A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: June 2015

Forty Days And Forty Nights – Part Nine


The Third Plague Pandemic (1855 to 1959)

This pandemic, masquerading under a rather prosaic name, whilst a slow-burner, lasted over a century and accounted for more than 12 million people in China and India alone. It was the third major bubonic plague pandemic, following on from the Plague of Justinian (vide infra) and the Black Death.

The patterns of deaths suggest very strongly that there were two different sources of plague. The first manifestations were predominantly bubonic in character and its spread was consequent upon expanding global trade which made it easier for infected rats and humans and cargoes harbouring disease-carrying fleas to be transported from country to country. The second more virulent strain was predominantly pneumonic and was spread by human contact.

The first reported outbreaks were in the south-western Chinese province of Yunnan in the 1850s. The disease was pretty much contained in the province until the Panthay rebellion (1856 to 1873) broke out. This violent rebellion led to upheavals of populations which in turn exposed other parts of China to the plague. By March 1894 the disease was entrenched in Canton, killing 60,000 in a few weeks, and soon appeared in Hong Kong which was just across the water accounting for some 100,000 in the first two months. It was not until 1929 that the disease ceased to be endemic in Hong Kong.


Having arrived at the great trading port of Hong Kong it was inevitable it would spread across the British Empire. The plague arrived in India in 1896 and over the next thirty years some 12.5 million would die in the country alone, principally in the northern and western regions. Interestingly, almost all of the cases in India were bubonic in character.

The reaction of the Raj to this health disaster was repressive at first. They resorted to quarantine, isolation camps, travel restrictions and a ban on traditional Indian medical practices, all enforced by the British military. But these measures were unable to keep pace with the spread of the disease and, not unnaturally, provoked resentment amongst and direct action by the local population. In a change of tack the authorities in 1898-99 introduced a policy of mass vaccination using a vaccine developed by Waldemar Haffkine which was voluntary but had 4 million takers by the turn of the century and also incorporated traditional medical practices into the treatments available. Nevertheless the disease spread to Egypt, Paraguay, South Africa, San Francisco, Australia, the Caribbean and Western Europe. The plague came and went and returned in each of these areas until the 1950s when with the global death toll down to 200 a year in 1959 the World Health Organisation withdrew its pandemic status. The last significant outbreak associated with it occurred in Peru and Argentina in 1945.

On the bright side, the challenge posed to the medical authorities by the type and geographical spread of the disease meant that researchers, doctors and immunologists had the perfect opportunity to further their knowledge and hone their techniques. It was the first pandemic where scientific advances in the understanding of the causes of disease and the corresponding development of immunology provided some assistance and those advances explain why there has not been a Fourth Pandemic (yet).

And in India, the Raj’s steep learning curve in how to implement general health programmes helped inform their overall public healthcare programmes.


Sign Of The Times – Part One


The great British pub is a wonderful institution and a good one – we are fortunate enough to have an exceptional pub no more than a twenty-minute walk from Blogger Towers (it takes slightly longer to get home!) – is something to cherish. It can be the focal point of the local community, somewhere to sit, relax, drink (of course), chat, set the world to rights and, even, fall out. Alas, though, this once mainstay of British life is under considerable threat with as many as 31 closing every week.

There are many reasons why pubs are closing – some simply deserve to – increasingly sophisticated clientele, the smoking ban, high rates of tax on the hooch, cheap booze sold at supermarkets, high rents, the land on which the pub stands being more valuable if sold to a property developer – these are some of the reasons trotted out to explain their demise. To lose this institution completely would be a disaster and, perhaps, what we are seeing is Darwinian evolution theory at work. Perhaps.

Every pub has a name and, generally, this is emblazoned on the outside of the establishment, often in the form of a sign hanging from a bracket attached to the outside wall or as a free-standing sign – a bit like a gibbet. In my haste to get inside and taste the wares and in my befuddled state upon leaving the establishment, I am guilty of not paying too much mind to the signs nor, indeed, to the name of the gaff. But the names and signs of our pubs have much to tell us.

