Archive | Gallimaufry

Cerebral Branch Lines


The inner life, the one racketing around inside the brain, has a lot in common with the railway. Maps, connections, cows blocking the line. Welcome to the 10.39 for your Final Destination, change at Crewe for Purgatory & All Stations West. Here though there are no deadlines, just neuron engines pulling uphill to the summit.

A map of Inner Life would be more Gorgon knot than the cool geometry of the Underground.  In distant corners, trees have grown up to obscure thinking and blur memory.  More Wild Wood than Kensington Gardens.
Stray imaginings, like bemused but excited children, can be lost in the folds of the cerebral cortex for days. Eventually they will surface on the shiny lines of the frontal lobes, a little frayed around the edges but glad to see daylight.  Sub-branch lines wiggle along unproductively – the lists you thought you made last week, the anguish about world events since resolved, your magnum opus that never got past page 32.  You need the culling power of a Dr Beeching for those.

A kind of benign anarchy rules, including how Time works. Essentially, it’s a law only unto itself.  Not unlike the days when each railway company kept its own time and there was no guarantee that your connection at 3.34 would not be departing from Platform 2 as you alighted on Platform 1 (across the bridge).

There are some rather snazzy branch lines (immaculate destination boards, station name picked out in scarlet geraniums) which rigorous housekeeping keeps up to the mark.  No random ponderings, no political opinions, and definitely no sentimental twaddle about the boy you kissed only once in 1970 are allowed here.  Reach destination – on time – cleanly and efficiently – that’s the ticket.

Elsewhere, time is an irrelevance.  No matter how many pressing thoughts march impatiently back and forth across the concourse, somewhere it’s always a spring morning in 1958 where the paintwork’s a little rusty and the wheels are only just turning.

Putting the brain into neutral – meditating – is really a lot like leaving Liverpool Street at rush hour and arriving,  mid-morning, on a hill station in Pallamcottah where freshly picked tea leaves are waiting to be drunk in a china teapot on a wide verandah. Aah, that’s better.


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The Xtraordinary Letter X

xillustration small

X is an extraordinary letter. Or even Xtraordinary if you’re über-cool. I’d say that a browse through the mercifully short X section of a dictionary is never time wasted. My own discovery of X came when I was looking for Scrabble Animals.

Ed: That’s another story, you promised you wouldn’t article hop, so let’s not go anywhere near board games again, OK?

My Concise OED, which cost me six quid – because I can’t afford the 20 volume set and my bookshelves are groaning – came to me shamefully unbattered. I’ve done my best since to make it feel wanted by anointing it with coffee and doughnut debris. At any rate, there are just two pages allocated to the 24th letter of the Latin alphabet – X. The third most rarely used letter in the English language.

The consonant X (Xi or chi) was a late addition to the Greek language and virtually all the words we have today can be traced back to that ancient culture. But lest we feel at all xenophobic (xenophobia: ‘strange, foreign, stranger’), let’s talk about the things that the letter X on its own stands for.

Ed: I take it we’re not referencing reclining Buddhas or Ozymandias then? And that was a pretty lame segue into xenophobia, if you don’t mind me saying so.

It transforms a mundane 2010 into the rather elegant MMX. It’s the first unknown and the first co-ordinate in algebra and geometry respectively. Should I crack a joke here about first among equals? No, in view of the look the editor’s giving me, maybe not.

X marks the spot; it’s all the kisses you ever wanted; it’s those films you can’t go to as a kid, it’s the mark of those unfortunate people who can’t write; and it’s the mysterious Mister or Miss.

I had an X in my life, my childhood pooch being blessed with the pedigree name ‘Xanthippe of Brittas’. Confusingly, Xanthippe actually means yellow horse. Ungulate references among personal names were common. Hippocrates (horse tamer) – the man wasn’t a vet, was he? and Philippos (horse lover)

Ed: You’re starting something here I hope you’re not damn well going to finish!

Xanthippe was the wife of the illustrious Greek, Socrates. Considerably younger than the great man, legend has it she was a bad-tempered, nagging harridan. The only evidence for this seems to be that she once threw water over her husband. Socrates’ response was to say “After thunder comes rain”. No doubt with a smug little smile on his face. It can’t have been a stroll in the olive groves for Xanthippe, can it? We all know those people, the ones who smile beatifically and say ‘Look, I’m not going to argue with you’. Don’t you want to slap them?

