Monday 30 January 2023

Careers Syndromes 11: Choirs

To try to do something which is impossible is always a corrupting enterprise. (Philosopher Michael Oakeshott) 

Had he ever tried to turn a group that doesn’t audition into an a capella outfit that sings in public for money?

In the 80s and 90s, there were many “community choirs” with lovely ideals. One was that you didn’t “teach” people to sing, you “enabled” them. Unfortunately some singers interpreted this as “Let me sing in a group in public without making any effort”. We also believed that "process was more important than product", which made it really hard to achieve anything at all. And some interpreted this mantra as "all we need to do is go through the motions".

Arts Council funding gave many a distorted idea of commercial realities. It handed out money to street festivals which ticked a box saying “involved local people” or “contacted other cultures”. The groups never twigged that they were just a means to an end. This is not the same as being paid in the real world. 

Some groups became a cargo cult version of the real thing.

The group doesn’t audition, but thinks it can give concerts because that’s what choirs do

As a performance approaches, the group defaults to "white blouse, long black skirt" and "Stand rigidly straight with arms at sides" – again because that's what choirs do.

The group tries to attract enough members to sing Fauré's Requiem, because that's what choirs do. Group members continue for years expecting to turn into an SATB choir that performs with an orchestra, despite singing nothing more complicated than folk songs, and consisting of 12 women and two men – because that's what choirs do.

Some more conventional choirs are started by an untalented core who act as the officers. They hire a musical director, who drafts in enough genuine musicians to carry the core through a performance of Fauré's Requiem. These singers may stay a couple of years, but will eventually move to other groups, because they can. Meanwhile the core stays and the MD repeats this procedure over and over again. It never occurs to the core to have voice lessons or learn to read music.

Or else the musical director gets an amateur group to struggle with Fauré's Requiem even though it's too hard for them, because that's what choirs do.

Sometimes he tries to teach a beautiful and difficult piece to a group that can't even sing Baa Baa Black Sheep. He may break his heart trying to get them to sing Baa Baa Black Sheep.

Why do people who join singing groups have such fixed ideas about what such groups are and what happens there? Why are their ideas so hard to shift, eg:

Warm-ups are a waste of time.
Singing lessons are for people who want to be professional opera singers.
Singing is just for fun and I don’t want to progress or learn anything.
Everybody should be allowed to join in, even if they’re tone-deaf.

So, how do you keep the show on the road?

Have blue-skies aims, but sabotage progress at every turn.

Appoint a leader and then challenge everything she does or says, or refuse to follow instructions because autonomy. Make it impossible for her to lead, because you have no idea what a musical director is supposed to do.

Say you want to record a CD of new material, but refuse to work on the new material for more than five minutes a week.

Manage not to see how much work the MD does between sessions.

Constantly back-seat drive – when she's trying to get a concept across.

The group is run by a committee, so all musical questions must be decided in committee. And everybody must be heard from. And all opinions are equally valid.

The group ethos is to prop up weaker members, but nobody is allowed to refer to the fact that not all are equally talented

Despite constant committee meetings and AGMs, every single member has their own idea of the group's raison d'etre. There is no mission statement and the subject is never discussed.


Query instructions, but don't listen to explanations.

Assume the instruction is just for this week, not for all time. Comply once, and then never again.

Comply in tiny increments week by week. 

Send up the instruction and act the class clown.

Ignore an instruction, thinking the MD will get bored eventually. Or throw a huge tantrum so that she'll never ask you to do anything again.

Displace: open a window, put the kettle on, pass round your wedding photos, start a debate, suggest that the MD is politically incorrect – or didn’t say please.

Invoke another authority.

Follow another instruction you were given 20 years ago that you disregarded at the time, have never put into practice, and have misinterpreted and half-forgotten.

Interrupt just as the altos are about to get it, and only need one more repetition.

Assume instructions are for the others, not you.

When in doubt, come out with: “You have to remember that people are here for different reasons.” (Reasons never specified. See "mission statement" above.)

Put an equal emPHASis on every syllABle. Have a conniption every time there is more than one note per syllable. Eventually learn that there are two notes on THIS syllable in THIS song, only.

Mistakes get fossilised, or become more extreme with time.

Have a set of unwritten rules, eg: “If one person objects to a piece, we don’t sing it”.

When the MD says "Emphasise the vowels", assume she means "Emphasise the consonants".

When she says "Breathe!", assume she means "Don't breathe!"

Turn up late and miss the breathing exercises. Send up the exercises and then say you don't see the point of them. Then ask how you can sing a long note without having to breathe in the middle.

Claim that you are built differently and breathe using your own patented method.

If in doubt, cry.

Pull in different directions.

Refuse to go the extra mile.

Try and learn your part in the run-through before the performance.

Talk all the time and you won’t have to listen.

Some singers drag, so you help things along by rushing

Decide that the MD is taking a piece too slowly, and gallop ahead, assuming others will follow.

Insist on singing music that's easy enough for the untalented – that nobody will want to listen to. 

Produce a complicated classical piece with six parts, and an orchestral accompaniment, and refuse to understand why the MD won't attempt it. (The reason is "It's too difficult for us", but the unwritten rules forbid anyone to say this.)

Have a pocketful of objections to everything. Anything slow or sad is "terribly dirge-like". (Some of the best music is slow and sad.)

Object to all new pieces because you don't want to reveal how long it takes you to learn anything.

Refuse to listen to "theory", while leaning on colleagues who've learned some.

Pretend not to know what "gradually" means.

Throw around the one technical term you know.

Read the score literally,
without giving yourself time to breathe at the end of a phrase.

Withhold attention, concentration, beautiful sounds.

Sing badly as a protest until it becomes a habit – and everybody copies you. Fail to see that if the wind changes you'll get stuck like that.

