A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: September 2016

What Is The Origin Of (99)?…


Lame duck

We use this phrase to describe someone or, occasionally, something that is unsuccessful or ineffective and in a political context someone who is serving out time following the election of their successor.

Although the phrase is pretty much deployed in a political context these days, it owes its origins to the nascent stock exchange of 18th century London. Those of us who scour the financial papers are familiar with the journalists’ characterisation of investors as bulls – optimists who see the market rising – and bears – pessimists who see the market falling. But there was a third category in the 1760s – lame ducks, a term developed to describe a stock market trader who failed to pay up when their bills became due.

The earliest known usage of the term in this context appeared in the Newcastle Courant of 5th September 1761 in a report of monies being paid into the Bank of England by subscription which noted, perhaps with some relief, “no lame ducks this time”. As a felicitous phrase its usage took off to join the emerging argot of the investors and traders in stocks and shares, to the bafflement of some. Horace Walpole wrote to Sir Horace Mann on 28th December 1761, “apropos, do you know what a Bull and a Bear and a Lame Duck are? Nay, nor I either: I am only certain that they are neither animals or fowl”.

In January of the following year the London Evening Post was reporting on the effect that exposure to lame ducks was having on fellow investors, “Thursday a Lame Duck disappeared from J___’s, to the no small mortification of his Brother Bulls and Bears, whom he has touched very considerably…Yesterday four more Lame Ducks took their flight”. Although  lame duck would often be barred from future trading for defaulting on their obligations, their dishonesty had an impact on others.

On land ducks are ungainly creatures as they waddle along. Lame ducks were also characterised as waddling as the Leeds Intelligencer reported on 29th June 1762, “yesterday a lame duck or two made shift to waddle out of ‘Change Alley”. A century later, Thomas Love Peacock provided a perfect definition in his seventh and final novel, Gryll Grange, “a lame duck is a man who cannot pay his differences and is said to waddle off”.

It was only when the phrase crossed the Atlantic that it lost its financial context and acquired the more customary political hue. According to the Congressional Globe of January 12th 1863, Senator John P Hale said, “it is well known to anybody who knows anything of its history that this court (the court of claims) was made a sort of retreat for lame duck politicians that got wounded and had to retreat before the face of popular condemnation. That is just exactly what it was for, a safe retreat for lame ducks”.

In the States, unlike here in Blighty, there is a period of time, often stretching to months, between an election and the successful candidate actually taking office. This had two obvious effects – the incumbent, a lame duck, could be tempted to use the hiatus to feather their own nest, to continue the avian theme, or if there were a number in the same boat (or perhaps pond) it would paralyse the legislative process. So bad was the problem that the 20th Amendment, the so-called Lame Duck Amendment, was passed in 1933 reducing the period between an election and the victors assuming the reins of power.

So now we know!


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


Morphina-cura or Habitina

Sometime during the early part of the 19th century Friedrich Wilhelm Serturner managed to isolate a yellowish-white crystalline compound from crude opium. After successfully experimenting with it as a form of pain relief he called this new substance after the Greek god of sleep, morphine. The development of the first hypodermic needle in 1853 meant for the first time it could be delivered directly into the blood stream and from that moment morphine became established as the analgesic of choice.

Unfortunately, of course, morphine was addictive – soldiers who had been injured on the battlefield were pumped full of morphine and their on-going dependence on the stuff was known as “Soldiers’ Disease”. Morphinism was viewed at the turn of the 20th century as such a scourge in polite society that it opened up an opportunity for unscrupulous quacks to exploit.

Step forward, Dr Robert Prewitt and Ryland C Bruce who, trading as the Delta Chemical Company, began in 1906 to promote Morphina-cura. Retailing at $2 a bottle it was advertised as “an infallible remedy for the cure of Drug Habits of all kinds”. Prepared for hypodermic or internal use, it was available through the post. It was rebranded as Habitina in 1907, probably in response to the Pure Food and Drug Act which took a dim view to drugs being named in a way that suggested they were a cure to something.

