What Is The Origin Of (195)?…

A dark horse

We use this phrase figuratively to describe someone who has won unexpectedly or has displayed previously unknown or well-hidden talents.

I enjoy occasionally going to horse races. There is something thrilling and deeply fascinating about seeing magnificent beasts in prime condition battling it out for a prize. I’m not much of a student of equestrian form, more of a pin sticker or one who is attracted to a name. My last excursion to the bookies, for the 2018 Grand National, saw me walk away with a handsome profit – a case of luck triumphing over judgment.

A regular sight in pubs until fairly recently were sad old men hunched over their pint, frantically poring over the pages of the Sporting Life. This was enough to convince me that the sport of kings and rigorous analysis were uneasy bed fellows. After all, there are too many imponderables – equine or human error, the ground conditions and, dare I say it, the suspicion that forces unknown can have an influence on the outcome.

And then there is always the dark horse – the horse that was little fancied but which ran the race of its life to upset the punters’ and bookmakers’ calculations. Almost certainly our phrase originates from the world of horse racing. It first appeared in print in a sporting context in Benjamin Disraeli’s The Young Duke, published in 1831 to finance his grand tour around the Mediterranean; “a dark horse, which had never been thought of, and which the careless St. James had never even observed in the list, rushed past the grand stand in sweeping triumph.

Following up closely, perhaps a furlong behind, is this reference in Pierce Egan’s Book of Sports, published in 1832; “Moonraker is called a dark horse; that is neither his sire nor dam is known.” The inability to ascertain the horse’s pedigree meant that it was difficult to assess how it was going to perform and to determine what odds it should attract.

Stories abound of unscrupulous racehorse owners visiting towns on race day and entering their heavily disguised thoroughbred in a race in the hope of obtaining more favourable odds and thus scooping a bigger pot. This may well have happened and may even be the source, at least in everyday parlance, of the phrase. We cannot tell but Disraeli’s and Egan’s usage clearly root it in the world of horse racing. I don’t think we need to take dark as necessarily referring to colouration. Dark as in secret or hidden is just as apposite.

By the 1840s the phrase was being used in American politics, specifically to describe James Polk who broke the stalemate between Van Buren and Lewis Cass to win the nomination of the Democratic Party for the Presidency in 1844 on the ninth ballot. In 1893 the Wall Street Journal, commenting on the Democratic national convention, observed “Cool-headed leaders say the convention may last over Sunday barring a stampede for a dark horse.”

The phrase was also used to describe academic preferment; “A Headship … often given by the College conclaves to a man who has judiciously kept himself dark” noted the Saturday Review in 1860. In 1865 Sketches from Cambridge reported, “Every now and then a dark horse is heard of, who is supposed to have done wonders at some obscure small college.”

These days the phrase has a much broader application but the sense is still the same.

Gin o’Clock – Part Forty Six

Although my taste is firmly rooted in the more traditional style London dry gin, I have not given up on the more contemporary styles and am more than willing to give those that catch my eye a go. One that I regularly see on the gin lists of pubs that are trying to catch the ginaissance wave by going beyond Beefeater and Gordon’s is Brockmans Intensely Smooth Premium Gin which is distilled on behalf of its owners in a copper still in Warrington by our old friends, G & J Greenall’s Distillery.

The name has a lot to live up and the marketing strap chosen by owners , Neil Everitt and Bob Fowkes and their two unnamed friends, “Like No Other” seems a bit too much like a hostage to fortune in waiting for my liking. The bottle is certainly striking, being dark, shaped like a decanter or a port bottle, and has a screw cap. The label is classy with Brockmans in white, Intensely Smooth in silver lettering and Premium Gin and a sprig of botanicals in red. It may be my eye sight but the red seemed to have got a bit lost. There is an indented B in the bottle just below the neck.

The gin was launched in 2008 and has become one of the fastest growing gin brands in the world and available now in over 30 countries. It must have something going for it.

The base of the gin is a 100% neutral grain spirit to which is added eleven botanicals – juniper, blueberries, almonds, blackberries, liquorice, lemon peel, coriander, angelica, orange peel, orris root and cassia bark. As you can readily detect from the list of ingredients, what makes this drink stand out from the crowd are the blackberries and the blueberries. And therein lies the rub.

It would be no understatement to say that Brockmans has split the gin drinking community down the middle, leading some to question whether it really is gin. The problem, if you consider it to be so, is that the traditional flavours that we unquestionably associate with a gin, the heady hit of juniper with its piney taste and the traditional spice and peppery notes are usurped by the smell and taste of the berries. As soon as you unscrew the top, your nostrils are assaulted by the smell of the fruits, making it seem more like a cordial than a gin.

