A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: July 2013

Conrad Hilton was very generous to me in the divorce settlement. He gave me 5,000 Gideon Bibles.



When I was starting my climb up the greasy pole of the financial services industry I had to spend a lot of time travelling which, inevitably, meant spending nights away in some soulless hotel room. Once I had checked in I would survey the room to familiarise myself with its layout and the facilities that it offered. Going through the drawers of the bedside cabinet, I would inevitably come across the Gideon bible and a telephone directory – the hotelier’s attempt to create a Desert Island Discs’ atmosphere. The Gideon – or the Osborne as I prefer to call it – is ubiquitous, some 1.5 billion languishing in darkened corners of hotel rooms around the world. And very useful they were too – for stabilising the inevitable wonky hotel room furniture, for eliminating the howling draft rushing through the ill-fitting doors or for exacting revenge on annoying insects and lepidoptera that had the audacity to disturb your repose.

Gideon was a biblical character, chosen by the Christian God to free the people of Israel and became a symbol of a man of faith who was willing to do as God commanded, irrespective of his personal views of the likely outcome. There is no real secret as to why the Gideon bibles are there – they are distributed for free by Gideons International.

The origin of the Gideons is more interesting. One day in 1898 two travelling businessmen, John H Nicholson and Samuel E Hill, arrived at a busy Central Hotel in Boscobel, Wisconsin, looking for accommodation for the night. There was only one room available – presumably the stable was occupied – and so they decided to share. They got chatting and discovered they both shared a deep religious faith and, as you do when you are holed up with a stranger in some god-forsaken hotel room, decided to create an evangelical association for Christian businessmen.

Their initial meeting only attracted one other person, William J Knights – remember this was in the era before Facebook and other social media – and so they decided to name their association after Gideon who led a small band to overcome a larger enemy. They hit upon the idea of distributing Bibles as a way of proselytising their message. The first hotel to receive their bible was the Superior Hotel in Superior, Montana in 1908 and the rest is history.

The Bibles follow a standard format – a short preface, a handy index of key texts for all occasions, a translation of John 3.16 in a variety of languages and scripts, the bible text itself – either New Testament or the full monty, usually the King James version – and a place for the reader to attest their belief in Jesus the saviour – or in my experience to note that Kilroy was here.

Of course, in these godless times there has been some reaction to the ubiquity of the Gideon bible. Last year a hotelier, Wayne Bartholomew, gained some notoriety by replacing the Gideon bible with copies of Fifty Shades of Grey (the wag!) and other trendier establishments are replacing the physical book with e-readers. With the advent of tablets and smart phones we bring our own entertainment with us and so it is only the techno-phobes or desperate who now resort to the book for their entertainment.

Still, next time you check into a hotel you now know the story behind the Bible in your bedroom cabinet.              


What Is The Origin Of (27)?….



Playing Ducks and Drakes

This rather quaint phrase has the connotation of playing fast and loose and of behaving recklessly.

As a child whenever I was by the shoreline of an expanse of water I was always tempted to practise my skills of skimming stones. You need to select a flattish stone, the flatter the better, and in a crouching position throw the stone at a low trajectory with the aim of getting it to bounce across the surface of the water. Usually the result was catastrophic failure – the first contact with the water’s surface meant that the stone sank without trace. Occasionally, the stone would jump a couple of times across the surface – result, boyish satisfaction! Astonishingly, there is a World Stone Skimming Championship – this year to be held on 29th September on Easdale Island near Oban – and the world record seems to be 51 skips set by Russell Byars on July 19, 2007.

What I hadn’t appreciated in my schoolboy innocence was that the old English name for stone skimming was ducks and drakes. The nomenclator or remebrancer of Adrianus Junius which was translated into English in 1585 describes the game thus, “A kind of sport or play with an oister shell or stone throwne into the water, and making circles yer it sinke, etc. It is called a ducke and a drake, and a halfe-penie cake.”  Often the game was described as making ducks and drakes rather than playing ducks and drakes, as can be seen from this extract from a play entitled Dick of Devon from 1626, “The poorest ship-boy Might on the Thames make duckes and drakes with pieces Of eight fetchd out of Spayne”. Probably the ripples made by the skipping stones were thought to resemble those made by ducks splashing in the water.

