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A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: December 2014

What Is The Origin Of (60)?…

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Lock, stock and barrel

This phrase is commonly deployed to indicate everything. Its origin, however, is less well-known. It doesn’t refer to the contents of a shop – the lock on the door, the stock of the shop and the liquids contained in barrels. Rather it refers to the three principal components of a musket.

The introduction of the musket in the 16th century revolutionised warfare in Europe although, if the truth be told, the musket was at best both inefficient to use and highly inaccurate. By the start of the 18th century a lighter version had been produced which allowed the musketeer to affix a bayonet to it. A typical smooth bore musket firing at a single target was only accurate to a distance of around 100 to 150 yards. Their other disadvantage was that you could only fire one shot and then would have to reload.

The lock of a musket was the mechanism which allowed the musket to fire. It would normally consist of some form of hammer which was pulled back into position and then released by pulling the trigger. The hammer was often known as a dogshead or cock because from side-on it looked like the head of a dog or chicken – some people have overactive imaginations! Only when the hammer was pulled back to its full cocked position could the gun be fired.

The stock was made of wood and was essentially the back end of the musket, its purpose being to allow the marksman to support the gun and take aim. It also transmitted the recoil into the marksman’s body. It was also known as a butt or buttstock or a shoulder stock.

The barrel was at the front of the musket and was the tubing through which the musket ball, once set on its merry way by the lock, travelled to its intended target, or not. The rather rudimentary technology that was in place for a musket meant that they were front-loaded, in other words the musket was placed down the barrel and pushed into place with a ramrod. Most muskets had a grove in the stock under the barrel, allowing the ramrod to be slid into place and stored there.

The barrel was secured to the stock by means of a barrel band which was removable so that the barrel could be taken off and cleaned. Springs or screws typically held the barrel band in place.

Examples of usage of the phrase in the context with which we have become familiar are rather thin on the ground. Rudyard Kipling in Light That Failed, published in 1891, wrote, “The whole thing, lock, stock, and barrel, isn’t worth one big yellow sea-poppy” and that seems as close a definition of the meaning of the idiom as we can get.

The Connecticut Sentinel of 1803 records a report of a rather exuberant celebration of Independence Day in which toasts were drunk including the sixth, to self-interest, the cock, lock, stock and barrel. They revellers got up to a thirteenth toast and celebrated all night. The insertion of cock in the phrase – the cock was the hammer – suggests that the attribution of the phrase to the component parts of the musket is correct. Somehow and somewhere along the line the cock dropped out of the phrase.

So now we know!

Happy New Year!

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Forty Days And Forty Nights – Part Two

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Last time we looked at the origins of quarantine and the development of lazarets – quarantine stations for maritime travellers, normally on isolated islands, where ships could be permanently at anchor for the period of the quarantine. The next major development in the rudimentary attempts to protect public health was the introduction of bills of health.

The vibrant trading centre that was Venice was the first place to develop an effective system of maritime cordon. Once news of an outbreak of plague in the eastern Mediterranean reached Venice, boats suspected of carrying plague or of having originated from or called in at a plague spot were signalled by a flag which would be spotted by lookouts perched up on the tower of San Marco.

The captain would then be transferred from the ship into a life boat and rowed ashore to the health magistrate’s office. The captain would be kept in an enclosure and be required to speak through a window, ensuring that he was at what was considered a safe distance from the Venetian official, The captain would then be required to furnish proof of the health of the crew and passengers on his vessel and provide information about the origin of its cargo. If there were suspicions of disease on the ship, the captain was ordered to go to the nearby lazaret on the island of Santa Maria di Nazareth in the Venetian lagoon for the requisite period. This system was soon adopted by other Italian ports.

The first quarantine regulations did not come into force in England until 1663 when ships were confined in the Thames estuary if they were suspected of carrying plague-infected crew or passengers. In 1683 the French port of Marseille introduced legislation allowing the authorities to quarantine and disinfect anyone suspected of having the plague.

