A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tales From The Nursery – Part Forty Five


Jack Be Nimble

This is a short rhyme which first appeared in the 1815 edition of Gammer Gurton’s Garland and goes as follows, “Jack be nimble/ Jack be quick/ Jack jumped over/ A candlestick”. It is occasionally followed by a second verse, “Jack jumped high/ Jack jumped low/ Jack jumped over/ and burned his toe”. I suppose it served him right for dicing with danger by jumping over a naked flame.

We have seen in other rhymes that Jack is used as a generic description for a boy or a man and there is no reason to suppose that the usage here is any different. But there are those who are determined to attribute this rather simple and charming rhyme to something or someone of historical import. Our first suspect is Calico Jack Rackham, a pirate who operated in the Caribbean until his eventual capture and execution in 1720. His principal claims to fame were the natty design that he employed on his flag – white skull and cross bones on a black background – and the fact that two of his crew were female, Anne Bonny and Mary reed. They both escaped dancing the hemp jig because they were with child. Whilst he was obviously a picaresque character there is no reason to suppose that he is the Jack of our rhyme. His only nimbleness was his evasion of the long arm of the law for some time.

The next suspect is the dread disease, yellow fever, which was popularly known as yellow Jack. In days before medicine was as advanced as it is now one common form of treatment for a victim of the fever was to light a fire in their room in the hope that the flames would draw out the fever. It probably did not work but at least the patient was kept warm. As a precaution when there was an outbreak of fever, lit candles would be placed by the side of a child’s bed to guard it against the disease. The theory goes that the rhyme is an invocation to the fever to avoid the candle and, therefore, the child so protected and to leap into the fire, thus eliminating the danger of infection. Ingenious as this may be, there is no compelling reason to think it is the case.

The third suspect is the pursuit of candle jumping which formed part of the St Catherine’s Day celebrations on 25th November in more innocent times. The participant was required to jump over a two-foot-tall lighted candle. If this was achieved successfully without knocking it over or extinguishing the flame, then the celebrant would have good luck for the following year. Failing to clear the flame could result in an injury such as Jack suffered, perhaps the harbinger of the ill fortune that will follow. Particularly popular amongst the lace makers of Buckinghamshire the practice rather petered out in the late 19th century, perhaps because of ‘elf and safety concerns.

Lace making wasn’t an exclusively female occupation so we don’t have to worry that Jack is a male. Of the three theories, this is the most compelling but I can’t help thinking that this is an unnecessarily elaborate explanation for a simple rhyme. Perhaps we should just be content with taking it at face value, an amusingly uncomplicated rhyme. But where would be the fun in that?

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Sixty Five


Jerry Siegel (1914 – 1996) and Joe Shuster (1914 – 1992)

Up in the sky, look: It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman”. Superman is one of the most enduring superheroes to have appeared in American comics. The man from the planet Krypton wandered around Earth as Clark Kent on the look-out for possible trouble and adventure. The stories of his astonishing derring-do in the fight against evil have enchanted millions and filled the coffers of publishers and movie companies over decades. But who created him and did they get a sizeable share of the pie?

From around 1933 Messrs Siegel, a writer, and Shuster, an artist, had been developing the idea of a character who would turn out to be Superman. The story goes that Siegel’s father< Mitchell, died on 2nd June 1932 during a robbery staged at his second-hand clothes store in Cleveland. Although the coroner claimed that Siegel’s dad died of a heart attack, the police report indicated that gunshots were heard. In memory of his Dad Siegel created a character who was immune to bullets and would wage war against evil. Shuster was corralled to provide the artwork.

Coming up with an idea and selling it are two different things. The duo’s original idea was to sell it to a newspaper syndicate to be run as a cartoon strip with them retaining ownership and rights to the Kryptonite. Unfortunately, they were unable to find any takers. By now they were working for National Allied Publications and struck a deal in March 1938 with their successor company, Detective Comics, Inc. Under the terms of the contract the duo assigned all rights, goodwill and title to Superman to Detective Comics for the princely sum of $130.

