Wednesday 30 December 2009

13 Howlers from 2009

a cloud-clapped kingdom A cloud-capped kingdom would also be nonsensical – the cloud-capped towers (as Shakespeare wrote) are so tall they’re wearing clouds as hats.

a woman over 25 blithe to the rigours of botox Observer Nov 22 09 Blithe means happy. What are they trying to say? Innocent of botox? Why the “rigours of” botox?

ambient for atmospheric "What an ambient shot!" Ambient means surrounding. If you say something’s “atmospheric” you mean it calls up ideas and feelings of mystery or menace or the uncanny.

astronaughts for astronauts (Web)

caper for figure "cut a similarly impressive caper" Daily Telegraph Nov 09 To cut a caper is to perform a tricky and acrobatic dance step.

claque for clique David Aaronovitch Nov 09 A claque is a gang of hired applauders; a clique is a small, exclusive, self-interested group.

cut to the quick for cut to the chase Let us cut to the quick here. Times Oct 30 09 In early silent movies, you didn’t want to bore your audience, so you cut to the chase (car chase, cowboys on horseback etc). “Cut to the chase” means “come to the point”. If you cut someone to the quick it’s like cutting through the bark to the living tree (quick means “alive”).

pink elephant for elephant It’s not good to have a pink elephant in the room. Web The writer is confused between “the elephant in the room” that nobody mentions and “pink elephants” seen by sufferers from delirium tremens.

slipshod for roughshod It’s sad that they’re going to run slipshod over this lovely road. Person quoted in the Times Oct 27 09 If you ride roughshod over something, you’re trampling over them on a horse with heavy iron shoes. Somebody slipshod is wearing only backless slippers on their feet and is forced to shuffle about. A slipshod approach is sloppy and ill-thought-out.

slather for slaver “slather like kids in a sweetie shop” Times Sept 09 09 Beasts slaver over their prey (they have no manners); you slather paint onto a wall.

smited for slighted, dappy for daffy Andrew Billen, Times Nov 21 09

virtual circle for virtuous A virtual circle would be almost a circle; a virtuous circle is the opposite of a vicious circle, which is a feedback loop of bad consequences.
wolverine for wolfish "I just like to write about pervert killers with wolverine teeth". James Ellroy, Nov 09 A wolverine is a large weasel relative that lives in the Arctic Circle.

And more here, here, here, here and here.

Sunday 20 December 2009

Buzz Words for 2009 II

House sales have fallen off a cliff.

At the beginning of the year, people were keen on the word “constrained” to mean “confined” or “restricted” – or almost anything.

everything is
broken, not just society

swerve for avoid

uplift in value

hinterland was popular in April

boobs have become a rack

convulse is used to mean practically anything Rural communities are being convulsed by arguments for and against wind power. Guardian May 7, 2004 Are they really having fits over these arguments?

capacity building

Woot! (It means "want one of those")

People have stopped using major at last.

talking trash (This seems to mean making your opponent feel bad. How attractive is that?)


whippits = inhaling nitrous oxide

glurge = ghastly inspirational emails about alleged miracles happening to ordinary people

scrobble = assemble a playlist on a social music site

larp = playing a role-playing game in ordinary life (Live Action Role Playing)

astroturf – opposite of grassroots? Or is it cosmetic greenery?

huge – for big, vast, large, high, massive, enormous

decolletage for bust

workies for interns

modern day for modern or present day

Buzz Words of 2011 here and here.
Complete Buzz Words of 2010 here.
Buzz Words of 2009 here.
Buzz Words of 2009 Part Two here.

Whatever happened to....? 2

boil in the bag


of people who took “patent medicines” ie over-the-counter aspirin
Corocraft jewellery (now turning up on the Antiques Roadshow)
cream cakes


holographic keyboards projected on the desktop

lime marmalade

men smoking pipes – thank God they’ve gone
the new maths

panic about radiation emitted by "VDUs"
PDAs you had to poke with a stylus

recipes for something bake or medley
rollup keyboards sherbet pips Silver Shred

working remotely
(it was going to be called "telecottaging" or "telecommuting")
texter's thumb
wacky sandwich fillings like cream cheese and dates, apple and brie or banana and bacon

More here, and links to the rest.

Saturday 12 December 2009

Tips for London Visitors

1. Buy a London A-Z or go to an Internet café and look up your destination on London is BIG.

2. Ask for "where Lion King is playing" not the XYZ Theatre. Central London is full of theatres, and Londoners don't know all their names.

