A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (107)?…


Never look a gift horse in the mouth

I have never got close and personal with a horse but I am told that you can learn a lot by inspecting the mouth of a nag, particularly about its age and general health. Horse traders routinely look at the mouth of horses they are thinking of purchasing before going ahead with the transaction. Our phrase – the variant is don’t rather than never – is used to warn someone not to be too sniffy or critical about something that is given to them for free.

The phrase has a long pedigree, perhaps not surprising as the giving of gifts was an important part of Ancient Greek life. Recipients were advised to praise a gift that anyone bestowed on them. As early as the fourth century CE a proverb involving the inspection of teeth was doing the rounds. John Chevenix Trench commented on the phrase in his book, Proverbs and Their Lessons, published in 1852, with this gloss, “I will not pretend to say how old it is: it is certainly older than St Jerome, a Latin father of the fourth century who, when some found fault with certain writings of his, replied ….that they were voluntary on his part” adding “noli..ut vulgare proverbium est, equi dentes inspicere donate”.

The interesting points of St Jerome’s usage are that it was clearly an idiom used commonly, if only by the common sorts, at the time, that we have a clear connection with the inspection of the gnashers of a horse that has been given as a gift and that it is used as a form of admonition. Given its classical origin it is not surprising to see a variant of the phrase crop up in other languages. In the 13th century the French used a proverb, “cheval donne ne doit-on en dens regarder”  which translates as don’t look at the teeth of a horse which has been given to you, an almost exact match with St Jerome’s proverb.

The first example of its usage in print in England may have been in a collection of proverbs compiled by John Stanbridge, Vulgaria Stambrigi, published in 1510. There we find “a given hors may not be loked in the tethe”, an almost exact translation. Just over thirty years later there had been one significant change to the formula – we weren’t just looking at teeth but the mouth of the horse. In John Heywood’s A Dialogue of the Effectual Proverbs in the English Tongue Concerning Marriage, published in 1546 we find “no man ought to look a gueun hors in the mouth”.  The transformation to the phrase we now know was completed a century later. Samuel Butler used it in a couplet in his poem Hudibras, published in 1663, “he ne’er considered it, as loath/ to look a gift-horse in the mouth”.

The other common phrase associated with the mouth of a horse, straight from a horse’s mouth, indicating something that has come direct from the source and, therefore, reliable, is much more modern, dating from the early 20th century and, probably, of American origin. The first reference in print seems to have been in the Syracuse Herald of May 1913, “I got a tip yesterday and if it wasn’t straight from the horse’s mouth it was jolly well the next thing to it”. This is where we came in – you can tell a lot about a horse from its mouth.

So now we know!

Gin o’Clock – Part Seventeen


One of the hardest things about exploring the ginaissance is striking a balance between returning time and again to gins that you like and taking a risk with something new. Now that there are many more premium gins on sale in pubs and bars you can mitigate the risk of trying something new by ordering a double of what you fancy while you are out on your travels. The problem with this approach is that your palate may not be fresh when you sample it and anyway the sheer pretentiousness that goes with tasting a gin is best done in the privacy of your own four walls.

The gin I am featuring this time is a local one, Silent Pool, whose distillers are to be found on the Albury Estate in the Surrey Hills near Guildford. Legend has it that Prince John came across the daughter of a woodcutter bathing in the altogether in the spring-fed lake known as Silent Pool. Instead of wooing her as he had intended the lusty prince startled her and she swam off to the centre of the lake, got into difficulties and promptly drowned. Her screams, they say, can still be heard around midnight.

Whether there is any truth in this I know not or what the frightened maid has added to the waters of Silent Pool is unclear but Silent Pool Distillers use the spring water, filtered I’m pleased to say, in the process of making their hooch. Their aim, according to their publicity, is to make a spirit which resonates with the area and utilises as many local botanicals as possible.

