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A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: April 2018

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

Dr MacKenzie’s Arsenical Toilet Soap

The juice of cucumbers has long been used for the treatment of skin conditions such as sunburn and freckles, a fact noted by Nicholas Culpeper in his Complete Herbal of 1653. During the late 19th century a fanciful theory did the rounds that what made the cucumber so beneficial for the complexion was the presence of a natural arsenic, as the San Francisco Call made clear in its 14th August 1898 edition; “the natural arsenic in the cucumber makes a splendid bleach, and the beauty of it that is that it is perfectly harmless.” The New York Times repeated the canard in September 1909 by commenting, “There is a sort of natural arsenic in the cucumber that makes it valuable as a skin whitener.”

These days we would blanche – perhaps a more effective form of skin lightener – at the thought of using what is a toxic substance in a beauty product but there was a demand for arsenic soaps, which practitioners of the art of quackery were only too willing to meet. One early such manufacturer, a Mr H W Bolton of Bristow and Co in Clerkenwell, London, was hauled up in front of the magistrate not because there was arsenic in his toiletry but because there wasn’t enough of it.

The man was revealingly honest during his cross-examination, as the Times reported on 7th December 1863; “It was made to be sold as a toilet soap, not as a medicinal preparation. Two-and-a-half grains of arsenic were put into every 3 cwt of soap. He did not pretend that this small quantity of arsenic made any difference to the soap. Then why put it in at all? Because it is arsenical soap. But why sell it as arsenical soap? Because there is a demand for it. People think arsenic is good for the complexion, so we make arsenical soap for them.

The most popular version of arsenical toilet soap in the UK was Dr MacKenzie’s version which sold at one shilling a tablet or for sixpence you could have an unscented soap. The adverts advised that it was “made from the Purest Ingredients, and Absolutely Harmless.” Inevitably, the prospective client was advised to beware of imitations – “Have Dr MacKenzie’s or none.” The soap was also advertised by way of a note which went “Dear Cora, have you noticed how much George’s complexion has improved lately? He has been using Dr MacKenzie’s arsenical toilet soap. Have you tried it? It is simply delicious. Yours with fondest love, Martha.

The soap was extremely popular and when the manufacturing company floated its shares in 1897, the prospectus accompanying the offer claimed sales of around 340,000 bars a year. Rather like Mr Bolton’s soap, the amount of arsenic in it was negligible, if there was any at all, leaving it somewhat short “of the nature, substance and quality” required by the consumers.

Mercifully, it was not as dangerous as some of its American equivalents, the leading brand of which was Dr Campbell’s Safe Arsenic Wafers. The said doc allegedly used it to cure his own sallow complexion until a bout of yellow fever intervened, leaving his skin, according to the New York Times “a far deeper yellow than Oscar Wilde’s favourite sunflower.” At least his fate was not as bad as a poor girl, who, according to the Indianapolis Sentinel in 1880, “had gradually lost her sight as a result of taking arsenic” and her heartless fiancé decided to wait to see whether her sight came back before pledging his troth.

Worse still was the fate of Hildegarde Walton of St Louis who died in 1911 after having used several boxes of the wafers to cure a skin problem.

Arsenic soaps disappeared in the 1920s and that was probably no bad thing.

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Coffin Of The Week

Death is a booming business – according to the World Health Organisation 100 of us die every minute – and funerals are becoming increasingly more expensive and come at a cost to the environment

With that in mind, I was intrigued by a funeral exhibition held in a church in Amsterdam, not least because its theme was that it was time that we thought outside of the box.

The latest trend, it seems, is for eco-friendly, flat-packed coffins. Two celebrants from the Hastings area, the aptly named Kate Dyer and Kate Tym, have already run successful coffin clubs where members can meet to make and decorate their own final resting places. If nothing else, it provides the elderly with company and a focus for what remains of their life.

The problem, though, is what to do with the thing once it is built and you are not quite ready to get into it. William Warren from Shelves for Life has the answer. His rather sleek and elegant storage system can be converted into a coffin, providing the ultimate storage space for the here and now and the after-life.

