A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: April 2017

Book Corner – April 2017 (2)


The Red Thumb Mark – R Austin Freeman

I have a confession to make. I have a penchant for detective stories and mysteries. I find them a light relief from the heavier fare that normally makes up my reading list. I like to go slightly off piste from the usual detective novelists – Conan Doyle, Christie, Sayer, Simenon et al – and I was encouraged to try Austin Freeman, not someone I had read before. He wrote 27 novels featuring Doctor Thorndyke and for no better reason than you need to start somewhere, I decided to read the first of the series, published in 1907.

On opening the book I wondered whether I was reading a Sherlock Holmes manqué. The protagonist is a clever sleuth, Dr Thorndyke, who specialises in medico-legal enquiries and has the brain power of Conan Doyle’s creation minus the neuroses. The account of his exploits is written by his faithful friend and unemployed doctor, Doctor Jervis. The real culprit is neither arrested nor brought to justice nor really named, although there are enough clues in the latter part of the book for the diligent reader to be pretty sure of their identity. There is some love interest, although it is done in the rather prim and proper manner you would expect from an Edwardian novel, as the loyal Jervis falls under the charms of Juliet Gibson. The real object of her affections becomes clear as the book concludes.

The mystery is simple enough. Reuben Hornby is accused of stealing some diamonds deposited in his uncle’s safe. He has one of the few keys to the safe – his uncle, John, and cousin, Walter have the others – and it seems a fair cop when a piece of paper with a bloody thumb print matching Reuben’s distinctive dabs is found in the safe. Reuben has his collar felt and languishes in jail ahead of his trial, protesting his innocence. His aunt and Juliet are convinced of his innocence and Thorndyke is brought in to resolve the case.

There are moments of comedy – the aunt is portrayed as a bit of a dotty character and her appearance in the witness stand is the comedic highlight of the book. There is the usual sexist language and treatment of women that went with the age. Polton, Thorndyke’s amanuensis, tidies up the rooms prior to a visitation by the fairer sex because he “evidently appreciated the difference between the masculine and the feminine view as to the proper appearance of working premises”  – a difference of view that persists to this very day, if the discussions between TOWT and I about my office are anything to go by. And there is an intriguing moment when Juliet asks Jervis whether he considered Thorndyke “a dear”. Perhaps the modern habit of trying to determine hints of sexuality makes too much of it.


The solving of the mystery involves the aunt’s Thumbograph. This was akin to an autograph book where family and friends signed and dates a box on the left hand of the page and left their thumb mark on the right. I’m sure it brightened up many a dull dinner party. It also makes an appearance in The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr, published in 1938 and was important as finger prints were the DNA of the modern police force. But, as Thorndyke demonstrates, finger prints are not infallible and need to be seen in context.

It is an entertaining read but perhaps seemed more dated than, say, Sherlock Holmes. The scientific explanations of Thorndyke’s methodology can grate but overall, it reflects well on an author who has rather gone out of fashion.

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


The Nottinghamshire Club

Isn’t it annoying when there are two pubs on the same street bearing the same name? This was the case in 18th century London where there were two pubs called the Star and Garter on Pall Mall. It is thought that the one on the south side of the street, which also hosted the Diletanttis, was the one which the Nottinghamshire met at once a month. The club was so called because it drew its membership from gentlemen who lived or came from Nottinghamshire.

Proceedings would start on the second floor of the pub just after four o’clock in the afternoon with a jolly good dinner spiced with lively conversation. The bill and a bottle was brought in at seven to wrap up proceedings. I’m sure the gentlemen from the north Midlands had a convivial time.

On 26th January 1765 things didn’t quite go to plan. Ten members of the club sat down to dine with John Hewet in the chair and amongst the diners were to be found Lord Byron, the 5th Baron (not the poet but his great uncle) and Byron’s cousin, William Chaworth. When the proceedings were drawing to a close Hewet suggested as a topic of conversation the best way to preserve game on one’s estate. Chaworth and Byron expressed contrary views, the former recommending taking measures of the utmost severity against poachers while Byron thought that the best way to maximise game was to do nothing at all. Chaworth then claimed that he had more game on his five acres of land than Byron had on all his estate. Byron’s response was to suggest a £100 bet but the wager was not struck.

