A wry view of life for the world-weary

Olympic Review Of The Week


Although I wasn’t an avid viewer of the Narcolympics in Rio these are my highlights.

The Eddie the Eagle award

Former Olympic champion, Russian Ilya Zhakarov, belly flopped into the pool during the 3m springboard competition. He must have thought he was competing in the dodsing championship. But pride of place must go to Haitian hurdler, Jeffrey Julmis, who forgot to jump over the first hurdle of his 110 metre race, crashed and fell. Fair play to him, he picked himself up and finished the race but after his pre-race histrionics it made him look even more stupid.

The wrong pole wrong time award

Attempting a 5.3 metre jump, Japanese pole vaulter, Hiroki Ogita, suffered an untimely erection which knocked the bar off. Cold shower for him, next time.

The forgotten man award

I may be missing something but for synchronised diving I thought you needed a pair of divers, at least. Not that you would have realised it, judging by some of the photos in the press after Tom Daley and Daniel Goodfellow won bronze. Goodfellow was conspicuous by his absence. No doubt he understood what schadenfreude means when Daley crashed out of the individual event. Naturally, I won’t post a picture of Goodfellow.

It’s The Way I Tell ‘Em (27)


The best jokes from the Edinburgh Fringe 2016 for your delectation.

  • My dad has suggested that I register for a donor card. He is a man after my own heart – Masai Graham
  • Why is it old people say “there’s no place like home” but when you put them in one…- Stuart Mitchell
  • I’ve been happily married for four years – out of a total of 10 – Mark Watson
  • Apparently 1 in 3 Britons are conceived in an IKEA bed which is mad because they are really well lit – Mark Smith
  • I went to a pub quiz in Liverpool, had a few drinks so wasn’t much use. Just for a laugh I wrote the Beatles or Steven Gerrard for every answer…came second – Will Duggan
  • Brexit is a terrible name, sounds like cereal you eat when you’re constipated – Tiff Stevenson
  • I often confuse Americans and Canadians. By using long words – Gary Delaney
  • Why is Henry’s wife covered in tooth marks? Because he’s Tudor – Adele Cliff
  • Don’t you hate it when people assume you’re rich because you sound posh and went to private school and have loads of money? – Annie McGrath
  • Is it possible to mistake schizophrenia for telepathy, I hear you ask – Jordan Brookes
  • Hilary Clinton has shown that any woman can be President, as long as your husband has done it first – Michelle Wolf
  • I spotted a Marmite van on the motorway. It was heading yeastbound – Roger Swift
  • Back in the day, Instagram just meant a really efficient drug dealer – Arthur Smith
  • I’ll tell you what is unnatural in the eyes of God. Contact lenses – Zoe Lyons
  • Elton John hates ordering Chinese food. Soya seems to be the hardest word – Phil Nicol

My personal favourite, though, was Masai Graham’s I got ripped off in Ireland recently. I bought some cocaine from Limerick but the third and fourth lines were a lot shorter”.

What Is The Origin Of (95)?…


A tinker’s damn

This phrase usually follows “not worth a” and means that the subject matter is worthless. You may find that damn is replaced by cuss or curse or that the final n has been dropped in an attempt to bowdlerise the phrase. I have been known to use it but have never given any thought to how it may have come about.

The starting point in our exploration is the term tinker. The noun tinker has been in use since the 13th century at least  often pejoratively, to describe a craftsman, usually itinerant, who mended pots, kettles and other metal household utensils. There is no common consensus on the origin of the word although one theory, which I quite like, is that is from the noise made by lightly hammering on metal.

Although they doubtless performed a useful function, there was a general distrust in mediaeval times of strangers and travellers and tinker – the Scottish variant was tinkler – soon became a portmanteau term for vagrants, travellers, Romanies and the like. As well as enduring a peripatetic lifestyle the tinker was not known for the politeness and subtlety of their language. As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) rather sniffily notes “the low repute in which these, especially the itinerant sort, were held in former times is shown by the expressions “to swear like a tinker, a tinker’s curse or damn, as drunk or as quarrelsome as a tinker””. A tinker had become firmly established as a simile for a reprobate.

