27 November 2012

The Hapsburg Jaw, the Griffiths Hamstrung

Carlos II of Spain (1661 - 1700)

There was something about the movement of chins and the pronounced nature of chewing at dinner the other day that propelled us into a discussion about the Hapsburgs.

I wondered, idly and friskily, if the latest in the line, Otto von Hapsburg, who died last year, needed a special annexe for his coffin, a kind of side-car if you will, to accommodate the famed Hapsburg Jaw. 

This genetic defect, medically known as prognathism, plagued members of the royal house of Hapsburg as payback for their habit of searching a little too close to home for matrimonial partners.  Although moneybags and political power may have been safeguarded, the constant inter-marrying resulted in a hereditary protruding lower jaw, passed on by a dominant gene.

A hasty search on the internet revealed comforting news about the late Otto, son of the last Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary.   A passionate anti-nationalist (and fervently opposed to the Austrian Nazi movement) he was a member of the European parliament, with a track record of public service at high level.  As a member of the Hapsburg-Lorraine family, a branch that seems to have been bypassed by the misshapen mandible, his facial contours were pleasingly normal.  

How markedly he contrasted, however, with Carlos II (pictured at the top of this blog) who was the last of the Spanish Hapsburgs.  Unseemly tangles amongst Carlos’s forebears - for example, his mother also technically being his first cousin, his grandmother also being his aunt, and his other grandmother also being his great-grandmother - created such acute inbreeding that for this unfortunate king, a mammoth underbite was the least of his worries.  He could not walk until he was eight, had limited intellectual capacity, and suffered both from an extended childhood and premature senility.  He married twice but was unable to produce heirs.  When he died at the age of 38 in 1700, the coroner’s report stated that as well as his body lacking blood, his heart being minute (the size of a grain of pepper), his lungs and intestines raddled, "he had a single testicle which was as black as carbon and his head was full of water.”

Compared to the afflictions outlined above, I therefore almost hesitate to bring up the subject of the rather more trifling Griffiths Hamstrung.  This condition – which is basically a deficient, possibly wizened, hamstring – is a constant embarrassment for me and mine.  It renders us completely incapable of hunkering down with feet planted flat on the ground.  Athleticism seems to matter little.  Close kin who have regularly worked out at a gym still cannot perform such essential actions as squatting at the bus stop or in the paddy field, crouching to produce a sit spin or a Teapot at the ice rink, or positioning themselves efficiently by a back wheel for a tyre change. 

Indeed, during attempts to get closer to the floor without my heels coming up, even my yoga teacher has been taken aback by the extent of the Griffiths Hamstrung.  “Don’t stick your bottom out,” she has instructed, despairingly, not realising that a thrust of the posterior is the only way to achieve even a few inches of movement.

Though I’ve seen this problem pop up in offspring, siblings and nephews, the Hamstrung isn’t genetic at all.  It affects many westerners.  If you sit all day at the computer, bad news.  If you also wear high heels, even worse.  If you haven’t tried to hunker since the age of two, forget it.  The way we generally lead our lives as if recumbent in a passenger seat, rather than getting out to sprint or stretch, is at fault.

Free of Griffiths Hamstrung

Advanced surgery and complex dentistry could have perhaps remedied Carlos II’s Hapsburg Jaw.  Something, too, can apparently be done about the Hamstrung: 
Ready? OK, back against the wall, bottom in, down a millimetre, another millimetre…

17 November 2012

Something Fishy About Sin....

...something sinful about fish

On my recent visit to Spain, aboard the bus from Malaga to Orgiva, a well-dressed  and impeccably coiffed lady sat down beside me.   She began a friendly conversation about where she was going for the weekend, where she lived – look, just over there in that smart neighbourhood, that very apartment building, a few tens of metres from the sea.

And then, fifteen minutes further into our journey, she pointed out of the window and began to talk about sin. 

Now this was a surprising turn, given the run-of-the-mill nature of everything thus far.  Why the sudden lurch into sin?  What would come next?  A scouring stare?  A toe-curling confession?   I coughed and played for time.  She pointed again towards the village we were passing through, with its whitewashed houses clustering around the shore. 

And then I got it.  Fish.  She was talking about fish.

The Spanish word for fish is pescado.  But drop the “s” –  and you are left with pecado, meaning "sin". 

But why on earth would anyone want to drop the “s” in the first place?  Indeed.  This is the constant cry as you travel around Andalucia and come to realise that  “s” has been hounded to the verge of extinction.  The southern Spaniards have charmingly seen fit to extract “s”s  from the middle and ends of their words with the diligence of dentists.

