Acrostic Of The Week

Getting the right choice of words to put on the gravestone of a loved one can be a tricky business. There are so many pitfalls that most of the inscriptions are little more than a variation on a theme, the details of the deceased and a trite message of affection.

Steven Paul Owens died aged 59 in September 2021 and his family have erected a headstone in his honour at Warren-Powers Cemetery in Polk County in Iowa. The inscription reads “Forever in our hearts, until we meet again, cherished memories, known as: our son, brother, father, papa, uncle, friend & cousin”. Quite touching.

However, the formatting of the inscription over seven lines has upset the Camp Township Board of Trustees, who are responsible for the graveyard, because the first letter of each line forms an acrostic spelling out the phrase Fuck Off. It is no unhappy accident as, according to Owens’ family, the deceased used it as a term of endearment and that if he said it to you, it meant that he liked you. If he didn’t like you, he simply stayed quiet.

As no word has been forthcoming from the deceased on the furore, I can only assume that he is not happy.

Thirty-Two Of The Gang

What is a pig month? According to James Ware in his Passing English of a Victorian Era it was any of the eight months without an R in their name when it was said to be safe to eat pork.

Pork is a common ingredient in pies. One of the first pie shops in London was established by Henry Blanchard, probably from around 1844. There all manner of pies could be purchased, ranging from fruit to meat to eel. It proved enormously popular with the paying public as pies cost just one penny. It was less well received by the itinerant pie sellers. Henry Mayhew, in his London Labour and the London Poor, noted that “the penny pie shops, the street men say, have done their trade a great deal of harm. These shops have now got mostly all the custom, as they make pies much larger for the money than those sold in the street”.

Perhaps these disgruntled pie sellers were instrumental for coining the phrase pie shop as a synonym for a dog, for the simple expedient that was what they alleged to be the main ingredient of the pies.

In street argot a pill was a dose, punishment suffering or a sentence because of being endless in its application. A pill pusher, though, was a doctor.

An objection that could be levied at Johnson’s government is that they are guilty of podsnappery. This was defined as “a wilful determination to ignore the objectionable or inconvenient, at the same time assuming airs of superior virtue and noble resignation”. If only the latter was true.

Artingstall’s Brilliant London Dry Gin

Think Hollywood, think glamour, style, and, occasionally, quality. One of the increasing number of “celebrities” who have been drawn to put their own stamp on the ginaissance is Hollywood film director, Paul Feig. His brainchild is Artingstall’s Brilliant London Gin and is the result of his quest to find the perfect gin to go into his favourite cocktail of Martini.

Often when you dig into the development of a product which is associated with a “celebrity” you find that they have done little more than add their name to a product in the hope that it will bring a little cachet. Feig, though, at least according to his publicity, has been involved in all aspects of the design of this spirit. Teaming up with Minhas Craft Brewery, a family-owned micro distillery based in Monroe in Wisconsin and the second oldest in the States, he discussed his ideal gin with co-owners, Manjit and Ravinder Minhas, who produced eight different baskets of botanicals and distilled up versions within the parameters discussed. After a considerable amount of trial and error, they came up with this gin.

Artingstall’s uses eleven botanicals including juniper, orris root, coriander, cassia bark, cardamom, elderberries, and citrus. On the nose the aromas are what you would expect from a London Dry style gin, juniper forward, a nice amount of citrus and the subtle tones of spice. The spirit is crystal-clear in the glass and in the mouth the earthy flavour of orris root is the yin to the yang of the underlying peppery sweetness, before finishing off with a long aftertaste of perfumed lavender. With an ABV of 42% it packs a punch and is versatile enough to hold its own in a martini or negroni as well as making for a satisfying drink on its own along with a premium tonic.     

In a bold move Feig chose not to call the gin after himself, preferring to stand behind the camera rather than in front of it, and allows the spirit to stand up for itself, confident in its qualities, notwithstanding the feverish efforts of the publicists to remind you that it is his creation. There is a personal connection to the name, albeit an obscure one. Artingstall was the maiden name of his mother and, according to Feig, it was chosen because it had an old-fashioned English feel about it.

The paramount statement piece of this gin and what makes Artingstall’s stand out from the crowd is the bottle. It is stunning, a huge, square block of embossed glass, reminiscent of the classic cut glass decanters of the 1950s and 60s, which would do serious damage if you dropped it on your toes. The design was based on an old cut-glass decanter Feig found in a charity shop and has a wide glass top with a white synthetic stopper. The labelling is a classy black, textured with a gold foil border and gold lettering. It is magnificent.

Hollywood has a reputation for being all glitz and glamour but there is real quality and much thought behind this blockbuster. Brilliant in name and brilliant by nature.

Until the next time, cheers!

Death At The Bar

A review of Death at the Bar by Ngaio Marsh

It has taken me a while to warm to Ngaio Marsh, but the books written in the late 1930s and early 40s see her in fine form. Written in 1939 but published in 1940 the setting for Death at the Bar allows her to indulge her penchant for unusual settings and unusual murder methods as well as, in this case, to craft an excellent pun. The murder occurs in a bar, the Plume of Feathers in the south Devon village of Ottercombe, while the victim, Luke Watchman, a King’s Counsel, is also a member of the other bar.

Ottercombe is Watchman’s regular holiday retreat, and he is there with his two friends, Sebastian Parrish, an accomplished movie star, and Norman Cubitt, an up-and-coming painter. Watchman, though, has an unerring knack of rubbing people up the wrong way and takes a particular dislike to a relative newcomer to the village, Bob Legge, who amongst other things is a leading light in the local Leftist movement and an accomplished darts player. Their two cars lock horns as Watchman makes his entrance to the village and the barrister is keen to cast aspersions on his and some of the others’ political beliefs. There is a feeling that the two have had some previous encounter.