The problem with it, though, is that it still needs to be converted into a coffin when it is needed, probably the last thing your grieving relatives will want to do.

My preference would be to make the coffin ahead of time and use it as a wardrobe in the hallway for hanging hats and coats. It would make a tremendous conversation piece as guests entered the hallowed portals of Blogger Towers and would serve as a timely reminder of our mortality.

Food for thought, indeed.

Sporting Event Of The Week (12)

Around 40 competitors rocked up to Dunbar on Scotland’s east coast last weekend to take part in the second European Stone Stacking Championships. The venue, Lauderdale Park and Eye Cave Beach, was chosen because the many shapes, sizes and colours of the rocks in the area make it a paradise for stone stackers – at least that is what the organisers say.

I hadn’t realised it but the benefit of stacking stones, at least of you believe the publicity for the event, is that you get moments of clarity as you search for the next stone or find the sweet spot of gravity when you know you’ve got perfect balance. I suppose there are also periods of intense frustration as, jenga like, your piles come crashing down.

Be that as it may, there were a number of competitions spread over the weekend, including most stones balanced one on top of the other, a children’s competition, balancing against the clock – a timed competition rather than stacking stones against a timepiece which would have been rather easy – and the most artistic balance. The photos of some of the pieces are spectacular and oddly fascinating.

The overall winner was Pedro Duran from Spain whose prize included financial assistance to participate in the World Championships in Llano in Texas next year. Mind you, he only balanced 29 stones on top of each other, three fewer than last year’s winner.

Standards must be slipping.

What Is The Origin Of (177)?…

Six Ways to Sunday

I read from time to time documents in American-English and occasionally I I come across a phrase which pulls me up short. One such is six ways to Sunday which from the context I deduced meant comprehensively, completely or thoroughly. However I looked at it, it seemed an odd phrase.

Although its usage is now almost exclusively American, its origin seems to be British and related to eyes that appeared to look in different directions. The poet, George Wither, described a maiden in his Satire of the Passion of Love in 1622 thus; “Oh those fair star-like eyes of thine! One says,/ When to my thinking, she hath look’d nine ways.” Everyone’s perspective is different, I suppose. Francis Grose defined Squint-a-pipes in his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue of 1785 as “a squinting man or woman…looking both ways for Sunday…looking nine ways at once.” A classic description of the condition of strabismus. The phrase crossed the pond, appearing in James Kirke Paulding’s short story, Cobus Yerks, published in 1828; “over a pair of rascally little cross-firing twinkling eyes, that, as the country people said, looked at least nine ways from Sunday.

These seems to have spawned a wide variety of variants, the common denominators being ways and a day of the week – take eight ways from Tuesday as an example – with the moving parts being a number and a preposition. From all these variants six and Sunday seem to have taken root fairly quickly in America, the only variable being the preposition. Its usage was initially in relation to sight – “he was always looking about six ways for Sunday, when he’s walking” from Morning Visits in The American Monthly Magazine for 1824 – and in Godey’s Magazine of 1864 “a luminous representation of that extraordinary physiognomical phenomenon known as looking six ways for Sunday.

Its usage broadened out to indicate a generally dishevelled appearance – “and through the aperture red hairs in abundance stood six ways for Sunday”, An Original Character from the Family Magazine of 1840 – and then more generally to suggest an eccentric fashion – “a kind of strange black wheel – all hubs and spokes, and no tires – revolving six ways for Sunday.” In the British journal, Notes and Queries, a correspondent noted that looking nine ways for Sunday and looking two ways for Sunday were expressions that meant at a loss or nonplussed, perhaps because a squint gave the impression of being bemused.

Later examples substituted from for for. Lynn Roby Meekins in the Saturday Evening Post of 8th April 1899 wrote, “When she did that, he said, she knocked me six ways from Sunday.” The sense is that it was a knockout blow, a similar sense being implied in its use in the 18th volume of The American Flint of 1926; “the glass manufacturers have it all over this man Ford six ways from Sunday.

