An amusing correction in the TLS letters page from 12 years ago

While looking for something entirely different, I came across this letter to the TLS by Tim Nau from January 5th 2007:

Sir, -In a paragraph about saints of the Dark Ages enjoying pain, Druin Burch includes a quotation from St Theresa of Lisieux (December 8, 2006). Is he aware that she was born in 1873? Either Dr Burch has an unusual idea of the extent of the Dark Ages, or has confused this St Theresa with some other.


21 East York Avenue, Toronto.



Architectural urban myths: mixing up the plans in Dungannon and Enniscorthy

Reading the Wikipedia page on Dungannon, Co Tyrone I came across this:

An interesting feature of the town is the former police barracks at the top right-hand corner of the market square which is quite unlike any other barracks of a similar vintage in Ireland. A popular but apocryphal story relates that the unusual design of this building is due to a mix-up with the plans in Dublin which meant Dungannon got a station designed for the Nepal and they got a standard Irish barracks, complete with a traditional Irish fireplace.

There’s a picture here at Geograph (the project to photograph every OS grid square):


The plans-mix-up story rang a bell, for I have heard the same said of St Senan’s Psychiatric Hospital. Supposedly somewhere in the Raj an asylum designed for County Wexford was erected. The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage is having none of it:

A lunatic asylum erected to a design by James Bell (1829-83) and James Barry Farrell (1810-93) representing an important component of the nineteenth-century built heritage of County Wexford with the architectural value of the composition, one unusually deviating from the Tudor Gothic standard seen across the country, confirmed by such attributes as the near-symmetrical footprint centred on an elegant arcade; the construction in a vibrant red brick offset by silver-grey Kiltealy granite or yellow brick dressings producing a lively polychromatic palette; the slight diminishing in scale of the openings on each floor producing a feint graduated visual impression; and the Osborne House (1845-51)-like Italianate towers embellishing the roofline as prominent eye-catchers in the landscape: meanwhile, aspects of the composition clearly illustrate the continued development or “improvement” of the lunatic asylum to designs by Charles Astley Owen (c.1855-1922) of Marlborough Street, Dublin (Irish Builder 15th September 1895, 218; 15th August 1900, 451). Having been reasonably well maintained, the elementary form and massing survive intact together with substantial quantities of the original fabric, both to the exterior and to the interior, thus upholding the character or integrity of the composition. Furthermore, adjacent outbuildings (extant 1903); a chimney (see 15604055); and a nearby burial ground (extant 1903), all continue to contribute positively to the group and setting values of a self-contained ensemble making a dramatic visual statement overlooking the River Slaney. NOTE: The firm attribution to Bell and Barry puts to rest the local legend that the designs for the lunatic asylum were mixed up with those for an army barracks in Pretoria or a palace in India during, variously, the Crimean War (1853-6) or the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1).

Hmmm, I wonder where else this urban legend has spread? Perhaps any unusual building from a certain era was assumed to be incongruous to the locality .. and I note were buildings linked with social control in different ways, so perhaps this allowed a certain mockery of intimidating local institutions (and linking them with Imperial power)

I wonder if it ever worked the other way and local traditions in India of in South Africa claim a building was “actually” intended for far off Ireland.

On a less exotic scale there is an (uncited) story of a Newry-Dundalk mix up:

Incidentally, Thomas Duff also was the architect for the Cathedral in Dundalk, a town just over the border in County Louth, and it is said that he mixed up the plans for both cathedrals and sent Dundalk Cathedral to the builders in Newry, and Newry Cathedral to the builders in Dundalk.

Perhaps Newry and Dundalk are more foreign to each other than Enniscorthy and the Raj after all…Something not dissimiliar is reported in “local tradition” in Lincolnshire



Don’t trust Alexa Crazy Fact: the name “Wendy” wasn’t invented for Peter Pan (and pig orgasms don’t quite last as long as all that)

One of the skills of Amazon’s Alexa is Crazy Fact. This skills allows Alexa to pop up with a fact which is a little unusual or offbeat. From this, I learnt that in space, no-one can hear you snore.

Recently Crazy Fact informed me that the name “Wendy” was invented by J M Barrie for Peter Pan and didn’t exist before this.

It sounded dubious, and a few seconds of web searching revealed that it is not true:

But we have absolute proof that there were earlier Wendys, thanks to the just-released 1880 U.S. Census and the 1881 British Census (available here). These documents show that the name Wendy, while not common, was indeed used in both the U.S. and Great Britain throughout the 1800s. I had no trouble finding twenty females with the first name Wendy in the United States, the earliest being Wendy Gram of Ohio (born in 1828). If you include such spelling variations as Windy, Wendi, Wenda, and Wandy the number triples.

So there you go. Crazy Fact also claims that pigs’ orgasms last 30 minutes.

This is largely not true, so to speak:


There is one final rumour that has to be addressed: the oft-repeated “fact” that male pigs can orgasm for 30 minutes.

According to observations of males with real sows, copulation duration is typically 4-5 minutes, but can last up to 20 minutes

The first thing to say is that we don’t know what sensations the males – or the females for that matter – experience when they mate, so any talk of orgasms is speculative.

