A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: June 2017

What Is The Origin Of (134)?…


One of the admittedly few moments of pleasure I used to get from watching an episode of the mystifyingly long-running soap, Eastenders, was when some of the characters decided to go for a meal at the local Indian restaurant, delightfully called the Argee-Bhajee. The second part of the name of the gaff was a reference to that staple of British Indian restaurants, the bhajee. Inevitably, as was the way with this programme, the characters would have an argument, illustrating the meaning of this rather curious expression in its totality – to have a heated argument or quarrel.

What we have here is something that the grammarians call a reduplication where the second word rhymes with and emphasises the first. Often a characteristic of reduplication is that the second word is a made up or fictional word, selected for alliterative or rhyming purposes.

As you might expect, if you had given the matter a bit of thought, the argie component of the expression owes its origin to the verb, argue, which has been with us since Middle English and came from the Latin argutari, to prattle, via the Old French verb, arguer. One of the joys of English is that it is full of regional variants. Our friends from north of Hadrian’s wall have always liked to take liberties with the mother tongue and argle was a Scottish variant of the verb to argue. This variant was joined by a piece of nonsense, bargle, which has the virtue of rhyming with and having the same number of syllables as argle. There is no record of the word bargle existing other than in association with its soul mate, argle.

One of the first appearances in print of the Scottish variant of the phrase is in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped which was published in 1886. There we have “last night ye haggled and argle-bargled like an apple wife”. Apple wives sold apples, surprisingly enough, and had a reputation for the ripeness of their language, a characteristic which may not have been shared by their wares. The English variant appeared ten years later in JM Barrie’s Margaret Ogilvy. “Ten minutes at the least did she stand at the door argy-bargying with that man”.

Barrie, of course, was born in Scotland but spent most of his time south of the border. Is it too fanciful to think that he brought the phrase down with him and then removed the harsh, guttural l and replaced it with the softer I to appease the more sensitive English ears? I don’t think so, although I won’t get into an argle-bargle with anyone who takes the contrary view. I have to say I prefer the Scottish variant.

One of my favourite examples of reduplication is arsy-versy. This is one of the many phrases that litter the English language, describing a disturbed state of affairs. The sense is that something is arse about face or, to put it more politely, backwards. It dates back to at least the 16th century and first appeared in print in Richard Taverner’s Proverbes or adages with newe addicions, gathered out of the Chiliades of Erasmus, published in 1539. “Ye set the cart before the horse – cleane contrarily and arsy-versy as they say”.  The addition of as they say leads me to suspect that it was used in everyday speech much earlier than the first written example.


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

Hall’s Wine

It’s a strange thing but for the late Victorians nervous complaints were as endemic as allergies are for us today. For those who felt a little below par and were in need of a pick-me-up, there was a bewildering array of tonics to choose from. One such was Hall’s Wine which was introduced to the unsuspecting public in 1888 by Stephen Smith & Co of Bow in East London.

Marketing is everything and Henry James Hall, the proprietor, hit on the wheeze of offering free tasting samples to anyone who bothered to write in. They were overwhelmed by the demand, so much so that they had to take out adverts in the press advising that “our offer…has brought us so many applications that our staff has been unable to attend to them on arrival. We are dealing with the letters in rotation, and hope to clear off arrears in less than a week”. I imagine the poor overworked staff had to glug copious amounts of the stuff to keep them going as they made strenuous efforts to reduce the backlog.

At its launch the potion, which sold at 2 shillings and 3 shillings and sixpence a time, was known as Hall’s Coca Wine and Hall was perfectly upfront about what was in it. “It is necessary to state”, the same advert goes on, “that Hall’s Coca Wine contains nothing but the extractive principles of the coca leaf and although a powerful nervine, is practically harmless”. So dosing yourself up with cocaine is practically harmless, is it? There was more than just coca leaf in the Wine – Old High Douro and Priorato Port. I hope the bottle was passed to the left.

In 1897 the Wine was rebranded, the Coca being dropped. It was not because Hall had any qualms about the cocaine content of his product, rather that he found that he was boosting the sales of inferior coca-based products. The adverts continued to boast about the efficacy of the tincture. It was ideal for when “you are neither one thing nor the other” and would allow you to regain “the last five or ten per cent of health, without which all is dullness”. Hall even garnered some glowing testimonials from distinguished organs such as the Lancet and the British Medical Journal. But trouble was looming.

