Thursday 30 June 2022

Reasons to Be Cheerful 31

Gregory's Moralia in Job

Progress is assumed to be a good thing – and sometimes we progress in the right direction.

None may break ranks, though nations trek from progress. (Wilfred Owen)

In the UK, several jobs had marriage bars until the 1970s, and the British Geological Survey required women to resign on marriage until 1975. The marriage bar was abolished in 1946 for the Home Civil Service and in 1973 for the Foreign Service: until then women were required to resign when they married. There was a marriage bar for teachers – this was removed for all teachers (and BBC staff) in 1944, and the practice was made illegal by the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. (Wikipedia)

In the 4th century Gregory of Nyssa wrote a denunciation of slavery in his fourth homily on Ecclesiastes. (Liam Hogan @Limerick1914)

1171 The Council of Armagh frees all Englishmen and women who are enslaved in Ireland.

1837 Britain abolishes punishment by pillory.

1867 John Stuart Mill proposes that women be granted the same rights as men. 

1910 Oaths Act abolishes the practice of kissing the book on taking an oath.

1949 Beverley Bolin is the first woman to become a registered architect in South Australia.

1954 Diane Leather is the first woman to run a mile in under 5 minutes, with a time of 4 min 59.6 secs, during the Midlands Women’s AAA Championships at Birmingham’s Alexander Sports Ground, 23 days after Roger Bannister ran the first sub 4-minute mile.

1958 Maria de Filippis is the first woman to enter Formula One.

1978 Hannah Dadds becomes London Underground’s first female train driver. 

2000 Fur farming is banned in the UK.

2013 France repeals the law forbidding women to dress as men in public without a permit.

2017 Law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer decides that their tradition of addressing all correspondents as “Dear Sir” is outmoded, and switches to “Dear Sir/Madam”.

2019 Fracking is suspended in the UK after exploratory drilling causes earthquakes.

2020 France's Assemblée Nationale makes glottophobie an offence along with racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry. (They mean "discrimination against people with regional accents".)


February: The Education Secretary announces that schools will be told to not to teach speculation as fact but to give a balanced view (on gender and "critical race theory").

There has been a 73% drop in teenage pregnancies in Ireland since 2000, thanks to "increased educational attainment, high levels of contraception use".

February, March Sweden and then France advise caution on hormone treatments for children with gender dysphoria.

Violinist Nicola Benedetti is first woman and first Scot to head the Edinburgh Festival.

March US House passes an Act prohibiting discrimination based on hair textures or styles. (Cue outcry of "Haven’t they got anything better to do, this isn’t an issue" etc.)

Wales bans smacking children. Children’s Commissioner calls for smacking ban in England.

April Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill passes into UK law, and once more animals are recognised as sentient.

April UK bans cruel rodent glue traps.

In France, average alcohol consumption has declined by 75% since the 1960s. (The graph is headed "La spectaculaire déclin de la consommation d’alcool".)

April UK bans virginity testing and hymenoplasty (reconstruction).

Intu Potteries ditches unisex loos to bring back male and female toilets. ( 

Employers are to be reminded they may legally restrict some job vacancies to women only, following an intervention from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. (Times)

April The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act... means couples no longer have to separate for two years and can get a “no fault” divorce. You can apply individually or jointly, and wrap up everything within about six months. (Times)

May The Department for Education is seeking new powers that would allow it to take action against illegal schools. Ofsted will be given new powers to seize materials during inspections. 

May Bristol Libraries has cancelled 'Drag Queen Story Hour' after concerns were raised about its appropriateness for children.

May This week, the Government is expected to announce that it is rewriting guidance on drafting legislation to make clear that gender-neutral language should not replace terms such as "woman" and "mother".’ (Telegraph) 

I’m extremely proud and honoured to announce that I have been invited to become the first woman in history to hold the position of Juror for the Court Leet of the King’s Manor in Southwark. (Mudlarker Lara Maiklem)

Bird deaths down 70% after painting wind turbine blades, says a Norwegian study.

Non-fatal strangulation is now a crime in the UK.

June The NHS has been ordered to use the term ‘woman/en’ when it is called for and to cease forthwith from removing this word from the language used by the health service. (@mc_moira)

June The US Senate has passes new gun safety legislation. 


1753 New legislation allowed Jews to become British citizens. After public outrage, the law was hastily repealed the next year.

Early 1960s Katharine Whitehorn recalled that a leaving party for a loved male colleague was held in a gentlemen’s club and she, the only woman on the team, couldn’t attend.

2022 The global trade in exotic pets is worth $300 billion a year.

2022 EU states import around 4,000 tons of frogs’ legs every year.

2022 The government has dropped attempts to ban imports of fur, foie gras and hunting trophies.

More here, and links to the rest.

Sunday 19 June 2022

Writing tips: Stage Directions

Q When writing fiction, how do you move your characters around?
A In the fewest possible words.

Mabel had risen to her feet, she was walking across the room to join the others grouped around the fireplace. 

(Substitute "Mabel joined the others etc", unless there's something significant about the way she walked. Or she could "cross the room" instead of "walking across the room". Or even "Blah blah," said Mabel, who had quietly joined the group round the fireplace. Or did she muscle in? Or hang around the fringes?)

"Line of dialogue." Fred turned to discover that the man speaking was the first person he'd met the day he started the job. (Go straight to: "The man speaking was..." Or even: "It was X – the first person...")

There’s no need to plot your characters’ every footstep. It too easily becomes: “He rose from his chair, turned and walked over to the door, put his hand on the doorknob, twisted it, opened the door and walked through the doorway, closing the door behind him.” Substitute “He went out” unless you want to say something like: I left the room with silent dignity, but caught my foot in the mat. (Diary of a Nobody, George and Weedon Grossmith. More about the diary here.)

It has been used by many good writers, but it's best to avoid this cliché: He opened his mouth to speak – but thought better of it. 

This formula can become repetitious: "Blah blah blah," he said adverbly, while performing a physical action.

Characters may be moving while speaking, but there's no need to explain it every time, like this: Rising out of his chair, he said: "Blah blah blah."

Foreigners don't need to “gesture” or "gesticulate" constantly – they can wave and point like everybody else. Don't make them perform complicated dumb shows instead of speaking. Italians wave their hands to accompany their words. Yes, they have a repertoire of stereotyped gestures like the chef's kiss or rude forms of "get lost", but they don't use them all the time.

Avoid trying to describe arm movements exactly – the result will probably be baffling rather than expressive. Save it for characters with affected mannerisms. "She flapped her hand in exasperation", or "He flung up his hands in despair" will do. ("She had about the most meaningless set of gestures I had ever laid eyes on." Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister)

Kingsley Amis describes a woman frowning, smiling, blinking, lip-pursing etc and then adds, disparagingly, "What a lot of facial expressions she knew!"

She stared at him as if she had never seen him before. Then she turned scarlet. Then she turned as white as a sheet. Then she gave a little laugh. It was most interesting to watch. Made me wish I was up a tree about eight hundred miles away. (P.G. Wodehouse)

Do people in real life really do the following?

She tilted her head interrogatively. His face twisted.
He wagged a finger. She spoke through gritted teeth.
He shook a fist. She shook her head in disbelief.
He gestured for her to continue. She rubbed her hands in glee.
She shrugged. He scratched his head in puzzlement.
She pursed her lips. He drew himself up to his full height.
She darted him a quizzical look. He raised a skeptical eyebrow.
She wrung her hands. He smacked his lips.
She patted his cheek. He cocked his head.
She put her finger to her lips. He put the tips of his fingers together.
He bit his lip. She turned on her heel. 

Perhaps humans do act like this in real life, but the above stage directions make me think of actors in soap opera:

She stared at him wide-eyed and open-mouthed, shaking her head speechlessly.
She sashayed towards him, smiling with half-closed eyes and wagging her head.
"You love it, don't you?" she said, jerking her chin.
He gazed at her unblinkingly until the director said "Cut!". 

