A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: November 2014

Revelation Of The Week


Ever wondered why attendances at our churches are so low? Me neither but I had always assumed that it was down to the growing trend towards ungodliness.

However, not so according to the Dean of Lichfield, the Very Reverend Adrian Dobner. According to the Rev the reason is that would-be attenders are too busy on a Sunday fulfilling leisure and social commitments such as shopping, doing DIY and visiting friends and family that they haven’t time to spend an hour or so in a drafty church contemplating loftier things.

It seems that the trend now for would-be worshippers is to go for midweek services where attendance can be more easily organised without disrupting family life. They are also shorter which may add to their attraction!

There seems to be a scintilla of evidence in the explanation. Figures recently released show that attendances at midweek services in cathedrals have doubled in the last decade while attendances at the traditional Sunday services in churches have halved since the 1960s to a paltry 800,000.

Glad we have sorted that out. Methinks it is just a ruse on the part of the clerics to have Sundays off. Perhaps they should take a note out of the Reverend James Woodforde’s book – in the particularly harsh winter of 1795 and not having appropriate footwear to trudge to the church sent a note round to his parishioners that church was off – and be done with it!

I’ll leave you with this courtesy of Jeremy Paxman’s agent and the Spectator. The inventor of predictive text has just died. I didn’t even know he was I’ll.


Blessing Of The Week


I subscribe to the school of thought that flatulence is a perfectly natural bodily function and endorse the view propounded by Guilia Enders in her best-selling Darm mit Charme (Charming Bowels) that it is something to celebrate.

However, there are some amongst us of a more sensitive disposition who may find outbreaks of wind unpleasant particularly if they are in the vicinity. Fortunately, I found out this week – and, handily, just in time for Christmas – help is at hand.

A Frenchman, Christian Poincheval, has developed a range of pills which are aimed at easing indigestion, are made of natural ingredients including fennel, seaweed and blueberries and are designed to make people’s (and dogs’, you will be relieved to hear) smell sweeter. You can choose between the fragrance of chocolate or roses and the pills, available online on the website, retail at €9.99 for 60.

The enterprising M.Poincheval came up with the need for the pills after a particularly hearty meal with some of his amis. Their farts were so smelly, apparently, that they nearly suffocated. The pills, which the French entrepreneur was keen to repeat, have been approved by health authorities have been on sale since 2006.

Stuck for what to buy the man who has everything…?!

What Is The Origin Of (58)?…


As snug as a bug in a rug

As we are moving inexorably towards winter, this phrase, which is in the common as x as y formulation, expresses our aspiration – we want to be warm, dry and comfortable.

There are three key words to explore in this phrase and we will start with the animate object, the bug. Of course, we associate the bug with an insect, any type of insect really, but it wasn’t always like that. In the 16th century a bug was a ghost or a ghoul as this translation of the 91st Psalm in the Coverdale Bible shows, “So yt thou shalt not nede to be afrayed for eny bugges by night, ner for arowe that flyeth by daye.”  However, by 1642 the noun bug was being used by Daniel Rogers in his Naaman the Syrian to describe an ant specifically and insects in general, “Gods rare workmanship in the Ant, the poorest bugge that creeps”. It is not known for certain why this change in usage took place but many insects are delicate, fragile things with transparent or translucent wings and so it may not be too fanciful to think that people were minded of ghostly things when they observed flying insects.

The other noun in the phrase is a rug – we all know what a rug is – but what is puzzling is that a rug sits flat on the floor and so whilst you could imagine an insect being reasonably snug under a carpet it probably would be more comfortable if it was in the middle of a rolled up rug. The image is less puzzling when we realise that a rug wasn’t always a floor covering. Its origin seems to date back to the Tudor period and a rug in those days was a thick woollen bed coverlet, somewhat akin to the modern-day blanket. It was only in the 19th century that rugs were placed on the floor, usually around the hearth.

Snug seems to owe its origin as an adjective to the nautical world and when used in association with ships, as it was by Captain Wyatt in 1595 thus, “A verie fine snugg long ship” it meant neat or trim or well-prepared. However, by 1630 – it is astonishing the pace of change in the English language in the century spanning the mid 1550s and the mid 1650s – John Lane was using it in the context with which we are familiar, that of cosiness and comfort, “Snugginge they in cabins lay each one.”

