A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: July 2017

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

The Detection Club

I have made no secret of my love of detective fiction. Many observers regard the period between the two World Wars as the hey-day of this particular genre. In 1928 a group of the finest exponents of the art form, including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Anthony Berkeley established a club, the Detection Club, although formal records were only established in 1930. Anthony Berkeley was the prime moving force behind the initiative and the early dinners were held at his house. G K Chesterton, of Father Brown fame, was its first president.

Although it was a wonderful excuse for a splendid repast every now and again, it had some more serious aims. It allowed writers to swap tips and help each other overcome the dreaded block or to develop even more ingenious and innovative twists and turns to keep the ever eager readership on the edge of their seats. Their latest works were critiqued – that must have been a nerve-wracking ordeal for even the most self-assured and oft-published author. Rather like any other pukka club, members were elected by secret ballot, giving the established members the opportunity to vet and, if necessary, black ball a potential recruit. Recruits were supposed to have published two detective novels of merit.

Once their membership had been approved, the neophyte underwent a rather bizarre initiation ceremony which involved black candles, a voluminous red robe, originally designed for the portly Chesterton and a skull named Eric, although later forensic examination showed it was that of a female – Erica perhaps. In addition the new entrant was required to swear an oath, possibly written by Sayers. The oath required a response to this rather ponderous question, “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?” A simple assent would ensure entry into the hallowed ranks.

The Club, which acquired premises in London’s Gresham Street, sought to establish some rules of engagement to ensure that the reader was treated fairly, developing ten commandments which, on pain of expulsion, members were required to follow in their novels. These included mentioning the culprit in the early part of the story, precluding all supernatural and preternatural agencies and restricting the use of secret passages or rooms to one per story. The use of hitherto undiscovered poisons was verboten as was any appliance requiring a long and elaborate explanation. Cliché devices were to be avoided and the detective couldn’t commit the crime themselves.

The detective wasn’t allowed to be the beneficiary of any accident nor should they have some unaccountable insight which proves to be correct. Neither could they use clues which have not been brought to the reader’s attention when they are discovered. The detective’s accomplice cannot conceal any thoughts and should be of a lower intelligence than the reader. And twins or doubles can only be deployed if the reader had been carefully prepared to anticipate them.

As well as establishing this template, the Club members collaborated on a number of projects. The Floating Admiral, published in 1931, was a collaborative game of consequences with each of the twelve chapters written by a different member of the club. Each writer was required to write their portion with a definite solution to the crime in mind and couldn’t introduce new complications just to increase the complexity. To add to the fun, G K Chesterton wrote the prologue, Anthony Berkeley pulled the pieces together and each author was required to pen their solution to the mystery, each of which was published.

Ask a Policeman (1933) and Verdict of a Policeman followed a similar pattern and in 1930 radio audiences were entertained by The Scoop and Behind The Screen, which were collaborative detective serials.

The club is still in existence and continues to, sort of, police the genre.


Job Of The Week (2)

Good to see the local job market is supporting our obese friends. Not sure how many 7.5 tonne drivers there are, though!

Hobby Of The Week (2)

I am firmly in the camp that views golf as a long walk spoiled, a comment falsely attributed to Mark Twain but which seems to have been first used in print by H S Scrivener in 1903. As a sport it is slightly counter-intuitive in that the worse you are, the longer it takes. Usually, in competitive sports if you are a complete duffer, you are able to get off the field of play in pretty short order.

I can just about tolerate miniature golf aka crazy golf but I am not as obsessive as Richard and Emily Gottfried, whose exploits came to my attention this week. They have visited and played 743 miniature golf courses, from Cornwall to Loch Lomond and aim to finish the lot – there are some 800 in total – over the next twelve months. The only worm cast on the green is that more seem to be opening up – there were only 600 when they started – making their self-imposed task even more difficult.

It all began, as it often does, at Southsea in Hampshire in 2006 when the couple played a pirate adventure golf course there. Richard won a free game, they returned the next day and they were hooked.