The gin comes in a beautiful turquoise tinted bottle with the 24 botanicals used pictured in a coppery colour. The top has a copper coloured seal and the stopper is made of glass. The front of the bottle bears the legend in white “Silent Pool – intricately realised gin – distilled from grain”. It is 43% ABV and there is no batch number, at least on my bottle supplied with their normal efficiency by those nice people at

The gin is crystal clear and to the nose is quite fresh and floral with a hint of honey. It is a surprise when to the taste it appears much more peppery and spicy than the aroma might indicate. The juniper is there but is quite subdued and there are a variety of flavours and sensations to enjoy as the botanicals jostle for attention. The aftertaste is citrusy and then spicy with a hint of lavender. I would put it at the more floral end of the gin tasting spectrum and, perhaps, there are too many botanicals in play to make it a truly exceptional gin.

The base spirit is made from grain and to that is added the first tranche of botanicals including angelica, bergamot, bitter orange, cardamom, cassia, coriander, cubeb, grains of paradise, locally sourced honey juniper, liquorice and orris. These are allowed to soak in the base spirit for 24 hours before being transferred into a 250 litre copper pot still. Alongside, chamomile, elderflower, kaffir lime leaves, linden flowers and rose petals are soaked in a higher proof spirit, filtered and then added to the mix already in the still.

Within the still is a gin basket in which the remaining botanicals – lavender, lime, orange and pear – are added together with additional angelica, bitter orange, coriander, grains of paradise and juniper. By the time the alcohol has travelled up the rectification column it has attained an ABV of 90% and then is blended with the spring water to ensure that socks are not knocked off by the first sip.

Until the next time, cheers!

Book Corner – December 2016 (1)


The Sword of Honour Trilogy – Evelyn Waugh

Made up of Men At Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955) and Unconditional Surrender (1961), this was re-edited by Waugh into a single volume with a different ending – this was the version I read – and is without question his finest work. It is loosely based on Waugh’s own wartime career and follows the career of protagonist, Guy Crouchback, heir of an aristocratic English Catholic family in decline.

Despite his age at the outbreak of war Crouchback returns from self-imposed exile in Italy to offer his services to fight for King and country. After some difficulties, strings are pulled and he secures a position with the rather gentlemanly and eccentric Royal Corps of Halbadiers. But Guy’s military career is not a glorious one. He is dogged by injury and when he sees action he is rather at the periphery – the recipient of a severed head of a severed head courtesy of the one-eyed maniac that is Ben Ritchie-Hook in an unofficial raid in Dakar, a participant in the evacuation of Crete and a liaison officer in Yugoslavia where he befriends and tries to help some Jewish refugees.

Parts of the work are really funny and Apthorpe who appears in the first third of the book is a glorious comedic character. His concerns about his thunderbox and Ritchie-Hook’s attempts to sabotage it will live long in the mind. As the work progresses it loses its lightness and humour, although there are still moments of comedy and Waugh is bitingly satirical about army life. Heavier issues preoccupy us, principally Guy’s moral dilemma over his divorced wife and his gradual disillusionment.

Swords dominate the story thematically. Prior to leaving Italy Guy touches the sword of his crusading ancestor, another Guy Crouchback, an act symbolising his attempt to imbue himself with the crusader’s heroism and bravery. By the time we get to the beginning of the third book the sword of hope and optimism has been replaced by the ceremonial sword, the Sword of Stalingrad, made at the King’s behest to commemorate the resistance of Stalingrad – a symbol of realpolitik and the burgeoning sense of tawdry compromise. Guy decides not to see it at Westminster Abbey, preferring to have a slap up meal to celebrate his 40th birthday, turning his back on the zeitgeist.

It seems as though the best way to deal with the weighty subject of war is through satire and humour. The best works about the Second World War take this approach and today we can only marvel that the bureaucratic and inefficient leviathan that was the British army actually prevailed with, of course, a little help from our friends.

Crouchback is in many ways the end of the line, both genetically but more importantly in terms of outlook. What prevails at the end is the cynicism of the likes of Trimmer and the distinctly odd and creepy Ludovic. It is tempting to draw parallels with Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Rather like Nick Jenkins, Crouchback is a passive observer of what goes on rather than an initiator of action and as a consequence is rather a distant figure and the parallels between Widmerpool and Apthorpe are uncanny. But Waugh’s work is the weightier and knocks all his other books into a cocked hat.