I suppose the first question is why have a sign? In times when illiteracy was the norm there was no use a trader hanging up a beautifully written sign because very few would be able to read it. Rather trades developed their own system of signs to denote the type of trade that was transacted within their premises. So you would have three balls denoting a pawnbroker, a red and white pole denoting a barber (or surgeon) and so on.

The original sign for a pub was a bush and this was an institution that can be traced back to the Romans. Along the Roman roadside the traveller could find tabernae which were shops which sold wine and often extended their services to offer food and overnight accommodation. All tabernae selling wine were required to affix branches of evergreens to the outside of the building, the greenery symbolising the Roman god of wine, Bacchus.

This custom was adopted in Britain, although the usual vine leaves, which were a rarity over here, were replaced by small evergreen bushes. The Bush which is a common name for a pub owes its origin to this custom.

Alternatively, a pub would advertise its existence by hanging long poles or ale stakes which were used to stir the brew on the exterior wall of the building. If you came across a pub displaying a bush and a pole, then you were likely to find wine and ale inside.

The convention for naming and signing pubs took off in the 12th century and in 1393 it became compulsory, Richard II requiring them to display a sign to make their existence known to the official Ale Taster.

During the course of the next few weeks I will be taking a look – after extensive research! – at pub signs, common and unusual, and the stories behind them.

Curmudgeons Of The Week


Music isn’t always the food of love, as Plymouth grandparents, Robert and Christine Fox, have found out. They have been threatened with an ASBO – in some parts still a badge of honour I’m told – for playing their music too loud. What has got their neighbours’ goat is their predilection for the oeuvre of Roy Orbison and Fleetwood Mac which they play, doubtless at volume, in their garden.

Whilst neither artist are much too my taste – Pete Green Fleetwood is OK – I wouldn’t have thought that either would cause too much offence. But there’s nowt so queer as folk, it seems.

This curious and frankly sad story got me thinking. What sort of music would so annoy you that you would be roused to complain or, conversely, to what type of music would you subject your neighbours to rouse their ire?

I always find a bit of Miles Davis’ atonal masterpiece, Bitches Brew, has them running to the hills. Alternatively, a bit of Iggy Pop and the MC5 always gingers things up. The younger generation might turn tail when subjected to the wall of saccharine that is Tony Bennett.

And I would be raising the white flag and dialling Environmental Services if I was subjected for too long to the bagpipes.

This one has legs – all contributions gratefully received!

Fashion Victim Of The Week


It’s a tough life being a dedicated follower of fashion.

Rather like lycra, I find you have to have a certain body shape to carry off skinny jeans – and very few, in my experience, have. Those who insist in trying to pour a quart into a pint pot run very real dangers as the experience of an unnamed 35 year-old woman from South Australia reveals.

Wearing her skinny jeans all day she helped her rellie move – this involved squatting down to clear out cupboards – and began to notice that her jeans felt increasingly tight. For many people this might have been a sign that a change of strides were in order but our game Sheila persisted in wearing them until she fell and lay prone on the ground, like a beached whale, unable to right herself. Now this may be a common sight on the streets of Adelaide but she lay there for several hours before someone came to her aid.

The fashion victim was hospitalised and on an intravenous drip for four days before she could walk again unaided. Apparently she suffered a bout of compartment syndrome which forces the muscles to swell because of constriction, compress downwards and crush the nerves. It is a condition that can afflict you if a bandage or plaster cast is too tight. An expert helpfully advises, “if you start to get any numbness the first thing you should ask is whether your jeans are too tight”.

I will remember that in future!

Tales From The Nursery – Part Twenty


Rain, Rain, go away

One of the delights of British weather is its unpredictability. You never quite know what you are going to get from one day to the next and, naturally, the current climatic conditions and our forecast of what is to come and our frustrations with what we are experiencing provide ample topics for conversation. More often than not we can be certain that rain is not too far away.

