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A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: February 2017

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

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Perry Davis’ Vegetable Pain Killer

In some ways, the tale of Perry Davis is an example of triumph over adversity. Born in 1791 into a desperately poor family and apprenticed to a cordwainer, he was an inventor manqué, several of his patented ideas failing to attract investment and leaving him deeper in debt. He was also desperately unlucky. When 14 he fell off some scaffolding, breaking his hip, an injury which left him lame for the rest of his life. He suffered from respiratory problems which the medics could not cure. Only two of his nine children survived. In 1840 he became very sick and was in great pain.

Eschewing medical practitioners, Davis relied on his own resources and started experimenting with a concoction of herbal and naturally grown ingredients. He had no high hopes as to its efficacy, rather anticipating it to be “handing me gently to the grave”. Miraculously, he got better only for ill fortune to dog him once more. After his house in Fall River was destroyed by fire in 1843 and he was on his uppers, he decided to concentrate on the one thing that had worked for him, his patent medicine. Even then, he had another setback. Whilst tinkering with the formula, a can of alcohol exploded, causing severe burns to his face. The application of his panacea did the trick.

If nothing else, Davis was a consummate salesman and imbued with absolute confidence in his product, he flogged it for all he was worth. Bottles of the vegetable pain killer began to fly off the shelves, so much so that he opened a factory in the aptly named Providence. Advertising was fulsome as to its powers. An example ran, “an inexpensive and thoroughly reliable safeguard is offered by Perry Davis’ Pain Killer which…has stood unrivalled as a household companion. It is used externally as well as internally and is just what is needed for burns, bruises, cuts, sprains etc; and most people know that no other remedy is to be compared with it as a cure for coughs, colds, rheumatism, neuralgia etc in winter and all summer complaints in their season…it is a medicine chest in itself”. Another featured a host of cherubs bearing the distinctive brown bottle.

Testimonials were cited including one from Mark Twain; “those who could run away did. Those who could not drenched themselves in cholera preventatives and my mother chose Perry Davis’ Pain Killer for me”. Its fame spread overseas and during the American Civil War it was dispensed to soldiers and horses alike. An ardent Baptist, Davis gave bottles to missionaries to take with them abroad. His generosity was usually rewarded with a boost in sales. As his personal fortune grew he gave donations to many causes, gifting $50,000 in 1850 for the erection of a new Baptist church. When he died in 1862, his coffin was followed by crowds of the poor whom he had helped.

The production and sale of Davis’ Pain Killer survived his death, his son taking over the responsibility and the potion was still on sale until the early 1940s. And what was in it and was it any good? Although Davis never revealed the formula, it seemed that it was a mix of vegetable extracts, camphor, ethyl alcohol and opiates. With that lot inside you, it is no wonder you felt better, even if only temporarily. The ultimate in pick-me-ups, perhaps!

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Twenty Seven

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Do humans have the same range of facial expressions?

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. Every picture tells a story. The human face can be wonderfully expressive and can give the onlooker a sense of what you are thinking or feeling without the need for you to utter a word. To the enquiring mind the obvious question is whether there is a stock range of expressions for emotions or, putting it another way, do humans make the same facial expressions in response to the same emotions.

An interesting question, you might agree, and one which a graduate scientist at the University of Minnesota, one Carney Landis, applied his mind to in 1924. The starting point was to assemble a group of volunteers, most of whom came from Landis’ fellow graduate students. His idea was to submit the group to a range of situations which would evoke different emotions, ranging from joy to fear, and examine the facial expressions that each made. To make life easier for himself, he decided to divide the human face into a series of sections following the musculature and paint lines around each section. By taking a series of photographs he would be able to determine how each volunteer responded and which part of the face moved in response to any given stimulus.

Having developed the methodology, the experiment began. The key, obviously, was to assemble a range of stimuli that would provoke a strong reaction. So, rather like a bush tucker trial, the guinea pigs were asked to put their hands in a bucket of slimy frogs. Whilst this was going on, Landis was happily snapping away. They were asked to look at pornographic images, were subjected to electric shocks, smell ammonia. You get the picture.

