Award Of The Week

Is this fat-shaming or a celebration of the fuller figure?

Katmai National Park and Reserve in south-western Alaska has held its fourth annual fattest bear competition. Initially, twelve bears were selected for the contest but over a week or so by process of elimination the field was narrowed, if that is the right word, to just two, Bear 409, described as a “gigantic gal” with a “marvellous muffin top” and Bear 747, a “blimpy boar” whose “belly barely (or should that be bearly?) has clearance with the ground.

The great Alaskan public were invited to vote on the Park’s Facebook page and despite having a slightly smaller frame, the female bear, also known as Beadnose, scooped over twice as many likes as her male rival. Being a single mother who had raised her cubs to maturity may have helped garner the public vote.

Beadnose won’t be resting on her laurels, though. Hibernation and the harshness of the Alaskan winter will see the pounds roll off and, assuming she survives, she will be back next spring and summer stuffing her face with fish to pile on the weight.

We will have to wait to see whether she retains her crown.

It must be that time of year.

The votes have been counted and the winner of New Zealand’s 14th Bird of the Year award, organised by the conservation group, Forest and Bird, has been announced.

Despite allegations of fowl play – some 1,800 votes from Australia were disqualified including 300 for the King Shag from one address (surely, it should have been four) – the Kererū topped the polls with 5,833 votes with the kākāpo getting 3,772 and the black stilt 2,995. New Zealand’s emblematic bird, the kiwi, garnered just 489 votes.

The Kererū, in case you didn’t know, is a large, colourful wood-pigeon, which grows up to around 20 inches in length and has a portly appearance due to its prodigious appetite. Its popularity is down to its predilection for fruit, particularly the Puriri berry, which inevitably ferments in its stomach. This affords mirth and merriment to the local Kiwis as they watch the bird lurch about in a drunken stupor, often falling out of the branches of the tree it is roosting in.

Despite its occasional drunken behaviour, it is one of the few birds native to New Zealand that is thriving. Now there must be a moral in that somewhere.


What Is The Origin Of (202)?…


I’ve been spending a lot of time recently in Birmingham, England’s second city. The denizens have a a very distinctive accent, characterised by the flattening of vowels. There is a rather patronising joke, which I won’t repeat, that centres round the mistaking of a cup of tea for a kipper tie. A study, published in 2015, rather rudely suggested that if you had a Brummie accent, you would be best advised to keep quiet. The respondents rated it as the worst regional accent and that the flat vowels were suggestive of low intelligence.

Be that is it may, Brummie is an abbreviation of Brummagem which, in turn, was a variant for Birmingham. In the late 17th century, Birmingham was little more than a village but it came to national prominence and, dare I say it, notoriety because it was the centre for an extremely effective money counterfeiting operation.  Guy Miege observed in his The New State of England, published in 1691, that Birmingham was “particularly noted a few years ago for the counterfeit groats made here, and from hence dispersed over all over the Kingdom.

Soon Birmingham and its variant, Brummagem, became synonymous with forgeries and inauthentic goods. The industrial revolution saw a transformation in Birmingham’s size and fortunes, although the soot and noise that followed mass manufacturing at the time soon made its mark. Not for nothing was the area known as the Black Country. The city embraced canals and to this day has nine more miles of waterway, mostly all navigable, than that illustrious city more noted for its watery streets, Venice.

In 1862 George Borrow, in his tome Wild Wales, was inspired to call Birmingham “the great workshop of England” and it was certainly a hive of industry. But all the energy was not necessarily directed towards quality. Indeed, a sizeable part of its industrial output consisted of cheap plated goods, such as trinkets and gilt jewellery. The consequence was that the term brummagem once more became associated with things that were not all that they seemed, a bit common and tawdry.

Rees Howell Gronow’s rather grandiloquently entitled book, Reminiscences of Captain Gronow, formerly of the Grenadier Guards and MP for Stafford, being Anecdotes of the Camp, the Court, and the Clubs, at the close of the last War with France, related by himself, published in 1862, illustrates the point; “The equipages were generally much more gorgeous than at a later period, when democracy invaded the parks, and introduced what may be termed a ‘brummagem society,’ with shabby-genteel carriages and servants.”

The idea seems to have been transported to Australia – perhaps some of the groat counterfeiters ended up there – and Brummy is slang used to denote something which has been poorly manufactured or is flashy and not what it seems. And back home a Brummagem screwdriver is a hammer, perhaps immortalising the impression that the city’s workforce is cack-handed and not altogether skilled.

