Sporting Event Of The Week (24)

With the country going to hell in a handcart (, it is good to know that we Brits still retain a sense of humour and take time out to celebrate our sporting ineptitude with gusto.

Last Saturday the Chap Olympiad was held at Firle Vintage Fair in East Sussex. There was a typically eccentric range of sports on display including Umbrella Jousting in which contestants, wearing only a bowler hat for protection, try to dismount each other from their bicycles using a furled umbrella as a weapon and a briefcase as an ersatz shield, and the Cucumber Sandwich Discus, where the object is to hurl a paper plate with a cucumber sandwich (on crust-free bread, naturally) as far as possible without the sandwich leaving the plate.

A particular favourite of mine is a new addition to the list of events, the Picnic Vault. Here contestants using two walking canes must vault over a couple taking a picnic on the croquet lawn, without causing injury or spilling their cocktails. An invaluable life skill, I think, which will see us through even the direst emergencies.

If you want to see some news footage of the event follow this link

Chin, chin!


What Is The Origin Of (244)?…

Pay through the nose

We all like a bargain. There is nothing worse than when you have handed over your hard-earned cash to buy the object of your desires, you find that you could have got it cheaper elsewhere. If you find that you have paid a considerable amount more, you might consider you have paid through the nose. We use this phrase to convey the sense of paying excessively for something or to be charged exorbitantly but where does it come from?

Probably where it doesn’t come from, contrary to popular opinion, is the novel approach to tax collecting adopted by the Danes in Ireland in the 9th century. Anyone who refused to meet their demands met with a gruesome punishment, their nose was slit. Whether this actually happened or not is one thing, the other is that there is an unexplained gap of around eight centuries before the phrase made its appearance in print and, in any case, you might have expected a reference to the slitting of the nose.

Our old friend, the anonymous B E Gent, defined the term for us in his invaluable A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew from 1699, as to pay “excessively, or with Extortion”. That it was in common parlance, not just amongst the lower orders characterised by the canting crew, can be seen from this reference in the anti-Papist tract, The rehearsal transpos’d, of politician, Andrew Marvell, published in 1672; “The Fanatiks had bought it all up,, and made them pay for it most unconscionably, and through the Nose”.

There is an even earlier usage to be found in the translation of Giovanni Torriano’s A common place of Italian proverbs and proverbial phrases digested in alphabetical order from 1666. There he noted, “oft-times Rich men engrossing commodities, will make one pay through the nose, whereas they might sell the cheaper”. Nothing ever changes, not least the meaning of our phrase.

There were some earlier variants which featured the phrase through the nose. To bore someone through the nose was to deceive them. In Cervantes’ last novel, The Travels of Persiles and Sigismunda, translated into English in 1619, a couple of princes, dressed as poor pilgrims, are bargaining with a painter. The governor of Rome becomes suspicious of the trade and intervenes. The result – “the painter was bored through the nose, seeing his hopes vanished, the chains in another man’s hands than his own, and his portrait in the justice’s hands”.

The Brits have always been suspicious of foreigners and their ways. In 1642 the historian, James Howell, made his particular contribution to the nation’s xenophobia by writing Instructions for Forreine Travel. It is full of advice and cautionary tales for the traveller. In warning against overpaying, Howell sagely remarks, “I have known divers Dutch Gentlemen grossly guld by this cheat, and som English bor’d also through the nose this way, by paying excessive prices for them”.

The playwright, John Fletcher, used a variant in his play, The Night Walker or the Little Thief, published posthumously in 1640; “But I’ll take my order she shall ne’er recover to bore my nose”. He was taken by nose because in his comedy, The Woman’s Prize, from around 1611, he gives one of his characters the lines, “but when I have done all this, and think it duty/ Is’t requisite another bore my nostrils?/ Riddle me that!” A parody of a church service, A Lenten Letany, by John Cleveland, published, perhaps sensibly, posthumously in 1662 contains another variant; “that it may please thee to suppose/ our actions are as good as those/ that gull the People through the Nose”.

It is quite clear that in the seventeenth century the use of the phrase through the nose in a variety of forms was indicative of someone being tricked or cheated. Paying through the nose fits that formula to a tee. There is no need to think it has a reference to the tax collecting methods of Danes whose activities if known at the time were form a distant past. It is more likely to owe its origin to the custom of attaching nose rings to large domestic beasts by which to lead them around and divert them from doing what they would have preferred to have done.

