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Thursday, 29 December 2016

CAMEL- the Campaign for More Editing in Literature

Do poorly produced books give you the hump? Join CAMEL- the Campaign for More Editing in Literature. Launched today, CAMEL seeks to rid a tortured humanity of the phenomenon of the over-hyped, under-edited bestseller riddled with short-comings.

How often have you had this experience…

You stand in a bookshop, desperate for something decent to read. Arrayed on a table is a collection of the bookseller’s latest offerings, the pick, one assumes, of the current literary crop. No matter which you choose, its blurb describes in golden phrases the book it adorns. You trust the words on the cover. Clutching your selection you walk to the checkout, an addict needing a fix. Money is passed: the book is yours. You take your seat on your crowded train. Ignoring your sullen fellow- passengers you retreat into your private world of literary appreciation, turning the pristine pages of your purchase. And then, they hit you- breaking through your willingly suspended disbelief come the cliché, the pleonasm, the syntactical gaffe, the gratuitously invented irrelevant detail, the misplaced exposition, the inept inapt simile, the indistinguishable characters, pronoun confusion, pedestrian prose, and every other type of verbal pestilence. Confused, you turn to the back cover. Yes, it did proclaim ‘a startling literary talent’, ‘hugely accomplished’, and half-a-dozen other accolades, all of them, as you now realize, entirely misleading.

Why should a betrayed reading public suffer such injustice? Don’t let the publishers get away with it. Shame them, now. Using the comment box below, give your nomination for a book deserving the full five humps.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Next Big Thing in Publishing

A conversation with the CEO of Penguin set me thinking. If writers are increasingly turning to self-publishing, why shouldn't publishers turn to self-writing? Think of it. Imagine you are a global publishing magnate. Your business is assailed each day with dire propositions from gormless agents who can't tell a good book from a wheelbarrow. Even when you find something half-decent you've no idea whether it is going to sell. You have a back-catalogue full of duds waiting to be pulped or remaindered. What other business allows its products to be invented by amateurs?  Did Steve Jobs and his team sit round waiting for hopeful agents to submit product ideas? Of course not- they commissioned an expert- me- to tell them what to sell.

It is time for a quiet revolution in publishing. One by one let us change our email addresses and phone numbers so that the agents can no longer pester us, and let's make the commissioning editors actually commission. Let them engage cohorts of professional writers- as full-time members of the staff- and let them market-research, design, develop, test and produce the novels of the future. Let us end the reliance on the contingencies of amateur authoring. Let us bring the work of product development in-house and do the job properly for once.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

The Literary Games

Following our announcement of 'Live Literature'- a revolutionary development in the field of entertainment- we have made yet another huge cognitive leap. Today we announce The Literary Games!

For thousands of years men and women have competed in trials of strength, speed, skill, and stamina,  of which trials The Olympic Games is our most celebrated collection. Literature has never featured in these inspirational contests, and it is natural that a person of towering intellectual curiosity would ask why that should be so. The cause, I have concluded, is precisely the same at that which has prevented the development of writing as a performance art, namely the traditional use of pen and paper, which prevents the writing of the author from being viewed simultaneously by members of a large audience, a limitation affecting performance arts and spectator sports alike. However, today's ubiquity of digital broadcasting technology allows writing to be viewed live by huge audiences, opening up a gigantic opportunity for the literary-minded entrepreneur.

After minutes of effort I have the thing all sketched out.

The Literary Games will be an international event, held every two years, neatly filling the gaps between The Olympics and The World Cup.

The Games will be masterminded by an International Organising Committee, terms of reference for which I am already drafting. Naturally, I will be prepared to sit as the founding chair of the Committee, to oversee the first few delicate years in which The Games develop from being the brainchild of a genius to a fixture in the world's entertainment schedule.

Owing to its mountainous early workload, the Committee will meet fortnightly.  To ensure fairness to travelling participants, meetings will rotate between a number of convenient locations-  Bermuda, Nice, Geneva, Milan, The Maldives, Las Vegas, Acapulco, Phuket, Vail, St Moritz, and Monaco- with a modest scheme of stipends to defray the expenses of the members.

Countries will bid to host the prestigious event. The selection of the bids will be made in secret, and the results announced live during a quiet period in the entertainments calendar, thus simultaneously offering huge opportunities for publicity and back-handers.

The Games will span the literary spectrum, including fiction and non-fiction, and all established genres. Individual events will be scored by the 'weighted speed' method, in which the score is the quality of the written work (as rated by a panel of judges on a scale from 0 to 10) divided by the time taken for its completion. Thus competitors will face a tactical choice between gaining extra points through higher quality or speedier completion.

The 14-day programme is expected to include:

Short verse forms, including haiku and limerick. These to be in knock-out rounds each of 8 contestants, culminating in a final with four contestants.

Short-stories. To be between 1,995 and 2,005 words. Initial rounds to be in specific genres, with a cross-genre 'Grand Final'.

Long verse-forms. Length of the work to be at the choice of the competitor; however, the scores will be weighted by the number of words produced.

Non-fiction. Works to be full-length in genres specified by the judges ten days before the event.

Pentathlon. Authors compete in short verse-form, short story (two genres, selectable by the competitor from a list published by the judges on the day), non-fiction (freestyle), and long verse-form. Winner decided by normalised cumulative scores from individual events.

The Blue Ribband event will be the full length novel. To avoid cheating through the re-use of prepared material, the genre and synopsis of the novel will be stipulated by the judges, and revealed to the competitors two minutes before the starting gun. The most stringent security measures will be enforced to ensure no premature leaks of the specification. Authors will have nine days to complete their works, leaving five days for judging and speculation about the likely winner.

In all events competitors will be required to type their work on a standard digital device, so that it may be relayed in real-time to the judges and to a massive world-wide TV audience.  Suitable adjustments may be made at the discretion of the judges for authors with handicaps.

Authors may write in any language. Real-time translations will allow the events to be enjoyed by the non-polyglot, although the judging will be based upon the original transcript.

Publishing rights for works produced during The Games will vest with The Committee, and will be auctioned to sponsoring publishers to generate funds to re-invest in 'grass roots' literary participation schemes.


A late development in the formulation of the programme of events is the inclusion of the freestyle humorous sprint. Competitors to produce exactly 862 words on any topic. The work must be a genuinely new and spontaneous product of the author’s intellect, with no prior deliberation or planning, and produced in under 37 minutes.

Connoisseurs of literary humour the world-over: Sure, that’s a stitch-up. There’s only one person who could win an event like that. We’re going to lobby the committee to introduce a rule to prevent the Chair from being a competitor.
Self: Well if that’s your attitude I will resign, and let’s see what an utter shambles it all descends into without my leadership.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Ocram's Syndrome

Today the Professor is detained by legal business in Panama, but we are delighted that the renowned author Marco Ocram has agreed to fill the Professor's gargantuan metaphoric shoes with the following guest post...

