Things to make and do with a fake P45

Theresa May is, in my view, a cold, mean woman and a poor Prime Minister. However, she is also (on the balance of probability) a person, doing an important and difficult job, not very well. I think she knows she’s not doing it very well, because I’ve also done jobs that were, in their local context at least, important and difficult, and at which I was poor. I understand that haunted, gaunt look on Theresa May’s face and her unsteady voice: these are the features of someone who knows they suck at their job.

Do you know what I did when I realised I was in a job I wasn’t any good at? I quit, and let someone more competent take over. Theresa May seems to feel that she has to stay in post, maybe because the alternatives are just too awful too contemplate. This week someone at the Conservative Party Conference actually said on live radio that he thought Boris Johnson would make a good Prime Minister.[1] I know people have been saying that for years, but this fool said it after the British Foreign Secretary made light of civil war in Libya and and after he recited the opening lines of ‘The Road to Mandalay’ in the Shwedagon Pagoda (the holiest Buddhist site in Yangon).[2] Imagine the fuss if a Burmese diplomat spontaneously recited a poem in his native language, protesting about the hundred-odd years of British occupation perhaps and maybe including a bunch of sexually inappropriate suggestions, while visiting Westminster Abbey on behalf of his nation. Imagine also, if you will, how politics in Britain might change if we all stopped pretending that an Oxford education (or a tendency to make jokes in Latin, or a liking for Eton and governesses, or a total lack of respect for other cultures) makes a person special, clever or eccentric.  Boris Johnson does a good impression of a Very Clever person, but doesn’t have the wit or humility to acknowledge that he is deeply mediocre; it’s worth noting here that pretty much anyone can learn pretty much anything by heart, a process that does not require a person to understand what they have learnt in the least. I, for example, can sing several songs in foreign languages that I don’t speak, having learnt them as a series of sounds only by listening obsessively to Flanders and Swann; I couldn’t even tell you where one word ends and the next begins, and I certainly wouldn’t offer this as a reason for other people to find me clever or able.[3] The same applies to Jacob Rees-Mogg, a man so clearly convinced of the righteousness of his own sense of entitlement that I sometimes comfort myself in the small hours by imagining bizarre deaths that might befall him (see also evil sock-puppet Michael Gove).

Since I first wrote this blog post, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson has managed to (yet again) say the wrong thing about a British woman currently in an Iranian prison on trumped up espionage charges, suggesting that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran ‘teaching journalism’. No, she wasn’t. She was on holiday. The Iranian government are now using this information to support fresh charges and there is every chance her sentence will be extended. If you go to the Independent article I’ve linked to above, for the next few days you can hear disgraced former defence secretary Dr. Liam Fox MP for yourself, defending Boris Johnson’s ‘slip of the tongue’ and suggesting that people shouldn’t ‘overreact’.

If, while taking money to do a job I was terrible at, someone had handed me a fake P45 (even in jest), I’d have seen it as fair comment. If, however, one has confidence in one’s ability and knows that one is just taking some time to find one’s feet, then being handed a fake P45 in public isn’t a problem. It’s a gift. Much as I dislike Theresa May’s policies, I hate to see a woman (any woman, but a woman in public life particularly) miss an opportunity to humiliate a man who is trying to humiliate her. Here, then, are some things to make and do with a fake P45:

i. Take fake P45; crack weak joke; finish speech; cry about it later in conference venue toilets. Listen to moron who does your old job being interviewed on evening radio describe breath-takingly inadequate security as ‘disappointing’ and respond to the question ‘what if he had been carrying acid?’ with ‘well, he wasn’t.’[4] Google ‘acid attack’; ponder own mortality; cry some more in Downing Street toilet.

ii. Ignore man attempting to hand you fake P45. Pause speech only to say, ‘If that man isn’t removed immediately, I’m going to make whoever is in charge of security come up here and explain to the class how this person was allowed to get within touching distance of the Prime Minister.’ Wait in stony silence for security to remove P45 Man. Finish speech.

iii. Take fake P45, screw it into a ball and bounce it off P45 Man’s face. Dust hands. Finish speech.

iv. Take fake P45. Walk back to podium and announce that you are firing your current bodyguard. Point out that P45 Man could have been carrying acid, and show you’re capable of going off script and familiar with your own legislation by reiterating the new regulations being brought in to make acid attacks more difficult, thus both protecting the victims of acid attacks and pissing off Amber Rudd, who already announced them.[5] Have epiphany that Amber Rudd is a moron and fire her too.

v. Take fake P45. Walk back to podium and explain that this P45 has reached you by mistake, and was intended for the Foreign Secretary. In fact, this has just reminded you that Boris Johnson deserves to be fired, right now on live television, because of, among other things, the hateful thing he just said about the civil war in Libya and his tone-deaf impromptu poetry recital in Yangon. Note that you are not going to fire him, however, because the whole Brexit fiasco is at least partly his fault, and you expect him to help clear up the mess he has made. Explain that foreign wars are not opportunities for British businesses to exploit, and that representing one’s nation requires one to have some idea of history, context and courtesy. Declare that Johnson will, therefore, not be going on any further foreign trips until he has demonstrated to your satisfaction that he can leave the country without embarrassing it. Apologise unreservedly to the people of Libya and Myanmar. Finish speech.

vi. Take fake P45. Walk back to podium. Announce, in coldest, most menacing tone, ‘It’s a fake P45, everyone. Let me show you what I think of that.’ Tear it into bite-sized pieces and eat it. Take your time over this. Freestyle rest of speech, announcing whatever the fuck you like. Never worry about leadership challenges ever again. Bonus: any subsequent throat problems can be blamed on the fact that you literally just ate that fucker’s joke.

vii. Take fake P45. Walk back to podium. Commenting that you intend to treat this gesture with the dignity it deserves, fold fake P45 into jaunty hat. Put hat on. As P45 Man is removed by security, remove hat and fold it into a paper aeroplane. ‘Accidentally’ release paper aeroplane into the crowded auditorium in such a way that Jacob Rees-Mogg is fatally wounded in the eye and bleeds out as you finish your speech. When prompted in post-speech interviews to comment on this tragic and yet deeply satisfying end, describe the incident as ‘disappointing’.


