Green Initiative Of The Week


This Wednesday (27th) was King’s Day in Amsterdam which gave the Dutch another excuse to don the orange – they never need much of an excuse in my experience – hold a street party and quaff gallons of ale – a special weak event ale is produced for the occasion – to celebrate the birthday of King Willem-Alexander.

With over a million joining in the revelries in Amsterdam and with what is ingested inevitably having to be evacuated, the city water board, Waternet, has come up with an innovative idea for recycling the larger than normal quantities of urine passed during the celebrations. They collected the phosphate-rich urine, around 44,000 pints, at three major locations, including Vondelpark, and intend to extract nutrients from it to produce fertiliser. They estimate they will be able to recycle enough to fertilise an area the equivalent of ten thousand football pitches.

Only male urine will do, however. Apparently, female urine is trickier to recycle because of the amount of toilet paper that comes with it.

This is the sort of green initiative I am happy to contribute to!

Tales From The Nursery – Part Thirty Six


Diddle, diddle, dumpling, my son John

Today’s rhyme goes, “diddle, diddle, dumpling, my son John,/ went to bed with his trousers on/ one shoe off, the other shoe on/diddle, diddle, dumpling, my son John”. At first glance this is a rather inconsequential rhyme, describing the rather disorderly attempt by the child John to get himself to bed. Not only has he kept his trousers on but has clambered into bed wearing one of his two shoes. No doubt this is not an unfamiliar state of affairs when small children seize the initiative and try to do things for themselves.

But the key to unlocking what meaning there is to the rhyme is to understand the meaning of the word diddle. One of the many joys of being a grandparent is to watch the little one take their first tentative steps. BoJ2 is just about to start on his bipedal journey with all the bumps and scrapes that that will entail. And the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives a definition of diddle, albeit an obsolete usage, as “to walk unsteadily, as a child; to toddle = daddle”. It was certainly used in 1632 in this sense, “and when his forward strength began to bloom/ to see him diddle up and down the room”.

Somewhere along the line by the turn of the 19th century diddle had developed another meaning, to cheat or swindle. Quite how that came about is unclear but, perhaps, the tentative steps of a toddler were seen as an ersatz form of walking. In 1825 diddle was used in a context which was suggestive of wasting time and in 1879 was used to describe the act of sex. There is little doubt that the rhyme requires the original, now obsolete, meaning of diddle.

In these more politically correct times it is rather frowned upon to make explicit reference to some of the physical characteristics of a person but when the rhyme was first published, in The Newest Christmas Box of 1797, there were no such sensibilities. The OED provides us with a clue again, defining the word as “a dumpy animal or person, short and of rounded outlines”. In 1828 it was defined as “a little fat child or person, as broad as long”. Of course, babies and toddlers tend to be on the chubby side and we can perhaps view the usage in the rhyme as a term of endearment rather than pejorative.

There are variants to the rhyme. A version published in Denslow’s Mother Goose has the opening as “deedle, deedle, dumpling” and the 1916 The Real Mother Goose replaces trousers with breeches and shoes with stockings. The 1850 version of the rhyme, published in Harry’s Ladder To Learning, has breeches and shoes while a Scottish version, published in 1904 in A Book for Bairns, has trowsers and the rhyme starting, “hey diddle dumplin’”.

It has been suggested that the genesis of the rhyme came from the cry of one of the many street vendors who wandered the streets advertising their wares, “diddle, diddle, diddle dumpling”. That may be so but other than the obvious alliteration there is nothing in the sense of diddle to support such a claim. When we looked at hey diddle diddle, though, there was a suggestion that it referred to a dance. All very confusing!

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


Angelo Mariani and John Pemberton

Colombian Marching Powder aka Cocaine is an illicit substance in many parts of the world these days but just 150 years ago some quacks were keen to market its medicinal properties.