Many users of the popular website Goodreads who have awarded five-star reviews to best-sellers such as 'The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair' (TTATHQA) have declared themselves perplexed by the number of reviewers, myself included, who have seen fit to award just one star to the same work. Some of them have written to ask whether I, with my vast knowledge of literary matters, can shed light upon this polarisation of opinion.
I should explain at once that the cause is medical in nature. The pitiful truth is that there exists a disease, more suffered than understood, which afflicts about one person in every 83; a disease of such stigmatising impact that its sufferers shrink from discussing it; a disease that it is my painful duty now to describe. I can only hope that my revelations will evoke pity and understanding among those to whom the existence of the disease has been unknown until now.
I and my fellow sufferers experience a collection of symptoms which has been largely unrecognised by the mainstream medical community, but which is known within specialist circles as Ocram’s Syndrome. 
The symptoms of Ocram’s syndrome amount to an irrational and debilitating intolerance that prevents the patient from enjoying the simple pleasures of reading best-sellers. The symptoms are too many to list exhaustively here, but some of the more common can be described with reference to examples from TTATHQA, as follows:
When we see a sentence such as ‘She collapsed to the ground’ we cannot simply accept it and pass-on to the next. We have an irrepressible urge to expunge the surplus words ‘to the ground’, leaving just ‘She collapsed’, which to our tormented and deranged minds seems clearer and shorter.
When we read such a metaphor as ‘I felt like a volcano waking up and preparing to erupt’, the dreadful mental tic repeats its corrosive effects on our judgement of the book. Volcanoes don’t ‘prepare’, says the little devil-voice in our head. How can volcanoes make preparations? And anyway, the voice says, it should be a volcano waking, not a volcano waking up.
A fictional writer is continually mobbed in the streets by people with gnawing questions about his book, and our unbalanced minds say ha! Just as if.
When a professor of literature pronounces that ‘if you can go for a run in the rain then you can write a great book’ our sick and distorted minds raise absurd and spurious objections. Surely there must be other necessary conditions to be satisfied, we say. Surely some facility with language is needed, some rudimentary creative urge, some tendency to reflect and self-criticise… on and on we go.
The dreadful psychosis manifests again when the professor says that writing a book is exactly like a boxing match. Our afflicted minds can only conceive of perhaps some partial tenuous analogy between writing and boxing. For some inexplicable reason we can’t recognise that writing and boxing are exactly the same.
And when a phrase or plot-device appears which  has been used millions of times before, we cannot recognise its classic status, and instead our twisted minds react as if it were a cliché.
Hopefully those few examples of the many symptoms of Ocram’s Syndrome are sufficient to indicate its debilitating impact. While the non-sufferer can cheerfully and avidly read to the end of a work such as TTATHQA, enjoying its many twists and turns, we sufferers can  barely reach the  end of page two before our sympathetic carers have to administer the tranquilisers, wheel us back to our padded cell, check there are no Dan Browns hidden under the bed, and lock us in until we recover from the attack.

Hopefully you will now understand that a one-star rating given to a popular best-seller must in no way be considered an indication of criticism; instead it should be taken as what it is, a health warning to the sufferers of Ocram’s, much as symbols on menus are used to highlight dangers to those with food intolerances.

I can also announce  that ever since I first identified the syndrome that now bears my name, research teams have been working night and day to develop solutions to lessen its impact. One line of approach showing promise in the labs is a specialist technique known as ‘editing’. Preliminary tests suggest that as little as a person-year of 'editing' might be sufficient to eliminate all the triggers of Ocram’s in a work such as TTATHQA. Of course it will be many years before these early trials might lead to the eradication of the complaint. The barriers to be overcome are not just medical- the harsh and rapacious publishing industry, which is to Ocram’s what the tobacco industry has been to cancer, will need to be tackled, and I see little hope of early success in that endeavour.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

The Lies About the Harry Quebert Affair

You can't judge a book by its cover. Nor, it seems,  can you judge it by the blurb on the inside cover, by the reviews in the papers, or by the opinions of the booksellers, even when those opinions are given to you face-to-face by supposed experts.

I was in my local branch of Waterstones, a bookseller that touts its 'expert knowledge' of books as a differentiator from its lower-brow competitors. Queuing at the check-out, with Pascal's 'Pensees' in my hand, my jaundiced and rheumy eye was caught by the cover of a paperback entitled 'The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair', a tall pile of which had been stacked by the till to encourage last-second compulsive purchases. Packing  Pascal's 'Pensees' under my arm, I picked up the paperback and scanned the quotes that crammed the back cover and the first few pages: 'major literary event', 'startling talent', 'possibly the book of the year', 'expertly realised', 'top-class literary thriller', and more of the same.

A literary thriller, I thought, what could be more satisfying?

By this time I had shuffled to the head of the queue, and I asked the youngster at the check-out if she'd read the book, and was it any good. No, she hadn't read it herself, but her colleague Hayden had, and he said it was brilliant...

Ha! (laughs with derision at the memory). The Truth About the Herbert Quarry Affair is quite possibly the worst book I have ever read. It is crammed with cliché and larded with laughable metaphor.  Its plot and dialogue are as natural and convincing as Jordan's breasts. I will have more to say upon this subject tomorrow (literary criticism that is, not Jordan's breasts). In the meantime, judge for yourself. By special arrangement the book itself is available here...

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Trump on the up

A short item in today's Times claims that those who object to lowering standards of English are introverted under-achievers. Rubbish. I assume it must be some pathetic attempt at a joke (Readers- you should know!), otherwise how would they explain the long series of articles posted on his blog by Donald Trump, in which he instructs his media-relations staff on the subject of good written English, today's example of which is reproduced below:

Good written English #48,371

Expunge un-necessary occurrences of the word 'up', as found, for example, in:

Hilary rang up Donald to beg his advice.
Donald wrapped up the parcel of dog doo-doos he was sending to Bush.
Donald climbed up the stairs to the podium amid the cheers of adoring acolytes.
The singing cowboy coiled up his rope after a pre-rally nostalgia event.
The exhausted publican locked up the bar for the night after Donald's election victory party.
The conscientious journalist typed up her handwritten notes from the amazing interview with Donald.
Not wishing it to stop, Maude wound up the Napoleonic clock given her by Donald Trump.
Charisma genius and hard work helped me build up my business empire.
Donald tore up the campaigning rule book into tiny pieces.
Donald penned up all the Mexicans behind a big fence.
The failed nominees queued up to congratulate Donald.

His list goes on. I suppose, however, that in truth the advice might have been written by an introverted underachiever on Trump's staff and simply posted in Donald's name. After all, he seems not to understand where ups are needed, if we believe the following recent admonishment he uttered to a member of his team...

And don't be surprised if I pull you [up] if I spot a cock [up].

Either that or Donald has another little secret he hasn't let us in on.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

iPhone insecurities

I was furious at last night’s confirmation by the FBI that an ‘outside party’ had shown them how to circumvent the security features of an iPhone. The predictable upshot of their careless indiscretion is that my phone (not an iPhone I need hardly add) has been red hot ever since, as virtually every journalist with the brains to add two and two has been seeking a quote from me about how and why I did it. I suppose I should be grateful that so few journalists are capable of adding two and two, otherwise there would be no end to their impudent calls.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Literature Live

In a supreme gesture of marital solidarity I sat with my wife through a  concert by a folk group. During about the fourth of the badly composed and badly played numbers that comprised the programme I was gripped by a craving for intellectual stimulation. Wouldn’t it be lovely, I thought, to be reading some well-written innovative literature instead of listening to this mindless dirge. And then occurred one of those astonishing phenomena of subconscious creativity which have come to characterise my prodigious intellectual output- why, I thought, shouldn’t the production of literature become a performing art?
Historically it is plain that the scope for writing as a popular performance art was limited by the physical constraints of its most common medium- paper. Performance art implies some form of simultaneous experience by a sizeable audience, and it would hardly be possible for a  more than a handful of spectators to be craning over the shoulder as an author put pen to paper. But today, with laptops and powerful high-resolution projectors there are no longer any barriers, bar prejudice and narrowness of imagination, to bringing the act of writing before a mass audience. Why, I thought, could I not be seated in some theatre, amongst ranks of like-minded enthusiasts, watching with avid appreciation as one of our favourite works is typed onto a huge screen….
Before even the end of the folk concert I had sketched out in my mind an entire paradigm for ‘live’ literature. Broadly, performances could fall into one of four schools, thus:
The Replicative School. Here the performer would type verbatim some established work of literature. To avoid simple errors of memory the performer could play from a ‘score’, a copy of the original work suitably marked-up to denote points at which the pace of the typing should be increased or reduced in sympathy with the sense of the words being produced. The description of a battle, for example, might be typed in staccato bursts, while a moment of maximum suspense in a thriller might be haltingly reproduced step by step.
The Impressionist.  Here the performer would type variants on the work to convey its essence without perhaps slavishly mimicking its every detail.
The Elevational. Here the performer would take a typical trashy best-seller and reproduce its plot but with all traces of cliché, pleonasm, etc expunged, rendering it a still popular reproduction but one less offensive to the sensibilities of the concert-going aesthete.
The Improvisational. This would be the elite realm of only the most brilliant and gifted  of writers, those of perfect technique and infinite creativity, writers who could be expected to type, from scratch, an entire evening’s reading matter to challenge, entertain and astound the most demanding of literary audiences. Doubters seeking proof that such an act of spontaneous literary creation is possible are directed to the forgoing text.

