What Is The Origin Of (208)?…

Morton’s fork

For those of us who subscribe to the concept of free will or self-determinism we can spend a heck of a lot of time weighing up the pros and cons of the various courses of action. Sometimes we may conclude that we have been presented with a Hobson’s Choice – a phrase we looked at many moons ago – in which only one option is really available and we either have to take it or lump it.

On the other hand, we may conclude that there are two courses of action we could take but the anticipated outcome of either is just as unpleasant as the other. Such a prospect is known as Morton’s fork, named after John Morton (c 1420 – 1500), Archbishop of Canterbury, who had an ingenious line of thought to determine whether someone could afford to pay a forced loan, euphemistically called a benevolence, to his master, Henry VII.

Francis Bacon picks up the story in his The historie of the raigne of King Henry the seventh of 1622; “there is a Tradition of a Dilemma, that Bishop Morton the Chancellour vsed, to raise vp the Beneuolence to higher Rates; and some called it his Forke, and some his Crotch…That if they met with any that were sparing, they should tell them, That they must needs haue, because they laid vp; and if they were spenders, they must needs hauve, because it was seene in their Port, and manner of living. So neither kinde came amisse.

In other words, the crafty Bishop thought that if you were living frugally, you must have amassed savings and if you were extravagant in your lifestyle, you could obviously afford to pay. It described a situation that was analogous to being between the devil and the deep blue sea or between a rock and a hard place.

Inevitably, the phrase was occasionally used in a figurative sense. An example of such is to be found in the Paisley and Renfrewshire Gazette and Paisley Herald of 16th May 1885. With impeccable logic the columnist queried a recent budget which increased the tax on beers and spirits, commenting; “one prong of Morton’s fork certainly applies to the Teetotallers. If they do not spend money on liquor, they must be better able than others to contribute to the national necessities.” Quite.

There was a time when correspondents to newspapers used the letters’ page to showcase their erudition. One such was moved in September 1888 to pen a letter to the Thunderer aka the Times to comment upon the question of tithes in Wales. With impeccable logic he wrote; “either the tithe is the titheowner’s, in which case they should give it him, or it is public property, in which case they should not keep it in their own pockets. How will they escape? MORTON’S FORK.

While we are on the subject, we may as well deal with Buridan’s Ass, the logician’s equivalent of a drinker of rosė wine and named after the 14th century philosopher, Jean Buridan. It is a reduction ad absurdum, illustrating the mental paralysis that can beset someone seeking to exercise free will. The conceit is that an ass will choose to go wherever is the nearer so if it stands equidistant from a pail of water and a stack of hay, it will die both of thirst and hunger because it can’t make a rational decision between the two courses of action.

Exercising my free will, I will quit while the going is good!

Gin O’Clock – Part Fifty Three

For those of us who surf the ginaissance and like to stock our drinks cabinet with hitherto untried gins, sourcing the stuff can be a bit of a problem. For sure, there are a plethora of on-line wholesalers but by the time you have added postage and packing into the equation, what seemed like a bit of a bargain can turn into an expensive acquisition. Trips to Cornwall have to be rationed and so I’m left with the local supermarkets and offies.

I was getting a bit fed up with our local branch of Waitrose. They have an extensive range of gins, to be sure, but by now I had sampled all of their buyer’s selections. On a recent visit, though, I spotted a bottle of Cotswold Dry Gin which I seized with the alacrity that a cobra does an unfortunate rat.

It comes in a rather distinctive, and dare I say it, elegant dark-green bottle, almost like a premium wine, with a dark, wine bottle-like label at the front, silver edged bearing the name of the spirit, the logo of a pheasant fanning its tail and date that the gin was established, 2014. My bottle was the first of 7,500 from the 19th batch produced in 2017, or so a signed second label stuck on at a jaunty diagonal angle tells me. It is stunning and can be purchased in a gift box if you are foolhardy enough, and generous enough, to part with it.

A neutral, pure wheat spirit used as the base in a 500-litre copper pot still, to which is added some water. The base botanicals – juniper, coriander seeds and angelica – are added and left to mascerate overnight for around 15 hours. The rest of the nine botanicals used are then added – lavender, grapefruit, bay leaf, lime, black pepper, and cardamom – and the mix is then slowly boiled. The first and last third of the resultant mix are discarded, and then allowed to rest for five days before being diluted down to its very feisty fighting weight of 46% ABV.

One thing to note is that a large amount of the botanicals is used in the process, the result of which is that the eventual gin is somewhat on the oily side and when ice and/or a mixer is added, it can cloud, a phenomenon known as louching. Just think of what happens when you add water to ouzo. If a crystal-clear gin is your thing, either drink it neat or steer clear.

