A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: May 2015

Stunt Of The Week


The inexorable and lamentable decline of the Archers to a level that even Eastenders viewers would blanche at means that there is little to encourage me to tune the cat’s whiskers these days.

Perhaps what we need is the sort of innovative programming that Danish commercial radio station Radio 24syv can boast. Take Monday, for instance. In an attempt to stimulate a live discussion of animal welfare the host of a morning show beat a baby rabbit, named Allan, to death with a bicycle pump on air (pun intended). The station posted clips on its Facebook page (natch), the first of which shows Asgher Juhl, the perpetrator of this strange stunt, petting the poor creature and the second showing Juhl and his accomplice, Kristoffer Eriksen, standing in eager anticipation as Allan’s body parts cooked on a stove.

In a (feeble) attempt to explain the stunt, the editor-in-chief claimed that Danes voraciously ate meat without stopping to consider the sort of life the animals lived or how they died.

Of course, the Danes have previous in this sort of thing. Copenhagen zoo hit the news last year when it shot Marius the giraffe and subsequently four lions that were surplus to requirements. The Danes even have a word for the killing of rabbits, kaninslagtning.

Would have been better on TV, though.


What Is The Origin Of (68)?….


Spitting image

This phrase is used to indicate that someone (or thing) bears an uncanny resemblance to someone (or something) else.

It is uncanny how many times TOWT gets mistaken for someone else, often in the most unlikely of situations, including once for someone whom the observer had thought was dead! She must have a whole army of dopplegangers. Even I was once mistaken for Jeremy Irons whilst wandering through the streets of Copenhagen. But where does this slightly unsavoury phrase come from?

As usual, there is no definitive explanation but the most likely centres around the concept that someone is so similar that they could have been spat out of their mouth. This allusion was certainly doing the rounds by the late 17th century. George Farquhar’s comedy of 1689, Love and a bottle, contains the line, “Poor child! he’s as like his own dadda as if he were spit out of his mouth”.

Whilst it is dangerous to seek confirmation from other languages – after all, the concept may have been imported from English – nonetheless the French have the expression, “C’est le portrait craché de son père” (he’s the spitting portrait of his father) and the Norwegians “som snytt ut av nesen paa” (as blown out of the nose of).

So we may hazard that spit means closeness or similarity, a usage confirmed in The Newgate Calendar of 1824-26, “A daughter…the very spit of the old captain” and in several other sources during that century, often in the form dead spit. Possibly, though, the recognition of the original meaning of spit was on the wane and so to reinforce the concept “and image” was added. Certainly by 1895 in E.Castle’s Lieutenant of Searthey we find, “She’s like the poor lady that’s dead and gone, the spit an’ image she is” and it is just a small step to elide the two concepts into a spitting image, something that certainly had happened, at least in representations of the common vernacular at the start of the twentieth century.

An alternative phrase used to convey the same concept is dead ringer. The derivation of this phrase is more straightforward and has nothing to do with campanology. A ringer is a horse which was switched for another of a similar appearance in order to hoodwink the bookmakers – most of the horses that I bet on seem to have been the subject of such a switch.

The term was part of the vocabulary of the North American horse-racing community in the 19th century and is helpfully defined for us by the Manitoba Free Press of 1882, “A horse that is taken through the country and trotted under a false name and pedigree is called a ‘ringer.‘”

In English the adjective “dead” is rather a portmanteau one and is used in many different contexts with many different meanings and connotations. Of course, the meaning most commonly ascribed to it is being no longer alive, no more, deceased and so on. But it also has the meaning of exactly or precisely when used, for example, in conjunction with centre meaning precisely in the middle. Its usage in association with a ringer serves to emphasis the exactitude of the match.

Dead ringer is the spitting image of spitting image and as someone who is inclined to resist Americanisms when there is a good alternative it is the latter I will stick with.

So now we know!

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

youngs dilators

Frank E Young

Haemorrhoids are a common complaint and at least in more refined circles have a certain social stigma attached to them. They are uncomfortable and drive the sufferer to such a level of distraction that they will try anything to soothe the pain. Naturally, they proved a fertile ground for practitioners of the art of quackery as Frank E Young of Chicago, the latest to come under our microscope, amply demonstrates.

