A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (112)?…


Off his own bat

Writing this post in early January the opportunity to hear the sound of leather striking willow seems a distant prospect. The game of cricket is a wonderful sport and the elongated form – I have no truck for the modern variant of T20 – is a perfect way to while away a day, in convivial company with a glass of something in your hand. You may even be lucky to have the sun shining.

For those living in countries which were unfortunate enough not to experience the (ahem) civilising influences of the British Empire, cricket can seem a bit of a mystery. It has a set of rules which can seem arcane – leg before wicket is a form of dismissal which provokes controversy amongst even the most seasoned practitioners – and a bizarre glossary of terms.

Fielding positions include mid on which is an abbreviation of middle wicket on, silly mid on where silly has the archaic definition of defenceless – it is a dangerous position – slips who wait for a slip from the bat and a third man, so called because when over arm bowling was introduced the position supplemented the existing positions of slip and point. The position of gully is so named because it fills in the gap between slip and point. A bowler achieves a maiden over when they have sent down six balls which have not been scored from and so from the batting side’s perspective is unproductive as, perhaps, maidens were seen in days of yore.

In essence, the principal objective of the team fielding is to dismiss ten of the opposition’s eleven batsmen as quickly as possible and of the team batting to score as many runs as they can before the fielding team achieve their goal. There are a number of ways in which the batting team can score runs, through a variety of extras such as byes and leg byes, wides and no balls, but the majority of the runs are compiled by the batsmen standing at the crease – so called because in the early days of the game a furrow or crease was cut into the ground to show him where to stand – and hitting the ball with their bat.

Our phrase today is used figuratively to convey the sense that someone has done something through their own efforts. It owes its origins, though, to the noble game of cricket and was used to refer to runs, or notches as they were quaintly termed in the 18th century, accumulated through the batsman’s own endeavours. The first citation is to be found in Henry Waghorn’s Cricket Scores of 1742, “the bets on the Slendon man’s head that he got 40 notches off his own bat were lost”.  No match fixing there, then. It was not used figuratively until 1845 when the Reverend Sydney Smith wrote in Fragments on Irish Affairs, “but [I] suppose he had no revenues but what he got off his own bat”.

One of the mysteries of cricket is how it was invented in a country where the weather can be so variable. In the old days when pitches were uncovered and ground maintenance had not reached today’s peak, a prolonged bout of rain could make the pitch very treacherous for batting. The term used to describe such a pitch was a sticky wicket which was used in July 1882 in Bell’s Life In London to describe the Australian tourists’ predicament. “the ground.. was suffering from the effects of recent rain, and once more the Australians found themselves on a sticky wicket.” The phrase is now used figuratively to describe any sort of difficult predicament.

Summer won’t be too far away.

A Better Life – Part Four


The Pseudo-anarchist commune of Home, Washington

At first blush, there is something particularly counter-intuitive about an anarchist commune. The popular conception of anarchism is that there are no rules but it actually is a philosophy which advocates self-governed societies based on voluntary institutions and which views the state as undesirable, unnecessary and positively harmful.

In the summer of 1895 three men, George Allen, Oliver Verity and B O’Dell, set out in a rowing boat to find an isolated spot upon which to build a commune based on anarchic principles. They hit on 26 acres of land at Von Geldern Cove on the Puget Sound in Washington which they bought for $7 an acre, doing odd jobs to raise the money. By the following year their families had joined them and they had built some cabins.

In 1898 they had established the Mutual Home Association whose Articles proclaimed that it would “assist its members in obtaining and building homes for themselves and to aid in establishing better social and moral conditions”. Membership was open to anyone who agreed to support its anarchist ideals and pay the requisite amount to secure their plot of land, although the freehold was held by the Association. In reality, there was not much to sign up to. As the writer, Elbert Hubbard, who visited the commune noted, “there is not a church, preacher, prostitute, saloon, doctor, constable, lawyer or justice of peace. There is entire freedom”.