So pescado is pronounced pecadoBuenos días becomes bueno díaDespues (meaning “after”) becomes de-pue.  And so on.

(To give you a hint of what it’s like trying to keep abreast of things during a haemorrhage of this vital consonant, try saying the following sentence, as quickly as you can, without any of the "s"s:  “Let’s eat goose this Christmas”.   And see if anyone can understand you.)

Of course, context becomes vital.  It was perhaps idiotic to be travelling through a fishing village assuming my bus companion was prattling on about sin, when clearly the nets and boats should have given the game away.  But it is  intriguing how dangerously close are sin and fish in a couple of other languages.  An Italian fisherman, pescatore, could easily turn, with an injudicious tongue slip, into a sinner, peccatore.  A Frenchman who goes fishing, pêcher, is homophonically embracing sin, péché.  And, depending on what blots are on his conscience,  he may not automatically infer the reel and rod should you waltz up to him and ask bluntly: “Vous êtes pêcheur?  

But just think of the whole new raft of possible images:

a sin-monger
a sin market
a shoal of sin
a haul of sin
a sinning net
deepwater sin
wriggling sin
slippery sin
fresh sin
a sin laid out to dry

Fish.  Sin.  Now irrevocably entwined.

10 November 2012

Typing Up a Storm

Typewriter in the house of Robert Graves, Deia, Mallorca

Writing in longhand.  The impulse from your wrist to form letters.  Ink flowing like blood, like dark milk, like grape juice.  Sufficient delay to dredge your depths.  Notebooks covered with splotches and underlinings.

Versus typing on a keyboard.  Torrential clicking when ideas flow and you must keep pace.  Reams of churned paper that already have the look of something organised and official.

Both approaches are useful, depending on context and type of work. 

When I decided, back in the mists, that I wanted to be a purveyor of words, it was essential to learn to type - using all ten fingers as swiftly as possible.  Although the advent of word processors and PCs was just around the corner, my first writer’s tools were a Remington typewriter and a gallon of correcting fluid.

But I lacked speed and technique, and so enrolled for three months at a secretarial college in west London.  The classes crammed with non-native speakers, the shabby premises, and the whiff of unregulation were reflected in very reasonable fees.  Students came and went, and there was always room for more in that quirky establishment - where it appeared the tea lady ruled the roost by the quantity of tea or biscuits she awarded, and where the typing teacher was clipped and meticulously English.  “What is your Christian name?” she would habitually ask new Arab arrivals, much to their bewilderment.

One day I came to college forty-five minutes early, seeking warmth and the possibility of getting ahead with my work.   Within ten minutes, the assistant principal marched in.  An octogenarian, she wore a wig which had fitted her head thirty years before, but which had long since shed bits of itself down to the webbing.  It was now a patchy-haired beret skewed at a worrying angle.

She was stiff with anger.  “What on earth are you doing?  Classes don’t begin until 9.0 a.m.,” she shouted.  “You foreigners are all the same.  No concept of correct behaviour.” 

I stood away from my desk, stretched up to my full five-foot-four-inches, and responded through clenched teeth:  “I’ll have you know that I was born in England, so I’m not exactly a foreigner.   And how dare you suggest that they or I don’t know how to behave.  For your information, I happen to have been brought up correctly.  In any case, the college was open.  I wanted to do some more practice.  This is actually important for my career.” 

Or words to that effect.

News of the altercation soon spread.  The tea lady sidled up to me with a fresh brew in her huge aluminium teapot and an unprecedented three Rich Tea biscuits.  She asked what I was hoping to do in life.  I told her I wanted to be a journalist. 

“I think I can help you,” she said. 

“Oh?”  My ears pricked up. 

“My nephew works at the Daily Express.” 

It wasn’t the paper I had in mind, but a start is a start.   

“What does he do?”  I asked.  Even a junior reporter might be able to put in a good word, or smuggle me in as pencil-case holder on a celebrity assignment.

“He’s the car park attendant,” she said.

That afternoon, I was summoned to the principal’s office.  Preparing myself for a dressing-down, I sat…(demurely I was going to write, but it was more nail-chewingly)…in my chair.

“The assistant principal…” she began.


“The assistant principal is retiring in two months.  Would you like her job?”

Gentle reader, I’m pleased to tell you that etiquette held good and I managed to turn down the job without resorting to words like stick and sun and don’t and shine, before packing up my 63 wpm typing skills and heading off into the west London streets.

But thanks to that school, ever after there’s been that delicious choice:

Slow contemplative doodle?  Or energetic word tumble?