Friday, May 26, 2017


In my ongoing quest to look and sound more witty and urbane, I felt that I should, at least, try a gin and tonic - again. I had once bought a can of pre-mixed gin and tonic, took one sip of it, and spat it straight out again, pouring the rest down the kitchen sink. Willing to admit that may have been my fault, never having been one for anything that tastes remotely bitter, I have tried again but, as I write this, I am taking the smallest sips possible – why did anyone, apart from me, think this was a good idea?
Almost the most British of cocktails, gin and tonic was borne out of necessity. When India was under British rule, it was necessary to down large quantities of quinine, at least eight times more than you now find in regular tonic water, in order to fend off malaria, although you are now more likely to use it to restless leg syndrome. Therefore, to take away the taste of something that, to me, tries to remove all the moisture from the inside of your mouth, gin was added, from the ration already given to British officers in India, to make the concoction more palatable, or bearable.
However, that does not explain why we drink it now – like so many things, like tea, silks, minerals, curry and chintz, the British took it home with them. Accidentally keeping in with this, had a chicken tikka masala for dinner before trying my G&T, although this is a British variant on an Indian tradition, and its being a microwave meal means it counts for nothing at all.

Pressing on through more sips of the G&T, I realised I should try to drink it in the same manner I was advised to drink Guinness, having been on a tour of their factory in Dublin last year: apparently, you should draw a decent amount into your mouth, and then gulp it, before the more bitter notes of the hops (or, in this case, the quinine) act on your throat.
This all sounds like I am trying to learn how to be an adult, expected to “hold” their drink, to be able to drink with friends, to do this and that. However, when you don’t like the idea of being drunk, passing from the “witty” phase to the “boring, or out of control” phase, or when you don’t like the idea of being in a pub, much preferring a good restaurant, there is much less of a need to have a drink. Sure, I will have a drink now and then, but “now” and “then” are usually separated by quite a few days. In short, I don’t not drink to be anti-social, which is about as awkward as telling some people you don’t like going to the pub.
Will I try gin and tonic again? The flavour of the juniper berries in the gin are somewhat overtaken by the bitterness of the quinine so, for me, the next time might be a gin and… anything else.

Friday, May 19, 2017


As bad as the state of the world can seem, I have never been given so much reason to think about bananas lately. I have taken to eating them at work instead of chocolate or crisps – they are healthier, less calorific and, most importantly, cheaper than what they replaced. I also feel they help to fill your stomach than the jelly that turned out to be in a diet shake a colleague was trying out.
Knowing how many bananas I will eat in the course of a day – usually two or three – I will keep my work desk stocked with the best, biggest, most obscene-looking bananas I can find. I will not be in a situation where, after a few days, I may need to throw one away, because the skin looks a bit bruised – it only means the banana is riper than when I bought it. If it doesn’t look so great, I’ll still eat it, but probably take a bigger gulp of a drink after it.
Having read the Government figures released by Sainsbury’s this week – a supermarket chain that is baking more banana bread in their stores, to use up unsold stock - I do wish more people thought about bananas in the same way as me. Around 1.4 million still-edible bananas are thrown away by the British public every single day, with thirty percent of people thinking that the riper-looking bruised variety has actually “gone off,” while one in ten think that green bananas, those that can’t be eaten yet, are beyond saving altogether.

Why waste your cash like this? The one thing I have yet to do is buy a fruit bowl, as the next task is to fill it, and most cases of that are to make use of the bowl, then to complete the look for the rest of the room – anything aesthetically unpleasing in that equation would be disposed immediately. What about getting rid of the bowl, instead of blaming the ethylene in the banana skin?
The solution could be changing our expectations of what bananas we find in the shops. Around half of all bananas grown, and just about all that are exported worldwide, are Cavendish bananas, with that particular green, then yellow skin, and a fruit that is not full of seeds. This variety replaced Gros Michel, which was the main variety grown until the 1950s, until it was largely wiped out by the pesticide-resistant Panama disease. Cavendish has its own fungus threat, Black Sigatoka, along with something known as “Tropical Race 4.” It is possible to genetically engineer a new disease-resistant banana, but could that ever be organic enough for some?
When Gros Michel harvests was hit with a blight in the 1920s, the song “Yes, We Have No Bananas” was written from the catchphrase of American greengrocers, making it ready for when exports to Britain were stopped during the Second World War. If we can avoid the situation where we either decide to sing the old song again, or write a new one, that would be great.

