Delivery Day

Muted celebrations today at Fish Towers as the world marks the anniversary of our hero being brought forth into existence.  It seems hard to believe (for anyone who has seen my youthful visage, or read the somewhat childish nature of this blog) that I have made it through the last 140 years single-handed (a number base “joke” for you there).

Despite my advanced age, I did managed to fit in a whole new experience today.  For the first time I have tasted the hypocotyl of the celeriac (also known, more amusingly, as knob celery).  No looker the celeriac – definitely not the Helen of the root vegetable world (I struggle to imagine carrots launching ships to recover it from marauding parsnips) – but perfectly edible and, perhaps to no-one’s surprise but my own, tasting of celery (though not, so far as I know, of knob).

Otherwise, I have largely ignored any special significance that might attach to the day – I have seen the earth arrive at roughly the same relative point in its peregrinations around the sun quite a few times before, and the novelty value is starting to wear off.

In what might best be considered as a coincidence this blog has also just passed 1000 page views (and here we are safely back in Base 10).  I can’t help but wonder if I should worry about this – but I like to think I am (in some modest way) slowly educating the world.  So, as this blog seems to have become a calling, I rather fear it will continue – despite the unfathomable (or should that be un-metre-able in SI units?) viewing patterns of its readership.


Biochemical Broads

I have recently been hearing the title track of the Mystery Jets recent album, Serotonin, quite a bit on 6Music.  The song was named, I assume, for the monamine neurotransmitter derived from tryptophan (which is found in, among other things, cheese).  It is popularly known as the happiness hormone – though is not in fact, a hormone at all but does contribute to feelings of well-being (certainly good cheese has that effect on me).  However, I could only hear the boys singing of Sarah Tonin – who I was forced to assume was an object of current or past desire.

2011 is the International Year of Chemistry, and this led me to wonder if other organic chemicals shared girl’s names in this way – and could thus form the basis of a round of Late Arrivals at the Biochemists Ball (or further indie band album tracks or titles).  To my delight, I found that many did…

The most common female name in any organic chemistry lab must surely by Ethel, as in Ethel Alcohol or Ethel Aishun.  If we take Ethel Alcohol and combine her with a carboxylic acid, we produce another young lady, Ester.

Returning to neurotransmitters we have Nora Drenaline (whose married name would be Penepherine).  We also have Tyra Meen, Mel Atonin and Ann Andamine.

With a small amount of licence, I rather like Roxy Tosin.  Other hormonal ladies would include Tess Osterone and Angie O’Tensin.

The downside with this riff is that it does require rather a lot of background in biochemistry – and this may prejudice its use for naming pieces of popular music. However, as you will know, this blog does not shy away from an intellectual challenge and so, if necessary, I shall form my own popular beat combo to teach basic organic chemistry through the medium of indie love songs.

Surprise, Surprise!

Yesterday, I noticed that the first of this year’s scillas were in bloom in my garden (pink rather than Black). Around the close, there are a lorra lorra daffs either in bloom or au point as our friends across La Manche might say.

Yes, I’ve let myself down – even sparing you my feeble attempt at a Scouse accent. On the plus side, the alternative title for this post was a “View to a Squill” – so at least you were spared that.

Sidhe Maternity

As I have many times before, I was cycling across the Addenbrooke’s site yesterday when I noticed a new sign pointing the way to the new perinatal unit.  Now I have heard of ante-natal (usually in association with classes) and post-natal (in conjunction with depression) but never perinatal.  Perhaps it was recent posts which alluded to some of the Savoy operas (named for the theatre rather than the region of Italy) which caused me to think of Iolanthe – and more importantly its alternate title, “The Peer and the Peri”.  This may well be unique in popular entertainment as much of the “action” takes placed in the House of Lords – not a venue oft associated with entertainment or, indeed, action.

This association led me to imagine a facility where the female folk of faerie could go to give birth – a process rarely referred to in legend or ballad.  I fondly imagined Cambridge alumnus Edmund Spenser’s most famous heroine (a metaphor for Liz I apparently) giving birth to a Faerie Prince(e) in Cambridge (though if we extend the metaphor, there may have been no heir and a Scottish Lord of the Fae would have succeeded).  Perhaps this would explain the strange lights in the sky which I had previously ascribed to low flying aircraft – or perhaps I have become terminally fanciful.

Certainly, the Addenbrooke’s site contains (possibly) the finest monikered facility for the production of mortal offspring – the Rosie Maternity.  So, why not extend the brand to cover the fair folk?

Mr (or Mrs) Collins lacks the poet’s soul, and their magnum opus tells me that “peri” just means near or around – as in the word perimeter – but I much prefer my more whimsical interpretation.

