A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (171)?…


Such is the dynamism of our native tongue that words come in and out of fashion. One such word which is languishing in undeserved obscurity is understrapper which is a synonym for an underling, a subordinate, someone who takes orders. The prefix, under, is straightforward enough to understand and conveys the sense of inferiority of status and rank. What is of more interest is the second part of the word, strapper. The origin of that part of our word can be seen in the now obsolete verb, to strap, which meant to work tirelessly and energetically. The noun strapper conveyed this sense to describe a labourer or someone who groomed horses. So someone who was answerable to someone engaged in menial tasks was truly the lowest of the low.

The one word we still use in everyday speech from this root is strapping which we use to describe someone who is large, robust, and muscular. It is almost exclusively reserved as an adjective to describe younger people of both sexes but when it first emerged in the middle of the 17th century, it was used exclusively to describe young women. In George Thornley’s translation of Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe, from 1657, we find; “And, now and then, one of the bolder strapping girles would catch him in her arms, and kisse him.

By the start of the 18th century understrapper was firmly established as a description of someone performing a menial task. The satirist, Thomas Brown, produced a book of hoax letters, purportedly written by people who had recently died, called Letters from the Dead to the Living, published in 1702. Brown imagined his fellow satirist, Joseph Haines, to have written; “and as I shall have upon occasion now and then for some Understrapper to draw teeth for me, or to be my Toad-eater upon the stage, if you will accept so mean an Employment … I’ll give you Meat, Drink, Washing, and Lodging, and Four Marks per annum.

In 1742 Charles Knight in his Popular History of England, attributed to Jonathan Swift this sentence; “I have put an understrapper upon writing a twopenny pamphlet..”  – clearly the job was not worthy of one of our finest satirists. Francis Plowden wrote in his History of Ireland from its Union with Great Britain in 1811, “at the vulgar insistence of some secretary’s secretary’s secretary, some understrpper’s understrapper’s understrapper…” giving little room for doubt as to where that individual featured in the hierarchy.

Thomas Hardy used the word in a rather contrived simile in his novel of triangular love, A Pair of Blue Eyes, published in 1873; “said Stephen, rather en l‘sir and confused with the kind of confusion that assails an understrapper when he has been enlarged by accident to the dimensions of a superior, and is somewhat rudely pared down to his original size.” Alas, by the 21st century, the word had almost disappeared from sight.

A variant, also obsolete, was under-spur-leather, the spur-leather being a strap securing a spur to a rider’s foot, a vivid description of the lowliness of someone so described. It was contemporaneous with understrapper, appearing in John Dennis’ Remarks upon Mr Pope’s Translation of Homer of 1717; “who from an under-spur-leather to the Law, is become an understrapper to the Playhouse..

The restoration of either or both to our modern-day language would be welcome, methinks.


Gin o’Clock – Part Thirty Six

The ginaissance shows no signs of running out of steam. The UK now produces some 500 gins and, according to the tax man – and he should know – there are now 273 distilleries producing hooch. The surge in gin production has given rise to a new term, ginterpreneur, to describe those individuals who are beavering away mixing botanicals to base spirit in the hope of finding the latest elixir to take the market by storm.

Bombay Sapphire in 1988 was the first to try to do something different with gin, bottling the spirit in a distinctive blue bottle and making a great play in detailing the botanicals that went into the mix and their provenance. With bottles of so-called premium gin retailing at prices upwards of £30 a time, it is not unreasonable for the consumer to be told what has gone into it and where it has come from. Of course, you cannot judge the taste by the listing of the ingredients but you can get a sense of what it may be like, whether it is going to have a classic flavour, going to be spicy or have a more citrusy feel.

There is also a definite trend towards what may be termed field to bottle, where producers are sourcing ingredients from their own locality. This is a particularly so with the ever-increasing number of Scottish gins and perhaps the example par excellence is the gins coming from the Chase distillery where the base spirit is made from apples and potatoes grown in the orchards and fields at the farm.