Upon removing the artificial stopper protected by a foil a la wine, the aroma is one of citrus and, perhaps, lavender with the heavy tones of juniper lurking in the background. To the taste the gin is initially rather sweet but eventually the pepper fights its way through and then the juniper and lavender make an appearance. In the mouth it has a rather oily texture but not in an unpleasant way. The aftertaste is a well-balanced blend of sweet and spice. I found it very refreshing and a nice twist on a juniper-led gin.

The story behind the gin is one that is by now very familiar. Master mind Daniel Szor, a former hedge fund investor, established a distillery in the beautiful village of Stourton, near Shipston-on-Stour, deep in the heart of the Cotswolds, in 2012, the first distillery in the area. The plan was to distil whisky, a long and time-consuming affair, and one which can have a significant impact on cash-flow when there are significant fixed costs to absorb.

The answer, of course, was to introduce a product range that was available and ready to sell in a much shorter time frame – gin. And so this rather intriguing and high-quality gin was born.

Until the next time, cheers!

Book Corner – November 2018 (4)

The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton

I mentioned a little while ago that Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street was denied the 1921 Pulitzer Prize when the Trustees overturned the jury’s decision. The prize was awarded to a more established and perhaps more conventional writer, Edith Wharton, making her the first woman to receive the Pulitzer. The winning book, The Age of Innocence, was her 12th novel and appeared initially as a four part serial in the Pictorial Review. It takes its title from a 1785 Joshua Reynolds’ painting, A Little Girl.

On the whole, the Trustees were just about right. Wharton’s novel is a more complete, more rounded piece of work than Lewis’ patchy Main Street but, interestingly, they both explore the theme of how society and its conventions can thwart the individual. Instead of little America Wharton’s book plunges us into New York society of the 1870s and explores its foibles and conventions and the threat that new money and younger people with changing attitudes and values presents to the rather ossified, conventional ways of their elders. She is in her element in poking fun, either directly or with withering parenthetical remarks.

The story is a love triangle. At the start of the book we meet part-time lawyer, Newland Archer – surely his surname is a nod to Henry James’ creation in Portrait of a Lady? – who is engaged to be married to the well-connected, shy, lovely Mary Welland. But there is trouble in Paradise when Mary’s cousin, the exotic Countess Ellen Olenska, scandalously separated from her husband, arrives on the scene. Newland is smitten. He is torn between the stability, comfort and influence that he will derive from a marriage that cements him into the upper echelons of New York society and the all-consuming passions that the unconventional, socially ostracised and rebellious Countess stoke in him.

The pressures of convention and society win out and Mary and Newland are married. But the fire in his heart that Ellen has lit will not be extinguished. After much agonising, Newland decides to elope and join Ellen who has returned to Europe, without leaving word to her beau. Just as Newland steels himself to announce his intentions to Mary, she drops the P word. She is pregnant and, indeed, suspecting the affair, had caused Ellen to leave for Europe. A man of honour, Newland stays with his wife in what becomes a loveless union.

The final scene even affected a world-weary cynic like me. In Paris with his sone, Mary long dead, Newland is offered the opportunity to visit his one-time lover. But he prefers to sit it out on a park bench conveniently looking on to the window of Ellen’s rooms. Perhaps he is right. Memories are far better than reality.

The crux of the book is how to read Mary. Was it just a set of unfortunate circumstances or was she a manipulative little so-and-so, not quite the demure wife that Wharton portrays? I favour the latter interpretation.

It is a great read, some wonderful passages, Wharton writing in an easy style that engages her readership. There is a wider message too behind the book. New York society is/was too suffocating and insular. It needed culture and new influences to breathe and flourish. Exactly what Sinclair Lewis was saying about Mid-West America.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Eighteen

The Monte Christo Pistol hoax, 1856

A staple ingredient of the movie business when I was growing up was the Western. The derring-do of the likes of John Wayne kept us entertained and left us with the distinct impression that America, or at least the western parts of it, was a dangerous and lawless place, full of gun slingers and desperadoes, ready to shoot to kill at the drop of a Stetson. It seems it was ever thus.

That august of newspapers, The Times of London, received an astonishing letter from an Englishman who had been travelling in Georgia. In it the correspondent, it later was revealed to be John Arrowsmith, a cotton merchant, recounted how he had boarded a train at Macon for a ten and a half hour journey to Augusta. The train made slow and stately progress, stopping from time to time, not because of congestion on the tracks, the wrong sort of snow or leaves on the line which are the bane of many an Englishman’s commute, but for something much more sinister.

The letter recounted a bloodthirsty litany of carnage. By the time he had got off the train, six passengers had been killed. Scores were settled by way of duels and the conductor obligingly stopped the train from time to time so that the combatants could get out and fire shots at each other without prejudicing the safety of their fellow passengers. But the most horrifying murder was that of a boy who, on witnessing his father gunned down, cried out and had had his throat slit for his troubles.

