A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (137)?…

Through the grapevine

I can’t say that soul music floats my boat but I do like Marvin Gaye’s 1968 version of the Gladys Knight and the Pips’ original, I heard it through the grapevine. When we hear things through the grapevine, we use the phrase to indicate that we received the information informally or via an indirect route, not straight from the horse’s mouth. But why a grapevine?

The clue to understanding the phrase is provided by its original manifestation, the grapevine telegraph. In today’s world of instant communications, it is hard to credit how revolutionary the introduction of the telegraph was. First demonstrated in public in 1844 when Samuel Morse sent a message from Washington to Baltimore, it changed for ever the way and the speed with which people in different communities and, eventually, nations and continents could communicate with each other.

In contrast to telegraph wires that ran straight and true and delivered their message accurately and shortly after their despatch, the figurative grapevine telegraphs were unreliable, often garbling their message and implanting half-truths. Rather like the grapevine itself, there were many knots and twists and turns but the message was eventually delivered. It relied on word of mouth rather than, for the time, cutting-edge technology.

Our phrase first appeared in print in a political dictionary in 1852, only eight years after Morse had unleashed the telegraph. The lexicographer wrote “By the Grape Vine Telegraph Line…we have received the following.” In times of turmoil, such as civil war, there is a need to keep a line of communication going, no matter how ramshackle and unreliable. Amongst the soldiers rumours would spread like wildfire through unofficial channels. As Major James Connolly noted in his Three Years in the Army of the Cumberland in a diary entry for 1862, “we get such news in the army by what we call the grape vine, that is grape vine telegraph. It is not at all reliable.

The availability of information through this unofficial and variable channel proved invaluable to the Unionist cause during the American Civil War as John G Nicolay and John Hay noted in their Abraham Lincoln: A history, published in 1888, “one of the most important and reliable sources of knowledge to the Union commanders in the various fields, which later in the war came to be jocosely designated as the grape-vine telegraph.” Information and rumours often came through communication channels that slaves had developed. This has led some to think that the grapevine is a reference to one of the crops that the slaves were forced to tend. Possibly but I rather like the simple association with the shape of the vine. It certainly wasn’t the Grapevine in Greenwich Village which was a popular meeting place for Union officers and Confederate spies as the phrase predates the Civil War.

Telegrams, at least for ordinary working people, became a thing of dread in the 20th century as they were the means by which the military informed families that their loved one had been killed or lost in action. Although the last telegram was sent in the UK in 1982, our variant of the grapevine, the jungle telegraph, is still rumbling along. It first appeared in the 1870s and is a phrase resonant of the far-flung parts of the empire and the sound of drums passing information from one point to the other.

The Australian variant is the bush telegraph and it may have had a very specific reference to the means by which convicts on the run passed on information about police movements. The Australian writer, Morris, noted in 1878, “the police are baffled by the number and activity of the bush telegraphs.” It was also the name of a popular Australian radio station, so I heard on the grapevine.

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

Magic Foot Drafts

As old age approaches, the incidence of aches and pains, a bit of arthritis here and a touch of rheumatism there blight my daily life. Stoically, I grin and bear it and usually the niggle will disappear as quickly as it came. For those who are afflicted with more prolonged bouts of rheumatism, the prospect of a panacea that will restore harmony to your body must be appealing. Naturally, there was a ready supply of quacks and chancers ready to prey on the gullible.

The Magic Foot Draft Company, operating from Jackson in Michigan, were actively promoting in the early years of the 20th century a cure for rheumatism in the feet. Their modus operandi is now painfully familiar – extensive advertising extolling the benefits of their product and a money back guarantee. “Don’t take medicine but try Magic Foot Drafts, the great Michigan external remedy which is curing thousands,” the advert, featuring its corresponding secretary, Frederick Dyer, screamed. Reading on, whatever form of rheumatism wherever situated “all yield quickly to those wonderful Drafts which have brought comfort to hundreds of thousands” – note the rapid increase in numbers from the headline – “including cases of thirty or forty years’ standing” (or not, if you had trouble with your feet). “They are curing where doctors and baths and medicines fail.

