February 26, 2009

Society for the preservation of squeeze

Filed under: Grammar and language,misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 3:44 pm

It’s nearly half past ten, and my Baby, who honoured me with a visit after I called her up and got really grumpy because she hasn’t been here for weeks, has just gone to bed.  We have negotiated a 7.40 departure in the morning, so I can brave Oxford traffic and she can get to school on time (8:45).  She tells me that she doesn’t come to my house more often for this very reason: I insist on living in the middle of nowhere (a little village fifteen miles outside the city).

In the morning, besides providing transport it seems I am to supply disposable contact lenses, and before bed we had a little negotiation about what diopters I could deliver.  I’m just saying.

And now I have a moment (but only just) to consider today’s important news: researchers at Reading University in the UK have created a computer program to identify the our oldest (most persistent) words and to predict those most likely to disappear.

Some of what they have discovered doesn’t surprise me; the oldest words are rather dull: I, we, two, three.  Well, it was always all about us and how much we have got.  It seems these words are pretty much the same in every Indo European language as long as you know a few simple sound change rules in order to spot them.

A long time ago, though it wasn’t quite prehistory, I knew stuff about the history of the language.  For instance, I knew about words, admittedly younger than those above, but still remarkably stable: mother, father, water.  I read once, though I now apologise for forgetting the source, that honey and bee are also words whose forms we can postulate, long before they might have been written.

In the days when I knew about this sort of stuff, I could read, more or less, Old English (Anglo Saxon).  My first homework on the subject, after just one day of class, was to translate The Battle of Maldon, a poem about a glorious English defeat (the first of many — Brits are good at losing) in 991.

This is how the poem begins, and if you can read it, and you don’t have a PhD or hang around the language project at Reading, I will give you a six pence:

brocen wurde
Het þa hyssa hwæne   hors forlætan
feor afysan   and forð gangan
hicgan to handum   and to hige godum
Þa þæt Offan mæg   ærest onfunde
þæt se eorl nolde   yrhðo geþolian
he let him þa of handon   leofne fleogan
hafoc wið þæs holtes   and to þære hilde stop
be þam man mihte oncnawan   þæt se cniht nolde
wacian æt þam wige  þa he to wæpnum feng

I couldn’t read it either, of course.  But as I was struggling through the poem I eventually came to the line “ofer cald wæter”.  That had lasted, and was perfectly coherent, a thousand years later.

For at least a millenium speakers of English have been telling their friends that battle or no battle, if you are going to cross the North Sea the wæter is cald!

Other words, apparently, we are not using enough and they are changing fast.  First to go, according to the computer projection, will be squeeze, dirty, stick and guts.

I quite like all those words!  Use them or lose them, folks.

February 18, 2009

The gasman cometh

Filed under: A long way from home,misc,Village life — Duchess @ 3:56 pm

I mentioned earlier that on Christmas Day the cooker broke down.  It wasn’t unusable, but it was definitely inconvenient and probably unsafe.  I finally got tired of alternating between living dangerously — and using the wretched thing while it continuously sparked and one of the ovens turned on and off at unpredictable intervals — or living slovenly and grazing on cold food by the open refigerator door.  I bought a new cooker.

After awhile the day came round for it to be installed, and I promised friends and family elaborate gourmet meals. When the Piper’s Son visited a few days later I had to explain that there had been a little hitch in the arrangements.

Oh no, said he, it isn’t one of your gasmen stories is it?  At Christmas dinner, while I lamented soggy Yorkshire pudding, I told my children how, as a young bride, I ordered a gas cooker.

In those days the state was the supplier of cookers and you had to go to the Gas Board, rather than a shop, to buy one.  They had sample cookers on display and you chose one, and then a nice lady sat you down and filled in many, many forms and then told you how long the waiting list was for your particular cooker.

My waiting list was only two weeks and when I got to the top of the list I was given a delivery date for another couple of weeks later.  On the appointed day I waited in the house all morning and all afternoon, but no cooker came.  The next morning I telephoned to say that I had been expecting a delivery but nothing had arrived. 

The person on the end of the phone explained patiently that unfortunately the cooker had been out of stock, so of course there was no possibility of delivering; surely I could see that. She was, however, happy to report that it was now back in stock.

I said, in that case, I would like to have it delivered as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, she replied, there’s a two week waiting list for that cooker.

