Cnut Of The Week

King Canute

To my mind the moment of real drama at a wedding ceremony is the point at the service when the priest says “If any of you know cause or just impediment, why these two persons should not be joined together in holy Matrimony, ye are to declare it or words to that effect. I have waited in vain for someone to stand up – I obviously mix in the wrong circles as it is a regular occurrence in TV soap land.

Anyway, the Church of England had its own just impediment moment during this week’s ordination of the eighth Bishop of Stockport at York Minster, courtesy of the Rev Paul Williamson. Rather like a modern-day King Cnut who sat on the shoreline and commanded the tide to stop coming in in an attempt to demonstrate the limitations of the power of a monarch, Williamson launched a last-ditch effort to derail the consecration of the first woman bishop, the Rev Libby Lane.

Rather like Cnut, Williamson’s gesture proved to be futile and another male bastion fell by the wayside.

Tales From The Nursery – Part Fifteen


There was a crooked man

I’m not sure that this rhyme is particularly popular these days but fascinated me because every noun in the stanza of four lines attracted the adjective, crooked. It goes like this, “There was a crooked man and he walked a crooked mile,/ He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile./ He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse./ And they all lived together in a little crooked house”. Although crooked can mean bent or deformed I think the adjective in the context of this rhyme is used to denote someone or something treacherous or deceitful. To make the rhyme scan the emphasis needs to be on the second syllable of the adjective.

First recorded by James Orchard Halliwell in the 1840s its meaning is supposed to be tied up with the origins of the fall (temporary, alas) of the house of Stuart in the mid 17th century.

Rather like an erstwhile David Cameron, Charles I had some local difficulties with the Scots, albeit this time over the matter of religion and the organisation of the church, a hot topic at the time. What became known as the Bishops’ Wars and which broke out in 1639 and 1640 centred on Charles’ desire to organise the church in Scotland along episcopal lines, that is, with bishops, whilst the contrarian view north of the border was that it should be organised along presbyterian lines, that is without bishops.

Leader of the presbyterian cause was one Sir Alexander Leslie who took Edinburgh Castle without the loss of a single man. He then marched his troops to Duns Law to await the Royalist force but instead of engaging them in battle he invited the leaders to dinner and allowed them to inspect his troops. Sensing that they were likely to be bested in any dust-up the king’s men decided discretion was the better part of valour and retreated. In the Second so-called Bishops’ War Leslie conducted a brilliant campaign in the north of England, capturing Newcastle and forced the king to accept all the Scottish demands. Under threat – the Bishops’ Wars triggered unrest in other parts of the kingdom and are seen as the prelude to the Civil War – Charles acceded to all of the Scottish demands, including the right of their parliament to challenge ministerial decisions, and made Leslie Earl of Leven.

Leslie, according to contemporary commentators such as John Aston and Sir Cheney Culpeper, had a reputation for guile, deceit and treachery and, true to form, in 1644 accepted command of the forces raised for the intervention in England on behalf of the parliamentarians and was prominent in both the (unsuccessful) siege of York and the battle of Marston Moor.

If we accept that Leslie is the crooked man, then – or, at least, so the explanation goes – the stile represents the border between the two countries, the walk the march against the Royalist forces and the house reflects the temporary unity brought about by the Covenant which secured religious and political freedom for the Scots. I have not seen any satisfactory explanation, however, for the cat and the mouse.

As is often the case, the attempt to assign historical allusions to a nursery rhyme seems somewhat forced and unsatisfactory. The strange rhyme may just be what it is – a strange rhyme. However, if you must seek a deeper meaning to it, then the Leslie theory is as good as any.

I Don’t Want To Belong To Any Club That Will Accept People Like Me As A Member – Part Two


The Everlasting Club

London has long been famous for its Gentlemen’s clubs – not the dens of iniquity where you can see scantily clad young ladies like Spearmint Rhino and Claridge’s – but rather the more staid establishments where gentlemen (and, nowadays, to the regret of some, women) can meet to wine and dine. Naturally, certain clubs attract a clientele which shares the same range of tastes, opinions, habits and eccentricities.