Six ways to Sunday seems to be a much later version, the first example I can trace dating to 1937 and appearing in The Dairy; “there are, no doubt, many dairymen who know the food retailing business backwards and forwards and six ways to Sunday.”  In other words, thoroughly, the sense it retains today. Myra Page’s use of it in With Sun in our Blood from 1950 – “and stretch it six ways to Sunday” – indicates that it had the sense of taking it to its limit.

Sunday probably gained precedence because it is the most important day of the week and six added an attractive element of alliteration to the phrase. That there are six other days of the week is probably just a coincidence.

I think I have exhausted this subject six ways to Sunday!

Some People Are So Poor All They Have Is Money – Part Five

Burning down the house

Stories are legion of wedding celebrations that got out of hand. During the celebrations of the nuptials of Princess Jayalakshmi Ammani in 1897, a fire broke out and destroyed the wooden palace in Mysore. Palaces on the site had a rather chequered history – the first was destroyed by lightning in 1638, the second was demolished by Tipu Sultan – him again – in 1793 and the third was completed in 1803. The current palace, completed in 1912 and designed by the British architect, Lord Henry Irwin, is the fourth to have stood on the site.

It is a truly remarkable structure, consisting of three storeys made of finest granite, pink marble complete with a five-storey tower which is 145 feet tall. Architecturally it is a melange of Indian, Indo-Islamic, neo-classical and Gothic styles, known as Indo-Sarcenic. The interiors are stunning with embellished, finely chiselled doors and beautifully incised mahogany ceilings. It is quite easy to see why the Maharaja ran out of money and had to sell his jewels.

Facing the Chamundi Hills it is intended to be a symbol of the Maharaja’s devotion to the goddess Chamundi. The splendour of the palace is enhanced by a large, beautiful and, for India, an unusually well-maintained garden. There are three gates to the palace, the south gate reserved for the use of the hoi polloi. Even the rather conservatively curated museum had spectacular costumes and artefacts that took the breath away.

How many summer palaces do you need?

Well, we visited two that belonged to Tipu Sultan. It wasn’t that he was greedy, it was more a reflection of the fact that his fortunes waxed and waned during his run-ins with the Brits and so he had to keep moving around.

The first was in Bangalore and, to be honest, not too much of it survives and what has is in a fairly run-down state. Nonetheless it was possible to get a sense of what it would have been like, with beautiful floral motifs just about visible on the walls and ceilings. The palace is made of teak and is a profusion of pillars, arches and balconies. There is a museum showing some exhibits relating to Tipu, including his crown and sketches of his throne which was coated with gold sheets and bejewelled with emeralds. Tipu vowed never to sit on it until the British had been driven out of the country. The Brits melted it down and sold it off!

Tipu’s military headquarters were situated on an island in the river Kaveri, about ten miles from Mysore, called Srirangapatna. It is here that one can see the impressive remains of his second summer palace, Dariya Daulat palace, which is approached through an impressive gateway and a beautiful, still well maintained garden known as Daria Daulat Bagh.

The palace, constructed in 1784, is built mainly out of teak wood in an Indo-Sarcenic style, rectangular in shape and raised on a platform. Along the exterior of the building are wooden pillars marking off corridors and inside the staircases leading up to the upper floor are hidden. All the available space on the walls and ceilings are sumptuously decorated with colourful frescoes, some of which represent the victory of Tipu and Hyder Ali over the Brits at Pollilur in 1780. To even things up, on display is Sir Robert Ker Porter’s dramatic painting, Storming of Srirangapattanam. Both show the brutality of the conflict and seem quite out of keeping with the peacefulness and the architectural grace of the building.

You can’t have one without the other, I guess.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Eleven

The Worcester Aeroplane Hoax of 1909

Imagine the amazement that an announcement caused in December 1909 in the Boston Herald that there had been a remarkable advance in aeronautics. William Tillinghast, a Vice President of a manufacturing company in Worcester, Massachusetts, claimed to have built a plane that could carry three passengers over a distance of 300 miles at a mind-boggling speed of 120 miles per hour – knocking Louis Bleriot’s achievement of flying 22 miles over the English Channel in July of that year into a cocked hat. Other American newspapers soon picked up on the story.