As Emily commented, it was a way of “getting out and about the country.” As someone who once visited all the football grounds in England and Scotland, I can empathise with that.

Property Of The Week

The dearth of properties in our green and pleasant land is such that enterprising builders will cram a house into any available space. A property close to transport links is an added bonus and at first glance this newly built, two-bedroom terraced house in Langley Mills in Derbyshire, on sale for £140,000, seems just the ticket.

However, on closer inspection the bus shelter is right in front of the garden path, blocking the garden path. The only way you could get to or from your front door is by climbing over the garden fence.

The estate agents (natch) say that the bus shelter will be removed but as to when, who knows?

What Is The Origin Of (138)?…


This week’s phrase is an is an interesting example of what grammarians call a rhyming-compound which is made up of two discrete words which rhyme with each other. What is also interesting about it is that it has two discrete and very different meanings, one of which has now gone out of fashion. When I use willy-nilly I use it to mean something that is haphazard, almost random and which looks as though there is no over-arching plan behind proceedings. An example of its use adverbially in this context is “the children ran around the garden willy-nilly.

But the original meaning is completely different. It meant whether you liked it or not, that something was obligatory – the only choice you had was Hobson’s choice. For those of us who know our Latin there is a phrase which is superficially similar, nolens volens, which meant willing (from the verb volo) and unwilling (from the verb nolo). That this may the root of our phrase is given some credence by the Old English sentence in Aelfric’s Lives of Saints, dating from around 1000 CE, “forean the we synd synfulle and sceolan beon eadmode, will ne nelle we.

We are familiar with will-root but the nill-root is a bit unfamiliar to the modern eyes. The word nill which usually preceded one of the personal pronouns came from the Old English word nyllan which itself was a contraction of ne (no) and willan (will). So nill is the opposite of will and the y at the end of each word is a further contraction, this time of the personal pronoun ye. By the time we get to the 16th century will you, nill you was in common parlance and pops up in Shakespeare’s plays. In The Taming of the Shrew (1596) Petruchio is given the line, “And, will you, nill you, I will marry you” while in Hamlet (1609) the first clown says, “if the man go to this water, and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes.

The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the first usage of willy-nilly to the start of the 17th century. Up to this point the phrase was used to indicate that the person had no choice in the matter but over the next century or so it began to take on the meaning of being indecisive, akin to shilly-shally which itself is a reduplication of shall I or shall I not. A form of shilly-shally first appeared in William Congreve’s The Way of the World which was published in 1700; “I don’t stand shill I, shall I, then; if I say’t, I’ll do’t.” That the two were considered synonymous is demonstrated by this passage from The Orange Girl by Sir Walter Besant, published in 1898; “Let us have no more shilly shally, willy nilly talk.”

Of course, one of the hallmarks of indecisiveness is operating without a clear sense of direction or plan. It is relatively easy to see how our phrase could develop its more usual modern sense of randomness, without direction or planning or showing a degree of disorganisation. It has come a long way from its original formation and meaning. There are examples of willy-nilly being used adjectivally to describe something like a set of orders but its usual grammatical form in modern parlance is that of an adverb.

A Measure Of Things – Part Seven

As a regular drinker, I have a mild fascination with the size and measurements associated with alcoholic beverages. I still get into a firkin muddle with them and so to get some clarity (or should that be clarety?) on the subject, I will spend a bit of time explaining the many archaic terms and measurements.

Let’s start with the gallon. In 1884 the British or Imperial gallon was standardised as the equivalent of ten pounds of water at 62 degrees Fahrenheit. This amounts to eight pints and there are four (surprise, surprise) quarts in a gallon, two pints in a quart and twenty fluid ounces in a pint. It wasn’t ever thus and there was a bewildering variety of standards for the gallon. The Winchester or corn gallon was 157 fluid ounces while the Old English Ale gallon was 162 fluid ounces. The Queen Anne Wine gallon was 133 fluid ounces while the Irish gallon was a measly 125 fluid ounces. You can see why they decided to standardise the measure. The question is why it took them so long.

