What Is The Origin Of (294)?…


Comedy comes in all shapes and sizes, from the erudite to the crude. At the far extreme of the comedy spectrum is slapstick, a form of knockabout humour, often featuring horseplay, exploiting ridiculous situations and carrying the menace of violence. In the hands of masters of the form, like the Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy and more recently Rowan Atkinson in the guise of Mr Bean, as well as that seaside favourite, The Punch and Judy show, it can be an effective and amusing form of comedy, more so than the politically correct, virtue signalling, diatribes that pass as comedy now.

The origin of the word is straightforward. In the period between the 16th and 18th centuries, one of the dramatic forms that flourished, initially in Italy. Possibly in Venice, and then through other European countries was the Commedia dell’Arte. It was known over here as Italian comedy. A mix of scripted dialogue and improvisation, it featured stock characters, each with their distinctinctive costumes. The harlequin, known as Arlecchino, carried a stick with which to assault some of the other players.

When physical assaults on actors were considered to be a breach of even the rudimentary ‘elf and safety standards that prevailed at the time, assaults were mimed, and the accompanying sounds were created backstage. To achieve that satisfying whacking sound, a device was developed, consisting of two flat pieces of wood, joined together at one end. It made a glorious noise and was given a vaguely onomatopoeic name, the slapstick.

As it was normally deployed in pantomimes and other forms of what were termed as “low comedies”, the name of the instrument was attributively given to that type of drama, sometimes used adjectively with the addition of comedy. A rather lukewarm review of a play called The Kindergarten appeared in The Cincinnati Enquirer on April 27, 1885; “as a satire we must in justice pronounce it a failure, but as the vehicle for the introduction of lots of fun of the slap-stick order the “thing” jogs along as merrily as the old one-horse shay”.     

The temptation to enhance the sound produced by a slapstick was sometimes too much for enterprising showmen to resist, occasionally with unintended and potentially lethal results. The Chicago Sunday Tribune on May 31, 1908, reported an incident involving a clown, James Balno, at New York’s Hippodrome. “A slapstick with a blank cartridge between the boards”, it noted, “was to be used in the act, and to test it Balno struck it against the edge of a door. The cartridge exploded and a piece of the metal shot into Balno’s shoulder, severing an artery”. Balno lived to tell the tale.  

By the start of the 20th century the word was beginning to be used as a noun to describe a farce or a piece of drama that relied on physical humour. The New York Times, on May 1, 1904, reported that “boys have laughed at their slapsticks, literal and linguistic”. The composer, Gustav Mahler, gave the slapstick an air of respectability when he scored an appearance for it in the original version of his Sixth Symphony.

As early as the second decade of the 20th century, the demise of slapstick was being signalled, the Albuquerque Evening Herald, on August 29, 1912, reporting the views of a movie actor, John Bunny, had him opining that “comic cinematograph scenes will hereafter turn from the prevailing style of slapstick humour towards the subtler laugh”. Mercifully, he was wrong.

Gin O’Clock (105)

Towards the end of June my wife and I normally make an annual pilgrimage to the Falmouth area of Cornwall. One of the highlights, for me at least, is a trip to Constantine Stores, an unprepossessing store with an Aladdin’s cave of gins of all shapes, sizes and qualities. It is also the headquarters of Drinkfinder.co.uk and as, what with one thing and another, we haven’t got down there, I have had to resort to their exemplary mail order service. It was simple to use and the bottles arrived, well packed, the following day. Superb, although I did miss the opportunity to browse through shelves of tempting goodies that the ginaissance has spawned.

Given its location Drinkfinder has a fine selection of Cornish gins and so my selections all come from the south-western peninsula and its outcrops. The first I selected was Rosemullion Dry Gin from the little Cornish village of Mawnan Smith, a village we have driven through many times en route to Glendurgan and Trebah gardens and the head from which the gin takes its name. Among the reasons for selecting it was that I was keen to taste some new gins from the area, the distillery was established in 2018 and the Dry Gin was launched the following year, and I was intrigued by the base spirit that was used.

