Category Archives: Modest Proposals

Sideways ideas of reform

Halfpenny thoughts no. 4 – Le quatorze Laurel

british_pre-decimal_halfpenny_1967_reverseOne of the best things of the French Revolution, in my opinion, are the beautiful new names which were assigned to the months of the year. I especially like misty Brumaire,  frosty Frimaire  and fruity Fructidor. Rainy Pluviôse is quite nice too.

Compare our tired names, particularly September, October, November and December. These just mean seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth month, respectively, although they are now the ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth, because Julius Caesar and Augustus elbowed their way into the calendar by force, dedicating July and August to themselves. Augustus even pinched a day from February to ensure that his month was just as long as his uncle’s.

Julius Caesar was definitely genocidal, Augustus in comparison merely enthusiastically homicidal.  So why have we kept the names of these monsters in our year? I think the time has come to deal with this. There are a few ways of doing this:

  1. Go back to the lovely French Revolutionary names. This would involve a couple of problems, though. Namely that you would need to reverse the order of the names in Antipodean countries so as to keep track with the actual seasons. Frimaire would not be very good to use in an Australian summer. Also, in order to keep some coherence, tropical countries would have to have one year-long month called “Solaire”, with 365 days. At most they could have a month of  Pluviôse for the monsoon season.
  2. To maintain consistency, keep July and August and name all the other months after equally nasty dictators and tyrants. We could have a global poll to decide which figures of history we dislike most. Done on live TV, it would be quite exciting and would earn a lot in sponsorship.
  3. Ditch Julius  and Augustus and replace them with something nicer. My suggestion: instead of July and August have Laurel and Hardy.

Halfpenny thoughts no.2 – What does the Queen sing in the shower?


Thoughts which aren’t even worth a penny

If you have watched any royal ceremonies involving the Queen of England,  you may have noticed that she is the only person who doesn’t join in when “God Save the Queen” is sung. She can’t, of course. It would make no sense.

But I am sure that there have been times when she has sung it in private. How could one resist it? When she’s really worked up about something or, almost unthinkingly, in the shower. She would still need to change the words, though. This is what I think she sings:

“God save my gracious Me, Long live my noble Me, Go-od save Me!”

And, perhaps, people would enjoy it more if they too could sing those words instead of the standard version. In this selfie-littered age of self-display and ceaseless selling, this should, really, become everybody’s personal anthem.

The many ways a minaret might be

Minarets fabricT(This is a post from 2010).
The other day I came across an article in Le Monde about the political situation in Vorarlberg, a region of Austria. Together with Carinthia, Vorarlberg has adopted a law to prevent buildings being erected which aren’t “ortsüblich“. The best way I have found to render ortsüblich in this case is “typically local”.

And the aim of the provision was to make sure no one thought of puncturing the local skies with a minaret. So far, this seems to be just another of the many depressing stories you hear about nowadays. But now comes the interesting part: in the Vorarlberg town of Hohenems there is a small Jewish museum. The director is  called Hanno Loewy and in response to the provision he organised not one but two conferences  on “How to build a typically local minaret” (September 2008 and June 2009).
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Coming to your neighbourhood soon…. Complaineries !

Some days the sun comes bouncing up as if upon a spring, you leap out of bed, sing loudly in the shower, your orange juice makes every wall glow warmly, you dress while dancing, pick a bright shirt and choose a smile to match and then the first person whom you meet complains about the birds, the dogs, the rubbish, the traffic or the weather, or whatever and then the second person whom you meet complains about the world, the young, the old, the weather or whatever and then the third, the fourth, the fifth… and every meeting is a mallet blow which drives your mood down further into the ground, until you turn round and you yourself complain about the bells, the clocks, your socks, the motorcycles and the weather or whatever.
I don’t want to complain about people complaining, we all do it, it comes naturally and what are friends for if not to listen to each other’s woes ? (Although I think that beginning any interaction with a complaint is a bit like ringing someone’s doorbell and tipping a pile of rubbish there when they open the door). But complaining is contagious, it spreads and spreads and spreads and I am not sure that is the best of situations. So I am going to suggest a remedy and like my anti-aging pi extract this will make us all a lot of money. Read more…

Say it in Terpreting

signalling instructor

(This piece first appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of Communicate!a webzine for conference interpreters and the conference industry: Those who aren’t acquainted with the ins and outs of conference interpreting might be baffled by some of the details of the job but will surely be able to empathise with the general feeling of bewilderment.)