The reports claimed that a test flight had been conducted in September, during which the plucky aviator had circled the Statue of Liberty. To add to the sense of derring-do, Tillinghast had to carry out mid-air repairs when one of the cylinders in the craft’s engine malfunctioned, a feat of aeronautical engineering he accomplished while the plane glided at a height of 4,000 feet from the ground. And all this was accomplished at night!

Tillinghast was coy about substantiating his claims for fear, he said, of others copying his ideas. The plane was certainly unusual, described as having “a spread of 72 feet” and a couple of feelers, like the antennae of insects, each of which bore a box kite which, he claimed, “no matter how the wind blows [they] right themselves and the machine to which they are attached.” Perhaps to allay suspicions, he promised to give a public demonstration by February 1910 and would compete in the forthcoming Boston trials where he would be a nailed-on winner.

Despite being a pillar of society and “not bearing any of the appearance of a crank”, those involved in the nascent aviation industry were highly sceptical of his claims. But on 22nd December 1909 there were reports of a mysterious object which hung “hawk-like over the city”, with one man claiming to have seen the frame of the airship “quite plainly” and another to have spotted two men aboard. On Christmas Eve there were thirty-three separate sightings and thousands lined the streets in the hope of seeing something – some even claimed they had. This prompted a mad dash amongst the papers to locate this magnificent flying machine and reporters dogged Tillinghast’s every step. Despite the best endeavours of the news hounds, nothing was discovered.

The absence of any hard evidence gave the naysayers – there are always some – the opportunity to pour cold water on Tillinghast’s claims, particularly as he was still reluctant to provide any concrete evidence. Some pointed out that the planet Venus was particularly bright in the night sky at the time of the sightings while others commented that it was New England’s hard cider season and over-indulgence could have fuelled over-active imaginations and spread what the Providence Journal called an “epidemic of infected vision.” A Mr C D Rawson from Worcester came forward and claimed that he was responsible for the sightings, having strapped lanterns to the legs of owls for a laugh. I can’t believe too many took him seriously.

February 1910 duly arrived and Tillinghast still hadn’t provided any evidence that he had created aviation history. By now his goose was well and truly cooked, and the body of opinion was thata it had all been an elaborate hoax. The director of the New England Aero Club, J Walter Flagg, issued a statement saying, “I believe this man to be a faker, that the claims he has made are unfounded and I do not believe he has made a single flight.” That seemed to put the curious affair to rest.

Tillinghast, though, never owned up to the hoax.

Gin O’Clock – Part Thirty Seven

Regular readers of this series will have come to realise that throughout my explorations of the ginaissance, my preference is for the classic juniper-led London Dry Gins rather than the botanically loaded contemporary gins. Occasionally, very occasionally, something comes along which makes me reconsider my prejudices. One such gin is Pink Pepper Gin from Audemus Spirits.

The rather dumpy bottle with a slightly pale yellow liquid had caught my attention on the shelves of my local Waitrose but the price of £40 had rather put me off. Fortified by a nice win on the Premium Bonds, a money-off voucher and a timely drop in price I was encouraged to take the plunge. And I wasn’t disappointed.

It is French, distilled in the Cognac region and has been on the market since late 2013. It was originally produced by Audemus to trial their ability to distil spirits but so popular was the hooch that they watered down plans to be a third party distiller and concentrated on knocking out their very distinctive gin.

It is distinctive in a number of ways, firstly in the range of botanicals – nine in all – that they have chosen, two of which have a whiff of controversy about them in certain parts of the world. The first is pink peppercorn which has given the spirit its name. Botanically it is not a black pepper but is rather a berry from a bush found in South America. However, the similarities to the black peppercorn in shape and its slight peppery taste have given it its popular name. But the American Food and Drug Administration are not amused, preferring a spade to be called a spade, and there has been a bit of a stushie with the French government over its import. The French should stand firm – it will mean more for us to consume!

The other botanical used which is under a bit of a cloud is the tonka bean which is a definite no-no State-side. There are two reasons for this – a high level of coumarin which is moderately toxic to the liver and kidneys and because it was often used as a cheap substitute for vanilla. But, hey, I am doing enough damage to my liver and kidneys drinking gin that a bit of coumarin won’t make too much difference. What is undeniable is that it imparts a wonderful blend of taste sensations ranging from vanilla through to honey, caramel and cinnamon.

