Monday, June 27, 2011


I don't want to offend anyone, so if you find this topic distasteful, skip this one.

A friend from the South told me an anecdote about a "rooster". Just back from the U.K., I note that Brits don't hesitate to call the male bird by its original name.

My thoughts turn to euphemisms (in both countries) for the place where my British contemporaries used to go to "spend a penny"--that's the coin they used to need, to obtain access to a "public convenience". In Britain, the upper and middle classes go to the "loo". I noticed that some Brits (notably on the BA planes which took us to and from Heathrow) have adopted the Canadian term "washroom", which I had not heard across the Atlantic until this last trip. That's really a variant on "lavatory", the normal term when I was growing up: it wasn't a place where you went to wash. I heard "bog" used in England, also.

At my British "prep school" (aged 8 through 13), matron was always ready to hand out a laxative to those who answered in the negative to "Have you been through?"

In the U.S., I tend to prefer "john" to describe the "s***house", where a stepdaughter once expanded my vocabulary by saying she was going to "dump a load".

In the British Navy, I learned to use the term widely known by yachtsmen and others on vessels of all types, the "head". I've read of the place being called the "Jakes", but not met that term in conversation. "Toilet" is widely used by English speakers. "Would you like to wash your hands?" really means "Do you want to use the loo?".

Another expression from the UK, widely used, is "W.C." this stands for "water closet", and probably dates from the 19th century, when this invention superseded the outhouse. The famous plumbing specialist of the early 19th century, Thomas Crapper, has given his name to the water closet, although he didn't actually invent it. He might be dismayed by knowing how the first four letters of his name have come to be used.

Monday, June 20, 2011


One of the major differences between my native land of England (I am about half English and half Scottish) and the U.S. is the profusion of first names in this country. There are some bizarre names in England, such as "Marmaduke", but they are rarely encountered. "Quentin" was about as exotic a friend's name as any I can recall. It helped that his last name was "Hockliffe"
When I see a name that is new to me, I try to puzzle out its country of origin. With last names this is often easier, as with -ian endings for those of Armenian ancestry, or German-Jewish names ending in -stein. I get most French, Italian, and Spanish names right.

A new one on me was "Rogelio". My guess was that this was Spanish, reminding me of "Julio", and that turns out to be correct. It's not a common name, however. I came across the name in a story about a computer hacker, a successful one responsible for $36 million in fraudulent transactions. He is reported to have stolen more than 675,000 credit card accounts.

What made the news story especially memorable was his last name: Hackett...

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Assault Weapons

Amid all the earlier discussion of the causes and future remedies relating to the Tucson murders, there has been relatively little said or written about the weapon used.

Barbara and I have for many years been in support of Sarah Brady in her efforts to bring about some form of gun control in our country.

We would prefer the type of gun control prevailing in such countries as the UK. This has worked well. There are strict limits on gun ownership, and the rarity of incidents involving any form of such weapons as handguns and rifles speaks for itself.

However, I know this form of control will not work in the United States. This is not just because of the successful efforts of the NRA to crush any attempt to limit the ownership of guns. As a boy of about 10, I was taught target shooting (at school) with a .22 rifle . My father later gave me my own .22, but I never used this after 1939. I had no problem with registering this gun, but I had given up shooting at targets, and never did try to use it on rabbits - or rats, for that matter.

One day, when we were living in Devon, a very polite police officer knocked at our door, and suggested that I might allow him to take away my rifle. Perhaps this was when there was a justifiable fear of invasion. We lived near Slapton Sands, a wonderful stretch of beach that was used by the army to practice landings before the invasion of France. The idea may have been to round up as many weapons as possible out of fear that they might be used against our own forces, although I have come to doubt this explanation.

Living in England, we never felt any need to retain some firepower in our home, and we have continued to feel this way in California. We do realize, however, that we are in a minority, and that what I consider a twisted interpretation of a clause in the constitution permitting citizens to bear arms, in case they were needed for service in the militia has been stretched so that it severely limits any restriction on firearms. I have come to accept that ownership of handguns, as well as shotguns and rifles will be legally protected in our lifetime.

There will be no restrictions on weapons used for hunting or self defense.

What I find almost incredible is that we do not regulate assault rifles, including such "semi-automatic" weapons as the one used in Arizona. What purpose does an AK47 or other similar weapon have except to engage in multiple killings? Could we not find a middle way, accepting our nation's love affair with certain firearms, but absolutely ban such terrible killing machines as can be readily bought at gun shows in most states?

In other words, instead of arguing as to whether talk radio, video games, and aggressive speech are responsible for "crazy" behavior, can't we do something to control excessive weaponry?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Favorite Authors

When we arrived for the wedding reception on Saturday, we were told that our table was "Bronte". One of the many creative touches set up by Justine and Joe was to name the tables after their favorite authors. That's not all: instead of some wasteful "party favor": in front of each of over a hundred guests was a paperback book to take away: mine was Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five". I had read this brilliant anti-war novel years ago, but we didn't have a copy at home.

This put me in a reminiscent mood. Over the years there has always been at least one author whose every book I have greedily reached for when available. I suppose that after my sister taught me to read at the age of four I began with Beatrix Potter, but soon I graduated to Thornton W. Burgess, a Canadian writer of children's books about wild animals. I think I had begun to enjoy the works of Arthur Ransome about children who camped out near the lake district, the first in the series being "Swallows and Amazons". These stories were based on real families he knew. For humorous reading, there were the "William" books by Richmal Crompton.

At my British-style boarding prep school (ages 8 to 13), I soon found the adventure stories of Percy F. Westerman, and read all those in the school library. At about this time I discovered John Buchan, thanks to an inspiring math teacher, who read "The Thirty-Nine Steps" to us in class after our exams were over, and finished it out of school hours. I then took hold of all the "Saint" books by Leslie Charteris I could find. They were formulaic, and I enjoyed the relationship between Simon Templar (the "Saint") and "Pat", with whom he cohabited but did not marry.

Soon I moved on to the works of Graham Greene, whose two suppressed youthful works I managed to read, years later, knowing that they had to have been in the Bodleian collection at Oxford. Then I discovered Evelyn Waugh, and read every one of his published works. I also read every one of Jane Austen's works while at Oxford--much more entertaining than "Beowulf".

As time passed, I began reading all Patrick O'Brian's great Naval adventures. John Le Carré attended Lincoln College, Oxford, a few years after my time there, and I have read every one of his books. I have read almost all of Anthony Trollope's works. I read all of Laurie R. King's books, and look forward to her future writings.

Sometimes I have used Recorded Books: the abilities of most of their readers make the printed word come alive. For many years, I have enjoyed the "Scarpetta" novels of Patricia Cornwell, about a woman forensic pathologist, although I was disappointed by her latest, "Port Mortuary".

There you have it: fifteen gifted writers of all sorts, who have given me enormous pleasure over the past eighty years. I have enjoyed many other works, but I have limited this list to writers whose every word has drawn me into reading. I encourage any persons reading this to send me their own list of favorite authors.