Tat, Either Way

On Michael Barclay’s Private Passions (Radio 3, Sunday, midday) the geologist Sanjeev Gupta chose a piece of music which happened to be a palindrome, John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, its second half a mirror image of the first, which, considering the piece was 45 minutes long, was certainly a fairly remarkable undertaking.  Michael played four minutes of the piece, two minutes either side of the midpoint.  I found the music minimalist in style, atmospheric after the nature of a film score that can hypnotise you if you stay behind in a cinema, late at night, to watch the credits scroll endlessly by.  I thought at first the idea was a bit of a gimmick, but then it occurred to me that it would have been the sort of thing J. S. Bach might have done.  There is a famous portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, one of two, in which the master is seen holding a copy of his six-part canon BWV 1076, one of fourteen canons Bach appended to his Goldberg Variations.  If you turn the music upside down and read it back to front, it reads quite differently.  It is the ultimate musical acrostic.      

And again, Haydn composed palindromes.  I had one performed for my benefit on the pianoforte yesterday evening, part of the Hoboken 16 collection, and dedicated to Haydn’s patron Prince Esterházy.  It was very charming, and certainly very clever, but I wonder if it had a certain static quality, like listening to music being generated mechanically by a cuckoo clock.

The Herald has been publishing letters about palindromes, literary ones, all week.  It’s the sort of harmless topic that can capture readers’ interest, generate correspondence, take off and run for a while.  I suspect such preoccupation might serve a useful purpose in diverting, albeit temporarily, our attention from the grim events unfolding on Europe’s eastern border.  I can’t say anybody has written in anything terribly original.  There have been the usual chestnuts: “Able was I ere I saw Elba” (and its parody “Regal was I ere I saw lager”), “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama”, and, that great chat-up line, so apposite on St. Valentine’s Day, “Madam, I’m Adam.”  It made me consider whether I could come up with anything comparable. 

Niagara ban illicit song, A deified Agnostic, ill in a bar again.           

Granted it needs a little context.  It sounds like a newspaper headline, describing a conservative community making clear its disapproval of a pop star with outlandish views and behaviours.  It reminds me of a Canadian community who once tried to ban Madonna from performing acts on stage considered lewd, and corrupting of the town’s young and impressionable.  I have a notion that if I keep my palindrome on ice, something will crop up that will render it sensible and relevant.  I once concocted a panagram (anagram of the alphabet) that did precisely that.  I had read that “Cwm fjord-bank glyphs vext quiz” (statues on the banks of a fjord in a valley disturbed an old man – the sort of thing you would want to say every day) was the only known panagram in the English language.  And I thought, surely, another can be concocted!  I came up with:

“M: Gulf wrack hext spy, viz J. Bond.  Q”

Clearly this is a message from MI6’s quartermaster to his boss, to let him know that 007 is spooked by the appearance of detritus in the Caribbean.

And now here’s the extraordinary thing.  It came true.  Sir Sean Connery made known his disapproval of all sorts of flotsam and jetsam washed up on the beaches of Nassau.

“Jack’s vow: BGLTQ mix fund Zephyr” (Jack pledges the gay community, et al, to finance the purchase of an automobile.) 

I put all this to my good hiking friend Harpoonata Venture and she said, “Why are you preoccupied with all this stuff?”  I replied, by way of admission, “I am like Monsieur Manette, Lucie’s father in A Tale of Two Cities who, when things turn bad on the international scene, reverts to his cobbler’s last.  When the world looks grim and I am fretting, I turn to puzzles and acrostics.” 


“Certainly.  I have a clue for you.”

“I had a horrible feeling you might.”

“Organise BBC game show host! (6,9)”

“I haven’t the foggiest.  Give me a clue.”

“It’s topical.”

“Michael McIntyre.”

“Doesn’t quite fit.”

“I need another clue.”

“It’s a eulogy.”

“Doesn’t help.  I give in.”

“Bamber Gascoigne.”

“That will never do.  University Challenge was on ITV, not BBC.”

“Ah, but that was quite deliberate.  The point is that Bamber Gascoigne is an anagram of ‘Organise BBC game.’  The clue’s definition is ‘show host’.  Therefore the mention of BBC is designed to throw you off the scent.”

“I don’t think that’s fair.  You need something in the clue to indicate that ‘organise game show’ is to be anagramised.  Like, ‘Badly organise BBC game show host.’” 

“Not necessary.  There is an explanation mark at the end of the clue, which indicates that there has been a certain truncation of the clue pointers.  That is a crossword convention.  ‘Organise’ becomes the clue’s operator, or key, even though it is itself part of the anagram.”

Bamber Gascoigne hosted University Challenge between 1962 and 1987.  He was charming and patrician; in the show’s reincarnation, Jeremy Paxman rather more acerbic, and intimidating, at least before Dr Parkinson cruelly deprived him of some of his animation.  He could berate contestants for their ignorance but it was only because he knew something they didn’t.  In its structure, University Challenge is very subtle.  The “starter for ten” is a question which moves from obscurity towards clarity.  At what point to do you jump in, and risk the 5 point penalty?  If you strike early, not only do you have to anticipate the answer, you also have to anticipate the question.  Fingers on buzzers no conferring.

“In his thermodynamic equation relating free energy to enthalpy, entropy…”


Glasgow Campbell!  (Aye, right.  Fat chance.)

“Josiah Willard Gibbs.”

“Very well interrupted!”


“Three more questions on thermodynamics…”

I’m convinced the best players buzz before they have formulated the answer (best illustrated in the music round), confident it will come to them while the voiceover announces their name.  Of course, if they corpse, they will receive a dressing-down from Mr Paxman.  Get the answer right, and you are afforded the opportunity to confer at leisure, while the other side can only look on helplessly.

I suppose the ultimate quiz show is Mastermind, hilariously parodied by The Two Ronnies in the days when Magnus Magnusson was the quiz inquisitor.  Mastermind pares things down to the bare essentials. The black chair; nowhere to hide.  I watched Celebrity Mastermind on Saturday.  Rufus Hound pipped Chris Mason to the post.  Next morning the host, Clive Myrie, dressed down for the occasion, reviewed the papers with Sophie Raworth.  He invited Sophie on to the show and she said something like, “No way!  I would freeze!”  With that I sympathise.   

But enough of these dried fruits of my idle elucubrations.  I suppose I had better turn on the radio and see if World War III has commenced.

I’ve started so I’ll finish        

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