Fruits Of The Week (4)

Our old friend, the durian fruit, has been at it again.

The noxious smell emanating from a parcel in a post office in the Bavarian town of Schweinfurt was such that the police and fire brigade were called to the scene. They promptly evacuated the 60 workers from the premises, fearing that the package contained some toxic chemical, but not before 12 of the workers had been treated for nausea, six of whom required hospital treatment.

Bravely, the officers tackled the package, to find on opening it that it contained four durian fruit, thoughtfully sent to a resident by a friend in Nuremberg. With friends like that,…

The fruit is popular amongst the Chinese community and is a big earner for Thailand, where in 2018 600,000 tonnes of the fruit were grown, mostly for export. I wonder why. There are around 200 cultivars of the fruit and it is mainly eaten on its own, probably by someone sitting on their own, or with sticky rice. Those in the know say it is delicious.

Just don’t order some to be delivered by mail, though.

The Streets Of London – Part One Hundred And Ten

Birchin Lane, EC3

Birchin Lane connects Cornhill at its northern end with Lombard Street at its southern end. There is some dispute as to the etymology of its name. The eminent 16th century antiquarian, John Stow, claimed that it was a corruption of the name of the first builder and owner of the land, Birchover. Others claim that it meant a lane of barbers, Birchin being a corruption of an Old English word, beardceofere. The Middle English verb, cherven, itself originating from ceorfan, meant to cut hair. Who knows?

Standing on the banks of the river valley of the Walbrook, the area now occupied by Birchin Lane once formed part of the Roman’s first settlements in London. The Romans built their first basilica and Forum in the area that runs alongside Gracechurch Street but in the 2nd century CE constructed a successor in the area between Fenchurch Street and Cornhill. It is fascinating to think of toga-wearing Romans walking around the area.

Given its proximity to Cornhill, a major thoroughfare in the City in mediaeval times, Birchin Lane is almost certainly one of London’s oldest streets. The monk, John Lydgate, mentioned that in the 14th century there was a market near and around Birchin Lane, although the first time its name was recorded was in 1473. At that time the lane was the place to go to trade with fripperers, stallholders we would now know as second-hand clothes merchants. Their stalls ran along the Lane and spilled into Lombard Street.          

By the 16th century or possibly earlier, Birchin Lane became better known for its hosiers. Isabella Whitney, England’s first secular female poet, wrote a mock will, a satirical farewell to London and her friends, entitled Her Will and Testament and published at the close of the 16th century. Within the poem she managed to bring contemporary London alive; “I hose do leave in Birchin Lane/ of any kind of size/ For women stitched, for men both trunks/ and those of Gascon guise”.

It was not just hosiery that was sold there. Slightly earlier in 1573, Whitney had produced a useful guide to where to go in London to buy a range of goods. Birchin Lane, in her estimation, was the place to go to for women’s footwear, because “artisans sold boots and shoes and pantables or overshoes for walking in the dirty streets of London”. Extending its range during the following century, Birchin Lane became known as a place for men to buy ready-made clothing.

Following the Great Fire of 1666 and the reconstruction of the City, Cornhill re-established its position as being one of the busiest thoroughfares and Birchin Lane, hanging on to its coat tails, was able to exploit its position. There was a craze for what were known as penny universities, coffee houses where for the price of a penny a young man “without regard to rank or privilege” could enter and converse with anyone there, exchanging news, opinion and conducting business. Tom’s Coffee House could be found on the Lane, frequented by the Shakespearean actor, David Garrick, when he was transacting financial business on the London Exchange.

Coffee houses were also used as post restante by travellers. Before setting out for London Benjamin Franklin wrote to his sister, Jane Mecom, on April 19, 1757, instructing her to “direct your letters to be left for me at the Pensilvania Coffee House in Birchin Lane”. Franklin was obviously a regular there as some of his letters back to friends and relatives gave the coffee house as his address. There were drawbacks, though. On September 27, 1766 Franklin wrote to Joseph Galloway, a friend and American loyalist; “I have been told that one Williamson of Pensilvania who is here, reads letters at the Coffee-house, said to be from you to me or from me to you…for which reason I would wish you to write no more to me by that course, as I apprehend some scoundrel may be employed there in the scandalous office of prying into, and perhaps making bad or false copies of our correspondence”.  

What Franklin knew as the Pensilvania was also known as the Carolina Coffee House, a home from home for travelling Americans, which was certainly open by 1682, making it one of the earliest, and didn’t close its doors until at least 1831. Its probable location was what is now number 25 Birchin Lane, although the original premises were destroyed in the fire of 1748. It was restored and back in business in time for Franklin to take residency there.

What is now a fairly mundane, pedestrianised street has a long and fascinating history.

