A wry view of life for the world-weary

Air Travel Tip Of The Week

It may be because I am going on holiday – South India, since you’ve asked – that I have been particularly fixated on air travel this week.

One of the problems the air traveller faces is the sheer boredom of the flight. In-flight entertainment systems will only fill up so much time before you despair of the human race. The cramped conditions make it difficult to do anything remotely energetic but here is something I came across this week which might just help you while away those long hours.

How about drying your washing mid-flight? After all, there are some handy air blowers above your head.

Well, this is what a woman was filmed doing aboard a Ural Airlines flight from Antalya in southern Turkey to Moscow. It took her about twenty minutes or so to dry a rather natty pair of white knickers with black trimming – they look like a child’s pair to my untrained eye – by holding them up to the air vent and moving them about, to the astonishment of her fellow passengers.

Seems to have worked and a tip worth knowing if you spill your wine en route.


Fart Of The Week (3)

Air travel can be pretty stressful these days, what with the hassle of getting through security and then the worry of who you will be sitting next to. So I have some sympathy for a couple of Dutch men on Transavia Airlines flight HV6902 from Dubai to Schipol.

They found themselves sitting next to a chap who was following Benjamin Franklin’s advice to fart proudly a little too enthusiastically. His bout of noisy flatulence caused a bit of atmosphere in the aircraft cabin and despite requests from the aggrieved duo that he desist, he wouldn’t stop.

They then called upon the cabin crew for assistance. The pilot got involved, asking the man to bottle it but the serial farter refused. So the Dutch men took matters in their own hands, sparking a fight, serious enough to cause the plane to be diverted to Vienna.

The Austrian police boarded the plane and removed the two Dutch men together with a couple of women who happened to be sitting in the same row. All four have since been banned from Transavia flights but were not charged as they had not broken any Austrian laws.

It is not clear whether any action was taken against the farting provocateur. Perhaps he should content himself with fizzling next time.

What Is The Origin Of (168)?…

Dribs and drabs

This phrase is used to describe small or intermittent sums or amounts or bits and pieces or people which appear irregularly. An example might be that the guests turned up at the party in dribs and drabs.

In trying to determine the etymology of the phrase, it is probably best to start where there is some sense of certainty. The word drib was in use from at least the 18th century in colloquial speech around the United Kingdom. There is an example from Scottish dialect dating from around 1730. It meant a small quantity or a drop and it is thought that it was a variant of drop or drip. That this may be the case is perhaps confirmed by an earlier verb form, to drib, which meant to fall to the ground in drops and looks to be an abbreviated form of to dribble. Driblet, which is the diminutive form of drib, dates from around the 1590s.

The word drab is a much trickier proposition altogether. For the modern English speaker, it is an adjective used to describe something which is dull and dowdy, without much colour. This is not surprising because this form of the word has been in use since the 1530s to describe a piece of cloth which had not been dyed, hence without colour and a bit dull. It owed its origin in this context to the Middle French word, drap, which meant a piece of cloth.

There was another form of drab which was used to describe a dirty and untidy woman and by extension a slattern or a prostitute. This probably came into the English language via the old Low German word drabbe, which meant a mire. Perhaps more germane to our enquiry is the usage of the noun in Yorkshire dialect. A glossary of the dialect of Craven, a town in North Yorkshire, published in 1828, contains the entry. “he’s gain away for good, and he’s left some drabs.” The rascal had run away and left behind some debts. So is a drab a small amount of money or a minor debt? At least it has the merit of balancing the diminutive that is provided by drib.

Our phrase first appeared in print in a letter written by Miss Nelly Weeton, a governess and traveller, on 17th March 1809. There she wrote, “whether it be better to have a little [news] and often, or a great deal and seldom, I leave to your better judgment to determine…You may have it in dribs and drabs if you like it better.” That it predates the reference to drab in the Yorkshire glossary should not cause us too much concern because a word needs to be in currency and intelligible to the reader or listener before it can be used in print without an accompanying gloss.

Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, published in 1861, has one of his interviewees saying, “None of us save money; it goes either in a lump, if we get a lump, or in dribs and drabs.” Henry Green’s novel, Concluding, published in 1948, contains the line, “they entered by dribs and drabs, lazily, slack.” Each of these three citations shows the phrase in its current day usage.