Young came up with the perfect cure for those unfortunate enough to be afflicted by piles or, indeed, by constipation – the anal dilator. The theory was that well-trained muscles in the nether region would be able to deal with even the most solid of solids passing through your body. Badged as Dr Young’s Self-Retaining Rectal Dilators they came in four sizes – the largest was 4 inches long and an inch in diameter – in a handy box and retailed for $2.50. Initially, they were made of rubber but later versions were made of Bakelite. Some modifications were made to the original design, principally flattening the flange at the bottom of the dilator so that they could stand up on their own, unaided.

Young patented his device in 1892 but it was not until the first decade of the twentieth century that it was marketed widely to a grateful pile-suffering community. A trait of the successful quack is the shameless promotion of the alleged benefits of their cure and Young was no exception. According to newspaper adverts “they may be used by any intelligent person” – quite what he supposed an unintelligent person might do with them we will never know – and “their use accomplishes for the invalid what nature does daily for the healthy individual”. The claims grew even bolder – their usage would cure even the worst cases and were guaranteed to cure and to cure permanently. Who could resist?

But that was not all. Diligent use of the dilator would also promote refreshing sleep and improve acne, urticaria and anaemia. The adverts gushed reassuringly, “you need have no fear of using them too much”. Having purchased your dilator, you needed to warm it in warm water and then lubricate it with Piloment, a helpful aid that Frank developed. Failing that, Vaseline would do. Getting into a squatting position you would insert it into the rectum as far as the flange or rim, hold it in place and then sit or lie down with it in situ for up to 30 minutes for the best results, but ten minutes would suffice. Patients would start with the smallest of the four dilators and over time build up to the largest.

The original attempts to curtail the activities of quacks by legislation in the States focused on ingredients and so Young’s dilators stayed under the radar until the Federal Food, Drugs and Cosmetics Act of 1938 extended its scope to the sale of medical devices. In 1940 a shipment of dilators and the accompanying lubricant, Piloment, was seized in New York and the manufacturers were sued on the basis of misbranding. The court accepted the argument that whilst the occasional use of a dilator may have some beneficial effects – and, indeed, some medical practitioners still hold that it is helpful for certain conditions – “it would be dangerous to health when used with the frequency and duration prescribed, recommended or suggested in the ..labelling”. The consignment was destroyed.

They are still available, albeit without the grandiose claims as to their efficacy, and are, doubtless, put to other uses!

Spice ‘n’ Water – Part Nine


Preparing to meet our maker

So, we had a very pleasant hour’s stay in Champakulam and slowly made our way back to our rice boat. We noticed the sky was getting grey and jokingly remarked that we wouldn’t be surprised if we had a spot of rain.

No sooner had we set off from our mooring than the sky turned an ominous black and the first spots of rain were felt. Within ten minutes we were experiencing a torrential downpour, huge raindrops crashing down. A fierce wind got up.

Now although the rice boat was well-appointed internally it was little more than a bamboo structure and the crew soon realised that there was a very real danger of the top blowing off or at least being damaged. So they navigated the boat – by this time the once placid backwaters had turned somewhat choppy – to the river bank for what would be an impromptu mooring place. This was no mean feat to achieve as the weight of the boat combined with the fierce winds and the strong current made it almost impossible to manoeuvre. Nonetheless, they achieved it, albeit in the process our three jolly matelots resembled rats of the drowned variety.


Tarpaulins were put up to give added protection and a modicum of waterproofing and there we sat, to ride out the storm. We had a very nice view of a paddy field, interesting in its way but becoming tiresome after half an hour. What piqued our interest, though, was the realisation that we were slap bang in the middle of the most spectacular and frightening electrical storm I have ever experienced.

The sky by this time was a threatening shade of black, a perfect backdrop for a stunning light show. All around us the sky lit up dissected by flickering tongues of brilliant light and then accompanied almost immediately by a soundtrack of enormous rolls of thunder. At the height of the storm one of the bolts landed about a hundred yards from us and we could hear the sizzle as it hit the waters of the paddy field.

Although I know very little about the laws of physics, one thing I do know is that water is a very efficient conductor of electricity and there we were stuck in the middle of nowhere in a flimsy boat on water. My sense of foreboding was heightened when one of the lightning bolts appeared in the exact shape of the initial of my forename. Was my number up?

The next problem was that with dusk rapidly approaching the boat couldn’t stay where it was as it had no navigational lights and would have to move before it got too dark to see. So we bade farewell to our singed paddy field and moved down river to another impromptu mooring site along with several other boats. Mooring was a very difficult exercise as the water was choppy and the boats not the most responsive. We kept banging into the sides of the neighbouring boats and the crew had to be augmented by other chaps who dashed in and out wielding large bamboo poles which they used rather like punting poles to arrest the movement of the boat.


