Earwax Of The Week (2)

As a species, it seems, we are obsessed with records and here’s one that I never thought I would be troubling you with – the world’s longest chunk of earwax.

A patient went to see Neel Raithatha at the Hear Clinic in Oadby near Leicester, presumably complaining about some discomfort in his ear. After some investigation, Neel realised that this was a cut above the usual job he does and deploying endoscopic cup suction, he was able to get hold of the wax and pull and pull and pull.

Remarkably, the chunk of earwax, measuring 2.5 centimetres, came out intact and, more importantly, the eardrum wasn’t damaged by the process. As the average ear canal measures around 3 centimetres, the brown clump of wax was a whopper but, clearly, there is some opportunity for the record to be broken.

Whether Neel charged his standard fee of £50 per ear (£80 for two) for wax removal has not been reported.

Mollusc Of The Week (2)

As a long-standing, and rarely sitting, commuter for many years I have heard many an excuse for the delay or cancellation of train services but this is a new one on me.

On May 30th the normally efficient railway in southern Japan operated by J R Kyushu came to a halt, with 26 trains cancelled and many more delayed because of a power outage.

The reason for the failure was quickly tracked down to a device which had short-circuited. The problem was soon rectified and services resumed. But it is only now that the full details of the chapter of events that led to the outage have been revealed.

On opening the box housing the device, engineers found the charred remains of a slug, about 2 to 3 centimetres long. The kamikaze mollusc must have got through the casing somehow and touched an electrical cable inside, frying itself in the process as well as triggering a massive power failure.

J R Kyushu describe the set of circumstances that led to the disruption as “rare” but I am sure that it will find its way into Network Rail’s book of ludicrous excuses.

What Is The Origin Of (237)?…

Pom

The one sporting occasion I always look forward to is the Ashes series, a contest fought out by the cricketing heroes of England and Australia. The rivalry on the field is intense and the spectators, their larynxes suitably lubricated by amber nectar, are quick to join in. To the Australians we English are poms, a description usually bracketed at both ends by epithets, juicy, racy and pejorative. But why do the Australians call us poms?

Once Captain Cook had discovered the Australian continent for the white man and the British started to colonise it, to the dismay and inconvenience of the existing aboriginal population, it was used as a dumping ground for what then were considered to be the detritus of British society. In truth, they were little more than petty criminals who were sentenced to transportation to the other side of the world for seven years or more for what to modern eyes seem trifling misdemeanours. The legacy of Australia’s convict past has been one that has been difficult to eradicate and it is tempting to look to that iniquitous system for the origin of the term.

Perhaps it is an acronym for Prisoner of Millbank, where many convicts were held before deportation, or Prisoner of His Majesty, or Prisoner of Mother England? The latter two are particularly unconvincing as an additional letter has to be swallowed up in the process. Portsmouth, the port from which the convict ships set out, was known as Pompey. Perhaps the first syllable of the nickname gave rise to the term for Brits? Alternatively, it could be a reference to their port of arrival, Port of Melbourne? I am troubled by these explanations. Why would the early settlers, the majority of whom were British, use a term which is intended to differentiate incomers from native, white stock? It smacks of convenient retro-fitting to me.

Moving away from the world of convicts, another theory is that it is an abbreviation of pommes de terre, the spud being a staple and favourite part of the diet of the British troops during the First World War. Granted it was the first occasion that men from the two nations spent much time in close proximity but it requires a stretch of the imagination to think that the Aussies, inventive in their use of language as they are, made this linguistic jump. And, anyway, the term Pom was used before the Great War, the earliest instances cited in the Oxford English Dictionary dating to 1912.

But if it is not the potato, it may well be another species of the plant world, Punica granatum, or the pomegranate, to you and I. The fruit is between the size of a lemon and a grapefruit and when they ripen in the sun, they go red. Rather like the newly arrived immigrants after they arrived, pasty-faced and somewhat green about the gills, off the ships to be assaulted by the full force of the sun and Australia’s strong ultra-violet rays. They had a tendency to go red as lobsters and were easily distinguishable from the more sun-hardened, bronzed Aussies who had been there for a while and were acclimatised to the rigours of the climate.