Quickly the word spread about the commune and soon it became home to a motley collection of anarchists, communists, free thinkers, nudists (who would ultimately be their undoing) and those who wanted to pursue unusual diets. It also collected its fair share of ne’er-do-wells. To accommodate this influx the site increased almost ten-fold to 217 acres.

The start of the problems for the commune came in 1901 after President McKinley was assassinated by the self-professed anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, in Buffalo, New York State. The locals realising that they had a bunch of anarchists on their doorstep started to get uppity. The community came under increasing scrutiny and articles critical of their beliefs and lifestyle appeared in the newspaper based in nearby Tacoma. One article so inflamed passions that a group of vigilantes styling themselves as the Loyal League and formed from veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic planned to invade the colony by steamboat and put it to the torch. Their plans came to naught when the steamboat captain refused to take them.

In 1902 the community fell foul of the Comstock Law which was designed to suppress the trade in and circulation of obscene literature and articles of immoral use when an article advocating free love was published in a local anarchist newspaper. As a result, the post office was closed down.

Inevitably, there were frictions in the commune, the tipping point being the practice of nude bathing. Those who were in favour were labelled “nudes” by The Agitator, Home’s newspaper, and those against were “prudes”. The editor, Jay Fox, who wrote a series of articles in defence of the pastime had his collar felt for his troubles and spent two months in chokey.

The Association limped on until 1919 when its government was arraigned in court for being impotent – too much skinny dipping in the cold water, perhaps? – and it was dissolved. Still, it had lasted 26 years which by utopian standards was good going.

Book Corner – January 2017 (2)


Timekeepers: How the World became obsessed with time – Simon Garfield

One of my traits, perhaps annoying to some, is that I constantly look at my watch. I am not admiring it as a thing of beauty – it serves more of a Benthamite utilitarian purpose – but because I find it comforting to know the time. It’s a habit I am finding difficult to kick even though, in my retired state, I am no longer a slave to time. Indeed, for much of what I do these days, knowing what the exact time is is pretty much irrelevant. Wouldn’t it be great to be free of the constraints that time imposes on us and how the hell did we allow time to rule our lives anyway? These are the questions Garfield seeks to address in his engaging, anecdotal and occasionally irritating review of the subject.

Take the watch. Pick up any magazine or so-called serious Sunday newspaper and you will find sophisticated adverts for watches of all shapes and sizes, pretty much all unremittingly ugly in my view, which will set you back thousands and which you will never really own if you buy a Patek Philippe, at least according to their strap line. But why do we buy and wear watches when our mobile technology gives us the time as conveniently and just as, if not more, accurately? Is it redundant technology which has now become just a fashion statement? The luxury watch industry is worth many millions and it shows no sign of flagging. A true mystery.

The limitations of technology imposed time constraints on our listening habits. Because the grooves on a record had to be wound so tight that the needle skipped if the length of the song was longer than 3 minutes, this was the maximum that a song could last until the advent of the 33 rpm disc. Then came along the CD. It was originally going to have a diameter of 11.5 centimetres but the Sony vice chairman at the time, Norio Ohga, insisted it be 12 cm to allow his favourite piece of music, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, to be accommodated on one disc. And so the standard with a limit of around 74 minutes of music was set.

If you want a target to point the finger of blame at for our enslavement to time then the railways would do. Prior to their development, time was governed by the church clock and was particular to the local area. Railways required timetables to alert the aspiring passenger when they might catch a train and, if they were lucky, when they might arrive at their destination. This in turn, required harmonisation and standardisation of time. Once the genie was out of the bottle, we have struggled to control it ever since.

