Book Corner – July 2019 (5)

The Mask of Dimitrios – Eric Ambler

Published in 1939, this book, acknowledged by those who claim to know these things as Ambler’s finest, is known to American audiences as A Coffin for Dimitrios. I haven’t read enough of him to judge but I was astonished how deep the book was, exploring themes that you wouldn’t expect to appear in what at first blush appears to be a page-turning piece of disposable entertainment. Indeed, for a thriller, there is remarkably little direct action, save for the ending which, as the genre might suggest, is exciting and thrilling.

Charles Latimer, a former academic and now a successful writer of English detective fiction, is in Istanbul researching his fifth book. He is introduced to and meets the head of the Turkish intelligence, Colonel Haki, we have met him before in Journey into Fear, an aficionado of detective fiction. Haki shows him the body of a murderer, Dimitrios Makropoulos, and lends Latimer a dossier detailing what the Turks had deduced about the felon’s career. Somewhat bizarrely, Latimer decides to turn his hand to real detective work and reconstruct the biography of Dimitrios. There is a distinct Conradian theme to the book, Latimer’s search resembling that of Marlow’s to find the real Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.

Inevitably, Latimer discovers that Dimitrios is not what he seemed. Rather he is a much more sophisticated individual whose actions are logical and consistent, “as logical and consistent in the European jungle”, Ambler observes, “as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town”. In his travels around central Europe on the trail of Dimitrios’ former associates and enemies, Latimer comes to realise that he was the sort of cold-blooded enforcer that modern-day capitalism in the shape of politics and shady multinational businesses needs to cement its hold on society, taking on the tasks that “civilised men and women” decline to do. There is a very modern feel to the book, the crimes involving people smuggling and drugs with murky financiers in cahoots with corrupt public officials pulling the strings.

Latimer enters the seedy demi-monde of pre-Second World War crime and espionage as he slowly works his way to the truth. Ambler uses lengthy dialogues, principally, in truth, monologues and exchanges of letters to furnish Latimer and the reader with the details necessary to reconstruct Dimitrios’ past. This means that the pace of much of the book is relatively stately but as a reader you find yourself sucked in, wanting to know what Latimer discovers and realising that he too is beginning to put himself into danger. Each character has their own axe to grind and none of them are all that they seem.

Perhaps the most fascinating character is Peters aka Petersen, a Dane who was part of Dimitrios’ gang but was stitched up and served time in jail. He wants his revenge on Dimitrios and his share of the loot that the drug running operation. Realising that Latimer holds a vital piece of information that will unlock the real identity of Dimitrios and his whereabouts, Peters skilfully inveigles the naïve Latimer into helping him in a dangerous enterprise, causing, at the same time, Latimer’s moral sensibilities to wobble.

The book builds up to a thrilling crescendo, which I won’t spoil. Suffice it to say it makes up in action what the earlier portion of the book lacked. It also gives a fascinating insight into pre-war Europe. Well worth taking a copy with you on holiday.

Sporting Event Of The Week (23)

News has reached me, slowly of course, that this year’s Snail Racing World Championship has taken place, as it has for the last 50 years, at the Congham Fete in Norfolk.

The competition saw 215 molluscs slugging it out in a series of heats to determine who could complete the 13-inch course in the fastest time. Winner of the prestigious trophy replete with lettuce leaf was Sammy, owned by Maria Welby, the snail recording the respectable time of two minutes 38 seconds.

Festina lente, as the Romans said.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Twenty Four

The spaghetti tree hoax of 1957

In some ways life was a lot simpler in 1957. There were just two television channels and Britons, freed from the restrictions of rationing which ended when the restrictions on the sale of meat and bacon were lifted on July 1, 1954, still eschewed what were seen as foreign foods.

Take spaghetti, now a staple fare in our diet. Only the adventurous were eating it and precious few knew where it came from and how it was produced. Panorama was one of the most prestigious programmes in the BBC’s stable, featuring documentaries on newsworthy stories and current affairs, hosted by one of the most revered public figures of the time, Richard Dimbleby. It went out on Monday evenings. April Fool’s Day in 1957 fell on a Monday and one of the show’s cameramen, Charles de Jaeger, a notorious practical joker, came up with a wheeze to hoax the great British public.

Taking as his theme the English saying, “x doesn’t grow on trees” he came up with a plan to do a short piece for the programme showing spaghetti being harvested – from trees, naturally. Granted a budget of £100 from the show’s producer, Michael Peacock, de Jaeger was allowed to extend his trip to Switzerland to film the piece.

Finding his perfect location, a hotel in Castiglione by Lake Lugano, surrounded by laurel trees, de Jaeger bought twenty pounds of uncooked, homemade spaghetti to hang from the branches of some of the trees. But he immediately encountered a major problem – the strips of spaghetti quickly dried out and would not hang up. His solution was to cook the pasta but this had the effect of making the pasta slippery and the strips rather ungracefully slid off the branches on to the ground.

Eventually, the problem was solved; uncooked spaghetti was wrapped up in damp cloth to keep it sufficiently moist for when it was to be hung on the trees. De Jaeger hired some local girls, dressed in national costume and carrying wicker baskets, to climb ladders and harvest the pasta, which was then laid out in the sun. The spaghetti was then cooked and de Jaeger shot some footage of the locals enjoying the product of their agricultural endeavours.

The piece was the last item on the show, following an item on wine production, and Dimbleby introduced it by saying, “And now from wine to food. We end Panorama tonight with a special report from the Swiss Alps”. When the report was over, Dimbleby signed off by noting with particular emphasis on the final phrase, “Now we say goodnight, on this first day of April”. If you want to see it, follow the link

As we would say these days, the report went viral. The Beeb was inundated with telephone calls from viewers, either congratulating the broadcasters for a delicious joke or asking for assistance in settling arguments between those who thought that spaghetti grew on trees and those who considered it to be the product of flour and water. That Dimbleby had done the voiceover encouraged many to take the hoax as gospel. Even the Director-General of the Beeb, Sir Ian Jacob, was taken in and sought the answer from the internet of the time, the Encyclopedia Britannica, only to be thwarted because spaghetti didn’t even merit an entry.

Such was the furore that the BBC issued an explanation before the close of that night’s transmission but the outcry was meat and drink to the broadcaster’s army of critics. Some cried foul over the timing, by tradition April Fool’s jokes should be made before noon.

Panorama never broadcast another hoax story but the spaghetti tree story lived long in the memory and spawned a number of imitators. In 1978 San Giorgio ran an advert featuring a spaghetti farm where the pasta grew with the strap line “nobody grows spaghetti like San Giorgio”,


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

Plastic Bags Of The Week

The veracity behind Sunstein and Thaler’s nudge theory is amply illustrated by the attempts to ween us off single use plastic bags. I have long objected to having to pay for a receptacle to take away the goods I have bought from a shop. Some shops have shown some imagination by reverting to good old-fashioned paper bags or plastic bags without handles and even old stick in the muds like me remember from time to time to put a bag in my pocket in case I’m tempted to make a purchase.

There are still many though who forget and are forced to buy a bag. A shop in Vancouver, East West Market, is trying to educate the forgetful or the recalcitrant by selling single use plastic bags emblazoned with slogans such as “Wart Ointment Wholesale” and “Into the Weird Adult Video Emporium” to shame them into changing their habits.

I suppose that it is a novel approach to the problem but it has somewhat rebounded on the emporium’s owner, David Lee Kwen. So popular have the become that they are now a collector’s item, defeating Kewn’s original plan. Never one to miss an opportunity, though, he is now selling canvas bags with the slogans on.

The best laid plans of mice and men, it seems.

Hair Of The Week

Fortunately, my days of commuting are long over. The experience was often enough to tear my hair out. I was always intrigued, in a gallows humour sort of way, by the imaginative stock of reasons trotted out to explain why the train had failed to travel down a pair of metal tracks in the allotted time. But this is a new one on me.

The overcrowded 06.34 London Northwestern Railway Service from Bletchley to London Euston made an extended stop at Tring the other day. Why? One of the automatic doors wouldn’t shut properly following the scheduled stop at Tring.

And why was that? Apparently, one of the passengers had got her hair extensions caught in the door. Staff took a couple of minutes to release the offending piece of hair, the reports I read do not make it clear whether it was still attached to the woman’s head at this point, and then the train went on its merry way. I imagine the other commuters didn’t mutter hair we go again but I do hope the tannoy announcer apologised for the delay caused by hair on the line.

For those who are folically challenged, a wig can cover up those bald patches. For those contemplating wearing one, there are many other uses to which they can be put. Take the case of a man arrested at Barcelona airport. He drew attention to himself by his nervous disposition and his large, lumpy toupee. When his hairpiece was removed, the authorities found a bag containing a pound of cocaine.

Hardly a narcotics big wig, the man will need to reconsider his smuggling techniques next time. Perhaps hair extensions.

What Is The Origin Of (241)?…

In Dicky’s meadow

I was born in Lancashire and I still have some slight vestiges of that distinctive accent in my everyday speech, principally the flat a in words such as grass and bath which mark out the northerner from those from the south. I also retain some Lancastrian phrases like in Dicky’s meadow, fortunately one that I have not had to utter too often.

The Day to Day in Liverpool column in the city’s Daily Post and Mercury of March 20, 1916 gives us a charmingly succinct explanation of the phrases meaning; “No, that would land us in Dicky’s meadow. What does that expression mean? was the natural query. The clerk’s interpretation was that the saying implied a state of difficulty or trouble. He learned it in his boyhood, but he knew nothing it as to its origin”.

The column took pains to point out that the clerk was born and educated in mid-Lancashire as opposed to Liverpool and so it can be assumed that the phrase was unknown to or at least rarely used by Liverpudlians. It also reveals that Liverpool has never really considered itself to be part of Lancashire and most Lancastrians are happy for that to remain so.

That it was a phrase originating in Lancashire is confirmed by a quaint article found in The Blackburn Standard and Weekly Express of December 27, 1890, entitled Sum Lankisher Sayins. It is written in Lancashire dialect or, at least, a phonetic representation of it. The piece about Dicky’s meadow begins; “It’s a quare shop to find yo’rsels in, is Dicky’s meadow, becos ther isn’d th’ ghost ov a chance on yo’ geddin eawt ageean when wonst yo’ve getten in”. The nightmare for all good working folk of the time was to get in such financial straits, either because of lack of work or sickness, often the two went hand-in-hand, that they ended up in the workhouse. Dicky’s meadow was a more pleasing synonym for that grim place.

But who was Dicky?

There is a temptation in etymological searches to assume that a phrase bearing a name alludes to an actual character. Dicky’s meadow is one such case. One theory goes that the Dicky is Richard, Duke of York, who was killed in one of the major battles of the War of the Roses, the Battle of Wakefield, on December 30, 1460. His demise shows that the Duke was really in a difficult situation and historians conclude that he was ill-advised to engage with troops loyal to Henry VI on that field at Sandal Magna.

But there a couple of reasons why this derivation is unlikely. The first is that there is such a long passage of time between the battle and the phrase emerging in mid-nineteenth century Lancashire that it smacks of convenient retro-fitting. And Wakefield is in Yorkshire. The rivalry between Lancashire and Yorkshire is legendary, easily surpassing that between Liverpool and the rest of Lancashire. Why would Lancastrians reference a place in Yorkshire, although you can see the attraction from a pejorative perspective? They may just as easily have referenced the car park attendant, Richard III, who came to a sticky end in the fields of Bosworth in 1485.

There may be a more prosaic explanation at hand. In the early nineteenth century dicky or in its alternative form dickey was an adjective used to describe something that was uncertain, hazardous, or critical. Interestingly, the Preston Herald of June 23, 1866 reports that a crowd of workers, protesting at the importation of labourers from the south, shouted, “We’ll see ‘em in Dickey meadow first”. Whilst it may be a misprint the use of Dickey as an adjective rather than the genitive of a person’s name may suggest that it isn’t necessary to consider identifying a real person. Dickey was indicating that it was simply a terrible position to be in.

There is a more widely used phrase to indicate being in dire straits, queer street. The Burnley Express on October 23, 1920 joined the two; “we shall never be anywhere else nor I’Queer-street or Dicky’s meadow under t’present system”. The inevitable conclusion is that Dicky’s meadow is the Lancastrian version of Queer Street.

Gin O’Clock – Part Seventy

Every gin needs a back story in order to elbow its way through the crowd of competitors that have been spawned by the ginaissance. Needle Blackforest Distilled Dry Gin is no different. I came upon a bottle at the Duty Free shop in Schipol Airport, my eye drawn to its dark green bell-shaped bottle with a distinctive diamond-shaped label with a stylised motif of pine needles. It was rebranded in February 2019 and the designers have made a good job of giving the bottle a contemporary feel.

It is a German gin, distilled by the Bimmerle distillery in Achern, a town in the south-west of Germany and, crucially for this story, is at the northern end of the Black Forest. The gin is supposed to be inspired by the forest and, in particular, the specific and distinctive smells to be encountered whilst wandering through the woods. I suppose I will have to take their word for it as I have never had a walk through the Black Forest and I suspect many who have drunk the gin will say the same. It smacks of marketing spin with a dash of pretension.

The smell and taste picture that the distillers are trying to conjure up allows them to introduce their distinguishing botanical, picea abies, better known as the common or Norwegian spruce. Yes, it is the one that we stick up and decorate just before Christmas and whose needles we find in unusual places for the next six months. What better use for these pesky needles than to put them in the distillation mix for a gin? It is the smell of the needles, so the blurb says, that is so redolent of the Black Forest region.

The other botanicals that make up the mix, there are eleven in all, include juniper, lavender, ginger, lemons and oranges providing the citrus notes, cinnamon and allspice. For those who can count you will realise that three are missing. These are the secret botanicals whose identity the manufacturers will not disclose. The recipe upon which the gin is based dates back to 1799, according to the label at the back of the bottle.

One of the ancillary benefits of exploring gins from other countries is that it allows you to brush up your language skills. My knowledge of German is rudimentary but with the help of an on-line translator I have managed to unlock the contents of the blurb on the back of the label. In truth it is not very revelatory but it confirms that the basis of distillation is single-batch and that “the spicy air of the Black Forest and the use of native hand picked botanicals such as spruce needles – are the crowning glory of our Needle Gins”.

The top is an artificial cork with Needle and the spruce needles stamped on. On removing the top the aroma is distinctive, juniper is in there somewhere and there is a dash of citrus but the smell is predominantly of pine needles. In the mouth the spirit seems well-balanced with the spruce and juniper blending surprisingly well. The citrus elements seem to hide in the background, though, and the aftertaste is dry and spicy.

At 40% ABV it makes for a pleasant drink but I felt it needed some help by way of a quality tonic to bring it to life. You could distinguish all of the components and the overall impression it left was fine but it seemed a bit of a monotone production. There was little in the way of a surprise as you explored the gin in your mouth or swallowed it. Perhaps I’m becoming too picky.

Until the next time, cheers!