A wry view of life for the world-weary

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Seven

The Great Bottle Hoax of 1749

This is a series which explores human gullibility and credulity, a subject which has fascinated many for centuries. A group of aristos with nothing better to do than consider such points met in 1749. The Duke of Portland opined that if the most impossible thing was advertised, “there would be fools enough in London to fill a play house and pay handsomely for the privilege of being there.” The Earl of Chesterfield, after scratching his peruke for a while, thought that someone jumping out of a quart bottle would test the public’s credulity. And so the wager was struck.

An advert was placed in the London newspapers in the first week of January promising that on 16th January at the New Theatre in Haymarket promising an exhibition by a performer who had already appeared before most of the crowned heads of Europe. The conjurer, as he was described, would take a walking cane from a member of the audience and play every instrument known to man upon it. Then he would take a common wine bottle which, after due examination by members of the audience, he would place on a table, jump into it and sing a selection of songs. Entry to this astonishing evening’s entertainment would set you back five pounds.

London was agog and it was the talk of the town. All the tickets were snapped up. No one wanted to miss this extraordinary display. But when the audience had assembled, there was no sign of movement backstage. No entertainment had been provided to keep the punters amused before the show began and the audience became restless, starting to boo, stamping their feet and pounding their canes. Eventually someone appeared on the stage and announced that if the performance didn’t start within the next quarter of an hour, the audience would get their money back.

Order of sorts was restored but as the quarter-hour elapsed there was still no sign that a performance was about to begin. Someone in one of the boxes grabbed a lighted candle and tossed it on to the stage. This was the signal for a riot and soon seats were torn up and the frenzied audience proceeded to demolish everything within sight. The theatre was set alight and the more subdued members of the audience fought to make their exit stage left, leaving much of their portable apparel such as wigs, hats and cloaks behind. A big bonfire was built outside the theatre and the stage curtains were made into an impromptu flag. Even the cash receipts were taken.

The wags about town had a field day decrying the gullibility of the public. Some placed adverts promoting feats even more ludicrous and impossible as the man in the bottle, some offering to rip out their own eyeballs or to jump down their own throats. Another offered to shoot himself with two pistols, once through the abdomen and then through the brain. He promised that this tour de force would end “with staggering convulsions, grinning, etc., in a manner never before publicly attempted.”

A story did the rounds that the conjurer had been prevailed upon by a certain gentleman to do a private performance. Once in the bottle, the gentleman put a cork into it and made off with him, hence his non-appearance. The hoax which sparked a riot eventually ran out of steam and the great British public diverted its attention to other affairs. It was some years before the perpetrators of the hoax were revealed.


Sign Of The Week (3)

I cannot make my mind up whether this is a testament to the withdrawal of public conveniences or the reduction of rural bus services or just an example of human grossness but Slimbridge has been hit with a bit of a problem, I read this week.

The Gloucestershire village is served by a number of buses (6, 61 and 346 in particular) but recently had an unexpected and unwelcome rash of visits from the number two. The bus shelters had been used as a toilet and the cleaner was naturally pissed off to have to clear up the mess.

The Parish Council sat to deliberate and, according to Chairman Phil Garrett, considered a belt and braces approach to the problem. I would have thought it was the absence of belts and braces that had contributed to the mess. Anyhow, they eschewed the installation of CCTV on the grounds of cost and decided to erect this rather natty and unusual sign, the design for which was unanimously acclaimed at their Annual General Meeting last year. They were attracted to the design because at A5 size, it was more discreet and articulated the message well.

It seems to have done the trick. There have been no reported incidents since the signage was installed three months ago.

Life in the countryside, eh?

Pisser Of The Week

We have all had a Specsaver moment but perhaps not as extreme as that experienced by James Dowly.

Driving by the Mere in Ellesmere in Shropshire with his father, James spotted an object floating face down in the water. Without any more ado, our hero stopped the car and jumped into the freezing water, I read this week.

Imagine his surprise, then, when having waded out to what he thought was a baby, he found that it was a plastic doll, wearing a pink and black striped cardigan and a white Babygro. In his defence James claimed that from a distance the object looked “very lifelike.

As is the modern way, the whole incident was captured on camera.