In the days before national weather forecasts our forefathers were more acute in their observations of the sky and the way that animals and plants behaved in order to get a sense of what the weather had in store. Often this folk knowledge was handed down in the form of proverbs such as red sky at night, shepherd’s delight, clear moon, frost soon, rainbow in the morning gives fair warning and my particular favourite, if you can see the hills, it is going to rain and if you can’t see the hills, it is raining. Nothing like a bit of realism!

Rain being such a common feature of the British weather and its presence putting a bit of a dampener on outdoor activities whether it be gathering crops or attending a fair or just playing outside, it is inevitable that the frustrations found an outlet in song and, in our particular case, a nursery rhyme.

There are a number of variants of the rhyme but they all start off with the same opening sentiment which is reflected in the most common modern-day version, “Rain, rain go away/ come again another day”. One of the earliest versions that can be found in print appears in the Anglo-Welsh historian James Howell’s Paramoigraphy or Proverbs of 1659 which goes as follows, “Raine raine goe to Spain:/ faire weather come againe”.

For those who like to find as historical allusion in our innocent nursery rhymes, they latch on to the allusion to the Spanish and bad weather and conclude that it is a reference to the Spanish Armada. In 1588 the superior Spanish fleet (in numbers, at any rate) was defeated by Lord Howard’s fleet of 34 Navy vessels and 163 armed merchant ships because of the greater manoeuvrability of the English boats but also because adverse weather conditions scattered the Spaniards. Howell’s version of the rhyme commemorates the role that rain played in that victory.

That may be the case but in 1687 John Aubrey records a variant which he notes is used by little children “to charme away the Raine” and which runs, “Raine, rain, goe awaye/ come again a Saturday”. Other variants that can be found substitute the Saturday for more notable dates such as Midsummer day, washing day, Christmas Day and Martha’s wedding day. Curiously, you would have thought that each of those days which are special and involve some communal activities would have benefitted from fine weather and that there is a streak of malice in the rhyme.

By the mid 19th century the rhyme had well and truly been claimed by children and was used to vent their disappointment at not being able to play outside because of the weather. “Rain, rain, go away/ Come again another day/ Little Arthur wants to play”, and later on in the century, “Rain, rain/Go away/ Come again/April day;/ Little Johnny wants to play”.

What we have, I think, is a rhyme which focuses on the British obsession with the weather and, in particular, the disruptive effects of rain and which can be tailored to suit all occasions – nothing more and nothing less.

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

L0030213 U. Binder, Epiphaniae medicorum, 1506. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Urine chart Epiphaniae medicorum Pinder, Ulrich Published: 1506 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see

Piss Prophets

In the days before X-ray machines and scanning machines, medical or quasi-medical practitioners needed all the help they could get in trying to diagnose what was wrong with a patient. Potentially what was passed out of the body or seeped out of breaks in the skin could be useful and, not unreasonably, the colour, consistency, smell and even taste of the patient’s urine was considered helpful in diagnosing their malady.

Uroscopy which is the technical name for examining a patient’s urine has a long tradition and dates back to ancient Egypt, Babylon and India. Its importance as a diagnostic tool was enhanced by the adoption of the original Hippocratic oath which forbade doctors to perform any form of surgery, “I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest”. Urine was considered vital in gauging the health of a patient’s liver where blood was thought to be produced and analysing the waste fluids was a good way to check whether the body’s four humours – blood, phlegm and yellow and black bile – were in balance.

By the middle ages the theory of urine was sufficiently developed to allow a so-called wheel of urine to be developed which developed 20 categories of urine based on colour, smell and taste. The development of printing coupled with the almost universal acceptance of the wheel as a diagnostic tool was such that by the 16th and 17th centuries unscrupulous practitioners or quack sprung up to gull the innocent or desperate patient.

