Pursuit Of A Parcel

Pursuit of a Parcel – Patricia Wentworth

I seem to be getting a bit of a bee in my bonnet about titles but the best you can say about this, a 1942 romantic thriller from the prolific Patricia Wentworth and reissued by Dean Street Press, is that if you cannot think of a decent one, you may as well describe what is in the tin. The story concerns itself with the hunt for a parcel, no ordinary one, mind you, but the pursuit of a parcel, nonetheless.

For those who like to categorise books into neat piles, this is variously described as the third Inspector Ernest Lamb novel, Miss Silver’s usual detective foil. The good Inspector and his loyal sidekick, Sergeant Abbott, duly feature in this story but do not appear until the latter stages and even then, have only a marginal impact on the resolution of matters. There is little in the way of actual detection. They just appear in the nick of time and wrap things up. You could make a strong case that this is as much a Frank Garrett novel, as Wentworth’s spymaster general appears earlier on in the book and at least has some input into Anthony Rossiter’s actions. Why not just treat the book as a stand-alone?

The story is set during the Second World War and the hero, Anthony Rossiter, is a British secret agent, recruited to find his adopted brother, Cornelius Roos, who is operating in Holland. Cornelius implores Anthony to return to Blighty and take care of a parcel which Cornelius has sent him which contains incriminating material which a leading Nazi does not want to fall into the wrong hands. By the time Anthony returns to England, the poste restante to which the parcel and a wax cylinder containing a recording of some indiscreet remarks has been blown to smithereens by a German bomb. The parcel is then taken by the clerk to his home, which is promptly burgled, but the thieves fail to get their hands on it because it had been removed to an air raid shelter during a bombing raid.

The clerk, realising that the parcel is hot property and that some unsavoury characters acting on behalf of the Nazis are after it, takes it to the home of his employer. The lawyer has been hospitalised after the bombing of his office and so Delia, his somewhat naïve niece, takes possession of the parcel. Naturally, Delia just happens to be the fiancée of Anthony Rossiter and her involvement with the parcel puts her life in jeopardy. Anthony does what any red-blooded Englishman would do and rides to her rescue. It is all touch and go but Delia is made of sterner stuff and more resourceful than it seemed at first.

It is all nonsense, of course, and as a thriller is somewhat lightweight. There is no mystery to resolve, just the personal safety of the protagonists and the parcel and the capture of the nasties to ensure. Much of the plotting is preposterous, unconvincing and heavily reliant upon coincidence. But it is thoroughly entertaining, particularly the first part of the book, and Wentworth does know how to engage with her readers and carry them along, even though they realise at the end that what they have read is as intellectually satisfying as a stick of candy floss.

If you do not want to engage your brain, this is ideal beach fodder.

Playing The Percentages

The percentage sign universally adopted, %, looks like the formulation of a vulgar fraction, with a tiny zero either side of a forward slash. It is easy to take it for granted, never wondering how we came to use it in the first place, let alone why the denominator is a single zero rather than 100 or even 00? After all, % as a fraction is a number that cannot be computed. The convention is followed with the per mille sign, two zeroes as the denominator, and the permyriad (per ten thousand) with three zeroes in the denominator. How did it all come about?

The concept of hundredths was well understood by the Romans, the emperor Augustus levying the centesima rerum venalium, a tax on goods sold at auction set at a hundredth of their sale price. In the Middle Ages many monetary systems used a decimal system and computations using a denominator of 100 became the norm. In the 15th and 16th centuries arithmetic texts included computations in hundredths and by the following century hundredths were commonly used to quote rates of interest.

The Italian term, per cento, “for a hundred”, was used to describe this form of fraction. Prior to 1425 all documents were written by hand, a laborious and soul-destroying task for the scribes concerned. Even the most proficient at their trade were prone to make mistakes and were eager to reduce their burden by deploying abbreviations or symbols which could be understood by the recipients of the document. For per cento, the most commonly used abbreviations were per 100, p 100, or p cento. A further refinement was to cross the shaft of the p with a diagonal or horizontal strike to denote that it was an abbreviation of the word per.

The next refinement, evidenced in a manuscript dating from around 1425 to 1435, was to adopt the abbreviation “pc” with a tiny loop or circle to depict the ending -o used in Italian numeration. Two and a half centuries later, an Italian manuscript dating from 1684 shows that the “p” had become little more than a squiggle and that the “c” had changed into a closed circle with a short horizontal stroke above it. Sitting above the horizontal stroke was another closed circle.

