Bender Of The Week (6)

You have just drunk ten pints of beer at the Darts World Championship at London’s Alexandra Palace, you are dressed in football kit and you are returning home via the tube, so what do you do? Well if you are Freddie Andrews from Tonbridge in Kent, you attempt to slide down the central part of the escalator.

Seasoned commuters will know that attractive as this may be for those with a penchant for sliding down banisters, there are strategically positioned signs that hamper one’s progress down the slide. Andrews was blissfully unaware of this and suffered a painful blow to his Niagaras as he first struck a Stop sign and then a Please Stand on the Right sign before hurtling towards oncoming passengers travelling on the up escalator.

Apart from tenderising his wedding tackle, Andrews seems to have survived his experience relatively unscathed but whether he will be able to stand to the right for some time is debatable. A spokesperson for the London Underground said that such behaviour can cause delays and serious injuries.

Happy New Year to you all!

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What Is The Origin Of (160)?…

Collywobbles and mulligrubs

Next month I’m engaged to deliver a series of lectures to some students and I must confess the thought of it is giving me the collywobbles. We use collywobbles these days in a figurative sense to describe that feeling in the pit of your stomach when a flight of butterflies seem to be flapping around. It conveys the sense of nervousness or apprehension. But where did this strange word come from?

The first known usage of the word in print is, surprisingly, as a verb rather than a noun. A letter written by Barré Charles Roberts, dated 1 May 1807and reprinted in the posthumous Letters and Miscellaneous Papers by Barré Charles Roberts in 1814 contains the rather mystifying sentence, “if you print any criticisms upon it, I will colly-wobble your arguments into nothing.” The intent is clear – the author will make mincemeat of or ridicule his opponent’s arguments – but the sense of collywobble is out of line with anything else we find elsewhere.

Pierce Egan in his 1823 update of Grose’s invaluable Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue defined collywobbles as the gripes. If this is the case, then it is easy to see how a description of an actual malady could transition into a figurative description of an uneasy feeling in the stomach. The case for suggesting that the origin relates to some ailment in the stomach is strengthened by this sentence, to be found in Cuthbert Bede’s The Adventures of Mr Verdant Green, published in 1853; “a touch of the milligrubs in your collywobbles.

Mulligrubs, always found in the plural, is a word of greater vintage, appearing in print in the late 16th century with a spelling of mulliegrums. It may owe its origin to the word for a headache, megrims, a typical Anglo-Saxon mash-up of the French word, migraine. As well as someone suffering from a humdinger of a headache, it was used more figuratively to describe someone who is in low spirits or a tad depressed. Its usage in this sense is perfectly illustrated in William Cowpre Brann’s Brann the Iconoclast of 1898; “It is easy enough to say that a pessimist is a person afflicted with an incurable case of mulligrubs — one whom nothing in all earth or Heaven or Hades pleases; one who usually deserves nothing, yet grumbles if he gets it.

So it may well be that some kind of stomach complaint would get you down but why collywobbles? Colly meant in English dialect, coal dust. Incidentally, the four calling birds that you may have sung about in the bewilderingly popular Twelve Days of Christmas were originally colly birds – something to remember for next year! Ingesting coal dust is more likely to give you a chest infection than a bad stomach but perhaps colly was used as a descriptor of the colour of the emissions from your body after a stomach complaint. Alternatively, it may be a euphemism for a complaint which went by the name of cholera morbus, probably what we would call today gastroenteritis – unpleasant enough, for sure, but not fatal unlike cholera. Wobble may refer to the state that a touch of it would leave you. As with many a word, its origin is far from certain.

Still, collywobbles, once it had found its place in popular vernacular, lent itself to humorous use. In October 1841 Punch released this rib-cracker on to the unsuspecting British public; ““to keep him from getting the collywobbles in his pandenoodles.” A Mully grub in Australian slang is a form of witchetty grub and a mullygrubber in cricket is a ball which slides along the ground, rather than bouncing. And there is a place called Collywobbles in South Africa. I fondly imagine that the butterflies there are a sight for sore eyes.

Book Corner – December 2017 (2)

Murder at the Manor – Martin Edwards

This is another one of those wonderful collections of stories put together by the inestimable Martin Edwards, displaying his encyclopaedic knowledge of crime fiction. A staple of the genre, the country house is the scene of many a murder most foul, not all of them committed by the butler. There is one crime in the collection where it was the butler whatdunit. So dangerous was staying at a residence in the country in the period between the two World Wars, at least in the fevered minds of the crime writer, that it is a wonder anyone took the chance. The game, Cluedo, cashed in on the popularity and prurient interest of murder amongst the gentry.

Of course it is all a bit clichéd now and perhaps was so even in its heyday, if the funniest and most curious story in the collection, E V Knox’s The Murder at the Towers, is anything to go by. It starts off with a wonderful opening line; “Mr. Ponderby-Wilkins was a man so rich, so ugly, so cross, and so old, that even the stupidest reader could not expect him to survive any longer than Chapter 1.” Of course, he doesn’t; he doesn’t even survive the end of the second paragraph. He is found hanging from a tree, suspended by a muffler. The remaining house guests decide to continue “playing tennis as reverently as possible” until the detective, the ludicrously named Bletherby Marge who is said to often be mistaken for a baboon, arrives. It is a marvellous piece of whimsy.

Humour percolates through Anthony Berkeley’s psychological tale, the Mystery of Horne’s Copse, which pivots on an attempt to question the protagonist’s sanity. Sherlock Holmes makes an appearance in the book’s opener, The Copper Beeches, with which many will be familiar with but it is still worthy of a reprise. Only Holmes can work out why a servant girl has been hired to wear a certain blue dress at certain times and have her long tresses shorn off. I had never read anything by Ethel Lina White but her An Unlocked Window sustains and cranks up the suspense and ends with a rather clever twist.

The combination of cricket and a crime is never likely to disappoint me and E V Hornung’s Gentlemen and Players, featuring the gentleman thief, Raffles, hits all the spots for me. The contribution of H C McNeile aka Sapper is an intriguing and somewhat far-fetched and ultimately horrific tale, The Horror at Staveley Grange, in which two apparently healthy men die of heart failure.  The obligatory Chesterton story is not from the Father Brown canon. In The White Pillars Mystery the two trainee detectives are taught the difference between listening and hearing.

In short, there is something for everyone. There are some stories which are not quite as good as the others and you can see why some of the writers languish in obscurity while others are read and enjoyed avidly to this day. But it does you good to extend your reach beyond the safe and tried and tested and the good thing about an anthology like this is even if an author strains your feelings of bonhomie, you can move on to the next one and vow never to let your eye pass over another word they wrote.

Answer Of The Week

The question du jour of course is: How Does Santa get down the chimney? After all, mere mortals fail spectacularly. Take this example I found this week.

An alleged burglar, Jesse Berube, thought it would be a good idea to break into a business premise in Citrus Heights near Sacramento in California by going down the chimney. Inevitably, he got stuck and had to call the emergency services to rescue. Also inevitably, he had his collar felt.

Well, according to Dr George Knee, a theoretical physicist from the University of Warwick – I assume he works on theoretical physics rather than being, theoretically, a physicist but you never know – it is all down to quantum physics. Atoms in the body, according to quantum physical theory, have an uncertain position and can move around as though they were a liquid. This means that in theory Santa Claus can change his body shape to negotiate any space that may confront him. The barriers that exist in classical physics do not exist in the world of quantum physics which deals with atoms, molecules and photons, Knee helpfully added.

Does this make any sort of sense? Anyway, let’s see if he can pull off the trick again this year.

To all my readers, season’s greetings.

Christmas Decorations Of The Year (3)

Christmas decorations are all right in their place – in a box in the attic, in my view – but external ones require a bit of thought to set the right tone for the neighbourhood. Pathetic strings of flashing lights strung limply from the guttering suggest a certain lack of imagination whilst inflatable Santas, reindeers, snowmen and the like reveal a lack of taste.

Perhaps the answer is to take a leaf out of Bristolian Kai Bowman’s book and do something completely different. He bought a roll of damaged wallpaper and a £30 pot of masonry paint and decorated the front of his house a seasonal red and emblazoned the wall with a quote from the Home Alone movie, “Merry Christmas ya filthy animals.”  Needless to say, it has caused quite a stir and there is a regular stream of visitors who come to his home in Maynard Close to gawp at it.

Cheaper than lights and more effective, methinks!

What Is The Origin Of (159)?…

The Third World

I have always considered the term third world to be a rather condescending and patronising description of countries we deem to be less economically developed than ourselves or having developing rather than developed economies. Swathes of Africa, Asia and Central and Latin America languish under this sobriquet. But I had never really considered how this description had come about or, while I am thinking about it, what or is the Second World.

In tracing the origin of this phrase we start with a political pamphlet, written in January 1789 by Abbe Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes, entitled Qu’est-ce que le tiers-état?, translated as what is the third estate?  This pamphlet, which went some way to stoke up the flames that led to the French Revolution later that year, sought to show that the common people of France, the third Estate, were a complete nation in their own right and did not need the dead weight represented by the first and second estates, the clergy and nobility, thank you very much. Sieyes posed three hypothetical questions; what is the third estate? Answer, everything. What has it been hitherto in the political order? Answer, nothing. What does it desire to be? Answer, something. The rest is history, as they say.

We now fast forward, still in la belle France, to 14th August 1952 and an article published in L’Observateur in which the demographer, Alfred Sauvy, wrote, “Ce Tiers-Monde, ignore, exploite, meprise comme le Tiers-Etat.” By Tiers-Monde Sauvy meant those poor countries, particularly in Africa, Asia and Latin America, which were neither within the capitalist nor the communist blocs but were oppressed, downtrodden and exploited like the sans-culottes. Perhaps their time would come?

In the early 1960s Sauvy’s rather handy descriptor was taken up by economists and politicians in Britain and the United States. This, of course, prompted the question as to whether there was a need for the corresponding terms of First and Second Worlds. The first world duly appeared in 1967 to describe those countries which were based on the capitalist model of high-income market economies such as Britain and the United States. The second world came along a tad later, 1974 to be precise, to describe those relatively wealthy Communist states or countries which had ventrally planned economies. Neither term seems to be as popular and enduring as Sauvy’s Third World.

In Britain, of course, we like to be a bit different and have four, if not five, estates. God, according to John Wyclif in his Works of 1380, ordained that there be three estates – the clergy, the barons and knights and, finally, the commoners. John Aylmer, Bishop of London, transferred the holy estates to those which were necessary to enforce legislation, in other words the Crown, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Thomas Carlyle, in On Heroes and Hero Worship, attributed the description of a Fourth Estate, the press, to Edmund Burke in 1787. He reports, “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”   The Fifth Estate, according to the eponymous film of 2013, refers to the online media. So there we have it.

Stone Walls Do Not A Prison Make – Part Four

The Walls of Ston

Here’s a question for you trivia fans: What is the largest complete fortress system in Europe? Well, at 5.5km it is the Walls of Ston in Croatia, second only globally to the Great Wall of China. Hadrian’s Wall, which is incomplete – that’s what a mix of Romans and Scots does for you – is the longest stone wall in Europe. The Walls of Ston sound as though they should come out of the Game of Thrones and in a way they do. They can be seen in the show providing the fortifications for King’s Landing.

Ston is 34 miles north of Dubrovnik and is situated on Croatia’s second largest peninsula, Peljesac. The wall, which was built from 1334 to 1506 CE, runs from one side of the peninsula to the other, linking Ston with Mali Ston. Looking rather like an irregular pentagon, the limestone structure originally boasted 40 towers and five fortresses, but only 20 towers survive to this day. The wall was also originally around 7 kilometres in length but was damaged in an earthquake in 1667.

Within the area enclosed by the walls three streets ran from north to south and three from east to west to create a grid system of 15 blocks, each of which contained ten houses. There were two city gates through which authorised visitors could enter the town, the Field Gate or Poljska vrata bearing an inscription dating it to 1506. The town was a model of urban planning, its sewers and water mains, built in 1581, making it unusually hygienic for the time. It remains today a remarkable historical site and is a popular tourist destination for those holidaying in Croatia.

So who built the walls? The major influence in the area was the city-state of Ragusa or Dubrovnik which in the early part of the 14th century was under the control of the Venetians. Ston, however, was under Serbian control but on 22nd January 1325 the king, Stefan Uros III, announced that he was selling it and the Peljesac peninsula to Ragusa, the handover taking place some eight years later. Although Dubrovnik has some pretty impressive fortifications of its own, the Ragusans decided that they would build some further defensive protection at the edge of their newly acquired territory.

Perhaps an equally important consideration was the need to protect the salt pans in the area, which produced what was reputed to be the purest salt in the entire Mediterranean area and were a nice earner for whoever controlled them. The salt works are still going, the oldest active salt-works in the world, and they remain faithful to the traditional methods of salt production which have not changed in four millennia. The Republic of Ragusa grew fat on the profits.

In 1358 under the Treaty of Zadar which ended hostilities between the Hungarians and Venetians, the Venetians were forced to hand over control of the Dalmatian coast to Hungary. Although nominally under the control of the Hungarians, the Republic of Ragusa, as it was now known, was left pretty much to its own devices an d work on the walls continued until they were finally completed in the early part of the 16th century.

When the Ragusan Republic collapsed after the Napoleonic Wars, some of the walls were demolished and stones were used by the Austrians to build schools and other communal buildings. Some were taken to build a triumphal arch to commemorate the visit of the Austrian emperor in 1884. But mercifully, a complete pentagon survived the depredations of nature and man and is there for us to enjoy.