Throughout the book you come across facts that are astounding or observations which make you realise you never knew that. Take for instance, the display of clocks. They invariably show the time as ten past ten because that setting makes the clock face appear to smile. And comedian Dave Allen’s great joke about time – “you clock in to the clock. You clock out to the clock. You come home to the clock. You eat to the clock, you drink to the clock, you go to bed to the clock.. You do that for 40 years of your life, you retire and what do they fucking give you? A clock” – is always worth a retell.

The book is a collection of essays and the joins do show at times.  The sections on the slow food movement and Charlie boy’s Poundbury estate seem somewhat out of kilter with the general thesis, although they arguably show an inclination to turn the clock back. On the whole it is an engaging read and there are far worse ways of spending a few hours.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Sixty Four

Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel (1777 – 1826)


For a musician time is important. You can dispense with melody or harmony but if rhythm goes out of the window then you are left with an unholy racket. That is why you see a conductor flailing their arms in front of a concert orchestra or a drummer preparing a solid foundation upon which the other players can build in a rock or jazz ensemble. When a musician is practising they will often deploy a metronome, a handy device which you can set to register so many beats per minute by way of audible clicks or ticks. Being mechanical it is unerring. Composers mark their scores with metronome settings to give the musos a clue as to the tempo at which to play the piece.

Of course, some bright spark must have come up with the idea of a musical metronome and this is where the latest inductee of our illustrious Hall of Fame, Lippstadt born Dietrich Winkel, comes in. He was not the first to develop a metronome – this honour goes to the Andalusian polymath, Abbas ibn Firnas (810 – 897 CE) who is said to have devised “some sort of metronome”. In 1696 Frenchman, Etienne Loulie, created the first mechanical metronome, using an adjustable pendulum. The problem with Loulie’s invention was that it did not make a sound and did not have a device – the technical term is an escapement – to keep the pendulum in motion. For a musician it was not much use.

Winkel who by 1812 had now settled in Amsterdam began experimenting with pendulums. His breakthrough came when he realised that by weighting a pendulum on both sides of a pivot it could beat a regular rhythm which was audible. It could be adapted to suit various tempi and was housed in the now familiar pyramid casing. Winkel donated his “musical chronometer” to the Hollansch Instituut van Wetenschappen on 27th November 1814. It was described and commended in the Journal of the Netherland Academy of Sciences the following year.

If Winkel thought by developing this machine he was on to a winner, he was gravely mistaken. He made the fatal mistake that earns him a place in our Hall of Fame of failing to patent his musical metronome. This opened the way for Johann Nepomuk Maetzel to initially try to buy the rights and title to Winkel’s metronome. When Winkel refused, Maelzel simply copied his machine, added a scale and applied, successfully, for a patent. He produced around 200 of his metronomes and sent them out to friends, composers and manufacturers of musical instruments for their comments and suggestions for modifications. One recipient was Ludwig van Beethoven who was much taken by the device and added metronome settings in his later scores.

Winkel sued Maetzel and won but by then the damage had been done. Although the courts acknowledged our hero as the true inventor of the metronome,, Maetzel had cornered the market. Even to this day the metronome is known as the Maetzel Metronome and the notation MM is used in score to denote the tempo at which a piece is to be played.

Winkel did achieve some fame of sorts by inventing the componium which was an automatic organ with two barrels which revolved automatically. The barrels took turns at playing a variation of a piece whilst the other randomly, by way of something resembling a roulette wheel, selected the next variation to play. The variations were almost limitless and it could play variations, “not only during years and ages, but during so immense a series of ages that though figures might be brought to express them, common language could not”. It wowed the crowds when it was displayed at an exposition in Paris in 1824.

Dietrich, for inventing the musical metronome and not getting the recognition you deserved, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Twenty Five


How embedded is lying in Britain today?

It is a regrettable fact but most, if not all, of us have been guilty of lying at some stage in our life. We might tell lies or at least be economical with the actualite to spare someone’s feelings like when we comment on someone’s new hairstyle or clothing.  We might term these as white lies. On the other hand we might tell a whopper, perhaps we should term this sort a big lie, if we want to deflect attention from ourselves or get ourselves out of a hole. As the referendum campaign last year was based on both sides on a tissue of half-truths and downright falsehoods, the question that pops into the enquiring mind is how embedded is lying in Britain today.

