A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: January 2018

I Predict A Riot – Part Thirty

The Richmond Women’s Bread Riot of 1863

Fortunately, I have not experienced wartime conditions and their concomitant deprivations (yet) but it is easy to understand how things can get desperate. Take Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy in the American Civil War.

The population had tripled in pretty short order as civilians and soldiers took refuge there. The Union blockade meant that little in the way of imported foodstuffs was making its way to the capital. The problems were compounded by the fact that most of the menfolk who worked on the land were now fighting for the Confederate cause, farmland had been destroyed during the fighting and what food was available was used to feed the troops. The consequence of all this was that the cost of food increased tenfold from their pre-war levels.

In March 1863 the city was struck by a massive snowstorm which, when the snows melted, made the roads impassable, further exacerbating the logistics of feeding a population that was growing daily as a consequence of the influx of wounded soldiers. A call from the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, for a day of fasting on March 27th went down like a lead balloon.

A group of women, led by Mary Jackson and Minerva Meredith, the latter described by Davis’ wife as “tall, daring, Amazonian-looking,” decided that enough was enough. They summoned a meeting of like-minded women at the Belvedere Hill Baptist Church on 1st April and decided to march on the Governor’s office to demand that he, John Letcher, do something to alleviate the food shortages. So the following day a group of some one hundred women, armed with axes, knives, and other assorted weaponry, assembled in front of the Governor’s office, shouting “Bread, bread” and “Bread or blood.

Letcher came out and tried to pacify the crowd, to no avail. Instead, his words seem to have inflamed the situation and the women – by now their numbers had grown considerably to upwards of a thousand, broke into the government’s storehouses and neighbouring shops and took whatever they could lay their hands on. Although Letcher summoned the public guard, their numbers and resolution were insufficient to hold the crowd back. Order was eventually restored when the Confederate President, Davis, summoned some troops, and climbing on top of a wagon, threatened to order them to shoot, if the crowd didn’t disperse. He pulled out his watch, ostentatiously measuring the passage of time.

At first, it seemed as though the rioters would defy the President but as the fifth minute was beginning, they started to disperse and make their way home. Some 60 rioters, including Mary Jackson, were arrested and indicted on charges of rioting and theft.

Did the bread riots make any difference? There were no further civil disturbances in Richmond because the authorities increased the security around the city by positioning cannons at strategic points. But the authorities did redouble their efforts to improve the distribution of foodstuffs to the poorer residents. A case of carrots and sticks. Interestingly, the Confederates realised that news of the riots would have an adverse effect on the morale of their troops and did their best to suppress the story. However, you cannot keep a good story down and rumours of the disturbance gained a wider circulation, thanks to some Union prisoners who had been in the city at the time, and made the front page of the New York Times on 8th April. The civil war, of course, rumbled on for another couple of years.


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

Louise Elisabeth de Meuron (1882 – 1980)

The Swiss get a pretty bad press. They are considered to be uber-boring, solid, reliable, conservative, up for a bit of crossbow practice every now and again and prone to exploit the economic vacuum caused by their bellicose neighbours. Not stupid but deadly dull. Seen in this light, perhaps being an eccentric in Switzerland is not a particularly challenging accomplishment. But by any nation’s standards Madame de Meuron, as Louise was known as, was up there with the best.

She was a member of the Swiss aristocracy, inheriting Amsoldingen castle from her father, Ludwig von Tscharner, and Rumligen Castle, which became her main residence in later years, from her mother, Anna von Wattenwyl. Added to that she owned a number of houses in the old part of Bern and her estate included some Alpine meadowland. But breeding and pots of money do not necessarily guarantee happiness. Louise’s parents refused her permission to marry the love of her life and she had to make do with her cousin, Frederic-Alphonse de Meuron, whom she married in 1905. The marriage ended in divorce in 1923, leaving Louise with a son and a daughter.