Interestingly, it was not the cocaine that attracted opprobrium but the alcoholic content of the potion. Teetotallers were fooled, so some temperance worthies claimed, into thinking that they were knocking back some medicated substance which, despite the name, didn’t contain alcohol. For some, it was the start of the very slippery slope to alcoholism. The President of the Royal College of Physicians opined “the prescription of medicated wines is in some cases responsible for the starting of the drink habit, especially in women” and one anonymous contributor thought “the devil in disguise is more dangerous than the devil with his fork and tail”.

Eventually, of course, the cocaine content did for it but it is a fascinating insight into the views of the time that the evils of the demon drink outweighed those of a variant of the Colombian marching powder. There was a school of thought, though, that considered that less than enthusiastic abstainers saw the use of medicated wines as a way of getting their fix without overtly breaking their pledge. Whether the tonic did anything for the nerves is unclear but it certainly took the market by storm.

Gin o’Clock – Part Twenty Five

I have been steadily working my way through my stock of gins so that I have space to carry on my explorations of the ginaissance. It is almost an impossible task to keep up with all the craft gins that keep appearing. I was reading the other week that as well as UK sales of gin breaking the £1 billion barrier in 2016, 25% more distilleries opened in England and an astonishing 18 in Scotland during the course of last year. You see my problem!

What is interesting is that the really successful independent distillers are being made offers they cannot refuse by the big brewers. Sipsmith, one of my particular favourites, were bought up in December by the Japanese company, Beam Suntory. The Spencerfield Spirit Company, who distils the Edinburgh gin, has been taken over by Ian Macloed Distillers. Good news for the owners, for sure, but in my experience with real ales there is usually a diminution in the quality and taste of a drink when it gets into the hands of the big boys. It will be a shame if it happens to these two fine gins.

One of the delights of being a ginophile – is there such a word? If not, I’ve just invented it – is that you learn an awful lot about herbs and fruits. Take the Rangpur, a tree of which I had been blissfully ignorant for all these years. It originates, funnily enough, from the Rangpur region of Bangladesh but is now cultivated widely around the world. It is a hybrid between a lime and an orange. The tree itself is not dissimilar to a lime tree but the fruit that it bears is round and orange. It is very acidic and to the taste is very similar to a lime but the fruit is as packed with juice as an orange.

I have a soft spot for Tanqueray gins – the Number ten is divine and the Tanqueray Dry London Gin is an excellent opener for an evening’s bacchanalian revel – and so I was keen to try Tanqueray Rangpur Gin which, as you might expect from the name, features heavily the fruit of the Rangpur tree. It comes in the traditional fluted Tanqueray bottle with the embossed red seal at the front and the silver screw cap. However, the green of the bottle is slightly lighter than its stable mates – a sort of lime green.

Upon opening the screw cap for the very first time my nose was hit by a very powerful but fresh and mellow whiff of lime which seemed to take precedence over the juniper. The spirit is crystal clear and to the taste the first sensation is of sweetness and citrus before the juniper puts up a fight with a wonderfully peppery glow. The aftertaste reverts to a citrusy flavour. It is not unpleasantly sweet and I found it surprisingly refreshing, perhaps one like Bloom to savour in the garden on a hot summer’s day.

Its ABV is a respectable 41.3% and as for the botanicals we can be sure that there is juniper, Rangpur, bay leaves, ginger and coriander in the mix. These are added during the distillation process but there is a suspicion that there is some form of sweetener added afterwards which, rather like Martin Miller, means that it disqualifies itself from being classed as a London dry gin. If I had to categorise it, I would say that it was a contemporary gin because the citrus certainly gives the juniper a run for its money.

The Streets Of London – Part Sixty

Alie Street, E1

Perhaps it’s me but I spent near on forty years wandering around the streets of London with little or no idea of the history associated with these thoroughfares. Take Alie Street, which is today an unprepossessing street which runs from Mansell Street in the west to Leman Street at the eastern end. It marks the northern perimeter of Goodman’s Fields which variously was attached to the Abbey of St Clare, then pasture land under private ownership following the dissolution of the monastery and then a tenterfield which was an area for drying newly manufactured clothes placed on hooks aka tenterhooks.