Better to be safe than sorry, I suppose, but book that eye test as quickly as you can is my recommendation.

What Is The Origin Of (163)?…

Fight like Kilkenny cats

A little while ago someone, in describing a spat, described the adversaries as fighting like Kilkenny cats. I have never been to Kilkenny in the south-east of the Republic of Ireland and so cannot verify how aggressive the moggies there are. The sense of its figurative usage is pretty clear, describing a couple of particularly tenacious opponents who are diametrically opposed in their views and will never agree. Think Brexiteers and Remainers. But why cats from Kilkenny?

A clue to understanding the genesis of the phrase is to be found in a limerick attributed to that most prolific of poets, Anon. There are a number of variants but this version gives the general sense; “there once were two cats of Kilkenny/ each thought there was one cat too many/ so they fought and they hit/ and they scratched and they bit/ ‘til (excepting their nails/ and the tips of their tails/ instead of two cats there weren’t any!” It must have been some scrap. Although limericks are strongly associated with Ireland, there is no clue as to why these ferocious cats came from Kilkenny, other than the felicitous rhyming of their town of origin with many.

Etymologists like to ascribe the origin of a word or phrase to some historical event or person and there are three theories, each of which appeared in the pages of Notes and Queries during the middle of the 19th century, relating to Kilkenny cats. The first, appearing in an edition from 1850, refers to the factional disputes between the English and Irish contingents in Kilkenny during the period between the 14th and 17th centuries. There was much to fall out over – after all, the English were the occupiers and the native Irish the oppressed. Following Henry VIII’s schism with Rome, there were religious differences. And to cap it all, there was no clarity in statute as to the respective roles and rights of each community. The result was three centuries of bickering which ended up putting the town in Queer Street. It is said that our phrase is an allegorical representation of this tempestuous and ultimately ruinous relationship.

A second attempt was made to explain the origin appeared in an edition of Notes and Queries from 1864. According to this explanation, a group of German soldiers were stationed in Kilkenny at the turn of the 19th century and to relieve the monotony of garrison life, they used to arrange fights between a couple of moggies that were tied together by their tails. One day an officer, alerted by the noise, went to see what was going on and in an attempt to hide the evidence one soldier cut off both tails to allow the cats to escape. Holding the tails, he explained that the fight was so fierce that the elongated pieces of fur, bone and cartilage in his hand were all that was left.

A third version tells of a battle in the 18th century between two bands of cats, a thousand strong each side. The fighting was so vicious that all the cats were killed on both sides. This sounds very much like a particularised version of the first explanation. All have elements of a shaggy dog story (or should it be shaggy cat?) about them. The disputes between Irishtown and Englishtown, as the two disputatious communities were called, may have a scintilla of truth about them but I have a sneaking suspicion that Kilkenny may just have easily have been selected because of its rhyming qualities. As with many of these enquiries, no one really knows.

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty Two

Do your ears grow as you get older?

Ears are wonderful things. As well as opening up the world of sound for those blessed with the sense of hearing – that is another story – they provide us with something to which we can attach our spectacles. In Chinese physiognomy large ears are a sign of longevity. As I grow ever older I get this unshakeable feeling that the size of my ears is increasing. The consensus seems to be that old men have big ears and so for those of us with an enquiring mind this prompts the question: Do ears really grow larger with age and, if so, is it a phenomenon restricted to men?

The starting point for our investigation into the lughole is a paper published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 1995, entitled Why do old men have big ears? In this fascinating monograph a general practitioner from Bromley in Kent, James Heathcote, recounts a survey he and three of his doctor colleagues conducted into the size of men’s ears in 1993. The doctors measured the ear sizes of 206 men of aged 30 and over and analysed the results. They calculated that ears grew at an average of 0.22 millimetres a year or, to put it another way, around a centimetre every 50 years. Frustratingly, the worthy medics didn’t hazard a guess as to why this may happen.

But it seems that the British investigation only tells half a story, having concentrated exclusively on the male sex. For an understanding of what happens with the ears of the fairer sex. A paper, reprinted in the BMJ in 1996 entitled Correlation of Ear Length with Age in Japan details the findings of some physicians working in care homes in Japan (surprise, surprise) where they measured the ears and height of some 400 adult patients of both sexes.  What they found was that there is a significant correlation between the length of your ear and age, confirming Heathcote’s findings, and that there is an even greater correlation when adjusted for height – across both sexes.

