onsdag 24 februari 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?


lördag 9 januari 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.


torsdag 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.


onsdag 11 februari 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 http://stanleybloom.weebly.com

onsdag 21 januari 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.

torsdag 6 november 2014

The Sorcerer

The Sorcerer is coming. The Sorcerer of Stockholm.

söndag 22 september 2013

Andy, my son on the occasion of his birthday

I don’t know whether you’ve ever stopped to think about it, but we enter the world in a totally undemocratic manner. Nobody gives us the right to vote for who our parents are to be. Thus,  and I want to emphasize this,  through no fault of his own, Andy was landed with me as his Dad.
Having said that, let me make one thing perfectly clear: on the whole, by and large, and to his very great credit, he has borne it remarkably bravely.
I say ‘on the whole’, ‘by and large’ because after all, like the rest of us he is only human and there was the odd occasion in his earlier years when he was tempted to take matters into his own hands. Or feet.
But I ask you to take into account that like so many children these days, Andy had to contend with two languages: English, spoken at home, and Swedish, spoken at school and by almost everyone else he came into contact with. However, he did have one or two school lessons a week with a native speaker of English. Such ‘home language tuition’ as it was called, was for children with at least one parent who spoke a tongue other than Swedish, and included something about the history and culture of the land where such parents came from.
I well remember Andy coming home one day and telling me about a lesson he’d had with his home-language teacher, a pleasant, mild-mannered young British lady, in which he had learnt about the Tower of London. As you know, the Tower was where many a prisoner was thrown in days gone by, probably to be tortured before being sent to a very sticky end. I had forgotten all about this when early the following Sunday morning while still in bed, eyes closed and barely conscious, a large, heavy, irregularly shaped object crashed down on me from what I would say must have been a considerable height. It was Andy. Sitting astride my chest he then made a very serious announcement: “You are going to be executed!” he said.
Well, as you can tell, I survived,  largely intact,  minus only a substantial part of one of my front teeth. It could have been worse. Much worse. But don’t think for a moment that, at least in retrospect, I attached any blame to my beloved young offspring. On the contrary, I saw quite clearly what was to become increasingly evident as he grew older, that he was quick and eager to learn — those things that interested him, that is. And what is more, to apply the knowledge he had acquired. It didn’t remain pure theory.
Nevertheless, I did have a quiet word with the pleasant, mild-mannered, young British lady and asked her if it might just be possible — perhaps — for her to find aspects of British history and culture that didn’t put the lives of innocent people at risk. Difficult though it might be.
This ability of Andy’s to be quick to learn, reached a peak when computers entered our lives. But it is here that he revealed another most commendable quality, tolerance, because it was immediately and glaringly evident that his Dad belonged to the school of computer-users who sweated over manuals and still got everything frustratingly wrong. He, of course, ignored the manuals and worked wonders. Oh I am aware of his conviction that I must have been the one who inspired that revised version of the well-known computer processor manufacturer’s logo to read: ‘Intel inside — idiot outside’. It was doubtless a great embarrassment to him, but he just grinned and bore it. Well, he bore it at any rate.
I can also tell you that the cause of his embarrassment didn’t disappear with time. Who else has a Dad who could obliterate his auto.exec.bat file, without which the computer behaved like a chicken that has lost its head, not knowing which way to turn, haphazardly jumbling letters and symbols and disobeying every command? I achieved that considerable feat without even trying. Naturally, I couldn’t hear his groans or sighs, or see the expression on his face when he read the SOS I faxed to him, as by then he was six thousand miles away, a paid professional in Silicon Valley.
But did he publicly disown me? Did he privately tell me to adopt a child somewhere else and get off his back? Not at all. He may have gritted his teeth, he may have asked himself what terrible sins he had committed to deserve such a terrible fate, I can’t be sure, but for half-an-hour he instructed me on the phone how to reconstruct the file, pressing this key and that, giving for me entirely unexpected results, until all was as it should be once more. It must have been like playing chess without seeing the board.
And so it has continued. An innocent victim in at any rate the paternal part of the parental stakes, he has shown courage and forbearance above and beyond the call of duty. So I had not the slightest doubt he would come riding to the rescue once more when a virus wormed its wicked way into my computer and infected hundreds of files. He didn’t know about it straight away because of the nine-hour time difference, but found out first thing the next morning. Not perhaps the best way to start the day, but I had every confidence in him.
All suggestions that he deliberately planted the infection to put me out of action, I treat with the contempt they deserve. No, he is a knight in shining armour, so if perchance you have a glass handy and there happens to be something in it, I ask you to raise it and join with me in drinking a toast to Andy, my son.