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A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: January 2017

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

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Grimstone’s Eye Snuff

Snuff again. Produced at Grimstone’s Eye Snuff Manufactory at 39, Broad Street, Bloomsbury in London the snuff was heavily advertised and sold between the 1830s and 1860s. Perhaps fortunately, although it masqueraded under the title of snuff, it did not contain tobacco. Quite what was in it is by no means clear. One contemporary, Dr A L Wigan, claimed that it was nothing more than black pepper whilst the Lancet Analytical Sanitary Commission reckoned that the ingredients included orris root, savory, rosemary, lavender and prodigious quantities of salt. Grimstone claimed that it was made “of the most choice aromatic and odiferous herbs”.

As we have come to expect with exponents of the art of quackery, this eye-watering concoction came with astonishing claims as to its efficacy and glowing testimonials. Banner headlines proclaimed “Sight restored, nervous head-ache cured” and notified the reader of its royal patronage, “under the patronage of his late Majesty, her royal highness the Duchess of Kent and the Lords of the Treasury”. If it was good enough for the likes of them, then it would be good enough for ordinary Joes. It was efficacious “in removing disorders incident to the eyes and head” and “will prevent diseases of a scrofulous nature affecting the nerves of the head”.

As well as giving “a natural sweetness to the breath” it could “be taken as frequently as other snuffs with the most perfect safety and gratification to the consumer”. Users were advised, however, to be sure to wash their eyes every morning with warm milk and water “to remove whatever secretions may have been produced during the night”. The snuff was available in canisters of varying sizes with prices ranging from 1s 3d, 2s 4d and 4s 4d. Consumers were warned to guard against bogus canisters – only those bearing the signature of W Grimstone were the real deal.

Testimonials, of course, were glowing. Dr Andrews was quoted in one advert as claiming in 1831 that “the herbaceous quality of the snuff had such an effect on the stomach, as well as the nerves of the head, from the tenacious sympathy of the membrane of the nose with the nervous system, that Grimstone Eye Snuff, when taken frequently, must prevent any contagion entering the system and recommends its universal adoption”. Cheques in the post. Ordinary folk also swore to its efficacy. One, aged 94, was blind for six years but after using the snuff could see again and one Fothergill, a youngster at 71, had their long-standing inflammation which had caused blindness “quite cured”. An Elizabeth Robson of 19, Bell Street, Edgware Road, Marylebone even went into poetic raptures about it, “wise was thine head and great was thy design/ our precious sight from danger now set free

But it was not all plain sailing for our Mr Grimstone and his problems centred around using the name snuff and being coy about what actually was in his powder. Although there was no tobacco in his product and so it would have been exempt from any taxes associated with snuff, the officials of the Stamp Office were on his case and made several attempts to prosecute him for selling an excisable product without paying tax. They also went after the retailers whom Grimstone supplied. This did the trick as Grimstone was besieged by angry shopkeepers demanding that he took back his stock and paid their fines. Grimstone was left insolvent with debts of around £6,000, although he was still flogging his powder until he died in 1861 aged 71.

Apart from clearing the nasal passages, it is hard to think it did much good.

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Gin o’Clock – Part Twenty Two

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It was the great Athenian tragedian, Aeschylus, who wrote in Agamemnon that wisdom comes through suffering. Rather like Icarus I chose to reach for the sun and instead came crashing down to earth. No, I’ve not been overdoing it with the gin. What I’m talking about is my early experiments with making my own gin.

The hooch was a brackish brown colour, not the bright piss colour of Ungava but a colouration that is suggestive of some urinary complaint. Some diligent enquiries on the internet reassured me that this was not a problem. This is exactly what many commercial gins look like before they are distilled for a final time. As I don’t have a still, then I’m going to have to lump it, although sieving the contents will get rid of the floating sediment.

The major problems, though, were taste and aroma. The aroma was heavily peppered and to the taste it was like firewater with a very heavily pronounced spicy aftertaste. The problem, clearly, was that I had overdone it with the mix and that the ratio between juniper berries was out of kilter with the amount of other botanicals I had used. And, of course, whilst you can relatively easily add, what you can’t do is extract. So, other than dilute, I’m rather saddled with my first batch.

