A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: March 2017

What Is The Origin Of (121)?…


Keep it under your hat

I am rather partial to wearing a hat, a Panama on the rare occasions it gets hot enough to warrant it and a cap or a trilby in winter. After all, there is an urban myth, propagated by the US army survival manual, that you lose up to 40 to 45 per cent of your body heat through your head. Scientists have poured cold water on this but you can’t be too careful, I say. Anyway, our idiom means to keep something secret or quiet; store it away.

The figurative sense of the phrase is easy to understand. After all, what is underneath your titfer is your head and this is where you keep your thoughts and secrets. The earliest printed example of a variant of the phrase, without the verb to keep, appeared in William Thackeray’s The History of Pendennis, published in 1848. There the author wrote, “Thus, oh friendly readers, we see how every man in the world has his own private griefs and business…Ah sir, a distinct universe walks about under your hat and under mine”. In 1881, in W B Westall’s The Old Factory, a Lancashire Story, we find our phrase for possibly the first time; “that he could not afford to keep a wife, that he preferred to keep his family under his hat or that he could not find a lass to suit him”.

The phrase seems to have crossed the pond because it appeared in doubtless popular Gleanings in Bee Culture of 15th October 1892. Interestingly, though, the sense is of secrecy as in Westall’s usage rather than thoughts, as in Thackeray’s. “..tell us where you know of a producer who is engaged in the mixing business, and we will keep it under our hat if you say so”. The wonderful P G Wodehouse in the Inimitable Jeeves of 1923 reverted to the original sense; “it made such a hit with her when she found that I loved her for herself alone, despite her humble station, that she kept it under her hat”.

Some etymologists claim that the phrase is American in origin and that refers to Abraham Lincoln’s rather quaint habit of storing important papers in his rather capacious stove-pipe hat, what he termed his office. But this can’t be the case, charming as the theory may be, because Thackeray’s usage predates him and there is no reason to suppose that it is American in origin.

Another theory is that it is a reference to the custom deployed by English archers of keeping their spare bow strings secure and dry by placing them under their caps. The ceremonial sword bearer of the Lord Mayor of London kept the key to his master’s seal of office in a special pocket in his titfer. I’m sure may things have kept under a hat over the course of the centuries, nits and dandruff not included, so it does not seem necessary to try to select one of these more exotic practices as the origin of our idiom. What is undeniably true is that in all circumstances when a hat is worn what is under it is your head and within your skull, your brain. This simple truth matches Thackeray’s usage.

Of course, if I find a more compelling explanation, rest assured, I will not keep it under my hat.


Double Your Money – Part Sixteen


John Law (1671 – 1729) and the Mississippi Bubble

Fife born, John Law was a bit of a rake. Gifted with mathematical abilities, the son of a Scottish financier moved to London in his early twenties and made his mark as a gambler. When he was 23 he fought a duel over a lady friend (natch), killing his opponent, for which misdemeanour he served some time in chokey. He managed to escape and spent some time on the continent studying the financial systems of cities such as Amsterdam, genoa and Venice, publishing a paper in 1705 in which he argued that paper currency should be adopted instead of gold and silver backed coins.

In 1715 the French economy was on the verge of insolvency, the government defaulting on its debts and the value of its gold and silver-backed currency fluctuating wildly. Louis XV was only five at the time and control of the country’s affairs was in the hands of a group of regents led by the Duke of Orleans. Law was a mate of the Duke and saw an opportunity to put his economic theories into practice. By 1716 Law had permission to open a national bank, Banque Generale, which inn return for deposits of gold and silver issued paper bank notes. Although not legal tender, they were redeemable in French currency.. The bank was a success, building up its reserves from the issuance of stock and the profits gained from managing the French finances.

The French at the time had sizeable swathes of land in North America and in 1717 Law acquired the Compagnie d’Occident and with it monopoly trading and development rights for land under French control stretching from Louisiana to Canada. In 1719 the Compagnie, now rebranded as Compagnie des Indes and with rights over all French trade outside of Europe, purchased the rights to mint coinage and to collect indirect and direct taxes. Law effectively controlled France’s finances and foreign trade.

