Archives » 2008 » October

Poppies Again

I watched a bit of “Question Time” last night before the panellists’ constant interrupting of each other got too much on my nerves.

It was a special edition from America (because of some election or other they’re having over there which you may just have heard of.)

With David Dimbleby and Simon Schama, I could understand it. They’re British (in Schama’s case half of the time.)

But why on Earth were the four Americans on the panel wearing poppies? They were in America.

It would be like me waving the Stars and Stripes down Kirkcaldy High Street on Veterans’ Day or something.

What sort of Stalinist (no resistance will be tolerated) regime are the BBC running?


Every year the same old story. English miserabilists complain about the polluting of our fine British traditions by the importation of the “American” custom of Hallowe’en.

At least Andrew Martin in Monday’s Guardian had a slightly different take on it, saying he remembers Bonfire Night as a much less sanitised, wilder experience than Hallowee’en.

However, Martin says, “The trick or treat component of Halloween was built up in the US because it offered the best merchandising opportunities” and mentions, “the rise of a ruthlessly commercialised, Americanised Halloween.”

Commercialised, yes. But rise? Rise? And built up in the US?

I’m glad he acknowledges that Hallowe’en didn’t start in the US. Yet he fails to mention the widespread practice of guising which (I hope!) still occurs in Scotland and, I believe, in Northern Ireland and the societally embedded nature of Hallowe’en, especially in Scotland.

For this is where the US custom of trick-or-treating must have its roots.

Guising consists in children dressing up – i.e. in a disguise – and going from door to door and then performing a party piece in each house to the assembled household, in return for which gifts of nuts, sweets or, in my youth much less likely, money, were bestowed. The treat was a reward for the performance, unlike in the US where, I always got the impression, no such activity is required.

The essential accoutrements for a guising expedition were the costume, usually lovingly hand-made by a nevertheless harried mother, and a turnip lantern. Note, none of your namby-pamby pumpkins (which are ridiculously easy to carve.) The average turnip took hours to dig out – and the resulting mashed neeps tasted much better than pumpkin ever will.

There were also Hallowe’en parties where people dooked for apples and attempted to eat treacled scones or bread (read that as black treacle if you’re English) which were hanging from a wire, all the while with your hands held behind your back! – imagine the mess you got into – and also the playing of other games not specifically associated with Hallowe’en. Dooking means plunging your head – no hands, remember – into a barrel of water in which apples floated to try to grab one with your teeth or, alternatively – no hands again – dropping a fork from your mouth, tines down, in an attempt to spear one of said apples.

All this in the local Church Hall: so much for the occult! And in staunchly Protestant Scotland too, where even the Catholics become imbued with Calvinism.

When I was young, kids loved all this stuff. I suppose they still do. (My own children are now adults so I’ve kind of lost contact with such things.)

Yes, Hallowe’en is now over-commercialised, but what isn’t? And the guising core of it has been rendered less innocent because of trick-or-treat. The modern age is harsher in all sorts of ways.

I do agree Bonfire Night is less anarchic now, but thankfully so. If you tried to set a buckshee fire now you’d rightly be arrested. In any case most of the bomb-sites these took place in have likely been built on.

Penny for the guy? Not likely.

A Good Lay?

Golfers don’€™t get this wrong. They don’€™t speak of a good lay (except maybe at the nineteenth hole.)

The difference between lie and lay is that lie is an intransitive verb, whereas lay is transitive.
In other words you cannot just lay and leave it at that. You have to lay something. E.g. “He lays the cup on the table.”€

I as a person cannot lay on my back. I can only lie on my back.
I can however lay carpets. (Thank you, doctorvee.)

Similarly a ball cannot lay; it can only lie, so when it is in a favourable position to be hit it is in a good lie.

Also you can see the lie of the land (its appearance, how it is lying.) Land cannot lay anything because land is not an agent.

Since cars lie beside the road in one of them, a lay-by ought, then, properly to be called a lie-by. (Except for the litter of course, which is laid; or perhaps thrown.)

Hens of course are said to “lay” because what is laid (eggs) is understood and doesn’t need to be stated. “That hen is a good layer.” (Of eggs.)

I can see where the confusion comes from because lay is unfortunately the past tense (preterite) of lie.
Compare: “Yesterday I laid my book down” (past tense of lay) and “€œYesterday I lay on the couch”€ (past tense of lie.)