Another classic example is our featured gin, Waddesdon Housekeeper’s Rhubarb Gin, which has only recently hit the market in September 2017 and is distilled in very small batches, the first of which was only 96 bottles. It is difficult to get hold of but Santa rather kindly delivered me a bottle to enjoy. The eponymous housekeeper was a certain Mrs Boxall who, amongst her other duties, was responsible for making liqueurs from the fruit grown on the Waddesdon estate, the weekend retreat of the Rothschild family and now bequeathed to the National Trust. One of her most successful liqueurs was Rhubarb gin and it is her recipe that the estate is following some 117 years later.

The starting point, unsurprisingly, is rhubarb grown in the house’s Eythorpe garden, which is carefully washed to remove any impurities as well as any green sinewy parts and dead flowers, and then chopped up into one-inch squares to leave mainly pink rhubarb, full of those vital Anthocyanins which give it its distinctive colouration. About 450 grams of rhubarb goes into each bottle. The rhubarb is then put into a base spirit comprising of 48% ABV London dry gin and left to macerate for around 4 to 5 weeks before the resultant liquid is blended with a sugar solution. The finished article has an ABV of 21.5% and for those who are sugar conscious contains around 130 grams of sugar per litre.

The bottle is delightfully bell-shaped with an artificial cork stopper. On removing the stopper, there is a delightful aroma of rhubarb. To the taste it is smooth and very rhubarby. I tried it neat and then with a tonic. The labelling on the bottle suggests that it is served with ginger beer – I have not tried that – or with Prosecco. It is a very refreshing drink and would go down a treat with a slug of ice on a warm summer’s evening. The bonus is that its low alcoholic content means you can sup a lot of it before it catches up on you.

It is worth seeking out.

Coincidences Are Spiritual Puns – Part Two

Frane Selak (1929 – present)

Reviewing Selak’s brushes with death, it is hard to determine whether he was incredibly unlucky or whether he had a guardian angel perched on his shoulder. Either way the Croatian-born music teacher managed to escape with his life from an astonishing array of accidents, as we shall see.

It all started in January 1962 when Selak was travelling by train from Sarajevo to Dubrovnik. His journey came to an abrupt halt when the train derailed, plunging into an icy river, killing 17 passengers. Apart from hypothermia and a broken arm, Selak walked away to tell the tale. In 1963 he took his first trip in an aircraft, whilst travelling from Zagreb to Dubrovnik. During the course of the flight the door came off the plane. The sudden drop in pressure forced Selak and the other passengers out of the plane, killing 19. Inevitably, he escaped unharmed, a haystack breaking his fall.

Perhaps considering rail and air travel too dangerous, Selak started to travel by road but ill-fortune continued to dog him. In 1966 he was travelling on a bus. It skidded off the road and plunged into a river, killing four people. Selak, of course, escaped, and swam to the river bank with just a few cuts and bruises to serve as a reminder of his latest dice with death.

Selak fared little better when he was in charge of his own fate, perhaps because he chose particularly unreliable vehicles to drive. In 1970 his car was engulfed in flames, probably due to a faulty fuel pump and he managed to effect his escape before the vehicle blew up. Perhaps even more hair-raising was an incident three years later when the engine of his latest motor caught fire and flames shot through the air vents into the cabin. Again Selak managed to get out just in the nick of time, although he lost most of his hair to the flames.

Even as a pedestrian his luck ran out in 1995 when in Zagreb he was struck by a bus. Apart from sustaining a few minor injuries, he was able to pick himself, brush himself down and curse his bad luck. By this time war was ravaging what was previously known as Yugoslavia and United Nations troops were sent to Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia to put an end to the genocide and restore some kind of order. Selak had a near-death encounter with a United Nations truck on a mountain road. In an attempt to avoid a head-on collision, he swerved and struck a safety barrier. Inevitably, the barrier gave way under the force of the impact, the driver’s door was forced open and Selak, who wasn’t wearing a seat belt – after all, why would he need to take precautions – was thrown out. He hung onto the trunk of a tree as he saw his vehicle plunge over the ravine into the gorge below.

After that Selak’s life seems to have taken on a degree of normality, although he was on his fifth marriage when two days before his 73rd birthday in 2003, he checked his lottery ticket. You’ve guessed it – he discovered that he won some €800,000. He settled into the lifestyle of the rich, buying a couple of houses, including one on a private island. However, in 2010 he saw the light, realising that money can’t buy happiness and decided to live a life of frugality. So he sold his houses and gave most of his fortune to friends and family, although he kept a bit back to fund a hip replacement and to build a shrine to the Virgin Mary who he believes guided him through all his trials and tribulations.