Perhaps something like this has happened to you. Say it’s Tuesday and you are comfortably ensconced in your booth. You have absorbed all the vocabulary you need and the meeting is so routine that most of your mental effort is directed towards using words which are anagrams of the Chairman’s name.

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2012 – Stay in bed and save the planet

January is already in its twenties and I find I keep on getting dragged back to 2008. Only yesterday I discovered that last year was the International Year of the Frog. How did I miss that ? I don’t know where or when this was decided but I can imagine the endless jokes about it being a good thing to do in a Leap Year.
Even more surprising than the fact that 2008 was international frog year was that there was also a 2008 frog of the year: the European Tree Frog (almost extinct in Belgium and posing here as the European Finger Frog). But in 2007 there was no international frog of the year but an international toad of the year (the Common Spadefoot). The reason for this seems to be that this is originally a German prize, named Froschlurch des Jahres, Froschlurch being a word covering both frog and toad. So the prize is really Frogtoad  of the Year. I am really, honestly and sincerely not making fun of any of this. I  think this is a wonderful idea. How can you not like the European Finger Frog ?
And the prize is surely more interesting than the Grammies, Emmies, Tonies or any other prize which sounds like a life-threatening snack sold in a over-coloured packet at supermarket counters. However i do find the Germans go a bit overboard, they also have a tree of the year, a mushroom of the year (the Blaue Rindepilz), a river landscape of the year, an insect of the year, a generic animal of the year and I forget what else.

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Go-back-to-sleep Road

Some nights I lie awake, thinking how nice it would be to assemble a city which incorporates all my favourite streets and squares. Some of them because they offer an unexpected glimpse of a river at a sharp bend, others because of their beautiful buildings, some because of their fascinating shops or magnificent trees and still others because of the people who live on them, which is a way to populate this city with my favourite people together with number of individuals I’ve only glimpsed but who have made an impression on me, such as:

  • the cross-eyed Sikh taxi-driver in Delhi
  • the boy in Cairo who called every heap of rubbish an “Egyptian garden”
  • the man sitting on the pavement in Dakar who, when asked what time the shop behind him opened, said “We’re in Africa, relax.”
  • the lady in Kampala who, when asked if she sold razor blades, answered, “No, but we have nail clippers”.
  • the bus driver in Mexico who told me, “My brother is an engineer, my sister is a lawyer, but whenever I see a bus go by I want to drive it.”
  • the man in Ireland who went by pushing a car and shouted, “I’ll give you a lift when I get to the petrol station.”
  • the man I saw at 7 in the morning a couple of weeks ago walking down the street outside my house with two parrots on his shoulders.

After a while of sticking thoroughfares more or less haphazardly together to make my city, the whole thing starts on taking on the shape of one of those Escher pictures where you keep on going down steps but never reach the next floor or you find that you reach the sea by walking uphill. As you move around your burgeoning city you also realise how difficult it is to visualise going down a street and then turning round and coming back the other way. Try it.

escher print gallery

Other people around the world, or at least in adjacent time zones, are also lying awake thinking things. In some countries, I believe, some mayors toss and turn trying to devise ways to make life more uncomfortable for people who look slightly different than they do. Sometimes they sit up with a start and exclaim, “Yes, let’s name a street after So-and-so.” So-and-so St. wouldn’t be bad, but sometimes the names they come up with seem to have been chosen to commemorate particularly corrupt or vicious people.

When I get wind of these suggestions I lie awake thinking that I would prefer to have a landfill established at the end of the street rather than get saddled with one of these names. Even worse are names of battles. I think that if you really have to name a street after a battle you should make sure it is one of those things that run like scar tissue through our industrial wastelands. Streets which are full of broken glass and dead rodents.

But even if they are names of people you admire or like, they still don’t work. Some things have to grow like plants. Cities, streets and street names too should develop as naturally as possible. The great thing about cities is that they are full of a million minds. What could be more lifeless than those singly-minded artificially planned cities entrusted to one brain with streets called Progress Road, Democracy Avenue, Nationbuilding Boulevard ? (By the way, if you insist on Progress Road, do make sure it is a one-way street).