We are beginning to see a bit of a trend with eccentrics, namely that there is some traumatic event which prompts the descent into bizarre and unusual behaviour. In Louise’s case, it was the tragic death of her son in 1939 – he committed suicide. Thereafter, she cut what can only be described as a bit of a dash, wearing full mourning dress for the rest of her life including old-fashioned widow’s weeds and sporting a walking cane and a rather splendid, highly decorated ear-trumpet. When asked why she carried it, de Meuron retorted, “so that I hear only what I want to hear” – a privilege available only to the hard of hearing. The striking spectacle on the Bernese streets was completed by her ever—resent pack of Russian greyhounds.

Louise was conscious of her aristocratic breeding and considered that with it went a lot of privileges that the great unwashed could only aspire to. She was above those petty laws and customs which make life a trial for us. She would order her servants to park her car anywhere she wanted to. When an officer of the law had the audacity to suggest that it be moved, she would state in no uncertain terms, “that stays here.” When she deigned to grace the tram system with her presence, Louise would not entertain buying a ticket. After all, she explained, “I was here before the tram.

There was one occasion, though, where she wasn’t quite able to rise above the law. Louise caught a vagrant woman who had the audacity to steal some fruit from the grounds of her castle and taking matters into her own hands, locked the unfortunate woman in the coach house for a couple of days. Louise was up before the beak on a charge of false imprisonment but in her defence, produced a document dating from the Middle Ages which gave owners of Rumligen Castle the right to administer justice for petty misdemeanours. She was let off with a small fine and a lecture about modern justice and legal practices.

Heaven help you if you tried to sit in her church pew. One farmer had the audacity to do this. Louise put him straight by saying, “Up in heaven we will all be equal, but in the meantime down here, we’ll have some discipline.” Quite. And she had a rather disarming habit of asking total strangers, “are you someone or do you get a salary?” By Swiss standards, as I say, she was quite an odd ball.

Culinary Tip Of The Week

One of my tasks in the kitchen is to peel the spuds and prepare them for roasting. I cut each potato into half and then half again. They are then popped in the oven and eventually they become crispy.

But according to some hospitality students from the University of Essex’s Edge Hotel School I’m doing it all wrong. In conjunction with the mathematics department at Samuel Whitbread school, they set about finding the formula for the perfect roast potato, I read this week.

It’s all about maximising the potato’s surface area. Their research found that the optimal way to prepare the spud was to cut it lengthwise and then cut each half at an angle, creating a point of approximately 30 degrees. This increases the surface area exposed to the oven by 65%, resulting in a crispier and more delicious roast potato.

I’m happy to pass this on. I will be interested to see what difference it makes.

Projectile Of The Week

I’m worried. Blogger Towers isn’t exactly on an air path but we are visited regularly enough by aeroplanes on holding patterns for it to be a concern.

What’s the problem? Blue ice, that’s what.

The phenomenon first came to my attention this week when I read of a mysterious object which landed in a field in the Indian village of Fazilpur Badli. The locals thought it might have been a meteorite but when officials arrived to investigate, they found that it was a ball of frozen human faeces, or as those in the aviation industry call it, blue ice referencing the hue it takes from the detergents in an aircraft’s carsey.

I suppose they should consider themselves lucky.  On 17th December 2016 60-year-old Rajrani Gaud was hit on the shoulder in the Sagar district of Madhya Pradesh by a ball of frozen poo and urine which had been dropped from an aircraft. Her injuries could have been worse had the ball not struck the edge of her terrace house before hitting her.

And nearer to home, in 2013, Caroline Gray was woken up by an explosion. On rousing herself she found that a brown and yellow block of ice had plummeted into the bathroom of her static caravan in Pattingham in Staffordshire before crashing through the floor.

I am relieved to learn that aircraft are prohibited from ejecting passenger waste whilst in flight and that the pilots don’t have a button they can press in any case. But as we all know, accidents can happen.

What Is The Origin Of (164)?…


Here in Britain we use the word, as a noun, to signify, perhaps pejoratively, someone who is socially superior, one of our betters, perhaps a relic of the class system that bedevils our society. As ever, Ian Dury exemplifies its usage in Billericay Dickie, “Oh golly, oh gosh/ come and lie on the couch/ with a nice bit of posh/ from Burnham-on-Crouch.” But where does posh come from?