Watchman also earns the dislike of the publican’s son, Bob Pomeroy, and the girl he believes to be his girlfriend, Decima Moore. Legge’s party trick is to get someone to put their outstretched hand on the dartboard and to throw a dart between each span. Watchman challenges Legge to repeat his trick, one of the darts hits Watchman’s finger, he collapses and after a tot of brandy mutters “Poisoned” and dies. As Legge had no obvious access to poison, let alone an opportunity to dip a dart into it – they were brand new, unwrapped for the occasion – the verdict of the subsequent inquest is one of accidental death.

Goaded by local, Nark, who alleges that if you use the Plume of Feathers, you run the risk of being poisoned, publican Abel Pomeroy visits Scotland Yard with allegations that Watchman was murdered. Roderick Alleyn, Marsh’s go-to detective, accompanied by his faithful colleague, Fox, lead the investigations.

There are the usual red herrings, some well-constructed misdirections, and several suspects who, at various points of the story, could have killed Watchman for a variety of reasons. Marsh has taken care over her plot and the pieces only start coming together when some background information emerges about the amateur water colourist, Hon. Violet Darragh, who hitherto had been a rather ancillary figure. There are clues dotted throughout the narrative for the alert reader to garner and mull over and while the identity of the culprit ultimately comes as no surprise, the motivation for the murder and the method shows some ingenuity that may have eluded many of Marsh’s readers.

Missing from the tale is Alleyn’s usual Dr Watson, the journalist Nigel Bathgate, his role assumed by the local Chief Constable, the rather eccentric Maxwell Brammington, to whom Alleyn reveals his deductive processes. Annoying as Bathgate can sometimes be, I rather missed him. Agatha Troy is also absent from the narrative, although it is revealed en passant that Alleyn has married her. The little wife knows her place, perhaps.  

Marsh uses the characters in her book to engage in a discussion about left wing politics and the rights and wrongs of capital punishment, which are interesting documents of their time. There are moments of comedy, usually provided by the more rustic characters and Marsh enjoys herself in portraying the Devonian accent and exploring the tensions between the locals and the holidaymakers.

It is an engaging book, an entertaining read, and keeps the reader on their toes.

Post After Post-Mortem

A review of Post after Post-Mortem by E C R Lorac

One of the literary world’s most intriguing questions is why some writers are remembered long after they had finished writing while others, equally worthy, fall into unwarranted obscurity. Edith Caroline Rivett, who wrote under the nom de plume of ECR Lorac, falls into the latter category, wholly unjustifiably, and it is one of the pleasures of the renaissance of Golden Age detective fiction that her books are slowly but surely being plucked out of obscurity, each occasion one to be rejoiced over. This, the eleventh in her Inspector Macdonald series and originally published in 1936, has recently been reissued as part of the excellent British Library Crime Classics series.

We are still having problems with our post, during one six-week period we had just three deliveries, a combination of Covid-related sicknesses and reorganisation, we were told. Thankfully, there was nothing of any importance that we had not been advised by other means, but there could have been a missive whose arrival could have changed the complexion of affairs dramatically. Richard Surray’s post has been delayed, not because of staff shortages and managerial incompetence, but because he has moved around a lot. Had he received the letter posted by his sister, Ruth, on the night that she supposedly committed suicide, the verdict of the inquest would have been altogether different.

As it was, Ruth was found dead in her bed, seemingly having taken an overdose. The inquest recorded a verdict of suicide, Ruth was known to be depressive and Richard, a psychologist, knew she was under stress. Richard, keen to avoid causing the Surrays, his highly successful family, any unnecessary distress, wraps up matters with the minimum of fuss. However, the receipt of Ruth’s letter, written seemingly in good spirits, changes his views of her death and he calls Inspector Macdonald to investigate.

Lorac takes more care than usual in portraying Macdonald. He is empathetic, keen to minimise the distress for the family, and yet keen to ensure that justice is done. Unusually, he takes a virulent personal dislike to one of the suspects but battles to ensure that personal animosity does not cloud his judgment. It is a complex problem that he has to solve. There are a large number of potential suspects, some of whom are more plausible than others. As well as Ruth’s murder, there is an “accident” to one of the guests, two of the suspects are poisoned, and the Surray’s home suffers an arson attack.

Their enquiries take the investigating officers, Macdonald to London and Reeves to Mallaig. Reeves has an upsetting period locked in a cupboard and his expertise in ju-jitsu comes in handy. The culprit is unmasked by a rather underhand trick, but the explanation of why and how they were driven to commit the murder and conduct a reign of terror to cover their traces, including an intriguing way to commit arson, is ultimately satisfying.

At its heart, the book is about the psychology of obsession and devotion and how it can lead people to extreme actions. It also demonstrates that once a certain course of action is taken, it leads to further complications. Lorac also dwells on the role of women in society, particularly in the world of academia, publishing, and academia.

While the Surray girls are successful in their own rights, there is an expectation and a certain pressure for them to settle down and get married. Curiously, though, for a story with such a strong theme, the women are remarkably absent from the stage. Ruth is murdered early on, Naomi goes off to Scotland and, despite being a potentially valuable witness or even suspect, is never called for questioning by Macdonald, and Mrs Surray flits around in the background, muttering about the disruption to her household. Perhaps their relative silence makes Lorac’s case about the difficulties facing women seeking to make their way in life more powerful.

I found the book a tad overlong, but it is well-written, intriguingly plotted, and, while Lorac is not entirely open with all the evidence, keeping the reader guessing until the end, it all makes sense in the end. It is a mystery why Lorac is so underrated. Perhaps Inspector Macdonald will tell us why.          

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