There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part One Hundred and Five

Robert Propst (1921 – 2000)

An inventor has many obstacles to overcome to bring their idea to fruition. But even when it has seen the light of day and made their fame and fortune, they may be struck by another problem, something that might be characterised as inventor’s remorse. They have released a genie from the bottle and wish that they had let things be. One such, whom I featured in my recent book, The Fickle Finger, was Walter Hunt who came up with the first workable sewing machine and immediately feared for the employment prospects of hand weavers and sought to suppress it. Robert Propst could fairly be claimed to be another.    

Colorado-born Propst was a serial inventor with some 120 to his credit, including such things as a vertical timber harvester, a quality control system for concrete, an electronic tagging system for livestock, and a mobile office for quadriplegics. His claim to fame and the root cause of his bout of inventor’s remorse was to invent the Action Office whilst heading up the research division of furniture manufacturers, Herman Miller. In the 1960s Propst set out to reinvent the rather sterile office environment, based on the underlying premise that he worked better and seemed healthier and happier when he had different surfaces upon which to work.

In an attempt to move away from the serried rows of desks and the cacophony of noise and the clouds of cigarette smoke that were typical of offices at the time, with only the management having discrete areas of their own, he proposed what he called the “Action Office”. The layout of an office was to be defined by lightweight sitting and standing desks, filing systems and each worker’s space compartmentalised by acoustic panels which muffled extraneous sounds of conversation and typing.

Revolutionary as this way of organising and furnishing an office was, it did not meet much favour with the American corporate world. It seemed to be designed to meet the needs of the lowly workers rather than the businesses that needed to house them. Beloved by designers and, ironically, bought by executives for home use, Propst’s Action Office proved a damp squib.

Showing the tenacity that characterises many an inventor, Propst was undaunted and worked on a mark two. This time the acoustic panels were designed as miniature walls, varying in height, allowing the worker inside to have a degree of privacy and seclusion and yet see and communicate with their colleagues. As they were much lighter in weight and easier to construct, they were highly flexible. The corporate world saw the sense of having office furniture offering an extremely flexible and dynamic solution to fitting an ever-changing number of employees into limited floor space. Propst’s Action Office 2 went down a storm.

Unfortunately, businesses saw Propst’s invention as a perfect opportunity to cram as many workers into a set floor space as possible. Instead of an employee having a roomy workspace enclosed by partitions of varying heights allowing different sightlines to enjoy, corporate America installed tiny boxes with partitions of uniform size, making them seem like cages. The eager adoption of Propst’s design system was also aided by a change in tax laws which made it easier for businesses to write off furniture and prompted the adoption of temporary, throwaway structures.  

There were also health concerns. With more workers rammed into smaller spaces, contagious diseases spread more easily, productivity fell, and with more energy efficient and airtight offices, some of the more volatile organic compounds used in the construction of the cubicles like formaldehyde lingered in the air and caused illness. The materials used to construct the cubicles were changed but as time moved on open floorplan configurations became the office layout of choice. That said, some 30% of workers are still housed in box like cubicles.

Propst was horrified by the way his designs were used, spending much of his later life apologising for what he had done. “Not all organisations are intelligent and progressive”, he moaned. “Lots are run by crass people. They make little, bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rathole places”.

But as Walter Hunt found out over a century earlier, once the genie is out of the bottle, it is difficult to put it back in.

If you enjoyed this, check out The Fickle Finger by Martin Fone.

Stork Of The Week

With all the gloom and doom around, it is a pleasure to record some good news. Some white stork chicks have hatched in a nest on the Knepp Estate near Horsham in West Sussex.

At first blush, this news was worth a shrug of the shoulders. That’s nature. However, it is actually a momentous event, the first time that baby white storks have been born in the wild in the UK in centuries, the last recorded instance being from 1416 when a pair of white storks were found nesting on the roof of St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. It seems that since then they have been too busy delivering other people’s babies to bother about their own.

