A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: May 2017

Visions Of Johanna

America after the Fall – Royal Academy

The other major exhibition at the Royal Academy in the first half of 2017 was, in many ways, a counterweight to the Russian Revolutionary art – Lenin makes an appearance in a painting by Louis Guglielmi – is an exploration of American art in the 1930s, the years of the Great Depression. A small exhibition, consisting of some forty-five paintings, it is comfortably housed in three rooms in the Sackler Wing. What it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality.

I managed to catch the exhibition on a boiling hot day, in those slack times at the RA when its existing shows are winding down and all its energies are concentrated on preparing for the Summer Exhibition. Despite the rather strange atmosphere, I thoroughly enjoyed the show. After all, it’s my kind of art – representational art, colourful and telling a story.

When someone mentions Thirties America to me, I immediately think of the dust bowl and the devastation that injudicious agricultural methods combined with soil erosion and winds caused in the mid-West. I found Alexandre Hogue’s Erosion 2  – Mother Earth Laid Bare hugely evocative with the plough in the foreground and the farm in the distance and in the centre bare, devastated earth moulded into a supine woman. Grant Wood’s earlier and more famous American Gothic, painted in 1930, which has never left North America before, picks up on the theme. We have a couple of elderly farmers standing in front of a rural church, anxiously staring out at us. There isn’t an ounce of flesh on them and the pitchfork, held like a trident, is both menacing and a sign that this is their only hope of salvation.

Wood was a bit of a find for me. I liked his rather grim portrayal of three daughters of the Revolution – no oil paintings, they – primly sipping a cup of tea in front of a picture of the founding fathers. His aerial view of Paul Revere’s ride to tell the news that the Brits was on their way was full of stylised energy.

Edward Hopper’s Gas shows a petrol station in the middle of nowhere. It is both a forlorn symbol of despair but also one of hope. Someone at some time must come down the road wanting to fill up. The show’s opener by Charles Green Shaw is astonishing. It is a painting of a city skyline with skyscrapers reduced to basic geometric form but almost god-like in the sky is an enormous packet of Wrigley’s chewing gum. Is this the deus ex machina which will lead America to salvation?

Inevitably, race makes an appearance. R W Johnson’s Street Life, Harlem shows a youthful black, urban couple, dressed to the nines. The colours are vivid and the shapes bold. Benton’s Cotton Pickers is more disturbing under closer scrutiny. In the foreground is an emaciated child and a bony woman offers succour to a man working on his knees. The American Hanging is more disturbing too, showing a noose, a group of Ku Klux Klan and a naked African-American woman in the foreground.

But it is not all doom and gloom. Life went on and there are pictures of people having fun and attending picture shows. Paul Cadmus’ The Fleet’s In is a riot of colour and louche behaviour. It caused such a stir when it was first shown that the Navy ordered its withdrawal.

A wonderful show without any makeweights and one worth braving the heat for.


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


The Roxburghe Club

Unlike many of the clubs we have looked at, this one is still going but it is dashed difficult to get into – membership was restricted to just 40 from 1839 and from its inception in 1812 until the present day there have been 348 in all. Members are elected but just one black ball is enough to kiss your chances goodbye. An early resolution encapsulated the ostensible purpose of the club; “it was proposed and concluded for each member of the Club to reprint a scarce piece of ancient lore, to be given to members, one copy being on vellum for the chairman, and only as many copies as members”. The club also published some volumes collectively.

The sale of the library of the Duke of Roxburghe in 1812 sent the bibliophiles in England all of a twitter. The library was so extensive that the sale lasted some 41 days, Sundays excepted (natch). The crown jewel of the collection was a rare copy of Il Decamerone di Boccaccio which fetched the prodigious sum of £2,260, purchased by the Marquis of Blandford. To celebrate this momentous occasion the Reverend Thomas Frognall Dibdin suggested a dinner to be held at the St Alban’s Tavern in what is now Waterloo Place on 17th June 1812. This was the genesis of the club with some 24 worthies attending. Dibdin was appointed secretary and Lord Spencer was the President.

The club was itinerant meeting at Grillion’s, the Clarendon and the Albion taverns as well as St Alban’s and the members were clearly trenchermen. At the fourth dinner, at Grillion’s, under the chairmanship of Sir Mark Masterman Sykes, twenty members sat down and ate their way through a dinner which cost £2 17 shillings a head and demolished £33 worth of booze. This was a paltry effort compared with events at the 1818 dinner. Just fifteen sat down at the Albion in Aldersgate Street, near the Barbican, under the chairmanship of Mr Heber and ate and drank their way through £85 9 shillings and sixpence worth of food and drink.

