Plastic Bag Tax Dodge Of The Week


I have written before about the iniquity of the 5p tax imposed on plastic bags but I found a snippet in the news this week that warmed the cockles of my heart.

Card Factory, the rather down market purveyor of greetings cards, have found a loophole. If they snip off the handles on the plastic carrier bag, they don’t need to charge for it and, they claim, officials from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have confirmed that that is a correct interpretation of the law as it stands.

This sort of ingenuity is what has made this country what it is although I can’t see why shops just don’t use paper bags. The fight back continues!

Champion Of The Week


I had assumed that the World Sumo Championship was akin to the Baseball World series – an attempt by the marketing Johnnies to give a peculiarly local pastime the veneer of global appeal. The winner would always be Japanese just as the winners of the World Series are always American. Just shows how wrong I can be judging by Japan’s reaction to the crowning of Kotogoshiku as champion for winning the top division makuuchi championship last Sunday.

The champ is the first Japanese born Sumo wrestler to win the Emperor’s Cup in a decade and when he threw his opponent, Goeido, to the ground to take an unassailable lead, he sparked off wild celebrations. It is hoped that this home-grown success will reignite interest in this ancient sport amongst the Japanese young.

The first threat to Japanese dominance came in the 1990s with the arrival of Konishiki and other heavies from Hawaii and in the last decade the crown has been the preserve of Mongolian wrestlers, principally bad boy Asashoryu.

The hope is that the home-grown assault on the Mongolian ascendancy has begun. We’ll see.

What Is The Origin Of (82)?…


Mum’s the word

Don’t tell anyone but I’m going to reveal the origin of the phrase mum’s the word which we use to exhort someone to silence and secrecy. The first thing to get straight is that the reference to mum has nothing to do with your maternal ancestor. Your mother isn’t being used as a code word for keeping quiet.

Rather mum is a hangover from the Middle English word mum which meant silence and once we realise that the meaning of our phrase becomes crystal clear. Some have attempted to derive mum from the noise mmm which we make when we try to speak through a closed mouth but this seems a bit far-fetched when there is a similar word in Old High German, stum, which is suggestive of  a common ancestry. In more modern German the word became stumm and itself became the origin for the phrase keep schtum, which didn’t appear in print until 1958 as shtoom.

Another myth to dispel is that our mum shares the same root with mummer, a type of play which has been popular in Britain since at least mediaeval times. These plays were broadly comedic in nature and the action focused around the death and resurrection of a principal character – you can readily see the analogy to the Christian gospel. The characters were stereotypical, one representing good – Saint George – and the other evil – a Turkish knight or rogue soldier. Relatively few mummers groups remain today, their traditions being kept alive by Morris and sword dancing groups.

What the mummers’ plays were not were mimes, although no actual scripts are extant, and were likely to be raucous and lively affairs with, probably, a high degree of what we would term today audience participation. Once the mummers’ performance was over the hat was passed around. It could be quite lucrative work, some reports suggesting that three days’ performances would raise the equivalent of a month’s wages for a player.

Mummer is derived from the Early New High German verb, mummer, meaning a disguised person, a clear reference to the tradition of the mummers wearing costume and sometimes masks or hats which shrouded their faces. Another verb sharing the same root is vermummer which means to wrap up or to mask or disguise your face.

The first appearance of the word mum as silence in literature is fairly early, around 1376, in William Langland’s poem Piers Plowman, “Thou mightiest better meten the myst on Malvern hylls/ than geten a mom of heore mouth til moneye weore schewed”, which translates as “you may as well measure the mists on Malvern hills as to try and get her to speak until you offer her payment”.