[1] Until the end of October, you can listen to this buffoon for yourself on PM via iPlayer (starts just before the 18-minute mark), but the burden of his song is that Boris Johnson appeals to young people (?), whom it is hoped will learn to ‘aspire to the Conservative way of life’ (??).

[2] ‘The Road to Mandalay’ is Kipling in full colonial fig, speaking from the point of view of a retired soldier reflecting on his time in Burma (as it was then). It refers to Yangon throughout as Rangoon (as it was known under British colonial rule), describes the Buddha (again, I remind the reader that Boris Johnson was in a Buddhist temple) as ‘an ’eathen idol’, and a ‘Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud/ Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd’, and suggests that the soldier persuaded a Burmese girl to stop ‘a-wasting Christian kisses’ on the Buddha’s statue by kissing her himself. Fortunately, the British ambassador was able to intervene before Boris had got much further than the fourth line (‘Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!’, which is quite bad enough). I suggest that the British ambassador shouldn’t have to educate the Foreign Secretary as to how to be a diplomat, or to point out that they’re in a Buddhist temple (it’s huge and covered in gold). For such a thoroughly educated man, he is extraordinarily ignorant.

[3] A recent letter to the LRB puts it neatly: ‘classicists are embarrassed that [Boris Johnson’s] claims to intellectual prowess rest on his knowing the beginning of the Iliad off by heart, along with Kipling’s ‘Mandalay’ […]. Actually, it’s more embarrassing than that: last time I heard him reciting ‘Mandalay’, he misquoted it.’

[4] Amber Rudd didn’t even manage to use the question as an opportunity to talk about the legislation she had just announced (again, you can listen to her excuse of an interview via iPlayer for the next few days, from 20 minutes 45 onwards). She could so easily have said, ‘I can’t comment on the specifics of this security breach, but I’m glad you mentioned acid attacks. Acid attacks are very serious, and I just announced a bunch of regulations that will make it harder for people to carry them out.’ It also suggests that Amber Rudd doesn’t understand hypotheticals. What if Jacob Rees-Mogg was run over by a float at gay pride? What if his face was eaten by owls? What if he choked on a quill pen? What if he was smothered in vellum? What if he was wounded in a freak paper aeroplane accident? Well, he wasn’t. So far, Amber Rudd. So far.

[5] The majority of the new acid regulations are pretty sensible and supported by the research, but the age restriction (it will no longer be legal for those under the age of eighteen to purchase acid) gave me pause, because it’s so bloody Tory. They court the youth vote with all that stuff about student loans and home ownership, but they don’t understand them (see above for the ‘young people like Boris’ bullshit), and they can’t help but show their fundamental fear and hatred of young people (see Bing-bong!).

Tightus Groan: a quest for the barely adequate

I hate tights. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, although I am unaware of having wronged tights in any way, tights hate me.

I go without tights for as much of the year as I can bear, but in the colder months there is no option but to start wearing the buggers again, and thus my hatred for tights (or ‘fucklegs’, as I think of them) crests in a series of little waves throughout the winter, each thicker, blacker and more sepulchral than the last. The Filthy Comma does not often post product reviews (although see my thoughts on the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex) as described in Iron Get Hot Now). Here we have a case in which brands are largely ignored; rather, the garment itself is called into question. Just as 1066 And All That notes of King John that he had no redeeming features, is there anything at all to be said in favour of tights? Is there such a thing as a pair of tights that actually do the job they were made to do, or are they all bastards? And if they are, how is one to clothe one’s legs in winter? These are the questions we shall seek to answer.

It seems to me that the reasons to hate tights are manifold, various and entirely obvious, but for the benefit of any readers not familiar with the Anti-Christ and His works, my reasons are as follows.

i. Tights do not stay on my body.

This is the minimum requirement for an item of clothing, and tights do not meet it. It is simply not possible to pull a pair of tights up (an operation that is necessary a few thousand times per tight-wearing day) in a modest and dignified fashion. Moreover, having wrestled the stretchy bastards back into place, they waste no time in wriggling back down again; or getting themselves twisted; or revolving quietly as though one leg has decided it would quite like to have a look round the back; or making one swelter and itch in areas that should really be kept as air-conditioned as possible; or squeaking as they brush against each other; or building up a static field between themselves and the lining of one’s skirt so that it clings and/or creeps up one’s legs just as the tights are creeping down; or a hundred other things that one would never tolerate from any other item of clothing. One might as well try to steer one’s legs into a pair of angry pike.

ii. Tights lie.

They do this in two ways. Firstly, they pretend to be sexy (viz. a pair of tights I saw for sale in China that promised to clothe me from ‘crotch to sandalsome toe’), but in fact it is not possible to put on or take off a pair of tights with any modicum of decorum, nevermind sex appeal. In my considered view, for a garment to be sexy, one needs to be able to either a. saucily leave it on during The Act; or b. take it off ahead of time in a way that at the very least doesn’t make one look like an idiot. Tights fail spectacularly on both counts. Worse than this, cheap tights never quite get clean, building up layers of sour dust around the toe area, over-stretching round the heel, and generally deteriorating with alarming speed into limp, over-extended squalour in a way that does one’s legs no favours.