Pretty near the top of page X, you’ll find the Greek word xanthos meaning yellow. I wonder what the -thos means? Immediately, you see, I remember Athos, Porthos and oh yes Aramis, but then we’re not talking aftershave, aren’t we? There’s probably no connection though – Three Yellow Musketeers doesn’t quite have the same ring. Ring – ring of gold – golden yellow…

Ed: You’re free-associating again, I told you, you don’t get to do that while I’m paying for your time!

Skipping by what looks like a rather ghastly skin condition (xanthoma), we reach xanthophyll. Now this I like. You get two words for your money: xanthic (yellowish) & phullon (leaf). And the leaf is the clue. Carrots, tomatoes and those greens your granny dished up for Sunday tea. xanthophyll are any one of those oxygen-carrying carotenoids associated with chlorophyll. Chlorophyll makes leaves green, and carotenoids, which are always present in leaves, turns them yellow. I like this -phyll thing. Phyll -Phil – fill – feuille – feuilles mortes – who said you can’t go from Ancient Greek to Yves Montand in less than five verbivorous steps? And in case you’re interested, Les feuilles mortes was the work of a French surrealist poet, Jacques Prevert, whose Wiki entry contains the splendid line “He was also a cheesecake maker”.

Ed: I fail to see the relevance of this – can you please try to keep on topic?

The Hyphenated X-es (as we call them in Gloucestershire) are a rum lot.

Ed: What? I thought you were from Aberdeen?

The x-axis is the first – oh good lord, it’s geometry again, I was never any good at geometry. And X-ray. Did you know that it’s a translation from the German x-Strahlen and that the nature of the rays that were discovered in 1895 was not fully understood at the time?
The world of music has the splendid xylophone, a percussion instrument used to dazzling effect by Evelyn Glennie in which both the graduated bars and the hammers are made of wood (xulon). The vibraphone, a hi-tech version of the xylophone, has its admirers but I am certainly not one of them.

Where would we be without Xerox? This American company, founded in 1906, takes its brand from the process of xerography, where powder sticks to a Well, let’s just say it’s an incomprehensible process and leave it at that. Oh and this is what dear old OED says.

Ed: I feel that this section was poorly researched – have you started drinking again?

xerography: a dry copying process in which black or coloured powder adheres to parts of a surface remaining electrically charged after exposure of the surface to light from an image of the document to be copied.

Algiers_xebecIn sharp contrast to this, my favourite x-word sails the seven seas. Lateen whips in a northerly gale and the senses are assaulted by the stink of gunpowder and the sweet smell of fine wines. A xebec was a tri-masted vessel with projecting bow stern and convex decks. It was small, fast, highly manoeuverable and much favoured by corsairs.

The etymological route this word took through the world’s languages is as exotic as the spice markets of the East. From the Arabic sabak via Italian sciabecco, it becomes chebec in French but is then influenced by the Spanish xabeque and the Portugese xabeco.

That brings us to the end of the extraordinary letter that is X. Except, by the by, there’s a font called Xanthippe. I knew that girl would have the last word.

wordle of xtraordinary letter X

Illustration by Alan Lennon


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140 or less

140 characters or less in which to tell a story

The new kitten was asleep on a cushion when the mouse attacked.

His obsession with measurements had cost him his marriage, but it proved to be quite helpful in prison.

The house had burnt down, but Ethel knew it would be all right. She still had her Carmen rollers and her water wings.

“I can’t swim, sir”. “Can’t swim? You’re a bloody Marine, Bridges. Get in there and save that duck.”

I found this photograph of us on the fridge. It smells of cheap whisky.

Ignatius P was descended from the black and white tribe of Fitzroy Square.



Noddy – The Missing Piece


Driving his trademark red car, Noddy and his co-star Big Ears smile and wave to the waiting crowds at the premiere of their latest movie Noddy – The Director’s Cut. But behind the scenes, there have been reports of acrimonious meetings between the two. Big Ears battled to get his name in the title, arguing that Noddy’s just a kid in a stupid cap without him. Noddy’s lawyers responded with the assertion that Noddy is the brand, Big Ears a mere hanger-on. And noticeable by his absence tonight is that unfortunate character, Golly, who’s said by reliable sources to have ‘retired’ to a sumptuous villa in Biarritz. Whatever the truth, the fresh-faced youngster and his bearded sidekick will always be the best team on the block to their many adoring fans.


