Names Of The Week (3)

Whilst I’m looking forward to AI cars, anything that can drive me home after a few beers down the local is welcome in my book, I’m not so sure about all-electric cars. An improvement in the range of these vehicles and a more extensive network of recharging stations might persuade this old Luddite of their merits but until then I’m sticking with my old gas guzzler.

Still, there seems to be a demand for these things and German car manufacturers, Audi, are one of the latest to announce an exciting range of all-singing, all-dancing electric cars. It’s called the E-tron, a name cooked up in the pressure cooker world of some marketing department.

But there is one teensy little problem. The marketeers’ chosen brand name is almost identical to the French word Étron. What is a hyphen between amis?

And what does Étron mean?

Why, excrement or turd, of course.

My sentiments entirely about the car but I expect it will have to be rebranded to satisfy the sensibilities of the French buying public.

Mon dieu, back to the drawing board.


What Is The Origin Of (218)?…

Pull out all of the stops

You will have realised by now that I regularly pull out all of the stops to bring you interesting and accurate insights into some of the phrases and idioms with which we pepper our everyday speech. By this I mean that make every possible effort, leave no stone unturned in my pursuit of etymological veracity.

For those of us who visit churches for things other than spiritual comfort, one of the wonders on display is the church organ, with its impressive array of pipes and its equally attention-grabbing stentorian roar.

The organ has a long and impressive history. Its invention is credited to Ctesibius of Alexandria, who, in the 3rd century BCE, constructed what was known as hydraulis. Using pumps and water regulators, water pressure controlled the flow of air to a set of pipes, allowing different notes to be played and, in the hands of an accomplished player, a tune to be created. In the 2nd century CE an inflated leather bag replaced the water regulators and by the 6th century air was supplied by bellows.

The first organ to appear in the West was presented to Pepin the Short, king of the Franks, by the Byzantine emperor, Constantine V, in 757, and Pepin’s son, Charlemagne, installed one in chapel in Aachen in 812, establishing the tradition of organs in Western churches.

As the technology around organs developed and improved, the flow of air to the pipes was regulated by a series of buttons or stops. An accomplished organist is a bit of a virtuoso, having to tinkle the ivories on the keyboard, pressing pedals furiously with their feet and opening and shutting stops. By pulling out a particular stop, the volume of that note increased. In Spinal Tap speak, pulling out all of the stops on an organ would be the equivalent of setting the volume dial to eleven.

So, is this the origin of the phrase?

Well, probably, although in the 16th century the word stop was used to denote a musical note or key. George Gascoigne, in his satire entitled The Steele Glas, published in 1576, wrote, “but sweeter soundes, of concorde, peace and loue,/ are out of tune, and iarre in euery stoppe.” The problem with thinking that this meaning of stop is the origin of our phrase is that musical notes are not pulled. Stops on an organ are. I think we have to accept that the phrase refers to the way that the volume of an organ can be regulated and enhanced – by pulling out all of the stops.

The phrase began to be used in a figurative sense much later. Probably its first usage is to be found in Matthew Arnold’s Essays in Criticism, published in 1865; “knowing how unpopular a task one is undertaking when one tries to pull out a few more stops in that…somewhat narrow-toned organ, the modern Englishman.

Perhaps what is most interesting about Arnold’s usage is that even though he clearly uses it in a figurative sense, he had to anchor his reference to the musical world, in general, and the organ, in particular. It probably confirms that the origin of stop was the organ stop and that his readers would not understand his point without reference to the instrument.

It was not until the 1950s that you could play an organ at home, when Franz Rudolph Wurlitzer began to market a small, electronic organ in the United States.

On My Doorstep – Part Eighteen

Colonel John Pennycuick (1841 – 1911)

Walking through the graveyard of St Peter’s Church in Frimley a few months ago I noticed a new addition to the burial spot of John Pennycuick, a stone plaque donated by the grateful peoples of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Kerala is one of my favourite spots in the world and my interest was piqued to find the connection between a man in Frimley and the states in the southern tip of India and why he had earned their undying gratitude.