Arrowsmith then went on to claim that this level of violence was so commonplace on American trains that it did not unduly concern the other passengers. It certainly was more than one up from the bunfight to get seats on a crowded train at Waterloo. For The Times this was manna from heaven and they duly published the letter, verbatim, on 15th October 1856, under the headline of “Railways and Revolvers in Georgia.” The tutting at the breakfast tables in suburban England is audible even to this day!

When the American press got wind of the Times’ story, they vigorously denied that anything of the sort had happened in Georgia, let alone it being an everyday occurrence on the railroads of America. The Times stuck to its guns and resisted all claims, particularly from its New York counterpart, to admit that it had been had. Eventually, though, after two months of acrimonious dispute The Thunderer backed down and admitted that Arrowsmith had strung them along.

A little fact checking might have saved The Times a red face. Not only would a little bit of investigation have shown that mass slaughter on the railways was a rarity rather than an everyday occurrence a passenger had to put up with along with draughty windows, but it might also have revealed that Monte Christo pistol was slang in the area for a bottle of champagne. The pistol being a reference to the explosive noise that greets the popping of the cork from the bottle. Empty champers’ bottles were known as dead men.

A Times reporter, travelling through the Southern states a year later, discovered what the locals meant by Monte Christo pistols but at least he had the good grace to put a goodhearted and mildly amusing (demi-sec, perhaps) end to what had been a highly embarrassing episode for the Times. “Encounters with the Monte Christo weapons”, he noted, “in the baggage-wagons are, I understand, not uncommon on the line…[but] no fatal results have ever occurred.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone?


What Is The Origin Of (207)?…


To paraphrase a famous line from Casablanca, of all the narcotics in all of the world marijuana is probably the most sociable. A reefer, or at least it was in my day, was rolled and shared amongst the assembled party. There was a certain etiquette attached to the proceedings. The accepted convention was that you would have a toke or possibly two and then pass the joint on. To hang on to it was to risk the opprobrium of your fellow potheads and incurring the charge of bogarting the joint.

Bogart as a verb means to appropriate or keep something, originally a marijuana cigarette, greedily or selfishly. It owes its origin to the cinematic chain smoker that was Humphrey Bogart and his habit of hanging a fag from the corner of his mouth without actually drawing on it or smoking it, particularly when he launched into a long monologue.

The need to reinforce the correct etiquette associated with smoking dope gave birth to a song, Don’t Bogart That Joint, written by Larry “Stash” Wagner (lyrics) and Elliott Ingber (music) and copyrighted on 8th January 1968. For those unacquainted with the ditty – it was popularised in the 60s cult film, Easy Rider, and by Little Feat on their 1978 live album, Waiting for Columbus – the first couplet of the first verse goes; “Don’t bogart that joint my friend/ pass it over to me.


Unlike port there was no convention as to which way the joint circulated, although the reggae group, the Mighty Diamonds, recorded Pass the Kutchie in early 1982, in which they were adamant that the kutchie, Jamaican slang for a pot that held ganja, should be passed to the left-hand side.


This song spawned an unlikely hit in the UK for a group of teenagers called Musical Youth later that year, although to protect sensitivities Kutchie was replaced by the more innocuous Dutchie, a Jamaican cooking pot, immediately rendering the lyrics nonsensical.

So endemic was pot smoking amongst the arty crowd and ne’er do wells like students that films were produced in which the finer points of the marijuana counter-culture were explored and explained. One such was the 1971 film, Taking Off, directed by Milos Forman. In a review in the Nashville Tennessean in June 1971 the Tennesseans were informed; “the floor-show..is an orientation session in grass smoking. A wild-haired pothead (they were always thus) wafts forward to turn on old-times, acquaint them with dope terminology (joint, bogarting it etc) and remind them that all butts are to be turned in to him.

Interestingly, bogart broke out from the narrow confines of the drug culture to have a more general meaning of hanging on or biding their time. A news report in The Home News from New  Brunswick in New Jersey on 8th January 1980, speculating on whether the election of Ronald Reagan as President would spark a re-run of his old films, noted that “a few stations are bogarting their air time.

Perhaps reflecting the type of character that Humph often played, bogart also developed another sense, that of forcing your way in, coercing or bullying. The Richmond Review from October 1973 reported, with a gloss reflecting that it was not a usage widely understood; “Redd subsequently nicknamed him Bogart because he bogarted (slang expression for forced) his way on the show.

Seasoned topers are always on the look-out for Captain Cork, a slang term for someone who holds on to a communal bottle of hooch for too long.

Manners maketh man, after all.