A wry view of life for the world-weary

The Streets Of London – Part Seventy Four

Wardrobe Place, EC4

Walk westwards from St Paul’s along Carter Lane and halfway down on your left, just after Addle Hill, you will come across an archway in the buildings which, if you turn into it, will take you to a small, cobbled courtyard known as Wardrobe Place.

It owes its name to the fact that from 1359 until its abolition in 1782, when its powers were assumed by the Treasury, the King’s (and the occasional Queen’s) Wardrobe was sited here. Originally based in the Tower of London the Wardrobe was where the royal vestments and armaments were housed. But it also was the centre of the monarch’s economic power, where their personal fortunes were stored and where Royal Household accounts were maintained and taxes raised. It soon outgrew its rather cramped quarters in the Tower and following a relatively temporary relocation to Lombard Street between 1311 and 1359, Edward III made the decision to relocate once again.

The royal eyes fixed on the mansion of Sir John Beauchampe who had rather conveniently just died. As John Stow recorded in his Survey of London, published in 1598, “then is the kings greate Wardrobe, Sir John Beauchampe, knight of the Garter, Constable of Dover, Warden of the Sinke Portes builded this house, was lodged there, deceased in the yeare 1359.  His Executors sold the house to King Edware the third.” Having relocated there, the Wardrobe appears to have been a hotbed of intrigue, Stow noting that “The secret letters and writings touching the estate of the Realme, were wont to be enroled in the Kings Wardrobe, and not in the Chauncery, as appeareth by the records”.

There was a change of usage after Charles the First lost its head, the Wardrobe being converted into an orphanage. The restoration of the monarchy and the appointment of the Earl of Sandwich as Master of the Royal Wardrobe saw the eviction of the orphans, although they did not go without a fight. Samuel Pepys, a frequent visitor to the Wardrobe, reported that the orphans sang to the Earl in a last desperate attempt to remain but the crusty fellow was unmoved and showed them the door. Six years later the building was consumed by the flames of the Great Fire.

One of the iconic images of wartime London is St Paul’s cathedral during the blitz. Miraculously, the area to the west of the cathedral, including Wardrobe Place, escaped relatively unscathed and the buildings on the western side of the square are fine examples of town houses dating from the post-conflagration rebuild of the city. No2, Wardrobe Place dates to around 1680 and is a Grade II listed building, retaining “its late-C17 domestic plan and stair, panelling and other original or early features. The two overmantel paintings have outstanding interest as early examples of a once-widespread artisan tradition, and are now of great rarity.” These wall paintings were rediscovered in the 1970s following some rebuilding work.

By 1720 John Strype, in his Survey of London, noted that “the Garden of the King’s Wardrobe is converted into a large and square court, with good houses”, what is now Wardrobe Place. The houses are mainly, if not exclusively, offices now but a still visible painted sign on the wall of No 6, bearing the legend “Snashall & Son. Printers, Stationers and Account Book Manufacturers”, gives a sense of the type of businesses that were to be found in what is now a pleasant oasis in a busy part of the City. Signs such as this must have been an everyday sight in days of yore.


Innovation Of The Week (7)

Soon the local branch of the bank I use will be closing down. Nothing unusual in that in itself, as it is happening all over the country, but when it inconveniences you, it brings home to you that we are rapidly descending into a cashless society.

I’m old-fashioned enough to like a bit of cash jangling in my pocket. There are certain circumstances, where my mind may not be as sound as I would wish it to be – like in a pub late at night – when having to fork out some folding stuff rather than waving a piece of plastic is likely to bring me back to my senses.

And think of the implications of our retreat from cash. Every now and again I like to salve my conscience by throwing some coins at a local mendicant, provided, of course, he has parked his shining Beemer discretely around the corner, and to tip a busker who brightens up my day by inviting me to name that tune or identify how many correct notes they have hit. My dearth of loose change will mean my well of human charity will dry up.

But help is at hand, at least in London. As a result of an initiative between Busk in London and technology company, iZettle, buskers are being provided with card readers. They, the buskers, will pre-set the amount of the donation and all you have to do is press your card to the machine.

I suppose it might work but for me the desire was to show appreciation with the minimum of effort, fuss and human contact. Throwing some coins in a hat did that but I’m not sure that any of those objectives are met here.

Progress, eh?

Sporting Event Of The Week (15)

Taking back control of your body is one of the rallying cries of the 21st century. Looking at my ageing carcass, though, I’m not sure it is worth the effort. But now that summer is in the air, at least here in the northern hemisphere, people are rushing to dispose of their clothing and give expression to their inner selves – all in a good cause, of course.