Delightful as spending your time skimming stones may be, particularly if there are untold riches to be had by being World champion, nonetheless to the majority of the population it might be seen as a feckless pursuit. Certainly, James Cooke in his Tu Quoque of 1614 likens it to tossing money away, “This royal Caesar doth regard no cash; Has thrown away as much in ducks and drakes As would have bought some 50,000 capons.” The connection between skimming stones and an idle feckless lifestyle had been made.

At some point in the intervening centuries the meaning of the phrase moved away from the connotation of idle squandering to that of being unreliable and reckless. Perhaps it was simply by extension – if you are prone to squandering money then that characteristic may be indicative of a general propensity to being reckless. Alternatively it may be that the particular meaning ascribed to playing fast and loose was conflated with playing ducks and drakes. Either way, this phase has a fascinating origin.


Rural Rides (9)



St Michael’s Mount

If Trebah Garden was the jewel of the gardens we visited recently, St Michaels’ Mount, a National Trust property, was without doubt the outstanding historic pile. It is situated just off the coast by Marazion which is on the southern coast of Cornwall near Penzance. It is positioned on top of a great granite outcrop in the bay which, when the tide is out, turns into a mudflat.

Depending upon the situation of the tides when you arrive, you either get there by boat (£2 a person per one-way trip – nice business if you can get it) or walk across the causeway. The bay drains like a sink when the tide retreats. When we visited we went by boat and returned on foot. The climb from the harbour to the castle is arduous but well worth the effort.

In Cornish the area was known as Carrack Looz en Cooz which translates to the grey rock in the wood and before the Bay was flooded by the sea the outcrop was likely to have been surrounded by marsh trees. It is thought that St Michael’s Mount is the island of Mictis mentioned in Pliny The Elder’s Naturalis Historia (4.16.104) and was a flourishing trading port used to export tin and copper between 400 BCE and 400 CE.

There has been a religious settlement atop of the rock since around the 8th century and a monastery was built there in the 12th century only to be destroyed by an earthquake in 1275. The priory church was rebuilt and is still standing and in use. The site has seen a lot of action – it was captured by Henry Pomeroy on behalf of Prince John in Richard 1’s reign, by John de Vere who then, in 1473, withstood a 23 week siege by Edward IV’s troops and then by the pretender Perkin Warbeck. In 1549 the governor of the Mount, Humphrey Arundell, led a rebellion from there whilst during the Civil War, Sir Arthur Basset held out against the Parliamentarians until July 1646.

When the tsunami caused by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 struck the Cornish coast, the sea around the Mount rose 6 feet in 10 minutes and then ebbed as quickly, a phenomenon which was repeated for around 5 hours.

The Mount was given to the National Trust by the 3rd Baron St Levan together with a large endowment in 1954 with the St Aubyn family retaining the right to live there, provided that the hoi polloi were allowed to tramp around.

The castle has a fine collection of armour, furniture and paintings and there are stunning views of the Bay and the sea to be had from each of the rooms. Visitors can also visit the gardens which boast a magnificent collection of alpine plants, clinging desperately on to the rock face. Irritatingly, you have to descend all the way down from the castle to get to the gardens which necessitates another climb – you certainly get fit here!

The island has its own underground railway, built in 1900, which is used to convey goods up and down to the castle but that is not open to the public.

Stunning and breathtaking are the only words to describe St Michael’s Mount and you leave the site amazed that a castle and priory could have been built up there.


What A Way To Go – Part Eleven

angel of death


Continuing our occasional series on unusual (and amusing) deaths.

Being President of the United States doesn’t make you immune from the attentions of the grim reaper. Take the case of Zachary Taylor. After a particularly warm Independence Day celebration in 1850 he went home and raided the family ice box for something to snack on. He selected some iced milk and some cherries. Almost immediately, he fell ill and within five days was dead. There are a number of theories centring around the cause of the unfortunate Taylor’s death – some even thought he had been poisoned – but it seems more likely that it was either because the milk contained some deadly bacteria or that the combination of the acidic cherries with the milk was too much for Taylor’s sensitive stomach. Either way, the moral of the story is to be very careful what you put in your mouth as the demise of George M Prior demonstrates.

Prior was a Navy Lieutenant and spent his shore leave playing golf at the Army Navy Country Club in Arlington, Virginia. He exhibited symptoms of nausea after the first day of golf and by the end of the third day had a high temperature and a rash. Prudently, George admitted himself to hospital and whilst there large blisters appeared. Within ten days or so he was dead with eighty per cent of his body covered in burns and blisters. Upon investigation, it appeared that Prior habitually put his golf tee into his mouth. Unfortunately, in order to maintain its pristine condition, the course had been sprayed with fungicide. Our golfer had an allergic reaction to the fungicide which burned his skin from the inside out and caused his major organs to fail.

I am the last person to be accused of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. A little bit of what you fancy does you good, I always say. To illustrate the point that Aristotle’s golden mean – moderation in everything – is the way to live your life, consider the demise of Basil Brown in 1974. Brown was committed to healthy living and drank a gallon of carrot juice a day and took excessive amounts of Vitamin A when he couldn’t get enough of the juice. His zealous pursuit of the healthy lifestyle was his undoing – he died from hypervitaminosis A, a massive overdose of Vitamin A that caused his liver to shut down.

People do the strangest things to win a prize. Edward Archbold, along with 30 others, entered a competition to win a python. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I admit. The competition required the contestants to eat a variety of insects – a sort of early forerunner of I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here. Having chomped his way through a large number of cockroaches, two ounces of mealworms and 35 horn worms – a type of caterpillar – Archbold, not surprisingly, collapsed. On admittance to hospital he was pronounced dead. Cause of death – his airway was blocked by the body parts of the insects he had consumed!

You have been warned!


It’s The Way I Tell ‘Em (3)



More high-brow jokes courtesy of the Independent:

  • How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change.
  • Why do Marx and Engels drink herbal tea? Because proper tea is theft.
  • What did the proton say to the ever-grumpy electron? “Why do you have to be so negative all the time?”
  • Two atoms are walking down the street. One atom says to the other: “Hey! I think I lost an electron!” The other says: “Are you sure?” “Yes, I’m positive!”
  • Why is it so difficult to explain bad puns to kleptomaniacs? Because they always take things so literally.
  • A Higgs boson walks into a church. The priest says, “Get out, you blasphemer. How dare you call yourself the ‘God particle’?” The Higgs boson replies: “But I make up the mass.”
  •  How many Microsoft designers does it take to change a lightbulb? None – they just define darkness as “industry standard.
  • Two behaviourists meet in the street. One says to the other: “You’re OK. How am I?”
  • How many Freudians does it take to screw in a lightbulb? It takes two, one to screw in the lightbulb, and one to hold the peni-, fathe-, LADDER!
  • A woman comes home to find her string theorist husband in bed with another woman. “But honey,” he says, “I can explain everything!”
  • A student travelling on a train looks up and sees Einstein sitting  next to him. Excited, he asks:  “Excuse me, professor. Does Boston stop at this train?”
  • And finally (for now), a biochemist walks into a student bar and says to the barman: “I’d like a pint of adenosine triphosphate, please.” “Certainly,” says the barman, “that’ll be ATP.”

When I Grow Up I Want To Be A (8)



Spit Jack

In days of yore, before enclosed ovens and, heaven forbid, microwaves, the normal way to cook meat was to skewer the animal on to a long solid rod known as a spit and to rotate it over the fire. The process of rotation meant that the meat cooked evenly in its own juices and allowed access for continuous self-basting. Typically, the skewers were around 2cm thick and about 3 metres long.

Technology being, by modern standards, primitive and labour being cheap, the skewer needed to be turned and this opened up a career opportunity for the spit jack. Their job was to turn the spits for hours on end, positioned in an alcove adjacent to the fire. This meant that they were as close to the fire as the meat which was being cooked, meaning it was hot and sweaty work. Because of the nature of the work the Spit Jack (or Spit Boy) was the lowest of the low in the hierarchy of a kitchen and, because of the sheer physical nature of the work, the term Boy was probably pejorative rather than an indication of the age of the post holder.