But based on the ubiquitous “gloved hand” method used to coax sperm from male pigs, ejaculation does appear to last a very long time. In a 2012 study of “high performance boars”, the average duration of ejaculation was around 6 minutes. But there was considerable variation, with one male apparently yielding semen continuously for 31 minutes.

It is difficult to know whether this kind of protracted ejaculation can occur in the absence of the “gloved hand”, but it is certainly a possibility. According to observations of males with real sows, copulation duration is typically 4-5 minutes, but can last up to 20 minutes.

Whatever the truth about orgasms, an online primer on how to artificially inseminate pigs warns practitioners not to interrupt the male before he’s done, unless they want a very angry pig on their hands. “If you let loose too soon, be prepared for a challenge.”

I’ll say.

The demands of silence

The demands of silence

On of the recurrent themes of this blog has been various writings – by others, by myself – on silence. Of course, all this verbal activity on silence carries with it a kind of hypocrisy. A lot of noise about silence! I’m aware of the irony, and the risks.

I’m aware, too, of the downside of silence – those who have been silenced, had silence forced on them. I’m aware that to be silent can be to condone injustice. A book I read some years ago which has been very helpful in this regard is The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life by Eviatar Zerubavel, full of examples of how conspiracies of silence are maintained, often without any formal “conspiracy.”

One concept Zerubavel mentions (rather in passing if memory serves) is the “conspiracy of noise” – wherein we do not find silence but the opposite, noisy activity about everything except what matters.

This concept, along with this passage from George Steiner – “Silence is not the contrary of the Word but its guardian”, have helped me in resolving this tension between silence as a positive, life-enhancing experience and silence as oppression or repression.

I’ve been gradually making my way through Maggie Ross’ “Silence: A User’s Guide. It is full of good stuff, arresting stuff, stuff that makes me question some of my own habits and practices.

I do have one caveat, which is a nagging sense that perhaps Ross’ approach may make the best the enemy of the good. Her scorn for much nonsense about “mysticism” and “spirituality” is no doubt justified. Similarly the related scorn at the commodification and institutionalisation of an experiential process.

At times, however, the tone is a little like those three step I-You-He miniatures that Craig Brown (for one) has written (I have been try to recall what they might be called) in the form of:

I experience silence in the purest form
You have a rather superficial interest in the practice
He is a middle-class dillitante whose so-called spirituality is a mere commodity fetishism

Maybe a bit unfair to Ross, and no doubt she is right to be wary of romanticisation of monasticism and such. But it all seems rather harsh. Silence is a practice open to everyone (as Ross very clearly sets out – indeed even the term “practice” is too redolent of something forced)

It struck me today that silence has its own demands, ones that compete, usually unsuccessfully, with the demands of busy-ness and of the world. This is especially true as our culture becomes more and more always on, full of alerts and notifications.

I loved the Odon von Horvath quote – “I’m actually a quite different person, I just never get around to being him” featured in the post above. Which is of us, if we died tomorrow, would feel that the digital trace of our lives would be “me”, would sum us up, would capture our essence?

Silence is somewhere we encounter our essence. This encounter can have explicitly religious elements, or not This is an encounter, increasingly, that it takes specific effort to have. Our default is becoming noise and the vigilance of alerts (of course, there is a vigilance and threat with silence – a deeper threat indeed)

We also need to remember that “silence of the heart is much more important than silence of the mouth” and that a certain humility with regard to our own efforts is crucial. Absolute silence is probably physiologically unobtainable, indeed much of the discourse on silence is really about freedom from humanly-created noise.

In this context, we need to remember that Silence has its own demands. Just as sleep is something we need to consciously facilitate against various pressures of modernity, despite its “naturalness”, we no longer just experience silence but have to be open to its demands. To take things full circle, “the silent are never at home in our culture again”

November 12th 1988: Two contrasting letters from Kingsley Amis

In “The Letters of Kingsley Amis”, edited by Zachary Leader, we find two contrasting and yet in their own way characteristic letters from Kingsley Amis from this day thirty years ago.

The first is a letter to editor of the Spectator, in response to a letter by Frank Dunne . This is a letter conjuring something close to the splenetic, rather reactionary Amis of his public image, with a swipe at Modernism and subsidy for the Arts and a boost for the unfashionable figure of Edward Thomas:

Sir: Frank Dunne is in such a rush to put me right on modernism (Letters, 29 October)that he cannot stay to read even what Auberon Waugh says I said about it. Waugh says I said, and I said, and I say, not of course that the modernist movement “would never have succeeded” without bodies like the Arts Council, but that the movement “would be over but for the life-support machine provided by the Arts Council and other malign institutions”. In this country, that is was was understood: Americans, Irish, French etc modernists are no doubt still doing well enough unassisted.

As to modernism’s success in past years, it must have been helped by those like DUnne whose palates are so jaded that they find only a “tepid, weak-tea” tradition in the work of that classic English poet, Edward Thomas. But then Thomas never achieved “worldwide acclamation”, as far as I know.