Unanswered Ad Questions: Two

I’ve spent a couple of days in the capital this week, and this has meant spending several minutes waiting on tube station platforms.  As a result, I have been exposed to a number of rather large, if somewhat curved and static, advertisements.

Our first case study involves an attempt to tempt me into purchasing Danish butter (and does beg the question of why we don’t see other dairy products from the Norfolk of the Baltic, for example, could you name a single Danish cheese?).  This was surprisingly cheery for something hieing from Denmark, boasting as it did a giant representation of a decapitated, runny-yoked, boiled egg and what I took to be buttered soldiers.  The whole was some 10 or 12 feet high, and at this scale the soldiers were more alarming than alluring – however, the ad was successful in engendering within me a desire for a boiled egg (a desire which is quite difficult to satisfy tens of metres below ground on the Central line).

My second example was a sales pitch for a small car.  This was given the strap line, “Fun Unlimited” – which led me to wonder why the normal English word order for adjective and noun had been so recklessly abandoned.  Is this sequence of words somehow more likely to make me purchase their vehicle than offering “Unlimited Fun”?  As James Sherwood has noted to comic effect, the word order chosen is more normal in French, heraldry (from what I can recall of the Ladybird book of Heraldry, the ad could be described heraldically as Corsa Gules upon Field Or) or a few known exceptions like Mint Imperial or Light Fantastic.  Curiously, other adjectivally limited nouns within the ad copy were delivered using the standard English word order – and so we see New Corsa, rather than Corsa New.  I think someone needs to carry out some research into whether jumbling the words really does increase the effectiveness of a message.  Perhaps Vauxhall should have taken things further and scrambled more words – or even presented the strap line in the form of a cryptic crossword clue (3,5,3,9)?

The final target for my heavy-handed sarcasm is an offering from a mobile phone network.  I believe this was trying to suggest that if I bought “top-ups” from them I would be given free vouchers that could be spent in various High Street stores. However, the message was transmitted through a somewhat pastoral scene and the “seller” was a satyr in a cricket sweater.  Even with my limited classical education, I can say that satyrs were not known for their batting, bowling or fielding (but despite this, are never recorded as playing for England) nor were they particularly associated with telephony or shopping.  No, satyrs were associated with the pleasures of the flesh – and in particular wine drinking and the priapic arts.  I am unsure how obsession with and pursuit of nymphs, permanent readiness for every physical pleasure or even the (perhaps) more innocent playing of primitive woodwind instruments would qualify them to promote PAYG mobile services.  It is often said that “sex sells”, but this particular attempt does seem rather a stretch to me.  I would hate to discourage the use of classical allusion in advertising – but I do feel that if we are to educate the public in classical myths using this medium, the figures used should be appropriate to the product in question, Hermes perhaps in this case.

Singin’ in the Rain

Not for me the film with Gene Kelly, nor even the much more familiar parody from Morecambe and Wise – not that these left my psyche unmarked growing-up in the 1970s. Back in the day, I used to live in Haywards Heath and commuted daily to London.  Often I would find myself catching the last train home (not, I would like to make clear, as a result of working late at the “office”), the much fabled 23:58 from London Victoria.  I had around a mile to walk after being deposited at Haywards Heath station – and back in the early 90s, the streets of the “Heath” were pretty quiet in the wee small hours (for all I know, this may still be true – or they may now be thronged with revellers).  If wet on my walk home, I would often reproduce, in my own inimitable style (or, at least not yet imitated) the most famous scene from the movie as I made my way down New England Road (I was never sure if this was named after the north-eastern US, or replaced a pre-existing England Road).  Or I did, but in an early hint at the cuts that are to come, the council started turning the streetlights off at night – and I decided that dancing in the dark whilst wet underfoot was a little too dangerous.

But like a careless Theseus attempting to depart the labyrinth of Knossos, I seem to have lost my thread.  Whilst cycling home into driving rain earlier this week, I once again heard the liquid, warbling song of the skylark – not just one, but at least two – for the first time since What Larks, Pip!  I didn’t see the singers themselves as the view through my glasses was somewhat obscured by raindrops (rather less desirable there than on roses).  I did begin to wonder if the male skylark only competes for territory and the attention of the ladies through song (an avian X Factor, if you will) in bad weather.  It struck me that there’s not much else for a bird to do at such times – they don’t have a Playstation, Wii (which I maintain should be pronounced as Wye-eye, in recognition of its Geordie roots) or HD TV to entertain themselves in lousy weather.  Of course, they do have Sky – the original and by some considerable distance, still the best – but perhaps singing from some sheltered spot looks a better bet.

