What Is The Origin Of (233)?…

A nation of shopkeepers

This phrase is a description of England with rather negative connotations, suggesting that the inhabitants are small-minded. Surely not?

Be that as it may, is it true these days? Wandering along the high street of our local village, as I do from time to time, there is very little in the way of what I would call real shops. Yes, we have charity shops, hairdressers, nail bars, betting shops, cafes, estate agents, and solicitors but what may be termed as a real retail experience is limited to a supermarket and a newsagent. I’m sure the Frimley retail experience is replicated the country over.

Of course, this sad state of affairs, the consequence of the development of mega-superstores, on-line retailing and ever rising rates, was not always thus. Casting my mind back no more than twenty years ago, the high street had a wide range of shops. The heydays of small, specialist retail shops, though, is to be found earlier, reaching its acme in the 19th century and first half of the 20th century. Then a reverse in the fortunes of small shops set in, one, I’m afraid, is unlikely to be reversed.

I had originally thought that our phrase was originated by Napoleon Bonaparte but it just shows how wrong I can be. The plaudits, if that is what the remark deserves, belong to Josiah Tucker and Adam Smith.

Welshman Tucker was the Dean of Gloucester who, as well as attending to his religious duties, was a prolific pamphleteer, holding strong anti-American sentiments and hostile to Methodism, as well as being a supporter of free trade. In 1766, he wrote, “and what is true of a shopkeeper is true of a shopkeeping nation.” Interestingly, he is thought to have had a profound influence on the development of Adam Smith’s economic and political thought.

The Navigation Acts of 1651 gave a monopoly to merchants and shopkeepers in England over the produce that came from its colonies. Half way through his influential book, The Wealth of Nations, the Scottish economist, Adam Smith, focused his guns on the Acts, writing “to found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.”

The phrase was born, although its sense is hardly pejorative. This is where the French came in, possibly.

A View of Universal History by John Adams, published in 1794, attributes to the French revolutionary, Bertrand Barere de Viuezac, in a speech to the National Convention on June 11, 1794, the phrase “let Pitt then boast of his victory to his nation of shopkeepers.” Whether Napoleon, who was more of an army man than a politician at the time, was at the meeting to hear Barere is far from clear. Barry Edward O’Meara, Napoleon’s surgeon while he was in exile in St Helena, though attributes his patient as saying, “you were greatly offended with me for having called you a nation of shopkeepers.

If O’Meara’s testimony is to be relied upon, it suggests that Boney did call England a nation of shopkeepers, that he did so earlier than his exile, that the English got to hear of it, and were miffed. But there is no other attestation that Napoleon uttered the phrase, “une nation de boutiquiers.

Perhaps betraying the little English attitude that one Frenchman looks very much like another and that Napoleon was more (in)famous than Barrere, the insult was attributed to Boney, despite attempts to set the record straight. The Morning Post of May 28, 1832 was one such, fulminating that “This complimentary term, for so we must consider it, as applied to a Nation which has derived its principal prosperity from its commercial greatness, has been erroneously attributed, from time to time, to all the leading Revolutionists of France. To our astonishment we now find it applied exclusively to Bonaparte. Than this nothing can be further from the fact.” They ascribed its pejorative use to Barrere.

But, hey, never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Gin O’Clock – Part Sixty Six

The vigour of the ginaissance is such that distillers you normally associate with other spirits are getting in on the act. I have discussed before the difference in time and cost between distilling gin and a spirit like whisky. The latter is a long-term project requiring considerable investment, time and storage before the spirit is put on to the market. Gin offers the opportunity for a much more immediate return.

It is always a pleasure to see a new gin nestling on the shelves of our local Waitrose and a bottle of Wildcat Gin proved too much of a temptation to pass up. It is distilled by Whyte & Mackay, a name normally associated with whisky and proof positive of my opening point.

I normally spend some time describing the bottle and this one is an absolute stunner, one to keep on the shelf even if it is devoid of content. It is tall, thin and round with a fluted extended neck and a n artificial cork. As well as the shape what is also stunning is the labelling. There is a majestic golden emblem with a cat astride a key with a rubric assuring us that it is “distilled with distinction.” Below the labelling, embossed in the glass of the bottle is the legend, “knock once, knock twice, knock thrice.

The clue to what all this is about is provided at the back of the bottle with a quotation attributed to Captain Dudley Bradstreet, from 1739; “it occurred to me to venture upon Trading in Gin, the people being clamorous for their beloved Liquor on account of its prohibition by Act of Parliament. I secured Premises and nailed the Sign of a Cat to my Window. Those with Knowledge of the Secret could Knock Thrice, Placing money in the Cat’s mouth to receive a generous Measure of Gin. This Scheme of Pass was a great Success, netting me Considerable Fortune.