Habitues, as the target audience of morphine addicts were quaintly named, were exhorted to “discontinue the use of all narcotic drugs and take sufficient Habitina to support the system without any of the old drug”. The idea was that over time the addicts would reduce the amount they took until, eventually, they could live without it at all. But, of course, life isn’t like that and the unfortunate habitues swapped one form of addiction for another.

When Prewitt and Bruce were arrested and charged with sending poison through the mail in 1912, the stories of the devastation their panacea had caused were harrowing. One mechanic from Missouri had lost everything, consuming a $2 bottle a day and become a “maniac”, a woman from Pennsylvania had lost her reason and went blind after taking Habitina, although she was eventually cured of her addiction in hospital, and, perhaps most tragic of all was a 26 year-old woman who spent more than $2,300 on the stuff over a 5 year period, even foregoing shoes to afford it. Although initially convicted, it would appear that the duo were released on appeal.

What helped their case was that they were upfront in describing what was in their concoction, perhaps a benefit of the tightening of legislation surrounding pharmaceuticals, even if it did not preclude the stuff being sent through the mail. The bottle’s label had a skull and cross-bones in the top left hand corner beneath which was the legend “Poison”. The label went on to announce that for every fluid ounce there were 16 grains of morphine sulphate and 8 grains of a morphine derivative called diacytle morphine hydrochloride.

In other words, over the six years they were trading, between 1906 and 1912, Prewitt and Bruce had made half a million dollars by supplying morphine addicts with a more expensive branded version of the drug. No wonder the habitues couldn’t kick the habit.

Book Corner – September 2016 (2)


Penguin Book of the British Short Story – Volume One – edited by Philip Hensher

I find the short story as a literary form extremely satisfying, at least for the reader. It forces the writer to aim for concision, to paint a picture, a few characters and a credible storyline in between 15,000 and 40,000 words. It is not easy. An anthology of short stories – volume one of Hensher’s anthology runs from Daniel Defoe to John Buchan – is even more appetising for me – it allows me to pick and choose, set the volume down and not feel too guilty that it has been temporarily put aside for something more substantial. It is something to be digested as a snake does its prey – at length.

Anthologies are personal and Hensher has set a rather idiosyncratic mark on this collection. Whilst everyone will cavil at his audacity to have omitted one’s particular favourite, an anthology shouldn’t be a greatest hits album but should have some entries which surprise, stretch the reader and even cause them to discover a new writer. Whatever you may think of the final selection, Hensher has been nothing if not thorough and claims to have read 20,000 stories to come to his final selection of 90 spread between two delicious volumes.

The heyday for the British short story was between the 1890s and the First World War there were at least 34 magazines publishing short fiction. At a time when a doctor would earn £400 a year and a professional footballer £4 a week, a popular writer could command a fee of £350 from a magazine such as the Strand for their short story. With such rewards available it is not surprising that some of the literary giants of the period – Kipling, D H Lawrence, Arnold Bennett, Joseph Conrad and H G Wells – turned their hand to the shortened form and they are all suitably represented in this volume.

My favourite of the collection comes from that era – Arnold Bennett’s The Matador of the Five Towns, a brilliant story with a fine and vivid description of a crowd at a professional football match – the more I read of Bennett the more I think he is vastly underrated. My least favourite was the Ayrshire writer, John Galt’s, The Howdie from 1832, which is written in a dialect which defeated this dyed in the wool Sassenach. I also enjoyed Wilkie Collins’ Mrs Badgery, another underrated author in my view.

Of the old favourites Conan Doyle’s Silver Blaze, the one about horse nobbling and the dog that didn’t bark, is always worth a reprise. Jonathan Swift’s Directions to the Footman is a wonderful example of the Irishman at his satirical best. What surprised me is that there are some stories from the 18th and 19th centuries which have a peculiarly modern feel to them. Henry Fielding’s The Female Husband of 1746 is a story of transvestism or at least the adventures of a woman who passes herself off as a man and gets married to boot. Hannah More’s tale from around 1795, Betty Brown, the St Giles Orange Girl, is a cautionary tale of the perils of taking out Wonga-style loans.