Secondly, they pretend to be useful. For the first few minutes that they are on, and during activities that involve sitting or standing perfectly still (i.e. things that barely qualify as ‘activities’), tights are fine. Yes, they seem to say. We will totally stay where you put us just now, for the entire day. Feel free to walk about! We understand that it is our purpose to stay on your legs, regardless of whether you are using your legs or not! And yet, for anything that involves my legs actually moving around (i.e. being legs), tights are 100% useless. A woman that might need or want to walk for more than a couple of minutes at a time (and I walk for an hour every day) is something of which the manufacturers of tights cannot conceive. After teaching, I once walked from university to where my car was parked in Leigh Woods (about three miles) and had to stop thirty-seven times to pull my tights up. In the end I went into the public toilets[1] on Clifton Suspension Bridge, took the bloody things off and stuffed them into a bin. Then I kicked the bin until I felt better.

iii. Tights are uncomfortable.

The waist elastic is never strong enough to hold the blasted things up, and yet at the same time more than strong enough to squash one’s belly in ways that are deeply troubling. Tights are designed by people who think a narrow waistband predisposed to spontaneously fold or roll over itself into a spandex sausage when one sits down, stands up or otherwise moves about in a perfectly reasonable fashion is the last word in comfort. Such people should be flayed (with tights, while wearing tights).

iv. Tights are unflattering.

Just look at all the new and interesting ways in which your insides can bulge painfully through your clothes! Hopefully, the look you were going for was Stealthily- and Unevenly-Inflating Plastic Woman, because that’s the look you’ve ended up with. And it’s all thanks to Tights, The Bastard Accessory.

v. Tights are instruments of torture for people with bowel disease.

Stretchy stupid tubes that squeeze your bowel, offer no protection against incontinence and can’t be removed in public? What a fabulous idea.

Exhibit A: some fucklegs


vi. The better the colour, the worse the tights.

I own several pairs of brightly-coloured tights, including four pairs with knitted spots. The most impractical pair are a prune colour, with spots the size of egg yolks in green, yellow and orange. Naturally, these are the tights most willing to stay on my body, because they know full well that they don’t go with anything else in my wardrobe (and certainly nothing that makes me look and feel like a grown-up professional woman). Fuchsia tights? Stay up all day and cause only mild embarrassment and indigestion. Plain black ones? No chance.

vii. Tights spontaneously self-destruct.

Were you stupid enough to put them on with your fingers, you utter fule? Did you get within two feet of a wall, chair or doorframe during your exciting day of sitting-and-standing-perfectly-still? Did you spend the day having cats hurled at you unexpectedly, battling death-owls or furtively handling sharply-edged stones? Were you, per Gertrude Stein, climbing in tights? It doesn’t matter whether you did any or none of these things, because you could spend a tight-wearing day in a sensory deprivation tank and still find the buggers had managed to snag themselves on the passage of time itself. You would also have wasted your time and money on a sensory deprivation tank, since tights are so bloody uncomfortable.

viii. Tights cause other people to recapitulate information that you are already in possession of (e.g. ‘You have a hole in your fucklegs’).

Such people, apparently unaware that grown-up women dress themselves, fail to realise that a woman wearing holey tights is doing so for one of two reasons. One, the tights were perfectly fine when she put them on, and have since self-destructed. Two, all tights the same colour look identical in the damn drawer. You put your hand in, you take out a pair of tights. Entire mornings can be lost searching for a pair with either no holes (or at least a pair with a hole that will be concealed by today’s chosen outfit), so you pull a pair out of the drawer and put them on and hope for the best. Why not just throw out the pairs with holes in, you say? Because tights, as well as being flimsy, uncomfortable, unflattering and traitorously unable to stay the fuck up, are also expensive.

ix. The alternatives to tights are crappy.

Leggings provide a solution from crotch to sandalsome shin only; bare legs are no good in the winter; and suspenders are a bad, male joke played on women to make us feel like stupid cold slags.

What is the solution to this Gormenghastly problem? Gentle reader, I have it. Finally, after years in the stretchy, fall-downy, why-the-fuck-did-I-wear-these wilderness, I have it. The solution is twofold. One: covering everything else up, choose a good book and a large hat and tan thy legs so that going bare-legged will be viable (nay, pleasant) for as long as possible. Two: in the few scant months now left in which tight-wearing is necessary, purchase these tights, and these tights only. I bought them in a fit of desperation, and <angel voices> they actually function as garments. They fit. They don’t fall down. They can be worn two days in a row without going baggy. They haven’t gone into holes or ladders. They are sensible colours. They are comfortable, warm and soft. They don’t crackle, snag, itch or create static, and although they weren’t cheap, they have outlasted several other, cheaper, shittier pairs and thus are much better value for money. In other words, they warm my flinty heart. They meet the bare minimum of what tights ought to do, and I am satisfied.

[1] God bless public toilets! See Getting to the bottom of things.

The loud symbols

This afternoon, having been unexpectedly relieved of an index I was about to start, I finished reading Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris.[1] This was a Christmas present from me to myself, along with a festive jumper purchased in the post-Christmas sales, when, like a calendar in January, suddenly nobody wanted it. David Sedaris and I are strikingly different in many ways, in that I am not a middle-aged gay man and have so far failed to publish eight books and embark on an international career of signing those books and/or reading them aloud to people. However, on reading Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, I discovered that we have four striking things in common.

One: we share a mild obsession with owls (see Owl Chess and Strigiphobia). I keep my non-fiction books in my office, and they are (naturally) arranged alphabetically; the fiction is also arranged this way, which means that The House At Pooh Corner lives between Arthur Miller’s solitary novel The Misfits and two volumes of erotica by Alberto Moravia. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is on the bottom shelf, with Scott’s Last Expedition on one side and Suetonius[2] on the other. The owl used as an exploratory device appears in silhouette on the spine, perched on a floating hypodermic as he contemplates the metaphorical diabetic wilderness: a treacherous landscape, all highs and lows. There is also a parliament of owls[3] in my favourite essay of the book, which is called ‘Understanding Understanding Owls’.[4] It opens with a consideration of the phenomenon of the owl-themed gifts that Sedaris and his partner Hugh have amassed over the years:

This is what happens when you tell people you like something. For my sister Amy, that thing was rabbits. When she was in her late thirties, she got one as a pet, and before it had chewed through its first phone cord, she’d been given rabbit slippers, cushions, bowls, refrigerator magnets, you name it. ‘Really,’ she kept insisting, ‘the live one is enough.’ But nothing could stem the tide of crap.[5]

I mention this as a counterpoint to the well-chosen nature of the three Christmas gifts already listed, but I do have some sympathy with the purchasers of the various owls and rabbits, because buying presents is hard. I’m delighted when, in the run-up to Christmas, someone I feel we ought to buy something for (but who already seems to own everything they could possibly need) lets slip in everyday conversation that they like (say) The Very Hungry Caterpillar. We were given an owl for Christmas ourselves: a small white one, designed to perch in the branches of our Christmas tree. In a lovely Biblical metaphor, there was no room in the tree and instead we had to put him on the escritoire, where our tiny knitted magi had completed their arduous journey across the music room.[6] They toiled along the top of the piano, clung to the light-fitting for a few dangerous hours, and finally arrived in safety to stand in a semi-circle with the tiny knitted Mary, tiny knitted Joseph and tiny knitted saviour.[7] Behind them, the owl, a head taller than all the knitted figures, loomed menacingly, while we tried to pretend he was one of the uglier angels.

Two: David Sedaris and I have both had a colonoscopy. He is bullied into his by his father, whereas mine was a medical necessity (see Busting a gut), but a colonoscopy is a colonoscopy. His is described in an essay called ‘A Happy Place’, and mine was so completely uneventful that I haven’t bothered to write about it at all.[8]

Three: neither of us owns a mobile ’phone, as described at the beginning of his essay ‘A Friend in the Ghetto’.

Four: he has a love of subtlety and nuance in words. Here is an example, from an essay about keeping a diary[9] called ‘Day In, Day Out’:

Some diary sessions are longer than others, but the length has more to do with my mood than with what’s been going on. I met Gene Hackman once and wrote three hundred words about it. Six weeks later I watched a centipede attack and kill a worm and filled two pages. And I really like Gene Hackman.[10]

What I like here is his choice of ‘watched’, rather than ‘saw’. ‘I saw a centipede attack and kill a worm’ implies to me that he happened to glance across and see the centipede killing the worm, and that (the two-page write-up notwithstanding) the event itself was comparatively brief. ‘I watched a centipede attack and kill a worm’ implies something both less and more passive: less passive in that this sounds like something that went on for some time, and which he chose to pay close attention to, possibly crouching uncomfortably over the battle so as to describe it with accuracy; and more passive, in that he didn’t intervene to save the life of the worm. Giant Bear and I watched A Hallowe’en Party last night, an Agatha Christie mystery in which a girl is drowned in an apple-bobbing basin after she boasts that she once witnessed a murder. Again, the ‘seer’ and the ‘watcher’ are quite different. Compare ‘I saw a murder’ with ‘I watched a murder’. The seer’s glance happens to fall onto or into something (the carriage of a passing train, for example, as in another Christie story, 4.50 from Paddington), whereas the watcher has stopped what they were doing, and is emotionally (but, importantly, not physically) involved in what he or she observes. Even though ‘observed’, ‘looked’, ‘noticed’, ‘witnessed’, ‘saw’ and ‘watched’ are very close in meaning, they are still different enough that ‘I observed a murder’, ‘I looked at a murder’ or ‘I noticed a murder’ won’t do. Compare this to the translator’s note in my edition of Discipline and Punish (p. ix) on how the Englist title for Foucault’s Surveiller et punir has been arrived at, in particular the thoughts of the translator Alan Sheridan’s on the infinitive ‘surveiller’:

the verb ‘surveiller’ has no adequate English equivalent. Our noun ‘surveillance’ has an altogether too restricted and technical use. Jeremy Bentham used the term ‘inspect’ – which Foucault translates as ‘surveiller’ – but the range of connotations does not correspond. ‘Supervise’ is perhaps closest of all, but again the word has different associations. ‘Observe’ is rather too neutral, though Foucault is aware of the aggression involved in any one-sided observation. In the end, Foucault himself suggested Discipline and Punish, which relates closely to the book’s structure.

Some readers may note that the title ‘The loud symbols’ is a play on the words of psalm 150 (‘the loud cymbals’). I have appropriated verse five, which in the King James translation reads as follows: ‘Praise Him upon the loud cymbals: praise Him upon the high sounding cymbals’. Translation is a wonderful place to look for word-related nuance. In the NIV, for example, this verse becomes ‘Praise Him with the clash of cymbals: praise Him with resounding cymbals’; other translations also introduce the word ‘clash’ or ‘clashing’ at various points and use ‘sounding’ or ‘resounding’ rather than ‘high sounding’. This may seem like a small difference, but it is no such thing. The onomatopoeic ‘clash’ is not a word you can sneak into a sentence without anybody noticing; moreover, it suggests a rather pleasing omnivorousness in the tastes of the Almighty. It doesn’t say ‘Praise Him with restrained Church of England cymbals’.[11] The unmusical, splashy word ‘clash’ implies to me that God is more interested in hearing us praise Him, with joy, sincerity and abandon, than He is in how well we do it. As Thomas Merton said,

If there were no other proof of the infinite patience of God with men, a very good one could be found in His toleration of the pictures that are painted of Him and of the noise that proceeds from musical instruments under the pretext of being in His ‘hono[u]r.’

