A wry view of life for the world-weary

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

Henrietta Howland “Hetty” Green (1834 –1916)

This series is about eccentricity. Just to prove that eccentricity is neither a male preserve or, despite Voltaire’s assertion, a peculiarly English trait, we will shine our light on Hetty Green, whose behaviour earned her the unflattering sobriquet, the Witch of Wall Street. She was a successful investor, amassing over her career a fortune of over one hundred million dollars of liquid assets, at a time when financiers were almost exclusively male and were generally making a poor fist of it.

Perhaps Hetty is the epitome of that old saying, look after the cents and the dollars will look after themselves. She was notorious for her parsimony. Some of the tales about her are the stuff of urban legend but what we can be certain of is that she cut a rather striking, and dare I say, smelly dash. Hetty only owned one dress at a time which started its life out as black and would over time take on a green or brown hue as it got dirtier. She would order her laundress to only wash the bottom of her dress – after all, she surmised, this was the part that got dirty and to launder the whole garment would be time-consuming and an unnecessary expense. Rather disconcertingly, Hetty would wait in her petticoats until the laundress had finished her work.

Whilst in New York, she was a habitue of Pie Alley where the meal of the day cost just fifteen cents. When out shopping, she would walk (natch), buy broken biscuits rather than whole ones as they were cheaper and carry a can to get the cheapest priced milk for her cat. Her dog did not miss out – Hetty would use her negotiating skills to persuade the poor shopkeeper to throw in a bone gratis for the honour of receiving her patronage. It was usual for shops to offer money back if you returned the box in which your goods were packed. Of course, Hetty took full advantage of this largesse.

Life at home was spartan. Hetty would not heat the place up or use hot water. She is reputed to have eaten her oatmeal cold, because it saved the cost of heating the stuff. Despite being a successful investor, Hetty would not incur the cost of renting her own office. Instead she would take up residence in the offices of the Seaboard National Bank, surrounded by suitcases full of her papers which she would transport back and forth in an old, battered carriage.

But her stinginess did come with some personal cost. She had a hernia and went to the local doctor. He recommended an operation which would have set her back 150 dollars. Of course, she refused to pay that amount and lived with the pain for the rest of her life, some twenty years or so. More tragically, her miserliness affected her son, Ned, who somehow managed to break his leg severely. Hetty took him to a free hospital but the doctor recognised her and said that he would not treat the poor lad unless she paid for his services. Of course, she refused but sadly gangrene set in, Ned had his leg amputated above the knee and was fitted with a cork leg. It is thought that his father met the bill.

When she reached the age of seventy-eight, Hetty is reported to have attributed her longevity to her habit of chewing baked onions. Sadly, she suffered a number of strokes towards the end of her life and spent her last years in a wheelchair.

And why was she called the witch? Her appearance was so startling that children associated her long black dress with the attire of the witches they saw in their story books.


Farts Of The Week

In a week when the skies above Blogger Towers took on an apocalyptic, reddish-orange hue, my thoughts turned to climate change. Astonishingly, according to some Swedish scientists, an unexpected contributor to the emission of greenhouse gases, particularly methane and nitrous oxide, are shellfish who seem to trump away with gay abandon. The scientists calculate that the shellfish contribute about 10 per cent of the greenhouse gases released in the Baltic Sea region, the equivalent to a herd of 20,000 flatulent cows. I’m sure they are not covered by the Paris climate accord.

How much damage will be done to the atmosphere by three Japanese performance artists, Reno Amhara, Miu Anemi and Meru Iroha, who are reviving the art of the professional flatulist,is a matter of some conjecture. They have just announced that they will be putting on a show called “Let’s All hear Beautiful Girls Fart Together” in Tokyo, promising various styles of fart produced whilst the girls wear a variety of costumes. It brings to mind some pictures of He-gassen competitions I saw at the British Museum a few years ago.

Before you get too excited, the promoters warn that “depending on their physical condition, it may be impossible for them to fart no matter how hard they try.” Perhaps before each show, they should post a list of what they have eaten so that punters can make an assessment as to whether it is worth parting with their hard-earned cash.

The promoters are hoping for many repeat performances and that the show will run and run. I’m not so sure. Perhaps they should have some shellfish on standby!