The firkin takes its name from the Middle Dutch word vierdekijn which means a fourth or a quarter and this gives a clue to its size. When used in the context of beer or ale, it denotes a quarter of a barrel. But it was not until 1824 that the amount of beer represented by an imperial beer or ale firkin was standardised. It represented 9 imperial gallons or 72 pints and most pubs to this day buy their beers in this quantity. From around the mid 15th century an ale firkin was 8 gallons, moving up to 8.5 gallons in 1688 and settling at 9 gallons in 1803. The beer firkin was always 9 gallons until the adoption of the imperial gallon measurement.

Then we come to the pin or polypin. Real ale aficionados who are holding a party and are reluctant to settle for the modern-day equivalent of the Watney’s Red Barrel Party Seven – what fun we had trying to open those blighters in the seventies – will go to their local brewers or offie to secure a polypin of their favourite hooch. This is the equivalent in volume to half a firkin or 4.5 gallons or 36 pints – enough to lubricate the whistle.

The next measure we need to get our heads around is the kilderkin and this rather strange word again owes its origin to the Dutch. It means a small cask and in volume a kilderkin is the equivalent of two firkins or half a barrel – in other words, 144 pints. Until the adoption of the imperial measures, ale kilderkins and beer kilderkins reflected the differences in the quantity measured by their respective firkins. Beer festival organisers tend to order their stock in kilderkins in an attempt to ensure there is enough to go round. They often fail miserably in my experience.

The daddy of the beer measures is the barrel which, as you might have worked out by now, equates to 36 imperial gallons or 288 pints. To complete the set we have a tun which is the equivalent of six barrels or 216 imperial gallons, the butt which is half a tun and the hogshead which equates to a quarter of a tun or one and a half barrels or three kilderkins.

Phew! After all that it is surely time for a pint.

Gin o’Clock – Part Twenty Six

Boodle’s Club, still going, was founded in 1765 and it moved to its current premises on St James’ Street in London in 1782. It took its name from its head waiter, Edward Boodle. The gin which bears the name of this famous London institution was first created in 1845 and went on to shape what is now known as the modern London style of gin. Reputedly it was Winston Churchill’s favourite gin.

Truth be told, this gin has had a rather chequered history. It was originally produced by Cock Russell & Co and then fell into the hands of James Burroughs Ltd whose most well-known gin in its stable is Beefeater. It then ended up being owned by Seagrams in 2000 but in the following year its assets, were sold to a number of companies with Pernod-Ricard taking over Boodles. There was another change of ownership in 2012 when Proximo Spirits of New Jersey. By this time the gin had disappeared from the UK market, although it has always been distilled here.

Fortunately for British gin drinkers, Proximo struck up a deal with our old friends, G & J Greenall of Warrington to continue distilling the hooch and to return it to the shelves of UK retailers. And so since 2013 we have been able to discover it again and enjoy its unique taste.

The British version of Boodles’ British Gin London Dry – there is a stronger version at 45.2% ABV available in other parts of the world – comes in a squat dumpy bottle with a silver screw cap and weighs in at an acceptable 40% ABV. The label at the front is navy blue in colour, bears the original distillers name of Cock Russell and Company and proclaims the fact that it was established in 1845. The label at the back has a pale blue colour with black lettering and advises that it consists of “100% grain neutral spirits” and that it is “fashioned with a proper balance of traditional herbs and botanicals without the addition of citrus.” It also comes with the rather strange advice that to appreciate its fine flavour, it should be used sparingly. That’s hardly likely to happen!

Boodles’ has carved out a unique position amongst London Dry Gins by not having any citrus flavouring specifically added to the distillation process. If you like your gins with a touch of citrus, then this is not one for you. You could add it by slipping a slice of lemon or lime into your glass or use a citrusy based mixer but that sort of defeats the purpose.