Fortunately, some research has been conducted into the subject including an online survey conducted by the Science Museum in London in 2010. Nearly 3,000 responded to the survey, of whom 51% were female and the average age was 44.5, in which they were asked to reveal how often they told little white lies and how often whoppers. 9.7% of the sample categorised themselves as prolific liars, telling 6.32 little white lies and 2.86 big ones a day. The majority of the respondents – only 24.4% said that they didn’t lie in a typical day – owned up to 1.16 white lies a day and 0.15 whoppers, suggesting that the prolific liars tell on average 19 big lies to every one told by the everyday liars.

Profiling the responses of those surveyed, the prolific liars were most likely to be at the younger end of the age scale, male and working in more senior occupational roles. They did not see their mendacious trait as one that they would grow out but recognised that it could and had landed them in deep do-do, costing them their relationships or their jobs. This is not too surprising as they would most likely try to pull the wool over the eyes of their partners and children whereas everyday liars were more likely to lie to their mothers.

Further light was shone on the propensity to lie by research undertaken by the Science Centre NEMO in Amsterdam and published in the ever popular Acta Psychologica. Surveying some 1,005 people, aged between 6 and 77, they tested the ability to and frequency of lying across the age groups. Overall, the ability to lie convincingly improved through childhood, peaking in early adulthood, categorised as aged between 18 and 29, and gradually declined as the age profile increased. As to frequency, teenagers admitted to telling more lies than any other age – are you surprised? – and there was a similar inverted U-shape in the age distribution with the old fogies lying as infrequently as those at the younger end of the age spectrum.

Worryingly, the figures for British lying compare adversely with comparable statistics from the United States. There, only 5% of the respondents were responsible for more than 50% of the lies and 59.9% claimed that in a typical day they didn’t lie. What the surveys can’t tell us is whilst there appears to be a definite pattern to lying frequency and proficiency whether people increase and then lose their ability as they age or once they are a prolific liar or an everyday liar, that is what they are for the rest of their natural.

My biggest problem with surveys and research such as this is how much credence we should place on responses from self-confessed liars. Of course, a liar rarely lies all the time and therein lies our problem.

Red Faces Of The Week (7)


I may have got it wrong but surely when you put a pair of handcuffs on someone you expect them not to be able to get them off. Conversely, though you rather expect the person who has applied the handcuffs to be able to release the victim easily.

It was the latter aspect of the process that proved a tad troublesome for the boys in blue at an officer safety training day held at Mounthooly Way in Aberdeen last Saturday. Handcuffs were applied to an officer during the course of a training exercise but try as they may, they wouldn’t come off.

The only thing to do was to ring the local pole sliders and members of the Scottish Fire and Rescue service attended with a pair of bolt cutters.

Good to know there is a Plan B but the incident caused crimson visages amongst the top brass of the old Bill.

Stunt Of The Week (2)


It was a bad day on the London Underground last Sunday, I read this week. The benighted transport system was invaded by groups of Londoners taking part in the annual No Trousers Tube Ride.

Participants can wear hats, coats and scarves but south of the equator they only don underwear, socks and shoes. The prank was imported from New York where it is known as No Pants Day. According to the Stiff Upper Lip Society, who seem to have been behind it, “the point is to relax and enjoy the humour inherent in people not wearing trousers”.

For many, though, to whom the sight of a bloke manspreading in his budgie smugglers may have caused offence, the strike the following day must have come as a blessed relief.