All went swimmingly until Landis produced a live white rat on a tray and asked them to decapitate it. Even allowing for the fact that sensibilities around animal rights were not as advanced as they might now be, this bizarre request caused a bit of a stir amongst the volunteers. What was interesting, and perhaps the most significant outcome of the bizarre experiment although the import seemed to have passed Landis by, was that only a third of the volunteers actually refused to carry out his command. Had he pondered this phenomenon, he would have pre-empted Stanley Milgram’s equally disturbing experiments of 1963 into the extent that people would obey orders even if meant causing others harm. The students’ noble refusal to obey Landis didn’t spare the rats. Landis did the job for them.

The other two thirds, with some reluctance, set about butchering the rats. The trouble was that the executioner’s art is a rather skilled one, calling for a steady hand and steely determination, and most made a bit of a fist of it. According to Landis’ notes, “the effort and attempt to hurry usually resulted in a rather awkward and prolonged job of decapitation”. It is hard to imagine the scene of devastation as the rats suffered a slow and painful death. Perhaps Landis should have concentrated on looking at the expressions on the rodent’s faces.

And the result of this rather bizarre experiment? Try as he could, Landis could not see any correlation between an emotion and expression. It seems that people have a wide range of facial expressions to convey the same emotion. Still, it is good that we have cleared that one up.

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Course Of The Week

advert

With time on my hands, I’m always on the look-out for an interesting learning experience. An ad in the ever popular North Wales Weekly News came to my attention this week, offering fart classes. So confident were the organisers that it was going to be a rip-roaring success that they were putting on a repeat event and then a class a week. I was particularly intrigued to find out what the refreshments were – pickled onions or Brussels sprouts, perhaps?

Imagine my disappointment then when on making enquiries, I discovered it was an unfortunate typo. It would have been fun.

So upset am I that I have gone away on holiday. Thanks to the wonders of WordPress’ scheduler posts will appear as normal Mondays through to Friday, but the weekend Of The Week posts will not reappear until 25th March 2017. Contain your disappointment!

Names Of The Week (2)

cocksworth

What were the odds on the Bishop of Coventry, Christopher Cocksworth, making a cock-up during the vote on gay marriage at the recent Church of England Synod? The only bishop to vote against the motion, he claimed that “due to a moment of distraction” he pressed the wrong button on his handset when the vote came to its climax. Perhaps he was pondering what were two cocks worth in a gay marriage?

lebouche

Confusing – isn’t it? – when two restaurants have the same name. It was certainly the case for the online version of Guide Michelin France which, I read this week, awarded the sought-after star to the humble Le Bouche a Oreille in Bourges. The gaff was swamped – presumably the news had travelled by word of mouth.

There had been a bit of a Bishop of Coventry but the mistake was soon rectified, the honour being bestowed on the much more upmarket Le Bouche a Oreille in Boutervilliers near Paris. Still, some good honest, reasonably priced fare might have been just what the gourmands needed.

Tales From The Nursery – Part Forty Five

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Jack Be Nimble

This is a short rhyme which first appeared in the 1815 edition of Gammer Gurton’s Garland and goes as follows, “Jack be nimble/ Jack be quick/ Jack jumped over/ A candlestick”. It is occasionally followed by a second verse, “Jack jumped high/ Jack jumped low/ Jack jumped over/ and burned his toe”. I suppose it served him right for dicing with danger by jumping over a naked flame.

We have seen in other rhymes that Jack is used as a generic description for a boy or a man and there is no reason to suppose that the usage here is any different. But there are those who are determined to attribute this rather simple and charming rhyme to something or someone of historical import. Our first suspect is Calico Jack Rackham, a pirate who operated in the Caribbean until his eventual capture and execution in 1720. His principal claims to fame were the natty design that he employed on his flag – white skull and cross bones on a black background – and the fact that two of his crew were female, Anne Bonny and Mary reed. They both escaped dancing the hemp jig because they were with child. Whilst he was obviously a picaresque character there is no reason to suppose that he is the Jack of our rhyme. His only nimbleness was his evasion of the long arm of the law for some time.

The next suspect is the dread disease, yellow fever, which was popularly known as yellow Jack. In days before medicine was as advanced as it is now one common form of treatment for a victim of the fever was to light a fire in their room in the hope that the flames would draw out the fever. It probably did not work but at least the patient was kept warm. As a precaution when there was an outbreak of fever, lit candles would be placed by the side of a child’s bed to guard it against the disease. The theory goes that the rhyme is an invocation to the fever to avoid the candle and, therefore, the child so protected and to leap into the fire, thus eliminating the danger of infection. Ingenious as this may be, there is no compelling reason to think it is the case.