So those are the component parts but when were they all assembled to make the phrase we are familiar with? Our American friends will claim the honour for Benjamin Franklin who lamented the death of a pet squirrel called Skugg in 1772 thus, “Here Skugg/ lies snug/ as a bug/ in a rug” but he was pipped at the post by a description in the Stratford Jubilee of the actor David Garrick’s Shakesperean festival, including the lines, “ a who, in 1769, “If she [a rich widow] has the mopus’s [coins or money], I’ll have her, as snug as a bug in a rug”.

Earlier still, though, we have “as snug as a bee in a box” (Edward Ward, The Wooden World Dissected, 1706) and as early as 1603 Thomas Wood’s play, A Woman Killed By Kindness, contains the line, “let us sleep as snug as pigs in pease-straw”.

Why bugs replaced pigs is a matter for conjecture but it is likely that insects infested bedding not only because of the poorer standard of hygiene but because, especially when occupied, it was warm!

The Meaning Of Life – Part Thirty Two Of Forty Two


Is there a limit to the length that your hair will grow?

Sorting through some boxes the other day I came across some photos of me in my younger days. As was the fashion in the early to mid-1970s I took to wearing my hair long. There is part of me thinking that once I have released myself from the tyranny of the five-day a week working lifestyle I might just grow my hair long again and, perhaps, sport a pony tail. This may, of course, be a whim and I might get fed up with an untidy barnet before my hair gets to the requisite length.

This train of thought led me to consider, as you might expect, whether there is a natural and finite length that your hair will grow to. And, it seems, there is and it is all down to genetics and the three phases in the life-cycle of your follicles.

The first phase is known as the anagen phase. This, from the perspective of hair length, is the most important because it is the phase during which the follicle grows. How long the phase lasts is generally determined by your genetic make-up but can be affected by external factors such as stress or a hormonal imbalance. During this phase, which can last anywhere from between 2 to 7 years for the average person, your hair will generally grow at a rate of a centimetre every 28 days. The anagen phase comes to an end by the release of a signal, the cause of which has yet to be determined.

Once the chemical signal has been triggered your follicle goes into the catagen phase. The upshot is that the outer part of the root is shut off from its supply of blood upon which it relies for nutrients and the cells which are produced to aid growth. The result is that this phase signals the end of the follicle’s growing phase and in the average person it lasts about 3 weeks.

The final phase is the telogen phase. This is where the follicle is in what might be best described as a resting state and is effectively dead from the root up. It is follicles in this stage which come out when you comb your hair. If you don’t disturb them with a comb or a brush, they will eventually fall out.

It is estimated that at any point in time around 85 to 90% of your hair is in the anagen phase, around 1 to 2% is in the catagen phase and the balance is in the telogen phase. You can normally get a feel for how long your anagen phase will last without having to crop your follicles.

Of course, there are extremes at either end of the spectrum. Some people have extremely short anagen phases and, as a consequence, find it difficult to grow their hair. Extreme stress can cause the anagen phase to stop prematurely and increase the proportion of your follicles in the telogen phase dramatically, resulting in rapid hair loss. Others have prolonged anagen phases like Xie Quiping whose hair, when measured on 8th May 2004, was 18 feet 5.54 inches long!

Cutting your hair doesn’t upset the genetic make-up of your follicles. It just means that the follicles have to start all over again!

So now we know!

All You Need Is Love


Your wedding day is supposed to be the best day of your life but it may be me but the whole thing seems to be getting out of hand these days.

Of course, it is easy for chaps. All we have to do is don a suit – not even that these days if some of the wedding photos I have seen are anything to go by – and arrive at the venue sufficiently compos mentis to stand vaguely unaided for fifteen minutes or so.

For the fairer sex, though, it is a whole different ball game. There’s the dress, the colour scheme, flowers, who to invite, where to hold the event – enough decision points to imperil the sanity of even the most level-headed gal. Of course, there is help at hand. There is a complete industry that has grown up over the last few years to help the couple plan their big event. A word of caution though – wedding planners equals inordinate expense. And the bill creeps up imperceptibly. Why not go for x rather than y – it only adds a fiver per head to the bill. By the time you have finished those additional fivers have racked up the cost phenomenally.

The question has to be asked – is it all worth it? Well not according to a couple of economists from Emory University in Atlanta who have conducted the first statistical analysis (I can believe it) which compared wedding spending with the longevity of the marriage. They surveyed 3,150 respondents and have recently published their findings in the ever-popular Social Science Research Network. They found that women whose weddings cost $20,000 or more were three and a half times more likely to end up divorced than those who spent half that amount.