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To beyond

OK, I admit the title’s a bit pretentious. But the idea of looking beyond, both in an outward and an inner sense, was what I was trying to achieve when I made this piece of digital art a while back. I think this one has stood the test of time.

to beyond 800

© Rachel Cowan


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Murder on the Hampden Savannah


Graham Gnu v Senga Leo
Scene I: Background to the case

Graham Gnu’s real name was Wullie – Wullie Wildebeest – but he hated it. Wullie sounded so old-fashioned, so uncool. When he was a calf, the others would ask if he sat on a bucket and wore tackity boots. So when he was old enough, he picked the name Graham to fit his identity as a gnu – not as a wildebeest. His younger brother, who hero worshipped Wullie Graham, followed his lead and took the name George.

Graham and George were close, very close. They watched each others’ backs. Graham was fast on the gallop, but George’s sense of smell was so superior even for a gnu that he could raise the alarm when the South Side pride was half a mile away. Only George, it was said, could identify each lion by its individual smell.

The South Side pride was led by Big Jimmy. Sporting a magnificent black mane, he had a reputation to maintain. They all knew that roaring ‘Heh Jimmy’ at him even in jest wasn’t a good move unless they wanted a limp that would last a fortnight.

The girls were Phemie, Tracy and Senga. Phemie was getting a bit long in the tooth (when she breathed on you, the smell was enough to turn your stomach) but she was still the leader. She was Jimmy’s first choice for mating too but, as she’d told the other girls one day while

relaxing under a tree, this was a mixed blessing as Jimmy was a’ mane an’ nae bollocks. Tracy was Phemie’s daughter and her mother despaired of her ever making a kill on her own. Kids, you bring them up, you think that’s the job done and still they cannae kill a defenceless calf! Senga was the youngest and the most ambitious – she’d been known to stalk a full grown elephant until someone put her right.There were always half-grown cubs kicking around too – not totally up to the job yet but certainly quite enough to put a gnu off his grass.

Graham never wanted to be one of the herd. He was born into it, of course, streaming across the savannah at Hampden with ten thousand others, but his heart just wasn’t in it. He knew there could be more to life. The day he trimmed his straggly whiskers and slipped on a leather jacket was the day he knew there was no turning back.

He told George he was leaving the herd. He spoke of the family members they’d lost to rushing rivers (nobody in the family but him had bothered to learn to swim) and to predation by the South Side pride. He said there was a better life out there, beyond the Byres Road crossing. He didn’t expect that his brother would try to argue him out of it. It’s just how it is, Graham – we’re gnus – don’t fight it! Graham was gutted but he knew that a gnu had to do what a gnu has to do.

He turned and walked away from George. He stopped watching George’s back. And that’s when it happened.

Gnu v Leo
Scene II: The Court
Learned Counsel for the Defence: Peter Pardus Esq (QC)
Learned Counsel for the Prosecution: Quentin Quagga Esq (QC)
Presiding magistrate: The Honourable Lord Aquila

The morning’s hot and the court is packed. Bovine, equine and feline scent glands are working overtime. At 10am precisely, The Honourable Lord Aquila leaves his chambers and enters the courtoom. Settling his ruffled feathers back into place, he fixes the room with a yellow-eyed glare. Quentin Quagga QC shifts uneasily under the beak’s gaze.

Good lord, it’s that idiot Quagga – thought he’d been disbarred. They say he’s doing this pro bono – friend of the deceased or some such nonsense thinks his Lordship. Ah, we’ve got Pardus, have we? He’ll give us some fireworks. Stout fellow – wouldn’t like to get in his way though.

Prosecuting Counsel Peter Pardus QC has casually draped his body along the back of the bench, only inches from a row of gazelle, who shrink back in their seats with terror-stricken eyes. Hmm pity I had breakfast at chambers – I quite fancy one of those right now he thinks.


Graham Gnu, the plaintiff, wears a zoot suit with very wide lapels and a check so loud the Court Reporter has to don sunglasses when looking his way. He’s wearing a Tagheuer watch on his left front hock. As it has no sunrise/sunset setting, it’s largely for show.

In front of him is a thick sheaf of papers which forms the basis for his case against Senga Leo, the youngest lioness of the South Side pride. He’s trying in vain to stop his lawyer, Quagga, from nervously snacking on the paperwork. I wish Quentin hadn’t worn that wig – it’s so small it must have been made for a Shetland pony he thinks.

Graham is here to see justice done for the murder of his brother George. He’ll never forgive himself for letting his attention wander that fateful day. But this time the lions have to pay, he vows.

