Oh Dear! I keep remembering stories that I should have included in earlier chapters. With regard to what I have called culchismo, meaning deliberate rural stupidity, I was actually the victim of the all-time classic. I was due to give a talk at Godalming, but must have taken the wrong turn off the A3, for I found myself in the neighbouring town of Guildford, which was provided with a labyrinthine one-way-system. So I stopped in the centre and asked a denizen on the Town Hall steps how to get to Godalming. He gave the answer that all travellers fear:
“If you want to go there you shouldn't start from here”.
There are some stories relating to the armed forces. One of my favourites is of a team from the SAS who were practising High Exit Low Opening parachute jumping at night over Salisbury Plain. The procedure is that the soldiers, encased in a matt black body suit for insulation and camouflage, with breathing apparatus, leap out of the aircraft, wrap their arms round their knees to maximise the speed of descent, and only open their parachutes when their altimeter tells them that they are just within the safety limit. They keep in touch with each other by personal radio, which used to require them to have an antenna attached to their headgear. One man got separated from his companions, but finding an isolated cottage with a light on, he knocked on the door and asked the old lady who answered if she could tell him where he was.
A friend of mine used to be a Major in the Royal Marine Commandos, and he would always refer to RAF Transport Command as Crab Air. RAF personnel he would call “Crabfatters”. Obviously there must be a story behind these insults, and here it is for my readers' instruction. When the RAF was set up in 1917, they needed a distinctive uniform. The War Office decided that sky blue would be appropriate, and they approached Moss Bros to meet their requirements. Unfortunately Moss Bros had only just had an order from the Russian Government for a large number of field grey army uniforms cancelled by virtue of the Revolution. So in order to salvage something from the disaster, Moss Bros tried to dye the field grey cloth sky blue, and what they got was the blue-grey with which we are all familiar. There was not time to argue, so the War Office declared that that was what they had in mind all along. The Navy, who anyway resented their air arm being hived off to an independent command, maintained that the colour of the RAF uniform was the same colour as the familiar ointment that came in little flat tins and was used to smear the affected parts of sailors who reported diseases picked up during shore leave. This ointment was known in the Navy as “crab fat”.
In 1919 women over the age of 30 got the vote; and the first woman to take her seat in Parliament was Lady Astor. While campaigning in Plymouth, she was accompanied by an Admiral. No doubt it was most improper for a serving officer of His Majesty's armed forces to lend himself to a political party, but nobody seems to have objected. Anyway, Lady Astor knocked on the door of one house, and was answered by a small girl.
“Is your mummy in, little girl?
“No, but she said if a lady comes with a sailor they are to put ten shillings behind the clock and use the front bedroom.”
This anecdote leads seamlessly into political stories. Harold Wilson's Foreign Minister was for a time George Brown, a man not universally celebrated for sobriety. The following fragment of conversation was picked up at a diplomatic reception:
“Mr Brown, there are three reasons why you cannot have this dance with me. The first is that you are obviously drunk. The second is that this tune is my country's national anthem. And the third is that I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima.”
Just now (January 2020) the so-called Profumo Scandal is being raked over yet again. When it first broke I was touring East Anglia with a fellow student. We found ourselves in what was then a very remote public house in the village of Terrington St Clement, just on the Norfolk side of the border with Lincolnshire. Somebody brought in a copy of the Daily Mirror with, on the front, the famous picture of the naked Christine Keeler sitting astride an Arne Jacobsen chair (the same chairs with which St Catherine's College, Oxford, was furnished). Any preconceptions about the reaction of the British Public were quickly overturned by Bernie the Waggoner, a local smallholder, who declared to the generality:
“If Oi was that there Government Oi'd be up thaat loike a rat up a drayun-poipe!”
Meanwhile, the story as it unfolded was being mocked in the French press, which gleefully dusted off all their old jokes about how an Englishman would rather take a hot water bottle to bed than a woman.
A British scandal, if indeed it was one, dating from John Major's day, concerns his Minister for the Arts, one David Mellor, being caught in bed with an actress while wearing a Chelsea football shirt. For a start, the football shirt was added by the press. It must also be stated, from a sense of fairness, that Mr Mellor was the only British Minister for the Arts since Jennie Lee who has displayed any cultural knowledge or sensitivity whatsoever. His opposite number in France, Jack Lang, best known for describing Disneyland Paris as un Chernobyl culturel, asked what duties a Minister for the Arts was expected to fulfil apart from shagging actresses. The hot water bottle jokes came out again, blah! blah!
Going back to France, year 1899, the President of the Third Republic Félix Faure died while being straddled by a prostitute. In the National Assembly his political opponent Georges (Tiger) Clemenceau declared:
“Il a voulu être César, mais il ne fut que Pompé(e)”
“He wanted to be Caesar, but he was only Pompey (he only got pumped).”
But in those days the Prince of Wales was creating a very un-Victorian impression in Paris. The article of furniture called un Prince de Galles is designed to allow a very fat man to obtain otherwise inaccessible sexual favours.