It was originally known as Ayliff Street, after a relative of William Leman, whose great-uncle, John, had bought Goodman’s Fields. Its name changed to Alie Street, quite why I don’t know, and the street that bears its name was known in the 19th century as Great Alie Street, there being a Little Alie Street which ran from the east end of Leman Street up to the Commercial Road. It has a rather pleasant pub called the White Swan which we regular topers dubbed the Mucky Duck, wags that we were.

Alie Street’s major claim to fame was that it was the site of the Goodman’s Fields theatre, the first of which opened on Halloween 1727 with a performance of Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer. The arrival of a theatre was not universally popular and following a highly critical sermon preached at nearby St Botolph’s in Aldgate, the owner, Thomas Odell, passed it on to Henry Giffard. Giffard put on plays until 1832 when he decided to move premises to a custom built theatre further down the street, the original theatre being used for acrobatic performances.

The new Goodman’s Fields theatre opened its doors on 2nd October 1732 with a performance of Henry IV, Part 1 – I’m not sure if Part 2 ever got performed. The theatre soon got into trouble, though, after putting on A Vision of the Golden Rump, possibly by Henry Fielding, in 1736 which was highly critical of Robert Walpole and the Whig government. This led to the passing of the Licensing Act the following year which banned performances of any play critical of the government or the monarchy. The theatre reopened in 1740 with David Garrick in residence. It became a fashionable place to visit and “coaches and chariots with coronets soon surrounded the remote playhouse”.

Its very success, however, proved to be its undoing as it ran into trouble with the Licensing Act and was forced to close down in 1742, the final production being the Beggar’s Opera. Four years later the theatre burnt to the ground. A third theatre was built on the site which flourished briefly before being converted into a warehouse until it too was consumed by fire in 1809. The street retains its thespian links with the Half Moon Theatre which was formed in 1972 and occupies a disused synagogue, taking its name from the Half Moon Passage which runs alongside it.

Perhaps the most notable building in the street today is the St George’s German Lutheran church which is to be found at number 55 and was built in 1762. It is the oldest German-speaking church in England and drew its congregation from the German immigrants working in the sugar refineries and meat and baking trades in the area which was known colloquially as Little Germany. It still retains a number of box pews, a fine double-decker pulpit and a wonderful Walcker organ. It is worth popping in to see – en route to the Mucky Duck, of course.

I Predict A Riot – Part Twenty Four

The New York Draft Riots of 1863

One of the key determinants of military success is the size of manpower available to you. When war is first declared, there is a rush of fervour for the cause that sees volunteers flock to join the standing army. But as the war drags on interminably and the death toll and carnage mounts, the flow of volunteers slows down to a trickle. Such was the case with the army of the Union in the American Civil War and the shortage of manpower prompted the authorities to take drastic measures.

In March 1863 a law was passed which imposed strict conscription criteria. All male citizens aged between 20 and 35 and all unmarried men aged between 35 and 45 were now eligible for service in the army. Those who would be drafted would be selected by lottery, the first of which was held on Saturday 11th July 1863. There were get-out clauses. You could hire a substitute – charming – or if you could afford it, pay $300 to remove yourself from the rolls. African-Americans, who were not considered to be citizens, were exempt from the conscription.

This exemption poured oil on already troubled waters. Following Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation declaration of September 1862 which promised freedom to slaves in Confederate areas from 1st January of the following year, many members of New York’s working class, the majority of whom were Irish immigrants, feared that the newly emancipated slaves would travel north and take their jobs. That they were exempted from military service was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Following the first conscription lottery and acknowledging the Sunday as a day of rest, all hell broke out in the early hours of Monday the 13th. Initially, the mobs reserved their ire for symbols of authority such as governmental and military buildings but in the afternoon, they turned their attentions to the African-American community, assaulting them and attacking their properties. One of the worst incidents was an attack on the Coloured Orphan Asylum on 5th Avenue. Two hundred children were in the premises when the mob armed with clubs broke in, looting the premises and razing it to the ground.

The Catholic bishop, John Hughes, vainly appealed for calm and it was soon apparent that a more robust approach was required to restore order. By midday, 4,000 federal troops had arrived in the city and confronted the rioters in what is now the Murray Hill district of the Big Apple. Surprisingly, Irish contingents amongst the troops were keen to mix it with their compatriots, the Irish-American 9th Massachussetts wishing “for a chance to give those fellows [the rioters] a taste of our quality, and show them how the Irish Ninth could charge.”