What is clear in my etymological researches is that there often contending theories to sift through before determining which is the likeliest. This is certainly the case with posh. Of all the suggested origins, some of which I will mention here, the most likely is that it comes from the streets of London via the Romanies. In Romani, their language, posh means a half and from around 1830 in the argot of thieves, posh meant a coin of small denomination, such as a halfpenny.  The thought that we might be on the right track is given additional credence by an entry in Slang and Its Analogues, volume five, edited by Farmer and Henley and published in 1902. There it defines posh as a term used by thieves for “money: generic, but specifically a half penny or other small coin.

Searches of the literature of the time unearth a mention in James Payn’s The Eavesdropper: An Unparalleled Experience of 1888; “They used such funny terms as brads and dibbs and mopusses and posh…at last it was borne in upon me that they were talking about money.” In 1892 Montagu Williams reported in his Down east and Up West a conversation with a street singer who revealed his modus operandi for parting listeners from their cash. “That sort of patter I was just speaking of is the thing to get the posh, they’ll tell you.” In a time when money sorted the haves from the have-nots, it is easy to imagine that the sense could be extended to those who were socially superior.

Then we have a contribution from one of my favourite books, The Diary of A Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, also published in 1892, where one of the characters called Murray Posh is described as “quite a swell”. The success of The Diary may have kick-started the use of push in wider circles than the criminal and lower orders but it was not the word’s origin.

But the sense did quickly gravitate to one who was superior in their dress, another mark of someone’s superiority.  In 1914 in The British Army from Within, E Charles Vivian wrote, “the cavalryman, far more than the infantryman, makes a point of wearing posh clothing on every possible occasion – posh being a term used to designate superior clothing, or articles of attire other than those issued by and strictly conforming to the regulations.” This may well be the sense in which it is used in a typically unfunny tag line in an issue of Punch from September 1918 where an officer from the RAF says, “Oh, yes, Mater, we had a posh time of it down there.

An alternative theory is promoted by supporters of Walt Whitman who in his 1855 collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, who wrote, “cold dash of waves at the ferry-wharf,/ posh and ice in the river…half-frozen mud in the streets.”  But this is a completely different usage of the word and echoes the Yorkshire dialect word posh which means mud or slush. And where does it leave the oft-cited origin for posh, the acronym of Port Out, Starboard home, reflecting the preferred cabin arrangements for travelling to and from India by ship to avoid the worst of the sun? Well, P&O deny ever using it and the story dates only as far back as 1955.

As often is the way, the thieves have it.

Gin o’Clock – Part Thirty Four

One of the pleasures of members of the family knowing about my explorations of the ginaissance is that they seek out unusual gins for me to try from places that they visit. One such was a bottle of Ibz Premium Gin, which is only available for direct sale in the Balearic island of Ibiza. Such is the power and the reach of the internet, though, I’m sure it can be ordered online from some of the more enterprising wholesalers around. It is produced by Familia Mari Mayans  who are to be found at Sant Antoni de Portmany.

The Familia have been producing liqueurs and spirits for around 130 years and gin for around 50. However, they decided in 2010 to make a premium gin to take advantage of the surge in interest in gin. They began experimenting with various combinations of plants, fruits and aromatic herbs before, in 2012, hitting on their preferred recipe and launching the hooch on to the market.  The base spirit is a pure grain alcohol to which the juniper berries are added in a copper still. Next come the botanicals, sourced from the island to give it a distinctive Mediterranean flavour, namely thyme leaves, fresh rosemary and citrus peels.

The gin comes in a distinctive, cylindrical bottle with an artificial cork stopper. Slightly irritatingly, the neck of the bottle is narrowed which makes pouring the gin a longer process than it might otherwise be the case but probably makes it ideal for optics. There are no labels on the bottle. Instead, a design has been etched into the glass with acid using green and black inks, giving the bottle a greenish hue, and features thyme and rosemary.

To the nose it has a distinctive aroma of juniper and citrus and the taste does not disappoint, with citrus and spice to the fore and a glorious spicy aftertaste. At 38% ABV it as the lower end of the gin strength spectrum but with a splash of your favourite tonic, makes for a distinctive and refreshing drink. A definite hit!

