Pooch Of The Week

I’m no dog lover so I’m rather immune to the supposed charms of the creatures. It is rather gratifying to read, though, that we are encouraged to celebrate diversity in the shapes, sizes and behaviour traits of pooches, just as we do with humans.

Take the World’s Ugliest Dog competition, now in its 30th year, which was held in Petaluma in California last weekend. The winner was an English Bulldog – are you surprised? – going by the rather unlikely name of Zsa Zsa. The slobbering creature with a lolling tongue, chin that thrusts upwards and resplendent with nails painted a shade of pink, scooped the $1,500 prize for her owner, Megan Brainard from Minnesota. I’m reliably informed that the dog is on the left of the photo.

Last year’s winner was a Neapolitan mastiff called Martha whose stand-out features were her massive cheeks that drooped almost down to her knees and flapped around in a rather disturbing fashion when she moved her head.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as someone once said.

What Is The Origin Of (186)?..

Fit as a butcher’s dog

If I was to come back as a dog, perhaps being assigned to a butcher would be the dog’s bollocks. After all, there would be all that food around and surely even the most curmudgeonly of purveyors of meat wouldn’t begrudge me of some scraps. The upside would be that there would be a veritable feast to enjoy and I would be as full as a butcher’s dog, as the Australians so eloquently describe someone who has indulged in a substantial meal.

The simile, fit as a butcher’s dog, emerged in the 20th century, probably in Lancashire, to describe someone who is the epitome of rude health, fitness and robustness. In a sense there is a bit of an oxymoron in its current usage because having access to and being fed so much meat is likely to make the pooch fat and unhealthy, unless it is exercises vigorously.

The reason behind this disconnect is that the attributes to be sought in a butcher’s dog have changed over the years. The phrase butcher’s dog originally described an animal that could stay impassive amongst all the temptations of a butcher’s emporium or, as John Camden Hotten put it in his Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words, published in 1859; “To be like a butcher’s dog, that is, lie by the beef without touching it; a simile often applicable to married men.”  This sense of stoically resisting something close at hand has disappeared into the mists of time.

Being a butcher’s dog, though, has to be better than a barber’s cat. Being confined to a barber’s shop would mean that other than for the odd stray rat or mouse there would be nothing for the moggy to feed on. No wonder then that the barber’s cat was a scrawny thing. It was used figuratively to describe someone who was full of piss and wind, unnecessarily loquacious, a blatherskite. This figurative meaning caused the inestimable Hotten some difficulty when he came to define it in his Dictionary, commenting that it was “an expression too coarse to print.

The Dundee Courier and Argus in its edition dated 8th September 1877 was almost as bashful, using a carefully bowdlerised euphemism, but the sense is clear; “He should be the very last man in Dundee to call anyone a windbag, for it is a well-known fact that…he is generally considered the very Prince of Windbags. Indeed, it is often remarked about him that he is all wind and water, like the barber’s cat.

James Plunkett’s 1969 historical novel, Strumpet City, set in Dublin, gives us probably the rationale behind the phrase; “Do you know the expression – wet and windy, like the barber’s cat? I know it well, Matthews confessed. Why the barber’s cat, I wonder? A consequence of frugality, the poet explained, its staple diet is hair and soapsuds.” James Joyce used a variant of the phrase in Ulysses; “all wind and piss like a tanyard cat.” –

But are we barking up the wrong tree in thinking that the barber’s cat is a moggy? One commentator has noted that a barber’s cat was a bottle of water with a pump which when operated by the barber sprayed water finely over the hair of his customer. I recall them but never knew them by that name and, of course, they operate by wind and water. But Joyce was clearly thinking of a cat and other phrases in which the barber’s cat appears – as poor as a barber’s cat to describe someone who was painfully thin and starving and as conceited as a barber’s cat to paint the picture of someone who fancies themselves – tend to suggest that we are thinking of felis catus here.

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

Richard Whately (1787 – 1863)

An economics professor at Oxford in the 1820s who made his name with two hefty tomes, Elements of Logic and Elements of Rhetoric, sartorially Richard Whately cut quite a dash. Eschewing the traditional academic gown he favoured a long white cloak and a beaver hat, earning himself the sobriquet of the White Bear. To his astonishment, not least because he was sympathetic to the Catholic cause, he was plucked from the groves of academe in 1831 by Lord Grey and appointed Archbishop of Dublin in 1831.