Let us return to political misunderstandings of a different sort. It was said in the 1930's that Mussolini made the trains run on time. The implication was that only a strong leader could shake Italy out of its supposed incompetence. However, the facts do not bear this out. The truth is that the trains that ran on time were the ones from Paris, Bern and Vienna, which might be presumed to be carrying journalists and politicians from other countries who needed to be impressed by the régime's efficiency. To achieve it, trains deemed to be of lesser importance were shunted into sidings and made to wait. Thus commuters and workers valuable to the Italian economy were prevented from getting on with their jobs in the interests of political propaganda.
By the way, the aunt of the barber who cuts my hair was present in Milan Market Place when the partisans hung the corpses of Mussolini and Clara Petacci upside-down on meathooks. She says it was most unpleasant. After Mussolini was deposed and held under arrest, he was rescued by Otto Skorzeny of the SS and set up as President of the puppet government in North Italy called La Repubblica di Salò after the small town where it was based. In French this comes out as La République de Salauds (The Republic of Shit-heads).
Years ago, when I started in English local government, my Council like many others operated refuse collection vehicles that worked on the Shelvoke and Drewry principle. The business end of the vehicle could be raised by one or other of two hydraulic rams. The rear one raised the back of the vehicle to a vertical position so as to compact the collected waste by gravity. The front ram tipped it in the other direction so that the waste would empty out of the vehicle. One day one of our crews found themselves at the end of a working day with a full lorry and with just six houses to go. The foreman, who was filling in for absence, declared that he wasn't going to back to the tip and then return just for six dustbins. So he climbed inside the refuse compartment, directed the driver to elevate the load using the rear hydraulic ram, then jumped up and down on the load to compress it further. Unfortunately, this caused the hydraulics to malfunction; the body of the vehicle came down with a horrible crash, the foreman was thrown into the road, and a ton of refuse was ejected on top of him. Of course, they had to clear up the mess, and they still had not collected the last six dustbin-loads.
Another time, the vehicle was on Gidley Hill, Horspath, which is a steep hill in a village on the eastern side of Oxford. They decided it was time to compress the load, so they upended it using the rear ram. There were three miscalculations. Number one, because the wagon was pointing down a steep hill, the rear of the vehicle was elevated over vertical, so that it could not be made to go down again. Secondly, it was January and the road was covered with ice. Thirdly, the village was served by an overhead electricity line that ran across the road. The vehicle started sliding down the hill with its body raised, accelerating inexorably towards the power line. Fortunately the driver was able to bring the vehicle to a halt by sacrificing various householders' front hedges.
It had been the Council's practice to pay the refuse crews extra to leaflet each house on their rounds to notify householders of changes to collection days due to public holidays. But at one point the Union stepped in and declared this extra payment to be insufficient. So the Engineer and Surveyor hired a loudspeaker van from an electrical goods supplier in Thame, the same van that was hired out to political parties during election campaigns. There were two problems with this. Firstly, the equipment was notoriously unreliable and the announcements would be punctuated by random sforzandos and silences, plus whistles and throbbing noises. The second was that the refuse foreman, who was deputed to deliver the messages, was a Geordie who spoke with an accent that was quite incomprehensible to the population of East Oxfordshire. The van was followed by old women running behind saying that they didn't know there was going to be an election.
In America there are online societies of people who collect funny names from electoral registers, ships' passenger lists, and so on. They swap them among each other and now and again publish collections of the rudest ones. From Oxford alone I could add these: P. Green; T. Garden; Ivor Stiff; R.S. Hole; and Joe King (you must be...).
Similarly, names of shops could be evocative.
Düren, Germany: Blumenecke. It means “Flower Corner”, and is a florists.
Paris: A supplier of sports footwear called (in English) Athlete's Foot.
Utrecht: A retailer of lavatory pans called SANI-DUMP.
Book titles, also.
Next to where I used to sit in the Social Sciences Library there was a book with the spine embossed “Boring Psychology”. The author's name was A. Boring.
Not to forget “Problems of the Urinary Tract” by Splatt and Weedon.
And one of the most important scientific papers of the Twentieth Century, by Hans Bethe, a refugee from Nazi Germany, who worked out how the sun shines (nuclear fusion). He got a couple of other academics to sign it, so that it is by Alpha, Bethe and Gammer.
Americans also like to collect such titles. In Britain I have come across:
“Brush up your Erse”, an early textbook on Scots Gaelic.
“Scouting for Boys”, a much sought after book by Robert Baden-Powell.
Another pastime by like-minded Americans is to find anachronisms and continuity errors in films. For instance, there is supposed to be a lorry on the horizon in El Cid, starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren. I have watched this film three times and I have never seen the lorry, Perhaps the story was put about by the film's distributors in order to encourage fools to watch it three times...
Vapour trails are common in historical films. Wrist watches and Wellington boots are supposed to be worn by members of the Roman Army in Spartacus. Certainly Will Scarlet wore suede boots with moulded rubber soles displaying the maker's name in one of the television manifestations of Robin Hood.
Americans are always knowledgeable about the guns in films. Often the cowboys and Indians fight with guns that had not been invented at the time, such as Winchesters. In Once Upon a Time in Mexico, starring Antonio Banderas, some people (I never understood who they were meant to be) loosed about three thousand rounds of small arms and sub-machine gun fire inside a church without chipping any of the stonework. It is understandable that the church authorities did not want their building destroyed when they rented it out, but that was the last straw as far as I was concerned and I switched it off, so I never found out what the film was about, if anything.
Films made on a cheap budget are understandably prone to such errors. In some of the Lone Ranger films the Lone Ranger and Tonto gallop their horses between the tyre tracks of the vehicle on which the camera is mounted. But films made with a lavish budget can be just as preposterous. Hair styles are a particular giveaway. Wild West heroines have elaborately sculpted styles that could only have survived the interval between the hairdresser and the film studio because of the use of the stretch limo to ferry them from the one to the other. These styles are contemporary in the sense that they are the styles that were fashionable when the film was made. In the wild west the women would probably pile their hair in a mound on top of their heads, secure it with pins, and crown it with a bonnet. The men are no better. I remember a Wild Bill Hickok who was clean shaven with short hair parted on one side and brushed down with Brylcreem. Yet early photographs of him show a seriously unkempt person whose uncut facial and cranial hair merges with the tattiness of his clothes. Tarzan films are another source of amusement. The vegetation is often drawn from the wrong continent, and occasionally even the animals.
The whole concept of cowboys is actually a misunderstanding. The truth is in the word itself. The Spanish word is vaquero, which has no pejorative overtones. Cowboys in real life were regarded as menials and were employed to herd cows. Many of them, unsurprisingly, were blacks, though I do not recall ever seeing a black cowboy in a film. Furthermore, they probably could not afford guns. Incidentally, Americans did not go around shooting each other until the end of the Spanish-American War of 1898, when the Remington Company had made too many guns and sold them to the general public to get rid of surplus stocks. I remember another Western film in which a herd of Texas longhorns suddenly, after the hero and heroine stopped for a brief kiss, became Herefords. This is the kind of thing that American amateur critics love to find.
Biblical epics are a thing apart. I suspect, possibly cynically, that some of the film producers, being Jewish, are not above making fun of Christian myths. Here again, one scans the crowd scenes for wristwatches and plimsolls. Let us cite as examples:
Mary Mother of Jesus has a bowl of tomatoes on the table in her house. Real specialist critics might even identify the table as being made of Douglas Fir or Californian Redwood.
Christ preaching under a huge bush of Opuntia ficus-indica.
And my favourite: Christ instructing the fishermen on the Sea of Galilee to try once more after repeated failures to catch anything. St Peter pulls a fish out of the consequent huge catch and exclaims: “It's a miracle!” It certainly is: it's a pollock.
During my first visit to Paris, in 1961, I found my way to a flea-pit in the Northern suburb of St. Ouen, and took my seat to watch Robin Hood et ses Gaillards, a French translation of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. The film was Italian, dubbed into French. There were many merry women in Sherwood Forest, who in one scene rushed out and clobbered the Norman knights with aluminium saucepans. I still remember Maid Marian with affection. She was a statuesque redhead, with early sixties hairstyle of course, who found that three small offcuts of chamois leather with no obvious means of attachment were sufficient protection against the English weather. She even managed to gallop bareback from York to Sherwood without suffering the slightest damage to her lovely skin. The best scene is where a Norman knight, a baddie of course, tries to ravish her in a forest glade. The audience, consisting of the all-male French working class, were ecstatic. “Pas comme ça!” He was still wearing his armour. “Ôtez la cuirasse!” “Get your armour off!” Members of the audience were jumping up and down offering helpful advice to the would-be ravisher. Next to me in the packed house was seated a little negro man. He had been laughing for some time, but he started to get hysterical at this point. Then the camera panned across the glade; stopped at the bole of a tree; panned up the tree; then along a bough. At the end of the bough, hidden behind some leaves, was an archer clad in Lincoln green. His bow was not the 120-pound yew-and-pine composition bow that could propel a clothyard (39 inches) arrow right through an armoured man. It might, however, have managed to propel a piece of bamboo with a sucker on the end at lest twenty feet with the wind behind it. He raised his bow and aimed it at the overdressed Norman...
At this point my neighbour lost the plot completely. He curled up in a ball, made gurgling noises, and rolled into the space between his seat and the seat in front. I had to extract him, because he was firmly wedged there, upside down.
I went back to that cinema and watched another Italian production: Ivanoé. That is, of course, Ivanhoe. In Italian, it is spelt as in French except that the accent points backwards. The film opens with a troop of horsemen singing “Ivanoè, Ivanoè”. The audience were probably unchanged since the showing of Robin Hood and had gone there, like myself, expecting some fun. Alas, there were no women clad in fragments of chamois leather. One scene had the hero and his companions scaling a castle wall. This was achieved by making the actors crawl across a horizontal wall, with the pictures subsequently turned through ninety degrees. It did not satisfy the audience. Even worse, soon afterwards the wall was knocked down, and huge blocks of polystyrene rained down on the attackers, and bounced off them.
I am sure that my readers would be able to compile an equally risible list of imbecilities.