What Is The Origin Of (293)?…

Neither fish nor flesh

Rather like the later phrase, betwixt and between, neither fish nor flesh and its alternative formulation, neither fish nor fowl, means something that is indeterminate or difficult to classify, something that is neither one thing nor another.

For Christian folk, at least until the schism between Catholics and Protestants, fasting was part of their religious observances. During Lent and on every Friday throughout the year, they were meant to restrict their intake to one full meal which excluded meat. It was therefore of importance to determine what fell into what category and the ecclesiastical authorities helpfully categorised foodstuffs into flesh, meaning the flesh of land animals, fish and fowl. Thomas Aquinas, writing in his influential Summa Theologica in the 13th century, summed up the church’s attitude to meat. As animals were more like man in body, they gave greater pleasure as food and were, therefore, inimical to the purpose of fasting, namely “to bridle concupiscences of the flesh”.

Over time, though, what constituted a fish, particularly important to those following a pescatarian diet during Lent, became more open to interpretation. The Bishop of Quebec, in the 17th century, decreed that a beaver, of which there was a plentiful supply in the area, were fish and as recently as 2010 the Bishop of New Orleans advised his flock that “alligator is considered in the fish family”. These vagaries of classification gave rise to our phrase.

However, the earliest recorded instance of its usage, to describe Cardinal Wolsey and the Catholic clergy in a satire entitled Rede me and nott be wrothe for I say no thynge but trothe by William Roy and Jerome Barlow in 1528, is as an insult; “whom they call Doctour Standisshe/ wone that is neither fleshe nor fisshe/ at all tymes a comen lyer”. The transposition of the terms is merely to preserve the rhyme. I suspect Henry Standish, one time Bishop of St Asaph, was singled out because of the rhyming quality of his surname.

The epigrammatist, John Heywood, provided an extended version of the phrase in his A dialogue conteinying the number in effect of all the prourbes in the englishe tongue, published in 1546. There he records, “she is nother fishe nor fleshe nor good hearyng”. Apparently, herring cured in saltpetre turns a reddish colour.

One of Shakespeare’s best characters, in my humble opinion, is the bluff and boastful, John Falstaff. In Henry IV Part 1, Act 3, scene 5, when discussing the charms and qualities of mine hostess of the Boar’s Head Tavern, Mistress Quickly, he compares her with a beast. When asked by the concerned Quickly which beast, we are treated to this exchange, Prince Hal making up the threesome; “Falstaff: What beast? Why an Otter. Prince: An otter sir John, why an otter? Falstaff: Why? Shees neither fish nor flesh, a man knows not where to haue her”. Interestingly, Shakespeare plays on the fluid status in the theological system of the taxonomy of creatures that look animals but spend a good proportion of their time in the water. The Bishop of Quebec may have taken note.

A later development, perhaps, of the phrase was to turn into an expression denoting the making of an invidious choice or to show partiality by adding or implying the verb to make to it. A correspondent to the Fife Free Press on December 3, 1892 has been outraged by the decision to arraign a draper, one Mr Skinner, for displaying his goods on the pavement. “Why should”, he fumed, “they pounce upon any one individual to make a test case of, while others, who offend more heinously, are allowed to continue unmolested? This, however, is generally the way in Kirkcaldy, Fish of one, flesh of another”.         

These days, though, we talk of neither fish nor fowl b ut the principle and the original derivation is the same.

Book Corner – July 2020 (5)

The Batch Magna Caper – Peter Maughan

I find the best antidote to difficult times is to immerse yourself in a bit of light-hearted escapism and Maughan’s Batch Magna series, there are five in all, fits the bill admirably. This is the third of the series and whilst it avoids third album syndrome, I didn’t find it as good as the earlier two. Perhaps that is down to the introduction of characters extraneous to the quirky, motley crew who inhabit the sleepy village of Batch Magna, nestling on the banks of the river Cluny, half in Wales and half in Shropshire.

On opening the book, the reader is in for a bit of a shock. Instead of finding themselves in the heart of the countryside, the reader is taken to a shady pawnbroker’s shop where a gang of criminals, incompetent, naturally, and an unlikely mix of characters, are plotting a wages snatch on an engineering firm in Shrewsbury. They anticipate getting away with £100,000, still a tidy sum in the 1970s. As there is no honour amongst thieves, though, each member of the gang has their own plans to run off with the whole of the loot.

The raid takes place, news of it makes the front page of the local papers and even percolates into the consciousness of the residents of the Batch Magna. The carefully worked out getaway plan misfires and the money ends up in Batch Magna, triggering a farcical comedy of errors as various members of the gang try to recover it, whilst at the same time trying to do down their colleagues, and when the money is found in an outhouse of the Manor, the locals, who cannot resist a gossip and making two plus two equal five, think that the American lord of the manor, the flamboyant Sir Humphrey Strange, call me Humph, is the mastermind behind the operation, obviously he must have Mafia connections, and try their best to protect his reputation.

If you have criminals, you must have the police and a pretty inept lot they are. They regularly call in at the Manor to sample Shelly’s renowned hot dogs, a source of consternation to the gang, but they are too interested in feeding their faces to spot what is going on under their noses. The case is solved at a Civil War re-enactment in the grounds of the Manor in Ealing Comedy style by the downtrodden female sergeant, the fiancée of the incompetent Inspector Worth, much to his chagrin as he has made a point of eschewing traditional police methods in favour of modern psychological techniques.