You can put up as many nameplates as you want to call a street Beethoven Street but you are never going to get a street to feel like him, not deliberately anyway. And dedicating a noisy, highly trafficked street to Beethoven is just as insulting to him as purloining his Hymn to Joy and making a bad anthem out of it.

Across the river from where I live in Rome is a square called Campo dei Fiori, which means Field of Flowers, because there used to be meadows there. Now there is no grass but instead exorbitantly priced vegetables on stalls. And a statue of the philosopher Giordano Bruno, who was burnt at the stake there in 1600 for thinking too much. Surely nobody could be more deserving of having a square, this square, named after him, especially since he has the added indignity of standing through the night with his plinth full of the empty bottles of beer and wine which people dump at his feet as well as covered by the stranded luminescent flying disks which land on him just a few seconds after they have been purchased from the hawkers in the square. But, despite all this, Piazza Giordano Bruno would also be a lifeless name.

In his lovely poem Evocation of Recife, Manoel Bandeira wrote:

the streets of my
childhood had such lovely names!
Sun Street
(I hate to think
they may have renamed it after some So-and-So)
Behind the house
Nostalgia Street…
…where we used to sneak a smoke
On the
other side the Dawn Street wharf…
…where we used to fish in

I would love to have Nostalgia Street in my city, but I can’t because I have never seen it. On the other hand, there are many which are there on account of their names. Near one of my six harbours is Rua da Cozinha Economica (Cheap Cooking
Road – from Lisbon). Also from Lisbon is Praza da Alegria (Joy Square) where I chose a hotel once simply because it sounded like a positive place to stay. Up a steep hill, goes via Scosciacavalli (Horses-do-the-splits Rd.) from Ancona. And lost in a maze of other lanes is via Senza Nome (No Name Street) from Bologna. When you know the history  of the latter road, it gets more interesting. Apparently Senza Nome comes from a deformation of Sozzo Nome (Dirty Name), which is what it was called in the 19th Century. And it was called Dirty Name, because earlier in history, when the tight alley had been full of prostitutes soliciting it was called via Sfregatette (Scrapetits Rd.).

Scrapetits would, I find, be a good address for a London football club – like White Hart Lane or Stamford Bridge. Perhaps we could get another Russian robber-baron to start up a new club and bribe someone to change the name of a street or even a square to Scrapetits. Maybe one of the many London places commemorating a battle. Perhaps Trafalgar? Nelson might even prefer it.

Anyway, I have a suggestion for you mayors next time you’re fantasizing about renaming a street. Try Go-back-to-sleep Road.

Approximating breakfast

6a00e5502c099d883400e553a095908834-800wiOne of the good things about my work as an interpreter is that I have the opportunity to travel quite a bit and end up in interesting places I would never have chosen to go to myself. On the other hand, being someone who only has about an hour of real alertness per day – 10.30 – 11 a.m. and 7.00 to 7.30 p.m. more or less – things can become rather difficult when you get entangled with lots of unfamiliar surroundings.
One special challenge I find (and I realise this is particularly unimportant) is hotel breakfasts. Once I tried to write a poem about this: the poem is not very good, but I think the title is not bad– so either I turn the title into the poem or else I work on it and transform it into a full-blown epic on breakfast.


Some early breakfasts ask too many questions   

Mexico City, two
worried-looking eggs,
a piece of burnt
chorizo and

who am I ?


 For it is true that eggs stare at you balefully and the various kinds of fruit gabble away to each other unintelligibly in their own luminous tropical languages, perhaps saying nasty things about you. This, and having to deal with human conversation, is difficult enough, but something even more disconcerting about hotel breakfasts is that they are all laid out and organised differently, so that in your early-morning mistymindedness, perhaps not even sure which country you are in, you have the task of discovering the secret logic behind them all on your own, with no clues.

In some places, the coffee is in a jug and you have to  serve yourself, in others you will get sent away irately if you try to approach, there are still other places where its location and the time of arrival are jealously guarded mysteries and if you are reckless enough to want a pot of tea you have to begin negotiating the night before. If you also plan on eating something it can take you hours to find everything you need. I remember that once I only found the fruit on the third day. People like me, who are slow and slumberous off the mark in the morning, need a breakfast before they can deal with this kind of breakfast.