It was not until 1540 and John Palgrave’s translation of The Comedye of Acolastus that we come across a variant of our phrase, “I dare not to do so moche as put my hande to my mouthe, and say mum, is counseyle”.  The Bard of Stratford used mum to denote silence in Henry VI, Part 2 published in 1592, “Seal up your lips and give no words but mum”. The first instance of the use of the phrase mum’s the word to caution someone to keep silent appeared in A Walk Around London and Westminster, published in 1720, “But Mum’s the word – for who would speak their mind amongst Tarrs and commissioners”.

But keep that under your hat!

The Streets Of London – Part Thirty Four


Abchurch Lane, EC3

Running between Lombard Street and Cannon Street, Abchurch Lane is cut into two by King William Street. The lane is first mentioned in records in 1291 as Abbechurche Lane, the church being at the southern or Cannon Street end. It is thought that the name derived from aa corruption of Upchurch as the church is on a slight incline. An alternative theory is that the original church was dedicated to one Abbe or Abbo, but this is probably unlikely. Given its location the lane has a long pedigree – excavations for a sewer in 1855 there revealed a stretch of Roman ragstone wall eleven metres long.

At its corner with Lombard Street stood Mr Edward Lloyd’s coffee shop which had relocated from Tower Street in around 1691. The nascent insurance industry and the brokers and traders it attracted ensured that the lane had a plentiful supply of coffee shops.

Over the centuries the lane was the place to go to eat. Early in the 18th century its principal attraction, at least according to John Webster’s Northward Hoe of 1607, were the cakes sold by Mother Wells from her shop there. A century later you would find the esteemed French eating house, Pontack’s, which was patronised by the likes of John Evelyn, Christopher Wren and Jonathan Swift. The hallmark of the restaurant was good food and wine at reasonable prices which the patron, Monsieur Pontack, was not shy in pointing out to guests as Swift relates in his Journal to Stella, “I was this day in the City, and dined at Pontack’s ..Pontack told us, although his wine was so good, he sold it cheaper than others; he took but seven shillings a flask. Are these not pretty rates?” Pontack’s hosted dinners of the Royal Society until 1746 when they moved to the Devil Tavern in Temple Bar.

And if you didn’t want to eat you could buy a cure for worms in the form of a powder made and sold by John Moore who lived in the street. Moore was on the receiving end of Alexander Pope’s wit and satire but at least the lane got a namecheck, “Oh learned friend of Abchurch Lane/ Who sett’st our entrails free/ Vain is thy art, thy powder vain/ Since worms will eat e’en thee”.

But the real jewel in the lane’s crown is to be found at the Cannon Street end where you will find the marvellous Wren church of St Mary Abchurch. The original church was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666 but was rebuilt under Wren’s supervision between 1681 and 1686. It is built of red brick with a four storey 51 foot tower with leaded spire. Inside the ceiling is a dome pierced by four windows, decorated with stunning paintings by William Snow culminating in a centrepiece with a golden glow and the name of God in Hebrew script.


The piece de resistance, though, for me is the wonderful altar piece by my favourite wood carver, Grinling Gibbons, pace St Paul’s, the only example of the craftsman’s art to be found in a London church. The original high box pews on three sides of the church are also worth seeing. The church was hit during the Blitz, the dome taking most of the blast, but, thankfully, it has been restored to its former glory.

Shaggy Bear Story


The Revenant

To the Vue in Camberley to see the film that has 12 Oscar nominations, the Revenant, starring Leonardo di Caprio. I will never again moan about having a bad day at the office. Nothing can remotely compare with what di Caprio’s character, Hugh Glass endured – a savage mauling by a bear, being left for dead, plunging down a waterfall and plunging down a ravine on a horse are just a few of the trials and tribulations that he had to endure.

There is a historical basis to this film. Hugh Glass whilst scouting for game in what is now Perkins County in South Dakota was attacked by a grizzly bear in 1823. Despite managing to kill the bear he was left for dead by his companions. Glass regained consciousness and managed to set his own broken leg and to prevent the onset of gangrene laid his back on a rotten log filled with maggots, letting them eat the rotten flesh. They left the healthy flesh alone.