Adapt the group to yourself, instead of yourself to the group.

Whinge if the MD works out harmonies on the fly.

Expect every piece to consist of three lines that start at the same time, move together and end together. Imagine this is all there is to "singing in harmony".

Claim that if the group gets too good, newcomers will be put off. Fail to see that the opposite is true.

Promise "I'll do it in the performance".

Live anywhere but in the moment.

Turn any rehearsal into a meeting.
If you manage to get away without singing at all, you've won.

A performance is coming up, so you take up all the rehearsal time with other activities.

Be outraged when required to sing. Be outraged when you have to sing music. Insist the rules can be rewritten until it’s OK for you to sing out of tune.

Ask "But what if I hear a different drummer?"

Listen to your yoga teacher, but not your MD.

Remain confused about the difference between a press release and a flyer; and recording a CD, a showreel and a learning tape – no matter how many times this is explained.

Every week, ask if bars always have the same number of beats, no matter how wide or narrow they are.

Everyone arrives later and later, but going-home time never changes.

Rehearsals start with a half-hour chat, with tea. There’s a teabreak half-way through. 

Cultivate the MD’s friendship. Take her out and pressurise her to return the group to the way it was when you joined. Ask why the group can't do "more challenging" music, by which you mean "less challenging".

Spend all your time and energy trying to keep the group at your own level, and none on learning how to sing in tune, in time and as if the music meant something. One way to achieve this is to import disruptive, untalented people

"Collaboration, democracy, equality, arts-for-all, inclusivity" can all be invoked to excuse any bad behaviour. Make plain, ordinary bad behaviour undiscussable.

The musical director is determinedly positive, but it's never enough.

One by one, disruptive members leave. Reasons for quitting are never “It’s getting too hard for me”.

The CIA may like to add the above to its instructions for sabotaging meetings.

(Email and MP3s have happened since then, and group leaders send recordings round and expect members to learn words and listen to the music between sessions. The idea!)


The Originators
of the group are the group no matter who joins later. They love to waltz down memory lane and relate their origin story.

The Tourist: The group is the group and I can drop in and out at will. It will always be there for me, despite my rather lofty attitude towards it. 

The Passenger: The others will do the singing for me.

The Homing Pigeon: Leave the group and drop back in without even wondering what everybody has been doing in the intervening years. In fact you can drop back in and tell them all what to do.

The Hamster: Keep everything, including plastic cups, expired tea bags, extra copies of songs that are never sung, and names on the mailing list of people who came once, disappeared and have since moved.


Some people are convinced they can’t sing because at school they were told to stand at the back and mouth silently. Schools can make mistakes and often do – but the misdiagnosed may go into a permanent huff.

A musical man with a lovely voice claims he can’t sing because he doesn’t want to be dragged into some worthy activity – he’d rather go to the pub. And what would his mates say? And he doesn’t want to spend his evenings propping up non-singers. Quite rightly.

A woman says she loves singing in a big group – she can't hear herself and likes to pretend she alone is producing that huge sound. Meanwhile she doesn't know whether or not she is in tune, singing the right notes, or producing her voice properly.

A woman wants to be a diva. She has a voice, but less of an ear. She won’t take direction or have voice lessons. She doesn’t bother to learn a repertoire. It hasn't occurred to her to find one. She doesn’t listen to music much – she doesn’t like it. She makes sure she is never tested in real-world conditions.

An amateur has been to one Balkan workshop and is now an expert.

The concert programme devotes several pages to the history of the choir's uniform, explaining how they finally decided on diamanté bow ties.

After being dropped when your choir re-auditions, you spend the rest of your life complaining to anyone who’ll listen about the awful musical directors who insulted you, and the workshop leaders who were no good at their job (they went too fast for you).


(PS A lot of the time we had fun and sounded wonderful. I'll tell you a secret: warm-ups are disguised singing lessons. And I don't see how any group, formed for any purpose, can deliberately stay at beginner's level. If you keep doing the same thing, you are liable to get better at it.)

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


Wednesday 25 January 2023

Grammar: Hyperbole 10


Exaggeration does not help your argument but weakens it. 

Open the news pages today and you’ll struggle to find a policy that isn’t a flagship policy, a ruling that isn’t a landmark ruling, a speech that isn’t a landmark speech, a criticism that isn’t damning, a negotiation that isn’t frantic, a blow that isn’t devastating, a large company that isn’t a giant or a majority that isn’t vast. (Andy Bodie, Guardian, 2014)

The excess of apparel and the superfluity of unnecessary foreign wares thereto belonging now of late years is grown by sufferance to such an extremity that the manifest decay of the whole realm generally is like to follow. (Law of Elizabeth I, 1574)

Ministers took to the pulpit to warn that wearing crinolines was akin to renouncing Christianity.

The Monkees – a new nadir in Western Civilisation. (Evelyn Waugh)

Library closures are “violent and vile” says Edmund de Waal.

Schools are killing curiosity. (Guardian, 2020)

Meghan has kicked us in the teeth – and disrespected the Queen! Meghan single handedly tried to bring down the British monarchy. 

Science isn’t perfect, therefore it’s promoting lies.

Is having a baby in 2021 pure environmental vandalism? (

My teacher said that cartridge pens were for heathens. (@honeythewitch)

Prostitution is bad because it’s defining people by their genitals.

Tory Councillor Colin Davie is against renewable energy because it will “affect tourism”.

If we only let people play exactly who they are, it’ll be the death of imagination. (Andrew Garfield)

There is no joy in anything any more.
 (Commenter on the John Lewis ad that features black people.)