At last harmony was restored and we were secure for the night. The thunder and lightning rumbled on for around 5 hours but by that time, fortified by our gin and a few beers, we were ready for bed. I for one retired thankful I had survived an experience that in retrospect we will smile at. After all, who wants to see another boring sunset?

Astonishingly, after all the drama the crew still found time to cook us a scrumptious meal just 30 minutes behind schedule – wonder what kept them?!

The Streets Of London – Part Twenty


The Minories, EC3N

Today the Minories is a fairly mundane street running north to south with Tower Hill at its southern end and Aldgate at the north. I cross the street every day to go to work and I have often wondered where its rather unusual name came from.

On the site where roughly the Royal Mint stood was the house of the Grace of the Blessed Mary, founded in 1293 by Edmund earl of Lancaster for the nuns of the order of St Clare. It was also known as the Abbey of the Minoresses, the name given to nuns of that order, and the current street name is a bastardisation of that. Incidentally, there is a St Clare Street which runs off the modern Minories.

As you would anticipate the first half of the sixteenth century proved troublesome for the community of nuns. In 1515 an infectious disease ravaged the nunnery sending twenty-seven of the sisters to meet their maker rather more quickly than they had anticipated. If this wasn’t bad enough, a serious fire broke out destroying the building. Although the community raised enough funds to rebuild, including a pledge of money from Cardinal Wolsey, the abbey was swept up in Henry VIII’s reformations in 1539.


In 1563, following the dissolution of the abbey, the site was bought by Elizabeth I and sometime thereafter the abbey was demolished. A small church was erected on the site of the chapel (and, perhaps, encompassing, parts of the original) and was known as the Church of the Holy Trinity, Minories. It was rebuilt in 1706 where it stood until 1940 when it was bombed and destroyed. During its history the church had gained some notoriety as a favoured location for clandestine marriages.

Other buildings on the site were converted into storehouses – at least one was used to store munitions – and living accommodation, especially favoured, it seems, by royal musicians.

Administratively, the areas status has been somewhat peculiar. Indeed, up until 1539 it was a papal peculiar, a term given to a religious establishment which was outside of the jurisdiction of the bishop in whose diocese it was situated. In 1686 it became part of the Liberties of the Tower of London which meant that it was outside of the control of the City of London, a status it enjoyed until the Liberty was abolished in 1894. Whether the area fell into the City or the adjacent borough of Tower Hamlets has been a moot point, a matter decided (at least for the time being) in 1994 when the Minories was placed fair and square in the City.

The Minories was also the name of a railway station, opened in 1840, as part of the London and Blackwall Railway – a 3.5 mile cable railway which was operational for passengers until 1926 and for the transport of goods until 1968, when the decline of the London docks saw its demise. Much of the infrastructure of the railway was reused when the Docklands Light Railway was developed, the old Minories station being renamed as Tower Gateway.

Of course, the area was flourishing from Roman times as was evidenced in September 2013 when a well preserved statue of an eagle, considered to be the finest example of Romano-British sculpture found to date, was unearthed on a building site on the street.

Clearly there is more to the street than its current day rather banal look would suggest.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Forty


Abu Nasr Isma’il ibn Hammad al-Jawari

Having been subject to a vicious and unwarranted attack by a relative of a recent nominee to our auspicious Hall of Fame, I have decided to play safe this time by proposing al-Jawari, the noted lexicographer who died around 1002 or 1008 CE.

Hailing from what is now Kazakhstan, Al-Jawari’s main claim to fame, although not why he receives this nomination, is his compilation of al-Sihah, a lexicon which contains some 40,000 entries. His light-bulb moment was to put the entries into an alphabetical order in which the last letter of a word’s root is the main criterion by which the order is established. Although it was incomplete at the time of his death – it is said that a student completed the magnum opus – it stood the test of time, becoming one of the main Arabic dictionaries in the medieval era and many of its entries becoming the basis for an Arabian to Turkish dictionary which was the first book to be published in the Ottoman empire on a printing press (in 1729).

The urge to fly must have been a primeval instinct amongst man. After all, the birds are so free and can travel great distances unhindered by the obstacles we find on land. The legend of Daedalus and Icarus testifies to the antiquity of the desire and, indeed, of its perils. We tend to think – or at least Occidentals do – that experimentation with flight is a fairly recent phenomenon.

