A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: March 2018

Innovation Of The Week (5)

A soggy burger is a first world problem if there ever was one.

But it may soon become a thing of the past, if an innovation I came across this week takes off.

American based Emily Williams, co-founder of Bo’s Fine Foods, has come up with a dry version of the condiment that is tomato ketchup that people will insist on slapping on their food.

She stumbled across the idea when she eschewed the normal method of making ketchups and condiments which entails braising vegetables and then throwing them away. Appalled at the amount of waste the traditional method entails, she chose to mix, grind and dry the vegetables into flat slices, not unlike those horrible slices of processed cheese that are readily available.

Instead of using preservatives and high fructose corn syrup that go into the traditional ketchup, she has used healthier ingredients. This seems to me to be counter-intuitive. No one chooses to eat a burger for its health benefits.

Anyway, the ketchup slices come in a sachet of eight and can be carried around conveniently and don’t need to be kept in the fridge.

Whether it will take off is anyone’s guess but the resourceful Emily is trying to raise some dosh via Kickstarter.

Ketchup in a sachet is messy, for sure, and there seems to be an inexhaustible appetite for the stuff. I had a pre-packed breakfast picnic provided for me in India recently which consisted of a cucumber sandwich, two muffins and a bowl of fruit together with two sachets of liquid tomato ketchup. I couldn’t work out which of the three dishes it was supposed to go with but, in any case, splashing it around in a moving car would have proved problematic. If I only I had had a dry version.

Emily’s idea may be a solution looking for a problem but more power to her elbow, I say.


What Is The Origin Of (173)?…

The whole shebang

Often in these etymological excursions I find that a word just seems to spring up into common usage, seemingly from nowhere, and there is little in the way of consensus as to where it came from. One such example is the noun shebang which is used in everyday speech today accompanied by whole and means the whole thing or all of it. But what is a shebang?

The word first appeared in print in America in the 1860s and already had assumed two slightly separate connotations. The poet Walt Whitman, writing in his Journal entry for the period 23rd to 31st December 1862 and describing the appalling conditions of the survivors of the battle of Fredericksburg, described “their shebang enclosures of bushes.” Given their parlous state, these shelters could have only been temporary shelters from the elements.

Contemporaneously, the Annual Report of the US Department of Justice for 1862, noted near a particular reservation; “an inn or shebang is established, ostensibly for the entertainment of travellers, but almost universally used as a den for supplying liquor to Indians.” The link to an establishment serving alcohol has suggested to many that its origin is to be found in the Irish noun shebeen which was used to describe an unlicensed and often disreputable drinking den, often run by women. The Irish word sibin meant illicit whiskey and in turn came from seibe which meant a mugful. That there were many migrants from Ireland flooding into the States around that time is indisputable and about the only things they had to bring with them was their language and traditions.

But almost at the same time the word had taken a broader meaning as shown by Samuel Bowles’ helpful definition in Across the Continent, published in 1865. Shebang is described as being “any kind of an establishment, store, house, shop [or] shanty.” These were more substantial structures than the bivouacs of the survivors of Civil War battles but only just and the word was probably used to describe any mean or rough and ready building. This meaning is not at odds with the drinking shack – it just has a broader connotation. As the Marysville Tribune of November 1869 revealed in its list of The Idioms of Our New West, published in March 1869. “shebang is applied to any sort of house or office.

By the time Mark Twain got to use it in Roughing It, published in 1872, its meaning had changed once again, this time to describe a vehicle. “You’re welcome to ride here as long as you please, but this shebang’s chartered..” This vehicular sense has led some to consider it as a variant or corruption of char-a-bancs, the French term used to describe a vehicle with benches as seats which was Anglicised by deleting the hyphens. I don’t find this convincing as the two words are quite dissimilar and, anyway, we need only consider it to be another example of the speed at which shebang, once had it had been let loose into the world, accumulated meanings.