The White Stork Project hope to have established over 50 breeding pairs of white storks in southern England by 2030. The co-owner of the estate, the appropriately named Isabella Tree, cooed, “when I hear that clattering sound now, coming from the tops of our oak trees where they’re currently nesting at Knepp, it feels like a sound from the Middle Ages has come back”.

I wish them every success.

Culinary Tip Of The Week (4)

One of the purposes of this blog is to ask, and possibly answer, those deep and meaningful questions which beset us as we lead our daily lives. Is it possible, for example, to open a cube of Oxo without some of the contents all over the place. Such is the mess I make when opening the tin foil that I have had to resort to using gravy granules.

It turns out that I, and I’m sure many others, have been guilty of what can only be described as Oxo-cube abuse.

If you look closely at the foil packet, you will see that it has tabs on the side. Instead of ripping the packaging to get at the contents, you should lift up the tabs to produce a flattened package and crush the stock inside the packaging. You then have a piece of foil with your gravy granules on it which you can then carefully pour into your jug without causing a mess.

Simple really.

What Is The Origin Of (283)?…

Good enough for Punch

Writing comedy is a difficult and soul-destroying occupation. What one person may find funny, may pass another by. Then there are cultural differences and linguistic nuances, often themselves a cause for unintended humour, to consider. Even if you have cracked all that, the attrition rate for gags in a sustained piece of comedic writing is high. I take my hat off to the very few writers who can pull it all off with off with aplomb. The problems do not end there. What seemed an absolute rib-tickler in another age barely warrants a smile and more often is greeted with an exasperated sigh years later.

A case in point are the jokes to be found in the weekly magazine founded in 1841 by Henry Mayhew, together with a wood-engraver by the name of Ebeneezer Landells, Punch, alternatively known as The London Charivari. Charivari, possibly Italian in origin, was used by Francesco Stelluti to describe a ritual he had observed in the Umbrian town of Acquasparta in the 1620s. It was a shaming ritual carried out by villagers to show their disapproval of a second or other seemingly inappropriate marriage. Pots and pans were banged and, by extension, the word was used to describe any loud, cacophonous noise or hubbub.     

In England, these exhibitions of disapproval were also known as skimmington or skimmington ride. On some occasions the wrongdoer would be dragged from their home and paraded through the town or village, often dunked in a pond or river. Alternatively, a neighbour would impersonate the neighbour and sing ribald songs about them or an effigy was used and burned at the end of the proceedings.

The London Charivari or Punch soon made its mark as the foremost humorous magazine of its time and to have an illustrated joke, or cartoon as they became known, was the highest accolade that a humourist could achieve. If a joke or a scenario was considered to be very funny, it was said to be good enough for Punch.

Perhaps the earliest example of it in print comes from the report of the Cotswold Harriers in Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle of December 21, 1872. The hunting party were celebrating a successful meet and a local asked the Master of the Hounds for a hare that had been caught to have for his supper. The Master refused, saying he wouldn’t let him have it even for fifty pounds. “Moi eyes, rejoined the rustic, oi didn’t know he were worth so much as that. It was good enough for Punch”.

By extension, the phrase was used to indicate the gold standard for other pursuits, even oratory. The Cheltenham Chronicle of October 7, 1873 was in awe of the oratory of a prospective parliamentary candidate, William Tally. It noted that “his address from first to last is good enough for Punch”.

Not surprisingly, Punch used the phrase in its own advertising copy as this rather effusive advert, which appeared in the Whitstable Times and Tankerton Press on March 31, 1928 shows; “Good enough for Punch is the highest praise of a joke. All the best jokes are in Punch. Take Punch and you will be as pleased as Punch”. As humour went in Punch, that is almost as good as it gets.        