Superman first appeared on the cover of Action Comics on 18th April 1938 and was an overnight sensation. Siegel travelled to New York to meet the co-owner of Detective Comics, Harry Donenfeld, in an attempt to renegotiate the ill-advised contract but was told to do one. The owners did throw the duo some scraps, offering them first refusal on any other creations they may come up with, allowing themselves a six-week window to make a decision. Siegel presented them with the idea of Superboy, stories of Superman’s childhood but encountered radio silence. True to form, Superboy appeared in More Fun Comics whilst Siegel was serving in the army, the script being largely based on Siegel’s script and using Shuster’s illustrations.

In 1948 the pair launched legal action to regain control of the characters and to get a “just share” of all the profits that had been made out of Superman. They failed to wrest control of the character but did get occasional slices of the action but not enough to transform their lives of penury. Their partial breakthrough came when DC Comics sold the film rights to Warner Brothers in 1975. Anxious to avoid any bad press which might have marred the launch of their block-buster movie in 1978 starring Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando et al, the film company agreed to pay the pair $20,000 a year and include their names on all credits on future Superman publications.

The story didn’t end there. In 1999, after Siegel had died, his family finally won rights to half of his creation. But that decision was immediately challenged and the only ones who have subsequently got rich out of the whole mess are the lawyers.

Siegel and Shuster, for giving the world Superman and giving him away for $130, you are worthy inductees 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

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


Jemmy Hirst (1738 – 1829)

Born in Rawcliffe, just outside Goole in the East Riding of Yorkshire (as was) James showed early signs of his later eccentricity. As a boy, he kept a jackdaw as a pet and started a life-long career in training animals to do unusual things by persuading a hedgehog to follow him around.

His descent from mild eccentricity to the full-blown version seems to coincide with being ill-starred in love. Hirst rescued his betrothed from a river in full spate but despite his derring-do the poor unfortunate woman died of smallpox. Devastated, he retired to his bed where he is said to have contracted “brain fever”. Although Hirst recovered physically, he was never the same again.

He trained a bull called Jupiter as if it were a horse, teaching it to pull a carriage. The carriage was a splendid affair, made of wicker and having large wheels and was said to contain a double bed and a cellar of wine. It was fitted with an odometer of Hirst’s own design which rang a bell when each mile was completed. Contemporary reports describe it looking like an upside-down lamp shade. Not content with having the poor bull pulling a carriage, he also rode it as if it were a horse and cut a rather dashing figure at a local fox hunt astride the bull, accompanied by pigs rather than a pack of hounds.

Hirst decided to adapt his carriage and fitted it with sails to make what would have been the world’s first land boat. After some initial trial runs along the lanes of Rawcliffe he was sufficiently confident to attempt a trip to Pontefract. “Having a fair wind he went at a dashing speed. When he reached the town everyone turned out to see the wonderful ship that sailed on dry land”. But disaster struck. “when Jemmy reached the first cross-street a puff of wind caught him sideways, upset the carriage and flung Jemmy through the window of a draper’s shop, smashing several panes”. Despite paying for the damage and buying the onlookers copious amounts of ale the authorities banned him from repeating his journey.

Hirst’s notoriety spread far and wide and he received an invitation to visit King George III. Initially, he declined the invitation, writing in response “Well, thou may tell his Majesty that I am very busy just now, training an otter to fish – he found it difficult to get the otter to let go of the fish –but I’ll contrive to come in a month or so”. When he did grace the king with a visit he wore “an otter-skin coat – I hope the pelts were not from beasts that refused to co-operate with his training regime – , patchwork breeches, red and white striped stockings and yellow boots”. The courtiers were aghast and the Duke of Devonshire burst out laughing. In response Hirst threw a glass of water over him as the Duke, he surmised, was suffering a hysterical fit.

When he got to see the king, Hirst did not bow but shook the monarch by the hand, complimenting him on being a “plain-looking fellow”. They hit it off and Hirst left inviting the king to visit him in Rawcliffe for brandy – somehow the king was never able to take him up – and with a stock of wines from the royal cellar.