That this must be the case is illustrated by its usage in the Sedalia Daily Democrat in June 1872; “Well, the Democracy can flax – this meant to beat up – the whole shebang, and we hope to see our party united.” This is the first recorded usage of the whole shebang and it seems to have its modern sense of the whole thing. The phrase came into its own from the 1920s but it is remarkable to see how its meaning changed so dramatically in the course of ten years. And for what it is worth, I think it owes its origin to shebeen.

Some People Are So Poor All They Have Is Money

Losing my religion

I’ve seen the future and it’s a golf ball.

Imagine there’s no countries/ It isn’t hard to do/ Nothing to kill or die for/ And no religion too/ Imagine all the people/ Living life in peace.

I’ve always been mildly irritated by John Lennon’s tiresome, idealistic nonsense but about ten kilometres north of Pondicherry in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu is to be found a curious and rather disturbing manifestation of the chanteur’s vision. Auroville, the city of the dawn, actually predates the song by some three years, and was founded on 28th February 1968 when a crowd of 5,000 including representatives of 124 countries bearing gifts of soil assembled around a banyan tree.

During the inauguration ceremony, the soil was tipped into a lotus-shaped white marble urn, which sits in the centre of the golf ball aka the Matrimandir. The aim of the community is to be a universal town where people from all countries live in peace and harmony, rising above all creeds, politics and nationalities. Its purpose is to realise human unity.

It has been going for 50 years and has had oodles of money pumped into by the Indian government and various United Nations’ funds. The tenets by which the adherents abide, currently around 2,500 representing 49 countries, were established by the Mother.

It was impressive in an oddly cultish, 1960s sci-fi movie sort of way but it seemed to me that all they had done was swap established religions for a bizarre set of tenets. Disturbingly, there seemed little way out of the community for any children born there. Child abuse of the worst sort.

The Mother was a French woman, Mirra Alfassa, who became interested in spiritual development. When she visited Pondicherry in 1914 she met up with Sri Aurobindo who, whilst banged up the Brits for agitating on behalf of Indian independence, saw the light and devoted the rest of his life to yoga and inner meditation. A PhD thesis can be written on which was the worst outcome.

Anyway, these two set up an ashram in Pondicherry – we visited it, as you do – and the very profound sense of calm there was only disturbed by the ring of the cash register and the swipe of the credit card machine.

The Mother was a prolific writer and her books, a mix of the bleedin’ obvious and the bonkers, seem to sell like hot chapatis and fuel this very obvious money-making machine. But, fair play to them, they saw a gap in the market and went for it.

If I felt the need to buy a golden ticket to ensure my admission through the pearly gates, I’m not sure I would have thrown my rupees at the grotto which graces the rear of the grounds of the peaceful church that is St Mary’s on the banks of the backwater at Champakulam in Kerala, standing on the site of one of the seven churches that St Thomas is reputed to have founded in 427 CE.

It is hard to describe how truly grotesque it is with its blue boulders that look as though they have been made out of fibre glass. It is modelled on the grotto at Lourdes, I’m told. The religious icons housed in it draw quite a crowd of devotees each day.

If I was St Peter, I would have a list of the subscribers to the grotto at the ready and if any of them had the audacity to show their face, I would direct them downstairs.

There is only so much one can take, after all.

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

William Beckford (1760 – 1844)

Whether William Beckford was truly an eccentric or just behaved in a way that was untypical of his time – but perhaps that is a definition of eccentricity – is a matter for debate. A modern biographer wrote of him; “he was as much a martyr as Wilde, and almost certainly a more interesting and civilised man” while Lord Byron called him “the Great Apostle of Pederasty.” Sex was at the heart of the scandal which engulfed Beckford, having been caught in 1784, at least according to the story promulgated by his paramour’s uncle, “whipping Courtenay in some posture or another.

