A wry view of life for the world-weary

I Predict A Riot – Part Twenty Seven

The Calico Riots of Spitalfields, 1719 – 1720

The glorious revolution of 1688, which reasserted the Protestant ascendancy in England and saw William and Mary of Orange take the throne, saw many changes. One of which was that the Dutch royalists introduced the fashion for wearing printed calicoes. For the uninitiated – I include myself here – calico is a textile made from unbleached cotton. Because it had an unfinished appearance its principal advantages over the more traditional woollen clothing was that it was cooler and considerably cheaper. This fashion trend posed a considerable threat to the traditional woollen industry.

In an attempt to protect the weaving industry in 1700 an Act was passed banning the importation of printed calicoes. However, as there was no equivalent ban on plain calicoes, these became the garments of choice for the fashion conscious and thrifty female.

Silk weavers, many of whom concentrated around the Spitalfields area of east London, were particularly vulnerable to economic downturns. Silk threads were imported and their availability was subject to the vagaries of Anglo-French relations – dire, pretty much of the time – and the activities of smugglers. The period between 1717 and 1719 saw another economic downturn and many silk-weavers were thrown out of work. If the law wouldn’t suppress calico, they would take matters into their own hands.

Civil unrest broke out initially in June 1719 and then in the following month. Women who had the audacity to walk the streets flaunting their calico were set upon by groups of weavers who were wandering the streets looking for trouble. One victim was Dorothy Orwell who was set upon on June 24th 1719. In her testimony to the courts she claimed “she was assaulted by a multitude of weavers in Red-Lion-Fields in Hoxton, who tore, cut and pull’d off her gown and petticoat by violence, threatened her with vile language and left her naked in the fields.

There are always two sides to a story and one of the leaders of the rioters, by the name of Rey, in an interesting piece of sophistry claimed that the fault lay with the women; “these petit disturbances are properly with the women themselves; which proceeds from the foolish fancy of some and the madness and rage of others.” The lightness of the calico clothing led to suggestions that the morals of their wearers were equally light and loose. The Spitalfields Ballad from 1721 contained the uncompromising lines “none shall be thought/ a more scandalous slut/ than a tawdry Calico Madam.

Disturbances in the street and attacks on calico-clad women only died down in the autumn when woollen clothing came out of the cupboards. In an attempt to solve the problem a bill was put to Parliament banning the wearing of calico but it was bogged down in the House of Lords. Come the spring of 1720 when the weather had warmed up and calico was again a viable option to wear, there were more attacks on women. Although these were condemned by the weavers’ guild and suppressed by the authorities, it was decided that the only course of action was to legislate again.

The Calico Act was passed in 1721 banning men and women from wearing and using calico for clothing and in household interiors. Fines of five pounds were imposed for wearing the fabric and twenty pounds for selling it and the statute was in force until 1774. However, there was a loophole in the legislation – it did not include domestic furnishings already fitted with calico. Those who really wanted to wear calico simply chopped up their curtains and made clothes out of them!


Book Corner – September 2017 (3)

What’s Bred In The Bone – Grant Allen

This book, not to be confused with Robertson Davies’ 1985 novel of the same name, is a racy, page-turner, romp of an adventure, mystery story. It was published in 1891and was an entry into a literary competition organised by George Newnes, the publisher of Titbits magazine, which attracted some 20,000 entries. Allen wrote the book in double quick time and scooped the prize of a thousand smackers. It was a sensational success.

By that time he was already a prolific writer, not only of fiction but of articles and books of scientific interest. In particular, he was a stout proponent of evolutionary theory. Today, however, he is pretty much forgotten. Perhaps there are too many vestiges of jingoism and the little Englander for the modern taste. A shame, perhaps, as he knew how to write a ripping yarn.