The third suspect is the pursuit of candle jumping which formed part of the St Catherine’s Day celebrations on 25th November in more innocent times. The participant was required to jump over a two-foot-tall lighted candle. If this was achieved successfully without knocking it over or extinguishing the flame, then the celebrant would have good luck for the following year. Failing to clear the flame could result in an injury such as Jack suffered, perhaps the harbinger of the ill fortune that will follow. Particularly popular amongst the lace makers of Buckinghamshire the practice rather petered out in the late 19th century, perhaps because of ‘elf and safety concerns.

Lace making wasn’t an exclusively female occupation so we don’t have to worry that Jack is a male. Of the three theories, this is the most compelling but I can’t help thinking that this is an unnecessarily elaborate explanation for a simple rhyme. Perhaps we should just be content with taking it at face value, an amusingly uncomplicated rhyme. But where would be the fun in that?

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Sixty Five

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Jerry Siegel (1914 – 1996) and Joe Shuster (1914 – 1992)

Up in the sky, look: It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman”. Superman is one of the most enduring superheroes to have appeared in American comics. The man from the planet Krypton wandered around Earth as Clark Kent on the look-out for possible trouble and adventure. The stories of his astonishing derring-do in the fight against evil have enchanted millions and filled the coffers of publishers and movie companies over decades. But who created him and did they get a sizeable share of the pie?

From around 1933 Messrs Siegel, a writer, and Shuster, an artist, had been developing the idea of a character who would turn out to be Superman. The story goes that Siegel’s father< Mitchell, died on 2nd June 1932 during a robbery staged at his second-hand clothes store in Cleveland. Although the coroner claimed that Siegel’s dad died of a heart attack, the police report indicated that gunshots were heard. In memory of his Dad Siegel created a character who was immune to bullets and would wage war against evil. Shuster was corralled to provide the artwork.

Coming up with an idea and selling it are two different things. The duo’s original idea was to sell it to a newspaper syndicate to be run as a cartoon strip with them retaining ownership and rights to the Kryptonite. Unfortunately, they were unable to find any takers. By now they were working for National Allied Publications and struck a deal in March 1938 with their successor company, Detective Comics, Inc. Under the terms of the contract the duo assigned all rights, goodwill and title to Superman to Detective Comics for the princely sum of $130.

Superman first appeared on the cover of Action Comics on 18th April 1938 and was an overnight sensation. Siegel travelled to New York to meet the co-owner of Detective Comics, Harry Donenfeld, in an attempt to renegotiate the ill-advised contract but was told to do one. The owners did throw the duo some scraps, offering them first refusal on any other creations they may come up with, allowing themselves a six-week window to make a decision. Siegel presented them with the idea of Superboy, stories of Superman’s childhood but encountered radio silence. True to form, Superboy appeared in More Fun Comics whilst Siegel was serving in the army, the script being largely based on Siegel’s script and using Shuster’s illustrations.

In 1948 the pair launched legal action to regain control of the characters and to get a “just share” of all the profits that had been made out of Superman. They failed to wrest control of the character but did get occasional slices of the action but not enough to transform their lives of penury. Their partial breakthrough came when DC Comics sold the film rights to Warner Brothers in 1975. Anxious to avoid any bad press which might have marred the launch of their block-buster movie in 1978 starring Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando et al, the film company agreed to pay the pair $20,000 a year and include their names on all credits on future Superman publications.

The story didn’t end there. In 1999, after Siegel had died, his family finally won rights to half of his creation. But that decision was immediately challenged and the only ones who have subsequently got rich out of the whole mess are the lawyers.

Siegel and Shuster, for giving the world Superman and giving him away for $130, you are worthy inductees into our Hall of Fame.

KINDLE COVER_MF

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards

Everything Is Possible For An Eccentric, Especially When He Is English – Part Three

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Jemmy Hirst (1738 – 1829)

Born in Rawcliffe, just outside Goole in the East Riding of Yorkshire (as was) James showed early signs of his later eccentricity. As a boy, he kept a jackdaw as a pet and started a life-long career in training animals to do unusual things by persuading a hedgehog to follow him around.

His descent from mild eccentricity to the full-blown version seems to coincide with being ill-starred in love. Hirst rescued his betrothed from a river in full spate but despite his derring-do the poor unfortunate woman died of smallpox. Devastated, he retired to his bed where he is said to have contracted “brain fever”. Although Hirst recovered physically, he was never the same again.

