windowthroughtime

A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: March 2014

The 102nd Use For A Cat

Rocket cats  2

 

Mankind has always been inventive in making plans for war. After all, absent decisive numerical advantage the chances of overcoming your foe is dependent upon tactical or technological edge.

The big game changer in the 16th century was the adoption of gunpowder as a means of enhancing the power and range of your artillery. Gunpowder was invented by the Chinese,  perhaps as early as the Tang dynasty in the 9th century CE and certainly by the Song Dynasty (11th century CE). It is listed as one of the Four Great Inventions of the Chinese – the compass, paper making and printing being the others. Courtesy of the invading hordes of Mongols in the 13th century CE knowledge of and appreciation of its power percolated into the West but it was only in the 15th century that the development of effective artillery enabled the Occidentals to utilise the black stuff – a mixture of sulphur, charcoal; and saltpeter – effectively.

Of course, being the first on the block to have gunpowder and the means to effectively send it in the vague direction of the enemy gave you an initial advantage but soon the general availability of gunpowder went a long way to nullify that advantage. Naturally, this prompted the more inventive souls to exercise their grey cells to develop ways of deploying gunpowder more effectively to gain competitive edge.

One such person was Franz Helm who came from Cologne and who is thought to have fought in a few skirmishes against the Turks in south-central Europe when gunpowder was beginning to transform warfare. He published a manual in the 1530s which is filled with wonderfully illustrated descriptions of bizarre weaponry including bombs packed with shrapnel and explosive devices studded with spikes. Helm also thought that animals could be usefully deployed in the cause, particularly in delivering incendiaries to the enemy. “Create a small sack like a fire-arrow. If you would like to get at a town or castle, seek to obtain a cat from that place. And bind the sack to the back of the cat, ignite it, let it glow well and thereafter let the cat go, so it runs to the nearest castle or town, and out of fear it thinks to hide itself where it ends up in barn hay or straw it will be ignited”. Simple really – capture a cat from the enemy, strap an incendiary device to it and set it free. Of course, cats have a mind of their own and so there could be no guarantee that it would go straight home and not be diverted by the sight of a mouse or a bird en route with devastating effect.

There may be something in it though. A couple of weeks ago I read of an incendiary attack perpetrated by a pigeon on a block of flats in south London. The roof was damaged but all nine occupants escaped. The cause, according to the London Fire Brigade, was a pigeon, picking up a smouldering cigarette butt and dropping it into its nest, which then ignited and set the roof on fire.

With a bit more training, this could be an effective weapon and a damn sight cheaper than a Trident missile.

 

 

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Shortage Of The Week

fence

Bad news for gardeners and the house-proud this week. The devastation wrought on the country by the storms this winter has resulted in a national shortage of fence panels.

Such is the extent of the problem that desperate houseoners are paying up to four times the going rate for a panel – £80 instead of £20. Naturally, in this enterprise culture there is a thriving black market for the goods and in certain areas thefts of wood panelling has been reported. Doubtless if you buy panelling from such an illicit source they become your fence.

A wet summer in Sweden, Russia and the Baltics has meant that the supply of soft wood is smaller than usual and booming economies such as China and Dubai are snaffling what stocks are available.

If you have a complete set of fence panelling around your property, beware – you have been warned!

Inflationary Story Of The Week

asda

Thanks to the good offices of TOWT I lead a very sheltered life. Not for me the weekly expedition to shop for groceries at the local supermarket. Consequently, rather like our revered leaders, I have no idea about the current cost of a loaf of bread although, naturally, I know the cost of a good bottle of champers.

Even so I was somewhat shocked to learn the cost of bread in Wolverhampton this week – £450 – which suggests that we are facing the level of inflationary increase we associate with what are euphemistically termed banana republics.

John Brown popped into his local Asda in the midlands town to pick up a few groceries, including a loaf of Roberts multi-grain bread, and paid for said items with his debit card in the self-service check-out area. Like many men he didn’t bother to check his receipt.

Imagine his surprise when he tried to get some money out of a cashpoint machine to find that he had exceeded his limit. On investigation he checked his receipt to find that his groceries had cost £453.19 and that the loaf of bread, advertised at 69p, had cost him £450.

It seems that the ubiquitous systems glitch had caused the wrong price to be charged and Asda are giving him a full refund.