Or the novels of Georgette Heyer and her imitators:

The handsome young face clouded over. My lord shook his head.
Warburton ignored the bantering tone and spoke very deliberately.
Carstares shot an alert, suspicious glance at him.
My lord studied his emerald with half-closed eyelids.
Carstares, leaning against a tree, surveyed the youthful rake amusedly.

With clenched teeth he recalled the days when he, the son of an Earl, had taught fencing in Paris for a living... Suddenly he laughed harshly.

In a Twitter debate about adverbs (writer Stephen King says we should drop them all), I suggested you could write "she said bossily". "What does that mean?" someone asked. "With her hands on her hips, wagging her finger, pursing her lips?" I intended the "bossily" to refer to her intention, and her tone of voice. There is no need to include gestures straight out of The Art of Coarse Acting.

Beverley Nichols finds it necessary to describe every wave of the hand, every coquettish scowl. (Amazon review of Crazy Pavements)

Aspiring fiction-writers
 are often advised: "Show, don’t tell". This means you shouldn't tell the reader what your characters are feeling – show them instead. But you may end up with a cast who spend all their time frowning, sighing, clenching their fists and slamming doors in a melodramatic pantomime.

Watch out that the approach doesn’t become show and tell: She gasped in shock, he trembled with fear, she sat there frowning but then sprang to her feet, finally understanding the situation

Avoid having one character notice others' emotions: He looked round the room, and saw puzzled frowns and vacant stares. (Avoid having someone watch another character do something, too – just have them do the thing.)

When talking to each other in real life, people smile for all kinds of reasons – there’s no need to mark each grin, beam, smirk, twinkle. "Rueful" and "wry" smiles are a cliché. Perhaps note the smile when it's unexpected:

"The people reverence thee," said Hester. "And surely thou workest good among them! Doth this bring thee no comfort?"

"More misery, Hester! – Only the more misery!" answered the clergyman with a bitter smile.
(Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter. Earlier, Hester smiles "drearily".) 

But some writers avoid clichéd actions – perhaps they actually observed people in real life. Here are three from hard-boiled mystery writer Ross McDonald.

He wagged his head gloomily. 
He closed his hand around my arm.
The woman gave me a long look, and then her hand.

George Orwell wished that more working-class people would write about their lives. He met a man who had written his life story, but it was in the language of Peg’s PaperWith a wild cry she sank in a stricken heap... 

Do your characters shrug, nod their head, look at something then look back, arch an eyebrow, and then clear their throat? Stop it. (@cterlson)

Saturday 18 June 2022

Received Ideas in Quotes: 30b

Erle Stanley Gardner always used his characters’ first and last names because he was paid by the word(Jeffrey Marks)

The popular myth that Dickens's novels are all so long because he was “paid by the word” is not really accurate. Dickens was not paid by the word. Rather, he was paid by installment. (

Writers being paid 'by the word' is kind of a misnomer. Many writers are paid more for longer pieces - reflecting the author's investment - but writers are never paid to pad or extend their work. ( 

Every circumlocution has a literary purpose. Tongue in cheek, Dickens imitates long-winded bureaucratic, professional or ceremonious jargon to satirize the institutions that use such language. (Washington Post)

Victorian journalists were known as “penny-a-liners”. In newspapers and magazines, you write to fit a predesigned space, you’re given a word count, and if you supply too many words, they will be cut. But writers may have found it hard to fill the space. From a magazine of the 1940s: Resorting in this dilemma to the deductive reasoning for which Scotland Yard inspectors have won international renown... (But this too is irony.)


When I was being taught Nederlands [Dutch], we were told that it was desirable to be able to pronounce the capital's formal name – s-Gravenhage – properly. Apparently their not being able to do that was a way of identifying German spies during the war. (EJA)

In a recent Radio 4 programme, a cafe owner in Ukraine revealed that she had adopted a name for her establishment that was habitually mispronounced by Russians. It was a word for a popular dish or a vegetable if I recall correctly. That way, she knew when she was dealing with non-locals. (FL)


Kids today talk about the Kardashians the whole time.
 (For a long time we’ve denigrated children for liking people who are “famous for being famous”.)

Kids today: Say of any previous generation of young people “They look middle-aged!”

Kids today: A social reformer warned that juvenile delinquency was on the rise because mothers were too absorbed in Mahjong and Bridge. (JSTOR)

Kids today: Millennials, born in the 80s, love avocados and house plants, and are never happy – according to The Antiques Road Trip. Google suggests that they are entitled, they’re not having babies, are environmentally conscious, are weird, and are the worst generation. 

In the 50s, Enid Blyton was seen as a superior “English alternative" to what some considered an "invasion" of Britain by American culture, in the form of "rock music, horror comics, television, teenage culture, delinquency and Disney". (Wikipedia, paraphrase)


There really are tunnels/caves of some kind under Glastonbury Tor, but probably just within the hill itself (it's too dangerous to investigate but it would be good if someone could put up the funding one day). There is reliably supposed to be a tunnel under the High St from the pub to the Abbey, and also one from the Covenstead to the Abbey, but as with all things, bit more evidence required. (LW)

Stories of secret tunnels beneath Chesterfield town centre streets have fired the interest of people fascinated by the town’s history. Historian Philip Riden said that the secret tunnels are a complete myth. (Derbyshire Times)

Most "secret tunnels" are Victorian drains, says Dr James Wright. He adds, of the mythical tunnels, some allegedly many miles long: The impracticality of such construction projects is staggering. Why would such a tunnel be required? How would such a vast scheme be kept secret? Where would the spoil be put? How would the passage be maintained, ventilated and kept dry? How on earth would pre-modern engineers have managed such a venture?

Timber-framed buildings
 were made out of recycled ships’ timbers? “There has been a tendency to misidentify curved timbers, such as braces and cruck blades, as deriving from nautical vessels,” says Dr James Wright. He also makes the point that it would have been extremely daunting to shlep huge timbers (or loads of bricks/stone/tiles) along the un-made-up roads of the 16th century. It would make a lot more sense to get your building materials from near at hand. He says that “Liberty’s, a timber-framed Tudor-revival style department store in London, incorporated elements of HMS Hindustan and HMS Impregnable.” But he’s a historian and he wouldn’t make such a statement without evidence. Drawing on contemporary accounts, he concludes that broken-up ships or wrecks were used to construct or patch up sheds, outhouses, wheels, toilets and fences – but only in coastal locations. We began to run out of trees in the 19th century, not the 16th.


Standard English is the best, the purest. Spoken by the upper classes - the best people. It is imposed on other classes. (English is not policed by a body like the Académie Francaise – its Bible is the Oxford English Dictionary, which includes new usages every year to the fury of those who forget that the same thing happened the year before, and the year before that...)

John H. Fisher has argued that standard English was first the language of the Court of Chancery, founded in the 15th century... It was then taken up by the early printers, who adapted it for other purposes and spread it wherever their books were read, until finally it fell into the hands of school teachers, dictionary makers and grammarians. (John Algeo and Carmen Acevedo Butcher, The Origins and Development of the English Language)

Chancery Standard, also Chancery English. Present-day terms for the 15c written usage of the clerks of Chancery in London, who prepared the king's documents. Before the 1430s, official records were mainly in Latin and French, but after that date mainly in an English based on the Central Midland dialect, with such usages as gaf (gave) not Chaucer's East Midland yaf, such not swich, and theyre (their) not hir. Until the end of the 15c, Chancery and the Exchequer built a foundation of written English that was developed by Caxton when he set up his press in Westminster in 1476. Over the years, printers replaced some features of Chancery usage with London equivalents, such as third person -s instead of -th (hopes, not hopeth), and are instead of be. (The received idea ends up as “Printers standardised English”.

Cease and desist, to have and to hold: I've heard claims that they really are synonyms, but originated in times when commoners wouldn't necessarily have understood Latinate words, and the elite wouldn't necessarily have understood Anglo-Saxon terms, and so both were used for clarity.


Cliché bingo on statue toppling:

Pulling down a statue will not bring anybody to your side. 
It will upset other people who might have been open to persuasion.  
It will harden the divisions between groups.
It will lead to more violence which will upset the undecided.
Some on your side will feel that committing a criminal act is going too far and may start listening to the other side.
It won't bring about equality.
It's divisive.
It's playing into the hands of the racists.
Who was converted as a result of the toppling?



The 1950s – when you could live life without waiting for the prime minister to decide how free we can all live. (@StevenEdginton)

Restrictions on ‘freedom’ included: food rationing; exchange controls; National Service for men through 1950s; homosexual acts illegal; suicide illegal; routine smallpox and polio vaccination… (@susiesymes1)


Although the BBC reported in 2006 that the Japanese embassy in Paris had a "24-hour hotline for those suffering from severe culture shock", the Japanese embassy states no such hotline exists. Also in 2006, Miyuki Kusama, of the Japanese embassy in Paris, told The Guardian: "There are around 20 cases a year of the syndrome and it has been happening for several years", and that the embassy had repatriated at least four Japanese citizens that year. However, in 2011, the embassy stated that, despite media reports to the contrary, it did not repatriate Japanese nationals suffering from Paris syndrome. (Wikipedia, which admits to the existence of Jerusalem Syndrome.)

Though there are numerous accounts of people fainting while taking in Florentine art, dating from the early 19th century, Stendhal syndrome was only named in 1979, when it was described by Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, who observed over a hundred similar cases among tourists in Florence. (Wikipedia. Glastonbury residents say visitors suffer similar syndromes. They come because they think the place will solve all their problems, but there is little practical help. Any help offered costs money, and may be ineffective or harmful.)


But don't bother debunking, says the hive mind:

Psychology says prioritizing your peace over proving a point is a form of self-care.

The less people know, the more stubbornly they know it.

Never get into an argument with a fool.

It’s easier to fool people than convince them that they have been fooled.

We don’t have to respond whenever provoked. Steward your energy well. We have justice work to do. And strategy to outline. And self-care to prioritize. And love to live. It’s okay to let provocateurs leave empty handed.

It is almost impossible by rational argument to persuade people to believe what they do not want to believe. (Popular Jan 2022)

Humans prefer assertions to denials. (MD)

I see a lot of people say "if you haven't been vaccinated by now, you can't be convinced," but the numbers don't bear that out at all. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are getting their first shot every day right now. (@studentactivism)

And it seems to be a given in the US that giving people the facts won’t work – you have to wrap them up in a personalised narrative. “This is how conspiracy theorists operate,” says the Fortean Times. More "It happened to me" here.)

Many more in my book What You Know That Ain't So.

Received Ideas in Quotes: 29

Times subhed: Challenging myths is often derided as lefty navel-gazing... (The story explained that the BBC is hiring a debunker.)

That which has always been accepted by everyone, everywhere, is almost certain to be false. (Paul Valéry)

It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. (Karl Marx/Friedrich Engels)

In the absence of sophisticated knowledge, platitudes and homilies rush in to fill the void, many of which obscure far more than they illuminate. Folklore and anecdote are elevated to equal standing with data and evidence. Everyone’s an expert, because everyone knows somebody who has been through [alcoholism]. And nothing in this world travels faster than a pithy turn of phrase. (Dr Lance Dodes, a  retired professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, on Alcoholics Anonymous)

“Magical thinking” is often used as a way of dismissing critical thinking that shows how the systems we built can be changed. What’s really irrational though is the mistaken belief that those systems are inevitable or permanent(@OmanReagan)

Galor also follows Weber in suggesting that Protestantism was crucial to the development of modern capitalism, and that the most important invention of the Enlightenment was the idea of progress itself. (Steven Poole in the Guardian)

When the legend becomes fact, debunk the legend. (MD)

"People saying publicly that they have been cancelled haven't been cancelled" is the new "an anarchist organisation is a contradiction in terms" or "the survival of the fittest is a tautology". (MD)

The Seattle "no". Everybody thinks they’re the society that doesn’t say no.

My grandparents considered Georgian architecture dull (and likewise the music of Bach).

Melton Mowbray pork pies were designed to be taken out hunting. (Countryfile)

It’s pretty funny that there isn’t an Italian word for accountability(@leonardocarella)

Is it true there isn’t a single bridge crossing the Amazon River

After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Huguenot carpet weavers were smuggled to the British Wilton carpet factory in wine barrels. (Antiques Road Trip)

Don’t wave your arms about when you see a wasp – it will think you are a badger. (Entomologist Seirian Sumner in the Guardian, June 2022. There is always some reason why you shouldn't bat wasps away.)

As for the old idea that everyone has a perfect double somewhere, that’s all a lot of mallarkey. (Simon Templar in The Saint)

Might be apocryphal but I've heard that the croissant was made to mock the crescent moon in the Ottoman flag. (@Matt_laza)

DO cook potatoes in their skins, this prevents their goodness dissolving into the water.
 (Wartime advice. Just post-war, we were told that "The goodness is next to the skin".)

Love how Esme says “skew-whiff”. It derives from ‘skew weft’, fabric woven out of alignment … so very appropriate to describe wonky sewing #SewingBee. (@celiahart. It's just one of those words like jamboree and copacetic.)

Tacking the lining loosely to the garment is a technique used in several Itch to Stitch’s patterns. These tacks are called as “French Tacks”.  (I just looked up how many “French” sewing terms there are. Apparently we have French canvas, French curves, French darts, French seams and French tacks. The French seems to have invented many sewing techniques and tools!) (

One writer makes a claim (usually without citing their sources), and all subsequent histories repeat it, perhaps with slight variations, until it becomes accepted as fact. A corgi enthusiast in 1946 writes a poem in the style of Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha about fairies riding corgis, and several decades later it has mutated into an ancient Welsh “legend.” Lots of what someone with a casual-to-intense interest in dogs might know about the history of individual breeds isn’t supported by historical evidence—pugs, for example, probably did not come from China. (

“Chip hats” were made of wood chips. (JK. Wikipedia says straw hats were made of straw. Wiktionary says a chip hat is "a cheap kind of hat, made of strips of the leaves of a Cuban palm tree". Another dictionary says that "chip" consisted of strips of wood, palm leaves, straw". In Hungary they use "thin strips of poplar wood". There'll be a youtube video.)

In the early 60s, colleagues at Berkeley thought architect Christopher Alexander “violated the conventional wisdom that beauty is subjective and to talk about it is overly sentimental”. (Guardian obituary 2022-04-04. You couldn’t discuss what paintings were about, either.)

Did you know there are more injuries during storms with girls’ names than boys’ because some people imagine the girl storms are somehow less fearsome and therefore they take more risks? (Robert Crampton, Times, 2022-02-22. Swiftly debunked by

The 16th century hymnodists knew setting psalms to music would make them easier to remember, but were afraid that if the music itself brought pleasure it would distract from the message, so they wrote deliberately terrible music(@IdUnchained)

Grinling Gibbons’ work very often included carvings of peapods. A myth states that he would include a closed pod in his work, only carving it open once he had been paid. If the pea pod was left shut it supposedly showed that he had not been paid for the work. (Wikipedia)

The pips in “raspberry” jam are made of wood – the confection is made of marrow and beetroot.

Shakespeare wrote the translation of Psalm 46 in the Authorised Version, and left a coded "signature" by the 46th word from the start being "Shake" and the 46th word from the end being "spear". (Amazon)

[In Victorian England] unnecessary state intervention was condemned as immoral, as destructive of personal character.
 (Todd Endelman, The Jews of Britain)

She just told him the silly things they suggest you should say. That it is just as nice to be adopted because it shows you really were wanted. There’s a lot of silly slop like that. (Character in Agatha Christie’s Elephants Can Remember)

If you swallowed chewing gum it would wrap around your heart and kill you This lie was peddled by your parents who didn’t want you chewing gum because they considered it common. (Daily Mash)

For women the best aphrodisiacs are words. The G-spot is in the ears. He who looks for it below there is wasting his time. (Isabel Allende. News reports stress that the new “Viagra for women” works on the brain. Add “For women, sex is all in the head.”)

Socialism: impracticality. levelling-down, drain on the taxpayer, not worth thinking about. (What to say about socialism, via RK)

As to periwiggs, for nobody will dare to buy any haire, for fear of the infection, that it had been cut off of the heads of people dead of the plague.
 (Samuel Pepys, 3 September 1665)

Said to be statistically the most depressing day of the year, you might have seen a lot online today about Blue Monday. Perhaps surprisingly, however, the whole idea was made up for a travel company PR campaign back in 2005, and is based on really zero scientific evidence. (James Wong)

The Royals have an interesting arrangement with those on whom they bestow their crest. The story is told that QEQM was very fond of a certain cigarette, and bestowed a Royal Warrant on WD & HO Wills, or whoever it was. When the next batch appeared along with an invoice, the private secretary made it very clear that it must have been sent by mistake and under no circumstances would it or any future bill be paid. (RC)

Crossed swords
 are a Masonic symbol, says Ru on The Antiques Road Trip. If the points were up, we were at war, and vice versa.

Sailors were widely agreed to have one of the most treacherous working environments and so they developed many superstitions. One was to wear hooped golden earrings as this was supposed to stop evil spirits entering the body through the ears. (@NonFictioness)

Irish villages are uglier than English villages because the English were rich. Cotswold villages are the template for pretty villages. (Via Twitter. Thatched roofs and cob walls are poverty architecture – as the Irish should know. The rich English lived in manor houses and Georgian rectories, not cottages.)

Stories are told that the many sexualised carvings that can be found in [medieval] ecclesiastical architecture must be the result of anti-establishment stonemasons creating a visual joke on their patrons because they went unpaid for a job. (Dr James Wright,

More here, and links to the rest.

Received Ideas and Urban Legends, 31

Our friends like to tell us that back in their day they walked several miles to school in a snowstorm, never locked their doors, and travelled alone on trains aged four. They also like to say "I hit the bully and he never bothered me again, school was mean to me and my nan turned up and hit the teacher." (I hope it’s true about the bullies.)

Some of my male friends claim the following scenario happened to them:

I held the door open for a woman when we both tried to exit. She refused to walk through the door and looked at me like I did something wrong, is this normal? (Quora)

The other day, I opened the door for a woman and she said, “I can open it myself”. I said, “F*** you,” pardon my French. (Lemmy in the Times)

You know how today started? I walked through a store, held open the door for a woman who then proceeded to walk in and not say a word. Now I know my smile isn’t winning any awards anytime soon and my cologne may have been on a bit strong, but I would’ve taken a, “I can open my own door, *hole?” over the silence. (Mario Saenz) 

This early 20s looking chick was entering a building and a dad walking out told his two young sons to “step aside and hold the door open for the lady” and this bitch just gets the biggest scowl on her face. like? Screw you nasty feminist women for thinking you’re above chivalry. They held the door open for me too, and don’t worry i made sure to thank those young gentlemen as classy individuals do. (@morganisawizard) 

This scene is obviously staged. And this is one of those "It happened to me" stories. And people seem to like to chew over door-opening and give it far more analysis than it deserves.  

Here's an elaborate account:

It happened to me. 12th annual Mediterranean Model United Nations sessions this February. I represented Italy in the Security Council, she represented France in the Security Council. I was having a conversation with the delegate of the USA as we were walking back to our room from our break and very absent-mindedly openned the door for her and said the worst thing any man can say to a woman, “Ladies first”.

Let’s note that later that day she proclaimed herself a ‘feminazi’. That was the first time I’ve heard a person use that word to describe themselves and not used by others as a derogatory term.

Her reaction, “Huh, well that’s sexist.” I simply said I’m sorry and went to my seat.

Why? Because I was honestly sorry that she lives such a miserable life where an act of kindness with the purest of intentions is viewed as a malevolent action. I was sorry that she will never be able to be truly happy because she will be too busy finding offense in every little thing, every day of her life. It is truly sad. So how should I act? Just keep saying I’m sorry. It diffuses the situation, and is also sincere, because I am sincerely sorry for those people.

("Panos Shady" on Quora)

An elderly man held open a shopping mall door for a woman who gave him a mouthful. "Do you think women are incapable of opening doors?!" etc. He legit tipped his hat at her, and said: "My dear, I'm not doing this because you are a lady, but because I am a gentleman." (@ScarredParrot, who claims they witnessed this scene.)

Great story, but funnily enough Desmond Ravenstone of Oberlin College was there at the same mall on the same day, and I think his wording is more correct:

On a city street, a man held a door open for a woman. “You don’t have to hold it open just because I’m a lady,” she snapped. His reply: “I’m not holding it open because you’re a lady, but because I’m a gentleman.”

A man on my college campus held open the door for a woman who was right behind him. She proceeded to excoriate him on his “patronizing” behavior, and how she didn’t need his help to walk through a doorway. “All right, then,” he replied calmly, then closed the door and walked away. (BTW, I happen to know this otherwise mild-mannered fellow held doors open for everyone, but also refused to put up with what he considered irrational behavior.)

(Quora. Note the sting in the tail.) 

Another Quorite comments: Oh, gawd! This again? She lists some examples of gender inequality and then ends: Here is the rule: people with empty hands hold doors for people with full hands. Strong people hold heavy doors for weaker people. Nobody is allowed to infer any meaning from door holding. Door holding is now and forevermore declared free of any semiotic significance!

From my book, What You Know That Ain't So:

In the late 19th century, the satirical magazine Punch ran a cartoon featuring two bedraggled London cleaning ladies. One is explaining to another how she won a recent argument hands down: “I sez to ’im ‘Pig!’, I sez, and swep’ aht.” (Translator’s note: I called him a pig and swept out – I left the room with theatrical dignity and a sweep of my long skirts.)

The term “male chauvinist” was used in the 60s, but without the “pig”, until the following incident:

A journalist described an encounter between noted feminist Anna Coote and some well-known man. Anna and the bloke arrived at a door together, and he opened the door for her. “Male chauvinist pig!” she exclaimed, and swept out through the door.

In those days if women suggested that they might be treated on a par with men, people would point out that they would forfeit the right to have doors opened for them, and all the rest of the behaviour that comes under the heading “chivalry”. When feminism was revived recently, this hoary old cliché was disinterred with it, along with many others.

Whoever made up the story must have been familiar with the Punch joke, and assumed his readers were in the know.

Nicolas Chauvin was a French soldier who continued to be devoted to Napoleon long after the Bourbon dynasty was restored to the throne, allegedly. 

Anna is on the left. For year's, the wine bar El Vino's refused to serve women at the counter. The other woman is Tess Gill.

I wonder if the "because I am a gentleman" story started life as a Punch joke? And when people appropriate an urban legend as a personal experience, I always wonder what passes through their minds.

The take-home seems to be: She never said thank you therefore all feminists are vile and we should ignore their requests”. 

More here, and links to the rest.

