Beards Of The Week (2)

For American pogonophiles one of the attractions of the year was the Honest Amish National Beard and Moustache Championships, held recently at the Ford Wyoming Centre in Casper, Wyoming, which is held, inevitably, alongside the Bacon and Booze Festival.

As a warm up to the main events, 72 men with beards at least eight inches long stood side by side on the stage at Gaslight Social. They clipped their beads together to make a continuous chain 150 feet long. This beats the current Guinness World Record of 62 feet, 6 inches set in Germany in 2007. Organisers are awaiting official confirmation that they smashed the record.

It is a sport which grows on you.

Smoker Of The Week

Never having had occasion to be the first to bring the news of a major military victory, I have never seen the point of running a marathon. Still, each to their own.

Giving the lie to the idea that to compete you must be in the peak of physical health is a 50-year-old Chinese man, Chen Bangxian, affectionately known as Uncle Chen, who has a particular trademark style. He chain-smokes the whole way round and that does not seem to stop him from completing the 26.2 miles in a respectable time. Chen has recently completed the Xin’anjiang Marathon in Jiande in 3 hours 28 minutes, coming a respectable 574 in a field of around 1,500 finishers.

He has done it before, completing the Guangzhou Marathon in 3 hours, 36 minutes in 2018 and the Xiamen Marathon the following year in 3 hours, 32 minutes. News of Chen’s achievement has gone “viral”, the organisers sharing photos of his completion certificate to dispel rumours that it was just fake news.

Some competitors are fuming, complaining that Chen’s unusual running style puts them at risk from passive smoking, and making the decision as to whether to pass him dependent upon which way the wind is blowing. Perhaps they are a little miffed that a middle-aged man with a gasper in his mouth is doing as well as them with their elaborate training regimes.  

I wonder what he does with the dog ends.

The Case Of The Flying Donkey

A review of The Case of the Flying Donkey by Christopher Bush

This is one of the rarest of Christopher Bush’s Ludovic Travers yarns, the twenty-first in the series and originally published in 1939 under its initial title of The Case of the Flying Ass. It has now been reissued by Dean Street Press. For those of us who are enjoying exploring the Golden Age of Detective fiction and discovering authors who are new to us, it is easy to underestimate the enormous amount of time, patience, energy and, yes, sleuthing that publishers like Dean Street Press and their team of helpers put in to plug those missing gaps. We should be eternally grateful.

Travers and his new wife, Bernice, are on a jaunt to Paris but for the amateur sleuth it soon becomes a busman’s holiday, the result of his meeting up with Inspector Gallois, whom we last met in The Case of the Three Strange Faces. It is another story of an Englishman abroad, seemingly unshakeable alibis, and a foray into the art world.

Travers had bought a rather expensive painting by an up-and-coming French artist, Henri Larne. It is banished to his private quarters, and he dare not tell Bernice how much he paid for it – the joys of married life are beginning to impinge upon him. At an exhibition featuring some works of Larne in London, Travers came across a Parisian art dealer, Braque, who seemed to be behaving oddly and examining the signature with extreme care.

On his arrival in Paris Travers is invited by Braque to view his private collection. Wary, Travers tells Gallois but decides to go. On his arrival, he finds Braque’s body still warm. He had only just been fatally stabbed. It seems that Travers’ invitation was designed to establish a time for the murder and, by implication, an alibi but whose and why was Braque murdered? Braque’s business partner reveals that he had spoken of two “gold mines”, one of which had failed but the second was proving profitable. What was he up to and how are Larne’s half-brother, Henri, and the artist’s model, Elise Deschamps, involved?

Gallois has a certain approach to investigating a case, regarding it as a piece of theatre and an opportunity to how patience and finesse. He takes delight in withholding information from Travers while his junior, Charles, plays the part of a go-between, a master of disguise. There are the inevitable red herrings, aided and abetted by Gallois’ Gallic aloofness, a clever plot device by Bush, but despite feeling out of the loop, it is Travers who spots the link that eventually unravels the case.

Henri Larne signs his pictures with a hieroglyph in the form of a flying donkey, in part a pun on his name, âne being donkey in French, but more intriguingly, the body and legs look like two capital Ms, one above the other. Armed with the knowledge of the importance of the signature, Travers and, to a lesser extent, Gallois unravel a plot to sell counterfeit paintings. The carefully constructed alibi unravels – it is not difficult to see how it was done – and the culprit is revealed, the identity of whom might seem a surprise to some, but the clues are there for all to see.

The book ends on a note of optimism, which sadly with the imminence of war proves unfounded, hindsight bringing a touch of pathos to a tale that was engrossing and enjoyable, although the plot was not as complex as some that Bush has hatched. I enjoyed the book and am grateful that it was rescued from an undeserved obscurity.

Hendrick’s Neptunia Gin

Sticking to your knitting can be a tad boring. Hendrick’s Gin is a brand of gin launched in 1999 by William Grant & Sons from their distillery in Girvan and its distinctive cucumber and rose infused spirit has long established itself as a market leader in contemporary style gins. However, in recent years they have become a bit more adventurous, perhaps in reaction to the pressures of the ginaissance, launching a series of limited-edition gins, of which Hendrick’s Neptunia Gin is this year’s (2022) offering. I picked up a bottle at my local Waitrose store.

