Yearly Archives: 2011

It’s not just a stone, it’s an M&S stone

Too sexy for the bus - image copyright M&S

Oh dear, M&S, haven’t you been reading your bible lately.  What does it say? Be not the one to cast the first stone – maybe not those words exactly but something very much like it. Whatever. The message is clear.   Don’t criticize people if you yourself are guilty of the same transgression. Be careful whom you throw your metaphorical – or in this case litigious – stones at, lest they bounce back and hit you in your shapely derrière.

You went all holier than thou back in the spring, when Anne Summers mounted a clever, tongue in cheek advertising campaign. Got your knickers in a right old twist and came over all apoplectic when they misappropriated your famous slogan and turned it into ‘It’s not just Sex, it’s Anne Summers Sex.’ You threatened court action. They withdrew.

And now it’s your turn. Of course you haven’t misappropriated anyone’s advertising.  Perish the thought.  But you have, what shall I say, come over a little fruity.  Too fruity for the ASA who considered that the image of a scantily clothed lady, spread all over the side of a bus, was a little – well lets say a little too Anne Summers for their liking.

To be fair, as you yourselves say in your defence, you are well known as a lingerie retailer and the ad simply reflected the product. And in fact only fifteen people actually complained, which is hardly a flood.  Nevertheless, given your rather humourless reaction to the Ann Summers campaign, I can’t resist a smile to see you get a mild slap on your own ever so worthy wrist.

 

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The rain it raineth … but where exactly?

The main bulletin is over. Hugh or Emily or Peter or whoever’s go it is, smiles, shuffles papers a bit and announces brightly,  ‘And now for the news where you are.’ Of course, the news in Birmingham won’t be the same as the news in London, which will be different from the day’s events in Swalesdale, which won’t be the same as those in St Ives. Why not? Because it’s local news. There you see – there’s already a perfectly good, serviceable word, which describes the situation perfectly. So come on guys – how about using it.

The habit of personalising everything is not restricted to newsreaders. The weather boys and girls, bless their spits and spots, have got into the same annoying habit of telling us about the weather ‘where you are.’ Oh really! It’s raining in my sitting room is it?  And is that a patch of low cloud shrouding the lower deck of the bus? And yes, I did notice a distinct drop in temperature in Tesco. Though of course that could have been because I was standing right next to the freezers.

The prime example of this obsession with the possessive pronoun is M & S. Am I the only person who finds the expression ‘Your M&S’ not only irritating but more than a little smug.   They are a bit holier than thou, with all this sustainable this and additive free that. I might have had more respect for them if they had a sense of humour. Alas, that was sadly lacking back in April when Ann Summers, the equally iconic sex shop parodied the Meal Deal offer and just about everything else. And cheekily transformed the famous slogan into ‘Your S & M’ with the strapline – ‘It’s not just sex, it’s Ann Summers sex.’  But instead of seeing the funny side, poor old Marks and Sparks got its knickers in a twist. Ann Summers got a right old slap on the wrist. Though a slap on the bottom might have been more appropriate. The ads never ran.

 

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Death comes in many guises. But if death by carrot sounds just plain silly, try a blow to the head from a frozen fish!

Our relationship with food is complex – we love it, hate it, overindulge in it, deprive ourselves of it. Whether we see it as a pleasure or a curse, we all have an opinion about it. The Internet is stuffed with blogs about bacon, cup cakes and capons.  With food fads and fashions and freakish diets – recipes for unachievable weight loss that may even lead to disaster.

And that’s just what food has proved to be for some. From the ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’ to the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919, food has been the cause of many deaths in film, in literature and indeed in life.  Far from life imitating art, with food it’s often the other way around.  For every fictional death by espresso machine or garlic canapé there’s a real life death by cocoa or carrot. Yes, really!

La Grande Bouffe, a classic film from 1973, sees a group of friends get together with the express purpose of eating themselves to death. Distributed in the UK as ‘Blow Out’, its comic depictions of sex and gluttony were highly controversial. Nevertheless, whether deliberately or not, some of the crowned heads of Europe have equalled, even surpassed, that level of gormandise. Take our own dear Henry I, for example, said to have died after stuffing himself with lampreys, his favourite food. His tastes appear somewhat peculiar, since lampreys are an extremely ugly, primitive fish that feed on the blood, body fluids and muscles of bigger fish.  Thankfully, they’re not something we’re likely to find at the fish counter in Waitrose.

