A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: May 2017

Horticultural News Of The Week

I always think that the wedding of Pippa Middleton marks the beginning of the English society season. Hang on, I’ve got that wrong – I meant the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. But, alas, not everything in the undergrowth is flourishing.

This year’s event only featured eight show gardens, down from fourteen last year, as sponsors wilted under the pressures of economic uncertainty and the ever-spiralling costs of supporting the prima-donna gardeners’ extravagant attempts at what is essentially a simple operation – putting a few plants together to make a pleasing arrangement. Even the show’s main sponsor, M&G, have announced that they upping sticks and seeking pastures new in 2018.

Mind you, if the box-tree moth gets settled in here, there won’t be much in the way of hedging to provide shape to the exhibits. I have only just got over the attack of box blight that devastated Monty Don’s box hedges last year and now, I learned this week, there is another pest anxious to rid us of our buxus sempervirens. The moth lays its eggs on the underside of box leaves and the hatchlings, hairy, black caterpillars, munch their way through the host tree’s foliage at a prodigious rate. The moths are spreading through south east England faster than any previous pest. If you see one, you know what to do.

I go to Halesowen quite often but have never made it to nearby Uffmoor Wood which boasts a fine collection of bluebells. A missed opportunity it would seem as our old friends, the Woodland Trust, have taken the unprecedented step of closing it to the public, after a spate of problems including excessive dog fouling, attacks on pets and farm animals, drug dealing and dogging. The dog poo wars continue.



Lessons Of The Week

I learned this week that

  • Strong and stable leadership means making a U-turn every time one of your policies is challenged
  • Coalition of chaos means presenting costed coherent policies


What Is The Origin Of (129)?…


Cold shoulder

When you give someone the cold shoulder – something I never do, of course – you ignore or dismiss that person in an unfriendly manner, as if they weren’t really there. You might even turn your back on them. Heat is used figuratively to describe the degree of affection that you show someone. If you warm to someone it means that you like them or are at least growing to like them. Cold, though, represents disdain and hatred, ill feelings. So it is pretty easy to figure out why cold shoulder should have the figurative meaning it has today.

As to its origin it first appeared in print in Sir Walter Scott’s The Antiquary, published in 1816, “The Countess’s dislike didna gang farther at first than just showing o’ the cauld shouther”, cauld being Scottish dialect for cold and shouther for shoulder. Scott found it necessary to define the phrase’s meaning in the Glossary attached to the Antiquary which suggests that it was probably an idiom used by the Scots and one that would be relatively unfamiliar to his more refined Sassenach readership, although its absence is notable from the Concise Scots Dictionary – perhaps it was a little too concise!

Scott was clearly enamoured with the phrase but it pops up again in St Ronan’s Well, published in 1824, in an Anglicised form. “I must tip him the cold shoulder, or he will be pestering me eternally”. The form and the sense conform to its modern-day usage.

Although somewhat out of fashion these days, Sir Walter Scott was in his day an extremely popular and influential writer. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, to see the phrase springing up in literature shortly afterwards. Dickens wrote in the Old Curiosity Shop, published in 1840, “he gives me the cold shoulder on this very matter as if he had nothing to do with it, instead of being the first to propose it”.

Charlotte Bronte wrote in The Professor, her first novel which failed to find a publisher until after her death in 1857, “all understood the art of speaking fair when a point was to be gained, and could with consummate skill and at a moment’s notice turn the cold shoulder the instant civility ceased to be profitable”.  Her sister, Emily, used the phrase in Wuthering Heights (1847), “And does Miss Linton turn a cold shoulder on him? was the Doctor’s next question”. And to complete the family set, Anne used it in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), “I struck Walter Hargrave when I was drunk, the second night after we came, and he’s turned a cold shoulder on me ever since”.  It was cold in the parsonage, after all.

The phrase also travelled across the pond – whether Scottish immigrants were the cause is not clear. In 1839 the Bangor Daily Whig and Courier included correspondence in which the writer stated, “eminent individuals and his cabinet advisers turned the cold shoulder to their ambassador, for his independent act upon this occasion”. Once in the public domain, the idiom grew in popularity like topsy.

