Friday, October 03, 2014

The emperor's new trucker hat

I was knackered coming home today. I was sitting on the tube with my head bowed, staring vacantly at my feet. For a few stops nothing much happened in my field of vision -- black brogues shuffled in and out of view, heels teetered past, and battered Chuck Taylors leeched visible stench lines. When the train pulled away from Moorgate, however, a pair of the ugliest brown loafers I've ever seen stepped into my view.

They looked like mummified elephant scrotums, decorated with the tassels from an old lady's lampshade. Protruding from the tops of these loafers were a pair of slender, but masculine ankles. There were no socks, just pasty white skin and curly hair. As my eyes drifted up I saw skintight jeggings in ironic 80s stonewash, complete with factory-fresh tears at the knees. Above that was a near-concave chest bearing the printed slogan "LaFayette County Highway Cleanup" and quite possibly the deepest V-neck you can have on a threadbare sleeveless t-shirt without it splitting in half. There was an ironic anchor tattoo on the left forearm and a red scarf draped over the shoulders. In the right hand was a crumbled dark blue trilby.

I paused for a moment to take this all in before glancing up at his face. I could have guessed what I would see there: Freddie Mercury mustache, gauged earlobes, and a pair of the sort of glasses favored by Bill Gates in the late 1970s. The hair was shaved at the sides, but long and floppy on top.


Now, I've worked in east London for a good few years and I've seen plenty of hipsters. I've walked through Hoxton Square on a sunny Saturday. I've browsed the racks at Rough Trade East. I've gone to fringe theater nights in Camden nightclubs. Yet even in those floppy-haired dens of painfully sincere debauchery, at the height of the skinny jeans era (back before it went mainstream), I'd never seen anyone sporting the full set of sartorial hipster cliches.

Then it dawned on me. This man was wearing the apotheosis of late-noughties hipster-chic, with all its ironic cultural references, ironically. This presumably means that in the near future the arthouse crowd are going to have to learn to distinguish between people wearing ironically ugly clothing ironically (cool) people wearing ugly clothing ironically (late-to-the-party middle-class wannabes, not cool) and people just wearing ugly clothing (cool, in a noble-savage sort of way).

I'm not sure if they can cope with this.

Monday, August 11, 2014


I came across this picture earlier today while doing some research for work. The original caption read, simply "Private Roy W. Humphrey of Toledo, Ohio is being given blood plasma after he was wounded by shrapnel in Sicily on 8-9-43".

If it were just the two figures in uniform, this would be a fairly unremarkable picture. Distressing, perhaps, but sadly not unusual. The medic (No stripes, combat helmet. Not a doctor.) is trying to do his job while visibly discomfited by the presence of the photographer. Given the point in the war that this picture was taken, it's quite possible he'd never given a transfusion to a wounded man before.

The young man on the stretcher is either unconscious or close to it, the ragged bandage around his neck hinting at the severity of his injuries. He probably endured an excruciatingly painful trip back from the frontline, getting bounced and dragged on the ground as his comrades scrambled him to the dressing station, but now he's gone somewhere calmer: morphine, probably. He's not dead, incidentally, or at least he wasn't at the time this picture was taken. A quick search on google turns up a Roy W. Humphrey (1919–1981) buried with full military honours at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery in Kansas. He lived a long (for a working-class American who grew up during the depression) and probably blessedly uneventful life after the war. 

The thing that I find fascinating about this picture is the audience of Sicilian civilians (say that five times fast). The first thing you notice about them is their poverty. Mussolini’s largesse clearly never reached this part of Italy. Their clothes are ragged and worn, tatty to a degree that looks -- to modern eyes -- like stage dressing from an over-the-top production of Les Mis. Only one of them has shoes. There is a young woman and a child who is presumably her daughter, but no father. I expect he was in the army somewhere, or (more likely by this point in the war) whiling away the days in an allied prisoner-of-war camp somewhere in Scotland or Canada. The only man visible is old and bald, sitting off to the edge of the frame.