It took three days for order to be restored, by which time some 120 had lost their lives – 11 African-Americans were lynched – and around 2,000 were injured and the value of property damage was estimated to be around $5 million. Around a quarter of the 12,000 African-Americans in New York were made homeless, many by landlords fearful for the security of their property and many moved away from the area, causing a major change in demographics.

The draft was resumed on 19th August without incident and the Union League Club and the Committee of Merchants for the Relief of Coloured people raised $40,000 to assist some 2,500 victims of the riots. The Union Club recruited over 2,000 African-American soldiers in December 1863, kitting them out and training them. They were watched by a crowd of 100,000 in March the following year as they marched to the Hudson River docks. But the draft riots had allowed the white population to extend their control over the labour market and made the job of reconciliation and integration all the harder.

Gig Of The Week (2)

The tragic death of guitarist, Michael Casswell, TOWT’s cousin, last September was a shock to his family. What was also a shock to them was how respected and loved he was in the music biz as he rather hid his light under a bushel.

On the hottest day in 40 years we went to the subterranean music venue that is the 100 Club in Oxford Street to attend the tribute concert put on by his friends and colleagues. It was a great evening with his band, East of Java, putting on a storming set.

There were cameos from the likes of Tony Hadley, Limhal – who had me dancing in the aisles – and the wonderful Marcus Malone band.

Check out tribute concert highlights

Check Malone out playing with Michael

The venue had smartened up since I was last there, some thirty-seven years ago, and the beer was considerably better – I had to have the BrewDog Punk IPA.

It was a great evening and one which did Michael proud.


Hat Of The Week

It’s a real pisser when one leaves one’s hat in the back of one’s car and has to make do with an EU flag.

Cheap Booze Of The Week

It is good to see that the lure of cheap booze still has a certain attraction for the Brits, particularly so if you are staying in Finland where alcohol is prohibitively expensive.

Four Brits, I read this week, were participating in an orienteering competition in southern Finland. The ability to read a map came in handy when they realised they were near the Russian border and had the opportunity to grab some cheap booze. So they parked their car by the border, nipped across and within the fifteen minutes or so they were there, managed to quaff the contents of several cans of beer.

Alas for the intrepid foursome, they were spotted and had their collars felt when they got back into Finland. They have been released and have returned to Blighty but will probably face a fine.

Not such a cheap beer then!

What Is The Origin Of (133)?…

Stick in the mud

We use this phrase to denote someone who is dull and unadventurous and resistant to change. It is generally used in a pejorative fashion and is synonymous with an old fogey. The imagery it evokes is quite clear. Large swathes of mud can be tricky to wade through and if you are not careful you can come to a complete halt or, at best, your rate of progress is significantly slower than that of the person who has taken the drier route.

Interestingly, the first recorded instances of its use are as sobriquets for criminals in 18th century London. The General Evening Post in November 1732 reported that “George Fluster, alias Stick-in-the-Mud, has made himself an Evidence, and impeached the above two persons”.  In December 1733 the Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer listed 14 malefactors who had received the sentence of death at the Old Bailey that month, including “John Baker, alias Stick in the Mud, for breaking into the house of Mr Thomas Rayner, a Silversmith, and stealing thence Plate to a Great Value”.

Being a snitch or breaking and entering, reprehensible as these characteristics may be in most quarters, are not qualities you would necessarily attribute to someone who has been left behind by the times. Rather, I think, what is being described here is their mental acuity. They were five cans short of a six pack or, to put it more kindly, a bit on the slow side mentally. Perhaps that’s why they got caught. William Walsh in his Handy Book of Curious Information, published in 1913, suggests this interpretation is along the right track. “A colloquial expression common to both England and America, and applied to a dullard or slow coach, a person who has never made any progress in education or business”.

The phrase escaped the preserve of criminality and the lower orders at the turn of the 19th century and began to be used in a figurative sense. In a review of Hilaris Benevolus’ The Pleasures of Human Life, printed in the Literary Panorama of 1807, we find a rather curiously constructed sub clause, “if we had not been stuck in the mud in his book, this Mr Benevolus had not helped us out”. The Monthly Mirror the next year contained a bit of doggerel, “Up rose Mr __, when Dallas sat down/ And stammer’d and stuck in the mud like a clown”. By 1832 the phrase had crossed the pond. In the New England Magazine, printed in Boston, we find, “lying mightily at ease, depend upon it, old stick-in-the-mud is wide awake; his eye is bent upon the waters, his mandibles are set for a quick nap”.  In all three instances, the sense is of someone who is slow on the uptake.