Married at the time and bisexual if not primarily homosexual, Beckford tried to see out the furore. Although he was never charged – Courtenay was a minor at the time and George III not only refused Beckford’s application for a peerage but wished that he could be hanged – he eventually went into exile, spending most of the next decade in Portugal before returning to Blighty. It was in Portugal that he wrote the extraordinary History of the Caliph Vathek, published in 1786, in which the Caliph is satiated with sensual pleasures and builds a tower so he can penetrate the forbidden secrets of heaven itself – a blueprint for the rest of his life.

The primary source, though, of Beckford’s troubles was his fabulous wealth, which he inherited at the age of ten upon the death of his father, whose sugar plantations and other interests provided his son with an annual income of around £100,000. Whilst this funded a splendid education – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was briefly his piano tutor – it meant he could spend with gay abandon. Like many of his class Beckford was a collector of art but eschewed the classical marbles that were the rage, concentrating on Italian quattrocento paintings and exotic objets d’art or, as William Hazlitt rather sniffily put it, “idle rarities and curiosities or mechanical skill.” Beckford was notorious for compulsive purchases and just as readily selling pieces only to often buy them again at vastly inflated prices.

The other money pit was the transformation of Fonthill Abbey into a gothic cathedral-like structure, the impetus for the building work being Beckford’s acquisition of the library of Edward Gibbons and the need for somewhere to put his ever-growing collection of art. With the assistance of architect James Wyatt he built an enormous tower which stood 300 feet tall and had four bedrooms some 120 feet off the ground. Although it was far from complete Beckford organised a grand opening party in 1800 and whilst most of respectable society shunned the event, Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton attended.

Beckford’s lifestyle and his collection of fey attendants, including a dwarf who guarded the38 feet tall doors at the entrance, excited comment and rumours about homosexual orgies and practices. His neighbour, Sir Richard Hoare from Stourhead, asked for a tour in 1806, an act which so scandalised the neighbourhood that Hoare was forced to apologise for his actions and never saw Beckford again.

By 1822 Beckford was in debt and put the Abbey and his art collection up for sale, an event which excited much excitement. John Farquhar, who had made his fortune selling gunpowder in India, bought it for £330,000 and sold off much of the art collection, part of which the irrepressible Beckford, back in funds again, bought once more. By this time he had moved, complete with entourage to Bath, buying 20, Lansdowne Crescent and 1, Lansdowne Place West which he connected by building an archway and in 1836 acquired nos 18 and 19, the former he left empty to ensure peace and quiet. When he died in 1844, his assets amounted to just £80,000.

His tower at Fonthill Abbey also had an unhappy ending. It was so badly built and unstable, due to inadequate foundations, that it collapsed five times, Beckford rebuilding it each time, but then on 21st December 1825 it fell down for the final time, the new owners not bothering to reassemble it and so very little of his folly remains today.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Ten

The Great Lunar hoax of 1835

The moon has always held a certain fascination. After all, it is the nearest heavenly body to planet Earth and on a clear night, not that we have too many here in Blighty, you can easily see its contours and shades of light and dark. The more fanciful amongst us speculate whether there may be life lurking in amongst the craters. It was this stream of thought that the New York Sun tapped into with its elaborate lunar hoax.

It all began with a discrete announcement on page two of the edition for 21st August in which the paper announced that it had got its hands on some reports, from a publisher in Edinburgh, of some astronomical discoveries which the eminent scientist, Sir John Herschel, had made whilst out in South Africa. The full details were to be provided exclusively in the paper over six days the following week. And so it was. The articles ran to around 17,000 words in total and were supposed to have been based on articles that had appeared in the Edinburgh Courant which had taken the account from the Edinburgh Journal of Science.

Of course, to be able to inspect the moon so closely and with such clarity, Herschel would have needed a telescope far more powerful than those currently deployed. So the first article, published on Monday 24th August, went into great detail about Herschel’s immense telescope – it was said to be 24 feet in diameter – built on new principles and so powerful that it could be used to study “even the entomology of the moon, in case she contained insects upon her surface.