The first half of our unholy duo is Angelo Mariani, a French chemist, who in the early 1860s was fascinated with coca and its effects. By 1863 he had come up with a hooch which went by the name of Vin Mariani or to give it its full title, Vin Tonique Mariani (a la Coca du Perou). A mix of Bordeaux wine and coca leaves, the ethanol acted as an agent extracting the cocaine from the leaves. It must have been a heady mix as it contained 6 milligrams of cocaine for every fluid ounce of wine. The colourful advertisements, often featuring girls dancing whilst sipping the red tincture from a glass, boasted that it would restore health, energy, strength and vitality.


It sold like hot cakes and the list of its users included the great and the good. Queen Victoria was partial to a drop as were the Popes, Leo XIII and Saint Pius X. Pope Leo even went so far as to award Mariani the Vatican gold medal and appeared on a poster endorsing the wine. The headline, Pope on Coke, clearly had a different impact in those more innocent times and was a boon to sales in Catholic countries. Thomas Edison claimed, not unsurprisingly given the contents, that it helped to stay awake longer and Ulysses S Grant found it useful in writing his memoirs, a sentiment anyone unfortunate enough to read them would readily understand.

In attempting to crack the export market Mariani had to up the cocaine content to 7.2 milligrams a fluid ounce to compete with some of the cocaine based drinks available in the United States. And this is where our other quack, former Confederate colonel John Pemberton, comes in. Addicted to morphine following on from his war wounds Pemberton was keen to find an alternative to the opiate. Almost certainly inspired by Mariani’s tincture, Pemberton developed his prototype drink, registered in 1885 as French Wine Coca Nerve Tonic, at the Eagle Drug and Chemical House in Columbus in Georgia.


Timing is everything and in 1886 the state of Georgia passed prohibition legislation that, you might think, would have sounded the death-knell for Pemberton’s hooch. But think again. Pemberton simply removed the alcoholic content from his drink and relaunched it as Coca-cola. It was dispensed from soda fountains at five cents a glass and was marketed as a patent medicine. The early advertisements proclaimed that it would cure amongst other things morphine addiction, dyspepsia, neurasthenia, headaches and impotence. Pemberton’s potion cashed in on the belief in America that carbonated water was good for your health.

Coca-cola was heavily marketed. In 1888 tickets were printed and distributed entitling the bearer to one glass of free Coca-cola at the fountain of any genuine dispenser of the drink. By 1913 8.5 million of the tickets had been redeemed. The product was well on the road to global domination.

Coca-cola, of course, is now one of the world’s leading carbonated drinks and it is fascinating to note that it owed its origins to a cocaine based alcoholic drink, developed in France and promoted by the papacy. Today it is better known for its contribution to obesity and tooth decay and for its astonishing ability to clean jewellery. But that is another story.

Book Corner – April 2016 (2)


The Power Of The Dog – Thomas Savage

The phenomenal success caused by the rediscovery of John Williams’ Stoner has prompted some publishers to root around the back catalogues to find a sadly underrated and forgotten novel which with a bit of a marketing heft could enjoy a renaissance. Savage’s The Power of the Dog, published in 1967 and according to Annie Proulx’s sympathetic afterword selling barely a thousand copies, is the latest to receive this treatment.

Savage’s novel, not to be confused with Ellen Dryden’s play of the same name, is ultimately a story of revenge. Set on a ranch in Montana in 1924 and 1925 run by the odd Burbank brothers, Phil and George, who have slept in the same bedroom for 40 years, their domestic idyll is disrupted when the unadventurous George woos and weds a woman, Rose, whose previous husband had topped himself, and moves her and her effeminate son, Peter, into the ranch.

Phil is appalled by this turn of events and systematically seeks to destroy Rose and Peter, driving Rose, who feels trapped in a cold, silent environment with nothing to do, to drink. In a fine and understated climax Peter takes his anthracoid revenge.

Phil is a masterpiece of characterisation. He is bright and intelligent, can pretty much turn his hand to anything and keen to preserve the status quo. Bu there is a darker side to him. He is a bully with a sadistic streak and a homophobe. His character is set in the opening paragraph of the book, a graphic description of the castration of calves, which drips in his sadistic delight in performing the operation but which also gives a clue to his ultimate downfall when he nicks himself. Savage really gets under his character’s skin, allowing the reader to understand the psyche of the main protagonist, the dog of the title taken from a psalm. The irony, of course, is that Phil himself is a repressed homosexual who clearly had a thing for his hero Bronco Henry and who plans to make a move on the “sissy boy” Peter.