The only thing to do was to pick myself up, brush myself down, massage my by now heavily bruised ego and start again. This time I was going to play it safe. I had about 20 centilitres of triple distilled French grain vodka left to which I added 20 grams of juniper berries. This I left to mascerate. Originally it was going to be for 24 hours but some unavoidable family matters made me rather take my eye off the ball so that it was some 48 hours later that I was able to give the mix my full attention. There was a slight discolouration and the majority of the juniper berries were floating on the top but the smell and taste was much more like a gin.

It was at this point that I added some of the botanical mix – coriander, angelica, orange peel, cassia and cubeb peppers as beforebut this time, a much more conservative 5 grams – and after agitating vigorously – that is the distiller’s term for stirring – I allowed it to mascerate for a few days, checking and agitating daily. After a week I judged that enough was enough as the mix had a recognisably ginny smell to it and whilst it was spicy, it was not unpleasantly so.

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The next stage is to strain the mixture through some muslin or cheesecloth to capture the by now heavily marinated berries and other jetsam. I did this half a dozen times using fabrics with increasingly smaller mesh and, amazingly, the spirit started to clear. It still had a bit of a hue but was not as off putting as the original. Alternatively, you can use a water filter jug such as Brita make. I then bottled the spirit, put a label on naming it Hooch #2 and sampled it with some Fever Tree Premium Tonic. Not bad, if I say so myself, although the 200 or so distillers surfing the ginaissance have nothing to worry about – yet!

Traffic Offence Of The Week

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What happens when you mix a very tall man with a very small car? A conviction for dangerous driving, that’s what, if the curious case of 6 foot 7 inch Adam Elliott is anything to go by.

A car salesman, he was delivering a Ford KA convertible to a client but the problem was that there was not enough room in the cabin to accommodate his frame. The answer was obvious – he stuck his head out of the sun roof and drove off over the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle.

Unfortunately, the police were not so enamoured with Adam’s ingenuity, stopped him and accused him of driving whilst standing up, something he denied. However, when in front of the beak, he pleaded guilty. He was banned for dangerous driving and distracting other road users and will be sentenced on February 27th.

Still, at least he’s had his moment in the sun (and other newspapers).

Exercise Trends Of The Week

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January is the month when we start the year off full of good intentions – exercise more, drink and eat less, you know the type of thing. My January is spent fighting off these urges, usually successfully. I’ve never understood the allure of yoga. Quite why anyone would want to bend their body into completely unnatural poses is beyond me.

Still, if ever in a moment of weakness I considered taking up yoga, I came across a couple of hot new trends this week that might just tempt me. The first is called bieryoga and seems to originate from Germany. The routines adopt the standard yogic poses but the instructors work a bottle of beer into the routine so you end up taking up a pose with a beer bottle in your hand or balanced on your head.  The good thing, so the blurb says, is that you get to drink the contents of a couple of bottles during the session.

If beer is not to your taste, over in San Francisco (natch) you can go to a Ganja Yoga session featuring a heady cocktail of cannabis-fuelled yoga which makes the students become “more mindful and free”. Whilst striking a pose you take a toke on a spliff, which might make balancing a challenge towards the end of a session.

Then again, I might just cut out the middle man and go straight for the booze and weed. It makes more sense.

What Is The Origin Of (113)?…

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Take with a grain of salt

When searching through the internet you come across a lot of stuff that you have to take with a grain (or pinch) of salt. We use this phrase to suggest that we are applying a degree of scepticism to what has been relayed to us. After all, we don’t want to be seen to be too gullible. But where does the phrase come from?

Salt was a very important condiment in ancient times but as it was difficult to get it was highly valued. It has spawned a number of idioms which pepper our language. Roman legionaries were said to have been paid in part in salt to make their nosh more palatable, the origin of our word salary (from salarium). The phrase, to be worth your salt, was used as approbation of your worth and effectiveness. To eat salt with someone was used to signify that you enjoyed their company and friendship. In polite society the salt cellar was placed in the middle of the table and so to be above the salt meant that you were sitting close to your host and, as a consequence, in a favourable position. Trollope used salt, the salt of youth, to indicate spirit. And, of course, we have the Biblical salt of the earth and many more usages.