The story has a bit of everything. A near catastrophic railway accident in which a tunnel collapses leaves the two protagonists, Elsa and Cyril, one of the Waring twins, in close proximity in fear of their life. Inevitably, they fall in love but the path of true love does not run smoothly. Elsa is fascinated by Cyril’s snake – there ought to be a Freudian sub-text to this but this was written in more innocent times – and we soon see she has a hidden side. One of her characteristics, which she shares with her female relatives – they come from Romany stock – is her deep insight into people’s psyches. She is also overcome in moments of high personal drama with the desire to dance with snakes or, at least, a feather boa if a reptile is not to hand. This is England after all.

Yes, the plot is ridiculous but Allen has the panache to pull it off. There is a murder, a case of mistaken identity – having twins as central characters is helpful, I suppose – and the danger of a grave miscarriage of justice. It is not a whodunit – we know who committed the murder – and the main interest of the book is how the innocence of Guy Waring is going to be established, particularly as with each twist and turn of the plot his predicament seems to worsen. I won’t spoil the story but feelings of remorse on the part of the real murderer prompted by Elsa’s astonishing ability to get into their head wins out. The book ends happily ever after with most, if not all, of the loose ends tied up.

Guy’s adventures include a spell digging for diamonds in South Africa – successfully, naturally – and it is this part of the book that may most offend as the natives are depicted as little more than uncouth savages. But, alas, that was the overriding view of the times, even amongst evolutionists and scientists. In a world where we are accustomed to accepting that a good DNA sample will unlock the key to identities, it is fascinating to be reminded that around 120 years ago marital records and ledgers recording births and deaths were of paramount importance. And a chap can’t get around at all without an encyclopaedic knowledge of the railway timetables.

It is a rather dated novel and one which is heavily imbued with the racism and sexism of the age but also one that sheds a fascinating insight into how our forefathers saw the world. The central moral of the story is, as the title points out, that breeding will out and will shine through your actions – a concept that can only prompt a snort of derision today. The plotting is ridiculous and heavily reliant upon coincidence – but then even the best novelists are guilty of having clunking plots – and in less skilled hands the book could easily crash into an unedifying heap. But if you can suspend your prejudices and finer critical judgment, you are in for a great few hours of entertainment.

Our Crime Against Criminals Lies In The Fact That We Treat Them Like Rascals – Part Two

The City Bonds mugging, 1990

I’ve never really considered it before but carrying out a mugging is a bit like buying a ticket in a tombola – you are never quite sure what you are going to get, assuming you manage to evade the long arm of the law. Bearer bonds are curious financial instrument in that they are unregistered and one of the attractions is that the absence of ownership records makes them useful for investors who wish to hide under a cloak of anonymity. The downside is that whoever has their mitts on the physical bond is assumed to be the owner – hence the name bearer – and if they fall into the wrong hands, recovery is near on impossible.

Another curious feature of the City of London in the days before electronic trading and the speedy transmission of digitised documents was that important papers used to be walked around the City from trading house to trading house. The messengers, as they were called, in my experience, were mainly ex-military personnel who as well as having the perfect job to maintain their physical condition also had time on their hands to pop into a local in order to wet their whistles. After all, the streets are dusty and hot.

58-year-old John Goddard was employed as a messenger for the money broking firm of Sheppards and stepped out of the office on May 2nd 1990 with a briefcase containing 301 bearer bonds to the tune of £292 million, which he was to walk round to a number of banks and building societies. Around 9.30 am in one of the quiet alleys in the City, he was set upon by a mugger brandishing a knife. Sensibly, Goddard didn’t put up a fight and the assailant, believed to be Patrick Thomas, a petty crook from South London, made off with the loot. It remains to this day the second largest hauls in British criminal history and, astonishingly, relied solely on a knife and a petty thief.

Thomas, if indeed it was he, didn’t live long enough to enjoy the fruits of his audacious mugging. He was found dead in December 1991 from a gunshot wound to the head in December 1991. At least he died without having his collar felt for the crime.

