There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Twenty Nine


Sylvester H Roper (1823 – 1896)

I am always fascinated by individuals who have an inventive streak in them. The latest inductee to our illustrious Hall of Fame is just such a chap.

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on 24th November 1823 to a cabinet-maker, the young Sylvester exhibited a mechanical bent from an early age. By the age of 12 he had made a stationary steam engine, even though he had never seen one before. When he was 14 he had built his first locomotive engine, sometime before he saw a real life example in Nassau.

Married in 1845 our hero moved to Boston in 1854. It was around this time that he invented a Hand-stitch Sewing machine and later a machine for making screws and a foldable fire escape. In 1863 Roper had built his first steam carriage, one of the very earliest automobiles and was seen driving it around the streets of Boston, no doubt to the amusement and consternation of bystanders and pedestrians. One version of his 1863 carriage found a resting place in the Henry Ford museum.

As well as four wheels, Roper was fascinated by the possibilities of harnessing steam power to the bicycle which was beginning to gain some traction as a popular form of transportation. The Roper steam velocipede which saw the light of the day shortly after the ending of the Civil War may well have been the first motorcycle. For this invention Roper was inducted posthumously into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002.

Roper did not just concentrate his attention and talents on locomotion. He found time to invent the first shotgun choke, which was a series of tubes which could be threaded into or removed from the outside of a shotgun barrel to enable the gunman to vary the spread of the shot to suit the range and size of target that was in their sights. On 4th April 1882 he and Charles Miner Spencer applied for a patent for a repeating shotgun mechanism and in his own right three years later Roper applied for a patent for an improved shotgun loading mechanism.

But it was locomotion and velocipedes that were his first and real love. His early prototypes – essentially a small steam engine attached to a bone shaker, requiring both coal and water – were impractical but by the 1890s he had developed a compact engine which could be attached to a safety bike. At the time there were over 500 bicycle manufacturers in the US and big money was to be had from winning bike races.

On the fateful day of 1st June 1896 Roper, aged 73, raced his steam bike against professional riders who could not keep up with him. He clocked a mile in 2 minutes 1.4 seconds – average speed 40 mph – but was seen to wobble and then fall off the track, hitting his head and dying. The autopsy showed that the cause of death was heart failure, although it could not be established whether the crash was the cause of the heart failure or whether it was the other way round.

Sylvester, for your pioneering work in locomotion, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.


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

Delivery Of The Week


News this week of strange goings-on at the Tubingen Microbiology Institute campus in south-western Germany. The campus houses a large statue of a vagina created by the Peruvian-born artist, Fernando de la Jara.

The never-ending quest for unusual photo opportunities to post on social media networks led an unnamed exchange student (from the US, natch) to climb into it. Unfortunately he slipped as he was clambering up the erection and got stuck. It required the services of four firemen to deliver him safely. Let’s hope they shouted, “It’s a boy” when they finally freed him.

Both statue and student are said to be doing well.

Hot Dog Of The Week


No sooner have I got over the shock of Jeanette Winterson tweeting pictures of half-flayed rabbits than news reaches me that last weekend’s dog-eating festival in Yulin in the Chinese province of Guangzi has been disrupted by a small group of animal rights activists. Timed to coincide with the summer solstice when eating dog apparently confers health benefits through to the winter, the festival offers gourmands dog meat barbecued, stir-fried or boiled and served up with a side dish of lychees and washed down with grain alcohol.

This year’s festival has caused a stir with the local government banning its employees from overtly supporting the event. In response to the protesters one vendor threatened to lynch a dog unless activists paid an exorbitant ransom and one diner was attacked by an activist while trying to enjoy their fare.

Sales of dog meat has decreased by a third in China over the last year as the newly created middle classes are seeing the pooches rather as a pet than their next meal. As actress Yang Mi wrote to her 35 million followers, “I think of dogs as friends, not meat”.

Tensions are running high as both sides bare their fangs. However, there is a whiff of compromise in the air. Wiser heads are counselling that a better course than outright confrontation is to try to educate the dog meat lovers who are following a tradition that is centuries old that there are other meats now readily available.

It will never catch on in Borough market.

Walk On The Wild Side


Walk on the wild side is one of my favourite tracks by the late lamented Lou Reed and introduces the listener to the seedy side of Noo Yoik. Of course, it is not a phenomenon restricted to the Big Apple. The seamier side of life is ever-present – there are some of us who seem particularly more adept at spotting it than others.

