Coincidences Are Spiritual Puns – Part Eight

The Beatrice church explosion, 1950

Punctuality is the virtue of the bored, well at least according to Evelyn Waugh. I always make an effort to arrive for an appointment in good time but sometimes even the best of plans can go awry. The consolation of tardiness, at least according to a friend of mine, naturally someone who was notoriously late for anything, is that you are only late when you arrive. Sometimes being late can be a blessing as this curious story shows.

On the evening of Wednesday 1st March 1950 at 7.25 an explosion ripped through the West Side Baptist Church in Beatrice, Nebraska. The force of the blast was such that it could be heard in almost every corner of the town. The walls of the church were blown outwards, causing the heavy roof to crash down. Properties nearby had their windows blown out and the local radio station was forced off the air. Mercifully, nobody was injured.

But it so easily could have been a major tragedy.

You see, Wednesday evenings was when the fifteen strong choir assembled at the church for their choir practice. In fact, it always started at the oddly precise time of 7.20. As a rule, they would all start assembling around 7.15. Because they all had busy lives to lead, not all turned up for every session or some arrived slightly after the scheduled start. If you had to put a number, perhaps each chorister would be late once in about four times. But on this night, all of them were late and it was to their tardiness that they owed their lives. What are the odds of that happening?

As was his wont, the Reverend Walter Kempel went to the church in the afternoon to set things up for the choir. As it was a chilly day, he decided to light the boiler so the church would be nice and warm for the singers. It was thought that the blast was caused by a gas leak from a broken pipe which was then ignited by the fire in the boiler.

Having completed his preparations, Kempel went home for his dinner. At 7.10 when he was due to return to the church, this time with his wife and daughter, they noticed that their daughter’s dress was dirty. Their departure was delayed as Mrs Kempel had to run her iron over another dress for her daughter to wear.

And the other choristers were delayed by equally mundane occurrences. The diligent Ladona Vandergrift was puzzling over a tricky geometry problem and decided to forego her usual custom of arriving at the church early in order to finish off her homework. This delayed Royena Estes and her sister, Sadie. Their cars wouldn’t start and Ladona was due to pick them up.

Herbert Kipf stayed to finish off an important letter and Joyce Black decided to delay her departure as long as possible so she could enjoy the warmth of her hearth. Marilyn Paul, the pianist, nodded off and only woke up at 7.15, delaying her and her mother’s departure.

An engrossing radio programme which did not finish until 7.30 delayed Lucille Jones and Dorothy Wood, while Harvey Ahl got engrossed in conversation and lost track of time. And Mrs Schuster had to go to her mother’s house to help her get ready for a missionary meeting.

All mundane occurrences, for sure, but the cumulative effect was that no one was in the church when it blew up. Is there a God out there, after all?


Parrot Of The Week

Sometimes you just want to be left alone..

Jessie, a turquoise and yellow macaw, escaped from her owner’s house in Cuckoo Hall Lane in Edmonton, North London and spent the next three days on a neighbour’s roof, resisting all attempts to encourage her to come home. Eventually, fearing that the bird was injured, the combined forces of the local RSPCA and fire brigade were summoned to effect the rescue.

But Jessie wasn’t having any of it, resisting the blandishments of the fire crew with a volley of Anglo-Saxon expletives, according to Watch manager, Chris Swallow – you couldn’t make it up. Eventually the bird, clearly unharmed, upped sticks and flew back to her owner’s house via another roof and a tree.

It is the holiday season, after all!

Coffin Of The Week (2)

Albert King sang in Born Under a Bad Sign; “If it wasn’t for bad luck, you know I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” What would you do to change your luck?

Well, three women in the South Korean city of Gumi decided to spend the night in wooden coffins, I read last week, under the impression that doing so would rid them of bad spirits and ensure that they had better luck in the future.

Around 8pm they got into the wooden boxes but after a couple of hours one of them rose, Lazarus like, complaining that she couldn’t breath and that she was too hot. But her colleagues persuaded her to grin and bear it.

When, at 6.30 am the following day, one of the other women woke up and very kindly lifted the lids of the coffins, she found one of her friends sound asleep but the one who had been complaining earlier was stiff as a board, dead.

