What Is The Origin Of (80)?…


Fair to middling

How are you after Christmas? You might respond by saying you are fair to middling, a phrase, along with some of its  variants which we will explore later on, suggesting that on the spectrum between excellent and poor you are slightly better than average.

The term fair has been used since the 18th century to describe agricultural produce. John Mortimer in 1707 in his farming handbook entitled The Whole Art of Husbandry, exhorts the farmer “as you gather your fruit, separate the fairest and biggest from the middling”. The implication is that by that time what was described as fair was bigger or superior to what was classified as middling.

Middling’s provenance seems to have been Scottish and has been in use since at least the 15th century with the sense of being of medium or moderate quality, strength or size. The first recorded instance of its usage is in the Marquis of Bute’s Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, published in 1450.

Although these are the component parts our phrase seems to be American. Farmers have always been keen to grade their produce and developed a series of phrases to denote the relative quality of their produce. So taking the already well established quality descriptors, fair and middling, they established a category which is slap bang in the middle of the two, fair to middling. The earliest use of the phrase dates back to 1829 when John Stuart Skinner in a market report on the sale of castrated rams for the journal The American Farmer, reported, “two or three lots of good wethers brought from $2.50 to $3 per head, and a few lots of fair to middling $1.50 to $2”.

But the farming community didn’t stop there in their search for terms to describe their produce. Good fair, for example, was used to describe foodstuff or stock which was somewhere between good and fair as can be seen in this entry in Beeton’s Dictionary of Commerce of 1873 in describing cotton, “good fair to good saw-ginned Surat cotton”.

Of the variants of the phrase fair to middlin’  is just a lazy colloquialism. Fair to Midlands, though, needs some further examination. In purely geographical terms the Midlands is used to describe the area that is in the middle of the terrain and so equates to middling. It is possible that someone somewhere saw it as an amusing variant to middling and it stuck. There is an American rock band called Fair to Milands and in 1935 the New York Times described Doctor William Twedell as “what might be called a fair-to-Midlands golfer”.

Conversely, you may be feeling below par, a term meaning substandard, inferior or below the norm. These days the terms par has been appropriated by the Doctor Twedells of this world and those whom Mark Twain gloriously described as spoiling a long walk, the golfers. But par has been in use since the late 16th century with a meaning of equality of value or standing. It wasn’t appropriated by the golfing fraternity until the late 19th century where it is used to refer to the standard score assigned to a hole or the course as a whole which golfers are trying to better. What is interesting is that it is a golfer’s ambition to shoot a score below par whereas outside the golfing context being  below par is something to be avoided.

Happy New Year!

Book Corner – December 2015 (4)


Margaret Thatcher – Volume Two – Charles Moore

This is the second volume of what is now going to be a three-volume biography of Thatcher. Rather apologetically Lord Snooty (as he was known at college) confesses that he had too much material to fit into his original concept of a two-volume opus. Typical of the Tories – once they get a sniff of power they don’t want to let go!

Sub-titled after an 80’s ditty by Wham! Everything She Wants it could be better called Thatch In Excelsis as the period under consideration, her second administration of 1983 to 1987, saw her at the height of her powers. The problem for Moore is that whilst the formative influences of Thatcher which formed the major part of the first volume were fairly untrodden ground for many of us and therefore had a certain level of interest, the subject matter of the second volume is is fairly familiar ground for even the most casual student of politics. And to make up for this Moore goes into overdrive with his research, producing not only an authoritative account of the time but also providing a fascinating insight into the workings of government.

If there is one abiding impression that the reader takes away it is of the indefatigable energy which Thatcher brought to the premiership. Not for her governing by kitchen cabinet or chillaxing in front of the fire playing Angry Birds. In just one week before Christmas 1984 she had a ground-breaking meeting with Gorbachev at Chequers, then flew to Beijing to sign an agreement on the future of Hong Kong, then went to the colony to explain it to the worried denizens, stopped off at Hawaii and insisted that her sleepy guests took her to Pearl Harbour and then flew on to Camp David to meet Reagan. It is exhausting just reading it all.