What is missing is juniper’s usual companion, coriander – another mark of distinction. For the record, the other botanicals which are named – two are anonymous – are black cardamom, cinnamon, honey and vanilla. The gin is made using the fractional method which means that each botanical is steeped and distilled separately in a neutral wine spirit base before being blended and proofed down to the still punchy 44% ABV, rather than all thrown into the mix together. Yet another mark of distinction.

On removing the synthetic cork stopper, it has a spicy, perhaps peppery aroma with more than a hint of citrus, perhaps one or both of the unnamed botanicals. The taste is complex, well-balanced and an exotic blend of sweetness and spice. It is slightly oily in the mouth and it leaves a wonderful sensation of vanilla and pepper as an aftertaste. It is also incredibly moreish.

Apparently, the taste of the gin changes with age, with the sweeter notes enhanced. Maybe I will be disciplined enough to find out with the next bottle. This is a gin that knocks all your preconceptions about contemporary gin into a cocked chapeau.

Until next time, cheers!

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

Henry de la Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford (1811 – 1859)

We have come across our Henry before when we were examining the origins of the phrase, paint the town red, but his exploits are worth examining in more detail. To many they seem just the product of what extreme wealth and no gainful employment can do but if we measure eccentricity as behaviour out of kilter with the mores of the time, then the mad marquess, as he was known, is right up there.

Henry was actually the second son of the Second Marquess of Waterford but inherited the title upon his father’s death in 1826, because his elder brother had shuffled off this mortal coil in 1824. The title and the money that went with the grand estate in Ireland seems to havre gone to his head and during the late 1830s he was frequently in the news. His particular penchant was to drink heavily, brawl, vandalise property and strike peculiar wagers – a bit of an erstwhile Oliver Reed character.

At that time there was little in the way of an established police force and significant properties or thoroughfares were guarded by night watchmen. These poor individuals were seen as fair game by Henry and nothing rounded off a good evening on the electric sauce than beating one (or more) of them up. An even more sinister character trait was his love of a sick joke. On one occasion he wrote to the London and Greenwich Railway Company, offering them the princely sum of £10,000 if they would stage a train crash that he could watch. The thrill for him would be to observe the distress of the victims. Although train safety was parlous at the best of times in those days, thankfully the Company politely refused his offer.

Henry would do anything for a laugh. On one famous occasion, he bought several large casks of gin and stationed himself in London’s Haymarket, offering free mugs of the hooch to anyone who cared to take them. He seemed to see it as a bit of a social experiment, keen to see what would happen when the grateful public indulged in his largesse to excess. Well, what happened was that a riot broke and Henry had to be carted off for his own safety.

Beresford was a reckless horse rider and was brought up before the beak for riding at high-speed through a crowded street, without any concern for any of the poor pedestrians who may have been in the way. Arriving at the court on horseback, Henry demanded that his nag be cross-examined. After all, he argued, only the horse knew exactly how fast he was going. Whether it was the strength of his forensic arguments or his nobility that caused the case to be dismissed, we will never know. Mind you, he could have done with a fast horse when he rode in the 1840 Grand National. His horse, the Sea, was all washed out and finished last of the four to finish, half a mile behind the winner.

Such was Henry’s notoriety for practical jokes, or rather hooliganism, that the finger of suspicion was pointed at him as the perpetrator of what were termed the Spring Heeled Jack incidents. The Reverend E C Brewer, no less, attested in 1880 that he “used to amuse himself by springing on travellers unawares, to frighten them, and from time to time others have followed his silly example” These incidents occurred between 1837 and 1904, so Henry couldn’t have been the sole perpetrator but perhaps the Reverend was on to something.

The first incident occurred in Clapham Common  – Henry was in London at the time – when Mary Stevens was assaulted by a figure that leapt out of the dark and the following day another girl was attacked, the perpetrator effecting its escape by scaling a nine foot wall.