However, in this morning’s balmy sunshine my hypothesis was refuted by a bold skylark rising vertically in full voice – clearly there is more to skylark courtship than my rather feeble observations have so far revealed.

Turned Out Nice Again!

No, this is not an ironic comment on the weather – and, yes, I am now nearly dry again after my earlier cycle trip into Cambridge, thanks for asking.  In fact, having a colleague in Brisbane and friends in Christchurch, I find it surprisingly easy to place the modest harm done to me by the earth into its proper context.

Instead, this post will be about windows (and, once again I will eschew the sitting duck that is Microsoft’s most (in)famous product).  To make sense of the title in this context, you might like to imagine your interlocutor strumming at a banjo ukelele and wearing a flat cap while transmitting Lancastrian charm at you through the aether.

Fish Towers, in common with many other UK properties following the repeal of the window tax, has a number of glass filled openings in its brick facade.  At the time of their installation these might well have been clean – but in the somewhat more than 4 years since, the only cleaning they have received has been coincidental when a passing zephyr has hurled raindrops (or, maybe whiskers on kittens in very stormy weather) at their increasingly dirty outer surface.

My failure to clean the windows has had a number of consequences, including reduced light transmission to the interior spaces of Les Tours de Poisson and has (along with the state of my knob-free and really rather modest front door) been a major obstacle to my appointment as head of the Queen’s Navy (a position apparently referred to as 1SL).  To be scrupulously fair, recruitment practices for the higher echelons of the senior service may have changed since Victoria was on the throne – though looking at much of modern politics, I fear the changes may not have been “improvements”.

However, this has now all changed, for yesterday I engaged the services of an artisan window cleaner who in a matter of minutes removed four years of accumulated filth from the windows at Fish Towers.  This was all a very modern process – disappointingly no use of ladders, squeegee, vinegar or brown paper (or was that for dealing with broken crown injuries?) – and now light can enter my demesne without the photons having to rely on quantum tunnelling to breach the layer of dirt which previously coated the oriels and lancets of Fish Towers (readers should very much imagine it as a more upmarket version of Castle Gormenghast).

The only downside to a clean outer surface to my windows is that it tends to highlight the rather distressed state of the obverse side – but I think I will leave tackling that particular project for another day (or decade).  This is not down to apathy on my part, but I will need to let my eyes and skin adjust slowly to the increased exposure to the light if I am to avoid injury.

Whilst thinking about windows, I was reminded of eyes traditionally being considered as their analogue in respect of the soul.  Given that other operating systems are available, I wonder if some would consider the eyes to be the Snow Leopard or Red Hat (not of Pat Ferrick) of the soul these days?

Bored of Awards

We seem to find ourselves in the middle of the so-called Awards Season.  We’ve had the BAFTAs, the Brits, the Grammys (one of the few awards for grandparents), the NTAs, the Golden Globes and, no doubt, many more that I have contrived either to forget or never discover.  I must admit that I have almost no interest in who wins any of these lumps of metal or plastic – whether voted for by sections of the public or groups of worthies, critics or experts – and have studiously avoided watching any of the ceremonies.

I suppose this plethora of prize-giving ceremonies must be keeping Colin Firth’s dry cleaner in business.  I’m not quite sure what other purpose they serve – except as cheap television schedule (and, I suppose, newspaper and other periodical) fillers and marketing for their winners, nominees and sponsors.

On the tube yesterday, I discovered that award fever does not only apply to the (widely perceived as) cool creative arts.  No – dietary supplements, for those unable or unwilling to consume a balanced diet (which is surprisingly easy in these days of refrigeration, air freight and the banana boat), have their own awards.  Yes, in a no doubt glittering ceremony, earlier this month the Boots Vitamin Awards 2011 – known as the Vitties to the cognoscenti – were handed out.  I like to imagine a sobbing (and as a result effervescing) Berocca tablet accepting its award as Best Energy Supplement – the tears would, happily, limit the length of any acceptance speech.  My favourite Vittie category was for Best Snore Relief – though oddly it did not go to any of divorce, the spare room, the couch or ear-plugs (perhaps because Boots does not, yet, offer most of these items via its stores or website).

I suspect that vitamins are far from being the most obscure area to have its own awards. I quite fancy the idea of awards for kissing – to be called the Osculars – though if these are to be voted for by the general public I fear that potential nominees may end up with rather chapped lips.  Possible award categories might include best French, Air and Gate. Or, perhaps, awards for trade between the US and Canada or Mexico – to be called the NAFTAs.  Or, and this is perhaps my favourite idea in this strand of foolishness, the Writs to celebrate the very best in court issued injunctions.

