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A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: August 2015

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

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The Calves’ Head Club

We English had a brief flirtation with republicanism in the mid 17th century when the roundheads chopped off Charles I‘s head. Alas, the experiment only lasted eleven years and Charles II was restored to the throne. Still for those of a republican disposition January 30th, the date when the regicide occurred, has a certain resonance and it is not surprising to find that a club was formed to keep the memory of that moment of republican spirit alive. The Calves’ Head Club was just such an association.

It is thought, although it cannot be proven conclusively, that it was formed during the Commonwealth (1649 to 1660) and the poet John Milton, whose Eikonoklastes was a justification of the execution, could well have been a leading light. What is clear is that the club had a rather elaborate ceremony replete with symbolism when they congregated for their annual meeting and dinner on January 30th.

An axe was either hung from the ceiling or placed on the table, representing the instrument that delivered England from tyranny. The menu consisted of calves; heads, representing the king’s royal office and his supporters, a cod’s head representing Charles Stuart, a pike representing tyranny and a boar’s head, representing the king preying on his subjects. The club members drank republican toasts from cups made from the skulls of calves, their principal one being “to those worthy patriots who killed the tyrant”. After their meal they would go on to burn a copy of Eikon Basilike which was seen as royalist propaganda and swear an oath in praise of Milton’s retort.

Naturally, the restoration of the monarchy caused the club some difficulties and the members had to keep their heads down, as a history of the club published in 1703 records , “after the Restoration the eyes of the Government being upon the whole party, they were obliged to meet with a great deal of precaution but now they meet almost in a public manner, and apprehend nothing”. The first definitive record we have of the Club meeting is in 1693 when the anthem for that year was published in their Anniversary Thanksgiving Songs on the 30th of January.

Although in Queen Anne’s reign the club felt secure enough to become more open in their activities there still were grave risks and, indeed, a significant outbreak of public opprobrium against them in 1735 ultimately did for the club. According to contemporary reports, “Some young noblemen and gentlemen met at a tavern in Suffolk Street, called themselves the Calves’ Head Club….” They dressed up a calf’s head in a napkin, threw it on a bonfire and waved napkins dipped in red wine out of the window. Not unsurprisingly, this behaviour excited the interest of a mob who “having strong beer in them” staged what we would now call a demonstration outside the building.

The mob’s feelings were further inflamed by the nature of the toasts being proposed by the Club members and eventually they “broke all the windows, and forced themselves into the house”. Damage caused ran into the hundreds of pounds and guards were stationed on the streets to protect neighbouring properties.

The Grub Street Journal recorded some verses about the furore, “Strange times! When noble peers, secure from riot/ Can’t keep Noll’s(Cromwell’s) annual festival in quiet/ through sashes broke, dirt, stones, and brands thrown at ‘em/…/forced to run down to vaults for safer quarters/ and in coal-holes their ribbons hide and garters”.

An ignominious end to the club indeed!

App Of The Week

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Ever felt the time spent sitting on the carsey straining to produce a number two was rather wasted? Me neither, but stick with me. For those who do, help is at hand with an app which came to my attention this week called Pooductive.

Apparently, using location services, it links up users who are sitting on the bog with others in a similar position world-wide. You can then exchange messages either one-to-one or anonymously and, I presume, exchange pictures.  I looked for an Android version in order to road test it but it is only available as an iOS app.

Why anyone should feel the need for this sort of app is beyond me. What’s wrong with an old-fashioned newspaper or a book if you feel the need?

Art Critic of the Week

flowers

Art should provoke a reaction but perhaps it shouldn’t be quite as extreme as punching a hole in the canvas. But this, it seems is what a 12 year-old Taiwanese lad has done to Paolo Porpora’s inoffensive Flowers, valued at around £1 million. Of course, he is claiming that all he was doing was walking past the picture and he caught his foot, stumbled and in an attempt to break his fall put his fist through the canvas. A likely story!