The citations in the OED from 1912 show how pomegranate became used to describe a newly arrived immigrant. First, we need to understand a bit of the argot of the docks in Melbourne. Those with a penchant for rhyming slang called immigrants Jimmy Grants. Given their propensity to go red in the sun, perhaps some wag thought that a reference to the fruit would result in a more barbed insult. He may not have been wrong; “Now they call ‘em Pomegranates and the Jimmygrants don’t like it”. A variation on the term is also recorded; “The other day a Pummy Grant was handed a bridle and told to catch a horse”. As a nation the Australians rarely use polysyllables when one will do and so pom became the pejorative name for a newly-arrived British immigrant.

The Anzac Book of 1916 supported this theory, attributing Pom as an abbreviation of pomegranate and the author, Herbert J Rumsey, gave the theory some intellectual rigour in his book about the stream of immigrants seeking to make a new life in Australia, entitled The pommies, or, New chums in Australia, published in 1920. And it was good enough for D H Lawrence who repeated the theory in his Australian-based novel of 1923, The Kangaroo. “Pommy”, he wrote, “is supposed to be short for pomegranate. Pomegranate, pronounced invariably pommygranate, is near enough rhyme to immigrant, in a naturally rhyming country. Furthermore, immigrants are known in their first months before their blood “thins down”, by their round and ruddy cheeks”.

Perhaps it is right and at least it takes us away from the more dubious convict-era derivations. It was almost certainly a post-convict term but was also likely to have formed part of the everyday speech of Australians well before the first examples appeared in print, perhaps dating to the nineteenth century. These days, of course, Pom is used generally to describe a Brit, not just one who has newly arrived in Australia.

I just hope that come the middle of September the Poms have their hands on the little urn once more.

Gin O’Clock – Part Sixty Eight

It has been a while since I talked about tonic. But as one advertising strap line says, “if ¾ of your drink is the mixer, mix with the best”, it is a subject that gin lovers ignore at their peril. In those far-off days before the ginaissance, a gin and tonic, at least in a pub, was a tot of Gordon’s drowned with a bottle of Schweppes’ Tonic. I always found it a bit of an overpwering mix of sweetness and bitterness.

The explosion of gins with their many and varied tastes in recent years has prompted gin aficionados to experiment with tonics which are more sympathetic to and compliment the spirit rather than overpower a rather bland offering. Schweppes has rather become a tonic of last resort rather than the go-to mixer and has seen its market place dominance, at least here in Blighty and in the gin arena, by new kids on the block like Fever-Tree.

But Schweppes have not been in business for over two centuries without knowing how to reassert their dominance. They have recently launched their 1783 range, a tip of their metaphorical hat to the year in which Johann Jacob Schweppe, on developing a process to produce carbonated mineral water, opened his first factory in Geneva. He moved operations to London in 1792. Tonic water was not produced until 1871.

Seeing their Crisp Tonic Water at an introductory price on our local supermarket’s shelves, I bought a few pallets. I was not disappointed. Whilst the citrus and quinine elements are still in evidence, the volume dial has been turned way down. The result is that it is a much more subtle mixer, still a bit bubbly, but one which better compliments and enhances the flavours of the better-balanced gins that have been spawned by the ginaissance. They also have a number of other flavours, their Salty Lemon being particularly moreish.

Passing through the duty-free shop in Alicante airport, my attention was caught by a rather dumpy bottle, black in colour with white and magenta lettering. On closer inspection I found it was called MOM with the strap line of “God save the Gin”, a sentiment we might all drink to. To add to the faux-royal feel of the bottle, there is a magenta crown above the word MOM. The label promises “royal smoothness. A premium gin made with exotic botanicals and berries to give a touch of smoothness. Infused after four distillations to achieve an amazing purity and class.” The only other relevant information on the bottle is that it is distributed by Gonzalez Byass of Cadiz.