The two gentlemen descended to the first floor and asked a waiter to show them to a vacant room. After a few minutes the bell rang and the waiter returned to the room to find Chaworth with his sword in his left hand and Byron with his in his right and their unoccupied hands around each other’s neck. During the contre-temps Byron managed to wound his opponent, from which injuries Chaworth died a couple of days later.

Byron was sent to the Tower of London and appeared before the House of Lords on 16th and 17th April 1765. He was found not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter. However, he got away with just a fine and upon his return to his gaff in Newstead Abbey he mounted his infamous sword on the wall of his bedchamber and revelled in his newly gained sobriquet, the Wicked Lord.

Whether this unsavoury event put a dampener on the proceedings of the illustrious Nottinghamshire, I know not, but the club fades out of the historical records. The Star and Garter, however, seems to have been a popular venue, Jonathan Swift persuading his club to meet there as early as 1712 and the Jockey Club meeting there in 1752. The Connoisseur noted in 1754 that “fools of quality of that day drove to the Star and Garter to regale on macaroni”. The Savoir Faire club used it as its headquarters during its brief existence and in 1774 Sir Horace Mann of Kent and the Duke of Dorset and Lord Tankerville, representing Surrey and Hampshire respectively, met there to draft the first rules of cricket including the fiendish LBW law.

The Epicure’s Almanack of 1815 claimed that the establishment was noted for the quality of its claret, although a century earlier the main complaint was the excessive costs. The Duke of Ormond was charged £21 6 shillings and eight for a meal of two courses for four without wine or dessert. Now that would have caused me to draw my sword!

The Streets Of London – Part Fifty Seven


King’s Road, SW3

Synonymous with fashionable, trendy London, King’s Road runs from Sloane Square in the east to the junction with Wandsworth Bridge Road where it becomes New King’s Road, terminating at Putney Bridge station. In all, it runs for 1.9 miles – the trendier end being the eastern. Property prices are astronomic, even for London, although I managed to rent a small flat there for a few months in the 1980s.

As its name suggests, it has royal connections. It was the private thoroughfare by which Charles II was able to travel to Kew and back without the attentions of the great unwashed. Although the road could be used by people with royal connections it was not until 1830 that it was opened up to the hoi polloi. This restriction to usage meant that by London terms the buildings along the road are relatively modern, dating from the 19th century.

Perhaps one of the most vivid examples of climate change are the pictures and reports of people skating on the frozen wastes of the River Thames. During the course of the 19th century temperatures rose and nature’s skating rinks were a thing of the past. But skating had caught the popular imagination and the race was on to develop the first artificial ice rink. In 1844 one such was opened on Grafton Street, just off Tottenham Court Road, which provided an “area of artificial ice [which] is extremely convenient for such as may be desirous of engaging in the graceful and manly pastime of skating”. Unfortunately, the surface was made of swine lard and chemical salts and the stench was such that it soon put off even the most ardent aficionado.

The first vaguely successful commercial ice rink known as the Glacarium did not appear until 1876 and was housed at 379, King’s Road. John Gamgee had developed a process for creating ice whilst working on a way to preserve meat which was transported from down under. He patented the first deep freezer in 1870 and saw another application for his invention.


The rink measured 40 feet by 24 and had a concrete base as a floor. On top of this was placed a layer consisting of dirt and cow hair and some wooden planking, above which was placed oval shaped copper tubing. Gamgee then pumped through the pipes a solution of glycerine, nitrogen peroxide, water and ether and filled the structure. Using pumps the solution was pumped through the pipes and froze the water, producing a smooth, glass-like surface. To add to the sense of theatre, the walls of the glacarium were painted with images of the Swiss Alps and there was a balcony where an orchestra could serenade the skaters or where onlookers could admire the skills on show.

It was a great success and Gamgee opened two more rinks, the largest of which, located at Charing Cross, measuered 115 feet by 25. But the process of making the ice was expensive and created a mist which was off-putting to the skaters, numbers dropped and Gamgee was forced to pull the plug by mid 1878. The site is now occupied by the hideous Moravian Tower.

Thomas Arne is said to have composed Rule Britannia whilst living at no 215 and Ellen Terry, the actress, lived in the same house, although not at the same time, in case you were thinking I had unearthed a scoop, In the 1960s the King’s Road was “where it was at”, frequented by mods and hippies. A decade later, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s boutique, Let It Rock which later became SEX and then Seditionaries, was the honeypot around which the leading luminaries of the nascent punk movement congregated. These days, though, the area has been gentrified and is stuffed full of expensive shops and restaurants.

