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What are togs?

This afternoon my son was supposed to be going for a socially distanced bike ride with his cousin, but it got to 1.30 pm and he was still slobbing around in his pyjamas. So I said to him, ‘Fred, why don’t you get your togs on?’

He stared blankly and said: ‘What are togs?’

The kids of today, eh? They don’t know the meaning of the word togs. But it then occurred to me that I myself hadn’t heard or used this word for years, if not decades. It has slyly slid into obsolescence without my noticing. Let’s all start using it again. Maybe if we work together we can resurrect this lovely word.

unchartered territory

A good friend of mine – take a bow, Mr Bruce Dessau – has forwarded to me this snippet from the Visit Kent website:

“The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown us all into unchartered territory.”

Unchartered territory, eh? The word charter has two main meanings. The older meaning is for an authority to formally establish and grant rights to, as in a monarch or mayor chartering a city or company. In William Blake’s poem ‘London’ he writes: ‘I wander through each chartered street/ near where the chartered Thames does flow’ – meaning that the streets and river have been been parcelled up and handed out by the City to various companies for their own private use: the repeated use of the word implies a protest at this state of affairs. The second, more recent meaning is to hire, as in chartering a plane. Clearly neither of those senses could apply to the metaphorical territory that the pandemic has taken us into. No, what the Kent copywriter meant was uncharted territory: territory that hasn’t been charted, or mapped.

I would get out more; but that would be irresponsible at this time.

rambunctious? or rumbustious?

I mark a lot of assignments online for the Open University; and today when marking a creative writing assignment, I complimented a student on the rambunctious style in which she had written a family memoir, which included lots of drinking, feuding, fighting and high jinks. But after I had returned it, I suddenly thought, hang on, maybe I meant rumbustious. Maybe there’s no such word as rambunctious. Or maybe there is and it means something completely different. A horror of having used the wrong word – and me a creative writing tutor! – seized me. So I looked them both up.

I discovered, to my relief, that rambunctious means ‘uncontrollably exuberant or boisterous’. And rumbustious means… exactly the same.

So that was all right. But what surprised me was that rambunctious is the form favoured by Americans while we Brits tend to say rumbustious.

Rambunctious, rumbustious… Let’s call the whole thing off.

A pair of tits

During lockdown I have been reading, or re-reading, a number of children’s classic books. At the moment I am on Lucy M Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe, which I had never read before. Published in 1954, it’s an enchanting story about a little boy, Tolly, who goes to live at his grandmother’s ancient and magical house (Boston went on to write other books in the series, all based on her own 900-year-old manor house in Cambridgeshire; A Stranger at Green Knowe won the Carnegie Prize in 1961).

I am enjoying it a lot but this morning I burst out laughing at a sentence which I am fairly sure Lucy Boston did not intend to be funny. I should first explain that Tolly has befriended a chaffinch and keeps his bedroom window open, even though it’s winter, so that other garden birds will fly in. Here’s the sentence:

‘When he reached his room at the top of the stairs, he was delighted to find a pair of tits there…’

Was it crass of me to laugh? It certainly was, but I couldn’t help it.

It might be Shakespeare’s birthday

Happy birthday William Shakespeare! We don’t really know for sure that he was born on this day, 23rd April; we know he was born in the month of April, and because his birth was registered on the 25th (I seem to remember learning in school) and they got babies christened pretty quickly in those days in case they died first, it’s often conjectured that he probably was born on the 23rd, or anyway very close to it. Anyway we do know for sure that he died on this day, and there’s a neatness about the idea that he died on his birthday which appeals; and that it should fall on St George’s Day would be good too.

Some of my favourite Shakespeare lines or phrases:

cream-faced loon 

Would thou wouldst burst!

Now God stand up for bastards!

The bright day is done, and we are for the dark

‘Tis the green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on

I’ll put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes

If you tickle me, do I not laugh?

I wonder that you will still be talking, Signor Benedick. Nobody marks you.

Ill met by moonlight!

The rain it raineth every day.

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

His stomach crammed with distressful bread

Nothing will come of nothing

Which of your hips has the most profound sciatica?

Let me have men about me that are fat

Double double toil and trouble/Fire burn and cauldron bubble

this precious stone set in a silver sea

Why didst thou promise such a bounteous day/And make me travel forth without my cloak?

the beast with two backs

Golden lads and girls all must/As chimney sweepers, come to dust

full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

sell when you can; you are not for all markets

your bum is the greatest thing about you

That’s a random selection from those that have just bubbled up in my brain. I must have missed out loads of better ones. Any further nominations welcome!

By the way, did you know that ‘William Shakespeare’ is an anagram for ‘We all make his praise’? I owe that fact to Flann O’Brien.

The Muse of Erotic Poetry – and Mime

I was doing the crossword in The Observer today and the answer to one of the clues was ‘Erato’ – one of the nine Greek Muses. Curious, I googled her to find out a bit more, and discovered that she was the Muse of erotic poetry and mime. That’s a strange combination, isn’t it? Erotic poetry and mime. One imagines something like the following conversation took place:

ZEUS: Right, Erato, I’d like you to be the Muse for mime.