He trained a bull called Jupiter as if it were a horse, teaching it to pull a carriage. The carriage was a splendid affair, made of wicker and having large wheels and was said to contain a double bed and a cellar of wine. It was fitted with an odometer of Hirst’s own design which rang a bell when each mile was completed. Contemporary reports describe it looking like an upside-down lamp shade. Not content with having the poor bull pulling a carriage, he also rode it as if it were a horse and cut a rather dashing figure at a local fox hunt astride the bull, accompanied by pigs rather than a pack of hounds.

Hirst decided to adapt his carriage and fitted it with sails to make what would have been the world’s first land boat. After some initial trial runs along the lanes of Rawcliffe he was sufficiently confident to attempt a trip to Pontefract. “Having a fair wind he went at a dashing speed. When he reached the town everyone turned out to see the wonderful ship that sailed on dry land”. But disaster struck. “when Jemmy reached the first cross-street a puff of wind caught him sideways, upset the carriage and flung Jemmy through the window of a draper’s shop, smashing several panes”. Despite paying for the damage and buying the onlookers copious amounts of ale the authorities banned him from repeating his journey.

Hirst’s notoriety spread far and wide and he received an invitation to visit King George III. Initially, he declined the invitation, writing in response “Well, thou may tell his Majesty that I am very busy just now, training an otter to fish – he found it difficult to get the otter to let go of the fish –but I’ll contrive to come in a month or so”. When he did grace the king with a visit he wore “an otter-skin coat – I hope the pelts were not from beasts that refused to co-operate with his training regime – , patchwork breeches, red and white striped stockings and yellow boots”. The courtiers were aghast and the Duke of Devonshire burst out laughing. In response Hirst threw a glass of water over him as the Duke, he surmised, was suffering a hysterical fit.

When he got to see the king, Hirst did not bow but shook the monarch by the hand, complimenting him on being a “plain-looking fellow”. They hit it off and Hirst left inviting the king to visit him in Rawcliffe for brandy – somehow the king was never able to take him up – and with a stock of wines from the royal cellar.

Naturally, Hirst made elaborate arrangements for his eventual demise. He had a custom-made coffin “with folding doors in which were bull’s eyes of glass to peep through and a bell to ring when he wanted anything from the grave”. He stood the coffin up in his house and charged gentlemen a penny and ladies a garter to stand in it. When he did snuff it, in 1829, he left in his will £12 for twelve old maids to follow his coffin and a piper and fiddler to play happy songs. Only two maids could be found to oblige and the priest, a spoil sport for sure, only allowed the piper to play O’er the hills and far away – a pretty apt description of Jemmy Hirst, I think.

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

Society of Noviomagians

The Noviomagians

Our story begins in 1828 when William Jerdan, Crofton Croker and some other members of the Society of Antiquaries travelled out to deepest Kent to excavate the site of what was thought to have been a Roman camp called Noviomagus. They unearthed the foundations of a temple and some coffins and fired by the success of their enterprise Croker treated his fellow Antiquarians to a talk on their discoveries on November 28th. Shortly thereafter, they founded a club, named after the camp, the Noviomagians.

It was a rather eccentric club with a restricted membership – you had to be a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. They dined six times a year, initially at Wood’s Hotel in Portugal Street, just off Lincoln’s Inn Fields, before transferring their patronage at a much later date to the Freemasons’ Tavern. On the first Saturday of July, the club went for a trip to the country, ladies being invited to attend and they were treated to a reading of a historical or antiquarian paper by one of the members. What fun!

The club had a range of positions including Lord High President, a role which Crofton Croker bagged until his death, Father-Confessor, Poet laureate, the Seneschal and the Extraordinary Physician. Visitors were welcome and over the years such eminent figures as Dickens and Thackeray were in attendance. The club had a coat of arms which featured a butter-boat rampant.

The true eccentricity of the club lay in the topsy-turvy way in which they transacted business. Resolutions were only adopted if they were greeted with a majority of Noes. When a toast was proposed in honour of a guest, the speaker was expected to say what he did not mean and to leave unsaid what he really intended to say. The Minutes were a piece of work, written with the objective of misrepresenting what had actually been said. However, jokes were to be faithfully recorded as were descriptions of the artefacts that were passed around at the convivial dinners. As one observer noted, the meetings were “often exceedingly instructive and always entertaining but in the midst of these high-jinks enjoyments, it must not be thought that the real business of Archaeological enquiry and science was quite neglected”.