Bring back the ice rink, I say.

Pumpkin Update (7)

Undaunted by last year’s disaster, I have decided to have another go at growing pumpkins. So full of anticipation and not a little trepidation, I have planted eight pumpkin seeds into pots containing well-watered and manured soil and put them into a propagator.

For this year’s horticultural experiment, I have chosen a variety of pumpkin called Snowman.It is a white coloured variety, surprise, surprise, with yellow orangish flesh and can grow to the size of a football. We will see! Naturally, I will keep you advised of progress.

Political Pundit Of The Week

So we are to have another general election.

In Isaac Asimov’s Franchise one person, Norman Muller, is selected to cast a vote that will decide who will be the next President of the United States will be. Perhaps we should give Brenda, a denizen of Bristol, this dubious honour on our behalf.

Animals Of The Week

Something is stirring in the undergrowth. The animal kingdom is getting a bit uppity as a rash of stories I came across this week shows.

Firstly, we had two brave bobbies chasing a pig through the mean streets of Redbridge in east London. The pig managed to evade the short arms of the law for a while but eventually captured and returned to the field from whence it had escaped.

Then on Easter Saturday a herd of 60 cows decided to take advantage of the group travel discounts offered by the benighted Southern Rail. They stood on the platform at Hever in Sussex only to find that because of their sudden arrival, the train company had decided to suspend services. They were moved on from the platform and services were restored. I wonder whether they left a deposit with the ticket office.

Then news reached me that April the giraffe seems to have let fame go to her head. You may recall that she gave birth live on webcam. Anyway, she is naturally quite protective of junior and when a vet had the audacity to get too close, she stretched out one of her long legs and gave him a sharp kick in the niagras.


What Is The Origin Of (124)?…



One of the wonders of the English language is how a word can over time change its meaning to become the polar opposite – something I looked at a year or so ago in a series entitled All Change. Today’s word is even more remarkable because snob is what grammarians call an auto-antonym – it has two meanings which are directly contradictory of each other.

This may seem surprising because nowadays the commonly accepted definition of a snob is someone who despises those considered to be inferior in rank, attainment or taste. That’s true but other definitions to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary include “a person belonging to the ordinary or lower classes of society; one having no pretensions to rank or gentility”. So what is the story behind this word?

The starting point in our search is an edition of the Westminster Journal and London Political Miscellany of 25th August 1770 in which a correspondent, signing himself as the Wood Street Cobbler, wrote, “but what is this [broken pavement] more than honest Snob has taken notice of several times?” The correspondent’s nom de plume may well have been something of an in-joke because by 1781 the word snob is documented as meaning a shoemaker or a cobbler’s apprentice. The association of snob with the profession of shoemaking appeared in a theatre review in the Middlesex Journal and Evening Advertiser of 8th December 1774. The reviewer informed his readers that “last night a new Comic Ballad of two act was performed at the Theatre Royale Drury Lane, called the Cobbler ..Air IV”. We are then treated to an extract, “Pray, pray, be quiet neighbour Snob,/ Don’t act now so contrary:/ make love to me – a pretty job,/ I’m quite in a quandary”.

By 1796 the meaning had shifted a little as it now referred to a towns person or anyone who was not a student at Cambridge. Legend has it that anyone who was not a member of the Varsity was called sub nobilitate or sine nobilitate and that an abbreviation taking the first letter of the prefix and the first three letters of the noun to form the abbreviation snob. We don’t need to believe this because it is quite easy to imagine that a word that started out describing an honest cobbler could easily migrate to a position where it encapsulates the entire working class, a class to which students, particularly those from Cambridge, would hardly profess to belong.

It was thanks to William Thackeray that the word snob became to have its more modern meaning. He wrote a series of essays for the magazine, Punch, about a whole range of snobs you could encounter in everyday Victorian life from military snobs to university and country and literary snobs and even snobs abroad. He published them as a collection in 1848, entitled The Book of Snobs, written by one himself. It is a sort of natural history of snobbery. Not all of the characters you find within its pages are vulgar and ostentatious. But a pretty common theme throughout all the portraits is that they are insufficiently refined and are subjected to ridicule because their manners violate what is deemed acceptable to society.

From then onwards with the imprimatur of a great novelist, snob acquired its more modern meaning without ever losing its original sense and, indeed, someone exhibiting snobbery is in an inverted way acting like an uncouth, ill-educated member of the working class. Or am I just being a snob myself?