Naturally, Hirst made elaborate arrangements for his eventual demise. He had a custom-made coffin “with folding doors in which were bull’s eyes of glass to peep through and a bell to ring when he wanted anything from the grave”. He stood the coffin up in his house and charged gentlemen a penny and ladies a garter to stand in it. When he did snuff it, in 1829, he left in his will £12 for twelve old maids to follow his coffin and a piper and fiddler to play happy songs. Only two maids could be found to oblige and the priest, a spoil sport for sure, only allowed the piper to play O’er the hills and far away – a pretty apt description of Jemmy Hirst, I think.

I Don’t Want To Belong To Any Club That Will Accept People Like Me As A Member – Part Thirty Two

Society of Noviomagians

The Noviomagians

Our story begins in 1828 when William Jerdan, Crofton Croker and some other members of the Society of Antiquaries travelled out to deepest Kent to excavate the site of what was thought to have been a Roman camp called Noviomagus. They unearthed the foundations of a temple and some coffins and fired by the success of their enterprise Croker treated his fellow Antiquarians to a talk on their discoveries on November 28th. Shortly thereafter, they founded a club, named after the camp, the Noviomagians.

It was a rather eccentric club with a restricted membership – you had to be a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. They dined six times a year, initially at Wood’s Hotel in Portugal Street, just off Lincoln’s Inn Fields, before transferring their patronage at a much later date to the Freemasons’ Tavern. On the first Saturday of July, the club went for a trip to the country, ladies being invited to attend and they were treated to a reading of a historical or antiquarian paper by one of the members. What fun!

The club had a range of positions including Lord High President, a role which Crofton Croker bagged until his death, Father-Confessor, Poet laureate, the Seneschal and the Extraordinary Physician. Visitors were welcome and over the years such eminent figures as Dickens and Thackeray were in attendance. The club had a coat of arms which featured a butter-boat rampant.

The true eccentricity of the club lay in the topsy-turvy way in which they transacted business. Resolutions were only adopted if they were greeted with a majority of Noes. When a toast was proposed in honour of a guest, the speaker was expected to say what he did not mean and to leave unsaid what he really intended to say. The Minutes were a piece of work, written with the objective of misrepresenting what had actually been said. However, jokes were to be faithfully recorded as were descriptions of the artefacts that were passed around at the convivial dinners. As one observer noted, the meetings were “often exceedingly instructive and always entertaining but in the midst of these high-jinks enjoyments, it must not be thought that the real business of Archaeological enquiry and science was quite neglected”.

The minutes of the proceedings of the club were printed and many have survived. To give you a flavour here is an extract from the meeting held on Wednesday 16th April 1845. “A subdued tone prevailed on the occasion in question, for more than five minutes after the cloth was removed; and several members were detected talking sense. This, however, was not an easy matter and did not last long”. It was at this meeting that subscriptions were increased from £2 a season to £3 to cover the increased cost of printing the minutes. The meeting also heard for the time a vaguely amusing joke; Louis XVIII ate so many oysters when he visited Colchester that he was thereafter dubbed Louis des huitres. What do you expect for £3 a year?

As proceedings drew to a close the membership grew increasingly more mellow or as the minutes more eloquently put it, “each succeeding hour shook fresher roses on the table and invoked brighter thoughts and feelings”. They departed echoing Rouchefoucault’s maxim, qui vit sans folie, n’est pas si sage qu’il croit.

They passed their convivial times together until the club disbanded in 1892.

The Streets Of London – Part Fifty Four


Birdcage Walk, SW1

I have walked along Birdcage Walk many a time and never really given much thought as to why it has its rather charming name. Running from the south-east corner of Buckingham Palace to the intersection with Great George Street, Horse Guards Road and Storey’s Gate it forms a boundary to the southern side of St James’s Park.

St James’s park is the oldest of the capital’s royal parks. Originally a marshy water meadow it housed a leper hospital from the 13th century until in 1532 Henry VIII acquired the site to create a deer park. He also built a palace, St James’s, there and James the First made further modifications, improving the drainage and controlling the water.

