So farewell then, Thor Heyerdahl…

Who, a year ago, had heard of Mr and Mrs Brian Norris of 37, Gledhill Gardens, Parsons Green? And yet their epic journey in EBW 343 has set them alongside Thor Heyerdahl and Sir Edmund Hillary. Starting only with a theory, Mr Norris set out to prove that the inhabitants of Hounslow could have been descendants of the people of Surbiton who had made the great trek north. No newcomer to this field, Mr Norris’s ‘A Short History of Motor Traffic Between Purley and Esher’ had become a best-selling minor classic in the car-swapping belt. But why would the people of Surbiton go to Hounslow? Mr Norris had noticed three things: Firstly, the similarity of the houses. Secondly, the similarity of the costume between Hounslow and Surbiton, and thirdly, the similarity of speech…

Were these just coincidences, or were they, as Mr Norris believed, part of an identical cultural background? One further discovery convinced him. The lawnmower. Surely such a sophisticated household gadget could not have been generated independently in two separate areas. Mr Norris was convinced…

There was only one way to see if the journey between Surbiton and Hounslow was possible, and that was to try and make it. Months of preparation followed whilst Mr Norris continued his research in the Putney Public Library, and Mrs Norris made sandwiches.

Finally, by April, they were ready. On the 23rd, Mr and Mrs Norris set out from ‘Abide-A-Wee’ to motor the fifteen miles to Surbiton, watched by a crowd of local well-wishers. That evening they dined at Tooting. This would be the last they’d see of civilization. Mr Norris’s diary for the 23rd reveals the extraordinary calmness and deep inner peacefulness of his mind.

“7.30 Fed cat. 8.00 Breakfast. 8.30 Yes (successfully). 9.00 Set out on historic journey.”

On the morning of the 24th, early to avoid the traffic, Mr Norris’s historic expedition set out from Surbiton – destination Hounslow. Early on they began to perceive encouraging signs. The writing on the sign was almost exactly the same as the writing in the AA book. They were on the right route. During the long hours of the voyage, Mr Norris’s wife Betty kept a complete photographic record and made sandwiches. … Mile succeeded mile and the terrific strain was beginning to tell when suddenly, by an amazing stroke of luck, Mr Norris had come across the Kingston by-pass…

At this stage, Mr Norris was faced with two major divergent theories concerning his Surbiton ancestors. Did they take the Kingston by-pass, turning left at Barnes, or did they strike west up the A308 via Norbiton to Hampton Wick? Both these theories ran up against one big obstacle – the Thames, lying like a silver turd between Richmond and Isleworth. This was a major setback. How could they possibly cross the river?

Several hours of thought produced nothing. There was only one flask of coffee left when suddenly Mr Norris spotted something. Could this have been the method used? Hardly daring to believe, Mr Norris led his expedition on to the 3.47. Forty minutes later, via Clapham, Fulham, Chiswick and Brentford, they approached their goal: Hounslow.

Was this, then, the final proof? Something aroused the accountant’s instinct buried deep in Mr Norris’s make-up. The journey was possible, and yet …. [here the camera zooms in on railway timetable on wall saying ‘Trains to Surbiton every half hour’] ‘Wrong Way’ Norris had accidentally stumbled on a piece of anthropological history. It was the inhabitants of Hounslow who had made the great trek south to the sunnier pastures of Surbiton, and not vice versa, as he had originally surmised. This was the secret of Surbiton! Happy and contented Mr Norris returned to the calmer waters of chartered accountancy, for, in his way, ‘Wrong Way’ Norris was right. …

From the


Nick gave me a copy of Steven Runciman’s book, The Sicilian Vespers, several years ago. I only read it last week, however, during a visit to Sicily, only to find I found that the book didn’t in fact have a great deal to do with Sicily at all, which makes a brief appearance at the beginning and at the end. It was, however, immensely enjoyable, and I learned more about European diplomacy, c.1250-1282 than I ever thought I would care to know. And the final paragraphs of the book are superb:

The Sicilian men who poured, with knives drawn, through the streets of Palermo on that savage evening struck their blows for freedom and for honour. They could not know to what consequences it would lead them and with them the whole of Europe. Bloodshed is an evil thing and good seldom comes of it. But the blood shed on that evening not only rescued a gallant people from oppression. It altered fundamentally the history of Christendom.

The lesson was not entirely forgotten. More than three centuries later King Henry IV of France boasted to the Spanish ambassador the harm that he could do to the Spanish lands in Italy were the King of Spain to try his patience too far. “I will breakfast at Milan”, he said, “and I will dine at Rome”. “Then”, replied the ambassador, “Your Majesty will doubtless be in Sicily in time for Vespers”.

It is an excellent joke, and a very fine book.