An Italian study in 1999, conducted by VF Ferrario and others, measured the ears of groups of males and females in age categories 12 to 15, 19 to 30 and 31 to 56. What they discovered was that ear dimensions were significantly larger in males than females and that there was a significant effect on the size of lugholes with age with larger ears to be found amongst the aging population.

A more exhaustive study was conducted in around 2006 was conducted by a team of Germans from the Freie Universitat Berlin, led by Carsten Niemitz, based upon some original original research carried out in 1959 by Montacer-Kuhssary. The team found some 1448 photographs of ears of people of all ages ranging from new-born children to adolescents to adults and old codgers up to the age of 92. Each of the photographs was subjected to fifteen different sets of measurements. What the team found that “in all parameters where post adult growth was observed, female ears showed a lesser increase than those of men.” Moreover the extent to which older men have bigger ears than younger males is greater than the extent to which older women’s lugholes are bigger than younger females’. But the fact is that women’s ears grow with age as well. Perhaps the reason why we don’t notice this phenomenon is because they often wear their hair in styles which cover the ears.

They also found that noses grow with age but not at the rate of ears – perhaps the Pinocchio effect of those shaggy dog stories the elderly are so fond of telling. There is no certainty as to why ears grow. It may be due to the loss of elasticity in the skin and the effect of gravity. Who knows?

Glad to have uncovered the truth on that one, though.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone which is now available via

Book Corner – January 2018 (2)

The Dawn Watch – Maya Jasanoff

Where to start with Joseph Conrad? He is one of my favourite novelists and I have great admiration for the vigour of his writing style, something even more remarkable when you consider that English was his third language, learned when he was in his twenties. His writing career began when he responded to a competition in Tit-bits magazine.

Born in 1857 Conrad, or to give him his birth name Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, had a hell of a life. His parents and close family were involved in the Polish struggles for independence, his father was under surveillance and in Joseph’s formative years the family were sent east into exile. When he was orphaned as a teenager, he was assisted by his uncle to head west and realise his dream of going to sea. Settling in England – the British merchant navy was pre-eminent at the time – Conrad eventually became a captain but often had to settle for lower positions. His experiences included long passages on clipper ships to Australia, poodling around Singapore and its environs on a tramp steamer and enduring for a time a mind-bogglingly awful trip up the Congo at a time when the Belgians were raping and pillaging the country.

These experiences provided Conrad with enough source material to furnish his literary career. These days Conrad is under a bit of a cloud, thanks in part to a brutal critique of Conrad by Chinua Achebe in 1975 who called him a bloody racist and the Heart of Darkness the most despicable book. For those who seek it out Conrad is also guilty of reflecting the anti-semitic views of the time and with very few exceptions his books are about white males. Does this for the modern reader put him beyond the pale?

Jasanoff, in her magnificent melange of biography, literary criticism, history and travel writing, seeks to re-establish Conrad’s prominence in the literary world, by positioning him as a remarkably prescient author, grappling with the many of the issues that trouble us today – immigration, terrorism, amoral capitalism, imperial decline and rapid and disorientating technological change. Taking four of Conrad’s masterpieces to illustrate her central thesis, she points out how we have Russians interfering in the democratic processes of a state (The Secret Agent),an individual yearning for the gentler days of sail now superseded by steam (Lord Jim), the transience of empire through the realisation that the British Empire is soon to be replaced by American financial might (Nostromo) and that capitalism in its raw state can be more brutal than what it has supposed to have civilised (the Heart of Darkness).

She is surely right in viewing Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as an attack on the hypocrisy of the so-called civilising mission of capitalism, boiling it down to merely taking the earth and its resources “from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves”, a theme picked up in the characterisation of the grasping American capitalist, Mr Holroyd, in Nostromo. To see Conrad’s depiction of the horror of the Congo as purely racist entirely misses the point of where Conrad was coming from. And I have immense sympathy for the reading of The Secret Agent as much about human relationships with Winnie Verloc as the glue that binds the book together as a discussion of terrorism.

