Articles written by Steve Osborn (OZ) in the year 2014
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OZ on HOGGART – I was sorry to hear of the death from cancer last month of Simon Hoggart, the political sketch writer and columnist, who spent a long working life treating this often divisive topic with a uniquely sharp but healing humour. Simon was born on 26 May 1946 in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire, to Richard Hoggart and his wife Mary (nee France). Richard was a highly respected academic who later became famous as author of The Uses of Literacy (1957), and was an expert witness in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial in 1960. After education at grammar schools in Hull and Leicester, Simon taught for a year in Uganda and then followed in his father’s footsteps by reading English at King’s College, Cambridge. Here he became involved in journalism through the university paper, and in 1968 he was one of the two graduates recruited annually by the Manchester office of the Guardian newspaper. In 1973 the paper’s parliamentary sketch writer, Norman Shrapnel, resigned, and Simon moved to the London office, starting a long career with both the Guardian and the Observer, including a spell as the latter’s Washington correspondent. At the same time, he appeared on radio and TV, and wrote some 20 books on a variety of topics. His appeal was easy to understand, but difficult to emulate; he was clever but not cruel; he was not partisan, but attacked sloppy thinking wherever he found it. Two of my favourite Hoggarts are “Another day, another U-turn” and his challenging of “Now is not the time for cowardice!” with “Just when is the time for cowardice? “After a lifetime of being asked “Are you related to Richard Hoggart?” he was delighted to hear recently that someone had asked his father “Are you related to Simon Hoggart?” They’ll both be greatly missed.
OZ on RAMANUJAN – This month marks the 100th anniversary of the arrival in England of one of our cleverest immigrants. Srinivasa Ramanujan was born on 22 December 1887 in Erode, Madras Presidency (now Tamil Nadu), India, to a Brahmin family. Ramanujan did well at local school, coming top in his district at the age of 10, and transferred to the secondary school. Here his mathematical genius unfolded, as he raced through the school’s maths books, leaving teachers and fellow pupils far behind. By his late teens, Ramanujan was working alone, discovering new theorems and re-discovering old ones. However, this obsessive searching caused him to fail two degree courses because of neglecting other subjects. He married in 1909 and worked as a clerk while continuing his research and dealing with the first of his lifelong health problems. By 1914 Ramanujan’s fame was such that he was invited to England by eminent mathematicians Hardy and Littlewood to work with them at Cambridge University. Over the next 5 years Hardy and Ramanujan collaborated on an enormous amount of original research, and Ramanujan was showered with long-deserved academic qualifications. Ramanujan’s illness worsened in 1919 and he returned to India, dying there on 16 April 1920, aged 32. The anecdote best illustrating Ramanujan’s lightning mathematical reflex was told by George Hardy after going to visit Ramanujan when he was ill at Putney. Hardy had ridden in taxi cab number 1729 and remarked to Ramanujan that the number seemed rather a dull one, and that he hoped it was not an unfavourable omen. “No,” replied Ramanujan, “it is a very interesting number; it is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.” (13 + 123 and (93 + 103). To this day 1729 is known as the Ramanujan-Hardy number.
OZ on COCKNEY ALPHABET – I haven’t had time this month to write the usual kind of story, but thought that readers may like to try and improve on the Cockney Alphabet popularized on BBC radio in the 1930s by the comedy duo Clapham and Dwyer. It goes as follows: A for ‘orses (hay for horses); B for mutton (beef or mutton); C for th’ highlanders (Seaforth Highlanders); D for ‘ential (deferential); E for Adam (Eve or Adam); F for ‘vescence (effervescence); G for police (Chief of police); H for respect (age for respect); I for Novello (Ivor Novello); J for oranges (Jaffa oranges); K for restaurant, (cafe or restaurant); L for leather (Hell for leather); M for ‘sis (emphasis); N for ‘adig (infra dig); O for the garden wall (over the garden wall); P for relief (pee for relief); Q for a song (cue for a song), or Q for billiards (cue for billiards) or Q for everything (queue for everything); R for mo’ (half a mo’); S for you (it’s for you); T for two (tea for two); U for me (you for me); V for La France (Vive La France); W for a bob (double you for a bob); X for breakfast (eggs for breakfast); Y for Gawd’s sake (why, for God’s sake); Z for breezes (zephyr breezes). Clapham and Dwyer later renamed it the Surrealistic Alphabet, which in my view added nothing to its appeal; the original version sounded irresistibly Cockney. However, some of the allusions seem rather dated, and some really don’t work at all well and can probably be bettered. I have my own preferred version, but would also be interested to receive readers’ suggested alternatives, at: firstname.lastname@example.org No prizes, but I will publish a list of winning suggestions, just for the glory.