Shares in the company were offered to the public in January 1719 for 500 livres a time payable with Banque Generale notes. Law had stoked up demand by promulgating stories – false, of course – of the untold wealth lying dormant in the territories. It was too good an opportunity to miss and people from all social classes invested, making substantial paper profits – the French word millionaire was coined to describe someone who had made a substantial fortune through holding Compagnie shares – as the price reached 10,000 livres at the end of the year.

Law’s big problem, though was that the bank had issued vast amounts of notes without the currency to back them up if anyone sought to cash them in, a problem compounded by the lack of gold and silver from the French territories in North America. Inevitably, some tried to realise their profits by selling their shares, causing the prices to fall in early 1720. Law tried to avert a stampede by devaluing the share price by 50% and limiting payments in gold to 100 livres. This caused outrage and although the notes’ value was restored, but not the pay-out limit, many investors now realised that the shares they had in the Compagnie were effectively worthless – paper millionaires were now real-time paupers.

By early 1721 shares were back to the original offer price. Law, realising the game was up, fled, dressed as a woman, and spent the rest of his life as an itinerant gambler. The Bank and company collapsed, around the same time as the South Sea bubble came to its natural conclusion, and France was plunged into a severe economic depression.

Book Corner – March 2017 (3)


The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

Operating in the not inconsiderable penumbra of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins is a rather forgotten man these days. Collins may not have the resonance and poetry of Dickens at his best but his characterisation is subtler and there are fewer passages of grandiose, highfalutin prose that you can skip without losing any of the plot, characterisation or sense of the story. Collins’ prose is sparer and leaner and he just gets on with the job of telling a story.

And Collins was inventive with the novel’s form and subject. He created what is now acknowledged to have been the first detective story, the Moonstone, and The Woman in White, which I finally read over the Christmas holidays, is considered to be the first mystery novel and to have started the genre for sensationalist fiction which, probably, found its nadir in the penny dreadfuls so popular with the Victorians in the latter part of the 19th century. He is one of Victorian literature’s under-appreciated men.

The Woman in White, Collins’ fifth novel, first appeared in serialised form in Dickens’ weekly magazine, All The Year Round, in 1859 and appeared in book form a year later – the edition carrying the first instalment had the closing instalment of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. You certainly got value for your money in those days. The constraints of weekly serialisation meant that the author was forced to leave reader on a metaphorical cliff edge, anxious to find out what happened next. One of the joys of reading Wilkins’ works is identifying those moments where one episode ended and the next began – the equivalent of the dum-dum moments on Eastenders. I reckon I identified at least 40.

The story – I won’t spoil it – centres around the attempts of the principal protagonist, Walter Hartright, to untangle the dastardly plans of Percival Glyde and his seductive and cunning side-kick, Count Fosco, to access an inheritance to which they are not entitled. Along the way we meet with some of the literary tricks which to the modern reader somewhat hackneyed – two characters of similar appearance being the foremost, Italian political feuds and sleuthing techniques deployed by Hartright which become the modus operandi of literary detectives to come. Structurally, the book is a series of narratives by the principal characters in time sequence, giving their version of events, as though they were testifying in a court. This means that the book travels at some pace and you have a variety of opinions and insights to illuminate the story.

The book was a wild success – the public could not get enough of it. The first edition of the book sold out on publication day and his publishers offered Collins the princely sum of £5,000 as an advance for his next work. There was also a bit of a spin-off boom with people being able to buy Woman in White perfume, cloaks and bonnets and you could dance the Woman in White quadrille.

For the modern reader, there is a streak of women know your place to the book – they are generally portrayed as weak and inferior to men, although Marian Halcombe, who is naturally unattractive and unmarried, does her bit to redress the balance – and there is a tad too much little Englander about the treatment of foreigners. But if you can shut your eyes to these attitudes that were current at the time it was written, then you have a rip-roaring, entertaining story. And that, after all, is really what you want.

I Predict A Riot – Part Twenty One


The Disco Demolition Riot – July 1979

As an Englishman I find the attractions of baseball mystifying. It is a glorified game of rounders that is tedious in the extreme, punctuated only by the cheesy seventh innings stretch. And because of the American fetish with finding a winner – draws are not in their national psyche – if there isn’t a victor at the end of nine innings, it goes on interminably until someone has an advantage. I may have been unlucky with the baseball games I have seen live but this seems a regular occurrence. And they say cricket is boring!