These days these connotations seem to have disappeared and Brummie and, to a lesser extent, are affectionate terms for the inhabitants of the city. The only fault the uncharitable find is with the accent.

Gin O’Clock – Part Fifty

One of the discernible trends of the ginaissance in 2018 is the increasing availability (and, presumably, concomitant popularity) of pink and rosé gins. I have already fulminated about oddly coloured drinks and whilst a light pink liquid is less offensive to my finely tuned sensitivities, it feeds straight in to another of my prejudices, my dislike of rosé wines. To my mind they are a sign of indecision. Make your mind up, go red or white. I must admit though I did have a rather fine Corsican rosé in La Rochelle this summer – the choice of my host – which caused me some mental perturbation but I soon got over it.

Notwithstanding all this mental baggage that goes along with pink liquids, I’m not one to let a trend go completely by unacknowledged and decided to pick up a bottle of Larios Rosé Premium Gin from the duty-free shop in Alicante airport. It was a moment of madness, akin to picking up a tasteless piece of tat as a souvenir for the woman who has looked after your pet goldfish whilst you have been away.

Aesthetically, the bottle is impressive. The clear, tall bottle showcases the pink of the gin perfectly and the swirly, gold effects around the front label make the trademark name of Larios, in white, stand out. Just so you don’t miss the differentiator of this particular gin, there is an image of a  strawberry on the screwcap and above the part of the front label which announces “Premium Gin Mediterranea.” The colouring and the elegance of the design makes it stand out and is a welcome, decorative addition to any shelf of gin bottles.

The label at the back goes into more detail about what’s inside. It is, it says, “a delicate result of four distillations and the blending of wild juniper with citrus fruits of the Mediterranean and the intense aroma of the strawberries.”  The copywriter then becomes more lyrical, claiming it is “a gin with a mild balanced taste that transports the sense to that rosy moment of the Mediterranean dawn.” I’ve never seen a Mediterranean dawn – perhaps it’s the gin – but I get the drift.

The trouble starts when you open the bottle. The aroma is overpoweringly of strawberries, no bad thing in itself, but this smell rather clinical and sickly. The neck has also become unusually sticky, perhaps because of the amount of sugar in the hooch, something I’ve not experienced before with my gins.

In the glass the spirit is a pleasing shade of light pink, clear and at 37.5% ABV it won’t blow your espadrilles off. But the taste!

So strong is the flavour of strawberry that it is hard to detect any other of the botanicals in the mix. The juniper decided to give up the fight and the citrus elements didn’t seem even to make it to the starting line. It also had a rather astringent aftertaste, making it a rather unpleasant drinking experience. Even the addition of a Mediterranean tonic didn’t help matters overly.

I’m told that it is better as an ingredient in a cocktail but if you need to add other liquors to drown out the overpowering taste of naff strawberries, what’s the point? I am going to keep it to appreciate its aesthetic qualities on my gin shelf, in the knowledge that it will only retain the pink colouration if I drink it. So I expect it to be a rather permanent fixture unless I pick up a winter cough.

Until the next time, cheers!

Book Corner – October 2018 (3)

Circe – Madeline Miller

Every now and again I am asked to explain what relevance an education in the classics, by which I mean Roman and Greek culture and literature, may possibly have in the 21st century, bizarrely, perhaps, the latest being the rather desperate Classics faculty at Cambridge. It is easy to be flippant – the ability to think logically, crack problems, complete cryptic crosswords, logophilia – but the well of mythology is so deep, rich and so embedded in the fabric of Western thought and its literature, that it would be a crying shame if they were let go by default.

Part of the drive to give the classics modern relevance is to focus on and indeed boost the role of women. In my day, the diet was an unremitting one of men and gods. The number of women I encountered in my studies could be counted on the fingers of a rather cack-handed carpenter and they were mostly divinities. Women played a bit part, decorative, supportive, occasionally mad, bad and dangerous. But they were definitely second class citizens, just a notch above the slaves on the social scale.

It is hard other than to see Miller’s enjoyable novel, Circe, as part of this trend to assert the role of women. As Circe herself says at one point, “humbling women seems to be the chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and creep.” The fight back starts here. But in Homer’s Odyssey, Circe only plays a bit part, delaying Odysseus and his men by seducing the former and turning the latter into pigs and then within a few lines of the epic, they are all set free. Pretty thin gruel upon which to build a feast, you would, think, but one of Circe’s qualities is that she is well-connected.

