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‘Understanded of the people’?

The Prayer Book Society helps trainee priests with the ‘Shakespearey’ language.

For The Oldie


Our Eastern allies have just spent £2,000,000 in equipping a Government steel works.

The Nelson Evening Mail, September 8 1908

Ben Stokes is the sixth Englishman to have his name on the honours boards at Lord’s for both batting and bowling.

The smell of hot food is not very common on building sites.

Annalise was stunning in Neighbours. But what she looks like now is insane.

Irish people ended up in Kilburn because the Holyhead train came into Euston and the Fishguard train came into Paddington.

The bite of a tarantula can be cured by musick.

The National Health Service will be £350m better off per week after Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.

In South Africa there is a town called Nilstrom, because the Afrikans voortrekkers thought that they had found the Nile.

Sebastian Faulks takes his own alcohol to Iceland.

The first American performance of Peter Grimes was conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

A man in Reading is celebrating after his penis is confirmed as being the longest in the world.

The Chinese invented gunpowder while searching for the elixir of life.

Big hair don’t care.

The paraphrast draws only from the Book of Daniel.

Failure to launch?

To Daunt’s in Marylebone, last night, where former pretty-boy and nightclub bouncer (and Amorist ‘Fiascos’ columnist) Anthony McGowan launched his latest literary venture, The Art of Failing.

Subtitled Notes from the Underdog, the book chronicles a year in the life of West Hampstead’s shambolic would-be flâneur, by way of library mishaps, bad packed lunches, and hypochondria – taken from and/or inspired by McGowan’s social media output: a stream of semi-sane, self-lacerating anecdotes that over the past few years have established him as a sort of Stewart Lee of Facebook.

As befits a man no longer in the prime of life, there is a lot on matters sexual. His concern that his chlamydia levels might be low, his first kiss with a woman, or the vermin that may or may not swarm all over his soiled loins. Do animals get VD? His fear of women’s pubic hair. His desire to have used fifties shoved down his bra. And – quote – ‘the wrong transsexual’ at the paint shop.

Then there’s his preposterous claim that sometimes people find him quite attractive.

Like as the hart desireth the water-brook, so Our Tone is pretty much guaranteed to make a mess of things. So obviously those attending – bestsellers such as Sebastian Faulks and Tom Holland among them – hoped the gig would be a total train-wreck. But no: he couldn’t even get that right.

McGowan’s agent, Charlie Campbell, tried valiantly to steer proceedings in the right direction, calling The Art of Failing “the worst idea for a book I’ve ever heard” (McGowan’s previous agent having told him the book would ruin his career).

But our anti-hero rallied, and in a clattering, one-handed speech (a ‘cricket injury’…), he gave the people what they wanted: a brief, amusing reading, and a glass of free wine.

He threw in one Top Tip for amorists: “The key to writing about people that you know is just to say that they’re terrifically sexually attractive, and then get on with it.” And then he paused, astutely, to bestow a paean of uxoriousness upon his wife – who, he said, is “less of a monster” than he’s made her seem among these pages. “I’ve always written first of all to make her laugh.”

No doubt the book will be a huge success.

For The Amorist


The HAC/Royal Artillery Communicator Course (2/11 – condensed) experienced something of a ‘cold start’ when several of the intake missed the first drill night following a break-down in, er, communications. But the troops rallied manfully, and by the first weekend of December, at Crowborough Camp and under the leadership of CSgt Booth and LCpl Magee – CSgts Ivey, Perera and Wallace instructing – our education in all matters Comms/BOWMAN had begun in earnest.

‘A radio’s a radio,’ says CSgt Ivey; but he’s just being modest. Actually, we learned, they come in a bewildering array of configurations and serial numbers (albeit only one colour: a rather unimaginative autumnal green), and they’re pretty hi-tech, too: batteries allowing, some of them will even send a text-message. Plus there’s the ‘Canadian’ setting.

Still, our instructors were vocally confident that in the age of the touchscreen and the smartphone any fool with a functioning forefinger should be good to operate a BOWMAN: a claim we felt it was our sworn duty to assay.

Much of it turned out to be straightforward enough (the correct procedure for turning off the radio, for instance, being to ‘turn the radio’s function switch to OFF’); but some aspects were not so intuitive. ‘Free net’ is not like the WiFi you hook up to in Caffè Nero; ‘buddy fill’, sadly, doesn’t mean ‘getting your mate to do it’; and, try as you might, a ‘Free Channel Search’ will never tune in to Classic FM. Some bordered even on the Kafkaesque: like the instruction to scroll down the menu to NONE SELECTED… and then hit SELECT.