So what was a drab? It could be a small amount of money or a debt but I can’t help thinking that this definition hardly fits better with drib than do the other two that we have rejected, a dull cloth or a slatternly woman. It may be that what we have here is just another example of the reduplicated compounds that pepper our language, drab providing a pleasing alliterative and rhyming balance to drib. That there were other meanings associated with drab is just a coincidence, no more than that.

Coincidences Are Spiritual Puns

Violet Jessop (1887 – 1971)

Whether you agree with G K Chesterton’s analysis or not, there is something deeply fascinating about coincidences. I particularly enjoy stories of people who have cheated death on a number of occasions. They provide proof that some people can sail through traumatic experiences unscathed. One of the most pre-eminent examples is Miss Unsinkable, Violet Jessop.

As a young child Violet had already shown a remarkable propensity to look death in the eye, contracting tuberculosis and given just a few months to live. Proving the medics wrong, she survived and at the age of 21 took a job as a stewardess on an ocean-going liner. To achieve this position Violet had to overcome institutional prejudice. Although women worked on passenger ships they were usually of a certain age, the owners thinking that a young slip of a girl would cause too much of a distraction to the lusty matelots. To secure her position, she attended interviews wearing dowdy clothes and without make-up in an attempt to distract attention from her age and appearance. It worked and she secured a position in 1908 on the Royal Mail steamer, the Orinoco.

Sailors are superstitious characters and call unlucky crew members and passengers Jonahs after the biblical character who investigated the insides of a whale. Had they known that Violet was on the crew list, many a sensible sailor or passenger would have avoided the ship like the plague. Violet’s chapter of disasters started when she secured a position with the prestigious White Star Line and its luxurious liner, the Olympic. On 20th September 1911 the Olympic was sailing in the Solent in parallel with HMS Hawke. In manoeuvring the Olympic struck the Hawke’s bow which had been designed to ram ships, and the hull of the Olympic was holed above and below the waterline. Although two of the watertight compartments were flooded, the Olympic was able to sail under its own steam back to Southampton and no one was seriously hurt.

Then Violet took a position on board the White Star Line’s newest and most luxurious liner, the Titanic which the owners claimed was unsinkable. On the night of 14th/15th April 1912 the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, taking with it some 1,500 souls. Violet, though, was one of the lucky ones, being ordered by one of the ship’s officers to get into lifeboat number 16 to show the passengers that it was safe to do so. Her one regret, she recorded in her memoirs, was that she left her toothbrush on board.

To many a life ashore might have seemed appealing but not for Violet who transferred to the Titanic’s sister ship, the Britannic. During the First World War the Britannic was commandeered by the Navy and Violet saw service as a nurse aboard the ship which ferried troops back and forth across the Aegean. On 21st November 1916 it struck a mine planted by a German U-boat, sustaining substantial damage and sank so quickly that Violet and her fellow crew members hadn’t time to man the lifeboats. Clutching her toothbrush – she had remembered it this time – Violet jumped overboard, striking her head on the ship’s keel as she was sucked under. It was only years when she was complaining of frequent headaches that she learned that she had fractured her skull. Miraculously, only 30 died in this incident.

After the war Violet transferred to the Red Star Line and worked on ships for a number of years. The albatross that had hung around her neck had clearly disappeared because the rest of her career passed without incident. She died at the ripe old age of 84 of congestive heart failure.

Book Corner – February 2018 (2)

The Darkening Age – Catherine Nixey

History, they say, is written by the victors but there is a growing trend in modern historiography to explore events from the side of the losers or those whose views were never represented – women, the working classes, the poor etc. Nixey’s mission, in this stimulating and controversial book, is to explain just how the Christian religion and culture destroyed and almost obliterated the Greco-Roman culture. As a student of the Classics and an agnostic, intuitively I was on her side.

The book has a modern relevancy as Westerners wring their hands and decry the destruction of ancient sites by fanatical Moslems. But here in England we have had our own round of religious-inspired destruction when Henry VIII’s acolytes took their axes and hammers to the abbeys and monasteries which were the bastions of Roman Catholicism. All this, if Nixey’s account is to be believed, was knocked into a cocked hat by the systematic and mindless iconoclasm of the early Christians who set about crudely to damage and destroy the many statues of and temples built in honour of the old gods.

The Christians were concerned by the ability of the demons of the old gods to pollute them and cause them to deviate from the true path, worshipping their one and only God. Decapitating statues, gouging eyes, knocking off body parts, hacking at stone pediments was, to them, a cathartic process. They were particularly concerned about the demonic qualities of the smoke and stench of sacrifices to taint their souls. Perhaps there is an innate Christian spirit in me which comes to the surface from time to time when someone suggests a barbie.