But at the same time as the American entry, we see a different shade of meaning emerge. In the Simpkin Papers, published in the Metropolitan in January 1832, the question was posed, “isn’t he a priest of the real old stick-in-the-mud religion, that was established in Ireland…?”  Here we have the sense of conservatism or old fogeyism. By the time the phrase appeared in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown at Oxford, published in 1861, it is this new sense that has taken over, “This rusty coloured one is that respectable old stick-in-the-mud, Nicias”.

So the phrase has migrated from a nickname for a London criminal to a description of someone slow on the uptake to a person resistant to change. As I see the world going to hell in a handcart, there is something appealing in being an old fogey, at least in some respects.

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

Ignaz Semmelweis (1818 – 1865)

Sometimes you discover something and can’t persuade the powers that be that you have made a major breakthrough. This was the fate that befell the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, the Hungarian obstetrician, Ignaz Semmelweis.

Our hero studied Law at the University of Vienna in 1837 but switched to medicine the following year and after gaining his doctorate in 1844, decided to specialise in obstetrics. He took up his first appointment in 1846 as an assistant in the Vienna General Hospital’s maternity ward. There were two wards, A which was the preserve of doctors and trainees, and B which was staffed by midwives only. In the mid 19th century giving birth was a precarious business, often proving fatal to either the mother or the baby or, in some cases, both.

Clinic A had a phenomenally high mortality rate – about 10%, mainly as a result of puerperal fever, whereas the mortality rate in Clinic B was a still shocking but lower 2%. Women who came to the hospital – they were mainly from the lower classes – tried as best they could to avoid Clinic A because of its fearsome reputation. Many preferred to give birth in the streets where the mortality rate was considerably lower. Why was that, Semmelweis wondered?

The duties of the doctors at the hospital were many and varied. They would routinely examine diseased corpses in the mortuary, carrying out autopsies to determine cause of death or dissections to further their knowledge of the human anatomy, before moving on to the maternity ward. Whilst we now tend to regard, or at least hope, that medics are as close to the Platonic paradigm of cleanliness but in Semmelweiss’ time it was rare for a medic to wash their hands between dealing with patients. He noted the discrepancy between mortality rates where doctors were involved and where midwives, who did not handle dead bodies, were in attendance and concluded that some form of cadaverous material picked up from the stiffs was contributing to the high incidence of puerperal fever.

Acting upon these observations and hypotheses, Ignaz decided that he and his colleagues should was their hands in a solution of chlorinated lime, principally to remove the whiff of putrefying flesh, after handling dead bodies. The results were astonishing with fatality rates plummeting and after the experiment had been carried out for a while, deaths were a thing of the past. Concluding that he was on to something, although he could not provide a rational explanation as to why it worked as he knew nothing about germs, Semmelweiss began to promulgate his views. This led to great outburst of hand-wringing but not hand-washing amongst the medical profession, many of whom were outraged by the suggestion that their hands could be unclean. They were gentlemen, after all.

In revolutionary Vienna, Semmelweiss was seen as a trouble maker and was soon dismissed from his post. Surprise, surprise, the abandonment of the hand washing policy saw mortality rates rise to their pre-Ignatian levels. Frustrated, Semmelweiss wrote increasingly furious letters and articles to the medical community, accusing them of cold-hearted murder. Accounts of his discovery were printed in journals such as the Lancet. Semmelweiss repeated his successes whilst working in hospitals in Budapest in the 1850s and in 1861 published his theory and statistical demonstrations in a book called The Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever. It was not well received.

Worse still, he became an obsessive on the subject at a time when he started to develop signs of the onset of what might have been Alzheimer’s. Even his wife thought he was verging on insanity and in 1865 he was lured into a mental asylum in Vienna . Realising he had been trapped, Semmelweiss tried to make good his escape, but was detained, put in a straightjacket and given a good hiding by the warders for good measure. Two weeks later he died from his injuries which had gone gangrenous.

It was only when Louis Pasteur was able to provide a theoretical explanation of the causal link between germs and disease that Semmelweiss began to be regarded as the genius that he was and was able to claim his place as a pioneer of antiseptic policy. For this, Ignaz, you are a worthy inductee to our Hall of Fame.

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