The Caitlin Moron, sorry, Moran Effect

To expand my portfolio of lucrative sinecures I have applied to be editor of ‘Times 2’, the trashy supplement introduced by The Times in 2005. The role is clearly a nominal one. I imagine its duties are confined to one short daily meeting at which the production team confirms that a) there are 20 pages ready to print, and b) they are all filled with something. Certainly no editing takes place- a red pencil would last the incumbent a lifetime. Take the following paragraph plucked at random from today’s tripe:

‘In his column Piers Morgan informs Kim Kardashian that since she is 35 her muff has, basically, passed its sell-by date. Addressing her directly, Morgan explained to Kardashian that she needed to put her clothes back on, and that the time had come to hand the baton on to the next generation of women who want to show their vaginas on the internet.’

With so much to criticise where shall we start... perhaps with the 'basically' at the end of the first line. Is it an unnecessary cliché, that should have been red-lined?  Or could it be a crucial insert to stress that Kardashian's muff is decrepit in some essential sense- not just some greying tangled pubes? I wonder. And what of the breathtakingly superfluous ‘on’ that follows ‘hand the baton’? What sort of...

Connoisseurs of Literary Humour the World Over: Hang on there. That’s Caitlin Moran you’re slagging off.
Myself: Who?
CoLHtWO: Caitlin Moran, award winning journalist and a fine strap of an Irish girl, Tubby Shaw. You should be ashamed of yourself slagging off a lovely Irish lass like that just to make a cheap point.
Myself: Yes, of course, you’re right. Most unfair. I was carried away.
CoLHtWO: How do you know that the superfluous ‘on’ after 'handing the baton' was hers and was left in by a lazy slattern of an editor? How do you know it wasn’t added in by the editor? Hey?

Myself, contrite and remorseful: True.

CoLHtWO: So what are you going to do about it?

Myself, after a pause:  How about this...

Beautiful journalist Caitlin Moran waits at the coffee machine for her cappuccino to froth. She is oblivious to the cooing crowd of acolytes who surround her. She is pensive, withdrawn. Her journalistic ethic is threatened by Morag Hilsten, the strong-willed and capricious new editor of Times 2.  Since its inception in 2011, each paragraph of Caitlin’s ‘Celebrity Watch’ has been agonisingly crafted by her to form, syllabically, a reverse ‘droighneach’, the Irish verse form practiced by the Morans of Neath from time immemorial. Of course, the effect is unappreciated by her colleagues and her hordes of hasty careless readers. All bar that one special reader to whom her work is devoted. He will notice. His eye will see beneath the tawdry content of her prose its syllabic poeticism. He alone will…

Whhaaa, whhaa, whaaa, a strident claxon sounds over the public address system at Times HQ. ‘Miss Moran to the editor’s office’ orders the harsh metallic tones she feared.  Gulping nervously she leaves her cappuccino to its fate and walks head down to Hilsten’s office.

‘Ah, Moran,’ says the brutish illiterate control-freak behind the expansive teak desk, ‘this copy of yours.’

‘Yes?’ Caitlin awaits the worst with proud defiance in the attitude of her queenly head.

‘Shouldn’t there be an  ‘on’ here after ‘baton’?’

‘Er.. not necessarily, Miss Hilston.’

‘Well readers might think the baton is being passed back, mightn’t they?’

‘The phrase is an idiom from the sphere of athletics, Miss Hilton, and the racers in a relay only ever pass the baton to the next runner; they never hand it back to an earlier one.’

‘Yes, well, you might know that and I might know that but the readers might not know, so we’ll have an ‘on’ there thank you.’

‘Yes Miss Hilston.’

‘And where you say ‘the next generation who want to show their vaginas on the internet’, shouldn’t that be the next generation ‘of women’? After all, men don’t have vaginas.’

‘Well, Miss Hilston, that’s the point.’


‘Men don’t have vaginas, so the ‘of women’ can be taken as read.’

‘Yes, well, you might know that and I might know that but the readers might not know, so we’ll have an ‘of women’ there thank you.’

‘Yes Miss Hilston.’


Sobbing inconsolable Caitlin sits hunched over her Mac, an emulsion of tears and mascara staining its keyboard. Her anxious colleagues are grouped in whispers at the coffee machine. She…

CoLHTWO: OK that’s enough.

Myself: Are you sure? I could go on for pages yet.

CoLHTWO: No we’re sure.

Myself: Right-ho. But if you change your mind…

Monday, 21 March 2016


How many times have you heard a conversation along the following lines:

A: I read The Da Vinci Code yesterday.
B: What was it like?
A: Atrocious unbearable hack-spawn.
B: I bet it wasn't as bad as AA Gill's tripe in the Sunday Times.
A: Nooooh. Gill's crap, I grant you, but surely not in the same league as Brown.

And so on.
The differing opinions that motivate such discussions are never satisfactorily resolved as there has been no agreed standard way to evaluate the extent to which any given work of literature is debased by cliché, especially where the works may take such different forms as, say, a novel and a newspaper column.
To eliminate the problem I have developed and today announce clichometry, an ingenious standard of measurement that will transform the practice of literary review.
The rules of clichometry are as simple as they are revolutionary, and may be stated thus:

1) In any given work each occurrence of a cliché is awarded a point.
2) Where the work itself is one big cliché- say a medieval whodunit with a crime-busting nun- each point is doubled.
3) The 'cliché index' of the work is its total number of points divided by its word-count, conventionally expressed as a percentage.

Informal applications of clichometry may be based on sampling to relieve the assessor of the debilitating effects of cumulative exposure to clichés; they may also substitute the figure 250n- where n is the page count- for the word count. However, in scholastic or competitive assessments rigorous counts of words and clichés must be completed and independently verified.

Future conversations may now be concluded in a far more harmonious and enlightening way:

A: I read The Da Vinci Code yesterday.
B: What was it like?
A: Atrocious unbearable hack-spawn. By my rough count the cliché index was eleven point two.
B: Just be glad you didn't read AA Gill's tripe in the Sunday Times- thirteen point eight.
A: (wincing) That's fierce. You've taken it easy since, I hope.

And so on.

My team of crack North-Korean programmers has developed and tested an algorithm that will determine the cliché index of any work presented in a machine-readable format (and which aren't nowadays). Negotiations with Google and Bing are reaching an interesting state.

What's an ex worth...