Politicians Of The Week (2)

I’m becoming a bit of a fan of Icelandic politics. The president of the island, Gudni Thorlacius Johanneson, decided, after a hard day performing his largely ceremonial duties, to have a long, relaxing hot bath. Unfortunately, I read this week, his bath was a bit too hot and cosy, he came over feeling a bit faint, fell and gashed his forehead and broke his nose. Johanneson was rushed to hospital, had some stitches inserted into the wound and, apart from a few stitches, is none the worse for his ideal.

Then we have Eva Pandora Baldursdottir, one of Iceland’s ten Members of Parliament representing the Pirate Party. Yes, you guessed it – she was forced to wear a rather fetching eyepatch for a television interview, have suffered a freak eye injury, courtesy of her one-year-old daughter. I’s sure she would receive a warm welcome in Penzance.

Is this what life outside of the EU is like? It would certainly brighten up our politics if some of our politicians followed suit!

What Is The Origin Of (150)?…


This blog is now well into its sixth year and its critics – many – say that it is full of crap. Its adherents – few but faithful – claim that the crap quotient is no higher than in any other site of its nature. Crap in either its adjectival form or as a noun is used, often pejoratively, to denote rubbish or something not worth having or below acceptable standard. It also appears in verb form, usually in the intransitive form, and here has a more specific sense, the act of defecation. Crap is everywhere but where did it come from?

The starting point seems to have been the medieval Latin word crappa which meant chaff. It then appeared in Old French as crappe meaning siftings or waste or rejected matter. It first made its appearance in English in the early 15th century when it was used to refer to weeds growing amongst corn and then developed into a more generic word to describe stuff that has been discarded. So in the late 15th century it referred to the waste that was left after rendering fat. In Shropshire it was used to describe the dregs of ale or beer while in 18th century slang it meant money.

To add a little confusion to the whole story, there was a Dutch word krappen which meant cutting off, plucking or separating. We find crap as a verb in this sense in the Scottish Jacobite song attributed to either James Hogg or Allan Cunningham, The Young Maxwell, published around 1810; “draw out yere sword, thou vile South’ron/ red wat wi’ blud o’ my kin/ that sword it crappit the bonniest flower/ e’er lifted its head to the sun!” It is probably fair to deduce that it was a bit of Scottish dialect from the Dutch which has little or nothing to do with our modern understanding of crap.

And then there is the use of the word to describe defecation. The starting point is to recognise that what comes out of our bottom is smelly rubbish that has been discarded by our digestive system. In other words, it fits the earlier sense of crap. Rank is everything in the army and the lower ranks have to give way to their seniors, even when it comes to relieving yourself, if a poem by John Churchill, published in 1801, is to be believed. A subaltern, seeking to use a latrine, has to make way for various officers until he can hold on no longer. “And, not quite aware of priority S—-ING,/ Squeez’d awhile; “Well!” says he, “then, the best friends/ must part;/ Crap! Crap! ’twas a moist one! a right/ Brewer’s ****!”

The Oxford English Dictionary cites a reference dating to 1846 to a crapping ken or a privy, although there are earlier citations of cropping ken – interesting to see the interchangeability of crop and crap again. What is clear that in the first half of the 19th century, crapping was an established term for defecation.

And so where does this leave Thomas Crapper? He didn’t start going about his business until 1861 and didn’t invent the flushing toilet but the happy coincidence of his surname and his chosen profession – what the grammarians call an aptonym – meant that he is indelibly associated with crap.

Crapper which is American slang for a toilet did not appear until the early 1920s. The story goes that American soldiers serving in London during the First World War, seeing the ubiquitous Crapper name on the porcelain in the lavvy, adopted it as their own piece of slang. There is no evidence to directly corroborate this story but it would be nice to think it was true and it would mean that although Mr Crapper wasn’t the originator of the word crap, he did have a hand in popularising it in the States.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Two

The great chess automaton of 1769

If the doom mongers are to be believed, the successful harnessing of artificial intelligence poses the biggest threat to employment prospects. Whether that will ever happen or whether some of the promised benefits of artificial intelligence will manifest themselves in my lifetime, only time will tell.