But Thomas was not a lone operator who just got lucky and then unlucky. The police realised that there were bigger brains behind the theft and in conjunction with the FBI launched an operation to bring the felons to justice. A Texan businessman by the name of Mark Lee Osborne came to the attention of the FBI and he was arrested when he tried to sell some of the stolen London bonds to officers posing as members of the Mafia. Osborne sang like a canary and was used to trap another big cheese, Keith Cheeseman, who was arrested in the Barbican.

Cheeseman, out on bail, fled to Tenerife where he was arrested again and deported to the States. He claimed that the reason he scarpered was that he feared that there was a Mafia contract on him. Perhaps there was some truth in the story as his associate, Osborne, was found dead in the boot of a car in Houston with two gun shots to the back of his head. Cheeseman finally stood trial in England in 1993 where he was sentenced to six and a half year in chokey. The police recovered all but two of the bonds. It could only have happened in England.

A Better Life – Part Thirteen

The Nashoba community

The idea of slavery is abhorrent to us these days but for those campaigning for its abolition in the United States in the first half of the 19th century it was a long, hard struggle which ended in a brutal and bloody civil war. Aside from moral and ethical considerations, two very practical considerations  concerned abolitionists – how to prepare slaves for their liberation and how to compensate slave-owners for the loss of their “property.”

The Nashoba community, which occupied around 2,000 acres of land in what is now Germantown in Tennessee, was Frances Wright’s attempt to find a solution to these two pressing concerns. The starting point for Wright was an article she published in the New Harmony Gazette in October 1825, entitled, rather long-windedly, A Plan for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in the United States, without Danger of Loss to the Citizens of the South. The underlying premise of Wright’s plan was that slave owners were anxious “to manumit their people, but apprehensive of throwing them unprepared into the world.” If their financial loss was compensated for, there would be a queue of owners willing to give their slaves their freedom.

The aim of Nashoba, at least as Wright conceived it, was to provide a half-way house whereby slaves could earn their freedom through honest labour, whilst learning the necessary skills to make a success of their freedom, and then they would be transported to places such as Liberia and Haiti. Wright believed if her commune was a success, it would provide a template to be used across the States. She set about raising money and members. One of her recruits was the Englishman, George Flower, who had established another community in Albion, Illinois. But funds were slow to roll in and membership failed to take off – at its height there were only around twenty members – and Wright had to dig in to her own resources to fund the purchase of the land.

Although Wright thought of the commune as an interracial, egalitarian utopia, it was anything but. The fundamental problem was that the slaves were still slaves until they had earned enough to buy their freedom and had no say in the running of the commune. Francis Trollope visited Nashoba in 1827 and wrote about her visit in Domestic Manners of the Americans, published in 1832. She noted of Wright, “I never saw, I never heard or read, of any enthusiasm approaching hers, except in some few instances, in ages past, of religious fanaticism.”  But, zeal was not enough. Trollope went on, “When we arrived at Nashoba, they were without milk, without beverage of any kind except rain water; the river Wolf being too distant to send to constantly. Wheat bread they used but sparingly, and to us the Indian corn bread was uneatable.

Wright contracted malaria and went to England to convalesce, appointing trustees to manage the commune. They instituted the concept of free love within the commune but it did not improve the lot of the slaves and just increased Nashoba’s problems, fuelling rumours of interracial relationships and causing funding to dry up. Before Wright had got back to the commune in 1828, it had collapsed. At least Wright did the right thing by the remaining 31 slaves, giving them their freedom, shipping them off to Haiti where they were put under the protection of Lafayette and were assured of their liberty.

Moral Dilemma Of The Week

Here’s a 21st century dilemma if there ever was one; should you hold a baby whilst drinking a beer?

Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, had a picture posted on Facebook showing him at a football match, giving his baby grandson a peck on the head while he (Turnbull, not the baby) was holding a bottle of beer. Turnbull was rather pleased with himself, giving the lie to the oft held belief that men can only do one thing at a time.

What he hadn’t anticipated was that the rather charming picture of grandfatherly affection would be interpreted in some quarters as an act of extreme folly, subjecting the poor infant to the noxious fumes of Aussie grog. The tide is turning, though, and even Turnbull’s political opponents are backing him.