It seems that the formal meeting of groups as Clubs owes its origin, in England at least, to the 17th century. Samuel Pepys, to whom we are indebted for our understanding of everyday life, writes in July 1660, “Went to Wood’s, our old house, for clubbing.”

It was the following century that clubs really established themselves and one that would have been fun to be a member of, although perhaps injurious to your long-term health and well-being, was the Everlasting Club. It had a membership of one hundred and it gained its name because it sat day and night without interruption, year upon year.

The upside, of course, was that irrespective of when you chose to visit the establishment at the crack of dawn, midnight, lunchtime or tea time – you would be guaranteed to find someone there with whom to spend the time of day (or night), smoke a pipe and drink an alcoholic beverage. The downside, of course, was that if your companions deserted you, you were obliged to stay in situ until the next member arrived.

A cherished tradition was that the Steward never died. His pride of place, a great elbow-chair at the head of the table, was not vacated by the present incumbent until such time as his successor was ready to take possession of it. Similarly, the fire never went out. The club employed an old woman, known as a Vestal, whose duty was to look after and perpetuate the fire which is said to have burnt from generation to generation. The fire also served to light the members’ pipes and to keep dampness at bay.

The members entertained themselves with talk – they were contemptuous of all other clubs – reminiscences of members past, particularly those who had never stirred from the club’s premises for weeks on end, card games, song and pipe smoking. By 1702 so prodigious had been their intake that the club’s accounts that since the turn of the century they had smoked fifty tons of tobacco, had drunk thirty thousand butts of ale, one thousand hogsheads of red port, two hundred barrels of brandy and one measly kilderkin (about 81 litres) of small beer.

The club met ensemble four times a year to transact its business such as electing members to fill vacancies, appoint waiters, re-appoint or appoint the fire maker and settle contributions for club necessities such as coal, pipes, tobacco and hooch.

The origins of the club are lost in the mists of time but it is thought that the first meetings were held during the Civil War. The club’s premises were threatened by the Great Fire of 1666 but the then steward showing the presence of a truly pickled mind refused to leave and was only persuaded to do so after he had emptied all the bottles on the table.

Some club!


Book Corner – January 2015 (2)

churchill factor

The Churchill Factor – Boris Johnson

Father Christmas brought me this book – in my fancy he is a rather shambolic and unpredictable character with unruly hair – and despite my initial misgivings it was a riveting read. I devoured it in three sittings, its bright and breezy style engaging and carrying the reader along. Johnson brings his classical learning, his love of rhetorical devices and wit to play and is responsible for many a witticism, some of which even work. In deliberately exposing himself to danger Churchill wanted to prove that he was a Marlborough, not a Marlborough light (boom, boom). For the purist his lapse into the use of the historic present from time to time may be too much to bear but on the whole his style and the pace of the book carries the enterprise off.

So much for style, what about substance? The thesis of the book is that Churchill was the greatest politician of the Western world and we would do well to understand what made him tick. So Johnson launches into a thematic analysis of his hero’s characters, attributes and achievements.  But if you are looking for heavy-duty research and analysis then you will be disappointed. What we have is very much more impressionistic – more of a Van Gogh than a Rembrandt, you might say.

Churchill’s major achievements were spotting the Nazi peril at an early stage, holding the appeasement movement at bay, rallying the nation’s spirits and luring the Americans into the war, although Pearl Harbour and Hitler’s foolish declaration of war on America had a lot to do with it. But to counter that, he was responsible for the Gallipoli disaster, could be held responsible for sowing the seeds of the current Middle East conflicts and a little too fond of proposing the use of poison gas for modern sensibilities.

