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kerb or curb?

Most people only know one novel by Stella Gibbons, the brilliant Cold Comfort Farm. But I’m reading her novel Westwood, written in 1946 and set in wartime London, now re-published by Vintage, and it’s also brilliant. I was brought up short, however, by a line on page 88 that went ‘she cried out and stumbled as she missed the curb’.

She missed the what?

EDITOR AT VINTAGE: Er… the curb.

But don’t you mean kerb?

EDITOR AT VINTAGE: Well, er, I suppose you can spell it like that…

You’re not American, are you? And neither was Stella Gibbons.

EDITOR AT VINTAGE: I’m sorry, I made a mistake…

Too right you did. In British English there is a difference between kerb and curb, the former being the edge of the pavement and the latter being a verb meaning to restrain. In American English they are both spelt the same. But I like our homegrown kerb, which has an unusual letter combination and is a great word to play in Scrabble.

While I’m on this subject I’m reminded of a couplet by Roy Campbell ‘On Certain South African novelists’. I have no idea which novelists he was referring to but it has always stuck in my mind: ‘You praise the firm restraint with which they write/ I’m with you there of course./ They use the snaffle and the curb all right/ But where’s the bloody horse?’


Crocodiles and alligators

I’ve just been reading Rose Macauley’s The Towers of Trebizond. It’s an entertaining period piece, amusing enough if you can get past the affected, faux-naif style – and actually the last few pages, where she stops trying to be funny and gets serious, are really good. But I nearly didn’t reach those last few pages. An error on the second page almost put me off at the outset, when the narrator recounts the fate of a  Christian missionary who went off up the Amazon to preach to Brazilian Indians and “met death at the jaws of a crocodile”.

What was that crocodile doing in Brazil? There aren’t any crocodiles in Brazil, unless they’re in zoos. That missionary must have been eaten by an alligator.

If you look on a map at the eastern coastline of South America and the western coastline of Africa, you can see how these two continents were once joined together, until the movement of tectonic plates pulled them apart. One effect was that populations of species became separated and the separated populations evolved in slightly different ways. Thus many African species have South African counterparts, not quite the same but obviously sharing a common ancestor. In Africa we find crocodiles, in South America alligators; in Africa leopards, in South America jaguars; in Africa pythons, in South America anacondas; in Africa pangolins and in South America armadillos, and so on, and so on.

Should Macaulay have known this? Yes, I think she should. I like writers to get things right. I remember feeling similarly irritated at the beginning of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, when James’s parents ‘suddenly got eaten up (in full daylight, mind you, and on a crowded street) by an enormous angry rhinoceros’. 

A vanished female vocal style

Just as fashions in accent and pronunciation change over time, so do fashions in the vocal styles of singers. I’ve been thinking about a particular female vocal style which was very popular in the 1960s and 1970s and which has now disappeared. I mean the very pure, thin, clear, melodic style of singers like Petula Clarke (Downtown); or Mary Hopkin (Those Were the Days); or Julie Andrews (Anything from The Sound of Music or Mary Poppins). The voice was always very prominent in the mix, standing proud from the accompaniment, absolutely on the note, and the diction was crystal clear with every consonant sounded and every vowel pure and clean. This style was also used by a lot of female folk singers, such as Judith Durham of The Seekers (The Carnival is Over) or Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span (All Around my Hat). It is, I suppose, rather a white style, but not exclusively: Dionne Warwick was an exponent (Walk On By).

No woman sings like that any more. And perhaps it would sound affected and old-fashioned if she did. But I have feelings of nostalgia for that vanished style. I liked the clarity of it, the tunefulness, the way it was all about the song rather than the singer. Much contemporary female vocalising seems to me histrionic in comparison – breathy, emotional, full of sighs and groans and swoops and shrieks.

I know, shall we all have a listen to the Seekers? Go on, you know you want to…


I happened to be watching Strictly Come Dancing the other night, and one of the presenters – I can’t remember whether it was the tall one or the one who wears too much make-up – said that one of the dances had been “the funnest routine so far”.

Funnest? Back when I was a TEFL teacher I used to teach students that fun was a noun. There is an adjective funny but that has a rather different meaning. You can, of course, say “It’s fun”, which makes it sound like an adjective because it has no article; but it only has no article because it is an uncountable noun (as one might say It’s snow or It’s beer – but they’re still nouns).

At some stage, however, fun started on its journey towards adjectivehood. It began to be used attributively, as in expressions, like A fun time, or A fun guy (back in the 80s there was a joke doing the rounds: Q: What do you call a mushroom who buys you drinks? A: A fungi to be with. This joke doesn’t fully work on a grammatical level, as fungi is plural, not singular – but to the extent that it does work, it relies on fun being an adjective).