There are so many wonderful writers and stories of different genres – social commentary, mysteries, ghosts and simple entertainments – that there is surely something for everyone. And even if you do not recognise a writer, perseverance is often rewarded. The joy of an anthology is making an unexpected discovery.

I am already looking forward to dipping into volume two that takes us from P G Wodehouse to Zadie Smith.

The Streets Of London – Part Forty Seven


Red Lion Square, WC1R

If you walk eastwards down Theobalds Road in Holborn and turn right into North Street you will come across the pleasant square and garden that is Red Lion Square. Amongst the statues to be found there are those of the philosopher, Bertrand Russell, and the peace activist, Fenner Brockway. Despite Brockway’s presence the square has had a rumbustious past.

In the 17th century there was a pub there, the Red Lyon (natch), and 17 acres of fields. Property speculator, Nicholas Barbon, saw the opportunity to build housing on the land and bought it. However, the lawyers of nearby Gray’s Inn objected to his scheme, claiming that they would lose their rural surroundings and their “wholesome air” and it would be detrimental to their highly strung constitutions. In June 1684 the lawyers, as lawyers do, took Barbon to court but lost the case as he had bought the land fair and square.

Matters did not end there. On 10th June 1684 around 100 lawyers armed with bricks and other building material set about the workmen on the building site. They, led by Barbon, resisted and by the time order was restored, many men on both sides had sustained injuries. Having seen the lawyers off both in the courts and on the site, Barbon succeeded in building a square with neat and tidy houses, many taken up, ironically, by lawyers from Gray’s Inn.

In my student days Red Lion Square was notorious for a dust-up on 15th June 1974 between the National Front, their political opponents and the old bill, in which, unfortunately, Kevin Gateley from the University of Warwick was killed.

In the early 18th century the square in the middle went to rack and ruin, becoming a dumping ground for rubbish and a hangout for thieves and vagabonds, the lawyers’ clients perhaps? In 1737 an Act of Parliament was passed allowing the residents to tart the square and they proceeded to erect iron railings and four post houses, one at each corner, together with a rough stone obelisk with the inscription “obtusum obtusioris ingenii monumentum. Quid me respicis, viator? Vade.” This translates as “a dull memorial of a duller character. Why are you looking at me, traveller. Be on your way.” Charming!

One theory is that it marks the resting spot for Oliver Cromwell’s body (but not his head). Cromwell died in 1658 and when Charles II regained the throne in 1660, Parliament ordered that the bodies of the principal regicides – Olly, Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw – be exhumed from their resting places in Westminster Abbey, and posthumously hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. The bodies were exhumed and carried by cart to the Red Lyon pub where they were kept overnight before the gruesome task of their disembowelling and execution the following day. The three bodies were decapitated – the heads were put on display at Westminster – and dumped into a pit near the gallows.

But were they bodies of Cromwell and his two accomplices? Legend has it that whilst they were at the Red Lyon the bodies were switched and buried near the pub at the spot later marked by the obelisk. The rather disingenuous inscription, perhaps, was intended to put the inquisitive off the scent. No one knows for sure whether there is any truth in the story but it is said that the ghosts of the three haunt the square.

The square was badly damaged during the Second World War and only a few of the original houses, principally numbers 14 to 17 although they were given new facades in the 19th century, survive to this day.

Double Your Money – Part Eight


Gregor McGregor, the Cacique of Poyais

One of the most incredible fraudsters of the 19th century was Naval veteran, Gregor McGregor, who on his return to London in 1820 after fighting in the Venezuelan War of Independence, announced that he had been named Cacique or prince of the principality of Poyais. The honour had been bestowed on him, he claimed, by the native chief, King Augustus I. And where was Poyais? According to McGregor it was located on the Bay of Honduras.