Moving on into the 18th century phrases such as “not giving a curse or a damn” or “not worth a curse or a damn”  became common as expressions of studied indifference or worthlessness. Oliver Goldsmith wrote in an essay in 1760, “not that I care three damns what figure I may cut” and one of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, wrote in a letter in 1763 “I do not conceive that any thing can happen ..which you would give a curse to know”.

Perhaps it is not surprising, given the tinker’s noted predilection for swearing, that the two were conflated into one by the early 19th century. John McTaggert wrote in his The Scottish Gallovidian Dictionary of 1824, “a tinkler’s curse she did na care” while Henry David Thoreau noted in his journal in 1839, “’tis true they are not worth a tinker’s damn”. Towards the end of the century Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his novel, St Ives, published in 1894, “I care not a tinker’s damn for his ascension”.

What is not worth a tinker’s damn is Edward H Knight’s alternative suggestion of the derivation of the phrase which appeared in his 1877 edition of The Practical Dictionary of Mechanics. There he defines a tinker’s dam (note the absence of the n) as “a wall of dough raised around a place which a plumber desires to flood with a coat of solder. The material can be but once used, being consequently thrown away as worthless. It has passed into proverb usually involving the wrong spelling of the otherwise innocent word dam”. Alas, for Knight there are earlier examples to be found, all of which restore the innocent n.

And to finish off, to tinker appeared as a verb meaning to work as a tinker around 1590 and then acquired a secondary meaning of being engaged in a worthless or useless way in the mid 17th century. Throughout the centuries the tinker has had to battle with a bad reputation.

The Streets Of London – Part Forty Five


Cockpit Steps, SW1

Connecting Birdcage Walk with Old Queen Street are a set of steps and a narrow passageway which although unprepossessing to the modern eye have an intriguing history to go along with their grade II listing. It doesn’t take a genius to work out their connection with the once popular pastime of cock fighting.

To modern tastes it was a brutal form of entertainment where two cocks were placed into a cockpit and they fought each other until one was killed or critically injured. The gruesome spectacle also offered an opportunity for the onlookers to wager money on the outcome. As a result some fairly complex rules were developed governing the conduct of a fight and geared at ensuring a fair bout between two evenly matched birds. Books were written on the subject but in essence the cocks had to be of the same weight and height and their wings and tails had to be trimmed. Possibly these regulations were the start of developing rules and regulations to govern sporting events.

In England cockfighting established itself as a popular form of entertainment around the 16th century and many towns and areas had their own permanent cockpits where people from all walks of life would meet and gamble. Cockpit Steps mark the site of a royal cockpit – not to be confused with the Royal Cockpit Theatre, part of the Whitehall Palace complex – and was built some time during the 18th century. It was designed to attract the better sort of person, charging a 5 shilling admission fee.


Cockfighting was banned in England and Wales following the passing of the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835 but the popularity of the Royal cockpit had long since waned. It was demolished some time during the second decade of the 19th century and all that remains of it are our steps which used to surround the pit. It is fascinating to stop on the steps and imagine the hub-bub of conversation as monies are wagered and fortunes are won or lost.

But the steps have another intriguing story to tell – one of a dastardly crime and the paranormal. In the late 18th century a soldier, thought to have been an officer of the Coldstream Guards,  stationed at the nearby Horse Guard barracks lured his wife into nearby St James’ Park and murdered her, decapitating her in the process. While he was attempting to dump her body into the lake he was spotted and apprehended by other members of his regiment.

Ever since there have been reports of a headless apparition wearing a red striped dress stained with blood haunting Birdcage Walk, walking down Cockpit Steps towards the lake. Sometimes she has been seen coming out of the lake. The Times carried a report of a sighting in January 1804 by two soldiers, possibly Private George Jones and Richard Donkin of the Coldstream Guards, on sentry duty who were so distressed by the sight that they were declared unfit for any further duty.