Fast forward to 1771 for yet another monarch setting a bad example. Remembered by Swedish schoolchildren as ‘the king who eat himself to death’, Adolf Frederick died after scoffing an enormous dinner. If the lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, smoked herring and champagne didn’t do the damage, then maybe the pudding was the coup de grâce. Greedy Adolf finished his meal with Selma, his favourite food – a sweet spiced bun, stuffed with almond paste and whipped cream, served with hot milk. Nice. But fourteen bowls of the stuff! No wonder he didn’t make it to 1772.

Perhaps these monarchs brought misfortune on themselves, but that’s hardly true of the victims of London’s Great Beer Flood. Though maybe there are worse ways to die. Death by carrot or death by beer? No contest, I’d say. The tragedy happened at a brewery in London’s Tottenham Court Road on October 17th, 1814. Some huge vats ruptured, sending a wave of beer gushing into the streets, destroying homes and a nearby pub. Nine people died but, although the Meux Brewery was prosecuted, no one was held responsible. An early example of the need for a corporate manslaughter law.

The Boston Molasses Disaster in 1919 gave a whole new meaning to the saying ‘meeting a sticky end’. On an unseasonably hot day in January, a storage tank exploded, sending a wall of molasses coursing through part of Boston, Massachusetts. Between 8 and 15 ft high, travelling at around 35 mph, it killed 21 and injured 150. The force flung people and horses into the air, hurled a truck into Boston Harbour, snapped the girders of the elevated railway and swept buildings off their foundations. People were ensnared in the sticky mess as if they were flies on flypaper.

If that could form the plot of a zany horror movie, death by carrot sounds downright silly. But this unassuming vegetable, generally considered to be good for you, can in fact turn out to be lethal. And not just in implausible fiction.  Perhaps the craziest carrot death is that in the opening scene of the movie, ‘Shoot ‘Em Up’ when Clive Owen brings down the baddie with a stick of carrot. Less well known is the sad case of Basil Brown, a 48-year-old health food enthusiast. Having swallowed excessive amounts of vitamin A and drunk ten gallons of carrot juice, he ended up bright orange.  And dead. So be sensible – stick to your five a day.

Of course, most crime related to food is fictional. Not to be outdone by the vegetables, meat also figures in these tales.  Fish too. There’s the infamous Roald Dahl story, ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, where a wife bludgeons her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, swiftly defrosts it, roasts it and serves it up to the investigating constabulary. A great way to destroy the evidence.  There’s a similar idea in an episode of ‘Murder She Wrote’. Here the weapon was a frozen fish, which, after it had served its purpose, was served for lunch.

Although the murderer is generally unmasked in the end, the primary aim in detective fiction is to fool the reader. Which leads to some truly ingenious plots. Like cleverly using the victim’s own weakness to engineer death by anaphylactic shock. Strictly speaking not all allergies are food related – bees are not food, not in Europe anyway. Honey is though, and so are peanuts. Ruth Rendell used a bee sting in ‘To Fear a Painted Devil’, as did H.F. Heard in ‘A Taste of Honey’ and Julie Parsons in ‘The Courtship Gift’. In ‘If Looks could Kill’, Kate White used peanut butter.

In that case the victim didn’t die; such deaths are not that easy to pull off, even in a book. So a word of advice – don’t try this at home. As to that death by garlic canapé, I cheated. The victim was a vampire. And the unfortunate who met her death at the espresso machine? She was fictional too and she was electrocuted, not scalded or smothered by coffee. However, truth is stranger than fiction. In 1975, in the charmingly named Peachtree City, Georgia, two kitchen workers thought it might be fun to throw cocoa power at each other.  The room was small. The powder got in their lungs. They died. But don’t let that put you off your hot chocolate – unless of course you’re in the habit of inhaling it!

©  Clodagh Phelan, October 2010 – this article first appeared in Issue 4 of Eat Me Magazine

 

 

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Whacky and Wonderful

While the Angel of the Star of Love may sound suitably romantic, some angels have jobs that positively beggar belief.

The Dictionary of Angels is a unique book. A mixture of serious scholarship and delightful whimsy.  The New York Times called it a ‘wacky and wonderful compendium of angelic lore. ‘ While the book naturally contains much erudite information there are also many quirky, little known facts.