Fun Fact: Tweeting just once, on any given subject, counts as overreacting and going on and on. (@dimwittedly)

Christmas could be ruined by mince pie shortage. (

The day that refugees are not welcome in Britain is the day we lose our soul. (@serliamholman)

The writer of a book debunking historical myths “hates his country”.

The Olympics has been Disneyfied! (Translation: Skateboarding is now an Olympic sport.)

Any MP voting for vaccine passports is an enemy of our civilisation. (Neil Oliver)

Modern architecture is a deliberate attack on our spirit.

Our obsession with performance is changing our sense of self. (

Mob rule has infiltrated all of Scotland. (Translation: A crowd stopped officials taking away two men for deportation, May 2021.)

The prime minister can't be expected to live in a skip. (Sarah Vine on the renovations at No. 11)

The Guardian is full of nothing but lies. (Translation: The Guardian has issued some corrections and retractions recently.)

They’re bringing back Section 28! (Suella Braverman points out that it is illegal not to provide single-sex toilets in schools, 2022.)

People who say “Happy Holidays” are trying to erase Christmas.

A friend says “They’re trying to kill the language!” because he can’t switch Word’s spellcheck to UK English.

When you said we should be kind to children, naturally I assumed you meant that we should mollycoddle them and give in to their every whim!

If Disney isn’t stopped from imposing a ‘woke ideology’ it will destroy the country. (Florida governor Ron DeSantis, headline)

Loved ones who express concerns or doubts are accused of “denying the existence of trans people”. (

Prejudiced parents think this trans person shouldn’t exist! (Translation: Parents don’t want this trans person in their female children’s changing room.)

JK Rowling has conducted a hate campaign against trans people for years. (She tweeted: Dress  however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who'll have you. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?)

I’ve been in A&E with my daughter since 5.45 am. Finally got a prescription at 9.00. She’s not got anything serious but we’ve now had to wait over 25 minutes to get the medicine from hospital pharmacy. The NHS is not on brink of collapse, it is collapsing. (@MannGeorgia)

Had to cancel a hospital appointment because of work. The next one available is five and a half months hence. This country is collapsing. (@Seanchuckle)

The ubiquity of body art is born out of an existential crisis of humanity in the post religious world. (Melanie Phillips, paraphrase by Times sub) 

Kevin Daly on Twitter posts the Golden Girls script pages that show the trio were not improvising the herring scene. @Gary_Mylazycat responds: “Why do you hate fun?” (And @KevinGe48316476 asks: Who cares if people want to think this?)  

"Where’s the hope from the government?” asks Conservative MP Steve Baker, about new rules telling people to wear masks. “Where are we going as a society and as a civilisation? Where will be our redemption and our salvation? How will we provide that hope for our future?"

When you disagree even in the mildest of terms with people younger than a certain age, or of a certain ideological persuasion (read: woke), they fully believe you are invalidating their entire existence. (@GabeBlessing)

We have to rid ourselves of our obsession for highly processed foods. (Great British Christmas Menu. Perhaps he means “taste for” or “addiction to”?)

Anything claimed to be a “uniquely 21st century phenomenon” probably has its roots in the Roman Empire. And anything that “never happened before social media” happened before social media.

Watching Labour MPs queue up to condemn the free expression of opinion, to shut down debate, and to treat their former leader as an outcast and "enemy of the people" is truly sinister. It is actual Stalinism. (@peterde_de)

A coerced responsibility is not a responsibility, it is a burden. A coerced duty is slavery. (Vaccine passports again.)

A memorial service for a cathedral cat? The Church of England has adopted pantheism! (Doorkins Magnificat was official rodent operative at Southwark Cathedral for several years.)

Most coups begin by capturing the airports, seizing control of the TV studios, suspending democracy and arresting opposition leaders. Not by asking people to wash their hands and refrain from coughing on strangers in the Co-op. (@RussInCheshire)

Due to the pandemic, the Last Night of the Proms was instrumental. This became “The BBC are dropping patriotic songs!

A study claiming that the results of recycling plastic had been disappointing becomes: “Recycling is useless and just virtue-signalling! I told you so!”

All the folk going to beauty spots and "wild camping" and leaving all of their litter, in a lot of cases just deserting their tents, make me particularly despairing for the human race. (Via FB)

I taught my ‘bubble’ about names of groups of animals yesterday! None of them could name a group of geese! Nor the sound a donkey makes! Why don’t children read anymore? (Michelle Garner)

Queen Victoria once said “We are not amused,” therefore nobody made a joke or laughed for the entire Victorian era. 

There is 'compulsory homosexuality' in Ireland, suggests Polish right-wing weekly @DoRzeczy_pl, which also warns that 'Marxist-lesbianism is well on its way to becoming a state ideology' in Ireland’.

How the iphone rewrote the teenage brain ( headline on story claiming that teens now prefer Fortnite and Instagram to drink, smoking and drugs.)


The classic is "There are no grand pianos in Japan".

Everyone’s autistic now!
The Guardian says all men are bad.
Pedantry is always regressive. (Laurie Penny)
Nobody under 50 bothers voting these days. (@jrhopkin)

What is millennial culture? There’s no writing. None of them read books. (Bret Easton Ellis)

To look back is to be spiritually dead! (In the early 70s, a movement arose to perform early music – medieval, Renaissance, Baroque – in the original, “authentic” style, as far as it could be determined. This really upset some people. The above objection is from a TV discussion.)

Tuesday 10 January 2023

Couldn't They See that Coming?

You get a full-face tattoo and wonder why nobody will give you a job.

Huge organisation + expensive bespoke IT system = disaster.

Chlamydia outbreak at Texas high school with no sex ed policy. 

Nero was a bloody tyrant – he was eventually forced to commit suicide.

Women in their 40s say “I can’t believe I forgot to have children!” as they face a lonely middle age.