Without doubt Thatcher had a major part in engineering a rapprochement between Russia and the States, circumventing Reagan’s obsession with the star wars initiative and recognising that the new Soviet leader was someone the West could do business with. Her relationship with Reagan was not all plain sailing – she felt bitterly betrayed when the former Hollywood actor ordered the invasion of Grenada. She started arguing for Mandela’s release in 1984 by taking P W Botha on.

Conversely, though, her record at home is less glorious. The miners’ strike split the country apart and whilst Scargill and co were somewhat naïve in their determination to pick a fight, Moore cannot gloss over the fact that in the detail of their pre-strike planning the government were not concerned if one came a long and were prepared to see it through to the bitter end.

The book covers the IRA’s unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Thatcher at the Grand Hotel in Brighton and one has to admire her for getting up, brushing herself off and carrying on. But the seeds of her eventual downfall are all too evident in this book. Her disdain of many of her colleagues, her playing fast and loose with the facts  – the account of the Westland helicopter crisis shows that she was somewhat economical with the actualite and that had there been an effective opposition (now where have we heard that before) she could easily have been called to account and possibly made to resign –  and the contempt in which she was regarded in intellectual circles – the thing that hurt her most was the refusal of Oxford University to award her an honorary degree – would eventually bring her down.

But not in this book. Moore’s perspective is from that of the right. There is little left-wing analysis in his account and unless you lived through the period the pure hatred she generated in some quarters would be hard to imagine from his account.

Moore has done a good job in making much more familiar material interesting and it is a better read than you might otherwise expect. Can’t wait for the third volume and her fall!

A New Day Yesterday – Part Eleven


A month or so into retirement are there things I miss? Here is my starter for nine.

What I am not missing

  • Getting up at 5.09 am. Strange to relate so ingrained are my sleep patterns into my circadian rhythm that I find I still wake up around that time and then spend the next couple of hours tossing and turning in a vain attempt to fall back into the arms of Morpheus. I thought that when I packed up work I would spend the next four months in semi-hibernation, catching up on all the sleep lost over decades to wage slavery. But it doesn’t seem to be happening at the moment. And I am still falling asleep during the evening on the settee. Despite not sleeping as much as I thought I would there is still something deeply comforting in the knowledge that even though I’m awake I don’t have to get up.
  • Catching the 5.56 from Farnborough to Waterloo. This 12 carriage train had enough space to ensure you got a seat but it was often like a scene from a horror movie with bodies stretched out all over the place, desperately trying to catch a few zeds.
  • South West trains’ inventiveness in coming up with excuses for the delay or cancellation of their services. Cancelled due to emergency improvement works was always my favourite.
  • Business lunches, eating over-priced sub-standard fare with people you don’t really want to be with on the off-chance that you might sell them something. No thanks! And I have managed to shift half a stone!
  • Dreadful London pubs, serving warm beer to undiscerning clients. We are so lucky to have a wonderful local near Blogger Towers. Long may it continue!

What I am missing

  • My daily cup of coffee from Moo La La on the London side of Farnborough station, served by the cheery Karen. I am getting withdrawal symptoms just writing this.
  • Structure to the day. Whether you realise it or not, when working your day is compartmentalised. Time to think and write my blog on the journey, work, leisure reading on the journey back. Perhaps, psychologically, I need that discipline because I find that in a more relaxed environment it takes longer to achieve things. I’m all at sea!
  • Culture on the doorstep. One of the joys of working in London was that there are so many world-class art galleries and museums on the doorstep where, when you want to escape from the madness of the working day, you can lose yourself for an hour. Now , rusticated in Blogger Towers a trip to any gallery is an expedition and a speculative visit to see some new-fangled modern artist whom you are going to hate seems a bit too much effort. I just hope that I will make the most of my membership cards.
  • Bumping into people on the street. Walking along Fenchurch Street and Lime Street I would always bump into someone from my past. Always unexpected and generally a pleasure.

In management speak, that is my balanced scorecard. Room for improvement, methinks.