I was somewhat surprised to read the other day that the market for prostitution and drugs was estimated at being around £10 billion in the UK. Mind-boggling really but what is more interesting is how anyone has arrived at this figure, given that sex workers and drug dealers are not renowned, at least in the popular imagination, for their willingness to declare their earnings.

The figures have come from no less an impeccable source than the Office for National Statistics (ONS) but when you look at the methodology employed it is assumption based upon assumption. As they say, there are lies, damn lies and statistics.

Take the figures relating to illegal drug consumption, for example. They are based on what might be loosely termed as demand side statistics ie how much is bought. The starting point is a one-off Home Office survey commissioned in 2003 into drug use which provided a base figure for the quantity of drugs consumed per head of population. The Crime Survey for England and Wales provides the number of drug users and an adjusted price for the narcotics is derived from a UN report. Multiplying up we get a figure (for 2009) of £830m for cannabis and a further £3.6bn for drugs such as crack and powder cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and speed.

The turnover from the sex industry is derived from the supply side ie how much the sex workers make. A survey was conducted in 2004 into the number of sex workers operating in the UK and from these findings the ONS have extrapolated a figure for 2009 (God knows how) of 60,879. The Dutch, helpfully, tell us that they service 25 clients a week and, apparently, the average cost of a visit is £67.16. I would have thought that having to have all that loose change would have put off a punter but what do I know? Multiplying the three elements up gives us a figure of £5.3bn. That on top of the £4.4bn from drugs gives us £9.7bn which is then cheerfully rounded up to £10bn.

Apparently when the ONS’ Blue Book is published in September the proceeds from illegal drug sales will be incorporated into the retail sales of pharmaceuticals section whilst the income earned by sex workers will feature in the other personal service activities section which includes hairdressers and personal fitness trainers.

Rather than shining a light on to the murky world of prostitution and narcotics, these figures say more about the wild side of Government statistics and the way that numbers are conjured up from thin air. Still, this firm grasp on reality is preparing us for the day when the master of irrefutable facts that are the Ukippers rule the country.

Book Corner – June 2014 (2)


Pietr the Latvian – Georges Simenon

The publisher, Penguin, announced last year that it was going to reissue all of the Maigret books – some 75 in all – in chronological order – one a month – with new translations. Rather like Hercules Poirot, people think of Georges Simenon as French – he was actually Belgian, born in Liege in 1903. He was prolific writing over 400 novels and short stories until his death in Lausanne in 1989.

Pietr-le-Letton or Pietr the Latvian was the first of the Maigret series and this translation by David Bellos was my first introduction to the French gumshoe. The story was originally serialised in 1930, published in the original French in 1931 and was first translated into English in 1933. Naturally, because it is the first in what was intended to be a series it spends a lot of time introducing us to the Detective Chief Inspector of the Flying Squad. His physical presence – big boned, ever-present pipe, crumpled clothing, commitment to solving the case at the risk of personal health and welfare – come through loud and clear. The book is very atmospheric – the description of the dank weather and the sleazy streets and dives of Paris in the late twenties is very strong.

The story itself is a bit clunky, if truth be told, and revolves around twins and assumed identities – I won’t give the game away but by my reckoning they assume three identities each. Pietr the Latvian is the head honcho of a major international ring of fraudsters and he is on his way to Paris by train. The police are surprisingly well-informed of the movements of their target and the story starts with the discovery of a man fitting Pietr’s description, being found dead in the train’s toilet. But Maigret also saw a man fitting the description of Pietr leaving the station at around the same time. For those who like such things, the story is laced with violent deaths.

The clumsiness of the plot and, indeed, the (probably inadvertent) sign-posting of what is to come and for the inattentive reader the confusing cast of characters are all probably hallmarks of Simenon’s pot-boiler literary approach rather than a deficiency in the translator’s art. How faithful to the original the translation is, je ne sais pas, but it is well-paced, full of colloquialisms and follows Simenon’s ability to paint a character in a few well-chosen words.

I enjoyed the book but not enough to encourage me to plough through the other 74. It is the sort of book that will keep you mildly entertained on a long train journey – just don’t go to the toilet!

Buddhas And Elephants – Part Nine


Moonstones and moonstones

A common and eye-catching feature of a Buddhist temple is a semi-circular piece of carved stone at the entrance, known as the moonstone.  And very attractive they are too.