The spinning wheel made by Daedalus looms large in Miller’s tale, used initially by Circe herself and then Penelope. By extension, as if she was weaving a garment, Miller creates a seamless tale intertwining the myths of some of Circe’s multitudinous family. So in her pages we meet Aeetes, Circe’s brother and keeper of the Golden Fleece – cue Jason – Pasiphae, her sister, wife of King Minos and mother of the Minotaur – cue Theseus – and Medea, Circe’s niece, Jason’s bride and killer of her brother, Absyrtus.

Exiled to a deserted island, Aiaia, for transforming her rival Scylla into a twelve-legged sailor-gobbling monster, Circe fills her time by developing her talents as a sorceress and taking on a string of paramours – Hermes, Daedalus, Odysseus (natch) and Telemachus, the itinerant hero’s son by Penelope. Miller draws from sources as disparate as Ovid, Homer and the lost epic, the Telegony, to create a finale where her son, Telegonus, by Odysseus, unwittingly fulfils Teiresias’ prophecy by being instrumental in his father’s death. The grief-stricken son brings Telemachus and Penelope to Aiaia where Telemachus and Circe hook up and Telegonus, at the goddess Athena’s prompting, leaves to found cities in Italy.

But the book’s key encounter occurs early on, when Circe meets Prometheus who is taken to Helios’ court to be flogged as a precursor to his more famous and eternal punishment. It is here that Circe learns about mortals, a subject which fascinates her, and as Miller’s tale unfolds we learn that the disdain in which Circe is held by her family is in part attributable to her voice, “thin sound”, that of a mortal. Circe’s peregrinations through Greek mythology are fuelled by her desire to understand mortals.

Miller has crafted a romp of a book. I found it less successful than her earlier The Song of Achilles but she has successfully transformed a Homeric bit player into a woman who knows her mind and is in control of her destiny. If you are looking for the relevance of classics today, you need look no further to the wealth of stories to be found in Greek mythology, each of which is capable of being crafted and transformed to meet the zeitgeist.

A La Mode – Part Twelve

Ellwood’s patent air chamber hat

There are many curious things about the Indian Raj, not least the Brits’ insistence on wearing clothing that was totally unsuitable for the climatic conditions to be found in the sub-continent.  Still, wearing a hat was a sensible precaution against what was quaintly known as coup de soleil or as we Brits now know it as, sunburn. The problem was that they were often made of fabrics and so designed that they left the wearer perspiring profusely.

Hat makers, J Ellwood and Sons, who were based in London’s Bankside, thought they had come up with an ingenious solution, which they patented in 1851. Founded in 1811 they had already made significant inroads into the lucrative Indian market from at least the 1840s by supplying officers of the East India Company with felt hats. But their air chamber hat was something else.

It consisted of an inner shell which fitted snugly on to the wearer’s head. There was also an outer shell which was considerably larger than the inner, thus creating a chamber between the two. The genius of the design was a number of perforations on the brim of the hat and a small aperture at the top. The idea was that as the external temperature rose, air would enter the hat through the perforations, circulate through the upper chamber and escape through the top of the crown. In this way there would be a constant flow of air which would keep the wearer cooler.

The principle could be applied to all sorts of hats, at least the adverts claimed, enabling the men who wore one “to do their duty with greater comfort.”  It seems to me there is one major flaw with the design. There is no allowance made for heat which rises directly from the wearer’s head into the inner chamber.  Given the hot and humid conditions in the tropics, the wearer is bound to sweat. This design flaw must have impacted upon the performance of the hat.

Be that as it may, the British Army bought the air chamber hats by the thousands. Having secured their patent and cornered the market, Ellwood’s were determined to defend their turf. Adverts for their hats warned against inferior copies and recommended any prospective purchaser to check that their headgear had the manufacturer’s name and details in the inside. Matters came to a head when The Times reported on 19th December 1864 that “Elwood’s solicitors…let it be known that they would proceed in Chancery against all persons manufacturing hats, caps or helmets constructed on the principle of Ellwood’s patent air chamber hats and helmets.” So there!

But there is only so much a manufacturer can do to protect their position and Ellwood’s soon came under threat from another source. Hawkes & Co entered the Indian market with some gusto, their opening effected by the British military’s desire, post the 1857 rebellion, to have a titfer more suited for the climate. Hawkes & Co patented a cork helmet with an air vent at the top and this was issued to all regiments serving in the sub-continent from the 1860s.

