Book Corner – February 2019 (3)

The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories – edited by Martin Edwards

Another of those wonderful anthologies of some classic and other long-forgotten crime stories with a Christmas theme compiled by the inestimable Martin Edwards and published as part of the British Library Crime Classics series. It is a bit like a selection box of chocolates, eleven in all, too rich to devour in one sitting and with the occasional indigestible nugget but, on the whole, a satisfying and pleasurable experience. What is there not to like?

My favourite of the collection is Cyril Hare’s Sister Bessie or Your Old Leech in which Timothy Trent, a banker, tries to unmask his blackmailer during the course of a Christmas party. The story has a surprising twist which does not bode well for the cocksure Trent. Richard Knox’s The Motive also features a surprising twist at the end, causing the reader to double-back on all of their assumptions they had made whilst reading Sir Leonard Huntercombe’s account of a client of his by the name of Westmacott, suspected of attempted murder and murder.

I also enjoyed ‘Twixt the Cup and Lip by Julian Symons in which a gang try to pull off a jewellery heist in Oxford Street but find that their best laid plans are thwarted on all sides. Just be careful what shoes you wear is the take away I got from this tale. The eponymous story, by Donald Stuart, features all the classic ingredients of a Christmas crime story, strangers pushed together in a suitably creepy and mysterious inn, stranded by snow. It is an open invitation for kidnap, murder and attempted murder and Lowe does not disappoint.

I also associate Christmas stories with ghosts and spectres and Edwards does not disappoint. The most atmospheric is Blind Man’s Hood by Carter Dickson in which a couple of guests turn up late for a country house party. They are entertained by the maid who tells of the murder of Jane Waycross there many decades earlier but things aren’t all that they appear to be. As someone who is fascinated by the interplay of luck in success, my next book will be on this subject, I enjoyed By The Sword by Selwyn Jepson. The killer thinks he has come up with a perfect plan but fate and predetermination lead to his downfall.

And a crime collection wouldn’t be complete without an impossibly convoluted plot. This is supplied by E R C Lorac’s A Bit of Wire-Pulling in which Inspector Lang, detailed to protect industrialist, Sir Charles Langton, who has received a death threat. Lang fails in his immediate task but is astute enough to see through the murderer’s elaborate plot.

For me, the strawberry creams in the collection, I only eat them under sufferance, are Baroness Orzy’s A Christmas Tragedy in which Lady Molly, astonishingly a high-ranking Scotland Yard ‘tec in an age of nailed-on male chauvinism, clears a young man’s name from accusations of doing away with his prospective father-in-law and Francis Durbridge’s Paul Temple’s White Christmas. The latter is so light and flimsy that it could easily have been dispensed with without harming the collection.

Of course, the charm of these collections is that there is something for everyone. I’m looking forward to reading the first of the Christmas collections, Silent Nights, perhaps with a pair of slippers given at Christmas on my feet and a glass of gin by my side. You can’t beat it.

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The Streets Of London – Part Eighty Four

Knightrider Street, EC4V

London is an ever-changing city and testament to that is Knightrider Street. Today it is a rather insignificant alley but in its prime was a major City thoroughfare. In its modern incarnation it runs parallel to Carter Lane to the north and Queen Victoria Street, running from Addle Hill in the west to Peter’s Hill in the east. Formerly, it was much longer, extending further east and, possibly, running into Queen Victoria Street, although this is far from certain, and marked the boundary between a number of City wards. How times have changed.

The street first appeared in documents as far back as 1322, where it appeared as Knyghtrdestrete. The inestimable antiquarian, John Stow, gave an explanation of how the name came about, in his 1598 Survey of London. According to Stow, it “was so called (as is supposed) of Knights well armed and mounted at the Tower Royall, ryding from thence through that street, west to Creede Lane, and so out at Ludgate towards Smithfield when they were there to turney, joust or otherwise to shew activities before the king and states of Realme.”

Others doubt the veracity of Stow’s explanation, charming as it is to imagine knights of the realm riding out in all their splendour for a session at the jousting lists. The problem is that knightrider didn’t exist as a word at the time. In Middle English rider was synonymous with a knight and, perhaps, the street was simply called Rider Street with Knight added as a prefix at a later date, when the association between rider and knight was blurred. Who knows?

The middle section of the street was known as Old Fish Street and at least from the 12th century there was a fish market, piscaria, there. This alone suggests that the thoroughfare, irrespective of its name, dated to that period, if not well before.

