What’s Inside

SELECTED POSTS

Angelic Landings – I don’t think anyone else has organised a gymnastics competition for angels. See some of the top contenders in action. Don’t forget to enlarge the pictures so as to be able to give your own scores.
– My hymn to the skills of all the people who make espresso in Italian coffee bars.
– About the way Chinese poems work. About the best introduction to Chinese poetry.
If vegetables be the food of music – Clips of people playing music on vegetables.
Istanbul – Above the Ring A poem about travelling on Istanbul’s ferries.
Leopardi’s Infinity – A translation of one of the greatest poems ever written.
A Minor Key – A poem about the wonderful things you can see if you remember to look.
The Most Beautiful Thing – I once spent a period asking everyone I knew what the most beautiful thing they had ever seen was. Here are the results.
My Accidental Greek Wedding – The mysteries and dangers of phrase books.
– To accompany your Pumpkin Avalanche would you rather have Baked New Button, Nervous Leaf Rolls or Pan Arab?
Ten Thousand Lives – About Ko Un, a Korean poet who decided to write one poem about every person he had ever met.
Two glimpses of Icarus – William Carlos Williams’ and Auden’s takes on a painting by Brueghel.
– If you pick a strange book on Amazon, it’s very likely that you will find that “People who bought this book also bought…” will come up with some surprising suggestions.

A definition of Naples

A city where nothing is ever at the same angle

Picture taken in May 2017 and processed with Prisma

I love Naples and the Neapolitan language. Walking around Naples in May 2017, I came across this street where nothing appeared to be at the same angle. It seemed to me to depict, not just physically,  one of the characteristics of Naples which make it such an interesting place.  So I took this photo, which I processed with Prisma, an app which turns photos into drawings, to try in order to emphasise all the loudly disparate angles.

The shortnesses of longevity

Some time ago I heard a theorist called Aubrey de Grey predict that starting within the next twenty years it would be possible to begin a process to extend people’s lives to the epic figure of 900 years or so.

Apart from the obvious issue of where all these people are going to fit if they are still going to have children, there are a few other considerations.

First of all, I’m not sure how beneficial this would be, since it is widely observed that time runs faster once you stop having new experiences as you age, so by the time you are in your six or seven hundreds, a century will probably feel like a year at a younger age.

In addition to this, how fogeyish are these long-lived people going to become? As you age, you really have to make a commitment to avoid turning into someone who shouts at all the habits and fashions and ideas of young people disparagingly.  Natural pressure however is always pushing you to think that your generation was the only one which had things right, despite all the available evidence. Old people today only have the opportunity to complain about two generations. But think of how unpleasant someone who feels acerbic about thirty generations would be.

My final objection is called Stalin. Stalin died in 1953 at the age of 74. If Stalin had been granted the kind of extended life suggested, he would have gone on to somewhere around the year 2780 and so would Stalinism perhaps.  Many tyrants, Franco, Salazar, Mao Zedong, just to name a few, have only been removed only by senility or death. Spain and Portugal only became democratic after their dictators died. Dictators are very good at hanging onto power. I think that a capable dictator could hang on to power for 900 years quite easily. Is this what we want? Even in democratic countries, I can think of a number of people I dislike who could have gone on and on winning elections if they hadn’t had to get old. Old age and death is also a kind of insurance policy for society.

The S’s of Mexico

Listen to the poem here

On my last day in Mexico,
Mexico City bade farewell to me
I looked for water late at night
a drum-roll down each side—
shop-shutters closing,
clanging, just for me—

Goodbye, good luck
and most of all
good night.

At last, inside a little lane,
under a string of
dangling, dismal, wind-blown bulbs
I found a stall
still open for
A plastic tub kept
a few bottles
cool and bobbing.
one of those women
whose chairs seem to have
grown from out beneath them,
with which they have attained
a state of stability
too perfect
ever to relinquish.
She made no move to serve me
but with a languid flick
of just one finger
beckoned a child
crouching by the kerb.
“She likes to do the selling,” she said.
The girl came over chuckling
at her appointment
She was so small, I
wasn’t even sure that
she could speak.
anything from one
so young.