It uses nutmeg, rosemary and sage amongst the nine botanicals that give the grain spirit its flavour – no other gin, to my knowledge, does this but with so many coming on to the market it is difficult to be categorical on the point. The other botanicals are juniper (natch), coriander seed, angelica root, angelica seed and caraway seed. The gin is made in a vacuum still which allows the spirit to retain more of the texture and taste of the botanicals.

So what is it like? It is a clear spirit and to the nose the smells of juniper and coriander are to the fore. In the mouth it is smooth and surprisingly sweet with a clean, long and slightly peppery aftertaste. It makes for a very smooth drink and, dare I say it, quite moreish. After all, warnings are to be disregarded. If you like your gins to be juniper prominent and for the other botanicals to complement and allow the juniper to shine, then this may well be one for you. As an added bonus, it is reasonably priced. I picked up my bottle for just £20.

The Streets Of London – Part Sixty One

Prescot Street, E1

This street runs parallel to Alie Street, although it is nearer to the river, and links Mansell Street to the west and Leman Street to the east. It formed the southern perimeter of the erstwhile Goodman’s Fields. It is now a rather boring, run-of-the-mill sort of street in that nether land that is the border of the City of London and Tower Hamlets.

We take it for granted now that all buildings have some form of identification in the form of a number. If you stop and think about it, you realise that the practice must have started somewhere and that somewhere was Prescot Street. Hatton’s New View of London, published in 1708, noted that “In Prescott Street, Goodman’s Fields, instead of signs the houses are distinguished by numbers, as the staircases in the Inns of Court and Chancery.” It was only later in the 18th century that the numbering of houses had become a well-established practice and it was not until the passing of the Metropolitan Management Act in 1855 that it became mandatory.

The area around Prescot Street in Roman times formed part of what was the Eastern Cemetery, one of four in the city. During its heyday thousands of Roman Londoners made the place their last resting place. There is evidence that after the Romans had left, the site was still used for burial practices but in what we term the Dark Ages and the early mediaeval time, the site reverted to open land and was used as a rubbish dump as well as farm land for pigs and sheep.

It was not until the late 17th century that Prescot Street was developed into a recognisable thoroughfare, part of what seems to have been a piece of large-scale property speculation. The houses were of a very high standard of construction, with large gardens, forming a square with a communal garden in the middle. Despite this attempt at gentrification, by the mid to late Georgian period the area had a bad rep, with numerous brothels and disorderly pubs.

In May 1741 the London Infirmary moved to Prescot Street from Moorfields. Its aim was to treat “sick and diseased manufacturers, seamen in the merchant service and their wives and families “, although it was not somewhere to enter lightly. It was dirty and unhygienic – pest controllers would delouse the wards regularly and as there was little in the way of sanitation, human excrement, dirty dressings and amputated limbs were dumped outside at night. As it was too expensive to have the cesspool emptied regularly, the hospital committee elected to let effluent overflow via a neighbour’s garden into a common cesspool. The first physician, Dr John Andree, was an advocate of cold bathing and so a cold water bath was built in the Prescot Street gardens for the benefit of the patients.

Next door to the Infirmary was a place known as the Lock which treated patients suffering from sexually transmitted diseases. The unfortunates had to pay for their cure but over time it reverted to offering free treatment and for all sorts of ailments. In 1757 the Infirmary moved again, this time to its present site on the south side of Whitechapel Road.

The increase in London’s population and the pressure for living space meant that the gardens and squares of the original Prescot Street were built over and what was an early example of gentrification in the east of London developed a rather hum-drum character which it retains today.

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty One

What happens when three Christs meet?

For a confirmed agnostic the world of religion is a confusing and mystifying place. There are so many faiths competing for our attention that the obvious question is how do you know you are backing the right horse. Of course, there is just the chance that there is an omnipotent being up there who has control over your immortal soul and being a cautious sort of chap, I don’t want to find that out when it is too late to mend the errors of my ways. I have a fond image of representatives of all the major religions crowding around my death-bed intoning their own versions of their creed simultaneously, rather like a DJ sound system clash in a reggae club in the late 70s.