To promote this land of milk and honey he had a book published, ostensibly written by Captain Thomas Strangeways, called Sketch of the Mosquito Shore including the Territory of Poyais. It told of a fantastic land with untapped gold and silver mines, fertile soil, an established civil service, a democratic government and natives who were eager to work for British masters. St Joseph, the capital, had been founded in 1730 by British settlers – strange that very few people had seemed to have heard of it.

Having piqued the nation’s interest McGregor rolled out his investment scheme. For the rich on October 23rd 1822 he offered 2,000 bonds at £100 each, requiring a deposit of £80 and offering interest of 3%. They were fully subscribed. For the poor he sold land at 3 shillings and threepence an acre – about a day’s pay. He even sold places in his military and positions in the government. Naturally, he devised and issued his own currency.

The Poysian Legation opened offices in London and Scotland and McGregor and his associates made hay selling land, investments and other opportunities. So successful was the enterprise that by 1823 McGregor was in today’s terms a multi-millionaire.

The problem was that this land of milk and honey didn’t exist. True enough, King Augustus did grant McGregor land in a drunken stupor but all it consisted of was four run-down buildings and uninhabitable jungle. There was not a sniff of gold or silver. But, as we know, facts never get in the way of a fraudster or politician.

What would have been an elaborate and successful fraud had McGregor left it at that took a rather surprising turn when the Poysian legation, for reasons best known to itself, decided to send two boatloads of settlers to the non-existent land. On 1oth September 1822 the Honduras Packet left London with 70 settlers and on January 22nd 1823 the Kennersley Castle left Leith Harbour with almost 200 settlers. When they landed, they realised they had been conned. Sadly, only 50 survived to return to England.

When the survivors made it to London, their story hit the newspapers and McGregor, sensing which way the wind was blowing, scarpered to France. But McGregor wasn’t done with his golden egg that was Poyais just yet and started selling investment opportunities to the French, repeating his trick of issuing bonds and making pockets of land available. The French authorities took less of a laissez-faire attitude than their British equivalents and started to investigate this racket, McGregor being arrested in December 1825. Despite facing two trials he was acquitted but deciding that Paris was too hot for comfort, made his way back to Blighty.

Incredibly, he was at it again, opening an office at 23, Threadneedle Street and trying to issue Poyais bonds in 1827, albeit with little success. In 1828 he was selling land in the mythical territory for 5 shillings an acre and during the 1830s by which time he was now President of the Poyaisian republic he made several attempts to resuscitate interest in his fraudulent scheme.

Miraculously, though, he evaded justice and emigrated to Venezuela in 1839 where he died six years later.

Figures Of The Week



Our obesogenic society has thrown up a new problem which is eating into the time our pole sliders have to do their window cleaning rounds, shifting lard buckets who are too large to move independently.

According to figures released this week, there were 944 incidents recorded in 2015/16, up by a third from 2012/13 when the last data were compiled, where fire brigades were required to assist in the moving of our obese brethren. It can be a complex operation with lifting equipment and special slings deployed and occasionally walls, windows and interior fittings have to be removed to get them out. Included within the figures were a number of incidents where firefighters were called to assist undertakers place a tubby stiff in the, presumably reinforced, hearse.

A spokesman for the National Obesity Forum said “this is not about more people being obese. This is about those who are already obese now getting to a size where they now need assistance”.

So that’s alright, then.

Hitchhiker Of The Week


Stuck inside of Punakaiki with the immobile blues again, French tourist Cedric Rault-Verpre lost his rag and ripped up the sign welcoming visitors to the town, throwing it into the river, I read this week. What got his chevre was that he had been hanging around the town situated on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island for four days trying to hitch a lift to no avail.

After his alleged vandalism – he is said to have pelted another sign with stones – the old bill felt his collar and he is up before the local beak facing a claim for compo to the tune New Zealand $3,000. Cedric claims that the police were unsympathetic to his plight. They claim that he could have walked to Franz Josef, some 220 kilometres south in the time that he hung around the town waiting for his vehicular Godot.