I’ve written elsewhere about nuance (see A bit like the rubella jab), and how a lack of it can mean that we misunderstand events or people, or appropriate a single incident and use it symbolically to make sweeping statements about huge groups. Jane Elliott[12] argues that the insidiousness of sweeping statements about entire groups is at the root of all prejudices, and that these prejudices are learned and perpetuated generation on generation, as shown in her now seminal eye-colour experiment (also called ‘Eye of the Storm’), and that a middle-aged white man who experiences prejudice for fifteen minutes gets just as angry about it as someone who has experienced it since they were born. As I have written elsewhere (see The fish that is black and Punch drunk), it is a natural human tendency to attempt to simplify the world by dividing things into groups, and then making a statement about all the things in that group. It seems to me that such an approach, and its need to over-use and under-interpret symbols is the enemy of nuance. The recent terrorist attacks in Paris, for example, are both specific and symbolic. Charlie Hebdo was chosen as the target because of specific cartoons, but also because the magazine and its staff can be used to symbolise ideas: free speech, freedom of the press, freedom to satirise whomever and whatever we like. In other words, it is an act that encourages us to choose sides: people who think like this, as opposed to people who think like that. As soon as you accept that people can be symbols, hurting those people can start to seem abstract, remote and meaningless, as if two anatomically-correct puppets used in a trial for a sex scandal were jostled around in their overnight container mid-trial, and found the next morning in a compromising position wholly contrary to the testimony of the people they represented. I am not trying to argue that symbols don’t matter; rather, I suggest that they are a means of simplifying (and therefore dehumanising) a particular group, by lumping them together in a way that seems convenient, rather than correct.

Defending a deity (any deity) against satire is a piece of thinking that has become scrambled somewhere. Just as God does not need those who believe in Him to tell Him that He is great (see The uncharitable goat), God does not need those who believe in Him to stick up for Him like a bullied child in a playground. If one follows the thinking of religious extremists whose idea of constructive criticism is to kill a load of people, it seems that they wish others to be frightened into doing like they do, without much caring whether they think like they do i.e. an ‘outside only’ change. That is how the terrorist do; they don’t make a nuanced, cogent argument for their own point of view (i.e. an argument that might persuade people into changing their insides as well, to thinking like they do and doing like they do). I don’t know why this is, but part of my argument here is that, while people are all different from each other (nuance), they also have things in common that help us connect with one another. Terrorists seem very different from all the people I know and their actions are baffling; nevertheless, I think it is important to try to find explanations for them. The best theories I have come up with are as follows. One, terrorists may enjoy the idea that people fear them; it may make people who have hitherto felt like minor characters suddenly feel that they are (and/or deserve to be) centre stage. Two, there may be an element of ‘I am in blood stepp’d in so far’[13]; in other words, once part of such a group, turning back seems as difficult as going on, particularly if the group provides structure, brotherhood, purpose and camaraderie, and if there are penalties for leaving the group. Three, it may give them a sense of power: they may enjoy muttering the terrorist equivalent of ‘By my pretty floral bonnet, I will end you’[14] before embarking on a new and brave mission, like shooting unarmed people or kidnapping schoolgirls. Four, they may genuinely think that fear is a more effective tool than persuasion, and that what you do is more important than why you do it. Five, they aren’t able to make a cogent argument for their own point of view, because their point of view is not built on argument, but their own fear: fear of other large, undifferentiated groups that they understand only dimly, as a series of stereotypes. Terrorists, in other words, are frightened people, and one of the things they are frightened of is nuance. We do, therefore, have at least one thing in common with them.

[1] Best Book Title Ever.

[2] Best Name for a Steamed Pudding Shop Ever.

[3] I also received A Compendium of Collective Nouns for Christmas. Most of the collective nouns I thought I could be sure of have at least two alternatives, and ‘a parliament of owls’ is no exception: one can also have a wisdom or a sagacity. The book notes thoughtfully, ‘A collective term for owls does not appear in the old books, which as we’ve seen were mostly concerned with game animals. And, of course, owls are solitary creatures’. They then speculate that the term is taken from Chaucer’s poem ‘A Parliament of Foules’, and remind readers of the parliament of owls in The Silver Chair. Best Christmas Present for a Word Nerd Ever. Mark Faulkner, Eduardo Lima Filho, Harriet Logan, Miraphora Mina and Jay Sacher (2013), A Compendium of Collective Nouns (San Francisco: Chronicle Books), p. 142 (see also page 140 for the corresponding illustration).

[4] Understanding Owls is a book, and so strictly I think the title of the essay should read ‘Understanding Understanding Owls’. The typesetter hasn’t rendered it so, but, just as the index I was hoping to do has been outsourced to someone in India who can apparently produce an index for a complex multi-author academic work in a week for less than £250, it may be that the person who did the typesetting didn’t have sufficient knowledge of English to think the repetition of ‘understanding’ was odd. I freely admit that compiling such an index would have taken me at least twice as long and cost at least twice as much; however, my finished index would actually have helped the inquisitive reader to Find Stuff, and offer some thoughts on how the different topics might relate to one another i.e. it would actually be an index, rather than a glorified concordance and a waste of everyone’s time.

[5] David Sedaris (2013), ‘Understanding Understanding Owls’, from Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (London: Abacus), p. 176.

[6] Both the escritoire and the music room sound very grand, but I promise you they aren’t. The escritoire came with the house, and we eat in the kitchen, thereby rendering what would otherwise be a dining room useless. We call it the music room because we keep the pianos (one real, one Clavinova), all the sheet music and Giant Bear’s collection of trumpets in there.

[7] The baby Jesus is knitted onto Mary’s arm, so he was (of necessity) a bit previous.

[8] I have also never written about my sigmoidoscopy, a similar arse-based medical intervention. That is because, unlike the colonoscopy, for which one is knocked out, the sigmoidoscopy is done without anaesthetic (i.e. they gave me gas and air, which just made me throw up the nothing that my stomach contained). It’s bad enough that I had to go along with a complete stranger inserting a monstrous chilly tube into my Special Area, never mind talking about it as well. I also wasn’t allowed to wear a bra, presumably so that the needle could judder into the red zone over ‘100% Humiliating’ for as long as possible.

[9] Regular readers will recall that I also kept a diary in younger days (see Broken Dishes, The dog expects me to make a full recovery and He had his thingy in my ear at the time), but since I no longer do so I haven’t listed this as something we have in common. The man writes in his diary every single day and carries a notebook with him at all times, for God’s sake.