There is much to digest in a book which is written in an engaging style.

Let us hope that Jasanoff succeeds in rehabilitating Conrad’s reputation. He was very much admired by contemporary writers and very influential, particularly amongst writers who were experimenting with narrative techniques. His return to public favour is long overdue.

Double Your Money – Part Twenty Seven

Sir Humphrey Mackworth (1657 – 1727)

Shropshire born Mackworth set out to revive the fortunes of the mining industry in the Neath region of South Wales. Soon the mines were bringing him in as much as £600 per annum but Mackworth wasn’t stopping there. He revived the disused copper-smelting works at nearby Melicrythan and was soon on the look-out for a way in which he could combine mineral extraction and production.

In 1690 rich mineral deposits were discovered in the Goreddan estate , the lease to which was held by Sir Carbery Pryce. Pryce’s death in 1694 gave Mackworth the opportunity to acquire rights to the site and utilise his works to smelt the copper and silver, the furnaces to be fuelled by the coal extracted from his mines. The only problem was that to set this all up required more capital than Mackworth could muster. He came up with an ingenious solution to the problem in hand.

Mackworth established a joint stock company called The Company of Mine Adventurers. He rented an office in London’s Lincoln’s Inn and, in order to give his venture the patina of respectability, invited the Duke of Leeds, Sir Thomas Osborne, to be its chairman. The publicity machine then went into overdrive, likening the deposits in the Cardiganshire countryside to the fabulous silver deposits in the Cerro Rico in Bolivia. All subscribers were assured of fabulous wealth. Some of the pamphlets even emphasised the philanthropic side of Mackworth’s venture – a fortieth of all profits would be set aside for the erection of a hospital and workhouse and would subsequently fund such good works as employing a clergyman to preach to the workforce (lucky them), to assist poor vicarages, fund missionaries to go out to the West Indies – you get the picture.

Mackworth devised an ingenious lottery stock scheme to raise capital. In essence, subscribers were not guaranteed to secure shares in the company – whether they did or not was decided by ballot – but their monies were held by the company, whether they were successful or not. In this way the company had more capital than the value of the shares issued. Thomas Baston, writing in 1705, describes Mackworth’s modus operandi down to a tee, even if he doesn’t name the malefactor directly. “The projectors would alight upon some fair project, such as getting silver out of the mountain of Wales. Afterwards, he procures a patent, opens books for subscriptions, promising prodigious and incredible advantages to all that will venture their money on this project…and in order to support the stock price they use “many other tricks and rogueries as publishing books and advertisements which are stuffed with monstrous absurdities and lies.

The company received its Royal Charter in 1703 but, as you might expect, not everything was as it was cracked up to be. The extravagant claims surrounding the size and quality of the mineral deposits were not realised and the company soon began to hit financial difficulties. To maintain the façade of financial stability, Mackworth began to pay interest on bonds using borrowed money or out of capital. Shares were sold without authorisation and, worse still, Mackworth diverted company funds for his own use.

Although Mackworth had introduced some interesting innovations such as using wooden waggon ways to transport coal to Neath’s wharf, matters were not helped by his disputatious character. He got into a number of bitter disputes with a number of local coal proprietors, principally Sir Edward Mansel. The company, which was built on what was described as a honeycomb of fraud, finally collapsed and declared bankrupt in 1709, all of its investors losing their money. A committee of the House of Commons investigated the company in the following year and declared that Mackworth was “guilty of many notorious and scandalous frauds.

The fall of the Whig administration that year saved Mackworth’s bacon and the irrepressible fraudster set up the Company of Mineral Manufacturers in 1713, which lasted six years.

Toilet Of The Week (13)

I’ve not been to China but one thing that made me consider it as a holiday destination is the wave of posh conveniences that are being constructed as part of Xi Jinping’s programme, started in 2015, to improve the quality of public toilets.

But the programme is being stopped in midstream, I read this week in a story part-written by Christine Wei – you couldn’t make it up – because of fears that huge amounts of public money are being flushed away as cities vie to build the most grandiose carseys.