Already regarded with suspicion by the Protestants in Ireland, Whately’s character failed to endear him to the locals. He enjoyed an argument, peppering his conversation with puns and word play, but always had to have the last word. Perhaps his most famous contribution to what passed as 19th century humour was this rather contrived quip; “Why cannot a man starve in the desert? Because he can eat the sand which is there. But how did the sandwiches get there? Noah sent Ham and his descendants mustered and bred.”  Boom, boom.

Whately could also be insensitive and rude. When a cleric asked his Grace’s permission to go to New Zealand for health reasons, he responded; ““By all means go to New Zealand; you are so lean that no Maori could eat you without loathing.” Annoyed by a cleric who was droning on, Whately suddenly piped up and asked the poor man, “Pray, sir, why are you like the bell of your own church?” The Archbishop then enlightened him by revealing the answer to the riddle; “it is because you have a long tongue and an empty head.”

Perhaps more disconcerting to the great and the good of Dublin society were some of Whately’s physical traits. He seemed unable to keep his feet still. He would pace up and down whilst waiting for his dinner, sometimes take out a pair of scissors and trim his nails or, if the pre-dinner small talk was particularly annoying, he would take the calling cards and fling them across the room. Another pre-prandial trick was whilst talking to whirl a chair round on one of its legs. Sometimes the leg would break – Lady Anglesey, a regular hostess, is said to have lost six of her best chairs this way.

It was perilous to be seated next to the Archbishop at a dinner as Provost Lloyd found out on one occasion. Whately was giving the after dinner speech and was in full flow, telling stories and cracking jokes. But what caught his fellow diners’ attention was what was happening to his right foot. Somehow Whately had managed to double it back over his left thigh, grasp the instep with both hands as if to strangle it and then placed it on the poor Provost’s lap. And there it stayed for the duration of his speech. The stoic Provost is said not to have turned a hair.

Chief Justice Doherty was sitting next to Whately at a Privy Council meeting and felt the need to sneeze. Reaching down to his pocket for his handkerchief he was astonished to find Whately’s foot already nestling in there. Perhaps even more alarmingly for society hostesses, Whately would often draw a chair up to the fireplace and rest his legs up on the mantelpiece, oblivious to any valuable objets d’art that may have been deposited there.

Regarded as pro-Catholic by the Protestants and a wolf in sheep’s clothing by the Catholics, Whately’s attempts to reform the Irish education system and enhance the lot of the poor were stymied. His spirit was broken and he lived out his final decade almost as a recluse. His beloved wife died in 1860, plunging him further into depression. He became reclusive and with his health failing, he turned to homeopathy. He finally met his maker in 1863 and there is a rather splendid memorial to him in Dublin’s St Patrick’s Cathedral.

These days Whately would have been diagnosed with some fancy syndrome, perhaps autism, but at the time his eccentricities gave his enemies plenty of scope to make mischief.

Book Corner – June 2018 (2)

The Long Arm of the Law – edited by Martin Edwards

Very few policemen make it into the golden pantheon of literary detection. Of the crème de la crème only Maigret, in my view, is comparable with Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey and Agatha Christie’s creations, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. Where the local plod appear in the pages of Conan Doyle, Christie, Chesterton, Sayers et al, they are pedestrian, slow-witted, literary devices to illustrate the brilliance of the grey cells contained within the cranium of the amateur sleuth.

Of course, if we are looking for the antecedents of literary detection, we cannot ignore Dickens’ Inspector Bucket (Bleak House, 1853) and Wilkie Collins’ Sergeant Cuff (The Moonstone, 1868) but they are both preceded by Edgar Allan Poe’s amateur, Auguste Dupin, whose mastery of ratiocination was amply exemplified in The Murders of the Rue Morgue (1841). In an attempt to rescue the much maligned officer of the constabulary, the indefatigable Martin Edwards has put together an interesting collection of fifteen short stories showing the professional policeman at his best.

Anthologies are patchy in quality at best and I sensed at times that Edwards was scraping the barrel to provide enough examples from a varied array of writers to make his point. The other problem is that often the resolution of the problem is not the result of structured, forensic enquiry and investigation which, I assume, is the staple fare of police work but the inspired deduction of one of the officers. In other words, there is little difference in the way the culprit is unmasked it just happens that the grey cells belong to a police officer, not a leisured amateur.