Visitors to the street will find, if they walk eastwards, crossing Godliman Street, on their left-hand side The Centre Page pub at no 29, previously the Horn Tavern until the name change in 2002. It has a name check in Pepys’ diaries, Samuel noting on April 13th 1663 “and so I called at the wardrobe on my way home and there spoke at the Horn Tavern with Mr Moore a word or two.” Guy Fawkes is also said to have met there, whilst plotting to blow up the Houses of Parliament, suggesting that it was well established before Pepys’ visit.

The pub was badly damaged during the Great Fire but was rebuilt, operating as a fashionable coffee-house, where the Free and Easy under the Rose Society, a form of Freemasons, met from 1758, as well as a tavern. It was here, according to Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, that Winkle, Snodgrass and Tupman sent out for “a bottle or two of very good wine” to sustain their leader during his sojourn in Fleet prison. It was damaged during the blitz but dusted itself down and got back into business. If you visit it these days you will find that there is a corner dedicated to David Hasselhoff, for obvious reasons.

Thomas Linacre lived in the Stone House on the street and it was there that he founded the College of Physicians on September 23rd 1518. Its powers to regulate physicians were extended to cover all of England, not just London, by Act of Parlaiment in 1523. Stow notes that a public lecture in what he termed as Chirugerie was given there every Wednesday and Friday, a custom which was instituted on 6th May 1584.

Stow also noted that from 1570 Doctors of “the Ciuill Law and Arches” kept quarters, known as Doctors’ Commons, and lodged on the street, probably where the BT Faraday building is today. The Commons were destroyed in the Great Fire but rebuilt shortly thereafter, before being demolished in 1867.

Time has not served this street well, methinks.

Poo Stick Of The Week

It’s undeniable that the arrival of digital technology has revolutionised the process of taking photos. No longer do you have to take care over which shot to take and then wait a few days until the local chemist returns your film to find out the results of your endeavours. You can just snap away and when you have done, you can delete the duff shots and, if you are running out of space on your device, download them to some form of storage medium.

But you need to take care where you put your USB stick as this story from New Zealand I came across this week illustrates.

Some scientists at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in Aukland are checking on the health of leopard seals by examining their excrement. This particular piece of turd, collected from Oreti beach in Invercargill in November 2017, had been stored in a freezer and when it had thawed out, they were astonished to find a USB stick in the middle of it.

Considering where it had been, the stick was in remarkably good condition and after clips and pictures from it were shown on national TV, the owner came forward, one Amanda Nally, a self-confessed seal nut.

But scientists are perplexed as to how the stick got stuck in the poo. It was too enmeshed with the other contents from the seal’s stomach, birds’ feathers and bones and the like, to have just fallen out of Nally’s pocket into the turd. The mot likely theory, although to me it seems a stretch, is that Nally dropped it on the ground, it was picked up by a seabird, which was then eaten by a leopard seal, the results of whose satisfying crap were then picked up by a scientist.

We will never know. Pity the stick didn’t have an external camera.

Names Of The Week (3)

Whilst I’m looking forward to AI cars, anything that can drive me home after a few beers down the local is welcome in my book, I’m not so sure about all-electric cars. An improvement in the range of these vehicles and a more extensive network of recharging stations might persuade this old Luddite of their merits but until then I’m sticking with my old gas guzzler.

Still, there seems to be a demand for these things and German car manufacturers, Audi, are one of the latest to announce an exciting range of all-singing, all-dancing electric cars. It’s called the E-tron, a name cooked up in the pressure cooker world of some marketing department.

But there is one teensy little problem. The marketeers’ chosen brand name is almost identical to the French word Étron. What is a hyphen between amis?

And what does Étron mean?

Why, excrement or turd, of course.

My sentiments entirely about the car but I expect it will have to be rebranded to satisfy the sensibilities of the French buying public.

Mon dieu, back to the drawing board.

What Is The Origin Of (218)?…

Pull out all of the stops

You will have realised by now that I regularly pull out all of the stops to bring you interesting and accurate insights into some of the phrases and idioms with which we pepper our everyday speech. By this I mean that make every possible effort, leave no stone unturned in my pursuit of etymological veracity.

For those of us who visit churches for things other than spiritual comfort, one of the wonders on display is the church organ, with its impressive array of pipes and its equally attention-grabbing stentorian roar.

The organ has a long and impressive history. Its invention is credited to Ctesibius of Alexandria, who, in the 3rd century BCE, constructed what was known as hydraulis. Using pumps and water regulators, water pressure controlled the flow of air to a set of pipes, allowing different notes to be played and, in the hands of an accomplished player, a tune to be created. In the 2nd century CE an inflated leather bag replaced the water regulators and by the 6th century air was supplied by bellows.