Those of you who strive for precision in language will appreciate a conundrum that has monopolised my thinking since I heard news of a scheme to rehabilitate 'ex-offenders.' My alert neurons quickly identified the essential ambiguity in the announcement, and lead me to ask what, exactly, is the difference between an ex-offender and an offender?
The prefix 'ex' clearly connotes a departure from a former state, but in what units is the departure to be measured, and what value must be attained before a definite departure can be said to have taken place? Does an offender become an ex-offender merely through the passage of time, or must some degree of reform be present? Does an inveterate lag who has not, for pure want of opportunity, offended for twenty years qualify as an 'ex-offender'?  Is he as much an ex-offender as a convert from sin who has wholeheartedly devoted herself to good deeds since last hearing the cell doors clang behind her a year ago?
The forgoing assumes ex-offendership to be a quality that can be possessed in degrees; but could it be a binary quality that is possessed and possessed in full only when some threshold of absence from offending is reached?
These questions might seem abstractions appealing only to the pedant or the philologist (I assume the difference), but a moment's thought will reveal their intensely practical importance. How will the organisers of the scheme for ex-offenders decide the eligibility criteria for participating lags? How will politicians decide whether to fund the scheme? How can the success of one scheme be reliably compared with that of another if they adopt inconsistent definitions of ex-offendership? These and similar questions are the all-consuming burden of the true philosopher, and yet still the wife wants to know when that decorating's going to be finished. I ask you.

Osborne's raft of measures

I have received a flurry of letters from overseas readers asking if I might explain a phrase spoken in the BBC’s reporting of the budget, which referred to a ‘raft’ of measures announced by the Chancellor. 
The usage dates from Tudor times, when the manuscripts of laws drafted at Hampton Court were swum down the Thames to Westminster suspended from the bills of trained swans. For many years the arrangement worked in an entirely satisfactory manner, and led to the usage of the word ‘bill’ to mean proposed legislation. However, with an increasingly active and vociferous parliament, special difficulties arose when multiple documents, collectively too heavy to be carried by a single swan, had  to be swum together. The trained swans were fiercely territorial, and when tasked with swimming in a group the enraged avians would instead lash out at each other with the draft laws suspended from their powerful necks, paying no heed to even the sternest admonishments of the royal swan-herds.
It was the naval architect Roger de Plessis who found the solution to the difficulty. After a package of velum flung by a particularly enraged cob was later found floating in the outer reaches of the Thames near Sheppey, de Plessis realised that the draft laws admirably combined the properties of buoyancy and water-resistance, so that large numbers of them could safely be bound into a raft that could be steered down the Thames by a punter with suitable knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of its current.
After the first demonstration of the technique almost came to grief when the punter suffered a large splinter from the rough-hewn pole of fir with which he had been expected to propel and steer the raft, Sir Roger (as he had recently become) from his own purse commissioned a spectacular pole of peerless black ebony, known for its unsurpassed ability to endure submersion in water.  The name ‘Black Rod’ survives to this day from the habit of the state punter to announce his arrival at parliament by knocking his ebony pole on the riverside entrance.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Ensemble intercontemporain review review

I read for a laugh a review in the Times signed  ‘Richard Morrison’, presumably a nom de honte, since no-one would put their real name to the pretentious twaddle preceding it. Here, in breach of goodness knows how many copyright laws, is the article with my commentary…

‘There was something mournfully symbolic [writes Richard] about the first London appearance of the Ensemble intercontemporain since the death last month of Pierre Boulez, who launched it forty years ago.’ How wonderfully farsighted old Pierre was, to have launched this London appearance of the Ensemble forty years in advance- an unprecedented degree of notice for a musical concert. Even my arena-busting  ‘Ms Streisland and the Three Tenors’ was conceived, planned and sold-out less than a year beforehand. I had the four of them at the chateau for rehearsals, and a right mess she left in the toilet. Where was I… oh yes…
‘Not a whiff of homage crept into the programme.’ One should imagine not. A creeping whiff would be an exceptionally rare phenomenon.
‘Boulez had no time for sentimentality and was scathing about musicians who based their interpretations  on extra-musical considerations’. True. Old Boulez I knew well. Many was the time he and I would pass the hours in some small café, he hunched over an early-morning absinthe, tearfully lamenting the inability of your contemporary musician to strike just the right level of musicality. "Essay mon cher brave," he would appeal, peering at me earnestly through the greasy and dandruff-strewn lenses of his lunettes, "why are the musicians of today always so under-musical or so over-musical? I don’t understand this… this.. how you say extra-musicality."
‘Posthumously he is reaping what he sowed.’  Posthumous reaping! There’s your answer to the farm labour shortage. Get the long-dead peasants back to do it.
‘The Ensemble intercontemporain, it seems, adopts the same stance.’ That was old Boulet's influence again. Damned odd he thought it would look if each member of an ensemble stood in a markedly different way. A most disturbing impact on the conceptual integrity of the performance. He insisted on his player's adopting identical stances throughout each piece to reinforce the extra-musical consonance.
‘ I could admire this icy objectivity if it wasn’t also applied to music that cries out for emotion, or at least some sign of engagement.’ Firstly note the music is crying ‘out’- an excellent clarification, lest you had mistakenly supposed it was crying in. And it is wonderful to learn that while the music cries out for emotion it could actually be persuaded to settle instead for an arbitrarily small sign of engagement.
‘The concert was confined to pieces for two pianos, sometimes also with percussionists.’ Here we see the tragic effect of the premature streaming into arts or sciences  of the pupils in our schools. Had Richard been able to study mathematics alongside his A-levels in cliché and poor syntax he might have learned that the properties of a set can be confined to X or they can include X and Y; they cannot be confined to X and sometimes include Y.
‘Debussy’s En Blanc et Noir for two pianos was the chief casualty.’ Another excellent clarification, lest you imagined, in this concert confined to pieces for two pianos, a whole orchestra is on the go. And re-assuring to read that the casualties at this concert were not leaderless.
‘Written in 1915, it speaks of loss on the battlefield and the clash of civilisations- at least to my ears.’ It would be a stern critic indeed who would demand Debussy's composition speak to any of Richard’s other organs of sense, so we can’t really fault the music for speaking to Richard's ears alone.
‘The dark energies of Bartok’s stupendous Sonata for two pianos and percussion are harder to subdue, and the performance was admirably cogent.’ What do we make of the plural energies? Perhaps the energy of the one piano and the energy of the other piano. Or perhaps the energy of the pianos and the energy of the percussion. Or maybe the energy of one piano plus the energy of the other piano plus the energy of the percussion. You see- that’s what happens when you set these pieces for more than one instrument- total confusion.
‘Yet even here the slow movement’s dancing fervour was politely subdued.’ Generous feet, sorry, no mean feat with all those hard to subdue dark energies.
‘The biggest disappointment, however…’ The courteous ‘however’ forewarns us that notwithstanding the big disappointment of the Ensemble's icy indifference to the music's crying out for even a tiny bit of engagement, and the big disappointment of the hard-won subduement of the darkly energetic dancing fervour of the slow movement, an even bigger disappointment is on its way.
‘… was Edler-Copes’s (sic) ‘Presence’, derived, it seemed, from type-writer rhythms repeated endlessly’.  To be fair to Edler-Copes, who was once a pupil of mine, the derivation of a work from endlessly repeated  type-writer rhythms is far from straightforward, not to say infinitely time-consuming.  I understand he’s still hoping for them to stop.

Connoisseurs of literary humour the world over: We know how he feels.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Reading less of the TLS

I read this morning that Truman Capote, when in New York, would purchase the Times Literary Supplement at a downtown store and carry it to his apartment many blocks away with the cover showing. Perhaps I was wrong to conclude that sales of TLS had shrunk owing to misguided editorial policies and poorly-written content. Perhaps it is because we, its scathing readers, are no longer in droves providing it with free publicity by carrying it home from the store with its cover showing. I wonder…

Later that day…

I have a tentative new theory that might account for the miniscule circulation of the TLS. This afternoon in Brixton, wishing to revive the old custom, I bought a copy of the TLS with the intention of carrying it to my Spartan quarters with its cover showing, thus providing free exposure and celebrity endorsement to the ailing rag. The pedestrian route to Mayfair took me through some of the toughest estates in London, and in not one did the publication in my hand prompt the slightest flicker of recognition among the countless hundreds of loitering youths whom I passed. One shrinks from suggesting it, but could it be that the TLS has  lost touch with the kids in the street?

