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Bangkok Post
Bangkok Post

Tuning in to the opening day of May

Well, here we are in the first 24 hours of the magical month of May. According to the dictionary, May Day is the time for "a celebration of the coming of Spring". Unfortunately, we don't experience Spring in Thailand and are still perspiring our way through the hot season, hoping Jupiter Pluvius might oblige with an occasional refreshing shower.

When I first arrived in Thailand one of the most popular songs was entitled First of May, released by the Bee Gees in 1969. It was a melodic number with a cute opening line, "When I was small and Christmas trees were tall…"

Apparently the inspiration for the May 1 title was a doggy, it being the birthday of a Pyrenean Mountain Dog called Barnaby owned by Barry Gibb. Not a lot of people know that.

The song enjoyed a second burst of popularity two years later after being featured in the film Melody, starring a young Mark Lester, remember him? The film, a teenage romance set in London, included several Bee Gees hits and was hugely popular in Thailand and Japan, but curiously less so in the United Kingdom and United States.

First of May can be heard on YouTube and if you happen to be a bit wrinkly like me you might find yourself singing along. If you don't know the words it doesn't matter, "doo-doo-doo-doo-doo" is perfectly acceptable at our age.

The squinters

Thanks to my 1969 diary I can report that exactly 53 years ago on the first of May I ventured to the Paramount theatre in Pratunam and forked out a massive 10 baht to see Romeo and Juliet by the great Italian director Franco Zeffirelli. It starred Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in the title roles. From what I recall it was quite stylish and leading film critic Roger Ebert even called it "the most exciting film of Shakespeare ever made".

As for me, it made a change from all those Spaghetti Westerns I so eagerly consumed in those days. But it wasn't long before I was back watching Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood squinting their way to stardom in a Spanish desert masquerading as Arizona.

Mischief and madness

According to American author O Henry, the month of May "is presided over by the spirits of mischief and madness. Pixies and flibbertigibbets haunt the budding woods". That sounds quite exciting. For anyone not acquainted with a flibbertigibbet it is similar to a "gilly-gaupus" admittedly not a word on everyone's lips. Apparently it refers to someone who is awkward, foolish or silly.

In the literary world, May is generally regarded in a positive light as the "merriest month of the year". We could all desperately do with some merriment at the moment, even if it means having to put up with the occasional flibbertigibbet.

Musically what better tribute could a month ask for than My Girl in which the Temptations tell us "I've got sunshine on a cloudy day. When it's cold outside I've got the month of May".

Saving souls

Everyone is familiar with "Mayday" as a radio distress signal used by ships and aircraft, but its origins are less well-known. Mayday became the spoken equivalent of SOS (popularly known as Save Our Souls) which was already in use in Morse code but was regarded as not entirely satisfactory as the 'S' was not so clearly identifiable on radio.

In the 1920s Frederick Mockford, a British radio officer in charge of Croydon Airport in south London, was asked to come up with a suitable emergency distress call which could be understood by everybody. Noting the heavy air traffic between Croydon and Le Bourget (Paris) Mockford suggested Mayday, a word that the French could easily relate to as it was similar to the French m'aider (help me). Mayday had to be spoken three times to avoid any confusion and became the official international distress call from 1927.

The Plymouth express

The influence of May is everywhere. The ship that carried the Pilgrims from Plymouth in England to Cape Cod in 1620 was called the Mayflower after the wild hawthorn which in Europe happens to blossom in May. It proved to be a popular name for vessels over the years and has been adopted by numerous American ships.

In my trainspotting days in the late 1950s I recall a Paddington to Plymouth express train called the Mayflower. The steam train was quite a sight as it came thundering through Reading General station and I was always very envious of those passengers being whisked along to Plymouth at such great speed. Any trains I took always seemed to stop at every station.

Words at play

A Thai reader has asked the meaning of the expression "oh lummee!" used by Leslie Philipps in The Navy Lark and mentioned in a recent column. It is an exclamation of dismay and I believe a contraction of "Lord love me". My dad used it on occasions when something unexpected happened. That's the nearest he ever got to a profanity.

The Navy Lark was rife with unusual or totally invented words with such beauties as "humgrummit" and "floggle-toggle" referring to unspecified naval equipment. Then there was the "twingeing screws" a mystery illness suffered by the crew when they didn't feel like working. I suspect that's what I'm suffering from at the moment.

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