It was news to me that there are angels over clouds. That angels guard the gates of the South Wind, as well those of the North, West and East winds.  All nature seems to be covered. Rivers and running streams, showers (not I think the one in the bathroom), the sun’s rays, whirlwinds, earthquakes and the rest. Even vegetables have their own special angel. So does fruit, not to be outdone.

The animal kingdom is well represented. There’s an angel who’s job it is to return small birds to their owners, another for birds in general, though doves get a special mention for some reason.  Maybe because of the Ark! Other angels, respectively, look after ‘wild fowl and creeping things’. Tame beasts have their champion angel and wild beasts do too. There are angels over fish, aquatic animals, the ocean and the deep.

The book includes the fallen angels.  And there are plenty of those.  Take Abbadona, not an Abba tribute band but a rather dithery fallen angel.  Known as the penitent angel it seems he wasn’t entirely committed to the rebellion and kept moaning about his fallen state. So he got a reprieve.  They were probably glad to get rid of him.

The splendidly named Watchers are another fallen lot.  Sent from heaven to instruct the children of men, they were condemned for cavorting with their charges. Though they weren’t all sent to outer darkness, some stayed in the 5th Heaven. We’re not told whether that was because they behaved themselves or for some other reason.

Writing didn’t get a particularly good press either. The angel Penemue ‘taught mankind the art of writing with ink and paper.’ An art that was frowned on: it was thought to be wicked and corrupting and as a result ‘many sinned.’ Better watch it, all you writers out there.

There are angels for the days of the week, the signs of the zodiac and the twelve months of the year. There are angels whose task it is to look after countries and watch over professions. Yes, including the oldest one. Not doing a very good job, some of them. Javan, the angel of Greece, really needs to pull his socks up. Anauel, on the other hand should give himself a pat on the back, though I for one would rather like to shoot him in the back. His task? Protecting commercial bankers.  No one could claim he isn’t doing his job.

 

 

 

 

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English, as she is herd -

 

I blame the Beeb.  And yes, there are worse offenders – Sky News, ITV, Four, Five, politicians, bureaucrats, executives, business schools, Uncle Tom Cobley and all. But, Oh Auntie! It really is up to you to set an example. No one expects you to keep wearing the twinset, pearls and horsey headscarf.  Something classic and tasteful from M&S or John Lewis would be perfectly acceptable, linguistically speaking.  Or even a mini skirt or skinny jeans from Top Shop for Radio 1 listeners – but a shell suit and faux Burberry and all that bling! It’s just not on.

New expressions and new influences keep the language alive. Shakespeare misused grammar to great effect and some current expressions add wonderfully to its richness. But that’s not what I’m talking about.  What I’m talking about is laziness, sloppiness and the need to rush through everything at the behest of the programme schedulers – the modern equivalent of the hounds of hell. The broadcast media is always in such a hurry, trying to fit too much into too short a time. You only need to listen to the poor breathless weather people – trying to cram their spits and spots into the 15 seconds allotted to them.  Hence the fashion for turning verbs and adjectives into nouns and vice versa.  You do not ‘task’ someone to do something. ‘Task’ is noun, not a verb. And ‘conference’ is a noun, not please, oh please not a verb as in ‘lets conference.’ Add all this to the herd mentality and you end up with the sort of language that has me thinking fondly of the National Rifle Association.

Misuse of language is like a rash – it spreads. It only takes one politician to say ‘going forward’ and next thing you have is an epidemic. Before you know it expressions such as ‘in the future’, ‘looking ahead’ and even ‘from now on’ have become like Monty Python’s parrot – deceased, they are no more. ‘Going forward’ isn’t the only example, indeed there are so many that I could fill in a thousand posts, and given time, I probably will.

When did you last hear a newsreader, politician or businessman say that something was going to happen ‘before’ the meeting, the summit, the statement? Bet you can’t remember. ‘Before’ has vanished into outer darkness. Nowadays it’s all ‘ahead of this’ and ‘ahead of that’. Happily, I’m not alone. Lucy Kellaway has written a great article on the subject And there’s a bunch of people so annoyed at the way the expression has crept into business in general and their organisation in particular that they tracked its use in their meetings.

Not everyone cares about the way language is used.   And of course, expressions that drive me nuts don’t bother others and vice versa. Nor am I suggesting that we follow rules blindly. I’m all for embracing new words, new forms and new uses. Provided they make sense.  Provided you know what you’re doing.  As long as there’s a positive result – more clarity, more nuances, more invention.  What I can’t stand is sloppiness and the herd mentality.  We are not sheep though I’m of the opinion that some among us are not as intelligent. Sloppy language leads to sloppy thought.  And sloppy thought leads to all sorts of bad things. So if we can’t look to Auntie Beeb to set an example, then we might as well pack up our bags, put out the lights and learn to speak Esperanto.