Ellwood’s never really recovered from this blow but soldiered on until 1938. Their former factory on Bankside was destroyed by bombs during the Second World War.

Still, for a time in the 1850s, an Ellwood’s patent air chamber hat was a la mode for the gentlemen of the Raj.

Double Your Money – Part Thirty Four

The Black Friday Gold Scandal, 1869

One of the (many) consequences of the American Civil War was that the United States moved off the gold standard – gold was at the time the official currency of international trade. In order to raise money to fund the Unions’ war effort Congress had authorised the issuance of $450 million government-backed greenbacks. Once the war had ended it meant that there were two competing currencies in circulation.

That there was only $20 million of gold in circulation at any one time and Wall Street had created a special Gold Room in which brokers could trade, Jay Gould thought he had found the perfect get-rich-quick scheme. If he could only corner the gold market, he would be able to drive up its price, sell at the height of the market and make a fortune.

There was one significant problem. Ulysses S Grant and his administration had a policy of buying up greenbacks with gold and such was the government’s pre-eminent position that it controlled gold prices and could thwart a speculator simply by selling off gold and driving its price down. For the scheme to work, Gould had to persuade the Government to abandon its policy.

The solution to that conundrum was simple and, in many ways, elegant. He simply bribed officials, in particular the President’s brother-in-law Abel Corbin, whose palm was greased with $1.5 million in gold. Suitably encouraged, Corbin used his political influence to have General Daniel Butterfield appointed as US sub-treasurer in New York. He too was given $1.5 stake in the scheme and a $10,000 loan, his role being to alert Gould to any imminent government gold sales. By the late summer of 1869 Corbin had succeeded in persuading Grant to abandon his policy of selling gold.

This was the signal that Gould and his co-conspirators were waiting for. They had been stockpiling gold during the summer but went into overdrive, using an army of brokers to buy up as much gold as they could. By mid-September they held as much as $60 million in gold – one of Gould’s partners, Jim Fisk, bought $7 million – and the price rocketed. Rumours spread that speculators were manipulating the market and pressure was exerted on the Treasury to take some action.

Corbin advised Gould that the President had rumbled them and was going to resume selling gold, information that Gould omitted to tell his partners. When trading resumed on 23rd September, Gould sold as much gold as he could and the price closed at $144.5. On Friday 24th September when trading resumed it reached $160 and Fisk was filling his boots, confident that the price would rise still further.

At midday, the President announced that the Treasury would sell $4 million of gold the next day. The reaction was cataclysmic or, as the New York Herald noted afterwards, “possibly no avalanche ever swept with more terrible violence.” Gold prices plunged, even the stock market took a dive, dropping 20% and bankrupting or severely damaging a number of old Wall Street firms in the process. Thousands of speculators were left ruined, foreign trade stopped and farmers saw the value of their crops halve.

As for the protagonists, Gould is said to have made around $12 million from his fire sale of his gold stock whilst Fisk was able to evade his massive losses by claiming that the trades were made by third party brokers without his knowledge. Despite numerous inquiries and claims of malfeasance, the array of lawyers they deployed and their political influence and network meant that the duo evaded justice. Grant’s presidency, though, was blighted by the affair and the American economy took some time to recover.

If you enjoyed this, look out for Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone,

Rebrand Of The Week

Fortunately, I am of a shape and size that means I don’t have to worry about weight. A good job, too, as there are a bewildering range of diets on offer. Which to choose?

I have always thought Weight Watchers was a rather odd name for a diet company, conjuring up an image of someone sitting on a sofa stuffing their face and watching the avoirdupois pile on. Perhaps I have got it wrong but even the company seem now to have had second thoughts about the name.

In an attempt to get hip (remember those?) and trendy, they have abandoned worrying about weight, like many of their frustrated dieters, and slimmed down to just WW.

At last, a diet that has worked overnight!

It is sobering to think that those who enjoyed the dubious delights of Club 18 – 30 in its prime are now old enough to sign up to be Saga louts on  package holidays retailed to the over-50s.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise then that having failed to find a buyer for what was once marketed as offering sun, sea and sex, Thomas Cook have decided that it no longer fits with its new, responsible image and closed the operation down.

Still, it is good to see that the spirit of 18 – 30 still lives on.