Think again and consider the derring-do of Abbas ibn Firnas (810 – 887CE), a polymath based in Cordoba. Writing some seven centuries later, a Moroccan historian, al-Maqqari, comments that among Firnas’ curious experiments, was one where he covered his body with feathers, attached a couple of wings to his body, climber up high and launched himself into the air. According to what al-Maqqari considers to be trustworthy writers, he flew a considerable distance but “in alighting again at the place whence he started, his back was very much hurt” because he had forgotten to provide himself with a tail.

And then closer to home we have Eilmer, a Benedictine monk at Malmesbury Abbey at the turn of the 12th century. In Gesta Regum Anglorum, written by a fellow monk, William of Malmesbury around 1125, we learn that Eilmer fixed wings to his hands and feet and launched himself off the tower of Malmesbury Abbey. Remarkably, if William is to be believed, he flew more than a furlong before landing proved his undoing. “Agitated by the violence of the wind and the swirling of the air, as well as by awareness of his rash attempt, he fell, broke both his legs and was lame ever after”. Eilmer, too, attributed his failure to forgetting about giving himself a tail.

Still, Firnas and Eilmer should count their blessings or give thanks to their respective Gods that they only suffered debilitating injuries as a result of their attempt to follow in the flapping wings of Daedalus and Icarus. As you might expect, what earns al-Jawari his place in our Hall of Fame over and above the strong claims of the other two is that his folly brought about his demise.

It is thought in an attempt to emulate Firnas and, presumably, to add a bit of spice to his otherwise dull but laudable work as a lexicographer, al-Jawari climbed on to the roof of a mosque in Nishapur wearing the obligatory wings – as for a tail my researches have failed me. Inevitably, too, after launching himself into the are, he plunged to the ground, killing himself in the process.

Al-Jawari, as the representative of the aviators of the first millennium you are a worthy inductee to 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

Dilemma Of The Week


Being the age I am I find I spend more of my leisure time with people at the elderly end of the age spectrum. One of the moral dilemmas this poses is what to do if you are enjoying a social event and one of your party keels over.

Fortunately, the answer was revealed this week, I read, by the good folk at Gala Bingo. An 86 year-old player fell ill whilst enjoying a game of housey-housey at the Gala Bingo hall in Crawley. Initially, proceedings were halted but play recommenced even as an ambulance arrived and paramedics tended to the woman.

According to the ever-caring Gala, such incidents happen quite often in bingo and the company’s policy is to carry on as normal.

So there we have it – check they are breathing, call an ambulance and get back to enjoying yourself. Another of life’s many dilemmas solved!

Turning to matters UKIP, surely this is the Question of the Week?

If you are forced to resign in humiliating circumstances for calling your party leader snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive, have you not just made your case?


Language Of The Week


I noted the other week that emoticons are fast becoming the new hieroglyphs and I was somewhat gratified to read this week that according to a linguistics expert, Professor Vyv Evans of Bangor University, emoji is the fastest growing language in the UK.

Up to 72% of 18 to 25 year olds, apparently, find it express their feelings with the wretched symbols than with conventional words – you don’t say – and 80% of the British population admit to having used one or more of the emoticons at some time. In terms of its adoption rate and speed of evolution the Professor claims that it is the fastest growing form of language, defining language, presumably, as a medium of communication rather than a method of communication, whether written or spoken, consisting of words used in a structured way. Hieroglyphs took an age to develop but then, of course, the Egyptians were constrained by stone, chisel and hammer.

The day is just round the corner, I tell you, when as well as losing the ability to communicate vocally – why talk when an e-mail will do? – we will lose the ability to string words into a sentence. A bleak prospect indeed.


Hot Ticket


Madame Cornelys’

For just over a decade from 1760 Madame Cornelys’ establishment in Carlisle House on Soho Square was the place to be seen at. Teresa Cornelys, an erstwhile operatic soprano and impresario, born in Venice in 1723, arrived in London in 1759, rented Carlisle House and began giving entertainments there in the autumn of 1760, for which admission was gained by buying tickets in advance.

Initially, the entertainment provided consisted of card games and dancing but these alone proved so successful that Cornelys was able to buy the leasehold and extend the property by building a large extension to the rear housing a concert hall or ballroom above a supper room at which up to 400 guests could be seated around a crescent-shaped table. The furnishings in the ballroom were valued at £730 and although she hired most things, her financial situation was always precarious and in 1762 she had her first run in with creditors who had the audacity to reclaim some of the furnishings.

