Book Corner – October 2018 (5)

Three Men In A Boat – Jerome K Jerome

Comic writing is a tricky business. Apart from a bit of slap-stick humour is not universal. What one person finds amusing, another may shake their head at in bewilderment. And humour often appears in the most surprising and unintended circumstances. For me, one of the funniest moments was the announcement by the PG Wodehouse committee that they wouldn’t be awarding their prize this year as there were none funny enough.

Of course, that poses the question; what is a humorous book? Even the most tragic of works have some moments of levity. Wall to wall jokes would be tedious in the extreme. No, it is a tone and general atmosphere that marks a book of humour. And if I was pinned up against the wall to name my favourite humorous books of all time in the English language, then Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat would be up there amongst the best. It is a book I turn to time and time again and one that does not pall on me.

Published in 1889, it was an overnight success, despite being condemned by the critics (what do they know?) because of its lowbrow language and its protagonists were seen as hopeless and neurotic, not the sort who founded and maintained an Empire. It started life out as a travelogue – vestiges of the original concept remain with the descriptions of Hampton Court, Marlow and Medmenham. But Jerome quickly spotted the comedic value of confining three chaps, not forgetting Montmorency the dog, in a small boat pottering up the Thames from the outskirts of London to Oxford. It is a trope to which desperate TV producers turn to this day.

The journey is almost by the by, a peg upon which Jerome hangs a diverse series of set pieces, exploring the absurdities and mundanities of daily life. My favourite of the many shaggy dog stories that Jerome peppers the text with has nothing to do with the journey but is a marvellous account of Uncle Podger’s attempts to hang a picture on a wall. I defy anyone not to find it funny. Following up fairly closely is the trio’s increasing desperate attempts to open a tin of pineapples without a can opener.  In disgust, Harris throws the by now misshapen lump of metal into the drink. We can sympathise with how he feels.

It’s easy to see the book’s appeal. It has a timeless quality about, even though the days of travelling along the river in a boat, pulling in wherever you fancied and escaping from the grime and drudgery of life in the metropolis to a spell, however brief, enjoying the bucolic charms of the countryside have long since gone. Rather like a road trip novel, it is a book about life, comradeship, how we rub along with each other and reminiscences of times past and irrespective of the time when the story is set, these are timeless concerns which affect all of us.

True, it has a particularly English slant. We are past masters at talking about the weather, the horrors of our food and the stresses and strains of suburban life but it is written with a light comic touch that makes it accessible to most, irrespective of where in the English speaking world they reside. This is its triumph and why it will long remain amongst the best of comedic writing.

A La Mode – Part Thirteen

The Patented Elastic Boot

When I was young a rite of passage was mastering the art of tying one’s shoe laces so that they were neither a danger to life or limb and did not come undone within ten minutes. With the ubiquity of Velcro this is now a dying art along with cursive handwriting and the ability to string a sentence together without peppering it with the otiose like. The latter figuratively drives me mad.

As I was growing up an alternative for those who could not be faffed with tying laces was a boot which slipped on and was held firmly to the foot by an elasticated strip near the ankle. They are generally acknowledged to have been the brainwave of J Sparkes-Hall (1811 – 1891), a shoemaker from Sidmouth in Devon who plied his trade and found fame in London.

Sparkes-Hall was interested in the possibilities presented to the shoe manufacturing trade by the then recent innovations in rubber and elastic. He started off in the early 1830s making what we now know as galoshes, waterproof over shoes, to protect fashionable shoes from the dirt of the street and the worst of the English weather. And over time they developed into rather splendid affairs. An advert from around 1853 announces enamelled overshoes with leather soles no less, which were “so soft and flexible during cold weather” and “they readily adapt themselves to any boot or shoe the wearer may select.

Yours for just 7s 6d a pair if you were a woman, 3s 6d for a child and 12s, including box heels and plush counters, for a chap.

But Sparkes-Hall was not content to kick his heels flogging over shoes. Shoe laces were an impediment if out riding – they had a tendency to get caught in the stirrups – and for the lazy or those pushed for time an easier form of attaching shoes to the feet was the Holy Grail. There were slipper-like shoes around but they were difficult to keep on and boots that were fastened by buttons were fiddly to get on.

Sparkes-Hall’s brainwave was to fit elastic to the side of his shoes but he was thwarted by the poor quality of elastic available at the time. They were simply not elastic enough. His breakthrough came in 1837 when he patented a slip-on boot, the innovative feature of which was a gusset made of tightly coiled wire and cotton. In 1840 he patented a boot which was fitted with what we would recognise as elastic.

In a marketing masterstroke, Sparkes-Hall gave the young Queen Victoria a pair as she had been moaning about how her laces hampered her riding. He later was able to announce proudly that “Her Majesty has been pleased to honour the invention with the most marked and continued patronage; it has been my privilege for some years to make boots of this kind for Her Majesty, and no one who reads the court circular, or is acquainted with Her Majesty’s habits of walking and exercise in the open air, can doubt the superior claims of the elastic over every other boot.