After his lottery win, Selak was invited to fly to Australia to appear in an advert promoting Doritos. Perhaps wisely, given his track record, he declined. He is still going strong!

The Streets Of London – Part Seventy One

Villiers Street, WC2N

For many of us Villiers Street is the road you shuttle up and down to go from Embankment tube station to the Charing Cross termini or vice versa. Shortly after you leave Embankment station, on the right-hand side, is the oasis of calm that is Embankment Gardens. If you explore the gardens you will see a rather forlorn Italianate arch, somewhat out of odds with its surroundings. It is the last vestige of York House and is a poignant testament to the changing topography of the metropolis.

What became known as York House, when it was granted to the Archbishop of York in 1556, was built around 1237 and was the London home of the Bishop of Norwich. In the 1620s it was acquired by the first Duke of Buckingham, George Villiers. In 1626 Villiers’ appropriately named master mason, Nicholas Stone, built the arch to serve as a magnificent entrance for those visitors to the house who arrived by river. To impress the visitor, the river front of the arch bears the coat of arms and the motto (Fidei cotucula crux) of the Villiers family.

The modern visitor will be surprised to note that the arch is now some 150 yards away from the river bank. The arch did not move, rather the river did when the Victoria Embankment with its enhanced sewerage system, under the direction of Joseph Bazalgette, and the District Line was constructed in the mid 1860s. As a consequence, the river was considerably narrowed and York Watergate marks the edge of the original northern river bank.

John Tallis, writing in his Illustrated London, the first volume of which was published in 1851/2, described the water gate enthusiastically; “the last relic of the gorgeous pile of York House, will furnish some conception of the beauty of the whole fabric. It is considered one of the most perfect and elaborate relics of Inigo Jones.” Despite Tallis’ enthusiasm, the gate fell into some decay and it was only after the London County Council petitioned Parliament that they were able to acquire it in 1893 and restore to something of its former glory.

And what of York House? Well, it was sold by the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, also called George, to developers in 1672 for the princely sum of £30,000. They then flattened the house and built a series of houses and thoroughfares which, in accordance with Villiers’ sale conditions, they named George Street (now York Buildings), Villiers Street, Duke Street (now John Adams Street), Of Alley (which is now York Place) and Buckingham Street. Quite a clever way of ensuring his name and title was preserved.

The current street boasts a collection of eateries and drinking establishments. Perhaps the building most redolent with historical associations is Kipling House at no 43 in which Rudyard Kipling lived in the 1890s as a tenant and where he wrote The Light That Failed – perhaps he hadn’t put enough money in the meter.  Other famous residents of the street include John Evelyn and the founder of the Spectator and Tatler magazines, the Irish writer Richard Steele. In 1834 the Charing Cross Medical School was founded on the street.

At no 47 is to be found Gordon’s Wine Bar which boasts a candlelit, vaulted cellar and, founded in the 1890s, is said to be the oldest in London. From the 1820s the building was occupied by seed merchants, Minier & Fair, who used it as a riverside warehouse. The change in the river’s direction in 1864 meant that it was now landlocked and useless for their purposes and so they sold up and the building was converted into accommodation and commercial premises – another victim of the riparian revolution but not as forlorn as the York Watergate is now.

Sign Of The Week (5)

Out here in India public toilets seem to fall into two categories – Slumdog Millionaire or American with very little in between. It is all a world away from the electronic carsey wizardry that the intrepid traveller can encounter in Japan.

For the convenience of those unfamiliar with Kanji script, the Japanese Sanitary Equipment Industry Association have devised a set of six pictograms, illustrating some of the most basic functions, like strong or light flush, raise or lower the lid, water spray and bidet. Some look quite alarming and others could be misinterpreted by the unwary – I don’t think it is advisable to wash one’s breasts in one.

Be that as it may, there has been a spot of good news – these pictograms have now been given the seal of approval by the International Organisation of Standardisation and are set to be rolled out globally, opening the door for the sale of these electric bogs worldwide. The Association is flushed with success.