The researchers have some good news for chaps. There is a correlation between the amount you spend on the engagement ring and the longevity of your relationship. Men who spent between $2,000 and $4,000 on an engagement ring were 1.3 times more likely to end up divorced than those who spent between $500 to $2,000. Save the money, I say!

To emphasise what a leviathan the exercise of planning a wedding has become compare the advice provided by the American magazine Brides in 1959 to engaged couples to set aside two months to plan their perfect day with the recommendation from the same magazine in the 1990s that 12 months should be set aside and, helpfully, publishing a checklist of 44 tasks to complete to ensure perfection.

Naturally, psychologists are at hand to give us explanations as to why high expenditure on weddings equals a higher than average chance of divorce. They claim that couples who go over the top on their wedding are papering over cracks in their relationship. After all, you are making a statement of your love not how big your credit limit is.

Nothing wrong with a quick ceremony and a plate of sandwiches down the local if you ask me!

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Thirty Six


Captain Cowper Phipps Coles, C.B., R.N. (1819 –1870)

The latest inductee to our Hall of Fame is the British sea-captain, Cowper Phipps Coles. Incredible as it may seem to us today our hero joined the Royal Navy at the tender age of eleven and distinguished himself during the Crimean war at the seige of Sevastopol and by August 1856 had become the commander of a Black Sea paddle steamer, the Stromboli.

It was during this time that Cowper took his first tentative steps into marine craft design. He together with some colleagues constructed a 45 foot raft called the Lady Nancy from twenty nine casks lashed together with spars. The raft was able to carry a 32 pounder gun and because of the small draft of the vessel it was able to navigate the shallows, get closer to the Russians and maximise the damage it could inflict on them. His superior,  Admiral Lyons, recognised the strategic edge that such a design provided and sent Coles to the Admiralty to present his ideas. Work commenced on developing a larger raft but, alas, the war ended before construction was complete.

Following the end of the war, on half pay from the navy, Coles set about designing turret towers for gun ships. Whilst battle ships were bristling with armaments they were fixed. On 10th March 1859 our hero applied for a patent for a revolving turret which would revolutionise the effectiveness of battle ships although the Americans were the first to incorporate revolving turrets into their ships.

Coles then sought to incorporate his two innovations – a vessel with a low draft and a revolving turret – into one design. Coles submitted a number of proposals but met with scepticism from the Admiralty and he had to fight hard, including running what would now be termed a PR campaign enlisting support from Prince Albert amongst others, to get his ideas adopted.

His greatest achievement was to get his plans for the HMS Captain approved. The vessel was designed such that the distance between the deck and the water line was just 8 feet but because of mistakes committed during its construction which made it heavier than envisaged, it actually floated some 14 inches lower. The vessel performed well in trials, being marginally slower than the fastest then ship in the fleet under steam and faster under sail. It weathered a gale successfully.

Alas, as you would expect with our inductees, disaster was soon to strike. On 6th September 1870 the Captain, with Coles on board, was cruising off Cape Finisterre. The wind got up and water started washing over the weather deck, the vessel being so low in the water. Shortly after midnight the vessel was heeling over at eighteen degrees and was felt to lurch to starboard twice. Before the Captain’s orders to drop the foresail could be carried out, the vessel lurched alarmingly and capsized and sank. Just 18 of the crew survived, around 480 perishing including Coles.

The subsequent inquiry, which was in the form of a court-martial, established that the vessel was inherently unstable, compared with other designs, if the roll was greater than 18 degrees.

Captain Coles, for your innovations in ship design and for paying for your ingenuity withy your life, you are 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

Rural Rides (20)


Wadworth Brewery, Devizes

One of my favourite beers is Wadworth 6X, possibly only second to Timothy Taylor’s Landlord bitter, and so when TOWT suggested that we started off my 60th birthday celebrations with a tour of the brewery, I jumped at the opportunity like a shot. So the first stop on our mini-tour of the Cotswolds was the Wiltshire market town of Devizes.

It is fair to say that the Wadworth brewery dominates Devizes, the building being a tall sandstone construction and when the brewing takes place a distinctive aroma settles over the town. Wadworth have been in situ since 1875 when Henry Wadworth bought the old Northgate Brewery. However, so successful did his brews become that he quickly outgrew the original site and moved about a hundred yards to the current site.

Henry was a bit of an eccentric, being a pioneering cyclist and balloonist. On one occasion he rode from London to Bristol on a bone shaker which was both iron-wheeled and sans a saddle. Must have been excruciatingly uncomfortable particularly over cobbled and rutted roads. Needless to say, he didn’t sire any children so on his death from injuries sustained from falling off a horse, the brewery passed to business partner and brother-in-law and it has remained in their hands ever since.