No such subterfuge is required today but it is a charming story that takes us back to the days when Government tried to put the brakes on gin consumption. I went into more detail when I was discussing the origins of Old Tom Gin a while back https://wp.me/p2EWYd-227

As well as an insight into the history of gin, the label introduces us to  a botanical I had not come across before; “London Dry Gin with Cat’s Claw Botanical”. For the uninitiated, that included me before I bought this bottle, what we are talking about is Uncaria tomentosa, a woody vine to be found in Central and South America. It gets its name from its claw-shaped thorns. Notwithstanding the thorns, its bark is said to have medicinal properties.

Having got top marks from me for the quality of the design of the bottle and the informative nature of the labelling, how does it rank on taste? Uncorking the bottle, the aroma is a reassuring mix of juniper with hints of citrus, spice and pepper. To the mouth it is a smooth spirit, refreshing with a nice blend of juniper and spice leading on to the citrus elements. It made for a well-balanced and crisp drink. The aftertaste is pleasant and long-lasting, with a spicy citrus again to the fore. With a premium tonic it was wonderfully moreish. I can see this bottle disappearing quickly.

It weighs in at a respectable 41.5% ABV and whilst Whyte and Mackay are a little circumspect in identifying all ten botanicals in the mix there is definitely liquorice root, coriander, angelica and citrus to accompany the juniper and cat’s claw. After some of the concoctions I have reviewed recently, a well-produced juniper-led gin was just what the doctor ordered.

Until the next time, cheers!

Book Corner – May 2019 (5)

The Doctor’s Family – Margaret Oliphant

Although a longer work than The Rector, The Doctor’s Family, also published in 1863, is little more than a novella, but one that packs quite a punch. It is highly autobiographical, I gave a brief summary of Oliphant’s life last week ( https://wp.me/p2EWYd-3km ), and is full of anger and frustration at the lot of women.

Dr Rider is one of two doctors in Carlingford, the other being Dr Marjoribanks. While the latter looks after the ill-to-do of the town, Rider’s practice serves the lower orders. His peaceful existence is rudely interrupted when his brother, Fred, turns up on his doorstep from Australia. Fred is a heavy-smoking, alcoholic, ne’er do well who takes up residence with the good doctor and proceeds to sponge off him as well as pollute the house with his foul tobacco smoke. There is a strident anti-smoking theme to this book.

Fred has omitted to mention, as you do, that he is married and, sure enough, two women and three unruly children turn up on the doctor’s doorstep from Oz. Susan, Fred’s wife, is as selfish and irresponsible as her hubby but Nettie Underwood is a paragon of virtue. Nettie recognises that it her duty to look after her relatives and it is she, not the feckless parents, who ensures that the family is clothed and fed and have a roof over their heads.

Nettie is the point of interest in this story. She bears her trials and tribulations with fortitude and courage, putting up with her lot, even though her relatives show not a jot of gratitude for all she does. The Doctor is grateful that Nettie has taken these wretches off his hands but has moments of doubt as to whether he should be doing more to help this saint.

The good folk of Carlingford are interfering old so-and-sos but for once their meddling does some good. Miss Wodehouse, whom we met in The Rector, impresses upon Nettie that she needs to think of herself more. Nettie’s resentment of her position crystallises when her sister wants to take the family back to Australia, dragging her with them as a de facto child-minder. Nettie’s resentment and Oliphant’s indignation at the lot of a woman who finds herself in this situation is encapsulated in this sentence; “Not all the natural generosity of her mind… could blind her eyes to the fact that she had given up her own happiness; and bitter flashes of thought would intervene, notwithstanding the self-contempt and reproach with which she became aware of them.”

Of course, Oliphant was, in real life, in exactly the same situation. She was forced to look after her own drunken brother and the offspring of another of her brothers as well as her own children. As a writer, she is speaking up for the many women who found themselves in such a situation, giving them a voice and trying to fight their corner.

The book ends up as you would hope it would. The family goes back to whence they came but Nettie asserts her independence by staying put in Carlingford. And she meets her love match. I won’t spoil your enjoyment by naming the lucky man but it doesn’t take much to guess who it is.

Having read the Rector and this book, I couldn’t help thinking that there were remarkable similarities to Trollope’s The Warden and Barchester Towers. It may just have been the setting and subject matter but it may well have been that Oliphant was nodding her bonnet in Trollope’s direction. What is clear, though, is that her tone and perspective is radically different.

Flick To Kick

Going through my parents’ house a few months ago, they had both died, I wasn’t robbing them, I came across my old Subbuteo sets, complete with artificial pitch and match accessories such as corner flags, stands, TV gantries and the like. I even found my original set of players, 2D plastic figures, one team decked out in blue and white, the other in red and white.