The game of chess has been at the forefront of the battle for supremacy between man and machine, principally because its moves are regulated by a number of rules and it is a game of strategy and anticipation, testing the competitors’ ability to think and plan. World chess champion, Gary Kasparov, suffered a defeat in 1997 at the hands of Deep Blue, although there were some doubts expressed as to whether conditions were fair for both contestants. These days with increased computational power and more sophisticated programming, computers can regularly defeat even the strongest chess player.

The creation of machines to ape the behaviour of living creatures particularly fascinated the so-called Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century and some astonishing examples have survives to this day. But the machine which really swept Europe by storm was Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen’s chess automaton, created in 1769. By all accounts it was a splendid affair, consisting of a large wooden box stuffed full of wiring and gears, atop of which was a carved figure wearing, for exotic effect, Turkish clothes. When the mechanism was wound up, the Turk, as the chap was dubbed, would play chess against all comers. It would move pieces on its own, develop strategy and was able to react to the moves of its opponent, rather than just play in a predetermined way, irrespective of the circumstances. It was a remarkably successful player and regularly overcame opponents. Von Kempelen was moved to call it a thinking machine.

Von Kempelen took the automaton on tour around the courts and salons of Europe, challenging the great and good to pit their wits against the machine. The automaton rarely lost. One of its most famous scalps was that of Benjamin Franklin. In 1790, thinking twenty years was a pretty good run, von Kempelen dismantled the machine but on his death in 1805 his family sold it on to Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, who put it back together again and took it out on the road. He even took it to America in 1826. The automaton regularly won its matches.

There was intense speculation as to how the machine operated and secured its remarkable run of successes. To quell the obvious thought that there was someone in the box of trick, von Kempelen would ostentatiously open up the box to reveal its innards before each show. The mystery piqued the interest of Edgar Allan Poe who after witnessing a performance, wrote an article in which he claimed that there was someone in the figure of the Turk, rather than the box. He was almost right.

The truth came out on 6th February 1837 in the Philadelphia National Gazette Literary Register. Von Kempelen and Maelzel had employed champion chess masters who were secreted in the part of the box where the Turk came out. A series of sliding panels and a rolling chair hid them from view whilst the innards of the box were being displayed but once the box was shut, they moved back into the guts of the box. The chess masters could control the arms and hands of the automaton to ape their own hand movements and the use of magnetic chess pieces allowed them to see what was going on above their heads.

Clever, really.

Book Corner – October 2017 (3)

The Golden Age of Murder – Martin Edwards

Imagine the scene. There is a gathering of local worthies in a country house. There is a scream and one of the servants rushes in to the assembled company to announce that Colonel Blimp has been found dead in the library. Who could have committed the foul dead? Fortunately, amongst the guests is an amateur sleuth, much brighter than the local constabulary, who unmasks the culprit.

Murders and detectives are such staple fare of the written page and on our television screens, that it all seems a bit hackneyed now and, sad to say, all a bit too cosy. To make matters worse, many of the novels of the so-called Golden Age of detective writing – the period between the two World Wars – are imbued with social attitudes that many in today’s more politically correct environment find unpalatable. From today’s perspective it is hard to credit how innovative many of the stories were, as writers strove to push out the boundaries and tease the little grey cells of their avid reading public. And avid the readers were, seeking an escape from the economic and political uncertainties of the thirties but in a way that avoided the horrors many had to endure in the First World War.

Edwards writes an impassioned plea in defence of the genre and so convincing is his thesis that on hearing it a jury would dismiss all charges against detective stories out of hand. As a self-confessed detective fiction nut, I enjoyed this romp and have made many a note in the margins of its pages of books that I want to explore. Beware, this book could cost you serious money!

In essence, Edwards tells the story of the Detection Club, established in 1930 and meeting occasionally in London to provide a social network for crime writers. To be admitted to the club writers had to have produced work of “admitted merit” and there was an elaborate, slightly gothic and certainly bizarre initiation ceremony to be undergone. Principal luminaries of the club were Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, G K Chesterton and Anthony Berkeley and these take centre stage in Edwards’ narrative. Each in their own way had troubled personal lives and sought solace in writing. All the other 35 members in the inter-war period feature in the book and it is from their pen pictures that I have built up my reading list for the future.