OZ on HOGGART (2) – An observant reader spotted that the final sentence of my February article suggested that Simon Hoggart’s father Richard was already dead. In fact Richard outlived Simon by some three months, dying aged 95 on April 10 2014. Some of the following necessarily repeats facts in the February article. Richard was a highly respected academic who became famous as author of The Uses of Literacy (1957), and expert witness in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial in 1960. He was born to a soldier and house painter on September 24 1918 in Potternewton, Leeds, and raised by his grandmother in Hunslet after both parents died. After studying at Cockburn High School, Richard read English at Leeds University. During World War II, he served in the Royal Artillery in North Africa and Italy. There followed a thirteen year period when Richard built his career lecturing at Hull University. His reputation was finally established in 1957, with the publication of The Uses of Literacy, in which he used his own experiences to comment on the conflict between traditional British working class culture and the radical new Americanised culture of the Fifties. In 1959 he moved to Leicester University, and in 1960 was called as a defence witness at the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial, during which the chief prosecutor famously asked the jury if the book were the “kind of book you would wish your wife or servants to read.” Richard was invited to Birmingham University in 1962, where he founded the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, and then worked at UNESCO for five years. On his return he became Warden of Goldsmith’s College, London, where he stayed until retirement. Richard and Simon Hoggart – a brilliant father and son. I can now repeat February’s final line without any ambiguity. They’ll both be greatly missed.
OZ on THE BARD – In these columns I try to avoid the well-known in favour of more obscure corners, in the spirit of “Not many people know that.” However, I can’t let this April’s 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth pass unnoticed. Little is known of his early years except that he was baptised in Stratford-upon-Avon on 26 April 1564. His birth is popularly celebrated on 23 April, because that is St George’s Day, and he died in 1616, also on 23 April, the day after the great Spanish writer Miguel Cervantes. In addition to 38 plays and some 165 poems, Shakespeare is also famous for the number of new words he added to the English language. During the 200 years from about 1500 onwards, England was changing rapidly under the combined influences of religion, science, exploration and war, and the language needed new words, some of which were imported from foreign languages. It fell to the writers of the age to absorb these words or create new ones, a process called ‘neologizing’, and Shakespeare became the greatest of the neologizers. Computer analysis shows that Shakespeare’s works have a vocabulary of 17,677 words, around 10% of which were first used by him. They include: new meanings of old words; new words, such as ‘lewdster’; ‘un-’ words as in the verb ‘to unhappy’; and compound words such as ‘archvillain’. These days, we’re very sniffy about the practice of turning nouns into verbs, as in the phrase ‘to action’ something, so it comes as a salutary surprise to discover how often Shakespeare did the same, as when he invented the verb ‘to blanket’. One of his words that unsurprisingly didn’t take off is ‘anthropophaginian’, meaning ‘cannibal'. Here I have to confess that my favourite Shakespeare word is the politically incorrect, but very funny, ‘kickie-wickie’ for wife.
OZ on W . . . . . R – Last winter was remarkable for its unusually warm, wet, windy weather. Due mainly to the warmth and the consequential lower incidence of ice, snow, falls, ‘flu and breathing problems, the UK mortality rate was its lowest for five years. Between 1 December 2013 and 15 March 2014, 10,881 (6.7%) fewer people died in England and Wales than in the same period last year. The winter was the warmest, at 5.2º C average, since 1989, when the average was 5.8º C. It was the wettest since 1766, with almost double the average rainfall in south-eastern and central south England. It was also the windiest, with the most number of severe gale days since 1871. The Met Office has linked these events to disturbances in the Atlantic and Pacific jet streams following heavy rainfall over the West Pacific last year. We took a big trip down under in February and March, and found that the South Pacific was also affected, as a cyclone was on its way. Singapore was its usual sticky self, with both humidity and Fahrenheit temperature at 92. Temperatures in Australia were high, as normal in February. At Port Douglas the temperature reached 44ºC and plastic bottles were melting on the beach. When we drove the campervan up through New Zealand in March, the cyclone approached, circled, dumping rain and gales on us, and then drifted away into the Pacific, leaving us deliciously sunny autumn weather. What we’d planned, after two months sunshine down under, was a classic English summer, which seems to be a strong possibility this year, according to the Met Office. Will it happen? As A P Herbert wrote 70 years under the title THE W. . . . . R: “I think I mentioned June the other week: About July I simply cannot speak.”