He’s already lodged an objection to the appointment of Peter Pardus for the Defence. He’ll terrorise the prosecution witnesses into saying anything he wants them to say – everyone knows a leopard never changes its spots. Graham knows too that Aquila likes Pardus – there’s even been talk of them lunching together on breast of dik-dik.

The defendant, Senga, has dressed demurely for her time in court, eyes lowered, paws together. She looks like such a nice pussycat comes the whisper from the public gallery, where groups of ladies in summer frocks have spread the contents of their picnic hampers. They’re making a day of it and, although they wouldn’t dare admit it to each other, they’re hoping for some blood before teatime.

Senga is surrounded by the members of her pride (a visiting auntie is babysitting the cubs). Even Big Jimmy’s here, although he looks bored already. She’s more nervous than she cares to admit and however hard she tries to control it, her tail is twitching furiously.

Aquila makes a final adjustment to his second-best wig. His wigs are all custom made from the fur of small mammals, as befits a beak at the height of his profession, but this one’s making him itch. He really must speak to his wigmaker, he thinks. And if there isn’t live rabbit for luncheon, he’s not going to be happy.

As a final surge of skittish equine teenagers rush in, noisily packing themselves into the public benches, the call is given to close the courtroom doors. GNU v LEO is underway.

Illustrations by Alan Lennon

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A maniac is a madman, right? And not just any madman, but an escaped-from-the-asylum, Hammer-horror, axe-wielding madman. Tell me that’s not what you imagine when you read the word. The early Greeks, who gave us the term, believed that madness was a divine punishment for former sins.

Many psychiatric and psychological conditions include the word mania. And one of them is manic depression. Nowadays, it goes by a more politically correct name – bipolar disorder.

Clinically speaking:

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depressive disorder or bipolar affective disorder, is a psychiatric diagnosis that describes a category of mood disorders defined by the presence of one or more episodes of abnormally elevated mood clinically referred to as mania or, if milder, hypomania. Individuals who experience manic episodes also commonly experience depressive episodes or symptoms, or mixed episodes in which features of both mania and depression are present at the same time. These episodes are usually separated by periods of “normal” mood, but in some individuals, depression and mania may rapidly alternate, known as rapid cycling. Extreme manic episodes can sometimes lead to psychotic symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations. The disorder has been subdivided into bipolar I, bipolar II, cyclothymia and other types, based on the nature and severity of mood episodes experienced; the range is often described as the bipolar spectrum.

You can take that definition and run with it if you like. You can tell yourself that such familiar names as Einstein, Van Gogh and Beethoven were all bipolar, that you’re in good company. But how bipolar disorder works in the life of an ordinary human being is something else.

You may be called over-dramatic from an early age. Over-emotional, too prone to wearing your heart on your sleeve. Over-sensitive and cursed/blessed with an over-vivid imagination.

But as an adult, when the switch in your brain (set permanently on a random fluctuating pattern) is on Up, people will describe you as charming, vivacious and charismatic. They applaud your talent. You are a high functioning member of society with great communication skills. You possess a brain that’s sharp as a tack and that’s simply stuffed with creative ideas. You’re a risk taker, courageous and bold. Although some will find you a little intimidating or fast-paced, you’re generally well-liked and people see nothing abnormal in your behaviour.

Perceptive people, however, may notice that you have an edge of desperation. And they’d be right, for underneath, there is indeed a desperation to hang onto the Up, to keep the creativity, the sharpness. A desperation to finish projects that you started with such immense enthusiasm before the switch moves to Down. A desperation not to let people down who you care about. And a desperation not to let people see how your inner life really is.

Being Up is, quite literally, an intoxicating experience. Passions and ideas flood into your brain and you live in a brightly coloured world where every new idea is the one. Sometimes you can’t keep up with what your brain’s throwing at you and even your speech centre becomes garbled. It’s a runaway train but it’s damned exhilarating. Up’s darker side though is Signore Agitato, when the train’s come off the tracks and you’re trying to control those racing thoughts by sheer willpower.

In an effort to become more balanced, you try every medical treatment the world of psychiatry knows. None makes a significant difference, although the side effects increasingly debilitate you. You undergo long periods of therapeutic counselling and find a deeper understanding of your condition. Applied to your everyday life, that understanding changes nothing much. Eventually, you give up and go it alone.