Friday, May 12, 2017


It is a tragedy that George Orwell, one of the greatest writers in the English language, and one of the most vociferous defenders of the correct use of the English language, did not live long enough to see the neologisms he created with satiric intent – Big Brother, Room 101, doublethink, and so on - pass into regular usage, to lance through perceived injustices.
Orwell preferred that we should be as clear and accurate with the use of our language as possible, so we will never know if he was pleased that we had to borrow from his own work to help achieve that. However, I do imagine that your name becoming a term, like “Orwellian,” referring to the control of language through misinformation, propaganda and denial, is a secret hope of any writer.
Newspeak, the fictional controlled version of English featured in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was, of course, never meant to help people find exactly what they want to say, which its words have since done. While the uses and intentions of Newspeak are adequately covered elsewhere, including within the novel itself, the possibility that it can create the two-word sentence “Oldspeak ungoodthinkful” should be unsettling enough.

“Oldspeak” is the Newspeak term for the English language that it sought to replace, and the assertion that Oldspeak is described by the following word means you can do without the word “is.” In the novel, “goodthink” is described as having orthodox thought, i.e. the type of good thoughts that are in line with the ruling party, in that they keep everyone in line. Therefore, the notion of “good,” and the word “good,” can only be described in relation to the party. The suffix “-ful” makes an adjective out of any noun in Newspeak, just as “-wise” makes an adverb out of a noun, and using “un-“ makes any noun into a negative, deliberately removing the need for something to be described as “bad,” while placing anything that is “un-“ against the notion of what the party regards as “good.” Therefore, for the party, speaking “old” English is not something a good citizen would do.

I will say that my heart sank while typing that last paragraph. If you were in a society that only spoke Newspeak, the need for slang would arise very quickly. Just as the secretive lexicons of Cockney rhyming slang and Polari arose within London in the last century, being able to speak openly is essential to be able to live, and if you need different words to achieve that, you will find them.

In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” published three years before “Nineteen Eight-Four,”  Orwell admonished the overuse of flourishes and technical language in English writing, as if any step away from clarity will cloud your intentions straight away. However, when the same essay provides six rules for writers, Orwell was wise enough to use the last rule to say it is better to break the other five “than say something outright barbarous.” These days, the point that makes is more like using  social media to immediately say what you feel,  without thinking what you are about to post – in other words, Big Brother bellyfeel Twitter.

Friday, May 5, 2017


In the last couple of weeks, there have been commemorations and celebrations of the life and work of Ella Fitzgerald, one hundred years after her birth. Among her celebrated performances are a set of television advertisements that both highlight Fitzgerald’s clarity of tone as a singer, and trumpet technological advances in audio and video recording. The two of them cannot exist without the other, and the phrase that accompanied them – “Is It Live, or Is It Memorex?” - became bigger than the company whose products it sold.
The original ad, from 1972, features Ella Fitzgerald, performing live, breaking a crystal wine glass with her voice. This is followed by a hi-fi speaker playing a recording of the same performance, which breaks another glass. Two years later, another ad features Fitzgerald’s orchestrator, Nelson Riddle, listening to a live performance, then a recording of the same performance, and not being able to hear the difference. Fitzgerald also appeared in ads singing about the tapes themselves, and her music were still being featured in Memorex ads twenty years later, by which point the slogan, plus a picture of a breaking glass, appeared on all their packaging.

