Christmas Decorations Of The Year (4)

Spotted in a street in Reading near the town’s university. It even twinkles!

It is thought that the house is occupied by students and, naturally, the local residents are horrified.

Bah, humbug!


Santa Of The Week

It may not be a terribly fashionable thing to say in these days of gender fluidity but I have never given a nanosecond of thought to what sex Father Christmas should be.

I have always considered the white beard and the name was rather conclusive but not so in the Durham town of Newton Aycliffe. For the last 50 years or so on Christmas Eve Santa, played by a man, tours the town in a flatbed truck handing out sweets to the local children. A charming tradition, I’m sure you will agree.

But a debate broke out over the sex of Santa this year – it went to no higher an authority than the Council – after a woman offered to play the part of Father Christmas, with her husband driving the truck. A meeting of the full Council last week rejected the recommendation of a sub-committee that the part could be played by a woman.

At least some traditions remain unsullied by political correctness.

A Santa of a different sort caused a bit of a problem, I read this week, in Wisbech in Cambridgeshire. A giant inflatable Father Christmas broke free from its moorings in a garden on the B198 Cromwell Road and blocked both lanes of the road, making it impassable for around 3.5 hours.

The police had to pop it before traffic could move.

Ah, the joys of Christmas!

What Is The Origin Of (209)?…

The man on the Clapham omnibus

It is a while since I have been to Clapham, never mind travelled to or from by bus, but I suspect that the demographics of the area have changed since this phrase sprang up. It was used to denote the average or typical person, the man on the street or, as the Americans might put it, an ordinary Joe. We live in a much more polarised society but this mythical person was supposed to be the epitome of fairness and a true representative of the wishes, thoughts and opinion of the public at the time. Naturally, he was a chap as the opinions of women didn’t count for much at the time.

An omnibus was a four-wheeled public vehicle with seats for passengers, introduced to London in 1829. Over time it became a popular way of getting around the metropolis, at least until the development of the underground system, for those not wealthy enough to be able to afford their own means of transport.

Contrary to popular opinion, it wasn’t the journalist, Walter Bagehot, or a bright, thrusting QC who coined the phrase. We will come to them in a moment.

No, the first appearance in print appears to have been in a piece in the Journal of Society of Arts of 1857, moaning about the perennial traffic problems in London which, the correspondent claimed, the weary commuter endures with nary a complaint unlike the rail traveller who is quick to voice their indignation if their chosen form of transport is late. “But your dog-coller’d occupant of the knife-board of a Clapham omnibus, will stick on London-bridge for half-an-hour with scarcely a murmur.” Nothing ever changes, it would seem.

Walter Bagehot, in his magisterial The English Constitution, published in 1867, gave us a variant when discussing public opinion. He argued; “public opinion now-a-days is the opinion of the bald-headed man at the back of the omnibus. It is not the opinion of the aristocratical classes as such; or the most educated or refined classes as such; it is simply the opinion of the ordinary mass of educated, but still commonplace mankind.

So the component parts of the Clapham omnibus and the ordinariness of average traveller on public transport, with or without hair or dog collar, were there before the first formulation of our phrase, attributed to a junior counsel in 1871 later Lord Bowen, who was defending the Tichbourne Claimant case, a major case at the time and one which scandalised the nation. Richard Henn Collins, the Master of the Rolls, in his summation in the 1903 libel case of McQuire v Western Morning, noted; “Fair, therefore, in this collocation certainly does not mean that which the ordinary reasonable man, the man on the Clapham omnibus, as Lord Bowen phrased it..

Frustratingly, his Lordship gave no reference for Bowen’s pearls of wisdom and, so far as I can trace, no one has found it.

Perhaps it was already in the common vernacular or perhaps the phrase was regarded as an apposite description of the ordinary man but within twenty days of Collins’ use of the phrase, on 1st June 1903, it popped up in the Manchester Guardian; “The weaker section of the Liberal imperialists (those with an eye to the man on the Clapham omnibus) are generally declaring against Mr Chamberlain.