So I have the following idea – ISO should produce a standard for hotel breakfasts (ISO 700am). The European Union could also adopt a directive to approximate breakfasts or harmonise them, which is the kind of terminology they like to use.  I have some fears about this because, in view of the current membership of the European Union, this may result in a deluge of cucumbers. But harmonised breakfasts sound like a lot of fun, you could have the bread in B flat, the cheese in E flat and the butter in F. All the jams would obviously be in jazz harmony. And anything white and foamy, like yogurt and cream, would sing in barbershop quartet style.

Failing this, why don’t hotels distribute audio-guides (or else, if anybody wants to be my business partner, we can set up stalls to rent them out)? As in museums, you could just put on your headphones and be led round the hall by the ear. In fact, now I think of it audio-guides would be useful for all kinds of things. I have days which I don’t even know how to start – an audio-guide to the morning which starts by telling you to get out of bed would also be valuable. And then there are those people you are always getting your lines crossed with, who always misunderstand all your remarks. If you had an audio-guide specifically for each of them wouldn’t that make life easier ?  As you can see from the photograph above, I am making mine publicly available. Finally there are, quite simply, days on which I would like to have an audio-guide to life.

Random walk

random walks
It is  only a coincidence that I have decided to talk about randomness after having mentioned John Cage in the previous post.

When I was about twelve, we used to play a deranged game in our schoolyard during the lunch break We pretended we were billiard balls, chose a direction to set out in and spent the next hour bouncing off the walls and buidings in the impossible quest to make a complete lap of the school building. If you got stuck going backwards and forwards between parallel walls, the only hope was that you could collide with another passing billiard ball and modify your trajectory. This was at least better than the other deranged game we played, which was no-rule football (soccer) in which you were allowed to commit any foul which took your fancy. I think that the reason we played deranged games was that the school was deranged. My theory is that it functioned on the mistaken theory that the British Empire still existed and that it would need young men to maintain and possibly expand it and that after a few years of violence and mindless rules any survivors would be delighted to be as far away from it as possible even if they were sent to the hottest desert, the thickest jungle or the bleakest tundra.

When I grew up, I gave up kicking people in the shins, but the bouncing-billiard-ball  thing stayed with me. I kept a fascination with being a part of random events. When I was nineteen I bought an inter-rail pass and travelled round Europe for a month and one of the things which most excited me was being able to turn up at a station and get on the first train leaving without much idea of where it was going.

Later, I bought myself an Ipod, put it on random play and left it there, especially after I realised that for years I had only been listening to 10% of my music collection.

Then, when I decided that there must be better ways to start the day than waking up to bad news (and often bad reporting, especially if you watch that station that spends forty minutes every hour telling you how good it is), I began to select a poem at random every morning from my bookshelves. Some people just pick a book out without too much thinking and read the first page they open, but I believe that this means you are mainly going to choose pages in the middle of books in the middle of your shelves. Instead, I have devised my own random number generating system – which I won’t describe because it is too complicated – and I doubt you will want to devote all the time and energy I put into it.

Yesterday, I started another random activity. A random walk. The first time I did it I though I would just do left right left right, but then I realized I would take the same walk every day. Also there are some places where the choice is much more complicated than left or right. There may be three, four, five or even more choices. It made me realise that life too very seldom boils down to two choices, you can’t go very far just flipping a coin. A telephone number is so much more useful.

So the next day I set out again equipped with telephone numbers. I was going to tear a page out of the telephone directory, but I knew from experience that, if I did that, a time would come when I would desperately need a number which would be on the page I had torn out and no longer possessed. Then I considered taking the whole phone book – after all on a random walk you may end up anywhere and perhaps it would come in useful to ward off bears and wolves. In the end I realised that this was a perfect opportunity to use the leaflets they hand out to advertise chain stores, which are full of phone numbers.

What you do now is go to your front door. Usually your choice is left or right. Look at the first number and if it is odd you go left, if it is even you go right. If you come to a more complicated choice, just  select your direction as if you were counting someone out. A special rule, which is useful if you live anywhere near motorways, border patrols or piers that end up in deep water is that a 0 gives you a free choice. You can either see how many years it takes you to land back home or else set yourself a time limit.

I discovered a lot of streets I had never gone down before and at least three places which I made a note of. I did go past one corner four times, but never in the same direction.

Don’t do this if you live in a one-street town and the next fork in the road is twenty miles away. Or  perhaps do do it, you might end up somewhere more interesting.

You can combine this exercise with looking in random directions every now and then. Imagine the way the phone numbers are laid out on a phone and look up left for one, straight up for two, up and to the right for three, etc. I’m sure you would be surprised at all the things you have never looked at in places you thought you knew well.


I am not sure what my next stage in randomness is going to be. Here is one thing you can try (I think I may pass): set the alarm on your cell phone – give yourself 30 to 45 minutes, long enough to forget about it- and then go into town. When the alarm rings go into the nearest shop and buy something. This could spell financial ruin, but it could also change your life in ways you never expected – you might take up angling, juggling or simply cross-dressing.

Combining adjectives and nouns randomly can make you think about things differently. Just write down ten adjectives and ten nouns quickly and then look at the different ways you can combine them. Something interesting usually comes up. If you can’t be bothered to write there is a little program here which does it for you.

And how about random cooking ? Obviously, in order to really cook randomly you would need very good insurance coverage. But you could cook with random ingredients. I just extracted ten ingredients from a dictionary of food. You can see it’s a random selection because almost all of them begin with B and C – not something I would have done if I had only been pretending this was a random selection. Try (if only mentally) to devise a dish using at least seven of the ingredients. Here they are:

Olives – Capers -Basil -Bream -Cinnamon -Coleslaw -Bonito – Cauliflower -Citrus fruits -Coconut.

I have no idea how to conclude this but, since I am placing this in a category called “Uncontrolled Thought Experiments”, I don’t think I even have to bother.



There are lots of things you can do with a real handkerchief which you can’t do with tissue. I remember that people used them to wave from trains when passing houses of people they knew. Actually you just stuck the handkerchief out of the window and it would wave itself. Of course, now you can’t even open train windows at all. I also have recollections of people in hot weather tying knots in the corners, soaking the hankie in cold water and wearing it on their heads.

And surely to be handed a freshly ironed, neatly folded, soft handkerchief to wipe one’s tears must be a consolation in itself. Thinking of that use, I believe that I have a whole class of new words to suggest. I do this with some apprehension, because though new words are amusing and sometimes mesmerising, they are a bit like unknown animals you bring back to your own house; some of them turn out to be bad guests and there are a few hundred words which in my opinion we desperately need to get rid of.

Despite this, in the single-volume dictionary I have to hand I am busy trying to push handiwork one way and handknit the other, so that I can make room to fit in a whole new pageful.

Let us suppose some bad news has blown in through the window or that something which never was supposed to happen has just knocked on your door. You are sad and distressed. What do you do to console yourself if no one hands you a handkerchief ? A handkerwalk makes me feel better sometimes, my footsteps stretch my cares out in all directions  around the town until they’re too thin to notice any more. Or perhaps you prefer to pick up the phone and have a handkertalk about it all. If there is someone you always call when you need to do this then that is your handkerfriend.

At night or in times of stress you might of course be seen opening the fridge in search of handkerfood. But there may be something specific you may find more comforting (and I want to point out that none of the following examples apply to me),
for example, a handkersausage, handkerchocs, or handkerchup (a thick layer of ketchup spread over what is pretty bad food to start with) There may be some people, though I find this difficult to believe, who turn to handkerporridge.

How about handkercraft ? A word which straight from its coinage rolls wobbling on its edge into ambiguity. Is this some hobby like woodwork or brick-laying which you turn to in dark times ? Or is it the motorcycle you tear down the road on while howling ? Or is it a car or even a boat ?

You may have a favourite handkerchair, perhaps there is only one handkerplace that makes you feel better, or you could be compelled to buy some handkershoes. Some people have handkerchildren. In Autralia there probably are handkeroos, but I don’t know what they are. Neither do I know what a handkernaut is, but I’ll know one when one turns up and I will know what to call  it/ her/him.