Diary

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Having spent much time the week before last explaining to the English why the release of Lee Clegg upset Irish nationalists and, to the Irish, why it was a cause for celebration in England, I felt ill- used that last week I had to educate my English friends on why Orangemen wear funny outfits and insist on marching down streets where they aren't wanted. I've attended and enjoyed two Orange parades and Northern Irish Protestants don't have enough fun, so I look forward to the time when their marches are a cause for universal merrymaking. But I cannot say that the carry-on in Portadown did much to bring that day closer.

However, the television coverage did contain one hilarious image. When Orange honour had been satisfied, the Ulster Unionist MP David Trimble - a cultivated and intelligent academic lawyer, whom I later learnt was suffering from impaired judgement following two sleepless nights - was captured prancing down the street hand-in-hand with Ian Paisley. My delight was made complete by the remark of a camp friend that they resembled the principals in a gay wedding, though I rebuked him for such a jest about the cleric who led the Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign.

Annually July brings a sharp increase in the number of friends from foreign parts ringing up to request a bed. My basic principle is first-come, first-accommodated, although when it comes to comfort, couples get priority over singles and the old over the young. (The house rules are that if you can't find what you want, you ask for it, and that insects should be killed only in self-defence.)

The first visitor of last week was the benign and cuddly Sean MacReamoinn, Ireland's premier talker and limerick-repository Being in what he calls his anecdotage, Sean gets tired in the evening, so he particularly likes to carouse at breakfast. Thus it was that the most organised and virtuous part of my day turned into a celebration of champagne, chat and rude verse in several languages. It was just as well that after two days Sean was replaced by James, my most respectable and orderly friend, who does things like turning off switches at night, insisting I sit down to lunch and tidying up my garden.

Sean MacReamoinn has given me the authorised history of the listowel. The name was applied to the first two lines of a limerick by the director Jim Fitzgerald, whose seminal contribution to the genre was:

I once knew a bastard like you

He was caused by a hold-up at Crewe,

To keep masculine paws,/Off her fire-proof drawers,/Burned their fingers with lighted Swan Vestas! (Ronald Belchier);

As a further deterrent/To any knight errant/They were squirted each day with Domestos (Martin Brown);

Though this may seem dumb,/They were worn, too, by Mum,/Whose motto was: "Men won't molest us" (John Flanagan);

She insured them for hire/(Third party and Fire)/And rinsed them each week in Domestos (Tim Raikes).

More on Thoreau and the circumstantial evidence provided by a trout in the milk. (Dave Hickman has ticked me off in consummately tactful fashion:

A journalist lady called Ruth,

Although fairly long in the tooth,

Knew not of the ilk,

Of a trout in the milk,

Meant it had been watered, forsooth!)

Michael Marshman, an historian of the public house, tells me that, like the watering of beer and whisky, the dilution of milk was far less common than mythology would have us believe. He knows, however, of a Somerset landlord who admitted in old age to having watered his customers' scrumpy after they had had two or three pints, but claimed it had as much to do with altruism as economy. The equally but differently learned George Hummer explains: "To Thoreau, watered milk, or trouted milk if you prefer, was a symptom of creeping civilisation. There are others of us who prefer trout (English, Welsh or Irish) to milk, but never mind."

The trout business, you may remember, started with a cross letter from Andrew Lewis accusing me of being a pompous English trout. Recently I mentioned to friends my puzzlement at why the name of the harmless and useful trout had become a term of abuse. They are linguistically inquisitive and we were at the time in the book-laden Smoking Room of the Reform Club, so the next half-hour was spent in tracking the trout through several dictionaries. There was no explanation, but some excellent examples. I was pleased to learn that in the 17th century a trout was a good fellow, so a true trout was a trusted servant or a confidential friend, and it was even OK to sign off as "Your humble trout". Things went to pot in the 20th century when "funny old trout" was first applied to a woman. It will please Andrew that Eric Partridge explained in his Dictionary of Slang that in 1932 in Cold Comfort Farm, one of my favourite books, "'That awful old trout' was applied by a bright young thing to a dowdy authoress."

George Hummer, however, has access to a ruder reference book than the Smoking Room yielded. "The word 'trout' as a term of abuse has a nasty lineage," he writes, "and your abuser would probably be insulted to know that his usage can be traced in Shakespeare. If you look up 'trout' and 'fish' and suchlike in Partridge's Shakespeare's Bawdy, you'll see what I mean." Rattling of keyboard as Hummer retires in embarrassment, murmuring, "Of course, it is totally inappropriate to yourself." I hope Andrew looks this up and lets me know if he agrees.

I heard Paul Johnson explaining on Radio 4's Today programme that what he considers to be pornography on television will be censored when the spiritually-minded Tony Blair comes to power. As I write, Blair is in Queensland as the honoured guest of Rupert Murdoch and his press gang. A Labour Party leader who, within a year, gets on board the champions, respectively, of traditional morality and unfettered capitalism deserves respect. Who's next? Teresa Gorman?

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