The Eyes have it

I enjoyed news this week that Peru are planning to send 1500 varieties of potato to a (self-styled) doomsday vault in Svalbad.  I am probably not alone in wondering if they should also have sent some marmalade sandwiches – and, perhaps, an extra hard stare to keep them safe from ne’er-do-wells en route.

The post doomsday drama seems a popular feature on our television and cinema screens (I believe Outcasts is the latest stroll down this well-trodden path).  However, none of these (to my knowledge) has involved a trip up to the Arctic circle to gather “seeds”, followed by chitting.  For those less green-fingered readers, to chit a potato is not (as my schoolboy-self might have imagined) to place it in detention but instead to place the seed spuds somewhere cool and light to encourage strong, sturdy shoots before planting.   I suspect post-apocalyptic society would be a much happier place with the prospect of new potatoes on the horizon (and mayhap the hope of chips to come) – especially, if the Svalbad facility also contains some seeds which when grown could provide a tasty accompaniment.  I well remember the very child-like joy of thrusting my hands into the “sack” where I grew my spuds last year (for the very first time!) and being rewarded with white gold.

Little could Sir Walter Rayleigh when he (allegedly) brought back potatoes to these shores – and before he went on to start bicycle production in the city of my birth, Nottingham – have imagined his “discovery” would aid the restoration of civilisation after some future cataclysm.  Apologies for the hedging (and any inaccuracies) involved in the last sentence (though, hedging as a craft skill is in decline, so I am pleased to give it some prominence in this blog), but I would have to admit my knowledge of Sir Wally is a little shaky.  When I studied history it was (a) a lot more recent, (b) rather smaller in volume and (c) covered only the period from the English Civil War up to (but not including) the outbreak of the First World War.  As a result, I think I missed all of the history currently taught to our young people or used as the basis for television documentaries – starting as I did after the Tudors (and so the period when pirates – like Rayleigh – were British and preyed on the Spanish potato galleons) and stopping well before the Nazis.

The humble spud has, it would seem, conquered the world.  It underpinned the Industrial Revolution and according to Engels (a biography of whom I am currently reading) it was the equal of iron – though, I would have to admit it left fewer bridges, railways or steamships in its wake and no great potato-linked characters to equal “Iron Mad” Wilkinson.  It is grown and eaten on every continent (except Antarctica, where I believe frost, blight or maybe Colorado beetle prevents its successful cultivation) even if we don’t consider its inexplicably popular fried forms: chips and crisps (or “French” fries and chips for our US readers).  By the way, I am thinking of creating my own range of healthy, organic chips (probably to be sold through Waitrose, perhaps under the Duchy Original’s brand) aimed at the Twitterati and the Radio4 audience under the brand name of Stephen Fries – surely, even the most staunchly (or, is rabidly the right word?) Republican of our friends across the herring pond could not object to chips so-monikered?

What larks, Pip!

Despite the allusion to Great Expectations you should not (a) get your hopes up, nor (b) imagine me bitter, disappointed and writing this in my ageing wedding dress.  Well, not unless that would give you some pleasure – and, upon further reflection, preferably not even then.

The sap is rising, though our friends at the Met Office continue to see the mercury falling over the next few days (in the environs of Cambridge at least).  Bulbs thrust their fleshy leaves out of the soil of my garden and buds on many plants swell with anticipation of the Spring that is to come.  Indeed, my early iris are already abloom and in this nation’s capital on Monday, the waste heat of so many bodies living cheek by jowl had pushed daffodils into flower on the Embankment.

More redolent of the lazy days of summer than any of these, whilst cycling back from the gym at lunchtime, I heard the first skylark of 2011.  A moment after hearing it, I saw the lad hurling himself skyward, without any recourse to copper (and, if anyone gets that reference without the aid of the internet I will be surprised) but by the rapid beating of his wings.  I did think to question the little chap’s judgement – yesterday he could have sung in sunshine and a relatively balmy 8 degrees, whereas today grey skies and mist where his only visible audience (other than our hero).  However, I suppose he probably knows more about attracting the attentions of a skylark filly than I do – in fact, given my general disinterest in “gland games” this might apply more generally to those of the distaff persuasion.

Given earlier reference to the first snowdrops (and cycle shorts), and now the first skylark singing for territory, I am thinking this blog could set me up as the Gilbert White de nos jours.  This would make Sawston the new Selborne and you, dear readers, the modern counterpart of Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington (I know which one I’d want to be).  More ominously, to compete with the curate, this blog will have to continue for a further 25 years!  You have been warned…