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Twenty Four


How to guarantee a group photo without capturing anyone blinking

It is a truth universally acknowledged that whenever a group photograph is taken there is always at least someone who manages to be snapped with their eyes shut. Blinking is a natural eye function that spreads tears across and removes irritants from the surface of the cornea and conjunctiva. For the perfectionists amongst us and for those with an enquiring mind the obvious questions are is it possible to get a group photo without someone blinking in it and how many shots will you need to take to be sure you have one picture with everyone wide-eyed?

The obvious answer is just one, provided you give each of the subjects a pair of matchsticks to prop their peepers open. However, if you want a natural photo or at least as natural as a group photo is ever likely to be, then you need to resort to some mathematics and probability theory. Fortunately someone cleverer than I has cracked their grey cells to shed some light on this first world problem. Step forward, Dr Piers Barnes, a physicist from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

The starting point is the blink. The average number of times a person blinks when they are having their photo taken is ten and an average blink lasts 250 milliseconds. Unlike yawning where one person can trigger off a spate of copy-cat yawning amongst bystanders, there is no evidence that one person blinking influences another. Each blink is an independent event and when we have a group of people each of their blinks will be independent of each other’s. The only occasions when this might not be the case is if the group are standing in something like a sandstorm but let’s ignore this unnecessary complication. Each blink will also be random – they won’t all occur uniformly every six seconds.

In good indoor light the shutter of a camera stays open for eight milliseconds, a period of time considerably shorter than the duration of a blink. So from a probability theory perspective the chance of someone blinking while a photo is being taken is the expected number of blinks which we will call x multiplied by the period of time (t) during which the photo could be spoilt. The reciprocal, 1 – xt, is the probability of one person not blinking while a photo is being taken.

Following this logic through, if you have a group of people posing for a photograph – we will denote the number by the symbol n – then the probability of a good group photo with no one blinking would be 1 minus xt to the power of n and the number of photos required to get the perfect shot will be 1 over 1 minus xt to the power of n. With me so far?

Plotting the results of the formula on to a graph you will find you have a normal distribution which will enable you to calculate the number of shots you would need to guarantee, at least statistically speaking, a perfect photo for any size of group. What it does mean is that if there is a group of fifty or more, there is virtually no chance of an unspoilt photo. Remember that when you are planning your wedding photo list.

Of course, in the heat of the moment even the brainiest of photographers might not be able to make the necessary calculations. Helpfully, Barnes has developed a rule of thumb for calculating the number of shots for groups of under twenty people. In good light divide the number of people by three and in poor light use two as the denominator.

So now we know. Happy snapping!

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

lennox gardens

Prince’s Club

This club was founded by George and James Prince in 1853, opening its doors to those who felt the need for taking some exercise a year later. It enjoyed grounds of some thirteen acres, situated in what was then known as Quail Field but is now Lennox Gardens and Cadogan Square in Knightsbridge. The principal attractions were rackets and real tennis to be played by gentlemen only (natch) who were members of the club. To join the club you had to be proposed and seconded by two of its members. Once in you could invite two friends to play who were charged double for the privilege.


The game of rackets, which consisted of bashing a ball against a wall – a bit like squash – is thought to have originated in the 18th century in London’s King’s Bench and Fleet debtors’ prison. It was taken up by the toffs and the main court at Prince’s was the bee’s knees, at 60 feet by 30 feet setting the standard dimensions for rackets courts. It hosted many important matches including the Varsity matches from 1858 and an annual Public Schools Championship from 1868. In all there were seven rackets courts on the site of varying sizes to accommodate singles and doubles games.

More to my sporting taste a cricket ground was added in 1871. Prince’s Cricket Ground hosted Middlesex’s first class matches between 1872 and 1876 as well as several of the then annual matches between the top amateurs (Gentlemen) and professionals (Players). An Australian touring party played two fixtures there in 1878. Other sporting attractions to be found there was a croquet lawn and a roller-skating rink which in the winter was turned into an ice rink. There was also a gallery and refreshment rooms as well as a Turkish bath. The club had found its mark and by 1873 boasted over 1,000 members.