The bedrock of the Christian faith is monotheism – one God, one Jesus etc. Over the last millennium or so groups have formed eagerly anticipating the second coming of Christ, all to be sorely disappointed, at least as far as we know. From time to time some deluded soul pops up claiming to be the reincarnation of Christ. For the enquiring mind, the obvious question is what would happen if two or more so-called Christs met each other. Fortunately, we have a clue from a rather bizarre experiment conducted by psychologist, Milton Rokeach, in 1959.

The starting point is to gather a number of schizophrenics who think they are Christ. Rokeach got his hands on three, Clyde Benson, Joseph Cassel and Leon Gabor, and forced them to live together at the Ypsilanti State Mental Hospital in Michigan. As for methodology, he chose to replicate the apparently successful technique adopted several years earlier where two women who believed they were both the Virgin Mary were put together and one of them as a result of them chatting together realised the extent of her delusional behaviour, was cured and discharged. But men, it would seem, are made of sterner stuff.

As you might expect, when they first met each other, the three Christs argued as to who was the real deal. Arguments became heated and on occasions, instead of a cheek being turned, blows were traded. Over time, though, the three patients began to tolerate each other and to prefer each other’s company. Each developed an elaborate explanation as to why the others were not the real McCoy. Clyde believed that his companions were dead and that they had been taken over by robots, whereas Leon and Joseph thought that their comrades were either crazy or had been duped. Leon came nearest to the truth by recognising that they were in a mental institution so the others, although, interestingly, not he, must be crazy. Rokeach tried to manipulate Leon’s behaviour by taking over the character of his imagined wife – an episode which caused Leon great emotional distress.

Rokeach abandoned the experiment in 1961 without curing the patients of their delusions or even getting any useful insights into the nature of schizophrenia. Towards the end of the experiment, none of the men showed the remotest interest in resolving the question as to who was the real Christ and, in fact, would go out of their way to avoid any conversational topic which might have strayed, however inadvertently, into matters religious. Anything for a quiet life!

The person who displayed the most delusional behavioural characteristics was Rokeach himself who seemed to relish playing the role of God in trying to manipulate his patients’ behaviour. Over time he realised how unethical his experiment was and in his 1981 edition of his book, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, he wrote, “while I failed to cure the three Christs of their delusions, they had succeeded in curing me of mine – of my God-like delusion that I could change them by omnipotently and omnisciently arranging and rearranging their daily lives”.

If you enjoyed this why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone. Available now. Just follow any of the links

Hobby Of The Week

Every man should have a hobby but occasionally it can get out of hand as this story I stumbled across this week involving a now retired banker, Nick West, from Clevedon in North Somerset shows.

I have heard of tegestologists – collectors of beer mats – and labeorphilists – collectors of beer bottle labels – but West has gone one further – he has a collection of 9,000 beer cans. His interest was whetted in 1975 when his wife (stupidly) bought him a book on beer. Of course, collecting cans has its up-side as he had to consume the contents of each can before consigning them to the shelves.

So hooked did West become that he had to make several alterations to his house to accommodate his ever-growing collection. But following his and his wife’s retirement and a decision to downsize living accommodation, Nick has called time on his collection.

Shame really but I’m sure he will be open to offers!

If you are within striking distance of Shrewsbury, aged between 11 and 19 – oh, distant days – and want to get in touch with your artistic side, check out the Summer Artschool, run by that enterprising group, Participate Contemporary Artspace. It runs from July 31st until August 11th 2017 and successful participants will receive the Bronze Arts award which is recognised by colleges and universities. For more details

For the ardent horticulturalist, going away for a holiday during the peak growing season can create a bit of a dilemma. Fortunately, I had no such concerns and dunked my pumpkins in a shallow bowl of water whilst I enjoyed the sun in Costa Blanca. The plants survived their studied neglect and I have now been rewarded with a profusion of yellow flowers. All male at the moment but days of pumpkin sex won’t be too far away!