Local police think that a combination of the coffin’s air-tightness and the extraordinarily high temperatures the Korean peninsula has been experiencing contributed to the woman’s demise.

Guess it didn’t work then.

What Is The Origin Of (193)?…

High dudgeon

Getting annoyed is a natural human emotion. Most of us encounter something irksome during the course of the day. So it is not surprising that there are many words and phrases available to describe our blood boiling. One of my favourites is in high dudgeon by which we mean having a feeling of anger, resentment or simmering outrage. There is an air of theatricality around its usage – people often storm out of rooms in high dudgeon.

Dudgeon is a curious word, not least because its ending –udgeon is a fairly uncommon one in the English language. The only other two I could bring to mind without causing my little grey cells irreparable damage were bludgeon and curmudgeon – a state to which I aspire and the only English word ending in –mudgeon. My researches also unearthed gudgeon, a small fish which is easily caught and by extension is used to describe someone who is gullible, the Scottish humdudgeon, used to describe an unnecessary cry or complaint or an imaginary illness, and trudgeon which is a variant of trudgen, a type of swimming stroke.

The other curious feature of our word is that its origin is far from certain. One theory is that it comes from the Welsh word, dygen, which means malice or resentment, a suggestion rather firmly scotched by the Oxford English Dictionary. It does not give any reason for this rejection and whilst there is a similarity in form, the meaning of the two words is some distance apart. Perhaps we should bow to the OED’s superior knowledge and decidedly anti-Celtic stance.

The next suggestion is that it comes from the Italian, aduggiare, meaning to overshadow, rather like the English word umbrage, which is also used to describe a temper tantrum. But there is no citation to move this on from pure speculation. Another, perhaps more hopeful, suggestion is that we look at the French word, indign, which spawned our indignant. The English are notorious for mangling foreign words and phrases and perhaps in dudgeon came from mangling en indign. Endugine does pop up once, in 1638, and the sense is the same but to build too much on this hapax legomenon may be dangerous. But it certainly intrigues me.

What is certain, though, is that dudgeon existed from around the 16th century and was used to describe the wood that made up the handle of a knife or a dagger. Shakespeare uses it in Macbeth to describe the hilt of the dagger; “I see thee still,/ and on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood/ which was not so before.

It is tempting to think that Shakespeare was at the cutting edge of all developments in the English language but in the usage of dudgeon he was pretty old school. Gabriel Harvey was a pre-eminent writer in the Elizabethan era and pretty disputatious too. In his Letter-Book of Gabriel Harvey, published in 1573, he provided the first example of dudgeon being used to describe temperament; “who seem’d to take it in marvelus great duggin.

It was Samuel Butler, the 17th century poet not to be confused with the 19th century novelist, who first linked the adjective high to dudgeon in his mock heroic poem, Hudibras, published in 1663; “when civil dudgeon first grew high/ and men fell out they knew not why..”  There’s no point in being in low dudgeon, I suppose. And in 1885 we see its modern-day usage, the Manchester Examiner reporting; “[He] resigned his position as reporter of the Committee in high dudgeon.

Whilst it is tempting to see the figurative grasping of the handle of a dagger as illustrative of a temper, I rather like the idea that dudgeon comes from the mangling of a French word. My only hesitation is that the singular appearance of endugine comes sixty years after Harvey’s use of dudgeon.

Gin O’Clock – Part Forty Four

There are only so many of bottles of gin that you can pack into an already crammed car boot and, frankly, afford. So some hard choices have to be made when you are surfing the ginaissance. On my visit to the wonderful Constantine Stores last September I debated long and hard about adding Tarquin’s Handcrafted Cornish Gin but ultimately decided to leave it until my next trip. So, naturally, it was near the top of the list of gins to buy on my recent visit.

Unlike Herno and Granny Garbutt’s you can’t say that the bottle doesn’t stand out from the crowd, courtesy of a rather spooky looking, light blue, melted wax creation which runs from the top of the bottle down to its mid-point. Once the contents have been consumed it would make a great candle holder or a decoration for your Halloween celebrations. The label is black with Tarquin’s Dry Gin in silver print and a picture of a flying bird with berries in its beak – juniper, perhaps. The logo is repeated on the wax wrapping on the cap and the stopper is an artificial one.