The first clue to the origin of our thoroughfare’s name is to be found in Storey’s Gate. The Storey after whom the gate was named was Edward who held the post of keeper of the King’s birds. It seems that James the First had a penchant for collecting wild animals and birds and they were housed along the southern edge of the park. Charles II redesigned the park, planting rows of trees and laying down lawns. He threw the park open to the general public and would often be seen feeding the ducks and mingling with the hoi polloi.

The extensive collection of cages and aviaries housing exotic species was a great draw. On Sunday 18th August 1661 Samuel Pepys graced it with his presence as he was in the area, noting “and then to walk in St James’s Park, and saw great variety of fowl which I never saw before and so home”. Another visitor, John Evelyn, gives a more extensive account of the attractions than the rather laconic Pepys, when he went there on 9th February 166.

I went to St Ja: Pke, where I examined the throate of the Onocratylus or Pelecan” which was a gift from the Russian Ambassador. “It was diverting to see”, he continues, “how he would tosse up and turne a flat fish, plaice or flounder to get it right into his gullet, for it has one at the lower beake which being filmy stretches to a prodigious widenesse when it devours a great fishe”. Despite the amusement value it afforded to on-lookers, Evelyn regarded it as a “melancholy bird”.

There were penguins, storks and cranes to be seen, all of which seemed to be munching their way through the fish stocks of the lake. One creature that took Evelyn’s fancy was one of a pair of Balearian Cranes which “having had one of his legges broken and cut off above the knee, had a wodden or boxen leg and thigh with a joynt for the knee so accurately made, that the poore creature could walk with it and use it as well as if it had been natural”. The artificial limb had been fashioned by a soldier.

As well as birds there were “also deere of severall countries, white, spotted like leopards, antelope, an elke, rede deers, robucks, staggs, guinny goats and Arabian sheep” on display. Evelyn’s final comment was, “the withy potts or nests for the wild foule to lay in, a little above the surface of the water was very pretty”.

The Walk in our street’s name owes its origin to a restriction in its usage. Until 1828 only the Royal Family and the Hereditary Grand Falconer were permitted to ride along it; everyone had to go on foot. Glad to see literalism still survives.

Gastropod Of The Week


I hesitate to return to the subject of snails but this story which I stumbled on this week is astonishing in so many ways.

A woman in Tel Aviv was out walking when she heard a rather loud crunching sound. Looking down she realised that she had trodden on a snail and crushed its shell. In such circumstances most people would either just walk on or have another go to make sure that the creature had been put out of its agony. But not she.

Instead she scooped the creature and rushed to the nearest vets, the Haclinica veterinary hospital. Even more astonishingly, the staff agreed to repair the creature using epoxy glue and making sure that the adhesive stayed on the outer shell.

The snail, now named Chevy, is on the road to recovery – slowly, of course.

Campanologist Of The Week


Of course, it is Ian Bowman whose accident last Saturday evening in the bell tower at Worcester cathedral has been well publicised. His foot got caught in the ropes and to his consternation he was pulled up and flipped over, before plunging down and hitting the belltower’s marble floor. He broke a bone in his back and had to be winched down 80 feet to safety.

Bowman’s ordeal brought to mind Gerard Hoffnung’s wonderful Bricklayer’s story. The said bricklayer was using a barrel and a pulley system to bring some bricks down. “Unfortunately, the barrel of bricks was heavier than I was and before I knew what was happening, the barrel started down, jerking me off the ground. I decided to hang on.

Halfway up, I met the barrel coming down…and received a severe blow on the shoulder.

I then continued to the top, banging my head against the beam and getting my fingers jammed in the pulley.

When the barrel hit the ground, it burst it’s bottom..allowing all the bricks to spill out.

I was now heavier than the barrel and so started down again at high speed.

Halfway down…I met the barrel coming up and received severe injury to my shins.

When I hit the ground..I landed on the bricks, getting several painful cuts from the sharp edges.

At this point..I must have lost my presence of mind..because I let go of the line.