Leader of breakaway Amish sect severely punishes those who dissent. Sect members flee.

After 30 years, the victim murders the bully. 

Making things in China is getting more costly as its population ages and isn't replaced – thanks to the one-child policy. 

Shakers insist members are celibate, die out. (Parsis insist members only marry other Parsis: the community has shrunk almost out of existence.) 

You put forward a ridiculous idea and become hysterical when contradicted. (You’d think Christian evangelists, fundamentalist Islamists and UFO believers would realise that being disbelieved comes with the territory.) 

“Why should I take any notice of facts and statistics, I’m entitled to my opinion.” But if your opinion is based on nothing, nobody is going to take it very seriously, and they’re going to keep asking you for evidence. 

MP Philip Davies, whose speciality is talking out any legislation that will benefit women, whines that all his Twitter followers hate him.

Supporters of Tommy Robinson, who like to call anyone with a social conscience a “snowflake”, are furious that people are throwing milkshakes over them.

The British conquered, ruled and ripped off countries around the globe – one by one they declared independence.

Report in the Sunday Times today that one in five degree courses have closed since the trebling of fees. I know, surprising isn't it. (@fatcharlesh)

I notice people who have been home schooled might have a tendency to be more likely single, perhaps due to lack of social skills, and networking opportunities. (NJ)

Free market: *decides*
Conservatives: this is outRAGEOUS

My mother-in-law is old and lonely. She is a judgmental person in general, the kind who is rude to servers and assumes the worst about everyone. (Dear Prudence at

The world’s ‘best restaurant’ is closing in 2025 because of gastronomy’s “unsustainable” economics, said its owner. Noma in Copenhagen has served unorthodox dishes, including reindeer gullets with crispy moss, mouldy egg yolk, and duck brain served in its own skull and eaten with a spoon made from its own tongue. “We have to rethink the industry,” René Redzepi, told The New York Times. “This is simply too hard, and we have to work in a different way . . . It’s unsustainable. Financially and emotionally, as an employer and as a human being, it just doesn’t work.”
(The Week Digest. Someone tells me it's reopening as a burger bar...)

The three turbines on top of the Strata building at Elephant and Castle are hardly ever used. A local explains: “Apparently they sank a lot of money into making them energy efficient. Then, on Day One realised folks in the penthouses wouldn’t put up with the noise.” Labour councillor Martin Seaton ... told MyLondon : "In the very early days on my first term, I received some complaints that residents were being disturbed by the blades spinning. The wind turbines haven’t worked since, mainly because of complaints of the noise disturbing residents. It doesn’t work, it’s a white elephant. [The developers] didn’t take into account when the turbines span they’d vibrate throughout the building. It seems obvious to you and I, but the designers and planners are infinitely cleverer than us, and missed the blindingly obvious.” He said the complaints came from those higher up the building: “The closer you were to the top, the louder it was, but it propagated throughout the building. How on earth the planners and designers missed it, I have no idea.” (

Japan has always had the toughest immigration policy of any developed nation. But if you combine a closed-door policy with a falling birth-rate and an ageing population, you leave yourself short of the young workers needed to keep the economy and society functioning properly. For years, Japan lived in denial. One reason it pioneered robots for looking after the elderly was the lack of human help. At the same time, it ignored widespread abuse of immigration rules, such as foreigners working illegally while registered as students. (Times, 2018)

It was always her house, her rules, and “you can go live somewhere else if you don’t like it.” I secretly saved money from tutoring and did just that the day after my 18th birthday. It was one of my proudest moments even if it did destroy my relationship with my mother. She didn’t speak to me for two whole years. (Dear Prudence)

I don’t really like my family—they nitpick me all the time. (Dear Prudie writer-in. She’s not going home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. She had Covid as an excuse in 2020, but was thinking of keeping it up after the pandemic.)

Most marriages in 19th century Hungary were arranged by the bride’s parents, and divorce was all but impossible. The law offered no protection from domestic violence, and even if a divorce could be obtained it would result in the wife’s financial ruin, social ostracism and the loss of her children. (Whores of Yore. Result: the women took to poisoning their husbands with arsenic.)

Actor Charles Grey complained all his friends had deserted him: “I suppose because of his drunken insulting behaviour”, said actress Coral Browne.

One skeptical activist was clearly what, in the old days, we’d have called a male chauvinist pig; he offended everybody and was removed from his position. (Wendy Grossman, The Skeptic, 2013)

Former UKIP chair Dr Julia Gasper was forced to resign when she said gays are more likely to abuse children, branded LGBT rights activists as a "lunatics", and claimed some gays prefer sex with animals. (  

Concerned about climate change, travellers fly less. Airlines lose money, tourist destinations lose money. Airlines put fares up. Flying is now more expensive, more people take the boat and the train. Airlines reduce planes and flights. 

Avoid statements like “The workers’ revolution is inevitable”, or “We’re on the right side of history”. Don't call your project the “united” anything.

Hungary has seen a raft of protests against a new labour law, dubbed the "slave law," introduced by Viktor Orban's administration. It will allow employers to ask staff to work up to 400 extra hours of overtime in a year. The law comes after a high level of emigration that has led to a significant labour shortage in Hungary. (

The fur trade was in steep decline. The once healthy population of beavers had been decimated, the Native Americans were determined to fight off the trappers, and the European market for American fur was waning. The Rocky Mountain Fur Company went bust. (Ben Macintyre, Times, 2016)

Visited a friend, who has just found out Natalie Wood died in 1981 and wants to know why she hadn't heard about it. I scratched my head. "Well, you never watch the news or read a newspaper, so..." (Michael O'Brien via FB)

Darnley murders Mary Queen of Scots’ friend Rizzio in her presence. She arranges with Bothwell to have Darnley murdered. Bothwell forces her to marry him. The Scots call her a murderess, imprison her, threaten her with death. She flees to England. Elizabeth, afraid that Mary will dethrone her and take over, or succeed after her death, has her executed. Well, maybe Mary couldn’t have foreseen all that.  