Our next gin is Two Birds Countryside London Dry Gin, which is made in batches of 100 bottles from a 25 litre handmade copper pot still in the Leicestershire town of Market Harborough. It is not to be confused with Two Birds Artisan Spirits of Michigan. This is a classic London gin with the traditional set of botanicals – juniper, citrus fruit., coriander and orris root – to which is added an unnamed countryside botanic. To the nose it has a very distinctive and pronounced juniper aroma but to the taste it is more subtle than some of the more straightforward London gins. The aftertaste is quite spicy, not unpleasantly so, but lingers with you for a while.

The bottle is a dumpy, cylindrical shape with a screwcap. Rather like the bottle of Ibz, the information contained on the bottle is etched into it using blue principally as a background and white for the lettering. You won’t be surprised to learn that there are two birds on the lettering, one atop the W and one perched on the bottom of the S. The ABV is 40% and whether drunk neat or with a mixer, its quality shines through. It is a well-balanced gin where everything within it plays its part well. If your taste inclines towards the more traditional type of gin, this is highly recommended.

Book Corner – January 2018 (3)

The Diary of a Provincial Lady – E M Delafield

It is interesting to reflect upon how you got to a particular book. This is not a book I would ordinarily have selected, despite being a fan of humorous writing. I had come across Delafield – her maiden name was de la Pasture and knowing this gives a clue to the gentle, subtle humour that the reader has in store – in a couple of collections of detective fiction. Her short stories were among the better ones in the collections and I was encouraged by the potted bio to seek out her best known work, The Diary of Provincial Lady.  Et voila.

The Penguin Modern Classics edition contains four of the five Provincial books – they are all short, barely over 120 pages each and each can be read over an evening or two – omitting the last one in which the heroine visits Russia. There is a debate, too boring to repeat, as to whether it properly belongs to the series. I will restrict my comments to the first of the series which is the better known one of the five and first appeared in 1930, initially as weekly instalments in the magazine, Time and Tide.

The heroine, the anonymous Provincial Lady (PL), lives in Devon with a taciturn and somewhat chauvinist husband, Robert, two children, Robin and Victoria, a French governess, a cook and a servant. Recruiting and maintaining staff is a theme running through the book. As the title suggests, the book takes the form of a diary in which PL breathlessly and concisely records the minutiae of her day. Life is a trial, forever having to navigate through life’s minor crises whilst at the same time struggling to keep up external appearances with the bank and various tradesmen breathing down her neck. Her great aunt’s diamond ring goes in and out of the pawn shop with depressing regularity. As PL writes, “Feel that life is wholly unendurable, and decide madly to get a new hat.

Delafield’s prose consists of pithy, simple, unpretentious sentences which glide from the page – the occasional asides and rhetorical questions about her life are wonderful. But there is something deeper and more subtle at work. She has a wonderful ear for dialogue and an eye for the rhythms and petty feuds and jealousies of English rural life. It has a very satirical edge to it, not as overblown or camp as E F Benson’s Mapp and Lucia, but very knowing and indicative of a keen observer of life. But whilst the pomposities of village life are being sent up, there is no hint of malice and the reader departs uplifted and at peace with the world.

There are some wonderful characters. Lady Boxe drives around the village in her Bentley and makes PL feel socially inferior. PL’s friend, Rose, offers her a route to escape to London but once there, there a whole new set of social codes and conventions to observe and flout. The children say the most outrageous and inopportune things, often puncturing the impression PL is trying to create. And then there are the bulbs. The book opens, in November 1929, with PL planting bulbs, only to be told by Lady Boxe, who nearly sits on them, that it is too late to plant them. In any case, the insensitive Lady B remarks, Dutch ones are best. PL responds by saying that she supports products from the Empire only for her retort to be ruined by her daughter asking whether they are the ones they got from Woolworth. Bulbs then become a running gag throughout the book.

And then there are some wonderful  aphorisms, one of my favourites being, “Am struck by paradoxical thought that youth is by no means the happiest time of life, but that most of the rest of life is tinged by regret for its passing, and wonder what old age will feel like, in this respect. (Shall no doubt discover very shortly.)”