Across the pond the first steps towards a quarantine policy were taken in the 1680s when the connection between the arrival of new ships and fresh outbreaks of smallpox. So great was the fear of smallpox in some of the colonies that the health authorities began to order mandatory home isolation, even though the revolutionary public healthcare initiative of inoculation against the disease was in place.

Yellow fever was another eighteenth century peril. Quarantine legislation, which until 1796 in the United States was the responsibility of individual states, was passed by port cities to deal with the threat of the disease from the West Indies. On the European side of the Atlantic quarantine measures were introduced in 1720 to deal with a yellow fever epidemic which broke out in Marseille and swept across Europe.

The threat of plague and epidemic was ever-present and to combat it, as well as developing quarantine and isolation techniques, authorities built up information networks which alerted ports and cities of a potential outbreak. After all, forewarned is forearmed!

Next, the 19th century threat of cholera.

The Streets Of London – Part Twelve

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Albemarle Street – W1S

One of the many irksome hazards facing a driver who wants to get from A to B is the one-way system that inevitably means a detour via C and D, if you are lucky. Albemarle Street is situated in Mayfair on the north side of Piccadilly and is the middle wicket of a set of stumps formed by Dover Street and Old/New Bond Street, Grafton Street being the bails. One of its claims to fame or, if you are a frustrated motorist, to infamy is that it was the first one-way street in London and the reason why it became so is fascinating.

Prior to 1683 there had been a mansion called Clarendon House on the site owned originally by Edward Hyde, the 1st Earl of Clarendon and then bought for £26,000 by Christopher Monck, the then Second Duke of Albemarle in 1675. Developers, led by Sir Thomas Bond, came knocking on the Duke’s door in 1683 and offered to take the pile off his hands. Offer accepted the syndicate of investors demolished it to build on its site the streets which make the cricket wicket formation. (Incidentally, a claim to fame of the Duke of Albemarle was that on 6th January 1681 he arranged the first known boxing match to be staged in England, between his butler and his butcher. Inevitably, the bout was won by the butcher who obviously took a shine to the butler’s chops).

Anyway, one of the fine and prestigious buildings to be found on the street is Number 21 which has been occupied by the Royal Institution since 1799. There being no television at the turn of the nineteenth century you had to find your entertainment where you could and the burgeoning interest in what was termed as natural philosophy or science as we would know it proved a potent source of fun.

One source of merriment was galvanism, the rather serious name given to experimentation in nitrous gases (or laughing gas). A leading exponent in investigating the properties of the gas and carrying out experiments including subjecting himself to prolonged periods of gas inhalation was Humphrey Davy. He proposed to give a serious of lectures including practical demonstrations on the properties of the gas at the Institute.

The first lecture had rave reviews. By June of 1801 Davy claimed in a letter that he had an audience of some 500 and, to quote the scientist, “there was respiration, nitrous oxide and unbounded applause. Amen”. Davy who was both young and handsome acquired a strong following amongst the fairer sex. Gillray’s satirical drawing illustrates the composition of the audience and the sort of experimentation undertaken. So popular were the lectures and so horrendous were the queues caused by the horse-drawn carriages bringing the audiences eager to see Davy’s antics that the area became gridlocked. To ease the congestion the authorities introduced a one-way system to regulate and restrict the flow of carriages.

And so an idea was born…

 

Christmas Crackers

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Ukippers – don’t you just love them! The British political landscape would be all the poorer without them. Some of their highlights this year.