[Atheist priest] Meslier did have a great deal to be angry about. Early 18th-century France was politically and intellectually asphyxiated. Philosophy was stuck in pre-Cartesian days and, in any case, subordinated to theology. The monarch ruled with absolute power that was justified by a fabulously wealthy and notoriously intolerant church. People were still being publically tortured and executed for ‘religious’ crimes as late as the 1760s. ( And then there was a revolution and they were all beheaded.)

Sects like the Plymouth Brethren impose punitive rules over every aspect of their adherents’ lives, removing all enjoyment or comfort, forbidding men and women to eat together, enforcing dowdy clothes, preventing members from finding out about the wickedness of the outside world. Adherents find out and leave in droves, congregations shrink to a remnant, stagger on for too many years, and are eventually forced to close down committees, working parties and clubs, and sell off premises. Within a very short time the sect is nothing but a dim memory.

Man with wife and two small children has affair, wife finds out, kicks him out, gets divorce, girlfriend quits, man ends up living in poverty and a lonely bedsit. But he doesn’t want to settle for the first woman he meets – he deserves better!  

Woman encourages her daughter to believe in Father Christmas. She's traumatised when she finds out the truth. 

Sunday 8 January 2023

Received Ideas in Quotes 33

Spring Heeled Jack
 was a bat-winged criminal who menaced Victorian London, always leaping out of the clutches of the police. Eighty years later he returned – a relative had found the suit. (From Reddit)

There was a time when schoolgirls used the Robertsons enamel badges to indicate that they had lost their virginity and there was a bit of a scandal about it and that was a part of the reason that the badges were stopped.

From what I understand (and was told by a schoolgirl friend back in the 60s) this originated in a novel, the fiction was then scandalously denounced by the prurient press, and thereafter many schoolgirls (my friend among them) took to wearing the badge as a joke/challenge/protest. (Timbotee@cix)

 was originally a product of British colonialism in India, of course, a way of documenting illiterate indigenous labourers.
 (@paulrogers002. This site claims it was the first British use of fingerprinting – or handprinting – in 1858. The science is much older.)

Explanation for Rossendale’s black-face coconut dance: The dance, which marks the return of spring, is believed to trace its roots to Moorish pirates who settled in Cornwall and became employed in local mining. As more mines and quarries opened in Lancashire in the 18th and 19th centuries, a few Cornishmen are said to have headed to the area, taking with them mining expertise and the costume of red and white kilts, breeches, bonnets and blackened faces. (Would the Cornish take kindly to Moorish pirates? And why would the pirates darken their own faces?)

One theory about the partridge in the pear tree is that it represents Christ on a cross and was originally a catechism song for 16th century Catholics, who were unable to practise their faith publicly. (Lara Maiklem)

"First they laugh at us, then they fight us, then we win.” Gandhi? Africa Check turned to the Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, the "encyclopedia of Gandhi's thoughts", and could not find the quote. The closest quote we could find is from a convention of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America held on 15 May 1918 in Baltimore in the US. "First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you," Nicholas Klein, a US labour activist, told the trade union convention. (Via JP,

Some departmental building at Leicester was sliding down the hill towards another.  However, that second building was sinking. Calculations suggested that the first building would pass safely over the second. (JP)

On Twitter, someone asked: What should everyone experience? The answers were mainly “pain, severe pain, loneliness, unrequited love”. (Others were “loving and being loved”, but also getting out of your home town, visiting another country, being on your own in another country. The responders seemed to dwell in a reality of small towns that nobody ever leaves, monocultural social groups, and lives lived communally.)

When Joan Lindsay submitted Picnic at Hanging Rock for publishing her editor convinced her to leave off the final chapter in which a solution is given. (Scott Wallace Baker)

Denver Airport: Its layout is an occult symbol. There is a demon horse statue which [insert myth here]. Hides a giant underground city where the rich and powerful will survive the apocalypse. (The demon horse is known as Blucifer.)

I once heard there are secret tunnels under the city of Liverpool containing railway lines and pristine, never used steam trains. Ready for if the sh*t hits the fan and all the power goes out, coal-powered emergency transport. (Reddit)

Reply: There are tunnels underneath Liverpool, the Williamson tunnels. They don't have steam trains in, at least I don't think so! But they are fascinating, they were ordered by an eccentric tobacco magnate and he was adamant about them being built a very particular way and wouldn't reveal their purpose. 

Brian May, Johnny Depp etc: A famous actor/pop star lives in a mansion in your area and has been spotted in Tesco’s.

Think [the swan breaking your arm story] was used in an experiment to see how fast and how far a "fact" can spread. Back in the early ish days of the super information highway. (Reddit. The story is far older.)

When the electrical substation at London’s Brown Hart Gardens was opened in 1905, an urban myth was soon floating around about the new construction, saying that the reason for its large green door and the large domes was because it was built so that Queen Victoria could house her ‘pet elephant’ there! (Niki Shore. The entrance to the gardens is a huge baroque construction with a dome.)

It’s said that indentured servants in Maine in the 18th century lobbied to be fed lobster no more than twice a week. (Aerial America. Repeat for salmon and oysters.)