Take skinny dipping.

The world record for the largest skinny dip was set on 8th March 2015 at South Beach in Perth, Australia, when 786 participants took the plunge. But this record was well and truly smashed to smithereens last Saturday when 2,505 ladies braved temperatures of 54 degrees Fahrenheit for the mandatory five minutes off a secluded beach in Ireland’s County Wicklow.

The swim was in aid of Aoibheann’s Pink Tie, a charity that supports children with cancer. As well as sponsorship and donations, organisers pledged that 10 euros from the registration fee would go to the charity. Good on ‘em.

But they can’t rest on their laurels. My sources tell me that a group in Australia are organising an attempt in February next year to take the record back down under.

Swimming in the buff I can understand but cycling? Well, last Saturday was also World Naked Bike Ride Day and several hundred intrepid cyclists set off from six points in London – Tower Hill, Regents Park, West Norwood, Hyde Park, Clapham Junction, and Kew Bridge – ending up in Hyde Park. The aim of the ride was to highlight the vulnerability of cyclists and to raise awareness on the world’s dependency on oil. It all went swimmingly, I believe.

For me I was content last Saturday to celebrate World Gin Day. That’s more than enough exercise for me.

What Is The Origin Of (184)?…

A whale of a time

I went to a party a little while ago and had a whale of a time. By that I meant that I had a great time, a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

But why a whale?

The obvious answer is that the Blue Whale is the largest animal on planet Earth and so to use it as a superlative or, as the grammarians call it, an intensifier is to indicate that it is as good as it can possibly get. Whilst its sense and figurative use have no element of mystery about them, it does appear that the phrase has changed over time. Indeed, in the early 19th century you may have encountered someone talking about a whaler of a time.

So we find in a report in The Day, a Glaswegian newspaper, on 28th March 1832, “they fib by equivocation – they don’t come plump out, with a tremendous whaler of a fib, but seek to do it by equivocation and confusion of words and ideas, but, in any way, it is all fibbing.”  A whaler was a specialised vessel designed for catching and slaughtering whales for their blubber and processing them. Schele De Vere, in his 1872 book Americanisms, confirms the rationale behind using anything to do with a whale as a superlative; “That the huge size of a whale should have led sailors, and after their example others also, to speak of any man or event of unusual and imposing proportions as a whaler, seems natural enough.”

Later in the 19th century a variant emerged, whale on, which was used to express the concept that someone was really enthusiastic about something or using a modernism, big on. An example of this phrase is to be found in Archibald Marshall’s Peter Binney: Undergraduate, published in 1899; “Of course I’ve got to keep up my authority, you know,” pursued Mr. Binney. “It won’t do to slack the rein yet awhile.” “By George, no,” said Dizzy. “I should be a whale on parental authority myself if I were in your place.” Perhaps a clearer use of the phrase appeared in William McFee’s Aliens – a book about immigrants rather than creatures from other planets, published in 1918; “I don’t think it was all gallantry that made me do what I did. I’d never been a whale on that sort of thing.”

Contemporaneously, our phrase, whale of, emerged and if Willard C Gore is to be believed, it owed its origin to student slang. At times the argot of the younger generation can be bewildering at times but Gore helpfully provided a glossary of Student Slang which was published in the monthly student magazine of Michigan University in December 1895. He provides a string of usages and meanings ranging from whale as “a person who is a prodigy either physically or intellectually; one who is exceptionally strong, skilful or brilliant” as in “he’s a whale at tennis” and “he’s a whale in mathematics.” Other usages suggested by Gore include “something exceptionally large, as a whale of a procession; jolly as a whale of a time, or severe as a whale of an examination.

Most of these usages have slipped away into obscurity but whale of a time seemed to escape from the confines of the grove of academe. The Manitoba Morning Free Press on 21st June 1901 reported, “but we had a whale of a time rolling down rocks.” This is the sense that has survived into the 21st century.

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

Robert Cook (c1646 – c1726)

We are beginning to see a bit of a theme developing around the concept of eccentricity. To earn this badge of honour either your behaviour or way of life had to be out of line with the generally accepted mores of the time or thanks to your status, connections or wealth behaviour that would have seen the great unwashed be up before the beak is regarded with amusement and a knowing nod of the head.

Our latest eccentric, Irish born Robert Cook, is firmly in the former camp.