3. Dress appropriately to blend in. London's a working city, so that means soberly - no shorts, baseball caps, or matching safari outfits.

4. Avoid faux Irish pubs and hunt down a real traditional pub, like the Lemon Tree in Covent Garden and the Red Lion in Crown Passage between Pall Mall and King Street in Central London.

5. On the tube (that's the metro or underground rail system), obey signs on escalators (moving staircases) telling you to "stand on the right". The left "lane" is for people on the move.

6. Get off the tourist trail, away from the tacky, downmarket, overpriced food outlets (tepid pizza, greasy chicken). Turn down a side street and look for a little café.

7. Avoid souvenir shops which have been selling the same policeman dolls for 40 years - unless it's raining and you need an umbrella. Who cares if it says "I HEART LONDON"?

8. The best way to see London is from the top of a double decker. The topless tour buses will point out the sights for you, or you can just get on a double-decker bus and go upstairs. On a short trip you shouldn't get too lost!

9. River trips are also good. They'll give you useful information among the corny jokes.

10. That bridge with the towers is Tower Bridge, not London Bridge. The original London Bridge was built by the Romans, but the present one is less than 50 years old and not much to look at.

11. Enjoy! Londoners are friendly, and it's one of the most diverse cities in the world. Whether you want a steak and chips in Garfunkels or a Lebanese feast in Soho, there's a restaurant for you.

Thursday 26 November 2009

HALL at Hornsey Town Hall


Immersive, creepy, stunning, shadowy...

It's an interactive, participative site specific performance by the 1929 company (click on the link above for more info). Sadly its run at Hornsey Town Hall is over - where will this imaginative group go next?

Hornsey Town Hall in Crouch End is an Art Deco masterpiece, no longer used. The owl is from the front gates. It is vast and labyrinthine and every detail is beautiful. I went to HALL as dusk was falling - good move, as it was nearly dark inside, only a crepuscular glow from the sky and the lights from distant offices or reception desks.

You are given an MP3 player which tells you where to go and what to do. There's something going on in the building, but you never find out what. It's like being present in a hybrid dream/teenage party/Kafka novel/Petshop Boys video.

The mainly young cast are dressed in suits and homburgs (men) and Gothic white ballet dresses or severe suits (girls). It can be confusing following the instructions, especially if it's too dark to see the numbers on the doors. And it's very hard obeying the command to take off your coat when you are wearing a scarf, a cross-body handbag AND an MP3 player.

In the foyer there are drifts of dead leaves and people shouting distantly. You go up and down stairs (sometimes struggling to keep up with the instructions). In the basement a table is set with a decaying, Miss Havishamesque banquet - mould is growing on the wine glasses. A woman plays the piano while others enact vague scenes of violence and coercion.

You find you are taking part in a council meeting. One woman insists that "there's a room in the building that isn't on the plans". Nobody believes her and she is hustled out.

Upstairs you are allowed to linger in a room full of art, and a cabinet of curiosities: outdated manuals on how to live and the secrets of health, slot-together skeletons and model aircraft.

Another room is full of architectural plans. In an inner office you wear rubber gloves while a man is tortured out of sight, and the Voice recites Shakespeare "Take but degree away, untune that string...".

You are led down again, down into the underworld... I was lucky, I found myself back in the foyer again.

1929's Facebook page is here.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Don Carlos

King Philip of Spain

Verdi's opera Don Carlos has a complicated plot. King Philip of Spain marries his son Carlos's fiancee, Elizabeth. King Philip's ex-girlfriend, Eboli, is plotting and scheming. So is the King's friend, the Marquis of Posa, who is also a close friend of Carlos... Meanwhile, Philip has a little habit he likes to indulge: burning heretics. Spain has conquered Flanders, which is full of - ugh! - Protestants. There are a lot of scenes in a graveyard.

There are two big central setpieces: emissaries from Flanders try and put their case to the King just as he is about to burn some heretics. Carlos comes in on the Flemish side and is thrown into prison.

That night, the King is alone in his bedroom (which is the size of the Royal Opera House stage). In his wife's jewellery box he has found a portrait of Carlos. "She never loved me!" he mourns and looks forward only to death. A Jaws-like theme announces the Grand Inquisitor, blind and 90 years old. The King asks "Will you absolve my sins if I have my son killed?" The Grand Inquisitor says that'll be fine. Enter the Queen. The King accuses her of betraying him. She faints and he calls for help. In rush Posa and Eboli, fully dressed and they all sing a lot...

