Quirky cultural curoisities

Do Moths Have Ears?

Cute Moth
Mum’s favourite cashmere jumper has been savaged by a moth. But it’s turned its nose up (do moths have noses?) at her woollies.
Apparently this is normal. Moths have expensive tastes. They prefer cashmere to wool and synthetic fabrics, preferring to get their teeth (do moths have teeth?) into posh natural ones.
Anyway, Mum’s not happy and has filled her cashmere drawer with lavender and conkers to put the varmint off.
Now, when anything goes wrong in the house, we’ve taken to saying, ‘It must be the moth.’ It’s so far been blamed for a marmalade stain and a power cut.

‘If I find it, I’ll clip it round its ear,’ said Mum, who isn’t normally prone to violent outbursts.

This then (inevitably) occasioned a discussion about moths’ ears and whether they actually have them.

Well, it turns out they do. They’re very basic, with a mere four vibration-sensitive cells. But, paradoxically, they’re also extremely sophisticated, having evolved to detect the high-pitched calls of bats – their main predators.

Research at Bristol University has revealed ‘unexpected sophistication in one of the simplest ears known’. Moths can hear the tiniest of high-pitched noises, detecting displacements the size of an atom.

So moths do have ears, but they’re too small to clip.

New Year’s Eve Eve

New Year’s Eve – Allendale, Northumberland

Gosh. It’s New Year’s Eve Eve already.

In these wild and woolly northern parts, New Year’s Eve itself is still pretty eccentric and some families still insist on the ritual of ‘first-footing’. It basically involves a young man with dark hair leaving the house before midnight and lurking in the garden. He then confers good luck by being the first person to enter the house in the New Year. Oh – and he has to bring a bit of coal in with him.

It’s even odder in Allendale in Northumberland, where I used to spend Hogmanay as a yoof. Shortly before midnight, 45 ‘guisers’ process through the village with blazing barrels of tar on their heads, then fling them on a huge bonfire on the green, accompanied by a brass band and church bells. Needless to say, it goes back to pagan (possibly Viking) times.

In Germany, they all watch an old English comedy called Dinner For One on TV, then drop molten lead into cold water. And it’s good luck to touch a chimney sweep. I have no idea what German chimney sweeps make of this.

As for the Danes, they jump off chairs in unison and throw crockery at their neighbours’ doors.

In a slightly less violent tradition, the Spanish eat one grape per bong at midnight. No idea what that’s about.

In Peru, they have a Takanakuy (Blood Boiling) Festival, where jolly locals gather in a bullring and settle scores with bare-knuckle fights. They fire bullets in Colombia – normally into the air – but the tradition has killed 700 people in the last decade. Ecuadorians burn pictures of people and things that symbolise the outgoing year. Meanwhile in Talca in Chile, they all head for the local graveyards to see in the New Year with the dead.


I was amused to stumble on a little-known book by the late astronomer Sir Patrick Moore – a guide to getting revenge on jobsworths.

I met him several times – at the Cat of the Year Show and his house in Selsey – and got the distinct impression he wasn’t a fan of such people.

‘We are not ruled directly by Parliament,’ he wrote in his guide (now sadly out-of-print) ‘but by minor officials — bureaucrats of all descriptions, with immunity from dismissal and nice, inflation-proof pensions.’

Here are his top ten rules on correspondence –

1. Never say anything clearly. Word your letter so that it could mean almost anything … or nothing.

2. Don’t be legible. Always write letters by hand, and make your verbose scrawl as impenetrable as possible.

3. Garble your opponent’s name. If the correspondence is signed ‘M Harris’, address your reply to ‘N Hayes’ or ‘W Hardy’. Don’t get too flippant though — the penpushers might lack a sense of humour, but if you write to ‘M Hedgehog’, they will sense a legpull.

4. Give fake references. If you have a letter from the tax office, ref: EH/4/PNG/H8, mark your reply with some other code in the same format, such as DC/5/IMH/R9.