All that was needed was a sample – it was not always necessary for the patient to accompany the specimen, although, as we will see, this could have its dangers. To assist in the process a glass flask with a round bottom called a matula was developed, making it easier for the patient to fill and the doctor to examine.

But some practitioners were not content to examine urine to diagnose existing complaints. The practice of uromancy developed where practitioners claimed that they could foretell the future from someone’s urine. Whilst some took special cognisance of the colour or taste of the urine the most common approach was to read the bubbles in the urine as soon as the fluid hit the bowl. Large bubbles denoted that the urinator was about to come into money whilst small bubbles denoted an illness or an impending death. (This has given me an idea for the next village fete!).

Although the examination of urine was directly attributable to Thomas Willis’ discovery of 1674 of diabetes mellitus, by the turn of the 19th century many had consigned uroscopy to the bin of quackery and practitioners earned the pejorative name of piss-prophets. But there was still a corner in the market for the clever uroscopist as Dr Cameron of Wells Street, just off Oxford Street in London, demonstrates.

He seems to have set up operations around 1809 and focused his marketing efforts in emphasising the long pedigree of urine inspection and appealing to those who were sceptical of more modern medical procedures. Not all of his patients were satisfied though, as this story from the Medical Adviser of 1824 shows.

A Holborn inn-keeper consulted Cameron about some chest pains. Cameron gave him some pills which caused acute discomfort but after a month had done nothing to alleviate the original problem. In order to exact his revenge on the piss-prophet the inn-keeper sent his ostler with a urine sample and requested a diagnosis.

After inspecting and tasting the urine, Cameron concluded that the sufferer was in a bad way but that he could be cured. He asked how old the patient was – 24- how hard he worked – lots of heavy loads – and whether he was a drinker – two pails of water a day. Based on this evidence Cameron concluded that the problem was a bad back. Of course, the sample had been provided by a donkey!

Medicos still examine urine – I doubt they taste it – but the reliance on it as a primary diagnostic tool has somewhat waned.

Spice ‘n’ Water – Part Thirteen


Dhotar, Mundu, Lungi and Spices

Although in many of the parts of India we have visited many of the locals have adopted what might be termed Western clothing, a large number of the Keralans still wear the traditional garb which is effectively a wrap worn around the waist. Initially, you might be oblivious to the differences in the garment but there are distinctive variations, each of which has its own distinctive name. After a fortnight I became proficient in spotting which of the variations someone was wearing.

The dhotar or dhoti is made of very fine cotton and is designed to run between the legs. It is normally worn as the Keralan equivalent of Sunday best, particularly at weddings and ceremonial occasions.

The mundu is made of cotton and are white or cream depending upon whether the cotton has been bleached or not. There are two forms of the mundu – a single mundu which is draped once around the waist and the double which is folded in half before being draped. I guess the double is worn when the weather is a bit chillier. Like most garments in this part of the world the preference is for the mundu to be heavily starched during the laundry process.

And the third variant is the lungi which is considered to be appropriate for casual dress or manual work. Unlike the mundu it is more colourful and is sown into a tube shape like a skirt. Generally they are tied in place around the waist with a double knot. Putting them on seems to be a bit of a performance and there are videos on Youtube (natch) which explain the mysteries to the uninitiated. The trick, ultimately, rests in the strength of the knot. Get that wrong and you might shock your neighbours!

Having got the thing on, there are two ways of wearing it – what might be described as half-mast or full-mast. The full-mast way of wearing the garment is to allow it to fall to its full length. Most often it is worn half-mast to just above the knees which allows the wearer to move freely and is ideal if you are doing anything energetic. You often see Keralans walking down the street fiddling with the knots or moving from half to full-mast or back again.