You wrestle with the question of disclosure. You know deep down it’s a lose lose situation. If you tell people about your condition, chances are they’ll be sceptical ‘everyone has mood swings, what’s so different about you?’ or downright judgemental (see the opening paragraph). They may argue that you’re not bipolar, you just suffer from ‘a little depression now and then.’ Most of all, they’ll be damned uncomfortable with your disclosure and many may decide to give you a wide berth from now on. Accordingly, you spend your life alternating between telling people and keeping it a dark, deadly secret.

The largely hidden world of Down is a bleak one. Your previously sharp brain has grown a fleece of ewe’s wool and the world of colours has turned to a blurry grey. You’re physically exhausted and your motivation to even get out of bed is minimal. You sometimes remember that you do have meaningful talents and skills but as these completely vanish in Down, you can’t believe in the veracity of this and downgrade them to meaningless.

In an attempt to escape this blackness, you indulge in self-destructive behaviour. Anything all-consuming will do – booze, drugs, compulsive eating, gambling, sex. These incapacitate you in various ways so that you are at least distracted from the black hell of depression. But they will also drive away even more people in your life.

You make excuses for missed deadlines and meetings. Then eventually you simply cut off the phone and don’t reply to your emails. No lie would be convincing enough. And even if you could convince people, there’s no way of telling when you’re going to be Up again and functioning.

Over time, the Ups will be more and more shortlived and perhaps more extreme and the Downs more sustained. The Ups become a desperate race to accomplish things before the Down hits. It’s at this stage that disappointed friends will begin to drift away, unable to cope with the unremitting rollercoaster ride. They’ll go in search of more normal company. Who can blame them?

Now you find it hard to plan a life, because the pattern is so random. If you promise to be somewhere on a certain day three months hence, where will your mood be by then? Your confidence plummets and you stop trusting your own instincts. Was this or that decision made when you were overly manic? Severely depressed?

Anxiety starts to tag alongside Signore Agitato. The normal filters that allow you to function begin to rust up and your world grows smaller and smaller. You fear that you have become less and less socially acceptable and that perhaps it’s best not to inflict yourself on others.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have around you at this stage loving, understanding and supportive family and friends who are in it for the long haul. This can be crucial to how the life of someone with bipolar disorder pans out.

But from everything I’ve told you, you can see just how corrosive a condition it is. It’s hardly surprising then that people who are bipolar will more likely than not lead a solitary life. That they will often be hospitalised at least once. And that they will have a high suicide rate. It doesn’t seem like such a good payoff for a few fleeting moments of high creativity and charisma.


All Photographs © Rachel Cowan


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007? Q will see you now

Desmond Llewelyn as Q
How else to begin? Q has always had a certain cachet, a quirkiness unmatched by humbler members of the alphabet. Not least because it’s rarely seen without U. Technically, that’s called a digraph and although in English the two letters have separate identities, in Czech they are conjoined twins – and Turkish simply has no digraphs at all. (Incidentally, my favourite Q in the Bond films has to be Desmond Llewelyn.)

The concise OED (you remember – I can’t afford the shelf space for the Complete) has 9½ pages of quintessential Q words. A good number of those I regard as cheats – words and phrases borrowed from other languages. Personally, I think those people at Oxford get away with murder – they are the keepers of our beautiful mother tongue but really, is anyone keeping tabs on them? They could be Johnny Foreigner infiltrators for all we know.

Ed: Thank you Colonel Barrett-Plympton, we’ll take that under advisement, now if you’ll go with Nurse, I think she has some nice warm milk for you.

Before I go on, I’m going to get something out the way. I’m reluctant to mention it, but not to do so would be boorish. It would also unmask me as a person who has never read any of the Harry Potter books. I am unrepentant. The Q in question is Quidditch, a fictional game from the pen of JK Rowling. I caught a glimpse of a scene in one of the films when they were playing this game. It appeared to be a kind of airborne polo match minus the quaffing of Bolly or long legged girls in pretty frocks ruining their shoes on Smith’s Lawn. Couldn’t see the point myself.

Ed: You’re going to alienate a lot of our readers with this paragraph, you do know that, don’t you? I mean, how can you NOT have read Harry Potter?

Talking of Her Majesty the Queen, have you ever considered how many things will have to be changed upon her demise? We’re not just talking about the carpets at Sandringham and the thorny question of what will Camilla be called. Royal warrants by the thousand must be revised and all those pumped up lawyers will cease to be QCs and become KCs. All in all quite the printing nightmare – although I imagine printers will do very nicely out of it, thank you.

