Faux Pas Of The Week


Oy vey! Typical of the goyim. The Spanish owned purveyor of cheap and schlocky clothing, Zara, has had the chutzpah to design a pair of children’s jim-jams featuring white and blue stripes and a six pointed gold star. Their maven claims it represents a sheriff’s top but many are claiming it looks like the uniform worn by Jewish prisoners in the German prisoner of war camps. Result – a big stink.

Coming after the storm in 2007 they created with the handbag which featured a swastika design, they must be particularly insensitive or naive. What were they thinking?!

Elk And Safety Problem Of The Week


Nigel Farage may be on to something, much as it pains me to say it. These pesky Eastern Europeans are getting everywhere and causing mayhem as this story from the German city of Dresden illustrates.

Siemens had a bit of an Elk and Safety issue last Monday when an elk, thought to be two to three years old, got stuck in the glass enclosed foyer of their in-house café. The elk had been spotted earlier in the city in the car park of a shopping centre but because of the crowds that its appearance attracted bolted towards Siemens. After unsuccessfully trying to coax the animal out, officials from the nearby zoo had to shoot it with a tranquilliser gun before hoisting it out of the narrow doorway.

The elk, weighing some 800 kg – that would have kept the office workers in steak for a few days – is said to have remained calm throughout its ordeal. It is thought to have come from the Czech republic or Poland which are nearby. Saxony is on a well-established migratory path.

Wonder if it is any good at plumbing!

Tales From The Nursery – Part Nine


Jack and Jill

Jack and Jill was one of my favourite nursery rhymes as a child as well as being the title of one of my favourite comics – I fondly remember the exploits of Harold Hare! Made up of quatrains – one version printed in the 19th century runs to 15 verses – and using the trochaic metre which is a familiar rhythm for these rhymes, it goes like this, “Jack and Jill went up the hill/ to fetch a pail of water/ Jack fell down and broke his crown/ and Jill came tumbling after” The second verse, which I can just vaguely remember, has Jack getting up and trotting back home to be patched up by old Dame Dob using vinegar and brown paper.

But what does it all mean, if anything? In 16th century England Jack and Jill was commonly used to denote a male and female or boy and girl. William Shakespeare uses the phrase in this way in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Jack shall have Jill; Naught shall go ill) and in Love’s Labour’s Lost (Our wooing doth not end like an old play; Jack hath not Jill) and a proverb of the time – a good Jack makes a good Jill – reinforces the sense that the names are used as stereotypes of males and females.

Taken literally the rhyme is nonsensical. Whilst the application of vinegar and brown paper was a popular remedy to draw out bruises from the body, as any fule kno, water flows downhill and so the least likely place you would find a well or go to fetch water is the top of a hill. Moreover, the woodcut accompanying the first printed version of the rhyme showed two boys, not a boy and a girl, and Jill was spelt Gill.

In the allegorical interpretation stakes, there are a number of contenders, of which three, in my view, have some merit.

Picking up on the representation of Jack and Gill as two males, one theory goes that the rhyme is a reference to the fates of Cardinal Wolsey and Bishop Tarbes, who negotiated the marriage of Mary Tudor to the King of France in 1514.

The suggestion that Jack and Jill represent Louis XVI, who lost his head in 1793, and Marie Antoinette, who came tumbling after in a tumbril, can be rejected as the first printed version predates their demise. Those who seek a historical reference make more of a case by arguing that the rhyme refers to events in Kilmersdon in Somerset in 1697. When a local spinster fell with child, as they say, the alleged father died from a rock fall. The unfortunate woman died in childbirth. Quite why this unfortunate but probably not uncommon set of events should be remembered in a nursery rhyme is unclear.

For me the most likely interpretation is that it refers to an attempt by Charles I to reform the taxes on liquid measures, thwarted by parliament. Unable to get his way the crafty king ordered that the volume of a jack, which was a half pint, be reduced whilst keeping the tax the same. In that way he still received more tax. The quarter pint or Gill would have dropped in volume as a consequence. Pint glasses today still have half pint lines with a crown above them.

Book Corner – August 2014 (2)


Titus Alone – Mervyn Peake

This blog has to date been a Game of Thrones free-zone. In truth, I am not a fan of the fantasy genre. True, I have dabbled with Tolkien but haven’t the enthusiasm to take up George Martin’s tomes – what is it with fantasy writers and the middle initials of R.R? My most recent dabble with the genre has been Peake’s astonishing Gormenghast trilogy of which Titus Alone is the third and final instalment.

The book was first published in 1958 when Peake was seriously ill with what transpired to be dementia which killed him nine years later and was poorly served by an unsympathetic editor. The 1970 version, faithfully and tirelessly restored from manuscript fragments by Langdon Jones, is a more satisfying affair and if you venture to read the book, make sure you get this version.

The eponymous hero, Titus Groan, the 77th Earl of Gormenghast, had left his ancestral and stultifying home after a cataclysmic showdown with Steerpike, the archetypal rager against the machine, which concluded the second book. The book charts Titus’ journey into the outside world – a strange and hostile, authoritarian and totalitarian society, diametrically opposed to the tradition-bound world of Gormenghast, a land of which the modern folk know nothing. The modern world has cars and flying machines, factories run on mass production lines and concentration camps – Peake witnessed Belsen at first hand as a war artist.

Unlike the earlier two novels, Titus takes centre stage but, frankly, I don’t think he is depicted strongly enough to take this pivotal role. If Steerpike was the main character of the earlier books, then Muzzlehatch, Titus’ mentor, protector and guide, is the dominant character in this book. The landscape is dotted with the usual Peakean mix of grotesque and comic characters and the book leads us on to a set piece battle between Titus and Muzzlehatch on the one hand and the femme fatale, Cheetah, and her mad scientist father on the other. The goodies win through, natch, but at some cost.