Not content to do things by halves, husband and wife team, Andy and Liz Bradbury, have not only decided to create their own range of gins but also to develop their own base spirit. Most distillers find the task of creating a gin daunting enough and bring in pre-prepared spirit. Grain is the usual base, although I have sampled apple-based spirits, and spirits using potato and even wine. Fermented sugar, though, the ingredient of choice for the Bradburys is a new one on me. My concern with “unusual” base spirits is that without care a flavoured spirit can unbalance the taste of the gin, giving the botanicals even more work to do. I find that wine spirit, for example, makes the gin too astringent.

The bottle is a work of art, reminiscent of a Plymouth Gin bottle on steroids. Its Cornish roots are shown in the Celtic-influenced logo, repeated both on the front and on top of the wide cork stopper. At the rear at the base is a sticker telling me my bottle is number 90 from Batch DG6 and initialled AJB, presumably by Andy. The only other other labelling is a tag at the neck which informs me that the gin is “born from a passion to create world beating (a phrase now surely devalued) spirits, using traditional techniques from the very heart of the Cornish countryside”. Beautiful, but understated presentation.

The gin is made in copper stills in batches of 100 bottles. Twelve botanicals go into the mix including juniper, coriander seeds, orange, orris root, angelica root, liquorice, black pepper, lemon and cassia bark and Cornish rainwater, of which they get a lot from my experience, is used in the distillation and fermentation process. At 43% ABV it is mid-range in strength, packing enough punch to make it interesting.  

So, what is it like?

On the nose it has a full-bodied, intense aroma, a heady mix of the floral and the spicier, peppery juniper-based elements. In the mouth it has quite an intense taste, marking it out from other gins, probably because of the choice of base spirit. It seemed well-balanced with the sweeter elements combining well with and complementing the welcome and intense hit of juniper and the earthier elements. The aftertaste was prolonged and enticing, providing a warm spicy glow.

When I added a mixer, I found that it louched, due to the oily elements in the botanicals, nothing wrong in that. It also seemed that the addition of a tonic gave extra prominence to the herbal and floral elements within the botanicals. I would suggest if you are going to use a mixer, you need to select a fairly bland, neutral one. There is so much going on that to disrupt with an unfortunate choice of tonic would be a shame, if not a crime.

I really enjoyed this gin and it had a taste as distinctive and sophisticated as the bottle it came in. It made me pine for the area.

Until the next time, cheers!

Book Corner – August 2020 (1)

The Death of Mr Lomas – Francis Vivian

Francis Vivian was the nom de plume of Arthur Ashley, a Nottinghamshire-based painter and decorator until, in 1932, he turned his hand to writing popular fiction. The Death of Mr Lomas, published in 1941, is the first book in which he introduced to his readership his most famous detective creation, Inspector Gordon Knollis. There were ten Knollis stories in all, the last published in 1956.

Vivian was an inveterate collector of information, he was an expert on bee keeping, for example, and he could not resist sharing his love of the arcane with his readers. He was also known as playing fair, the attentive reader could always crack the problem from the data that had been given during the course of the narrative. Knollis would never pick up on a clue that had not been disclosed before. This technique makes for a satisfying read as you pit your wits against the Inspector and wait with anticipation for the end to see whether you had indeed fingered the culprit and understood how it was all done.

Vivian’s books were also noted for their fiendishly complicated plots and The Death of Mr Lomas is no different, a panoply of characters drifting in and out of the narrative. The book also touches on a couple of slightly surprising elements, cocaine dealing and cross-dressing, echoing Ethel Lina White’s Wax and Moray Dalton’s The Strange Case of Harriet Hall. The sensitive modern reader should be aware that Vivian does lapse into casually racist language at times in often the most surprising contexts, for example in this book when describing the colour of a pair of curtains.  

One day the Chief Constable of Burnham, Sir William Burrows, a bluff, blustering character, receives a visit from a respectable shopkeeper, Mr Lomas. Lomas shocks Burrows by claiming that he is being poisoned without being able to substantiate his fears. The policeman sends him away, suggesting that he is suffering from a nervous disorder. Later that night Lomas’ body is found in the river. He had consumed a lot of whisky that night, but the spirit had been adulterated with cocaine. Even more astonishingly, Lomas, who had a flourishing beard complete with moustaches, was clean shaven.