A Better Life – Part Eight


The Chapter of Perfection

A combination of the turmoil caused in central Europe by the Thirty Years War, the emergence of the Lutheran Protestantism as a hierarchical and state church and the offer by William Penn of a safe haven for religious refugees in the nascent colony of Pennsylvania meant that groups of religious dissidents were encouraged to cross the Atlantic in search of their utopia. One such group formed around the recently defrocked pietist pastor, Johann Jacob Zimmerman.

Zimmerman was convinced that the second coming of Christ would occur in 1694, after which would follow a thousand years of Christ in charge and then the end of the world. He gathered around him a group of some forty young followers, mainly doctors, lawyers and theologians, the Chapter of Perfection. The appearance of Halley’s comet in 1680 confirmed Zimmerman’s view that something celestial was afoot. The group decided to migrate to America in early 1694 via London but, doubtless disappointingly in the light of the imminent revelation, Zimmerman pegged it and leadership of the group passed to the 21-year-old Johannes Kelpius. The links the group made with the Quakers in London provided the funds to cross the Atlantic.

On arrival at Baltimore, the group made their way to some woods between Germanstown and Philadelphia where they established their community. They kept themselves to themselves, living a simple lifestyle with vows of celibacy and poverty, whiling their time away studying numerology, astrology and alchemy as well as peering into the sky using telescopes in the hope of getting an advance warning of the Second Coming from the roof of their 40-foot square tabernacle.

Although isolationists, the group offered their services to the local communities, including a tribe of native Americans, as doctors, lawyers and craftsmen gratis. They were dubbed by the local German community as the Society of the Woman in the Wilderness, a quote from chapter 12, verse 6 of the Book of Revelation, “and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and three score days” – a strange sobriquet as they were all chaps.

Christ didn’t appear in 1694 and this rather took the wind out of the sails of the Society. In 1695 some left to get married – so much for celibacy – while others moved away. But some still clung to their simple life in the woods, hoping that Christ was still on his way, passing the time in prayer and meditation in the adjacent caves, gardening and writing music and prayer books. Kelpius’ A Short, Easy and Comprehensive Method of Prayer, published in 1700, became popular amongst the German-speaking colonists and when it was translated into English in 1761 it fuelled Pennsylvanians’ interest in the strange band of brothers.

Kelpius, who was the subject of one of the first oil paintings in the colonies, died in 1708, of TB, despite believing he would not suffer a physical death. His philosopher’s stone, as directed in his will, was thrown into the nearby river Wissahickon. Numbers depleted further but six stuck it out under the direction of Conrad Matthai. However, upon his death in 1748, the Chapter was closed. There is only so much disappointment you can take, after all.

Kelpius and his followers had made their mark on Philadelphian society through their writings and musical compositions and appeared in the gothic novels written by the likes of Charles Brocken Brown and George Lippard. But they would have had a long wait.

I Predict A Riot – Part Twenty Two


The Khodynka Riot, 1896

People can’t resist getting something for nothing. Such is the change in people’s behaviour when there is the prospect of a freebie, that woe betide the organisers who have miscalculated the likely demand. If evidence of this were required, just consider the tragic events at Khodynka Field, just outside Moscow, following the coronation of the ill-fated Russian Tsar, Nicholas II.

The idea was simple enough and, at first blush, pretty generous. Open house would be held for the masses, four days after the coronation, on 30th May. What was on offer for all those who turned up was a bread roll, a piece of sausage, pretzels, gingerbread, a commemorative cup and, crucially, as much beer as they could consume. Adjacent to the site 150 buffets were erected to hand out the gifts and 20 pop-up pubs to dispense the all-important booze. Close to the square was a field which had a ravine and numerous gullies. The threat to ‘elf and safety that these topographic features posed would become increasingly apparent as events unfolded.

News of the shindig spread like wildfire and by 6 o’clock in the morning, a sizeable crowd had already begun to assemble to get their piece of the action. By mid-morning, it is estimated that some half a million citizens were milling around, controlled by some flimsy barricades and a few hundred mounted Cossacks. The crowds grew restless and their humour was not improved when a rumour circulated to the effect that the officials had miscalculated demand and so there was unlikely to be enough to go around. It was also rumoured that within each enamel cup there was to be found a gold coin.