5. The same goes for dates. Get them slightly wrong, every time.

6. Write to request a reply to letters that you haven’t sent, and include bogus reference numbers.

7. Never pay the right amount. Include a discrepancy in every envelope — never too much, but always more than a few pence. A sum between £1.20 and £2.80 is recommended. Then you can start an interminable correspondence to reclaim the overpayment.

8. When enclosing a cheque, staple it to the letter. With two staples. Or three. Right in the middle of the cheque.

9. As a point of honour, never give up on a correspondence before at least six pointless letters have been exchanged.

10. If a postage-paid envelope is not supplied, send off your reply without a stamp. The bureaucrats will have to pay much more at the other end.

By way of a variation on point 10, you could put the wrong postage on, in the wrong place. One man who got into a war of letters with the Royal Mail itself persisted in sticking his stamp right in the middle of the envelope. This makes it difficult for the franking machines. This petty but effective tactic riled every official in the postal hierarchy.

When filling in a form, always keep a candle handy. Whenever you come to a box marked ‘For official use only — do not write in this space’, rub the candle gently over the box. A thin layer of grease will make it impossible to write on the paper.

When filing in forms, do not feel obliged to use English. Why not employ that smattering of Spanish you picked up on your holidays? If you or a friend speak a really obscure language, so much the better — especially one that doesn’t use the Roman alphabet.

Happy Wren Day (Unless You’re a Wren)

It may be Boxing Day in England. But in Ireland, it’s Wren Day.

Until the 1930s, Irish ‘Wrenboys’ would hunt for a wren, kill it and stick it on a pole. Then, wearing weird straw hats, they’d process round the village, selling its feathers for good luck and asking for contributions towards its funeral, chanting rhymes such as A penny or tuppence would do it no harm.

No-one quite knows the exact origins of Wren Day, but the wren is often seen as a symbol of the old year, as opposed to the forward-looking robin.

There are Wrenboy songs in various parts of the UK. In this one, the Wrenboys are called Fozie Mozie, Johnnie Rednozie and Foslinene –

Will we go to the wood? quoth Fozie Mozie.
Will we go to the wood? quo’ Johnnie Rednozie.
Will we go to the wood? quo’ Foslinene.
Will we go to the wood? quo’ brother and kin.
What to do there? quo’ Fozie Mozie.
What to do there? quo’ Johnnie Rednozie.
What to do there? quo’ Foslinene.
What to do there? quo’ brother and kin.

To slay the wren, quo’ Fozie Mozie.
To slay the wren, quo’ Johnnie Rednozie.
To slay the wren, quo’ Foslinene.
To slay the wren, quo’ brother and kin.

You’ll be pleased to know, especially if you’re a wren, that they just use effigies nowadays.

The Cod Delusion

Just 100 Cod Left in North Sea declared the Telegraph the other day. How did they count them? I wondered. And how on earth could there just be 100? Then the Sunday Times proclaimed there were only 100 Adult Cod in North Sea. ‘Oh my Cod, it can’t be true,’ I thought to myself.
But then the BBC came to the rescue with North Sea cod: Is it true there are only 100 left?
It turns out that the Sunday Times was defining an adult cod as a ‘cod over 13’, assuming that your typical cod lives to 25.
‘That’s not merely an adult cod,’ reveals the BBC investigation. ‘It’s an ancient cod.’
Apparently, a cod’s a proper grown-up by the age of six. So you’ll be relieved to know that there are a lot more than 100 adult cod in the North Sea.
There are actually 21 million.
Thank Cod for that.

S is for SEO

Confuse your kids with a French bird alphabet tapestry!

When I was little, in the 18th century, A was for Apple (as in Cox’s Orange Pippin rather than iPhone).

But would that make sense to a modern toddler I wonder? Do they eat apples? I have no idea. They’re probably too busy on their Mothercare laptops, googling teddy bears or sonic hedgehogs or whatever those things are called.

As you may have noticed, when you type a single letter into Google, it gives you a mini drop-down menu of search terms. And these have intrigued me recently.