The characters we have met before are all there, the Commander with his collection of glass eyes decorated for all occasions and his wife, Priny, who are moving off the water to live on dry land, Owain and Annie Owen, Humph, his wife Clem, and his mother, Shelly, Jasmine and her brood of children and, of course, the rouê that is Phineas Cook. Phineas manages, on a drunken night, to get engaged to the female police sergeant and both spend much of the book trying to disentangle themselves from the unsuitable arrangement.

Maughan does a sterling job in pulling all these strands together and there are genuine moments of farcical comedy interspersed with sharp observations of human nature. I did find, though, that the large cast and the competing themes and sub plots meant that the gentler innocence of the earlier books and the opportunity to immerse yourself in the trivia and petty squabbles of the carefree inhabitants of Batch Magna were somewhat lost. It was a brave decision by Maughan to deviate from a tried and tested formula. It did work but made for a less enjoyable book.

Job Of The Week (4)

What with furloughing and redundancies, jobs are thin on the ground. Taking advantage of the surplus labour force, a company called Vintage Roots, an organic wine seller from Heckfield, are offering to pay someone £250 to drink and review their wine.

It’s a WFH opportunity as they will deliver the wines to your door, a selection of red, white, and rose wines from their Organic Everyday Case and Rose Summer Six selections of wine.

The application process is straightforward. All you have to do is post a picture of yourself enjoying a glass of wine and post it on the usual social media platforms with the tag @VintageRootsltd on Facebook or Twitter and @VintageRootsWines on Instagram. You should also use the hashtags #summerwinetaster and #comedinewithme.

There is one downside, it is a one-off opportunity, so you will not be able to make a career of it. It will look good on the CV, though.

The Streets Of London (112)

Gower Street, WC1

Running from Euston Road at its northerly end to Montague Place at its southern end where it becomes Bloomsbury Street, Gower Street boasts one of the longest sets of Georgian terraces in the capital. They were not universally admired when they were built, John Ruskin, prompted to go all Prince Charles, calling them “the nec plus ultra of ugliness in British architecture”. To relieve the boredom of the brown-bricked frontages some stuccoed entrances were added. By the standards of many of the London streets I have looked at, Gower Street is relatively modern, being initially laid out in the 1780s. It takes its name from Lady Gertrude Leveson-Gower who, in 1737, became the second wife of Bloomsbury landowner, the 4th Duke of Bedford aka John Russell.   

The street had a part to play in the development of the railway. Near what is now Gower Place a circular track was built in 1808 to allow the engineer, Richard Trevithick, to display his new-fangled steam locomotive, a Hazeldine and Rastrick single cylinder engine imaginatively called Catch Me Who Can. The intrepid could, for a fee of 2 shillings, sit in a carriage, originally designed for road travel, and experience the thrill of being pulled along, making it the world’s first steam locomotive to pull a carriage of fare-paying passengers. Unfortunately, the experiment did not last long, the engine and carriage being too heavy for the brittle tracks and after a few weeks, following a derailment, Trevithick had to admit defeat.       

Gower Street also had a part to play in London’s developing underground system. The Metropolitan Railway opened the first line in 1863 and a station at the northern end of the street was one of the original stations. It was renamed Euston Square on November 1, 1909.  

At the northern end of the road, too, a plot of land was taken in the 1820s to build an alternative university to the Anglican dominated institutions at Oxford and Cambridge. It was known as “the godless institution of Gower Street” and its first building, the Wilkins Building, opened its doors in 1828. What is now the University College of London gradually expanded over time to occupy much of the eastern side of the street, including the land behind.

On the west side of the street a teaching hospital, initially known as the North London Hospital and later University College hospital, opened its doors in 1834 to provide clinical training for the “medical classes” of the university, its development prompted by the refusal of the governors of the Middlesex Hospital to allow students access to its wards. The first major operation using ether as an anaesthetic in Europe was performed there on December 21, 1846. The teaching hospital brought a mix of qualified surgeons and doctors and medical students to the area. The students, when not busy at their studies, found time to develop a form of slang known as Marrowskying or Medical Greek or the Gower Street dialect. Essentially it was a form of Spoonerism, swapping around the first or first two letters of words in a phrase, doubtless to confuse those not in the know. So, a mutton chop would become a chutton mop, and smoking a pipe poking a smipe. You get the picture.

These days many of the buildings not used by the university of hospital are so-called boutique hotels, following a tradition from the middle of the 19th century when many of the houses were illegally converted into boarding houses. The Bedford Estate fought a losing battle to close them down in a desperate attempt to preserve the area’s reputation for providing “genteel residences”.

One famous resident was Charles Darwin who rented number 110 on December 29, 1838, moving in two days later. According to his daughter, Etty, Darwin christened the house Macaw Cottage, “laughing over the ugliness of their house in Gower Street and the furniture in the drawing-room, which he said combined all the colours of the macaw in hideous discord”. He worked on his theories of evolution there, before his health forced him to move to Down House in Kent in 1842. The was damaged during the Blitz and became part of the University’s Biological Sciences building in 1961 and the garden part of a car park. An evolution of sorts.

Find Of The Week (3)

Like your coffee with a bit of a kick? Want that sip of coffee to give you a high?

The Guardia di Finanza in Florence were put on alert when customs officers found a package addressed to Santino D’Antonio, the fictional mafia boss from the film John Wick: Chapter Two.

On opening it they found that the parcel contained around 500 coffee beans. Each bean had been hollowed out, stuffed with a total 4.5 ounces of cocaine, and made to look whole again.

A 50-year-old man who claimed the package at a tobacconist’s shop had his collar felt.

I will stick to an Espresso.