Every little helps but in the case of doubt, leave it to the next person to figure out has always been my motto.

What Is The Origin Of (170)?…


If you sleep the recommended eight hours a day, then you will have been kipping for a third of your life. We use kip to describe sleep or the act of sleeping. It can be used as a noun, as in “Get some kip” or are an intransitive verb, as in “they kipped in the barn.” But where does kip come from? The answer is, probably, from Denmark via Ireland.

The suspect for the word’s ultimate origin is the Danish word kippe which meant a hut or a low sort of alehouse, the type of which I like to frequent. However, by the time it got to Ireland it was a slang term for a brothel. James Joyce, in Ulysses, one of the world’s greatest books that few us have ever read, published in 1922, Leopold Bloom responds to the androgynous prostitute, Bella Cohen, “I saw him, kipkeeper! Pox and gleet vendor!” In his collection of oral history entitled Dublin Tenement Life, published in 1994, Kevin Corrigan reports the following contribution; “Now we didn’t call them madams, the outsiders called them madams. We called them kip-keepers. The houses that they lived in were called kips.”  Alternative variants in Dublin slang for brothels were kip-house and kip-shop.

The word first appeared in English literature in Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, published in 1766. “My business was to attend him at auctions,” he wrote, “.. to take the left hand in his chariot when not filled by another, and to assist at tattering a kip, as the phrase was, when we had a mind for a Frolic.” Goldsmith was Irish and educated in Dublin and almost certainly this is where he picked up this piece of vernacular. A later commentator noted that tattering a kip describe the act of smashing up a house of ill-repute.

By the time the word had crossed the Irish Sea to mainland Britain in the 19th century it had lost its specific association with prostitution and came to refer to a common lodging-house or, more specifically, a bed in such a house and then, by extension, a bed in general. So by 1879 we find, in the MacMillan Magazine, “so I went home, turned into kip.” However, in parallel was its usage as a form of lodging house as can be seen from the edition of Pall Mall Magazine for 27th September 1883; “The next alternative is the common lodging-house or kip, which, for the moderate sum of fourpence, supplies the applicant with a bed.” Similarly, in Round London, published between 1893 and 1896, kip is used to describe a doss-house; “the sort of life that was led in kips, or doss-houses.

We have noted before in our etymological explorations the tendency for a verb to develop from a noun. This trend still continues, the most egregious example, to my mind, is the sports commentators use of to medal to refer to some sportsperson who is likely to end up in a medal-winning position. So early in the 20th century kip began to appear as a verb meaning to sleep, the activity associated with mainland, but not Irish, kips. Nowadays, kip is used exclusively to denote the act of sleeping without any reference to brothels or doss-houses.

An interesting transformation, to be sure.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Nine

The Stotham hoax, 1920

By no stretch of the imagination could the White Pine monograph series be called a mass-circulation affair. Paid for by Weyerhauser mills and edited by Russell Whitehead, its audience was architects and its mission was to encourage them to use white pine as a building material. The brochures, exquisitely produced affairs boasting pictures, plans and descriptions of early American white pine buildings, came out every other month but whilst cherished by many of the recipients it was, frankly, as dry as – well white pine.

The April 1920 edition featured an article penned by one Hubert G Ripley, featuring a well-illustrated account of a Massachusetts village of Stotham. For good measure, the article gave a rather high-flown potted history of the origins of the place. “When Zabdiel Podbury fled from Stoke-on-Tritham in the Spring of 1689 with Drusilla Ives, taking passage on the bark Promise, sailing for Massachusetts Bay, it was not realised at the time that, from this union, and the joint labours of this Penthesilean pair, the village of Stotham would in later days come to be regarded as a typical example, although, perhaps, not so well known, of unspoiled New England Village.

All the buildings illustrated, gushed Ripley, were the work of the pair’s descendants; “Generations of blushing maidens have swung on the old Billings gate, opening on the path leading to the meadows, in the pale light of the harvest moon, lending shy ear to the rustic swains of the village, as in whispered and halting phrases they spoke of their hopes and aspirations; and as a result of these meetings, old traditions were kept alive.”  Stotham was a bucolic paradise, unblighted by the ugliness of contemporary buildings. There was even a haunted house.