The two older women both wear expressions of concern, their eyes locked on the life-or-death struggle unfolding in front of them. The seated woman grimaces and the standing woman wrings her hands. The young man on the stretcher in front of them probably looks a lot like the sons or grandsons that were taken by the army a year or two before. The old man looks annoyed, if anything. He's not looking at the wounded man but at the photographer. Why is he taking pictures?

The young woman is not looking at either the wounded man or the strange photographer, but at something in the distance, over the photographer’s left shoulder. She looks worried, scared. More wounded men being carried up the road, perhaps, or the smoke of battle.

The little girl stands in the oddly contorted, fidgety position of a child watching something they find equal parts scary and fascinating. Her legs are crossed, one hand clutches her dress, the other holds onto her mother's back. She's twisted up like she's trying to hide behind herself. She watches with half-closed eyes, ready to close her eyes and recoil in squealing horror if something disgusting or terrifying happens. All the same, she clearly feels safer within arm’s reach of her mum than she does anywhere else. I expect ground was shaking with every bomb blast and artillery shell.

I wonder how clearly she remembered this event when she was older. She doesn't look much more than five years old, but probably old enough to fix things in her mind.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Cookie-tin Banjo

Really lovely little song this. A James-Taylor-like ode to childhood and the lasting impact our parents have on who we are. It's perhaps a little over sentimental, but I'm a secret sucker for that sort of thing. I won't lie; it made me cry.

It's not hard to guess why this song would have such an effect on me, after all, my father has an old guitar and he plays me folk songs. I grew up in a house full of musical instruments and music, with both parents playing the guitar and singing. Growing up I thought it was completely normal to be lulled to sleep by your mother singing Irish folk songs ('she is handsome, she is pretty, she's the belle of Belfast city') and woken by your dad playing raucous dixieland jazz on his guitar, making silly trumpet noises with his mouth for accompaniment.

Unlike the singer, however, this musical home never inspired awed reverence for music as a child. I would sit at my dad's knee and listen as he played his songs for maybe 40 seconds before ricocheting off on some hyperactive tangent. When he played me silly songs to wake me up in the morning I'd snarl and thrash as if it was just another alarm clock. I wonder if perhaps the ubiquity of music made it fade into the background somehow. Just something that was always there.

I liked music, don't get me wrong -- there were numerous albums that I listened to over and over again until I wore them out and songs that I'd bug my parents to sing for me -- but generally it had to be both loud and fast to get me interested. As I child I would fidget, bounce, and squirm my way through every school day and run through every weekend. I rarely stopped moving, and even more rarely stopped talking. My parents attempted to get me interested in a seemingly endless series of hobbies and pastimes over the years in an attempt to get me to focus on anything for more than five minutes. Amongst them was a 3/4-sized guitar that a relative unearthed from an attic somewhere. I think I played it for perhaps an afternoon before bouncing off in some other direction and never giving it a second thought. The only time I ever picked it up was to bang on it like a drum. Perhaps encouraged by this, they let me go to drumming classes. Presented with an actual drum-kit, however, I quickly lost interest.

I don't think it was until my early teens, when my brain slowed down enough to notice that the statues around me were actually adults going about their business, that I really took a serious interest in music. I can clearly remember the day when my mum, having finished restringing her old guitar, quickly rattled off an impromptu performance of "Blackbird" by Paul McCartney. Somehow I'd never heard that song before, I just stood there agape.

When I was sixteen I unearthed my dad's old bass -- a baroque slab of mahogany made by Gibson in the early 1970s. Dad showed me the basics, and then I taught myself to play a few punk songs. Over the next few weeks I progressed from "Dammit" by Blink-182 to "Longview" by Green Day to "Travelling Without Moving" by Jamiroquai. I don't know whether it was simply the passage of time, or if years of playing videogames had finally given me the ability to focus, but either way, I was practicing something and actually getting better at it.