So, in between PowerPoint naps and ironing out misunderstandings over ‘laying cable in an open field’ or the fragile etiquette of the Master/Slave relationship, we concentrated on the finer points of communications theory (step one: say ‘Hello’) and Voice Procedure – or what Tpr Swanston calls ‘delicious language’.

Here, certainly, there were some curve-balls. You must never use first names on the net (even if you do have colleagues called Mike, Oscar or Romeo), and since every radio will have its own ‘unique identifier’ the Army will not smile on the use of other ‘unique identifiers’ you might or might not have assigned to your fellow soldiers in the course of casual conversation. The correct Base Time is not ‘about a quarter past five.’ ‘iSpell’ is neither an educational app nor a Zulu imperative. And the correct response to ‘Authenticate Six-Four’ is not ‘It’s me, you t**t!’

Above all, we were told, remember your RSVP – the acronym for communicating, politely but firmly, with a Frenchman. Trooper Brown, for one, was having particular difficulties with the V.

We marched to and from the cookhouse, chanting ‘1mW good: 16W bad!’ and revising from our handy pocket-sized training pamphlets (verbatim: ‘EMAP. Switches on the EMAP.’), and then under cover of darkness undertook a low-key navigation-and-radio exercise, during which, it is rumoured, one of the more experienced signallers among us endeavoured to anticipate the end-Ex by mistaking her the E-PURGE button for the OFF.

The second of these weekends involved a continuation of the same – in particular on the relevance of SAD, which, by now, we felt we were beginning to understand – plus a wee jolly into neighbouring Pippingford Park. This, we were led to believe, would not be ‘too warry’; but with the infill entering its fourth hour… Still, we were learning. For example, that even a completely defunct radio is a neat way of getting the weight up in your Bergen. Or that the main reason the radio ‘may still emit a signal even without you knowing’ is because, often as not, there’s some berk leaning on the pressel.

Drill night lectures developed these themes, with additional instruction on the use of BATCO and the minutiae of Electronic Warfare. The Yeoman of Signals gave us a brief on how not to drop the comms kit out of a helicopter over Baghdad (operationally, we figured we’d be alright, in East Sussex), and broadly speaking made the argument that the best defence against interception is not to use the radio at all – a prescription met with more enthusiasm than perhaps was entirely proper.

And then came the Part 1 test. ‘You can put A or B,’ the Yeoman stated for the record. ‘I recommend A.’

At the end of February the course deployed to Blandford, home of the Royal School of Signals, for our RA Comms Course Part 2/FTX, where we were promised (sic) ‘a full week of this stuff so we could take it to a more interesting level.’ The first lesson was entitled ‘Why are batteries so important?’

A body can only handle so many 8-hour lecture-room days, so the increasingly surreal round of batteries, frequencies, power-settings, batteries, frequencies, having our integrity questioned by the local PTI, batteries, frequencies, and sitting in wheel-less Land Rovers marked ‘no loitering on account of the radiation’ was punctuated with more hands-on sessions on the putting up of 10m masts (antennae optional), the dropping of same on directing staff (Tpr ‘Timber!!’ Liversidge), and the patching of calls through to girlfriends via TASCOM (‘No, honestly, darling, I would’ve called, only there’s no signal out here. What’s that? Ironic? Yes, it is a little…’). There was an abnormally high level of foot-traffic through the Royal Signals Museum, home to the regimental cappuccino dispenser.

But notwithstanding these thrills and diversions, the intellectual trauma steadily began to kick in. Tpr Jones started keeping a diary of her bowel-movements (she had been licking the radios), and Tpr Spetch began spouting some nonsense about calling his firstborn ‘Ross’ in honour of LCpl Magee.

Even our instructors began to show symptoms of strain. CSgt Perera seemed to be doing ‘bad cop, confusing cop’ all by his lonesome (‘Your hands will either be up, or down’; ‘Just because I’m asking the questions doesn’t mean that I know the answers!’). And then CSgt Ivey started lecturing in verse: ‘How bíg, how high, is that wáve on the ócean? / How lóud are you héaring my vóice?’