Typically the Spit Jack would have to rise early, as early as 4 am, to make the fire and then spend the next six hours or so turning the meat. A strong bladder was required because Jacks were specifically forbidden to urinate in the fire – their proximity to the fire and the amount of sweat they produced probably reduced the urge to micturate.

There were some benefits to being a Spit Jack – the universal observance of Lent meant that no meat passed the lips of anyone during the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and so this period was a holiday for the Jack. Whether they were paid for their time off or assigned to other duties is not clear.

The Spit Jack was an early victim of mechanisation. Animals were deployed to turn the spit – we saw an example in Chipping Camden where a dog was employed – and then steam power and clockwork mechanisms (as can be seen at Lanhydrock house) were deployed to turn the spit. Doubtless, the use of mechanical aids meant a more even roast, assuming the technology was reliable. Alternatively, a turbine mounted in a chimney using a worm transmission for torque and speed conversion was used.

Rotisseries (a term first used in Paris in the 1450s) are still used in cooking, particularly following the renaissance of hog roasts, and the ubiquitous kebab, that meal of choice after a night on the town. If you tuck into a hog roast or kebab, spare a thought for the Spit Jack.


Rural Rides (8)

gunnera passage

Trebah Garden

 Without doubt the jewel in the crown that was the gardens we visited during our week in the West country was Trebah garden, situated near Mawden Smith on the outskirts of Falmouth. Trebah is a sub-tropical garden in a valley which descends through a series of small lakes or ponds to the coast line of the Helford estuary with its own private beach at  the bottom.

Its outstanding feature, at least in the summer, is its wonderful display of massive gunnera, aka elephant rhubarb. They are so big you can wander through them, fondly imagining that you are cutting your way through some Amazonian jungle, wondering what creatures, prehistoric or otherwise, you may encounter. For the younger visitor there is the bamboozle which is a maze-like feature made from the thick and lush plantation of bamboos. The garden boasts around four miles of footpath and has a range of walks, some more taxing than others, which suit all ages and physical conditions. Much of the vegetation, which is planted in a natural style, consists of rhododendrons, magnolias, camellias and hydrangeas which must make for a thrilling show of colour in the spring.

There is quite a lot of history attached to the garden. Trebah was used as the embarkation point for the 7,500 strong 29th US Infantry Division for their assault on Omaha beach during the 1944 Normandy landings. It is hard to imagine that the tanks and other heavy machinery took much care as they rumbled down to the beach.

Trebah appears in the Doomsday Book of 1085 and belonged to the Bishop of Exeter. There is a Georgian house attached to the garden, unfortunately not open to the plebs, which was built by the Nicholls family in the 18th century and which clearly pre-dated the garden because the Ordnance Survey map of 1813 shows the site of the garden as still being a wooded valley.

Shortly afterwards, Charles Fox, a wealthy Quaker, started to develop the 26 acre pleasure garden and his work was carried on by his daughter and her husband and by Charles and Alice Hext who took ownership in 1907.

Following its devastation in the Second World War, the Martin family cleared the area at the bottom of the site and planted the hydrangeas and then Donald Healey, who designed racing cars, improved the lower lakes and reclaimed the beach. In 1981 ownership passed to the Hibberts who were persuaded by the Cornwall Garden Society to restore the gardens to their former glory and to open them up for the public to enjoy. The garden is now under the auspices of the Trebah Garden Trust.

It is a delightful garden and well worth a couple of hours of your time. Whether you are there to enjoy the breath-taking plants or to sun yourself on the shoreline, Trebah will not disappoint.

What Is The Origin Of (26)?…


Raining cats and dogs

This phrase is used to signify heavy rain.

It is an odd meteorological fact that at times in certain parts of the world small creatures such as frogs and fish can get transported into the sky by the force of a storm and then deposited back on to the ground, doubtless to the amazement of the local population. A remarkable phenomenon, doubtless, but there is no evidence that this has happened to animals as large (relatively) as cats or dogs and so is unlikely to be the origin of this quaint phrase.

