My wife and I have been together for ten years now, which isn’t that impressive when you consider it’s two years less than the Germans stuck with Hitler. Still, that was their third reich and this is only our first marriage, so I’m cautiously optimistic. Today was actually the day of our ten-year anniversary, and as I keep telling her she doesn’t look a day older than she did this morning.

When I woke up she was making me breakfast in bed – eggs, beans, toast, the works.
“Darling, wouldn’t it be easier to make it in the kitchen?” I asked. “I’m not sure how comfortable I feel with you balancing a camp stove on the pillow.”
“Nonsense,” she said, julienning a tomato on our bedside table. “Now sit up, I need you to hold the microwave.”

It’s these small gestures of affection that are most important to us, and we try to schedule three or four a week to remind ourselves that even though we’re older and more responsible we haven’t lost our sense of fun. We’re both very similar people and we really do speak the same language, which is wonderful because otherwise it would be hard to watch the same television programmes without subtitles.

Continue reading “Tintinabullation”

I have somehow become Death, destroyer of words

As the documentary evidence makes quite clear, Herb Omelette was the first man to split the infinitive. He did it in 1897, two years before his closest rival Yevgeny Potemkin, a professional cigarette filter from Kiev. Potemkin claimed that what mattered wasn’t who split it first but who split it furthest, and vowed to become the first man to split the infinitive across the Atlantic. This dream was sadly dashed in 1920 when he tripped over a dangling participle and fractured his syntax in three places. After months of drug-induced hallucinations where he spelled colour with a z and mistook a pathetic fallacy for a bowl of cottage cheese, he fell into a comma from which he never recovered.
Deprived of his greatest adversary Herb Omelette vowed never to split an infinitive again, retiring from public life to a cottage in the Swiss Alps. There he composed brilliant, innovative monographs on the use of apostrophes in shop signs and alternative meanings of the word literal before being shot dead by pedants at the age of 62.

Continue reading “I have somehow become Death, destroyer of words”

A La Recherche des Dents Perdues

The following appears to be an extract from a recent interview with Berengaria Hodgkiss, the noted socialite, golf enthusiast and hubcap collector who was mysteriously granted entrée to Hitler’s private circle in the 1930s and 40s. Although the full text of the interview has yet to be found, the below offers a tantalising glimpse into this fraught and tragic period, which for reasons of their own the British prefer to call a full stop.

Do I remember Hitler? What a question, of course I remember Hitler. Such lovely blue eyes he had, just rolling around in his desk drawer like gobstoppers. He was the sweetest man and such a good tipper. He once tipped Hermann Goering all the way over with just one push. Terrible shame about his one testicle. It was a very sensitive subject for him back then, and though he didn’t like people pressing him on it, what man does?

Those of us who knew him were all so emotionally linked in those tumultous days that we would laugh whenever he laughed, and when he cried we all cried. It was amazing how contagious crying was back then – like siphylis or wearing sensible shoes. All it took was the merest touch of a belt buckle or an outstretched fist to get the tears streaming. This would have been long after the publication of Freud’s “On the Interpretation of Dreams”, of course, which when slammed across the face in a hardback copy also proved particularly effective.

Continue reading “A La Recherche des Dents Perdues”

Doctor When

I don’t understand all the fuss that’s been made over the announcement of the new Doctor Who. Or rather, I do, but at the moment I’m pretending not to for stylistic reasons. Bear with me; this sudden change of face may seem irritating at first but I’m sure you’d whoop and cheer after another eleven. I could tell you more, but, as Alex Kingston would no doubt smirkingly chasten: Spoilers!
To return to my original theme – transparent subterfuge though we all now know it to be – I don’t understand all the fuss that’s been made over the announcement of the new Doctor Who. I can see why the BBC should care, of course, for a character charged with saving time, space, and their operational budget, but I don’t see why I should be expected to join in the pangalactic fan – and boy do I mean fan – fanfare. It’s not as though the time lord is really anything that special.
Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the company I keep. Take my personal physician, for instance. Not only is she an actual, qualified doctor with a GMC number and her own stethoscope, but she’s also no stranger to time travel. I mean, she’s been whizzing through time for years.