We had been warned there was previously a PSYOP component built into all pre-Patrols training: now we began to fear that this serial had been moved up. The troops grew nervous and disoriented – though not half so much as the team of civilian contractors who arrived at the Chickerell guard hut one evening, to be met by the intimidating panorama of CSgt Perera riffling through the Spectator, LCpl Anderson listening to Radio 3, and Dmr Barker sketching the HAC’s coat of arms onto a new design for wrought-iron security (a whole new definition of ‘camp gates’).

On the final Friday we deployed into the field, where we underwent a gruelling half-day of lessons on Contact reports, 9-liner MEDEVAC requests (‘Broken down into 9 lines. Exactly the same as a 10-liner’) and a last-minute ‘interest lecture’ on generators before camming up our FFRs and kipping out under the stars. The following morning Sgt Houghton administered a quick VAGR examination and debrief (not necessarily in that order) – and everyone agreed it was a lovely. old. job.

The pass-rate for the course was a meritorious 100%, and the chief geeks prize-winners Tprs Meyer-Higgins (Best Student), Jones (Bright Spark), and Wiktorowski-Schweitz (all-round good egg). Our successors have, we understand, long-since embarked upon their studies, and will now be well on their way to lugging their own heavy, E-PURGEd radios through the night. We wish them all the best with that.

For the Honourable Artillery Company Journal (Autumn 2012)


Miss Mary Elsen, of Chicago, is suing Dr. Charles Weser, a local doctor, for 60 breaches of promise during a four years’ courtship.

The Nelson Evening Mail, June 22 1912

Soldiers are quite fond of children.

Chopsticks are the reason the Chinese never invented custard.

The senior members of the House of Commons are not fit to govern.

The editor of the Erotic Review was educated in a school for the daughters of missionaries.

Karl Marx wrote his PhD on Epicurus.

Belgium’s famous Manneken Pis statue has over 900 changes of clothing.

If you draw a line with chalk around a chicken it will be immobilised.

The King of the Fleas lives in Tiberias.

Swazi actor Richard E Grant did not drink milk til 1985.

‘Mayday!’ comes from the French, ‘m’aidez!’

You can find Just For Men® things in the Men’s aisle.

Elton Jantjies is the first South African rugby player to score 15 points or more in 5 successive matches.

Penge East is a surprisingly popular train station.

An honest pisstake

Pissing Figures: 12802014
by Jean-Claude Lebensztejn (transl. Jeff Nagy)
David Zwirner Books, 168pp, £11.95

From a Cimabue cherub to Szydlowski/-lowska’s Lenin, simply everyone is pissing.

In pen and ink, paint on canvas, plaster, wood, stone, polymer, block prints, engraving, chamber pots, aquatints, dishware, film, manuscripts, inlay, public statuary, trick-photography, and in a Japanese video game played with live piss; men, women, children, angels, demons, and a limited selection of fauna; in gardens and in brothels, alone or in groups, in fancy dress or civvies; at divine revelations and in diplomatic meetings; onto walls, into wine-cups, into flagons, hats, baskets, rivers, coffins, and all over each other; drunk pissing, child pissing, simultaneous drinking-pissing, horseback pissing, piss sword-fights (obv.), and a boy pissing a urine halo over a young girl’s head. Snow White pisses. Cupid pisses (on his mother!). One doughty soul pisses onto Mars’s helmet – his actual battlegear, that is.

In fact, in the course of Jean-Claude Lebensztejn’s nine essays and 137-odd (sic) illustrations, you could be forgiven for thinking no-one ever does anything but piss.

But his survey steers us through the allegorical minefield of alchemical symbolism, homosexual love-codes, the overwhelming preponderance of small boys pissing in Renaissance art, and the entertaining hypothesis of a literal (OK, figurative) pissing contest between Michelangelo and Titian. And under his tutelage we approach a clearer understanding of the medical uses, ethnic ceremonies, trade applications, and other themes that have to do with urine, and the cultural shifts by which the innocence of those earlier acts and images was lost.

‘Christ’s penis’ and ‘fist fucking’ are unusual bedfellows, even in the world of academia; and I’ll have to take Prof. Lebensztejn’s word that ‘this is what imbues the stream of urine with a tortured subjectivity.’ But in Pissing Figures he has found a hitherto unilluminated corner of art history – and let fly all over it as only a French art critic/historian ever could. His deadpan is particularly delectable. Re Bosse’s Giving Drink to the Thirsty (via, yes, a pissing statue) he points out: ‘In the era of indoor plumbing, we rarely if ever consume water like this.’ Elsewhere, a hilarious note records the full mathematical equation for the piss-parabola.