It is a very, nay intensely, smooth spirit, easy to drink and the berries make it refreshing but, for my taste, they are overpowering. The juniper and traditional gin notes do put up a valiant fight to make their presence known as you roll the liquid in the mouth but eventually give up the ghost, leaving the berries to linger in the prolonged aftertaste. It is far from unpleasant and on a warm summer’s day when you want something on the fruity side to pep up your taste buds rather than the more spicy, acerbic hit of the more traditional juniper heavy gin, then this may well be one to go for.

But for the dyed in the wool traditional gin lover, this is just a step too far. It would seem to me to be a gin for those who don’t like gin. It is certainly like no other.

Until the next time, cheers!

Book Corner – August 2018 (3)

The Spoils of Poynton – Henry James

Published in 1896, by James’ standards this is a short book, running to about 250 pages. The unkind critic might argue that it could all be boiled down to a short story of around twenty to thirty pages but Henry James wouldn’t be Henry James if he didn’t use 5,000 words where a hundred would do and sentences that positively creak under the weight of subordinate clauses.

The Spoils of Poynton, according to Jamesians, is the transition point between his early and later styles and there is certainly something of the theatrical in its construction. There are relatively few characters, five of whom only four really play prominent parts in the drama. The action, such as it is, is episodic, staged in set pieces. James was unsuccessful as a playwright and used some of the techniques of crafting a stage drama in constructing the novel.

As often is the way with novels of the later Victorian era, the Spoils of Poynton is much ado about relatively little. In essence, Mrs Gereth has filled her house, Poynton, with furnishings, tapestries, paintings, objects d’art, of which she is inordinately proud. The death of her husband means that the ownership of these artefacts falls to her son, Owen, to do with as he pleases. Owen is engaged to be married to Mona Brigstock who doesn’t share her appreciation of the finer things in life. What tension there is in the book revolves around the battle of wills between Mesdames Gereth and Brigstock, the artefacts being the spoils of the battle.

The character with one of the most ludicrous names in English literature, Fleda Vetch, is initially Mrs Gereth’s willing conspirator and develops what are termed as feelings for Owen. But she will not steal the poor sap, a pawn in the game of three powerful females, from his betrothed. Much of the book is concerned with Fleda wrestling with her moral dilemma – does she do Mrs Gereth’s bidding and wrestle Owen away from Mona, thus rescuing the spoils from a woman of questionable taste, or does she go with her moral sensibilities and leave well alone? Frankly, the scenes between Owen and Fleda are the most strained and unconvincing parts of the story. Ultimately, Fleda loses everything, including the spoils which are consumed in flames as Poynton burns down.

In many senses, Fleda is a foil to Mrs Gereth. Gereth’s aesthetics are positively Olympian and purely black and white. Something either accords with her refined definition of what is art and what is beautiful or else it doesn’t. When she visits Ricks, the already furnished alternative accommodation that Owen has found for her to live in following her eviction from Poynton, all she sees is ugliness. Fleda has more mortal set of aesthetic sensibilities. She appreciates that a person’s view of an object’s worth can be tinged by such feelings as sentiment and association. Tellingly, she says “by certain natures, hideous objects can be loved.

As the book progresses one starts to wonder whether Mrs Gereth’s aesthetics are all they are cracked up to be and whether she is as guilty of bad taste as her mortal enemy, Mona Brigstock. A point perhaps reinforced by Mona’s and Fleda’s attachment to Owen whom Mrs Gereth sees as a boorish dolt.

There are some striking similarities, at least in terms of plot, with Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Both books are about women whose moral standards put them under considerable emotional stress. Both Fleda and Fanny Price are in love with the sons of the women they are staying with and both the chaps are blithely unaware of this romantic interest. The denouement is different – in Austen’s work Fanny gets her man.

There is enough in the book to recommend it but it is not one of James’ best.

An Eye For An Eye Will Only Make The Whole World Blind – Part Nine


If you want to look at the wackiest border configuration of all time, then you need not go any further than the Belgian town of Baarle-Hertog in the province of Brabant, just north-west of Antwerp. Or is it the Dutch town of Baarle-Nassau? It’s all a bit of a mess.

The Belgian town consists of twenty-four non-contiguous parcels of land, 21 of which are completely surrounded by territory belonging to the Netherlands and three on what marks the border between the two countries. Just to add to the complexity, there are then seven Dutch areas within the Belgian enclaves within the Netherlands, six of which are situated in the largest Belgian enclave. Technically, these are known as counter-exclaves. I told you it was complicated but on a map it looks rather like a pleasing jigsaw puzzle.

Brits would not be surprised that this bizarre arrangement was ratified by a Treaty of Maastricht, this one concluded in 1843 and designed to settle the borders between the two relatively newly created countries once and for all. The determining principles as to where the border ran were geographic – the course of the river Meuse – and the religious affiliations of the communities, the Belgians being principally Catholic and the Dutch Protestant.