There are some suggestions that it has an earlier genesis, that there was a custom in mediaeval times to provide an unwelcome guest with a meal of cold meat, perhaps shoulder. I would have thought they had more direct ways of letting someone know they were unwelcome and there is no direct evidence that this was either a custom or, indeed, the idea behind our phrase. I think the turning of the back, showing a shoulder and the association of cold with enmity is sufficient for our purposes.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Seventy


John Fitch (1743 – 1798)

Lady luck plays a large part in someone’s success. If you are cursed with bad luck, then it is even harder to reap the rewards that your invention merits. A case in point is the story of the American, John Fitch, the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame.

Born in Connecticut, Fitch was a bit of a jack-of-all-trades in his youth, turning his hand to farm work, clock making, silversmithing, cartography and fighting in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. After his discharge, he explored the Ohio River valley and was captured by a group of Native Americans who turned him over to the Brits. Eventually he was released but perhaps it was this experience that caused him to ponder whether there was a method of propelling river craft more quickly than simply muscle power.

Fitch’s idea was to deploy the new-fangled steam powered engines that were beginning to make their mark in Britain. They would enable boats to move up and down rivers independently of concerns such as tides and weather. Unfortunately for Fitch, the consequence of independence was that the Brits refused to share their new technology with their erstwhile colonists and so he had to start from scratch, deploying the services of a clockmaker, Henry Voight, to build an engine. By this time he had persuaded various state legislatures to grant him a 14 year monopoly for steamboat traffic on their inland waterways, a concession that enabled him to raise investment from prominent Pennsylvanian businessmen.

The first public trial of Fitch’s steamboat, called appropriately Perseverance, took place on the Delaware river on August 22nd 1787 in front of assembled dignitaries. Although successful and drawing fulsome praise, no additional funding was forthcoming. Undaunted, Fitch and Voight built a more substantial vessel, sixty feet long with a steam engine which powered a number of oars positioned in the stern which paddled rather like a duck. During the summer of 1790 Fitch carried up to 30 passengers a time on journeys between Philadelphia and Burlington, travelling in total over 1,500 miles at speeds averaging 6 miles per hour but getting up to a racy 8 miles per hour at times. As importantly, Fitch claimed they could travel upwards of 500 miles without any mechanical mishap.

Although Fitch was awarded a patent on August 26th 1791 for his steamboat, after a ferocious battle with James Rumsey who had also invented a steam-powered vessel, it did not grant him a monopoly, just protecting his design. This caused many of Fitch’s investors to jump ship and our hero was left high and dry. Desperate for funding, he went to France but arrived at the height of the Reign of Terror when the monied classes had more pressing concerns on their collars. A fund-raising trip to Blighty drew a blank and so Fitch returned to the States.

Misfortune continued to dog him. He moved to Kentucky where he had bought some land in the 1780s, hoping to sell some to finance the building of a steamboat to ply the Ohio or Mississippi rivers, only to find them occupied by settlers, necessitating a protracted legal battle to evict them. He continued working on steam engine concepts and what was found in his attic was described as “the prototype of a land-operating steam engine” meant to operate on tracks. His train preceded that of Richard Trevithick’s, built in 1802 and recognised as the daddy of the steam locomotive.

Alas, Fitch fell into depression, drank heavily and committed suicide in 1798, allowing Robert Fulton with better financial backing to steam in and make his dream of steam-powered boats a reality.

John, for pioneering the steam-powered boat and train but failing to get the credit, you are a worthy inductee.


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

Book Corner – May 2017 (2)


The Black Cat – Edgar Allan Poe

One of the advantages of feeding my reading habit via a Kindle is that there is a lot of literature that is available free and gratis because it is out of copyright. I downloaded one of those collections – 50 Masterpieces you have to read before you die – there are three volumes of 50 books which rather defeats the premise I would have thought – and whenever I feel that my immortality is imperilled I dip into it. You can never be too careful.

Poe is not an author that I have really sampled before but the Black Cat is an astonishing piece of work by anybody’s standards. Published on August 19th 1843 in the Saturday Evening Post it runs to little more than twenty pages but it provokes in the reader a wide range of emotions. On one level we have animal cruelty of the foulest kind and a savage example of uxoricide coupled with a desperate attempt and seemingly successful attempt by the murderer to cover his tracks. I won’t spoil the denouement but his undoing is masterfully accomplished with a fine twist and the reader cannot help feeling a sense of satisfaction in the way Poe pulled it off.