Savage’s style is economical and the writing is taut, each word carefully considered and rarely any unnecessary padding. The plot moves apace but in a peaceful and calming way. Perspectives switch as Savage allows each of his characters to take control of the narrative and express their point of view. The author is good at painting a picture of the diurnal rhythm of a ranch, its sense of order, the daily routines, the long hours of downtime when idle hands have nothing else to do but brood. So regular is the daily pattern of life that the shock of introducing a wife into it is even more traumatic.

This is Savage’s fifth novel – he went on to publish thirteen – and it is hard to tell why other than in the minds of the critics it was not successful. Perhaps the brutality of the opening paragraph and the subject matter of homosexuality, repressed or otherwise, was too racy for the time. What we have though is a beautiful and at the same time brutal psychological drama, a forerunner, perhaps, to Proulx’s own Brokeback Mountain. A wonderful book but Stoner it is not.

As a final comment I was pleased that Proulx’s comments appeared as an Afterword. Too often I find Forewords give the story away or, worst still, a lazy contributor laces their comments with so many quotations you end up reading the book twice. That may just be me, though!

I Predict A Riot – Part Seven

At the Coronation of William the Conqueror

The coronation of William the Conqueror

Here’s a conundrum that the Brits have not had to face for over a millennium (or possibly since 1688 if you count the Glorious Revolution); how to deal with a conquering monarch. As most schoolkids knew in my day (I’m not too sure what the current crop know these days) William the Conqueror had the audacity to invade this green and sceptr’d land in 1066, with the erstwhile king, Harold, taking one in the eye for his country.

Although successful at Battle near Hastings – amazing how they chose to fight at a place that bore the name of a conflict – the Normans’ hold on the country was precarious. Harold’s supporters rallied around his heir, Edgar, whom they proclaimed, but never crowned, king. The fifteen year old lad put up some resistance but the Normans soon prevailed, Edgar abdicating the throne in December 1066 and taking the title of Earl of Oxford magnanimously offered to him by William.

William saw that he needed to regularise his position by being crowned king of England and raced to London for the deed to be done. He chose Christmas Day as the day for the coronation, taking the view that the locals might be otherwise occupied enjoying the festivities usually associated with the Christian festival.

The day arrived and the streets and all the approaches to Westminster Abbey were lined with double rows of soldiers, both on horse and foot. Attended by 260 of his closest followers and many priests and monks William rode to the Abbey. Amongst the attendees of the ceremony were a considerable number of Saxon nobles.

The ceremony began with Geoffrey, the bishop of Countances, asking the Normans present, in French, whether William should take the title of king of England. The Archbishop of York then asked the Saxon contingent in their native language whether they would take the Norman as their king. Both sides shouted their approval and so enthusiastic and loud was the response that the soldiery around the Abbey were startled and being primed to be on their guard for seditious behaviour, assumed that the uproar was a cry for help.

Without further ado they started to attack the surrounding English houses, setting them alight. A few rushed into the Abbey and the sight of armed soldiers and the smell of the burning houses drifting into the church caused panic amongst the congregation, many of whom fled from the scene. Whilst the Normans suspected that the whole of London had used the ceremony as a signal to rise up against them, the Saxons, doubtless keen Game of Thrones fans, began to fear that they had been lured into a trap, to be slaughtered whilst unarmed.

Rioting ensued and there are suspicions that the Normans used the opportunity to plunder the damaged buildings. Eventually order was restored, although the riot lasted many hours, and the flames were extinguished. William the Conqueror, however, had been pretty much deserted in the smokey Abbey but he insisted that Archbishop Aldred and the few remaining petrified priests continue with the coronation ceremony, so important to him was the stamp of legitimacy that the act would bring to him.

So over enthusiastic cheering was the spark that caused a riot and marred the ascendency of William the Conqueror to the English throne, at a time when he was anxious to reconcile the two nations. Little did he know that the antipathy between the English and French ran deep!