There are some fascinating insights. I didn’t know, for example, during the Second World War Christie came under suspicion of being a German spy because she called a character Bletchley – the code-cracking centre was hush-hush at the time – in her novel N or M? and because she was living in a block of flats known to be frequented by spies. In a period of economic turmoil, bankers and inheritors of fortunes found themselves victims of murder plots and heinous murders of spouses sometimes reflected the desires and tortured love lives of their authors.

As the world moved inexorably towards a second major conflict, the genre explored the question of whether it was possible to commit a good murder, whether eliminating a Nazi or a prominent fascist was really a crime, a theme initially explored by Edgar Wallace in Four Just Men. Interestingly, neither Sayers – she had found religion – nor Berkeley – he had gone into deep depression – wrote detective fiction after the outbreak of the war and by the time peace had broken out, the emphasis was more on the psychological thriller.

If you are interested in the genre, this is a book you shouldn’t miss.

Stone Walls Do Not A Prison Make – Part Three

The Inland Customs Hedge of India

It was all about tax and salt. In the unforgiving heat of India it was estimated that an adult needed an ounce a day to survive and whilst there were plentiful supplies of the mineral in Eastern India, other parts were poorly served. One of the most egregious taxes imposed on the natives by the East India Company and then the British Raj was the salt tax which made the mineral prohibitively expensive. And where there is tax, there is an incentive to evade it, principally through smuggling.

So concerned was the East India Company about smuggling and the impact on its revenue that from 1803 a series of customs houses were built across the major roads and rivers of Bengal to collect taxes. But this was not altogether successful as the crafty locals would just go round the posts. In 1834 G H Smith developed a more substantial structure, running from Agra to Delhi and consisting of customs posts at mile intervals linked by a raised path with gates every four miles to allow movement from one side to the other. 6,600 employees staffed the line and there were border patrols operating a couple of miles or so behind the line. There were cells where smugglers were detained – these were known as chowkis, from which our word chokey

Control of most of India passed from the East India Company to the British government following the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and in 1869 they ordered that the various customs lines be integrated into a single structure, running some 2,504 miles from the Himalayas to Orissa. To give some sense of the profitability of the salt tax some 12.5 million rupees were collected in 1869-70 and by 1877 it was worth 29.1 million rupees.

One of the problems facing the British administrators was the absence of natural material with which to build the wall. But you don’t get to rule an empire without showing some ingenuity and this ia where Allan Octavian Hume came in. To supplement the earth and bricks, dry hedging had been used, principally from dwarf Indian Plum. Some of it had taken root and Hume’s brainwave in 1869 was to plant a hedge. That year he began experimenting with various types of local bushes. The key requisites were that they would grow in the various soil conditions and that they were thorny. He came up with a mix of Indian plum, babool, karonda and various species of euphorbia.

Around 800 miles of hedge was planted, never less than eight feet high and four feet wide and often up to twelve feet tall and fourteen feet thick. In Hume’s own words, it was “in its most perfect form.. utterly impassable to man or beast.” Of course, some tried, by driving their camels straight at the hedge or throwing the bags over the hedge and there were clashes. Two administrators tried to arrest 112 smugglers in 1877 and died in the attempt. Bribery and corruption was rife. But the main bug bear was that the hedge disrupted trade and free movement. Who’d have thought it?

Once the Brits had secured control of salt production and introduced a refinement of the salt tax which varied between regions, thus making smuggling uneconomic, there was little need for the hedge. In 1879 work stopped on building and maintaining it and when India gained independence in 1947 the last remaining remnants of the hedge were ripped up.

The customs hedge had a significant impact on India. It is estimated that millions of Indians died because of their inability to afford salt and it stoked up resentment against the Brits, something that Gandhi was able to exploit with his first piece of civil disobedience, his salt satyagraha. On the plus side, the customs line provided the only surveyed straight line in the area and so it was used for the route of a number of roads.  But if you are searching for the hedge, you will be sorely disappointed.

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Sixty One

Merchant’s Gargling Oil

The keys to success in quackery are to come up with something that “cures” a multitude of complaints, advertise the bejeebers out of it and sit back and wait for the money to roll in. If you can extend the panacea’s remit to include the animal kingdom, so much the better. This was the route adopted by the purveyors of George W Merchant’s Gargling Oil and it served them in good stead for almost a century.