It was not until the 19th century that further changes were made to develop the symbol that we know today. The squiggly “p” was dropped and the horizontal stroke was set at an angle with the two zeroes positioned either side of it, one higher on the page than the other. We have never looked back since.

Clearly, though, the genesis of the sign came from the adoption of a commonly understood and accepted abbreviation for “per centum” than the desire to represent the number as a fraction of a hundred, hence the single zeroes. It makes sense when you know!

Device Of The Week (4)

Wearing a mask has been a source of liberation for many of us. Under the cloak of a piece of cloth we have been able to give vent to a wide range of facial expressions of which the object of our anger, disdain or frustration has been blissfully unaware. It will take a lot of readjustment if and when the wearing of masks is no longer de rigueur.

For others, though, the inability to display facial expressions to others has been a source of frustration. Where there is a discernible gap in the market, someone will seek to fill it and this is what the UK-based Tail Company is seeking to do.

They have been making creating lifelike, animated tails since 2005, but are shortly to move artificial tails into the 21st century by launching a Bluetooth-enabled animatronic tail which can be controlled by a phone app. miTail provides the wearer with settings to show that they are frustrated and tense or calm and relaxed. Other moves include the Short Wag, the Happy Wag and the Erect Tremble.

If that is not enough, miTail comes with USB-C fast charging, Powerbank support so that you can keep it going for up to ten hours, and it will sync with EarGear, the Tail Company’s animatronic ears system.

I cannot help thinking that it comes with a default setting, making the wearer look a bit of a prat.

It will be available in August, when facial expressions may be on view again. Timing is everything.

Thereby hangs a tale!

Interview Of The Week

With life gradually returning to some semblance of normality, an easy option for a harassed editor is to send a journalist out to report on how people are adapting to their new found freedoms. In truth, the results can be rather tedious and unenlightening.

An enterprising editor of Denmark’s Radio 4 sent out a young journalist, Louise Fischer, to report on the reopening of a swingers’ club by the name of Swingland in Ishøj, just outside Copenhagen. Louise spent several hours in the club, chatting at the bar over a glass of wine and really got into the swing of it all.

Moving onto a large bed she proceeded to interview one of the guests while having sex with him, the interview punctuated by the odd moan. During the segment that was aired, Fischer asks the man “what are you seeing right now?” to which he replies a “gorgeous woman who has not tried being in a swinger club before”.

The interview was broadcast and has met with generally favourable reviews. Fischer’s take was that it was enjoyable, but not the best sex of her life, although the members did treat her like a goddess. Tina Kragelund, head of the station’s news, said that the station stood behind Fischer’s interview and that it was “cool when journalists try to make the stories in a different way”.

That one is going to be hard to beat.

The Devil’s Dictionary (5)

I have long run a mile from engaging in any form of exercise. In discussing dawn, a time of day I rarely see, Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary (1906) makes the following comments; “certain old men prefer to rise about that time, taking a cold bath and a long walk with an empty stomach, and otherwise mortifying the flesh. They then point with pride to these practices as the cause of their sturdy health and ripe old years; the truth being that they are hearty and old, not because of their habits, but in spite of them. The reason we find only robust persons doing this thing is that it has killed all the others who have tried it”. I am with Bierce on that one.

When I rise I much prefer sitting down to something to eat, performing “successively (and successfully) the functions of mastication, humectation and deglutition”. I call the first meal breakfast but well-travelled Americans in Bierce’s day called it a dejeuner, “the breakfast of an American has been to Paris”. It all helps the process of digestion to occur, “the conversion of victuals into virtues. When the process is imperfect, vices are evolved instead”. The expectation is that the fare will be edible; “good to eat, and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm”. The circularity of life, indeed.

At the table I will deploy a fork, defined by Bierce as “an instrument used chiefly for the purpose of putting dead animals into the mouth”. He then goes to address the great knife or fork debate. “Formerly the knife was deployed for this purpose, and by many worthy persons is still thought to have many advantages over the other tool, which, however, they do not altogether reject, but use in charging the knife. The immunity of these persons from swift and awful death is one of the most striking proofs of God’s mercy to those that hate Him”. Amen to that.

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