That Flanagan and Allen song always annoyed me.
“Underneath the arches we dream our dreams away” Present tense
“€œUnderneath the arches, on cobblestones we lay.” Past tense
“Pavement is our pillow,” (present tense again) “€œno matter where we stray,
Underneath the arches we dream our dreams away.” Present tense.
I know it was for the sake of the rhyme but it makes no sense for the second line to be in a different tense from the others.

So did the Troggs’ – and Wet Wet Wet’s (they should have known better) – “Love Is All Around.”€
“€œI see your face before me as I lay on my bed.”€
NO. NO. NO. As I lie on my bed.

You can discover if REM did any better in this clip.

I suppose the sexual connotation of “a good lay” comes from the fact that you may perhaps lie on a bed to perform the act and so the phrase has arisen from the confusion. (Unless of course you were carrying your partner beforehand and laid her/him down onto the bed first.)

The post title might have brought in a few new visitors, don’€™t you think?
How cruel of me to disappoint them.


It’s a very worthwhile endeavour. Of course it is. I buy and wear one every year as do my family members. But….

I caught a bit of the American Football from Wembley on BBC 1 on Sunday. They had two Americans pundits giving expert opinion. Fair enough. Except…

They were both wearing poppies (as was the British presenter.)

As far as I was aware the Poppy Appeal is a British undertaking. Do ordinary Americans even know of its existence? The two may of course have been perfectly happy to wear their poppies and presumably the reason for the practice was explained to them.

This sudden rash of media poppy wearing towards the end of October always strikes me as a bit sanctimonious. This is especially so since the poppy wearers on the TV – and in Parliament – have them way in advance of Remembrance Day (before the general public has much of a chance to buy one) and always have the green leafed version. These are not generally available to the public so there is an element of showing off about them that is more than a little distasteful.

There is also a hint of compulsion. I get the impression that in the run up to Remembrance Day no-one would be allowed on TV without one – with the possible exception of babes in arms. Is it someone’s job to press poppies on people about to appear in front of camera?

I know the BBC every year gives a substantial donation to the Earl Haig Fund for the poppies it uses. I assume ITV (and all the other TV companies) do too. Is it faintly possible that some TV employees don’t buy one themselves because they’ve got a BBC (or whatever) one? If so, the Fund will lose out.

As I recall it wasn’t always like this. Not everyone on the TV at this time of year used to have a poppy. You can’t say that now.

So, if everyone on the TV wears a poppy how much does it actually mean? It becomes merely a gesture and not an affirmative act. Weren’t the First and Second World Wars fought (on our part) so that people were not dragooned into doing things they might not want to?

Wearing a poppy ought to be a matter of individual choice, not of coercion – whether that coercion be by the TV companies or by those writing/phoning/texting/emailing in to complain if someone in the public eye doesn’t have a poppy on.

Air (or Have Not Have) by Geoff Ryman

Gollancz, 2005

Air cover

I’ve always had a blind spot where Geoff Ryman is concerned. It dates back to his earliest story in Interzone when we were effectively told by the then editor, “You will like this.” Being thrawn, of course, I did not. It didn’t help that the grammar in the piece was a bit shaky. But Air (or Have Not Have) comes larded with praise and awards. So I relented and gave him a whirl.

The start of Air didn’t bode well with rather too much telling of story rather than revelation going on. However this aspect soon settled down when events got into their stride.

In the remote mountain village of Kizuldah somewhere in Karzistan in Central Asia, Mrs Chung Mae is a fashion adviser. Her occupation sounds grander than it really is for the village is without television, or internet access, and the fashion is rudimentary stuff. Kizuldah’s initial remoteness is a problem, though. Deep in the Amazonian Rain Forest or the Indonesian jungle, perhaps, but I found it difficult to credit a central Asian village so cut off from modernity. There is an element to this of Ryman having his cake and eating it. It is necessary for his story – which could not be told effectively without it – but fails to suspend disbelief.

In such an environment, the premature testing of the technology of Air, whereby people will be able to access the internet via their heads, through the air – a bit of authorial hand-waving in the explanation of this development I thought – would always lead to problems.

