A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: August 2013

Four Or Five Frigates Will Do The Business Without Any Military Force



Last night’s astonishing (and, from my perspective, welcome) trouncing of the international statesmanship pretensions of Cameron bring to mind the travails of Lord North. Described as having the air of a blind trumpeter by Horace Walpole, Lord North was the eldest son of the Earl of Guilford and sat in the Commons as his father was still alive. At the age of 38 he became Prime Minister (in 1770) but was unfortunate enough on his watch to inherit the rebellion of the American colonies aka (in some quarters) the War of Independence.

Despite winning a general election in 1781 he was always thought to be one military disaster from losing the support of Parliament. News of the defeat at Yorktown on 25th November 1781 and the surrender of Cornwallis prompted the retort, “Oh God, it’s all over!” from North. The opposition, marshalled by Charles James Fox, demanded that heads should roll, especially those of Lord Sackville, Secretary of State for America, and the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty. North tried to end the war by proposing a Conciliation plan, promising that Britain would “eliminate all disagreeable acts” if the Colonies ended the war. This was rejected by the rebels who by now were determined upon independence and opposed by the opposition. From February until mid-March 1782 the North administration survived six major votes – at each vote the number of absentees and defections from North’s own party increased.

By 22nd March 1782 North knew the game was up as he had lost the support of the Commons and his own party. In front of a packed chamber that day he rose to address the assembled MPs who were anticipating another fierce and lengthy debate only to wrong-foot them by announcing that he had resigned. MPs who had let their carriages go and had to stand in the pouring rain waiting for transportation – no tubes in those days – saw the erstwhile PM march to his waiting carriage commenting, “Sometimes it is good to be in on the secret”.

North was the first PM to be ousted by a vote of no confidence and the last PM until last night to have his foreign policy overturned by the will of Parliament.

Will Bullingdon man do the decent thing by following Lord North’s example?



It’s The Way I Tell ‘Em (6)



It’s that time of the year when the awards for the best jokes at the Edinburgh Fringe are announced. For your delectation I reproduce them with attributions.

The top 10 were:

  1. Rob Auton – “I heard a rumour that Cadbury is bringing out an oriental chocolate bar. Could be a Chinese Wispa.”
  2. Alex Horne – “I used to work in a shoe-recycling shop. It was sole-destroying.”
  3. Alfie Moore – “I’m in a same-sex marriage… the sex is always the same.”
  4. Tim Vine – “My friend told me he was going to a fancy dress party as an Italian island. I said to him ‘Don’t be Sicily’.”
  5. Gary Delaney – “I can give you the cause of anaphylactic shock in a nutshell.”
  6. Phil Wang – “The Pope is a lot like Doctor Who. He never dies, just keeps being replaced by white men.”
  7. Marcus Brigstocke – “You know you are fat when you hug a child and it gets lost.”
  8. Liam Williams – “The universe implodes. No matter.”
  9. Bobby Mair – “I was adopted at birth and have never met my mum. That makes it very difficult to enjoy any lapdance.”
  10. Chris Coltrane – “The good thing about lending someone your time machine is that you basically get it back immediately.”

What Is The Origin Of (30)…?

cocked hat


Knock Into A Cocked Hat

This phrase conveys the sense of beating someone severely and, generally, with some ease.

A cocked hat was a form of headwear that was popular towards the end of the 18th century – it was also known as a bicorne. It was a fairly distinctive piece of headwear with the front and rear halves turned up and pinned together. The shorter front brim was known as the cock and the longer rear brim was known as the fan because of its semi-circular fan shape. Later the hat developed into more of a triangular shape with its two ends becoming more pointed and was usually worn with a cockade at the front. The bicorne was widely worn as part of the dress uniform of European and American army and naval officers around the 1790s and is most commonly associated with Napoleon Bonaparte. It was also the hat of choice of civic officials such as town criers.

In England the popular Toby jugs portrayed figurines of characters wearing a cocked hat. The Toby that the jug took its name from was Toby Philpott – not a real person but named after the fill pot jugs that were used to replenish tankards prior to the invention of the beer pump. Many toby jugs seen today are shown holding the fill pot.

The origins of this quaint phrase are lost in the mists of time. One theory is that it relates to a version of the game of skittles called Ninepins. If the skittles were struck in such a way that there were just three standing in a triangular shape, then the final and decisive throw would knock the remaining skittles down. The pins’ triangular formation would be reminiscent of the shape of the popular headwear.

The more likely explanation was that the phrase to knock someone into a cocked hat reflected the fact that the recipient of the beating had their appearance dramatically altered. One of the features of the bicorne was that it could be folded flat – conveniently, this enabled the military man to tuck it under his arm when not worn. This style of cocked hat was known as a chapeau-bras or chapeau-de-bras. So it is reasonable to surmise that the ability to alter the shape of the hat was synonymous with the alteration of the physiognomy of the recipient of a sound beating.