What they were, these miraculous drafts, were plaster strips which were made out of oilcloth and coated with pine-tar. These you applied to the soles of your feet and they were supposed to draw out the uric acid. To avail yourself of these plasters all you had to do was to send your name and address and you would receive a pair of drafts to the value of $1. If you were satisfied with the results, all you then had to do “was send us one dollar. If not, keep your money. We take your word and trust you for a square deal.

Presumably, they anticipated that most would persevere with the drafts and send for more with their all-important cheque. If you didn’t communicate with them, you were on their mailing list and they would soon follow up with a chaser. Some may have just then paid their dollar and put the whole thing down to experience. For those who were not sure that the drafts were working, the follow-up letter would explain that complicated cases or the incorrect application of the plaster would not yield overnight results. Some chronic cases may require up to six applications.

The letter also warned against the patient becoming impatient or giving up too easily and just to reinforce the impression of its efficacy, would include glowing testimonials. The letter would end with a hint of menace, “Unless you have already sent your order we shall expect a letter from you very soon, and there will be no failure to send the treatment just as you instruct, so you will have it and keep your recovery going steadily on day and night until every last twinge of pain has left you. Many would have paid their money for a quiet life.

And did they work? According to Samuel Hopkins Adam in his 1905 expose of the patent medicine business entitled the Great American Fraud, “they [their feet] might as well be affixed to the barn door, so far as any uric acid extraction is concerned.” I guess not, then.

Book Corner – July 2017 (2)

Victorians Undone – Kathryn Hughes

Biography is a tricky literary genre and one of the key challenges is to find a new angle for your treatment of someone whose achievements and feats of derring-do are familiar to the reader. One of the features of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, published in 1918, which made it stand out from the crowd and shock the more genteel reader was his glee in pointing out the physical characteristics and deformities of his subjects. Hughes follows this approach. Her thesis is that standard biographies reveal the life story and achievements of the subject – after all, that is what biography is – but apart from some air-brushed paintings and carefully posed photographs and sniffy remarks from contemporaries, we have little idea of what they were like as human beings.

I had never given this much thought, always believing that Bob Dylan had got it right in It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), “even the President of the United States must sometimes have to stand naked” – a troubling thought with the present incumbent, for sure.  As human beings I took it for granted that they belched, farted, smelt, had runny noses, coughed, sneezed and may have had some minor physical deformity.

I was delighted to read in Hughes’ book that Charles Darwin was a martyr to the wind and always had to leave a meal early so that he could belch and fart to his heart’s content. His digestive system was clearly not the acme of evolution. To make matters worse the scientist suffered from severe acne and blubbery lips which is why he grew his prodigious beard. But do these facts make us think more or less of the man’s achievements? More interesting to me was that his conversations with his hair dresser, a keen dog breeder, helped him formulate his evolutionary theories.

Although I have severe doubts about the validity of Hughes’ underlying thesis that knowing about the physical characteristics of someone enhances our knowledge of them, there is no doubt that this is a rip-roaring read with interesting facts on pretty much every page. Hughes’ style is bright and she writes with considerable verve. What we have is a collection of five essays dealing with the Victorians’ attitude to and preoccupations with the body.

The book opens with the shocking account of the young Queen Victoria’s persecution of Lady Flora Hastings whom she alleged to be pregnant, although she was in the final stages of a painful and mortal stomach cancer. The recent ITV series seems to have omitted that – I wonder why.

Then Darwin and his beard, followed by for me the most interesting, the discussion of George Eliot and her enlarged right hand. Eliot lived on a farm and possible worked in the dairy. Milk maids were sought after because of their fair complexions, their exposure to dairy products gave them a natural immunity to smallpox, a disease which scared survivors and was no respecter of class or position. But the downside of pulling on teats was that your dominant hand increases in size. The tittle-tattle at the time was Eliot’s larger right hand enlarged because she was engaged in manual work in her youth? Tut, tut. Revealingly, her right hand glove, found recently, is the second smallest size so it may all have been a storm in a milk churn.