It probably owes its origin to the state of the streets and thoroughfares of 17th and 18th century England. The absence of any meaningful form of sanitation or rubbish disposal system meant that the byways were often littered with debris including the corpses of dead animals such as cats and dogs. Jonathan Swift – the Anglo-Irish satirist (1667 – 1745) of Gulliver’s Travels fame – was moved to comment on this phenomenon in his poem entitled “A Description of a City Shower”, published in 1701. “They, as each Torrent drives, with rapid Force,/… Sweeping from Butchers Stalls, Dung, Guts, and Blood,/ Drown’d Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench’d in Mud,/ Dead Cats and Turnip-Tops come tumbling down the Flood”.

The image obviously stuck with Swift because in 1738 in his A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation he includes the line,I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs“.

The imagery is not Swiftian by origin because a variant, “It shall raine… Dogs and Polecats” made its appearance some fifty years earlier in Richard Brome’s comedy, The City Wit or The Women Wears the Breeches, published in 1653.

It would seem, therefore, that one of the many hazards facing the pedestrian in the 17th century was a stream of water carrying debris before it including the cadavers of dead animals as the drains struggled in vain to cope with the rainfall. Swift’s poem, although doubtless exaggerated for effect, suggests that it was an all too common phenomenon. Clearly it wasn’t advisable to step out in your best footwear!

Fortunately, the drainage systems have improved somewhat and the bodies of pooches are disposed in more hygienic ways. so it is not a modern-day experience. But the colourful phrase has stuck and is used in 21st century parlance. So now we know!

Breaking News


Bells rang out throughout the land to mark the second coming of Winston Churchill. The couple the former war leader has chosen to honour with his rebirth are a RAF helicopter pilot formerly based in Anglesey and his unemployed wife. A source close to the Prime Minister commented that the country will be delighted that Churchill will be around again to rescue it from the crisis that it finds itself in. Dave Spartist of the unions said that the British tax payer will be pleased to have another mouth to feed at its expense at a time when unemployment is high and benefits and public expenditure are being slashed. A friend of the couple commented, “The baby is the dead spit of Winston Churchill, init”.

It is understood that the couple will take the baby to their modest  20 room four storey apartment in Central London which has been the subject of a recent £1m makeover.

On page 94 a pediatrician tells us why all new-born babies look like Winston Churchill.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Fifteen



Daisuke Inoue

Sometimes there are people who are so clever or so unworldly that they do not recognise the importance or potential of what they have done. Daisuke is one of those people and for this reason is a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

Personally, I hate karaoke and will run a country mile from any establishment that is advertising a karaoke session. The prospect of being in the same enclosed space as some inebriated people who cannot miss the opportunity to belt out out of key and out of time some hit song fills me with dread. But there is no denying that it is a popular phenomenon and it is all down to Daisuke.

Our hero was born in Osaka on May 10th 1940 and started playing the drums at school because it seemed the easiest instrument to play – cue old joke, what do you call someone who hangs around musicians? A drummer. He wasn’t very proficient but got gigs in bars in Kobe accompanying businessmen who wanted to sing to a crowd. Because he couldn’t read music, Inoue had to follow the singers and so his off-beat drumming style proved popular – with them at least.

In 1971 he was asked to accompany a businessman on tour but couldn’t make it but gave the man a tape of his playing as accompaniment. And so the idea of karaoke was born.

Inoue developed eleven karaoke boxes – karaoke means empty orchestra – which contained 8 backing tracks for would-be singers. He rented them out to bars in Kobe and they proved to be phenomenally successful.

However, exhibiting the characteristically flawed genius of our inductees, Daisuke made one catastrophic mistake. He forgot to patent his invention, thinking that he hadn’t really invented anything, merely assembling stuff that already existed. Naturally, the absence of patents meant that big Japanese corporations stepped in to exploit the opportunity and it is calculated that our inventor lost out on around $110 million in royalties. Some oversight!

Daisuke did profit marginally from the karaoke boom that he created. He invented a pesticide that repelled cockroaches and rats and other vermin that, showing good taste, in my view, attacked the electrical wiring in the machines. He also got some gratuitous recognition by being named one of the most influential Asians of the century by Time Magazine in 1999 and having a Japanese film called Karaoke made about him in 2005.

The moral of his story is never under-estimate what you have done. For being an unworldly genius, Daisuke Inoue is a worthy inductee.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link