A member of the landed gentry from Cappoquin in County Waterford, Robert was known as Linen Cook. The reason for this endearing sobriquet is fairly straightforward – because of his predilection for white linen. All his garments, be they his under garments, night-clothes or shirts or his outer garments of coat, hat and suit, were made of the finest white linen. Naturally, when he was laid to rest for the final time, at the ripe old age of eighty in 1726, his shroud was made of white linen.

His predilection for the colour white even extended to his livestock on his farms. He would only countenance having white cattle and rode a steed whose colouration matched his suits.

Cynics, and there are always some, have suggested that this mania for all things linen was nothing more than a piece of self-interest. After all, his family’s fortunes came in part from the textile industry. Perhaps he saw himself as a living, talking testament to the quality of his family’s goods. But I suspect there is a more deep-rooted reason than that.

He was what we would call passionately animal friendly and practised an extreme form of veganism. As Charles Smith reported in The Ancient and Present State of Waterford, published in 1746, Cook was “a kind of Pythagorean philosopher, and for many years neither ate fish, flesh, butter, &c., nor drank any kind of fermented liquor, nor wore woollen clothes, or and other produce of an animal, but linen.” Indeed, Cook attributed his long and healthy life to his regimen, finding that “water for drink and pulse, corn and other vegetatives for food and linen and other vegetatives for raiment be sufficient.

A fox had the audacity to attack his poultry. The offending beast was caught and instead of being despatched was subjected to a lecture from Cook on the subject of murder. The fox was then let go, having to run the gauntlet of a posse of farm hands armed with sticks. I doubt it turned over a new leaf.

Originally a Quaker, Cook soon began to develop his own religious and philosophical theories which he was keen to share with the unsuspecting world or, at least, a circle of educated Irishmen. In 1691 he published a pamphlet outlining what he termed his Phagorian philosophy, helpfully reprinted by the obliging Smith. It caused a storm and prompted the Athenian Society to pen a furious rebuttal of each of his points.

This wasn’t the only time that Cook got into a bit of bother. The Catholic majority in Ireland sided with James II in his dust-up with William of Orange during the glorious revolution and Waterford, a Protestant bastion, bore much of the brunt. Cook fled to England, spending some time in Ipswich. The Patriot Parliament declared Cook a traitor if he didn’t return to Ireland by 1st September 1689. The Jacobites, as they were known, were only finally defeated in Ireland in 1691.

Before we leave Linen Cook, we should mention Cook’s Folly, a pile of stones erected on top of a rock in the Bristol Channel. It was a memorial to his first wife, a Bristolian lass. Alas, the stones were not white.

Book Corner – June 2018 (1)

The Misty Harbour – Georges Simenon

A man is picked up in Paris by the police. He has lost his memory, has recovered from a serious wound to his head and has five thousand francs in his pocket. The appearance of his maid, Julie, at the police station reveals that he is Yves Joris, the harbour master of the Normandy port of Ouistreham, just outside Caen. Within twenty four hours of his return to Ouistreham, Joris is dead. Maigret sets out to unravel the mystery.

As with many of Simenon’s novels, this book, first published in 1932, is very atmospheric. When Maigret arrives at the port, he can hardly see anything in front of him because of the mist, a metaphor which is picked up throughout the book as the detective slowly and methodically picks his way to the truth, despite the best efforts of the local community to close ranks and frustrate him. Maigret has to resort to some unorthodox methods – a spot of breaking and entering – to move his investigation on but, inevitably, he succeeds and a rather convoluted plot is unravelled. Central to the story is another tale of human frailty and a set of consequences that could so easily have been avoided.

Where the book is strong is in its descriptions of the port – it was apparently quite a busy place in the 1930s with its rather complex set of waterways. Simenon also paints a tremendously vivid picture of life in a community such as Ouistreham in his usual sparse, careful language – astonishing for someone who wrote so quickly. You can smell the fug of dampness, tobacco smoke, alcoholic vapours and coffee. I found I admired this book, longer than the norm for a Simenon novel, for its writing rather than the mystery Maigret was solving.

The Liberty Bar – Georges Simenon

In terms of atmosphere, this book, also published in 1932, is the polar opposite of the Misty Harbour. Set in Antibes we have sunlight and glare. Maigret is hot and sticky, uncomfortable, a fish out of water. He is sent from Paris to investigate the mysterious death of an Australian, William Brown. The two women who lived with Brown concoct an implausible story to account for his demise. Maigret, who is under strict instructions not to cause a drama, sets out to uncover the truth.