One boasts a toilet paper dispenser which uses facial recognition – it is said to be convenient (natch) and saves on paper – while one in Menyan, costing some 2.7 million yuan, offers its users flat screen TVs to while away their time and others boast fridges packed with drinks, microwave ovens and high-tech air conditioning. Who needs to waste money on hotel rooms?

Director of the China National Tourism Administration, Li Jinzao, has called a halt, reminding local authorities that all that is required are “practical public facilities based on local conditions that are accessible and convenient.

Spoil sport and another country falls off the bucket list.

Sex Aid Of The Week

Are any male members in my readership looking to add a bit of pep into their lovemaking? Having trouble getting an erection? I may have the answer for you.

Viagra, of course, should be available over the counter this spring but that may be old hat, if a report I read this week is to be believed.

Scientists at University College Hospital in London have developed a gel whose key ingredient is nitroglycerin which is highly unstable and explosive in liquid form. All you have to do is rub the gel on your todger.

In trials conducted by the scientists led by Consultant Urologist, David Ralph, they found that it worked 12 times faster than Viagra and cured seven out of ten cases of impotence. Within five minutes 44% of the men who tested the gel had an erection.

Women, you have been warned.

There is only one downside – it leaves you with a head ache. Perhaps there is a bit of a bang going on, after all.

What Is The Origin Of (162)?…


I accept that one of the features that make English the wonderfully rich language that it is is its ability to change, absorb and adapt. Regrettably, this means that some words fall into ill-deserved obscurity. One such is the verb whelm which has these days has pretty much been overwhelmed by overwhelm, meaning to bury or drown or to have a strong effect on, a state of affairs which has left me rather underwhelmed, meaning disappointed.

Whelm has a fine pedigree, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times. In Middle English it meant to overturn or capsize and was to be found in a couple of formats, quelm or welme. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is in the historical and religious poem that ran to some 30,000 lines called Cursor Mundi, written around the start of the 14th century. There we find, “Quen be scip suld quelm and drunken” which loosely translates as “when the ship should overturn and sink.”  Whelm’s nautical usage appeared in Robert Fabyan’s The Newe Cronycles of Englande and of Fraunce from 1513. He wrote, “By the mysgydynge of the sterysman, he was set vpon the pylys of the brydge, and the barge whelmyd” which in modern parlance means “by the misguidance of the steersman, he was set upon the piles of the bridge, and the barge whelmed”.

Perhaps the most famous usage of whelm is to be found in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, written in 1667. Abadiel warns Satan that God “with solitary hand / Reaching beyond all limit, at one blow, / Unaided, could have finished thee, and whelmed / Thy legions under darkness.”  The sense is the same, albeit figurative – just as a violent sea overpowers a ship and sends it to its doom, so God’s power will destroy his enemies. This sense is extended in Sir Charles Lyall’s usage in Principles of Geology, published in 1830; “Marsh land … has at last been overflowed, and thousands of the inhabitants whelmed in the waves.”  A less destructive use of the verb whelm appeared in the Florist’s Journal of 1842. In a piece giving tips on planting pansies; “Pansies that were planted out in the autumn, should be protected by whelming a small pot over each plant.”  The pot is overturned, as a ship is when it capsizes, but this seems a much more figurative use of the verb.

The more familiar overwhelm also has a lengthy heritage, appearing for certain in the 14th century, originally meaning to overturn, overthrow or upset. A century later, though, there had been a shift in meaning, the verb being used to indicate sudden and violent destruction. John Lydgate used it thus in his Troyyes Book from 1425 in which he wrote about the rise and fall of the city of Troy; “O ydel fame, blowe up to þe skye, Ouer-whelmyd with twyncling of an eye! “ The emotional aspect to overwhelm seems to have developed in the 16th century. The Coverdale Bible, a translation of the Bible into modern English dating to around 1535, contains the phrase, “An horrible drede hath ouerwhelmed me.”

Underwhelm is a different kettle of fish, not appearing until the middle of the 20th century. We use it mainly in an adjectival form in conjunction with the verb to be, as in I am underwhelmed, and it conveys a sense that you are unimpressed or that something has had little effect on you. The OED’s first citation is from T K Quinn’s Giant Corporations of 1956 where, when commenting on the practice of reducing prices in an environment when prices are normally rising, “I was underwhelmed, and investigated.”