Hendrick’s used a blend of spirits produced in two different ways. Using a small pot still called a Bennett still which is filled with neutral spirit, the botanicals, and water, it is left to seep for 24 hours. The still is then heated and as it boils, vapours move up the column to the condenser, where they are collected. Once all the alcohol is collected the result is an oily, juniper-heavy spirit.

The other still used, a Carter-Head Still, one of few left in the world, deploys a different method. The botanicals are placed in flavour baskets at the very top of the still through which alcohol vapours pass and extract the requisite flavours and pass them into the condenser. Only lighter, sweeter, floral flavours can be extracted this way. The two different spirits are blended and cucumber essence and rose petal essence is added.

I have always been a little underwhelmed by Hendrick’s, the juniper being a little underpowered for my taste, and Neptunia uses the base botanicals of the original gin, distilled, presumably in the same way, but adds a little twist to justify its existence. The twist is that it is master distiller, Lesley Gracie’s take on a spirit inspired by the tumultuous waves of the Ayrshire coast. Producing a saline gin seems very much on trend in 2022 and there are lots of intriguing, outré botanicals to be found on the coastline, enough to whet the imagination of any self-respecting distiller.

Having made a big thing about the coastline botanicals, Hendrick’s are remarkably reticent about disclosing what they are. A shame as that is their marketing USP for this variant of their familiar gin. Given that it is based on the original we can assume that juniper, cucumber, rose, elderflower, cubeb pepper, angelica, caraway, chamomile, coriander, elderflower, orris roost, and a full complement of citrus elements are in the mix. The littoral flavour, it seems, is introduced by kelp and coastal thyme, but there may be others. There seem to be so many competing flavour profiles that only the most accomplished distiller can hope to tame them to produce a palatable drink.

And Lesley Gracie almost pulls it off. The aroma is complex, a melange of salinity, citrus, herbaceous and floral notes with a hint of earthiness of the juniper. In the glass the spirit is crystal clear and citrus heavy, the dominant citric notes only grudgingly allowing the juniper, the cucumber and rose, and later the floral elements to join the party. The aftertaste is dry and slightly salty, but also quite warm and spicy. It was a rollercoaster of tastes and sensations, more like being on a boat in a stormy sea than watching the waves crashing on to the rocks from the safety of the coastline.

With an ABV of 43.4% it is stronger than their original gin, but it is housed in the same distinctive apothecary’s bottle. The labelling has a maritime light blue as a background and features a picture of a mermaid in case you had not got the message. One from their “cabinet of curiosities” it is an acquired taste, one which will linger on my gin shelf.

Until the next time, cheers!

The Daughter Of Time

A review of The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Richard III has had a bad press through the centuries, characterised as a hunchback, suffering the indignity of being buried under a Leicester car park, although the car park came after the burial, and accused of the murder of the two princes in the Tower of London. Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, the fifth in her Alan Grant series, originally published in 1951, is an ingenious attempt to rehabilitate his reputation. It is a book that was ranked number one in the Crime Writers’ Association’s top one hundred crime novels of all time. Some accolade.

Grant of the Yard is condemned to a long stay in hospital, recovering from leg and back injuries. To prevent him from growing too bored, an actress friend presents him with a series of portraits of historical characters, each of whom is associated with a mystery. His sleuthing instincts aroused, Grant decides to investigate the story of Richard III and whether he really did murder the princes in the Tower. He is helped in his endeavours by an American amateur researcher, Brett Carradine, who does the legwork, combing through historical records to find vital clues that might have a bearing on the case.

For some unaccountable reason the history of the Tudors is a well-travelled literary path, but Tey cleverly shines the spotlight on an event that trashed the reputation of the Plantagenets and made Henry VII’s undoubted usurpation of the throne more palatable to the English.

Using a combination of Grant’s deductive training and Carradine’s in-depth trawl through the records, the sleuth quickly determines that the allegations against Richard are based on hearsay, rumour and later accounts written by supporters of the Tudors to justify their ascension to the throne. Grant also believes, looking at the portrait, that Richard’s face is not one of a murderer but rather that of a kind, compassionate man.

Tey builds up a compelling case in favour of the last Plantagenet king, arguing that he had nothing to gain from the princes’ deaths unlike Henry VII who needed all potential claimants to throne out of the way, that Thomas More was little more than a Tudor apologist, that no contemporary capital was made of the allegations against Richard III who was forgiven by the boys’ mother and that there were no contemporary reports of the boys’ deaths. Historians with a detailed knowledge of the period might profoundly disagree with her thesis and some arguments seem stronger than others, but as well as being an intriguing analysis of a notorious historical event, Tey’s book played a not insignificant part in the movement to rehabilitate Richard III’s reputation.

It is a deceptively simple story but one which sucks the reader in, forces them to think and reconsider their pre-existing prejudices. The sense of disappointment at the end when Carradine reports that he has found later histories detailing the events which exonerate Richard is genuinely moving. They are not the trailblazers they perhaps they thought they were but, nonetheless, the intellectual exercise was perfect therapy for a detective of the Yard lying on his back with nothing else to do.

I enjoyed it immensely and it deserves its reputation as one of the great detective stories.

Books, words, gin and much more