In Book 23 of his Naturalis Historia, Pliny the Elder tells the tale of Mithridates the Great who in an attempt to resist assassination developed a panacea which was effective against all known toxins. He took his potion daily – according to Pliny it consisted of over 50 different additives, each tested for its potency on prisoners, which were ground into a powder and made into a chewable tablet which he took addito salis grano, with a grain of salt. It is known today as the mithridate, although what it was and whether it was effective is not clear.

What remains of classical texts is down to happenstance and the diligence (or otherwise) of scribes, often monks, who as part of their daily duties would copy out manuscripts. They were notoriously inaccurate – I spent part of my third year at university comparing versions of the same text trying to decipher what was the original – and often prone to introduce their own thought or the mores of the time into the texts. And this is probably what we have here.

Medieval theories were that Pliny was sceptical as to the veracity of the Mithridatic story and was reporting it with the rider to take it with a pinch of salt. This is unlikely to be correct, firstly because grain of salt doesn’t appear to have been a signal in Roman literature to be wary of what was being said. If he really meant to put the reader on warning, Pliny would probably have used something more current. Secondly, the Latin phrase that has been associated with our idiom is a piece of mediaeval Latin, cum grano salis, which almost certainly didn’t appear in the original text.

The figurative usage of the phrase dates to at least the 17th century. John Trapp’s Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, dated 1648, contains the sentence, “this is to be taken with a grain of salt”. The variant, pinch, is a much more modern variant, probably appearing for the first time in print in 1948, ironically, in a book about Roman History, F R Cowell’s Cicero and the Roman Republic, “Cicero and his friends took more than the proverbial pinch of salt before swallowing everything written by these earlier authors”.

Of course, a pinch is more than a grain. We are much more profligate these days.

Double Your Money – Part Fourteen

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The Salad Oil crisis of 1963

This cautionary tale involves a notorious conman, Anthony De Angelis, American Express and Warren Buffett, amongst others. Tino, as he was known to his mates, had previous having taken advantage of the National School Lunch Act and supplying 2 million pounds of uninspected meat to the Federal Government, overcharging them along the way. When the con was discovered, De Angelis went bankrupt but he brushed himself down, picked himself up and started on his next con.

Taking advantage of the Government’s Food for Peace programme designed to supply surplus goods to a Europe recovering from the ravages of the Second World War, from 1955 he traded in vegetable oil products, cotton and soybeans. By 1962 Tino was sufficiently established that he felt that he could corner the soybean market, by buying soybean oil on the futures market. His plan was to drive up the price of vegetable oil, increasing the value of his contracts and enhancing the profits available to him from the futures market. Of course, Tino didn’t have the financial resources to support his ambitious plans so he used his large inventories of commodities to collateralise loans from banks and finance companies.

American Express now enters our story. They had just opened up a new division providing warehouses and eager for stuff to store in them wrote receipts for millions of pounds of vegetable oil which de Angelis took to a broker who promptly lent cash on the back of them – an easy way to get a pile of cash. Naturally, American Express would want to satisfy itself that De Angelis actually had the vegetable oil that was collateralising the loans but the resourceful conman had thought of that.

Many of the tanks sitting in the Amex warehouse were full of water with only the minimum of oil floating at the top to satisfy auditors who were doing spot samples; an old trick that I as a greenhorn auditor with a fresh set of coloured pencils was warned about in the late 1970s. The other stunt Tino pulled was to connect each of the tanks with pipes so as the auditors made their way along the line, the oil was pumped from one tank to the other. By the time the con unravelled De Angelis had loans from some 51 companies.

And unravel it did. At its heyday de Angelis was claiming to have more vegetable oil than the Federal Government reported for America as a whole. Instead of inventories of $150 million, his company, Allied Crude Vegetable Oil Refining Co, had just $6m. The dozy auditors were tipped off and found that most of the tanks contained just water. In November 1963 the bottom fell out of the futures market – the price of soybean oil falling from $9.875 to $7.75 in two days of trading, wiping out the value of de Angelis’ loans. Instead of selling out at the top of the market and making good the deficiency in cash, Allied Crude had no alternative but to file for bankruptcy.

The market turmoil coincided with the assassination of JFK and the market went into freefall. One of the brokerages de Angelis used, Ira Haupt & Co, was left holding $450 million in securities and debts of $37m it couldn’t pay and folded. Another, Williston & Beane, was bailed out by the New York Stock Exchange. De Angelis was declared bankrupt again and ended up in chokey.