  • The flooding and storms of last winter were divine retribution for gay marriage, according to David Silvester, a town councillor in Henley;
  • Foreign aid, blustered former UKip MEP Godfrey Bloom, was being sent to bongo bongo land;
  • According to Kerry Smith, a former candidate for the constituency of South Basildon and East Thurrock, some of his party members were poofters;
  • Women have no ambition, according to another UKip MEP, because babies get in the way;
  • And, talking of babies, ostentatious breast-feeding in Claridges of all places really got on Nigel’s tits
  • Natasha Bolter’s academic qualifications proved not to be what they were claimed to be and it seems Roger Bird didn’t;
  • Too many Romanians with their bullock carts are blocking Britain’s major arterial motorways, according to Nigel. Can’t say I’ve noticed them myself.

I don’t know where Ukippers went for their pre-internet porn but they seem to have this thing about homosexuals and animals. According to Julia Gasper (great name!), former chair of the Oxford branch, some homosexuals prefer sex with animals and this week John Rees-Evans, a candidate for Cardiff South and Penarth, claimed that a gay donkey tried to have sex with his horse.

To think they may hold the balance of power!

Political Debate Of The Week

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Lest it has escaped your attention we will be subjected to a General Election in May of next year, an opportunity, I’m sure, for us to lament the standard of political debate. Fewer politicians these days expose themselves to the public hustings, severely limiting the opportunities for the hoi polloi to demonstrate their antipathy towards them by pelting them with objects, an age-old tradition it has to be said.

I’ve always felt that we have been pretty uninventive with the objects we throw at our politicians. Eggs and tomatoes, rotten or otherwise, seem so passé.

Well, I’m pleased to report, the Belgians, denizens of a country that has never struck me as being up there at the forefront of innovation, have raised the bar and set a challenge that I’m sure some red-blooded Brits will rise to.

News reached me this week that the Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, was pelted with French fries with a topping of mayonnaise – a Belgian delicacy – when he was about to make a speech in Namur. They have form – both Nicholas Sarkozy and Bill Gates have been pelted with custard pies there.

Perhaps we will see in 2015 a haggis in Scotland, a black pudding in Lancashire, a Yorkshire pud in Yorkshire and a plate of jellied eels in London selected as weapons of choice as the electorate engage with their elected leaders in the cut and thrust of political debate. I will look forward to the campaign with renewed interest!

Grape And Grain

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How’s the head? Hope you didn’t use the Festival of Mammon to hit the electric sauce too hard.

Our ability to process the ethanol present in alcohol (at least, in moderation!) has been regarded as a relatively recent evolutionary characteristic of Homo sapiens. After all, the first evidence that man knew how to brew alcohol  – clay pots found in the Neolithic village of Jiahu in China contained residues of tartaric acid, one of the main acids present in wine – dates back to as recently as around 9,000 years ago. We owe a lot to those Neolithic farmers who made the happy discovery that a mixture of fruit and honey could make an intoxicating beverage. Without the exposure to liquids containing more ethanol than would be found in fruit our bodies wouldn’t need to produce an enzyme to break it down.

However, scientists from Santa Fe College investigating the evolutionary history of ADH4, the gene which produces an enzyme to break down the alcohol in our bodies, say that it has been present for the last 10 million years.

Taking data from 28 different mammals, including 17 primates, to track the gene’s evolutionary history they believe that the defining moment was when primates started to leave the trees and walk on two legs. Down on the forest floor they would find mushy, fermented fruit lying on the forest floor. Such fruit would contain higher concentrations of fermenting yeast and ethanol than similar fruits hanging on the branches. And so the bodies of the primates over time adapted to be able to process the ethanol present. It was this which morphed into the rather handy gene, ADH4, which allows us to break down alcohol.

It also probably explains why the tree-dwelling orang-utan is still unable to metabolise alcohol – a handy thing to know if you get the opportunity to share a bottle of wine with you – whereas chimpanzees and gorillas can.

If you believe some archaeologists, then Neolithic life was a bit of a blast. Some, like Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania, claim that prehistoric communities grew wheat, rice, corn, barley and millet primarily to produce alcoholic beverages, supplanting their diet with a swill which was half-fruit, half-wine. Seems as though we have missed out somewhere along the line!

Cheers!