In 1874 Major Walter Clopton Wingfield began marketing a new game – lawn tennis – selling boxed sets which included nets, poles, court markers, rackets, rubber balls from Germany and an instruction manual. The game took off and the Prince’s Club was an early adopter of the sport, boasting two courts and organising open and handicap tournaments. When the Marylebone Cricket Club tried to standardise the rules of lawn tennis and introduce hourglass-shaped courts, the Prince’s Club stood firm and retained its rectangular courts. One game of note was held on 31st July 1883 between representatives of the Liberal government and the Conservative opposition – it ended in a two-all draw.

In a way it was the politicians that did for the club, thanks to The Cadogan and Hans Place Improvement Act of 1874. This allowed for the development of what are rather splendid red bricked buildings in Knightsbridge and to facilitate the development the builders were allowed to take over more and more of the land occupied by the Prince’s Club. By 1885 the extension of Pont Street sounded the death knell for all that was left, the cricket ground which was closed and upon which the gardens of Lennox Gardens were built and the main rackets court and the one remaining tennis court were pulled down. Once the lease had expired the club disbanded in 1887.

The prince brothers, rather graciously in the circumstances, allowed the title of their club to pass to a new institution and the Prince’s Racquet and Tennis Club aka New Prince’s Club was opened in 1888 nearby on the former site of the Humphreys’ Hall mansions. It survived until the Second World War when its premises were demolished to make way for flats.

Literary Critic Of The Week


It’s hard being a reviewer, trying to come up with an interesting, thoughtful, possibly provocative take on a book or a piece of work. One approach I have not taken is literalism but at least it seems it can get you noticed.

Take Shilpa Shetty. Me neither but apparently she is an Indian film actress and won the fifth series of Celebrity Big Brother. A new reading syllabus has been introduced into schools in India featuring figures from popular culture, For some unaccountable reason, the Mumbai Times asked Shetty for her views on the new initiative. She was enthusiastic, claiming that it would cultivate imagination and creativity at a young age.

Drawing on her phenomenal powers of imagination and creativity, Shetty opined that “even a book like Animal Farm can teach the little ones to love and care for animals”. I must confess that this take on Orwell’s classic satire on totalitarianism passed me by but then what do I know?

I shall be fascinated to discover her opinion of Fifty Shades of Grey – a colouring book, perhaps? – and what about Moby Dick? Proof positive that you should never judge a book by its cover!

Trip Of The Week


Carrying a crate of spuds isn’t easy at the best of times. It is doubly difficult if you are rushing across London’s Oxford Street and trying to dodge the traffic lights. A man had his chips when he tripped and spilt his spuds all across the road. The incident was caught on dash-cam (natch).

Traffic came to a halt and some of the bystanders helped him recover his goods – they must have been tourists. Others, showing the sangfroid we expect of Londoners, just walked by as though nothing had happened, glad to take advantage of the break in traffic.

The incident went viral, perhaps adding further weight to the argument espoused on a radio programme the other day on Boredom that ennui was a thing of the past because everyone was now connected to the internet and there were myriad things to keep them amused.

Whether that’s true or not, at least we now have a variant to the ever-popular banana skin slip routine.

Tales From The Nursery – Part Forty Three


Little Miss Muffet

This rather charming rhyme deals with arachnophobia, the irrational fear of spiders, not something I suffer from. The most common version goes, “Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet/ eating her curds and whey/ along came a spider, who sat down beside her/ and frightened Miss Muffet away.”

This rhyme is of interest to the etymologist as well as the entomologist, principally because of what Miss Muffet was sitting on. I had always assumed that the noun described some kind of stool, a footstool or a pouffe or something of that nature. The Oxford English Dictionary rather pours cold water on this idea, preferring to attribute its origin to the French word, tufe, which meant a small grassy hillock or clump of grass. It states that the later association of the word with an item of furniture was down to a misinterpretation of the Miss Muffet rhyme, a mistake we dare not repeat.