Book Corner – August 2019 (2)

Nice Work – David Lodge

This is the third book in what can loosely be described as Lodge’s Campus Trilogy. Loosely because the book, published in 1988, is set around the University of Rummidge and a few of the old faithful characters, Phillip Swallow, Morris Zapp and their two wives, make appearances and there are fleeting references to incidents in the earlier books. But that is all and the book probably stands on its own. Having given us his take on mediaeval romances in Small World, Lodge takes on the Victorian industrial novel. In a nutshell, it is what happens when Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South meets Thatcherism.

Left wing, feminist, English literature lecturer at the University of Rummidge, Robyn Penrose is Lodge’s Margaret Hale to his John Thornton, Victor Wilcox, an older, conservative, senior manager who lives a humdrum suburban existence with a wife, family and a house with four bathrooms. You get an insight into the mocking humour in the first couple of pages where Victor’s wife, Marjorie, is described as sitting in bed reading her favourite book, Enjoy your Menopause, and takes great pride in her en suite, in avocado, naturally.

This unlikely pair are brought together courtesy of a government initiative in which someone in academia, Robyn, gets to shadow someone in industry, Victor, an arrangement neither of them look forward to with any degree of relish. Through this construct Lodge is able to view their respective worlds through each other’s eyes. Initially, Robyn is disgusted by capitalism red in tooth and claw and through her well-meaning but misguided interference leads to an industrial dispute. Victor, on the other hand, has a poor view of academics, questioning what they contribute.

During the course of the book they grow to begin to understand each other and see that what seemed initially to be two distinct and unconnected worlds are really both trapped in their particular little bubbles. Victor becomes infatuated with Robyn and they have a fling. Robyn tries to distance herself from Victor but the industrialist’s clever ruse is to become Robyn’s shadow.

Lodge doesn’t seem to miss an opportunity to puncture the pretensions of academics. In a seminar Robyn takes on Tennyson’s Locksley Hall, she uses the line “Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change”. Written in 1835, just six years after Stephenson’s Rocket was built, Robyn sees it as Tennyson using the imagery presented by the new-fangled invention to great effect. The pragmatist, Victor, points out that trains do not run on grooves and that Tennyson was, if anything, describing a tram. The image is fatally flawed. It is a delightfully comic moment.

I will not spoil the book save to say that at the end all the characters find some form of inner peace and their financial fortunes are turned upside down. It seemed a little too tidy and the ending appeared a tad rushed, as though Lodge had exhausted the potential of the plot. That said, I found it to be a witty and clever book, a light enough read but with sufficient interest and occasional thought provocation to mark it as a work of some quality.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Ninety Seven

Walter Hunt (1796 – 1859)

If you stop and think about it, and few of us do, the safety pin is a piece of design perfection. It is a pin with a spring mechanism and a clasp which fastens the pin to whatever it is to be attached to and prevents the user from pricking their finger. The design is so simple and effective that it is hard to envisage how it can be improved upon. It has stood the test of time and has barely changed since the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Walter Hunt, came up with the idea.

The story goes that fretting over a $15 debt, Walter was fiddling with a bit of wire. In a flash, the idea of a covered pin came to him and within a few hours, had completed his design. Although he patented the design, he sold it on for somewhere between $100 and $400, a fraction of what he could have earned from it.

And that in a nutshell is the story of Hunt’s career; he was a serial inventor but was so strapped for cash that he sold the patents on often for a modest sum, swapping uncertain future income for the certainty of immediate cash. By the early nineteenth century a vibrant secondary market for patents had emerged where companies or individuals would buy the exclusive rights to inventions. Hunt sold the rights of most of his inventions this way.

Born in Martinsburg, in upper New York state, Walter Hunt trained as a stonemason but ended up working in a local flax mill. He had an inquisitive mind and an inventive streak, he went on to become a serial inventor, and began to potter around to see if he could develop a more efficient form of flax spinner.

Naturally, Walter could and sufficiently encouraged by his model, he applied for and was granted a patent in 1826. Recognising that his machine was a game changer, he wanted to build a business around his invention, but there was one problem. He didn’t have the financial resources to bring his plans to fruition. The solution was to treat his patent as a commodity and sell it to the highest bidder. This became Walter’s modus operandi throughout his career.