There's just one downside: the acting! The terrible operatic acting! It never changes. All attempts to look naturalistic only come across as a series of bizarre clichés. About 40 years opera singers were told "You can't just stand there and sing! You've got to make it look more real!" So instead of standing there and singing and letting Verdi's music do the acting for them they're never still. They move their heads from side to side, they crouch and spring up again, they fling their arms into weird postures, their entire faces dance about: rolling eyes, waving eyebrows, flaring nostrils, trembling lips. King Philip did all of this during his most touching aria. Eboli was the worst offender. Opera singers have to keep their necks and backs in a straight line, but they think if they bow from the hips while doing balletic portes de bras you won't notice. They also sing to the ground, or a piece of furniture, instead of the person they're supposedly talking to. Eboli's most ghastly posture was the one with arms oustretched and head down, looking up under her eyebrows. Posa was quite restrained - perhaps that's why he looked more handsome. Meanwhile Carlos reeled around the stage and pulled exaggerated crying faces.

During the heretics scene, the chorus has to come on waving crucifixes and prayerbooks and sing a bit about how they support the King's persecution of everybody with slightly different opinions from the Pope. Well, no, they don't have to hold them up and wave them about all the time. But if they must, must they do it so fast and twitchily? It would have been much more effective if they'd processed slowly and just held their props. Or not held anything. If you leave opera choruses to do their own acting they turn and nod to each other the whole time – like here.

The Marquis of Posa and Carlos

The music is wonderful. Verdi gets in a lot of digs at kingship, dictators, conquering other countries, religious intolerance etc. Carlos is meant to be the hero, but the Marquis of Posa is always much better-looking, and the King is far more sympathetic. If you can't get there in person, you can watch it on BBC's Iplayer: Don Carlos.

Thursday 12 November 2009

22 Upsides to Being Old

1. You can tell your doctor what's wrong with you and what you want him to do about it.

2. You can stare at people and nobody minds.

3. People don't keep bullying you to be outgoing and loud and bubbly.

4. You can be quiet and sweet.

5. You can enjoy mild pleasures like visiting stately homes or craft fairs.

6. You can say "Oh look! What a beautiful building!" without people telling you you're old-fashioned and quaint.

7. You can enjoy a cup of tea and a biscuit.

8. You can swap banter with other old people.

9. You don't have to be cool any more. (And nobody puts you down if you haven't heard of the latest thing - they expect you not to know!)

10. Random people chat to you.

11. Handsome young men chat to you.

12. People don't nag you to learn to drive.

13. Those "must-read" books are long forgotten.

14. Those burning debates are as dead as disco.

15. You can witness Really Bad Ideas – like underpasses, tower blocks and trendy reading methods – finally pass from the face of the earth.

16. You can see the return of ideas that were working perfectly well until somebody came along and modernised them – like pedestrian crossings, houses in streets, and B says "buh".

17. Nobody tells you "Go for it! What could possibly go wrong!" because you've found out by now.

18. You can be houseproud.

19. At a party, you can sit in a chair and not talk to anybody, because nobody takes any notice of you anyway.

20. You can be patronising.

21. You become assertive – actually you don’t, but people expect you to be a bossy old bat and you can live up to their expectations.

22. You can be opinionated.

23. You don't have to stay long at parties.

24. You can stun young people by telling them you use Twitter!

Sunday 1 November 2009

Professor Munakata

Japan’s leading manga artist Hoshino Yukinobu creates a new exclusive manga inspired by the British Museum’s world collections.

Hoshino Yukinobu (b. 1954) is a leading Japanese manga artist. One of his most popular characters is Professor Munakata, who investigates history and folklore in his manga adventures. Hoshino has been inspired by his engagement with the British Museum, London, and its collections to create a new manga in which his popular character Professor Munakata, a professor of folklore.

Sounds good!


Saturday 31 October 2009

Ed Ruscha at London's Hayward Gallery

Ed Ruscha, b. 1937, studied at the Chouinard Art Institute. In 1956, he left his home in Oklahoma City and drove to Los Angeles, where he stayed. His work is full of the vast emptiness of the USA, highways flanked by industrial units behind chainlink fences, gas stations, advertising billboards with aggressive type. And LA, which he calls a "cardboard cut-out city".

This is a retrospective of 50 years of his work. He started off by painting blown-up words on bright backgrounds, like the "Annie" from the Little Orphan Annie comic strip. He moved on to slogans against scenery, in a utility typeface he designed himself. Sometimes the slogans involve everyday substances, like IT'S ONLY VANISHING CREAM or SAND IN THE VASELINE. He was also experimenting with creating images using anything rather than paint.