We find Knollis at home spending a quiet evening with his wife, both reading books, when he is disturbed with news of the murder. The discomforted Chief Constable relays to his Inspector the contents of the unusual interview he had had with Lomas. There is no doubt who is in charge of the investigation and there is a running joke throughout the narrative whenever the pair meet, the Chief struggling to identify the Emsworth that Knollis alludes to.

Knollis’ modus operandi is to work through the problem methodically, navigating his way through a rather convoluted series of events, some twists threatening to send him down a blind alley. The ending, given the stately progress of the rest of the book, seemed to me to be a tad rushed and melodramatic. However, all in all it was an entertaining read with flashes of humour, where the focus was solely and simply on the solving of the crime. Too many veer off to give us a rounder picture of the principal characters. This is a no-nonsense whodunit and all the better for it.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Forty Six

Rudolph Fentz, the accidental time traveller, 1950

Occasionally, I allow myself the luxury of fantasising about being a time traveller. I find it interesting to speculate what life would really be like at some time in the past or, indeed, in the future. This was the premise behind the successful TV drama, Dr Who, which has been going long enough to suggest that others are fascinated by this fantasy. Of course, I realise that it is the stuff of science fiction and there are little or no grounds to think that it could ever be achieved, but you never know. Take the curious case of Rudolph Fentz.

Around 11.15pm in the middle of June 1950, a strange figure appeared in the centre of New York’s Times Square. He cut quite a dash, wearing a tall silk hat, a tight coat and waistcoat. But it was his thick mutton-chop sideburns and his expression of bewilderment, as if he had never seen buildings so tall or such density of traffic or traffic lights. He seemed frightened by the experience and ran into the middle of the road, straight in front of one of the Big Apple’s famous yellow taxis and was killed outright.

When the police examined his body, they found in his pocket a stock of business cards identifying him as Rudolph Fentz with an address on Fifth Avenue. More astonishingly, Fentz was carrying in his pocket a copper token redeemable for a beer worth five cents at a bar no one had heard of, round $70 in old bank notes, an invoice for the ”feeding and stabling of one horse” at a stable on Lexington Avenue that was unknown, a letter dated June 1876 from Philadelphia, and a medal for coming third in a three-legged race. None of these artefacts showed any evidence of ageing. It was all a mystery. Just who was Fentz and where had he come from?

Captain Hubert Rihm from NYPD’s Missing Persons Department began to make enquiries. Fentz’s fingerprints were not on record and he was not known at the address on his business card. Rihm did get a breakthrough, finding the name, Rudolph Fentz Jr, in a phone book. He rang the number, only to find out that he had died around 1945, but that his wife was still alive.

What Fentz Jr’s widow had to reveal, though, was truly astonishing. Her father-in-law, Rudolph Fentz Sr, had disappeared without trace in 1876, leaving his house for an evening constitutional and never returning. Rihm checked the description of Fentz and the clothing he wore at the time of his disappearance and they tallied. The case was closed, marked as unsolved.

For paranormalists, though, the astonishing disappearance and reappearance of Fentz after seventy years, fresh as a daisy without any apparent ageing, was proof positive that man could time travel. What might have appeared to be an astonishing news story didn’t appear in any of the papers at the time and only gained currency when the Journal of Borderlands Science published an account in its May/June 1972 edition. The story then took off, cited in several articles, books and on the internet as factual, including, in 2000, in the Spanish magazine, Más Allá. This prompted Chris Auckleck, a bit of a spoilsport, to dig further.

What Auckleck discovered was that, surprise, surprise, there was no basis for believing that the Fentz had any basis in fact. He discovered a short story by the science fiction writer, Jack Finney, he of Invasion of The Body Snatchers and Time and Again fame, published in Collier’s magazine on September 15, 1951. The story, narrated by a police officer, Captain Rihm, tells of a 19th century man, named Fentz, making an unexpected appearance in Times Square.

Fentz’s time travelling was little more than a literary hoax, a clever one nonetheless, seized upon by those desperate for evidence that substantiated their theories. Time travel is just a pleasant fantasy, it would seem.

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