As far as music went, the 1970s was a mix of the very good and the downright awful. Firmly in the latter camp was disco music, something that drove me to distraction and dissipated all of my natural bonhomie. It seemed that there were many at the time who shared my views. So what could possibly go wrong if you mixed a deadly dull game like baseball with a marmite-like genre such as disco music? The events at Comiskey Park in Chicago on July 12th 1979, that’s what.

For the double header between the local team, the White Sox, and Detroit Tigers the promoters offered entry at a bargain price of $0.98 if you brought and handed in a disco record. At the interval between the games, local DJ, Steve Dahl, an arch-critic of disco music who had recently been fired from WDAI-FM when it switched to become an all disco station, would blow up the records using fireworks. The promotion for the so-called Disco Demolition night worked well with an official attendance of 59,000 and a further 15,000 milling around outside the stadium. According to some reports, the air was heavy with the sweet smell of marijuana.

The White Sox lost the first game 4-1 and with due ceremony a crate full of the offending disco records was wheeled into view. Dahl blew them up to smithereens, creating a small crater in the outfield. The playing area was not guarded and a large section of the crowd – some estimates put the numbers at between five and seven thousand – ran on to the grass, forcing the White Sox team, limbering up for the second game to fell to the relative safety of the clubhouse. The ground was trashed, the batting cage overturned, base poles stolen and vinyl records were thrown like Frisbees or burnt. A large bonfire was lit on the centre of the pitch.


Appeals for calm went unheeded and at 9.08 pm the Chicago cops in full riot gear appeared on the scene. The rioters quickly dispersed, although 39 not quickly enough as they had their collars felt and charged with disorderly conduct. The ground was so badly damaged – the field resembled “a grassy moonscape” – that the second game was abandoned and awarded 9-0 to the Tigers.

And the aftermath? The owner of the White Sox, Bill Veek, sold them the following year and his son, Mike, was unable to get a job in baseball for some time, claiming he had been blackballed because of the incident. Disco music soon waned in popularity shortly after the riot, with record companies rebadging the stuff as dance music. Dahl claimed in an interview some time later that the Disco demolition Night “hastened its demise”. For Dahl, this was the end of his anti-disco rallies but it shot him to national fame, becoming a radio superstar in the windy city.

It would never have happened at Lord’s!

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


Dr Pierce’s Favourite Prescription

One of America’s greatest practitioners of the ignoble art of quackery was one Ray Vaughn Pierce (1840 – 1914) who operated from Buffalo in New York state. So prolific was he and so varied were his panaceas and devices that he may well keep me gainfully occupied for some time. But we have to start somewhere and where better, perhaps, than a cure targeted at the weaker sex. Indeed, the advertising for the so-called Favourite Prescription specifically referred to “weak women”.

Pierce was not bashful in proclaiming the benefits of the Favourite. Describing it as “a tonic nervine” which “quiets nervous irritation” and “strengthens the enfeebled nervous system, restoring it to healthful vigour”. It was particularly helpful with women’s problems; “in all diseases involving the female reproductive organs, with which there is usually associated an irritable condition of the nervous system, it is unsurpassed as a remedy”. There was more – it was a “uterine and general tonic of great excellence” – naturally – and “an efficient remedy in cases requiring medicine to regulate the menstrual function”. If that was not enough, Pierce topped it off with a further boast, “in all cases of debility, the Favourite Prescription tranquillises the nerves, tones up the organs, and increases their vigour, and strengthens the system”.


As well as exhibiting the quack’s natural tendency towards bombast, Pierce was also coy as to what was in this magic potion. The nearest he got was to suggest that it was “derived exclusively from the vegetable kingdom”. So that’s all right then. Perhaps more alarming was an advert in 1902 which was targeted at mothers whose daughters were about to enter puberty. Naturally, Dr Pierce’s Favourite Prescription could deal with everything that could beset a teenage girl but what was troubling was the final sentence, “there is no alcohol in Favourite Prescription and it is entirely free from opium”. Why did he feel it necessary to make this point?