One sighting was as recent as 1972. A motorist driving past the steps at night hit a lamp post claiming that he had had to swerve to avoid a headless woman in a blood stained dress. He was acquitted of dangerous driving – I will have to remember that one. Many is the time I have staggered out of the Two Chairmen, opposite Cockpit Steps, but never have I encountered the headless woman. Maybe next time.

A New Day Yesterday – Part Twenty


The proofed copy of my new book, Fifty Clever Bastards, came through one evening at midnight and I couldn’t resist the temptation to print the thing off there and then. Printers are wonderful things but at that time of the night you can well do without paper running out and ink cartridges needed replacing. Still, after about 45 minutes of fulminating, cursing modern technology and feeding the voracious jaws of my printer with paper and ink, I had my baby in my arms.

I decided not to read it at that late hour – a wise decision if there ever was one – and waited until the morning. What became apparent as I worked my way through the script was that whilst there were very few typos, grammatical errors or infelicities of language, it didn’t have a cohesive feel about it. So I set about, no doubt to the annoyance of my editor, standardising date formats, headers and layout.

I noted each change on a separate Word document, hoping that my intentions with each change were crystal clear and that the editor would have no difficulty in interpreting my intentions. A second proof came through and so the process was repeated. It is amazing that however carefully you think you have read something and no matter how many times you go through the document, errors pop up in place where you had not observed them before. It is as though the document had a life of its own. Anyway, I nailed most, if not all, of the latest batch of errors and signed the proof off.

The book was put into production in record time and I was filled with a sense of achievement when I got the email saying it was now on sale on Amazon. The receipt of the physical copies made it all seem real and, I’m pleased to say, early sales are promising. J K Rowling has nothing to worry about – at least at the moment. If you are interested, check the link in the Publications section of this blog.


Rather like Lord Emsworth I derived a lot of pleasure contemplating the progress of my other pet hobby, my pumpkins. I shared the dismay he felt when the Empress started to lose weight when I noticed that my fruits had stopped growing. Worse still, they started to wrinkle and shrivel. Despite lots of water and supplements there were no sign of any improvement.

Readers may recall my attempts to control our garden snail population attracted the interest of no less an organ than the Wall Street Journal. Well, sad to relate, the snails have picked themselves up, dusted themselves down and wrought their revenge. Spotting a free meal they munched with gusto on my ailing pumpkins leaving me with no alternative but to cut them off and throw the fruits on the compost heap. When the don of British gardening, Monty of that ilk, announces on Gardeners’ World that it is a poor year for pumpkins I knew I was on a hiding to nothing.

But nature is if nothing resilient. More fruits have started to appear and the whole process of pollination is in train. I suspect they will be too late to be whoppers but after the setbacks and disappointments of this year, just to have one modest sized one to give BoJ1 would be a triumph. Surely, that is not too much to ask, is it?

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Fifty Eight


Trevor Baylis (1937 – )

The radio is a wonderful invention. It provides company to the lonely, disseminates information and forms of entertainment and allows nations to talk to nations. The receiver, though, needs some form of power, typically electricity or via a battery, to work and without it you are snookered. This is where the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Trevor Baylis, comes in.

With AIDS sweeping through Africa in the 1990s the radio was a vitalmedium for spreading the all-important health information to the more remote communities. The problem, though, was that batteries needed to power the radios were hard to come by and expensive. A TV programme on the subject aired in 1993 spurred Baylis into action.

Tinkering around in his workshop he began experimenting with a hand brace, an electric motor and a small radio. He found that the brace turning the motor acted as a generator which could produce enough energy to power the radio. His next adaptation was to add a clockwork mechanism that meant that a spring could be wound up and as it unwound, the radio would play. On winding his prototype for a couple of minutes the radio played for 14 minutes. Baylis had invented the windup radio which as it was totally reliant upon human power could be a godsend for so-called underdeveloped countries.

Baylis tried to interest companies in his invention but those he approached were dubious as to its commercial value. Nonetheless the invention was showcased on an edition of “Tomorrow’s World” in April 1994 and piqued the interest of an accountant, Christopher Staines, and South African entrepreneur, Rory Stear. With funding from the Liberty Life Group, a South African insurer, Stear and Staines set up a company, BayGen Power Industries, in Cape Town to make a commercial version of Baylis’ invention.