Keep Away From Fire

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I bought some new underpants a few weeks ago – an event which occurs with slightly more frequency than my taking a bath. Nice they are too, comfortable in a boxer short style and bearing a pleasant chequered pattern. The sort of underpants which if you were wearing when you suffered a major coronary or were knocked over on the street you wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen in.

Anyway, I was sitting on the throne going about my business the other day when my attention was caught by a label on the inside of the rear of said boxers. I looked at it more closely and saw that as well as bearing the country of manufacture – China, inevitably – it had the stark warning “Keep away from fire”.

This set me thinking. In what sort of circumstances would you deliberately expose your underwear to a naked flame and does your daily occupation dictate the sort of underwear you buy?

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t go out of my way to expose myself to flames. I now, of course, have the perfect excuse to avoid those dreadful corporate team bonding days that consultants are so fond of. Walking across hot coals – sorry, I’ve got the wrong type of underpants on. Can’t take the risk.

If you are a fireman do you have different types of underwear depending upon whether you are on your window cleaning rounds or whether you are on call to put out a fire? The last thing you would want when your house was up in flames was a crew of firemen come along all snuggly dressed in their flammable Chinese BHS underpants and turn round and say to you, “Sorry mate, we’ll have to let it burn. Wrong type of underpants”.

These are scenarios under your control but what about the unexpected? Can you take the risk of wearing these boxers when there is the possibility, remote as it may be, that you may be trapped in an inferno, cursing your choice of underwear that morning.

And there is a philosophical dimension to consider. What is fire? Some activities – I will leave it to your imagination, dear reader – may result in some frictional activity in the nether regions. Does engaging in such pursuits whilst wearing these benighted undies add an unanticipated and unexpected danger? What if you had had a particularly fierce curry the night before?

I was quite shaken when I had finished considering all these possibilities. Suffice it to say, the boxers have been consigned to the bin and I have resurrected my elderly collection of safer underwear from the bowels of my wardrobe.

After all, you can’t be too careful!

Merry Christmas to you all!

Book Corner – December 2014 (2)

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Augustus – John Williams

Readers of this blog will know that the author John Williams who has risen to posthumous glory was my literary find of 2013. His three books are chalk and cheese in terms of era, environment and even genre, ranging from the wild western adventure of an idealistic young man who tries to commune with nature only to end up with a bunch of madmen annihilating a large herd of buffalo (Butchers Crossing, 1960) to the life, loves and frustrations of a Mid-Western professor (Stoner, 1965) to a book in epistolary form about the man who avenged the death of his adopted father, Julius Caesar, and became Emperor of the Roman world (Augustus). Augustus was William’s most successful book during his lifetime winning him the National Book Award on its publication in 1972.

The book falls into three parts – the first telling the story of his rise to power and the way he avenged Julius Caesar’s death, the second part deals principally with his relationship with his daughter Julia whom he loved dearly but whose disreputable lifestyle forced him to exile her and the third is when Augustus is on his deathbed. We only get to hear Augustus in the third part, save for an extract from his official Res Gestae at the end of the first.

I am not normally a fan of the epistolary novel because I always find the artifice of using letters to move the story on and to give an insight into the characters’ thoughts and motivations a preposterous literary conceit. However, Williams carries it off – just – and the different voices and perspectives build up a compelling picture of the intrigues, struggles and strengths of the eponymous hero. And hero is what Augustus is in William’s rather sympathetic portrayal of a man most historians characterise as being just the right side of Hitler and Stalin.

The central crux of the book revolves around the conflict between the individual and the institution, of the role of power in impacting relationships and how experience rather than innate feelings influences our characters. It is part of Williams’ genius that the struggle between Augustus and Julia is brought down to human terms and can be viewed as the strained relationship between a father and a daughter pushing at the boundaries, a not uncommon phenomenon in everyday life. Augustus is forced to do his duty as he perceives it, much as the consequences pain him.