Nick wrote [20.4.2002]: It is also *invaluable* as a “Who’s Who” to Dante’s Inferno. I’m surprised you didn’t mention this.

Harmful to Minors

Here’s an interesting story from the world of academic publishing. I’m not sure if it’s had an airing in the UK press. On 2 April, the Associated Press reported that “A month before its publication, a provocative book about children’s sexuality is being denounced by conservatives as evil and prompting angry calls for action against the University of Minnesota Press”.

Judith Levine’s new book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex, was rejected by a number of publishers before being accepted by the University of Minnesota Press — which only agreed to publish it after sending the manuscript out to review to five experts for comment, advice and approval, rather than the usual two.

In Harmful to Minors, Levine argues that abstinence-only sex education is misguided. She also suggests the threat of pedophilia and molestation by strangers is exaggerated by adults who want to deny young people the opportunity for positive sexual experiences.”Squeamish or ignorant about the facts, parents appear willing to accept the pundits’ worst conjectures about their children’s sexual motives,” Levine writes. “It’s as if they cannot imagine that their kids seek sex for the same reasons they do.” …

Levine said this week that she disapproves of any sexual relationship between a youth and an authority figure, whether a parent, teacher or priest. However, she believes teen-agers deserve more respect for the choices they make in consensual affairs, and suggests that America’s age-of-consent laws can sometimes lead to excessive punishment.

Predictably enough, the Right has weighed in. Radio looney Dr. Laura and other talkshow festermongers have denounced the book, sight unseen, and Robert Knight, the director of Concerned Women for America’s Culture and Family Institute, a group dedicated to bringing “Biblical principles into all levels of public policy”, is urging the University of Minnesota to fire the university press officials who decided to publish the book. He said this: “The action is so grievous and so irresponsible that I felt they relinquished their right to academic freedom,” and described the book as “very evil.” Not just evil, but “very evil”.A few days after the story broke, the Press announced a review of its policies. A snippet in the local paper, the Star Tribune, said this on 5 April:

In response to national criticism of a soon-to-be released book about children’s sexuality, the University of Minnesota on Thursday announced an external review of its publishing department.

The review will be conducted by a panel of experts from other academic and university presses during a two-month period, said Christine Maziar, a university vice president who oversees the University of Minnesota Press.
She said the review will cover policies and procedures for acquiring, reviewing and developing books.

“We’re going to turn this into an opportunity instead of a crisis response,” said Maziar, who is also dean of the U’s Graduate School.

Let’s hope so.Is this a story with a happy ending? On 10 April, the AP reported again…

Furor over book on youth and sexuality turns it into a hit

The furor over a provocative new book on youth and sexuality has helped turn it into a hit.

The University of Minnesota Press ordered a second printing of ” Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex” by writer Judith Levine.

It will print another 10, 000 copies of the book, a larger than usual second run, spokeswoman Allison Aten said Wednesday. The first run was 3, 500 books.

“We’ ve had strong orders for the book, so we decided to go back to press just because she’ s getting so much publicity, ” Aten said. The demand is coming from independent, chain and online booksellers, as well as wholesalers and distributors, she said.

Have a look yourself: excerpts are posted here. Enjoy.

Images of the Week, #11

Three images from the streets of Rome yesterday morning, during the first General Strike in twenty years, thanks to Jo, who has the nifty gadget which can turn her Palm Pilot into a digital camera from time to time.

Here I am, sideburns clearly visible, helping to carry the “Giovani Comunisti” banner, which needed a hand, somewhere above the Spanish Steps.

My very favourite slogan, draped from the balustrade of the Borghese Gardens above the Piazza del Popolo.

The presiding spirits of the Piazza del Popolo supervise the gathering throng.

Stewart wrote [18.4.2002]: It just struck me (no pun intended) that you bear an uncanny resemblance in that photo to Ray Manzarek, keyboard player from The Doors.

Chris adds [19.4.2002]: Best banner on the demonstration: Movimento Soap-Operaio.

Nick writes [20.4.2002]: I *obviously* don’t have enough to do. People will make posters and T-shirts from this, in years to come:


Those who know me will know that around this time each year, my thoughts turn to the fortunes of the Boston Red Sox, and they will stay so turned until the moment comes when it is all too obvious that the team will not make it to this year’s play-offs / divisional championship / World Series [delete as applicable].

Last year that moment came too early in the year, when a string of injuries to key players – shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, catcher Jason Varitek and, crucially, pitcher Pedro Martinez – and various managerial shakeups caused the team to implode around August. But perhaps things will be different this year: the players I’ve just mentioned are healthy again (though Pedro’s pitching currently leaves quite a bit to be desired); there are exciting new signings (including veteran base-stealing supremo Rickey Henderson); and new owners and managers, which possibly counts for something.