Monday, 15 February 2016

Ronnie O'Sullivan's Big Break

The sports pages of various newspapers contain critical accounts of the decision by snooker ace Ronnie O’Sullivan to sacrifice a 147-break by choosing to pot a final pink in place of the black required to achieve the maximum score attainable in a single ‘frame’ of snooker. Uncharitably the cynical hacks attribute to Ronnie’s act the motive of avarice. The prize available for professional players achieving a one-four-seven in an official match is subject to a roll-over mechanism which increases its value exponentially as each successive match passes without the prize being awarded. Ronnie, the hax contend, forewent the prize with the intention of repeating his feat of snooker genius at some subsequent competition for vaster reward.
Having coached him since his childhood, Ronnie I know like my own foster-children. He is naturally gifted with the cue and was quick to emulate the techniques I demonstrated at the 18th century table in the billiards room that once belonged to George 3rd (the billiard room, that is, not the table). Atop the massive mahogany legs, the slabs of peerless Welsh slate, and the finest West-of England green baize, I honed Ronnie’s game to its shining pinnacle of cuemanship. In addition to my finesse at the table, Ronnie was quick to assimilate other attributes I demonstrated to round-off his capabilities as an entertainer. Always leave the audience wanting more I told him.  I am convinced that his recent forfeiture of a 147 owed more to my lessons in showmanship than to the mean financial calculations imagined by the press, not least because it followed an example I set in Ronnie’s presence not two days beforehand, when, at a charity darts demonstration with Eric Bristow, I deliberately sacrificed the darting equivalent of the 147- the nine dart finish, choosing to tease and astonish the lager-swilling audience with a final double-bull in place of the double fifteen they expected me to attempt.
And it is not just in the world of precision sport that I have perfected the art of leaving my audience craving for more. Consider the number of times you have read eagerly through a post on my blog, only to find… no funny punch line!

Connoisseurs of literary humour the world over: Sure, you man's not wrong there. Must be months now he's been keeping us wanting more. He's got  that off to a fine art, no mistake.

A dawning realisation

Apart from here, in this golden treasury of literary humour, you rarely read of setting realisations. I had a dawning realisation about that under-reported phenomenon this very morning.  Questions need to be asked. What brings about the setting of a realisation? What is the mean duration of the setting process? Can a realisation be unset through the application of modern psychological techniques? I suppose that old age, alcohol and other abused substances, dementia, and the cares of an overburdened mind might all contribute to the statistical likelihood of realisations setting. That certainly seems true in my case….Where was I going with this?

Connoisseurs of literary humour the world over:  We never saw that coming. That’s a good one. Much funnier than his last few posts anyway.

Trained Architects

This morning a television programme tells us that a particular property now in the precarious care of the National Trust had been designed by a ‘trained architect’. You know, I never realised there were untrained architects. (Removes spotless half-moon spectacles, delicately rimmed in purest gold, to denote earnest reflection by unparalleled intellect). ‘Though I suppose that could account for Southampton.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Peer to peer lending

Carney was on the 'phone this morning. Did I hear Lord Turner on the BBC? Peer-to-peer lending grown to £6billion. Couldn't believe it had got so big. There were only about a thousand peers, right?
Seven hundred and ninety, I corrected.
OK so that makes it ... erm..about £750k each?
Seven point five million each, I corrected (numbers were never his strong spot).
Seven point five mil each!!???
During the stunned silence that followed, I reflected upon the tawdry business that Carney had brought to my attention. It was not news to me, of course. I knew first hand that it was not possible to walk from one end of the House of Lords bar to the other without being pestered by swarm of peers offering or begging for loans. I also knew what Carney possibly didn't, that an informal derivatives market had been established in the members' cloakroom on the second floor, where IOUs were more numerous than the paper towels.
Carney's shrill voice recalled me from my reverie. How can it possibly be seven point five mil each? Surely they don't all have that kind of money, even with all the bungs?
It took time, but I finally explained, through a series of childish analogies involving the exchange of baseball cards, that the £6billion figure was a simple sum of the absolute values of each of the individual peer-to-peer transactions- many of which where simply selling a loan on, or borrowing money at a lower rate to offer it on at a higher one- rather than representing a real indebtedness of £6billion among our noble peerage. He didn't quite understand me, but he could at least appreciate that it was more complicated than he had first thought, and he signed-off promising to 'think about it a bit more before the next MPC'.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Trump's defence concerns

I confess I had been somewhat puzzled by the agitated reception given in some quarters to the news that I had supplied the missing technical expertise that allowed the North Koreans finally to complete their inter-continental ballistic satellite launcher. A call this morning from Trump supplied the answer...
Trump alone among recent US presidents has never quite trusted me, and in fairness I can understand why. Early in his career as a property speculator I ...lured is not quite the word I want.... I involved him in a rather complex deal that financed the establishment of the main campus of my charitable research foundation, leveraging the value of the oil rights for a large section of the eastern Mexican Gulf over which I had an option. Through the deal I acquired the campus and he the option; how was I to know the option was worthless?
You might think Trump would at least credit me with the value of the experience, which has allowed him to become a somewhat shrewder player in the property market, but reasoning has never been his strong suit (odd the reinforced clothes some of these speculators wear), as this morning's call made clear. He started on his usual pugnacious note. Hey, what was I doing helping those commies. Why was I making missiles for them. Didn't I know North Career was unstable (I assume the spelling). And more of the same. I continued with the crossword until he lost steam, then patiently explained that the rocket which the North Koreans had launched with my help was intended to launch satellites, and I let him know, having exacted suitable promises of secrecy, that into the microprocessors that ran the guidance system for the rocket I had embedded firmware that, unbeknown to my clients, would never allow a ballistic trajectory outside their territorial waters.
I could tell that Trump didn't entirely trust my answer. OK wiseguy, he went on after a few moments of muttering to himself, if you're so smart answer this. Suppose they launch a satellite, and suppose it can get itself into a geo stationery (I assume the spelling) orbit. And suppose that orbit is right on top of Washington DC. How do we know there ain't a nuke inside it? Huh? And how do we know one day they flick a switch and a bomb-bay opens under that baby and out drops an H-bomb straight down on DC. I don't remember quite what he said next, as 17 down was really bugging me: 'Cervantes wearing cricket pad has a bit' (9).

The North Korean Connection

I hear murmurings from Stockholm about my role as advisor-in-chief to North Korea's nobel- sorry, I meant noble, programme to escape our pedestrian terrestrial environs and reach the lofty purity of space. Dear me, the world is such a nest of hypocrites. Virtually every country in the west, and most in the east, has its own satellite, so why should North Korea be denied the convenience? And if my charitable research foundation in Nassau makes a million or ten from correcting a few fundamental failings in the design of their inter-continental ballistic satellite-launcher, where’s the harm in that?