But the origins of the complexities presented to the diplomats by Baarle-Hertog dated back to the 12th century. The Lords of Breda and the Dukes of Brabant over time engaged in a series of mind-bogglingly complex treaties, agreements, sales, and land-swaps produced the patchwork of territories which the poor diplomats could see no other way round than to accept them as a fait-accompli. And so they remain to this day. In essence, if you were trying to find a scintilla of logic behind the disposition, the agricultural and urban areas tended to gravitate to Brabant (Belgium) whilst the rest were held by Breda (the Dutch).

Inevitably, such a bizarre arrangement caused a range of anomalies to develop, principally because Belgian laws were different in some respect from the Dutch equivalent. Take restaurant closing times, for example. There was a time when Dutch law required restaurants to close earlier than Belgian ones. So restauranteurs would, at the appointed hour, would shepherd their guests to tables on the Belgian side of the border, helpfully marked in coloured tiling which run along the streets, so that the carousers could continue to make merry undisturbed. These days closing times have been harmonised.

But firework regulations are still tighter in Holland than in Belgium. So in preparation for high days and holidays, those living in the Dutch exclaves would simply go to the Belgian area to get their hands on some pyrotechnics. Voting is compulsory in Belgium whereas the Dutch take a more laissez-faire approach to matters psephological. And should the occasion arise, if you are in Belgian territory you can build a house within 300 metres of a pig farm, something which is verboten in Holland.

There was a complex legal case involving a bank which had its front door in Dutch territory but its vault in Belgian. It was suspected of being used for money laundering and the Dutch couldn’t access the vault nor could the Belgians get into the bank. The matter was only resolved when authorities from the two countries had the brain wave of co-operating.

Bonkers as the arrangements seem, it all appears to work.

The Streets Of London – Part Seventy Seven

Haymarket, SW1

Connecting Pall Mall at its south end with Coventry Street at the north is Haymarket, which today is synonymous with London’s theatre land. But for those who are interested in the development of the great metropolis, its origins shine a light on a very different and more bucolic spot.

Ralph Aggas’ Map of London, published in 1560, shows Haymarket in its present position but it was a lane with hedgerows either side and very little evidence of habitation save for the nearby village of Charing. Indeed, the air was so fresh and clean – can you imagine it? – that Aggas shows a washerwoman spreading out her washing on the grass of a field, roughly on the spot where Her Majesty’s Theatre now stands.

As for its name, it was the place where hay and straw were sold, a tradition that dates back to at least the mid 16th century. Markets were held three times a week.In 1692 the thoroughfare was paved and a toll system was introduced. Carts loaded with hay had to pay 3d while loads of straw cost 2d. The responsibility for collecting the tolls was contracted out for a period of 99 years at the beginning of the 18th century to one Derick Stork. The market was eventually moved in 1830 to Cumberland Market near Regent’s Park, by Act of Parliament.

Selling hay wasn’t the only business conducted on Haymarket. A token to the value of a halfpenny has been found, dating to 1666, issued by Nathanil Robins, described as a “seacole seller” located at “Hay Markett, in Piccadilla.” The area began to be gentrified and one building in particular was frequently visited by Charles II and the Duke of York. Its attraction? It had a tennis court at the back.

Edward Hatton, in his New View of London, published in 1708, described Haymarket as “a very spacious and public street, in length 340 yards, where is a great market for hay and straw” and a century later James Malcolm noted that it was “an excellent street, 1,020 feet in length, of considerable breadth, and remarkably dry, occasioned by the descent from Piccadilly.” Apart from the inconvenience caused by the traffic of carts, Malcolm thought it a “pleasant promenade.

It was not quite so during the riots which followed the accession of William and Mary to the throne in 1688. The house occupied by the Duke of Florence’s ambassador was attacked and destroyed by a mob, described by Macaulay as “infuriated..who paraded the streets, almost unchecked, with oranges on top of their drawn swords and naked pikes.

But during the 19th century the place went down hill fast. Old and New London, published in 1878, reported that “Haymarket is a great place for hotels, supper-houses, and foreign cafés; and it need hardly be added here, that so many of its taverns became the resort of the loosest characters, after the closing of the theatres, who turned night into day, and who were so constantly appearing before the sitting magistrates in consequence of drunken riots and street rows, that the Legislature interfered, and an Act of Parliament was passed, compelling the closing of such houses of refreshment at twelve o’clock.”

The Haymarket association with the theatre began in the 17th century. The first substantive theatre was built by John Vanburgh in 1705, the Queen’s, but its acoustics rendered it more suitable for operatic performances. After Queen Anne’s death in 1714 it was renamed the King’s where it remained until it was burnt down in 1790. A new King’s theatre was built on the site but it too burnt down. The present theatre, Her Majesty’s, stands on the same site and was opened in 1897. The Theatre Royal, was built in 1820 on the site of a former theatre built a century earlier.

Standing on the busy thoroughfare it is barely credible that it once was a quiet country lane.