I said I knew that, and I had already waited on the waiting list, so please could I have my cooker?

Ah, said she, but when you waited on the waiting list, the cooker was out of stock!

So I duly served my in stock waiting time and the cooker was eventually delivered.  When, a few years later, I was moving house, I required the services of the Gas Board again. In those days in England you didn’t leave appliances behind when you moved. 

The Outdoor Gasman was booked to disconnect the gas, the Indoor Gasman to disconnect the cooker, and the moving men to take it away.

The Outdoor man duly arrived, turned off the gas, and went away.  The moving men came and removed everything from the house — except the cooker — while we waited for the Indoor Gasman.  Eventually the moving men had enough.  They said they were going home — or they could disconnect the cooker themselves. 

After the moving men had driven away with all my worldly goods, including cooker, illegally disconnected, and I was doing final rounds, the Indoor Gasman at last arrived.

I panicked.  Thinking that the important thing was to reassure him that everything had been done by a competent person, I said, Oh, don’t worry, the Outdoor Gasman thought he might just as well disconnect the cooker too, while he was here, so he did it.

There was a stunned silence.  It was clear he would have preferred me to say that anyone, including my toddler, had done it instead.  First he just shook his head in disbelief and then he began to say, over and over, He should not have done that!  That was an Indoor Gasman job!  He should not have done that!  I’m going to have to report this to head office!

And then he went angrily away.

I experienced the Indoor / Outdoor rule again a few years later when my elderly neighbour had a gas leak and alternating teams visted her all night long, the Indoor men came to investigate, turn off her gas, and confirm it was not their problem.  After a while the Outdoor men came and fixed it and went away.  In the early hours the Indoor men returned to turn the gas back on inside.  Nothing could make either team touch a valve on the wrong side of a wall. 

Anyone who didn’t live here in the 70s and early 80s might be imagining that the Monty Python new gas cooker sketch is surrealism.  I know better.

Well, anyway, these days you go to a store to buy your cooker and they’ll connect it too, for a fee.  The Gas Board no longer exists and there aren’t any more waiting lists, though out of stock is, of course, still a hazard.

Less than a week after I had ordered it, a couple of pleasant men arrived with my cooker.  They pulled the old one out and examined my electrics.  (Even gas cookers need electricity, to run the clock and the ignition switch, but as I am trying to sell up I thought I would buy a more popular dual fuel version, with gas hob and electric oven.)

The men shook their heads in unison.  You see this here?  they asked, pointing at the wire that fed the electric outlet.  This is 4 mm core wire.  Regs say you got to have 6 mm core wire.  You need an electrician to sort this out.  We’re not allowed to touch it.

I questioned them further and finally understood.  It wasn’t that all the wiring was wrong.  It was just that the the switch had to be wired to the plug using fatter wire.  The distant between the two was about two feet.

I said, That’s it?  Hell, I can do that wiring myself.

They put their hands over their ears and shouted La la la la la.  I can’t hear you!

That’s because it is illegal for me to wire that myself.

It’s up to you, they said, but we can’t touch it.  Then they put the cooker back on the lorry.  We have to take this back to the depot they said.  By the way, have you got any 6 mm core wire?

I said I did not.  We carry it on the van, they explained, but we’re not allowed to use it for wiring purposes.

Then they and my cooker drove away, leaving me holding the two feet of 6 mm core wire they had obligingly cut for me.

February 12, 2009

Birth days

Filed under: A long way from home,Back story,misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 4:46 pm

It was my birthday this week and, as usual, I claimed the day as my own and demanded that everyone pay attention to me and be nice to me and give me presents and cards — which mostly they did.  Everyone who knows me knows I take birthdays, especially mine, very seriously. 

Nevertheless, when I became a mother I began to think perhaps the wrong person was getting all the birthday attention: exactly who did all the work and had all the bother?  So tell me again who deserves the presents and congratulations?

On my birthday I really ought to have telephoned my mother to apologise.  But, according to convention, instead she is meant to send me birthday greetings.  Her email said,  “The sun was shining the day you were born.  I remember it streaming in the window of the delivery room.  Your hair was red.”

i’ve heard the sun in the delivery room story before.  I know my mother tells it when she especially wants me to know that I am loved, because that is the moment she first feels me conjured into being, when all the waiting and the pain focussed, like the sun’s rays, on that wet, red haired, shining creature.  That’s me, to my mother, even fifty five years on.