 

 

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English, as she is spoke

Cat disapproving of Americanisms

Last time I heard some interviewee say ‘different than’ I threw the radio across the room,narrowly missing the cat.  So for the sake of the cat’s physical health, not to say her sanity, I am reduced to screeching ‘different from’ at the top of my voice.  Which does nothing for my throat. This is England for goodness sake. ‘Different than’ is an Americanism. It has no place here.

I’m happy to see that that excellent blogger ‘Pain in the English’ has posted on the subject.  Of course, as he says, there are grey areas and differences of opinion. But, when used as a comparison, the expression is ‘different from’ or even on occasion ‘different to’ but not ‘different than.’  It’s just not right.

I know there are a few, very rare and vey specialised, instances where the ‘from’ might just be permissible, but what irritates me is that 99.9% if the people using the expression have absolutely no knowledge of the rules that might allow this.  They are just following the herd – or even the ‘heard’ for it’s more than likely they have picked up the expression on the radio or TV. For more fascinating discussions on this and other facets of the English language, have a look at Pain in the English.

 

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Angel Food


The material in this post comes from my old website.  I had always meant to update it but never got round to it.  Now that the new website is up and running and the blog is too, I think this stuff is better on the blog. It’s a totally random selection of some of the books I have enjoyed.

Ridley Walker – Russell Hoban.  A must-read for anyone intrigued by language.

 

Beloved -Toni Morrison. Among the most exquisite writing you’ll find anywhere. An emotionally searing book.

His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman.  A brilliant, un-put-downable trilogy.  The very best storytelling, tangled up with metaphysics.

Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak.  A children’s story, also much loved by adults and artists.  Extraordinary imagination and amazing illustrations recently made into a film that, for once, is more or less faithful to the brilliant original.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – John Berendt.  Fantastic, dark, intriguing, factual.  A cross between a travelogue and a crime mystery.  Makes you long to visit Savannah.

Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve.  An astonishing debut novel for children, but a great read for grown ups too.  London on wheels.  Yes, you did read that correctly.  Read the book.

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things – Jon McGregor.  Another wonderful debut novel. Beautifully written, spare and compelling.  The tension is almost unbearable. And he’s written two more since then – both different, both amazing!

The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx. One of my bibles. A book I return to again and again for its power and its poetry, its characters and its quirkiness.

Amusing Ourselves to Death – Neil Postman.  The effect of mass media on society. An instructive, if chilling, book.

A Dictionary of Angels – Gustav Davidson. Perfect dipping in material. Did you know there is an angel over vegetables? And an angel who returns small birds to their owners?

More to come. Watch this space.

 

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“One always looks neat in a hat made of meat.”

Mark Twain may have had a point but it’s not just hats they’re making out of meat nowadays.  And as for vegetables -

Fashion has always gone to extremes. Lady Gaga may be the latest exponent of edible fashion, but she’s not unique. She has plenty of competition, some from fellow musicians. The cover of the Beatles Yesterday and Today album featured raw meat as well as baby dolls with decapitated heads. The Fab Four weren’t actually wearing the flesh but there are plenty who are, and loads of Internet sites to prove it.

Among the garments on offer are the bacon bra and the bacon bikini. Lie in the sun a while     and there’s no need to cook breakfast. The ‘Hats of Meat’ website has a section devoted entirely to pictures sent in by aficionados. Among them an American Indian headdress composed of sausages and bacon, hamburger earmuffs, kebab dreadlocks – even an entire cooked turkey.

Carnivores haven’t got it all their own way.  You’ll find clothes made from lettuce, artichokes, chilies, fruit, licorice and, would you believe it, skimmed milk! Designer Casey Larkin even found a way to do that – with a Prom dress! If you can eat it, or drink it, someone’s bound to have made a dress from it.  Or a hat, a handbag, a belt or shoes. PETA, the animal rights organization, have used greens in their vegetarian media campaigns. As an alternative to the bacon bra, the lettuce bikini doubles as a salad provided you stay out of the sun, which rather defeats its purpose.  Let it wilt, however, and you might end up a tad embarrassed.  Unless you’re a naturist as well as a vegetarian

For chocoholics, there’s a veritable feast. One site even has models dressed in Bond-girl style holding chocolate machine guns.  Decorative, perhaps, but about as much use as a chocolate fireguard. The Lindor dress, on the other hand, has the advantage. The chocolates are wrapped which will at least prevent them sticking to your skin.  The disadvantage? The dress contains over 79,000 calories. Get too carried away and it might not fit you for very long.

