread so that he could eat it without having to leave the gaming table. The Sandwich Islands were named after him as well.

Of course, these people are by no means alone in having their names enter the language. Among the many others are Etienne de Silhouette, a French finance minister given to making paper cut-outs, John Batterson Stetson, an American hat maker, and Henry Shrapnel, a British army officer who filled shells with musket balls to make them more lethal. William Lynch lived in Virginia, but there’s no need to mention what he got up to. The Earl of Cardigan, another military man, led the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War but lent his name to a much more peaceful garment. And while on that subject, mention must be made of Wellington’s boots and Charles Macintosh, a chemist who invented waterproof fabrics, while Amelia Bloomer, was a nineteenth century American campaigner for women’s rights — and more comfortable clothing.

A full list would be very long indeed. But all those people lived in the past. What about the present? Which of our contemporaries are likely to be part of the language many years from now? It’s an excellent field for speculation. Any suggestions?

Saturday, 9 January 2016

The Smörgåsbord

The Smorgasbord – Sweden's Culinary Gift to the World

To start with it was just something to occupy early-comers until all the dinner guests had arrived. It grew to become an hors d’oeuvre table, before eventually becoming a full-blown lunch or dinner, and achieved renown abroad where, however, it can take on forms peculiar to the purist. So if you want to try a real Swedish smörgåsbord, there are certain things you should know.

Its origins go back some five hundred years. In the beginning it was a brännvin (aquavit) table, although there was some food apart from the alcohol. After becoming a popular hors d'oeuvre among the middle classes, new dishes were added in the nineteenth century. In the early railway age it was common for station restaurants to provide it, until trains had their own restaurant cars.

It remained an hors d'oeuvre, however, until much later, although during the 1912 summer Olympic Games in Stockholm there were restaurants offering it as a stand-alone meal and there were 'smorgasbord' (now without the Swedish letters ö and å) restaurants in New York in the 1920s. But it did not become internationally known on a wider scale until the 1932 World Expo, also in New York, when the restaurant in the Swedish pavilion had a well-laden, rotating “Merry-Go-Round” table.

Its status as a starter to the main meal finally disappeared for good in the early 1960s, since when, with the addition of still more dishes, it has been complete in itself.

How to eat it
Swedes are often amused at the sight of foreign visitors piling a great mixture of dishes onto their plate, something the experienced would never do. The approved practice is to follow the recommendations made by a leading Swedish chef and restaurateur more than fifty years ago. You should go to the table five times, each time taking a new plate and fresh cutlery. The first visit is for the various kinds of pickled North Sea herring, perhaps also its smaller cousin the Baltic herring, plus a boiled potato and a slice of crisp bread and cheese, consumed with a glass of aquavit.

Visit number two is for other fish dishes, particularly salmon, boiled and/or cured and boiled eel. Number three is for cold cuts of meat and salads, number four for hot dishes, which will almost certainly include Janson's Temptation (containing anchovies cooked in cream) and meatballs, and finally there are the desserts, which were the latest addition to the table.

What does it mean?
Literally, smörgåsbord means 'butter goose table', which may seem a strange name to give it, especially as it has never contained goose cooked in butter or anything else. But it derives from the time when people churned their own butter. During the process small blobs somewhat resembling the shape of a goose, would rise to the surface. Such a blob was thought ideal to spread on a slice of bread and the result is still called a smörgås, although it normally has some other topping or toppings in addition to butter, ie it is an open sandwich. And in its earlier days the smörgåsbord had that kind of character.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Alfred Nobel and His Prizes

Alfred Nobel was a man of great contrasts. A Swede born in Stockholm in 1833, he spent most of his life abroad. The inventor of dynamite and other explosives, he was even called a 'merchant of death', but aimed to promote world peace. A skilled chemist, he wrote poetry in Swedish and English and prose in other languages too. The son of a man who twice went bankrupt, he became one of the wealthiest people in the Western world.

His great wealth did not bring him happiness, however. He never married, suffered from loneliness and was in delicate health from childhood. Only in the last three years of his life did he have a home of his own in Sweden, where he had bought the Bofors (pr Boo-fosh) armaments factory. He nevertheless died in the Italian resort town of San Remo on December 10 1896. And December 10 is the day on which the Nobel Prizes are ceremonially awarded each year, the Peace Prize in Oslo, the others at the Concert Hall in Stockholm.