Roman religion was polytheistic which was quite handy because it allowed the assimilation of new gods and those who had served their purpose to be quietly dropped. Christianity, however, was decidedly monotheistic and had no truck with any namby-pamby ideas of co-existing with or being assimilated into a polytheistic society. Although it is hard to conceive of Roman society as being in any way liberal, perhaps the modern take on this story is that when a determined group of religious fanatics take on a more easy-going society, there is only going to be one winner.

And the Christians were an odd lot, scorned by the Romans for being uncouth, illiterate and unclean. Extreme Christians delighted in the ascetic aspects of their religion, not washing for fear that the sight of their naked flesh would overcome them with lust, wearing uncomfortable clothing – hair shirts were the least of the strange apparel chosen to mortify their sinful flesh – and putting themselves through unimaginable physical trials to demonstrate their holiness.

Christianity, after all, is essentially a masochistic religion and, perhaps, the desire to torment yourself was a perverse reaction to the end of imperial persecution. Nixey, I think, underplays the degree of persecution that the early Christians underwent – there were certainly waves of imperially-sponsored persecutions – and she paints tragi-comedic scenes of Christians queuing up, begging to be martyred, the golden ticket to paradise. Perhaps it is necessary to do this to counter her accounts of the systematic destruction of the old culture and ways. In both aspects I think she is a little fly with the evidence and asserts things which are probably more suppositions than hard facts.

That said, the Christian persecution of the pagans, as they became known, did occur. From 330CE temples were destroyed, Athena’s head was decapitated in the sack of the temple in Palmyra in 385, the magnificent temple of Seraphis was destroyed in 392. The list goes on. And then there was the attacks on the intellectual communities including the murder of the mathematician, Hypatia, in 415 and the closure of Plato’s Academy in 529. Worse still was the destruction, deliberately or through neglect of most of the Classical canon. It is a miracle, and I use the word deliberately, that as much has survived as it has.

Nixey’s book sheds light on a rarely told tale of the consequences of the so-called triumph of Christianity. My only quibble is that her narrative is not as certain as she makes out.

Everything Is Possible For An Eccentric, Especially When He Is English – Part Seventeen

Anna Maria Helena, comtesse de Noialles (c1826 – 1908)

Wealth does not make you immune to the lottery of life. Take the curious case of the English noblewoman, Anna Coesvelt, who in 1845 married Charles-Antonin, the second son of the duc de Mouchy and prince-duc de Poix. The marriage did not last long and worse still, their only child died at birth. This tragedy probably left Anna with a lasting desire to have a child, something she resolved in an extraordinary way.

Taken by a portrait of a child by Ernest Hebert, hanging in the Paris Salon in 1863, Anna wanted to buy it. Unfortunately, it had already been sold but undaunted, she made enquiries of the model, one Maria Pasqua Abruzzesi with the intention of adopting her. Abruzzesi’s father agreed to the transaction for two bags of gold, insisting that his daughter be raised as a Catholic and as an equal. Anna agreed, the deal was struck and the poor girl was taken to England where her upbringing was far from conventional.

Maria was only allowed to wear loose-fitting clothing for fear of constricting her circulation – an imposition which at least exempted the child from wearing a school uniform at her boarding school. Believing that children who drank milk were less likely to become drunkards, Anna provided Maria with a supply of fresh milk from her herd of dairy cows. The cows served another purpose, being encouraged to graze near the house. The open windows ensured that the aroma from the trumping cattle circulated through the rooms, Anna believing that methane was good for the child’s health.

Anna herself followed an unusual health regimen. She would have a string of fresh onions hung from her bedroom door to ward off infections but fearing this was not effective enough, would flee England when the leaves started to drop from the trees, thinking this was a sign that the air was not healthy and influenza was about. To prevent the onset of bronchitis, she would eat prodigious quantities of herring roe. Anna was also concerned about her appearance and to prevent wrinkles would wrap stockings (silk, natch) stuffed with squirrel fur around her head.

Other eccentricities included only eating food if it was served to her whilst she was sitting behind a two-foot high silk screen and sleeping with a loaded gun by her bedside. Anna enjoyed a glass of port – who doesn’t? – but insisted that it was served to her at sunset, mixed with some sugar and diluted by fresh rainwater. She was also concerned about her eyesight and commanded her servants to wrap a piece of blue silk around her brass bedroom door as protection against excessive glare. When it fell off, it would cause her to shriek in terror.