And if Lebensztejn’s treatment of this schoolboy topic is otherwise disappointingly grown-up (no Lebowski’s rug? No Paula Radcliffe?), the unembarrassed orange cover makes the perfect complement to public transport, if only so you might catch somebody rubbernecking at the pics and then say smugly, à la Andrew Lincoln: “Actually, they’re not funny… They’re art.”

For The Amorist

I came, I saw, I conkered

A little bit of seasonal nostalgia.

For The Oldie


The typewriter is more largely used in Mexico than in France.

The Nelson Evening Mail, August 2 1906

In 1943 a British pilot made an emergency landing on the Italian island of Lampedusa, only to have it surrender to him.

Kelo trees live for up to 3,500 years, and remain standing for another 700.

A ‘BLT’ is a sandwich containing bacon, lettuce and tomato.

Spinal Tap were originally called Lamé, but this soon changed after the named repeatedly appeared on posters without the accent.

24 sitting Labour MPs have died since the year 2000.

After Michael Jackson’s death ‘emaciated’ was the most searched word on the Merriam-Webster dictionary homepage.

Gaius Plinius Secundus was the ‘Elder’ of the two famous Plinys.

The little black bits in kiwi fruit are spider cack.

José Mauricio Nunes Garcia’s Missa Dos Defuntos is a very obvious rip-off of Mozart’s Requiem.

Arthur C Clarke owned a Sinclair C6 electric vehicle.

The Fountain Café in Walliston, Surrey, dispenses the nastiest coffee south of Manchester.

Many C.19th paintings are believed to have used pigment derived from pulverised Egyptian mummies.

You don’t need a sense of humour in paradise.


On the body of a man who committed suicide in the canal at New Gravel Lane, Stepney, a hospital card was found marked “delusions”.’

The Nelson Evening Mail, January 6 1909

The new Norwegian Bible translation is by no means a rush job.

Gieves & Hawkes is the cheapest Top 10 London tailor. Prices start around £800.

Sri Lanka’s Batatotalena cave temple, in which the Buddha is believed once to have rested, contains a mural incorporating the British royal coat of arms.

It is empirically improbable that everybody was kung fu fighting.

Les Miserables contains a sentence that is 823 words long.

Natalie Imbruglia’s late-’90s single ‘Torn’ was apparently a cover.

Writing the word ‘Adult’ on the cover of a children’s colouring book makes a cheap alternative to expensive adult colouring books.

China’s longest bridge is longer than America’s six longest bridges all together.

In the first test between England and the West Indies at Edgbaston in 2017, 19 West Indian wickets fell on day three.

Shostakovich was afraid of prostitutes and janitors.

The ruler of Egypt once gave Charles X of France a giraffe. It walked to Paris with an antelope.

Pukka Pies don’t compromise.

For the last twenty years of his life Rudolf Hess was the only inmate of the Spandau Prison.

An unsigned note

Oldie readers will need no reminding that the heart of John le Carré’s ‘Circus’ – indeed, of his entire ouevre – is one George Smiley OBE.

From Call for the Dead (in ’61) to the classic ‘Karla trilogy’, and on til (almost) the collapse of Communism, he battled foe and, sometimes, friend, quite often in the streets of central London.

He’s not been seen since 1991. But in proper Oldie style (for Smiley would now be well over a hundred…), it seems he is about to make a re-appearance. 

The details of A Legacy of Spies are locked down tighter than a nuclear facility (the publishing trade could teach those spies a thing or two!). But to help you get back into that redoubtable, unglamorous le Carré spirit, Penguin have released a ‘Smiley’s London’ map, identifying a handful of old favourite locations, like his Chelsea home and the (Cambridge) Circus HQ, and one new one: a safe house which has languished undetected to this day (it’s 14 Disraeli St, in Bloomsbury).

Mapped and illustrated by Mike Hall, you can print it out or just download it to your phone. And sportingly, you’ll note, it includes each branch of Waterstone’s alone the route, enabling you to stop off for that lost le Carré paperback you’d hoped to reference.

The Old Un reckons you could do it in a gentle Sunday, with a stop for lunch. Watch out for ‘pavement artists’.

For The Oldie