Royal patronage having been secured, sales of the elastic boot rocketed and were often used in preference to tall riding boots up until the early 20th century. The Queen and her hubby, at least the 1853 advert claimed, also used the enamelled overshoes.

When you are slipping on an elasticated boot, you have Sparkes-Hall to thank.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Seventeen

Redheffer’s Perpetual Motion machine, 1812

I find even the simplest concepts of the laws that govern the world, what we now term physics, somewhat baffling but even I know that energy is something that needs to be transferred to an object to make it work. But in 1812 Charles Redheffer astonished the good citizens of Philadelphia by claiming that he had invented what he called a perpetual motion machine which required no energy to run. If his claims were well-founded, it would transform the world of physics as it was known then.

Redheffer had even produced a working model, which he proudly displayed in a workshop near the banks of the Schuylkill River, on the outskirts of the city. The curious were invited to inspect it but had to pay for the privilege, upwards of $5 a time if they were chaps and the fairer sex up to $1. The machine drew quite a crowd and emboldened by this success, Charles applied to the city council for a grant to build an all singing, all dancing version of the machine.

This proved to be his undoing.

In making his application for the funds, Redheffer explained that the perpetual motion machine transferred power to another machine by way of a set of interlocking gears. Eight city commissioners visited the workshop on 21st January 1813 to inspect the machine in detail but Redheffer refused to let them get too near, claiming that he was frightened they might damage it. Still, one sharp-eyed commissioner, Nathan Sellers, noticed that the gears on the machine were marked in such a way that suggested that it was receiving power from the other machine, not generating it, as Redheffer claimed.

Smelling a rat, the commissioners delayed the granting of funds and instructed a local engineer, Isaiah Lukens, to replicate Redheffer’s machine. Luckens used a clockwork mechanism hidden inside the machine to give it its power. When Redheffer saw the machine, he offered to buy it. When the ruse was revealed, Redheffer did what any self-respecting hoaxer would do, fled to New York, taking his machine with him.

Later that year, 1813, Redheffer exhibited his incredible Perpetual Motion machine in New York. As in Philadelphia, it went down a storm and crowds flocked, and paid, to see this mechanism which defied the laws of physics. One person who was drawn to the exhibition was a mechanical engineer named Robert Fulton. On inspecting the machine closely, Fulton noticed that it wobbled slightly and suspected that Redheffer’s marvel was being supplied with power by means of a hand-crank and that the operator was doing so in a jerky manner.

But where was the hand-crank and where was the operator secreted?

Fulton was of a sporting bent and offered Redheffer a sort of challenge. He, Fulton, would reveal the secret source of the machine’s energy or else he would reimburse the inventor for any damage he caused in the attempt to reveal the secret of the Perpetual Motion machine. Redheffer accepted the challenge.

Fulton removed some of the boarding behind the machine and spotted a piece of cord made out of catgut, which seemed to come from the floor above. Tracing it, Fulton revealed an old, bearded man sitting beside a hand-crank, which he turned laboriously with one hand while eating bread with the other.

The spectators, realising that they had been conned, smashed up the machine and once more Redheffer scarpered. He reappeared in Philadelphia in 1816, claiming to have built another machine and offering to exhibit it to the great and the good. Despite a number of meetings, Redheffer refused to reveal the machine.

Astonishingly, in 1820, Charles Redheffer was granted a patent for “machinery for the purpose of gaining power” but, alas, a fire at the Patent Office in 1836 destroyed all the records. We will never know whether it was the same machine.

If you enjoyed this, look out for Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone.

Theft Of The Week (2)

I’m of an age that every now and again I get an invitation to apply some faecal matter to a stick and send it back in the post.

No, I’m not a member of some weird fetish group. It is part of the Health Service’s campaign to check old codgers for bowel cancer. I really must get around to doing it.

Some organisations take a more direct approach to increasing awareness of diseases to the bowel. Take the University of Kansas Cancer Centre. They use a ten-foot, inflatable model of a diseased colon, weighing 150 lbs and worth $4,000, to drive the message home.

Or did.

Someone, I read this week, has stolen it from the back of the truck in which it was stored. The Centre would rather like it back and you can imagine that the thief experienced a certain sense of disappointment when they got their loot home and unfurled it.

For sure, it might make an interesting inflatable for the kids to play with but it must have a rather limited resale value.

The police, of course, are straining every muscle to catch the culprit but the man in the picture has been eliminated from their enquiries.

Sporting Event Of The Week (18)

Do you prefer your drink shaken or stirred?

Either way it was probably best to give the Avenida de Mayo, one of Buenos Aire’s busiest streets, a miss last weekend. Yes, it was the annual waiters race, an event which has been held since 1908 when seven waiters challenged each other to see who was the fastest.

368 waiters, men and women, competed in this year’s event, the aim being to see who could complete the 1,600 metre course carrying a loaded tray the fastest. Of course, to win you had to ensure you didn’t spill a drop. The rules require participants to carry the tray using only one hand.

Competitors are split into age groups and the winner of the 31 to 45-year-old category this year was the aptly named Walter Kantor. Perhaps not so much a canter as a trot.

Whatever his style, it obviously worked.