On another level it is a psychological study of someone wracked with remorse for the horrific crimes that he has committed and charts his descent into madness. It is also a fierce attack on the evils of the demon drink. There is so much going on for the reader to ponder and yet at the same time it is a thoroughly entertaining, if somewhat macabre, tale. Wonderful.


The Murders In The Rue Morgue – Edgar Allan Poe

I have already confessed my addiction to detective fiction and what I find most interesting is how the genre developed and the conventions and what are by today’s standards clichés developed. Those who argue about how the first fictional detective was have to take the claims of Auguste Dupin very seriously.

First published in Graham’s Magazine in 1841 this story has some of the features that are typical of this genre of fiction. There is a crime – in true Poe fashion it is gruesome with the elder woman decapitated and the body of the younger woman stuffed up a chimney – which is performed in seemingly impossible circumstances and in a locked room to boot. The case centres around window shutters, some strands of unusual hair and an unidentified language but interspersed amongst all this the author lays down a trail of false clues or red herrings which by modern standards may be somewhat telegraphed but are nonetheless diverting.

Dupin, of course, solves the crime – I won’t spoil the story – but he does little more than sit on his backside and deploy his phenomenal powers of analysis and intuition – the forerunner to the intellectual sleuth and both Dickens and Conan Doyle doffed their respective caps to Poe for his creation. Naturally, Dupin has a faithful sidekick who gasps in wonder at his comrade’s brilliance.

A word of warning, though. The tale starts off with a lengthy explanation of ratiocination, explaining that for the card player quality of observation is vital. It is a rather low-key and turgid opening that almost put me off but it all made sense in the end. And if you wanted to be hypercritical the story violates one of the unwritten rules of detective fiction that the reader should be able to deduce who the culprit is as they go along and the twist at the end is somewhat left field. Be that as it may, it is a great tale and one I am glad to have discovered.

Double Your Money – Part Nineteen


George C Parker (1860 – 1936)

I do like a good scam – obviously only if I am not the victim. Those who live in or have visited the Big Apple will know that the Brooklyn Bridge which spans the East River linking Manhattan with (ahem) Brooklyn is one of the iconic images of the city that never sleeps. With a span of 486.3 metres it was the first steel-wire suspension bridge built and opened in 1883.

There was a time when America welcomed migrants with open arms. Ellis Island and then New York was often their portal to a new life in the States. Many were innocents abroad and together with a steady influx of tourists offered easy pickings to the unscrupulous. One such was George C Parker who up until the opening of the bridge had been a small-time confidence trickster. On a whim he decided to see whether he could sell the new bridge to an unsuspecting new arrival. And, surprisingly, he could and did, time after time. So successful was he that he concentrated on the scam on a full-time basis.

Parker would identify his victim in the street and sidle up to him. His opening gambit wasn’t “psst, wanna buy a bridge?” Instead, he represented himself as the owner of the brand spanking-new bridge and was looking for a toll booth operator. Was the victim interested? Bearing in mind they had often just stepped off the boat, the offer of immediate employment must have been attractive. If the victim showed a vestige of interest, Parker would then change tack. He would say that whilst he was a builder of structures like the Brooklyn Bridge, he really couldn’t be bothered with the hassle of taking the tolls. Would the victim like, for a fee, to have exclusive rights to collecting the tolls from the steady stream of vehicles and pedestrians tramping across the structure?

This amazing offer seemed too good to be true – and, of course, it was – but many, unable to believe their luck and seeing this as a prime example of the land of opportunity to which they had just arrived swallowed it hook, line and sinker. There was no set price for the franchise – Parker just winged it and fleeced his victim for as much as he could. Some paid as little as $50 for the privilege – regrettably, a major proportion of their worldly wealth but, hey, it was a never to be repeated opportunity – whilst at least one person paid an astonishing $50,000. For those who found the capital outlay a bit of a stretch, Parker allowed them to pay on an instalment basis. Some paid for a number of months before they realised they had been had.