It is a striking bottle which, at least the marketeers claim, is designed to show a mix of tradition and modernity. It is also supposed to appeal to the fairer sex. What that says about me, I know not. The cap is a screwcap and the nose is very sweet and fruity with hints of juniper and citrus, probably orange.

To the taste I found it amazingly sweet at first, it must be all those red berries and other exotic botanicals we were promised but the identities of which are not revealed, but then the juniper and spices fought their way through. The aftertaste was warm and long-lasting with a mix of pepper and citrus.

At an ABV of 39.5% it is at the lighter end of the strength spectrum and, on balance, was a little too sweet and syrupy for my taste. It was by no means unpleasant but, I fear, it will be a gin which will linger on my shelf.

Book Corner – June 2019 (4)

Small World – David Lodge

Throughout my working life, I have attended many a conference and even spoken at a few. The upside of these events was that they were held in swanky hotels in, generally, attractive places. The downside often was that you met the same old people and talked about the same old stuff. They don’t seem to have been half as exciting as the academic conference circle described by David Lodge in his 1984 novel, a sequel of sorts to Changing Places and the second of his Campus Trilogy.

The book is subtitled an Academic Romance and the key to understanding the more general theme behind what is an entertaining romp is contained in an unlikely piece of literary criticism provided by Cherry Summerbee, a BA check-in assistant; “Real romance is a pre-novelistic kind of narrative. It’s full of adventure and coincidences and surprises and marvels, and has lots of characters who are lost or enchanted or wandering about looking for each other, or for the Grail, or something like that.” Another clue is provided by the first object of Persse McGarrigle’s desire, the beautiful Angelica Pabst; “[romance]has not one climax but many, the pleasure of this text comes and comes and comes again. No sooner has one mystery been solved than another is raised; no sooner has one adventure been concluded than another begins. The narrative questions open and close, open and close, like the contraction of the vaginal muscles in intercourse, and this process is in principle endless. The greatest and most characteristic romances are often unfinished … Romance is multiple orgasm.”

The book is full of incidents and adventures, which take place around the world at academic conference venues. There is an awful lot of sex and lust, sometimes fulfilled, sometimes thwarted.   As per Summerbee’s analysis, most of the characters are in search of something. Some are familiar from Changing Places reappear, principally Morris Zapp and Philip Swallow and their respective wives, Zapp is divorced but the Swallows are back together in a rather humdrum marriage, but there are many more who flit in and out of the story, their role only becoming clearer as the book progresses.

The protagonist, a new character, the naïve Irish academic and poet, Persse McGarrigle, can be seen as the knight figure in search of his beloved, or two by the end of the book. He is continually frustrated as when he arrives anywhere the object of his pursuit has just left. The leading academics are in search of a sinecure professorship, sponsored by UNESCO.

Mediaeval romances are stock full of allegorical characters and Lodge follows suit. Angelica is the Dark Lady to Persse’s Knight Errant, Miss Maiden is the prophetess and Fulvia Morgana is the morally and sexually corrupt woman.  The plot involves confused or mistaken identities. Persse thinks he is making love to Angelica but in fact it is her twin sister, Lily, and the wise old owl that is Miss Maiden turns out to be the mother of the twins, having been seduced by an academic and forced to abandon the pair on an aeroplane.

The book is very funny and after reading it, you will cross swords with an airport representative allocating seats at your peril. And Lodge takes particular delight in puncturing the pomposity and self-regard of academics. One of the papers presented is entitled The Problem with a Colon and Persse floors a distinguished panel with a simple but very pertinent question. The joys and perils of air travel is another theme that pervades the book and Zapp’s eulogy on the transformational power of the speaker phone and fax machine is both prophetic and anachronistic to the modern reader.