It’s The Way I Tell ‘Em (20)

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Here are the best jokes from the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival for your delectation:

I just deleted all the German names off my phone. It’s Hans free – Darren Walsh

Kim Kardashian is saddled with a huge arse … but enough about Kanye West – Stewart Francis

Surely every car is a people carrier? – Adam Hess

What’s the difference between a hippo and a Zippo? One is really heavy, the other is a little lighter – Masai Graham

If I could take just one thing to a desert island, I probably wouldn’t go – Dave Green

Jesus fed 5,000 people with two fishes and a loaf of bread. That’s not a miracle. That’s tapas – Mark Nelson

Red sky at night: shepherd’s delight. Blue sky at night: day – Tom Parry

The first time I met my wife, I knew she was a keeper. She was wearing massive gloves – Alun Cochrane

Clowns divorce: custardy battle – Simon Munnery

They’re always telling me to live my dreams. But I don’t want to be naked in an exam I haven’t revised for – Grace The Child

I never lie on my CV, because it creases it – Jenny Collier

If you don’t know what introspection is, you need to take a long, hard look at yourself – Ian Smith

I usually meet my girlfriend at 12:59 because I like that one-to-one time – Tom Ward

Whenever I get to Edinburgh, I’m reminded of the definition of a gentleman. It’s someone who knows how to play the bagpipes, but doesn’t – Gyles Brandreth

And finally, let me tell you a little about myself. It’s a reflexive pronoun that means “me” – Ally Houston

Forty Days And Forty Nights – Part Eleven

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The Mississippi Yellow Fever epidemic of 1878

One of the most feared diseases to strike the United States and for which the cause was a complete mystery at the time was yellow fever. Of course, we know now that the fever was transmitted by mosquitoes and the spread and the rapidity with which it travelled was a consequence of improved communications, particularly between the Caribbean areas where the disease was endemic and the eastern United States where it wasn’t.

Infected mosquitoes would travel over on ships and feast on the flesh of people who had no immunity to the disease. The symptoms were terrible – it got its name from the jaundiced colouration of the skin of a victim –  vomit that was black and was the sign that your end was nigh, bleeding gums and noses, stomach pains, tarry stools, severe headaches and a temperature that hit 105. Because the cause of the disease was unknown, the symptoms so extreme and your chances of survival so poor, the very mention of a yellow fever caused panic and hysteria.

In 1878 the conditions for a major yellow fever outbreak were optimal – the unusual climatic conditions were ideal for an explosion in the number of mosquitoes and the aftermath of the war of independence in Cuba (from Spain) meant a larger influx of refugee from areas prone to the fever than usual. To minimise the disease’s potential impact our old friend the quarantine was introduced to control shipping coming into New Orleans.

But, of course, a quarantine is only as effective as the diligence of those who enforce it. When the steamship Emily B Stouder pulled into the quarantine station on May 23rd there were no reported cases of the fever in the States. The quarantine doctor noticed that the purser, Clark, was ill but put it down to neuralgia and a hangover. Inevitably, Clark had yellow fever, was dead by the 25th and that was all that was needed for the fever to gain a foothold on the mainland.

News that the fever had hit New Orleans caused panic and around a fifth of the population up sticks and left, inevitably taking the fever with them. Many of those who were left succumbed to the disease and the doctors, whose futile attempts to cure them with bloodlettings, carbolic acid and doses of quinine, were worse than useless. An epidemic was declared on August 10th when there had been 431 reported cases and 118 deaths.

The railway system facilitated the spread of the disease and maps of outbreaks and their timing show its inexorable journey along the main railway and transportation routes of the Mississippi region. The first recorded death in Memphis was that of Kate Bionda on August 13th. Kate was a restaurant owner and contracted the disease when an infected man visited her gaff.

As with New Orleans news that the fever had reached Memphis caused panic and around 25,000 of the 47,000 fled the city, travelling to rural areas or places away from the river. Train tickets were at a premium – the superintendent of the Louisville and Nashville railroad reported that between August 12th and 16th tickets were selling for the modern-day equivalent of $750,000! Inevitably, many of the fleeing residents took the disease with them, outbreaks being reported as far away as Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. Some towns would accommodate the refugees whilst others set up gangs of armed men to enforce their local quarantine arrangements.

It was only the arrival of the autumnal frosts which killed off the mosquitoes that ended the epidemic by which time around 20,000 had died.

The Streets Of London – Part Twenty Five

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Southwark Street – SE1

One of the unanticipated benefits of being forced by the recent tube strikes to forsake my normally troglodytic mode of transport for a tramp across the mean streets of London is having the opportunity to (re)acquaint myself with some of the landmarks of our metropolis which, otherwise, would pass me by. What particularly caught my attention was a splendid edifice on Southwark Street called the Hop Exchange, now a venue for corporate entertainment.