194 Regents Park Road, London N1

An explanatory footnote reads: “Auberon Waugh’s comments on Amis and modernsism appear in a column entitled ‘Something Slimy and Spongiform in the Saleroom’. Spectator, 8 October 1988 p 8. Frank Dunne (b 1932) is an Irish writer and actor.”

Immediately afterwards we find a contrasting letter to W. Y McNeil. A footnote explains : ‘McNeil (b. 1916), a retired Director of Social Work at a Scottish local authority, had met Amis as a young subaltern in Signals. He wrote to Amis on 11 October 1988 after seeing him interviewed on television.”

194 Regents Park Road, London NW1 8XP

Dear Mac,

How nice to hear from you Of course I remember . you very well: red-haired, lively, always ready with a laugh, especially at our superiors’ expense – something we all needed in those days of (my God!) 43-44 years ago

Though I remember the names of everyone in the photograph you kindly sent – returned with many thanks – I have no recent news of any except Eric Milner, on your left in the photograph. He turned up at a Foyle’s luncheon I was at not much changed, now of course an ex-Lt-Col-TA with a place in Surrey. He wasn’t my favourite man in the old days but seems to have mellowed since, or perhaps I have.

I remember Urquhart well too, so well I can’t believe he was only with us until we left High Wycombe: dark, pale, serious, with walking-stick, bonnet with pompom  and (could it have been?) kilt. I once said to him, just to make conversation, ‘Are German ciphers made in the same sort of way as ours?’ He said ‘I’m afraid I can’t tell you that,’ and I thought, wow, Jerry must be in a bad way if still doesn’t know that (in ’44). Give him (Gordon, not Jerry) all my best.

If you’re ever in London do think of giving me a ring. We could summon up the ghosts of Bill Yorke, Jack Reeves, Col. Walker (aargh!) and not least RSM Fryer over a wee tassie.

With every good wish,


Bill Amis.

Zachary Leader’s footnotes do provide more context (in relation to the last paragraph, it is noted that “neither Bill Yorke, the Adjutant, nor Lieutenant-Colonel  G.F.H. Walker the CO, were favourites”) , but I feel that it is worth letting this affectionate and rather touching letter speak for itself.

Most pompous Irish ads

There seems to be a specific subgenre of Irish ad that goes for the insufferably pompous approach. I am a little wary of giving these brands more exposure via this forum, as it may thereby prove that these ads work in some way. Personally, the kind of approach here puts me right off what the advertiser is trying to get across.

The archetypal pompous ad is the 2010 effort promoting Terminal 2 in Dublin Airport. Unfortunately, the timing of this with the recession/bailout era made it seem like an ad for emigration. Also, from the opening line (“Ireland is a small island in a big ocean”) we hit the motherlode of the humblebrag approach of Irish advertising – we may be only wee, but we did invent the Beaufort Scale and Yeats;

Dante unaccountably left out the makers of Irish banking ads from his Inferno. Personally, I find it hard to discern which circle of the inferno they would be consigned to. With the perpetrators of “simple” fraud? With the barrators? With the counsellors of fraud? Perhaps Dante’s system would explode with the many many options.

I am unsure which is worse – the pseudo-witty bank ad or the pompous, earnest bank ad about how totally serious and amazing they are. AIB’s “We’re Backing…” campaign, as well as hitting all the pomp buttons, managed to irritate me even more by misusing adjectives as nouns (see also Aer Lingus’ irritating rather than pompous “Smart” campaign)

This post was provoked by coming across this instant classic of the pomp genre from Enterprise Ireland. One of the recurrent themes of the pomp ad is how like utterly hard everyone is like working with their like meals from a plastic tray and so on. Amazingly this has nearly a million views:

The pompous GAA ad is a whole other subgenre of the pompous Irish ad subgenre. And here again A I f***ing B take the biscuit with their attempt to butter up the Irish public after, you know, crashing the economy (not alone of course) by linking themselves with the epitome of all things Real and Authentic in Ireland, the GAA:

I feel a whole post decrying pompous GAA based ads coming on… another fertile source of pomp ads is telecommunications. Eir have especial form in this. I sorta almost like the way the stirring sounds of Fionnghuala are set to stirring scenes of how amazing Eir’s products are (incidentally, here’s a story headed “Just when you thought Eir’s customer service couldn’t get any worse) when of course the self-same internet encapsulates the forces wiping out the culture that created Fionnghuala (if you see what I mean)


Sadly, I am unable to track down the ultimate pomp ad – one for Centra, whose slogan “For The Way We Live Today” was conveyed in an inexpressibly awful pomp-rock musical setting, to accompany vignettes of couples arguing in sign language, a conductor looking sweaty, and various other entirely emotionally false scenes of supposedly modern Ireland.

I couldn’t find that ad on YouTube, so here’s a pleasingly unpompous 90s Centra ad … with satisfyingly naff music, and an overall message not of saving the world or reflecting the stirring diversity of modern Ireland, or hard work being like so totally awesome, but of being about buying stuff in a shop: