A wry view of life for the world-weary

The Streets Of London – Part Sixty

Alie Street, E1

Perhaps it’s me but I spent near on forty years wandering around the streets of London with little or no idea of the history associated with these thoroughfares. Take Alie Street, which is today an unprepossessing street which runs from Mansell Street in the west to Leman Street at the eastern end. It marks the northern perimeter of Goodman’s Fields which variously was attached to the Abbey of St Clare, then pasture land under private ownership following the dissolution of the monastery and then a tenterfield which was an area for drying newly manufactured clothes placed on hooks aka tenterhooks.

It was originally known as Ayliff Street, after a relative of William Leman, whose great-uncle, John, had bought Goodman’s Fields. Its name changed to Alie Street, quite why I don’t know, and the street that bears its name was known in the 19th century as Great Alie Street, there being a Little Alie Street which ran from the east end of Leman Street up to the Commercial Road. It has a rather pleasant pub called the White Swan which we regular topers dubbed the Mucky Duck, wags that we were.

Alie Street’s major claim to fame was that it was the site of the Goodman’s Fields theatre, the first of which opened on Halloween 1727 with a performance of Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer. The arrival of a theatre was not universally popular and following a highly critical sermon preached at nearby St Botolph’s in Aldgate, the owner, Thomas Odell, passed it on to Henry Giffard. Giffard put on plays until 1832 when he decided to move premises to a custom built theatre further down the street, the original theatre being used for acrobatic performances.

The new Goodman’s Fields theatre opened its doors on 2nd October 1732 with a performance of Henry IV, Part 1 – I’m not sure if Part 2 ever got performed. The theatre soon got into trouble, though, after putting on A Vision of the Golden Rump, possibly by Henry Fielding, in 1736 which was highly critical of Robert Walpole and the Whig government. This led to the passing of the Licensing Act the following year which banned performances of any play critical of the government or the monarchy. The theatre reopened in 1740 with David Garrick in residence. It became a fashionable place to visit and “coaches and chariots with coronets soon surrounded the remote playhouse”.

Its very success, however, proved to be its undoing as it ran into trouble with the Licensing Act and was forced to close down in 1742, the final production being the Beggar’s Opera. Four years later the theatre burnt to the ground. A third theatre was built on the site which flourished briefly before being converted into a warehouse until it too was consumed by fire in 1809. The street retains its thespian links with the Half Moon Theatre which was formed in 1972 and occupies a disused synagogue, taking its name from the Half Moon Passage which runs alongside it.

Perhaps the most notable building in the street today is the St George’s German Lutheran church which is to be found at number 55 and was built in 1762. It is the oldest German-speaking church in England and drew its congregation from the German immigrants working in the sugar refineries and meat and baking trades in the area which was known colloquially as Little Germany. It still retains a number of box pews, a fine double-decker pulpit and a wonderful Walcker organ. It is worth popping in to see – en route to the Mucky Duck, of course.

I Predict A Riot – Part Twenty Four

The New York Draft Riots of 1863

One of the key determinants of military success is the size of manpower available to you. When war is first declared, there is a rush of fervour for the cause that sees volunteers flock to join the standing army. But as the war drags on interminably and the death toll and carnage mounts, the flow of volunteers slows down to a trickle. Such was the case with the army of the Union in the American Civil War and the shortage of manpower prompted the authorities to take drastic measures.

In March 1863 a law was passed which imposed strict conscription criteria. All male citizens aged between 20 and 35 and all unmarried men aged between 35 and 45 were now eligible for service in the army. Those who would be drafted would be selected by lottery, the first of which was held on Saturday 11th July 1863. There were get-out clauses. You could hire a substitute – charming – or if you could afford it, pay $300 to remove yourself from the rolls. African-Americans, who were not considered to be citizens, were exempt from the conscription.

This exemption poured oil on already troubled waters. Following Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation declaration of September 1862 which promised freedom to slaves in Confederate areas from 1st January of the following year, many members of New York’s working class, the majority of whom were Irish immigrants, feared that the newly emancipated slaves would travel north and take their jobs. That they were exempted from military service was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Following the first conscription lottery and acknowledging the Sunday as a day of rest, all hell broke out in the early hours of Monday the 13th. Initially, the mobs reserved their ire for symbols of authority such as governmental and military buildings but in the afternoon, they turned their attentions to the African-American community, assaulting them and attacking their properties. One of the worst incidents was an attack on the Coloured Orphan Asylum on 5th Avenue. Two hundred children were in the premises when the mob armed with clubs broke in, looting the premises and razing it to the ground.

The Catholic bishop, John Hughes, vainly appealed for calm and it was soon apparent that a more robust approach was required to restore order. By midday, 4,000 federal troops had arrived in the city and confronted the rioters in what is now the Murray Hill district of the Big Apple. Surprisingly, Irish contingents amongst the troops were keen to mix it with their compatriots, the Irish-American 9th Massachussetts wishing “for a chance to give those fellows [the rioters] a taste of our quality, and show them how the Irish Ninth could charge.”

It took three days for order to be restored, by which time some 120 had lost their lives – 11 African-Americans were lynched – and around 2,000 were injured and the value of property damage was estimated to be around $5 million. Around a quarter of the 12,000 African-Americans in New York were made homeless, many by landlords fearful for the security of their property and many moved away from the area, causing a major change in demographics.

The draft was resumed on 19th August without incident and the Union League Club and the Committee of Merchants for the Relief of Coloured people raised $40,000 to assist some 2,500 victims of the riots. The Union Club recruited over 2,000 African-American soldiers in December 1863, kitting them out and training them. They were watched by a crowd of 100,000 in March the following year as they marched to the Hudson River docks. But the draft riots had allowed the white population to extend their control over the labour market and made the job of reconciliation and integration all the harder.

Gig Of The Week (2)

The tragic death of guitarist, Michael Casswell, TOWT’s cousin, last September was a shock to his family. What was also a shock to them was how respected and loved he was in the music biz as he rather hid his light under a bushel.

On the hottest day in 40 years we went to the subterranean music venue that is the 100 Club in Oxford Street to attend the tribute concert put on by his friends and colleagues. It was a great evening with his band, East of Java, putting on a storming set.

There were cameos from the likes of Tony Hadley, Limhal – who had me dancing in the aisles – and the wonderful Marcus Malone band.

Check out tribute concert highlights

Check Malone out playing with Michael

The venue had smartened up since I was last there, some thirty-seven years ago, and the beer was considerably better – I had to have the BrewDog Punk IPA.

It was a great evening and one which did Michael proud.


Hat Of The Week

It’s a real pisser when one leaves one’s hat in the back of one’s car and has to make do with an EU flag.

Cheap Booze Of The Week

It is good to see that the lure of cheap booze still has a certain attraction for the Brits, particularly so if you are staying in Finland where alcohol is prohibitively expensive.

Four Brits, I read this week, were participating in an orienteering competition in southern Finland. The ability to read a map came in handy when they realised they were near the Russian border and had the opportunity to grab some cheap booze. So they parked their car by the border, nipped across and within the fifteen minutes or so they were there, managed to quaff the contents of several cans of beer.

Alas for the intrepid foursome, they were spotted and had their collars felt when they got back into Finland. They have been released and have returned to Blighty but will probably face a fine.

Not such a cheap beer then!

What Is The Origin Of (133)?…

Stick in the mud

We use this phrase to denote someone who is dull and unadventurous and resistant to change. It is generally used in a pejorative fashion and is synonymous with an old fogey. The imagery it evokes is quite clear. Large swathes of mud can be tricky to wade through and if you are not careful you can come to a complete halt or, at best, your rate of progress is significantly slower than that of the person who has taken the drier route.

Interestingly, the first recorded instances of its use are as sobriquets for criminals in 18th century London. The General Evening Post in November 1732 reported that “George Fluster, alias Stick-in-the-Mud, has made himself an Evidence, and impeached the above two persons”.  In December 1733 the Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer listed 14 malefactors who had received the sentence of death at the Old Bailey that month, including “John Baker, alias Stick in the Mud, for breaking into the house of Mr Thomas Rayner, a Silversmith, and stealing thence Plate to a Great Value”.

Being a snitch or breaking and entering, reprehensible as these characteristics may be in most quarters, are not qualities you would necessarily attribute to someone who has been left behind by the times. Rather, I think, what is being described here is their mental acuity. They were five cans short of a six pack or, to put it more kindly, a bit on the slow side mentally. Perhaps that’s why they got caught. William Walsh in his Handy Book of Curious Information, published in 1913, suggests this interpretation is along the right track. “A colloquial expression common to both England and America, and applied to a dullard or slow coach, a person who has never made any progress in education or business”.

The phrase escaped the preserve of criminality and the lower orders at the turn of the 19th century and began to be used in a figurative sense. In a review of Hilaris Benevolus’ The Pleasures of Human Life, printed in the Literary Panorama of 1807, we find a rather curiously constructed sub clause, “if we had not been stuck in the mud in his book, this Mr Benevolus had not helped us out”. The Monthly Mirror the next year contained a bit of doggerel, “Up rose Mr __, when Dallas sat down/ And stammer’d and stuck in the mud like a clown”. By 1832 the phrase had crossed the pond. In the New England Magazine, printed in Boston, we find, “lying mightily at ease, depend upon it, old stick-in-the-mud is wide awake; his eye is bent upon the waters, his mandibles are set for a quick nap”.  In all three instances, the sense is of someone who is slow on the uptake.

But at the same time as the American entry, we see a different shade of meaning emerge. In the Simpkin Papers, published in the Metropolitan in January 1832, the question was posed, “isn’t he a priest of the real old stick-in-the-mud religion, that was established in Ireland…?”  Here we have the sense of conservatism or old fogeyism. By the time the phrase appeared in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown at Oxford, published in 1861, it is this new sense that has taken over, “This rusty coloured one is that respectable old stick-in-the-mud, Nicias”.

So the phrase has migrated from a nickname for a London criminal to a description of someone slow on the uptake to a person resistant to change. As I see the world going to hell in a handcart, there is something appealing in being an old fogey, at least in some respects.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Seventy Two

Ignaz Semmelweis (1818 – 1865)

Sometimes you discover something and can’t persuade the powers that be that you have made a major breakthrough. This was the fate that befell the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, the Hungarian obstetrician, Ignaz Semmelweis.

Our hero studied Law at the University of Vienna in 1837 but switched to medicine the following year and after gaining his doctorate in 1844, decided to specialise in obstetrics. He took up his first appointment in 1846 as an assistant in the Vienna General Hospital’s maternity ward. There were two wards, A which was the preserve of doctors and trainees, and B which was staffed by midwives only. In the mid 19th century giving birth was a precarious business, often proving fatal to either the mother or the baby or, in some cases, both.

Clinic A had a phenomenally high mortality rate – about 10%, mainly as a result of puerperal fever, whereas the mortality rate in Clinic B was a still shocking but lower 2%. Women who came to the hospital – they were mainly from the lower classes – tried as best they could to avoid Clinic A because of its fearsome reputation. Many preferred to give birth in the streets where the mortality rate was considerably lower. Why was that, Semmelweis wondered?

The duties of the doctors at the hospital were many and varied. They would routinely examine diseased corpses in the mortuary, carrying out autopsies to determine cause of death or dissections to further their knowledge of the human anatomy, before moving on to the maternity ward. Whilst we now tend to regard, or at least hope, that medics are as close to the Platonic paradigm of cleanliness but in Semmelweiss’ time it was rare for a medic to wash their hands between dealing with patients. He noted the discrepancy between mortality rates where doctors were involved and where midwives, who did not handle dead bodies, were in attendance and concluded that some form of cadaverous material picked up from the stiffs was contributing to the high incidence of puerperal fever.

Acting upon these observations and hypotheses, Ignaz decided that he and his colleagues should was their hands in a solution of chlorinated lime, principally to remove the whiff of putrefying flesh, after handling dead bodies. The results were astonishing with fatality rates plummeting and after the experiment had been carried out for a while, deaths were a thing of the past. Concluding that he was on to something, although he could not provide a rational explanation as to why it worked as he knew nothing about germs, Semmelweiss began to promulgate his views. This led to great outburst of hand-wringing but not hand-washing amongst the medical profession, many of whom were outraged by the suggestion that their hands could be unclean. They were gentlemen, after all.

In revolutionary Vienna, Semmelweiss was seen as a trouble maker and was soon dismissed from his post. Surprise, surprise, the abandonment of the hand washing policy saw mortality rates rise to their pre-Ignatian levels. Frustrated, Semmelweiss wrote increasingly furious letters and articles to the medical community, accusing them of cold-hearted murder. Accounts of his discovery were printed in journals such as the Lancet. Semmelweiss repeated his successes whilst working in hospitals in Budapest in the 1850s and in 1861 published his theory and statistical demonstrations in a book called The Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever. It was not well received.

Worse still, he became an obsessive on the subject at a time when he started to develop signs of the onset of what might have been Alzheimer’s. Even his wife thought he was verging on insanity and in 1865 he was lured into a mental asylum in Vienna . Realising he had been trapped, Semmelweiss tried to make good his escape, but was detained, put in a straightjacket and given a good hiding by the warders for good measure. Two weeks later he died from his injuries which had gone gangrenous.

It was only when Louis Pasteur was able to provide a theoretical explanation of the causal link between germs and disease that Semmelweiss began to be regarded as the genius that he was and was able to claim his place as a pioneer of antiseptic policy. For this, Ignaz, you are a worthy inductee to 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

Book Corner – June 2017 (2)


Cabin Fever – B M Bower

If I hadn’t been so concerned about my mortality – yes, this is one of the 50, or rather, 150 masterpieces to read before you die – I wouldn’t have read this charming and impressive book. Bertha Sinclair (1871 – 1940) – B M Bower was her pseudonym – is not an author I had come across before and her genre – sort of Western – is not normally my bag. But, hey, it would be terrible to shuffle off this mortal coil having missed this gem.

Bud marries but soon after the birth of his child quarrels with his wife and leaves home. He gets a job as a driver but soon realises that the vehicle he is driving is stolen and that his passengers have carried out a jewellery heist. In the middle of the desert, he stops the car, ostensibly the check the tires but manages to disable the engine. The car won’t start again and Bud persuades his colleagues to let him go to the nearest town to summon assistance. When he gets to the town he alerts the cops to their whereabouts and sets off on his own to seek his fame and fortune. He hooks up with a prospector, but is beset with bouts of depression, going on alcoholic benders in the nearest town some 15 miles away.

It was as he was traipsing through the snow en route to the town that he came across a squaw carrying a child. He takes the child in and part of the book’s interest is in how the two hardened prospectors, who by this time couldn’t stand each other, take to sharing their Spartan accommodation with a lively and demanding infant. Marie, Bud’s wife, had been alerted to her errant husband’s whereabouts and sets out to find him. In a surprising twist to the story – I won’t spoil it – all the characters find happiness and find that they are linked with each other in ways that they, and the reader, hadn’t imagined.

Bower has a direct, unadorned style. She moves the story along with the minimum of fuss, spending enough time to develop her characters and to make them interesting enough to engender the right emotional reaction. There are moments of humour – she has a playful, light-hearted touch about her – and moments of pathos. Her turn of phrase and sentence construction make her prose a joy to read.

Perhaps it is a reflection of the time in which she wrote but many a critic thought her novels were the product of a man. Some couldn’t make their mind up and used gender-neutral pronouns. Not that the sex of the writer matters a jot, in my view, but she has a sharp observational style and is at ease exploring the psyche of her male and female characters. It was not what I expected, although I’m not sure what I expected, and despite the ups and downs that the main protagonists go through, has a feel-good feeling to it. It is well worth seeking out.

Everything Is Possible For An Eccentric, Especially When He Is English – Part Nine

Lord Berners (1883 – 1950)

Shropshire born Gerald Tyrwhitt, aka Lord Berners, was the 14th Baron Berners, a title he inherited, along with Faringdon House in Oxfordshire, on the death of his uncle in 1918. He was an accomplished, albeit minor, composer of classical music, a novelist, painter and all-round aesthete. More importantly, from our perspective, he was an eccentric and gratifyingly showed evidence of unusual behaviour from an early age.

I have learnt from experience that you need to be careful what you tell a child. The young Berners overheard someone saying that you could teach a dog to swim by throwing it into the water. Deciding to experiment he grabbed hold of his mother’s pet dog and hurled it out of a window, expecting the pooch to fly. Alas, the dog just crashed to the ground but walked away unhurt albeit a bit groggy. Berners received a thrashing.

His exasperated and uncaring parents often punished Berners by locking him up in a cupboard. One day Berners exacted his revenge by locking all the doors to the lavatories in his mother’s house and throwing the keys into the pond. This was the final straw and he was packed off to boarding school, Cheam House, and then Eton. He then spent ten years attached to the British Embassies in a number of European cities.

Berners left his stamp on Faringdon House. He had all the pigeons dyed in vibrant, pastel colours, using a harmless form of vegetable dye. The National Trust re-enact this tradition at Easter at the house. His dogs wore ersatz pearl necklaces which he bought from Woolworth. However, his guests were often taken in and when one reported that Fido had lost his necklace, Berners sighed and said “Oh dear, I’ll have to get another out of the safe”.

Berners was very fond of signs and notices. He had a number dotted around the estate proclaiming that dogs would be shot and cats whipped. Inside the house guests would find a sign at the top of the stairs announcing that no dogs were to be admitted and upon opening a wardrobe would be confronted with a sign advising them to “prepare to meet thy God”. The gardens would be full of paper flowers and Berners would disconcert the locals by wandering around wearing a pig’s head mask. Berners was noted for the quality of the tropical fruits he was able to grow. When complimented on some particularly delicious peaches, Berners claimed they were ham-fed.

In 1935 Berners decided that the estate needed a folly and so a 140 foot tower was built and given to his beau, Robert Heber Percy, as a birthday present. When asked what the point of the tower was, Berners responded, “the great point of the tower is that it will be entirely useless”. However, in case someone decided to use it as a launch pad for a suicide bid, he erected a wonderful sign announcing “members of the public committing suicide do so at their own risk”. Quite.

In those days guests would leave calling cards and Berners was an inveterate collector of them. He put his collection to good use. When he lent his house in Rome to friends he would furnish his butler with the calling cards of some of the most notorious bores in London society and instruct him to invite one or two a day to drop in at the Roman gaff. It amused Berners to think of his guests diving for cover every time the doorbell rang!

An eccentric, for sure, but fairly harmless – perhaps more a man with a wicked sense of humour. As he said in his epitaph which he composed himself, “Here lies Lord Berners/ One of the learners/ His great love of learning/ May earn him a burning/ But, Praise the Lord,/ He seldom was bored”.

A Better Life – Part Ten


James Strang and the Kingdom of St James

The early history of the Mormons shows that they were a fissiparous lot. The assassination of Joseph Smith in 1844 led to a power struggle between the adherents of Brigham Young and a former lawyer from New York, James Strang (1813 – 1856). Strang, whose oratorical skills had impressed Smith, produced a letter claiming that Smith had appointed him as his successor. Young contested this assertion, writing in a letter to the faithful, “and I say unto you beloved brethren, that Joseph Smith never wrote or caused to be written Strang’s letter of appointment. It is a lie – a forgery – a snare”.

The majority elected to follow Young and made their way to Utah. However, a sizeable minority followed Strang firstly to Voree in Wisconsin and then, after he had found some mysterious brass plates in the ground and had received instructions from God, to Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. Around 2,500 adherents settled there and they were ruthless in driving out non-believers, whom they termed gentiles, from the area. This led to a number of dust ups, the most notable of which was the so-called War of Whiskey Point during which the Mormons dispersed a mob of gentiles from the island’s trading post by firing a cannon at them. By the early 1850s most of the locals had got the message and left.

Strang’s brand of Mormonism deviated from the mainstream beliefs in a number of ways. He rejected the Holy Trinity, claiming that there was just one God who had always been God. He also believed that some things were outside of God’s power – this allowed Strang to see that religion and science could co-exist – and that God could not give man experience. The ultimate goal of each human was to prefer good to evil, not out of any fear of punishment but “on account of the innate loveliness of undefiled goodness; of pure unalloyed holiness”.

Strang’s adherents observed the seventh-day Sabbath which lasts from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. They also believed in baptism for the dead and animal sacrifice –these remain Strangite tenets but are not now practised. He allowed women to hold the offices of Priest and Teacher and welcomed people of colour into the fold, ordaining at least two as elders. Conservation of land and resources was paramount and so large swthes of forest were retained and parks were built.

But power went to Strang’s head. The size of the Mormon community on Beaver Island was sufficient to see him elected twice to the State legislature. More ominously, Strang claimed he was empowered to be crowned king of his church and on July 8th 1850 in front of a crowd of some 300 and wearing a red flannel robe and a tin crown he was crowned by his prime minister, one George Adams, an actor. The date is still one of the two most important dates of the Strangite church.

Strang and Adams fell out and Adams started spreading lurid tales about life on the island. This prompted an official enquiry but Strang successfully defended himself. Relations with the neighbouring gentile community remained fractious but Strang also had an unerring knack of pissing off his followers. Two disgruntled followers – one who had been flogged for adultery on Strang’s orders and the other who had been excommunicated for drunkenness – assassinated him in 1856.

On July 5th 1856 a drunken mob of gentiles from nearby Mackinac descended on the island, rounded up the Strangites and evicted them from the island. After all this, only a few continued to observe Strang’s doctrines and although they are still practising, they divided still further into two factions. Numbers today are in the few hundreds.