The phrase itself seems to be American in origin, despite its association with Toby jugs and English town criers. The first example to be found in print is in James Kirke Paulding’s novel, The Banks of the Ohio or Westward Ho! Of 1833, “I told Tom – I’d knock him into a cocked-hat, if he said another word”. The phrase appears in an a New York state newspaper, the Rural Repository, in 1837 and its use here conveys the sense of unusual savagery in the attack, “‘Blood and vengeance!’ exclaimed Boniface, ‘get out of my house, you varmints, or I will knock you into a cocked hat, and gormandize you!

Although cocked hats have long fallen out of favour – time for a revival anyone? – their legacy lives on in this still popular phrase.

So now we know!


Maybe Holgy’s right. Maybe we are all holograms



It was only a question of time. The problem with employing humans is that they want paying and, even in these days of zero-hour culture, they have some expectations as to terms and conditions. Even when they present themselves for work, they need time away from their post to go to the toilet and have lunch and the occasional cup of coffee. They suffer from mood swings and cannot be relied upon to present a friendly disposition at all times. Humans can generally only do one thing at a time and even when presented with a detailed script cannot be trusted not to go off-piste.

So much easier then to replace them with an automaton. And that is just what the London Borough of Brent – that erstwhile bastion of all things loony left and spiritual home of our Ken – Livingstone, I presume – have done. They have just unveiled Shanice, a hologram, who will operate as a virtual receptionist at their new £90 million Town Hall. Visitors to the Council will no longer have to fight for the attention of a human receptionist busily engaged in filing her nails or sorting out her social life on Facebook. Shanice, who has cost the Council £12,000, will appear to the visitor to be sitting behind a desk but will actually be projected on to a screen. Helpfully, she will be trained to answer a limited number of questions, including telling the denizens of the Borough where to go – no change there, then – although only to those parts of the buildings which deal with such matters as the registration of births and deaths, applications for marriage licences or citizenship.

So is Shanice the face of the brave new world? It certainly is an innovative approach but serious questions remain as to the efficacy of the solution. Brent, famed for the diversity of its population, has to provide advice and guidance on its array of services in a number of languages. What happens if someone presents themselves at reception and finds that Shanice cannot respond to their query in their first language? What happens if Shanice is asked a question which falls outside of her script? Will she be able to repeat herself for those who are hard of hearing? Will she be able to respond in signed language? What happens when there is a power cut or if/when the bugs in the software strike?

Inevitably, Shanice will have to be chaperoned and so, instead of representing a saving, like as not the employment of the holographic receptionist will be a cost – a cost that a council embroiled with its residents over closing such services as libraries can ill-afford to bear.

Still, there’s no such thing as bad publicity!

As I get older, I just prefer to knit




A couple of years ago the news of the forthcoming arrival of our first grandchild (our very own BoJ) prompted TOWT to rediscover her passion for knitting. She burst into frenetic activity and garment after garment came off her one-woman conveyor belt. She is still at it and uses any pretext as a reason for knitting, purling and casting on and off.

And she is not alone. Knitting, it seems, is undergoing a revival in fortunes. If Google searching is any indication of popularity, on-line searches for knitting-related items has steadily increased year-on-year since 2004 and rose by 150% in 2011. Part of the growth in popularity has been the enthusiastic adoption of the art by the under 35s. It is an ancient skill – one of the earliest examples of knitting was a pair of cotton socks found in Egypt at the end of the first millennium CE and the first knitting guild was established in Paris in 1527. Adherents swear to its health benefits. The repetitive and rhythmic actions that are associated with knitting, they say, create a relaxation response in the body which can decrease blood pressure, heart rate and help prevent illness and generate a feeling of calmness and well-being. I’m not sure this is always the case given the occasional expletive that comes from the general direction of TOWT when she has dropped a stitch or misread the pattern! The challenge of reading and interpreting the patterns make the grey cells more resilient and reduce the chance of the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

However, some people in authority are not embracing the return to popularity of knitting. Take the fate of the Knit ‘n’ Natter group who have met in the library at Cramlington in Northumberland weekly for the past three years and knitted thousands of items for premature babies. Surely a harmless and charitable enterprise you would think. Trouble came when a new library was built and the group have been told that there is no room in the library to accommodate their circle of 30 or so knitters. No specific reason has to be given for this egregious example of hard-hearted officialdom but there have been suggestions that knitting needles have been viewed as being dangerous instruments – I can testify to the sharp pain inflicted by one if I get too close to the whirling dervish that is TOWT in full steam – and have provoked the wrath of the ‘Elf and Safety brigade. Others suggest that the natter aspect of the group’s name was counter to the studied atmosphere of calm and quiet that the new library is trying to create.