Ed: I’m going to ignore the fact that you jumped straight from fiction to monarchy but I am going to remind you that Mrs E Windsor is held in a great deal of regard in this country so it would behove you to be more respectful.

I’m longing to use quod erat demonstrandum but nil desperandum…

I thought when I began researching this article (yes, I do research things, is that so hard to believe? No, don’t answer that) that most words beginning with Q would concern questions, hence the title of this piece. But that’s simply not the case.

How much do I love the letter Q? Well, I’m glad you asked, because I could just as well have asked ‘Quantum do I love the letter Q?’ because the Latin for ‘how much’ is quantum. And if there’s anyone out there who can explain to me what quantum physics and quantum mechanics are all about without me having to attend night classes for six months, I’d be glad to include those subjects here. Suffice to say that my understanding of quantum physics and mechanics is heavily influenced by years of Star Trek viewing. All I need to know is that when Jean-Luc says ‘make it so’, I get a tingle.

Ed: Ramble ramble ramble.

I’ve picked eight toothsome words beginning with Q so let’s begin the beguine with Quark. Putting aside the Quite Interesting fact that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has a marvellous barkeep named Quark, here’s some science.  A quark is an elementary particle and a fundamental constituent of matter.  

flavours of quark

Quarks combine to form composite particles called hadrons,
the most stable of which are protons and neutrons, the components of atomic
nucleii. There are six types of quarks (known as flavours) and they are up,
down, charm, strange, top and bottom. Quarks were only really discovered in
the 1960s, but they’ve stood the test of time, so it can’t all have been
magic ‘shrooms in the physics lab.Trouble is, I imagine the different
flavours of quarks as ice cream cones – “Can I have two scoops of strange
please with charm sprinkles please”. But instead of ice-cream, it turns out
(actually I knew this one from back in the days when I was a health food
freak) that quark is also a cheese. A curdy creamy cheese which originated
in Eastern Europe. The echt version is like a weighty fromage frais. In
Germany, it’s the equivalent of yogurt, packed with fruit (and preservatives,
no doubt) but it can also be enjoyed on bagels. It contains no salt and has
a low fat content, but that don’t let you put you off – actually, it’s delicious.

The Quince (Cydonia oblonga) is an orchard fruit native to southwest Asia. Although rather out of favour nowadays (only quince jelly is widely made), the fruit was as popular in 17th and 18th century cookery as apple and pear are today. This recipe would surely delight even modern cooks.

Sir Hugh Platt’s Quidini of Quinces
Take the kernells out of eight great Quinces, and boile them in a quart of spring water, till it come to a pinte, then put into it a quarter of a pinte of Rosewater, and one pound of fine Sugar, and so let it boile till you see it come to bee of a deepe colour: then take a drop, and drop it on the bottome of a sawcer, then let it run through a gelly bagge into a bason, then set it in your bason upon a chafing dish of coles to keep it warm, then take a spoone, and fill your boxes as full as you please, and when they be colde cover them: and if you please to printe it in moldes, you must have moldes made to the bigness of your boxe, and wet your moldes with Rosewater, and so let it run into your mold, and when it is colde turne it off into your boxes. If you wette your moldes with water, your gelly will fall out of them.
Sir Hugh Platt Delights for Ladies (London: 1600)

There are two very different meanings of quire. First is the archaic name for a choir. In non-conformist country churches of the Georgian era, groups of musicians, both singers and instrumentalists, would play for services, often seated in the wooden gallery above the congregation. The London Gallery Quire carries on that tradition to this day. The second meaning of quire is of course to do with paper. A quire is 24 sheets of paper comprise a twentieth of a ream or a collection of leaves of paper, folded one within the other. The word has come down from the Latin quaterni (four each) through the Old French quaier to the word we use today. A quire is also an old word for a quiver of arrows and, bizzarely, the collective noun for a group of cobras (see, I find it hard to visualize cobras in a group: they just don’t strike me as especially companionable animals). And I can’t leave quire without mentioning something I found on the wilder edges of my research. Quentin Quire, also known as Kid Omega, is a Marvel Comics character created by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely!

Ed: Comic book characters now? Oy…

There is one word where U does not follow the letter Q and some might say it’s not a real word at all. But it is in the dictionary – honestly. It’s Qwerty.