He mutated to using a spray-gun to create what looks like LA seen from the air at night, or landing lights on an airstrip. A slogan against this background reads: WEN OUT FOR CIGRETS N NEVER CAME BACK.
Some spray painted canvases have no words. There's a shadowy howling wolf, a galleon, a lonely house. They're like motifs from a cross-stitch kit blown up and given a Gothic twist.

Still in black, grey and white, he plays with cinema EXIT signs, or a high window in what could be a warehouse or barn.

THE END in Gothic script appears on a slipping frame of degraded movie film, with scratch-lines and hairs.

Industrial buildings change function, their original owner's name painted out and a new one emblazoned in red. He says: "I simply observe the cruelty of progress."

The show is at the Hayward until Jan. 10. It then moves to the Haus der Kunst, Munich (Feb. 12-May 2), and the Moderna Museet, Stockholm (May 29-Sept 5).


Monday 26 October 2009

Miroslaw Balka: How It Is

This is the latest in the Unilever series of installation's at Tate Modern's cathedral-like Turbine Hall. It's a big metal box like a giant shipping container filled with darkness. Turbine Hall art is a new genre. It's got to be big and overwhelming. The dwarfed visitors/worshippers become part of the art.

Many religions include visits to a mocked-up Underworld, a dark underground space, a crypt, West Kennet Long Barrow, the Mallabar Caves. And art's meant to be a quasi-religious experience these days. Or is it a fairground attraction? Victorian London was full of "shows": Frith's Derby Day, General Tom Thumb, mind readers, the Hottentot Venus. If you set up an attraction and advertise it, people will come. Roll up, roll up, see the wonder of the age!

If art's a quasi-religious experience, there are too many of them. We're always being pushed to respond. If we do, how sincere are we being? Maybe that's the point - to confront us with our own lack of integrity.

Visitors to How It Is have complained that the crowds of children and tourists ruin the atmosphere by chatting and flashing their mobile phones as they take pictures of their mates groping around in the dark.

You approach with other pilgrims (like the ones who are visiting the bones of St Therese of Lisieux). The lights get dimmer as you walk down to the end of the hall. The "box" echoes the grim industrial style of its surroundings.

You climb up a ramp and walk forward into the dark and it is truly frightening. Yes, you're surrounded by chirping children - or are they twittering ghosts? What's spookier than the laughter of unseen children? Just when the darkness reaches pitch pitch, you bump into the back wall. When you lean against it, you hear a booming rumble. Turn round and you can see the light, and silhouettes of children walking happily into the dark. Turn back again and you see a crowd of ghosts.

Here in this truck, I, Eve, and my son Abel

If you see my son Cain, tell him...

Thursday 22 October 2009

Art Shows: October

Frank Auerbach
Auerbach's paintings of building sites from 1952-1962 were on show at the Courtauld. Much of London was being rebuilt after the extensive damage caused by war-time bombing. Architects were getting an opportunity to turn ambitious, daring, visionary ideas into reality – at least I'm sure that's how they'd have put it. Thank goodness the money ran out (or else bureaucracy stepped in) and they didn't destroy absolutely everything that Hitler had missed. Many of the buildings were misguided, but there's always something beautiful about a building site, and Auerbach was there to capture the abstract patterns made by scaffolding and London's lovely yellow mud.

The paintings are done in thick oil paint, sometimes so thick as to turn the canvas into a relief sculpture. It has been "worked over" strenuously, something our tutors circa 1970 thought was a praiseworthy activity (keeps the students occupied). The paint has been tortured, smeared, scored and dug, and looks very like the mud of excavations, complete with spade marks and tire tracks. The evidence of hard physical labour is everywhere. There's nothing girly about these paintings. They are also quite big, another thing our tutors liked. In their eyes, a painting below a certain size simply wasn't a painting.

Don't get me wrong, I like these paintings, especially a sketch where the paint has suffered less abuse. And timber balks, tire tracks, steel skeletons, empty windows, digging men all make satisfying patterns. But it looks destruction as much as building.
The dark, muddy, foggy colours add to the feeling of sadness. See more Auerbachs here.

You can move on from the galleries where the Auerbachs are hanging into the Cortauld's permanent collection. Here are Art Deco Kandinskies and highly coloured works by Derain, Jawlensky, Bonnard, Braque and Matisse. Who has real talent, and who is imitating fashionable mannerisms? And there's a Boudin of a beach that's about the size of a postcard. I'd call that a painting.