And quite a story it is too.

The Periyar river rises in the Western Ghats and descends into Kerala, irrigating the fertile lands as it makes its way to the Arabian Sea. Kerala’s lush green countryside and wonderful backwaters are testimony to the importance of the river to the area. Those who lived on the eastern side of the Ghats were less fortunate. The Vaigai river that flowed from there to the Bay of Bengal was smaller and less reliable. Indeed, in the 19th century the soil was dry and unfit for agriculture. Locals were reduced to stealing grain and cattle from neighbouring villages just to scrape a living.

Plans to divert some of the waters of the Periyar into the Vaigai were mooted as early as 1789. In 1808 Captain J L Caldwell did some exploratory drilling in the area but concluded that any such project was “decidedly chimerical and unworthy of further regard.” The first attempt to dam the Periyar was made in 1850 but soon abandoned because the workers demanded higher wages to compensate for the unhealthy living conditions they had to endure.

In 1882, minds perhaps concentrated by the terrible famines six years earlier, the construction of a dam was approved and the military engineer, John Pennycuick, was appointed to bring it to fruition. Work began in earnest in May 1887, using troops from the 1st and 4th battalions of the Madras Pioneers and carpenters from Cochin. The dam was made with concrete made from a mix of lime and surkhi, burnt brick powder mixed with sugar and calcium oxide, and was faced with rubble. It was a gravity dam, meaning that the force of gravity was deployed to support the reservoir, giving it extra stability in extreme weather conditions and in the event of earthquakes.

Situated some 3,000 feet above sea level in what was dense, malarial jungle, the dam, known as the Mullaperiyar Dam, is 176 feet tall at its highest point, 1,241 feet long and holds up to 15 thousand million cubic feet of water. It was an astonishing accomplishment, dubbed as “one of the most extraordinary feats of engineering ever performed by man.

And that’s not all.

At the northern end of the dam a mile-long deep cutting was excavated for the water to flow through, then via a 5,704-foot tunnel and then through another cutting to reach and augment the waters of the Vaigai. It transformed the land to the east of the Ghats, making it almost as fertile as Kerala and allowing sustainable agriculture to flourish. Work was completed in 1895 and the dam was inaugurated by the then Governor of the Madras Presidency, Lord Wenlock. Penicuick had won the undying gratitude of the locals, not only at the time but for generations to come, an example (rare as it might be) of the positive effects of the Raj.

But the work came at a cost. Often rains and torrents from the swollen rivers would wash away the temporary structures as the dam was being constructed. At one point the project was perilously close to running out of money and legend has it, although there is no firm evidence to support it, that Pennycuick sold his wife’s jewellery to keep the work going.

And there was a human cost. 483 people died of disease during the construction of the dam, most of whom are interred in a cemetery to the north of the works. It is also claimed that but for the medicinal properties of the local firewater, arrack, the work would never have been finished.

A sense of the enormity of the achievement and the difficulties Pennycuick faced can be gleaned from this extract from his obituary in The Times; “under his direction the work was carried to completion in the face of numerous difficulties, the country being entirely uninhabited and most inaccessible, the climate malarious, while labour, transport and technical problems daily presented themselves for solution.”

Pennycuick, who was born in Poona in India but schooled in Addiscombe in Surrey, retired to Camberley, presumably because of its military connections, after leaving India and advising the Queensland authorities on how to control the Brisbane river. He settled down in Silourie, which was on the Branksome Park Road in Camberley, between Upper Park Road and Crawley Ridge, serving as a member of the Frimley Urban District Council, chairing it at the time of his death in March 1911, after a long illness.

A truly great man.

Book Corner – February 2019 (2)

Melmoth – Sarah Perry

In the rock world they call it third album syndrome. You have burst on to the scene with a promising debut, followed up with a classic and then find that the long-awaited third album is difficult to put together and is a bit of a clunker. Do writers experience the creative difficulties?

One of my favourite books in recent times was Perry’s scintillating The Essex Serpent, her second novel, and so it was with a mixture of excitement and some trepidation that I picked up her third and latest novel, Melmoth. If you have to categorise it, it is in the Gothic tradition and draws its themes and structure from Melmoth the Wanderer, a bizarre Gothic novel written by Charles Maturin in 1820.