This is the moment which sets the narrative running and makes it an SF story. It is yet another twist on what is actually a standard Science Fiction plot kicker. Most SF depends on something like this. There are myriads of SF stories, some of mine included, that could be titled, “When It Changed.” Ryman is about to publish one himself. Here, however, apart from the premature test, it is the build up to the real change which Ryman foregrounds.

During the test, Mae witnesses and experiences the death – caused by her distress at Air – of blind Mrs Tung, whose head she is in at the time. From now on Mae has all of Mrs Tung’s memories and can also partly see the future. Using the only TV available (there is another later) and against all sorts of obstacles within the village and without, Mae sets about creating a business selling local embroidered clothing worldwide via the TV’s internet link. She is illiterate so has to do all this from scratch and by voice commands.

Air can come in UN or Gates formats. (Gates as in opening and going through but also suggestive of Bill, nice one Geoff.) There is a tiny subplot about the conflict between the two formats as it affects Karzistani politics. Mae is of course pivotal in its resolution.

Ryman’s Karzistan has the sort of history you might expect from its location, wars, banditry, natural disasters and the rest.

The novel also incorporates a love story, a redemption story, a wicked government story, a repressed minority story, all the minutiae of small village life and, a Rymanesque touch this, an unusual pregnancy. The characters are well rounded and believable.

I watched Ryman receive the BSFA award for this novel at the 2006 Eastercon and have heard him speak on panels. He seems a nice bloke.

Am I won over? Partly. I’ve two more nominated novels from that year on my yet to read list before I can assent to its pre-eminence but Air (or Have Not Have) is a worthwhile read.


Why was one of my history teachers at school known as “Greensleeves?”
Nothing to do with Henry VIII (of England) who is said to have written the song of that name but may just have nicked the credit and royalties from whoever did write it.


My teacher, I kid you not, wiped his nose – not once, mind, but regularly – by moving his arm across it from his elbow down to his cuff. What else are young lads going to call someone who does that?

Fraserburgh 0-1 Dumbarton

Bellslea Park, 25/10/08

A clean sheet! Progress.

But it was a cup game.

Still, all you can ask is to get into the next round.

Ghouls On Film: Hallowe’en Reading

Here are the details of the latest Writers’ Bloc reading. The Hallowe’en show. (Not on Hallowe’en.)

Having trouble sleeping with the world economy in meltdown? Concerned
for your job, pension and life savings? Are the nights drawing in a
little tighter than they should? Return to a more manageable fear
with the Writers’ Bloc Halloween show.

GHOULS ON FILM celebrates classic scares on a budget: shlocky titles,
cheap thrills, and overblown trailers which bear little resemblance to
the film* they advertise. Expect whispers in the night, bizarre bakery
murders and a new term at everybody’s favourite borstal.

Bloc is trying a NEW VENUE for this show — the all-singing,
all-dancing** Beehive Inn, 18-20 Grassmarket. The show is on Wednesday
29th October and the literary projector spins up at 8pm. Bring your
own preconceptions of what is truly horrible, and three of your
Scottish pounds*** (two for concessions). Dutch courage**** is
available at carefully chosen intervals.

Authors appearing include Stefan Pearson, Andrew J. Wilson, Morag
Edward, Andrew C Ferguson, and Gavin Inglis.

* text-only presentation
** show includes no actual singing or dancing
*** HBOS notes still accepted (correct at time of going to press)
**** this means beer

The Real Anti-Americans

In an article in Monday’s Guardian, Michael Tomasky wrote about the latest Republican tactic against Barack Obama which is effectively to say that he – or his supporters – are anti-American. This obviously plays not only on the race card but also up to the “he’s really a Muslim” or even an Arab(!) aspect of opposition to Obama.

Quite why being black or of Arabian descent or even a Muslim means that you’re anti-America I haven’t a clue. After all, apart from the native Americans, all Americans are descendants of immigrants and the melting point was supposed to be one of the things that made the US great, was it not?

But never mind the illogicality of the position, this “who is not like me is beneath dignity” attitude is of itself deeply unappealing and repellent and for this reason alone would be enough to make me not vote Republican if I were American.

But just who is being anti-American? A lot of Republicans seem to believe that only they are true patriots and anyone who is not Republican or who even disagrees with them slightly are not, and are somehow betraying their country. Reflect for a while on the insufferable arrogance of that attitude.