There's an exhibition of steampunk objects at the Museum of Science, Oxford, that runs until Feb. 21, 2010. "Steam punk" is a literary genre that imagines a world that's a cross between the 19th century and now. It has all our wizard inventions, but they're made with Victorian technology and style. Lots of steam, hydraulics and brass.

Grayson Perry
Pots and a tapestry by the Turner Prize winner are on at the Victoria Miro Gallery until Nov. 7. Perry's beautiful pots are covered with line drawings of scenes that look superficially like illustrations from a 30s children's book. Look closer, and you'll find that they are much more subversive. Perry likes to cross-dress, and turns up to gallery openings as his alter ego Claire, a little girl who wears elaborate puff-sleeved dresses. The dresses are part of his art.
The Victoria Miro Gallery is a lovely converted warehouse near the Angel, Islington, with a peaceful water garden. It's quite a long walk from Angel, though you can take the canal path for some of the way. Grayson Perry is at the top of several flights of steep, steep stairs. Dear Victoria, is there room for a lift?

The main exhibit is the Walthamstow Tapestry, which takes Man from birth to death. You can see the influence if Indian embroidery, African naive paintings, cartoonist Michael Heath, medieval Doom paintings, Alan Aldridge, Terry Gilliam, London Transport picture maps, Breughel. Everywhere people are surrounded by brand names - Andrex, Waitrose. Bloated chavs in track suits push baby buggies, nice middle class people fly vintage aircraft. Al end up at a red devil's mask. A banker poses like a saint, holding a chalice of claret. A woman in Hermes headscarf and clutching a Chanel bag stands in for the Madonna. The tapestry's not hand sewn, unlike the rather similar work of Dutch artist Tilleke Schwarz.

On the opposite wall are two large drawings. One shows a map-like landscape dotted with buildings that have escaped from a history of architecture. All trees are dead and shattered as if with shell-fire. Labelled groups of people survive among the ruins, dance round maypoles, drink tea by ambulances, fight doomed last stands. Everybody is here: conservationists, elitists, the middle class, satanists, classicists, Mormons, neo-pagans, snobs, transvestites, cool people, wankers, amateurs. Nobody is spared, it's no go the merry-go-round, it's a medieval Dance of Death, no-one was saved.
A companion piece shows the artist, crucified on a Renaissance Mappa Mundi. His insides are labelled with the detritus of modern life: Quaker vegetarian chatter, preachy logo board, kidults, internet dating. Long may he reign.
The Museum of Everything
This gallery has just opened in North London, to showcase work by "outsider" artists - people without formal training, who had a different outlook on the world. Its first exhibition includes work by Henry Darger, who worked as a janitor in Chicago. In his spare time, he produced an endless frieze about the heroic Vivian girls, who seem to be traced from children's books and frequently appear nude.

He had a wonderful sense of composition and colour. The little girls have adventure after adventure, battling evil wherever they go. The epic they star in is titled: The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Darger grew up in a severe children's home which he escaped after several attempts. Grayson Perry acknowledges his debt to Darger's work, which was discovered by his landlords shortly before his death in 1973.

Tuesday 6 October 2009

Pop Life at Tate Modern

Pop Life
Tate Modern, London
Until Jan. 17

Click on the show's title above and it'll take you to a review in the Times by Waldemar Januszczak. The show is about the devil's bargain between art and the market since Andy Warhol, who kind of invented the whole idea, or did he? Art has always been a market. It's just that, in order to sell you pictures, you used to have to pretend to have a mind above such sordid things. Fashions change, and now you're supposed to be blatant about it. But is the art that results any good? Not so sure about that. Apart from the Andy Warhols. He's represented by some paintings of Gems that glow in ultraviolet light.

The rest is brash, ugly, crude, over-the-top, and screams "Me, me, me!" Or perhaps "Buy my stuff and make me very very rich!" It's not really recession art.

Says Waldemar: I should quickly add that I don’t mind most of the seedy sex in which this show is so rich. It is about time goody-goody Tate Modern risked upsetting some vicars. Those who think unsightly sex has no place in a gallery should address their complaints to the ancient Greeks and Romans who pioneered its presence. Art’s dubious relationship to pornography has 2,000 years of tradition behind it. The question is not: does showing Fraser having sex with a stranger constitute an appropriate offering for Tate Modern? The question is: does it constitute good or meaningful or instructive art? I don’t like the piece. It’s creepy and showy. But you could hardly ask for a clearer presentation of the exhibition’s central conundrum: if you make art about selling out, are you yourself selling out? In Fraser’s case, the answer is surely a loud yes. If she were ugly, if she were shy, if she hadn’t been ambitious, she wouldn’t have made the work.