What Is The Origin Of (111)?…



When I feel a bit down I take some solace in singing to myself the following verse from one of Traffic’s better numbers, “Sometimes I feel so uninspired/ sometimes I feel like giving up/ sometimes I feel so very tired/ sometimes I feel like I’ve had enough”. This description of torpor and dissatisfaction seems to me to encapsulate the sense of one of the most interesting words in the English language, lackadaisical, a word we use adjectively to convey the sense of being listless, languid, lazy and lacking interest.

In tracing the etymology of this word, the best starting point is the exclamation of sorrow, regret or dismay, alack, which is itself probably a compound of ah, an exclamatory word, and lack which in some dialects meant failure, fault, reproach or shame. Alack survives to this day in phrases such as alas and alack but in medieval times was more likely to be found in association with day with either a definite or indefinite article. So a distressed person around the 15th or 16th centuries may have been overheard muttering “alack the day” or “alack a day”, cursing in a non- blasphemous way the way the day has gone and, perhaps, wishing he had never got out of bed. Shakespeare used it to this effect in Romeo and Juliet, “she’s dead, deceast, she’s dead, alacke the day!

The phrase then suffered an attack of aphesis, the grammarian’s term for describing the process whereby an unaccented vowel at the start of a word drops off. This process was clearly underway in 1685 when John Eachard was writing his The Grounds and Occasions of the Contempt of the Clergy and Religion. “A-lack a day. How easie a matter is it for old folks to dote and slaver.. ” The hyphenating of the opening vowel shows the separation in process, although not complete.

By 1748 when the phrase appears in Tobias Smollett’s The adventures of Roderick Random, the aphesis had been completed and the component day had morphed into daisy. “Good lack-a-daisy! The rogue is fled!” Adjectivally it first appeared in Lawrence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, published in 1768, “would to heaven…thou hadst passed by, and beheld me sitting in my black coat, and in my lack-a-day-sical manner”. The sense is one of languor and, perhaps, the posture would be accompanied by sighs, groans and imprecations.

The Oxford English Dictionary defined it as “resembling one who is given to crying Lackaday! Full of vapid feeling or sentiment; affectedly languishing. Said of persons, their behaviour, manners and utterances”.  It would seem, then, that this rather unusual, compound word, which is almost Teutonic in its construction, has developed the sense of laziness and carelessness in more recent times and rather left its original sense far behind. Perhaps we are guilty of being lackadaisical in our usage.



The Streets Of London – Part Fifty Two


Middlesex Street, E1

London was always a vibrant centre for trade and was characterised by street markets where local residents could buy and sell their wares. Alas, very few of them remain today but one that is still very much alive and kicking and a magnet for tourists is Petticoat Lane market. But if you get out your battered edition of the London A to Z or search on Google Maps you will not locate it because there is no longer a street by the name of Petticoat Lane. The street running from Bishopsgate in the west to Botolph Street in the east was renamed Middlesex Street as long ago as 1830. Londoners have always enjoyed pulling a fast one on strangers.

It is always hard to believe when you look at the crowded, slightly down-at-heel area despite the efforts of the gentrifiers that it was once a hedge and tree-lined country lane outside the walls of the city. In medieval times it was called Hog’s Lane, either because it marked an ancient droving track where pigs and other animals were brought to the capital for slaughter or because the local bakers were allowed to keep pigs outside the City walls. By the end of the 16th century the area had changed, had become a commercial area noted for its trade in garments and had undergone a name change at the turn of the 17th century. It was said at the time that “they would steal your petticoat at one end of the market and sell it back to you at the other end”. Peticote Lane was probably a reference to the second-hand clobber that was sold there.


Despite the slightly shady connotations in the saying, the area was initially a prestigious address, the Spaniards who came to attend the court of James I settling there. Mind you, they and all the better sorts fled the area when the Great Plague struck in 1665. The area then became the refuge for the waves of refugees who arrived in the metropolis, principally the Jews and Huguenots who established the area as a centre for weaving and clothing manufacture. Naturally, it was an area where the products were sold and in the mid 18th century it was where the well-to-do would go on a Sunday to buy the wares on offer in the Lane.