Either way, it is another item to be added to the ever-growing list entitled The World Is Going Mad.



When I Grow Up I Want To Be A (10)…




The job of a fuller was to clean wool in preparation for it to be made into cloth. This ancient occupation involved pounding the wool with sticks or walking on it to cleanse it and to whiten the fibres. It was so unpleasant a job – it involved wading in tubs ankle-deep in urine which because of its high ammonia content was found to be a powerful cleansing agent – that in Roman times it was an occupation reserved solely for slaves. Urine was very important to the process and consequently was taxed – perhaps this is the origin of the phrase to spend a penny.

The lot of a fuller improved in mediaeval times when urine was replaced by a soft clay-like material containing ammonium silicate, known as fuller’s earth, but because of the high ammonium content must still have been a smelly and unpleasant process. Once the fulling process had been completed – it thickened the cloth by felting or tangling up the fibres and made the material waterproof – the foul-smelling washing liquid was removed before the next process began.

This involved stretching the material on great frames known as tenters to which it was attached by hooks called tenterhooks. The phrase being on tenterhooks, that is being in suspense, came from this process and the area where the tenters were erected was known as the tenterground.

From the 11th century onwards the fulling process became more mechanised and was carried out in water mills known as a fulling mill or a walk mill or a tuck mill. Wooden hammers known as fulling stocks or fulling hammers were used to strike the cloth and the hammers were raised and lowered by the cams on the shaft of a water wheel. They struck the material which was placed in a tub with the cleansing agent horizontally and the mechanism turned the cloth so it was struck evenly. However, every two hours or so the cloth was taken out to undo any plaits or wrinkles.

The earliest reference to a fulling mill dates to around 1186 in Normandy.In England one is first recorded in the Wilton Domesday of 1117-1119. They were widespread in 13th century England and Wales which had a flourishing wool trade at the time and place names in Wales with Pandy in them bear testament to the trade.

An unpleasant and smelly job to be sure but one was vital for the burgeoning wool trade in mediaeval Britain.


Rural Rides (13)


Lanhydrock House

There are some places, Clandon Park is another, that you seem fated not to visit. We finally got round Lanhydrock House, which is just south of Bodmin, at the third time of asking. Last year we had to abandon attempts as we fled the floods and tempests that were enveloping the South West at the time. This year we turned up on a Monday only to find that the house itself was closed but the gardens were open. We finally got around the house on the following Saturday. Third time lucky indeed!

The gardens themselves consist of some stunning bedding plants – the begonias were just coming into full bloom when we were there – and there was a proliferation of rhododendrons and magnolias which must in the spring make a wonderful show when set against the surrounding woodland landscape. The grounds also include a small church, St Hydrock’s, parts of which date back to the 15th century.

The house itself has had a rather chequered history. The estate belonged to the Augustine priory of St Petroc in Bodmin until the Reformation when the lands passed into private hands. Sir Richard Robartes in 1620 started the construction of a four-sided house around a central courtyard and chose to build it in granite. Dying before it was completed, Robartes’ work was completed by his son, John who became, amongst other things, Lord Privy Seal. During the 18th century the house’s east wing was demolished to leave the three-sided building that remains today.

In 1881 a major fire destroyed the south wing and caused severe damage to the central section of the house, resulting in a major rebuild. Today only the north wing with its magnificent Long Gallery and the front porch building and its gatehouse remain of the original building.

Inside, the National Trust have made a very good job of representing what life above and below stairs was like in the late Victorian era with over 50 rooms open to the hoi polloi. The kitchens, larders and dairy are stocked with the utensils and equipment needed to keep such a large establishment going. However, for me the Long Gallery with its splendid 17th century plaster ceilings was the stand-out feature. The house is furnished sensitively with examples of 18th century furniture and tapestries.

The Robartes who had, like many families, a tragic First World War, passed the house with 400 acres of parkland to the National Trust in 1953 and the remaining descendant lives on the estate in a cottage.

Be warned – it is a long walk (about 10 to 15 minutes) from the car park which is currently undergoing remodelling to the house. However, it is well worth the effort – after all we visited it twice!