The barrel then came me a very heavy blow and putting me in hospital”.

At least Bowman didn’t let go!

What Is The Origin Of (116)?…



It’s a funny thing. When I was younger I and my contemporaries used to raise our eyebrows and sigh contemptuously when older folk banged on about how things were not like they were in the (usually good) old days. But I find that I now I have reached a certain age, this is what I am doing too. We were having a discussion about childhood and the way children were brought up these days and one of our party ventured the opinion that they were mollycoddled, a verb (in this case in its passive form) used to indicate the treatment of someone in an indulgent or over-protective way. It struck me as an interesting compound verb worthy of some investigation.

Molly was an acknowledged pet name for a woman called Mary but over time became associated with the low living. The play The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, written around 1611, told the life story of one Mary Frith, also known as Moll Cutpurse, a notorious bandit of the time. Whether this usage set a precedent or was a reflection of an established idiom is unclear but from around that time molly began to be used as slang for a prostitute or a woman of ill-repute

In the 18th century, however, it gained another connotation, referring to effeminate or homosexual men. Miss Molly was used as a pejorative term for what we would now term a gay and a molly house was a male brothel. Today, molly has another meaning, used to describe a pure form of the drug, MDMA, or ecstasy.

Coddle appeared in print somewhat later. Jane Austen’s Emma, published in 1815, contained the line, “be satisfied with doctoring and coddling yourself”. It is clear that the sense here is of looking after yourself, resting up, letting your body recover from whatever is ailing you. The other meaning associated with the verb is to cook at just below boiling point, to parboil. It is probable that it was linked to the noun, caudle, which was used to describe a warm drink given to the sick, which in turn almost certainly owed its origin to an abbreviation of the Latin noun, calidus, meaning warm,.

Caudle first appeared in 1297 and a recipe dating to the early 14th century lists the ingredients of caudle as wine, wheat starch, raisins and some sugar “to abate the strength of the wine”. A more detailed recipe dating from the late 14th century recommends mixing breadcrumbs, wine, sugar or honey and saffron together, bringing them to the boil, adding egg yolks and sprinkling with salt, sugar and ginger. It was particularly administered to women in their pregnancy.

One of the earliest usages of mollycoddle, as a noun, appeared in William Thackeray’s Pendennis, published in 1849. There the eponymous hero is told, “you have been bred up as a molly-coddle, Pen, and spoilt by the women”. This has the modern sense and it is clear that molly has its pejorative sense of softness, if not effeminacy.

So there we have it, a fascinating word with an interesting history.

On My Doorstep – Part Seventeen


The great circus raid of 1916

Circuses are somewhat infra dig these days but you can imagine in earlier and less politically correct times the frisson of excitement that would pass through a community when it was announced that a travelling show would visit the area. So it was when it was announced that a circus would pitch up on some land owned By George Doman along the Frimley Road one Monday in September 1916. Some three or four thousand were drawn to the attraction, drawn from the neighbouring villages of Frimley, Frimley Green and Camberley.

But the circus that evening would feature another attraction, not advertised on the bill board which for some would have a life-changing effect. The local army recruiting officer, Colonel Ponsonby Watts, figured that the allure of the circus would be irresistible for the youth of the area and a magnet for “eligible men who had not yet reported themselves for service”. The redoubtable Colonel put plans in foot to carry out a raid of the circus with the assistance of the local police, the special constabulary and a platoon of the Volunteer Training Corps.

The performance began at 8 o’clock and the raiding party waited in nearby Woodlands Road whilst the Colonel and Sergeant Kenward notified the proprietors of the circus of what they intended to do. The raiding party was moved into position, securing all exits from the big top and Ponsonby Watts and Kenward marched into the ring, announced to all assembled that in the name of the King they were going to examine the papers and documents of all men present of military age. They were invited to enter the ring where the inspection took place.

For some the game was up but one or two who were “shy” in the words of contemporary reports either stayed in their seats or tried to escape. One fled under the tent but was captured by three Volunteers while a female performer dressed as a man enquired whether they needed her to sign up.