Continue reading “Doctor When”

First Direct. Then, when that doesn’t work, Pretty Opaque.

So there I was, just minding my own business on the tube,* when I saw the below,

* That’s a lie – I was reading through the Evening Standard, which as actions go is probably as close to minding other people’s business as it is legally acceptable to get. I was on the tube though.

Pretty perceptive, aren't they?

which, as some of you may recall, is one of a series of adverts that has bugged me in the past. This time, however, everything suddenly became clear.

We were going to offer our customers a straightforward, comprehensible advert, but we thought you'd prefer this instead

You see, that’s what makes them so unexpected. Of course. It all makes sense now. Why didn’t they just say that in the first place, instead of wasting our time with this family of piggy banks they were thinking of getting us and which now, quite frankly, seem oddly tempting.

Oh yes, we’re unexpected all right. You can bank on it.

One of the perks of travelling on the Underground – assuming that body odour and awkward eye contact just don’t do it for you – is the range of advertising on display. Shiny new mobile phone contracts, exotic travel destinations and distinctly creepy dating websites all fight for your attention, each desperate to land the knock-out killer punchline. This literary arms race has led to the development of increasingly advanced wordplay technology, as all sides continue to search for the most effective weapons of mass distraction.

Sometimes the results are amusing. Sometimes they are thought-provoking. And sometimes, more than anything else, they are just plain weird.

Take this one, for instance, spotted in its natural habitat of the Westbound Hammersmith Line.

This picture is to fine art what snorkelling is to caramel.

Oh yes, because in this time of radical economic austerity, the last thing we want is another one of those stable, predictable, normal banks. Look how they fouled things up over the past few years. No, what we need now is edginess. An ounce of devil-may-care mixed with half-a-gram of zany unpredictability. Did I just mix my units? Weren’t expecting that, were you? Welcome to first direct, the bank where employees are encouraged to adopt a casual, seat-of-the-pants, improvised approach to your money. You want a bank loan this week? Sure, have it. And repay it in a week. A month. Two months. Tomorrow. It’s overdue. Is your rate of interest too low? We’ll double it. Now we’ll triple it. Ok, now you pay us. Oh, what are we like. Do you know what we’re like? We’re like an octopus. No, we’re like an ibex. Ooh, ooh, I’ve got one – we’re like a platypus. Yeah? Because we’re totally unexpected. Yeah. And something to do with bills. Go Team Platypus!

Random (and, admittedly, unexpected) as that poster was, at the very least it made sense. This one, lurking in the undergrowth further along the same corridor, does not.


Picture a row of tube adverts. We're the one that makes no sense.

Which one beatboxing? I wasn’t told to imagine a bird beatboxing. I was told to imagine birds chirping – an odd request but one with which I have done my level best to comply. And now, after all my imaginative brain space has been used up on creating an ensemble of traditionally musical avifauna, you introduce this beatboxing character to the mix. That isn’t just unexpected, it’s rude. And also, quite frankly, nonsensical.

If first direct want to be truly unexpected, here are some suggestions for alternative slogans.

  • Every penny you bank with us goes towards our CEO’s retirement fund.
  • Come one, come all, free bowl of gazpacho with every new debit card
  • Bank with us – we don’t chain our pens to the counter
  • If anyone would like some free money, first come first served.
  • Boo!

Thank you for your time

I Got Those Oxford Blues

There are times I can’t help feeling rather sorry for Oxford. I mean, put yourself in its shoes. Not that a university can properly be said to have shoes, of course, but for God’s sake play along and stop causing trouble. Go put yourself in a pair of Oxford brogues if it’ll make you feel better. The rest of you can just hold on to those nice metaphorical shoes you slipped into without making a fuss. Ready? No, you don’t have to do up the laces, just stand in them for a bit imagining what it would be like to have 38 constituent colleges, a vice-chancellor, and a river running through you. What do you mean they’re the wrong size? Ok, forget the shoes. They’re not important and I feel like they’re distracting you from the issue at hand.