Of course, some would want to exercise their newly acquired rights and the New York Police regularly had to be called to the bridge to prevent Parker’s victims from erecting a toll booth. Emboldened, Parker turned his sales talents to flogging other New York landmarks, including Madison Square Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Grant’s Tomb. He also sold rights to successful Broadway shows and plays – naturally, he had no rights over them.


Eventually, the long arm of the law caught up with Parker and on the third occasion he appeared in front of the beak, in December 1928, after a career in fraud of some thirty-five years, he was sentenced to life in Sing Sing where he died eight years later. His misdemeanours were popularised in the expression for gullibility, “if you believe that, I’ve a bridge to sell you”.

Now, that’s what I call a scam.

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


The vomit-drinking doctor, Stubbins Ffirth (1784 – 1820)

One of the problems of having an enquiring mind and natural curiosity is that at times you have to temper it. The risk is that your passion becomes all-consuming and it takes you down routes that most sane people would not contemplate. The advance of science and human knowledge requires researchers with undaunted courage and perseverance. But some can take it too far as the curious tale of an American doctor, Stubbins Ffirth, shows.

Yellow fever was a major problem in the United States in the late 18th century – an outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793 had killed several thousand people – and understanding the disease and, more importantly, finding a cure for it was the number one priority. The popular theory around at the time was that the disease was spread by what was known at the time as miasma or bad air. Ffirth was having none of it. The bee in his bonnet – or perhaps it should be mosquito as the cause of yellow fever was eventually attributed to the pesky insect in 1900 – was to prove his theory that the fever was not contagious and he went to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate the veracity of his thesis.

As with most scientists, the starting point was to experiment on animals. Ffirth’s first experiment involved some black vomit collected from some poor yellow fever patients, some bread and a small dog. The latter was confined to a room and fed bread soaked in the vomit. Alas for the scientist but, perhaps fortunately for the dog, it took a shine to the unusual repast and after three days became so fond of it that it would eat the vomit without the accompanying bread. Abandoning that experiment, Ffirth injected vomit into the jugular veins of assorted dogs and cats. The results were inconclusive – one dog died within ten minutes while others remained perfectly healthy.

Undaunted, Ffirth decided that the only thing for it was to dispense with the lower orders of the animal kingdom and experiment on Homo sapiens – and who better than himself? He wrote of his first experiment, “On October 4th 1802 I made an incision in my left arm, midway between the elbow and wrist, so as to draw a few drops of blood. Into the incision I introduced some fresh black vomit…a slight degree of inflammation ensued, which entirely subsided in three days, and the wound healed up very readily”. He injected the vomit of yellow fever patients into various parts of his body with no real effect.

Thinking he was really on to something he devised even more extreme experiments, including frying three ounces of vomit in a pan and inhaling the steam and sitting in a small, enclosed closet inhaling six ounces of steaming vomit. Still no real effect. So the next stage in the experiments was to “take half an ounce of the black vomit immediately after it was ejected from a patient and diluting it with an ounce and a half of water, swallowed it”. The concoction tasted slightly acidic but it neither caused nausea or pain. Undaunted, he pressed on drinking several doses of vomit, often undiluted. But still there was no effect.

The lengths that Ffirth had gone to convinced him that his thesis was correct. His inability to contract the disease even after ingesting copious amounts of body fluids from fever patients was proof enough. He published his findings in A Treatise on Malignant Fever; with an attempt to prove its non-contagious non-malignant Nature in 1804. But he was wrong. It was also subsequently demonstrated that the vomit and other bodily fluids he ingested were from victims who had passed their contagious state. Who’d have thought that? Instead of being a medical, great Ffirth had to make do with being known as the vomit-drinking doctor.

Verdict Of The Week (2)

One of the attributes you would expect an aspiring surgeon to possess is being handy with a knife. Lavinia Woodward, a medical student from Oxford University, amply demonstrated her proficiency when she stabbed her then-boyfriend in the leg during what was termed “a drug and alcohol fuelled row” at Christ Church College last year.

The judge, Ian Pringle QC, I learned this week, has taken a rather lenient view of the events, deferring sentence for four months and indicating that a custodial sentence would damage what would otherwise have been a glittering career.