Although Baylis had patented his invention and was involved in the BayGen business, as you would expect with an inductee, all did not go to plan. The company made a small but important change to the original design, using the spring to charge a battery rather than generating the power directly. This subtle change took the radio outside of Baylis’ patent and so he lost control of the product and the revenues that followed from it.

And the radio was successful. A second generation radio was developed in 1997 aimed at Western consumers which would run for an hour on a thirty-second wind. We have one which we use in the garden. The range of products using the technology grew to include a torch – very useful in power cuts – a mobile phone charger and a MP3 player. Showered with honours – he was awarded an OBE in 1997 and CBE in 2015 and was so regularly in the media that he became Pipe Smoker of the Year in 1999 – Baylis saw very little of the financial benefits that flowed from his inventions.

In his latter years Baylis has devoted part of his time to lobbying the British Government to better protect the rights of inventors so that they do not suffer the same fate as him. As he said, “I was very foolish. I didn’t protect my product properly and allowed other people to take my product away. It is too easy to rip off other people’s ideas”.

Nonetheless, Trevor, for bringing the world the wind up radio and getting ripped off in the process, you are 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

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


Ramey’s Medicator

The nose is a good indicator that perhaps your mens sana is not in an entirely corpore sano. Blocked, runny, congested – these are all signs that all is not well. Be that as it may, the nose has another attraction – it has two nostrils which allow access to your interior. Many of our medicines require us to inhale or apply drops but rarely recognise that we have two nostrils. Our latest purveyor of quackery, Alfred H Ramey, did though and his gloriously eccentric device enabled the patient to access all areas.

After sustaining devastating injuries which resulted in him losing a leg during the American Civil War, Ramey settled down to run a market stall selling medicines in Aurora, Illinois. Eventually, through hard work, he had a successful business. Why he decided to patent a do-it-yourself medical aid is unclear but on 3rd June 1890 he and his colleague, Frank D Rollins, filed a patent for their Medicator.

The design was fairly simple. There were three tubes – two which were inserted into the nostrils and one down the throat. An inner chamber contained wadding into which the medicine of choice – naturally, the Medicator came with its own Compound Inhalant – was poured. The vapours from the medicine would be blown up into the nostrils or down into the throat as required, clearing the head of catarrh and the lungs of phlegm. Four inches in size and nickel plated, with a hollow handle which allowed you to store the instructions and a cap for each tube, the Medicator came with four months’ worth of compound inhalant and a tin of nasal ointment, all for ten shillings. Postage was free. The 1905 version featured a moveable mouthpiece for greater comfort.

One of its key selling points was that it didn’t require any medical expertise to use and once you had bought it, it was always at hand. You didn’t even need to use Ramey’s compound inhalant. Despite these obvious attractions Ramey needed to advertise his product extensively and, as we have often observed with quacks, he was not shy in proclaiming its benefits. “cures catarrh, catarrhal deafness, headache, neuralgia, coughs, colds, bronchitis, asthma, hay fever and la grippe or your money refunded”, an advert dating to 1895 proclaimed. “By the aid of this Medicator you are able to force highly medicated air directly to the seat of the disease, reaching even the remotest parts of the head, throat and lungs, cleansing them all of impurities, restoring lost taste and smell and purifying the breath”.

The Inhaler…” it goes on, “is without doubt far superior” – no Carlsberg style probably here – “to any other remedy or device, as there is no irritating power or fluid applied to the diseased and inflamed membranes. On the contrary, nothing but pure and highly medicated air is used, which produces a soothing and cooling sensation to the parts affected, causing almost instant relief”. The advert does, however, attempt to dampen down expectations. “Please remember that chronic or deep seated catarrh cannot be cured in a day or a week but continued use .. according to directions..will effect a positive cure”.