Having established the fact that Herschel had the means to explore the surface of the moon in minute detail, the article published on the Tuesday recounted the moment on 10th January 1835 when the scientist first trained his telescope on to it. He wasn’t disappointed finding rocks “profusely covered with a dark flower” and then, more sensationally, herds of brown quadrupeds, a goat and “a strange amphibious creature, of a spherical form, which rolled with great velocity across the pebbly beach.” Day three brought even more discoveries – a wide variety of flora and fauna, including bipedal beavers which lived in huts “constructed better and higher than those of many tribes of human savages.” Naturally, they had fire.

Day four revealed the discovery of bat-like humans, dubbed Vespertilio-homo, whose appearance was a “slight improvement upon that of a large orang outing.” They spent their time conversing and copulating in the open.  In the fifth extract the discovery of a mysterious abandoned temple was announced and the cliff-hanger for the weekend was what did it all mean. The answer was revealed in the sixth and final extract – a superior version of Vespertilio-homo who lived near the temple, spending their time collecting fruit, flying, bathing and conversing in a “universal state of amity.

The discoveries caused a stir. When Herschel heard about them – he was alive and blissfully unaware that his name had been taken in vain – he was naturally pissed, initially commenting “it is a most extraordinary affair! Pray, what does it mean?” and later complaining “I have been pestered from all quarters with that ridiculous hoax about the Moon — In English French Italian & German!!” The story was quickly declared a hoax by the Journal of Commerce which pointed out, amongst other things, that the Edinburgh Journal of Science did not exist and named the perpetrator as one of the Sun’s staff, Richard Adams Locke. More detailed exposes appeared in the New York Herald.

But the genie was out of the bottle and throughout the rest of the 19th century, the moon hoax was the gold standard against which anything suspicious was measured. In Van Kempelen and His Discovery, Edgar Allan Poe used the term moon hoaxy. Quite what Locke was hoping to achieve by such an elaborate and time-consuming hoax has been lost in history.

Flag Of The Week

You would have thought that by now our betters would have realised the perils of having the hoi polloi comment on matters of high importance.

But if this story from Estonia I stumbled across this week is anything to go by, the lesson has not sunk in.

A new municipality, Kanepi, has been created out of what were formerly three councils in the south-eastern part of the country and to celebrate the administrative and financial efficiencies that were doubtless to be achieved, the council decided to waste some money on a referendum to design a new logo and flag.

The good folk of Kanepi, all 15,000 of them, decided on a bold green design which can only be described as looking like a cannabis leaf. Hardly surprising as kanep is Estonian for hash.

The Council did have the sense to establish the referendum as a consultative exercise – David Cameron, take note – but the people have spoken. In a smoke-filled room the Council have decided that they will stick with it but in a more stylised form.

We will see what transpires.

What Is The Origin Of (172)?…

Like billy-o

This phrase is, somewhat quaintly, used as a comparator of the most extreme type. This exchange from the fifth series of Downton Abbey aptly illustrates its usage; “Lord Grantham – But darling, you don’t want to rush into anything.” Rose: “But I do. I want to rush in like billy-o.” Perhaps it illustrates a paucity of vocabulary on the part of the speaker or reflects that there isn’t a word that can reflect the extent of the experience.

But what does billy-o mean and where did it come from? There is a bewildering array of explanations to pick our way through. Perhaps the most beguiling is that it is a reference to the hell-fire and brimstone preacher, Joseph Billio, who turned up in the Essex town of Maldon in 1696, built a chapel in Market Hill and treated the (un)lucky residents to passionate and lengthy sermons each week. There is even a plaque in the town claiming that the preacher gave his name to the phrase like billio.