And where did the Sage of Omaha come in? He bought a 5% stake in Amex at the bottom of the market for $20 million, one of the first investments that made his fame and fortune. One man’s ill luck is another’s good fortune, I guess.

I Predict A Riot – Part Nineteen

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The Egg Nog riot of 1826

These days egg nog is a fairly innocuous drink, the sort of thing you would give an elderly relative at Christmas, consisting of eggs, milk, cream, sugar and associated spices. It is and was particularly popular on the other side of the pond and in the late 18th and 19th centuries the Americans added alcohol to give the beverage an extra kick. George Washington’s recipe included rum, sherry, brandy and whiskey.

Opened in 1802 and revitalised after the military’s failings became apparent after the War of 1812, West Point was the main military academy for the American army. Colonel Sylvanus Thayer was the top dog and ruled the place with a rod of iron. One of the things he was particularly hot on was enforcing a ban on the consumption of alcohol. As the Christmas festivities of 1826 approached, he reiterated his prohibition on hooch.

Not unsurprisingly this did not go down well with the cadets who decided that they would not let Thayer spoil their Christmas festivities. Close to the academy were a number of establishments where alcohol could be purchased – Thayer’s ban didn’t extend beyond the boundaries of West Point – and three cadets crossed the Hudson river by boat to procure some three or four gallons of whiskey from Martin’s Tavern. They had an alarum when a guard spotted them but they slipped him 35 cents – an odd amount it has to be said – and he turned a blind eye. The hooch was stashed for the forthcoming party on Christmas Eve 1826.

During the early hours of the morning, the two officers deputed by Thayer to keep an eye on things, Thornton and Hitchcock, heard rowdy sounds and went to investigate. Hitchcock found a party in full swing with six or seven cadets visibly inebriated. On ordering the miscreants to go to bed Hitchcock stumbled on another party. The cadets there put up more of a resistance, with one shouting “Get your dirks and bayonets..and pistols if you have them. Before the night is over, Hitchcock will be dead”. Yet another and larger party was discovered and as Hitchcock entered the room one of the party, Jefferson Davis, a future president of the Confederacy, shouted, “put away the grog, boys. Captain Hitchcock’s coming”.

Things began to get out of hand. Thornton was knocked down by a cadet who hit him with a piece of wood and Hitchcock had a bullet fired at him. This convinced the latter that some reinforcements were needed and he called out, “bring the ‘com here”. This led to an unfortunate misunderstanding which merely exacerbated the situation. Hitchcock probably meant that the Commandant should be summoned the cadets took it to mean that the artillery were to be called into action. To defend themselves, they took up arms, smashed crockery and windows, ripped out banisters and broke items of furniture. The artillery never came and eventually the effects of the alcohol wore off and when William Worth, the Commandant, finally turned up his authority was enough to calm the situation down.

Some 90 of the 260 cadets were involved in the riot but Thayer, perhaps surprisingly, only chose to expel 19 of them, Jefferson Davis escaping the ignominy as did Robert E Lee – heard of him? The riot did have one lasting legacy. When the barracks were reconstructed in the 1840s it featured short hallways which meant that cadets had to leave the building to reach another floor, thus facilitating crowd control and restricting movement. And although alcohol can be consumed on the premises nowadays, it is only available in limited amounts.

On My Doorstep – Part Fifteen

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Frimley Green Windmill

I was driving out of Frimley Green down the Guildford Road a few weeks ago and my attention was drawn to a road sign on the left-hand side indicating Windmill Lane. I made a mental note to myself that I needed to look it up when I got home and to see whether it was just the fanciful end-product of a town planner’s imagination or whether there really was a windmill in the vicinity.

Well, there was a windmill and what is more, it still exists, albeit in a modified state. These days we rather associate windmills with Holland but they were a common feature of the English landscape well into the 19th century. It is thought that they were introduced into the country after the Crusades in the 12th century. Within a couple of centuries of their introduction there were some 4,000 or so dotted around the countryside. Their popularity was due to the fact that they were cheaper to construct and more convenient than water mills which required to be situated by running water. The windmill was used to generate the power to grind grain into flour which was then deployed to make the staff of life, bread. As bread production became industrialised and centralised, windmills fell into disuse.