The tent was lit by acetylene jets supplied by a generator at the foot of the centre tent pole. The lights suddenly went out – it was thought that someone anxious to evade detection had shut the gas supply off – and many of the women and children in the audience started to shriek and cry. A match was then thrown on the generator which started a fire, although this was quickly extinguished. Order was restored, although the gas jets could not be re-ignited and the light was so gloomy that the inspection had to be abandoned.

Sergeant Kenward then thanked the crowd for their forbearance and the coolness with which they had behaved, reminding them that what had taken place was in the national interest. To round the proceedings off, as you do, he conducted the audience in a rousing rendition of the National Anthem. The crowd then dispersed, robbed of their evening’s entertainment but given something to talk about for months to come. The newly formed B Group had the names of some 60 or so lads under the age of 18 who would soon swell their ranks.

A novel way of recruiting, for sure, and another reason for giving the circus a swerve.

Book Corner – February 2017 (2)


The Man Who Ate The Zoo – Richard Girling

I have always been fascinated by zoophagy. If there is a creature on a menu that I haven’t tasted before, then I have to try it. Often from a taste perspective I wish I hadn’t but then, as Aeschylus said, experience teaches. I would have loved an invitation to dine with the 19th century naturalist, William Buckland, who regularly treated his guests and family to meals of hedgehogs, snails, puppies and, the speciality of the house, mice on toast, a treat John Ruskin was disappointed to have missed.

With a father like that, it is no wonder that Frank, the subject of Girling’s magnificent romp of a book, would be a convert to zoophagy. As a boy he was forever catching, dissecting, cooking and eating small animals, a penchant that not only got him into the occasional scrape with the beak but also ensured that his lodgings were enveloped in the miasma of stench and decay. At Oxford, like Byron, he kept a bear (sampled after its demise) as well as a monkey and various other pets, treating his contemporaries to a running commentary as to the merits of various creatures as food. Earwigs were horribly bitter, moles disgusting and the head of a porpoise was like broiled lamp wick. He also befriended keepers at the London Zoo who would contact him when one of the animals died to see if he wanted to eat it.

There was a serious point to the zoophagy. Food famines were rife and the hunt was on to see if there were other sources of protein that could be brought to Blighty to feed the malnourished. This led to the birth of the Acclimatisation of Animals movement, of which Frank (natch) was a leading light, that tried to find species that would prosper in our climate and would be tolerable to eat. Elaborate feasts were held to try out kangaroo and sea cucumber. Buckland’s enthusiasm for exotica did have limits. He thought the 1868 campaign to promote hippohagy would not get anywhere, even though it climaxed in a dinner attended by 160 of the great and good who chomped their way through several courses of horse.

Buckland was a great conservationist and, perhaps, his most lasting legacy was the work he did, ultimately as one of Her Majesty’s Inspector of Salmon Fisheries, to understand the lifecycle of fish and the effect of pollution on their habitat. He would often be found in the rivers themselves, seeing how best a salmon might leap up a waterfall and positioning a jump exactly to suit. Alas, his enthusiasm was his undoing, a soaking fatally weakening his health.

For me, the second half of the book detailing his professional career was not as engaging as the first but that is a minor quibble. Girling’s book is well-paced, light, engaging and amusing and thoroughly recommended, if you have a spare book token over from Christmas.

And why is Buckland now forgotten? Girling posits three reasons. He was a popular scientist – he was a prolific writer using what was in those times an amusing, light touch to explain the wonders of nature. Serious scientists aren’t supposed to be popular. Secondly, he backed the wrong horse. He was not an adherent of Darwin, even though some of Buckland’s observations brought him perilously close to thinking that there may be something in this evolution nonsense but his ingrained faith made him loyal to the idea of a divine master plan. And finally, one of his last deeds was to publish a report stating that fish stocks were inexhaustible and there was no need to restrict fishing. Girling, to his credit, resists the temptation to argue that Buckland was so ill that someone else wrote the report for him. Buckland, to the last, was a creature of his time.