Hops are a staple ingredient of English ale, giving it its distinctive bitter taste and acting as a preservative and antibiotic. Kent was the principal area for growing hops and the only land route into the metropolis until as late as 1750 was via Borough High Street and over the old London Bridge. Inevitably, Southwark, handily placed on the south side of the Thames, became the epicentre of the hop trade and until the early 1970s there were many hop factors and merchants operating there. Even in the railway age trains conveying hops would terminate at nearby London Bridge station.

The hop factors used their showrooms to display their wares, usually in the months of February and March, and the hops would be bought by hop merchants who made their purchases on behalf of their brewer clients. April was the month for the settlement of accounts.

Warehouses were substantial and following the development of Southwark Street in 1864 the largest hop merchants, Wigan’s, commissioned a local architect, R.P Pope, to build a warehouse at no 61 capable of holding 10,000 sacks or pockets of hops and space for four wagons to be unloaded simultaneously under cover. Even that wasn’t enough and when the Hop Planters’ Joint Stock Company went bust in 1868 they took over their premises at no 15 and extended it towards the Charing Cross railway viaduct. To give you a sense of the trade, annual crops regularly reached between half and even three-quarters of a million hundredweights.

The Hop Exchange, which is at no 64,  opened in 1868 provided hop dealers with a single and central trading forum. The enormous glass roof was designed to enable trade to be conducted with the considerable benefit of natural light. According to near-contemporary reports, “the hall is approached by a short flight of steps and a vestibule with large iron gates. The business of the Exchange is transacted on the ground floor, while all round and in the three galleries are the offices of merchants and others”.

Unfortunately, on 20th October 1920 fire broke out at the Exchange, destroying the roof and upper two storeys which were never replaced. The building then sustained significant damage during the Blitz and whilst the restoration is sensitive and the building impressive, retaining the sweeping curve that made the original vaguely reminiscent of the Coliseum in Rome, it has lost the majesty and grandeur of the original. Above the main entrance is a statue of an eagle but more germane to the building’s history are the three carvings on the tympanum of the picking and transportation of hops.

Judging from the publicity shots of the interior the galleries and the central open space where the trading was transacted are extant, making the building a fascinating reminder of a vibrant trade that was conducted there.

Book Corner – August 2015 (2)

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The Third Policeman – Flann O’Brien

In a Desert Island Discs moment – cue sound of herring gulls and Eric Coates’ In a Sleepy Lagoon – I was asked what my favourite book was and without hesitation I nominated one of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I then paused for thought and concluded that there were so many literary genres that it was difficult to put one style above another. Without doubt, one my favourite comedic writers is the Irishman Brian O’Nolan aka Flann O’Brien and Myles na Gopaleen.

It was probably a combination of this rather innocent enquiry, my fulminations on Susanna Clark’s use of footnotes and my pontifications on Epicurean atomic theory that persuaded me to pick up The Third Policeman again, a novel I hadn’t read for some thirty years or so. It was submitted for publication in 1940 but timing was against it – there was a war on, don’t you know, although not in Dublin, and Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake had probably banjaxed the publisher’s zeal for surrealistic works of Irish humour – although this book is a different sort of pancake altogether . It didn’t see the light of day until 1967, a year after O’Brien’s death, an age more in tune with this dark exploration of the life, death and the inner soul, called Joe.

The twists and turns and surprises along the way are best left to the individual reader to discover. Suffice it to say that the book starts out with a brutal murder by the unnamed narrator who has a wooden leg, a key attribute as the story unfolds, and his accomplice, John Divney. The narrator returns for the murdered man’s box of goodies but then enters into another world where geometry, time, space, distance, physical laws are all to sea and the custodians of this other world are three policemen whose primary concern is bicycles and the theft thereof. The plotting is so dense and dramatic that you feel that you are reading a much longer book than its 200 or so pages.

Much of the book’s humour is to be found in its footnotes which must be read in which we explore the lunatic world of the cod savant, de Selby, held by many to be a nincompoop. De Selby hit upon the idea that if he locked himself in a room with a quantity of picture postcards and instrumentation that could alter atmospheric and climatic conditions, he could travel to Folkestone and back without stirring. Noticing that light takes a fraction of time to travel, he theorised that by constructing a series of properly aligned mirrors the viewer would see into the past -wonderful and in the context of what is happening in the narrative of the book almost logical.

A central conceit of the book is that atoms transfer from a bicycle to its rider and the policemen mount a bicycle crime-wave to reduce bicycle usage amongst those whose level of bike atom transfer is deemed to be too high.