The hooch comes from Southwestern Distillery which is located on Higher Trevibbhan Farm in St Ervan, near Wadebridge in Cornwall. The distillery was established in 2012 – it now has three copper stills – and the gins were first made available commercially in the following year. Each batch produces 300 bottles of hooch and only spirit from the heart of the run, the head and tail lis discarded, makes it into the bottles. My bottle came from batch 1033 and bears Tarquin’s signature, as do all bottles made for commercial sale. Beware all imitations!

The sourcing of the botanicals is distinctly cosmopolitan. The juniper comes from Kosovo, the coriander from Bulgaria, angelica root from Poland, orris root and bitter almond from Morocco, cardamom seeds from Guatemala, cinnamon from Madagascar, liquorice root from Uzbekistan and Devon violets from Tarquin’s garden. The citrus notes are provided by the zests of seasonal sweet orange, lemon and grapefruit.

The base is a wheat spirit into which the botanicals are steeped overnight, distilled, tasted and adjusted and cut with pure Cornish water sourced from the Boscastle area to bring it to its fighting weight of 42% ABV. When Tarquin, the distiller, is satisfied with the end product, it is laid to rest for a few days before being bottles, sealed and labelled. Quite a performance!

And all the effort is not wasted. It has a very solid base of traditional gin botanicals and these come through loud and clear when the stopper is removed. But the citrus elements are also to the fore. When poured into a glass I found it a very well-balanced spirit, clear, juniper to the fore before the more earthy spices and citrus flavours come into play. It was neither too spicy nor too sweet, a sure sign that the mix and balance was just right. Surprisingly, perhaps, it did not leave much of an after taste but, I suppose, that is an invitation to reacquaint yourself with the taste sensation by having another mouthful.

I was really impressed and it is up there with my all-time favourites. At the rate I am going I can see I will have a spooky candle holder well in time for Halloween!

Until the next time, cheers!


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

The health jolting chair

It is often said that one of the main ways to keep healthy is to indulge in exercise. For many, either through physical incapacity or inclination – I am firmly in the latter camp – this is a step too far. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could get all the benefits of exercise by sitting in a chair. This is what the Health Jolting Chair Company of 150 West 23rd Street, New York, claimed to be able to do in adverts that did the rounds in magazines such as Harper’s Weekly in the 1880s.

The claims for the chair were, as you would expect, fulsome. It was “the most important health mechanism ever produced” affording “a perfect means of giving efficient exercise to the essentially important nutritive organs of the body in the most direct, convenient, comfortable and inexpensive manner.” Judging by the illustration that accompanied by the text, it seemed, at least by modern standards, anything but comfortable, resembling a wooden, unpadded chair with a pair of levers which, presumably, controlled the movement of the chair and a handle beneath the seat which might have been used to adjust the height. How it actually operates is very unclear although the advert does say “it can be regulated so as to give it any degree of severity desired.

Perhaps the manufacturers were more interested in flogging the things than in instructing the suckers who bought it how to use it. And their potential market was enormous. It was “suitable for all ages and most physical conditions” and “indispensable to the health and happiness of millions of human beings who may be living sedentary lives through choice or necessity.” Particularly targeted was the fairer sex who, if the copywriter was to be believed, did nothing all day but sit around, a habit which has either caused or will cause disease.

Gloriously, the advert concluded that “no dwelling-house is completely furnished without The Health Jolting Chair.

If you weren’t convinced by any of this, it went on to list the specific health benefits that anyone sitting in the chair could expect to receive; a stronger heart, improved circulation, an increase in respiratory movement, exercise of the body’s nutritive organs, and muscle development, particularly of the arms, trunk and neck, “with the minimum strain on the heart and other muscles.” As well as being “a mechanical laxative, diuretic and tonic”, the chair specifically cured constipation, dyspepsia, the effects of a torpid liver and kidneys, nervous prostration, melancholia, anaemia, general debility, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, rheumatism, gout and neuralgia. It could also be used when it was too wet, hot or cold to take outdoor exercise.