Missions to the Moon – Ariosto and Calvino

In the age when the world was as yet new
when early humans lacked experience,
without the shrewdness of the present day,
beneath a lofty mountain, with a peak
that seemed to touch the sky, a people, whose
name I do not know, lived on the valley floor
who watching oftentimes the changing moon,
now full now hollow, with or without horns,
travel her natural course across the skies,
thinking that from the summit of the mount
it would be possible for them to reach
her and discover how she waxed and waned,
began, some carrying baskets, others sacks,
to scurry up the mountain slopes racing
each other in their urge to have her first.
Then, seeing she remained forever far,
exhausted they collapsed upon the ground,
wishing in vain they had remained below.
Those on the lower hills, viewing them so high,
believing they could see them touching her,
went chasing after them with hurried strides.
This mountain is the wheel of Fortune
on top of which, the unenlightened crowd
believe that all is peace, and yet there’s none.

Translation Phillip Hill 2017

This is a section of the 3rd Satire by Lodovico Ariosto (1474-1533), which is generally known as “The Fable of the Moon”. (For the original Italian click here) Anybody who knows something about Ariosto, hearing a mention of the moon, will probably think of his wonderful and very funny epic poem, L’Orlando Furioso, where the moon is presented as the place where all lost things end up. (It would have been wonderful if the Apollo missions had come across a cache of odd socks). When the eponymous hero Orlando goes mad for love, another knight called Astolfo flies to the moon to recover Orlando’s lost wits.

Halfpenny thoughts no.3 – ROW: the new ratio we all need

I earn my living as a conference interpreter, which means that I spend a lot of my time having words enter my ears through earphones and words in another language coming out of my mouth, in the constant hope that there will be some relationship between the two flows.
Often, while engaged in this activity, I have been struck by how many different styles of public speaking there are. And once, at a meeting where people kept on referring to business ratios such as: ROA, return on assets: ROE, return on equity: ROI, return on investment (there are several more), it occurred to me that there was another one we needed – ROW return on words.
ROW by the way is pronounced the same way as what you do with oars to propel a boat.
I haven’t quite worked out the mathematics yet, but this is basically the formula:

$ROW =\frac{WORDS}{MEANING}$

Just to give you an example, here is a sentence which I have heard about a thousand times at the opening of a conference:

We have been able to organise everything splendidly except, unfortunately, for the weather.

This has a ROW of 1/13 or 0.077.

Whereas a more succinct phrasing of the meaning:

It is raining.

scores you an impressive 0.333 ROW.

It would be useful I think for public speakers to be listed with their ROW next to their name, like a batting average, that way you could tell how carefully you need to listen to someone even before they open their mouth.

Some people have an ROW which is amazingly close to zero. Repeating the same concept over and over again is one way to achieve that. At times, when I have been exposed to this kind of speaking, I have thought that it might be a good idea to put a price on words, so that the more you use the more you would have to pay. One drawback is that this would mean that the rich would have a near monopoly on expression.

As an alternative,  about a day – every month or even just once a year – on which words are rationed? You would  be allocated a fixed number for a twenty-four hour period. It would be interesting because each of us would have to choose what we felt were the most important to say. And this would probably give us some appreciation of what the most important things in our lives are.

What about you? Are you high-ROW or low-ROW? Get your ROW checked today.

Airport security in 2041

A frisker-bush hedge

(Listen to the poem here)

The bottle collectors,
the metal detectors,
the boarding pass checks,
the ID inspection.

Past the scanners, the guards,
through the frisker-bush hedges
The trackers, the scopers,
the seven-armed gropers.

Then the dumbstunner pistols
which
make
all your
electronics
electroffics
for the duration of your flight.

The tattoo inferencer,
the Rorschach blot sequencer.
The flocks of pecker pigeons,
and the crazed sniffer-dog packs

which howl at the scent of imaginary moons.
Then the accent locator,
the who-are-you-reelies,
the get-down-and-kneelies,

the just-calm-down-misters,
the testicle twisters.
The yardsticks, the metrics,
the inchers, the ouchers,

The enhanced question-session
when you’re spun centrifugal,
plus the 9-Richter quaker
and the upside-down shaker.

Then the emoji-faced probot
whose five eyes are bloodshot,
but whose smiley gets brighter
the deeper it probes you.

Last, the 50 ml syringe
which puts you to sleep,
(when you checked in you chose from six classes of dream).
Then you’re into
the hopper,
and your slot in the bunk.

And click, whirr …

Ding …

Ding …

Ding …

Ding …

Ding-ding

CLUNK!