Of course you’ll want to accessorize. Fancy a Louis Vuitton bag?  Or one of Gucci’s creations? An American bakery is making copies – in cake.  Unfortunately they don’t come cheap. At around $6,000 for the Vuitton you might be better off buying the original. Even designer Nancy Wu’s Chanel bag, composed of 100% beef jerky, will set you back a bit. There’s plenty of footwear to choose from too. Like Olle Hemmerdorff’s hamburger shoe for Nike? Or just use your loaf.  A Lithuanian designer team has come up with edible, wearable shoes created from bread. Every pair is unique and comes with a handpicked cardboard box.

When Parisian chef Valentyn Shtefano popped the question, he showed his love in a special way – he baked the wedding dress. No, not a meringue – a cream puff. 1500 cream puffs to be exact and even the necklace and crown were edible. It’s not every groom who can tell his bride she looks good enough to eat.  And mean it.  Literally.

© Clodagh Phelan  – 19/09/10

This article first appeared on the Eat Me Magazine website

 

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One Man’s Meat

Moose nose jelly anyone?

If you really are what you eat, there must be some very strange people walking about out there.

Discovering the world’s weird and wonderful foods is like opening a can of worms.  Literally. They range from the slightly odd to the ‘oh my God!’ with just about everything in between. Yak butter may not be everyone’s cup of tea, tripe may turn your stomach unless you are a cow and reindeer pâté may seem a trifle exotic. But they’re nothing compared to some of the things on offer. Moose nose jelly anyone?

Some foods are positively anti-social.  Take durian, for instance.  Or perhaps don’t.  Certainly not in confined spaces or on public transport – you’ll get arrested. This Asian ‘king of fruit’ is adored by orangutangs and by a surprising number of people. Smelling of sewers and decaying carrion it’s said to taste like custard, almonds, sherry and ice cream rolled into one. It’s an extreme marmite sort of fruit.  But even durian has its rivals. Among them chou dofu or ‘stinky tofu’. Its sharp scent, reminiscent of baby pooh, is so pungent street hawkers have been fined for breaking the air pollution laws. Another contender is hákarl. Not content to simply eat the shark, Icelanders bury it for months until it’s good and rotten.  Then they eat it.  Yum!

If smelly doesn’t do it for you, try some street food. In Indonesia they serve rat on a stick. If you’re squeamish, go for bat instead. Beijing traders put fried starfish on their sticks. Mexico offers the tequila lollipop complete with worm. Insects and bugs abound. Scorpions, grasshoppers, tarantula, whichetty grubs, crickets, silk worms – roasted, fried, marinated and even alive.

To quench your thirst there’s some treats in store. Kopi luwak is made from coffee berries eaten by the Asian palm civet and its friends and relations. The big cats gobble up the beans, nature takes its course and voilà – you have the makings of the most aromatic and most expensive coffee in the world!  After all the beans are washed thoroughly, several times, and dried in the sun before being roasted. In India they love cola and revere cows. The logical extension is gau jal, a cola made of from cow’s urine. Sounds unhygienic but this cola has no toxins – more than can that be said of some Western carbonated drinks!

In the USA, not content with McDonalds, they’ve come up with tinned cheeseburger as well as tinned creamed armadillo, Cajun style alligator, buzzard gizzards in cream sauce and elk au jus! A company called ‘Road Weary’ sells potted possum – one can’t help wondering if it’s road weary or just road kill.

While we shudder at the thought of cocks combs or camel tendons and get all smug, perhaps it’s as well to think of some of the things we eat. Which is better for your health, a starfish on a stick or chocolate covered bacon? Roast pigeon brains or an American pizza? The toppings include two cheeseburgers, a six-piece box of McNuggets and medium fries.  All covered with gloopy, fatty cheese. Now who’s weird!

© Clodagh Phelan 12/9/10     This article first appeared in Eat Me Magazine online

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German Coastguard

 

This is one of my very favourite commercials – and a great advocate for clear communication.

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