The windmill at Frimley Green was a rather late development. The first record of the mill dates to 1784 when it was said to have been owned by a Mr Terry. Ownership passed to Thomas Lilley in 1792, although the donkey work was done by George Marshall who is named as the miller for that period. In 1801 there was another change of ownership with William Collins taking up the mantle and John Banks doing the milling. There was a further change of ownership in 1803 when the mill passed into the hands of the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, presumably to provide the officers and trainees with the wherewithal for their daily bread. It remained under army control until at least 1832 but probably they owned it for longer. By 1870, however, it was disused and gradually fell into a state of dereliction.

Structurally, it consisted of a round, brick built tower consisting of four storeys which tapered to the point where the sails would have been affixed. The photograph of it dating to 1906 shows the remains of two sails although I suspect that it had a more conventional arrangement of four or five. To the naked eye, they seem to be Spring or Patent sails. As these were not invented until 1807 they are obviously not the original sails which were probably open lattice sails covered with cloth.

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A staple of Channel 4’s TV output are shows featuring naïve couples who buy a derelict building and convert it into modern living accommodation on unfeasibly tight budgets. It is not a modern phenomenon. In 1914 the remains of the Frimley Green windmill were incorporated into a residential property by Frank Abbot. It is a rather splendid L-shaped building with brown and red bricks and a conical roof atop the tower.

At least the tower, which is now Grade II listed, was spared from the ravages of time and neglect.

Gin o’Clock – Part Twenty One

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I have been chronicling my exploration of the ginaissance over the last couple of years and during that time have learned a lot about the history of my favourite spirit and the botanicals that give it its varied taste, ranging from the ultra-sweet to the spicy and all points in between. As there are over 200 gins available, there is no risk of me running out of new experiences for a while, particularly if I want to protect my liver. Everything in moderation, including moderation, as Oscar Wilde once said.

When I was younger, in the 1970s, and the beer and wine available in pubs and supermarkets were almost universally dreadful, there was a spell when every man and his dog was brewing their own. Shops like Boot’s would have row upon row of all the impedimenta you would require to brew a hooch of your choice in the privacy of your home – demi-johns, siphons, thermometers and the all-important home-brew ingredients, usually in round tins, if I recall. Wherever you went, airing cupboards were full of liquid fermenting away and occasionally friends and colleagues would sheepishly confess to an unexpected explosion which deposited the contents of the demi-john on the floor and surrounding walls. That was fine but the words that always filled me with dread were, “I have just bottled my fresh batch of nettle and bramble wine. Why don’t you come over and sample some?

In the age of JAMs we need to look after every penny and for a while, I have been mulling over the idea of making my own gin. This is what retirement does for you. The kick up the demi-john that made me translate idle fancy to practical reality was a thoughtful present given to me at Christmas, a gin making kit. It came with a glass jar with artificial stopper, a sieve, a funnel, some labels and chalk and 100 grams of juniper berries. The instructions were somewhat rudimentary but one of the joys of the internet is that you can easily find more extensive and coherent recipes at the press of a few keys.

Of course, the starting point is the creation of the base spirit which adds a greater degree of complexity to the whole process and elongates the timescales. As a beginner, I decided that the sensible course was to miss out this step and concentrate on masceration, by buying a commercial vodka – triple distilled French grain vodka, available at all reputable branches of Asda. It being early January when I conducted this experiment, there were no flowers in the garden or the hedgerows for me to pluck and the weather was unconducive to foraging in the garden for roots, I took the easy way out by buying a pack of botanical gin blend from the admirably efficient Drinkstuff website. The pack consisted of coriander, angelica, orange peel, cassia and cubeb peppers.

The process was remarkably simple. I weighed out 25 grams of juniper berries and 17.5 grams of the botanical blend and poured them into the 500 ml glass jar. A note of caution – juniper berries are tricky customers and if you are not too careful or attempt the exercise with the early morning DTs, you can find you spend some time chasing the varmints around the kitchen floor. I then added some vodka up to the start of the neck of the jar. Some of the botanicals sank to the bottom while the majority floated near the top and I could discern bubbles appearing in the spirit. Only time will tell whether this is anything to worry about.

I then put the jar in a dark, cool place, our utility room, where it will do its magic for 24 hours. Then the fun part will start, sampling and adjusting to taste. If I survive the experience, I will report on how I got on next time. Cheers.

Placard Of The Week

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Mary Poppins is alive and well.