A wry view of life for the world-weary

Chilli Of The Week


Although I’m partial to a curry I have never really the understood the attraction of an AB (arse burner). I have never been tempted in the slightest to test my ability to endure a hot chilli. But there are some who can’t resist the challenge and, indeed, enter competitions to demonstrate their bravado. If you are in the slightest bit tempted, here is a cautionary tale I came across this week.

It features the Bhut jolokia aka the ghost pepper which measures 1 million on the scale created by Wilbur Scoville in 1912 to measure the pungency of chillis. To put it into context it is 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce. Anyway, some herbert, unnamed, in America (natch) smeared the chilli in powdered form on to a burger and proceeded to eat it. No sooner than he had taken the last mouthful, he started experiencing violent retching and severe abdominal and chest pains.

On arrival at the hospital it was discovered that the chilli had made a 2.5-centimetre tear in his oesophagus. The result – 23 days in hospital and a gastric tube fitted on discharge.

A warning to us all. Mind you, the Buht jolokia is nothing compared to the world’s hottest, the Carolina Reaper, which weighs in at 2.2 million Scovilles.

Fountain Of The Week


I’m partial to the odd glass of vino and so my ears pricked up this week when I heard of an attraction available at the Italian town of Caldari di Ortana in Abruzzo. I had previously associated it with a stop off on the Cammino di San Tomasso, the route along which pilgrims tramp from Ortana where the bones of St Thomas are supposed to lie to St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Not being a left footer and doubting the provenance of the bones, I have always left it at that.

Now, though, there is a reason for going. The Dora Sarchese winery has installed a 24 hour, free, red wine fountain in the town. Apparently, it works like one of those push button water drinking fountain jobbies. The winery was coy as to the type of wine on offer so I suppose you have to take a chance but even a coarse Italian red gratis would be acceptable.

The courtiers of Henry VIII and the French king Francis I had a wine fountain to enjoy when the two monarchs met in 1520 and there is a famous picture of some of them lolling around at its base in a drunken stupor. Dora Sarchese say that their largesse is not to promote public drunkenness but to offer succour to weary pilgrims. Wait until the stag party operators hear about it!

What Is The Origin Of (102)?…


Make no bones about

This phrase is used to make a vehement assertion about something, as in “make no bones about it, this is going to be interesting”. Alternatively, it can be used to indicate that someone does something without objection, as in “she made no bones about taking the dog for a walk”. The origin of this phrase is harder to unravel.

What we do know is that it has a long pedigree as a variant first appeared in print in 1548 in Nicholas Udall’s The first tome or volume of the Paraphrase of Erasmus vpon the Newe Testamente, where he described Abraham who “made no manier – a comparative of many – bones ne stykyng (hesitation), but went in hande to offer up his only son Isaac”. By the late 16th century making no bones made an appearnce – Marbeck’s Book of Notes of 1581 noted, “whatsoever matter is intreated of, they never make bones in it” and in 1597 in the chapter on incestuous persons in Thomas Beard’s The Theatre of God’s Judgements, “divers of the Roman Emperours were so villainous and wretched as to make no bones of this sin with their owne sisters, as Caligula, Antonius and Commodus”.

An earlier variant still was the phrase, to find no bones is something. This appeared in a letter written by Friar Brackley to John Paston in 1459 regarding a legal dispute, “Mayster R Popy, a cunnying and crafty man…and fond that tyme no bonys in the matere”. Clearly, the bones are being used in this context to denote obstacles or objections. The absence of bones (obstacles) enabled the crafty so and so to agree to what was being proposed.

So what are we to make of these bones? We have seen before that mediaeval and Tudor foodstuffs often left a lot to be desired in terms of quality. You were not always eating what you thought you were and sometimes foreign and cheaper bodies would be added to increase the supplier’s profit. An unwelcome surprise, although not as unwelcome as some I’m sure that could be experienced, was to find a bone in a pudding, pie or soup – at least you could be certain it came from a previously living creature. One theory is that the expression comes from the gastronomic delight of not discovering a foreign object in your tucker.

Adherents of this theory draw upon John Skelton’s The Tunnying of Elynour Rummyng of 1516 in which the eponymous protagonist brewed a strong ale and gave a cup to a drunken woman, Ales. “Ales found therein no thornes/ but supped it up at ones/ she found therein no bones”.

Making bones appeared in Thackeray’s Pendennis of 1850, “do you think that the government or opposition would make any bones about accepting the seat if he offered it to them?”, where bones are clearly objections. And, I think, this is our clue. Bone is not a foreign object found in your food, it is a figurative description for strife or disagreement. There are a number of proverbs where bone is used in this sense – tonge breketh bone (speech causes strife), it is said that although itself has none, a tongue breaks the hard bone to pieces and fair words never break bones , to name just three.

Perhaps some strength is added to the theory by considering the French equivalent, ne pas macher ses mots (don’t chew your words). I won’t make any bones of whichever version you accept.

I Predict A Riot – Part Fifteen

Paling trekken

The eel pulling riot, 1886

Throughout history people have found some strange ways to keep themselves amused. I’m not sure I quite see the attractions of palingtrekken or eel pulling but it was amazingly popular amongst the poorer sorts in 19th century Amsterdam.

It was a pretty simple sport. A rope would be stretched across a canal and a live eel would be suspended from the middle of it, hanging down. Contestants would then stand in open boats navigating the canal and would try to snatch the poor creature free. Great acclaim was reserved for anyone determined enough to release the eel. But, of course, an eel is metaphorically slippery and in the predicament it found itself would be scared out of its wits. This meant it was difficult to grasp and many a contestant would find themselves in the water of the canal, to the amusement of the crowds of bystanders on the bank. What sport!

Even by the standards that endured in the late 19th century palingtrekken was recognised, by the authorities at least, as a gratuitously cruel sport and attempts were made to clamp down on the fun. Organisers announced in July 1886 that they were going to stage a contest at the Lindengracht. This was duly banned by the authorities.

Notwithstanding this minor inconvenience, the organisers pressed on and on Sunday 25th July a large crowd gathered on the banks of the Linden canal to watch the proceedings. The police moved in and their attempts to put a halt to contest were resisted by the locals. A full-blown riot ensued and order was only eventually restored that evening.

But that wasn’t the end of the affair. The following day the residents of the poor and working class quarter of Jordaan joined and matters took a more serious and disturbing turn. Paving stones were ripped up to serve as missiles and barricades were erected on the streets. The police moved in and were pelted with heavy objects thrown down from the roofs of the nearby buildings. A crowd armed with sticks and rods lay siege to the local cop shop. So serious was the violence that the army had to be brought in and permission was granted to fire live ammunition – to disastrous effect.

palingoproer (1)

The barricades were torn down, one by one, as the army swept through the district, firing randomly until order was finally restored by nightfall. 26 people had lost their lives and over one hundred people had been injured.

In the immediate post-riot enquiry concerns were voiced that this riot had more sinister overtones and was part of a socialist plot to overturn Dutch society. Many of the rioters who had been arrested were interrogated but the public prosecutor concluded that the riot had been spontaneous, rather than planned. It was, however, a popular expression of the discontent of the poorer classes over their lot and heavy-handed authoritarian attempts to deny them what pleasure they could find.

As for the eel that was hanging from the canal bridge whilst all hell broke out, it was taken down and reputedly sold, in 1913, for the princely sum of 1.75 guilders, after which it disappeared, never to be seen again. I would assume it was too old to be eaten.

Gin o’Clock – Part Thirteen


In my notes on my exploration of the ginaissance I have briefly alluded to Old Tom gin, a style of gin which has been rescued from obscurity. It has been described as the missing link, sitting halfway between the drier London dry gin and the sweeter Dutch Genever. This is because a sweetener, often sugar, is used in its distillation, something that is verboten in the production of London dry gin.

In the 19th century it was all the rage. Henry Johnson described it in his Bartender’s Manual of 1882 as one of the essential “liquors required in the bar room”. He included Old Tom in everything from a refreshing Tom Collins to a sparkling gin fizz. But over the last century or so it was a style of gin that fell out of favour. Only the revival in interest in gin and old gin recipes has restored it to its former glory as the go-to gin base for a cocktail.

How did it get its name? Well, the story goes that in 1736 Captain Dudley Bradstreet established an ingenious method of dispensing gin to counteract the government’s attempt to prohibit the sale of the hooch. He put a sign depicting a moggy in the window of his gaff and let it be known that gin could be purchased by the cat. Underneath the sign was a slot into which a customer would insert their money and the gin would be dispensed through a pipe either into a cup or directly into the toper’s mouth. This arrangement caught on and many establishments offered a service where a customer would call out “puss” and, if they heard an answering “meow”, they knew their luck was in and they would get their hands on some gin. Old Tom became an affectionate nickname for gin. In 1849 Joseph Boord registered the image of a cat for his Old tom gin, the oldest registered trademark for gin.


The increase in the sugar trade in the 19th century meant that it was within the price range of the ordinary person who as a consequence developed a sweet tooth. It was natural for gin to follow this trend and the introduction of the continuous still enabled a cleaner neutral spirit to be used as the base for Old Tom gin. Often Old Tom was advertised as sweetened gin and by the late 19th century was sold with an ABV of around 40 to 44%.

The modern revival in the interest in Old Tom was sparked by Hayman Distillers and it is appropriate, therefore, that Hayman’s Old Tom Gin should be our featured gin of the month. It comes in a distinctive square, squat bottle with green labelling and a foil cap a la a bottle of wine with a natural cork stopper.  It is clear and to the nose has a distinctive juniper and zesty orange smell. To the taste it is slightly sweet with juniper dominating, although spice and citrus can be detected. The aftertaste is long-lasting and predominantly spicy.

The gin was launched in 2007 and follows a recipe perfected by a family ancestor, James Borough, in the 1860s or 70s. As noted before, all Hayman’s different gins use the same ten botanicals – juniper, coriander, lemon peel, orange peel, angelica root, cinnamon, cassia bark, orris root, liquorice and nutmeg – although the proportions differ and, of course, sugar is added for the distinctive Old Tom taste.

A very acceptable alternative to the London Dry gin I have been quaffing.

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


Angelick snuff

For some a more sophisticated way of ingesting tobacco is via the snout in the form of snuff. No need to ignite a cigarette or cigar and pollute the room and inconvenience bystanders with their noxious fumes. Simply tip some of the powder on to the back of your hand and sniff vigorously. The effects are almost instantaneous and the resulting sneezing fit will be loud and soil your handkerchief with the contents of your nose.

I had never considered taking snuff to have any medicinal benefits but, perhaps, that is because I had overlooked Angelick snuff, so named because it was flavoured with angelica rather than because it was manna from heaven. It was available in the first half of the 18th century and, according to an advertisement which appeared in the Daily Post of January 17th 1739, only available from Jacob’s Coffee House, against the Angel and Crown Tavern in Broad Street, behind the Royal Exchange in London, price one shilling a paper with directions.

As we have grown to expect, the claims for its properties were fulsome. The advertisement described it as “the most noble composition in the world”.  So what was it good for? Well, you name it. “instantly removing all manner of disorder of the head and brain, easing the most excruciating pain in a moment; taking away all swimming or giddiness, proceeding from Vapours, or any other cause”.  But that was not all, “also drowsiness, sleepiness and all other lethargic effects, perfectly curing deafness to admiration, and all humours and soreness in the eyes, wonderfully strengthening them when weak”.

The list of maladies that succumbed to the power of the snuff included catarrhs, defluxions of rheum and toothache instantaneously. It was also claimed to be beneficial in apoplectic fits and falling sickness as well as comforting the nerves and raising the spirits. And then to testimonials, “its admirable efficacy… has been experienced above a thousand times and very justly causes it to be esteemed the most beneficial snuff in the world, being good for all sorts of persons. And as most of the above disorders are sudden, and the remedy by this most noble Angelick snuff as speedy, no family ought to be without it, nor ever will, when they have once used it”.

A reference in the Spectator claimed it was only available at Mr Payn’s Toy Shop but as this was also said to be by the Angel and Crown Tavern, I suspect this was the same as the Coffee House. Whilst probably not injurious, at least if you shut your eyes to the addictive and carcinogenic properties of concentrated tobacco, it is hard to imagine that it had the slightest effect on many of the maladies cited in the glowing advertisement. It may have caused a momentary distraction, watering of the eyes, volcanic sneezing fits and the like, which took the user’s attention away from anything else that was afflicting him. At best, it was a temporary fix but, of course, that meant you had to repeat the dose – more money for the supplier and enhancing the chances of addiction.

When you indulge in something that you know deep down is bad for you, it is a comfort to delude yourself that it may just be doing some good too.

The Streets Of London – Part Forty Eight

lamb's conduit

Lamb’s Conduit Street, WC1

One of my favourite London boozers, the Lamb, is to be found on Lamb’s Conduit Street which runs between Guildford Street at the north end and Theobald’s Road at the south. The street owes its name to a piece of philanthropy by one William Lamb in 1577.

The maintenance of an abundant supply of water, whether fresh enough to drink by our exalted standards or not, was always a bit of a struggle for a burgeoning city like London. London had a plentiful supply of rivers – part of the reason why the city was built where it was in the first place – like the Walbrook, Tyburn and Fleet, most of which nowadays chart a subterranean course. The problem was getting the water from the rivers to the inhabitants.

To solve the problem a reservoir was built at the head of the spring of the Tyburn and water was then fed via a great conduit – construction started in 1245 – a gently sloping water pipe made of lead and wood, which ran towards Charing Cross, then along the Strand and Fleet Street before making its way to the southern part of the city. The pipes were pretty inefficient, around a quarter of the water would be lost to leaks and the pipes were run above ground so that they could be easily accessed for repair and maintenance. Wardens were appointed to prevent unlawful access to the water supply and to supervise repairs and upkeep and operated from conduit houses.

Bringing a quill into the home – obtaining a personal domestic supply of water from the conduit – was hard to come by and required special permission from the authorities. Normally, water would be carried from the conduit or an adjacent cistern in a pair of 3 gallon tubs, weighing around 60 lbs when full, conveyed to the premises by a professional water carrier or cob.

The temptation to tap into the conduits illegally must have been great for some and if caught, punishment was harsh and humiliating. In 1478 an individual convicted of diverting the supply of water was put on horseback with a conduit-shaped vessel on his head and made to ride to each of the conduit houses where he confessed to his crime to the amusement of the onlookers.

From the 15th century onwards other conduits were built and this is where William Lamb comes in. In 1577 he joined several springs to form a significant head of water which was fed by gravity down a lead pipe from what is now the eponymous street to Snow Hill, south of Smithfield Market where it joined the existing, albeit dilapidated, Snow Hill conduit. Lamb is also said to have provided 120 pails to the poor women of the locality.

The Great Fire consumed most of the conduits – they were after all a mix of wood and lead – including the one at Lamb’s Conduit which was rebuilt in 1667 from a design by Sir Christopher Wren and continued to operate until mechanised water supply companies replaced the conduit system in the early 19th century.

Hard as it is to believe, the area around Lamb’s Conduit Street was fields and herbs and cresses grew in abundance near the spring created by Lamb. They were used by local apothecaries. Today, the street is in the centre of the metropolis and as well as pubs, the Lamb and the Perseverance which used to be the Sun, there are a lot of independent shops jostling for the visitor’s attention. Unusually for a street in the middle of London, there is a funeral directors, A France & Son, which set up there in 1898, although the France family had been undertaking from Pall Mall since 1780.

Advice Of The Week (3)


Here’s a useful piece of advice I gleaned this week courtesy of Jan Fallingborg, a gastroenterologist at Aarhus University Hospital who has 33 years’ experience of constipation – you would have thought he would have got it treated by now.

Apparently, a third of Danes grunt when they are doing a number two – it may be a Viking thing. Far from aiding the speedy evacuation of your bowels, it has the opposite effect. It is all about pressure, you see. The pressure required to expel faeces decreases if we let air and sound out of our mouths.

Whilst there may be some psychological benefit in having a good grunt, it is counterproductive to speeding up the job in hand.

If we end up with silent cubicles, Jan will have made a major contribution. Glad to be able to pass this on.

Pumpkin Of The Week


Regular readers will be painfully aware of my attempts this year to get my pumpkins to grow. Although by English standards we have experienced a prolonged period of good weather, the nights are getting colder and there is little sun and so I had to take the decision to give up. I did end up with one pumpkin but it is the size of an anorexic melon.

Naturally, I withdrew my entry to the annual autumn pumpkin festival which was held in Southampton last Saturday. A good job too as my pathetic pumpkin would have been put in the shade by that grown by Matthew Oliver at the RHS garden at Hyde Hall in Chelmsford. It smashed the UK record for the largest grown outdoors, weighing in at a whopping 1,333.8 lbs.

The seed from which this monster grew was taken from a pumpkin grown in Switzerland which weighed in at 2,323 lbs in 2014. Mind you, it cost £1,250 in an auction. A bit different from a £1 packet from Wilkinson’s. You get what you pays for, I suppose.

What Is The Origin Of (101)?…


Rub of the green

This phrase is often deployed to explain some piece of bad luck, often in the game of golf, where the player has managed to miss what seemed to the bystander a regulation put. The ball hit an unseen obstacle or took a diversion but, hey, that’s the rub of the green, they might say phlegmatically.

The key to our understanding the origin of this phrase lies in the word, rub. Rub, as a verb, appeared in Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale with the meaning that we attribute to it today, smoothing, “He rubbed her upon her tender face”. In Middle English a rubstone was a synonym for a whetstone, presumably because its purpose was to smooth a surface.

But rub makes an appearance as a noun in the late 16th century in the gloriously titled The Paine of Pleasure published in 1580 and attributed to Anthony Munday. In describing the delights and tribulation of playing a game of bowls, the fourteenth pleasure, he wrote, “How some delight to see a round bowl run/ smoothly away, until he catch a rub:/ then hold thy bias, if that cast were won/ the game were up as sure then as a club”.  Rub is clearly being used as some kind of imperfection in the bowling green, an obstacle or impediment to a true lie.

Shortly afterwards, in 1586 to be precise, it made another appearance, this time in Hooker’s History of Ireland and its usage is metaphorical, “whereby appeareth how dangerous it is to be a rub, when a king is disposed to sweep an alley”. Perhaps the most famous usage of rub in a metaphorical sense is to be found in Shakepeare’s famous to be or not to be soliloquy in Hamlet. “To die – to sleep/ to sleep – perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub!/ For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/ when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/ must give us pause”.

Interestingly, the expression ay, there’s the rub did not appear in the First Quarto of 1603, although some scholars view the text as unreliable, but it made an appearance in the Second Quarto (1604) and the First Folio (1624). Ay, though, was written as I and appeared in this format well into the 17th century, probably owing its origin to the use of the first person pronoun as a form of assent. Be that as it may, Shakespeare uses rub to mean an obstacle or a form of hindrance.

The long walk ruined, to echo Mark Twain’s glorious description of golf, is particularly prone to be subject to the lie of the land or the rub of the green. We find it used in a golfing context in 1812 in the rule book of the game issued by the Royal and Ancient club in St Andrews, “whatever happens to a Ball by accident must be reckoned a Rub of the green”. The phrase can be used to describe a piece of good fortune – a lucky in-off or a wayward shot being diverted back on course by an imperfection in the topography – as well as ill fortune.

In a sporting context, its origin is from the game of bowls, not golf. Nowadays we use the term in a general context as well as in a narrow sporting context, to explain an unexpected or unanticipated outcome.

So now we know!