And a prolific career it was too.

Among his many inventions, the list is too exhaustive for this vignette, were a coach alarm system, which allowed a coachman to warn pedestrians of oncoming horses, a nail-making machine, a ship which broke up ice, a knife sharpener, a rope-making machine, and a street sweeper. Where they were patented, Walter soon sold them on.

Another of Walter’s brainwaves was to develop a repeating rifle and cartridge system, the design of which would be used by Smith and Wesson. Naturally, Walter saw little financial reward for this innovation.

Some of Walter’s inventions were off the wall, or not, in the case of what was known as an “antipodean apparatus”. Despite its odd name, it was a pair of shoes, which allowed the wearer to walk up walls and ceilings. It went down a storm amongst circus performers. It continued to sell and be used until well into the 1930s, but despite its apparent success, Hunt was on his uppers.

In what must be an early example of inventor’s remorse, wishing that he could put the genie he had released back into the bottle, Walter made a significant breakthrough in the development of the sewing machine. In 1833, he came up with what was the first workable sewing machine. He was concerned that if the machine took off it would damage the employment prospects of seamstresses and so, true to form, sold the rights to a businessman.

The businessman struggled to manufacture the machine commercially and gave up, crucially omitting to patent the design. That seemed to be the end of the story until, in 1846, Elias Howe was awarded a patent for his sewing machine.

Howe was disputatious and launched a series of lawsuits against other sewing machine manufacturers to protect and assert his patent rights. This alerted Walter to the fact that Howe’s design was not dissimilar to the one he developed thirteen years earlier. After a legal battle, Hunt was recognised as the inventor, but the absence of a patent meant that Howe got to keep the intellectual property rights to the machine.

Now enter Isaac Singer.

His iconic sewing machine, the prototype of the machine we know today, incorporated elements from Hunt’s and Howe’s design. Howe took Singer to court for Patent Infringement. In his defence, Singer claimed that Howe had ripped off Hunt’s design. The absence of a patent on Hunt’s machine counted against Singer, who had to pay Howe substantial damages.

As a by-product of this case, Singer eventually agreed, in 1858, to pay Walter $50,000 for incorporating elements of his design in his machine but then fate intervened. Walter died of pneumonia in 1859, before he had received a cent from Singer.

That, I suppose, is the lot of the inventor and why, Walter, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not check out Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone

What Is The Origin Of (243)?…

Sell down the river

Slavery in all its manifestations is abhorrent and, rightly, there is a concerted attempt to raise awareness of the evils of the trade and the ill-gotten gains resulting from this iniquitous practice. But the fact remains that from time immemorial those in power have sought to exploit those they perceive to be weaker and as the practice was so embedded into the way many societies operated that, inevitably, it has left vestiges in the idioms that pepper our language. Take the phrase to sell down the river which in modern parlance means to betray someone usually for your own benefit, for example.

Although the Atlantic slave trade was officially abolished by Britain and other countries in 1807, the demand for slaves to work on the cotton plantations in the southern states of America was so voracious that it is estimated that a quarter of all of the slaves enslaved between 1500 and 1870 were transported illegally across that ocean after 1807. Within the United States, the increasing was met by the development of an internal market where slaves in the north, in the so-called slave-growing states like Kentucky, were sold to plantation owners in the south.

Perhaps the most famous fictional character to suffer this phase was the eponymous hero of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Tom, raised in Kentucky, was sold in middle-age by his owners to help pay their mounting debts. He is transported down the Mississippi in a river boat and ends up in the hands of a sadistic owner, Simon Legree. To give a sense to the extent of the internal slave market it is estimated that In the decade from 1830 nearly a quarter of a million slaves were transported over state lines and that by the start of the Civil War the slave population numbered some 4 million.

The river in question in our phrase is the Mississippi and the original version of the phrase, to go down the river, meant to be sold and transported to a plantation on the lower reaches of the river. Aaron S Fry in his journal for April 1835 reported a truly horrific suicide of a slave; “A Negro man of Mr Elies, having been sold to go down the river, attempted first to cut off both of his legs, failing to do that, cut his throat, did not entirely take his life, went a short distance and drowned himself”.