The show also documents the many who didn't make it, says WJ. Or who were wheeled out from retirement in a "home for redundant artists". And if you really want to make a show about art and the market, why don't you include the gallerists, art advisors, money men and very very rich people who are persuaded to buy it, asks Laura Cumming in the Observer.

Thursday 24 September 2009

Turner and the Masters

Turner and the Masters is at Tate Britain until Jan 31. It hangs works by Turner among works by the painters he was “influenced” by. Or rather, that he painted “in the manner of” in a deliberate attempt to be considered as one of their rank. But that was how you played the art game in those days.

What, Turner our homegrown genius, play the game? Turner the proto-Impressionist, copy the old masters? Turner who painted in a way we approve of long before it was fashionable, spin his own reputation?

Matthew Collings in Saturday’s Guardian reviewed the show and unpicked the way we see Turner.

The artists Turner wished to be seen with in public were Cuyp, Claude Lorrain, Poussin, Salvator Rosa (immensely popular in the 18th century – time he was reappraised), Rembrandt, Rubens, Ruisdael, Titian, Veronese and Watteau. Says Collings, Turner "was a working-class man who achieved greatness in art, but owned a pub and had no friends … He had two mistresses and never married.”

In Turner’s day you were meant to copy the old masters. Still-life and landscape were at the bottom of the tree, next up was portraiture, but top was history painting “big scenes from real history, or … mythological or biblical dramas”. (Which look ridiculous to us today.) The show is “really social history with art as the focus”.

For the last 50 years Turner “has been widely thought of as a genius of ‘painterly’ painting… from this viewpoint he is valued as a sort of artistic crystal-ball gazer, anticipating Monet’s impressionist scenes… he came back into vogue in the 1960s because of the rise of abstract expressionism. The change in popular opinion occurred with a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1966 called Turner: Imagination and Reality. Because the selection of works was deliberately weighted in favour of his later period, when lines become blurred and there are fewer enclosed shapes, a new image of Turner emerged as a mystic prophet of modernism – an image that has remained intact in the popular imagination ever since.”

It should be a fascinating show, revealing not just the sources of Turner’s inspiration but also our own sheep-like tendencies to follow the latest fashionable opinion. And Turner really was a genius.

Sheep by Poussin

Thursday 17 September 2009

Moctezuma at the British Museum

This show opens on Thursday (24 September). Moctezuma is the guy we used to call Montezuma, leader of the Aztecs in what's now Mexico. Apparently we got that wrong too and they called themselves the Mexica.

The Aztecs were an ancient people and their art is high quality. They carved granite and other stones into the faces of beast-gods and warriors - giant snakes were popular. HQ was a city in the middle of a lake (it's now Mexico City and the lake is no more). They grew crops on artificial islands and liked to paddle about the lake wearing garlands, singing and reciting poetry. How very civilized!

Aztec religion demanded a lot of human sacrifices. Wars with nearby tribes produced enough captives to supply the greedy gods. Skulls and skeletons dance through their art.

Then the Spaniards turned up, looking for gold. They were outnumbered, but great ruler Moctezuma (1466–1520) caved in and apparently accepted his and his people's fate. Did he think this was one war he couldn't win? Stone knives versus firearms isn't a fair fight. And how did he die? At the hands of his subjects, claimed the Spaniards.

Priceless artefacts and manuscripts tell the story. The Spaniards brought another religion which the Aztecs adopted. Perhaps it didn't seem too strange.

British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG, +44 (0)20 7323 8299

Dead can dance...