We have C.L. Sholes of Milwaukee to thank the keyboard layout we all love to hate. Although his first typewriting machines were arranged alphabetically in two rows, they were prone to jamming during typing. Sholes knew that to solve this problem, the typebars would have to hang at safe distances. The QWERTY keyboard was determined by the existing mechanical linkages of the typebars inside the machine to the keys on the outside.

early qwerty keyboardNow, did you understand all that? Personally, I struggle with the technicalities, despite having learned to type on a 1920s typewriter which looked not unlike Mr Sholes’ machines of the 1870s.

Mr Sholes and his financial backer James Densmore went to Remington (at that time an arms manufacture) and in 1874 the first Type-Writer appeared on the market, offering, incidentally, only capital letters. In 1878, Sholes secured the patent for his QWERTY keyboard and the Remington No 2 was released complete with a shift key enabling upper and lower case type. There have been many attempts to improve on the QWERTY layout but none have shaken its place in the market.

My next word isn’t an object, it isn’t a place, it’s – well, it’s a quiddity. The dictionary gives three definitions. The first is that quiddity is the essence or nature of a thing. Second that it’s a quibble, a trifling point. And third that it’s an eccentricity or odd feature. Putting those definitions aside for a moment though, isn’t it just the most marvellous word? The kind of word that might inspire a verse or two, the kind of word that Proust could turn into an entire chapter. Saul Bellow deals with the word in his characteristically full-bodied way “I began to give some thought to the memoir I had promised to write and wondered how I would go about it – his freaks, quiddities, oddities, his eating, drinking, shaving, dressing and playfully savaging his students.” The origin is from Medieval Latin quidditas meaning essence and from that deceptively simple word what (or quid).

There is no rational explanation for choosing quipu as the next Q word. I saw the word and thought ‘oh yes, isn’t that the rather lovely South American forest bird I saw on a David Attenborough documentary?’ Well, I was right about South America but quipu is definitely not a bird. It’s altogether more fascinating. As used by the ancient Inca civilisation of Peru, Quipu is the use of knots in strings to record numerical information. The Inca had no written records so the quipu played a major role in the administration of the Inca empire. As an example of how a basic quipu worked, if the number 586 was to be recorded on the string, then six touching knots were placed near the free end of the string, a space was left, then eight touching knots for the 10s, another space, and finally 5 touching knots for the 100s. The strings were made of the wool of the alpaca or llama and dyed in various colours to represent different information. Those responsible for creating and deciphering the quipu knots were known as Quipucamayocs.

Ed: Did you make that word up? Quipucamayocs? Sounds like something on a Tex-Mex menu.

And now for a dance. The quadrille – a square dance of French origin in 6/8 or 2/4 time first introduced to England in 1808 and performed by four couples. It comprises five parts (or figures) which are called Le Pantalon, L’Été, La Poule, La Pastourelle and Finale. As can be seen in this cartoon of 1817, the complexities of the dance sometimes gave rise to mishaps!
Quadrille Dancing errors 1817
The quadrille must be one of the few dances to be performed not only by humans but also by horses. In fact, the equine quadrille preceded the dance by a couple of centuries. It began as a highly effective military manoeuvre and evolved into a display of skilled horsemanship for four horses and riders. Nowadays, equine quadrille is a choreographed dressage ride usually performed to music. A minimum of four horses are used but the number can be many more. There is also a version which includes the use of carriages. In 18th century French society, paired dancers replaced paired horses and the quadrille de contredanses was born.

Ed: There’s a suspiciously large number of French words in this article – have you been taking unauthorised trips on Le Eurostar?

And lastly from quadrille to Quadrivium. Meaning the ‘meeting of four roads’ (from the Latin), the Quadrivium was the higher division of the seven liberal arts taught in medieval universities. These studies were based on those pursued in the Classical world. The Liberal Arts divided into the Trivium (the lower division) consisting of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic; and the Quadrivium (the higher division) which consisted of Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy.

To finish on a less erudite note, Quadrivium is also a flamboyant font (what, you thought I’d get through a whole article without mentioning a font? Not a chance.)

Ed: I don’t understand your obsession with fonts. Can I give you the number of my shrink?

Postscript: This is how this article looked when I tried it out in In-Design. Now if only I had the coding ability to make it look like this on a web page!

A Question of Q smallA Question of Q2 small


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Whatever became of


I’m always interested in paper ephemera and the record sleeves for my 78rpm discs are fascinating little pieces of social history and design. So, while listening to some of my records today, I wondered what became of those shops who once supplied Edinburgh’s listeners with gramophones, records and music?