OZ on TIPPERARY – Last month we sang in the Dover Proms Concert, which included songs from World War One to mark its centenary. The song that stayed in my head for days afterwards was “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”, and there’s quite a story behind it. It was written by Jack Judge and Harry Williams in 1909 as a music hall song entitled “It’s a Long Way to Connemara”, later changed to “...Tipperary”, as that was where Judge’s Irish grandparents lived. It was first noted as a marching song on 13 August 1914 by a Daily Mail reporter, who watched the Irishmen of the 2nd Connaught Rangers singing it as they marched into Boulogne, welcomed by cheering French crowds. The battalion was part of the British Expeditionary Force, and the song was soon adopted as a marching song by other British units. By the end of 1914 it had become popular worldwide, following a recording by the Irish tenor John McCormack, and soon German and Russian troops had developed their own versions. The song’s popularity continued in peacetime, but Judge and Williams didn’t benefit equally. Initially they had shared royalties 50/50, but in 1915 Judge needed money to settle debts and he secured it by selling his royalties to Williams. After the war, moved by stories of the song’s importance to the troops, Williams gave £1,000 (£65,000 in today’s money) to the Great War Injured Beneficiary Fund. Williams died in 1924, and his royalties are still earning over £30,000 a year. Before Judge died, in 1938, he wrote a sequel called “It’s a Long Way No Longer”, the words of which were lost. It’s a pity, as it could well have been a fitting tribute to the ever-loved and much sung “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”.
OZ on ZWEIG – As the end-credits rolled up after Alkham Film Club’s July showing of The Grand Budapest Hotel, I read that “the film was partly inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig.” I’ve since discovered that the two Zweig works most responsible for Wes Anderson’s script were (in English translation) Beware of Pity and The Post Office Girl. Zweig was born in Vienna on 28 November 1881into a wealthy middle-class and multilingual Jewish family. At Vienna University he studied philosophy and published his first collections of essays and poems. After gaining his doctorate, he moved into journalism, whilst still producing a stream of literary works throughout the 1900s. When World War I came in 1914, Zweig faced a dilemma; he was intensely patriotic, like many German and Austrian Jews at that time, yet rejected violence. He accepted work as an archivist at the Ministry of War, and remained a pacifist throughout his life. In 1920 Zweig married Friderike Maria von Winternitz and there followed two decades of prolific output when his work became popular world-wide except in the UK. In 1934 Hitler came to power, and Zweig took refuge in England. He and Friderike were divorced in 1938 and in the following year he married his secretary Lotte Altmann. In 1940, as German troops moved towards the Channel, the Zweigs moved again, to New York and then to the town of Petropolis in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Over the next two years, Zweig became overwhelmed by feelings of despair about humanity and its future. On 23 February 1942, the Zweigs died in a suicide pact. His farewell note described how in his life “...intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth.” The Petropolis house is now a museum called Casa Stefan Zweig.
OZ on SUPERMOON – Driving home across Romney Marsh one evening last month, we gradually became aware of the moon, smiling hugely and flooding the fields with light. It was the latest example of a ‘supermoon’, an astrological term describing the coincidence of a full or new moon with its closest approach to Earth, causing the moon to appear much larger than normal. To describe this phenomenon astronomers use the term ‘perigee-syzygy’, where ‘perigee’ is the point where the moon is closest to Earth, and ‘syzygy’ is the alignment of Earth, moon and sun in a straight line, which is when full and new moons occur. This explains the popularity of the word ‘supermoon’, used by astrologers since 1979. The moon that we saw over Romney Marsh on 8th September was also a ‘Harvest Moon’, defined as the full moon in the Northern Hemisphere that falls closest to the autumnal equinox on 22 September, and named after the extra time it gave to farmers to harvest their crops. The strange beauty of these moons has long been a popular theme in poetry, and my favourite is The Harvest Moon by Ted Hughes, which starts: “The flame-red moon, the harvest moon, / Rolls along the hills, gently bouncing, / A vast balloon, / Till it takes off, and sinks upward / To lie on the bottom of the sky, like a gold doubloon. / The harvest moon has come, / Booming softly through heaven, like a bassoon. /And the earth replies all night, like a deep drum.” In later lines he describes how cows and sheep “stare up at her petrified, while she swells / Filling heaven” and then how “gold fields of stiff wheat / Cry ‘We are ripe, reap us!’ ” It’s a lovely poem. Check it out on the internet – you’ll never regret it.