It may well because of a bit of a run in Pierce had with the Ladies Home Journal. The organ had the audacity to subject the potion to chemical analysis. They claimed that it contained savin, cinchona, agaric, cinnamon, water, acacia, sugar, digitalis, opium, oil star anise and alcohol. Pierce, by now a member of the House of Representatives, vigorously denied the claim and sued the Journal for $200,000, a case he won when a further analysis revealed the absence of opium and alcohol. It is thought, though, that the crafty quack had simply omitted the offending ingredients between the initial article and the court case. It may be that the presence of opium and alcohol contributed to the potion’s phenomenal success.

Pierce had form in using narcotics. His Golden Medical Discovery which was advertised to give ”men an appetite like a cowboy’s and the digestion of an ostrich” – the mind boggles – contained quinine, opium and alcohol. Even if these ingredients weren’t ever present, and a descendent who has Pierce’s recipe book claims they were, there was a couple of troubling herbal ingredients. Acacia was known to dampen sexual appetite and response while savin was known since Roman times to induce menstruation. Dosed up with this, the daughter of the house would, unknowingly, be well protected against any advances from the lads of the neighbourhood.

Comma Of The Week

For grammarians, and literary pedants, the Oxford comma represents a bit of a battle ground. It is a comma which is the last in a series of two or more items and usually precedes a conjunction like and or or. I prefer to use it only where there is the potential for some ambiguity in the sentence but some sprinkle it around like confetti. The classic example is the title of Lynne Truss’ 2003 bestseller, Eats shoots and leaves. The addition of a comma before and transforms the meaning of the sentence.

All very academic, you may say, but the want of an Oxford comma has just scooped 75 drivers in Maine back-dated overtime time payments worth some $10m. The drivers of Oakhurst Dairy claimed that their job, delivering dairy products, was not one of those functions excluded under Maine’s overtime law which prohibits the payment of overtime for employees engaged in “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of perishable goods”.

The Appeal court ruled that because there wasn’t a comma after packing, it meant that packing and distributing were not separate activities and what was being excluded by the law was the single activity of packing.

A moot point, for sure, but one that has brought good fortune to the drivers who, doubtless, have toasted the continuing health of the Oxford comma.

Toilet Of The Week (9)

I’m back and so much to catch up on.

Excessive exertion is anathema to me so I was quite able to resist the siren call of the beautiful swimming pool in our hotel complex. It seems, though, from a report printed in the American Chemical Society journal that there is another compelling reason to give the pool a swerve – it is being used by swimmers as a makeshift carsey.

By measuring the concentration of acesulfame potassium, an artificial sweetener found in most processed foods and passes through the body unaltered, in the water of two public swimming pools over a three-week period, a team of Canadian scientists have found a significant amount of urine present. Extending their trials, they found evidence of urine in each of the 31 pools tested, with concentration some 570 times greater than in tap water.

Mind you, hot tubs had even higher concentrations, one at a hotel had three times the concentration of the worst offending swimming pool.

It may be that there is something in chlorine that makes people want to go but it gives a lie to the urban myth that there is a dye in the water which changes colour when you have a wazz. You have been warned!

When I do want to exert myself, there is nothing better than a leisurely stroll through an English wood. I have been somewhat surprised recently to see plastic bags laden with some putrefying substance hanging from the branches of the trees, rather like the vestiges of some satanic ritual. According to the Forestry Commission, there is an increasing trend of dog walkers – yes them again – scooping up the dog logs of their pooch, putting them in a bag and hanging them up on the nearest branch rather than taking them to the receptacle at the car park.

The Commission is determined to stamp out this practice and has issued the helpful advice that dog walkers should flick the steaming dog logs into the undergrowth with a stick, ideally, perhaps, into the undergrowth where a lepidopterist like Phillip Cullen is lurking. Cullen has just had his collar felt for unlawfully collecting and killing one of Britain’s rarest, and presumably now rarer still, butterflies, the large blue.

The dog poo wars continue.