And now, it seems, fun has arrived in Adjectiveland and acquired citizenship. It has a comparative and a superlative. Still sounds a bit odd to my ears. No point arguing, though. Fun, funner, funnest. There it is.

Cobwebs and Spider Webs

Who knows the difference between a cobweb and a spider web? The answer is very simple, but I had never actually formulated it until I was writing a poem about a spider the other day, and asked myself the question.

Here it is: a spider web is still lived in by the spider. But a cobweb is abandoned. There’s nobody there. It’s an empty house. Derelict.

Maybe you knew that already? I haven’t looked it up to check but I am fairly sure it’s right.

By the way, I will post the poem about the spider on this blog if ten people ask me to.

Playground rhymes

Do children still recite playground rhymes? This seems to be a folk art in decline. The other day I asked my son Fred (14) what playground rhymes he remembered from primary school and he said none, because there weren’t any. But my daughter Ros (19) does remember some clapping and skipping rhymes. Specifically, she remembered one that went:

I went to a Chinese to buy a loaf of bread

They wrapped it up in a five-pound note and this is what they said

My name is Halo Chickelo Chickelo Halo Halo Chickelo Big Chief How!

She also remembered the song of Suzi:

When Suzi was a baby

A baby Suzi was and she went

Wah! Wah! Wah wah wah!

Wah wah wah wah wah wah wah!

When Suzi was a schoolgirl

A schoolgirl Suzi was and she went

Miss! Miss! I can’t do this!

I got my knickers in a terrible twist.

When Suzi was a teenager

A teenager she was and she went

Ooh! Ah! I lost my bra!

I must have left it in my boyfriend’s car!

When Suzi was a mother

A mother Suzi was and she went

Brush your teeth! Comb your hair!

Don’t forget your underwear!

When Suzi was a granny

A granny Suzi was and she went

Knit! Knit! Knit knit knit!

Knit knit knit knit knit knit knit!

When Suzi wa-as de- ead

De-ead Suzi was and she went…


Ros also knew Inky Pinky Ponky, Daaddy bought a donkey, Donkey died, Daddy cried, Inky Pinky Ponky; and one with the refrain In came the doctor, In came the nurse, In came the lady with the alligator purse. Perhaps girls tell or told these rhymes more than boys. But I can remember lots of them from my schooldays – not so much clapping and skipping rhymes as little stories told in verse, some of them very bawdy. Here is one that springs to mind:

The moon shines down on the village green

It shines on Little Nell.

Is she picking flowers?

Is she bloody hell!

She’s waiting for her lover

A constipated bugger

Who isn’t fit to shovel shit

From one place to another.


There was a boy named Billy

With a ten-foot willy

And he showed it to the lady next door.

She thought it was a snake

So she hit it with a rake

And now it’s only four foot four.

There were also rhymes which set you up to expect a rude word and then coyly refused to deliver:

As I was going to St Paul’s

A lady grabbed me by the… arm.

She said you look a man of pluck –

Come home with me and have a… ham sandwich.

And there was:

Ask no questions, tell no lies

I saw a policeman doing up his… Flies

are a nuisance, bugs are worse

This is the end of my Chinese verse.

To the tune of ‘My Bonny Lies over the Ocean’:

My father’s a lavatory cleaner

He works all day and all night

And when he comes home in the evening

His hands are all covered in…

Shine your buckles with Brasso

Only three-halfpence a tin.

You can buy it or nick it from Woolworths

But I don’t think they’ve got any in.

Now some say he died of a fever

Some say he died of a fit.

But I know what my poor Dad died of:

He died of the smell of the…

Shine your buckles with Brasso

Only three-halfpence a tin.

You can buy it or nick it from Woolworths

But I don’t think they’ve got any in.

Now some say he’s buried in gravel

Some say he’s buried in grit.

But I know what my poor Dad lies in –

He’s buried in six foot of

Shine your buckles with Brasso

Only three-halfpence a tin.

You can buy it or nick it from Woolworths

But I don’t think they’ve got any in!

I wonder if there are still anonymous geniuses coming up with these quirky, surreal, strongly rhythmical and memorisable rhymes – or is it indeed a lost art?

A Bit of a Fright

It being Hallowe’en today, I thought people might enjoy a scary poem. So here it is:


A Bit of a Fright

Got a bit of a fright the other day –

Came home from school in the usual way –

Went up to my room – and stared in surprise:

A little old lady with pale blue eyes

And a long black dress, and hair of white

Was sitting there in the fading light;

And she gave me a very strange look indeed:

A secret expression I just couldn’t read;

Not a sound did she make, not a word did she say –

But softly, silently, faded away.

Then I looked at the place where she had sat

And I saw that the bed was perfectly flat:

Not a dent, not a hollow – nothing to show

That someone had sat there a second ago:

And I stood quite still, all tingling with fright,

Alone in my room, in the fading light.