When they sold Curzon Street premises previously occupied by MI5 in 1990s to developers, the bidding packs referenced a basement. Developers bought, MI5 moved out, and they found seven levels of basement with tunnel connections to the underground! (@simonhcbenson)

What Oxford Street has become: a tawdry sewer of tourist tat shops and American candy stores. (Oliver Wainwright, Guardian. That's the impression you'd get if you glanced down the street from Tottenham Court Road. This is why snobs keep lobbying for the street to be pedestrianised – read "gentrified".) 

Was asked to look at some supposed "ritual marks" "witch marks" at a church today. All of it looked like graffiti from the last 200 years. (@odavies9)

Today’s received idea is: 40% of men lose their Y chromosome by age 70.
Web says: More than 40% [of men] experience some loss of Y chromosomes in their blood cells by age 70.

I had a woman knock on my door to tell me I’d been targeted by dognappers and pointed out some spray paint on the path by my house. It was Virgin Media installing the internet. (Reddit)

According to Larry Siedentop’s book Inventing the Individual, the Ancient Greeks lacked the modern concept of free will. In historical terms, it’s a recent habit, he says, to imagine a separate, interior event of “willing” that precedes action. Homeric Greek has no word for “intention”. For the Greeks, Siedentop suggests, human agency was shaped not by individual will but “by the structure of society”. It makes more intuitive sense if you think how much of life happens on “autopilot”, just going around doing things without ever really consciously deciding to. Friends have pointed me towards the psychologist Julian Jaynes who argued (not uncontroversially) that consciousness itself is a “learned behaviour”, the product not of biology but culture. The Homeric Greeks — and you begin to wonder whether the poor blokes had any mental faculties at all — did not experience consciousness the way we do. What we call consciousness, they experienced as verbal hallucination or the voices of gods. Nonsense perhaps. But a useful prompt to open-mindedness about human nature and a reminder of how little about ourselves we can take for granted, marooned as we are in the 21st century, so distant from most of the other humans who have ever lived. (James Marriott in the Times, Sept 26 2022. Yes, it's nonsense. Marriot's argument is an example of "Yes Bernadette's visions weren't genuine but they drew many back to the Church", or "Yes it was all made up but it tells an important truth". If what you really want to do is tell an important truth, why not make up your own fable?) 

Honestly, this kind of thing is so nuts I have trouble believing anyone seriously believes it. I think if you're leftist intelligentsia it's just become The Thing To Say about Britain. (@mrianleslie, on the idea that “the British” define themselves by the Empire, for which they are nostalgic. Perhaps it's a way of establishing credentials: Look, I don't think the Empire was a Good Thing.)

While the exception doesn't prove the rule, the exception also doesn't overturn an overwhelmingly accurate generalization. (@emethias. It does if your generalisation was "All swans are white".)

If some people asserted the earth rotated East-West and others asserted it spun West-East, there would always be a few well-meaning people to suggest that the truth probably lay between the extremes or else the globe did not rotate at all. (Via the Web, paraphrase)

Bob’s your uncle? One suggested origin is Robert, Marquess of Salisbury, who as Prime Minister in the 1890s promoted his nephew, Arthur Balfour, to be Leader in the Commons. (@BaronChristina)

Former Rep. Michele Bachmann claims that the Bible was "the number one book that was referenced" by the Founders when creating this nation, which is why the Declaration and Constitution were based largely on scripture. None of that is true. (@RightWingWatch)

Were the earliest humans naturally egalitarian communists, who somehow lost those tendencies when agriculture took off? Widespread, appealing and wide of the mark. (@koenfucius)

Soon after Dr. Hordes came to New Mexico, he talked with many Hispanics who reported that their families light candles on Friday night, avoid pork and that children play a gambling game with a wood top called "put in and take out." Dr. Hordes was able to explain to them that ancestors may have been Jewish. They have hid the fact for so long that, over the generations, they forgot. (

These [long clay pipes] are sometimes nicknamed churchwarden pipes due to the sheer length of stem, allowing the warden to open a window in the vestry, stick the pipe out into the fresh air and puff away on his foul-smelling tobacco without upsetting the vicar. (@liz_lizanderson)

While academics have dismantled much of Philippe Ariès' theory, many of his beliefs persist... It has been said too often that there was no feeling for childhood – that childhood was a time in life that had to be passed as quickly as possible to become an adult, and then you fully 'exist'. (, 2022)  

According to Wikipedia, during World War II René Magritte painted and sold fake Picassos, Braques and De Chiricos. He also forged banknotes. (Fernand Léger just painted Corots – allegedly.)

Visitors to St. Edmund’s church, Southwold will recognise this 18th century tomb close by the porch, but have you wondered at this depression on the side of the roof slab? It is made from the fine-grained stone perfect for whetting the blades of knives, scythes and, we are told, the cutlasses of the excise men(Geoffrey Munn)

Overheard in the library: “They keep a preserved rat from bubonic plague times down here.” Sir, we absolutely do not. (Queen's College Library @QueensLibOx)

Tom Daley has blamed “colonialism” for anti-gay laws across the Commonwealth. In a BBC documentary, the Olympic diving champion visits “the most homophobic countries in the Commonwealth” and says the experience taught him “where homophobia stemmed from in the first place, and it is a legacy of colonialism”. However, said The Telegraph, some historians argue that the persecution of gay people long predates colonial expansion around the world. (The Week)

The Wright Brothers' first successful flight was initially reported in Gleanings in Bee Culture, which scooped the Daily Mail and other better-known publications.