A wonderful book which deserves to be rediscovered.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Seven

The Great Bottle Hoax of 1749

This is a series which explores human gullibility and credulity, a subject which has fascinated many for centuries. A group of aristos with nothing better to do than consider such points met in 1749. The Duke of Portland opined that if the most impossible thing was advertised, “there would be fools enough in London to fill a play house and pay handsomely for the privilege of being there.” The Earl of Chesterfield, after scratching his peruke for a while, thought that someone jumping out of a quart bottle would test the public’s credulity. And so the wager was struck.

An advert was placed in the London newspapers in the first week of January promising that on 16th January at the New Theatre in Haymarket promising an exhibition by a performer who had already appeared before most of the crowned heads of Europe. The conjurer, as he was described, would take a walking cane from a member of the audience and play every instrument known to man upon it. Then he would take a common wine bottle which, after due examination by members of the audience, he would place on a table, jump into it and sing a selection of songs. Entry to this astonishing evening’s entertainment would set you back five pounds.

London was agog and it was the talk of the town. All the tickets were snapped up. No one wanted to miss this extraordinary display. But when the audience had assembled, there was no sign of movement backstage. No entertainment had been provided to keep the punters amused before the show began and the audience became restless, starting to boo, stamping their feet and pounding their canes. Eventually someone appeared on the stage and announced that if the performance didn’t start within the next quarter of an hour, the audience would get their money back.

Order of sorts was restored but as the quarter-hour elapsed there was still no sign that a performance was about to begin. Someone in one of the boxes grabbed a lighted candle and tossed it on to the stage. This was the signal for a riot and soon seats were torn up and the frenzied audience proceeded to demolish everything within sight. The theatre was set alight and the more subdued members of the audience fought to make their exit stage left, leaving much of their portable apparel such as wigs, hats and cloaks behind. A big bonfire was built outside the theatre and the stage curtains were made into an impromptu flag. Even the cash receipts were taken.

The wags about town had a field day decrying the gullibility of the public. Some placed adverts promoting feats even more ludicrous and impossible as the man in the bottle, some offering to rip out their own eyeballs or to jump down their own throats. Another offered to shoot himself with two pistols, once through the abdomen and then through the brain. He promised that this tour de force would end “with staggering convulsions, grinning, etc., in a manner never before publicly attempted.”

A story did the rounds that the conjurer had been prevailed upon by a certain gentleman to do a private performance. Once in the bottle, the gentleman put a cork into it and made off with him, hence his non-appearance. The hoax which sparked a riot eventually ran out of steam and the great British public diverted its attention to other affairs. It was some years before the perpetrators of the hoax were revealed.

Sign Of The Week (3)

I cannot make my mind up whether this is a testament to the withdrawal of public conveniences or the reduction of rural bus services or just an example of human grossness but Slimbridge has been hit with a bit of a problem, I read this week.

The Gloucestershire village is served by a number of buses (6, 61 and 346 in particular) but recently had an unexpected and unwelcome rash of visits from the number two. The bus shelters had been used as a toilet and the cleaner was naturally pissed off to have to clear up the mess.

The Parish Council sat to deliberate and, according to Chairman Phil Garrett, considered a belt and braces approach to the problem. I would have thought it was the absence of belts and braces that had contributed to the mess. Anyhow, they eschewed the installation of CCTV on the grounds of cost and decided to erect this rather natty and unusual sign, the design for which was unanimously acclaimed at their Annual General Meeting last year. They were attracted to the design because at A5 size, it was more discreet and articulated the message well.

It seems to have done the trick. There have been no reported incidents since the signage was installed three months ago.

Life in the countryside, eh?

Pisser Of The Week

We have all had a Specsaver moment but perhaps not as extreme as that experienced by James Dowly.

Driving by the Mere in Ellesmere in Shropshire with his father, James spotted an object floating face down in the water. Without any more ado, our hero stopped the car and jumped into the freezing water, I read this week.

Imagine his surprise, then, when having waded out to what he thought was a baby, he found that it was a plastic doll, wearing a pink and black striped cardigan and a white Babygro. In his defence James claimed that from a distance the object looked “very lifelike.

As is the modern way, the whole incident was captured on camera.

Better to be safe than sorry, I suppose, but book that eye test as quickly as you can is my recommendation.