Whether Henry was involved is unclear but as well as painting the town red, he was tarred with the same brush, it would seem.

Living In The Past

Jethro Tull 50th Anniversary Concert, Royal Albert Hall, 17th April 2018

It’s all too easy to take the piss out off a Jethro Tull audience. Perhaps the gig would have been better called the Prostate Prom or even Too Old To Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die. For many it may have been a new day yesterday but it is certainly an old day now.

It is true that there were some members of the post baby boomer generation in the audience – I even saw a couple of children and thought about contacting Social Services – but even with a more severe haircut than normal I found myself in possession of more follicles than most of the males there. And you know that nature is telling you that your bohemian days are over when the queues to the male bogs are longer than those for the female equivalents and a couple of pints of Old Speckled Hen – lovely but so it should be at £6 a pint – means impromptu visits to the toilets by many to the general inconvenience of the rest of the row. Alas, the extended drum solo in Dharma for One – usually a signal for a mass exodus to the carsey – was too early in proceedings to serve its purpose.

I’m not a fan of the Royal Albert Hall. You could hardly call what Philomena Cunk deliciously described as the receptacle for Adolf Hitler’s missing bollock as an intimate venue. Sitting in the circle we were far away from the action and the sound in the early part of the concert was a bit muddy. Fortunately, either the engineers got the balance right as the show went on or my ears grew more accustomed to it all.

The band consisted of Dave Goodier on bass, John O’Hara on keyboards, Florian Opahle on lead guitar, Scott Hammond on drums and, of course, the only survivor of the original band, the septuagenarian Ian Anderson on flute, vocals, acoustic guitar and, occasionally, one leg. Anderson was helped out on vocals from time to time by virtual artists beamed up on the screen behind him, a triumph for timing, if nothing else. The video screen was also used to beam in messages from former members of the group – over the years Tull has had 37 members – and good wishes from some of the great and good of rock. While the band performed, we were treated to footage of the band in their heyday, considerably more hirsute than they are today, and fascinating as it was, I found it all a bit distracting.

Tull in the early 70s were probably the most exciting live act I had seen and, sensibly, Anderson chose to plunder his back catalogue from the first ten years of the band’s existence, ranging from the bluesy Mick Abrahams influenced numbers to the more folky rock numbers of the mid to late 70s. But their glory days were encapsulated by the albums I return to most, Aqualung and Thick As A Brick. My God, when the band is on form, as they were, there is nothing like Locomotive Breath, Cross-eyed Mary, Aqualung and a wonderful abridgement of Thick As A Brick to set what few hairs you have left standing on end. I could even forgive them a reprise of A Passion Play.

As I listened to the early numbers, I couldn’t help musing what sort of band Tull would have been if Abrahams had stayed. But there was never going to be room for two egos and look what happened to Blodwyn Pig.

Musically, it was a great night of nostalgia, featuring Tull, one of rock’s greatest survivors, at their best. Don’t tell TOWT but I have got her an early Christmas present – tickets for the Tull gig at Birmingham Cathedral in December. I wonder if they will play My God!

Innovation Of The Week (6)

Is there no limit to the lengths supermarkets will go to to pander to the strange predilections of the so-called snowflake generation?

One of those fatuous surveys that are all too common these days has found that 37% of those born after 1980 prefer to avoid handling raw meat. Seeing the way the wind is blowing, from May 3rd Sainsbury’s, I read this week, are launching rip and tip pouches, known in the trade as doybags, which allow the poor souls to put their raw chicken into a pan without having to touch it.

Whatever next? Next thing you know they will be cooking it for them!

While we are on the subject of modern-day nonsense, I went to the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday – more of that anon. The following day I received an e-mail inviting me to complete a survey on my experience – you could spend a day filling these things in.

I was encouraged to tell them what I “really and truly thought”, but their desire for my opinion was not such that they would guarantee to respond to any comment I made. The e-mail was signed by Claire Baker who styled herself as Insight Manager.

Wtf?!

I have noticed recently a trend amongst organisations to saddle their employees with ever more ludicrous job titles but this takes the biscuit. Any insight into what this job actually entails would be gratefully received.