The problem with accepting this story at face value is that the earliest recorded usage of the phrase in print is some two centuries later. The Fort Wayne Daily Gazette, in March 1882, described some unfortunate was described as “lay[ing] on his side for about two hours, roaring like billy-hoo with the pain, as weak as a mouse.” Leaving aside the slight variation in the spelling – and bear in mind the Essex origin requires the word to be spelt as the preacher’s surname was – the sense is as we would use it today. In the edition of 9th August 1885 of the Referee we have, perhaps, the earliest example of something more analogous to the modern spelling; “shure it’ll rain like billy-oh.” The use of shure adds another intriguing element to the story – perhaps it is Irish in origin.

As well as the fulsome preacher, another candidate to be proclaimed the progenitor of the phrase is an Italian soldier and contemporary of Garibaldi, Lieutenant Nino Bixio. He is said to have charged into battle exhorting his troops to fight like Bixio. This theory requires us to accept that the English mangled the Italian’s name – there are many examples where words of foreign origin are not assimilated into English unscathed – and chose to use it instead of some more obvious home-grown candidates such as the Puffing Billy, an early steam engine whose progress, stately by modern standards, would have been shockingly daring in contemporary terms, or William the Third, the victor of the Battle of the Boyne, who was known as Good King Billy.

The clue to the phrase’s origin surely lies in a piece of doggerel printed by the Bismarck Tribune in September 1883; “and the people cheered him like billy-be dang”. The phrase looks like a corruption of Billy-be-damned which appeared in Robert Burt’s novel, The Scourge of the Ocean, published in 1837; “They knocked off their deviltries, and became all on a sudden as sanctified as Billy Be-damned.” We may well be in the territory of minced oaths – swear words which were modified to avoid blasphemy.

The phrase like the devil dates back to Elizabethan times and the goat has often been associated with the devil. A male goat is colloquially known as a billy. Perhaps our phrase is just an oath where a goat has been substituted for the devil. This clearly is what is happening with billy-be-damned and another odd phrase, like billy hell. By the 20th century the phrase was part of the vernacular. Examples include “And they fight? Like billy-o” from W J Locke’s Fortunate Youth (1914) and “The Holy Rollers were going at it like billy-oh” from the Observer of 1927 – pretty much the era that the Downton dialogue was replicating.

Book Corner – March 2018 (2)

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – John Le Carre

When I was young, I fondly imagined myself as being recruited as a spy. I waited in vain to be approached by one of the dons at Cambridge to meet some interesting chaps who had an unusual proposal for me. I scoured the small ads in the Telegraph for an intriguing opportunity but all to no avail. With my mild lapses into absent-mindedness I thought I would be able to carry off sitting on a park bench in St James’ Park and leaving behind a briefcase with aplomb. Perhaps I viewed espionage more through the rose-tinted spectacles of Ian Fleming than the cynical, bottle-thick lenses of Le Carre.

I might well have been thankful for my lucky escape if I had read Le Carre’s third novel, published in 1963, earlier than I had. The world of espionage portrayed here is sordid, treacherous and downright dangerous. As the protagonist, Alec Leamas, states in probably the most quoted passage in the book, “What do you think spies are: priests, saints, martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.” Best out of it, methinks.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (TSWCIFTC) is an unremittingly dark, cynical tale of a triple-bluff perpetrated by the clever johnnies of the Circus – George Smiley et all – against their equivalents in communist East Germany, as was. As the tale unfolds, Leamas realises that instead of being the tool of vengeance as he thought when he signed up for the escapade he is really a powerless pawn in an even greater and more complex game. Part of Le Carre’s mastery is the way he spins the story so that the realisation of what really is happening dawns on the reader at the same time as the pfenning drops for Leamas.

The title of the book is an indication of the complexities that are at play in the novel. On one level, it can be read as the final operation before a veteran is pulled out of his life of deceit and deception. But for Leamas, there is another side to the story. His liaison with the naive, tragically-doomed Liz Gold sees him developing an emotional, human side to his character. He has a crucial decision to make atop the Berlin Wall and the heart overcomes the reflexes of a professional spy. In this sense, Leamas has come out of the emotional cold.