To sell a slave down the river was to sell them to a plantation lower down the Mississippi and was in currency in 1836. A letter from a J.F.C published in The Christian Register and Boston Observer on September 3rd of that year, noted that the proposed abolition of slavery in 1840 would have one of its consequences that “all who chose could sell their slaves down the river.” And many did and did very well out of it, the Ohio Repository noting in May of the following year, “one man, in Franklin County, has lately realised thirty thousand dollars, in a speculation on slaves, which he bought in Virginia, and sold down the river”. Literally and figuratively.

It was only a matter of time that the phrase would be divorced from its distasteful origins and be used in a figurative sense. The Chicago Daily Tribune, commenting on the controversial sale by Chicago Nationals of a baseball player, Pat Moran, in their edition of May 12, 1910 noted “Pat has been sold “down the river””. And P G Wodehouse, who had a wonderful ear for idioms American or otherwise, wrote in The Small Bachelor, published in 1927, “when Sigsbee Waddington married for the second time, he to all intents and purposes sold himself down the river”.

We use the phrase these days without realising its dark origin.

Gin O’Clock – Part Seventy Two

So, what exactly is cold distillation? I asked myself that question when I picked up the long, elegant, exquisitely beautiful and extremely tactile bottle that houses Oxley Cold Distilled London Dry Gin in the Duty Free shop at Schipol airport.

Well, in a nutshell it is the use of vacuum pressure to bring the temperature at which the neutral grain spirit and the botanicals boil down from 78 Celsius to a much lower point, in the case of Oxley’s gin to -5 degrees Celsius. That’s a pretty impressive scientific achievement but what is the point? Those who know about these things say that one of the problems with the normal method of distillation where the mix is brought to the boiling point of the ethanol is that the botanicals can get cooked and lose some of their natural flavours. By lowering the boiling point dramatically, those oh-so precious and delicate flavours and aromas are preserved and added to the mix.

That’s the theory and I’m sure a lot of scientific brainpower has gone into perfecting a method which can give a gin an extra edge and an extra marketing edge is the sort of fine margin that can make a spirit in the crowded market that the ginaissance has created. Oxley, part of the Bacardi group, are not the only ones to use cold distillation but their claim to fame, at the moment, at least, is that they distil at the lowest temperature.

Their chosen method of distillation means that there is little of the wastage that normally comes with traditional distilling methods, namely the heads and tails, which can make up to two-thirds of a batch and contain unsavoury elements such as methanol and other unwanted substances. Oxley’s method means that pretty much of all that has gone in at the start is useable at the end. They also deploy what is known as one shot distillation where all the botanicals are macerated together rather than separately.

What this all means to the consumer is that even by premium gin standards, Oxley Gin is pretty expensive, something exacerbated by the fact that it is only available in litre bottles. So does this use of cutting edge technology translate itself into a memorable and refreshing drinking experience which, after all, is what we are paying the big bucks for?

According to the label on the rear of the bottle Oxley dedicated eight years and 38 recipes to perfect the process of making the gin in their specially invented and patented still. The principal problem was that they found that the taste characteristics you normally associate with a botanical which had gone through the traditional distillation process had changed, sometimes markedly, and some significant recalibration of ratios had to be made to get a spirit they were happy with. My bottle is C47670.

There are fourteen botanicals in the mix – juniper, grapefruit, lemon, orange, meadowsweet, vanilla, aniseed, orris root, liquorice root, cocoa, grains of paradise (a kind of gingery, peppery seed), cassia bark, nutmeg and coriander. This gave me some cause for concern as these days I am definitely in the less is more camp when it comes to botanicals.

But perhaps I needn’t have worried. On removing the artificial cork stopper the aroma was a reassuring and heady mix of juniper with spice and citrus. To the taste the initial impression was that the juniper and citrus elements were to the fore but as the extremely smooth spirit settled down, some of the other flavours began to make their presence felt, particularly grapefruit. It would be wrong of me to say I could detect each of the fourteen but as a whole they made for a crisp, almost too clinical a drink. The aftertaste was a mix of juniper and liquorice which lasted long after I had swallowed the spirit. At 47% ABV, it also packed a bit of a punch.

For its elegance, both in presentation and in its taste, it is definitely worth exploring but I’m not sure the finished product was worth all the effort that went into its production.

Until the next time, cheers!