The book concludes with two Fannies – Cornforth, the courtesan, whose bee-stung lips inspired Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Adams, whose body parts were scattered throughout an orchard in Alton, prompting a discussion of Victorian attitudes to children as sexual objects.

If nothing else, this book shows that the Victorians were humans but then, why wouldn’t they be?

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

Catherine Hettinger (1954 – present)

One of the challenges for an old fogey like me is to keep up with current trends. I’m told that a craze which has swept through the playgrounds this year is something called the fidget spinner. For those who are not in the know it consists of a central circular pad, which the user holds, and two or three prongs, each holing a metal or ceramic bearing. The object of the exercise, is such a rudimentary process can be so described, is to rotate it between your fingers. Apparently users enjoy a pleasant sensory experience. For those looking for more excitement you can toss or twirl the spinner or transfer it between fingers. What fun!

Proponents of the gadget claim that it helps relieve stress and is aimed at those children who suffer from ADHD, another of those conditions which seem to have sprung up since I was a child. It certainly seems to appeal to those who surfeit of energy is in inverse proportion to their concentration span. With the fidget spinner hailed as the toy of 2017 and flying off the shelves in their millions, you would think that the person who came up with the original concept would have unlocked the door to untold riches. But this is where the latest inductee to our illustrious Hall of Fame, Florida based Catherine Hettinger, comes in.

In the 1990s, Hettinger was suffering from myasthenia gravis which causes your muscles to weaken. Desperate to keep her young daughter amused, she came up with a toy which consisted of a circular device moulded from a single piece of plastic which could be spun on the fingertip. In 1993 Hettinger applied for and in 1997 was awarded a patent for her device, described as a spinning toy. She toured around some of the arts and crafts fairs in Florida and sold enough to break even, improving on the design as she went along.

In search of her big break, our heroine approached toy manufacturing giant, Hasbro, who tested the design. Alas for Catherine, they decided not to put into production. One of the problems with patents, as we have seen on numerous occasions, is that you need to renew them and this involves the periodic payment of a fee, $400 a time. Hettinger allowed the patent on her device to lapse in 2005.

In late 2016, eleven or so years after the patent lapsed, the Fidget Spinner began to make waves amongst the junior members of society and manufacturers of the toy started making bundles of money. Again, as we have seen, one of the ways that corporations can evade paying inventors their due is by making subtle changes to the design. Although the current crop of Fidget Spinners are spun using your fingertips, they rely on a completely different movement mechanism from Hettinger’s prototype.

Worse still for Hettinger, even if she had renewed her patent, it would have expired in 2014, seventeen years after it had been granted. This is the way that patents work, ostensibly giving an inventor enough time to capitalise on their genius without granting them a perpetual monopoly. You can’t help thinking that the toy manufacturers waited until any vestige of patent right had disappeared before launching the Fidget Spinner commercially.

It is a moot point as to whether Hettinger would have had any entitlement to cash in. At the very least, she came up with the basic concept but was unable to cash in on her brainwave. For this she is a worthy inductee into 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

A Better Life – Part Eleven

The Kaweah Cooperative Community

It was whilst reading John Bew’s fascinating biography of Clement Attlee that I came across Edward Bellamy’s best-selling book, Looking Backwards – 2000 to 1887. It was described as “one of the few books ever published that created almost immediately on its appearance a political mass movement”. It advocated the nationalisation of private property and in an attempt to eschew the label socialist its adherents were known as Nationalists. Within months of its publication in 1888 and subsequently revised and amended in 1889, some 162 Bellamy Clubs sprang up in the States to discuss and propagate its radical message.

The Kaweah Cooperative Colony was located, unsurprisingly enough, by the Kaweah river in Tulare County in California in 1886. Growing out of the International Workers Association in San Francisco it first manifested itself as a tented community on the laudable principles of equal work and equal pay for men and women alike. It embraced Bennett’s Nationalism but the author, whilst recommending his most earnest adherents to the community, distanced himself from the project. He thought that his ideas had to be adopted at a national level rather than through small, relatively insignificant communities.