Monday, 8 February 2016

Braking Bad

This morning I received a charming letter from a young lady who asks whether the unbearable congestion on our inadequate motorway network is due in part to an increase in the average length of the motor car.
Not appreciably, is the short answer.
To increase the capacity of our motorways we need to reduce the length not of the vehicles but of the gaps between them, which account for the greater proportion of the space on a carriageway.
As long ago as 1971 I sent detailed proposals to the Department of Transport, complete with drawings and specifications and even a working prototype. The idea was simplicity itself. Each car would be fitted with a frontal probe, the remote extremity of which would support a sensitive pressure switch wired to the braking system. A car would be driven with the tip of its probe ‘kissing’ the rear of the car in front, so that when the leading car braked each preceding car would have its brakes activated by its pressure switch. The photograph of the handsome prototype tells its own compelling story…

Of course the Luddites at the DoT came up with various objections. The probes would make parking difficult. The probes would trip pedestrians. The probes would project into the transverse carriageway at T-junctions, and more of the same. But when within two weeks I had dealt with those objections with revised telescopic probes, made to withdraw discreetly with a few pumps of a dashboard-mounted lever, more followed until it became obvious that they were ‘false’ objections, raised with the sole aim of discrediting the proposals. We can only guess at what sinister motivations were at play, what backstairs influences, what bungs, bribes and other sweeteners from vested civil-engineering interests concerned only with maintaining the demand for ever-more highways to be built. And today you, the poor commuter, are paying the price. It makes my blood boil.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

An insult to the intelligence

I switched on the BBC classical music programme Radio 3 this morning in time to catch the last 23 bars of Szell's Tyrolean scherzo in f. The recording was clearly that of the Budapest concert in May '06 with Marajeck on first violin- I remembered it as much for the post-concert show that Marajeck put on at my suite in the Gellert as I did  for a disturbing  rattle from the  tail piece of the second 'cello, which was quite impossible to ignore. After the music had finished the dim presenter reminded herself of the name of the piece, and then made a most unexpected confession.  She was sorry, she said, she didn't have the name of the conductor among her notes, but she would find it and let us know as soon as possible!
Does she think that we....don't know the conductor?? I was still in a whirl when the next piece ended, and she tells us that she's got that name for us, it was Ernst Massendorfer. Of course it was Massendorfer. Does she think we can't tell the baton work of Massendorfer from that of Furtwangler, Alsop, Barbirolli and the rest (I will leave out that other annoying Rattle)?  What will  she tell us next- that the music was played on violins and other orchestral instruments? I am all for giving a chance to young radio presenters struggling to learn their trade (remember my work with Wogan, after all), but I won't sit there and be insulted by my own radio. There have to be yet another letter to the BBC Board in the STERNEST POSSIBLE TONES.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Hawking's Tourette's

Hawking has Tourette's. Oh yes, don't you doubt it. Think of it, why else would all his public talks be pre-recorded? They say it is because Steve  can only drive his voice synthesiser at five characters per minute. If you reflect for a moment you will  conclude that simply can't be true. There's Steve solving the Einstein field equations to calculate the entropy divergence of colliding black holes- how is he meant to do that if he can only write five digits per minute? And if the  public facts were not enough to convince you, I can tell you privately that as long ago as 1997 I had written, and he had tested, an optical device-driver that allowed him to speak in real-time through a vocabulary of eyeball movements, somewhat like the strokes of a pen in short-hand.
No, the real reason for the charade of the pre-recorded speech is his tragic development of Tourette's, as if motor neurone disease was not a sufficient burden in itself. Through consultation with Stephen and his family, those of us who act as the guardians of his public image decided that we could not risk the damage that might arise to his noble intellectual persona if his talks were peppered with the whistles, clicks and obscenities that he could  no longer find the power to suppress. But surely it would have been possible for you, people ask, to have implemented an algorithm to strip out the swear words and other ejaculations in real time as he 'spoke'. True, but no algorithm  could have disguised the resulting pauses, and we thought that any hesitations in his speech would have been almost as damaging to Stephen's image as the cursing and monkey noises they replaced.
While the case was easily made for suppressing the evidence of his Tourette's in public, a more subtle moral dilemma confronted us in relation to his work at the university. While they started out with great forbearance and sympathy, the other theoretical physicists at the Cavendish soon became intolerant of Stephen's limited and repetitive repertoire of intrusive and disrespectful sounds, claiming it rendered them  unable to concentrate on their analysis. There were demands made at the senate that the 'voice-box' should be switched-off when Stephen was working alone- a reasonable request, you might think, but a cruel one in actuality. Stephen  had made it abundantly clear to me that the act of uttering the obscenities and other animalistic noises had a profoundly soothing effect, and to switch off his voice-box would be like a physical gag, which surely no-one would allow in this enlightened age. Fortunately a simple solution- headphones- allowed both Stephen and his irritated colleagues to coexist in harmony once more. Stephen is now able to chirrup and swear as he likes when performing his calculations, while his colleagues are undisturbed in performing theirs. And so I continue to improve the lot of mankind wherever I can.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Keeping it up

Grandad, the little one asks, what happens to all those letters you get?
She is referring, of course, to the sacks of mail emptied daily onto the Etruscan marble top of the table in the main hall that once belonged to Pious IX (the hall that is, not the table, which was ex Francesco Medici via contacts in Argentina best not mentioned further here).
Why little one, Grandad reads them all, then they are kept in those books over there. Points vaguely to the east wall of the library, where countless books bound in Cardinal red kid hold the correspondence generated by my work, meticulously indexed in 12-point Sushing Immacula printed on hand-scuted 250gm paper. Pick any volume at random, open it where you like, and the same sort of drivel will be found- typically questions about the inspiration for my writings, usually from those in search of some inspiration of their own.
Take this one, from June 2015. Why, it asks, are there sometimes such large gaps between the entries in my blog? Is it because I am working for long periods in other media? Well, yes, I suppose that accounts for it partly. I have my other means of expression- film, music, theatre, opera, my bronzes, the sketches I send to Foster and Piano, the choreography, my old Leica L3, the wrapping of the Grand Canyon in cling film, programming Deep Blue- and so on, and  they all, to some extent, eat into the time I have to enter the character of the bloggeur Peluxes. But I can't entirely dispel a suspicion that behind the question there is an assumption that posts such as these- golden nuggets of literary humour- can somehow be.... just made up. That they can be...dashed-off in a moment, and that if it weren't for other distractions my blog could be a near-continuous outpouring.  One might as well ask why the seven-year gap between the Special and General Theories of Relativity? Was Einstein doing something else?  Why the eight year gap between War and Peace and Anna Karenina? Did Tolstoy take up photography? Blog posts such as this are not simply...written. They are conceived, nurtured, refined, examined from every angle. The actual typing of them is like the birth of a child- a few short moments of painful effort after months of development.

It's as if people think that I come in from the pub, tell the lovely wife to put her feet up and I'll get her a cup of tea, then type the first old nonsense that comes into my head while the kettle boils. How do people get these ideas?

Shouted from a distance: Where's that tea? I'm dying of thirst here.

Self: Sorry sweetest, just coming.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Terry Wogone