There was Methven Simpson Ltd – Piano and Musicsellers to H.M. The King, whose main branch was at 83 Princes Street. I’m guessing that the King was George V. They were obviously a prosperous company, with branches in Dundee, Forfar, Perth and St Andrews. They stocked pianos, player pianos, gramophones, sheet music and music rolls, also offering a tuning and repair service. I like the art deco border and those stylish numerals 83. Number 83, near Hanover Street, was once part of the Life Association of Scotland building. It now houses offices and Superdrug.


Only a street away at 28 Frederick Street was Pentland’s. The advertising here is less grand than Methven Simpson. Under the ‘Pianos and Player-Pianos’ is CASH or CONVENIENT TERMS. People who bought from Methven Simpson could probably afford to buy their piano outright, but Pentland’s was aiming more at the middle classes who had recently discovered Hire Purchase. And now? 28 Frederick Street has yet more offices and a branch of Thomas Cook.

Edinburgh-sleeve-1 Moving up Lothian Road, there was James Beaton’s The Gramophone House at Number 96. This building once housed opticians G Prescott & Co & a branch of Black & Lizars is still there. Beaton’s takes the prize for fanciful sleeve design, with smiling lambs at the foot of a classical column upon which sits a Pan-like figure playing two pipes. In the distance, a strange couple dance to the music, he wearing Cossack costume and she with a gay straw hat.

Edinburgh-sleeve-4A little further away from the centre of town was Kilgours at 66 Nicolson Street, boasting that they were agents for Columbia and His Master’s Voice for over a quarter of a century. Just a few doors away used to be La Scala Electric Theatre which opened in 1912. The cinema changed its name to the Classic in 1974 and has subsequently been converted for use as a bingo hall. Now Nicolson Street is one of the main places on the Southside for restaurants and cafes.

Charles M. Brown were Electrical, Wireless and Gramophone Suppliers, situated at 1 & 2 Melville Terrace on the edge of The Meadows. Or as the sleeve helpfully says Opposite Dick Veterinary College. The Dick Vet has since moved to modern accommodation on the outskirts of Edinburgh and there’s a Thresher’s off licence at No 1 Melville Terrace. The typography on this sleeve has pronounced serifs rather reminscent of Kelmscott and there’s a marvellous ampersand with swash.



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She Calls Me Teddy

barely there

She calls me Teddy. Unoriginal I know but I don’t mind. This is my story. I belonged first to the little boy who was conceived in the closing months of the war. He was an intense child, but very careful with his toys. My fur stayed fresh and clean and although I was well hugged, I sustained no injuries during my time with him. But being a boy, he went onto more boyish things in time, and in his eighth year, he was absorbed with his Airfix model aeroplane kits and I lay abandoned in a cupboard.

His sister was born then and she became my second human. We were constant companions. The mother altered the child’s old barricot gowns to fit me so I would be warmly swaddled for our visits to the park. The girl would push me back and forth on the swings (she was a little afraid to swing on them herself at this time) and hug me tight while she spun on the roundabout. We went to the zoo where, tucked into her pushchair, I gazed at some distant cousin bears and they gazed back at me. I was glad to be friend and comfort to this anxious little girl, but oh she was hard on my health…. First I lost one of my bright bead brown eyes in too vigorous a game. The mother kept the eye in her button box, meaning to mend me, I know. Then a tussle with her brother, tugged this way and that, resulted in an arm being pulled out of place, so much so that my straw threatened to spill out. The mother patched my wound with an old sheet but my shoulder was never the same again.

In time the little girl grew into a woman. She still suffered from night fears and secretly cuddled me in the small, lonely hours. I listened to all her hopes and fears and knew that I was much loved. In time, of course, we grew less close and I became more of a watcher than a participant in her life.

She was a troubled wanderer and I went in and out of packing cases more times than I wish to remember. She would say that it wasn’t truly home until Teddy had been unpacked and put in pride of place. Thankfully, she became more careful with her things, although one of my ears has never recovered from a gooey mess of medicine that spilled onto me during a sickly winter.

I’m an old bear now – I was made more than 60 years ago – and my paws and snout are sparse and worn. I never did have plush for fur and was always entirely the wrong colour. No toy historian will ever look at me and exclaim ‘Why, this bear is rare and terribly valuable’. Times were hard when I was made, and I was and am a very ordinary bear. I still have pride of place in a corner of her bedroom and sometimes she taps my nose affectionately as she passes. Now she’s about to take my photograph. I know I’m pretty battered looking, but we wartime bears are stoic, and I’ll try to look my best.

Photo © Rachel Cowan


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