Phillip Hill 2017

More often not

(Listen to the poem here)

The day comes every day.
It brightly knocks upon your door
sometimes you don’t.
to say that you’re not in for life
right now.

The night comes every night.
It sits upon the ground
and everywhere
it plays its silent flute.
Sometimes you listen
and sometimes you won’t.

The hours come every hour
upon the hour.
They bubble up and.
looking in.
They’re always there.
And you –
more often not.

Phillip Hill – 2014

Stovepipe with a quick legover – Bill Bryson on cricket

In his book on Australia, Down Under, (entitled In a Sunburned Country in the USA and Canada), there is a moment when Bill Bryson is trying to find something to listen to on the radio while driving towards, if I recall properly, Adelaide. Nothing seems to be on the air. But, eventually, he comes across coverage of a cricket match. This gives him an opportunity to unleash a hilarious parody of cricket terminology and commentary styles. If you don’t know anything about cricket and can’t tell a square leg from a silly point or a third slip, have a look at the map of real fielding positions above, which may help you to understand what he is making fun of.

Eventually the radio dial presented only an uninterrupted cat’s hiss of static but for one clear spot near the end of the dial. At first I thought that’s all it was — just an empty clear spot — but then I realized I could hear the faint shiftings and stirrings of seated people, and after quite a pause, a voice, calm and reflective, said:

“Pilchard begins his long run in from short stump. He bowls and . . . oh, he’s out! Yes, he’s got him. Longwilley is caught legbefore in middle slops by Grattan. Well, now what do you make of that, Neville?”

“That’s definitely one for the books, Bruce. I don’t think I’ve seen offside medium-slow fast-pace bowling to match it since Badel-Powell took Rangachangabanga for a maiden ovary at Bangalore in 1948.”

I had stumbled into the surreal and rewarding world of cricket on the radio.

An artesian reform of the French numbering system

Descartes artésien

Twice in my life, I have been at a meeting where a French person has stood up and said very seriously that it is obvious that French should be the global form of communication since French is the most logical of all languages.
To this, I have a number of replies, but one will suffice:

97

Anyone with even an elementary knowledge of French (as spoken in France) will be aware of the fact that in order to say ninety-seven one has to crawl through mathematical hoops and phrase it as “four-twenty-seventeen” (quatre-vingt-dix-sept). I could in fact have picked any number from eighty to ninety-nine to make the same point. The sequence goes from four-twenties (80) through four-twenty-six (86) and four-twenty-eleven (91) all the way to four-twenty nineteen (99). Actually, this whole business starts even earlier, in the seventies, which start with sixty-ten (70) and end with sixty-nineteen (79).
Now, this doesn’t sound like the kind of thing you would want in a country which glories in being “Cartesian”, even though Descartes himself entangled himself in many intractable problems; “Descartes et des échecs” (cards and chess or Descartes and failures) as the once-famous but now almost forgotten 18th Century philosophe Jean-Jacques Klaxx once quipped. This bizarre numbering system would fit in much better with the many oddities the English are proudly afflicted with (except that if this had happened in English they would also have made sure that the spelling and/or the pronunciation would be inconsistent too. For example, Four-twenty (80), Fourenty-one (81), Frenty-twoo (82) and so on.  Read more…

Memories of Pyongyang

In the 1990’s, when the grandfather of the current Kim was North Korea’s Great Leader, I spent a week in Pyongyang working as an interpreter for the Italian delegation at a huge conference which was attended by most of the world’s nations. I have decided to note down what I remember now, before the place becomes a major tourist destination. (Not likely, I suppose, but more improbable things have happened recently.)

At the time, the only places from which you could fly to Pyongyang were Beijing, Moscow and Tirana. We got to Pyongyang via Beijing. There were so many more people travelling to Pyongyang than usual that Air Koryo, the North Korean airline was flying a shuttle service from Beijing to Pyongyang, which meant that all time-tables had been abolished. Whenever a plane arrived from Pyongyang, the people nearest the front of the huge huddle managed to leave.

The first thing I noticed on boarding the plane was that the stewardesses were stowing real crockery on the shelves in the kitchen area. This was very impressive. The second thing which became apparent was that some of the seats were stuck in a reclining position and several of the tray tables could not be folded back in place. The plane, however, promptly began to race down the runway and as it took off two loud sounds were heard. One was the crockery falling to the floor, and the second was a blast of muscular martial music streaming out of the loudspeakers. The music never let up, all the way to Pyongyang.