I am not so kind (or brief) in the stories I tell my own children.  For example, I usually spare my eldest child, the son who made me a mother, the little details, like the midwife’s firm, raiser poised threat, “Now we are just going to give you a little shave down there.” (Though luckily he emerged so fast after that she didn’t have a chance.)  Or the nurse’s next morning careful explanation of neonatal jaundice, “You may have noticed your baby is a little yellow…”

But  I do like to tell the story of how hard I had to sue to get out of hospital, and what happened while I was otherwise occupied with learning to be a new mother.  In those days in England a “full stay” on the maternity ward was 10 days, a “short stay” was 7, and “early discharge” for a first baby was a mere 5.  I had to fight to be out in 4. 

While my new baby and I were in hospital my husband helpfully registered our son’s birth,  and when we both arrived home he presented me with the certificate.  Under mother’s name it had my first name and my husband’s last name.  I was furious.

You know I never intended to change my name! I shouted.  THAT IS NOT MY NAME!

My husband said calmly that he assumed I meant I wouldn’t change my name in the every day world.  Of course I could hang on to my name if if it was important to me.  Only he never thought I meant I wouldn’t change it when it came to things that mattered like our son’s birth certificate.  How would the boy know his parents were married?

(Reader this was the very beginning of the 80s.  The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there — especially in England.)

The next morning I bundled up my barely born son and marched smartly into the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages office in Oxford.  I presented the perfect child and faulty birth certificate and demanded immediate redress.

The grey haired man at the counter was kindness itself.  He understood my unhappiness, but he shook his head sadly.  What I asked was in no way possible.  The details of the child’s birth had been recorded in the Registers and he was powerless to change them. 

At home I telephoned the number that I had eventually wrung out of the grey haired man and I explained my story.

I’m sorry, said the voice at the other end, but no alterations are possible once a child’s birth has been officially recorded.

I asked her if just anyone could record these details.  Was she aware that paternity was merely a matter of opinion (these were the days before DNA testing was even thought of), but I could prove that I was the mother of the child?  How dare they take a mere putative father’s word?  Did they have my autorisation for him to register the birth?  They did not!

Her patient explanation made it clear that official policy was that any man generously willing to put his name on a child’s birth certificate was assumed to have the authority and competence to provide all details. 

I said, Do you mean to tell me that if my husband had said my name was Humpty Dumpty that is what my son’s birth certificate would say?

There was a very long pause.  And then she answered, Well, yes, I guess it would.

Several supervisors later I finally received a concession: if I would swear an oath that the name recorded as mother’s name on my son’s birth certificate was not my name, had never been my name, and never would be my name, they would make the correction.  I thought the future covenant was was a little extreme, but at least we would have an accurate record of my son’s parents.

This being Oxford it was all done in a gentlemanly way.  One guest night at College, when the women wore long gowns and the men black tie, my husband and I withdrew to the Senior Common Room, along with the College Solicitor, between the main course and the passing of port, claret and sauterne, where I swore the necessary oath, which the solicitor duly notarised.

I posted the notarised oath to Somerset House (which, with good reason, features in British murder mysteries) and in due course I received notice that the error in my son’s official birth certificate had been recognized and that an amended certificate, under these extraordinary circumstances, would be issued.

I returned triumphant to the registry office with my authorisation for correction.  In those days birth certificates were written out in long hand with a fountain pen and I watched, astonished, as the grey haired clerk wrote everything as before, including mother’s name with my husband’s surname and not my own. 

When he had filled in every box, exactly as before, he returned to the mother’s name box and added an asterix.  In the bottom margin he wrote, next to an inky asterix, the words, This is an error.

Then he handed me the amended certificate.

I’ve had more decisive victories.

February 6, 2009

Cannabis delivered with the milk

Filed under: A long way from home,BBC radio addiction,misc,Village life — Duchess @ 1:00 pm

An elderly British milkman who responded to notes like “5 pints semi skimmed and a half an ounce this week, please” has been given a suspended sentence.

The prosecutor told the court that “word had got out that he could supply cannabis to those of a certain age with aches and pains”. His oldest client was 92.