6X was first brewed on 16th June 1923 and takes its name from the tradition in the mediaeval times, when literacy was rare, of marking barrels of beer with xs to denote the strength of the beer, both to aid the publicans and the excise men. The more xs a beer has the stronger it is. At one stage, Wadworth brewed a XX mild, a XXX ale and a XXXX pale ale as well. Now their range of beers have more market friendly names such as Swordfish and Old Timer.

The tour around the brewery, which lasted about 90 minutes, was very interesting and we saw all four levels of the brewery and brews in different stages of fermentation. The original open copper brewing vat with its gas-fired heating coils was astonishing – it is still used by request, although the regular Wadworth ales are now brewed in stainless steel German vats.

As well as the brewing process we had the opportunity to see the two dray horses which are stabled on the site of the original brewery. Wadworth still use the horses to deliver barrels to pubs within a couple of miles radius of the brewery. Pub signs, both the external signs and all the internal signage for food, toilets etc are hand painted on site and we saw examples of the works in progress. A fair amount of gold leaf is used on the external signs and the painters take great delight in incorporating the faces of friends and foes into the design. Coopering, the making and repair of wooden barrels, also takes place on the site.

Having built up a thirst we then went to a mezzanine bar where, supplied with a third of a pint glass, we were invited to consume as much as we could in half an hour. As well as 6X, we were able to sample (and did!) )Henry’s IPA, Swordfish, Horizon, their seasonal brew made from fresh hops straight from the bine and their stout, Corvus. I particularly likes the Swordfish which is 6X with Pusser’s Navy Rum added!

Inevitably, there is a shop on site and, inevitably, we filled the car up with bottles of their hooch.

If you have never been on a brewery trip, go on this one – you won’t be disappointed!



Typical! Whilst I have been using the wit and wisdom of the great and much-lamented Ian Dury to ponder the quintessence of Englishness I discover that an anthropologist, Kate Fox, who came to public attention for a nano-second when she published her book, Watching The English, thinks that the use of one word is all that is needed to identify an Englishman (or woman). Typical.

No, really, it is the way that we use the word typical. According to Fox the English use it as a portmanteau exclamation to encompass a whole range of outcomes from the mundane such as someone burning the toast to the more devastating such as the outbreak of a pandemic. It is the way we use it, apparently, mixing the sensation of being brassed off at the outcome with a strong sense of stoic resignation and smug omniscience, as if we knew it was going to turn out like that all along. I shall be on the alert to spot examples of how we use it and see in what contexts.

There is something in the way a nation uses or pronounces words. I find the slam-dunk way of distinguishing a Canadian from an American – they get a bit peeved if you mistake them, a bit like the Kiwis and Aussies – typical! – is to get the former to pronounce the word out. If it comes out like oot you’ve got a Canadian in front of you and you can proceed to converse without the fear of making a social faux-pas.

Although it is hard to believe, there are other idioms that mark out the English, according to Fox. Our inherent stoicism comes out in the phrases “mustn’t grumble” and “better make the most of it” – perhaps our low level of expectation allows us to live in a country where our social infrastructure is being debased – and an unwillingness to be taken in is revealed in our use of “Oh, come off it”.

Astonishingly, we seem to be fixated by the weather. Fox claims to have conducted a survey in which 94% of the respondents admitted to having mentioned the weather in the previous 24 hours and 40% in the last hour. What else is there to talk about?

However, a new trait that defines Englishness could be our inability to spell. Occasionally, we are embarrassed when it becomes necessary to spell commonly-used words, perhaps when filling in a questionnaire, trying to find accommodation. Even the reliance on automated spell-checkers cannot guarantee the right spelling. It may be that we have lost our ear for the rhythm of our language. A recent survey of 2,000 respondents found that half of them had difficulty in spelling words in common parlance, 40% were reliant on autocorrect technology and 20% would go into a panic if they were parted from their spell-checker. If there is any truth in these findings, they paint a rather distressing picture.

It is interesting to discover how others see us and uncover the linguistic traits which reveal our identity. Perhaps forearmed with this knowledge we should be more guarded in the way we speak and write. But, then, where would the fun be in that?!

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


Daniel David Palmer (1845 – 1913)

The latest practitioner of quackery to come under our microscope is the Canadian born D D Palmer who founded the practice of chiropractic.