The fact is though, I started too late. I'm a competent bass player, but I'm never going to be great, no matter how hard I focus. That hyperactive fidgetyness never really went away either. Perhaps the real reason why I'm not a very good bass player is that I'm also a bad guitarist, an awful mandolin player and a distinctly shaky performer on the upright bass. Like my father, I can't sit in a room with a musical instrument in it without getting an uncontrollable urge to pick it up and try and get a noise out of it (unless it's a piano, obviously. I'd be content to just sit in front of one of those).

I'm not generally bothered by this (this blog's title is an allusion to this, after all), but somehow that song reawakened in me the vague feeling that I should have tried harder to be something in particular.

Thursday, July 10, 2014


This morning I sat down on the train opposite a young man who was probably no more than 21. His clothes were fashionable, in a hipster-y sort of way, and his hairstyle looked time consuming, if not necessarily stylish. He was sitting in that sprawling, spider-like way of gangly young men everywhere, and reading a Penguin Classics edition of John Milton's Paradise Lost.

As the train rocked its way from Ladywell to London Bridge, I watched as his head dipped lower and lower. I don't remember if he actually turned the page in the whole time I was sitting opposite him, but by the time we were gliding through Bermondsey he was clearly fast asleep. His head was pressed against the window and his damp hair made a little halo of condensation on the glass.

I suspect if I'd seen this guy three or four years ago, I would have viewed him as a ponce. I would have scoffed at his inability to stay awake while reading Milton, despite the fact that such a feat is equally beyond me. I would have walked away feeling like I had won, in some small and unconscious way, and that I was the better man.

This morning, however, I was amused. In the same way that you can be amused by the imaginative ramblings of a cute little kid. His attempt to become the sort of person who reads Milton on the train struck me as adorable rather than vain. From where I stand today, happily married and edging ever closer to thirty, I can admit that I spent many years doing more or less the same thing. Everyone does when they're teenagers, I think, but particularly men.

There's something  inherently insecure about the male psyche, a lack of self-awareness that we find secretly bewildering. Unsure of who exactly we are, we consciously shape our actions in emulation of who we'd like to be -- a sort of internalised propaganda of the deed.

It's all a mating display of some sort, I think. Colourful feathers. Those who decorate themselves with the trappings of intellectual curiosity and creativity, no matter how thin this veneer of decoration is, are vastly preferable to those who pointlessly bash their antlers together.

Actually no. Bad choice of words. Anyone who has ever been in Leicester Square of a Saturday night knows that the noble stag is entirely the wrong animal to use as a metaphor. The dominance fights of walruses, with all their flapping flesh and uncoordinated heaving, bear far closer resemblance.

Ultimately, these displays don't seem to count for much. I don't think women pay them much attention. I'm sure that Kristen has a far better idea of who I am than I do, and made her judgement based on that, rather than (thankfully) the conceited and pretentious persona I projected at the time (and to an extent still do).

P.S. I'm aware that pedants will insist the plural of walrus is Walrii. I think they're wrong. We don't import plurals for any other language we've borrowed words from, why should we make an exception for latin?

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The German Ocean

I recently finished reading The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. As with most of his books, you go into it expecting a daring tale and action and suspense, but end up finding something much more thought-provoking and strange. I'd strongly recommend reading it. It's short, entertaining, and out -of-copyright. There's no excuse not to.

While reading this book I was struck by Wells' use of a term I'd never heard before. The action of the The Invisible Man takes place around a sleepy village on the east coast of England, and as an inevitable consequence of this setting, he frequently refers to the North Sea in his descriptions of places. The odd thing is that he doesn't call it the North Sea. He calls it 'The German Ocean'.

At first I thought this was a term Wells had coined himself, perhaps a sly hint that the world of this novel was not quite the world he was living in. A few days later, however, while leafing through a set of seventeenth and eighteenth century maps of northern Germany (I have a strange job) I saw it again. A quick scan through another set of old maps confirmed that Mer d'Allemagne, Oceanus Germanicus, and German Ocean appeared just as often as North Sea or its variants. I was curious. When did this term die out, and why?