The portrayal of Liz Gold is heartless. She is innocently sucked into something that she doesn’t understand and cannot control. She is played mercilessly by the British to achieve the result that Smiley, but not Leamas, was hoping to get. And it is not difficult to see that her experiences of life behind the Iron Curtain were designed to open the eyes of those who considered life in a Communist state to be a kind of nirvana.

It is hard to write about TSWCIFTC without giving the game away, something even the most amateur practitioner of espionage should avoid. Suffice it to say, if you chose only to read one spy story, you should choose this one. It is a masterpiece, a page-turner, thought-provoking – a work of a writer at the top of his game.

Double Your Money – Part Twenty Nine

Ivar Kreuger (1880 – 1932)

When things get a bit sticky for businessmen, there is a tremendous temptation to cook the books in an attempt to trade out of their difficulties. The chef par excellence or, as J K Galbraith described him, “the Leonardo of larcenists”, was Swedish born businessman, Ivar Kreuger, who monopolised at first the Swedish safety match business and then, at his height, controlled about 75% of the world’s match production and retail business. These days safety matches are hardly used but in the early part of the 20th century they were essential for lighting lamps, stoves and the like as well as igniting the almost ubiquitous cigarettes and other smoking materials.

Although an engineer by trade and co-founding Kreuger & Toll Byggnads AB, which specialised in developing and promoting new building techniques, in 1911 he turned his attention to his family’s ailing match factories. Rolling them up into his own firm and introducing cost and production efficiencies as well as controlling the supply of the natural resources needed to manufacture them, Kreuger soon cornered the market. He improved the quality of the matches and sold them at a lower price than his competitors who had no option but to go to him, cap in hand, to sell their businesses to them.

But he did not stop there – world domination was his aim. To fund his ambitious expansion plans, Kreuger raised money through issuing shares and bonds. With a sizeable war chest at his disposal and governments on their knees trying to fund reconstruction work after the ravages of the First World War, Kreuger was able to offer loans. In return he demanded that they granted him a monopoly in the production and sale of matches in their countries. At the height of his power, Kreuger owned some 200 companies with interests in such diverse industries as forestry in Northern Sweden, where he had a monopoly, mines, telephone companies, ball-bearing manufacturers and banks such as Deutsche Unionsbank and Union de Banques a Paris.

The more monopolies he acquired, the more attractive his company became to investors. Kreuger began to live an extravagant lifestyle, buying art, houses and attracting lovers by the score. Everything in the garden seemed rosy but underneath the surface he was stoking up enormous problems. The continuous programme of expansion was designed to deflect attention from the true state of his finances. Promising high dividends to make his companies more attractive, the profits generated from these businesses were insufficient to meet his obligations, particularly as he was often forced to pay high levels of interest to access funds.

The answer to these problems, of course, was to indulge in a spot of financial engineering. He would sell off the shares of every company he acquired to inflate the balance sheet whilst, at the same time, exaggerating the profitability of his companies to secure more credit. But to secure the level of credit he needed and to offset the demands of dividend payments and maturing debt, he needed more and more money. In despair, Kreuger turned to highly risky speculative deals and when these failed, even forged millions in Italian bonds which his obliging accountants included in the tally of his company’s assets.

Although Kreuger survived the Wall Street crash, what did for him was the ensuing credit squeeze. Deprived of the credit needed to fund his activities and maintain investor confidence, the only way out for Kreuger was to shoot himself. After his death, the authorities found two holes – one in his chest from the bullet with which he killed himself and the other, some $250 million, in his company’s accounts.

Although his latter-day activities smacked of a Ponzi sceme, Krueger did have a genuine business underpinning it all. He just got greedy.

Sign Of The Week (6)

Existentialist sign of the week from the Travancore Heritage hotel in Chowara, India