I may be missing something but if you are hitching, you need to be reconciled to walking if a lift doesn’t come along.

What Is The Origin Of (98)?…


Chalk and cheese

We use this expression to indicate that a couple of things are radically different from each other and have nothing in common.

The warning, caveat emptor, has a long pedigree. In the days when consumer rights were unheard of and trading standards were rudimentary, it seems to have been a natural inclination on the part of the shopkeeper to try to hoodwink the customer by passing across shoddy goods or foodstuffs that had some of the ingredients replaced by inferior and substandard substitutes. One of these egregious practices would appear to be the contamination of cheese with chalk. John Gower in his Confessio Amantis of 1393 wrote of one such malefactor, “and thus full ofte chalk for cheese he changeth with ful little cost”.

Potentially profitable as the practice may have been, it is hard to imagine that the substitution would go undetected for long. Indeed, if Hugh Latimer’s remark of 1555 is anything to go by – “as though I could not discern cheese from chalk” – anyone who fell for it must have been considered a prize idiot. Nowadays we add “like” or “as different as” to the phrase.

Talking of chalk, it appears in a rather odd phrase, by a long chalk or not by a long chalk, the latter indicating that there was little in it and the former, that there was a considerable distance between the two positions.

When not being used to adulterate cheese, chalk was a handy substance with which to write on walls, slates and other surfaces. As well as being great social institutions, public houses were places where games of all sorts, from skittles, quoits to darts, dominoes, cribbage and billiards, were played. Each game involved some form of scoring to determine who was winning and/or how many points were needed for victory. Often chalk was deployed to keep score.

It is easy to imagine that our phrase developed from observing the relative positions of two competitors. If the game was close, the difference in chalk tallies would be short – not by a long chalk – whereas if one was streets ahead of the other, their chalk tally would be considerably longer – a long chalk – than their opponent’s.

Another feature of the pub was the tab, a form of credit whereby the publican would allow the toper to quaff ales on the promise of settlement at some more convenient day, for example pay-day. Of course, the publican took a risk on the creditworthiness of their clients, a fact that Charles Dickens commented on in Great Expectations, “there was a bar at the Jolly Bargemen, with some alarmingly long chalk scores in it on the wall at the side of the door, which seemed to me to be never paid off”.

Credit was known as chalk and was a feature of pub life for centuries. In 1597 the following appeared in print, “all my debts stande chaukt upone the poste for liquor”. Credit may not have been inexhaustible as this reference from Chapman’s May-Day of 1611 shows, “Faith sir, she has chalked up twenty shillings already and swears she will chalk no more”, although some customers clearly abused the facility, as Punch reveals in 1843, “when you wish for beer, resort freely to the chalk…until it becomes unproductive, when you may try it in another quarter”.

The custom spawned the phrase chalk it up which we often use with experience, putting a positive spin on some calamity or other.

It’s Been Done Before


Zhang Heng (c79 – 139CE)

I have never experienced an earthquake and have no desire to for that matter but it has always surprised me that seismology still appears to be a fairly inexact science. How many lives and how much property would be saved if we were given sufficient warning of an earth tremor?

Zhang Heng, a Chinese inventor, astronomer and polymath, applied his not inconsiderable grey cells to the problem of earthquake detection and in 132CE came up with a design for a seismograph, the granddaddy of all attempts to predict an impending earthquake. The starting point was his theory that the chief cause of an earthquake was wind and air. When air is agitated and trapped with no opportunity to escape “with deep murmur of the Mountain it roars around the barriers which after long battering it dislodges and tosses on high, growing more fierce the stronger the obstacle with which it has contended”.

According to the 5th century Book of Later Han, his copper urn-shaped device was able to detect the direction of an earthquake hundreds of miles away, information essential for the Han dynasty to send aid and relief to the areas affected. So how did it work?