OZ on WHISTLING – A friend mentioned one of his neighbours, who often whistles and always seems happy and healthy, and asked “Does whistling have health benefits and, if so, why don’t people whistle so much now as they used to?” My partner and I spend a lot of time in our retirement helping people of all ages, particularly the elderly, take up music, especially singing, partly for the sheer pleasure of it, and also for the undoubted mental and physical benefits it brings. Research to demonstrate this has taken place worldwide, including locally at the Sidney de Haan Research Centre at Canterbury Christ Church University. It hadn’t occurred to us until our friend’s question that whistling might have similar properties, and so we were pleased to discover that whistling is indeed advocated world-wide by medical researchers. In addition to raising mood and reducing stress, the deep diaphragmatic breathing of whistling directly aids the heart and lungs, by exercising them and importing more oxygen, and indirectly benefits the other internal organs and circulation. In particular, the ‘puckered lips position’ necessary to whistle is similar to that used in ‘purse-lipped breathing’, a therapy prescribed sometimes in dealing with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). As for the second part of the question, it’s true that whistling is not heard so much these days, and I suggest that the reason is the popularity of cheap portable digital devices, often permanently plugged into the ear. In former times, whistling was very much part of popular culture, ranging from the ‘whistle while you work’ phenomenon to music-hall entertainers such as Ronnie Ronalde. Today, workplaces are full of artificial noise from security alarms, PA systems, and the like, and much popular music is heavily electronic. Perhaps nowadays we all need a little whistling therapy.
OZ on TRUCE – In December 2004 I wrote about Bruce Bairnsfather, the Royal Warwickshire Regiment lieutenant and war cartoonist, who participated in the famous ‘Christmas Truce’, when on Christmas Eve 1914, British and German soldiers silenced their guns, collected their dead, and spent Christmas exchanging food, drink, tobacco and songs. Ten years on, it is the centenary of that truce and a good time to ponder on how it came about and what it meant. It was not the first unofficial truce ever, either at Christmas or any other time. Such events have been recorded for centuries, from the Anglo-French wars, the Napoleonic wars, the American Civil War and War of Independence, the Crimean War and the Boer War, in fact whenever combatants were forced into close proximity and got to know each other. That was certainly so in December 1914; some trenches were as little as 5 to 10 yards apart, enabling troops to hear the enemy talking. According to Tony Ashworth, in his book “Trench Warfare 1914-1918”, this gave rise to the ‘Live and let Live’ principle, whereby soldiers, unless instructed, didn’t open fire unless the enemy did so. Furthermore, neither side opened fire at important times, such as breakfast and dinner. With the two sides sharing a common culture and religion it was only a short step to a full-blown truce on Christmas Day 1914. Bairnsfather described how at St-Yvon the Germans decorated Christmas trees and sang carols, the British responded, and soon the combatants exchanged tobacco, spirits, sausages and chocolate, sang and hugged, and played football in no man’s land. It all had to end; by New Year fighting had recommenced, ordered by the rival military authorities, who were noisily outraged, but quietly lenient, as their trenches had been strengthened and their troops reinvigorated during the truce.
OZ on ADLESTROP – On 24 June 1914, the poet Edward Thomas and his wife Helen were travelling by train to Leddington in Gloucestershire and had to stop at one point for a signal. Here is how Thomas described it in his notebook: “Then we stopped at Adlestrop, through the willows could be heard a chain of blackbirds’ songs at 1245 and one thrush and no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam. Stopping outside Campden by banks of long grass, willow herb and meadowsweet, extraordinary silence between the two periods of travel – looking out on grey dry stones between metals and the shiny metals and over it all the elms willows and long grass – one man clears his throat – and a greater rustic silence. No house in view. Stop only for a minute till signal is up.” And here is what Thomas made of it 6 months later and 100 years ago, on 8 January 1915:
Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
Thomas was killed at the Battle of Arras on 9 April 1917. His poem, titled simply ‘Adlestrop’, was published as a tribute to him in the New Statesman on 28 April 1917, and went on to become one of the most loved poems in the English language.