In her will, Anna set aside some money to create an orphanage for the daughters of clergymen. Needless to say, anyone staying there didn’t have a normal existence. They were examined by phrenologists to ensure that they were “firm spirited and conscientious,” were prevented from being vaccinated against contagious diseases and those under the age of ten were taught no mathematics other than the multiplication tables.

Anna did use her wealth to some good, funding Elizabeth Blackwell in her struggles to become the first female doctor in the United States and was a major shareholder and financier of the English Woman’s Journal which, in the 1850s, campaigned on women’s employment and equality issues. But she was an odd fish by anybody’s standards.

Dish Of The Week

Have the Scots found something to rival the deep-fried Mars bar?

Well, according to Stephen Mann, owner of the Pearl River takeaway in Erskine, his salt and chilli pizza crunch is flying off the shelves. The concoction, which boasts more calories than 22 bags of crisps and more salt content than the daily recommended allowance, consists of a deep-fried pizza coated in spices, topped with onions, peppers and fresh chillies.

At least with the chilli and pepper topping, you are getting one of your five a day.

This ultimate in fusion cuisine, blending an Italian staple with Chinese flavours and Scottish frying, will set you back £7 for a full ten inch pizza, while a half pizza retails at £4.

The only problem is that after eating it, it leaves your mouth as dry as a wallaby’s pouch.

Mann says he gets a lot of repeat customers. You don’t say?

For those for whom a ten inch pizza is not enough, perhaps the enterprising Mann could serve them on a plate made by the Polish firm, Biotrem. Made from natural wheat bran and small amounts of water, compressed together under high temperature and pressure into a plate shape, they are microwavable and totally edible. What’s more, they are environmentally friendly, being compostable, and a tonne of the bran can make 10,000 plates.

With the bowel evacuation that the pizza is bound to guarantee, the plate once ingested will be out of your system in a jiffy.

Just a thought.

Job Of The Week (3)

For some this will be the equivalent of the golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Mondelez International, the company that owns Cadbury’s, has just put an advert on-line, I read this week, for three chocolate tasters.

No experience is necessary and full training will provided to “develop your taste buds”, according to the advert. As part of the interview process the short-listed candidates will be invited to an assessment day where they will sample up to ten different samples and be invited to discuss their findings.

The pay is a paltry £9 per hour and the role is on what is termed a permanent part-time basis but I’m sure there are other compensations.

If you have any food allergies or dietary restrictions, then this is not the job for you but there is a vacancy for a chocolate and cocoa beverage tester.

You’d better get your skates on as the company expect a phenomenal response.

Of course, you may pile on the avoirdupois in the role and so could be tempted to do a spot of jogging. This pursuit has its own perils as reports from the Tsawwassen Police in British Columbia reveal. There has been a spate of incidents where owls have swooped down from the skies and attacked joggers and bikers.

The birds have been mistaking ponytails and flashy headgear as prey and so do what comes naturally to them. The problem has become so severe that residents have been urged to avoid the area.

The Donald had better give it a swerve.

What Is The Origin Of (167)?…


Last year (2017) the Guardian newspaper here in Blighty announced that it was moving from its existing Berliner format to tabloid form sometime in 2018, leaving just the Telegraph in a broadsheet format. There was a time when there was a clear divide between what were termed as the low-brow, populist papers which were in tabloid format and the broadsheet newspapers, which were more serious and respectable. As with most things, the desire for convenience and usability has won out but it did leave me wondering where the term tabloid came from. My investigations revealed an interesting story, worthy of many a column inch.

Firstly, it is a made-up word, the brain child of the pharmaceutical manufacturer, Henry Wellcome, who was searching for something to describe the highly compressed pills that his firm, established with Silas Burroughs in London in 1878, was producing. Tablet, which in a literal sense meant a small table, had been used since the 16th century to describe the sort of medicines which were made up as solid rectangular, dry packages. This was not good enough for Wellcome as he wanted to stand out from the crowd. Taking the root tabl- he added the suffix –oid which meant resembling, having the form of or the likeness of. So pleased was he of his neologism that Wellcome registered it as a trademark in 1884.