The urn was cast with eight dragons positioned around it to indicate the principal points of the compass. On the ground directly underneath each of the dragons’ heads was a copper toad, raising their heads and opening their mouths in anticipation. The interior of the urn was ingeniously constructed using mobile arms, cranks and catch mechanisms. When an earthquake occurred, the dragon facing that direction would open its mouth and the ball suspended within would drop into the waiting toad’s mouth, making it clear the direction of the tremor.

One day in 138CE the machine sprang into action, a ball dropping into the mouth of the toad representing the westerly direction. As anticipated, an earthquake had struck Longxi, what is now Western Ganxu Province, some one thousand kilometres away from the site of the seismograph. It took the Occidentals some 1,700 years to repeat the trick, John Milne inventing the horizontal pendulum seismograph in 1880.

Although the Greek, Erastothenes, had invented the first armillary sphere, an astronomical instrument representing the celestial sphere, the Chinese had developed it further by inserting firstly, a fixed equatorial ring and then an ecliptic ring and then, horizon and meridian rings. Heng’s contribution was the last addition but he hadn’t finished there. His masterstroke was to apply hydraulic motive power by using a waterwheel to rotate the sphere. In turn the waterwheel was powered by the constant water pressure in a water clock tank. So Heng became the first man to demonstrably use water in this way. It was revolutionary (in more senses than one) and went on to influence the water-powered instruments of later Chinese astronomers.

There is nothing new under the sun, it seems.

On My Doorstep – Part Ten


Milestones and turnpikes

One of the old arterial roads of England, the Great West Road, now the A30 linking London with Cornwall, runs through Camberley. It dates to at least the Elizabethan era and was originally made of dirt or gravel and was narrow as it crossed the heathlands of Bagshot and Frimley. At what is now known as the Jolly Farmer roundabout – alas the pub closed in 1996 – the road forks, the other part being the road to Portsmouth, now known as the A325.

Travel was precarious in the 16th to 18th centuries, the heathland providing perfect cover for highwaymen who pounced on unsuspecting travellers and coaches. One of the most prodigious pliers of this dubious trade in the Surrey heathland was one George Davies, a farmer, whose career as a highwayman spanned around 40 years in the 17th century. So successful was he that his wife, who bore her husband 18 children – he must have had plenty of time on his hands – was reputed to pay “any considerable sum in gold”.

Inevitably, all good things must come to an end and Davies was caught and hung, supposedly on the gallows situated at Gibbet Lane which intersects the London Road (A30) and the Portsmouth Road (A325) nearby. His reputation lived on and the original pub, just to the north of the London Road, was called the Golden Farmer in his honour and the pub sign bore a picture of him. It was only in 1823 that its name changed to the Jolly Farmer and in 1879 it moved to its current location.

At its height some thirty coaches a day trundled their way down the Great West Road and many public houses sprang up to provide accommodation and food and drink for the travellers and places for the horses to be changed or watered and fed. The increase in traffic generated demands for better and safer roads and in response many of the major roads in and out of London were put under the control of Turnpike Trusts during the early part of the 18th century. By 1800 there were some 1,000 trusts.

Their responsibilities were enshrined in legislation. In particular, trusts were required to erect milestones showing the distances between the major towns on the route. The Trusts were able to charge users tolls for the privilege of using the road and some were allowed to charge extra in the summer to cover the cost of watering the surface to prevent the fast-moving coaches from throwing up excessive amounts of dust. Users were required to travel on the left and take care not to damage the roads.


Both the Great West Road and the Portsmouth Road in our area fell under the control of the Bedfont and Bagshot Turnpike Trust and ten of their milestones are still to be found in situ in Surrey Heath, although one is under repair having been damaged during some building work. In what is now Frimley one is to be found opposite Frimley Park Hospital on the Grove and another at Golf Drive on the Portsmouth Road. A third is to be found at Gibbet Lane.

What did for the flourishing coach industry was the development of the railways and, in particular, the decision to route the major lines to the south and south west through Woking in 1839 rather than through Bagshot and Camberley.

Still, if you look around, there are still vestiges of the golden days of coach travel.