[10] Sedaris, ‘Day In, Day Out’, Owls, p. 227.

[11] <ting>

[12] See her here in the early 1990s on Oprah. It’s not an obvious place to find her, but she’s magnificent.

[13] Macbeth, Act 3, scene iv, line 135.

[14] I say this to Buy it Now items on Ebay. Also, Best Line from a TV Show Ever (with ‘Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!’ a close second).


As promised (see Owl Chess), here is the story of how the choir came by its anti-mascot, The Owl. The year was 2008; the month was August; and for some reason the good people of Truro Cathedral had allowed a choir of nine people to sing their evensong services for a week. The scene is set, gentle reader. Naturally, you suspect nothing. Neither did we.

Our rehearsal space for the week was the song school in the space beneath the cathedral. I hesitate to say ‘crypt’, but it was certainly subterranean and dark, as that word appears to imply.[1] The room contained a grand piano, some rehearsal desks, and approximately two hundred owls. For reasons that we did not dare to enquire into, the vergers had accumulated and maintained a parliament of owls that filled a shelf running the whole length of the room. Apart from a live owl in a cage, there was every kind of owl an owl-fancier could possibly desire: plastic owls, fluffy owls, stuffed owls, china owls, glass owls, wooden owls. There were owls that doubled as nocturnal pencil sharpeners; owls small enough to be slipped into a handbag and others emphatically not; owls with friendly, querulous expressions, and others that could peck the face off a child. The old adage about the eyes of a portrait appearing to follow you around the room had nothing on this shelf of accusing faces.

At the time of our trip, my mother had a shop in a nearby coastal village, from whence she sold souvenirs and other non-essential items. Cathedrals usually take pity on visiting choirs and allow them one day in the week on which they are not required to do six or more hours of singing. Accordingly, on our day off, a select band of adventurers drove over to Mother’s shop for fish-and-chips and a walk on the cliffs, and we mentioned the shelf of owls to her over a cup of tea. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I might have something’ and proceeded to rummage around in a glass-fronted cabinet that to the casual observer was already filled to bursting with china puffins. From some inner recess, she produced two fluffy toy owls. They were about the size of tennis balls, mostly white and with sticky-up ‘ears’, from whence projected another inch or so of diabolical whisker. Both wall-eyed abominations appeared to be scowling. We bought these horrors (i.e. regardless of how vile they were, she still wanted actual money in exchange for exorcism), and, when we finished our week in Truro, we left them back-to-back on the piano in the song school as a present to the vergers. This should have been the end of the matter.

On returning home, I started to unpack my case (I’m one of those annoying people who like to unpack as soon as possible) and there, in my suitcase, was an owl. Not one of the evil twins we had purchased from my capitalist parent; and not one of the smaller specimens from the cathedral that I might have stolen in a moment of mental blankness. This was a third owl, exactly like its demonic cathedral-bound siblings, except for two important facts. One, the other two owls were in Truro Cathedral rather than in my house; and two, this owl was, in some mysterious way, able to insert itself into a pair of tights like an evil sausage and a suitcase without human help.[2] I looked at it. It looked at me. I blinked first.

Over the next twelve months, he bided his time. Every member of the choir denied strenuously that they had placed him in my suitcase (as did my mother) and I gradually came to the conclusion that, odd and unexplained as it was, it probably didn’t matter very much. Accordingly, when cathedral tour rolled around (this time our destination was Peterborough, the armpit of England), I felt that the trip would not be complete without him, so I packed him in my suitcase, prodding my memory all the while for spasms of déjà vu (there weren’t any). I was very careful to put him right at the bottom wrapped in a sock so that he didn’t peck holes in my underwear during the trip. When we arrived and I opened the suitcase, there he was. Houdini-like, he had worked his way through eight inches of clothing to the very top of the case, entirely devoid of sock and fixing me with what I think Edgar Allen Poe would call a basilisk eye. He then spent the rest of the day showing me what he could do. Our second tenor’s car, with half the choir in it, exploded on the Bristol ring-road; another tenor arrived in Peterborough six hours late and raving about trains; and the strap of my favourite bag snapped and wrapped itself around my leg as I crossed a busy road. Upon opening the bag, there was the owl, which I distinctly remembered locking in a cupboard. The inevitable game of Owl Chess took on a disturbing flavour. He was drawing-pinned to a notice-board by his wings; he was taped to the ceiling; he was present at a twenty-first birthday party; he took a turn in the microwave, where he revolved much as the bodies of the hanged might swing gently in the wind. He was even strapped to a tiny remote-controlled car (purchased specially) and driven around my bedroom at night, an event which I recorded in my diary as follows:

[There was] a knock on my door about twenty minutes after saying goodnight. Had just removed bra so was a while getting to the door. Opened it to find the wretched OWL strapped to a remote-controlled car with plasters (T having used all the tape in sticking IT to the ceiling). T, B and M all wetting themselves with laughter in the corridor (apparently unaware that I had already seen M sprinting down the corridor earlier when I launched myself in the direction of the bathroom somewhat unexpectedly). I think M had intended the Owl Express to lurch menacingly into my darkened room and then round and round in a series of sinister ellipses, but in fact it stuck in the carpet, making urgent and constipated chewing noises. M said, “that’s a dead waste of £25”, but I couldn’t disagree more.

These days, safely returned to the vestry, he stubbornly refuses to behave like a normal stuffed toy. Having got the merest smear of chocolate icing on his wing at a fund-raising cake sale, he remained unclean until I had put him through the washing machine (twice); at the subsequent concert, it was with real fear in my heart that I sandwiched him between two Bibles and locked him in the music cupboard. It is unquestionably The Owl who puts the creepy cardboard hands in the hymnbooks; The Owl who breaks the heating over and over again; The Owl who creates holes in the church roof and floods the church floor; The Owl who causes the notices to last fifteen minutes every week, the organ to go slowly but persistently sharp, the crumhorn to deploy without warning, the church bluebottle to buzz around our heads, the basses to sing alto and tuning forks to roam around the church of their own accord. My friends, Satan walks among us, and his name is Owl.

