Device Of The Week (2)

It’s term time again at our universities. In my day, indolence and ingenuity were attributes associated with the student population. Here is a story I stumbled across this week which shows that this spirit is still alive and kicking.

Four students, Jamie Stewart, Josh Still, Josh White and Ewen MacKenzie, from the University of the West of Scotland (me, neither) lived opposite each other in Townhead Terrace in Paisley. The problem was that they lived in upstairs flats and it was a bit of a fag to go up and down the stairs to share the essentials of life with each other. The answer was a stroke of genius – erect a pulley system across the road between the windows of their bijou accommodation.

The system they designed deployed a bucket and a pair of strings, a white one along which the bucket travelled and a red one which they pulled. To erect the contraption a student stood in the middle of the road one night and threw one end of the string into an open window where it was caught and secured by another member of the brains trust. The same procedure was followed at the other property and the bucket was attached to the white string. It worked a treat.

Alas, one of their neighbours spotted and photographed the contraption in operation, alerting the Old Bill on the grounds of ‘Elf and Safety, fearing that objects could fall from the bucket and cause injury or damage. The police duly called round and ordered the students to dismantle the contraption. So it is back to trudging up and down stairs for them.

What Is The Origin Of (147)?…

Like it or lump it

As an alternative to a fait accompli or Hobson’s choice, we use like it or lump it to indicate that you can either take what is offered or leave empty handed. The implication of the phrase is that you won’t be too happy either way.

The interesting aspect of the phrase is the use of lump as a verb. We are more familiar with it as a noun meaning a compact, often irregular, mass of something like coal. Indeed, it has had this meaning since at least the start of the 14th century. We have carried this sense into its use as a verb as in lump things together, collect, classify or put them together, a usage it has had since the 17th century. However, this cannot be the sense in our phrase because what we are looking for is an antonym to like.

Help comes in the not inconsiderable form of Richard Stanyhurst, the Irish alchemist and historian, who wrote in 1577 his Treatise Describing Irelande. There he described the Irish thus; “they stand lumping and lowring, fretting and fuming.”  It is quite clear from the usage and context that Stanyhurst meant it to give the sense of being disagreeable or sulky. That this is the case was corroborated four years later in a passage from Barnaby Rich’s Farewell Military Profession where he wrote, “she beganne to froun, lumpe and lowre at her housbande” – a not unfamiliar state of affairs in many a household throughout time.

So by the turn of the 17th century one sense of lumping it was to pull a long face and to give some visible sign of disgust or disagreement. However, it wasn’t until the late into the 18th century that lump it appeared in a phrase in opposition to like. An article appeared in the Universal Asylum and Colombian Magazine, published in Philadelphia in August 1790, entitled Thoughts on Proverbs. The columnist was discussing another proverb but made reference to a variant of our phrase by way of an obiter; “throw your lump where your love lies plainly argues that every lover ought to make a beneficial settlement on his beloved. But I will not be positive as to this solution, since another proverb as you like it, you may lump it contradicts it.

Quite why the writer thought the two phrases contradictory is not clear as lump is used as a noun in the first and a verb in the second. Whatever the cause of the confusion is, what we can take away from this reference is that lump and like were associated in some form of saying in the 18th century and that, probably, it was reasonably well known. It certainly was by 1807 because The Monthly Mirror, a London journal, was able to make a, for the time, mildly amusing pun in its September issue. “Mrs_  purposely sends a dish of tea to a lady, without sugar, of which she complains. Mr_ (handing her the sugar basin) [says] well, ma’am, if you don’t like it, you may lump it.

I can imagine that had ‘em rolling in the salons and sitting rooms of London. To work as a pun, feeble as it may be, it would require an acquaintance with the phrase. But although it is close to our phrase, it is not quite there. We get there in 1841 with Josiah Sheppey’s Specimens which was a collection of inspirational essays in verse form. “..forces, or like it or lump it,/ Himself, honest fellow, to blow his own trumpet.

If you don’t like this explanation, you can lump it!

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

Caroline Giacometti Prodgers

Should we feel sorry for cabbies? The ready availability of the sat nav has rendered otiose their encyclopaedic knowledge of the highways and byways of London – the longest and slowest when a fare is in the cab, in my experience, and the shortest and quickest when touting for custom – and now that their stranglehold over the taxi business has been challenged, their livelihoods are under threat from nimbler operators. Taking a taxi is often seen as a necessary evil rather than an enjoyable experience and there is always the suspicion that the driver is ripping you off.

It seems that this feeling is not new. What is particularly interesting about Caroline Prodgers is that she was uber-zealous in her pursuit of cabbies, turning their ability to memorise routes and fares against them. The tipping point in Prodgers’ journey to eccentricity appears to have been her divorce in 1871 from an Austrian naval captain, Giovanni Battista Giacometti. Prior to her marriage Caroline had inherited a large sum of money and so was considerably better off than her hubby. This counted against her in the spectacular divorce proceedings during which she seemed to question the legitimacy of her children and the court ordered her to pay maintenance to Mr Giacometti for the rest of his mortal, creating a legal precedent along the way. Caroline failed to make the payments and was back in court.

Suitably pissed off, Caroline became an enthusiastic litigator. She sued her cook whom she had sacked for refusing to leave the house and continuing to sing around the place. She sued a newspaper publisher for ripping her dress in an altercation over a newspaper she refused to pay for because she thought she was mentioned in it. A poor watchmaker was dragged through the courts for returning the wrong watch to her.

Caroline’s major contribution to clogging up the legal system was to wage a ferocious campaign against London cabbies who, she was convinced were ripping their customers off. Outside stations would be posted bills showing fares from the railway terminus to principal areas of London. She memorised them and calculated the exact point at which the fare would increase from one amount to another. Taking a cab she would order the cabbie to stop immediately before the fare would increase. If he sought to charge the higher fare, Caroline would protest, throw a fit and provoke the cabbie into an altercation. The result was that the cabbie would then be up before the beak who usually would find in favour of the passenger. In a twenty year campaign, Prodgers sued more than fifty cabbies, winning most of the cases.

This rather unorthodox campaign brought Prodgers further notoriety. On Bonfire night in 1875 cabbies paraded an effigy of Caroline around in a cab. The cab driver was arrested but the case was dismissed, the judge commenting that the cabbie was “acting as a showman for the amusement of the public”. Cabbies also developed a warning system if they saw Caroline approaching, looking for a cab. The cry of “Mother Prodgers” would ring through the streets and cabs would rush away as quickly as they could.

Today we might view Caroline as a slightly dotty campaigner for the consumer. Her actions bore fruit because in 1890, the year of her death, a controversial plan was announced to fit hackney cabs with machines which would measure distances and calculate fares. A victory of sorts but contemporaries remembered her as a right nuisance. As comedian, Herbert Campbell, wrote, “ I’d like to send,/
A bust of Mrs Prodgers the Cabman’s friend./ Of all the strong-minded females she’s the worst I ever saw,/ Oh, wouldn’t she be lovely as a mother-in-law?/ At the corner of every cab-rank her flag should be unfurled/ As a horrible example to this wicked world.”

Book Corner – September 2017 (4)

It Can’t Happen Here – Sinclair Lewis

The events of 2016, culminating in the British vote in favour of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as President of the US, has caused many of a liberal persuasion to question whether universal suffrage is all that it is cracked up to be. Even the so-called cradle of democracy, classical Athens, showed the limitations of allowing all and sundry to vote with the rise of the likes of Alcibiades and Cleon who offered the demos jam tomorrow rather than the reality of having to face up to their problems today.

This is an astonishing, amazingly prescient book, written in 1935 by one of America’s most prominent authors of the time who won a Nobel Prize in 1930. It charts the rise of Senator Berzelius Windrip, nick-named Buzz, who storms to the presidency by promising Americans $5,000 dollars each and vowing to make America great again. Sound familiar? Once in the White House, although he spends much of his time in a nearby hotel suite, he appeals to his core constituency of poor and resentful white males to repress dissent and set up a fascist state. As Lewis presciently wrote, “the fault of the Jeffersonian Party… was that it represented integrity and reason, in a year when the electorate hungered for frisky emotions

The book’s protagonist is the rather unworldly, Vermont newspaper editor Doremus Jessup, who tries to resist the fascist forces that have taken over his country and for his trouble spends time in a concentration camp where he is tortured and beaten. He is a beacon of hope in Lewis’ rather grim dystopia.  Although Windrip is overthrown, he is replaced by dictators who are even worse than he and whilst parts of the country rebel, the book ends without the sense that sanity would be restored.

What I found particularly interesting was Lewis’ characterisation of Windrip’s style. “The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar almost detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and yet his more celebrated humor the shy cynicism of a country store”. In speech “in between tricks[he] would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts – figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely wrong”. Windrip threatens neighbouring countries, particularly Mexico, with absorption into the great American empire whilst nicking the best ideas around from the Japanese or, in the words of Windrip, “don’t let that keep us from grabbing off any smart ideas that those cute little beggars have worked out”.

The take-away for me was Jessup’s analysis of why what was inconceivable had happened here. It was down to the laissez-faire attitude of liberals and Jessup’s self-styled Respectables who had made such a hash of convincing their fellow citizens of the legitimacy of their cause. This is the risk we run with a democracy.

For all its prescience and penetrating insight, is it great literature? Probably not, if the truth be told. It is too polemic to be so and the switch from the generality of the situation in the first part of the book to the specifics of Jessup’s ordeals and resistance in the second is a bit too clunky to work satisfactorily. But as a lesson as to what can happen and an astonishing insight into what might be in store in Trumpland, it can’t be beaten.

The Streets Of London – Part Sixty Four

Clink Street, SE1

South of the river and running parallel to is to be found the wonderfully onomatopoeic Clink Street between Park Street at its western end and the Golden Hinde and Cathedral Street to the east. The street which still has an atmospheric feel to it has seen considerable gentrification over the last couple of decades or so but in earlier times it was a place to avoid. The reason – it was the site of one London’s oldest and most notorious prisons.

In 1129 the newly appointed Bishop of Winchester, Henry of Blois, grandson of William the Conqueror, built an impressive palace, Winchester, for himself on the south bank of the Thames. Sadly, following an extensive fire in August 1814, all that remains today is the west wall and the impressive Rose Window but you still get a sense of how impressive and imposing it would have been. More germane to our story is the fact that when the palace was completed in 1144, it contained two prisons, one for men and the other for women.

We have come across Liberties before and the area around the Palace was part of the Liberty of the Palace of Winchester and under the jurisdiction of the Bishop. He was able to decide his own laws and mete his own punishment on miscreants. The Liberty was later known as the Liberty of the Clink, a name which seems to have been given to the prison. Quite why, no one is too sure but it is tempting to think that it reflects the clanking of the chains which hobbled the prisoners’ movement or the sound of the iron gates closing. Whatever the origin, it gave its name to the euphemism for any prison – clink.

Life was hard inside the Clink. Those who could afford it could pay the gaolers money in return for small creature comforts such as food, fuel, bedding and candles. Prices were astronomic – after all, the gaolers had a captive market – and the poorer prisoners would beg at the grates facing the street and offer for sale whatever pitiful possession they may have had. As well as the usual collection of vagrants and ne’er-do-wells, the Clink housed the likes of John Rogers, who translated the Bible from Latin into English, various Royalists during the Civil War and some of the Puritans before they set out to settle in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

The prison had a chequered history and was destroyed twice, once during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and then again during Jack Cade’s rebellion in 1450. Following the latter incident, a new two-storey building was erected on what is now the site of The Clink Prison Museum. The fortunes of the prison went into a steep decline in the 18th century, mainly because of the cost of maintaining it. In 1732 there were just two registered prisoners but in the mid 1770s it hosted a number of debtors. During the Gordon Riots of 1780, the prison was broken into, the prisoners released – none were recaptured  – and the building burnt down. It was never rebuilt.

Perhaps ironically, as well as the Museum, the street today boasts a number of food outlets and a pub, The Old Thameside Inn. Perhaps it is as well that the punters are oblivious to the street’s history.