Depending upon the temperature (and the availability of freshly laundered shirts) the men are often bare-chested whilst these days – art suggests this wasn’t always the case – the women wear a two piece mundu set known as the mundum-neriyathum, consisting of a lower garment similar to that worn by chaps and an upper mundu which is wrapped around the waist and upper body and hangs off the left shoulder, usually, but not always, accompanied by a blouse. The women’s mundu generally have a gold stripe known as a kara.

The climate of Kerala means that it is perfect for growing spices and a visit to a spice plantation and the purchase of a hermetically sealed selection of Keralan spices is de rigueur for the tourist. Cardamom (after which the hills are named), cinnamon, clove, ginger, vanilla, chilli, nutmeg, peppers and curry leaves are plentiful and leave a distinctive and not unpleasant aroma in the atmosphere.

Naturally, they are used extensively in the local cuisine as is coconut milk. Whilst the curries can be fiery (although they do tone them down for neophyte Westerners) they are delicious and are a wonderful blend of aromas and distinctive tastes unlike the gloop that is passed off as curry here in England. Fish is a popular main ingredient for the curries but there is a deep vegetarian tradition running through the State and the vegetable curries are wonderful. We took the normal precautions – bottled water only and no salads – and had none of the usual after-effects you associate with India.

A wonderful part of the world and we can’t wait to plan our next trip to this amazing country.

Harnessing The Thief


As I slide inexorably towards retirement I find myself spending time musing about the changes in work practices over that time and remembering some of the characters I’ve worked with or come across. I don’t know whether it is a trait peculiar to the financial services sector but many a career has been made through the practice of procrastination.

Proverbially, of course, procrastination is said to be the thief of time. Putting something which is unpleasant or distasteful off until another occasion is part of human nature. And in today’s hectic business world what was pressing and urgent today is unlikely to be so pressing or so urgent tomorrow. So why bust a gut trying to accomplish the impossible?. And if it is really urgent it will eventually come back around to you or, better still, some ambitious whippersnapper anxious to prove their worth will volunteer to take the task over from you.

You don’t find modern management books extolling the virtues of procrastination or indeed providing much advice other than showing them the door on how to deal with an arch procrastinator but I think there are techniques that can make someone with procrastinatory habits more effective.

But first there are two key points to bear in mind. Firstly, the procrastinator just doesn’t do nothing and secondly they have an issue with doing something which is defined as being super important or extremely urgent. So they fill their day doing things which means that they don’t have time to do the really important thing.

It seems to me the starting point is to make a list of all the tasks that need to be done in order of importance ranging from the most urgent to the least important. What it means is that whilst the most important thing is always at the top of the list there are a host of tasks in the middle and lower ranks of the list which are worthwhile doing. Indeed, whilst doing those medium to low importance tasks will satisfy the procrastinator because they have avoided doing the most important task, a lot of semi-important tasks will have been accomplished. Harnessed in this way the arch procrastinator can be an effective member of the staff.

I have seen managers who recognise they have a procrastinator on their staff tackle the problem in totally the wrong way. They give the procrastinator relatively few tasks which means that each one Is of importance, at least in the eyes of the procrastinator. Their psychology is to do stuff to avoid doing what is really important. No, you should give them tasks that need doing but are not vital.

The other key to dealing with a procrastinator is to play the hierarchy of importance to your advantage. By the time they have produced a second list of what is important and what is not, something else will have supplanted what was initially on the top of the pile. This means that it is now legitimate for them to work on the original high priority item because it is lower in the current pecking order and by accomplishing that they are, of course, avoiding working on the current top priority.

Rather than something to be discouraged at all costs, procrastination, properly harnessed and channelled, can lead to a very effective and productive member of staff.

The Streets Of London – Part Twenty One


St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside, EC2V

Half way down Cheapside as you walk from the Bank to St Paul’s tube station you will see a magnificent baroque church, the famous St Mary-le-Bow which in its prime ranked second only to the cathedral after which the tube station is named. In order to be considered a true cockney a Londoner would have to be born within the sound of Bow bells. In times when noise pollution was less of a problem than it is now the bells could be heard as far away as Hackney marshes and as far south as Southwark. Alas, today the sound of the bells, which still ring every 15 minutes, can only be heard within what is now the Square Mile and Shoreditch.