Johnson clearly empathises with his subject. Churchill was seen as an opportunist and unprincipled and not really trusted by his colleagues. After all, when Chamberlain stood down in 1940 the Conservative hierarchy wanted Lord Halifax to succeed, an appeaser who may well have cut a deal with Hitler. It is not hard to imagine the same arguments being trotted out by the Tory hierarchy of Johnson as they ponder the succession to Cameron.

Churchill also had an inexhaustible appetite for work. When mulling this over, you remember that the author of this book is supposed to be the mayor of London, a prospective parliamentary candidate, a well-paid newspaper columnist and an airline bouncer.  Typical Boris, you might say, to lay the seeds of comparison between himself and Churchill. In truth, Boris isn’t fit to lace his brogues.

Where Johnson is weak is analysing the faults of his hero. Churchill, despite prevailing in the Second World War with a little help from his friends, lost the 1945 general catastrophically. Why? The nation was ready for a change and wanted to overthrow the patricians who had brought the country to its knees. For all his strengths Churchill found himself no longer du jour but rather a relic of a different generation and a different age.

Of course, he came back but his final premiership was blighted by ill-health. Not unsurprising given the industrial quantities of hooch that he consumed. The whiskies, Johnson assures us, were very weak and the cigars, Havana of course, were stage props, rarely consumed in full. Churchill had a disconcerting habit of giving his half-chewed, half-smoked cigars to the hoi polloi. Grateful I’m sure – no wonder he was booted out!

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


Robert James (1703 – 1776)

Of course, quackery wasn’t the exclusive preserve of the Americans as this series, I trust, is amply demonstrating. The latest person to come under our microscope, Robert James, in many ways could be called a pillar of society. He was an eminent English physician, although the level of anatomical and physiological knowledge at the time meant that this wasn’t really a great claim to fame, and a friend of the eminent lexicographer, Samuel Johnson. James was the author of a standard work of reference entitled A Medicinal Dictionary.

But James’ greatest claim to fame was the development of a powder known as Dr James’ fever powder, patented in 1747, and, in accordance with the modesty that goes hand in hand with quackery, was supposed to cure fevers and various other maladies, from gout and scurvy to distemper in cattle. The marketing and sale of panacaeas backed up with implausible claims as to their efficacy was already such a feature of mid 18th century life that the practice was lampooned by the novelist, Henry Fielding, in his novel of 1749, Tom Jones. “As to Squire Western, he was seldom out of the sick-room, unless when he was engaged either in the field or over his bottle. Nay, he would sometimes retire hither to take his beer, and it was not without difficulty that he was prevented from forcing Jones to take his beer too: for no quack ever held his nostrum to be a more general panacea than he did this; which, he said, had more virtue in it than was in all the quack physic in an apothecary’s shop”. Is it too fanciful to suppose that Fielding had Robert James in his sights when he wrote that passage?

The powder attracted a cast of illustrious users, including George III who was prescribed it when he was suffering from cataracts, rheumatism and dementia towards the end of his life, the novelist, poet and playwright, Oliver Goldsmith, and the politician, Horace Walpole. Indeed, so taken was Goldsmith of the powder that the heroine’s father in his book Goody Two-shoes dies when he is seized with a violent fever in a place where Dr James’ Powder was not to be had.

Of course the burning question was what was in the powder. James caused consternation by applying for a patent – it wasn’t the done thing in those days for a gentleman to sully their hands in matters mercantile in this way – and endured further criticism by falsifying the list of ingredients in the patent application on the grounds that he didn’t want his competitors to replicate his powder.

After James’ death scientists sought to establish the ingredients and George Pearson in 1791 determined that it was a mix of antimony and calcium phosphate. Of course, antimony is a toxic substance and regular exposure to the powders is likely to have done more harm than good. Some attribute antimony poisoning as a major contributor to the early demise of Goldsmith. Notwithstanding concerns about the safety of its ingredients and there being no obvious and incontrovertible proof of its efficacy, the powder was used until well into the 20th century.

One other feature of note about the powder was that it was one of the first medicines to be distributed in a multi-dose bottle.