What Is The Origin Of (267)?…


I am in the process of getting my fourth book, this one is called The Fickle Finger, ready for its forthcoming publication in April and one of the (many) tasks this entails is producing some blurb. By this we mean a short piece, usually no more than a paragraph or so, designed to extol the merits of the book and entice potential purchasers to part with their hard-earned cash. But, why blurb and where did it come from?  

An American scholar by the name of Brander Matthews, to whom some authorities have erroneously attributed the term, spilled the beans in an article on the subject, published by the New York Times on September 24, 1922. “Now and again”, he wrote, “in these columns I have had the occasion to employ the word “blurb”, a colourful and illuminating neologism which we owe to the verbal inventiveness of Mr Gelett Burgess”.

So, how and why?

Prior to the annual dinner of the American Booksellers’ Association in 1907, Burgess had published a book entitled Are You a Bromide? which was selling reasonably well. In conjunction with his publishers, B.W Huebsch, they hatched a plan to give each of the diners at the shindig a special edition of the tome, complete with a specially designed cover. For this Burgess took a picture of a young lady from a dental advert who was in the act of shouting. It was the custom at the time for covers of books to feature young women in an attempt to lure male readers. Burgess called his woman Miss Belinda Blurb and claimed that she had been photographed “in the act of blurbing”.

The jacket proclaimed, ”Yes, this is a “Blurb”! All the Other Publishers commit them. Why Shouldn’t We?” The copy then went on to extol the virtues of the book in terms that would make a modern-day publisher blanche. “We consider”, it went on, “that this man Burgess has got Henry James locked int o the coal-bin, telephoning for “Information”…it has gush and go to it, it has that Certain Something which makes you want to crawl through thirty miles of dense tropical jungle and bite somebody in the neck”. Readers exposed to other blurbs will recognise the superiority of this one, it boasts. After all, “this book is the Proud Purple Penultimate!

Whilst Miss Belinda Blurb sank into obscurity, publishers, who were puffing the wonders of their latest offerings, gratefully took up Burgess’ word and it has never looked back since. Not content to let a good thing go, Burgess cemented its place in the jargon of the book publicist and with a wider audience by defining it in his Burgess Unabridged: A New Dictionary of Words You Have Always Needed, published in 1914. Blurb as a noun was defined as “a flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial” with a secondary definition of “fulsome praise; a sound of a publisher”, while blurb as a verb was described as “to flatter from interested motives; to compliment oneself”.  

Burgess wasn’t just content with introducing blurb to the unsuspecting world. Bromine was used at the time as a sedative but the noun a bromide, used in the title of his book, was an invention of his. Burgess defined it as someone “who does his thinking by syndicate and goes with the crowd”, ensuring that he is trite, banal, and arbitrary. The antonym to a bromine, he posited, was a Sulphite.

Bromides and Sulphites as descriptors for human traits didn’t make the same impression as blurb and have all but vanished. When I put the finishing touches to my book’s blurb, I will give thanks to Gelett Burgess.

Book Corner – January 2020 (5)

Sir Humphrey of Batch Magna – Peter Maughan

This is the second of a series of five books, all reissued last year by Farrago, chronicling the life and times of Sir Humphrey Strange, call me Humph, and the motley collection of eccentrics who populate the village of Batch Magna, supposedly on the border of Shropshire and Wales and nestling on the banks of the River Cluny. I found this one even more enjoyable than the first, perhaps because I had got to know the main characters.

There is not much in the way of a plot, rather it is a collection of episodic events which sort of fit into a satisfying whole. What it lacks in overall structure is made up for by Maughan’s gentle, occasionally ribald, humour and his understanding and lyrical descriptions of the countryside in this wonderful part of the world. He portrays a sleepy village, where not much generally happens but where, occasionally, the ugly realities of the modern world intrude, only to be batted back by the resourceful residents, keen to preserve their idyllic way of life.

The book opens on the day of Humph’s wedding, to the Honourable Clementine Wroxley, or Clem to her friends. They settle down to life at the Manor but their finances, and that of the estate, are on a knife-edge. The village’s spinster and amateur sleuth, Miss Wyndham, in her search for a rare flower which will make her reputation at the local nature society, discovers some badger baiters in the act of digging up a set. She summons assistance and Humph and local heavy, Sion Owen, have a set to with the miscreants. We will meet them later in the book.

Clem discovers to her horror that she has lost a jewel that has been in the Strange family for over 400 years and according to family lore if it was ever lost, that would be curtains for the family and the estate. As if on cue, the estate’s finances take a dip as the pheasants contract a disease and the river becomes so polluted that the fish begin to die. It seems that the only way out of the Strange’s predicament is to sell the estate putting an end to the rural idyll. Naturally, there is a willing buyer.

I won’t spoil the resolution of the book but, suffice it to say, it involves the badger baiters and the plucky spirit and investigative nous of Miss Wyndham. Her appetite for detective fiction gives her clues as to how to act when she finds herself in a dangerous situation.

One of the funniest parts of the book features the disastrous attempts of local ne’er do well and crime writer, Phineas Cook, to launch a punt business offering romantic, moonlit trips along the Cluny to gullible outsiders. I particularly like the Commander with his collection of glass eyes for all occasions and one who is always up for a jolly. Much alcohol is consumed during the course of the book, lots of wine and, of course, pints of the local firewater, Sheepsnout.

A glorious romp and well-paced. I would encourage you to discover the charms of the rural backwater that is Batch Magna.

Fish And Chip Ship Of The Week

It’s one of the awards I eagerly look out for every year, the Fish and Chip Shop of the Year. This year the judges decided that as fish and chip shops go, based on the quality of food served, sustainability, menu innovation, catering for special dietary requirements, customer service and marketing activity, the Cod’s Scallops in Wollaton, near Nottingham, was the dog’s bollocks.

Congratulations to John and Helen Molnar, their hard work has been duly recognised. If I’m ever in the area, I will seek them out.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Thirty Four

The Mount Edgecumbe eruption hoax, 1974

If you are going to pull off a hoax, you need to plan meticulously and to bide your time to make the maximum impact. This is what serial prankster, Oliver “Porky” Bickar managed to do with considerable aplomb in 1974.

Mount Edgecumbe is a 3,202-feet-tall volcano which overlooks the Alaskan town of Sitka across the sound. As far as anyone knew it had been dormant for some 400 years or so it was a bit of a shock to the residents to see on Monday April 1, 1974 a pall of black smoke coming from its apex. Was an eruption imminent, they wondered? Denizens of Sitka crowded on to the streets to see what was going on and the local authorities were inundated with calls.  

Bickar had first conceived of his jape some three years earlier and had spent the time waiting for the right weather conditions profitably, stockpiling old tyres, a gallon of a fuel made from denatured and jellied alcohol which burns in its can, trademarked as Sterno, diesel oil, rags, and smoke bombs. Miraculously, on April Fool’s Day the weather conditions were perfect for Bickar to pull off his stunt. But how was he going to get his stockpiled equipment to the summit?

He called his friend, Earl Walker, who owned a helicopter but was fog-bound in Petersburg. When Bickar told him what he planned to do, Walker was enthusiastic and promised to get to Sitka just as  soon as weather conditions permitted. Whilst waiting, Bickar made two rope slings about 150-feet long, each capable of holding around fifty tyres. He also enlisted the help of two accomplices, Larry Nelson and Ken Stedman, and when Walker finally arrived, they loaded the chopper with their equipment and flew off to the crater.

When they got there, they dropped seventy tyres and some smoke bombs into the crater, set them alight and spray-painted in letters 50-feet high “April Fool” in the surrounding snow. Not wanting to create a major panic, Bickar had forewarned the local Police authorities and the Federal Aviation Authority of his intended jape. When Walker contacted the FAA for permission to return to Sitka, the controller is reported to have said, “I’ll bring you in as low and inconspicuously as possible…and, by the way, the son of a gun looks fantastic”.      

But Bickar had neglected to contact the Coast Guard, who seeing the plumes of smoke coming from the top of the supposedly dormant volcano, contacted the Admiral stationed at Juneau, who thought they had better send a helicopter to investigate. As the pilot neared the volcano who could see the source of the smoke, not volcanic ash but a heap of burning tyres and then, of course, the message confirming that it was all a hoax.

When news reached Sitka that the plume was a hoax, the locals, initially relieved, saw the funny side and admired Bickar’s chutzpah. Even the Coast Guard saw the funny side and when he met the Admiral at the Fourth of July parade later that year, Bickar was told that he thought it was a classic. And news of the prank spread like wildfire, picked up initially by the Associated Press and accounts appearing in newspapers around the world. Alaskan Airlines ran an advertising campaign highlighting the spirit of the locals and their sense of fun. Bickar’s hoax was featured and the brief account ended with him saying, “I dare you to top that April Fool’s joke”.     

The volcano is still dormant.

There was one amusing postscript. When, in 1980, Alaska’s Mt. St Helens erupted, Bickar received a clipping from the Denver Post of the volcano and a letter from a lawyer which read, “This time, you little bastard, you’ve gone too far”.

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


Whoopee Cushion Of The Week

Snooker came into its own as a televised sport with the advent of colour transmission. The changeover was gradual and not without its difficulties, prompting Ted Lowe’s infamous gaffe, “for those of you are watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green”. For some reason, it’s not my cup of tea, its premier events still hog the broadcasting schedules.

Proceedings were brightened up during the fifth frame of the Masters Snooker Final at Alexandra Palace last Sunday when both Ali Carter and Stuart Bingham were distracted by a noise when they were addressing the ball. The referee, Brendan Moore, stopped play and ordered a search of the arena.

While the search went on, the farting noise continued. Eventually the source of the noise was uncovered, an electronic whoopee cushion under a seat but activated remotely. It was removed, to the amusement of the crowd. According to tournament director Mike Ganley, they had had a similar incident earlier in the week and were on the look out for similar devices. Not hard enough, by the sound of it.

Oblivious to the irony of his statement, he went on to say, “It has been a magnificent week at Alexandra Palace and players and spectators alike have enjoyed the atmosphere and great new facilities, so we want to avoid any repeat”.

Surely that is what whoopee cushions do?