For the answer to the first part of that question, I turned to the all-knowing google hive-mind.

Here are the Google Ngram results for the relative frequency of the two terms in English-language texts since 1700. The X axis is time, the right axis is frequency. Frequency is expressed as the percentage of the total number of words published in a given year that word represented. It's a largely incomprehensible figure, so I've cropped it out.

As you can see, the two were used pretty much interchangeably throughout the eighteenth century. When you factor in variants of German Ocean -- like German Sea, Oceanus Germanicus, etc -- I think German Ocean probably has the edge. The two terms appear to have existed side by side until around 1850, when North Sea experiences a sudden rise in popularity and 'German Ocean' begins to drop away. By the time H.G. Wells used 'German Ocean' in The Invisible Man (around 1897) it was already well on its way out, and may have even sounded a little archaic to his readers.

So that's the when, but what about the why?

It is a well known fact that when a poor, innocent sea or ocean finds itself caught between two major political powers, things can get very ugly. In parallel with the fight for the physical owership of the sea -- the warships, trawlers, etc. -- there's also the more abstract fight over naming rights. Both sides typically want the official name of a sea of ocean to imply that they have undisputed strategic dominance over its waters, regardless of what the situation is on the ground (well, on the water). Sometimes the two countries can seemingly agree to disagree (as with the English Channel/La Manche), but most of the time it turns into nasty international confrontation in which the poor cartographers are caught in the crossfire (as with the Persian Gulf/Arabian Gulf).

For most of the nineteenth century, the British had enjoyed undisputed control of the North Sea. They had not bothered to change the name, however, because the name did not imply strategic dominance by any other state. It was neutral. The name 'German Ocean' was just a holdover from Pliny's Oceanus Germanicus (ocean surrounded by stinky Germanic barbarians).

In the mid-nineteenth century, however, the Kingdom of Prussia smushed into Saxony and Bavaria, making a new state called Germany. By a quirk of history and language, this new state was gifted symbolic dominance over the North Sea on English maps, even though it didn't really have a navy to speak of.

From this point, however, the English press started to become a little squeamish about writing the name 'German Ocean'. You can see in the graph above that 'German Ocean' begins to get dropped in favour of the neutral 'North Sea' the moment Germany emerges as a rival European power.

The abandonment of 'German Ocean' accelerates dramatically shortly after the passing of Kaiser Wilhelm's 1898 Fleet Act -- which began to ambitious process of bringing the Imperial German Navy up to parity with the British Royal Navy. Now that the Germans were seriously contesting England's ownership of the North Sea, to call it otherwise looked unpatriotic. The outbreak of war in 1914 made it look treasonous. By the beginning of the 1920s, the term 'German Ocean' was dead in the water (so to speak). 

The odd thing is that, so far as I can tell, the name for the North Sea in German is, and always has been, Nordsee, or 'North Sea'

Friday, April 04, 2014

Long-lost relatives

Here's an interesting little story from the Memoirs of Peter Henry Bruce, Esq. (London, 1782). Bruce was a Scottish-born military engineer and artilleryman who served in the British, Prussian, and Russian armies, visiting places as far flung as Sweden and Iran.
At the time our troops were in Holstein, General Baur, who commanded the cavalry, and was himself a soldier of fortune, his family or country being a secret to every body, took an opportunity to discover himself, which surprised and pleased those who were about him.

Being encamped near Husun, in Holstein, he invited all his field-officers, and some others to dine with him, and sent his adjutant to bring a miller and his wife, who lived in the neighbourhood, to the entertainment. The poor couple came very much afraid of the Muscovite general, and were quite confused when they appeared before him, which he perceiving bade them make themselves quite easy, for he only meant to show them kindness, and had sent for them to dine with him that day, and talked with them familiarly about the country: the dinner being set, he placed the miller and his wife next to himself, one on each hand, at the head of the table, and paid great attention to them, inviting them to make free and eat hearty.  In the course of the entertainment, he asked the miller a great many questions about his family and his relations: the miller told him, that he was the eldest son of his father, who had been also a miller at the same mill he then possessed; that he had two brothers, tradesmen; and one sister, married to a tradesman; that his own family consisted of one son and three daughters.