The founders and leading lights of the Kaweahns were Burnette G Haskell and James J Martin who picked the location because of its proximity to swathes of sequoia forests. They thought that the community could sustain itself by logging and selling the trees. As we shall see, this was misplaced optimism. Membership cost $500, of which $100 had to be paid up front with the remainder paid either in cash or through their hard graft. At its peak membership was estimated at around three to five hundred, although many were sponsors rather than residents. Many of the members were drawn from the skilled artisans in the State or trade union representatives. They were described as “all, perhaps without exception, intelligent, thoughtful, earnest, readers of books and journals, alive to the great economic and social questions of the day”.

Because of the need to make good the gap between the down payment and the overall cost of membership, the Kaweahns devised a rather complex system of monetising the value of the work done. They decided that all work was of equal value and that the appropriate way of valuing effort was on time spent. So ten minutes of labour would earn you five cents and a linear scale was developed. This introduced a bureaucratic aspect to their life which was further hampered by a rather complicated governance system in which work responsibilities were divided up into hundreds of sub divisions. It must have been a nightmare to implement and administer.

Worse still, the make-up of the community and their particular interest in Marxist and socialist dialectic meant that more time was spent discussing political issues then getting to grips with the things that would have made the community successful like felling trees and building homes and roads. Despite that, they scored some minor achievements including publishing the area’s first newspaper and naming the giant sequoia which is now known as the General Sherman Tree as the Karl Marx Tree.

What struck the final death-knell for the community was the decision taken in 1890 by the government to turn the area into California’s first national park, the Sequoia National Park. A Los Angeles court found them guilty of illegal logging and the Kaweahns were turfed off their land. They spent the next forty years or so fighting for compensation for their lost logging rights but were unsuccessful. All that is left of their community is a rather basic wood cabin known as the Squatter’s Cabin.

Sporting Event Of The Week (4)

As our attention has been grabbed by matters Russian this week news reached me of an unusual sporting event held annually in the village of Krylovo in the Urals – hurling a cow pat the size of a dinner plate.

There seems to be two favoured methods of propelling the pat through the air, throwing it as though it was a discus or adopting a cricket-style overarm action.

This year’s winner, Alexander Evdokimov, set a new record, throwing his pat a massive 56 metres, although he was nearly robbed of his glory. Bad weather meant that this year’s crop of pats were not of the right consistency to chuck and the competition was only rescued because organisers were able to get their hands on a reserve supply from last year.

Let’s hope the weather improves in time for next year’s competition. I wonder if they’ve thought of a suitable target?!

Business Idea Of The Week

On paper it seemed a good idea – many are. After all, if it works for bikes, why couldn’t it work with brollies? If it looks like rain, wouldn’t it be great to walk up to a row of umbrellas, scan a code with your mobile and receive a code which undid the combination lock? Et voila, the brolly was yours to use for periods of 30 minutes.

This was the brain wave of Chinese company Sharing E Umbrella. For a modest deposit of £2.20 – each brolly cost them £6.85 – and a rental of 6p per half hour – you could pick up an umbrella and dodge the showers.

There was, however, one significant drawback which threw a bucket of cold water over the idea – there was no penalty for not returning the umbrella. The result – within pretty short order, the firm lost 300,000 of them and has had to recapitalise.

What’s wrong with the old-fashioned idea of nicking one from a restaurant?

What Is The Origin Of (136)?…

No ifs or buts

We use this phrase to make a very pointed statement, allowing no room for argument or doubt. For example, we may say we are leaving the European Union, no ifs or buts. Our course of action is very clear and there is no opportunity for misunderstanding our intentions or for arguing against it. I am rarely so dogmatic, except when I make this statement, and seldom use the phrase. There is another variant of the phrase which is no ifs, ands or buts. It is this latter variant which reveals the twists and turns this phrase went through down the centuries.