Melmoth purportedly was there at Christ’s tomb, saw him by its side but later denied that she had witnessed his resurrection. For this she was doomed to wander around the world until the Second Coming. Desperate for company, she would visit those who had delved the depths of depravity and misery and hold out her hand to entreat them to join her on her long march.

The central character in Perry’s novel is an English woman, Helen Franklin, who is working in Prague as a translator. She has a mundane life and is hardly a bundle of fun. Perry describes her early on in the book as “small, insignificant, having an air sadness whose source you cannot guess at; of self-punishment, self-hatred…” The astute reader will quickly deduce that there is more to this mouse of a woman than first meets the eye.

Helen is introduced to the myth of Melmoth by one of her few Czech friends, Karel. He has been bequeathed some papers by an old man, Joseph Hoffman, whom he had befriended in the university library. These recount how he saw Melmoth, after he had betrayed a family Jews to death at a concentration camp. It was through his encounter with Melmoth that Hoffman could begin to come to terms with what he had done.

Karel, in his obsession to find out more about Melmoth, has assembled a collection of papers recounting other encounters. Helen eagerly devours the contents and extracts from each of the reports form a large chunk of Perry’s narrative. We meet a woman condemned to burn at the stake for heresy and a Turkish civil servant who was complicit in the massacre of Armenians.

Helen feels she is being watched whilst in Prague. Naturally, it is Melmoth, albeit in a different guise, and, naturally, given Melmoth’s association with those who have witnessed or committed atrocities, Helen has her own dark secret, which is gradually revealed as the story rumbles on.

It is not an unremittingly dark book. Karel is able to break free from the hold that Melmoth had over him, albeit by fleeing the Czech Republic, abandoning his disabled wife and joining up with some protestors. And I think that that is Perry’s central message; we should not abandon ourselves to guilt but to recognise what we have done, take stock and change. Hope, after all, was what was left in Pandora’s box. Helen, at the end of the book, says “I do have hope, I feel it in here like a pain.

The writing is astonishingly vivid, with Perry moving in and out of the style of period documents to the modern day with consummate ease. The imagery she deploys stays in the mind – the jackdaws dashing themselves against the windows, an empty chair in a field for Melmoth’s use just in case she passed by.

In summary, it is not as accessible as The Serpent’s Tail but it was worth the effort. Perry has successfully avoided the third album syndrome

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Eighty Nine

Elijah McCoy (1844 – 1929)

Who was the real McCoy?

I have found in my etymological researches that there are often a number of contenders for the origin of a phrase or idiom and it requires a lot of diligence to sort the wheat from the chaff. The real McCoy means the real deal, the original article. One of the contenders for its origin is Elijah McCoy.

But why?

Born to former slaves from Kentucky, who had escaped to freedom in Canada, via the Underground Railroad, Elijah qualified as an engineer, eventually settling in Michigan.

Looking for work, he could only find a position on the Michigan Central Railroad. The railways operated a strict segregation policy and deemed that a person of colour could not possibly be skilled enough to perform the important role of an engineer. Instead he was deployed as fireman, stoking coal into the voracious boilers of locomotives.

I am of an age to have seen and travelled on steam locomotives.

The sense of power and the great plumes of smoke, environmentally unfriendly, for sure, were thrilling for a small boy and I loved standing on a bridge to be enveloped by the smoke from a train thundering by.

The railways played their part in opening up countries, facilitating the speedy transfer of goods, encouraging the development of suburbia, and spearheading the concept of leisure time and holidays for ordinary people.

One of the principal issues with steam engines was that their many moving parts needed to be oiled and lubricated on a regular basis. And to do that, the early locomotives had to stop and be serviced, impacting the reach and performance of the engines and eating into the profits of railway operators.

The first person to apply successfully their grey cells to the problem of lubricating a steam engine on the move was Englishman, John Ramsbottom, who, in 1860, came up with the displacement lubricator.