The liniment, launched on the unsuspecting American public in 1833, was intended to cure burns, scalds, flesh wounds, a bad back, piles, tooth ache, sore throats, chilblains and chapped hands. According to the adverts “Merchant’s Gargling Oil is a diffusible stimulant and carminative” – so you could use it to deal with flatulence. – “It can be taken internally when such a remedy is indicated, and is a good substitute for pain killers, cordials and anodynes. For Cramps or Spasms of the Stomach, Colic, Asthma, or Internal Pain, the dose may be from fifteen to twenty drops, on sugar, or mixed with syrup in any convenient form, and repeated at intervals of three to six hours.”

The first thing to note is that despite its name it could be applied externally as well as internally. Secondly, it was marketed as good for animals as well as Homo sapiens. Apparently, horses went mad for it. Initially, there was just one version of the liniment but from the 1870s there were two distinct versions – in yellow for animals and in a lighter colour for humans. Never mind if you could only get your hands on the animal version, you could still use it.  The ads did warn, though, “it will stain and discolour the skin, but not permanently.”

The Gargling Oil made extensive use of advertising. As well as the standard newspaper ads, there were almanacs, song books and stamps. In the 1870s Darwin’s evolutionary theories and the suggestion that man descended from apes was causing waves. Disraeli noted “Is man an ape or an angel? My Lord, I am on the side of the angels. I repudiate with indignation and abhorrence these new-fangled theories.” The stushie was too good for the copywriters for Merchant’s Gargling Oil to miss and they ran a series of ads featuring an ape with the quatrain, “If I am Darwin’s grandpapa/ It follows don’t you see/ that what is good for man or beast/ is doubly good for me.

So what was in it and was it any good? The former is the easier question to answer as the adverts were unusually forthcoming. It was a mix of petroleum, soap, ammonia water, oil of amber, iodine tincture, benzene and water. It is hard to imagine what possessed Merchant to knock up this concoction but as it must have tasted awful, the instruction to take it with sugar must have been very welcome.

As to its efficacy, it is not clear. It would have been messy to apply and the petroleum base may have been off-putting but it evaded the attentions of the Food and Drug Association. What did for it was a serious fire at the Merchant factory in Lockport in New York in 1928 which completely destroyed the building – I wonder if the Gargling Oil was flammable? – and it was so destructive that the company never got back on its feet again. It did leave us, though, with some wonderful adverts.

Sporting Event Of The Week (7)

Those of us who mourn the fact that the game of conkers has rather gone into the doldrums  thanks to the questionable efforts of the ‘Elf and Safety brigade, at least in schools, fearing that the little darlings will get a wrap on the knuckle from a stray shot or that fragments of an exploding conker will get into their eyes, will be heartened by the news that that the Northamptonshire village of Southwick hosted the World Conker Championships last weekend.

230 competitors from 14 countries as far-flung as New Zealand, the United States and Russia took part in the championship which was held, as usual, in the grounds of the Shuckburgh Arms. The winner of the male competition was an 85-year-old Chelsea Pensioner, John Riley, while Julie Freeman won the women’s competition and then claimed the overall crown by overcoming Riley’s stout resistance.

The competition nearly didn’t go ahead because there was a shortage of decent conkers. Many had dropped early this year – autumn does seem to have arrived earlier this year – but enough were gathered to save the day.

For those interested in playing the game properly, there must be at least 8 inches of lace between your knuckle and the conker and each player takes three alternate strikes at their opponent’s nut. The game is decided when one conker is smashed. If there is no result after five minutes, then each player is allowed a further nine strikes. If there is still no result, the winner is the one who struck his opponent’s conker most times.

It brought back wonderful memories of my childhood.

Wedding Hitch Of The Week

There is so much to think about when you are arranging a wedding – the right venue, seating plan, rings, suit etc – that it is easy for something to slip your mind as a poor groom found in Bingley in West Yorkshire last weekend.

Pride of place in the wedding celebrations was a white Lamborghini Huracán complete with red ribbons. Unfortunately, it had slipped the groom’s mind to insure the thing and so the Old Bill came along and impounded it, no doubt making it a wedding to remember for the assembled guests.

As is the way these days, the police put the boot in on Twitter, tweeting under the hashtag #Lamboseizey “Happy wedding day, can I have the keys please the officer said to the groom.

If you are getting married with a flash car, check the insurance. Another thing to add to the list!