Inevitably, the English phrase spawned local variants around the Empire. So we have “the man on the Bondi tram” in New South Wales and “the man on the Bourke Street tram” in Victoria and “the man on the Shaukiwan Tram” in Hong Kong.

It has travelled far.

Gin O’Clock – Part Fifty Four

There must be some consolations to be had for pushing a rather battered trolley around the grubby aisles of an Aldi supermarket. Well, on my last trip to our local outlet, I found one at least. They are bringing their fetching approach of stack them untidily, sell ‘em cheap to the ginaissance and have a rather intriguing selection of gins available.

The one that particularly caught my eye was a rather squat, rectangular-shaped bottle with a rather unobtrusive, if not apologetic, label. Picking it up, I saw that it was Beckett’s London Dry Gin, the brain child of the eponymous Neil Beckett and which has been around since 2014. It is distilled at Kingston Distillers. The label, white with a pale green surround of branches and juniper berries, was unusually informative, always a bonus I find when browsing through gins. Intrigued by the write-up in Ginventory, I decided to give it a go and what a find it was.

As often is the case with gins, there is a back story to the gin, usually a desperate attempt to find that ever elusive marketing edge. But at least with Beckett’s there is a conservationist angle, if that is your bag. The junipers are hand-picked from Box Hill in the rolling Surrey Downs. They claim, and I have no reason to doubt them, that it is the only the gin, to date, that uses juniper grown and picked in England. The cynic in me says that there is usually a very good reason something is not used but the proof of the botanical is in the drinking.

What is laudable about using English juniper is that it is an attempt to reverse the lamentable decline in the fortunes of the berry here in Blighty. A combination of poor seed quality, disease and, until recently, the decline in interest in gin has meant that juniper has almost been eradicated from large parts of the country. As a quid pro quo for using the junipers, Beckett’s gin is being used as a flagship for the juniper conservation effort. If more distillers follow Beckett’s lead, then there may be a chance that juniper will re-establish itself here.

Along with the juniper, five other botanicals are added to the neutral grain spirit to produce the hooch – mint grown in Kingston upon Thames, lime and coriander from Morocco, orris root from Italy, and orange peel from Spain. You will probably have gathered by now, if you read these posts on a regular basis, that I am a fan of relatively simple gins using a small number of botanicals which allow the juniper to take the lead. This gin certainly ticks that box.

The label informed me that it was from Batch no LDG17 and was bottle number 5018. Come in No 5018, your time is up. Removing the grey foil from the neck of the bottle and the artificial stopper, the aroma that greeted me was one heavily influenced by juniper with hints of citrus and, perhaps, mint. To the taste it presented as a well-balanced gin with the juniper blending well with the citrus elements and the mint giving it a rather bittersweet taste and a long, cool, refreshing aftertaste.

It made for a very satisfying drink and at 40% ABV is one that is going to encourage you to have another one.

Until the next time, cheers!

Book Corner – December 2018 (1)

Crimson Snow – edited by Martin Edwards

Christmas is coming. The geese I regularly pass in a field on the M40 are getting fatter and wearing an increasingly worried expression on their face. Christmas is a time for relatives and friends to gather, celebrate and fall out. Some might even resort to murder. Dastardly deeds over the festive period make up the common theme of this delightful collection of eleven stories, carefully and lovingly curated by Martin Edwards.

As with anthologies of this type there is a mix of familiar authors – in particular, Margery Allingham and Edgar Wallace – and more obscure writers who have been lost in the mists of time. The length and quality of the stories also varies, a couple take over an hour to read each and others show some signs of their vintage. There is even a play; Christmas Eve by S C Roberts is a Holmesian parody in which the winsome Violet de Vinne consults Conan Doyle’s creation about Lady Barton’s missing pearls and makes quite an impression on poor Watson.