Brown, who has worked with French intelligence, has lived a double life. He would go off for a few days a month on a bender – his novena – and hook up with two other women. A fortune, a will and the petty jealousy between two of his women lead to his undoing. Maigret follows the trail – it is a rather low-key, low-energy investigation, reflective of Maigret’s instructions and his discomfort with the heat. But he gets there in the end. As often is the way with Maigret, though, he allows natural justice rather than the judiciary to prevail, the perpetrator left to see out their remaining few months at liberty but filled with remorse.

This is one of Simenon’s better Maigret novels and provides an interesting insight into the lifestyle on the Cote d’Azur in the 1930s as well as Maigret’s investigative methods and if you were looking to dip your toe into Simenon’s work, this is as good a place as any to start.

A La Mode – Part Three

The crinoline cage

Amelia Bloomer may have consigned the first phase of her eponymous garment to the bin of fashion history by adopting the new craze for the crinoline cage but, in truth, wide and full skirts were a la mode since the 15th century. The Queen Consort Joan of Portugal popularised the hoop skirt, wearing it at court, although the court gossip-mongers speculated that it was to hide an illegitimate pregnancy.

Known as the verdugado, corrupted as the English have a habit of doing so to farthingale, the dress was introduced to Blighty by Catherine of Aragon. The Spanish farthingale consisted of a linen petticoat with bands of cane or whalebone inserted horizontally to produce a cone shape running from waist to hem.

Crinoline is an example of a compound word which means precisely what its parts indicate, crin being the French for horsehair and lin for linen. So the original crinoline consisted of horsehair and linen and in the 1840s the material was used to support the weight of the petticoats under the full, bell-shaped skirts that were the vogue at the time.

But what really kick-started the rage for crinoline cages was the development of the steel-hooped crinoline cage, patented in April 1856 in Paris by R C Milliet and, a few months later, by his agent in London.  Consisting of spring steel, they were surprisingly flexible, could be compressed and, for the wearer, extremely liberating as they could dispense with the burdensome layers of heavy petticoats. No wonder Ms Bloomer approved.

The crinoline cages appealed to women of all classes and flew off the shelves. In America one of the biggest manufacturers, Douglas and Sherwood’s Hoop Skirt Factory in New York, employed 800 women, producing in excess of 8,000 hoop skirts a day. The Lady extolled the virtues of the fashionable garment in its April 1863 edition, commenting “So perfect are the wave-like bands that a lady may ascend a steep stair, lean against a table, throw herself into an armchair, pass to her stall at the opera, and occupy a further seat in a carriage, without inconveniencing herself or others, and provoking the rude remarks of observers thus modifying in an important degree, all those peculiarities tending to destroy the modesty of Englishwomen; and lastly, it allows the dress to fall in graceful folds.”

At its widest point the circumference of the crinoline could reach six feet and they guaranteed a large amount of personal space for the wearer. The satirical magazine, Punch, could not resist having a pop at this latest fashion.  “Emily: Madame Bonton says the Circumference of the Crinoline should be Thirty-Six Feet! Caroline: Dear me! – I’m only Thirty-Two! I must Inflate a little!” and was quick to point some of the hazards for the unwary. “Take care that the Ends of your Hoops be secure; they have been known to give way—to the great alarm and discomfiture of the Lovely Wearer.”

And dangerous they were too. In England alone it was estimated that between the late 1850s and late 1860s some 3,000 women died in crinoline-related fires and in 1864 the Bulgarian poet, Petrok Slaveykov reckoned that globally in the previous 14 years the suspiciously precise figure of 39,927 had perished this way. Perhaps the worst case was a fire at the Church of the Company of Jesus in Santiago, Chile on 8th December 1863, where between two and three thousand worshipers died, many of whose deaths were attributable to crinoline dresses. Fire-proof material was available but it was not deemed to be as attractive.

If they did not kill you, crinoline dresses could get stuck in doors, carriage wheels or caught by sudden gusts of wind, blowing the wearer off their feet. The poor Duchess of Manchester tripped on a stile, her skirt flew over her head to reveal her scarlet drawers to the assembled company. At least they matched her face.

From 1862 a more sensible fashion was introduced, the crinolette, which was composed of half hoops of spring steel and created a shape that was flat at the front and bell-shaped at the back.

Now, why didn’t they think of that before?

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Twelve

The pregnancy without intercourse hoax, 1750

Ladies, imagine being able to become pregnant without the necessity of having some sweaty, hairy male astride you or, at least, a test tube of his sperm inserted into him. Leaving aside the inherent pleasures to be gained from sexual congress, for some there might be something quite appealing about conceiving without the efforts of a male partner.