The book contains some real comedy moments – the court scene where Titus describes to a disbelieving and incredulous court the demise of his father – the destruction of his library drove him into madness – is a fine piece of comic writing and the language, as you would expect from Peake, is beautiful and poetic. But it is undoubtedly a lesser work and the ending is quite odd. Having spent the whole book trying to escape the modern world and rediscover Gormenghast, he sees it in the distance but, in the end, turns his back on that too.

It is hard not to conclude that this book is the product of a tormented and troubled soul and its theme is the rejection of both the old ways and the new ways. Take that route and all you are left with is isolation.

If you were going to dip into Peake’s works, I would recommend Gormenghast, the second novel of the three. Having finished the trilogy, I think I will put the world of fantasy behind me!

The Streets Of London – Part Four


Tower subway

If you stand at the top of Petty Wales – a hideous paved area – and look towards the Thames you will see the ticket office for the Tower of London on your right with some tacky souvenir shops and fast food outlets and on your left a rather dumpy circular structure, bearing the legend, London Hydraulic Power Company. Many of us pass it by without giving it a second thought but, although the structure that is now visible was only built in 1920, it marks the spot of a remarkable piece of Victorian engineering.

Getting across the Thames was a pain in the arse in days of yore. Bridges were less common than today and tunnelling under the Thames had proven problematic. A tunnel had been constructed between 1825 and 1843 connecting Rotherhithe with Wapping but it had been a struggle both technically and financially. When another tunnel was proposed and put out to tender in 1868 – this time linking the Tower Hill area with Vine Street in that part of the world that taxi drivers rarely venture, sarf of the river – there was hardly a rush of takers. Eventually, James Greathead, showing the impetuosity that only a 24 year-old can, offered to do it for the princely sum of £9,400. His hand was snapped off.

Astonishingly, the tunnel, which was 7 feet in diameter and lined with cast iron rather than brick, took just under a year to complete from start to finish. So well-built was the tunnel that it required minimal upkeep and maintenance and though the tunnel was severely damaged by a German bomb during the Second World War which landed nearby in the Thames, the lining was never penetrated. Today, it is used to carry telecommunications cables and optical fibres across the river.

When the tunnel was opened in early 1870, it boasted a cable car system which carried passengers, up to 12 at a time, across the river. The journey took around 70 seconds and the cable car and the lifts at either end of the tunnel were powered by a single 4 horse power steam engine. Unfortunately, the service suffered a number of technical malfunctions which affected custom and within three months of opening the company that operated the service went into receivership.

The unreliable cable car and lifts were stripped out and replaced by gas lights and spiral staircases and the tunnel was opened up to pedestrians. For a toll of a halfpenny the pedestrian could cross the Thames via this dank and claustrophobic tunnel. 20,000 a week did so in the tunnel’s pomp.

What did for the tunnel was the construction of and opening in 1894 of the Tower Bridge. Why go underground when you could walk across the bridge? The tunnel fell into disuse and was sold to the London Hydraulic Power Company who used it for hydraulic tubes and water mains.


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


Franz Anton Mesmer (1734 – 1815)

The next practitioner of quackery to fall under our microscope is Franz Mesmer, an Austrian physician, who in the late 18th century introduced the concept of animal magnetism to the unsuspecting public.

In 1766 the Austrian quack published his dissertation, De influxu planetarum in corpus humanum, which can be translated as the influence of the planets on the human body. In this blockbuster Mesmer argued for the existence of an invisible fluid which was distributed universally and flowed continuously everywhere. This fluid served, according to Mesmer, as a vehicle through which the reciprocal forces and influences of the heavenly bodies, the earth and living organisms flowed. Sickness and disease was a result of the imbalance of these universal fluids.

Naturally, Mesmer was able to correct these imbalances and his methods allowed him to treat patients individually or in a group. His technique for treating an individual involved him sitting in front of the patient with knees touching and pressing the patient’s thumbs in his hands and looking fixedly into their eyes. Mesmer would move his hands down his patient’s arms in what were termed as a series of passes and then press his fingers on the area immediately below their diaphragm, often holding them in position for hours. Patients reported experiencing peculiar sensations or convulsions which were thought to be crises and evidence that the malady was being cured.

There was a high degree of theatricality to the procedure. Mesmer would dress up in purple silks and holding an iron rod. He would finish a session, as you would, by playing some music on a glass armonica – he was an accomplished musician and played with Mozart.

For group sessions the patients sat around what was known as a baquet, a vessel about eighteen inches tall, with as many holes pierced just below the lid as there were patients. Iron rods were inserted into the holes and a rope attached which was used by Mesmer to convey the healing properties of the animal magnetism, the maestro completing the performance with a series of eye or hand movements. Recipients of this bizarre treatment claimed astonishing results.

Animal magnetism or Mesmerism from which the term mesmerised originated was phenomenally successful following its commercial application in 1779. Although it operated in a similar fashion to what we know as hypnotism, there were distinctive differences – it did not rely on words or direct suggestion aimed at the subconscious; rather the trance like state induced in patients was brought on by looks, movements and passes. Its moment in the sun lasted around 75 years and hundreds of books were written on the subject between 1766 and 1925. Charles Dickens was a famous advocate.

Scandal followed Mesmer around. He left Vienna under a cloud and when he set up in Paris Louis XVI set up a commission of eminent scientists, including Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier, to investigate the mysterious animal magnetism. The committee concluded that the magnetic rays didn’t exist and that any success the methods had was down to auto-suggestion on the part of the patients. They also warned that magnetic treatment was perilous to women as it might destroy their sexual inhibitions.

Despite that, mesmerism had a good run for its rather dubious money.