The 3D teams showed the rigours of many hard fought games, some figures missing limbs and one or two rather forlornly detached from their all-important semi-circular bases which when flicked, thumb resting on the pitch and the power supplied by the index finger, will move and strike the ball. Many a childhood friendship was marred by accusations of foul flicking.

Much of my pocket money was spent on buying teams in different strips, very few as fancy as the modern team colours, and the desire for the unusual club colours was immortalised in the Half Man Half Biscuit classic, All I Want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague away kit.

For chaps of a certain vintage the flame that is Subbuteo never goes out. To satisfy the demand for all things Subbuteo, there is an annual Subbuteoworld Collector’s Fair which was held this year on May 19th at the Renishaw and Spinkhill Community Hall in the village of Renishaw, to the south-east of Sheffield. There were over 30 stalls offering thousands of Subbuteo-related products including those rare and oh-so-sought after team colours.

There is quite a bit of money to be made if you have the right teams, particularly keenly sought-after are those sporting colours from Communist era countries. And then there are the rarities, one chap paying £600 smackers for the rarity that is the side sporting the colours of Lyn of Norway.

I shall hang on to my teams and my boyhood memories. You never know, I meet even be able to persuade the BoJs to leave their screens and challenge them to a game. Now that would be fun.

Double Your Money – Part Forty Two

Henri Lemoine and the synthetic diamond scam of 1905

Diamonds are a girl’s best friend”, goes the song from the Broadway show, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, from 1949, although the version best known is Marilyn Monroe’s performed in 1953. Whether that is true or not, they are pricey, not because they are a rare gem, but because suppliers manipulate the market, and thereby keep the price up, by drip-feeding diamonds on to the market. There are warehouses around the world filled to the gunwales with the things.

But wouldn’t it be great if you could create your own diamonds?

This was Henri Lemoine’s idea and he set out to exploit his idea for all it was worth. In 1905, he contacted the firm, De Beers Diamond Mines, who were, and still are, the largest diamond merchants in the world. In particular, Henri targeted Sir Julius Wernher who, as well as being a director of De Beers, was a well-known and respected British banker. Lemoine’s story was simple. He had found a way to produce gem-sized diamonds out of coal. Would Wernher be interested?

Wernher was. Lemoine, though, needed some money to refine his manufacturing process and if Wernher was prepared to stump up, De Beers would have exclusivity on the process. This was too appealing to pass up, allowing De Beers to further tighten their hold on the diamond market and eliminate what might have been a threat to their position. However, Wernher wanted to see the process for himself, before committing.

Lemoine was happy to oblige, inviting Wernher to a demonstration in his Parisian laboratory. Wernher did not go on his own, taking another De Beers executive, Francis Oats, and a couple of associates with him.

The demonstration was an astonishing spectacle. Lemoine invited them into the lab and then disappeared, returning, doubtless to the consternation of his esteemed guests, without a stitch on. The reason for this eccentric behaviour was to demonstrate that he did not have any diamonds secreted on his person. He then proceeded, I cannot ascertain whether he was still in the nude, to mix a concoction of substances, including coal and iron filings, into a crucible, which he then set alight.

After about a quarter of an hour, Lemoine opened the tray at the bottom of the crucible and after it had cooled down, lo and behold, there were a few small diamonds at the bottom of the tray. The audience were amazed and the deal was struck. De Beers were to have exclusive access to the formula, which Lemoine agreed to deposit in a London bank, and they would fund the development of a factory in the Pyrenees. In all, Lemoine got £64,000 out of them, about £7.5m in today’s terms.

It took three years for De Beers to smell a rat. There seemed to be little progress on building the factory and Lemoine was evasive as to what was really happening. In order to force his hand, De Beers pressed charges for fraud on Lemoine. He was promptly arrested in Paris and put on trial.

For several weeks the trial was the talk of the town. Was Lemoine a clever imposter or a misunderstood genius of a scientist? In the courtroom Lemoine was unable to recreate the results of his experiment and there was worse news still for him. A Parisian jeweller testified that he had sold some diamonds to Lemoine just ahead of the demonstration, they were sourced from De Beers, a delicious irony, and upon examination, this proved to be the case. They had been secreted in a false chamber in the crucible.

The secret formula was taken out of the deposit box of a London bank and proved to be a mix of powdered carbon and sugar. However, before the jury could pass judgment, Lemoine did what all self-respecting fraudsters do, he scarpered, never to be heard of again.

Marcel Proust was fascinated by the case, he is thought to have had a financial involvement, losing his chemise into the bargain, and wrote a series of accounts of the affair in pastiches of the style of a number of French literary luminaries, published as The Lemoine Affair in 1919.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone