A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: August 2017

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

James Lucas (1813 – 1874)

For some eccentrics a life-changing event proved to be the tipping point into strange and unusual behaviour. A case in point is James Lucas who earned the sobriquets, mad Jack and the Hermit of Hertfordshire.

James was the son of a rich Liverpudlian land-owner who had interests in sugar plantations out in the West Indies. They moved to Hertfordshire when James was about ten, taking up residence at Elmwood House at Great Wymondley, near Stevenage. James used to terrorise the locals by riding through the countryside at a reckless pace, tied to an old-fashioned saddle with a cord and with his long hair flowing in the breeze. Apart from that, though, he was clever, studied medicine and a good conversationalist.

The point at which his eccentricity developed occurred in 1849 when his mother, to whom he was devoted, popped her clogs. So distraught with grief was James that he sat beside the body for thirteen weeks, refusing to allow her to be buried until the local magistrates decided enough was enough.

James had now inherited Elmwood and dismissed all the servants. He shut all the rooms of the house, save for the kitchen. His only furniture was a table and a chair and for clothing he made do with a blanket. James’ sole source of heat was the kitchen fire which he never allowed to go out. Inevitably, the ash accumulated. All James did was scrape them out by hand so that they gradually filled the room. Dirty and unwashed, he lived amongst and slept on piles of ashes for his remaining twenty-five years, subsisting on milk and bread.

In order to deter unwelcome visitors and relatives, the windows and doors to the kitchen were barred with logs and iron struts. Towards the end of his life he took extra security precautions by employing a couple of watchmen. But the hermit’s fame spread far and wide and he had a steady stream of visitors with he would converse through the barred windows. James enjoyed the company of tramps whom he would interrogate. If there were no holes in their story, he rewarded Protestants with a penny and Catholics with two pence. Those whom he caught spinning a yarn were sent packing with a flea in their ear and, possibly, a shower of ashes.

Children were also welcome and on major Christian festivals, principally Christmas Day and Good Friday, he would shower the local ragamuffins with money, sweets and buns. Perhaps Lucas’ most famous visitor was Charles Dickens who paid his respects in 1861. The author immortalised the encounter in Tom Tiddler’s Ground, published in 1861, featuring a misanthropic, morbid hermit called Mr Mopes who sought seclusion to gain notoriety. This rather unsympathetic portrayal of his condition probably pissed Lucas off.

An attack of apoplexy finished him off in 1874 and when the house was opened up, it took 17 cartloads to remove all the dirt and ashes. After twenty-five years of studied neglect, the house had slowly rotted away and in 1890 it was finally demolished. Lucas was buried in the family grave in Hackney in east London.


Book Corner – August 2017 (3)

The Stamboul Train – Graham Greene

This is one of the few Graham Greene novels that I had not read before and it seemed the appropriate time to discover it having read Bethany Hughes’ history of Istanbul. The novel, published in 1932, is the first to which Greene attached the label of an entertainment. American readers might know it better as the Orient Express, which was also the name of the film based on it which was released in 1934. I think it is fair to say that it is one of Greene’s lesser works but, nonetheless, is an action-packed and rewarding read.

Long, international train journeys are a bit of a literary cliché these days but it allows the author to assemble a motley crew of characters who, because of the length of their time together in an enclosed space, have time to connect and interact and, as Greene uses to advantage, the stops along the way allow him to introduce new characters and as the train wends its way through the heartland of Europe to its ultimate destination, Istanbul, each new passenger increases the sense of malevolence and danger.

Three very disparate characters start the journey – Dr Richard Czinner whose alias is an English schoolteacher but who is really an exiled communist leader returning to Belgrade to lead a revolution, Carleton Myer, a trader in currants who is travelling to Turkey to seal a business deal, and Carol Musker, a dancer who is going to take up a job as a dancer in Istanbul. Their fates and stories are soon intertwined. Myer feels sorry for Musker who becomes ill during the journey and falls for her charms. Czinner is recognised by a lesbian journalist, Mabel Warren who joins the train at Brussels with her beau, Janet Pardoe. The tension is cranked up when Josef Grunlich, a thief who has botched a raid and committed murder, joins the train at Vienna.

The revolution is botched and takes place before Czinner arrives, leading him to question his purpose in life. Border guards stop the train and arrest Czinner, Grunlich and Musker. The pace of the book hots up with a Kafkaesque trial, escapes, shootings and car chases. I will not spoil the denouement other than to say that Musker’s ultimate fate is never quite revealed and that Pardoe turns out to be the niece of the man Myer is trying to do business with.

Unusually for a Greene novel the heavy hand of Catholicism is absent. Nonetheless the main protagonists engage in periods of soul-searching, trying to reconcile what has happened and their role in the world. The principal them is that of fidelity, to yourself and to others and how you will be remembered and want to be remembered after you have gone. Heavy stuff but it doesn’t really obtrude because Greene is a master story-teller and gets the balance right.

The bigger issues for modern readers are whether Greene is homophobic in his unflattering portrayal of Warren and anti-semitic in the way he writes about Myer. For those who are attuned to spotting any deviation from political correctness, the answer is probably yes. That said, he was a creature of his time. Warren is a fabulously rich, louche character who just happens to be gay but her sexual orientation is probably used to emphasise what a grotesque person she is. As to anti-Semitism, I’m not sure. Most of the stereotypical characteristics of Jews appear in his make-up – shrewd businessman, love of money, monetising everything – but he is kind, caring, considerate – loving, even. Every reader has to make their mind up but it would be a sad day if modern sensibilities got in the way of reading good literature.

And as for sensitivity, J B Priestley took umbrage of Greene’s portrayal of popular Cockney novelist, Q C Savory, thinking it was a bit near the knuckle and Greene, fearing a libel case, had to tone the character down.

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

Dr Velpeau’s Magnetic Love Powders

In cultures and times when arranged marriages were not the vogue, one of the principal concerns for the male member was how to win over the fairer sex. And where there is insecurity, there is fertile ground for the practitioner of quackery to till.

Dr Velpeau – of course, that was not his real name, it was the more prosaic J C Merrill and may have been an attempt to associate his product with the French surgeon, Alfred Velpeau – offered his dupes powders which were supposed to transform their amatory fortunes. What was most enterprising about the scam was that the adverts were in the form of a job advert for salesmen, offering a salary of 800 dollars and commission. When someone responded, all they received was a sample of the powders and some instructions as to their use. “These powders” the literature proclaimed, “properly administered, are warranted irrespective of age, circumstances or personal appearance, to win them the love or unchanging affections of any one they may desire of the opposite sex.

The problem was in the proper administration of the powder. The male was not the one to consume it but rather he had to find a way to induce the object of his affections to take the powder. This might be an insuperable hurdle for someone who is particularly gauche in the presence of the opposite sex. Slipping some surreptitiously into a beverage might just work. If he succeeded in getting the woman to consume the powder, the man would have an anxious wait to see whether she went weak at the knees and threw herself at him. Astonishingly, at the height of the scam in 1855, Velpeau was getting upwards of forty letters a day from men desperate enough to send him two dollars for the keys to unlock a woman’s heart.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, nothing happened. Many would put the failure down to experience but some were incensed enough in late 1855 to write to the Mayor of New York, complaining about Merrill’s sharp practice. The scam hit the newspapers but the victims didn’t find a sympathetic press. One paper commented, “Only think of it! For two dollars, any enterprising young man – no matter if he is as poor as an editor, and as ugly as a baboon, can through the instrumentality of these powders, make himself “lord” of the most charming lass of “sweet sixteen” to be found within the limits of our friend’s agency, which comprises four counties!”

The Mayor, though proved to be more sympathetic and Merrill had his collar felt and was charged with fraud. He eluded incarceration by promising to stop flogging his powders and to return the monies extracted from his victims. Whether he returned the victims’ money is unclear but the lure of easy money was too much to resist and six weeks later he was still at it, selling his miraculous powders and fleecing his victims. This time, though, Merrill couldn’t evade the long arm of the law. He was arrested, charged with defrauding his victims and thrown in jail. And that was the end of the Magnetic Love Powders.

Double Your Money – Part Twenty Three

James Paul Lewis Junior

We have looked at a number of Ponzi and Pyramid selling schemes over this series and have noted that there is an inherent design flaw in them. Ponzi schemes are totally reliant upon new members joining the scheme to pay the dividends promised to the earlier investors while pyramid schemes financially reward investors for recruiting new members. However, once the supply of new investors dries up, the whole edifice comes tumbling down.

The remarkable feature of Lewis’ Ponzi scheme is that it defied gravity for so long. It is estimated that it lasted for around 20 years, during which time Lewis had collected around $800 million from his investors – Lewis was one of them. His company was called Financial Advisory Consultants and was based in Lake Forest in Orange County, California. Many of his 5,200 clients were recruited by word of mouth, many through fellow churchgoers and church-based organisations. Initially, the minimum investment was $25,000 but as the fund began to start creaking, this was raised to $100,000.

Lewis span a good story, claiming that one of his funds delivered annual returns of 40% while the other generated a more modest 20%. He was able to sustain such high levels of return, he claimed, by leasing medical equipment, financing purchases of medical insurance, making commercial loans and buying and selling distressed businesses. To add a bit of glitz to the scam, Lewis claimed that his clients included a number of professional athletes and at least one movie star.

In reality, however, Lewis was paying the high levels of dividends from the investments of the newer recruits as well as using some of the funds to finance a lavish lifestyle. Rather like George Best, he spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest he just squandered. But the money kept coming in, many of his investors putting their life savings into a fund that promised returns that seemed too good to be true. Of course, they were.

The writing was on the wall in 2003 when Lewis was unable to meet dividend payments. Investors became suspicious but he placated them and bought some time by claiming that the Department of Homeland Security had frozen the funds. This, naturally, was bunkum and when there was still no sign of the promised dividends, the FBI were invited to investigate. Lewis did then what any self-respecting fraudster does when the net tightens around him – he fled.

An arrest warrant was issued on January 14th 2004 and after a narrow escape in Tallahassee, Lewis was arrested in Houston. The investigations showed the extent of Lewis’ scam. Instead of the $814 million in clients’ assets he was supposed to have had, his company’s bank accounts held just $2.3m. Even at the time that his funds were allegedly frozen, Lewis helped himself to $3million and amongst the assets the FBI seized were five cars including two Mercedes and a BMW. A letter dating to 2001 showed that Lewis had speculated on high-risk currency trading – naturally, Lewis lost $6.5 million on that occasion.

On trial in 2006 – Lewis received 30 years and was ordered to repay $156 million – Judge Carney called the scheme a “crime against humanity” because many of its victims were elderly and had lost their life savings. Only $11 million was ever recovered.

It’s The Way I Tell ‘Em (30)

More jokes from the Edinburgh Fringe

  • I’m not a fan of the new pound coin, but then again, I hate all change – Ken Cheng
  • Trump’s nothing like Hitler. There’s no way he could write a book – Frankie Boyle
  • I’ve given up asking rhetorical questions. What’s the point? – Alexei Sayle
  • I’m looking for the girl next door type. I’m just gonna keep moving house till I find her – Lew Fitz
  • I like to imagine the guy who invented the umbrella was going to call it the ‘brella’. But he hesitated – Andy Field
  • Combine Harvesters. And you’ll have a really big restaurant – Mark Simmons
  • I’m rubbish with names. It’s not my fault, it’s a condition. There’s a name for it… – Jimeoin
  • I have two boys, 5 and 6. We’re no good at naming things in our house – Ed Byrne
  • I wasn’t particularly close to my dad before he died… which was lucky, because he trod on a land mine – Olaf Falafel
  • Whenever someone says, ‘I don’t believe in coincidences.’ I say, ‘Oh my God, me neither!’ – Alasdair Beckett-King
  • A friend tricked me into going to Wimbledon by telling me it was a men’s singles event – Angela Barnes
  • As a vegan, I think people who sell meat are disgusting; but apparently people who sell fruit and veg are grocer – Adele Cliff
  • For me dying is a lot like going camping. I don’t want to do it – Phil Wang
  • I wonder how many chameleons snuck onto the Ark – Adam Hess
  • I went to a Pretenders gig. It was a tribute act – Tim Vine

Photo Opportunity Of The Week

The search for that perfect photo is relentless. It emerged this week that a family thought that hoisting junior into the 800-year old sandstone casket on display at Prittlewell Priory Museum in Southend, would make a good shot.

Alas, the coffin, the only one of its kind in existence, was knocked off its stand and broken after the child was lifted over a protective barrier. To compound their misdemeanour, the family left the museum without alerting staff of the mishap. The damage was only discovered later and was dutifully recorded on the all-seeing CCTV system.

It will cost £100 to repair the damage and the museum will put the casket in an enclosed display case.

It’s a good job it wasn’t a new one is all I can say.

Toilet Of The Week (12)

Ever wondered what happens to a toilet block when it is closed down by the local authority? Well, here in Surrey it is turned into a bijou des res, natch.

The carsey, which was a bog standard affair with a gents’ block on the left and the ladies on the right and backs on to Grade II listed Bourne Hall, was flogged off by Epsom and Ewell Borough Council in 2012 for £68,000. It was converted into two semi-detached houses, each boasting an open-plan kitchen, living area, double bedroom and a shower room, not golden I presume.

I discovered this week that the right-hand side property is now on the market for £330,000, according to Rightmove. The potential buyer, flush with cash, will have to leave a sizeable deposit. I wonder if there is a chain!

What Is The Origin Of (142)?…

The Great Wen

Regular readers will be aware that I spend a little time exploring some of the highways and byways of our metropolis, London. I find its history fascinating and still miss, albeit fleetingly, my daily commute up to the Smoke. For some, though, the hustle and bustle, the noise and the dust is so off-putting that they would do anything to avoid it. They might be tempted to refer to the capital as the Great Wen, a rather uncomplimentary, if archaic, sobriquet that it has earned in certain quarters.

But what is a wen? Its origin is from the Old English noun, wenn, which was used to describe a tumour or a wart, coming into our language from the Proto-Germanic wanja. Specifically it was the best type of tumour to have, if you were unfortunate enough to have one as I do, one that is benign and was generally situated on the scalp. By the Middle Ages it was beginning to be used to describe any form of protrusion and in a figurative sense as a form of insult, a kind of medieval version of a big lump. Shakespeare used the word in this sense in Henry IV Part 2, first performed in 1600. Prince Hal uses it pejoratively to describe his free-booting companion, Falstaff, who was a little on the chunky size; “I do allow this Wen to be as familiar with me, as my dogge.

By the 18th century, though, wen started to be used as a descriptor for a city. Cities were beginning to increase in size as more and more people fled the countryside in search of employment and those mythical streets paved with gold. Men of sensitive dispositions were appalled at the squalor and noise of these conurbations, full of ramshackle tenement buildings and streets, not to mention rivers, full of rubbish and excrement. One such soul was the Dean of Gloucester and economic theorist, Josiah Tucker, who wrote in his Four Letters of National Importance, published in 1783, of London “if therefore the increase of Building, begun at such an early period, was looked upon to be no better than a Wen, or Excrescence, upon the Body-Politic, what must we think of those numberless streets and squares that have been added since?”  The gloss on Wen may lead us to conclude that even then its meaning was beginning to be lost in the mists of time.

It was William Cobbett in his Rural Rides, published in 1822, who specifically nailed London as the great wen when he wrote, “but what is to be the fate of the great wen of all? The monster, called by the silly coxcombs of the press, the metropolis of the empire?” For the next thirty years the custom was to use the phrase, the great wen of London, but by the 1850s the phrase that was sufficiently well known that the possessive was dropped and capital letters at the start of each word were used to denote that they were talking about London.

In a game of word association, I would probably respond to great wen with Big Yin, a phrase used by our Scottish friends to describe anyone of above average height, although these days most people associate the phrase with the comedian, Billy Connolly. Its antonym is a wee bauchle, which is used to describe a short-arse, often one who was shabby in appearance. A bauchle, after all, was a shabby, down-at-heel shoe.

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

Stephen Foster (1826 – 1864)

At primary school, for some unaccountable reason as it was situated in a county with a fine folk tradition, the songs we sang were mainly American. One particular favourite which we sang with gusto was Camptown Races which started off, “Camptown ladies, sing this song/ doo-da doo-da/ The Camptown racetrack’s five miles long/ Oh doo-da day.”  It sounded better than it appears on paper. It was one of over two hundred songs written by the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Stephen Foster, not that I knew at the time nor, frankly, cared.

Foster has been called the father of American music and many of his songs are popular to this day. In his musical canon are ditties such as Old Folks at Home, My Old Kentucky Home, Jeanie with the light brown hair, Old Black Joe and Beautiful dreamer. As a youngster he joined a quasi-secret society  known as the Knights of the Square Table who spent their evenings singing songs and was heavily influenced by a German musician, Henry Kleber, who ran a music store in Pittsburgh and Dan Rice, an itinerant entertainer. It was during this period that he wrote one of his most famous songs, Oh! Susanna, although the first song he published, at the age of eighteen, was Open Thy Lattice, Love.

When he was twenty-four and married, Foster decided to earn his living as a professional song-writer. The problem with being the first in your field, is that there are usually no rules of engagement. So whilst Foster would generally find someone who would pay him some money for the rights to publish his songs, there was no such thing as an established music royalty system. So Oh! Susanna, published in 1848 and the unofficial anthem of the Californian gold rush, earned him just $100 while his publisher raked in $10,000.

Returning to Pennsylvania in 1849 he signed a contract with the Christy Minstrels and over the next five years or so wrote many of his most well-known songs, including Camptown Races in 1850. They were often in the blackface minstrel stylee which was popular at the time but with subtle changes, as Foster wrote, “to build up taste…among refined people by making words suitable to their taste, instead of trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order”. But instead of the millions that his works would have earned him these days, he received little more than $15,000 in total for all the songs which are now the staple of the American songbook.

Inevitably, Foster hit hard times. 1855 might well have been his annus horribilis – he separated from his wife and both his parents died. He reacted to his troubles in the only way he knew how – by writing another hit, Hard Times Come Again No More. What certainly did not come no more was money and he was reduced to living a rootless existence, dossing in hotels in New York.

His demise is worthy of our Hall of Fame. In January 1864 Foster contracted a fever and was severely weakened by it. He was found, naked, lying in a pool of blood, by his then writing partner, George Cooper, having hit his head on a wash basin. He died in Bellevue Hospital three days later, on February 13, aged just thirty-seven. In his wallet was found a scrap of paper with the words, “Dear friends and gentle hearts” and just 38 cents. Perhaps his most famous song, Beautiful Dreamer, was published posthumously.

Stephen Foster, for enriching the American song tradition and not enjoying your just desserts, you are a worthy inductee into 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

I Predict A Riot – Part Twenty Six

The London wrestling riot of 1221

Sporting events have raised tensions amongst participants and onlookers, particularly when there are underlying causes of discontent and it seems this was as true in medieval times as it is now. What we know as London these days was originally two distinct conurbations – the City of London to the east and Westminster to the west. Representatives from each of these areas together with denizens from other neighbouring villages took part in an annual wrestling competition, held on St James’ Day in St Giles in the Fields.

The team representing London prevailed in 1221 and this really pissed the steward of the Abbott of Westminster off. He swore revenge and set off a train of bloody events in what was one of the more curious riots to blot the capital’s history. The steward organised a rematch to be held on 1st August, offering a ram as the prize. A large crowd travelled from Westminster in support of their champions but to their consternation, they found that they had walked into a trap. Instead of enjoying a pleasant sporting contestant and a few flagons of ale, they were set upon by armed men, some of whom were wounded with the rest put to flight.

But the men of London were made of sterner stuff and were not going to let matters rest there, particularly as their pride had been hurt. They were out for revenge and prompted by Constantine Fitz-Arnulph, marched on Westminster and demolished the houses belonging to the steward and the Abbott. The Abbott, perhaps unwisely, returned to Westminster to voice his complaints to the authorities, only to find that he was pursued by the mob, had twelve of horses stolen and his servants set upon. Accounts suggest he would have been murdered had he not “escaped through the back door, through a shower of stones, to the water side.

When the furore had died down, the authorities stepped in. The chief magistrate, Hubert de Bury, summoned the leading citizens to the Tower of London and asked them who the ringleaders were. Constantine stepped forward and said that “he was the one; that they had done no more than they ought; and that they were resolved to stand by what they had done, let the consequence be what it would.” His nephew and a third man, named in the records simply as Geoffery, also fessed up. Dismissing the rest of citizens, Hubert ordered the three to be strung up. Constantine offered 15,000 marks for his freedom but it was to no avail and the following day he and his colleagues danced the hemp jig.

Worse was to follow. De Bury rounded up some of the principal rioters and chopped off their feet and hands, rather ruining their wrestling prowess. Thirty men were then seized and held as hostages as security against the citizens’ future behaviour and fines of several thousand marks were levied.

This rather high-handed, if not to say, unconstitutional behaviour in the aftermath of the wrestling riot not unsurprisingly caused further tension and in 1224 parliament petitioned the king at the time, Henry III, to confirm the charter of liberties aka the Magna Carta which he and his officers were supposed to be abiding by. In 1225 at a meeting of parliament at Westminster the charter was ratified and the ancient right s and privileges were restored to London including the right to a common seal and exemption from taxes on burel, a type of fine wool which looks like felt.

It was a rather high price to pay but at least Londoners got a modicum of justice.