My 15 seconds

So there I was, recording today’s Quote…Unquote S53E02 off iPlayer after grabbing The Unbelievable Truth S19E02 earlier. One minute in, my eyebrows like to shoot off my head as host Nigel Rees and Charlotte Green open the show with…well, me and a quotation I sent him last year. Pretty cool.

I wrote five years ago of the strange enmity UK comics seem to have for the show. I still hear it derided a few times a year and I still don’t understand. This is a 53-series programme panelled by the likes of Douglas Adams, Graham Linehan, Peter Cook, and John Lloyd. Sheesh.

Once every several weeks, I hear some comedian or other on a Radio 4 show or TV panel show slag off “Quote…Unquote”, a panel show also on Radio 4. Most make dismissive comments, but some seem to despise the programme with a passion, which puzzles me because I like it. It’s not my favourite Radio 4 programme (that’d be “The News Quiz”, which itself slags off “Quote…Unquote” approximately every fourth programme), but I always listen to QU and can usually identify about half the quotations before they’re through reciting them. There’s good humour and good stories in most episodes.

Why do all those comedians hate it so, and with such bizarre frequency? It’s a minor show that airs only very infrequently – six episodes a year in recent years – yet I hear more negative mentions of it in any given year than the number of QU episodes that aired that year. Is it simply because they know none of the quotations and are perhaps made to feel small, or did presenter Nigel Rees line up all their dogs in a row and run them over with a steamroller years ago?

John McPhee on firewood

Excerpt from “A Reporter at Large: Firewood” in The New Yorker, 25 March 1974. The full essay is in McPhee’s collection Pieces of the Frame.

Science was once certain that firewood was full of something called phlogiston, a mysterious inhabitant that emerged after kindling and danced around in the form of light and heat and crackling sound – phlogiston, the substance of fire. Science, toward the end of the eighteenth century, erased that beautiful theory, replacing it with certain still current beliefs, which are related to the evident fact that green wood is half water. Seasoning, it dries down until, typically, the water content is twenty per cent. Most hardwoods – oak, maple, cherry, hickory – will season in six months. Ash, the firewood of kings, will season in half the time. When firewood burns, it makes vapor of the water. The rest of the log is (almost wholly) carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen – the three components of cellulose, also of starch and sugar. When a log is thrown on the fire, the molecules on the surface become agitated and begin to move vigorously. Some vibrate. Some rotate. Some travel swiftly from one place to another. The cellulose molecule is long, complicated, convoluted – thousands of atoms like many balls on a few long strings. The strings have a breaking point. The molecule, tumbling, whipping, vibrating, breaks apart. Hydrogen atoms, stripping away, snap onto oxygen atoms that are passing by in the uprushing stream of air, forming even more water, which goes up the chimney as vapor. Incandescent carbon particles, by the tens of millions, leap free of the log and wave like banners, as flame. Several hundred significantly different chemical reactions are now going on. For example, a carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms, coming out of the breaking cellulose, may lock together and form methane, natural gas. The methane, burning (combining with oxygen), turns into carbon dioxide and water, which also go up the flue. If two carbon atoms happen to come out of the wood with six hydrogen atoms, they are, agglomerately, ethane, which burns to become, also, carbon dioxide and water. Three carbons and eight hydrogens form propane, and propane is there, too, in the fire. Four carbons and ten hydrogens – butane. Five carbons…pentane. Six…hexane. Seven…heptane. Eight carbons and eighteen hydrogens – octane. All these compounds come away in the breaking of the cellulose molecule, and burn, and go up the chimney as carbon dioxide and water. Pentane, hexane, heptane, and octane have a collective name. Logs burning in a fireplace are making and burning gasoline.

To the Editor of The World:

Sir: You ask me for a sentiment which shall state how much I have to be thankful for this time. For years it has been a rule with me not to expose my gratitude in print on Thanksgiving Day, but I wish to break the rule now and pour out my thankfulness; for there is more of it than I can contain without straining myself. I am thankful – thankful beyond words – that I had only $51,000 on deposit in the Knickerbocker Trust, instead of a million; for if I had had a million in that bucket shop, I should be nineteen times as sorry as I am now.

Trusting that this paean of joy will satisfy your requirement, I am

Yours truly,

Mark Twain

Mark Twain in a letter to the editor of The New York World, 27 October 1907

You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics looks so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.”

Ed Mitchell, Lunar Module Antares pilot, Apollo 14