So was it effective or was it just hot air? It is difficult to tell but suffice to say Ramey did nicely out of it being “able to afford material assistance to many of his friends” until his death in 1923. Probably the Medicator, once bought, was the sort of thing that was put in a cupboard and quietly forgotten about.

Bender Of The Week (3)


“OK, I’ll have one for the road”. This story from Darton near Barnsley I came across this week takes the expression a little too literally.

A toper after a few sherbets had the presence of mind to buy a takeaway but on his walk home felt the uncontrollable urge to lie down in the road and succumb to the siren call of Morpheus. He was woken up by a couple of members of the local constabulary, helped to his feet and sent on his way.

It was only when the man had got up that something truly remarkable was observed. During his nap it had rained, leaving a perfect silhouette of the man and takeaway box on the road.

The Old Bill are using the picture and incident to educate the public about the need to drink safely and responsibly. Laudable as that is, I prefer to think that we have a new form of performance art on our hands, far more acceptable than mindless graffiti. I look forward to seeing more examples.

Sporting Event Of The Week


While many people’s attention has turned to the Narcolympics being held in Rio my interest was piqued by a much lower key event held last weekend at the Frognerbadet water park in Oslo – the dodsing world championships.

For the uninitiated competitors perform what might be termed a belly flop from a 10 metre diving board into a pool. The aim is to keep the body as flat as possible for as long as possible and then curl your body just before hitting the water. Marks are awarded for the speed, height and power in the jump off the platform and the resulting distance in the pool, style in the air, how wide the body is spread, the landing and how late the curl is – too late and injury may result – and the spray from the impact.

Held since 2008 this year’s winner was a teenager, Truls Torp. Now that’s what I call sport.

Tales From The Nursery – Part Forty Two


Round and round the garden

This rhyme is ostensibly very simple and nowadays takes the form, “round and round the garden/ went a teddy bear/ one step, two step/ tickle you under there”. The rhyme is accompanied by some actions which involve taking the baby or toddler’s palm and walk on it with in circles with your middle and index fingers. When you get to the phrase “one step”, you move to the inside of the infant’s wrist and at “two steps” on to the inside of the elbow. The final line is accompanied by the adult tickling junior under the armpit. It never fails to amuse them, I’m told.

The clue to dating the rhyme would seem to be the reference to a teddy bear, the cuddly toys that are popular with the little ones. Teddy bears are a relatively recent phenomenon. In November 1902 the US President, Theodore Roosevelt, known as Teddy, was invited to go on a bear hunting trip in Mississippi. Roosevelt’s party cornered, clubbed and tied an American Black Bear to tree after having chased it with a pack of hounds. In deference to his position Roosevelt was offered the opportunity to shoot the poor creature but he declined, stating that it would be unsporting. However, he did suggest the bear be killed to put it out of its misery.


The incident spawned a cartoon by Clifford Berryman published in the Washington Post on November 16th 1902 which in turn prompted Morris Michtom to develop a stuffed toy bear which he sent to the President. Roosevelt allowed Michtom to use his name and so he went into production, putting his bear creation in his shop window with a sign round its neck saying Teddy’s bear. Sales were so good that in 1907 he formed the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company.

Coincidentally, at around the same time the Steiff firm in Germany had produced a stuffed bear, although it is unlikely, at least at first, that either manufacturer knew what the other was up to. Early teddy bears were made to look like real bears whereas the modern versions have larger eyes and foreheads and smaller noses to make them more friendly and winsome.

So a 20th century origin seems a slam dunk, particularly as it did not appear in print until the late 1940s. But.. and there is a big but. There are at least two other variants. One features a hare: “round about there/ sat a little hare/ the bow-wows came and chased him/ right up there”. And in Ireland we find a slight variant, “round and round the racecourse/ catch a little hare/ one step, two steps/ thickly under there!

Although these cannot be dated with any precision, it seems to me unquestionable that they are variations on the same theme and that while the popular teddy bear version cannot be other than a 20th century version, there is no reason to believe that the basic rhyme format is of older vintage. After all, tickling, playing with and trying to amuse a baby has been part and parcel of parenthood since the year dot.


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