Along with everything else which provides humans with pleasure or convenience, indexes have at times been considered Bad For You. As 21st century harrumphers worry “Is Google making us stupid?”, so their ancestors declared that indexing marked the end of true learning. (Mat Coward, Fortean Times 2022)

"Boilerplate" (unchanging slabs of text) comes from the fact that heavy steel plates were used in stencils for large stamped print runs. (@weird_hist 2017)

Usually white Americans just say “I’m Irish”, and when you check their genealogy they’re mostly British and/or German with a bunch of partial European roots (Irish, Dutch, French, Italian, etc). For Black Americans, the default answer is to say “I have ancestors from Ghana and Nigeria”, while they have partial African roots from all over the African West Coast. (

Figures on a heraldic shield should face the viewer’s left, because that was the shield-bearer’s right, and it was his perspective, not the eye of the beholder, that mattered. ( When you’re behind the shield, you can’t see what’s painted on the front of it.)

One of my most favourite times in a pub in Glastonbury was the moment when I saw a lady set fire to a newspaper. Landlord came up to her, looked at the newspaper and said "Ah, The Daily Mail, carry on". (Claire Morris)

Roy Ellis Many years ago during a guided tour of Battle Abbey, Hastings the guide referred to a tile found nearby as 'half baked', due to the centre being a darker colour caused by faulty firing. Hence the phrase 'half baked'. I have never been able to find evidence to verify the truth of this. (Guidelore tends to include a “hence the phrase”.)

"The University of Oxford's colour is blue because of the Virgin Mary, who is the patron saint of the University." A totally made-up fact, overheard from an Oxford tour guide outside my office window. Truly the summer vacation is upon us! (Kieran Hazzard @RadicalEIC)


As a preacher myself I know you don’t always quote the sources of your anecdotes, or perhaps get them right. (George Featherston gives away trade secrets in the Fortean Times, Jan 2022) 

So the guy who started the whole 'Terfs buy up the front row at trans comic's EdFringe gig and deliberately sit stony faced' has deleted his lies, admitted he wasn't there, customers who were noticed nothing but a rather thin audience. But the comic has sold many more tickets. (@urcrazytoo)

In 2022, there were several first-person accounts of women in public toilets trying to eject women with short hair. They're as real as the women who shout abuse at men who hold doors open for them. (These stories get believed, while evidence of men m*sturbating in women’s toilets is thrown out.)

More here, and links to the rest.

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

Received Ideas in Quotes 32

Like the people who think old paintings were deliberately created in tones of ochre and brown to give them an "antiqued" look, some readers are offended by historical novels showing same-sex relationships, or people living as the opposite sex “because there were no gay or trans people until now”.

Factoid: Coined by Norman Mailer in Marilyn: A Biography and defined as "facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority".

Conspiracy theories involve: ignoring contrary evidence that doesn't fit with what you already believe, thinking you're an expert on things that you know nothing about, and projecting malicious intent onto events that have a perfectly innocent explanation. 
Philosophy Matters

The speculative theories of former centuries have become the widely circulated factoids of the Internet era. (
Adrian Bott @Cavalorn)

As I become older, I keep noticing how I used to hold some pretty stupid beliefs. Crucially, the beliefs in question were sincerely held by the younger me, without any hint or suspicion of their lack of soundness and/or validity. Chances are I currently hold some such beliefs. (@alancolquhoun1)

If you are not a scientist, and you disagree with scientists about science, it’s actually not a disagreement. You're just wrong. Science is not truth. Science is finding the truth. When science changes its opinion, it didn't lie to you. It learned more. (@mhdksafa)

That young people of to-day prefer games to conversation scarcely proves degeneration. That they wear very few clothes is not a symptom of decline. (Emily Post, 1922)

Googling “negative impact on young people” throws up: social media, celebrity culture, screen use, community violence, media violence, social disparity, rap music, video games, films (one source blames them for “falling values and so on”). 

A businesswoman has accused parents who work from home of setting a bad example to their children, claiming that it reflects a “sense of entitlement” that has become common in Britain. (Times, 2021)

Raymond Burr’s appearance in Rear Window was based on Darryl Zanuck, whom Hitchcock hated.

Literature is meant to be read and enjoyed, not taught and analysed. (@CmucG)

Kellogg Corp’s head office building has a jagged edge – because everybody wanted a corner office. (Aerial America)

A Victorian lamppost outside the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford inspired C.S. Lewis to write the entire Narnia series. (Via Gabriel Schenk)

There’s a crane buried under Michigan’s football field. (Aerial America)

Halloween has a very inauthentic feel in the UK as it is basically driven by business. (@RJo00)

Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass
 is inspired by Carroll’s migraine aura hallucinations.

The 400 pleats of a Greek soldier's kilt represent the 400 years of servitude under the Ottomans. (Anna Somers-Cocks)

A penguin named Nils Olav was given the rank of Colonel-in-Chief and was awarded a Knighthood in Norway. (@MondongoFacts)

Turk's Head pubs on the Tyne are named after a sailor’s knot - the Turk's Head knot. (The knot resembles the Turk's turban. Many pubs are called after heraldic symbols.)

An 1895 book on child development argued that if a girl overused her brain, it would damage her reproductive powers. (Lucy Worsley, Agatha Christie. Likewise if she had singing lessons too young.)

More here and links to the rest.

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

Friday 6 January 2023

Received Ideas 31: Onions

This is about onions, feet and health. How old are these ideas?

When someone gets a cold that lasts for 10 days her friends behave as if nobody has ever had a bad cold before and rally round with advice like “Apply Vicks to your feet”. Applying cures to your feet (quite the wrong end for a cold) goes back to the time of the plague, when you might be advised to apply a pigeon cut in half… Cutting an onion and leaving it on the window to absorb germs (or “miasma”) goes back to the same era. We are told not to leave a cut onion in the fridge as it will "absorb toxins". It's more likely to scent the rest of the food. (In the pandemic, we have fewer colds thanks to masks and constant hand-washing.)

When the Victorians got colds they gave their feet a “mustard bath” – mustard in hot water. They thought colds were caused by wet feet. (At least you'd have warmer feet.)