And it is a masterstroke to leave the voice of Augustus to the third part. On his deathbed and writing a long letter to his would-be biographer, Nicolaus of Damascus, he is in a reflective mood, anxious to explain and put the record straight. He is portrayed with immense sympathy and understanding.

The book is littered with all the characters you would expect – Pompey, Julius Caesar, Agrippa, Maecenas, Cleopatra, Marc Antony, Cicero – and some you might not such as characters from the artistic world including the poets Virgil, Ovid, Propertius, Catullus and Horace. Augustus was a great patron of the arts and the poets’ perspectives build the picture of a softer, more complex character.

It is a fine book and an interesting take on Augustus but in my view a lesser work in comparison with Stoner and even Butchers Crossing.

Steady Hand

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It is the so-called festive season – frankly, a time of year that I dread, what with all that false cheeriness. As someone who believes that a pub is for all the year and not just for Christmas I don’t take kindly to my favourite watering holes being invaded by carousers. As well as offending my curmudgeonly disposition the increased attendance in the hostelries introduces some logistical problems not normally encountered (at least where I drink) during the rest of the year.

Queuing for an inordinate amount of time to be served – more than 10 seconds, I find – adds nothing to my equilibrium and then you have the problem of carrying your hooch back to your table, weaving your way past the merry-makers.

The prefect pint should be filled to the brim with a head of between 12 and 15 millimetres, no more and no less. It takes the discerning toper an age to train the bar staff to dispense the nectar of the gods in the requisite fashion. The more obstacles there are between bar and table, the more likely you are to spill some valuable – both from a monetary and a sensory perspective – liquid.

In the festive season what is the best drink to order to minimise the possibility of spillage? Fortunately some physicists at Princeton University led by Alban Sauret have shed some light on the toper’s dilemma. It is all down to the head (or foam) on the top of your drink and liquid friction when the bubbles in the head rub against the walls of your beer glass. The rubbing expends a lot of energy which means there is less likelihood that the liquid will spill over the glass.

To prove the point, the scientists poured freshly brewed coffee which has no head at all, a Heineken and a Guinness into standard pint glasses until they were just over half-full and placed them on a plate. The plate was then programmed to simulate the movement associated with something being carried whilst walking and then jerk as if the carrier had come to a sudden halt. The wavy motions on the surface of each of the three drinks was filmed using a high-speed camera.

What the scientists found was that the coffee, even when only in a half-filled glass, spilled over the rim. Both the beers with their heads stayed in the glasses and the Guinness moved least.

This all makes sense and explains why it is devilishly difficult to carry a cup of coffee without spilling it – I had put it down to the shakes, so this is welcome news. If you have a fair way to travel between bar and your table you might be best off with Guinness but any bitter with the appropriately sized head should survive a reasonable journey intact.

Isn’t science wonderful?!

 

Discovery Of The Week (2)

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In that most saccharine of Christmas Carols, Away In A Manger, the cattle are lowing and the newly born infant awakes. I’m sure, like me, you have regarded lowing as one of the things that cattle do, along with releasing mega quantities of methane into the atmosphere, and there is nothing more to it than adding a bit of colour to the Nativity scene.

Not a bit of it. The cattle would have been having a conversation, if some research that came to my attention this week and led by Dr Monica Padilla de la Torre from the University of Nottingham is to be believed. Astonishingly, they spent 10 months studying the way cows talk to their young.

Two maternal calls were identified – a low one emitted when the mother was close to her calf and a higher pitched one when they were out of visual contact. Calves called out when they wanted to start suckling. The most important finding, at least in the eyes (and to the ears) of the scientists, was that all three calls were individualised. This means that a particular cow could recognise and respond to her own calf’s calls.

Extremely useful when you are competing against a cacophony of bleating sheep and goats, the braying of donkeys, a heavenly host complete with trumpets and wise men and their entourages.

Isn’t science wonderful?!