What Is The Origin Of (120)?…


A watched pot never boils

Have you ever put something in the microwave, set the timer on and then stood with growing impatience as the dial seems to take an age to get to zero? Of course, whether we look at the dial or not, the time will take just as long to pass but it does seem to perceptibly slow down if all you are doing is waiting for something to happen. Our phrase reflects this, although it uses a degree of poetic licence because the pot will boil. It will do so in its own time and the idiom cautions patience.

Benjamin Franklin, the well-known American polymath, may well have coined the phrase or, at least, was the first to commit it to print. From 1732 to 1758 Franklin, under the pseudonym of Richard Saunders or Poor Richard, published an annual almanac which was full of folksy household tips, puzzles, commentaries on the weather and improving aphorisms, many around the need for industry and the evils of sloth. Our phrase never made it into Poor Richard’s Almanack, as it was called, but when Franklin used it he gave his nom de plume a name check.

Franz Mesmer, whose surname gave rise to the term mesmerising, was kicking up a storm with his theory of animal magnetism, whereby energy was transferred from animate to inanimate objects. When he was the US ambassador to France, Franklin was commissioned by Louis XVI to write a report about the sensational theory. In 1785 he published it. It was not a totally dry exposition on the subject because, inter alia, it included an account of the trials and tribulations of waiting for one’s breakfast. “I was very hungry; it was so late. A watched pot is slow to boil, as Poor Richard says”. Not an exact match but the sense is there and for an author being self-referential is never a bad thing.

It was another sixty years before the idiom we use today appeared in print, courtesy of one of my favourite authors, Elizabeth Gaskell. In her Mary Barton, published in 1848, she wrote, “What’s the use of watching? A watched pot never boils, and I see you are after watching that weathercock”. These days we are more likely to use kettle than pan but the sense remains the same.

Pots and kettles appear in another phrase in common usage, the pot calling the kettle black. This is used to call someone who has been guilty of hypocrisy. The sense is fairly obvious – in the old days kettles and pots would be heated over a naked flame and the bottoms of the vessels, at least, would char over time. The idiom first appeared in Thomas Shelton’s 1620 translation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, “You are like what is said that the frying-pan said to the kettle, avant, black-browes.

A favourite variant of mine appeared in 1639 in John Clarke’s Paroemiologia Anglo-Latina, “the pot calls the pan burnt-arse”. It was left to William Penn in his Some Fruits of Solitude in reflections and Maxims to provide the definitive usage and to make crystal clear its sense. He wrote, “for a covetous man to inveigh against Prodigality, an Atheist against Idolatry, a Tyrant against Rebellion, or a Lyer against Forgery or a Drunkard against Intemperance, is for the Pot to call the Kettle black”.

Time for a cup of coffee, methinks, if I have the patience to let the kettle boil.

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


John Tallis (1676 – 1755)

Sometimes, when the world gets too much to bear, it is tempting to retreat to the comfort of your bed. But rarely do any of us go to the extremes of John Tallis who lived in the Worcestershire village of Buscot and is not to be confused with the distinguished cartographer of the same name. His strange behaviour appears to have started in 1724 when he was forty-eight.

Tallis had a room specially built which had only one window, consisting of four panes which were triple glazed to minimise the amount of fresh air that might enter the chamber. The following year he retired to bed to minimise his contact with the air which he deemed to be potentially injurious to his health. His attire was extraordinary – on his head he wore an elaborate construction which a contemporary described “as large as a large beehive”. It is estimated that it contained as much as 84 yards of flannel on top of which were perched ten linen caps and a further ten flannel ones.

On his chest, Tallis kept a frame, across which was stretched a piece of flannel, which he then placed over his face when he felt like going to sleep. His shirts were made of flannel, lined with swanskin, and quilted, although it is not known for sure how many he wore at any one time. There was no heating in the room as he would not allow a fire to be lit. To complete his unusual ensemble, he would position a cork stopper in each of his nostrils – only during the winter, mind – and a piece of ivory in his mouth to reduce the inflow of noxious air. He was wrapped up tightly under a prodigious weight of blankets.