Despite the name change in 1830, the essential character of the area did not change. One newspaper reported in 1845, “it is the same filthy, badly paved street as it ever was….Although Middlesex Street is painted on the walls on each side of the lane, Petticoat-lane it is still called and ever well be”. And so it has.

One of the curious things about the market which was held on Sundays was that it contravened trading laws and in the early part of the 20th century concerted attempts were made by the authorities to close it down. The efforts were often unsubtle if not downright dangerous, with buses, fire engines and police cars with sirens blaring being driven through the market to drive away the crowds. But the East-enders have an indomitable spirit – the market would not die – and an Act of Parliament was passed in 1936 protecting the market.

It still exists – a market is held on Monday to Friday on nearby Wentworth Street – but the main deal for buyer and sellers of the rag trade takes place in Middlesex Street on Sundays. It is well worth a visit but watch out for your petticoats!

Gin o’Clock – Part Twenty


One of the joys of writing about my exploration of the ever burgeoning ginaissance is that it has encouraged others to share their experiences and discoveries with me. Two dear friends, both loyal followers of this blog, both separately visited Belfast, a city I have only been to once, and raved about a local hooch, Jawbox Classic Dry Gin. Had I tried it? No was my response but I will certainly look out for it.

Wandering around the spirits section of Marks & Spencer I spotted it, competitively priced and as I was getting low on gin, I decided to buy a bottle. The gin comes in a rather dumpy, squat bottle with an artificial cork stopper. The labelling has a solid Victorian feel about it with white and gold lettering on a black background. It boasts that it is Ireland’s first single estate gin – it is distilled at Echinville Distillery, the first such to be licensed to distil spirits in Northern Ireland for 130 years. The neck bears the signature of its creator, Gerry White, together with the legend, “harvested, distilled and bottled by hand on one estate”.

If the events of 2016 have told us anything it is that we live in a post-truth world. Looking at the list of eleven botanicals that form the recipe – juniper, coriander, angelica root, orris root, grains of paradise, liquorice roots, cubebs, cardamom, cassia quills, black mountain heather and lemon peel – this can hardly be the case. True enough, the base spirit is made from barley grown on the Echinville estate, as is the water used, but most, if not all of the botanicals, cannot have a local provenance. There is a certain economy with the actualite in the claim, I feel.

The label sheds some light on the gin’s unusual name. The sink in many a Northern Irish household was the focal point of the house, where stories and experiences, gripes and groans were freely exchanged. It was colloquially known as the Jawbox and the gin, so Neill explains, is supposed to be the lubricant to promote conversation in the bar.

So what’s it like? To the nose it has a spicy aroma with a hint of citrus. To the taste it is firmly in the classic gin corner with citrus and spice providing a solid base allowing the juniper to come to the fore and then follows a sweet, slightly oily sensation. The aftertaste is prolonged and pleasant, with juniper in the ascendancy again. At 43% ABV it packs a punch but worked well with a judiciously selected tonic. If you like your classic gins, which I do, you cannot go wrong with this. They just need to get their marketing message straight.


On the same shopping trip to M&S I picked up a bottle of Jensen’s Old Tom Gin which comes in a very elegant, rectangular bottle with frosted glass, a rather trendy and minimalist label, a small gold image of London’s Tower Bridge near where it is distilled and a screwcap. It uses a handwritten recipe dating back to the 1840s and the botanicals used give it its natural sweetness. Unlike many Old Toms available now, there is no added sugar. Jensen’s are coy as to the exact component of their spirit but its aroma contains hints of pepper and citrus. To the taste, liquorice is initially to the fore and the aftertaste is prolonged and slightly bitter but the complexity of the spirit is such that it stands up well to a strong tonic or as the base for a cocktail. This is already a firm favourite and at 43% ABV provides a solid start to an evening’s drinking.

Until the next time, cheers!