Thursday 16 June 2022

Received Ideas 28: Ballast 2

Dr James Wright says he’s found buildings made of materials from far afield. Caen stone, Purbeck marble and Tournai marble were popular. Transport of heavy materials by horse and cart along unmade-up roads was prohibitively difficult and expensive – but transport by water was much easier – across the channel, or along rivers. Building accounts of Tattershall demonstrate stone brought from Lincs Wolds to the Fens via River Bain for use at the castle. (Dr James Wright) 

We have some of the real canon bollards here in Swanage. They were brought to Dorset as ballast in the empty stone boats returning from London. (BSG)

Quarried Purbeck stone was put on barges and sent to London. Bollards brought over as ballast are dotted over 
Durlston Country Park(@jurassicg1rl)

When I visited the Thai royal palace, I saw lots of statues like this – clearly Chinese, not Thai. I asked our guide, and he said that they came over as ships' ballast! They weren't worth anything in China, but the Thais liked them, so they set them up. (@jackgraham 2021)

Garden-visiting at Fallodon Hall. Beautiful red bricks that came over as ballast from

Sidenote: cobble stones are very abundant in my area. They all came over as ballast and were unloaded to pick up corn in the 1600s. Most American cobblestones are 400 years old. (@Hashbang2)

Not for the first time on this trip, the reindeer are confused; Dutch architecture is not what they were expecting to see in Topsham. As the Hays Holiday Sleigh takes in the small town, Santa explains its heritage as a cotton port and how bricks came over in Dutch ships as ballast. (@eagie1863)

Very strong trading and cultural inks between Scotland and the Low Countries back then, a lot of pantiles came over as ships' ballast and ended up on our roofs too! (@OssianLore)

You know the Gras bayonet fire tongs, poker and shovel combination that you used to see in antique shops? I was told once that the French bayonets came over as ships' ballast and it was dockers making them, rather than their being 'trench art'. (@SimonJHistorian. A quick look at bayonet fire irons show standardised, and professional-looking, sets, probably the output of a factory either repurposing old bayonets or creating fire irons that look like repurposed bayonets. And if you had a load of old bayonets, surely they'd be too valuable to be dumped in a hold and then given away?)

Ballast obviously can come from pretty much anywhere but it also ends up left in other places. The house foundations in Brunswick Town North Carolina are composed of rocks from all over the world that came as ballast. (@kesselring_todd)

My Sicilian relatives tell me the giant mosquitoes came over from Africa in ships that used old rubber tyres as ballast. Once there they just went crazy. They call them Tigre! I’ve had a few tigre bites and once had to fly back home in old-lady slippers. (@AdamoJulia. Could mosquitoes fly from Africa? Presumably water collected in the tyres and the mosquitoes bred in it.)

Caribbean fact: the blue cobblestones on San Juan's streets came over as ballast in Spanish galleons. They're really old + beautiful. (@JocStitt Fun)

[This slop bowl is] very poor quality for C18th and this lower quality ware was extensively used as ballast during the C19th.
 (Tamara Cartwright-Loebl)

I am Irish. My ancestors came over from Ireland as ballast on a ship to Canada to escape starvation. They walked from Canada to Kansas with a one-year-old and a two-year-old. In three generations became prosperous land owners, sheriff of Saline County. (@clubwedge. I think she means “in steerage”.)

The marble altar in our church came over from Italy as ballast. (@ckarmi)  

I'm in the general thereabouts of Canberra. [Cast iron grave markers are] not really common but I've seen the odd one in many of the country town cemeteries around here. Have wondered whether they came over from England as ballast, like the iron lace verandah decorations. (@HipBookfairy. Complete with appropriate inscriptions?)

Waterside Plaza, with views over the East River towards Brooklyn and Queens, is built on English soil – or to be precise, on rubble brought from Bristol as ballast in 1942. (Historian @holland_tom. Presumably from bomb damage – and Atlas Obscura confirms the story.)

Your reminder that the FDR Highway in NYC was constructed using rubble from the Blitz in London that was brought over as ballast in American ships. (@ErikFallsDown)

In the nineteenth century, cargo boats returning from Europe to North America would carry quarried stone as ballast. They contribute to the architectural heritage of some east coast cities (for example Montreal), where this stone was used in building. ( The site also states that water ballast was used once ships were metal-hulled and powered by steam.)

Definitely slipper limpet. The one on the bottom is a lady, and the one on top is a gent; the ones in the middle are changing sex. They came over from America years ago in ships' ballast water. The oyster people hate it as it competes with oysters for living space and food. (@AccessMattersUK)

More ballast here.

Tuesday 14 June 2022

Careers Syndromes 10: Talents

Part One.
Part Two.
Part Three.
Part Four.
Part Five.
Part Six.
Part Seven.
Part Eight.
Part Nine.
Part Ten.

The owner of the talents isn't always their best judge. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle thought his historical novels were his best work – and tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes.

Composer Arthur Sullivan made a fortune out of comic operas, but wanted to write serious oratorios

Peter Ustinov claimed: “I act because I can, I write because I must.” He penned a few long-forgotten whimsical plays in the 50s. 

A life of dogged self-belief and determined public indifference. (Review of Starstruck, Cosmo Landesman’s book about his parents, Guardian, 2008. Fran and Jay were determined to be famous at all costs, starting in the 50s and changing their story – jazz, open marriage, singer/songwriter, health food freak – decade by decade. Jay wanted to set up a museum of himself.) 

“Anthony Newley directed, co-wrote and starred in...” The diminutive British actor, composer and singer wanted to be Charles Aznavour and become a National Treasure. But he did write the song Pure Imagination.

“They have a highly inflated opinion of their own abilities,” says Alex Polizzi of a couple of hoteliers who are convinced that their rather “individual” taste is perfect.

Funny writer Marty Feldman wanted to star in his own shows and revive silent comedy. Meanwhile the Goodies and Benny Hill had already done that, with hilarious results. Anyone later than Buster Keaton thinking slapstick is Art is doomed to failure.

You write some wacky spoofs when young and spend the rest of your life trying to interest people in your real, serious, magnum opus. See novelist Barbara Pym’s diaries (funny) and her endless letters in the manner of Ivy Compton Burnett (leaden). 

William Blake wrote pithy, surreal lyrics, then wasted time crafting unreadable sagas about characters called Urizen and Golgonooza. In imitation of Ossian, the imaginary Scottish bard? The epic poems featuring Ossian, published in the 1760s, were written by James Macpherson, “drawing in part on traditional Gaelic poetry he had collected”, says Wikipedia.) Blake’s reverse coloured etchings (plus poems) are lovely, but his imitations of Michelangelo are embarrassing. But if you invent your own printing process, poetic form, mythology, artistic style and artistic method, you may think yourself above criticism. Historian E.P. Thompson placed Blake in the context of late 18th century millennialist cults.

The Monkees sacked their songwriters (Neil Sedaka, Carole King, Neil Diamond).

Tony Hancock decided that his success as a comedian was all his own work and sacked his scriptwriters (Galton and Simpson). He was convinced he’d make it big in America without them. 

Marilyn Monroe was a natural comedienne – but then she had the wrong kind of acting lessons from followers of Konstantin Stanislavski.

Ladybird Books were works of art covering fairy tales, history, nature and modern life. The firm replaced beautiful paintings with crude cartoons, and produced books to support a long-forgotten reading system. And now the early books are being republished with the text replaced by lame attempts at adult humour.

Folk-song collector Alan Lomax “in later years devoted his energies to something he called cantometrics, classifying the patterns of singing (and, in choreometrics and parlametrics, dancing and speech) so as to relate them to modes of behaviour and social structures; at his death he was beginning to construct a “general theory” which he believed could form a defence of endangered cultures, not least against the spread of American influence. “The primary function of music,” he wrote in 1954, “is to remind the listener that he belongs to one certain part of the human race, comes from a certain region, belongs to a certain generation. The music of your place... is a quick and immediate symbol for all the deepest emotions the people of your part of the world share.”” (Guardian, 2011. But Lomax was probably surrounded by people busily stamping out indigenous cultures, or being ashamed of their European roots.)

You spend your whole life trying to find the key to all mythologies, without realising that a) you’re unlikely to find it, b) even if it was findable, it’s too big a project for one person and one lifetime, and c) even if you could find an answer it’s unlikely to be right. d) even if it’s the right answer, who cares? e) you’ve ignored research by other people in a language you don’t read. (This really happened to Mr. Casaubon in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch. But maybe Sir James Frazer wrote his book for him as The Golden Bough.) 

A prominent person famous in their field (writer, scientist) gets a bee in their bonnet about something way outside their specialism and spends days, weeks, months, researching, lecturing and making TV programmes about Their Theory. Writer Patricia Cornwell is sure painter Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper. Linus Pauling (quantum chemist, molecular biologist) thought Vitamin C cured colds. Eric de Maré (architectural photographer) was obsessed with Social Credit – a substitute for money. Apocalyptic Victorian painter John Martin wanted to be an engineer and designed sewers. We got the sewers, but not the Babylonian repro architecture along the banks of the Thames that was part of his plan. 