I have used the word ‘strigiphobia’ on the grounds that owls are strigiformes (an order that also includes birds of prey), but in fact there is no consensus on the correct word for a fear and hatred of owls. The two main candidates seem to be oclophobia and variations on noctoornithophobia. Oclophobia is not satisfying because it is very close in both spelling and pronounciation to ochlophobia (fear and hatred of crowds), and also because phobos is a Greek word, while oclos is Latin. Noctoornithophobia (fear and hatred of nocturnal birds) annoys me simply because it is an unnecessary work-around, implying that there is no suitable Greek word for owl. In fact, Greek has several words for owl, and the list that follows here is by no means exhaustive. Firstly, there is glaux, meaning specifically a small owl, as in Glaucidium sanchezi, the Tamaulipas pigmy owl. Named after the region of Mexico in which it lives, this is one of the smallest owls in the world, measuring less than six inches in length and weighing less than two ounces. You can also find part of this wonderful word in the Latin name of the delightfully Ken Dodd-ish long-whiskered owlet, Xenoglaux loweryi (literally, ‘strange owl’. It lives in Peru and is also smaller than my fist). Glaucophobia seems a reasonable term, but might confuse the unwary in that it could be taken to mean fear and hatred of things that are blueish. Then there is tuto, as in Tytonidae (barn owls). However, tutophobia shares its pronunciation with the real and actual word Teutophobia (fear and hatred of Germans). Another possibility is athene, found in the name of the elf owl Micrathene whitneyi (the third candidate for World’s Smallest Owl. Again, pleasingly, the clue is in the name). Like the Tamaulipas pygmy owl, the elf owl also lives in Mexico, and makes its nests in cacti. However, athenephobia is also a problematic term.[3] The most apt word I could find is the Latin word aegolius, meaning a bird of prey, and very similar to the Greek word aigolios, meaning an evil omen in bird form, but again this is not owl-specific enough for me – an evil omen in bird form could be anything from an ostentiferous roc to a menacing swan. Finally, we have strix (the same word in both Latin and Greek). The plural form is strig, as in Strigidae (‘true’ owls), and hence strigiphobia,[4] fear and hatred of owls.

Magritte’s Les Compagnons de la Peur (the companions of fear)

There is a specific word for the fear and hatred of chickens (alektorophobia), so why am I having to go to all this trouble to coin a new word for the fear and hatred of owls? There are two obvious possibilities. Firstly, there has been no need for a word for the fear and hatred of owls because owls are not frightening (or at least not as frightening as chickens with their mad eyes and alien, throaty calls. Melodia Rascal was in the right here, I think). We can discount this theory immediately: owls are scary. With the possible exceptions of the teeny-tiny owls mentioned above, the vast majority of owl species have no natural predators once the owls have reached adulthood (“Wild boar? Yeah, up here they mainly subsist on owls”. No, they don’t. NOTHING DOES). From the Romans and the Aztecs right up to Gormenghast, Futurama and Twin Peaks,[5] humanity is united in its view of owls as harbingers of doom. Secondly and more plausibly, perhaps there is no need for a word for a phobia of owls, because phobias denote fears that are to some degree irrational. They arise from a traumatic incident in childhood or similar that then leads to a lifelong fear of something that may not have actually wished, done or been capable of doing the sufferer any harm. Therefore, it could be argued, since a fear of owls is totally justifiable,[6] it cannot be described accurately as a phobia.

[1] Of course the word ‘crypt’ is derived from the Latin crypta, meaning private or concealed (as in cryptography, I assume), and therefore any associations of darkness etc. are modern ideas laid over the top of the original meaning. Where does the word ‘owl’ come from, you ask? My understanding is that the original word was ‘uwwa’ in some kind of proto-German, which was supposed to be an onomatopoeic word imitating the hoot. Eventually, by way of Old English and a bunch of mispronunciation, we ended up with ‘owl’, Fact Fans.

[2] Tights, which are themselves evil (see Tightus Groan) should have given me a clue.

[3] One, it is very close to asthenophobia (fear of fainting or weakness); and two, I feel that Athenaphobia ought to refer to the fear of being engulfed by an oversized poster falling off the wall onto one’s university bed.

[4] Disturbingly similar to stygiophobia, fear and hatred of Hell. I rest my case.

[5] Take a look at this one. He looks to me like a highly developed killing machine with a hatred for all mankind and a desire to kill and eat tiny furry things. ‘The owls are not what they seem’, indeed. I disagree. I think they’re exactly what they seem.

[6] The same could be said of my own so-called phobias, the fear and hatred of coffins (taphophobia) and the fear and hatred of sharks (galeophobia). Irrational? Surely not.

Owl Chess

I have already mentioned the church choir that I sing with in a previous, apple-related post (see Eve’s Pudding), and the choir has been on my mind recently as we progress through advent. Our carol service is a week tomorrow and it is loaded with gorgeous music. However, it is a non-musical matter that I wish to draw your attention to today: namely, owls.