The first organ to appear in the West was presented to Pepin the Short, king of the Franks, by the Byzantine emperor, Constantine V, in 757, and Pepin’s son, Charlemagne, installed one in chapel in Aachen in 812, establishing the tradition of organs in Western churches.

As the technology around organs developed and improved, the flow of air to the pipes was regulated by a series of buttons or stops. An accomplished organist is a bit of a virtuoso, having to tinkle the ivories on the keyboard, pressing pedals furiously with their feet and opening and shutting stops. By pulling out a particular stop, the volume of that note increased. In Spinal Tap speak, pulling out all of the stops on an organ would be the equivalent of setting the volume dial to eleven.

So, is this the origin of the phrase?

Well, probably, although in the 16th century the word stop was used to denote a musical note or key. George Gascoigne, in his satire entitled The Steele Glas, published in 1576, wrote, “but sweeter soundes, of concorde, peace and loue,/ are out of tune, and iarre in euery stoppe.” The problem with thinking that this meaning of stop is the origin of our phrase is that musical notes are not pulled. Stops on an organ are. I think we have to accept that the phrase refers to the way that the volume of an organ can be regulated and enhanced – by pulling out all of the stops.

The phrase began to be used in a figurative sense much later. Probably its first usage is to be found in Matthew Arnold’s Essays in Criticism, published in 1865; “knowing how unpopular a task one is undertaking when one tries to pull out a few more stops in that…somewhat narrow-toned organ, the modern Englishman.

Perhaps what is most interesting about Arnold’s usage is that even though he clearly uses it in a figurative sense, he had to anchor his reference to the musical world, in general, and the organ, in particular. It probably confirms that the origin of stop was the organ stop and that his readers would not understand his point without reference to the instrument.

It was not until the 1950s that you could play an organ at home, when Franz Rudolph Wurlitzer began to market a small, electronic organ in the United States.

On My Doorstep – Part Eighteen

Colonel John Pennycuick (1841 – 1911)

Walking through the graveyard of St Peter’s Church in Frimley a few months ago I noticed a new addition to the burial spot of John Pennycuick, a stone plaque donated by the grateful peoples of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Kerala is one of my favourite spots in the world and my interest was piqued to find the connection between a man in Frimley and the states in the southern tip of India and why he had earned their undying gratitude.

And quite a story it is too.

The Periyar river rises in the Western Ghats and descends into Kerala, irrigating the fertile lands as it makes its way to the Arabian Sea. Kerala’s lush green countryside and wonderful backwaters are testimony to the importance of the river to the area. Those who lived on the eastern side of the Ghats were less fortunate. The Vaigai river that flowed from there to the Bay of Bengal was smaller and less reliable. Indeed, in the 19th century the soil was dry and unfit for agriculture. Locals were reduced to stealing grain and cattle from neighbouring villages just to scrape a living.

Plans to divert some of the waters of the Periyar into the Vaigai were mooted as early as 1789. In 1808 Captain J L Caldwell did some exploratory drilling in the area but concluded that any such project was “decidedly chimerical and unworthy of further regard.” The first attempt to dam the Periyar was made in 1850 but soon abandoned because the workers demanded higher wages to compensate for the unhealthy living conditions they had to endure.

In 1882, minds perhaps concentrated by the terrible famines six years earlier, the construction of a dam was approved and the military engineer, John Pennycuick, was appointed to bring it to fruition. Work began in earnest in May 1887, using troops from the 1st and 4th battalions of the Madras Pioneers and carpenters from Cochin. The dam was made with concrete made from a mix of lime and surkhi, burnt brick powder mixed with sugar and calcium oxide, and was faced with rubble. It was a gravity dam, meaning that the force of gravity was deployed to support the reservoir, giving it extra stability in extreme weather conditions and in the event of earthquakes.

Situated some 3,000 feet above sea level in what was dense, malarial jungle, the dam, known as the Mullaperiyar Dam, is 176 feet tall at its highest point, 1,241 feet long and holds up to 15 thousand million cubic feet of water. It was an astonishing accomplishment, dubbed as “one of the most extraordinary feats of engineering ever performed by man.

And that’s not all.

At the northern end of the dam a mile-long deep cutting was excavated for the water to flow through, then via a 5,704-foot tunnel and then through another cutting to reach and augment the waters of the Vaigai. It transformed the land to the east of the Ghats, making it almost as fertile as Kerala and allowing sustainable agriculture to flourish. Work was completed in 1895 and the dam was inaugurated by the then Governor of the Madras Presidency, Lord Wenlock. Penicuick had won the undying gratitude of the locals, not only at the time but for generations to come, an example (rare as it might be) of the positive effects of the Raj.

But the work came at a cost. Often rains and torrents from the swollen rivers would wash away the temporary structures as the dam was being constructed. At one point the project was perilously close to running out of money and legend has it, although there is no firm evidence to support it, that Pennycuick sold his wife’s jewellery to keep the work going.

And there was a human cost. 483 people died of disease during the construction of the dam, most of whom are interred in a cemetery to the north of the works. It is also claimed that but for the medicinal properties of the local firewater, arrack, the work would never have been finished.

A sense of the enormity of the achievement and the difficulties Pennycuick faced can be gleaned from this extract from his obituary in The Times; “under his direction the work was carried to completion in the face of numerous difficulties, the country being entirely uninhabited and most inaccessible, the climate malarious, while labour, transport and technical problems daily presented themselves for solution.”

Pennycuick, who was born in Poona in India but schooled in Addiscombe in Surrey, retired to Camberley, presumably because of its military connections, after leaving India and advising the Queensland authorities on how to control the Brisbane river. He settled down in Silourie, which was on the Branksome Park Road in Camberley, between Upper Park Road and Crawley Ridge, serving as a member of the Frimley Urban District Council, chairing it at the time of his death in March 1911, after a long illness.

A truly great man.

Book Corner – February 2019 (2)

Melmoth – Sarah Perry

In the rock world they call it third album syndrome. You have burst on to the scene with a promising debut, followed up with a classic and then find that the long-awaited third album is difficult to put together and is a bit of a clunker. Do writers experience the creative difficulties?

One of my favourite books in recent times was Perry’s scintillating The Essex Serpent, her second novel, and so it was with a mixture of excitement and some trepidation that I picked up her third and latest novel, Melmoth. If you have to categorise it, it is in the Gothic tradition and draws its themes and structure from Melmoth the Wanderer, a bizarre Gothic novel written by Charles Maturin in 1820.

Melmoth purportedly was there at Christ’s tomb, saw him by its side but later denied that she had witnessed his resurrection. For this she was doomed to wander around the world until the Second Coming. Desperate for company, she would visit those who had delved the depths of depravity and misery and hold out her hand to entreat them to join her on her long march.

The central character in Perry’s novel is an English woman, Helen Franklin, who is working in Prague as a translator. She has a mundane life and is hardly a bundle of fun. Perry describes her early on in the book as “small, insignificant, having an air sadness whose source you cannot guess at; of self-punishment, self-hatred…” The astute reader will quickly deduce that there is more to this mouse of a woman than first meets the eye.

Helen is introduced to the myth of Melmoth by one of her few Czech friends, Karel. He has been bequeathed some papers by an old man, Joseph Hoffman, whom he had befriended in the university library. These recount how he saw Melmoth, after he had betrayed a family Jews to death at a concentration camp. It was through his encounter with Melmoth that Hoffman could begin to come to terms with what he had done.

Karel, in his obsession to find out more about Melmoth, has assembled a collection of papers recounting other encounters. Helen eagerly devours the contents and extracts from each of the reports form a large chunk of Perry’s narrative. We meet a woman condemned to burn at the stake for heresy and a Turkish civil servant who was complicit in the massacre of Armenians.

Helen feels she is being watched whilst in Prague. Naturally, it is Melmoth, albeit in a different guise, and, naturally, given Melmoth’s association with those who have witnessed or committed atrocities, Helen has her own dark secret, which is gradually revealed as the story rumbles on.

It is not an unremittingly dark book. Karel is able to break free from the hold that Melmoth had over him, albeit by fleeing the Czech Republic, abandoning his disabled wife and joining up with some protestors. And I think that that is Perry’s central message; we should not abandon ourselves to guilt but to recognise what we have done, take stock and change. Hope, after all, was what was left in Pandora’s box. Helen, at the end of the book, says “I do have hope, I feel it in here like a pain.

The writing is astonishingly vivid, with Perry moving in and out of the style of period documents to the modern day with consummate ease. The imagery she deploys stays in the mind – the jackdaws dashing themselves against the windows, an empty chair in a field for Melmoth’s use just in case she passed by.

In summary, it is not as accessible as The Serpent’s Tail but it was worth the effort. Perry has successfully avoided the third album syndrome