Saturday, 17 March 2012


I have reviewed books, theatres and restaurants, and a very glamorous life it has been. Baskets of free books, no bills for a mountain of meals that Red Rum couldn’t jump over and no charge for the best seats at ballets, operas, musicals and plays.
My new task, reviewing colostomy bags, is something of a come down. As a subject shit does not call for lyrical prose. Even writing the word is an effort. I owe my pension to the royalties of Winnie the Pooh but I still think that generous bear is ill named.
Why does that inoffensive word summon up feelings of such distaste? Google it and it must be the only subject which does not return a single response. As a pictogram it is a pleasing arrangement of curves, vertical and horizontal brush strokes. By any other name - manure night soil, meadow muffins, compost - it is pleasantly rural.
It is nothing more than the detritus of good food and drink which as fertiliser will provide our future feasts. Indeed it is the stuff of life. Yet in the dictionary this unhappy word is given a terrible name.
The best poetry anthology is a dictionary. Dr Johnson illuminated entries in his delightful work by providing a verse or piece of prose, usually from his own well stocked mind, to illustrate his definition.
“Shittlecock”, he insists, is a real noun. It describes the game we know under a slightly different name. He provides this explanation: “It is called cock because of its feathers. Perhaps it is properly shuttle cork, a cork driven to and fro, as the instrument in weaving, and softened by frequent and rapid utterance from cork to cock.”
He offers this quotation from Collier:
“You need not discharge a cannon to break the chain of his thought, the pat of a shittlecock or the creaking of a jack, will do his business.”
Lesser dictionaries are less inventive, if more scathing
“Something disgusting, of poor quality or otherwise totally unacceptable. It’s a narcotic, foolish deceitful language, insolent talk; small or worthless; to treat with anger or disrespect. It’s an expression of anger, surprise or an expression of displeasure...”
Yet the same innocent letters are part of history. They are all of them ‘this’ and part of ‘that’, the larger part of ‘thirst’, and we could not wear a ‘shirt’ without them.
Worries about words launched Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott’s first best seller.
His friend William Clerk drew Scott's attention to racial tensions in post-Norman Conquest England. Clerk noted how our names for livestock generally have Anglo-Saxon origins (e.g. sheep, pig, cow) which are exchanged for Anglo-French terms once they are prepared for the table (e.g. mutton, pork, beef). This illustration of the subservience of labouring Saxon to land-owning Norman was subsequently inserted in Ivanhoe and became the novel’s theme.
“...........swine is good Saxon," said the Jester; "but how call you the sow
when she is flayed, and drawn, and quartered, and hung up by the heels,
like a traitor?"
"Pork," answered the swine-herd.
"I am very glad every fool knows that too," said Wamba, "and pork, I
think, is good Norman-French; and so when the brute lives, and is in
the charge of a Saxon slave, she goes by her Saxon name; but becomes a
Norman, and is called pork, when she is carried to the Castle-hall to
feast among the nobles; what dost thou think of this, friend Gurtha?"
"It is but too true doctrine, friend Wamba, however it got into thy
fool's pate."
"Nay, I can tell you more," said Wamba, in the same tone; "there is old
Alderman Ox continues to hold his Saxon epithet, while he is under the
charge of serfs and bondsmen such as thou, but becomes Beef, a fiery
French gallant, when he arrives before the worshipful jaws that are
destined to consume him. Mynheer Calf, too, becomes Monsieur de Veau
in the like manner; he is Saxon when he requires tendance, and takes a
Norman name when he becomes matter of enjoyment."
We handle words so carelessly and yet they are more dangerous than nuclear fission. I think a British market town is the ultimate civilised community yet when the Queen wishes to confer great honour she allows a town to call itself a city. No big deal, according to Cobbett to whom London was the Great Wen (a skin eruption). Historically a city is any town which contains a cathedral. There are 21 cathedral cities in Britain but only one cathedral town - St Asaph. I have never met anyone in that town who doesn’t insist it too is a city. So why the jubilation, when, to mark Her Diamond Jubilee, Our Gracious waves her wand and a city it becomes? As the French say, more musically, Merde!
Doomsday theorists are alarmed that the Mayan ‘Long Count’ Calendar, as it is known, appears to end abruptly on a date they recorded as On the Gregorian calendar, which we use today, this corresponds to December 21, 2012.
The only clue as to what the Mayans thought might happen on that day comes from an ancient stone tablet, discovered during road works in Mexico back in the Sixties. Carved upon it are hieroglyphics that refer to the year 2012 and an event that will involve Bolon Yokte, the Mayan god of war and creation.
Weathering and a crack in the stone have made the last part of the inscription illegible, but Mexican archaeologists have interpreted it as saying: ‘He will descend from the sky.’
There is no mention of reindeer but I still don’t like the notion of a sky crowded with a Mayan God, the Norse God Thor driving his wild herd and drunken old Santa, afire with seven million glasses of sherry, in charge of six rebellious reindeer with red noses that also hint at sherry servings.