What it seems to lead to is the belief that non-Republicans are illegitimate holders of office, have somehow perpetrated a fraud on the public and must be got rid of by any means possible (so far, thankfully, short of a coup d’etat.*) In other words to a rejection of the will of the people as expressed in the electoral process. What this means is that such Republicans are actually against democracy. They do not want government of the people, for the people, by the people but government of the people by people who are only like them. Does this not make them the real anti-Americans?

Note here that, despite hanging chads and all that possible disenfranchisement argument that marred Florid’s electoral process in 2000, once George W Bush was sworn in as President, Democrats accepted him as the legitimate Head of State. There was none of the orchestrated opposition that has manifested itself in my lifetime in the hounding, whilst in office, of two Democratic Presidents, Carter and Clinton. (*Not to mention Kennedy being assassinated.)

Now, Carter was a manifestly good man who had the courage to tell Americans what they didn’t want to hear, was pilloried for it and subsequently lost to someone clearly not intellectually up to the job, who mouthed nothing but platitudes and apparently spent most of his time in office asleep. It may be, of course, that Republicans believe good men are not fit for office as they will not for some reason be able to make the necessary decisions, but the track record of less good men isn’t so hot either.

Clinton’s case is different. Not a good man in the family sense that Carter seemed, he was nevertheless pursued through the courts throughout his Presidency over first of all, Whitewater, a fraud of some sort in which he and his wife actually lost money as I recall, and then over sexual peccadilloes – which it has to be said Republicans are not exactly immune to.

In defence of the pursuit of Presidents for wrong doing Republicans will immediately cry, “Nixon!” and that Democrats were foremost in the chase.

But. Don’t let us forget that Nixon was a crook who, as President, broke laws which he had sworn to uphold. None of that applied to Carter or Clinton. And Nixon got himself into it. Were it not for Watergate Nixon would have served out his second term and in all likelihood be remembered as one of the better Presidents

So do Republicans accept fellow Americans are as legitimate as they are, or not? Will they accept the verdict of the vote in November if Obama wins?

On past evidence I will make a prediction.

If McCain wins everything will proceed smoothly (and let’s also hope fervently he manages out his term without medical mishap.)

If Obama wins we’re in for four – or eight – years of hounding.

Orange Card, Ref? Or, To Sepp Blatter: A Modest Proposal

The sending off of Gareth Bale in Tottenham Hotspur’s match on Sunday reminded me of something I’d idly thought of a while ago.

Once the ref had given the foul he had no alternative but to send Bale off. It doesn’t matter if Bale intended to foul or not, only that he did. And whether or not Bale was last man is irrelevant. The offence is preventing a goal scoring opportunity.

Now, given that a goal was scored from the resulting penalty, in what sense was the scoring opportunity prevented? Spurs were penalised twice for the same offence, once by the sending off and then again by the goal. Surely once is enough.

The fans of both sides were also penalised in that they were denied watching a match between two teams of eleven men each. Sometimes this spoils the game.

Clearly some disadvantage should accrue to the defending team in this sort of situation, and the penalty is not enough – after all, penalties can be saved or missed.

Neither, in these latter cases, would a yellow card fit the bill. If the penalty is saved or missed the defending team effectively get off with the offence.

My solution?

For incidents like this which occur in the penalty area an orange card should be shown to the offender.

If the goal is scored – directly, or in the passage of play immediately following the penalty kick – this is converted to a yellow. The defending side is punished by the loss of a goal and the player concerned, by a yellow card.

If the penalty is saved or missed and no goal follows from this, the orange card becomes a red, to be effective from the next natural stoppage in play. The defending side is punished by the red card and the attackers rewarded by having fewer opponents in play for the rest of the game.

(There may be strange circumstances in which the defender concerned then manages to score in the interval between the penalty miss and the red card becoming effective but this is highly unlikely.)

None of this would prevent the ref from awarding a red card for serious foul play, as at present.

Now orange is probably not the best colour for this card – too easy to be confused with red or yellow. Perhaps blue would be more sensible.*

Over to you, Mr Blatter.

*I’ve just realised that in certain quarters I may be misconstrued because I mentioned only orange and blue. Just to be clear, I hadn’t thought a green card appropriate because of the colour blindness problem and also that it’s something to do with being able to get a job in the US if you’re an immigrant. Maybe a white card then, or purple. Oh, choose your own colour.

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