Moral of the story – check your receipts. After all, every little helps.

 

The Meaning Of Life – Part Twenty Five Of Forty Two

Beef burgers in a bread bun with salad & garnish

 

What is the best way to eat a burger?

I can’t say I’m a great aficionado of the burger. As you would have gathered if you have dipped in and out of this blog, I am not one of those who espouse the virtues of a healthy life-style, let alone choose to pursue one. So my decision to give burgers a wide berth is not down to concerns about their effect on my welfare. Yes they do stoke up your cholesterol levels, give you halitosis and if there is any foodstuff likely to contain horsemeat, it is likely to be the burger. It is pretty undeniable that regular or excessive consumption can leave you with a burger-style body shape.

To me they are the foodstuff of last choice. You know the scenario – you have had a few sherberts with your friends and at some point during the evening the realisation dawns on you that you haven’t had anything to eat and that putting something in your stomach may help to dampen down the effects of the grog you have downed. The thought hits you usually at a time when any self-respecting restaurant is closing down or, even in these straitened times, won’t let someone in your condition through their portals. So the choice boils down to a kebab or a burger. In those circumstances, the consumption of a burger is just about acceptable in my book.

What really puts me off burgers is that they are so damn difficult to eat al fresco. On numerous occasions, admittedly when my hand-eye-mouth co-ordination is not at the peak of its game, the first bite results in the majority of the contents of the said burger – usually the least injurious to your health and well-being – landing on your lap, going down your jacket or tie or over the poor sap who is sitting next to you on the train.

Fortunately, science has come to my rescue. A team of researchers in Japan have applied their collective grey cells and imperilled their life expectancy to provide us with the answer to this most pressing of First World problems, deploying, would you believe, 3D scans of a hamburger whilst in the various stages of consumption and applying knowledge of fluid dynamics and dentistry.

It seems the answer is in the way you hold the burger. If you hold it by the sides, disaster is inevitable. The correct way to hold your burger is to put your thumb and little finger at the base of the burger and your index and ring finger at the top. Bloggers Food Beast have put a helpful clip on YouTube to help you master the technique http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RrPMTWKLhxA&feature=player_embedded

Of course, you could always use a knife and fork or eschew the wretched foodstuff. I can’t say I will be rushing to put the technique to the test but as always, at least we now know!

 

Murder In The Undergrowth

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Sacre bleu! If the threat posed by the cicadelle to the vineyards of Burgundy was not bad enough, it seems as though our friends from across La Manche are facing the prospect of disruption to their supply of edible snails. The culprit id Platydemus manokwari aka the New Guinea flatworm which has made an appearance in a greenhouse in the Jardin des Plantes de Caen in Normandy. It is one of the top 100 most invasive alien species.

Its relative, Arthurdendyus triangalatus aka the New Zealand flatworm has already made significant inroads into the indigenous population of earthworms in northern Britain, particularly Scotland and Northern Ireland. The New Guinea variety has a particular penchant for land snails, although, I’m pleased to say, without lashings of garlic. Originating from, surprisingly, New Guinea it has found its way, often by being introduced deliberately, into some fifteen Pacific territories. It has quickly established itself and gorged itself on land snails; so voracious is its appetite that it has endangered many endemic species along the way.

The flat worm is distinctive in appearance – it is very flat in shape, being about 50 millimetres long and 5 wide, its back is a black olive colour with a distinctive stripe down the middle and it has two prominent black eyes atop of an elongated head. Its mouth is positioned in the middle of its pale white belly.

The creature is very resourceful. Although it normally lives on the ground, it is able to climb trees in pursuit of its prey. Snails, not known for their turn of speed, are sitting ducks. Although New Guinea is a tropical country, the flat worms live in the mountainous regions above the 3,000 metre mark where the temperatures average around 10 degrees Centigrade. Scientists believe that as a consequence it would be able to survive and flourish in the more temperate climes of la belle France and much of Europe.

As well as being a threat to snails, the flat worm is fairly omnivorous and is just as happy making mincemeat of most soil-dwelling species including the humble earthworm.

It is not known how the flat worm made its way to northern France nor how many there are – the theory is that it hitched a ride on some plant or foodstuff – but French officials are taking the threat seriously and are mounting a campaign to try to stop the spread of the pest before it has time to establish itself.

