Ever heard of Oliver Twiss, Nickelas Nickleberry or Martin Guzzlewit? You’re right, they sound like a cheerful drunk challenged at 3am to name any 3 works by Charles Dickens (1812-1870). But no, thanks to my writer friend Christopher Burns’s intriguing weblink, I can tell you they are in fact bestselling titles of bona fide novels produced in the 1840s by one Edward Lloyd, who from his off-Fleet Street printing press later went on to produce the first UK newspaper to sell a million copies. Lloyd was the same doughty publishing entrepreneur who first featured Sweeney Todd in print, and paved the way for the market in penny dreadfuls, those aimed at a burgeoning working-class readership, including ‘Varney the Vampire’ which is thought to have influenced Bram Stoker and his Dracula. Dickens was of course justly incensed by the plagiarism or piracy or whatever one might call it, but was unable to get any 1840s judge to do anything about it. Some Victorian literary specialists charitably see it as an early form of fan fiction, meaning on one level Dickens might have been theoretically flattered to have been plagiarised. But no, the great man felt robbed. At this point I need to extrapolate sideways to one of life’s great joys, namely vintage rock music, and ask myself do the original musicians (including those who are busy enjoying the Afterlife) feel flattered to have tribute bands with doctored names doing their very best to scrupulously imitate their treasured idols. Does for example Jimi Hendrix up in Heaven feel deeply moved to hear a faithful albeit plodding rendition of ‘All Along the Watchtower’ by the tribute Northumbrian band from Hexham, known as ‘Jimi Hexham’, or does he feel something like incredulous disdain? I know what I would feel…

But now to fancy booze and rip-off labels. It doesn’t happen nowadays, but back in 1986, when Annie and I were holidaying near Ag Nikolaos in Crete, the bar of the villa complex where we were staying, sold white rum with the label Ron Bricandi, at about half the price of genuine Bacardi. Thirty years later there are no pirate labels in any Greek bars, and there is a standard dual system where local spirits like ouzo and tsipuro sell at 2 or 2 and a half euros, while imported whisky, brandy gin etc sell at a minimum of 6, up to an impudent maximum in one glamorous island bar, where they demand a  larcenious 12 for the posh malt, Cardhu. When you point out the same thing can be got in the port for 6 and even in smart areas of Athens for 8, instead of doing the appropriate thing and blushing, the amiable if earnest bar owner shows a genuine tragic grief for those other purveyors who are suicidally giving the precious nectar away.

So far novels and rum, but now to the lowly bum, to lowly and quotidian knickers, that is, or at any rate to male underwear, which you might have thought the last thing to plagiarise, given that it is most often seen in the revelatory intimacy of the bedroom. There all but the doziest or most myopic of doting partners would know that a Calvin Club on a male backside (£3 for 3 pairs off any UK market stall = 50p per economy buttock) is not to be confused with designer brand Calvin Klein, which you buy in single quantities, not in bargain bucketloads. Meanwhile here on Greek markets as seen in mainland Lavrio and Athens, the cheap male knickers nearly always have a fancy foreign name, often an English one, which is printed in Roman script, never in Greek. Sometimes these names can sound decidedly odd to an English ear, and I can think of quite a few male and macho Brits who I know could never be tempted by the bargain underpants I saw in Lavrio market last year. They sported the jaunty name of Uomo, which is of course Italian for ‘man’, but many a wooden monoglot and assertively manly Brit might instantly decide it was an ambiguous declaration of being gay…a road of no return perhaps.

Last week I happened to see my downstairs neighbour’s underpants, a lone and faded black pair, woven of the scantiest material and wanly blowing on his washing line. The neighbour Alex is single, shy, about 30, and is Rumanian, meaning that he is used to Roman script, and that his language is a Romance one, for when written down it looks rather like Spanish crossed with Italian. His underpants are interestingly called ‘Joker’s’, with the apostrophe of possession that is, as if to say these knickers and/or this particular backside (should an inquisitive lover ever be in his bedroom) belongs to a joker. Joker is a term open to broad interpretation, no doubt, and is often used in the pejorative sense of clown, idiot or buffoon. More flatteringly, in the bedroom context, does it mean he showers his lover with a string of brilliant one liners, to get her hiccupping with merriment, or does he pull comically hideous faces until she squeals with mirth, or does he play impish tricks on her, and hide a joke shop spider on her side of the bed?

Alex looks too nice a guy to play tricks on anyone, and too shy to be a stand-up comedian. Brand names, to be sure, don’t always tell the truth, nor come to that do they always flatter. Just as I am writing this, it occurs to me for the very first time, that there is an ambiguous and worrying semantic association when it comes to the name of the doyen and costliest of male underwears.  That designer brand rejoices in the sonorous, but perhaps we should add treacherous name of Calvin Klein. The word ‘klein’ is of course German for ‘little’ or ‘small’, and in the context of what you see inside a man’s underpants, there is at least one item that few men would choose to describe with either of those adjectives…

I am going to be busy over the next few weeks, and the next new post will be on or before Sunday July 21st

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