In choosing not to bestow a custodial sentence the judge decided that the grandfather of 28 had mitigating circumstances, because his wife has Alzheimers Disease and has recently moved to a care home. The 72 year old milkman, married for 53 years, was tearful at the thought of not being able to visit his wife if he were in prison.

In today’s sentencing the Judge recognised that the milkman “misguidedly believed that he was providing a public service”.

You can read the BBC report here.  Newcomers to this site might like to consider other doorstep deliveries.

February 2, 2009

An inspector calls (and other expository remarks)

Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 5:27 pm

Greedy swans

My usual boaty visitors, begging bread out the window, do not worry, as I do, that January is the month my boat license comes due.  Because the four yearly Boat Safety Certificate was also up for renewal this year (and I could not license my boat without it) I have been scrambling about making sure I have met all the new health and safety regs (like batteries must be strapped in — on a boat whose maximum speed is 4 miles per hour.  That’s a fast walking speed for anyone who is paying attention.)

As soon as I was at least hopeful it would pass I booked the pony tailed, earring studded engineer to carry out the formal inspection. In my British way I delivered tea and an obsequious, shrugging incompetence (that I hoped was charming) whenever he asked for further information.

Lately the boat has been nothing but bother, and my engineer friend Pat has hauled the (unstrapped) batteries in and out of the boat trying to work out why I barely have power.

Sunday morning Pat came round with his volt meters and amp meters and other boat fixing paraphenalia in a bucket. I’m not being funny, he said, But I won’t leave my tools on your boat. Security no good. Kettle on?

Then he sat on my engine, and I delivered tea at regular intervals while the wind blew and clouds gathered and we both remarked on just how cold it was, except that he said his bum was nice and warm from the residual heat coming off my engine.

Several nice cups of tea later the engine had cooled down, the fault was found (though not cured), and I was out of milk. If anyone had called on me for lemon and sugar I could have gone on for days. But this is England, and a cup of tea requires a generous splash of milk.

A blizzard was forecast all over the UK, and I was hoping to be snowed in, but not without milk for my own tea, let alone for anyone requiring gentle bribery. Besides, I was bored. The wind was out of Siberia and it was so bitterly cold I didn’t want to take the walk I had planned, and I had few resources to fall back on while I was without power.

I have to admit that on the boat I miss my home electronics. I can sometimes pick up email, but never (so far) internet, and because of an odd ailment (and a long story) my tele will only receive the sports news channel. Luckily I am radio addict — an old technology, well suited to a rural towpath, and only requiring batteries. I didn’t have newspapers, but the radio assured me snow would be general all over England, though it did not yet fall on every dark plain.

I stoked the fire with coal and turned the air vents down so my stove would be safe while I was out, bundled up, made my way up the tow path to my car, and drove the five miles or so to the grocery store. Sunday is early closing and I needed to be checked out by four.

When I had bought my milk, and some Scotch with which to begin more serious bribery campaign (and charm offensive) on the local British Waterways Warden (another story) and more bourbon to smooth Pat’s way, I thought I would take a quick drive into my old neighbourhood in Oxford.

Several bloggers have noted a recent NY Times Europe article about British place names. British place names

And I couldn’t help remembering that I used to live right around the corner from one of their landmarks.  Now that I am a blogger, I reckoned I had a Duty to the Internet to confirm the Truth of the NYT’s recent post. So here’s my Sunday afternoon photo:

Crotch Crescent

Having satisfied myself that not much had changed since I wheeled my first born to the local shops (except never on a Sunday in those days — or Thursday afternoons, because that was early closing — and the milk was in pint glass bottles not litre plastic tubs) I drove back to the boat and waited for the big storm.

In the morning, though the radio was full of travel chaos in London, fifty miles away in Oxfordshire there was hardly more than a dusting.  It was cold, though, and it took a while for me to stick my head out of the covers.  When I finally did, I snapped the view behind my boat:

Looking towards the lock

Looking towards the lock

And across the fields

Bales of hay

I went to work and found the students, ever willing to make the most of whatever they have, at least when it comes to snow, had built a snowman. That’s an undergraduate cap and gown he is wearing.

Meanwhile, my boat passed. I’m certifiably safe until 2013, officially licensed until 2010, and legally moored for just two more months. Then I become a safe, licensed, squatter.

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