Surely this is an example of one law for geniuses and one law for the lumpen prole, if there ever was one. Still, it is a useful argument to keep in the back pocket, if the need arises.

Old Codgers Of The Week (6)

Ye’ll tak the high road and I’ll tak the low road/ And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye.

Valerie Johnson, 83, set out in her car to attend a hospital appointment at the Royal Hospital in Worcester, some six miles from her home in Peopleton, I learned this week. She missed her turning because of road works and found herself on the M5 and then the M6.

Instead of turning round, she kept on going before eventually running out of petrol in Larkhall, some twenty miles outside of Glasgow and three hundred miles out of her way. She was taken in by some kind souls and was eventually reunited with her daughter who flew up to collect her.

A sat nav for her birthday, methinks.

Someone who definitely knew where he was going is Bryson “Verdun” Hayes who at 101 years and 34 days old has just set the world record for the oldest tandem sky diver. Accompanied by eight members of his family, including his son, grandson and two great-grandsons, Verdun jumped out of a plane some 15,000 feet above the ground. On landing he declared he was “over the moon” so perhaps he didn’t quite know where he was.

Still, he raised over £2,400 for the Royal British Legion and has shown that there is some life left in Britain’s old codgers yet.

What Is The Origin Of (128)?…


Up the spout

When I was a young lad, I remember being fascinated by even by the standards of the time an old fashioned grocery store at the top of Pride Hill in Shrewsbury called Morris’. Entering the emporium your olfactory senses were assaulted by the aromas of fresh coffee, cheese and spice. I was particularly taken by the tubular system along which canisters of money and change shuttled back and forth between, presumably, the cashier and the sales counters. I could have watched it for hours.

Our phrase when used with the verb to go in all its tenses conveys the sense that something has been ruined or has failed. It also has a secondary meaning, when associated with the verb to be – that of being pregnant. In the days before credit cards and payday loan companies, often the only way to generate some readies to tide you over – other than larceny or pick pocketing – was to visit your local pawnbroker. You handed over some of your worldly possessions and in return you would get a few coppers. If you failed to redeem your goods by paying back the amount you had borrowed plus usurious interest, you lost the goods you had pledged.

Pawnbrokers needed a lot of space to store the tat against which money had pledged and often deployed the upper storey of their premises for the purpose. This arrangement, satisfactory, for sure, in keeping the premises in some kind of order, meant that they needed a way of conveying goods up and, occasionally, down again which involved the minimum of effort. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they used a chute, perhaps more like what we now know as a dumb-waiter rather than Heath Robinson-like chutes at Morris’ to accomplish the task.

Pierce Egan on page 366 of his Real Life in London, published in 1821, provided a useful explanation. “Up the spout or up the five are synonymous in their import and mean the act of pledging property with a Pawnbroker for the loan of money – most probably derived from the practice of having a long spout, which reaches from the top of the house of the Pawnbroker (where the goods are deposited for safety until redeemed or sold) to the shop, where they are first received; through which a small bag is dropped upon the ringing of a bell, which conveys the tickets or duplicates to a person above stairs, who, upon finding them (unless too bulky) saves himself the trouble and loss of time of coming down stairs, by more readily conveying them down”.

For the pledger, the sight of some of their more precious possessions disappearing up the spout must have been distressing as there was no certainty that they would ever have the brass to reclaim them. So, naturally, what started as a prosaic description of the pawnbroker’s art developed the more figurative sense of disaster, doom and failure.

Pedants bemoan the modern trend of turning nouns into verbs – the most egregious example, to mind, is the verb to medal which litters sporting commentaries. But it was ever thus and it is perhaps no surprise to find that the verb to spout, usually as a present participle, meant the act of pawning an object. Charles Manby Smith in his Curiosities of London Life of 1853 recorded a tailor going into a pawnbroker and saying “here..I’ve got six waistcoats to make, and I must spout one to buy the trimmings; let’s have three shillings”.

Not all pregnancies are wanted or happy events and so it is easy to see how the expression was used as a slang expression, possibly Scottish in origin, to describe an unwanted pregnancy which may have ruined the mother’s life.