It used the steam from the engine to enter a valve containing oil, pushing the oil out on to the moving parts. Adopted by the Great Western Railway, its principal problems were that you could not regulate the flow of lubricant and that it only worked when the engine had a head of steam.

Working away in a little workshop at his home in Ypsilanti in his leisure hours, Elijah investigated ways in which he could automate the lubrication of a steam engine’s moving parts in a more efficient way than Ramsbottom’s device.

By 1872 he had come up with what he described as a “lubricating cup,” which dripped oil when and where it was required or which, as he described it more verbosely in his patent application, “provides for the continuous flow of oil on the gears and other moving parts of a machine to keep it lubricated properly and continuous and thereby do away with the necessity of shutting down the machine periodically.

The patent (US Patent 129, 843, “Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines”) was granted in 1872.

It was well received and orders flooded in from railway operators around the States. Despite the patent, the actual device was easily replicable and with modest alterations other manufacturers were able to come up with rival lubricators. However, such was the quality and efficiency of Elijah’s lubricator that train operators insisted on getting their hands on the real McCoy, or so it is claimed.

Lack of capital dogged Elijah.

He continually modified and enhanced the lubricator, making it capable of being used on a variety of other machines such as ships, oil drilling rigs and mining equipment, accumulating some fifty or so patents. But to fund the work, he often had to sell his patents or at least a percentage stake in them. It was not until 1920 that he established his own company, the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company, following his development of a graphite inductor which allowed the latest generation of locomotives to be lubricated.

Curiously, he was barely mentioned in the literature about lubrication in the early 20th century, being entirely written out of the pages of E L Ahron’s Lubrication of Locomotives, published in 1922, almost certainly on the grounds of his race.

And then tragedy struck.

In 1922, Elijah and his wife, Mary, were injured in a serious car accident, Mary fatally, and from then on until his death in 1929, Elijah was dogged with financial, physical, and mental problems.

And was he the real McCoy?

I’m not sure. A variant of the phrase, with an identical meaning, appeared in a Scottish poem, Deil’s Hallowe’en, dating to 1856; “a drappie o’ the real McKay”, McKay being a whisky. The phrase appeared frequently in Scottish newspapers in the 1860s. Elijah may have been a worthy substitute, given the quality of his lubricators, but cannot have been the reason why the phrase came about in the first place.

If you enjoyed, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone

Sporting Event Of The Week (19)

It is one thing to take the piss out of a priest, it is another for a priest to take to the piste.

News reached me this week that I had missed the 21st Annual Pope John Paul II Skiing Cup, held in Wisla in southern Poland at the end of January.

The former Pope was an ardent skier, presumably in his younger days, and was once heard to mutter, “it’s unbecoming for a cardinal to ski badly.” A cardinal sin, you might say.

Anyway, to commemorate the Pope’s passion, a group of priests organised a skiing competition to show their flock how to relax and enter into honest competition. These days lay people and even people from other denominations can enter and the cassock, which was once de rigueur, is now optional.

The oldest participant was Father Wladyslaw Nowobilski, a mere 76 years young.

A good time was had by all and rumours that the church is going downhill fast are ill-founded, I’m told.

Polar Vortex Of The Week

I’ve not been there. I’m saving it up until I have fallen off this mortal coil, provided that it is on a temporary visa, you understand. I’m talking about hell.

But it seems that there is an earthly incarnation about 95 km west of Detroit in Michigan. Those pioneers must have had a sense of humour when they came to naming the place. The name was officially adopted in 1841. One theory is that it owes its origin to the German word for bright or shiny.

Anyway, the recent Polar Vortex saw the mercury in Hell drop to -26C, allowing the denizens of the place to post on social media that, verily, hell had frozen over.

I suppose it was worth the wait to crack that joke.

The cold snap induced an unusual bout of lethargy on to the enforcers of law and order. The Police Department in Warrensburg in Missouri posted a plea on social media to criminals to keep their “criminalling (sic) to a minimum”, on the grounds that it was too cold to be out and about doing police work.

I wonder if it worked.