Glad the Aussies are focusing on the real issues facing the world. For what it’s worth, I would ditch the baby and hang on to the beer. Cheers!

Ruse Of The Week

I have long since given up going to rock festivals. I find there is nothing more depressing than groups of septuagenarians playing to an audience of sexagenarians desperately trying to recapture their youth. And then there are the security checks – a necessary evil these days – which make it difficult to bring in the amount of alcohol necessary to make such an event bearable.

Some concert-goers resort to hollowing bread sticks to secrete bottles of hooch or pour their liquor into innocuous looking bottles like sun-cream containers. But an American festival goer, Alex Diamond, a regular attendee of the Electric Zoo festival on Randall’s Island, went one better, I read this week.

He visited the concert site some weeks in advance of the festival with a water bottle full of vodka, a spade and a mobile phone. Diamond proceeded to bury the bottle on the site, taking careful note of the precise GPS co-ordinates on his phone. When the festival was on, all he had to do was locate the site again and dig the contraband up, ensuring that he evaded the attentions of the security guards and the all-seeing CCTV cameras. Diamond claims he was inspired by pirates and his ruse worked.

I’m sure his listening pleasure was enhanced by all the trouble he went to.

What Is The Origin Of (145)?…


Mind your Ps and Qs

When I was a child I was occasionally told to mind my ps and qs, by which my parents meant that I had better behave properly and mind my manners. I instinctively knew what was meant – after all, I had probably committed some misdemeanour or social faux-pas – but over time it began to dawn on me that it was a rather odd phrase. I had always taken it as an abbreviation for the phrase “mind your pleases and thankyous” which has the virtue of reflecting the modern usage. However, as is often the case in the shady world of etymology, not all is at it may seem.

What first sowed seeds of doubt on my understanding of the phrase’s origin was Francis Grose’s definition in his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1785; “to mind one’s Ps and Qs – to be attentive to the main chance.” Someone who is on the look-out to gain an advantage isn’t necessarily a person whose manners are impeccable.

And if we delve back into the 17th century there were variants of the phrase – p and q or pee and kew – which were slang expressions for superior or, at least, better quality. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a line from Samuel Rowland’s Knave of Hearts, dating from 1612, which goes “Bring in a quart of Maligo, right true; And looke, you Rogue, that it be pee and kew.” Theories that the p and q are abbreviations for prime quality founder in trying to explain that pesky conjunction in the middle. Some have suggested that the p and q stand for measures of drink, pints and quarts, but that doesn’t look right in the context of Rowland’s usage.

A slightly earlier variant is to be found in Thomas Dekker’s The Untrussing of the Humorous Poet from 1602. Afinius hands Horace a cloak because it looks as though it is going to rain and goes on to comment, “for now thou art in thy Pee and Kue, thou hast such a villainous broad back.” It would seem that the Pee and Kue is a reference to some form of apparel and some have suggested that the Pee relates to a sailor’s pea coat and the Kue to a queue, a form of pigtail.

Another possibility opens up when you consider a poem by Charles Churchill, written in 1763 which told of the travails associated with learning the alphabet. It goes “on all occasions next the chair/ he stands for service of the Mayor/ and to instruct him how to use/ his As and Bs and Ps and Qs.” Rather like bs and ds, ps and qs can cause the aspiring student some difficulties. They are essentially the mirror image of each other and the neophyte may easily transpose one for the other. For jobs which require text to be read back to front, such as the hot metal typography in old-style printing, the two letters can generate mistakes and an element of caution would need to be exercised.

It is hard to make sense of all of these competing claims. My original supposition – an abbreviation of please and thankyou – is unlikely because it is only independently attested in the 20th century. However, I am attracted to the theory that it relates to the difficulties of learning the alphabet, an admonition which then broadened through use to one of a general warning to exercise caution. It may well be that the 17th century usages have no bearing at all to the phrase we use today, perhaps having a different origin which, alas, is lost in the mists of time.