Book Corner – May 2020 (3)

Wax – Ethel Lina White

One thing I have learned from my brief writing career is that if you have a good idea, exploit it for all it’s worth. This seems to have been the mantra of one of my favourite writers from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, Ethel Lina White, sadly languishing in relative obscurity these days. This book started out in short story format, Waxworks, and published in Pearson’s Magazine in 1930. I came across it in one of Martin Edwards’ wonderful anthologies, Silent Nights. White then worked it up into full-length novel format and published it in 1935 as Wax. And therein hangs my difficulty.

The short story was so good and to the point that the novel, in comparison, seems a tad pedestrian. Perhaps I would have had a different view of it if I had not read the short story first. That is not to say that the novel is disappointing, it’s just that the short story struck me as better, the writing tauter and the narrative moving on at pace. The premise behind the story feeds into one of our primal fears, being locked up in a spooky place where things go bump in the night and seemingly inanimate objects move.      

The opening is excellent. The caretaker of the Waxworks in Riverpool, Mrs Ames, thinks that her husband had left a candle burning and in the middle of the night enters the gallery at two in the morning. She has an uneasy feeling whilst there, telling her husband on her return, “those figures were up to some business of their own. And I felt in my bones that it was no good business either”.

The Waxworks had had a chequered history, with a number of strange deaths. It was creepy, some of the exhibits had seen better days and its was used as a meeting place for secret trysts by the randier segment of Riverpool society.

Sonia Thompson enters the story, a young lady, wanting to make her name in journalism. On her first visit to the gallery, she thinks she sees two people come to life. She gives the gallery some publicity but is warned off from the museum. In her investigations Sonia begins to discover that the seemingly respectable Riverpool isn’t all that it seems and we enter a world of drug dealing and illicit affairs. Determined to get to the bottom of the secrets of the Waxworks, the plucky Sonia decides that the only answer is to spend a night alone with the dummies overnight.

As with the short story, the ending has quite a twist to it. White does a fine job in evoking the atmosphere of the Gothic horror show that is the Waxworks and the tricks that our senses and emotions can play on us. It also has a satirical twist to it, puncturing the veneer of a small town. One of my favourite characters is Alderman Cuttle, whose ambition is to become mayor, and despite his overt womanising, seems incredibly popular. We begin to understand the cause of his popularity and the darker side to his character. The alert reader will spot hints and clues that all is not quite what it seems.

What struck me most about the book is the character of Sonia Thompson, a thoroughly modern woman, resourceful, intelligent and able to stand on her own to feet. For the period in which the book was written, she seems remarkable. Even when she falls for the inevitable, if not mandatory, love story line, she insists that even as a married woman, she would earn her own living. A proto-feminist, for sure.

Thompson’s character is contrasted with the resignation of a married woman who laments, “a married woman is absolutely dependent on some man who may let her down. When she’s no longer young, he may desert her for a younger woman. Or, unless the new Act becomes law, he may die and leave every penny away from her”.      

On the whole I enjoyed the book but it was not one of White’s best and I rather wished I hadn’t read the short story beforehand. Ah, well.

Face Mask Of The Week

I’m not sure about face masks, but I do carry one around with me in my pocket in case my mysophobia gets to a level where I feel I must wear one.  As someone who wears glasses and likes to breathe, failure to breathe seems to be the common denominator amongst all dead people, I find that when I wear one my spectacles mist up. My other problem with them is that you can’t pop something into your mouth and if out pubs ever reopened again, how would you wear one and consume your drink?

Help may be at hand, courtesy of Ellen Macomber, an enterprising artist from New Orleans. Concerned that the coverings may get in the way of activities that the wearers may want to do, like drinking, she has come up with a nifty range that feature a hole just large enough to fit a straw to enable the wearer to sip a cocktail. Retailing at $30 each, they are not cheap, but they may just prove a hit.

Ellen has warned potential purchasers that they are not the best protection against the Covid-19 virus because of the obvious hole in their armoury.

Still, for every problem there is at least one solution.