As one Mr Haslewood wrote of the assembled company, “no unfamished liveryman would desire better dishes, or high-tasted courtier better wines” – I should think so at those prices. “With men that meet to commune, that can converse, and each willing to give and receive information, more could not be wanting to promote well-tempered conviviality; a social compound of mirth, wit and wisdom”.

With so much booze to consume, it was inevitable that there would be numerous toasts to honour, all reflecting their love for books. The opening toast was to the immortal memory of John Roxburghe, followed by one to Christopher Valdarfer, printer of the Decameron in 1471, and then to the inventors of printing and William Caxton, the father of the British press. Many more printing luminaries were toasted before ending with hopes for the prosperity of the Roxburghe Club and the cause of bibliomania throughout the world. Their hopes were well-founded as the club still exists today, receiving its first female member, Mary, Viscountess Eccles, in 1985. Barry Humphries aka Dame Edna Everage is a member, number 344 on the roll.

Books are still published and circulation is limited to 342, 42 for the Club and three hundred for general sale. They are of astonishing quality with lavish bindings and command an appropriate price. The Roxburghe is acknowledged as the first club of bibliphiles and was the model for many others. Books, food and drink – what could be better?

A Measure Of Things – Part Four


Measuring smells

What is mildly astonishing about smells is that in the vernacular there is no obvious means of measuring and comparing them. After all, we are surrounded by smells, some pleasant and appealing like the scent of a flower or a perfume whilst others are grossly offensive like body odour and farts. On encountering a pungent odour we register against some scale deep in our subconscious but I was hard pressed, before digging into the subject, to name a scale which gave some comparatives with which we can judge and contrast what has just hit our nostrils.

A Danish environmental scientist, P.O.Fanger, has done some work on the subject. In 1988 he came up with a unit of measure, the olf. One olf is the odour given off by a standard person, defined as someone in a sedentary occupation who takes 0.7 baths a day and has a skin surface of 1.8 square metres. I’m not sure I have considered the size of my skin surface or, indeed, anyone else’s but as I’m above the average size, vertically if not in profile, I suspect I’m slightly above that. As an Englishman I don’t bathe but have a daily shower so my cleanliness is a bit above Fanger’s standard so I’m in a bit of quandary as to whether I emit one standard olf or not. A heavy smoker, though, emits 25 olfs and an athlete, presumably after their exertions, a whopping 30 olfs.

Fanger wasn’t finished there. He came up with a decipol which he used to measure perceived air quality. A decipol is the perceived air quality in a space where there is one olf ventilated by 10 litres of unpolluted air a second. I’m not sure this is any more useful than the olf but I might just go around from time to time muttering, “just feel the decipols in this place”.

I’m not a great fan of talk shows on the radio but there are some hosts who go beyond the usual platitudinous fare and are able to riff on even the most mundane subject in an amusing and occasionally instructive way. Danny Baker is always worth a listen, I find, and one of his equivalents over the pond is Adam Corolla and his sidekick, Dr Drew, who hosted a show called Lovelines. He developed a scale called Hobo Power which ran from 0 to 100 and a standard feature on the show consisted of callers ringing in with the latest shocker of an olfactory experience and they would determine where it fitted on the scale.

A scale of sorts soon emerged. Zero meant that it didn’t whiff at all whereas the top score of 100, which has never been awarded, would result in immediate asphyxiation. A robust fart rated 13 whereas a 30 would induce someone who caught a whiff to vomit. Corolla described a smell meriting a 50 on the scale as akin to a cat that has been fed on nothing but blue cheese for a week defecating on a white-hot hibachi, a Japanese fire box.

For those who like a more scientific approach to the measurement of smells, two enterprising students from Cornell University, Robert Clain and Miguel Salas, developed a fart detector using a sensitive hydrogen sulphide monitor, a thermometer and a microphone with accompanying software. The machine would rate stench, temperature and sound – apparently, the warmer the fart, the wider it spreads – and a voice would rate it using a scale running from zero to nine. A nifty feature was that if the fart ranked a nine, a fan would switch itself on and dissipate the smell. The drawback was that unless you recruited a professional flatulist, testing was a bit haphazard which is probably why it never developed beyond a good idea.

Pumpkin Update (8)

It’s a while since I reported on my pumpkin seeds. Well, beware the false prophets of the seed packet is all I can say. “Plant in pots and within 5 to 7 days, seeds will germinate,” the packet said. After a week, what did I have? Nada. After a couple of weeks or so, a couple deigned to pop their head above the surface and are now flourishing. A third made an appearance, some five weeks after sowing.

Perhaps they are victims of climate change. After all, they are Snowman pumpkins.

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.