They Made Their Mark – Part Two

Robert Cawdrey (circa 1538 – post 1604)

The 16th century was a transformational period for the English language. Thanks to the renewed interest in literature, science, medicine and the arts and the expansion of international trade a large number of new words entered the language at a prodigious rate. For many it was difficult to keep track with it all. Others were concerned that the fashion for peppering speech with fancy new words meant that people were forgetting their mother tongue. As rebel priest and schoolteacher, Robert Cawdrey, wrote, “they forget altogether their mothers language, so that if some of their mothers were alive, they were not able to tell or understand what they say.

If there was ever a time when someone needed to take stock of the situation and help people navigate their way through the changes in language and understand what the new words meant, this was it. With the assistance of his son, Thomas, Cowdray made it his mission to make sense of what was going on by way of an instructional text which went by the short title of Table Alphabeticall. It was to be the first English language dictionary – previous lexicons had been dual or multi-language affairs.

Cawdrey set out his slightly patronising mission in the longer title to his magnum opus. There we learn that the book consists of “A table alphabeticall conteyning and teaching the true writing, and understanding of hard vsuall English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French, &c. His methodology was outlined as was his target audience; “With the interpretation thereof by plaine English words, gathered for the benefit & helpe of ladies, gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons.” And he was clear as to the intended benefit of perusing his work; “Whereby they may more easily and better vnderstand many hard English wordes, which they shall heare or read in the Scriptures, Sermons, or elsewhere, and also be made able to vse the same aptly themselues.

In all, his table alphebeticall contained between 2,500 and 3,000 words. Each word in the list was accompanied by a definition but the definition was short and to the point. Cawdrey did not concern himself with the etymology of the word or citations to demonstrate its usage or any nuances in its range of meanings. His primary concern was to provide the key with which the ordinary person could unlock the meaning of many of these new-fangled words. The relatively low number of entries meant that the dictionary was hardly a comprehensive survey of the language. Rather, Cawdrey concentrated on words which were considered to be hard or unfamiliar to the general language, particularly those derived from Hebrew, Greek, Latin and French.

One of the major innovations of Cawdrey’s dictionary was that the entries appeared in alphabetical order. That this was revolutionary is illustrated by the extraordinary lengths to which Cawdrey went to explain what was meant by alphabetical order and the order in which the letters appeared, the implication being that this was unfamiliar territory for his readers at the time. If for nothing else, we owe Cawdrey a vote of thanks for this and he went some way to achieve his ambition to better organise the English language.

In an age when what passed for education was the preserve of the aristos and wealthy, Cawdrey played no small part in standardising the spelling of words and enhanced the understanding of the basic rules of our wonderful language.

Book Corner – September 2017 (2)

Crime and Punishment – G F Newman

At a certain time during the day earlier this year I would take a short drive in my car and on the cat’s whiskers, tuned to Radio 4 (natch), was a drama called The Corrupted. My journey was so short I only caught about five minutes at a time but it piqued my interest. I was able to track the source material down, a two-volume thriller called Crime and Punishment by the creator of the TV series, Law and Order, G F Newman. It was published in 2009.

If I was expecting a modern take on Dostoevsky’s tortuous musings on the moral dilemma that committing a murder causes, then I was in for a disappointment. This is a fast and furious tale of crime, violence, sex and corruption – not my normal fare at all. The story starts in post war London in 1951 and the brutal murder of her old man by Cath. This traumatises the son, Brian Oldman, who witnesses the killing and sets him on a path of crime and violence in cahoots with his draft dodging uncle and boxer, Jack Braden. The first book, which is the better of the two, is a litany of beatings, mindless violence and the occasional killing as Brian and his even more psychopathic uncle battle for supremacy of their manor against the likes of the Krays and Richardsons.