Error Of The Week (9)

Poland has been invaded so many times that you could forgive them for trying to get their own back. In late May, my sources tell me, Polish soldiers erected a border post near Pielgrzymow, a small town in southern Poland on the border with the Czech Republic as part of their temporary closure of the border to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.

The actual border runs along a quiet country road. The Polish troops guarded their border enthusiastically, turning back Czech citizens attempting to visit their local church. The locals not unnaturally started to complain and the Czech embassy in Warsaw complained to their opposite number.

It turns out that the border point had been placed on Czech soil in error, or at least the Poles claim, and bowing to diplomatic pressure they repositioned, allowing the Czechs to go about their religious ceremonies undisturbed.

The two countries have some previous, fighting a seven-day war in the Silesia region in 1919 and the Poles annexing in 1938 an area around the city of Bohumin, but this seems to have been a genuine mistake.

Wars have been fought for less!

Fart Of The Week (8)

An altercation between an unnamed man and officers of the Viennese police force in a park in the Austrian capital led to an unusual court case and a €500 fine. The man, the officers claim, was behaving provocatively and uncooperatively. He then got up from the park bench and “let go a massive intestinal wind apparently with full intent”.

The result of this outburst was a charge of offending public decency and a fine. The police hastened to placate residents and tourists by confirming that letting one go accidentally was not a crime. That’s a relief.

The man is considering appealing. After all, it is a fine line.

What Is The Origin Of (288)?…

A nail in the coffin

There are several variants of this phrase in use, another, an additional and the final being particularly common. They all mean pretty much the same thing, something that contributes to or hastens the demise of the person or thing being referred to. Coffins were made of wood and the sides and lid were fixed into place by driving nails in. There was a sense of finality to the proceedings as the physical remains of the occupant were not intended to get out, leaving the odd grave robber or premature burial to one side.

John Wolcot, an English satirist, who used the splendid nom de plume of Peter Pindar when he published his Expostulatory Odes to a Great Duke in 1789, is credited with the first usage of the image of a nail being added to a coffin. In his Ode XV he wrote, “care to our coffin adds a nail, no doubt;/ and ev’ry grin, so merry, draws one out”. It is a striking image and clearly struck home in the popular imagination, particularly in, but not exclusively, the United States.

Thomas Paine, he of the Rights of Man fame and a failed bridge builder to boot, was passionately against the maintenance of strong trading relationships with Britain and railed against the Federalists who espoused this policy. In an open letter to the American public, his eighth such, he wrote of John Hulbert, according to the Aurora General Advertiser of June 7, 1805, “in his late unprincipled speech…he has driven another nail in the coffin of the federal faction”. The Americans watched the early triumphs of Napoleon with interest from a distance, the Wilmington Gazette moved to note, in its edition of January 27, 1807, “every battle which is fought and won by the French is an additional nail in the coffin of the liberties of the world”.    

It would be wrong to get the impression that Wolcot’s Pindaric image was adopted exclusively by the Americans. Contemporaneously it was in use in England, as this passage attacking William Cobbett, the political reformer and founder of Cobbett’s Political Register, in The Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser of September 3, 1812 shows; “no wonder that Mr Cobbett is angry with Mr Elton, who, by exposing the obliquity of his personal feelings and the dereliction of his public duty, has clenched the nail in the coffin of the Political Register”. Accusations that politicians and political commentators were less than mindful of the truth are nothing new. The newspaper’s prediction of the Political Register’s demise was a tad premature. It lasted another 24 years, only folding in 1836, a year after Cobbett’s death.

Surprisingly but somewhat amusingly, Isaac Coffin, a former officer of the Royal Navy and MP for Ilchester, was associated with the phrase by The Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser of April 1, 1822 – I hope the date is not significant – in a report of a parliamentary debate on the Salt Tax; “Sir I. Coffin was anxious to drive a spike nail into the coffin of the oppressive tax”..  

The temperance movement or, at least, those who wished to moderate the consumption of strong liquors were keen to adopt the image, it nicely playing on the idea that you were hastening your demise by drinking the stuff. Some hardened topers in the belief that they were diluting the effects took a glass of porter to accompany their dram, transforming the spirit into what we now call a chaser. According to the journalist, Pierce Egan, in his Life in London, published in 1821, this was only a false precaution; “too many individuals, hard drinkers, flatter themselves that, from such sort of care, they are keeping the nails out of their coffins, till the trembling hand, the diseased appetite, and the debilitated constitution, lamentably point out the fatal error, too late to be corrected”.           

Over in the States, dram drinking was also associated with putting another nail in the coffin, as this helpful definition from the Lansingburgh Gazette from January 24, 1809 reveals; “it is usually said of dram-drinker, that every dram they take, is another nail driven into their coffins”.  

Little notice of such sage advice do we take!