At first glance and looks a little out of place. And, after all, is one of the commonest words in the English language and is used as a conjunction to join two or more words, phrases or clauses together. If is a conjunction which introduces a conditional clause – in other words it introduces the concept that something may happen in the event that the condition which is framed by the word if occurs or may occur. But in this phrase takes the form of a noun and means an argument against or an objection. So while we can easily see that the negation of if, the conditional, and but, the noun, means that there can be no option other than that which the speaker is laying out, and, as a conjunction, seems to add no sense and, if anything, is redundant.

The word and, though, from at least the 13th century, had another use – that of a conditional. It appeared in phrases like “and it please your grace” which meant “if it please your grace”. The use of and in our phrase now begins to make some sense. By the 16th century a form of our phrase was in use, the first recorded instance being in Thomas More’s unfinished work, The History of Kyng Richard the Third, which he wrote in 1513. In the relevant passage the King flew into a rage and exclaimed “thou servest me, I wene, with ifs and with andes”. Although the spelling convention of the time might suggest he was talking about a mountain range in South America, and is used in its conditional sense.

The philosopher, Ralph Cudworth, in his The True Intellectual System of the Universe, published in 1678, provided us with another example of the use of and as a conditional in a sentence where it appeared immediately after and in its more familiar guise as a conjunction; “Absolutely and without any Ifs and Ands”. Interestingly, though, around the same time but came into the mix, either to further reinforce the meaning of the phrase or because folk memory of the conditional use of and was becoming a little hazy. The Puritan theologian, Thomas Goodwin, wrote in around 1680, “The Grants of Grace run without Ifs, and Ands, and Buts”.  The phrase has endured into modern times, often with the conditional and removed and sometimes with it remaining there proudly to remind us of its earlier usage.

In researching this post, I came across an interesting usage of the phrase in The Stepmother by the English novelist, George Payne Rainsford Payne, published in 1845. He wrote “Ay! If ifs and ands were pots and pans, there would be no work for tinkers”. This appears to have been a variant of an earlier proverb which appeared in 1828 in a poem entitled A chapter of Ifs; “If Ifs and Ands were pots and pans/ ‘twould cure the tinker’s cares”. This in turn may owe its origins from a translation of a German poem published in 1821, “are you there, my old fox, with your ifs and ans?/ But I need not remind you, they’re not pots and pans/ else tinkers would starve”. I won’t be so unequivocal in making this claim but it strengthens the argument that but was a later addition to the phrase, there to clarify the archaic usage of and.

Our Crime Against Criminals Lies In The Fact That We Treat Them Like Rascals

The Banco Central burglary

Whether you agree with Nietzsche’s assessment or not it is difficult not to be in awe at the sheer audacity or stupidity of some crimes. This series will examine some of them.

The first such is a burglary carried out on the Fortaleza branch of the Banco Central in Brazil. It was a massive one, some R$160 million was extracted from the vault, of which only about R$20 million was recovered. The Banco Centrale was Brazil’s central bank, responsible for money supply, and the notes in the vaults were due to be examined to determine whether they should be destroyed or put back into circulation. As a consequence the notes were not sequentially numbered, making the haul attractive to audacious criminals and nigh on impossible for the authorities to trace and recover.

Of course, a heist of this nature required careful planning and the gang were nothing but diligent in their preparations. They decided that the best way to gain entry into the vault was by tunnelling and so in March 2005 they rented a commercial property in the city centre and put a sign out indicating that they had established a landscaping company, called Grama Sintética. Ostensibly, its purpose was to sell plants, natural and artificial grass. They even had a smart logo. You might think that their chosen base would be next door to the bank but, no, there were two large buildings in the way.

The tunnel which they excavated was 78 metres or about 256 feet long and ran some 4 metres beneath the surface. Lined with wood and plastic with its own lighting and air-circulation system it was 70 centimetres square and took about 3 months to dig. Police discovered that the gang were no amateurs. They used sophisticated equipment including GPS – after all, you needed to be sure you were heading in the right direction – and the team included experts in mathematics, engineering and excavation. The garden business proved a perfect blind for the excavation work. Neighbours noticed vans going back and forth with up to 30 tons of dirt a time but didn’t pay it too much attention because, after all, it was a landscaping business.