Having intended to remain silent on the matter I have been persuaded to pen suitable words to commemorate the sad passing of my erstwhile mentee Terry Wogan. I first heard the young 'Tell Woe' (as I nicknamed him) in London's St Thomas's hospital, where I had been brought in to establish a neurosurgical unit and he to push the trolleys that bore my patients. When one of the announcers on the hospital's radio service fell ill, Tell Woe volunteered to take her place, fancying himself as the next Jimmy Young. His programme was aired in the surgeons' mess, and I quickly became sensitized to the tedium of his delivery, which was limited in the main to the passing on of 'special hellos' to patients from their relatives, and reading in a soporiphic monotone the daily specials from the canteen menu.
Sensing that the lad had not the first notion of the numbing effects of his performance, and wishing to be relieved of the ordeal of overhearing it, I suggested to him that he might find it educational to allow me to take the lead in one of his slots, a suggestion to which he gladly assented.
Even today I remember almost word for word the off-the-cuff banter I uttered in a rich resonant baritone when the strains of the theme music died away. Something along these lines...
'Yesterday in my Spartan Mayfair apartments my work on some matter of profound global moment was interrupted by one of my domestic staff. A call from Los Angeles. President Kennedy was hoping to speak with me. I put down my papers and beckoned for the call to be put through to my desk. The usual pleasantries were exchanged. Jackie and kids fine. Bobby still a worry, and so on. Something of my impatience must have sounded in my voice, for JFK apologised for taking my time, but needed some advice. This Bay of Pigs business. Military chiefs spouting on about game theory. Didn't understand a word of it. Didn't think they understood a word of it either. Given my role as von Neumann's mentor could I shed light on best strategy etc etc. I said it was best if he left the thinking to me, and I would call Kruschev after supper. No thanks necessary, Happy to help. Hope the introduction to Marilyn had lived up to expectations, and so on. No wonder I never got round to the crossword. But how's this. One across: 'Judas preferred chocolate to pigeons'. Seven letters. Prize to the first patient to ring in.' Then straight into the second movement of Scheherazade.
To say that Tell Woe  was gobsmacked my impromptu delivery would be a major understatement. It was at least two hours before his  hanging jaw closed and he uttered a word. That, I told him, is radio magic. But how, he wanted to know, how could he, with his narrow life experience, and his meagre fund of stories, possibly match my own peerless performance. Tell Woe, I said, art need not be true. No-one needs to know that you are a young good-for-nothing wastrel. If your true factual recollections  are insipid and forgettable, invent. Unshackle your imagination. Let your listeners believe you are a seasoned man of the world, with Hollywood connections, backstairs influence, money, sex appeal. and the rest. It is radio, don't forget, so they cannot see the callow Limerick boy, they can only hear the character that he projects. And most of the rest you know. Tell Woe and I remained close friends, sharing carefree hours on the golf-course. With  my talent for mimicry I was able to emulate his delivery faultlessly, and when in Broadcasting House I would often take over the microphone during his show so that he could slip out to Ladbrooks. Of course, television put a stop to those innocent capers, as I could never disguise my appearance to match his dumpy gormless look.

Celebrity Mastermind

The blood pressure was up again last night, and no surprises there. Keep it to yourself but some months ago I bet Melvyn Bragg and Joan Bakewell that I could take any dunce they cared to mention and cram them to win Celebrity Mastermind, using, of course, the techniques of didactic gradualism. Now I know what you are saying, and I agree, I agree:  betting those two old chisellers is hardly a fitting demonstration of the powers of so monumental a development as didactic gradualism. But let’s just say that there were some old scores to settle, and leave it at that.  So hands were spat on and shook, and the bet was made, the next step being for my counter-parties to nominate a suitable subject for the trial. Well they took their pints and withdrew into a corner of the pub for a prolonged and evidently heated discussion, returning some minutes later with crafty looks and the smiles of anticipated victory. I sat stiffly erect and waited for their worst with a look of granite dignity and forbearance; but I must confess that an involuntary wince was the reaction when they announced the name: JP McCoy.
I’d known JP since he was a lad mucking out the racers at my stud in County Meath, and even then, when his toughest mental challenge was to figure out how to move horse muck from point a to point b you could virtually hear the mental cogs grinding. How he had gone on to become  the greatest jockey of his generation was a triumph of my training over his rudimentary capabilities.  Never give up- no case is completely hopeless, I said to myself repeatedly on the gallops as JP jumped the rails instead of the fences, and I said the same thing to myself when Bragg and Bakewell sprang his name upon me. After all, I had overcome bigger challenges- look what I managed with Hawking, after all.
All the same it was fierce work. I had JP flown out to my apartment in Dubai, where the harsh prohibitions on the consumption of alcohol might constrain his tendency for purposeful rambles down Toping Street. I shall never forget the first night in which we thrashed out a list of the ‘specialist subjects’ which JP would have to master if he were to win the coveted ‘Celebrity Mastermind’ bowl, and I my bet. There were four subjects on the list, one for each of the knock-out rounds of the competition, and one for the final:

The techniques and equipment of fly-fishing

Styles of peasant dance


Historical currencies of Spanish origin

 I have neither the space nor the inclination to describe here how JP and I spent week after agonising  week building his knowledge of these subjects through minute incremental steps. Never had the principles of didactic gradualism a sterner test or a clearer vindication, for JP emerged blinking into the harsh Dubai sunlight on the eighth week almost as knowledgeable as I of our four focussed fields of study. And so to last night…
It was the first round of Celebrity Mastermind 2016. JP against the actor, author and presenter Steven Fry,  style ‘guru’ Gok Wan, and weather girl Carol from the BBC. Carol had made a hot start with her specialist subject ‘symbols used in meteorology’, clocking an impressive 10 points. Smarmy Fry fared less well on ‘Chapters 3, 6, and 11 of Right-ho Jeeves’, gaining only 9 points after unforgivably forgetting that newts were of the family Salamandridae. But it was Wan who set the bar with a fearsome 13 points, snapping out name after name of ‘Models who appeared on the catwalk at the last show of Parish Fashion week 2014’.
I clutched the arms of my chair as JP was invited to take the hot seat, peering at the  television to see whether his walk across the studio floor betrayed any signs of ‘green room’ indulgences. Nor did my grip loosen by the smallest fraction as the questioning began:

Humphries: What is the common name of the technique by which the leader is attached to the line through an inverted hitch.
JP: The Itchen  back-flip.
Humphries: Correct. Which type of caddis fly larva is mimicked by the lure known as a ghiillie’s eyebrow.
JP: Saluris Madriedae
Humphries: Correct. In the 18th century what was the weight of heaviest recorded salmon to have been caught with a line on the River Tay between  Golmoray and the ‘Stirling Bends’.
JP: Sixty four pounds, seven ounces and four drachms.
Myself, leaning forward in chair: Attaboy JP!
Humphries: Correct. What is meant by ‘under champing’?
JP: A largely obsolete practice of casting with a horizontal ruffle that was once popular with the ‘underhand butts’ school.
Humphries, smiling: Correct.
Myself, half standing: Yes!
Humphries: For what purpose might a ‘poplin Mary’ be employed?
JP: To re-inforce a weakened top-knuckle that had caught on an overhanging tree, submerged supermarket trolley, or countless other forms of obstruction that plague the life of the angler.
Myself, punching air with fist: Yeah… textbook!
Humphries: Correct. In which navigable waterway has the practice of double reefing been banned by the British Waterways Board since a fatal accident in1953?
JP: The Firth of Forth.
Humphries: Correct. Which of its members were removed from the Standards Committee of the British Angling Authority after the  ‘eased spindles’ scandal in 1904?
JP: Brigadier Sir George Robert Carlisle; the Right Reverend Enoch, Bishop of Ely; Lord and Lady Aberaeron; and the Duke of Argyll.
Humphries: Correct.  What is the maximum modulus of elasticity of nylon headers under the Glamorgan convention introduced in 1988 following an accusation of sprocket packing at the  West Highland championship?
JP: 4.8 Pascals.
Humphries: Yes I’ll accept that, or Newtons per square metre.
Myself, outraged, flecks of spittle at corner of mouth: Time wasting- get on with it!
Humphries: What notable printing error characterises the rare 2nd edition of Sir Arthur Bower’s classic reference ‘Imitating the Thorax of the Water Nymph with natural Hemp Sutures’?
JP: The reversal of a plate.
Humphries: More specifically…
Myself, shouting hoarsely: Pedant!
JP: The colour plate facing Page 64 in which three faux nymphs are shown with doubled barbs.
Humphries: Correct.  Whose 1921 record for catching the most brown trout with slip-faced ticklers was temporarily broken by Alison Broad using synthetic rayon slip-faces in 2003 before the use of rayon was overturned in the ‘Cahill’ judgement.
JP: Father Patrick Sweeney of St Brendan’s Church, Mallow.
Humphries: Correct. What  is the conventional penalty for a frayed  tie-end in Class 2 international fly judging.
JP: Three points provided the frayed-end is no longer than 2 millimetres, otherwise five points.
Humphries: Correct.
Myself, having drained tumbler of premium malt in a single gargantuan swig: Come-on come-on!
Humphries: With what elongated variety of close-chuffed fly is the Welsh opera singer Bryn Terfyl closely associated?
JP: the triple ‘French’.
Humphries: Correct. Since 2006 what has been the maximum number of eyelets permissible on a split cane rod under international competitive salmon fishing rules?
JP: thirteen if the bottom runner is more than 30 centimetres from the butt.
Humphries: Correct. For what non-compliance were all of the lady members of the Canadian team disqualified in the Henessey casting handicap at Stockbridge in 1963?
JP: The use of ovolo barbs with less than the minimum legal radius of curvature.
Humphries: Correct. What is the common term for…I’ve started so I’ll finish… the piece of equipment that consists of a spool, ratchet, centre pawl, eccentric crank, spindle button and clamp and which is used to regulate the distention of the line?
JP, squeezing a perplexed chin: ermmm…
Myself, nodding at television, eyebrows at maximum altitude: ….
JP: errmm…
Myself, head turned upwards imploringly to the unheeding gods: for *****sake it’s THE REEL MCCOY!
JP: errmm…
Myself: nnngggggggnnnnn
JP: ..the reel?
Humphries: Correct.
Myself, dissolving with relief: thank God for that.