If, as I do, you like a plate of snails, I should fill your boots know before the price escalates. You have been warned!

 

Book Corner – March 2014

The-Pike

 

The Pike – Lucy Hughes-Hallett

I wasn’t sure about this book before I picked it up. It had received good reviews, winning the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction last year but my scant recollection of the subject, Gabrielle d’Annunzio, suggested to me that he was too  unappealing a character to spend a month of my spare time reading about – the book weighs in at just over 600 pages. Hughes-Hallett does a great job in telling what is a fascinating story and, mercifully, does nothing to convince the reader that d’Annunzio was anything other than the repulsive character that we know him as.

D’Annunzio was a complex character and you can see traits of the priapic Casanova, the foppish but erudite Oscar Wilde and the fascist Benito Mussolini in him. Born in 1863 he rose to fame in Italy as a poet. Although his literary success gave him access to wealth he always spent more money on his lavish lifestyle than he earned and was constantly harassed by and on the move from creditors. Indeed, he was forced to flee to Paris in 1910, joining the burgeoning literary demi-monde there. He sought thrills – romantic, narcotic and speed, an early advocate of the motor car and the airplane. Whilst seemingly irresistible to the ladies, he was described as a jerk by Hemingway.

He returned to Italy in 1915 to rally the troops and was an early advocate of the use of aircraft as a weapon and carried out many sorties over the Austrian border, raining incendiaries or more often leaflets on the bemused enemy. He lost the sight of one eye in an air crash but this did not diminish his bellicose spirit.

The Italian Austrian theatre in the First World War is little remembered by us Brits but was as bloody and wasteful of lives as the Western killing fields. D’Annunzio was a warmonger demanding that every inch of newly acquired Italian territory in the Dolomites should be drenched in Italian blood. For him it truly was dulce et decorum pro
patria mori.

Despite overcoming the Austrians, the Italians were stitched up at the peace talks in Versailles – how many of the 20th and 21st century troubles can be laid firmly at the door of the peace negotiators? – creating what d’Annunzio called the stench of peace. He took matters into his own hands by marching into Fiume in September 1919 in what is now in Croatia with the intention of creating a utopia based on his proto-fascist and artistic ideals, setting himself up as dictator. He remained a thorn in the side of the Italian government for 15 months until they eventually sent in gun boats and blasted him out.

But the tide was turning in Italy and Mussolini’s thugs were in the ascendancy, borrowing many of the trappings and ideas of the failed Fiume experiment. Whilst never formally siding with Mussolini, d’Annunzio’s retirement in effective house-arrest was funded by the fascists and much of the time until his death in 1938 was spent in a cocaine-induced priapic stupor.

A thoroughly unpleasant man but skilfully and wonderfully portrayed by Hughes-Hallet.

Oh, and why the Pike? Because of his habit of rising to the surface and gobbling up everyone’s ideas.

 

What Is The Origin Of (45)…?

keens mustard

 

As keen as mustard

It is a long while since this phrase has been used of me. It indicates that the object of the remark, usually a youngster, is very enthusiastic.

Mustard, of course, has long been associated as the condiment of choice to accompany the favourite dish of the English, roast beef. Les rosbifs, as our friends from across La Manche affectionately refer to us as, are characterised quaffing a jug of ale and tucking into a side of beef. The use of mustard in England was first attested as far back as 1390 in a book entitled The Forme of Cury, written by the 14th century equivalent of the Hairy Bikers, the cooks of Richard II. In those days it was served up in the form of balls, consisting of coarse ground mustard seeds which were combined with flour and cinnamon and then moistened, rolled into balls and dried. This meant that the balls were easily stored and when required to season the roast beef or other meats, vinegar or wine would be added to make the paste.

The phrase, “as keen as mustard” was first recorded in William Walker’s snappily entitled book of 1672, Phraseologia Anglo-Latina, or phrases of the English and Latin tongue; together with Paroemiologia Anglo-Latina. This first recorded reference knocks into a cocked hat the theory that the phrase owed its origin to a well-known manufacturer of mustard. Keen. The company was only founded in 1742.

Mustard wasn’t just used to pep up food. It was seen to be a cure for colds and fevers. A prescription popularised in the 19th century by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for chest congestion required the application of a mustard plaster poultice with the admonition that, “as soon as the chest turns quite pink, remove the poultice”. Lovely!