On Saturday August 5th 2005 the gang broke through 1.1 metres of steel-reinforced concrete to get into the vault, eluding the bank’s internal sensors and alarm systems. Getting the money out was no mean feat. The 50 real notes were packed in five containers and weighed about 3.5 tons. But the gang managed it and by the time the bank staff returned to work on the Monday, they had departed the scene and had gone their separate ways. The bank was left with egg on its face, not least because they had failed to insure the money, reckoning that the risk of it being stolen was infinitesimal.

Inside the vault the police found bolt cutters, a blow torch, an electric saw and other tools that had been used in the raid. They also picked up a truck bearing the Grama Sintética logo which led them to the property the gang had used. Disappointingly for the police, the building had been covered in burnt lime to eliminate those vital dabs.

By late September 2005 around seven suspects had had their collars felt, apprehended in trucks ferrying large quantities of money. Brazil is a dangerous country in which to come into unexpected wealth. A number of the gang were kidnapped, including the suspected master mind behind the operation, Luis Fernando Ribeiro. Whilst their families paid the ransom demands, they were killed anyway.

To this day it remains one of the biggest bank heists.

They Made Their Mark

Noah Webster (1758 – 1843)

As Winston Churchill once said, Britain and America are two nations separated by a common language. The man who made it his life’s work to ensure this was so was the Connecticut born descendent of a leader of the Pilgrim settlement in Plymouth, Noah Webster. He made a significant contribution to the development of the nascent country that was the United States.

Webster was adamant that not only should American children learn from text books produced in the country and reflecting American thought and philosophy rather than using those imported from England but that it should have its own language. As he wrote, “Now is the time and this the country in which we may expect success in attempting changes to language, science and government. Let us then seize the present moment and establish a national language as well as a national government.” The first step in this audacious plan was his publication in 1806 of A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language which was the first truly American dictionary.

But Noah didn’t stop there – he had bigger fish to fry – and started work on a more comprehensive dictionary which would change the face of English as it was written in America for good. In the course of his work he learned an astonishing 26 languages, ranging from Anglo-Saxon to Sanskrit, the better to understand the origins of words. When it was published in 1828, An American Dictionary of the English Language contained some 70,000 entries, 12,000 of which had never appeared in dictionaries before. Naturally, some of these new words were particular and peculiar to life in the States, such as skunk, hickory and chowder. Although Webster’s dictionary was critically acclaimed and marked a new standard in lexicography, it only sold 2,500 copies, forcing him to mortgage his home to raise the funds for a second edition and ensuring that he was in debt for the rest of his life.

What was truly revolutionary about Webster’s approach to lexicography was his determination to simplify some of the features of the English language, particularly in relation to spelling conventions which make English so tricky to learn. In particular, he eliminated many of the silent letters that peppered conventional English spelling. So the ending –our as in honour was simplified to –or as in honor and words which ended in ck shed their k. He also preferred more phonetic or simplified spellings so plough became plow and words ending in –re such as centre had their endings reversed to –er as in center.

It would be wrong to conclude that Webster invented these spellings – in fact, he chose existing variations – but was the first to adopt a rigid and concerted approach to establishing a spelling convention based on simplicity, analogy and etymology. Some of his suggestions fell on stony ground and so tung for tongue, wimmen for women and iland for island were consigned to the dustbin of history.

Another of Webster’s major contributions was establishing the letters j and v, which had hitherto languished as variants of i and u, as letters in their own right and so they are today, much to Benjamin Franklin’s chagrin – he had advocated getting rid of c, w, y and j entirely.

The second edition of Webster’s dictionary came out in 1840 and he died in 1843 shortly after revising an Appendix to the lexicon. The rights to his magnum opus were acquired that year by publishers, George and Charles Merriam, and his name lives on in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.