According to the contemporary records – he was illiterate so was unable to leave his own written account – Glass crawled his way to the nearest American settlement, Fort Kiora, some 200 miles away, living on wild berries and roots and the occasional scavenged piece of meat. He magnanimously spared the two companions who deserted him and died some 10 years after his ordeal, in an attack by Arikara in Yellowstone.

Inevitably, the film plays fast and loose with Glass’ story. There is no evidence that he had a child, let alone with a Pawnee woman. The film transports the action from South Dakota to the more photogenic British Columbia and moves his trek from August to October to deepest winter. And the main storyline is about revenge and retribution; tracking down and giving Fitzgerald his just deserts.

As a film it is stunning, beautifully shot with glorious scenery which makes up for a story that moves at a glacial pace. The warmth of human breath misting up the camera lens is a nice touch to emphasise the coldness of the weather, if you hadn’t worked it out for yourself from the incessant snowfalls and permafrost. The music is sparse and suitably atmospheric – a single drum beat stokes up the tension. On the other hand, there are more grunts and groans in the soundtrack than you would expect to hear in a third-rate porno movie. And the shift in seasons and the problems that Glass faces and overcomes make it harder to believe that he came through alive, never mind in some sort of shape to conduct his campaign of revenge.

And then there is the fight with the bear. It is truly frightening and graphic in its detail but ends with a moment of comedy as the bear flops like a fur overthrow on top of the poor lacerated Glass. Di Caprio plays his part well and it is hard to think what he has to do to win an Oscar if he doesn’t get one here. Tom Hardy also gives an impressive performance as the racist, baddie, Fitzgerald who kills Glass’ son and abandons the film’s hero.

But my fundamental problem with the film, despite its dazzling technical accomplishments, was that it was difficult to feel empathy with Glass. It was too much of a shaggy bear story to be believable.

I Predict A Riot – Part Two


The St Scholastica Day Riot – 1355

Relations between town and gown have always been fractious but this set-to damaged relations between the varsity and town for centuries and the series of events triggered by a fairly trivial and localised event had serious and bloody repercussions.

John of Barford or de Bereford, who happened to be mayor at the time, was the landlord of the appropriately named Swindlestock Tavern in Oxford on a site, even more appositely occupied by a branch of the Santander banking group. On February 10th, St Scholastica day, two undergraduates, Walter Spryngeheuse and Roger de Chesterfield, visited the hostelry and complained to mine host about the poor quality of the wines being served. Consumer rights being non-existent at the time John stood his ground and responded to the complaints with “stubborn and saucy language”. In response the undergraduates reacted in the only way Oxford men know, by throwing their cups at the landlord’s head and beating him senseless.

The locals came to the aid of the stricken landlord and had the bells of St Martin’s at Carfax rung – the City church – to summon the townsmen to arms. In retaliation the University authorities rang the bells of St Mary’s in the High street – the university church – to call the undergrads to arms. Battle then commenced and both sides, according to contemporary reports, made good use of bows and arrows.

The following day the mayor went off to nearby Woodstock to summon the King’s aid while a mob of some 2,000 came from the surrounding countryside to assist the townsfolk. As they marched towards the University they shouted “Slea, slea..havock, havock..smyte fast, give gode knocks”. The locals broke into the academic halls, killing scholars. The melee continued until the 12th when order was eventually restored but by then 62 scholars had been killed and possibly around 30 of the locals.

The king, Edward III, lauched an investigation and the dispute was eventually settled – in the university’s favour, perhaps inevitably. Under the settlement the Mayor and Bailiffs of Oxford were required to attend Mass for the souls of the dead scholars every St Scholastica Day thereafter and to renew an oath respecting th eUniversity’s privileges. Such an oath had been in existence since 1213 when three clerks were murdered by townsfolk.