Despite taking to his bed, according to a contemporary account Tallis ate well and drank heartily of wine or ale. Those being more prurient times than they are now, there is no mention of how the output was dealt with. Notwithstanding the encumbrance on top of his head, he was able to sit up but he was resolute in his determination to stay in his bed. When the servants came to make his bed, Tallis simply rolled onto one side and then the other. The only time he left the bed was once a year when the servants moved another bed into the room alongside him enabling him to tumble or be tumbled into it. A correspondent to the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1788 noted drily, “it seems his sweat rots a bed through in a year’s time”. As well as the bed, the headgear was changed annually.

The correspondent was cautioned not to enquire of Tallis why he persisted in his eccentric behaviour, “for all the answer he gives to any inquisitive stranger is that he would not do so if he could help it”. That said, our intrepid correspondent believed that it may have been the result of a strange encounter with an old woman when Tallis was a youth. He caught her stealing part of his fencing and ordered her to put the sticks down. On doing so, the woman cursed him, condemning to remain cold and never to feel the warmth of a fire. From that moment Tallis felt a chill and progressively wore more and more clothes until the only recourse was to stay in bed.

Whatever the cause, he stayed in bed for around 30 years until he met his Maker.

Two Revolutions


Revolution; Russian Art 1917 – 1932 – Royal Academy

The centenary of the Russian Revolution this year has been marked by the Royal Academy with a retrospective of revolutionary Russian art. It is an enormous, at times bewildering exhibition but I found it rewarding, dashing some of my preconceptions of Russian art and demonstrating how vibrant the art scene was.

Of course, there are images that we associate with Soviet art – none more so than Kustodiev’s colossal Bolshevik of 1920, an enormous peasant waving a red flag striding onwards, trampling underfoot anything in his way. The certainty in the cause is all apparent. And we have the obligatory pictures of Lenin, the most moving being the leader in his coffin. Lenin couldn’t be portrayed dead and so Petrov-Vodkin’s painting has been condemned to a life in storage. It rarely makes a public appearance and, if for no other reason, this makes a trip to the exhibition worthwhile. The heavy hand of State censorship is wonderfully illustrated by Demkov’s kerchief where the portrait of Trotsky has been cut out from one of the corners.


Artists were dragooned to help the cause and so we have paintings extolling the virtues of labour, Stakhanovite men and women glorying in their liberty, freed from selling their lives and labour for profit. Women workers heave bales around and shock workers perform skyline gymnastics erecting buildings. There is a wonderful and rather unsettling picture of a tram conductor – scary, certainly, and one certain to collect her fares! Artists were deployed to design workers’ uniforms, even dainty porcelain and El Lissitzsky’s plans for a worker’s living capsule is utilitarian to the extreme.


Russian artists were quick to embrace the avant-garde movement that was springing up elsewhere in Europe. The revolution offered a new beginning and why not a new beginning for art? The highlight of the show is the room devoted to Malevich – I came across him a couple of years ago at the Tate Modern. The Black Square, the antidote to art, seems rather lost in the exhibition, being hung a little too high for my taste. Malevich’s abstract paintings are one thing but Popova and Rodchenko eschew any form of symbolism, their works full of geometric shapes and concentric circles.

1932 was the watershed for Russian art. An exhibition entitled Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic was held – as here Malevich and Petrov-Vodkin had their own rooms – which was intended to be a proud proclamation of the radicalism and progressiveness of artists operating in the liberty that a communist state provided. Rather, though, it was the beginning of the end. Stalin tightened his grip on the state and abstract art was suppressed. What he wanted was more heroic idealism not nonsensical doodlings.



A revolution of sorts was happening at the same time in the rural county of Sussex, at least if you buy in to the thesis of the curator of Two Temple Place’s latest exhibition, Sussex Modernism – Retreat and Rebellion. Artists fled to the rural idyll to get on with their art and their lives, away from the pressures and prying eyes of London. Drawn from nine museums in the county – I was surprised there were so many – we see examples of the Bloomsbury set’s work, more male nudes than you could shake a stick at, wonderfully decorated boxes and furniture – the show stealer was Duncan Grant’s Leda and the Duck Chest (1917) – beautiful lithographs and the wonderful Edward james and Salvador Dali Mae West Lips sofa. The objets d’art have to fight hard to stand out against the exquisite opulence of the venue but in this instance they just about manage it.