The weather we traditionally associate with Christmas, thick snow, features in a number of stories, marooning the house party, as in Victor Gunn’s Death in December, and allowing Chief Inspector Bill “Ironsides” Cromwell and his sidekick, Johnny Lister, to solve the mystery without the suspects having the opportunity to make good their escape.  In one story we encounter a group of malicious carol singers who commit a dastardly crime but their elderly victim has the foresight to hang her most valuable jewels on the boughs of her Christmas tree. As you would expect, a couple of stories feature Father Christmas, the interchange of costumes in one story giving the felon the opportunity to commit his crime.

Ghosts are also associated with Christmas and seasonal spectres make appearances in a number of stories. Perhaps the best story in the collection is Fergus Hume’s The Ghost’s Touch in which the narrator spends the holiday season in a haunted house. Inevitably, the ghost makes an appearance but not all is as it seems and the ghost is a means to divert the direction of an inheritance. What the story lacks in subtlety of plot it more than makes up for in atmosphere and tension.

Another of my favourites is Mr Cork’s Secret by Macdonald Hastings, perhaps because it has an insurance-related theme and it demonstrates that those of us who worked in the industry may have enjoyed a good lifestyle but we were never off duty. Mr Cork is an underwriter and is following up on a theft of some jewels that his office had underwritten. Inevitably, there is a corpse involved and the finely attuned grey cells of Cork eventually get to the bottom of the mystery. One of the unusual features of the story was that it was originally a competition piece and Hastings held back some vital revelations as a challenge for his readership. Edwards prints the story as it originally appeared but at the back of the book provides the missing information together with the winner’s suggestions. A nice touch.

On the whole, I found this collection less satisfying than others from the same stable, perhaps because the Christmas theme, although offering a range of possibilities, ultimately is a bit restrictive. Writing Christmas stories is more of a money-spinning exercise than anything else and perhaps as a consequence the quality of the writing it engenders is more variable. But, as always, there is enough to keep you interested and entertained.

Whether it has made me anticipate Christmas more keenly is another story!

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Eighty Six

Hans Lippershey (1570 – 1619)

Twinkle, twinkle, little star/ How I wonder what you are” goes the nursery rhyme. There is something mystifying and deeply captivating about the celestial bodies that sparkle and shine above our heads at night-time and from time immemorial Homo sapiens has wanted to get to know them better. Today, of course, we can get a better view of them from terra firma by using a telescope. But who invented this very useful scientific instrument?

Popular theory gives the credit to Galileo Galilei but, inevitably, it is a lot more complicated than that. This is where the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Hans, or Johann, Lippershey, a German-Dutch spectacle maker comes in.

The techniques for making glass and grinding lenses came on leaps and bounds in the 16th century, making it easier to develop smaller and more powerful lenses. Inevitably, someone would have the bright idea of seeing what would happen if they held up two lenses. Indeed, an apocryphal story suggests that Lippershey conceived his idea of a telescope when two children held up a couple of lenses and made the weather vane of the local church appear closer.

Less charitable souls claim that he stole the idea from a neighbour, fellow eyeglass maker, Zacharias Jansen. The truth is buried in the mists of time but what is certain is that Lippershey developed a rudimentary form of telescope, consisting of a concave eyepiece which was aligned to an objective lens, concave, of course. It boasted a magnification power of three, pretty feeble by modern standards but at least it was a start.

Emboldened by his success, on October 2nd 1608 Lippershey applied to the States General of the Netherlands for a patent for what he called an instrument “for seeing things far away as if they were nearby” – a rather clumsy description but the word,  telescope, was not coined until three years later, by Giovanni Demisiani. Lippershey did not get a patent granted, perhaps the waters had been muddied by the controversy as to how he got the idea. Another complication was that a few weeks later the Dutch authorities received a patent application for a patent for a similar instrument, this time from Jacob Metius, another Dutch instrument-maker.