The crowd surged forward through the barriers towards the pubs and buffets. Now the topography came into play. Many fell into the ditch and were trampled on or were suffocated to death. Seeing what was happening, some of the crowd tried to turn back, compounding the mayhem and chaos. Despite police reinforcements numbering around 1,800 by the time the situation was brought under control, 1,389 people had been trampled to death and a further 1,3000 injured.


But the show must go on. By the time the Tsar and his old Dutch had made their way to the Royal Pavilion at around 2 o’clock, all traces of the devastation had been removed. Indeed, there was a rather successful news black-out. Alexei Volkov wrote, “..I met many groups of people coming back from that site and carrying the Tsar’s gifts. The strange thing, though, was not one person mentioned the catastrophe and I did not hear about it until the next morning”.

When the extent of the tragedy was known, many blamed Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich as he had been responsible for organising the event. But when the Tsar suggested holding an inquiry, the Duke flew off the handle and threatened to boycott the court. The inquiry never took place. Worse still, the Tsar was persuaded, for fear of upsetting his French hosts, to attend a lavish ball at the French embassy on the night of the disaster. This show of royal insensitivity did not go down with the masses, a feeling which royal visits to see those hospitalised the following day did nothing to dissipate.

In an attempt to make some amends, a number of minor officials were sacked and the government distributed aid packages to the families of those who had been killed. Grand Duke Sergei was nicknamed the Duke of Khodynka and Nicholas was given the tag “The Bloody”. Not a good way to begin a reign which concluded with his execution at the hands of the Bolsheviks a hundred years ago.

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


Francis Henry Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater (1756 – 1829)

Although educated at Eton and Oxford, Egerton quickly forsook England for the delights of Paris and soon entertained the locals with his version of English eccentricity. Quite why he left the family home of Ashridge House in the Hertfordshire village of Little Gaddesden is unclear, although there are suggestions that he had got a woman in the family way. His friends were somewhat surprised as he regularly spoke of his hatred of the place.

On arrival in Paris he bought a luxurious hotel, as you do, at 335 rue Saint-Honore and moved in with his collection of cats and dogs. A regular Parisian sight was a grand carriage leaving his gaff carrying several dogs reclining on silk cushions to the Bois de Boulogne where the pooches got out and were exercised, under umbrellas when the weather was inclement. At meal times the dogs were kitted out with leather boots, handmade of course, on their feet and linen napkins round their necks. Seated at the table, they were expected to behave with decency and decorum as their grub was brought to them on silver dishes.

Alas, not all of the dogs met Egerton’s exacting standards. Two of his favourites, Bijou and Biche, rebelled and in the eccentric’s own words “behaved like rascals”. So he had them measured up and condemned them to wear the valets’ uniform of yellow coats and knee breeches for eight days and they were deprived of the Earl’s company. I wonder if it made any difference.

As an English gentleman abroad, Egerton was keen to pursue the sport of fox-hunting. To this end he imported a pack of hounds and a fox and dressed in the full hunting rig would pursue the poor creature around the grounds of the hotel. Perhaps even less sporting was Egerton’s habit of clipping the wings of partridges and pheasants with which he stocked the grounds so that he might more easily shoot them even with his by then failing eyesight.

Egerton had a novel way of keeping track of the date. He would wear a fresh pair of shoes every day and when he had finished with them one of his servants would take them into a special room where they were laid out in a row. Egerton would then amuse himself by visiting the room, counting the shoes to calculate the date and by judging the condition of them, determine what the weather conditions had been.

Although eccentric, Egerton was not a man to cross. He faced down Napoleon Bonaparte who was remodelling Paris and wanted to change the layout of the area near the hotel. His workmen were quickly sent packing. The Duke of Saxe-Coburg made an attempt to requisition the hotel, only to be confronted by Egerton and thirty servants, armed to the teeth.

Egerton made little attempt to learn the local language, preferring to converse in Latin, although he did have some of Milton’s works translated into French for the benefit of the natives. And he didn’t think the local cuisine was up to snuff. One summer he decided that his entourage would spend some months sampling the delights of the French countryside. On the day of departure, 30 servants on horseback, the earl and his dogs together with 16 luggage carriages set off from rue Saint-Honore. Stopping some way out of Paris for lunch, he concluded that the quality of the food and the standard of service was not up to his exalted standards and promptly returned home.

He stayed in Paris until his death but was buried back in Blighty in the family chapel.