One of the first tech company start-ups in Silicon Valley, Memorex already came from experience working with showbusiness. Its original employees, led by founder Laurence L. Spitters, had worked for Ampex, which developed reel-to-reel tape recorders at the behest of Bing Crosby, who saw very early how the original German technology could be in recording his radio shows. Later, it developed a magnetic film sound process with producer Mike Todd, and experimented on overdubbing sound with Les Paul, he of the Gibson Les Paul guitar.
The reason Ella Fitzgerald’s Memorex ads stick in the mind so well is how they play with your idea of how the science works. You imagine that it must be the clarity of Fitzgerald’s singing that broke the glass, meaning you can break another glass using a recording of her voice. However, every glass has its own frequency at which it resonates, dictated by the type of glass used, the process in which it was made, any imperfections on the glass, and so on. The recording could break another glass, provided it had exactly the same resonance. Thankfully for Memorex, this means they cannot be sued by that one person that just so happened to have windows that had exactly the same resonance as the Steely Dan track they recorded onto one of their tapes.
Admittedly, the reason for this nostalgia over Memorex was firstly being reminded of the ad, then finding out that the company is still going. It had been the first company to make data storage devices that were compatible with IBM mainframe computers, and the consumer electronics arm was a sideline. However, after not keeping pace at this end, Memorex was bought, the consumer business was sold off, and the brand name changed hands a number of times, before now joining other names, like Polaroid and Blaupunkt, in being found on a number of Bluetooth speakers and “boomboxes,” another name I didn’t realise was still being used. I’m sure Ella Fitzgerald sounds great on all of them.

Monday, May 1, 2017


This is not the first time I bought something because the packaging made me laugh. The item was screaming for my attention, fighting into the corner of my eye, on a wall behind the cashier in a convenience store.
It is nearly a year since the Co-Op changed their logo back to their old 1968-93 “cloverleaf” design, making everything old new again [link]. Since then, the logo has been rolled out across all its products, as much of a stamp of its values as the Fairtrade logo the Co-Op helped introduce twenty years ago. The packaging on each product range has also been refreshed, with a panoply of colours and designs but, because the Co-Op does not have its equivalent of a cheap-smart-value-choice-bargain-basement range, I haven’t seen any product that only uses the Co-Op logo and its official shade of blue…
…until I saw a pack of Co-Op Playing Cards, which I bought for £1.49. What made me laugh was how little design was actually needed: you have the Co-Op logo, white on a blue background, and the words “Playing Cards” underneath it. The dotted lines above and below “Playing Cards” is the only flourish there is. This is then repeated four times around the box, making itself perfectly clear to you.
The only change is on the back, where it confirms that you have bought a pack of standard playing cards, including two Jokers; that it was made in China, for the Manchester-based Co-Op Group; that the pack complies with European Union “CE”  safety, health and environmental standards; that the pack is not suitable for children under three years, for reasons not stated – it may be healthier for them to eat the cards than making an early start in developing a gambling problem; and details on contacting their Customer Services department, in case you have been sold a non-standard pack, or to receive details on where to send any superfluous Jokers.
Opening the pack, the face of each card uses the standard format developed over the last five hundred years, along with two nicely-drawn pictures of a Joker standing on top of the world, dropping his deck onto the surface. There is an extra card explaining how to play Go Fish but, disappointingly, the exact same rules are printed on the other side, which could have been used on the rules for Gin Rummy, Spit, Whist or Oh Hell. 
The corners of each card are finely rounded off, so meaning each card will remain identical to your opponent, no matter how worn they become. They have good action in your hands and, instead of a linen-type surface, they have a flat, shiny finish, which may make shuffling a little easier, and provide better exercise for your fingers over time than a pair of hand grips.

The greatest surprise of all is when you turn over your deck – instead of the standard Persian-rug-like design, the new-old Co-Op logo, white on blue, is on the back of every single card. I am not sure if this pack was meant to be a promotional item that was put on sale by accident, or whether the gambling connotations inherent in the cards is gallows humour on the part of the Co-Op, following the sale of their banking arm, but I have never seen a well-known brand name used in this way before – until I found out that Nintendo made playing cards before Donkey Kong and Super Mario arrived.
Marks out of 10? I have just written a near-six-hundred word review of a pack of playing cards…