The choir has an owl. He is a furry stuffed toy about four inches high. His name is Katisha[1], but we usually refer to him simply as ‘The Owl’ in tones of dread. At the moment he is making his diabolical way through the British postal system after being accidentally left at home by our secretary, but usually he lives in the vestry cupboard with the New English Hymnal. Last year there was a spate of under-sized disembodied cardboard hands appearing in the hymnbooks like sinister bookmarks, and it was suggested that the Sunday School Fish Club had been drawing around their hands for some theologically sound purpose, and that these had accidentally made their way into the vestry. This is clearly a false trail. The Owl is left alone with the hymnbooks for many hours each week, and it is only a matter of time before tiny pornographic drawings start appearing in the margins of hymns he doesn’t approve of (e.g. ‘He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands’). Sometimes he is good-naturedly turned around or moved to a different shelf by a passing church warden, and it is a wonder to all who have encountered him that their fingers do not blacken and whither. I will expand on how The Owl came to be among us in another post: it is a dark and disturbing tale, entirely suited to the short days of winter. For now, he remains an uneasy half-secret, understood and feared only by the choristers. Members of the congregation who don’t know any better have referred to him as our mascot, but here again I return to my familiar theme of the misappropriation of words. He is, emphatically, not a mascot.

We are a church choir. Our primary purpose is to serve the congregation and therefore, were we to have a mascot, I would like to think we could do better than a toy that is quite clearly possessed. The Owl performs none of the functions of an actual mascot and is actively removed from buildings where we are about to sing (hence living in the vestry rather than the main body of the church. The vestry is always noticeably colder than the rest of the building, which can only be another sign of his evil influence). In fact, the only useful purpose he can possibly serve is as the only playing piece in a game of Owl Chess.

Owl Chess is a variation on the already popular game of Surprise Chess, but played with one piece only (i.e. an owl). Play is conducted as follows:

  1. Choose your owl. Any size, weight or material is allowed provided your chosen piece looks outraged at all times.
  2. Assign someone to referee.
  3. Play begins with the referee placing the owl in a common area.
  4. Each player makes their move in turn whenever they think of somewhere spiffy to play the owl. There is no time limit for each move and play can extend over several decades if necessary. There are no restrictions whatever on where the owl can be played. Artificial aids such as tape, glue, paperclips and drawing pins are all legitimate provided that the owl is not damaged. The move is over when the referee has observed the owl, scored the move accordingly, announced the score to all players[2] and recorded the score in the Owl Chess Book; the owl is then back in open play.

A move is declared void if:

  1. Another player witnesses the owl being claimed in preparation for making the next move. Players *must* collect the owl and play it without being observed[3] (i.e. creeping about in the dead of night, owl in hand).
  2. The owl shows visible signs of damage e.g. patchy feathers, loss of wings or feet etc.;
  3. The referee does not actually see the owl once it has been played. You can’t get away with ‘I taped it to the weathervane on Truro Cathedral. Everyone saw it but you’ or similar;
  4. The owl falls (or is removed) from the place you have played him to *before* the next player has had an opportunity to retrieve it. For example, strapping the owl to the rail of the Lusitania would have been an excellent move (provided that the referee observed and scored the move before both owl and ship had been consigned to a watery grave). However, having awarded several thousand points (minus the Lost Owl penalty of 100 points), the referee would then be obliged to declare the game over as the owl would be irretrievable. Losing the owl always incurs a penalty of 100 points; the player is also required to replace the owl and apologise (in writing) to both referee and lost owl. These letters should be taped into the Owl Chess Book for future reference.

The referee assigns points on the following basis:

  1. How many human observers saw the owl? People score one point per person (no need to be too anal about this in a large gathering unless the scores have become unexpectedly close).
  2. On a scale from one to ten, how surprised were the human observers? Determine the likely average level of surprise for each observer based on facial expression, any and all exclamations, and any other means the referee deems relevant. Multiply this by the number of people and record in the Owl Chess Book.
  3. How many animal observers saw the owl? Only animals intelligent enough to register surprise count, and have a multiplier of two per creature (i.e. twice that of an actual person because it is difficult to get animals to look at something  small and fluffy that they can’t chase, hump or eat). Animals too stupid to register surprise (e.g. gerbils, ducks) do not score at all.
  4. On a scale from one to ten, how surprised were the animal observers? The referee should begin by determining the number of animal observers; narrowing the field to include only animals intelligent enough to register surprise[4]; determining the average level of surprise for each species; and finally multiplying up accordingly. All animals are regarded as equally surprise-able, with the obvious exception of i. cats, who have seen it all before; and ii. owls (see point 7). Please note that domestic pets cannot score more than five for surprise unless they spontaneously soil themselves (except guide dogs, who are trained not to do such things in public).
  5. How much effort was required to draw attention to the owl? It is perfectly acceptable for players to cry aloud ‘Good heavens! Is that an owl tucked into the Queen’s hat?’ or similar, but signs, loudhailers etc. are Frowned Upon and penalties may be assigned at the referee’s discretion.
  6. Bonus points can be awarded for originality (e.g. owl disguised as potato); time and effort (owl dressed in historically accurate Regency costume); and personal risk incurred in playing each move (owl attached to blade of helicopter).
  7. An outright win (or ‘Owl in One’) can be achieved by a real and actual owl observing a move and registering a surprise score of more than five[5]. This is worth a million points and therefore constitutes the end of the game and/or time.

The game ends when you either lose the owl altogether (e.g. owl strapped to dolphin); a player reaches a pre-determined points total (usually set at one million); an Owl In One is scored; or when you get tired of it. But you never will.

[1] He is named after a character from The Mikado, who is urged to be quiet by the chorus during the finale to Act I, as follows: ‘We’ll hear no more/Ill-omened owl’.

[2] The referee should be prepared to explain his/her maths. Players may dispute the score and if necessary accost observers and ask them to comment definitively on their level of surprise.

[3] The only exception is if you are playing in teams, in which case members of one’s own team may act as look-outs.

[4] Referees may refer to the Guidance on Which Animals Are Considered Intelligent Enough To Register Surprise And How To Tell (at the back of the Owl Chess Book) if in any doubt.

[5] A real and actual owl observing a move which it does not find it very surprising (i.e. a surprise score of less than five) can still score highly as owls are worth a whopping one hundred points per bird. However, a skilled player will most likely scorn an insufficiently surprised owl and withdraw from the game in disgust, as he will have blown his chance at an Owl In One, the fule.