The world in which the narrator finds himself is bizarre, amazing and yet perfectly believable and at the end the reader realises he is trapped in a Kafkaesque form of Groundhog day hell. The prose is sparse but has a lyrical, musical quality – it is really carefully crafted – that carries us along from one absurdity to the next. And it contains one of my favourite quotes which I call to mind to defeat my procrastinatory tendencies, “it is a great thing to do what is necessary before it becomes essential and unavoidable.

Is it about a bicycle? No, much more than that and a true classic.

Stuck Inside A Lexicon With The Thesaurus Blues Again

homer

When I was at university a contemporary of mine, now an eminent Classics professor at a major American uni, decided that for his PhD he would use the new-fangled computer technology to analyse the texts of Homer to nail once and for all the question of whether the Iliad, Odyssey and the Homeric hymns were written by one hand or not. You have to remember that some 40 years ago the amount of computer horse-power required to conduct such an analysis would have comfortably filled a large room, there would have been lots of whirring of drives, perhaps a little steam, and then miles of printed output on that curious light green and white striped perforated paper with holes running down each side.

Inevitably his findings caused some controversy at the time and weren’t universally accepted. For me it seemed a rather perverse line of enquiry to pursue and a questionable use of doubtless expensive and scarce computer resource. To ponder whether Homer was one person or a collective is a mildly entertaining academic past-time and can usefully occupy you at a dinner party in that time between the port running out and the coke being passed round but it misses the real point.

What is of principal interest is whether it is good poetry and to appreciate the way the composer handles language, their style, their use of imagery, what can be gleaned about the socio and political context of the time, understanding their cosmology, theism, the role of man in the world etc etc. In comparison who wrote the damn thing is about as interesting and, dare I say it, as relevant as knowing the engine make of the tube train I’m travelling on as I write this.

eminem

My thoughts travelled this direction after reading a news report that song analysts Musixmatch, after analysing 99 best-selling artists across 25 musical genres, reported that Eminem used 8,818 different words in his 100 most lyrically dense tracks. The next three places were also taken up by rappers – Jay-Z (6,899), 2Pac (6,596) and Kanye West (5,069) – whilst the icon of 60s liberalism, Bob Dylan, weighed in in 5th place, using a paltry 4,883.

My musical taste is pretty catholic – I like my music to be challenging, provocative and with something to say – but, probably because it is an age and cultural thing, I’ve never really got on with rap. After Grandmaster Flash’s Message it went downhill for me but one thing I know about the genre is that it is characterised by a stream of words coming from the rapper. It is mildly interesting, but perhaps not altogether surprising, that the pre-eminent practitioners of this musical style use a wide vocabulary.

However, the underlying message from the study, or at least the way its results were portrayed in the press, is that use and range of vocabulary equates to poetic genius ergo Eminem is significantly more accomplished a poet than Dylan. Again, an interesting discussion for a dinner party for sure but a line of argument that falls into the trap of my Homeric friend.

The hallmark of good poetry is use of language rather than diversity of vocabulary. A good poet can paint an image with very few words, by allusion, by reference, by making the reader (or listener) work on a reference. Often superficially simple poems with a limited range of vocabulary can be the most effective. Indeed, the counter argument can be made – the more words deployed, the less effective the poet.

Either way the study is another fatuous use of computer horse-power but at least it allowed me to wander back down memory lane.

Tales From The Nursery – Part Twenty Three

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Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea

The definition of a nursery rhyme is broad enough to encompass all songs and poems aimed at or adopted by young children and so Bobby Shafto (the variant spelling of Bobby’s surname comes with an e at the end) which deals with an adult subject and is sung to the tune of a catchy sea shanty probably sneaks in. The most common version goes, “Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea/ Silver buckles at his knee/ He’ll come back and marry me/ Bonny Bobby Shafto/ Bobby Shafto’s bright and fair/ Panning out his yellow hair/ He’s my love for evermore/ Bonny Bobby Shafto”.

Clearly what we have here is the lamentation of a girl besotted by the charms of Bobby Shafto but, alas, the eponymous hero is off to sea in all his finery. In those days as it is to a certain extent still today, going to sea was a dangerous enterprise with no certainty of return and even if the matelot did return it could be many months if not years later. Still our besotted damsel is certain that he will not only return but lead her down the aisle, no doubt for the couple to live happily ever after. A heart-warming vignette of love’s young dreams, to be sure.