A great book which unlike many of its type does not run out of steam.

Valete, Nuntii Latini

I can’t understand Finnish but one programme that the country’s public broadcaster, YLE, puts out that I could (just about) understand is Nuntii Latini, the news in Latin. It was a must listen for those of us who were keen to hear the language come to life but, alas, no more.

Despite broadcasting a five-minute bulletin telling its audience news not ancient history since September 1, 1989 and winning a reprieve when it was first threatened with closure in December 2017, the brain child of Professor Tuomo Pekkanen and lecturer, Virpi Seppala-Pekkanen, has been forced to submit to the barbarians at the gates.

It is a sad day and the Finnish contribution to demonstrating that there is a place for the language in the modern age has finished. It was worth a shot and to all those involved I say, “gratias ago maximas vobis qui nuntios Latinos tot annos tanta sedulitate editis”.

The Streets Of London – Part Ninety

Ivybridge Lane, WC2

The building of the Thames Embankment from 1862 following the design of Sir Joseph Bazalgette changed the width and course of the river, leaving a number of streets which once led down to the northern banks of London’s principal river high and dry. One such street to suffer this fate was Ivybridge Lane which, if you walk down the Strand in a westerly direction, is to be found on the left-hand side, between Carting Lane and Adam Street.

These days it leads into Savoy Place and the Embankment Gardens but in the days before the riparian transformation it ran right to the river’s edge and the Ivy Bridge or Pier, from which it derived its name. It was in existence in the 16th century, appearing in the Agas map which showed London in the 1560s. The Lane goes straight down to the river, with a set of steps immediately to its western end. It warranted a mention in John Stow’s A Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, published in 1598. Stow noted that the lane “parted the Liberty of the Duchy of Lancaster and the city of Westminster on the south side” and so was an important demarcation line between the self-regulating liberty and Westminster.

John Strype, an ecclesiastical historian, expanded and updated Stow’s masterpiece in 1720, publishing a two volume Survey of London. In it Strype describes the road that made up Ivybridge Lane as bad and almost impassable. Later Victorian depictions of the lane show it as steep, narrow and overhung by housing. Today it is still narrow, penned in by tall buildings, but the incline has been reduced. It attracts little footfall and is just one of those anonymous streets off the Strand.

Until the development of the underground system one of the quickest ways to move around London was by boat. To feed this demand for a speedy, by Victorian standards, and cheap means of getting from A to B three steamboats, named Ant, Bee and Cricket, chugged up and down the Thames from the Strand to London Bridge, charging the princely sum of a halfpenny a person. More specifically, they started off from the Adelphi Pier down to which Ivybridge Lane ran. It was here at around 3 o’clock on 27th August, 1847 that one of the worst peacetime explosions in the history of London’s West End occurred.

The Cricket was preparing to set off, a head of steam was developing in its boilers and over a hundred passengers crowded on its decks. It soon became apparent, however, that something was amiss. One of the boilers over-pressurised, probably because, to increase efficiency albeit at the expense of safety, the engineer had tied down the safety valves. A noise like a volcano erupting was heard as the boiler exploded.

The scene was one of carnage. “To the horror of beholders”, ran one account published in the newspapers, “fragments of the vessel and human beings were seen scattered in the air in every direction”. The screams of the onlookers were “of the most heart-rending character”.

Thanks to the prompt actions of a group of coal heavers, principally James Dodd, Jeremiah Leary, John Connor and Joseph Taylor, the number of casualties was not as great as it might have been. The death toll has never been established conclusively, not least because the strong tide at the time would have washed many bodies away from the scene. Readers of Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend will know that fishing out bodies from the Thames was a daily and sometimes lucrative occupation. Estimates vary from five to sixty although the consensus seems to be around thirty.

The immediate aftermath of the tragedy was that the steamboat service was discontinued. However, there is no plaque or other form of commemoration to mark the tragedy. Life was cheap in Victorian London.