 Hard as it might be to imagine, the general knowledge round was even more fraught, but JP had done enough and beat Gok by a convincing 3 points, leaving weather-girl Carol and smarmy Fry trailing some way behind. Less than a week now to the second round, and my nerves are still in shreds.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Kids Company

This morning sees the publication of the 'PACAC' report on the failure of 'Kids Company', the children's charity headed by the colourful Camila Batman-Ghelidjh. I first met the young  Camila Ghelidjh, as she then was, in Iran, when in 1982  she accompanied her father who came to seek my advice in connection with a matter relating to the estate of the recently-deceased Shah Mohhamad Reza Pahlavi, to whom the Ghelidjh family was distantly related. Although her father was the ostensible leader of the little delegation that sat drinking Persian tea in my office, I soon observed that Camila was the  driving force behind the enquiries into the Shah's testatory status, and switching from the mode of legal advisor to that of psychologist I readily established that hers was a most acquisitive nature.  I was not in the least surprised, therefore, when she approached me in later years to draft the now-notorious 'pre-nup' for her marriage to billionaire socialite and philanthropist Bruce Wayne, from whom she took the name Batman-Ghelidjh; and it was interesting to note from the PACAC report  that none of Camila's personal fortune was ever risked in the coffers of her charity.

Of course, the bulk of the criticism in the PACAC report is rightly directed at Alan Yentob who chaired the board of trustees which so-badly failed to instil adequate standards of governance at the failed charity. That Yentob failed can hardly be a surprise to anyone aware of his background- his only work experience has been gathered during a lifetime at the BBC, that most-introspective of organisations whose standards of governance were responsible for Jimmy Saville, and, worst still, for the £6.8m pension pot it has put aside for Yentob himself.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

The Google Tax

Another of those coincidences which pepper the life of the world’s mentor to the great and not-so-good…

Prone on the massage table, barely awake, just as Martina is working around the assegai scar on the left glute, from the door there’s a soft respectful knock, and one of the interns pokes in a tentative head to say Sergey Brin is asking if the Professor is available for a quick word. Stretch out a questing hand from under the warmth of sheltering towel. Into it intern places telephone. Bring telephone to seasoned man-of-the-world ear. Sergey’s sorry to disturb. Hopes it’s not inconvenient. First must say thanks for the new algorithm. Got rolled out to all datacentres on Saturday. Search times dropped by more than half. Wouldn’t like to be in shoes of CTO at Bing when news breaks. Etc etc. Effusive thanks are waved away. Next, had I heard about the UK tax issue. Not sure what to do for best. Grateful for any advice etc etc. Yes… yes…understand… marvellous…excellent, can’t thank me enough. One last favour… could I talk to Osborne?
Stretch out hand again. Telephone removed. Withdraw arm under towel.
Five minutes later, another tentative knock. The Chancellor is wondering if the Professor might be available for a quick word. Hand stretches out once more from under sheltering towel, clutches phone and brings it to careworn ear. Osborne's sorry to interrupt. Hopes it’s not inconvenient. First must say thanks for the report on interest rates. Was passed round MPC on Saturday. Deficit forecasts dropped by more than half. Wouldn’t like to be in shoes of shadow chancellor when news breaks. Etc etc. Effusive thanks waved away. Next, had I heard about the Google tax issue. Not sure what to do for best. Grateful for any advice etc etc. Yes… yes…understand… marvellous…excellent, can’t thank me enough. One last favour… could I talk to Brin?

Stretch out hand again. Telephone removed. Withdraw arm under towel.

Five minutes later, another tentative knock. Prime Minister wonders if the Professor might be available for a quick chat. Hand stretches out once more from under sheltering towel, clutches phone and brings it to now somewhat irritated ear. Cameron sorry to interrupt. Hopes it’s not inconvenient. First must say thanks for the intervention with Merkel. Emailed EU ministers on Saturday. Opposition to border reform dropped by more than half. Wouldn’t like to be in shoes of Corbyn when news breaks. Etc etc. Effusive thanks waved away. Next, had I heard about the row  between Google and Treasury.  Not sure what to do for best. Grateful for any advice etc etc. Yes… yes…understand… marvellous…excellent, can’t thank me enough. One last favour… could I talk to Osborne and Brin?
Those of you with the forbearance to have read this far through so much repetitive tripe will understand why my response to the last request was to utter into the telephone an old Danakil hunting oath. PM unsure what I mean. Tell him to Google it. Hurl telephone at intern's head.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The simple large hadron collider

Wednesday at 21:31 hundred hours pm O'clock finds your favourite and most esteemed bloggeur struggling to find the way back to planet normal after being exposed to 3.748 minutes of 'Science Stories', a programme broadcast on the BBC channel currently known as Radio 4. Feeling somewhat like the victim in an alien-brainwashing episode of 'The Outer Limits', I, with my unrivalled powers of vividly articulate self-expression, am currently unequal to the task of adequately conveying the bizarre characteristics of the aforementioned programme. My elegant, delicate, sensitive, and richly bejewelled fingers hover indecisively over the keys of my immaculately maintained laptop, poised to react to the overdue instructions from a bewildered mind. Ok.. let me just  spell out what happened, and you can decide for yourself...

I walked into the chicken shed to make sure that all the old cluckers were present and correct, my intended next steps being to close the 'pop-holes' and switch-off the radio which is left-on during the day to give any passing foxes the impression that real humans are about. From the radio I heard a summary of an experiment performed in the 17th century by Hooke to determine the weight of air, which he achieved by weighing a glass cylinder before and after evacuating it with a vacuum pump, the difference between the two readings being the weight of the air removed. According to the presenter of the programme- Naomi something- the possibility that air might have a weight was inconceivable to most of Hooke's contempories. Fair enough you might think. Those were unenlightened times. It might be possible that men blinded by ignorance and religion could struggle to conceive of what we now consider to be the obvious. The presenter might be stretching the point somewhat, but a degree of hyperbole is probably unavoidable if one is to spin a radio programme out of such meagre raw material. I missed what was said next because I slipped out to give a deformed egg to the dog, but upon my return I heard the presenter describe the experiments that proved the existence of the Higgs-Sushing boson as 'almost as esoteric as weighing air'.
Now, perhaps, you will appreciate my struggle. On the one hand we have an experiment that can be performed by one person with few and simple apparatus, summarised in a line or two, evaluated by subtracting one number from another, and readily understood by the uneducated masses. On the other we have the most complicated and expensive scientific machinery ever constructed, used to generate thousands of petabytes of observational data, evaluated by millions of lines of  computer code, and explained by a theoretical model that no-one professes to understand. And according to Naomi the latter is almost as esoteric as the former...
I'm off to bed. Hopefully it will all make sense in the morning.