Although born in Ontario D D moved to the United States at the age of twenty and held down a number of jobs including being a bee keeper, school teacher and grocery store owner. However, the particular bee in his bonnet was an interest in what might be termed today as alternative health therapies. His initial forays into the field in the mid-1880s was in the developing and already established field of magnetic healing. The theory around this form of healing was that beneficial health effects could be achieved by subjecting certain parts of the body to magnetostatic fields produced by permanent magnets.

However, what was to be D D’s life-transforming experience came in September 1895 when he met a caretaker of the building in which Palmer had set up shop, one Harvey Lillard. Lillard was hard of hearing, unable to hear the racket emanating from the street outside. When questioned about the origin of his deafness Lillard revealed that it had occurred some seventeen years earlier. He had been in a stooping position and heard something pop in his spine – the result was an instantaneous loss of hearing.

Palmer offered to take a look at Lillard’s spine and found a lump between his shoulders and persuaded the patient to allow him to manipulate his spine back into position. Within a few days of this treatment Lillard’s hearing miraculously recovered. Palmer put Lillard’s hearing loss down to a misalignment in the spine which had caused a blockage in the spinal nerves which control the inner ear.

Flushed with this success our quack began to develop the conviction that the misalignment of bones in the body was the underlying cause of many of the dis-eases (his term) we suffer and that the majority of the misalignments were in the spine. By 1896 he was sufficiently convinced of his theory that he had opened up the Palmer School of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa and began teaching his techniques.

By 1902 fifteen chiropractors had graduated from the school but in 1906 Palmer came to the attention of the authorities who prosecuted him under the recently enacted medical arts law for practising medicine without a licence. Instead of paying the fine, Palmer chose to go to chokey and, shortly thereafter, he sold his business to his son, B.J Palmer. D D then went West setting up chiropractic schools in Oklahoma, California and Oregon.

Despite its difficult origins and shady reputation chiropractors are a staple component of today’s alternative medical landscape.

D D died in rather strange circumstances in Los Angeles in 1913, ostensibly of typhoid fever. However, he had been run over by his son a few weeks earlier at a homecoming parade in Iowa and there are suggestions that his death was as a direct result of the injuries sustained. There are even suggestions that the accident was a deliberate attempt at patricide, the two being in a bitter dispute over the leadership of chiropractic. Not even the dark arts of spinal manipulation could heal that !

All Along The Watchtower


It was truly a case of from the sublime to the ridiculous, seeing the retrospective of Sigmar Polke’s work at the Tate Modern (until February 8th) two days after the magnificent and unforgettable Rembrandt exhibition at the National Gallery. At least the exhibition wasn’t crowded! And, indeed, spread out over 14 rooms and with side rooms showing videos, there is a lot to see and take in and try to make sense of.

Polke was born in 1941 in what is now East Germany but his family fled the Russian advance and they ended up in Dusseldorf where Polke studied at the local Academy. By the early 1960s Germany was in the middle of its phenomenal economic reconstruction and the artist’s first artistic forays were aimed at sending up the consumerism movement. Probably many of his pieces would have made more sense if we were living in the period (and understood demotic German) – key criteria which, to me, deny it the status of great art.


Police Pig.jpg

There were exhibits which I found impressive. His use of black and grey dots to create large images was intriguing and you felt you were looking at an image from a pixilated TV set of the time. The room devoted to his watchtower paintings was both eerie and stunning – by far and away his best work in my humble opinion. Polke was interested on the effect that blowing soot onto glass made and the resultant glass hangings had a certain charm. He wasn’t a conventional artist in the sense of paint on canvas by any stretch of the  imagination – painting on fabric, using montages of newspaper cuttings and cuttings from girlie magazines. He also dabbled in three-dimensional constructions including what can only be described as a garden trellis liberally decorated with potatoes. Sometimes he would use photographs he had taken and partly colour them.


But the majority of the exhibits were what might charitably be termed challenging or, perhaps more accurately, described as an artist who was notorious for being off his face with drugs taking the piss. Mushrooms feature prominently in many of his works as does the palm tree. The most effective palm tree was made up of folding and extendable tape measures.

I suppose that he was a child of his time and that his work is symptomatic and symbolic of the counter-culture movement of the 60s and 70s where youngsters, freed from the demands of merely surviving that was the focus of much of their parents’ former existence, were keen to explore the boundaries, react and reject all that had gone before. Seen in this light it is an interesting insight into an age of liberalism which seems to have disappeared forever. But whether it is anything more than that is extremely doubtful.