In 1679 the phrase appears in F Smith’s Clod-pate’s Ghost in the context of being zealous or enthusiastic, “You shall see a man as hot as Mustard against Plot and Plotters.”  Given the use of mustard as a condiment to add zest to the beef, it is easy to understand why it became associated with vigour and enthusiasm.

By the twentieth century people weren’t like mustard, they were mustard. Edgar Wallace, the co-creator of King Kong, wrote in The King by Night in 1925, “That fellow is mustard”.

Today, mustard is used either as a simile or as an alternative noun.

So now we know!

The Writing’s On The Wall

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The practice of graffiti is one of the most divisive forms of expression. For some it is a valid art form, for others it is an infuriating piece of vandalism. I am constantly amazed at the level of ingenuity and bravery (or is it foolhardiness?) exhibited by practitioners to scale the heights to find a vacant piece of wall at which to squirt their aerosols in a vaguely artistic manner. For owners of the wall it is a pain in the backside because, invariably, it needs to be removed, unless you have had the good fortune to be visited by Banksy whoever he, she or them is/are.

The urge to scratch images, phrases and images on to walls seems to be a primal one. Many ancient tombs and ruins contain, to the delight of archaeologists and ancient historians, messages and inscriptions and are claimed to give an insight into the daily life of the time, assuming, of course, you accept that the average member of the plebeian orders had the time, a sharp instrument or the level of literacy required to make their mark on the masonry. Some graffiti has been truly useful – the only known source of a proto-Arabic language called the Safaitic language is to be found in some inscriptions carved into the rocks of the desert in southern Syria and eastern Jordan.

The first example of what we would term graffiti ie a message on a wall appears in Ephesus. Located near a mosaic and a stone walkway it depicts a hand print, vaguely representing a heart, a footprint and a number. It is thought to advertise the delights to be found in a nearby brothel there being no telephone boxes in those days.

There does seem to be a double standard in our attitude to graffiti. It is all right to marvel at the doodlings of some ancient and hypothesise about what it says about the time but it is very much infra-dig to take out your knife and scratch some bon mots – perhaps a pledge to undying love or imitating the ubiquitous Kilroy – on the masonry of an ancient pile. But some of us must be wrestling with the same urges to scratch on walls as our forebears and don’t we owe a duty to posterity, in the same way ancients had, to leave some witticism or truism or just a date on a wall?

The Chinese, bless them, have come up with the perfect solution. They have a rather large wall in the country, seemingly doing nothing. Such an extensive piece of masonry is just too tempting a target for the graffiti artists. Instead of exercising a policy of zero tolerance the enlightened authorities of the Forbidden City have declared Fighting Tower 14 of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall a free graffiti zone where you can chip, scratch and chisel away to your heart’s content. When that is filled up they are looking at setting up similar areas in Fighting Towers 5 and 10. When up against such pragmatism, no wonder we Occidentals are coming off second best.

 

Lucky Surname Of The Week

robin

 

Last week was a good week for real-life and fictional Trotters.

Neil of the clan made the headlines by scooping the 120 million Euromillion jackpot. The motor mechanic from Coulsdon seems to have every intention of letting his new-found wealth change his life.

For the fictional Del Boy from nearby Peckham, the smirking Chancellor also provided good news. Cars built 40 years ago will continue to be classified as Classic cars and be exempt from vehicle excise duty. The Reliant Robin, the car of choice of the aspiring South London entrepreneur, falls into that category, ensuring that its value will be enhanced.

Cushty is all I can say!

Excavation Of The Week

Salford tunnel

News reaches me of an audacious robbery. Thieves spent months digging a complex 50 foot tunnel from a patch of wasteland on Liverpool Road in Salford into a branch of Tesco Express. Having gained access into the premises they were able to remove a sum of money, said to be tens of thousands of pounds, from cash boxes stored in the shop.

Police are asking local residents to help with their enquiries and are particularly anxious to learn of anyone who was spotted acting suspiciously, possibly covered in soil. Doubtless they are looking for a mole in the community.

Incredible to think of the time and effort taken to carry out the robbery. I hope when the thieves have calculated the time spent executing the heist and compared it with the loot they carried away, they earned more than the minimum wage.