The emergence of a rival instrument led the authorities to draw the inevitable conclusion that the device was easy to make and, therefore, difficult to patent. At least Lippershey received a large fee from the Dutch government in return for the use of his design. Poor Metius had to make do with a small reward.

The device created a bit of a stir and was mentioned in a report issued and distributed around Europe of the visit of the embassy of the King of Siam to the court of the Dutch crown prince, Maurice, in Hague. The genie was out of the bottle and a number of eminent scientists began experimenting with the concept of using a pair of lenses to bring the image of something nearer to the viewer.

By the summer of 1609, the English scientist, Thomas Harriott, had produced a telescope with a magnification factor of six. He pointed his telescope at the moon and in August 1609 drew what he saw but never published the results.

And then Galileo got in on the act. His considerable intellect was piqued by reports of the Dutch perspective glasses which reached him in 1609. Within days he had created his own telescope, without seeing a Dutch version, which boasted a magnification power of twenty. With this he observed the moon, discovered the rings of Saturn and four of Jupiter’s moons. Galileo reproduced what he saw in astonishing ink drawings, which were published.

So Harriott drew the moon first and Lippershey can rightly claim to have been the first to develop a telescope. But Galileo scooped the glory.

Such is the fickle finger of fate and why Hans is a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone


What Is The Origin Of (208)?…

Morton’s fork

For those of us who subscribe to the concept of free will or self-determinism we can spend a heck of a lot of time weighing up the pros and cons of the various courses of action. Sometimes we may conclude that we have been presented with a Hobson’s Choice – a phrase we looked at many moons ago – in which only one option is really available and we either have to take it or lump it.

On the other hand, we may conclude that there are two courses of action we could take but the anticipated outcome of either is just as unpleasant as the other. Such a prospect is known as Morton’s fork, named after John Morton (c 1420 – 1500), Archbishop of Canterbury, who had an ingenious line of thought to determine whether someone could afford to pay a forced loan, euphemistically called a benevolence, to his master, Henry VII.

Francis Bacon picks up the story in his The historie of the raigne of King Henry the seventh of 1622; “there is a Tradition of a Dilemma, that Bishop Morton the Chancellour vsed, to raise vp the Beneuolence to higher Rates; and some called it his Forke, and some his Crotch…That if they met with any that were sparing, they should tell them, That they must needs haue, because they laid vp; and if they were spenders, they must needs hauve, because it was seene in their Port, and manner of living. So neither kinde came amisse.

In other words, the crafty Bishop thought that if you were living frugally, you must have amassed savings and if you were extravagant in your lifestyle, you could obviously afford to pay. It described a situation that was analogous to being between the devil and the deep blue sea or between a rock and a hard place.

Inevitably, the phrase was occasionally used in a figurative sense. An example of such is to be found in the Paisley and Renfrewshire Gazette and Paisley Herald of 16th May 1885. With impeccable logic the columnist queried a recent budget which increased the tax on beers and spirits, commenting; “one prong of Morton’s fork certainly applies to the Teetotallers. If they do not spend money on liquor, they must be better able than others to contribute to the national necessities.” Quite.

There was a time when correspondents to newspapers used the letters’ page to showcase their erudition. One such was moved in September 1888 to pen a letter to the Thunderer aka the Times to comment upon the question of tithes in Wales. With impeccable logic he wrote; “either the tithe is the titheowner’s, in which case they should give it him, or it is public property, in which case they should not keep it in their own pockets. How will they escape? MORTON’S FORK.

While we are on the subject, we may as well deal with Buridan’s Ass, the logician’s equivalent of a drinker of rosė wine and named after the 14th century philosopher, Jean Buridan. It is a reduction ad absurdum, illustrating the mental paralysis that can beset someone seeking to exercise free will. The conceit is that an ass will choose to go wherever is the nearer so if it stands equidistant from a pail of water and a stack of hay, it will die both of thirst and hunger because it can’t make a rational decision between the two courses of action.

Exercising my free will, I will quit while the going is good!