Events were held twice a month, normally in the winter season, and were enormously successful and popular. The hottest ticket was for the Cornelys masked ball and so many people wanted to attend that she had to have an additional front door added to the property. If you were fortunate enough to score a ticket you might find members of the royal family there as well as the Prince of Monaco, the King of Denmark and his entourage and half of the House of Lords. Parliament famously adjourned early in February 1770 to enable the members to attend one of la Cornelys’ masked balls.

The novelist, Laurence Sterne reported that a visit to Mrs Cornelys’ was “the best assembly and the best concert I have ever had the honour to be at” while Smollett recorded in his novel Humphrey Clinker (1771) that …” Mrs. Cornelys’ assembly, which for the rooms, the company, the dresses, and decorations, surpasses all description”. She also gets a name check in Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon and Dickens’ article on Soho.

Alas, though, she was a terrible business woman and her outgoing vastly exceeded her income. In those days to stage operatic performances you needed a royal licence. Cornelys cheerfully ignored this and were fined for their troubles. All this did was raise the price of the ticket for the next soiree by the amount of the anticipated fine.

Nevertheless the end was nigh. Arrested and declared bankrupt in 1772 after running up debts of £5,000 in just five years she was evicted that year and languished in debtors’ prison until 1775. She recovered from this set back and returned to Carlisle House, this time as a manager, and ran two immensely successful season of rural masquerades. Key features of these events were that the reception rooms would be decorated with fresh turf, hedges and exotic flowers and there would be goldfish swimming in the fountains.

But whilst she undoubtedly knew what her public wanted she couldn’t change her old habits and in 1779 was back in debtors’ prison. After a further career involving what is euphemistically termed ducking and diving she died in 1797 at the ripe old age of 74, appropriately enough in Fleet prison.

Book Corner – May 2015 (2)


H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

Today is the first anniversary of my father’s death. For some reason, though, I didn’t feel the need to rush out and buy a goshawk as part of the grieving process. This is what Helen Macdonald did when her father died and this book is (in part) an account of what happened.

I say in part because there are three strands running through the work, sometimes juxtaposing themselves rather awkwardly. At one level it is an account of the training of her goshawk called Mabel , an Anglicisation of the Latin adjective amabilis and, I would venture, a most inapposite handle , at another an account of the grieving process following a loss of a beloved member of the family and in part a biography of the author and erstwhile Stowe schoolmaster, T H White.

From an early age Macdonald was obsessed by raptors and devoured voraciously all the literature there was on the subject. One of the books that made a lasting impression on her was T H White’s account of his attempt, ultimately doomed, to harness the primal killing instincts of his goshawk, Gos, in the eponymous Goshawk. Macdonald is an experienced falconer and so the decision to acquire a goshawk, obtained at a port in Scotland from a Northern Irish dealer, is not quite so off the wall as might seem at first.

Much of the book is a compare and contrast of her experiences with those of White. Ultimately, she is successful whereas White failed but then she vaguely knew what she was doing and had a support system to assist whereas White, deliberately, was on his own and learned and failed by experience.

The process of training a goshawk is long-winded and requires the trainer to devote themselves to their creature – an ideal occupation for someone who is keen to escape the realities of everyday life. Macdonald saw the process as an antidote to her sense of loss and her overpowering grief. White, however, was a much more complex character. He was a repressed homosexual with sadistic tendencies – ideally suited you would have thought to a career as a schoolmaster in an English public school. White, however, was so aghast at his id that he gave up teaching and devoted himself to the solitary occupations of writing and training hawks, although, interestingly, he still lived in the grounds of the school.

There is a discernible trend currently of authors trying to resuscitate old words which lapsed from modern usage – I am thinking of, for example, Robert Macfarlane and the vocabulary of the countryside – and Macdonald is right on trend here. We are immersed in more of the vocabulary of falconry than we might care to be exposed to – the training of her bird is manning, Mabel is forever bating, we are introduced to the world of an austringer (a trainer of falcons) and learn why male falcons are called tiercels (they are a third smaller than the females) and so on. Macdonald’s love of language shines through every page – after all she is a poet.

Whilst I wasn’t as overwhelmed by the book as I expected to be, I didn’t dislike it – after all, it is a clever piece of work. It has, though, put me off wanting to own and train a hawk, if I ever had those inklings. I am happier to admire them in the wild. As a fan of White’s Once and Future King it has confirmed that you are better off admiring an author’s work than delving into their psyche. And grief is something you have to work through in your own way.