His will was written in Swedish without legal guidance, which let to much delay in its implementation as it was disputed. It stipulated that the greater part of his estate should be invested and the income distributed in the form of prizes to those conferring the greatest benefit on mankind during the preceding year in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and what he called 'brotherhood among nations' but which we know as the Peace Prize.

There is no doubt that Nobel had a great interest in each of these fields. Most intriguing is the Peace Prize, which is awarded by a committee of the Norwegian Storting or Parliament, the reason being that Norway was joined to Sweden in a union under the Swedish Crown during Nobel's lifetime. He fondly believed that when the great power of explosives was understood, nobody would use them for military purposes. He knew from personal experience what devastation they could cause. In 1864 the factory where he had been studying nitroglycerine was blown up, killing everyone in it including his 21-year-old brother Emil. Nevertheless, he maintained that his factories could put an end to wars sooner than any of the peace congresses that were held.

He was also influenced by the Austrian Baroness von Sutter, a pioneer in the peace movement who was herself awarded the Peace Prize in 1905. But as with the Literature Prize, some of the laureates selected in Oslo, such as Henry Kissinger and Le Duc To in 1973 and Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat in 1978, have been highly controversial, while others generally considered to be worthy of the prize, such as Mahatma Ghandi, have been unacknowledged. And when the first Literature Prize was awarded to Sully Proudhomme, Sweden's foremost author, August Strindberg, who never received the prize, and many other prominent personalities wrote a letter of apology to Tolstoy.

The stipulation about conferring the greatest benefit on mankind in the preceding year has probably been taken into account more for the Peace Prize than the other awards, where it is common to look back over a candidate's career or recognize the person who originally made later developments possible.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Digital DIY

In this digital age, DIY has expanded far beyond doing household repairs or knocking together a garden shed of varying degrees of permanence and stability. Now ordinary mortals can concoct their own website. Without writing a line of code. Who would have thought it not so very long ago?

Not me at any rate. A simple blog maybe, but a site? “You must have one,” they said, the so-called pundits, as though it were as vital as our daily bread (which has turned out not to be so vital, by the way, so I'll amend that to as vital as the air we breathe – provided it isn't polluted). “If you write, you don't exist without one. It's as simple as that!”

OK. So now I have got myself deeply immersed in the process, for if it is to be done, then I've got to be the one to do it. But thumbing through books on web design, redesign and heaven knows what else has taught me next to nothing. No, the little I've learnt has come from doing, getting my hands dirty, my feet wet.

Thus if like me you have been diagnosed as suffering from severe site deficiency syndrome, I suggest you plunge in at the deep digital end and get designing. Then redesigning, which I anticipate will be a never-ending occupation in my case. So if you have any comments or suggestions about my feeble efforts, do let me know.

The URL is

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The Sorcerer Of Stockholm

Mention the word 'sorcerer' and you might conjurer up a vision of say Merlin, adviser-in-chief at the legendary court of King Arthur and a master weaver of spells who could foretell the future. According to various, if varying, versions of the tale.

In Roman times, being seen as a sorcerer, far from elevating you to the status of a Merlin was likely to be more than you life was worth, a drastic way of dealing with dissidents. The accusation was often made against women practicing what today we might call 'alternative medicine', for healing was the prerogative of male priests in the temple.

Neither did Christianity improve the lot of the supposed magician or sorcerer. Such unfortunates were deemed to be in league with the devil and to perform all manner of unmentionable acts. This led to the prolonged and shameful period of the witch-hunt, with women again the prime victims.

My Sorcerer, with his passion for antiquarian books and the opposite sex, has not much in common with these predecessors. Perhaps just a little with Merlin, who also had an eye for the ladies. This led to his downfall as he eventually took up with the wrong one, who having discovered the secret of his spells, promptly shut him up for ever more in an invisible tower, or hawthorn bush, or a cliff (in Brittany) or rock on the coast of Cornwall, depending whose version you want to accept. There are many to choose from.

My Sorcerer could produce comic verse, but whether he used incantations or magic spells that could be revealed to a designing damsel, I honestly cannot say. But, they would be of little use in predicting the future as he clearly never knows what is going to happen later the same day let alone what is in store for him. Or anyone else.

What I can say, however, is that he has arrived.