During the war scientist John Lilly did useful studies and produced workable inventions, but after the war he ended up thinking there was a “coincidence bureau” “out there” somewhere. Drugs and Timothy Leary came into it. He invented the isolation tank.

The Nobel Disease is a term for a tendency of Nobel laureates to embrace unscientific ideas later in life. For instance, biochemist Kary Mullis accepted astrology, thought the climate crisis was a hoax and said he once spoke with a fluorescent raccoon who addressed him as doctor. (@qikipedia. Scientist James Watson “stole DNA from Rosalind Franklin”, but his scientific training didn’t stop him being a racist. William Shockley, 1956 Nobel Prize winner in Physics for “researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect”, became a champion of eugenics and the sterilisation of African-Americans.) 

Budd Hopkins (1931-2011) started off as an Abstract Expressionist painter, had a decent career for 20 years, then became caught up in the “alien abduction” phenomenon and spent the rest of his life “researching” it, hypnotising “patients” and persuading them they’d been abducted, and becoming a guru with a circle of acolytes. He became hysterical when challenged about his belief system. The Fortean Times points out that the “therapists” needed more and more lurid details so that they could sell more books and get more speaking dates. (My book/CD/DVD is on sale in the foyer and do subscribe to my youtube channel.)  

See also doctor Jean-Martin Charcot who exhibited hysterics to packed lecture halls. One of them was Jane Avril, who later made a career for herself singing on the cabaret stage, dressed as a small child. I’ll just leave that there. 

The End.

Monday 13 June 2022

Careers Syndromes Nine: Unsustainable

Part One.
Part Two.
Part Three.
Part Four.
Part Five.
Part Six.
Part Seven.
Part Eight.
Part Nine.
Part Ten.

Know when to give up. Don’t try too hard for too long – especially to be an actress, or write a novel. (Oh, I don’t know, though...)

I had driving lessons for five years. I might have succeeded if I'd stuck at it, but would you set out on a course of action if you were told it was going to take ten years and cost £30,000? A plan to gain confidence and learn social skills needs to pay off within a few years, not a few decades. So Freudian analysis will sort your problems? But it takes thousands of pounds and 20 years? So it’s no use at all, really. You want a solution NOW! Because youth’s a stuff will not endure. (Robert Herrick)

To pay his sophomore year tuition, he opened a pizza business, working 12 hours each night and attending class during the day. But it was unsustainable. (Jeff Chu, Does Jesus Really Love Me?)

You have a business idea and set up an operation. The idea is good, the product is delicious – but margins are just too small

I spent 6 months sending 3-4 carefully crafted query letters per week to potential agents whom I vetted via the Internet. I kept a spreadsheet that logged all of my submissions, dates, potential agent names, addresses, profiles, and their responses. On average, of the 100 query letters I submitted in total, I received 20 boilerplate responses (“I’m sorry, but your manuscript is not right for our list, blah blah blah…”). The rest of my queries landed in a cyber black hole. It was about this time that despair was starting to set in. (Via the Web)

Celebrating hitting 100 rejections (for story and essay submissions, residency and fellowship applications, pitches, queries). The milestone represents hard work, wild hope, and believing in my work enough to risk disappointment. Here's to the next 100.
(Rachel León)

Growing up I always wanted to be an actor. It never happened cause of my stutter and I just grew out of that dream. (Photographer,

Inevitably many students of limited talent spend huge amounts of time and money pursuing some brass-ring occupation, only to see their dreams denied. (Web. Live the dream, eh?) 

In her first autobiographical novel, One Pair of Feet, Monica Dickens recalls a year spent at a small, shabby drama school. The principal is only really interested in the good-looking boys, and encourages them to “wear out their youth in agents’ waiting rooms”

That little flame of ambition (to be an actress) guttered quietly for years and finally went out. (Elizabeth Jane Howard, Slipstream

Dreams were “beginning to fade and curl at the edges” (Joanne Drayton, Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime). 

The end-stage versions of the lovable slackers. (Time magazine)

A man has a lovely life spending most of his time sitting in a café in the square of his small Italian town, discussing philosophy. One day he wakes up to realise that he is bald, fat and middle-aged and has never achieved anything.

Careers Syndromes Part Eight: Comedians

Part One.
Part Two.
Part Three.
Part Four.
Part Five.
Part Six.
Part Seven.
Part Eight.
Part Nine.
Part Ten.

I realised that what had begun – in my mind – as a radical experiment was slowly moving towards the centre, and I had ceased to be its leader.
 (Alexei Sayle, 2022, on the radical young comedians of the early 80s. When Lynn Barber interviewed him, he kept telling her, rather to her bafflement: “I was emcee at the Comedy Store!” He’d helped to launch the careers of the likes of Paul Merton, French and Saunders, Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Ben Elton, Jo Brand. The others had got TV series or parts in sitcoms (or films) and dropped their earlier activism. Sayle was probably too left-wing. As he said, “What did we get instead? Vic and Bob!”) 

Judy Carne kept saying “I was the ‘Sock it to me’ girl” when appearing on a chat show after a car accident wearing a head and neck brace. (She’d had a role on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, a 60s US TV show that employed a lot of fringe comedians. She was genuinely English, but – like Monkee Davy Jones – she adopted a strange accent that Americans thought was Cockney. Judy’s real name was Joyce Botterill – but she briefly married Burt Reynolds. "She received training at the Pitt-Draffen Academy of Dance before being accepted into the prestigious Bush-Davis Theatrical School for Girls in East Grinstead, West Sussex,” says Wikipedia, which gives a full account of her career highs and lows.)

In Noel Coward’s short story Stop Me If You've Heard It, a has-been comedian doesn't realise he isn't amusing anyone any more.

If you’re a young, hard-hitting, iconoclastic standup comedian you end up in a TV sitcom as a grizzled cop/solicitor/doctor. That’s if you’re middle-class to start with. If you’re working class, you get a part in Eastenders, or present nature programmes, and flourish. Sometimes a comedian takes on a few straight roles in his 70s and acts everybody off the screen. (If you can do comedy, you can play anything. Nancy Banks Smith) 

One of the weirdest things to happen this decade is all these sharp-eyed 90s comics turning into people who are indistinguishable from parodies of themselves, without any apparent awareness of it. (@Mc_Heckin_Duff. Sadly he's been suspended from Twitter.)

Kenneth Williams was brilliant when given funny lines (sometimes written by himself). Towards the end of his stage career, producers would cast him in some ill-written tosh and expect him to carry it. He was probably hell to work with, but he tried desperately to rewrite and redirect and keep the show afloat. The resulting shambles left him drained, exhausted and ill. And then he’d start again in a new role with renewed hope...

What happened to comedians who were actually funny, like Phil Cool, Jasper Carrott and Kelly Monteith? Phil Cool toured with Jasper Carrott before retiring in 2013. Despite a heart bypass, Carrott is still working. Kelly Monteith was discovered in the early 70s – in 2021 he suffered a stroke.

Some comedians’ careers just disappear after their death, and no amount of referring to them as “the great Arthur Haynes” will change things. Nicholas Parsons started as Haynes’ straight man, but when Parsons became popular, Haynes dropped him. Wikipedia says Haynes was once “the most popular comedian in Britain”. Cary Grant called him “the greatest comedy star in the world”. He died of a heart attack aged 52. 

Careers Syndromes Part Seven: Back to the Future

Part One.
Part Two.
Part Three.
Part Four.
Part Five.
Part Six.
Part Seven.
Part Eight.
Part Nine.
Part Ten.

Why does anybody persist in fighting the last war, training people for professions that are dying out or have gone completely, preparing children for a world that’s disappeared, or to run an empire that no longer exists? 