ERATO: What? I don’t want to do mime. It’s really boring. Why can’t I have tragedy?

ZEUS: Because I’ve already given tragedy to Melpomene.

ERATO: What about singing and dancing, then?

ZEUS: Terpsichore’s got that. Look, someone’s got to do mime and it might as well be you.

ERATO: I don’t even like mime. No, I’m not doing it.

ZEUS: (Sighing) OK, look, I’ll throw in erotic poetry as well, how’s that? Deal? 

ERATO: (Grudgingly) Oh, God, all right then.

ZEUS: You could have mimed that.

ERATO: Oh yeah. (Gives unenthusiastic thumbs-up sign)

A maddening announcement

On Sunday I went to Norwich, a journey that involved three trains, one underground and two overground. In the course of this journey I heard that grating, infuriating, barely-grammatical announcement ‘If you see something that doesn’t look right, please tell a member of staff. We’ll sort it. See it, say it, sorted’ no fewer than fourteen times. Yes, fourteen. FOURTEEN! What the hell is going on? The slogan is everywhere, on all rail networks, blaring out of loudspeakers at every station. And plastered all over posters too. It’s driving me to a frenzy of irritation. I last blogged about this a year ago – see

– and since then it has got worse, not better. I try to share my irritation by making exasperated, sympathy-seeking faces at other commuters when I hear it but they rarely respond. Perhaps they don’t find it as maddenng as I do.

But I am warning whoever is responsible for this fatuous announcement. No one responds well to being nagged. If I do see something that doesn’t look right, there’s no way I’m going to tell a member of staff about it. I’ll keep it to myself.


The daffodils are out! And here is a poem to celebrate that pleasant fact.


Blimey! Behold those big-nosed beauties,

bright and brash as a blare of bugles,

a blast, a blaze, a blitz of ochre,

blinding, brilliant, animate egg-yolks,

bursting free from green baize blazers,

banging their heads like mosh-pit crazers,

billions and billions, all over Britain,

bragging, boasting, top-of-the-billing,

bold as brass or gold doubloons,

yellow-and-orange-and-cream-faced loons,

out on a demo, marching, singing,

nodding and jiving and shaking and swinging,

brazen as strumpets, yellow as crumpets,

blasting and blowing their own bright trumpets.

Philip Pullman and the Oxford comma

I see that Philip Pullman has tweeted that the new Brexit commemorative 50p coin is ‘illiterate’ because its slogan ‘Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations’ lacks an Oxford comma. So it sounds, or could sound, as if we want prosperity with all nations as well as friendship with them. But that’s not quite the sense that was intended. We want prosperity, just on its own – and also friendship with all nations. A comma after prosperity would make it clear that the with refers back only as far as friendship. Of course a difficulty here is that with can and should refer back to peace. The whole thing is rather clumsily phrased.

The idea of the Oxford comma – or so I always thought – was to avoid ambiguity in lists where the last two terms linked by and could be interpreted either as a single item or two separate ones. Example: The subjects I teach for the Open University are Creative Writing, Children’s Literature, and Philosophy. The Oxford comma is useful there because otherwise readers might think there was a single subject called ‘Children’s Literature and Philosophy’.

But I don’t think there is any such risk of ambiguity in the case of the Brexit coin slogan. It’s not ambiguous, just slightly clumsy. But it would still be clumsy with an Oxord comma. Probably the best solution would have been to change the order of the terms: ‘Prosperity, peace and friendship with all nations’. Then the final two terms both work before with and no extra comma is needed.

But why make such a fuss about the punctuation anyway? Pullman just didn’t want Brexit and therefore disapproves of the coin. Well, I didn’t want Brexit either. But we’re stuck with it now and taking a stand on Oxford commas won’t change anything.

The Roaring Twenties

So, we are about to enter a new decade. The 20s. I know there are pedants who say that the decade does not really begin until the end of 2020 (because there was no Year 0) but I’m not of their number. It may only be 2019 completed years since the (putative) birth of Christ but we will be saying and writing 2020 and that is what counts.

Anyway it has got me thinking about the 1920s – a decade which I vicariously lived through for a week when we were filming Further Back in Time for Dinner. I remember thinking at the time what a transformational decade it was: by the end of the 1920s most middle-class homes had radio sets and electric light, the roads were full of cars, and aeroplanes were a common sight in the sky. People were listening to jazz, drinking cocktails, dancing in nightclubs. Modernity arrived in the course of a decade. It was nicknamed ‘The Roaring Twenties’ because of its wildness, speed, noise and energy. I don’t know where the term came from or who coined it; but I note that there was already a phrase ‘the Roaring Forties’, which referred not to a decade but to the fortieth degree of latitude in the southern hemisphere, where there are many storms and hurricanes. So it may have been an adaptation of that.

I wonder if we will see similarly profound social change in the 2020s. My prediction is that we will. But will the 2020s have its own nickname? We shall see.