Wednesday 9 September 2009

Howlers for September

harbinger for Achilles heel? Trojan horse? albatross? poisoned chalice? worm in the bud? early warning system? Her collection of gently provocative essays suggest that our familiarity with crows may be a harbinger. New Scientist 5 Sept. 09 A harbinger was originally someone who went ahead of the travelling party to arrange the night's food and lodging.

trove for hoard (treasure trove is something you’ve found or trouvé)

on a role for on a roll (a role is a part in a play; if you're on a roll you're a log rolling downhill)

Corpus Christie for Corpus Christi (from auction catalogue)

Applying his trade for plying

Hierarchy used to mean élite (they're at the top of the hierarchy)

defiantly for definitely (youtube)

swarve for suave

batwing doors for swing doors in Western saloons Guardian June 10 09

nebbish used as adjective (it’s a noun) “in person he is nebbish and self deprecating” Guardian June 27 09

intercession for reminder? “Rags are still tied to trees as divine intercessions” Dan Snow on the Celts, BBC2 He means a plea for intercession.

greenskin for cleanskin: A new, coherent vision for the commission, drawn up with greenskin commissioners who will pull in the same direction. Guardian 7/29/09 "Within the vernacular of counter-terrorism agents and police officers, a cleanskin is an undercover operative whose identity is not known to the forces he or she is tasked to infiltrate."

androgenous for androgynous Guardian 7/20/09 Androgenous ought to mean "becoming masculine". An androgynous person is a boyish (andro) girl (gyn) or a girlish boy.

More here, here, here, here and here.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Cocoon at the Darwin Centre

The Cocoon at the Natural History Museum's Darwin Centre is now open to the public. It's a concrete pod inside a tall space, curved to look like a silk-worm cocoon with a few loose threads engraved on it. Inside is a low-lit spiral walkway (you take a lift to the top and walk down) with many displays of leaves, branches, spiders, scorpions, beetles, nuts, fruit etc from the museum's collection. All the (17 million) plants and (3 million) insects are now housed in the centre of the Cocoon and you can glimpse filing cabinets through viewing windows. Researchers can make an appointment to examine the collection, but the public has to be content with admiring the selection on show, and looking over the shoulders of some of the museum's 350 scientists – there's a viewing window into one of their offices, and into a display case where real live boffins will demonstrate how to prepare specimens. At several points on the trail volunteers will talk you through what's on show, and answer your questions. There are also talking screens, videos, and recordings which spring to life as you pass. There's text on the walls, too, explaining such concepts as fieldwork and peer review.

The museum is also debuting its science theater, called after the greatest science communicator, David Attenborough. It has clinical white seats and many screens, so everyone has a good view of what the boffs are putting under the "visualiser" (it's like an overhead projector for objects). They enthusiastically show off meteorites from Mars or live, fluorescent scorpions. Another thrill was timelapse photography of a dolphin carcase being eaten by scavengers from an experimental underwater webcam somewhere off Sweden.

The Natural History Museum is at:

Cromwell Rd
London, SW7
020 7942 5000
Nearest tube (underground, metro) stop is South Kensington. Entrance is free, but to book a timed ticket for the Cocoon call 44 (0) 20 7942 5725, turn up in person or log on to

Monday 7 September 2009

14 Hair Gadgets with Silly Names

They're for bumping your hair up, geddit? Or rather, they're "hair volumizing inserts". Or is that "volumnizing"? Read all about it at Flat hair is so last year!

The Whirlastyle guarantees the perfect ballet bun.
It's as aesthetically pleasing as the Bumpit. See They also sell the Poppi and the Klicinz.

"Anything new can be accomplished by believing in your own magic" says the sales material. So you don't need a Hairdini for that perfect updo? It's all at where you can learn about the Clipdini, Beadini, Illusion Beadini, Poofdini, Teeni Hairdini and Pickdini.

Beautiful ponytailers decorated with crystal insects at Ebuni.

And if those aren't enough for you, there's always the Hairagami and Sophist O Twist. Or you can contemplate the many patented (but possibly not manufactured) ponytail and bun devices at And if you want a chignon base, they even have them at:

101 Fashion Crimes from the Past

There are fashions that get more and more extreme until they vanish in a puff of smoke.
Hair gets higher and higher, crinolines get wider and wider - you get the picture. But you wonder how people lived with some of these. A dance dress so long that you had to pick up the skirt and hold it over your arm? Ah well, what fools these mortals be, as Shakespeare pointed out.

1. Leg o’ mutton sleeves 1830s, 1890s, 1930s Sometimes called gigot sleeves - that's French for leg of mutton.
2. Big hair and hats 1910s These huge dos were constructed over pads made of the wearer's own hair. You kept the combings from your (waist-length) hair in a "hair-tidy", and made it into what were called "rats". Lovely! There's a discussion about similar devices here at
2. Big hair 1770s The heroine of the novel Evelina describes having her hair curled and done up over a cushion that sat on the top of her head – and then covered with white powder. I don't know why this hairstyle is blamed on Madame de Pompadour. This is Marie Antoinette.
3. Beehive 1960s Terrible tales were told of women who never took their hair down and ended up playing host to some six-legged friends. The same stories were told of ladies from the 18th century. Early 60s hairstyles were ludicrously labour-intensive - the setting on rollers, drying and then back-combing took hours.
4. Crinolines reached new breadths in the 1860s.