What not to like?

I have been unable to ascertain the retail price to see whether it was really inexpensive – the manufacturers were surprisingly coy on that point. Anyone interested in purchasing the chair, could send off to the manufacturers and receive, by return of post, a pamphlet entitled Exercise of the Internal Organs of the Body Necessary to Health, which they claimed was “interesting.” The chair was sold by furniture and house-furnishing goods dealers under the trademark Vis Preservatrix – always good to have a Latin tag to boost your product’s credibility.

And the $64,000 question is; was it any good? Other than a placebo and giving the sitter the feeling that they were doing themselves some good by being shaken about a bit, probably not.

It is worth noting that the company that owned the Health Jolting Company also manufactured the electric chairs that sent malefactors to an early grave. When your chair arrived, it might just have been worth checking that you had got the right one!

An Eye For An Eye Will Only Make The Whole World Blind – Part Eight

Bir Tawil

We have seen before that drawing a straight line on a map may be a pretty neat solution for diplomats but it can cause unanticipated problems on the ground. Take the curious case of Bir Tawil, the land nobody wants.

It’s easy to see why. It amounts to 795 square miles of unforgiving, hostile desert and mountains with no permanent inhabitants, on the border between Sudan and Egypt. Neither country is keen to claim sovereignty over it. On the other hand the Hala’ib Triangle, about ten times larger in area and much more hospitable with extensive grazing lands and bordering the Red Sea, is a prize worth having.

The problems started in 1899 when the British, who controlled the area, established the 22nd parallel as the border between the two countries. The Anglo-Egyptian Condominium Agreement for Sudan established a nice straight line which placed the more desirable Hala’ib Triangle in Egypt and Bir Tawil in Sudan.

But in 1902 the Brits had another think and decided that the dividing line between the countries should better reflect the indigenous characteristics of the people on the ground. Bir Tawil was used by the Ababda tribe who were based near the Egyptian town of Aswan. So the Brits amended the border to put it into Egypt. The Hala’ib Triangle, though, was given to the British governor of Sudan because the population culturally were more aligned to the Sudanese of Khartoum.

Life in the area went on pretty much as normal until in 1956 Sudan gained its independence. Keen to assert its new independence the Sudanese government defined its national borders in accordance with the 1902 agreement, laying claim to the Hala’ib Triangle and passing Bir Tawil to Egypt. They even planned to hold elections in the Triangle. The Egyptians, however, claimed that the 1902 agreement was only ever a temporary arrangement and that the 1899 agreement had established the borders once and for all. When he got wind of the forthcoming election General Nasser sent troops to the area to reaffirm Egyptian control of the Triangle.

Blows were not traded and whilst both countries maintained their claim to the Triangle, it was effectively under joint control. There were the occasional disputes and when relations between the two countries worsened in the mid 1990s the Egyptians expelled Sudanese police and officials from the area in an attempt to strengthen their control. By 2000, when relations had thawed somewhat, the Sudanese withdrew their officials from the area, effectively ceding control to Egypt, unofficially of course.

But what about Bir Tawil?

Technically, it remains a terra nullius, with neither country keen to absorb it within their borders. To do so formally would probably be tantamount to giving up their claims to the Triangle. And so it remains almost certainly the only part of the world which no country actually owns. It remains so to this day.

Where there is a void, someone will try to fill it and a couple of individuals have made trips to Bir Tawil to stake a claim. In a 2016 article in the Guardian Jack Shenker wrote an account of his trek to the area in 2011, planting a multi-coloured flag in the desert to legitimise his claim. In 2014 a farmer from Virginia, Jeremiah Horton, made a journey to the area, planted his flag, proclaiming it the Kingdom of North Sudan. He declared himself the sovereign and his daughter, Emily, princess, thus fulfilling her birthday wish to be a princess.

Needless to say, neither of these claims has been recognised internationally. Some time, I expect, the Sudanese and Egyptians will get round to resolving the issue. But maybe they won’t.