You could tell, though, even in my day, that you were living in a culture that simply wasn’t going to survive. This was an environment balanced weirdly between antiquity and modernity. (Hugo Rifkind on public schools, Times Nov 2 2013)

You may have to wait for a generation to retire (or die) before you can close down the courses that teach students to write “modern” music, or update the style book, or accept the findings and rewrite the textbook, or junk the theory/method, or start using the technology, or throw out outdated practices or...

You bore on about handwriting (schoolchildren should learn neat handwriting, you only remember things if you write them on paper, laptops should be banned from lectures) 30 years after computers entered our lives. At the same time, you neglect to teach schoolchildren to touchtype in a world where most jobs are done through a computer keyboard. (Think about it! Productivity would soar!) You suggest children learn calligraphy, preparing them to become copying clerks, a job that disappeared about 150 years ago. See Charles Dickens characters learning “law hand”. 

For constitutional reasons South Korea still has government departments pretending to run North Korean provinces. (Cal Flyn, author of Islands of Abandonment)

[A Noel Streatfeild character] speaks very eloquently about the waste of giving acting or dance training to many young women for many years when only a small proportion of them can ever succeed. She says she wishes someone had warned her of that possibility. (

Persuade kids to waste three or four years getting meaningless qualifications because it’ll “get them a better job in the end”. Who benefits? Society, because the students are removed from the job market, and from unemployment statistics. The colleges and teachers and examiners, who want to keep in business. Meanwhile young people study sports massage for three years and end up as a plasterer.

Often, only the trainers can make a living from the activity. Massage tutors persuaded us to buy massage tables and taught us how to design A5 fliers – in the era of the internet. They also insisted you could carry a folding massage table to appointments. (You’d need a car.)

Writers: don't trust those who are still advising you to submit manuscripts typed double-spaced on A4 paper with two spaces after a full stop. Send your piece in as an email attachment, with one space after each full stop. And please, please, please turn on curly quotes in Word before you start. They can't be changed retrospectively and each inch mark (') has to be replaced by hand.

See “writing” schools, chiropractic schools, trainers of choir leaders, teachers of yoga teachers…

Careers Syndromes Part Six: Actors

Part One.
Part Two.
Part Three.
Part Four.
Part Five.
Part Six.
Part Seven.
Part Eight.
Part Nine.
Part Ten.

One of the downsides of growing old is that you can follow someone’s career from promising young thing to “in all the musicals”. And then they come out the other side looking middle-aged and they’re presenting a show about dog grooming. Actually Sheridan Smith is wonderful and I predict she’ll have a long career as a character actor, but if you don’t think you’ll end up as Dame Sheridan, it’s good to have an exit strategy.

A character actor is brilliant in a well-written role – and ends up in appalling Hollywood “comedies” and “fantasies”.

An actor becomes famous in the UK for a standout performance in a niche movie. She moves to Hollywood thinking she’ll become a star. Instead she dissolves and is absorbed and nobody hears of her again. (Rachel Roberts, Carol White, David Rappoport) 

You outlive your peers and turn up at premieres in furs, diamonds and too much rouge. You appear on chat shows, and in documentaries about the great days of Hollywood/Broadway/The Old Vic/music halls. You tell outrageous lies about the past and your former colleagues. Your face is now nothing like the one you started out with.

You retire from the screen at your peak, become forgotten, become a cult, and ruin your reputation by appearing – shaky, forgetful and almost unrecognisable – as a vision in a Z-grade horror movie. Or else you never go away, but pull off a last appearance that is a career high: Jerry Lewis in King of Comedy. (He made several films after this, but Max Rose may be his swan song.)

I kept going for a while. I got an agent, went to a few miserable auditions. But six months later, my self-esteem at rock bottom, I felt that I had reached a fork in the road. (Imogen West-Knights, Guardian, 2022)

Really, he was destined to be on the margins of fame. (Jeff Chu, Does Jesus Really Love Me?)

X was one of those people, many — though not all — of whom are actors, who reckon that being born with exceptional good looks excuses them from all further effort in life. (Murder in the Title, Simon Brett)

During the filming of Casablanca, nobody could quite understand why the director, Michael Curtiz, kept deferring to S.Z. Sakall, a mere supporting actor [playing a waiter]. Eventually Curtiz explained: “You don’t understand. Back in Budapest and Vienna, Sakall was a big cabaret star, used to being feted, applauded, celebrated.” (Times 2017) 

Jay Underwood, who played the Human Torch in an early and forgotten version of The Fantastic Four, remembers that the picture generated some buzz during production. “Magazines were already wanting interviews,” he says wistfully. He’s now a pastor at a Baptist church in Northern California. ( Peter Tork taught for years after being a Monkee.) 

Avant-garde mime group Theatre de Complicité were cool in the 80s and are now doing children’s shows.

Burton and Taylor ended up as shadows of their former selves. (Drink, again.)

I started at the top of my career and worked down. (Orson Welles)

That parade had passed. (Mark Gatiss on Bond actors)

The circus had moved on, that’s showbiz. (Pierce Brosnan, paraphrase)

The looks had gorn. (Denholm Elliott)

Eke out the dregs of a career on afternoon TV. (Fortean Times)

Out in LA, Carly-May is drinking too much and watching her beauty-queen looks fade, clinging to the last remnants of a once-promising career as an actress. When she reads a shockingly familiar screenplay, she warily takes a role she knows is based on events from her own life. (Summary of Pretty Is, by Maggie Mitchell, on

Her career was over at 40 but she still wanted to be everybody's friend and always had a big smile for the cameras. (Carrie Fisher on her mother Debbie Reynolds)

I was in my prime, but when the 60s ended, I ended with it. (Terence Stamp. Fortunately for us he was wrong.)

Clifton Webb had to deal with the shock of seeing himself on screen after a long absence from Hollywood. Watching the first batch of rushes that included his first scene in the tub when he meets McPherson, Webb nearly had a heart attack: "When I saw myself sitting in the bathtub looking very much like Mohandas K. Gandhi... The first shock of seeing myself had a strange effect on me, psychologically, as it made me realise for the first time that I was no longer a dashing young juvenile, which I must have fancied myself being through the years in the theatre." Imdb (He is brilliant in Laura.) 

Mr Reed, whose subsequent career as a TV chat show drunk should not be allowed to overshadow his talent for playing menacing upper-middle-class charmers with secrets… (imdb commenter who also says Michael Winner ended up as a “boorish food critic”. Also see the critic who wrote that Athos in Three Musketeers was played by “good old paunch-faced Oliver Reed again”.)

Kathy Kitson’s only performance consisted of Kathy Kitson, her hair set that afternoon, walking elegantly round stages in waisted silk dresses, and speaking with brittle elocution whatever lines she thought appropriate to Kathy Kitson. This she had done endearingly in West End comedies during the fifties, popularly in the television sit com, Really, Darling? during the late sixties, and with decreasing éclat in decreasingly prestigious provincial theatres during the seventies and into the eighties. This performance she had finally brought, with the desperation of the last dodo, to The Message Is Murder at the Regent Theatre, Rugland Spa. (Murder in the Title by Simon Brett)

Noel Streatfeild, author of Ballet Shoes, wrote about an ageing matinee idol who will never return from the provinces, but still convinces people he is beautiful by behaving like a star.

I was only about 30 when I realised I didn’t need to keep up with the “new actresses”, who were always blonde, pretty and in their 20s. Because there’d be another batch along next year.

Nicky Clark decided to return to acting aged 50: “I had no idea how ludicrous a proposition that was.” She had two castings in five years and noticed that the actresses she had grown up with had vanished. (Other actresses realised they were now cast as the mothers of actors whose wives they used to play. Times June 2022)

The yoga-video-and-beauty-book phase of her career. (Times, 2010) 
Sad Dancing with the Stars diaries: What is Olivia Newton-John even doing here? (@Jezebel)
Bit of a shame Julian Clary has reached the Celebrity Big Brother stage. (‏@whiffytidings)

After Dr Who and Hamlet, David Tennant has reached the advert/nature documentary voiceover stage. David Walliams is voicing a cute dog in a movie (and writing children’s books). Robert Webb is narrating The House at Pooh Corner, and Lenny Henry is turning on the Christmas lights in Aldeburgh, 2012. Harry Hill has written a children’s book called Tim the Tiny Horse. Toyah Wilcox switched on the Herne Bay Xmas lights – she’s appearing there in panto. 