Wellcome’s problem was that his linguistic creation proved to be a bit too successful. In the following decade or so, tabloid began to be used in the vernacular to describe anything of a small, compressed nature. Innovations in the field of journalism saw the launch of the Daily Mail in May 1896, whose size was half that of a broadsheet, establishing what are now the commonly accepted dimensions for a tabloid. The Mail’s hallmark was a succession of news stories told in a simple and condensed style rather than using the grandiloquent prose of the longer established journals. The Daily Mirror soon followed suit.

Small newspapers with condensed articles soon earned the moniker of tabloids. On 1st January 1901, the Westminster Gazette gave its readership notice of a change of editorial policy, advising that “the proprietor intends to give in tabloid form all the news printed by other journals.”  The term tabloid journalism was established.

These were unwelcome developments for Wellcome who decided to fight back in defence of his trademark, suing a Manchester firm, Thompson and Crapper, in 1903 for using the word tabloid without permission. Not unreasonably, in their defence, Thompson and Crapper pointed out that the word was now firmly ensconced in the nation’s vocabulary, citing such uses as opera in tabloid, knowledge in tabloid form, tabloid missives and so on. In other words, Wellcome had been victim of his own linguistic genius and by taking this unwarranted legal action was attempting to stifle the development of the noble English tongue.

Nevertheless, Wellcome won his case. While the judge agreed that the word had developed legs of its own and was now used in contexts that were outside of the Wellcome’s original conception and, indeed, had become an accepted description of something in a compressed form, nonetheless he upheld Wellcome’s right to enforce his trademark.

How times have changed. We would scratch our head to associate tabloid with a compressed form of pharmaceutical but would readily accept it as a noun to describe a small newspaper. Sometimes you can be too clever for your own good.

Gin o’Clock – Part Thirty Five

One of the interesting by-products of the ginaissance for the seasoned traveller is that the airport duty-free shops are packed full of premium gins. As well as the usual suspects it is possible to stumble across an unusual gin which at the modestly discounted prices on offer is worth a punt.

Wandering through the duty-free shop in Alicante airport my attention was caught by a white, dumpy, ceramic pot – I am a sucker for a ceramic pot – with a grey, pixellated map of the world on the front. The only splash of colour is a red arrow and a red spot on the area that is the north-west coast of Spain. There is no doubting where Nordes Atlantic Galician Gin comes from. The back of the bottle is like a modern-day Rosetta Stone, with descriptions in Spanish, Italian and English. After reading the ingredients – we will come to them in a minute – and as it was the only gin on offer I hadn’t tried, I decided to deploy my last few Euros and buy a litre bottle.

Readers will know by now that our favourite hooch falls broadly into two main camps – the more traditional, juniper heavy, London dry gins and contemporary gins where a whole cocktail of botanicals are thrown into the mix, leaving the juniper as an also-ran rather than the main protagonist in the taste sensation. Nordes is very much in the latter camp – indeed, it is very hard to detect any of the traditional tastes you would associate with a gin in the drink.

For a start, the base spirit is made from Albarino grapes, rather than the usual grain spirit. Wine buffs tell me that Galician vino made from these grapes are the next thing in summer wines – we will see – but for me, they give the foundation of the spirit a rather sweet taste, from which it never recovers. Continuing on the Galician theme, the majority of the botanicals deployed are garnered from the region. So we find verbena, which, it is claimed, is a cure for melancholy, glasswort, hibiscus, lemongrass and peppermint. A touch of exotica is provided by eucalyptus leaves and the ultra-trendy marsh samphire or sea bean, which no self-respecting contemporary gin can be without, it would seem. To complete the cast list we have juniper – at last! – cardamom, ginger, and tea. The spirit has an ABV of 40%.

Unscrewing the dark blue cap, the aroma from the spirit was definitely floral. To the taste, initially, it seemed as though I had ingested some perfume but gradually other flavours, including a hint of juniper, began to come into play. There was the customary warmth coming through at the back of the throat but it was gentle and as I got accustomed to the crystal-clear spirit, I began to appreciate the complexity lurking within. The aftertaste was rather fruity and floral and lingered, leaving a not unpleasant sensation in the mouth. I found that Fever-Tree Mediterranean tonic complemented it well.

In summary, it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. It wasn’t unpleasant and would work well if you were spending a languid afternoon basking in the heat which the Nordes wind is said to bring to the Galician region. But for me, it confirmed my preference for the more traditional London Dry Gins. As the French say, a chacun son gout.

Until the next time, salud!