What Is The Origin Of (178)?…

Seven-year itch

It was the Bard of Stratford, William Shakespeare, who wrote in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that the course of true love never did run smooth. In the days when life expectancy was considerably shorter than it is now and when the perils of childbirth were mortal, a long marriage was a rarity. There was often little time for either party to get bored with each other. Now that childbirth is less perilous, the wandering eye of a partner is often the reason why marriages end in failure with a trip to the divorce courts.

This week’s phrase, seven-year itch, is now almost exclusively used to refer to the wandering eye of a married man, who is tempted by what seem to be greener pastures sometime after he got hitched. There seems to be something in the view that the moment of maximum danger is the seven year mark. Studies seem to suggest that couples experience a gradual decline in the quality of their marriage after around four years and by the seventh have either divorced or decided to divorce or have adapted to their partner’s ways.

Be that as it may, our phrase originally had nothing to do with the matrimonial state and the potential errant husband; rather it dealt with another form of irritation, a very infectious one at that – scabies. The source of this painful condition is a mite or, more likely, a number of mites which burrow into the skin and lay their eggs. The condition was highly infectious, spread by skin-to-skin contact or, on occasions, from exposure to infested items like bedding, clothing and furniture. So hard was the condition to get rid of that it was said that you were stuck with it for seven years.

Of course, this did not stop quacks from peddling panaceas offering a remedy. One such was Dr John Mason’s Indian Vegetable Panacea, which was advertised in the Ohio Statesman of 26th March 1839 (the first recorded instance) in which the elixir was described as being capable of being “taken with perfect safety, by all ages, for the cure of the following diseases….also, that corruption so commonly known to the western country as the scab or seven year itch.” So scabrous was life in certain parts of the States that a whole raft of variants cropped up, including prairie itch, Indiana itch, army itch, jail itch, swamp itch and winter itch to name just a few.

So how and when did it gain its modern usage?

The phrase began to be used figuratively, by way of describing the itch caused by poisoned ivy, to describe an irritant or a continual nuisance. But its direct reference to matrimonial infidelity is attributable to George Axelrod who used it as the title for his comedy in 1952 and Billy Wilder’s film in 1955 starring Marilyn Monroe ensured that it had a world-wide audience.

Axelrod claimed that the phrase popped into his head courtesy of what would now be termed a sexist, deeply chauvinist comedian, Rod Brassfield. One of his favourite jokes (ahem) was “I know she’s over 21 because she had the seven-year itch four times.” In Axelrod’s play for which he was desperately trying to find a title, the hero had been married for ten years but so appropriate seemed the phrase to the play that he changed the length of the protagonist’s marriage to suit.

The rest is history, as they say.

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

Cinnamon girl

Getting an alcoholic drink is still a bit of a trial in Kerala. To clamp down on the social problems caused by alcohol abuse in the state the government have imposed a prohibitively expensive alcohol licensing system which has effectively driven most bars and roadside drinking establishments out of business. If you really need a drink, you can queue up at a state-owned liquor shop where locals are restricted to one bottle at a time.

Hotels catering for Westerners generally oblige with an alcoholic drink, although it’s advisable not to be too exotic in your demands. They can generally rustle up a beer, wine, whisky, brandy and that’s about it. You also need to be careful in your terminology. It is no good asking whether a hotel has a bar. Most don’t but they are able to serve alcohol so that should be the focus of your enquiry.

Our hotel in Munnar, the Devonshire Green, turned out to be dry. Disaster was averted as we had a couple of bottles of gin, shaken but not stirred, in our suitcases and so we were able to drink in the wonderful scenery of verdant hills and tea plantations from our balcony with a glass in hand.

Fortunately, in neighbouring states Tamil Nadu and Karnataka procuring alcohol is less of a problem and in Bangalore we came across a wonderful bar called the Biere Club. It is the retail outlet for Bangalore’s first craft brewery and for 200 rupees you could have a taster of each of the beers on offer. When we visited there were four marked up on the board, each with a brief description, ABV and price, ranging across the complete beer spectrum from lager, wheat beer, ragi made from an organic grain native to the area, and a stout. After due deliberation we settled for the stout and an excellent drop it was too. I could have stayed there all day.

If you really feel that you need to get your chakras in good shape – you have seven running from the base of your spine to the crown of your head – then a visit to a spice plantation is de rigueur. I have been to a number of them over the years but my ability to recognise spices and herbs in their raw state by sight and smell is as lacking today as it was when I made my first visit. Still it is interesting, although the end objective is to get you to the plantation shop where for a relatively small sum you can buy any oil or liniment, guaranteed to assuage any ailment known to man.

South India is the home of Ayurveda medicine and there is evidence that a form of natural healing was practised there in a formal way from at least 4000 BCE. It makes sense as there was no alternative but to explore and harness the pharmaceutical power of nature then. Nowadays, at least in the West, homeopathy and natural healing is viewed as somewhat cranky and it is true that the efficacy of many of the potions has yet to receive the imprimatur of the medical fraternity, but around 80% of Indians take Ayurveda medicine and there are hospitals around that only provide that form of treatment. Who knows who’s right?

Before I leave India behind, it wold be remiss of me not to comment on the wonderful food. It is slightly bewildering to see some restaurants adopt a form of culinary apartheid with vegetarians accommodated in room and us carnivores in another. Meat is generally mutton or chicken so on the principle that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em I went vegetarian and was astonished by the wonderful array of tastes and smells that assaulted my senses. You can get them to tone down the spices – a request that elicits a sardonic smile from the waiter – and nothing I ate required me to reach for a fire extinguisher.

A masala dosa – a sort of pancake made from rice and the ubiquitous black gram – set me up nicely at breakfast. I’m already salivating just thinking about it.