One of the strange quirks about celebrity in Britain is that it contains a very long half-life once its protagonists have reached, and passed, the peak of their fame. (They all “write” children’s books, says Ruining the field for real writers, says somebody else.)

According to the Times, “past-it British crumpet” run donkey sanctuaries and racing-whippet refuges. Silent movie actress Clara Bow lived on a ranch, Hitchcock heroine Tippi Hedren had an exotic menagerie, Brigitte Bardot set up an animal charity and Doris Day set up several. Josephine Baker adopted some children and worked for the Resistance in France in WWII. Celia Hammond went from modelling to running a cat sanctuary and campaigning against the fur trade. 

Careers Syndromes Part Five: Musicians

Part One.
Part Two.
Part Three.
Part Four.
Part Five.
Part Six.
Part Seven.
Part Eight.
Part Nine.
Part Ten.

Split band members’ solo albums are a well-worn cliché for awfulness. On the other hand, after ABBA folded, Frida made an album of synth pop and it’s rather good. As is Robin Gibb’s solo album.

And then there’s that difficult second album...

There is always a moment failure begins. A single decision that starts everything lumbering down the wrong path, speeding up, careering wildly, before lurching to a terrible stop in a place where nobody is interested in hearing your songs any more. (Jon Ronson, who spent two years in a band)

I was a jazz musician playing with the best players but making $5 bucks a set for a crowd of about 5 people. Something was wrong with that picture and needed to change. (Mike Garson, who joined David Bowie's band)

Pink Floyd were worth listening to for the first three years of their recording career. After that it was just a rich man moaning tunelessly. (@paulwhitelaw)

Watched Searching for Sugarman last night. Superb doc about the strange second act in the life of a forgotten musical talent. (@louistheroux, 2012) 

There’s a moment when you realize that bands aren’t a spontaneous expression of youth, but “acts” on a bill like the Flying Wallendas.

Man wants to write songs, but has zero music lessons and doesn’t even listen to songs. He can afford to hire an arranger, and writes inept musicals as showcases which are performed to critical indifference. On the side he writes amusingly about his awful family.

Man can play the folk violin, but wants to write and perform an oratorio about his life. Despite his gifts for melody and poetry, he can’t hear harmony, and won’t take advice. Nobody hears of him again.

Woman writes an oratorio about her life and recruits amateur singers to form a community choir so that she can cherry-pick the talented to perform her life work.

Singer is known for her long-held climactic high notes. Eventually her songs are ALL long–held climactic high notes.

Moshe Koussevitsky created a style based upon vocal acrobatics. Because he possessed an enormous voice that had a nearly limitless range and flexibility, he created and adapted compositions that would show off the brilliance of his voice and technique. Every cantor today would like to sound like Koussevitsky. Unfortunately, the road is littered with the corpses of the ruined voices of Koussevitsky wannabees. (Moshe Schulhoff, paraphrase) 

Every night before I dropped off to sleep I used to turn over and over in my mind the dream that one day I might be singing Isolde on a real stage... I am sure there can be nothing more soul-destroying in life than to persist in trying to do a thing that you want desperately to do well, and to know you are at the best second-rate... So I put wishful thinking aside. (Agatha Christie, An Autobiography. In one of her straight novels, Giant's Bread, a singer loses her voice by pushing herself to perform an operatic role that’s beyond her.)

How to become a pop star: go to stage school and learn your craft, including presentation, movement, stage presence. You could even study a repertoire. Middle-class kids can’t do this because they can’t go to stage schools even if they know such things exist.

Like a firework, Geri Halliwell’s solo career started brightly but quickly faded. Before the Spice Girls, she presented a quiz show on Turkish TV. 

Singer Lotte Mullan has seen friends win huge record deals but fail to break through, going from headlining solo tours to working as caterers and estate agents. (Daily Telegraph, 2011. In her hearing, male music executives asked each other if she was pretty enough to make it.) 

The three groups, which had sunk to various levels of musical irrelevance since their respective heyday, agree to the reunion performance. (Wikipedia on A Mighty Wind. The “American folk revival” mainly wasn’t a revival but a new style of music, which is now justly forgotten, though pop borrowed it for songs like Feelin’ Groovy.) 

How to survive in popular music: turn your 60s soul hits into mainstream, middle-aged, middle-of-the-road pap (Petula Clark), or your mod hits into rock anthems, or your 30s jazz into 50s jazz; or book the Palladium and turn your early hits into bellowed travesties (Judy Garland) or your Berlin cabaret songs into campathons (Marlene Dietrich), or declaim your lyrics instead of singing them—the audience will love it (Dolly Parton). It’s called grandstanding

Long-established stars ruin their hit by “doing something different with it” (always in a particular way. Going a bit indy, a bit singer-songwriter, with more winces and gasps. And departing from the tune – we’re back to “declaiming” again.) “Doing something different with” klezmer is always modern jazz. And as for “doing something different” with Henry Purcell, puh-lease!

To sell more records, you adulterate your country/folk music and add dollops of sentimentality. You have a band wearing matching satin shirts and tell corny jokes between numbers. Just before you die, you’re rediscovered by Rick Rubin, who “strips away decades of accumulated schmaltz” and everybody realises how brilliant you are.

After the war, early jazzmen sent themselves up and added "showmanship". And Frank Sinatra ruined the Great American Songbook.

stark, harsh style succeeds a schmaltzy style of performing early music – and is overridden and forgotten in its turn.

You force your musical friends to listen to recordings of Van Morrison, Billy Bragg or anyone who sings slightly out of tune – like you do.

English people love singing, there are groups to choose from wherever you live, but if people sing off the cuff everyone will go “Oh, shut that ghastly row!” however good they are. Meanwhile some Brits become pop stars.

Singing teachers force a mezzo to try and sing high notes.

A generation only heard Jewish music as “send-ups” by the likes of Mickey Katz. 

Pop star Tommy Steele wanted to be an “all-round entertainer” – this translated as “broad humour and slapstick”. 

Charlie Watts really wanted to be a jazz drummer.

In Eastern Europe, you invent a new kind of pop music and the ethnomusicologists turn up their noses at you. They ignore anything played in clubs by bands in satin shirts – it’s probably too skilled.

Saw the Nightingales last night. Has any other reformed 2nd division band so outperformed their young selves? (@jonjonhorne)

Take That’s hits – none of which come from their dreary “mature” phase. (@paulwhitelaw) has become little more than a series of stock gestures and pseudo-rustic postures. (Wired, 2009)

A conservatoire trains pupils in a style of jazz that’s 50 years out of date and was always a niche taste with a tiny following. 

And by now, that sound has gotten pretty old. There’s not much difference between a screechy performance by avant-garde saxophonist Peter Brötzmann from 1974 and one from 2014. (The Washington Post on “new music” and jazz.)

Where did prog rock progress to? Where did it go? Thankfully, “away”.

It's the most boring thing to be known as a musician, because those guys eventually wind up playing Holiday Inns.
(Gene Simmons)

Toyah Wilcox used to sing: "I'm going to turn suburbia upside down." Now she was doing voices for the Tellytubbies
(John O'Farrell, Things Can Only Get Better

After a long period of “retirement”, you hire a huge venue and put on a big show. Half the audience walks out. (You’d have to be SO positive in the follow-up interviews.)

Tom Jones and his band go to London for an audition. The company likes them, hurrah! But they only want Tom, and the boys get the train back to Cardiff.

You have a career as a pop star, then become a… cheesemaker. Or catalogue standing stones in Europe. Or you finish your PhD. Or you go back to your career as a particle physicist. (Well done, Alex James, Julian Cope, Brian May and Brian Cox.)

Abba (pictured) have trumped everybody by putting on a show with animatronic avatars of their younger selves... or something. And audiences love it.