Within the semi-circle are a number of bands. The outer band is a ring of flames and below that is a band consisting of four animals – the elephant, lion, horse and bull. Then there is a floral pattern and then a band of swans with a leaf and a twig in their mouths. At the centre or heart of the moonstone is the lotus with its petals all around.

What does it all mean? The most plausible explanation is that the outer ring of fire represents the never-ending life and the pains associated with it and that the four animals represent the four noble truths of the Buddha. It is said that swans can separate out milk from a mixture of milk and water (a trick, I must confess, I have never seen them pull off) and so, the explanation goes on, he who understands and conquers the four noble truths will be able to separate good from evil and attain the Nibbana represented by the lotus.

The heyday of moonstone carving was in the pomp of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa and because they are on the ground, many fine examples could be found at both sites. What was interesting in Polonnaruwa was that betraying the influence of the Hindus the bull was dropped from the design, probably because walking over the image of a sacred animal was a tad disrespectful. The lion was also dropped as it was a symbol of the Sinhalese.

Of course, the name moonstone is also given to a gem, famed for its ability to exhibit in certain light conditions a whitish, bluish shimmer, said to resemble the light from the moon. The Indian sub-continent including Sri Lanka is a major source of the gem and the Sri Lankan version is famed for its bluish hue. We were taken to the only moonstone mine in the island where the gem is still extracted by hand.

The mine was situated in a village which looked as though it had been untouched since the days of Leonard Woolf. The mine itself was a hole in the ground, about 6 metres deep in which some chap was shovelling the wet earth into a bucket. When the bucket was full his companion hauled it up on a rather rickety pulley system and the contents were washed and sieved. Each miner, because of the conditions and the difficulties in breathing, spend about 45 minutes down the mine.


From the residue the pieces of moonstone – there were about half a dozen from the bucket we saw – are separated and retained. The stones then go to the nearby factory where they are cut and polished – this operation heightens the gems’ qualities – and then set into pieces of jewellery and then they are ready for sale. There was an emporium on site (natch) but, fortunately, TOWT was able to resist temptation.

Town And Country


Just as I thought we had got over the harassing calls encouraging us to make PPI claims on non-existent loans and, finally, beginning to keep the customer surveys at bay, a new source of phone calls has emerged – the desperate estate agent. We have recently had a number of calls from local agents enquiring as to whether we were considering putting our property up for sale. They have a list of potential buyers as long as our arms, the honeyed voice of the siren purrs, and we can anticipate securing a top premium price.

As you would expect, Blogger Towers is what the estate agents describe as a des res, situated in a small (but ever-expanding) village in close proximity to two schools which hold out the distinct prospect that the apple of your eye might emerge from the process able to master the art of reading and writing and, possibly – but don’t hold your breath – with a bit of basic maths. It is close to all major communication hubs – Heathrow and Gatwick airports, the M3 and M4 – indeed all sources of travel frustration are on our doorstep. A pleasant place to live to be sure but nothing exceptional to imagine that there are queues of people dying to cross our palms with silver for the opportunity to live there. Are we alone in being subjected to this realty harassment or is it something more?

The sad truth, I’m afraid to say, is that we are being caught up in the consequences of the heating up of the London property market. The prices of properties in central London are rocketing and bricks and mortar in the metropolis are seen by foreign investors in particular as a safe haven for their dosh. They are not anxious to live there nor, even more regrettably, rent the property out to those who might actually benefit from living in the capital. They are just content to have their piece of this sceptred isle and to ride the phenomenal increase in value of their asset. In some parts of the capital property prices have risen 20% in the last year. I heard the other day that an acquaintance of mine was trying to buy a modest flat in Balham – Peter Cook’s famed gateway to the south. He was competing against 70 other buyers and the exercise was now being conducted by sealed bid. If this isn’t guaranteed to fuel property inflation I don’t know what is.

The consequence of all this madness in London is that many people who even a couple of years ago could have afforded a gaff in the metroplis are having to move elsewhere. Some are beginning to realise that there is life outside of the M25 and that the same £600,000 which might get you a small flat in London would get you a three bedroom house in leafy Guildford. According to Hamptons International, in the last year Londoners have bought 44,000 properties outside of the capital, spending £15bn in the process. In the first four months of this year alone 14,700 properties were bought by Londoners outside of the capital for a sum of around £5bn.

So that’s why we are being plagued by phone calls. But if we succumb to the temptress where do we go? All our ill-gotten gains from the sale will just prompt another price bubble in another concentric ring around London.