Book Corner – May 2018 (1)

Victorious Century: The United Kingdom 1800 – 1906 – David Cannadine

Most historians, charting Britain’s (temporary) rise to the top of the world pile in the 19th Century, tend to start after the Battle of Waterloo and end at the outbreak of World War One. As is increasingly fashionable amongst historiographers, Cannadine takes a different slice of the temporal pie, preferring to start with the Act of Union with Ireland in 1800 and finishing with the Liberal electoral landslide of 1906. Mathematically unsettling as this may be, it puts Ireland in the centre stage and the mainland’s relations with the Emerald Isle were a troublesome sideshow throughout the 19th century (as it was in the 20th and still is today).

The Act of Union which created what was known as the United Kingdom for the rest of the century was a rather botched affair and was passed for primarily defensive purposes. Corresponding legislation to deal with the internal governance of Ireland was dropped and this proved the blight that made relations with the predominantly Catholic population problematic. Anti-Catholic sentiments and the eugenic feeling that the Irish were an inferior race (although not as inferior as those races whose countries we would take over with gay abandon during the course of the century) proved too hard to dislodge.

Cannadine’s account is a tour-de-force and a rattling good read. His mastery of the subject matter is breath-taking and many an interesting insight. (Unusually for a history book) there are no footnotes, heightening the sense that he knows all there is to know and there is no sense in thinking otherwise. For the non-historian this is satisfying but one can’t help thinking that there are many other interpretations which may have some validity. The only concession to doubt Cannadine allows is provided by a prodigious usage of parantheses. I don’t think I have read a book with so many brackets sprinkled about, as if someone is whispering into your ear (sotto voce, no doubt) that there may (or may not be) other things to consider.

Aside from the Irish question, the take-aways (for me) from the book is how the empire grew through the actions of individuals in situ rather than through central fiat – indeed, for most of the century the government’s view was to constrain, if not reduce, expenditure and commitments in relation to overseas territories – and the dependence, even then, on the ability to trade with our European neighbours for economic prosperity rather than with the lands brought under the British yoke – an insight we might do well to heed.

The political colossi such as Gladstone, Disraeli, Pitt the Younger, the under-appreciated Earl of Derby (at least today) and Palmerston bestride the stage – what we would give for one or two of them now – but my admiration for Robert Peel grew as I turned the pages. It was a century when the extent of suffrage widened but still swathes of the population, including all women, were deprived of the vote and when parliamentary reorganisation finally rooted out the democratic abuse that were rotten boroughs.

On a macro-level it was a century of enormous progress – industrial, economic, cultural – but at a micro-level the lives of ordinary folk were a continual struggle in insanitary and disease-ridden conditions of squalour. Cannadine’s choice of epigrams to describe the period covered by his thoroughly enjoyable book are apt – Dickens’ opening line of A Tale of Two Cities – “it was the best of times, the worst of times” and Karl Marx’s observation that men and women “make their own history, but they do not do so … under conditions of their own choosing.”  The 19th century in a nutshell, methinks.

Film Of The Week

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

It’s that time of year again. With one of her bank accounts TOWT gets half a dozen cinema tickets. They lie in the drawer until about six weeks before they are due to expire and then there is a mad dash to try to use them up. This was about the only current film that both of us could agree to waste a couple of hours of our lives on.

Rather like the eponymous pie the title is indigestible and the film lacks substance. I’ve not read the 2008 novel of the same name by Mary Ann Shaffer, completed and published posthumously by her niece, Annie Barrows, but my sense is that it is a pretty faithful adaptation. Perhaps therein lies many of the film’s problems.

The story is fairly simple. Correspondence between a Guernsey pig farmer and founding member of the curiously titled book club, Dawsey Adams, played by Michiel Huismann, and a London-based authoress, Juliet Ashton (Lily James) leads the latter to abandon, temporarily at least, her life in the metropolis to write a profile of the club for the Times of London. When she gets to the island, Juliet realises that there is another story behind the literary circle and using her charms and rather inept powers of detection and with the help of her American beau, whom she rather predictably ditches when he has served his purpose, unravels a darker secret.

The film is full of clichés. The book club is full of the sort of rustic eccentrics that populate central casting. There is some love interest and at the end Juliet pledges her troth to the right man and lives happily ever after. The political correct check list is pretty much ticked – yes, there is a gay – he’s a publisher (natch) – a bumptious, arrogant American, a quite nice Nazi and so on. The only one missing was a person of colour but that might have been difficult to have worked in in 1940s Guernsey. The two protagonists nearly miss each other as one embarks and the other gets off the channel ferry. And, Casablanca style, an aircraft takes Juliet away from her true love.

The plot line is clunky and telegraphs what twists and turns there are in the plot so that it wrings out any element of surprise. And the brutality of the German occupation of the Channel Islands and the ill-treatment of the todt slaves is there in the background but not made too much of. After all, it would destroy the twee rustic idyll that director, Mike Newell, creates.

It is so damn cosy and trite, the sort of thing that you might find on the telly in the dog days of summer or as a filler in the post-Christmas schedules. It’s not a truly awful film. There is enough to keep you vaguely amused and you can play cliché bingo. It just feels that it could have been so much better.

The scenery is nice – if it was really shot in Guernsey they were really lucky. Every time I have been there it has rained and my departure has been disrupted by fog – and the actors do a fine job given the limitations of the storyline.

Oh, and in case you were wondering about the title. When challenged by a German patrol while returning from an illicit feast of roast pig, the group, fuelled by Isola Pribby’s homemade gin, came up with the ludicrously named club as their cover. You find that out in the first fifteen minutes. After that, you may as well go home.