J’accuse: Jacques’ Mid-August Miscellany

This article appeared on the Malta Independent on Sunday (print edition) (17/08/08).

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Ferragosto

Is what Italians call the holiday period on and around the 15th August holiday. I always wondered where the “ferr-” in ferragosto came from and harboured strong suspicions that it had something to do with iron. The “August Iron holidays” made absolutely no sense however so I quickly resorted to one of the many sources of useless trivia with which I am prone to decorate my shelves ever since my very early addiction to the “Tell Me Why” series. A quick reference later we are fully armed with a more plausible explanation… ferragosto derives from latin: Feriae Augusti (August holidays/fairs) and was in use long before the folks over at the Roman Catholic Church appropriated that particular date to celebrate the Assumption of Their Lady to the heavens.

In fact the August celebrities used to celebrate Diana – a full-fledged goddess of the Roman Pantheon (pan– all, theios– gods) – and the reopening of the cycle of fertility. These hedonistic rituals (from our subjective point of view) have now been replaced by the celebration of the Himmelfahrt (road to heaven – as I am told it is called in Germany) of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It may feel like we are celebrating a centuries old idea but few know the trivial oddity that the infallible dogma of the assumption of the Blessed Virgin was only defined by Pope Pius XII on the 1st November 1950 in his Munificentissimus Deus (the most bountiful God).

It came quite a shock to me that I know people who are older than what should be a cardinal doctrine to our creed. Then again this is all trivia that should not matter in questions of faith. After all the 15th of August is no time to be punctilious about the relative youth of an infallible doctrine… we are busy “celebrating the feast with great solemnity in all the local churches“. At least Wikipedia says so about the Maltese in the Assumption entry, just before confusing the web-comber for irrelevant trivia with the following statement, also about August 15th: “In New York City, alternate side of the street rules for parking are suspended”. Come again?

Who want’s to be a millionaire?
Ah the joys of a Pub Quiz, the interminable hours spent watching quiz shows (from Mike Buongiorno through to Julien Lepers down to Anne Robinson), the controversial nights losing at Trivial Pursuit because you were too young to remember that it was “Dexy’s Midnight Runners” who sang “Come on Eileen” and too tired to remember that the capital of Saint Lucia is Castries. Trivia collection is such a useful and useless hobby in an oxymoronic way. Trivia is everywhere, and the more you collect, the deeper you find yourself in knowing how little you know. Friends deride you when you profess to have as much familiarity with the sexual habits of the sperm whale (thanks to Ben Elton) as you do with the list of Winners of the Fairs Cup (before it became the UEFA Cup in 1971).

Football trivia is a world of its own. The well versed football student will have overcome the difficult years of Colin Cauchi’s horrible pronunciation of team names in the days when the only way to get sports news was to listen to Radio Malta at 6.45am (cue Rijal Muddrid and Munch-ister) – thanks Colin for the service in any case. He would have faced the dismemberment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and of Yugoslavia with a brave face and regained a brotherly familiarity with such eastern names as Alaniya Vladikavkaz, Slovan Liberec and Gloria Bistrita without batting an eyelid.

It does help with the geography though. I still thrill Lithuanian friends by the mere fact that I know of Kaunas which does happen to be the second largest city in Lithuania but is about as popular outside its borders as Kercem (with all due respect to the Kriecem). Zabrze is no longer simply a tongue twister but the home town of Gornik Zabrze – the miners’ team from the Polish town formerly known as Hindenburg. They’d compete with Widzew Lodz (prounced woddz) – Zbigniew Boniek’s old team – for the Polish championship. And we could go on.

The trivia buff sets standards for records and just like the pole vaulter he always aims higher and higher. In fact it is amazing how trivia dexterity has not yet been made into an Olympic sport. I wonder if any of you ever stumbled on the BBC program “Master Mind”. The participants on this programme would not only compete on questions of General Knowledge but each would have their own mind boggling speciality. “I’ve started so I’ll finish” was the main catchprase on the show…known specialist subjects included “The life-cycle and habits of the honey bee” and “The History of the Lancashire County Cricket Club”. Some vicious material there…

Who Cares?
Is the phrase that the trivialist most often hears. But the art of categorisation of facts is to be found at the root of science. In the early days when philosophy and science were still intertwined, discussion among the illuminati centred around classification and categorisation. Trivia and trivial information allows for serendipitous gathering of information that might, just might, come in useful at a later time in life. You kick off talking about how the smallest vertebrate was discovered in Sumatra and lead to discussing how it is possible that the Maltese keep electing invertebrates into parliament.

Some people’s attention gets focused when you mention mosts and records. Did you know for example that the most expensive first edition you could own (in very good condition) is a copy of the 1922 edition of Ulysses by James Joyce valued at 100,000 sterling? There is no indication as to whether the value will increase considerably if you managed to trudge through the whole damn book without experiencing a mental breakdown. Literature and language spins off trivia of all sorts. See the incredible success of the book “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”. Some people will take an almost sadistic pleasure in pointing out mistakes in grammar committed by their fellow brethren. Others are almost genuinely distressed at the state of disarray of English as it is spoken.

The Meaning of Liff
The search for the trivially engaging can lead to quirky results. In an exercise in alternative toponymy, Douglas and his fellow author whose name escapes me, decided to attribute meanings to real placenames. Hence the book – the Meaning of Liff (Dundee). I do remember that even Valletta has an entry in that one and I hope to unearth it for your pleasure some other time. Meanwhile I sit and wonder what brought me to discussing all this trivial matter.

I do remember it had something to do with it being mid-August and that the news is still not remotely challenging. It might also have been the hallucinations brought on by the medication that is purportedly non-drowsy and that I am imbibing in copious amounts in the hope that the sudden assault by the flu virus abates before the long weekend sets in. At present human body is losing to flu virus by far and in the race for survival throat and chest have just given in.

It does my mood to no good that as I type, my newly acquired double-cd of choral classics switches from Dies Irae to Orff’s O Fortuna!. So be it. When destiny wants to cruelly throw the dice all you can do is succumb and sit by your computer drinking a herbal concoction called “Winter Moods” and that tastes suspiciously as though the whole of the wild thyme on Ta’ Cenc cliffs have been squeezed into one portion.

Such are the extremes that mere mortals are willing to succumb to in order not to miss the general jubilation of the Feriae Augusti. The gods of midsummer are sending clear signs that I should be feeling better tomorrow. The Luxembourg sky is painted a bright pink and purple and as the saying goes … red sky in the night….

Not So Trivial Matters
There is only so much you can write pretending to not have heard the various cases of twisted sexual conduct that were reported from the island this week. Obnoxious and worrying.. is it the August heat? I wonder. I wish those geezers commenting on news online would stop their incessant comments that go something like “It is in the interest of the general public that his name be published” or “Divorce is evil and we will rot in hell”. . For Buddha’s sake … I say it is in the interest of the general public that their fingers be welded together so as to force them to type letter by letter and think before pressing send. There… it’s off my chest now. Pontificating buffoon indeed.

An even hotter event this week is the tom-tom of war drums being played by Tony Zarb and Sammy Meilak’s men. First a pause to congratulate the photographer who caught Sammy Meilak in full Lenin pose on Thursday’s paper. Incredible pic – what with the red t-shirt and angry face. I guess the man (Meilak not the photographer) has something to get hot under his collar about. If he wore a collar that is. But it is not collar workers we are talking about here but the stuff that labour is made of. Which does not in any way diminish their cause seeing as how we should be grateful to such a class for the existence of proper labour laws and the such.

On the other hand this “we shall come to Castille and scare the living daylights out of you” business is getting a tad bit too far isn’t it? I mean first the hunters, then the bus drivers now the drydockmen. Where will it end? Soon they’ll be hiring the New Zealand rugby team to perform the haka outside the PMs office singing “Kama te kama te Ka’ore… uuuuuuuuuurina feinulloki…”… can you picture Lawrence haka-ing them back?

Once again we have a national decision to take. It involves putting an end to money down the drain while doing the utmost to ensure that 1600 men do not end up unemployed. A tough show indeed. I do hope the comparisons between paying money into a loss making enterprise and the stipend system do not resurface. There’s one main answer for that: education costs money… but then so does ignorance.

Ignorantia Trivia Neminem Excusat

Ignorance of trivia is no excuse however. And that is my invented maxim so if you have a problem with the Latin conjugation … well you’ll have to live with it. I wish all the readers a good Feriae Augusti. I will continue to imbibe all sorts of medical evils in the hope that by the time you’ll be reading this I will have recovered enough to have driven to the town of my second Alma Mater – Bruges la Morte, or as it is best known the Venice of the North.

You might be happy to know that the Bruges belfry tilts 119cm towards Wollestraat and Burg square (info accurate as at December 1999). Then again you may not… in any case enjoy the good weather… while you can. Thought you might like to know that by some freak effect in the space time continuum Bertu the cartoonist is also sick… I hope he too will have recovered by now.

On a more serious note, sincere condolences go out to Joe Mercieca’s family. I did not know Joe personally but his reputation and contribution to Malta’s journalism are no trivial matter and the fact that colleagues and students alike queued up to leave a comment on the page announcing his passing away speaks volumes about him and the heritage he leaves behind. Farewell and thank you Joe.

Jacques René Zammit blogs daily (when he is not sick) at https://jaccuse.wordpress.com. Full marks to Guzi for last week’s correction. Ben Johnson was doped in Seoul not Rome. Beat Guzi at his game and comment on J’accuse!

4 responses to “J’accuse: Jacques’ Mid-August Miscellany

  1. Since you are looking for corrections, then you should be informed that your pronunciation tips on Widzew Lodz are far off the mark. Not least because three are the letters in the name of the town are written incorrectly.
    The right spelling is, in fact, Widzew Łódź. As any fule kno, the way to read that is something along these lines – Vidzev Woodzh, the letter ‘ź’ being of course pronounced as a slightly elongated ‘zh’, and not a ‘z’ as you erroneously suggest.

  2. Incidentally, I am not Polish, although I concede the syntax in the second sentence of my comment could provoke suspicions in that regard.

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