Then there is the small matter of what she was eating. Curds and whey are what we would now know as cottage cheese, milk to which the natural enzyme found in a cow’s gut, rennin, has been added. The enzyme separates some of the proteins in the milk to form clumps, the curd, and some remain in a liquid form, the whey. The dish was also called junket, so named because it was conveyed to market in little reed baskets called jonquettes. Today, a junket is a pejorative description for a trip which to the observer seems to be all play and no work, it assuming this meaning in 1814.

And now who was Miss Muffet? There was a Doctor Thomas Muffet (1553 – 1604) who was an early entomologist and his legacy was the book, Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum, which was the first scientific catalogue of British insects. The suggestion is that the good Doctor’s daughter is the subject of our rhyme. After all, you would imagine their household would be overrun by various types of insect, although you would hope most would be dead, rather than being in a state to give the poor girl a fright. The problem with this theory is that the good doctor does not appear to have had a daughter. He had a couple of step-daughters, who he inherited after his marriage to Catherine Brown and they would almost certainly have assumed their natural father’s moniker.

Another candidate, inevitably, is Mary Queen of Scots who spent plenty of time incarcerated in gloomy, dank cells which would have been a natural habitat for spiders. There is no record of her being an arachnophobe – she would have had weightier matters to cause her concern. The spider may be a metaphor for the Scottish religious reformer, John Knox, who caused the staunchly Catholic queen a lot of grief but beguiling as these theories are, there is no hard evidence to think that they might be true.

Our rhyme first appeared in print in 1805, a couple of centuries or more after the time when Dr Muffet and Mary Queen of Scots were around. Of course, it may have lived long in oral tradition before being committed to print but I have my doubts. Not least because in 1812 in an edition of Songs for the Nursery there is a variant featuring a Little Miss Ester who sat on a tester and in 1842 James Halliwell’s Nursery Rhymes of England features a Little Miss Mopsey who sat in a shopsey.

I cannot help conclude that Miss Muffet was chosen because her name rhymed with what she sat on rather than because she was the daughter of a famous entomologist who died a couple of centuries earlier. But I may be wrong.

I Predict A Riot – Part Seventeen


The Vaccine riots of Rio de Janeiro, 1904

Public health initiatives on the whole are to be applauded but an over-zealous approach can lead to unanticipated and disastrous consequences as this cautionary tale reveals.

Despite its stunning scenery Rio has always been a bit of a shit hole, no more so than at the turn of the 20th century. It suffered from a rising population, poor water and sewerage systems, over-crowded tenements, irregular rubbish collections and frequent epidemics of tuberculosis, yellow fever, smallpox and the like. The Brazilian president, Rodrigues Alves, decided in 1902 that enough was enough and gave the city’s mayor, Pereira Passos, and the Director of Public Health, Dr Oswaldo Cruz, extensive powers to sort the mess out.

The officials had the bit between their teeth and a major renovation programme was initiated demolishing many of the older buildings and tenements to make way for wide avenues, public gardens and upmarket housing. Thousands of the city’s poor were forced to move out to the perimeter of the city. The Brigadas Mata Mosquitos were created and were given powers to enter homes to eradicate the yellow fever carrying mosquitoes and the burgeoning rat population.

Smallpox was next on the agenda and on 31st October 1904 the earnest Dr Cruz persuaded Congress to pass the mandatory Vaccination Law which allowed sanitary workers accompanied by the police to enter homes and forcibly vaccinate the residents. Well-meaning but possibly a bit heavy-handed, you might think. For many of the poor of the city this was the last straw. Many had lost their homes and their privacy was now being invaded. Rumours circulated the city that the vaccine would be applied to intimate parts of the body and that women would have to undress to be vaccinated. Enough was enough.