And in a burst early season optimism this year I’ve willingly shelled out $15 to be able to listen to the WEEI Red Sox Radio Network being streamed through my computer over the course of the season. (Those of you who have seen the quite-good-but-not-very-good film In The Bedroom will have been exposed to the regular WEEI commentators Joe Castiglione and Jerry Trupiano, who can be heard whenever the radio is switched on during the film). Following baseball live isn’t a terribly sensible option from the UK, since most of the games begin at midnight BST, but there are weekend afternoon games which start over here around 6pm — and I’ve just listened to a 4-2 win over the Baltimore Orioles (my friend Adam Shapiro’s team, though not the Adam Shapiro who is currently the subject of earnest editorialising over at the New York Times), with Nomar hitting a three-run home run in the seventh inning to take the lead and, as it turned out, to win the game.

My fondness for and interest in the Red Sox continues to surprise me. Although I’ve always enjoyed ball games, I’ve never been terribly good at supporting any teams ever — and haven’t even cared much about the fortunes of the English cricket team since about 1985 (though that was a good year).

OK — there will be weblog silence for the next ten days or so. Back in mid-April. Stay tuned.


We’re seeing the word “catafalque” tossed around in the press quite a lot these days, as if any of us had the slightest idea what it meant. Let the OED explain:

1. A stage or platform, erected by way of honour in a church to receive the coffin or effigy of a deceased personage (Littr); a temporary structure of carpentry, decorated with painting and sculpture, representing a tomb or cenotaph, and used in funeral ceremonies (Gwilt).

1641 EVELYN Diary (1871) 36 In the middle of it was the hearse or catafalco of the late Arch-Dutchesse. 1643 Mem. (1857) I. 46 In the nave of the church lies the catafalque, or hearse, of Louis XIII. 1766 Ann. Register 58 The supposed corpse was deposited upon a magnificent catafalco, or scaffold, erected from the bottom to the top of the church and illuminated all over with wax candles. 1760 POCOCK Tour Scotl. (1881) 242 A sort of small wooden Catafalch placed over the tomb. 1831 LANDOR Fra Rupert Wks. 1846 II. 579 Never drops one but catafalc and canopy Are ready for him. 1834 Gentl. Mag. CIV. I. 104 A rich catafalque was erected in the centre, in which the remains of the Marshal were deposited during the service.

2. A movable structure of this kind; a kind of open hearse or funeral car.

1855 BROWNING Statue & Bust 57 The door she had passed was shut on her Till the final catafalk repassed. 1864 Daily Tel. 16 Sept., The open hearseone of the most extraordinary catafalcoes ever seen upon wheels.

3. transf. (humorous.)

1876 GEO. ELIOT Dan. Der. I. iii, The black and yellow catafalque known as �the best bed�.

The best articles on the Queen Mother so far have come from Christopher Hitchens and (surprisingly?) from Deborah Orr. Francis Wheen said a few useful words on the occasion of her centenary, and Nick Cohen wrote in prescient detail (even down tho the catafalque) about this week’s events last year.

John Craven’s Newsround

An excellent birthday yesterday — the 30th anniversary of John Craven’s Newsround, the people’s panda propaganda machine. Excitingly, John Craven himself was back to co-present the programme yesterday, for the first time in thirteen years — which induced me to watch for the first time in almost twenty. (It’s still very good). And they played the original theme music, which they seem to have jettisoned at some point with the passing of the years. The BBC website has its own tribute pages, from which this fine image from 1978 has been usefully culled.

Marginal Comment

I’ve just started dipping into Kenneth Dover’s Marginal Comment, his autobiographical volume which attracted comment in the press when it was  published in 1994 owing to his frank discussion of his powerful desire in 1985 to have one of his colleagues, Trevor Aston killed (“without getting into trouble”). It is full of good things, such as this passage (p.69):

“My ambition in 1945 had been: to marry a congenial wife, and with her to bring up children who would become good people; to get a tutorial fellowship at an Oxford or Cambridge college, preferably Balliol; and to write at least one book which would be well regarded by people in my own subject and would be of lasting value to them. I felt by 1950 that I had not done too badly so far. I leave aside wilder ambitions, such as writing a good novel or becoming Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, and fantasies, such as growing a prehensile tail covered with dense fur.”

I was going to add that good autobiography is extremely rare, but since I barely read autobiographies these days, I probably don’t know what I’m talking about. I enjoyed Louis Althusser’s The Future Lasts a Long Time in 1995, and Timothy Garton Ash’s The File more recently, both of which are excellent, though quite odd in their different ways.

Nick reminds me [3.4.2002] of another volume of memoirs, which has always meant a great deal to me: Norman Fowler’s rather blissful effort, Ministers Decide.