5. Panniers 18th century They're called after the saddlebags you use on your bicycle (or horse or donkey). You end up with a skirt shaped like the back of a sofa.

6. Platform shoes 1970s (and 16th cent Venice). Groovy!

7. Corsets made waists smaller and smaller from the 1830s on.

8. Miniskirts 1960s I know they’ve been back several times, but they've never been so short as in the late 60s. You had to adopt a new way of sitting – knees together, feet apart. If you dropped anything you had to curtsey to pick it up again. And you couldn't bend over at all.

9. Trains Late 19th century You draped them over your arm when you danced. Sometimes they had a loop on the hem that you put your little finger through. You also had to cope with a reticule hanging from your wrist.

10. Stiletto heels and pointy toes 1960s, early 00s, 15th century. Will they never learn?

11. Who wears short shorts? Boys' shorts, or "short trousers" were originally teamed with thick wool stockings, and came right down to the knee. In the 60s/70s, when girls’ shorts became tiny, prep school boys’ shorts did too and the poor things suffered from hypothermia.

12. Opera-length gloves In the late 1800s, shoulder-length kid gloves were worn with evening dress. At dinner, you removed the hand bit and tucked it into the arm bit. Their status was defined by the number of buttons.

Do we know better now? Here are some modern fashion crimes.

Wednesday 26 August 2009


Lost for an insult? Can't quite classify someone? Perhaps they're just a suit. And if you're tired of your job or your role in life, why not pick from this list?

affable B-player (who may be more useful to your team than too many A-players), all fur coat and no knickers, all mouth and trousers, alpha male, also-ran, anorak, apple-polisher, armchair critic

back number,
backstabber, back-to-the-land intellectual, bad lot, bean counter, bearleader, big cheese, blood-sucker, braggart, buffoon, bullshit artist

(see cookie pusher), camp follower, card, carrot cruncher, celebrity dimwit, chancer, change junkie, charlatan, class clown, colourful character (a pathetic "colourful character" act - The Skeptic), Congressional ribbon-cutter

cookie pusher:
an effete young curate who passes round plates of pastries at vicarage tea parties; a gigolo who does the at fashionable salons; someone who hands out cookies (or flattery) in order to get ahead in life

corner boy, court jester, courtier, crab, creep

deadbeat, designated buffoon, designated victim, desk jockey, digital immigrant, digital native

do-gooder: "a family of dogged do-gooders and culture vultures", Pete Clark, Evening Standard July 2007

dogsbody, doomsayer, dork, drone, dupe, dweeb

egg-head, empty suit, evangelist

fashion leader, fat cat, firefighter, flatterer, flunkey, follower, freeloader, fruit loop

gang boss, gang leader, gannet, geek, good sport, goofball, gooseberry, gopher, grass, grockle, grouch

hair band (early 80s group with big hair), haircut (someone who's only a trendy hairdo), hanger-on, has been, hayseed, hick, hotshot, hurricane head (storm chaser)

jellyfish, jobsworth, joe cool, just plain folks

kibitzer, killjoy, lackey, lamb dressed as mutton, leader, leech, licensed buffoon, licensed fool, loon,

loser, lost ball in the high weeds (clueless character), lovable rogue, lowlife

mari du saison (temporary boyfriend), middleman, minion, monstress, moonbat

mouton enragé: A normally calm, easily led person who becomes suddenly enraged or violent - Oxford English Dictionary

naysayer, ne'er-do-well, neverwas, new best friend, nine-days' wonder (famous for 15 minutes), no-hoper

odd fish, oddball, ordinary working stiff, parasite, party pooper, passenger, patsy, prankster, prima donna, punter, queen bee

rabbit at bay (Margery Allingham)

saloon-bar philosopher, satellite, scrounger, sherpa, show-off, slacker, snake-oil salesman, snob, spoilsport, sponger, square, stock character, stooge, stoolpigeon, straight friend, stuffed shirt, sultress, sycophant

toady, tourist, travelling knife and fork (someone who'll do anything for a good dinner), trendsetter

underdog, underling, user (of other people)

Vicar of Bray (who changed his politics and theology according to who was in power)

wag, wannabe, water carrier, wet blanket, yes-man, yesterday's papers