It’s The Way I Tell ‘Em (23)


It is the run up to the Festival of Mammon and we all need a bit of light relief so here goes:

  • Progress is made by lazy people looking for an easier way to do things.
  • What is the difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.
  • For every action there is a corresponding over-reaction.
  • I’m a very humble person. I am actually much greater than I think I am.
  • People tend to make rules for others and exceptions for themselves.
  • Only dead fish go with the flow
  • The easiest job in the world has to be a coroner. Surgery on dead people. What is the worst that could happen? If everything went wrong, may be you would get a pulse.
  • Foreign Aid. The transfer of money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.
  • True friendship comes when the silence between two people is comfortable.
  • The trouble with being punctual is that no one is there to appreciate it.
  • Just about the time you can make ends meet, someone moves the ends.
  • A fine is a tax for doing wrong. Tax is a fine for doing well.
  • I have to exercise early in the morning before my brain figures out what I’m doing.
  • Why is a bra singular and panties plural?
  • I am a vegetarian not because I love animals. I’m a vegetarian because I hate plants.
  • The trouble with doing something right for the first time is that no one appreciates how difficult it was.
  • Sometimes when I reflect on all the beer I drink I feel ashamed. Then I look into the glass and think about the workers in the brewery and all their hopes and dreams. If I didn’t drink beer, they would be out of work and their dreams would be shattered. It is better for me to drink this beer and let their dreams come true than worry about my liver.
  • Never agree to plastic surgery if the doctor’s surgery is full of Picassos.
  • There are two kinds of people who don’t say much: those who are quiet and those who talk a lot.
  • The time you stop believing in Father Christmas is when you start getting clothes for Christmas.

Happy Christmas!

Tales From The Nursery – Part Twenty Nine


Christmas is coming

I suppose it is apt at this time of the year to consider this nursery rhyme which goes as follows: “Christmas is coming/ The goose is getting fat;/ Please put a penny/ In the old man’s hat/ If you haven’t got a penny/ A ha’penny will do./ If you haven’t got a ha’penny /God bless you”.

A goose – never been a favourite of mine, too fatty – has been a regular feature of feasts since at least the time of the Celts but it has gone in and out of favour. Queen Elizabeth 1 ordered her subjects to eat goose for their Christmas dinner in 1588 to celebrate the defeat of the Spanish Armada. What this suggests is that at the time goose was fairly expensive and, probably because of that, not the meal of choice for the working man. If that wasn’t so then there would be no need to directly command the populace to eat the bird.

By the Georgian period goose was firmly on the menu and by the early Victorian times it was the Christmas meal of choice (or necessity) for the working poor, witness Dickens’ description of the Cratchitt’s Christmas repast in the Christmas Carol, “There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t think there was ever such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family indeed”.

Christmas is a time when we are supposed to be charitable and bear good will to all men and for mendicants it was, presumably, a period of maximum opportunity. Boxing Day, probably, owes its name to the tradition whereby the masters gave their servants a day off and a box of goodies. A box was traditionally placed in a church on Christmas Day to collect for the poor and the contents were distributed to the needy on the following day. But our rhyme is not one of passive acceptance. The voice is actively soliciting aid. The time sequencing of the rhyme does not support the Boxing Day charitable theory because clearly the mendicant is speaking before rather than after Christmas. I think we have here an example of entrepreneurial begging.

The origins of this rhyme are somewhat difficult to trace because it does not appear in the usual Georgian and Victorian collections of rhymes. Indeed, its first appearance in print is as late as 1882 in a periodical called Bye-Gones which was a publication relating to Wales and the Border Counties. It appears again in 1883 in C.S Burne and G.F.Jackson’s Shropshire Folklore, with the note that it was collected in Oswestry.

These lyrics did not contain a melody but Edith Nesbit Bland, better known for writing the Railway Children, wrote one as did Henry Walford Davis. The rhyme really took off in popularity when it was included in the Kingston Trio’s 1960 album, The Last Month of the Year. The sleeve notes caim that it was sung as the hat was passed round for donations.

Probably the rhyme was local to the Border Counties before it gained national prominence in the late 19th century. As for an origin it probably dates back to a time when goose was the popular Christmas fare which suggests the late Georgian or early Victorian period. But I could be wrong!

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


Almack’s Assembly Rooms

These Assembly Rooms were to be found on King Street in St James’, the fashionable district just off Pall Mall, and opened on 20th February 1765. It was advertised as having been built with hot bricks and boiling water and the ceilings were said to be dripping wet. Notwithstanding that, just a few days after its opening Gilly Williams was writing, “there is now opened at Almack’s, in three elegant newly built rooms, a ten-guinea subscription for which you have a ball and supper once a week, for twelve weeks”. He went on, “the men’s tickets are not transferable, so, if the ladies do not like us, they have no opportunity of changing us..