It’s The Way I Tell ‘Em (5)


More high-brow jokes, courtesy of the Independent and others

  • An electron is driving down a motorway, and a policeman pulls him over. The policeman says: “Sir, do you realise you were travelling at 130km per hour?” The electron goes: “Oh great, now I’m lost.”
  • The barman says: “We don’t serve faster-than-light particles here.” A tachyon enters a bar.
  • Schroedinger’s cat walks into a bar. And it doesn’t.
  • A Roman walks into a bar and asks for a martinus. “You mean a martini?” the bartender asks. The Roman replies, “If I wanted a double, I would have asked for it”.
  • Why did the inverse function cross the road? To get to the same side.
  • There are three kinds of people: those who can count and those who can’t.
  • “Heidegger follows Kant into the bar and asks for a pint of ale, to which the bartender replies, ‘Sorry, last orders was fifteen minutes ago.’ Leaving, he sighs and thinks to himself, ‘I hate not Being on Time.’”
  • They say a Freudian slip is when you say one thing, but you really mean your mother
  • Day 19, I have successfully conditioned my master to smile and write in his book every time I drool.” — Pavlov’s Dog
  • “Is it solipsistic in here, or is it just me?”
  • A mechanical engineer, chemical engineer, electronic engineer and software engineer are driving a car which suddenly dies. The mechanical engineer says, “I would suppose that a gear or pulley failed, causing the car to die”. The chemical engineer says, “I guess that the car is out of fuel and unable to produce combustion.” The electronic engineer says, “I believe the windings in the coil fail to produce enough spark. The software engineer says, “I think we should all get out and then back in again”.
  • And finally (for the time being) a guy walks into a sandwich shop and sees a sign that reads, “Home of the meanest grilled cheese in town”. So he orders the grilled cheese. When his bill arrives the waitress asks how he liked his sandwich. “Eh, it was about average”.

Nadger Nibblers



When I was a lad the Vikings had a terrible reputation. They were fearsome chaps armed to the teeth, wearing distinctive helmets with horns, who thought nothing of a few days of hard rowing topped off with some raping and pillaging of the poor unfortunates who lived near the eastern coastal stretches of England. Recently, prompted by archaeological finds of magnificent and delicately wrought jewellery and other artefacts, the pendulum has swung the other way to the extent that we are invited to consider them as people of heightened artistic and cultural sensitivities who were merely responding to the population pressures of their time. The British Museum who have just announced a major Viking exhibition to be staged in the spring of 2014 plan to restore the reputation of Vikings as aggressive and savage warriors, albeit, and disappointingly, without the horned helmets.

Modern Scandinavian men, though, seem to fall a long way short of their predecessors if reports coming out of the region are to be believed. A Danish fisherman, Einar Lindgreen, plying his trade in the Oeresund Strait which separates Denmark from Sweden and is now spanned by a magnificent bridge, found to his surprise a pacu ensnared in his net. This fish is a relative of the piranha and its mouth is packed with sharp teeth. Lindgreen’s specimen is the first that has been caught in the Baltic waters.

The presence of a pacu has created a wave of panic amongst Scandinavian male swimmers, particularly those who like to practise skinny-dipping, fuelled by the comment of a piscatorial expert, Peter Resk Moller from the National History Museum of Denmark. He is reported to have said, “If they bite, they can bite hard … especially when they bite you where you really don’t want to be bitten”. Cue hysteria.

Of course some men like the thought of some gentle stimulation to their reproductive organs – that scurrilous Roman historian, Suetonius, reports that the emperor Tiberius trained little boys, whom he called tiddlers, to crawl between his thighs when he went swimming and to tease him with their licks and nibbles. Not to everyone’s taste I’m sure and, it seems, most Scandinavian men have a deep aversion to the prospect of a fish feasting on their unprotected nadgers.

Poor Mr Moeller was forced to admit that his remarks were intended to be ironic and that whilst the pacu had a mouthful of teeth and a powerful bite, being predominantly vegetarian – it uses its powerful jaws to crack open nuts that fall into its natural habitat, the Amazonian waters – it was highly unlikely to aim an attack at the swimmer’s reproductive organs. Indeed, it was a bit of a mystery what the pacu was doing so far away from its normal environment in the first place.

So there we are – it is safe once more to bathe in the bracing Baltic waters. What Erik the Viking would have made of it all, only Thor knows.


In Memoriam

It was blowing up a storm. The trees, tall poplars, bowed their heads in time to the rhythm of the celestial zephyrs. The rain started, gentle at first but rapidly growing in intensity. Torrents of fresh water raced down the grooves of the rusty corrugated iron of the farmstead’s roof. The green ears of the corn planted lovingly some months back by that horny handed son of the soil, Silas, glistened in the moonlight.
He furrowed his brows, pulled at his long lank flaxen hair, toyed with the purple spot which had taken residence on his right weather beaten cheek and like a cat about to pounce on a mouse suddenly gave vent to his feelings. “Damned weather!” He spat angrily. “This ‘ere storm will be the end of me!” He said vehemently, his rich and deep rustic accent getting more pronounced with each syllable. “All hell has broken loose!


If, dear reader, you got this far I have failed to break the tenth of the sadly recently deceased Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of good writing.
As well as being a fine writer, you have given me some fun in composing this drivel! Rest in peace.