The book’s opening story, The Mystery of Chenholt by Alice and Claude Askew, sets the collection off on the wrong foot. The detective, in order to discover what was going on in the house, has to put his fiancée, albeit an officer in another force but not a detective, into the place as an undercover agent. Her evidence results in the unmasking of the villain. Reggie, the detective, pulls it all together but it is not a shining example of straightforward police brilliance.

That said, there are some gems to be found within. Laurence Meynell, a writer I had never come across although, according to Edwards’ insightful and punchy introductions to each story, he had been writing for sixty years across a number of genres, produced my favourite, the Cleverest Clue. The eponymous clue was staring all of us in the face but it took a stroke of genius for it to be spotted and its importance to be recognised. A great story.

After The Event, by Christianna Brand, was another of my favourites, not least because its format was so different and seeing two detectives competing and pitting their wits against each other was fun. Michael Gilbert’s Old Mr Martin has an unexpected twist at the end that I didn’t see coming – one that might offend the sticklers for the rules and conventions of detective fiction but provides a satisfying ending to the spookiest and most atmospheric of the tales.

Choosing a title is one of the hardest tasks facing a writer and my enjoyment of the entertaining romp that is Roy Vickers’ The Man Who Married Too Often was marred somewhat by the fact that the title pretty much gave the game away. None of the other stories reach the heights of these but that is one of the joys and risks of reading an anthology.

An interesting collection but I’m not sure that the case is made for a reconsideration of the merits of police officer-led detective fiction.

A La Mode – Part Four

The Peruke

One of the most notable fashion accessories of the 17th and 18th centuries was the peruke or powdered wig.

Long hair was a symbol of wealth and status. After all, if you were engaged in dirty, manual labour, the last thing you wanted was your flowing mane getting in the way. Loss of hair was a source of social embarrassment, as Samuel Pepys noted in his diary; “if [my brother] lives, he will not be able to show his head – which will be a very great shame to me.

And why would the loss of hair be life-threatening and socially embarrassing? Because it was a sign of syphilis which by the 1580s had reached epidemic proportions in Europe with, according to William Clowes, an “infinite multitude” of syphilis patients clogging the hospitals of London. To hide the tell-tale stigma – although other giveaways were open sores, rashes, blindness and dementia – victims took to wearing wigs, simple affairs constructed from horse, goat or human hair. Some were scented with lavender or orange to mask any unseemly odours.

What moved the wig from medical prosthetic to fashion accessory was the discovery by Louis XIV in 1655 that at the age of 17 he was getting thin on top. To hide his bald spots he hired 48 wig makers to design ever more extravagant structures. His sycophantic court followed suit and five years later Charles II, bedevilled with his own tonsorial issues, introduced the fashion to the English court.

Wigs escalated in price – an everyday peruke would set you back 25 shillings and the most elaborate could costs as much as £40 – and so were seen as a statement of wealth. They were also practical because in order to wear one you had to have your head shaved. That meant that the ubiquitous head lice had to decamp from your head, where delousing was time-consuming and painful, to your wig. To get rid of them, you sent your wig off to a wig maker who would boil it, thus removing the troublesome mites.

The finest wigs were white in colour but these were out of the reach of all but the wealthiest and so from around 1715 the practice was to dust them with powder made from starch or flour. It was a messy process, a special room being reserved for the purpose to contain the dust and special dressing gowns were worn to minimise the damage to clothing.

So common was the practice of powdering that not to do so was a social black mark, as Georgiana Cavendish revealed in her novel, The Sylph, published in 1778; “Monsieur bowed and shrugged..In a moment I was overwhelmed with a cloud of powder. What are you doing? I don’t mean to be powdered, I said. Not powdered, repeated Sir William, why you would not be so barbarous as to appear without – it is positively not decent.” In her journal for 1780 Mary Frampton noted, “at that time everybody wore powder and pomatum.

There were perils to wearing a wig. Boys were employed to secrete themselves in dray wagons and snatch a wig from a passer-by. By the time they had realised that they were minus their peruke – often someone would detain them on the pretence of offering assistance – the thief would make good their escape.

What did for the peruke was the French Revolution – it wasn’t safe for aristos to draw attention to themselves by wearing a wig – and in 1795 William Pitt’s imposition of a tax on hair powder on this side of La Manche. Short hair became the fashion.