The rooms were named after their founder, William Almack who had changed his surname from Macall to avoid the opprobrium that all things Scottish met with at the time. The key distinguishing feature of the club in its earliest manifestation was that it was home to a ladies’ club where both sexes met to gamble and dance in the great room. Amounts gambled were prodigious – a Mr Thynne was said to have won so much in a year that he was able to pay off all his debts, buy a house and furnish it. The club became a byword for extravagance and avarice.

Almack’s soon declined in popularity, being eclipsed by the Pantheon (more of which anon), and in the 1790s re-launched itself, dispensing with the ladies’ club and the excessive gambling. Instead it became a venue for dances and assemblies. It soon became the place for a young lady to be seen to be, emphasising her position in fashionable society, and for gentlemen to come to find a suitable wife. Not before long Almack’s was nick-named the marriage mart.

Not any Tom, Dick or Harry or Henrietta could turn up at Almack’s. You needed to buy an annual voucher and to obtain this highly prized symbol of acceptance into the highest ranks of society you had to be approved by a committee of some six or seven high-ranking ladies who ruled Almack’s and who met on Monday evenings to go through the list of applicants. Subscribers could bring a guest on a Stranger’s voucher, but only if the guest had been approved by the all-powerful committee of harridans. To be accepted was your ticket to the upper echelons of fashionable society. To lose your subscription was little more than social ostracism.

The club had rules which were strictly enforced no matter who you were. Supper was served at 11pm and the Duke of Wellington was famously turned away for arriving too late. If you turned up at Almack’s looking for a gastronomic delight you would be sorely disappointed. Supper consisted of bread and butter and fairly plain cake with just tea or lemonade to drink. The acceptable dress for gentlemen was knee breeches, white cravat and chapeau bras, a three-cornered flat silk hat usually carried under the arm.

To avoid any suggestions of impropriety dancing was limited to country dances such as reels. It was only in 1815 that more intimate dances such as the waltz and the quadrille were introduced.

In 1871 the new owner of the Assembly Rooms named them after himself, Willis’s Rooms. The site was damaged in the 1940 blitz and totally destroyed in 1944. There is an office block on the site which bears a brass plaque commemorating the existence of Almack’s.

Almack’s made frequent appearances in the literature and Charles Dickens, in Bleak House, refers to   even the formidable committee of lady patronesses who ran the club as being powerless to stop the easterly wind and its accompanying dirt spreading across London.

It’s The Way I Tell ‘Em (22)


It is the run up to the Festival of Mammon and we all need a bit of light relief so here goes:

  • Worrying works. 90% of what I worry about never happens.
  • If in doubt, mumble.
  • (For TOWT) a bargain is something you don’t need at a price you can’t resist.
  • Knowledge is power and power corrupts. So study hard and be evil.
  • You’re such a good friend that if we were on a ship that was sinking and there was only one life jacket left, I would miss you terribly and think of you lots.
  • I like work. It fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.
  • A bus is a vehicle that goes twice as fast when you are after it than when you are in it.
  • I don’t suffer from insanity. I enjoy every minute of it.
  • Good health is merely the slowest possible rate at which you will die.
  • Children seldom misquote you. In fact they usually quote word for word what you shouldn’t have said.
  • I have never understood why women like cats. They are independent, don’t listen, don’t come in when you call them, they like to stay out all night and when they come home, they like to sleep and be left alone. Precisely all the qualities women hate in men.
  • It is hard to understand why a cemetery increases its burial costs and blames it on the cost of living.
  • Why didn’t Noah swat those two mosquitoes?
  • It is amazing how all the news that happens in a day always fits a newspaper exactly.
  • Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.
  • Definition of an archaeologist. Someone whose career lies in ruins.
  • The probability of someone watching you is proportional to the stupidity of your actions.
  • We are all time travellers, moving exactly at the speed of 60 minutes an hour.
  • To err is human, to blame it on someone else shows management potential.
  • It matters not whether you win or lose. It matters whether I win or lose.

To be continued.