Are they organic (as in apples)? Or sponsored? Or based on my history, or my cookies (which we used to call ‘biscuits’ in the old days)?

So I deliberately typed the whole alphabet, letter by letter, and this is the alarmingly corporate result Google gave me –

A is for Amazon (company, as opposed to legendary Scythian giantess)
B is for BBC (good – at least it’s not commercial)
C is for Comet (shop, as opposed to luminous celestial object comprising ice and dust)
D is for Debenhams
E is for eBay
F is for Facebook
G is for Google
H is for Hotmail
I is for Ikea
J is for John Lewis
K is for KFC
L is for Lottery
M is for Matalan
N is for Next (retailer, as opposed to ‘immediately afterwards’)
O is for O2
P is for Paypal
Q is for QVC
R is for Rightmove
S is for Sky (media company, as opposed to blue thing consisting of exosphere, thermosphere, mesosphere, stratosphere and troposphere)
T is for Tesco
U is for UCAS (finally an academic one)
V is for Virgin
W is for Weather (the actual weather – a non-corporate entity at last)
X is for XBox
Y is for YouTube and
Z is for Zoopla

Now hold hands, walk in twos and say after me –

Humpty Dumpty (Hamleys £17.99) sat on a wall (Wickes – it’s got our name on it),
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall (should have gone to Specsavers).
All the king’s horses (brought to you by My Little Pony) and all the king’s men (wearing D&G autumn collection)
Couldn’t put Humpty together again,
So he joined Bupa.
Bupa – Helping Humpty Find Healthy.

Oldest Photograph of Human

I stumbled on this photo today.

Taken by Daguerre in Paris in 1838, the exposure time was around 15 minutes, so all movement disappeared into an invisible blur. With one exception: an anonymous shoeshine boy and a chap having his shoes polished.

They unwittingly stayed still for long enough to become the first humans ever to be captured in a photograph. I wonder who they were, what they talked about, and what became of them …

1838 was the year of Queen Victoria’s coronation (she was still a teenager), the serialisation of a new novel called Oliver Twist, the publication of Casanova’s memoirs and the premiere of an opera about fairies – the debut of a young composer called Richard Wagner.


‘I’ve not been feeling too clever recently,’ intoned the frail Mitfordish old lady in Waitrose.
It’s ages since I’ve heard ‘clever’ being used in the sense of ‘well’. Peculiarly English I suspect. And it only makes sense if delivered in a tweedy county accent.
I hereby call for a revival of archaic terms for ill – queer, peaky, woozy, wibbly, indisposed, below par, off colour, under the weather.
Long live invalids, consumptives, valetudinarians and all archaically ill people.

Gore Vidal 1925 – 2012

Sad to learn that Gore Vidal has died. My favourite Gore V anecdote is that he was on a TV show with Richard Adams who claimed his writing was ‘meretricious’.
‘Pardon?’ replied Vidal.


‘Meretricious to you,’ he replied. ‘And a Happy New Year.’

Here are my Top Ten Gore Vidal Quotes

Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.

A narcissist is someone better looking than you are.

Every time a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.

Democracy is supposed to give you the feeling of choice like Painkiller X and Painkiller Y. But they’re both just aspirin.

Fifty percent of people don’t vote, and fifty percent don’t read newspapers. I hope it’s the same fifty percent.

The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country — and we haven’t seen them since.

Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically by definition be disqualified from ever doing so.

A good deed never goes unpunished.

There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.

The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so.

Save The Gerund

I’m worried about gerunds. If you’re under 25, a gerund is a verb form ending with ‘ing’.
They used to be quite socially acceptable. We used to flaunt our gerunds and openly say things such as, ‘I love eating.’
But then along came those Americans with their pesky American grammar, and they started saying, ‘I love to eat.’ And now the young are doing it in the UK too. The infinitives have swamped the gerunds, like the grey squirrels taking over from the pretty red ones.
Save the gerund I say. You’re British, aren’t you for goodness sake? Surely you love huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’. You don’t love to hunt, to shoot and to fish. Oh no.