What I’m trying to get at is that Oxford must miss the days when it was the only university in the country. What fun it would have had. More than one hundred years of back-to-back boat race victories and consecutive top ranking in the national academic league tables, with the only down side being a general consensus that it had something of an unfair advantage on University Challenge. Oh yes, life was good for Oxford back then, as it trampled all over the nonexistent competition in those equally nonexistent shoes some of you had so much difficulty with back in paragraph one.

Today, of course, it’s just one university among many – and boy, I bet that stings. You know how firstborns sometimes resent younger siblings for coming between them and their parents? I sometimes think that’s how Oxford must have felt as a succession of rosy-cheeked redbricks were clasped to the public bosom. At 917 it’s old enough to be polite when it bumps into Cambridge or the LSE at family gatherings, but the emptiness of its childhood years still gnaws at it like the gap left behind by an omitted Oxford comma.

I think this is why William Ewart Gladstone felt as though he had something to prove on his university’s behalf. Not content with the already glittering roll of alumni that Oxford could boast by the end of the 19th century, the former Prime Minister felt the need to bag just one more trophy for his alma mater. And so, in June 1892, two months before becoming Prime Minister for the fourth and final time, W.E. Gladstone published an article in a magazine called The Nineteenth Century in which he asked the question “Did Dante study at Oxford?” Out of context this seems like a rather baffling topic for a politician to be interested in, akin to David Cameron trying to prove that Torquemada attended Eton. For all I know, however, the academic CVs of early Renaissance poets might have been a trending topic in the summer of 1892. Hashtags to this effect may have been scrawled across the Westminster stonemasonry, with insightful captions wittily affixed to humorous portraits of cats. Gladstone was certainly no stranger to the questioning of long-held academic truths, as the celebrated Greek colour saga demonstrates, and he may have felt that here was another sacred cow just waiting to be tossed on the grill.

When I first heard of the existence of Gladstone’s monograph in Jake Kerridge’s Telegraph article last week, I assumed that he had invented it. It just seemed so implausible. But a few short Internet-minutes later I had found a bookseller who naughtily agreed to slice out those pages from his bound collection of The Nineteenth Century issues and send them to me by mail. A few mail-days later and there it was – a bizarre ten-page attempt at armchair detective work conducted in an attempt to boost the reputation of a university that, quite frankly, wasn’t doing so badly in the PR stakes at the time. It’s not as though there was any chance of getting any money out of Dante as an alumnus, either. Universities tend to have to act faster than that if they want to milk the graduate connection.
And if I’m being honest, the evidence for Dante ever having attended Oxford is rather thin. Thinner than Dante, in fact, and the poor man’s been a skeleton since the mid-14th Century. I mean, Gladstone addresses this paucity of what you or I would call proof when he says: “we are largely dependent on conjecture and presumption”, but goes on to make the rather staggering claim that: “The fact that he does not name the University of Oxford in no way detracts from [the force of the evidence]; for neither does he anywhere name the University of Paris, where we know that he studied, and perhaps studied long.”

Now this, while having the virtue of being absolutely true, also has the vice of being absolutely bonkers. Dante also never wrote about eating a digestive biscuit or performing handstands on the Great Wall of China (although, not having read the Divine Comedy in the original Italian, this is pure supposition). Does this mean we should reimagine Italy’s literary hero as a sweet-toothed gymnast with a fondness for Oriental cuisine?

The article is endearingly entertaining, and evokes an era when gentlemen could quote Italian or ancient Greek to each other without the need for translated footnotes. O tempora o mores!, as I suppose he would have said to the waiter, ordering another helping of Japanese-style battered shrimp.

But, all in all, the piece is little more than a way for Gladstone to take pride in his academic heritage. As he says in conclusion: “We shall surely not be told that if he went to Oxford we do not know why he went thither. He did not go to saunter by the Isis, or to scale the height of Shotover: he went to haunts already made illustrious (to cite no other names) by Roger Bacon, by Grossetête, and by Bradwardine. He went to refresh his thirst at a fast-swelling fountainhead of knowledge, and to imp the wings by which he was to mount, and mount so high that few have ever soared above him, into the empyrean of celestial wisdom.”

Stirring stuff. And so what if it’s a little lacking in intellectual rigour? What did you expect? It’s not as though he attended Cambridge.

The Curious Case of the Double Dactyls and the Wasted Time

So here’s a thing – I’ve just discovered my new favourite verse form. It’s called the double dactyl, and I was thrown under the wheels of this particular poetical omnibus while following the tracks of noted Clerihovian Sam Wong. There are rules galore, but as with most things apart from keyhole surgery and flower arranging it is easiest to learn by example.

There are some beautiful such examples online – here is a selection of my favourites:

Higgledy Piggledy
Loch Ness’s residents
Have, in a beautifully
Elegant twist,

Uncovered evidence
Proving conclusively
Shouldn’t exist
(A. H. Templeton)


Vladimir Nabokov
Wrote with intelligence,
Passion and verve –

Middle American
Got him denounced as a
Dangerous perv
(Hardeep Q. Bompast)


Thundery Blundery
Alfred Lord Tennyson
Zealously studied the
Light Brigade’s Charge,

But never stopped to gain
With his own agent’s,
Which proved to be large.
(Cyrus Zangwill and Mordecai Oleogaster)


Plinkety Plonkety
Quantum mechanicists
Tried to tell particles
How to behave

Not having realised
Means every particle’s
Also a wave.
(Tyquon Doe)


Higgledy Piggledy
I know a scientist
Who thinks that infra red’s
Quite infra dig;

One day he said to me
“This is the decade that
Gonna be big.”
(Elizabeth Termagant [née Brunswick])


Higgledy Piggledy
Tenzing and Hillary
Once had a fight that went
On for a week,

Before concluding that,
What they had found was the
Wrong type of pique.
(Norman Tebbit and the Broadway cast of Rent)


Tra-la-la Fa-la-la
Kiri Te Kanawa
Once to Sarkozy was
Heard to exclaim:

I’m from New Zealand, Sir”
“Qui?” said the Frenchman and
“Oui” said the Dame.
(Eric Morecambe and Nathan the Wise)


“Hallelu Hallelu
Oscar B. Templeton
Died doing what he loved
Most – shall we say –

Passing the time, ahem,
Autoerotically –
With the exhaust pipe of
His Chevrolet”
(Edward Saïd with thanks to Nora Ephron)


Pat-a-cake Pat-a-cake
Cameron Mackintosh
Keeps getting scripts to his
London address,

Sent by a musically
Literate bevy of
Inkers no less.


Oy gevalt, Oy gevalt,
Jesus of Nazareth
Died on the cross so our
Souls wouldn’t die:

Now every Easter this
Life is remembered with
Chocolate – but why?
(St Augustine of Hippo and St Anthony of Rhino)

March 22nd 2013

Sadly, more to follow…

What the Uncle Saw

We are all of us, I think, familiar with the image of the benevolently patronising uncle. I know I am, having filled the role to glowing acclaim in three separate productions of nieces and two moving renditions of nephews.

In the early days of the run, I should say, the audience was not particularly difficult to please. The material was new and provocative, the comic routines still fresh and entertaining. A brief routine structured around the waggling of an eyebrow was wont to set the children’s table at a roar. The simultaneous waggling of both was enough to precipitate an impromptu comfort break.

But over time, as is the way in this business, the material grew stale and the audience’s attention began to wander. And so, in an attempt to reignite something of the old flame, I would feign an interest in whatever visually appealing bauble was closest to hand. All too often, I would languidly dangle some captivating though pointless trinket in front of their eyes, supposing my bored expression would be blurred and out of focus behind the object of their desires.

But there came, in turn, for each of my five nephlings, an age at which their gaze looked beyond the watch or mobile telephone or extension lead dangling between our faces, and their eyes visibly uncrossed in order to look more sternly at my true expression. And a cloud of disapproval began to spread across their faces like a spoonful of cocoa in milk, outraged that I should be putting on a performance for their benefit. That what had been the undisrupted focus of their interest was for me but a trifling plaything with which I deceitfully and maliciously sought to distract and entertain them.

I do not try this any more. The wails of a young audience are apt to induce sympathetic resonance on even the toughest of heartstrings. But my maturity as a performer has also taken place because I have learned what it is like to be on the other side of the extension lead. I have myself learned how it feels to see, in the fuzzy hinterland behind the immediate object of my attention, expressions of patronising malice seeking to entertain and distract me only long enough as serves its purpose.

And it is not a pleasant realisation. In fact, if there is one lesson I could give my five nephews and nieces – assuming they will ever look me in the eye again – it would be to teach them to beware. To teach them that a quick glance past the colonnaded facade is often enough to spot the mould stains on the inner landing and the wet rodent footprints on the kitchen countertops.

The truth of this was driven home to me last week when a friend introduced me to the work of the English dramatist Joe Orton. “What the Butler Saw”, a comedy now running at London’s Vaudeville theatre, is a play which held a mirror up to the 1960s society in which it was written. Before breaking the mirror over its knee and stabbing 1960s society in the eye with a shard.


But the opening minutes give no sign of this underlying brutality. The first act begins at a brisk and fluid pace, bristling with the sort of epigram that led to Joe Orton being called “the Oscar Wilde of welfare state gentility.” This feels like the traditional English farces of old – all vicars, knickers and snickers – with overly strained visual gags and ludicrous plot contrivances to match. The appreciative crowd goes into the interval expecting no more than a highly conventional, if slightly dated, example of this British theatrical form. The bauble has proven alluring enough to entirely overwhelm our depth of field.

But it is in the second act that the zoom lens of our concentration slowly begins to readjust its focus. The laughter which bursts from our lungs at the sight of Omid Djalili wildly brandishing a revolver collapses in our throats as we see his blood-stained costars, and needs to be defibrillated in our mouths as the situation becomes ever more horrifyingly entangled. Without relenting for a second in pace or freneticism, farce has become tragedy. This is Kafka as adapted for the stage by Mel Brooks.

And then we come to the dénouement. A conclusion which involves not so much a mere Deus Ex Machina as a veritable mechanised Pantheon. Every convention normally employed by farce to achieve an aesthetically satisfying resolution is remorselessly lampooned. The genre itself, which for two hours or more has held us in a state of willing disbelief, is now being pulled out from under our feet. The facade has crumbled and the concealed graffiti is beginning to peek through the cracks.

And the joke is on us. For investing emotion in the characters; for expecting rationality from Art; for seeking to erect a dividing line between farce and tragedy. The bauble has been snatched away and the sneering, impatient face of Joe Orton is now only too plain to see. How foolish of us to suppose that the happy endings we graft on to the end of our theatrical farces should be any less contrived than our daily attempts to create order out of chaos.

Joe Orton was not a happy man, and this is by no means a happy play. The very finality of its concluding scene is a reflection on the artificiality of such decisive endings. Discrete passages of life are not marked by the abrupt descending of a curtain, and any work of art which attempts to show otherwise is perpetuating an irresistible collective delusion.

What The Butler Saw, in 100 odd minutes of dialogue and 88 very odd pages of text, shows us the true futility attendant on the attempt to lead a structured life. Chaos is inevitable, and the attempts we make to master it are so ludicrous as to be simultaneously farcical and tragic. It is not an easy play to digest, but at the same time it is all too easy to swallow.

And while I would highly recommend it to any of my readers, don’t think I’ll be taking any of my nephlings any time soon.