Living conditions “enjoyed” by our forefathers were squalid, fetid and generally unhealthy. In the absence of any specialist knowledge of microbiology and epidemiology, it was popularly held, even by what passed for the scientific community, that miasma, a noxious form of bad air, was the cause of many of the horror diseases such as cholera, chlamydia and the plague, to which the populace were only all to prone. It was only as late as the 1880s that scientists realised that diseases were caused by the transmission of germs.

There were, of course, some advances in scientific knowledge and what proved to be a spur to the improvement of the understanding of biology was the development of the microscope, allowing the inquisitive scientist to overcome the constraints imposed on them by the effectiveness of their natural eyesight. A particular breakthrough was the discovery of seminal animalicules or what we would term as sperm in animal semen, a discovery attributed by the Royal Society of London to the Dutchman, Anton Leeuwenhoek and his assistant Johan Ham, in 1677, although Nicolaas Hartsoeker disputed their claim. This discovery spawned spermist preformationism, a theory that held that the human offspring developed from a fully-formed embryo in the head of the sperm cell.

In 1750 the Royal Society received a curious letter, penned by someone called Abraham Johnson, entitled Lucina sine concubita, which loosely translates to pregnancy without intercourse. The correspondent claimed that he was endowed with a “wonderful, cylindrical, catoptrical, rotundo-concavo-convex machine” through which he had observed floating animalcula floating in the air. Having isolated them and examined them under a microscope, Johnson found them to be exact replicas of men and women.

The upshot of this remarkable discovery, claimed Johnson, was that women could become pregnant without the assistance of men and that women, who had become pregnant in circumstances where hitherto they had been unable (or unwilling) to give a rational explanation, had the perfect get out. It must have been these animalcula floating in the air.

To prove his theory, Johnson proposed a dramatic solution. He recommended that a Royal edict be passed banning copulation for one year. The withholding of sexual favours has been a powerful weapon that women have deployed against men, dating back to at least the times of the ancient Greek.s The plot of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata revolves around a sex strike by the women of Athens, the only way they would be able to get their menfolk to sue for peace with the Spartans. If the edict was implemented and there were still pregnancies and birth, Johnson argued, then it must be down to the animalcula he had discovered.

I can imagine that many a peruke was scratched in the hallowed sanctum of the Royal Society as this bizarre letter was passed around the great and the good of the scientific community. But of course it was all an elaborate hoax, aimed at satirising the prevailing theory of spermist preformationism.

But who perpetrated it?

The finger of suspicion was pointed at someone we have met before, Sir John Hill, the rather disputatious purveyor of the Pectoral Balsam of Honey, which didn’t contain much honey. He was pissed off with the Royal Society who had the audacity to turn down his application for membership.

At least he got his own back with some style.

Toilet Of The Week (15)

Well, that’s a relief. The Sheboygan serial toilet clogger has been caught.

Since April 2017 the women’s carsey in the Deland Community Centre in the Wisconsin town of Sheboygan has been routinely blocked by someone ramming a 20-ounce soft drink bottle into the pipes. The only way to remove the bottle was for the Public Works Department to remove the toilet to get to the piping below, causing great inconvenience to would-be users.

One resident, Chrystal Storck, commented, “it’s very inconsiderate. It’s really nice to come out here. We love it.” I assume she meant Deland Park, but you never know.

Anyway, with repair bills topping $3,000 the might of the Sheboygan Police Department was thrown at the problem and after an investigation that lasted three months, a 33 year-old man was arrested on Memorial Day for the crime.

The District Attorney is sitting on the case contemplating whether to prosecute.

Dog Poo Wars (2)

Here in Surrey Heath we pride ourselves, not least because our Member of Parliament is the Environment Secretary, on being at the cutting edge in the war on dog poo. In addition to the glow in the dark “We’re watching you” posters, the Council have just installed free dog poo bag dispensers at 40 of the most popular dogging sites in the Borough. I may have got the technical term for exercising a dog wrong.

I went along to have a look and was a tad disappointed. The machine dispensed a plastic bag but there was no dog poo in it. I assume the idea must be that walkers can avail of themselves of a free bag in which to place their pooch’s freshly produced dog logs and then sling them in the hedgerow or hang them on a nearby branch as normal.

There is even an interactive map showing users where the dispensers are. I am no expert in these matters but when nature calls, a dog answers the call, irrespective of where they are. Still the biodegradable bags may reduce the risk of non-dog walkers putting their feet in it.

The TiksPac dispensers have been sponsored by local businesses, an interesting marketing concept if there ever was one, though I feel dog food manufacturers have missed a trick.