In short, Ripley concluded, Stotham was a village “where the quintessence of naturalness finds its ultimate expression.

Remarkably, this sort of fulsome guff was so in keeping with the normal output of the White Pine series that no one gave any undue attention to Ripley’s paean to Massachusettsan pastoralism until around twenty years later. The head of the Fine Arts Department of the Library of Congress, Leicester B Holland, set his staff the task of cataloguing all the articles in the White Pine Series.

The job was successfully completed with one exception. Try as they might, the staff couldn’t find Stotham on any map, couldn’t trace the founder, Zabdiel Podbury, nor, when it came to it, Stoke-on- Tritham in any gazetteer of Blighty. There was much scratching of heads and whirring of grey cells.

The mystery was only resolved when Holland met by chance the White Pine Series’ editor, Russell Whitehead. When challenged, Whitehead looked sheepish and admitted that they had far too many photographs left over from their regular articles. He and Ripley decided that it was a shame to waste them and so cooked up a ruse to invent a village and a pair of fictitious founders as the hook upon which to hang some rather fine photographs of early American architecture which otherwise might not have seen the light of day.

As they say, no one was hurt by this rather charming jape.  It is just astonishing that it took over two decades to unmask the hoax for what it was.

Book Corner – March 2018 (1)

What’s Become of Waring – Anthony Powell

To paraphrase Nick Jenkins, I was at that time of life when I had read Dance to the Music of Time twice and so I decided I ought to explore some of Powell’s earlier works. I chose What’s become of Waring (WBoW) which was Powell’s fifth novel, published in 1939 on the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War. Timing is everything and this rather put a dent in his sales.

The title comes from Robert Browning’s poem, Waring; “What’s become of Waring/ since he gave us all the slip/ chose land-travel or seafaring/ boots and chest or staff and scrip,/ rather than pace up and down/ any longer London town?” And that pretty much describes the novel which centres around the disappearance of an elusive travel writer, TT Waring, presumed dead, and the attempts to unravel who he was, what happened to him and why. Although there are certainly elements within the book of the classic mystery, the plot containing the statutory number of twists and turns to keep the reader on the edge of their seat, it works on more than one level. It is a light, well-written book which engages the reader so that they want to go on and also takes a gentle satirical jab at the pretensions of 1930s London society.

Rather like Dance to the Music of Time, the book is narrated in the first person, although unlike Nick Jenkins, the narrator here is anonymous. The use of a narrator allows Powell to show off his virtuosity because often he creates a void between what the narrator understands and what the reader has deduced, allowing the reader to feel superior because they have access to knowledge that the rather blinkered narrator has failed to grasp. The effect is carried off with aplomb.

I suppose it is wrong to judge a book with the benefit of hindsight but WBoW struck me as a dry run for the more substantial, in all senses, work that is the Dance sequence. As well as the use of a narrator, the book is set firmly in the world of publishing and literature. The narrator works for a firm of publishers, Judkins and Judkins, whose prime asset is Waring. Powell sends up literary types, particularly precious and mediocre authors, has the obligatory flighty woman – there is too much of Pamela Flitton in Roberta Payne to be a coincidence – and delights in the eccentricities of the bohemian set. Two séances, one towards the beginning of the novel and the other towards the end, have a significant impact on the story’s development. Powell is definitely sharpening up his craft to good effect.

Of course, the contemporary reading public did not have this sense of where Powell’s literary career was heading and so would judge the book on its merits. Using that perspective, it is a light, undemanding, amusing entertainment which could keep you cheerfully amused for a couple of evenings. My only disappointment was that I had worked out who Waring was early on.

On a more parochial note, part of the story centres around the Camberley area near to where Blogger Towers is situated. Powell clearly was not impressed with the place. “Some of the land showed traces of heath fires, charred roots and stones lying about on the blackened ground. Walking there was not at all like being in the country. Agriculture seemed as remote as in a London street. This waste land might have been some walled-in space in the suburbs where business men practised golfstrokes; or the corner of a cinema studio used for shooting wilderness scenes. It had neither memories of the past nor hope for the future.” It’s changed a bit now, I can assure you!

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Sixty Five

James Graham (1745 – 1794) and the Celestial Bed

We’ve seen before that sexual health and well-being is no respecter of wealth or position in society. Of course, those with plenty of dosh are right for exploitation in this most personal of issues and this is where Edinburgh born James Graham spotted his opportunity. He trained as a doctor but failing to qualify, moved across the pond to Philadelphia where he picked up enough knowledge about electricity and magnetism to serve him in good stead in later years.

Graham moved back to Blighty and set up a practice in Bath specialising in providing therapies to improve sexual health. His reputation was made when one of his celebrity patients married his brother, William who was half her age.  Encouraged, Graham moved to London where in August 1779 he opened the so-called Temple of Health in Adelphi Terrace. There Graham, resplendent in a white linen suit and a posy of flowers in his hand, would wander around opining to his customers on the benefits of electricity when it came to sex. To help punters get into the swing of things, female assistants would stand semi-naked amongst the statuary as Hygeia, the goddess of health. One of Graham’s assistants was the young Emma Lyon, later to become Hamilton and Nelson’s famous paramour. If that didn’t work, the goddess would bathe in a mud bath. It was a roaring success.

In June 1781 Graham opened the Temple of Hymen in Schomberg House in Pall Mall, the centrepiece of which was the Celestial Bed, 12 feet by 9 in size, covered by a dome featuring musical automata, fresh flowers and a couple of live turtle doves. For the £50 a night fee the couple were stimulated by oriental fragrances and ethereal gases released from a reservoir in the dome. The bed tilted to the best position for conception and when the couple got to it, music would play, the tempo increasing in line with their efforts. The mattress was stuffed with perfumed flowers and “sweet new what or oat straw” as well as magnets to prevent an unfortunate drop in performance. To top matters off, at the head of the bed was the injunction “Be fruitful, multiply and replenish the Earth” illuminated by electrical fire.

For those who couldn’t afford the Celestial Bed, they could pay two guineas to attend one of Graham’s frank lectures – one was called Lecture on Generation which recommended genital hygiene and marital love but condemned masturbation and prostitution. For your admission money you also enjoyed some music, dance and poetry and a free electric shock from a conductor which was secreted in the padding of the chairs in the lecture theatre. For an additional charge, you could sit on an elaborate throne, designed to give a light electric shock to cure impotency or barrenness. Patrons were encouraged to bathe in water through which an electrical current had been passed.

Then there was electrical aether which could be sniffed – it was actually an extract of assorted plants which had been subjected to an electrical charge of some sort – or drink some ethereal balsam which was the aether mixed with wine. Whether any of this did anyone any good is debatable but what is clear is that it didn’t serve Graham well – he went bankrupt in 1784. But like a good quack, he bounced back, offering in 1786 a new hygienic treatment, called earth bathing. The patient was buried up to their neck in earth, which supposedly recharged and cleansed their body.

Graham returned to Scotland, became increasingly religious and died in 1794, after a prolonged period of fasting.

Cow Of The Week

Here’s a tale of derring-moo I came across this week which had a rather sad ending.

A cow in southern Poland was destined for the local abattoir but had other ideas. It made a dramatic escape, ramming a metal fence and diving into the nearby Lake Nyskie, injuring a farm worker in the process.

She then made her way to an island in the middle of the lake, where she spent three weeks on the loose, eating food thoughtfully provided by the very farmer who had tried to have her slaughtered.

But her idyllic life was not to last.

A team of five people, including a local vet, invaded the island and got close enough to the cow to give her three shots of sedative and bundled her in to a van.

Alas, she died on the way to the abattoir – the cause is thought to have been stress.

I wonder if her meat will be put up for sale.

On a brighter note a Dutch runaway cow, called Hermien, had more success in January when she fled the local abattoir and made for the forest near Lettele. Locals used crowdfunding to raise enough cash to buy her a peaceful retirement at a cow sanctuary.

And Queen of the South fans may notice that reserve goalkeeper, Sam Henderson, didn’t take up his position on the bench this weekend. Yes, you’ve guessed it – he was injured by a runaway cow on his father’s farm.