Did you know you can taste garlic through your feet? Try it. Just rub some fresh garlic on the soles of your feet and wait a while. You should be able to taste it in your mouth and smell it in your breath in 15 minutes or less. (

Doctors point out that many drugs are absorbed through the skin, like nicotine or contraceptive patches, but point out that the soles of your feet are too thickened to absorb much.

In the 30s debutante Monica Dickens went undercover as a servant, and wrote about it in One Pair of Hands. Her fellow-servants liked to complain that their feet would “draw” in wet weather. At school at the convent we swapped a recipe for fainting – put wet blotting paper in your shoes. It didn’t stop you fainting, it made you faint – that was the idea. It was the only way you could get out of the choir rehearsal, or interminable pointless ceremony. A friend once fell through a phalanx of singers standing on a stepped rostrum: she told me later she used to fake it. (We thought colds were caused by wet hair, too.)

I was only one or two years old and had whooping cough. A (what was then called) gypsy came to the door selling clothes pegs, or white heather or something.  She heard me whooping and coughing. She advised my mother to put slices of onion in my shoes until my breath smelled of onion, and three days later the cough would go away. And (according to my mum) she did that and the cough departed on schedule. I suppose that it might have gone anyway, or whatever else she was giving me could have been effective. I did not have any say in the matter at that age. (A friend writes.)

More misinformation here, and links to the rest.

Sunday 1 January 2023

Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman

Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman
, by Lucy Worsley

This is a biography, not a dissection of the books, which only enter the picture as background to the life. Agatha Christie used her experience, observations and opinions in her novels, and one day someone will tie up all these threads.

It is very readable. Lucy Worsley is chatty, informative and insightful, and doesn't try to be elaborate or flowery. Thankfully, she doesn't embark on long, tangled sentences that require several readings (other writers please take note). She has trawled letters and old newspaper reports to come up with a sympathetic account of the mystery writer's life.

Worsley has convinced me that Christie's loss of memory during her well-known disappearance was genuine. She was already thinking of taking a holiday in Yorkshire, and had taken out £60 in cash, which she had in her handbag. If she discovered that evening that her errant husband Archie was not "staying with friends" but with his new girlfriend, it might have pushed her over the edge. Unaware of who she was, she proceeded to Yorkshire, stayed in a smart hotel and bought a lot of fashionable clothes – she even danced the Charleston in the ballroom. 

When the police brought Archie (a murder suspect) to see if he recognised the woman who'd been pointed out by hotel staff, she introduced him to friends as her brother. He took Agatha to her sister's, where her memory gradually returned, though she failed to recognise her daughter. I still wonder, though, whether the story The Affair at the Bungalow was a backhanded reference to these events.

Good though this book is, I can't help picking up on a few inaccuracies. Worsley can't resist using the cliché "overstuffed" to describe Christie's childhood home, Ashfield in Torquay. In an old photograph, a relative "sports tiny mutton-chop sleeves". The puffed sleeves were known as "leg o' mutton". A postwar book, They Do It With Mirrors, features "Stoneygates, housing an institution for troubled children". It is an institution for young criminals. It's atropine, not "atrophine", and unrepentant not "unrepentent". Tommy and Tuppence are not Bright Young Things. The Christies' big house in Sunningdale was called "Styles", not "The Styles". Worsley refers to "the macabre Mr Pye with his ‘womanish mouth’, his ‘mincing walk’ and his antique shop in Murder Is Easy". Mr Pye, also rather fey, features in The Moving Finger. The antique-shop owner is Mr Ellsworthy.

Did we call flicked-up spectacles "cat's-eye glasses"? It seems we do now. ("Cat-eye prescription glasses were designed to empower the women of the world," says a site selling frames. Gosh! Did it work?) 

"Because people think of Agatha as a timeless writer, they’re sometimes surprised to find that the politics of her novels haven’t always aged." Later she writes: "The reason some of Christie’s statements cause such pain today, I think, is because people think of her writing as somehow timeless." Also: "Her writing has such ease and clarity it doesn’t immediately shout out about the particular year in which it was written." Christie's books are all grounded firmly in a time and a place, and take a beady-eyed note of passing fads and fashions, and even world events. Does Worsley mean that Christie didn't write in a style we think of as old-fashioned – like Conan Doyle, for example? Sleeping Murder, written during the War and stashed in a bank vault, really is deliberately timeless, and suffers as a result.

All writers these days have to address earlier attitudes to gender, race and class. People in the past are guilty of having servants, which meant they had a hierarchical view of society, or worse. "This can be seen in novels like Evil Under the Sun, where the staff of a hotel are freed from suspicion entirely on the basis of class."

As a young married woman, Christie had a cleaner, and the help of her husband's ex-batman. But running a house was far more labour-intensive in the days before freezers, hoovers and the rest, and one person could barely do it all.

Worsley flinches at the way Christie's secretary, Charlotte Fisher, referred to her as "Missus", thinking that this is obsequious. But "Missus" was supposed to be what Christie's dog Peter called her.

Apparently Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham "loved toffs". Sayers made her detective a Lord because she noted that people liked reading about the aristocracy. Perhaps in response, Allingham hinted that her detective was a renegade member of the royal family.

Worsley claims that Christie, and her characters, are "repellently anti-Semitic". There's no need for that "repellently", we know anti-Semitism is repellent, and expect Worsley to agree. She picks out the most damning evidence: Herman Isaacstein in The Secret of Chimneys, Madame Alphrège in The Hollow, and the treatment of refugee Mitzi in A Murder Has Been Announced. (I need to review this mystery, one of Christie's best, and reclaim Mitzi from the other characters' negative judgements.)

I really do recommend this book, though!

More on Christie here, and links to the rest.