The minutes of the proceedings of the club were printed and many have survived. To give you a flavour here is an extract from the meeting held on Wednesday 16th April 1845. “A subdued tone prevailed on the occasion in question, for more than five minutes after the cloth was removed; and several members were detected talking sense. This, however, was not an easy matter and did not last long”. It was at this meeting that subscriptions were increased from £2 a season to £3 to cover the increased cost of printing the minutes. The meeting also heard for the time a vaguely amusing joke; Louis XVIII ate so many oysters when he visited Colchester that he was thereafter dubbed Louis des huitres. What do you expect for £3 a year?

As proceedings drew to a close the membership grew increasingly more mellow or as the minutes more eloquently put it, “each succeeding hour shook fresher roses on the table and invoked brighter thoughts and feelings”. They departed echoing Rouchefoucault’s maxim, qui vit sans folie, n’est pas si sage qu’il croit.

They passed their convivial times together until the club disbanded in 1892.

The Streets Of London – Part Fifty Four

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Birdcage Walk, SW1

I have walked along Birdcage Walk many a time and never really given much thought as to why it has its rather charming name. Running from the south-east corner of Buckingham Palace to the intersection with Great George Street, Horse Guards Road and Storey’s Gate it forms a boundary to the southern side of St James’s Park.

St James’s park is the oldest of the capital’s royal parks. Originally a marshy water meadow it housed a leper hospital from the 13th century until in 1532 Henry VIII acquired the site to create a deer park. He also built a palace, St James’s, there and James the First made further modifications, improving the drainage and controlling the water.

The first clue to the origin of our thoroughfare’s name is to be found in Storey’s Gate. The Storey after whom the gate was named was Edward who held the post of keeper of the King’s birds. It seems that James the First had a penchant for collecting wild animals and birds and they were housed along the southern edge of the park. Charles II redesigned the park, planting rows of trees and laying down lawns. He threw the park open to the general public and would often be seen feeding the ducks and mingling with the hoi polloi.

The extensive collection of cages and aviaries housing exotic species was a great draw. On Sunday 18th August 1661 Samuel Pepys graced it with his presence as he was in the area, noting “and then to walk in St James’s Park, and saw great variety of fowl which I never saw before and so home”. Another visitor, John Evelyn, gives a more extensive account of the attractions than the rather laconic Pepys, when he went there on 9th February 166.

I went to St Ja: Pke, where I examined the throate of the Onocratylus or Pelecan” which was a gift from the Russian Ambassador. “It was diverting to see”, he continues, “how he would tosse up and turne a flat fish, plaice or flounder to get it right into his gullet, for it has one at the lower beake which being filmy stretches to a prodigious widenesse when it devours a great fishe”. Despite the amusement value it afforded to on-lookers, Evelyn regarded it as a “melancholy bird”.

There were penguins, storks and cranes to be seen, all of which seemed to be munching their way through the fish stocks of the lake. One creature that took Evelyn’s fancy was one of a pair of Balearian Cranes which “having had one of his legges broken and cut off above the knee, had a wodden or boxen leg and thigh with a joynt for the knee so accurately made, that the poore creature could walk with it and use it as well as if it had been natural”. The artificial limb had been fashioned by a soldier.

As well as birds there were “also deere of severall countries, white, spotted like leopards, antelope, an elke, rede deers, robucks, staggs, guinny goats and Arabian sheep” on display. Evelyn’s final comment was, “the withy potts or nests for the wild foule to lay in, a little above the surface of the water was very pretty”.

The Walk in our street’s name owes its origin to a restriction in its usage. Until 1828 only the Royal Family and the Hereditary Grand Falconer were permitted to ride along it; everyone had to go on foot. Glad to see literalism still survives.

Gastropod Of The Week

chevy1

I hesitate to return to the subject of snails but this story which I stumbled on this week is astonishing in so many ways.

A woman in Tel Aviv was out walking when she heard a rather loud crunching sound. Looking down she realised that she had trodden on a snail and crushed its shell. In such circumstances most people would either just walk on or have another go to make sure that the creature had been put out of its agony. But not she.

Instead she scooped the creature and rushed to the nearest vets, the Haclinica veterinary hospital. Even more astonishingly, the staff agreed to repair the creature using epoxy glue and making sure that the adhesive stayed on the outer shell.

The snail, now named Chevy, is on the road to recovery – slowly, of course.