The mayor and bailiffs together with 62 citizens representing the scholars who had been slain would march bareheaded to the University Church of St Mary the Virgin where they were met by the Vice Chancellor, the vicar and the University proctors and registrar. The students would line the street and jeer and pelt the entourage with objects. The townsfolk were then required to hand over a penny for each scholar who died in the riot. This rather iniquitous penance, given the original cause of the riot, continued until 1825 when the then mayor refused to take part. As no action was taken against him, the “tradition” died a natural death.

In an act of reconciliation in 1955 to mark the 600th anniversary of the riot the mayor was given an honorary degree and the Vice Chancellor was made a freeman of the city. The legacy of the St Scholastica Day riot, lingered on. Cuthbert Bede’s novel, The Adventures of Mr Verdant Green, published in the 1850s, tells us that the students even then saw the day as an opportunity to confront the locals and relations between town and gown have ever since been fraught, to the extent that certain hostelries were designated no go areas for the students.

Forty Days And Forty Nights – Part Seventeen


The Black Death – 1347 to 1350

The outbreak in 1347 was the first manifestation of the second great plague pandemic that occurred between the 14th and 18th centuries CE. The plague was brought to the Crimea from Asia Minor by the Tartar armies of Khan Janiberg. As a farewell present to the citizens of Kaffa who had successfully resisted their siege the Tartars catapulted corpses of those who had died from the disease over the walls. The Genoese traders who were there fled “with the sickness clinging to their bones”to Constantinople and then on to Messina where the great European pandemic started. By 1348 it had reached southern and northern France and Germany and a year later was affecting England, Spain and Norway and by 1350 was ravaging eastern Europe. Meanwhile the Tartars took their disease with them to Russia and India.

Between 1347 and 1350 it is estimated that the Black Death killed over 25 million in Europe or around a quarter of the population with a further 25 million succumbing in Asia and Africa. Death rates were even higher in major conurbations where the disease could spread more easily with cities such as Florence, Venice and Paris losing upwards of half of their citizenry. A second recurrence in 1361, the pestis secunds, accounted for another 10 to 20% of Europe’s population. It was not util the 16th century that Europe’s population reached its pre-pandemic level of 1290.

Giovanni Boccaccio in his book Decameron – a collection of tales told by Florentines who have gone into hiding to escape the ravages of the plague – gives us a first-hand description of the disease. “in men and women alike it first betrayed itself by the emergence of certain tumours in the groin or armpits. Some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg, some more, some less, which the common folk call gavocciolo. From the two said parts of the body this deadly gavocciolo soon began to propagate and spread itself in all directions indifferently; after which the form of the malady began to change, black spots or livid making their appearance in many cases on the arm or the thigh or elsewhere…

The disease at the time was known prosaically as pestilentia or the pestilence. It was only much later that the pandemic acquired its more lurid nomenclature, possibly in reference to the haemorrhagic purpura and ischaemic gangrene of the limbs which often followed septicaemia. Italians called it mortalega grande, the great mortality.

So many victims died so quickly that the authorities were unable to bury the bodies individually and so corpses were often thrown into large communal pits or lay putrefying where they had died. For the superstitious the prospect of missing a burial and condemning their soul to eternal damnation was a more horrifying prospect than death itself. There being no obvious explanation for the plague gave the peccatogenesists a field day. The plague was punishment from God for their sins and immoral behaviour. Processions of flagellants were a common sight, whipping themselves with nail embedded scourges and chanting prayers and hymns as they moved from village to village, doubtless spreading the plague with them.

Medical knowledge was scanty at the time and so there were very few effective remedies – at least the inhalation of vapours from flowers and herbs could keep the disease at bay – and so there was a golden opportunity for quacks to peddle useless cures or magical amulets to the desperate.

Some good did come from the plague. Labour was so scarce that labourers were able to demand much higher wages from the aristocratic landlords and so contributed to breaking do the erstwhile rigid divisions between the upper and lower classes, allowing a new middle class to emerge.