Archaeological evidence shows that there was a church on the site in the Saxon period, although the first recorded record of its existence appears in a 12th century chronicler’s account of the great tornado of October 1091. A great wind blew from the south against the church, killing two men and lifting the roof and rafters of the church so far into the air that, on falling, six of the rafters sank so far into the ground that only a seventh or eighth of them was visible. As they couldn’t be removed they were sawn off at ground level. Some wind!

Clearly the church was rebuilt and became known as St Mary de Arcubus on account of its two arches or bows of stone, serving as the seat of the Court of Arches in the 13th century. Administratively, around that time to become a peculiar of the diocese of Canterbury – a peculiar, as we have seen before, is a parish which lies outside of the control of the diocese in which it is situated. In mediaeval times the bells, as well as designating whether you were a cockney or not, were used to sound the curfew. On hearing them when he was as far north as Highgate Dick Whittington turned back to become Lord Mayor of London.

Not unsurprisingly given its position, the church was destroyed during the Great Fire of 1666. Because of its importance it was one of the first churches to be rebuilt by Wren, designed between 1671 and 1673 and its 223 foot steeple completed in 1680. The bells, of which there are twelve now, were immortalised in the old nursery rhyme, Oranges and Lemons, and a recording of their sound was used by the BBC’s World Service between 1926 and the early 1940s to signify English-language broadcasts.

The next existential crisis for the church came on 10th May 1941 when much of the building was destroyed by German bombers, so extensive was the damage that the bells crashed to the ground. It was not until 1956 that restoration work began, the church being formally reconsecrated in 1964, although the bells, having been cast in 1956, resumed ringing in 1961. Much of Wren’s original baroque design has been faithfully restored and the church is well worth a visit.

For our American friends, two additional snippets of information. There is a statue in the churchyard of a former parishioner who went on to found Virginia, one Captain John Smith of Jamestown, and a stone from the crypt was placed in Trinity Church in the Big Apple in 1914. The latter act was to commemorate the fact that King William III granted the same rights to the American church as were held by St Mary-le-Bow.

The church is rather overshadowed by its new neighbours but having endured tornadoes, fire and bombings I have no doubt it will outlast all the monstrosities around it.  

Peccatogenesists Of The Week


I think I may have spotted a new trend – the rise of the peccatogenesists.

Having clambered to the top of a mountain there is nothing for it but to strip off for a group photo to be posted on social media to be viewed by your myriad “friends”. Of course, you need to be careful where you do it and atop a sacred mountain which the local tribe believes houses the spirits of their dead ancestors is probably not the smartest move.

Not only did the antics of Eleanor Hawkins and her friends land them in chokey but, according to the Sabah state deputy minister, it so angered the spirits that it triggered off a magnitude 5.9 and, regrettably, fatal earthquake. Ironically, and we love irony, the quake may well have formed a new and safer trail to Mt Kinabalu, offering more opportunities for selfies in the buff.

No sooner had we had time to digest this than we learnt about the unanticipated flooding of the Vere in Tbilisi which as well as killing at least a dozen people destroyed the local zoo and prompted the local keepers to practise a spot of animal care straight out of the Copenhagen zoological manual ie wholesale slaughter of the beasts.

It didn’t take long for the spectre of peccatogenesis to rear its ugly head. Up popped Patriarch Ilia II, the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, to finger the Communists for the flood – after all, they had ordered all the crosses and bells of the churches to be melted down and the money raised to be used to build the zoo in the first place. A bit of divine retribution, in other words.

The desire to find a scapegoat – admittedly a bit difficult in Tbilisi at the moment as they’ve shot them all – to explain the unexpected is never far away from us, it seems.