I seem to have spent a lot of time in this series arguing that attributions of historical characters to nursery rhymes were bunkum but here we may be on somewhat safer ground as there was a distinguished Shafto family in the North East of England. Robert became Member of Parliament for County Durham following a by-election in 1760 and it appears that he traded on his nickname of Bonny Bobby Shafto.

Our Bobby made a prudent marriage, taking the hand of Anne Duncombe, the heiress to one of the richest commoners in England at the time and to Duncombe Park in Helmsley, North Yorkshire. But in making this match, Shafto is said to have ditched his fiancée, Bridget Belasyse. Poor Bridget, so the story goes, was so distraught that she died of a broken heart shortly after Robert sealed the knot with Anne. Charming as that story may be it doesn’t accord with the facts which show that Belasyse died of tuberculosis a couple of weeks before the wedding.

Shafto stood down as MP at the 1768 general election but six years later stood again, this time as a candidate for the seat of Downton in Dorset where he had landed interests through his wife. Politics was a dirty business in those days and many of the elections for the seat up until Robert’s death in 1797 were the subject of dispute with challenges through petitions to the Commons.

For the 1761 general election Shafto’s made a virtue out of necessity by adding a verse to the popular rhyme, extolling the virtues and popularity of the candidate, “All the ribbons flying about/ all the ladies looking out/ clapping their hands and giving a shout/ Hurrah for Bobby Shafto

Some have argued that the Bobby Shafto of the song was a relative from Benwell who lived between 1760 and 1781. Although the rhyme was not published until 1805 the evidence of the use of a variant in 1761 which in turn gives credence to an earlier manifestation of the version we know today makes this unlikely. And the Robert Shafto portrayed by Sir Joshua Reynolds is not our Bobby either, a confusion caused by the unimaginative use of first names by the family!

Old Codger Of The Week (4)

chamber

Old habits die hard, it seems. So regular was the custom of emptying chamber pots out of the window in mediaeval France that the pre-emptive warning, gardez l’eau, is said to have become the origin for the English colloquial description of a toilet, a loo.

I read this week that an 84 year-old, one Charles Weatherford of Evansville, Indiana, was arrested following a contretemps with a thirteen-year-old. In high dudgeon Weatherford, who kept a bowl of urine on his balcony for defence purposes, as you do, allegedly poured the contents over the lad.

He is up before the beak, the clinching evidence being the distinctive smell of urine outside his home with no obvious source. But I don’t think it is an open and shut case. In my experience, the odours of urine and moth balls are the natural bedfellows of our elderly friends. Or it might just be the pong came from his sofa.

According to furniture repair company, Guardsman, urine closely followed by vomit – ever thus in my experience – are the top two causes of stains in furniture. Red wine is only sixth on the list – perhaps we should take this with a pinch of salt – and chocolate is as low as ten. The ominous and catch-all unidentifiable is lurking at number five.

Hope he gets off!

Fauna Of The Week (2)

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The animal kingdom continues its fight back against Homo sapiens in unusual ways as these three stories which came to my attention this week show.

Spending time in chokey can’t be a barrel of fun, even if you are incarcerated on the island of Corfu and the natural inclination must be to plot your escape. Some prisoners holed up in the prison’s B wing, doubtless having watched some World War 2 movies, decided to dig out and had completed a tunnel several metres long when they were rumbled by a dog out on its morning perambulation.

The pooch stopped still and wouldn’t budge, its attention grabbed by the suspicious sounds below. Its owner called the Old Bill and the tunnel complete with prisoners, battery-powered fans and plastic containers of food was discovered.

Spare a thought for poor Turkish president, Recep Erdogan. Opening a new mosque in Rize on the Black Sea he released some birds, as seems to be the custom. Alas, one – a partridge –  startled by its release flew straight into his head. Both parties seem to have emerged from the encounter unscathed. Would have been funny to see what would have happened if the bird had flown into the barnet of Republican presidential hopeful, Donald Trump.

And, finally, four people were gored to death last weekend during bull runs across Spain, bringing the total over the summer to ten. It promises to be one of the deadliest bull-running seasons on record. It is being suggested that with the closure of bull-fighting arenas due to austerity cuts in Spain, the larger bulls that were bred for encounters with matadors are being released to participate in the more anarchic bull runs.

Maybe or it may just be that the bulls are able to get their own back for once.

But just to prove they’re not getting it all their own way, the ground-dwelling night parrot, which had not been spotted for just over one hundred years and which was feared to be extinct has been spotted in Queensland, condemning it to being pursued by twitchers. The key to it not being seen might just be in its name!