The general asked him, if he never had any other brother than those he had mentioned: he replied, he had once another, but he was dead many years ago, for they had never head of him since he enlisted and went away with soldiers when he was but very young, and he must certainly have been killed in the wars. The general observing the company much surprised at his behaviour to these people, thinking he did it by way of diversion, said to them; “Gentlemen, you have always been very curious to know who and whence I am; I now inform you, this is the place of my nativity, and you have now heard from this, my eldest brother, what my family is.”

And then turning towards the miller and his wife, he embraced them very affectionately, telling them he was their supposed dead brother; and, to confirm them, he relating everything that had happened in the family before he left it. … General Baur then made a generous provision for all his relations, and sent the miller's only son to Berlin for his education, who turned out an accomplished young man.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The man who would be half-emperor

Another tale from Januarius MacGahan's Campaigning on the Oxus, and the Fall of Khiva.

One day I mounted my horse and rode to Hazar-Asp, where I was hospitably entertained by Colonel Ivanoff. While taking dinner with the Colonel, an orderly came in, and informed him that a woman was waiting outside, asking permission to lay a complaint before him
   The Colonel turned to me and said, “come along now, and you will see something curious.”

   As the regular course of justice had been interrupted by the flight of the Governor, the people of Hazar-Asp, it seemed, came to Colonel Ivanoff, who was then the supreme power, to have their wrongs redressed and their quarrels settled. So we now went out into the great porch, which I have spoken of as the Hall of State, or audience chamber. Here we sat down on a piece of carpet, and the Colonel put on a grave face, as befitted a magistrate in the administration of justice. The woman was now led into the court which was some three or four feet lower than the floor of the porch on which we were seated, she came in leading a lubberly-looking young man of about fourteen, and bowing almost to the earth at every step, and addressed the Colonel, whom she took for General Kauffmann, as the “Yarim-Padshah,” or ‘half-emperor’, which title the Colonel accepted with grave composure.

   She was an old woman, clad in the long dirty looking tunic of the Khivans. The only article of dress that distinguished her from a man was the tall white turban worn by all the Khivan women. She brought in a little present of bread and apricots, which she handed to the bemused Colonel with many profound bows, and then proceeded to state her case.

  “My son,” she said, pointing to the gawky boy who accompanied her, “had been robbed of his affianced wife.”
   “By whom?” asks the Colonel.
   “By a vile theiving dog of a Persian slave. My own slave, too; he stole my donkey, and carried the girl off on it; may the curse of the prophet wither him.”
    “So then he is three times a thief. He stole the donkey, the girl, and himself,” said the Colonel, summing up the matter in a judicial way. “But how did he steal the girl? Did he take her by force?”
   “Of course; was she not my son's wife? How could a girl run away from her affianced husband with a dog of an infidel slave, except by force?”
   “Who is she? How did she become affianced to your son?”
   “She is a Persian girl. I bought her from a Turcoman who had just brought her from Astrabad, and I paid fifty tillahs for her. The dog of a slave must have bewitched her, because as soon as she saw him she flew into his arms, weeping and crying, and said, ‘he was her old playmate’. That was nonsense, and I beat her for it soundly. The marriage was to be celebrated in a few days; but as soon as the Russians came, the vile hussy persuaded the slave to run away with her, and I believe they are as good as married”
   “Well, what do you want me to do about it?”
   “I want you to give back my son's wife, and my donkey, and my slave.”

   The Colonel told her, with a smile, that he would see about it, and motioned her to retire from his presence. She withdrew, walking backwards, and bowing to the ground at every step, in the most approved and courtier-like manner. Evidently it was not the first time she had pleaded her own case.

   But her son never got back his wife, nor she her slave or donkey.