On November 11th ,the day the legislation was due to come into force, a coalition of union and non-union workers, the marginalised poor, students and radicals combined to form the Liga Contra a Vacina Obrigatoria. Five days of protest ensued, shops were looted, trams overturned and used as barricades, tracks and poles broken and government forces were attacked with rocks, sticks and anything else that came to hand. On 15th November a group of cadets lead an abortive attempt to stage a coup, using the rioting as a reason for overthrowing a government that had lost control.

The coup may have failed but the rioting left the city without transportation and as water and gas mains had been cut, without basic utilities. On the 17th the government bowed to the inevitable by announcing that it planned to repeal the mandatory smallpox vaccination programme and order was quickly restored. However, at least 12 – some reports claim 30 – died in the disturbances and at least 100 were injured.

Although the legislation may have been repealed the government pressed on with its modernisation programme, forcing more of the poor to occupy makeshift favelas. President Alves discredited the protestors as barbarians and deported many of them to the sparsely populated area of Acre. A similar plan of compulsory vaccination initiated in 1909 didn’t provoke civil unrest, partly because it wasn’t seen as being linked to the urban renewal programme and partly because many of the poor had already moved out of the centre of Rio.

Eventually smallpox was eradicated from the city and in 1907 the 14th International Congress on Hygiene and Demography in Berlin awarded Dr Cruz a gold medal for his efforts.

Gin o’Clock – Part Sixteen


With so many independent distillers surfing the wave that is the ginaissance it is easy to get sniffy about the attempts of the big supermarket chains to enter the premium gin market. Their obvious advantages is reach – regrettably, no one these days is too far from any of the majors – and price – they are able to occupy a price range considerably below those that the independents can or deign to charge. Tempting as they may be, are they any good?

Our first featured gin is to be found at Lidl – my bottle cost £9.99 for 70 centilitres – Castelgy London Dry Gin. It comes in a squat green bottle with a screw cap, the label at the front bearing a rather Teutonic coat of arms and boasting a 100% pure grain spirit. Perusing the label at the back of the bottle I find that it is produced in Germany – no surprise there – by Eckerts Wacholder Brennerei GmbH. They have been in the business for 125 years and produce a wide range of spirits and  liqueurs. Castelgy doesn’t appear on their website so, presumably, it is distilled on licence for Lidl. The rear label on my bottle came with a helpful recipe for gin and tonic.

At just 37.5% ABV it is a little undercooked for my taste but made up for its lack of punch with a more intense the morning-after headache than I normally experience. Apart from the pure grain spirit base, mentioned twice on the labelling, it is a little vague as to the botanicals, mentioning only juniper (natch) and coriander. There is certainly some citrus component in there, probably orange peel, and my taste buds seemed to detect ginger. To the nose it has a rather antiseptic odour with juniper dominating and a schnapps style smell coming through. It is clear and to the taste it seemed quite bland with a surprisingly perfumed sensation coming through. The aftertaste was stronger than I had anticipated and this is where the spices, probably ginger, come to the fore. As my first gin of the evening I had to wait for the aftertaste to dissipate before moving on to my next one.

All in all, it was much better than I had feared and would make an acceptable – and cheap – base for a cocktail. You need to choose your tonic with some care to neutralise, if that is possible, the strong after burn.


The other gin featured this time is Asda’s Triple Distilled Premium Gin, retailing for about £15. The bottle is a dumpy bell-shaped affair with a screw cap. The labelling is elegantly minimalist but at least the botanicals are disclosed – juniper, lemon peel, liquorice root, orange peel, coriander, orris and angelica, staple ingredients all. There is no indication who distilled it for them other than it was in the UK. To the nose the juniper was to the fore and the citrus elements were detectable. A clear spirit it was pleasing to the taste, slightly oily and the coriander and citrus was in evidence. The aftertaste was strong but not unpleasant with a hint of spice and liquorice. It was a well-balanced spirit, particularly in comparison with Castelgy, and whilst it is stronger at 41% ABV it did not give me the kind of headache that makes you consider, albeit fleetingly, giving up drinking.

I suppose you pays your money and you makes your choice. I’m not sure I would recommend either as starting points for exploring the ginaissance but if you are watching your pennies, there are worse places to start.

Until the next time, cheers!