Oh yes, we are in the world of faction and pretty much every other page has a reference to a real life person or character. At times it seems as if Newman is on automatic pilot – oh, I’ve written 500 words and haven’t mentioned a real person so I better throw one in now. So we find the likes of Churchill, Tom Driberg, Maggie Thatcher, Emil Savundra, Jack Slipper of the Yard and Ronnie Biggs peppering the pages. That the cast list has so many people from London’s rather recent dodgy past makes you wonder whether Oldman and Braden are pseudonyms for real gangsters but I think it is just a rather unsubtle attempt to give colour and context to the tale.

The police, or at least most of them, are in the pay of the crims and they generally have some hold over the judges, so the journey to retribution is long, winding and uncertain. Brian eventually gets his just desserts but there are so many loose ends and incomplete story lines that it all becomes a bit of an unsatisfactory mess. It is as though Newman has painted too extensive a picture and struggles to control his material. In the end, he jettisons all of the sub plots to bring the tale of Brian Oldman to a conclusion. Even so, the story is too long and could have benefitted from a gangster’s razor being put through it.

This is not my cup of tea but it served as an undemanding read on a sun lounger on a beautiful beach whilst sipping a long cool drink. Newman’s style is direct, breathless and he can tell a story. But the plot is often too implausible and too full of holes to lift the book from anything other than what it is – a good, low brow holiday read.

Stone Walls Do Not A Prison Make – Part Two

The Rabbit proof fence of Western Australia

Blame it on an English settler, Thomas Austin.

Rabbits were not indigenous to Australia and were first introduced in 1788 to provide a source of meat for the settlers and convicts. They were bred on special farms and kept in enclosures and seemingly were as happy with their lot as they could be, rarely attempting to break out. But life in the outback can be a little boring. To ginger things up, Austin in October 1859 had the bright idea of releasing twenty-four wild rabbits into the grounds of his property so that his guests could amuse themselves by hunting them. As he was reported to have said at the time, “the introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.

Unfortunately, the hunting skills of Austin’s guests were not great and the rabbits bred, well, like rabbits. Worse still, the rabbits Austin released were two separate types, which interbred to produce a hardy and vigorous species. And even worse, rabbits normally don’t breed in the winter because the little ones are susceptible to the cold. Of course, there is no equivalent to a Northern hemisphere winter in Oz and so the rabbits were able to breed all the year round. Food was abundant and within ten years, even though up to two million rabbits were killed a year, there was no discernible dent in the population.

So great was the damage to crops that the Inter-Colonial Rabbit Commission offered a prize of £25,000 “to anyone who could demonstrate a new and effective way of exterminating rabbits” in 1887. There being no convincing solution, a surveyor, Arthur Mason, despatched to look at the rabbit population in 1896 suggested that a barrier be built along the border with South Australia and another further west to protect Western Australia’s crops. Nothing happened for a further five years but in 1901 a Royal Commission decided that the only solution was a barrier fence across the State.

So work started in 1902 to erect a fence, some 1,824 kilometres long, which stretched from the south coast to the north-west coast of WA along a line which ran north of Burracoppon which is 230 kilometres east of Perth, the longest in the world. It was completed some five years later.

But as you might have expected, there was a major flaw in the plan. It takes time to erect a fence and rabbits have time on their paws aside from copulating and munching their way through crops. They would find a way around the fence as it was being built. And so a second fence, prosaically called Fence No 2, was built to the west of the first fence, a mere 1, 166 kilometres in length, running from Point Ann to the point where it joins the first fence at Gum Creek. They may have concluded that it had ended at Shit Creek because a third fence had to be erected, running from there to the coast, a mere 257 kilometres.

And this formidable barrier of wire was the Western Australian farmers’ principal defence against rabbits and other itinerant creatures and parts of it still exist. In the 1950s, however, a more aggressive approach was adopted to containing rabbit numbers – introducing viruses including myxomatosis. Initially, this approach was successful as numbers dropped from around 600 to 100 million. But the rabbit wasn’t finished yet and genetic modifications have allowed it to build numbers back up to the two to three hundred millions.

If only Austin had stuck to cards and charades.