Tree Of The Week

One of the (many) oddities about state visits is the custom of exchanging gifts. You can imagine the hours of earnest diplomatic debate before the right gift, conveying the appropriate sentiments and symbolism, is selected. But even then things can go wrong.

News has reached me that the young oak tree that President Macron gave Trump on his visit to Washington last year has died. Coming from Belleau Wood in northern France where two thousand American soldiers died in June 1918, it was planted with all due ceremony, the two leaders deploying golden shovels for the purpose.

The tree, though, was soon uprooted, falling foul of regulations that all living things imported into the USA need to go into quarantine. And there, according to diplomatic sources, it died. Hélas.

You would have thought that with all the planning that allegedly goes into these state visits, someone would have had the wit to put the tree through quarantine before the ceremony. But perhaps there is a deeper symbolism here, reflecting the worsening relationship between the two countries and what can happen to you if you get into the hands of the US authorities.

Who knows?

Later in the week it was announced that Macron would send another one.


Lucky Strike Of The Week

Is there an art to cracking a safe or is it just luck?

One of the attractions of the Heritage Museum in Vermilion in Alberta, Canada, is a safe, dating from 1907, from the town’s Brunswick Hotel. When the hotel was renovated in 1992, the safe was donated to the museum. There was one problem though – no one knew the code to the safe’s combination lock.

The museum had tried various methods to get the safe open, ranging from trying default combinations, bringing in experts and contacting former employees of the hotel, all to no avail. The safe door, which had last opened in 1977, remained resolutely shut, which, I suppose, is what you want with a safe.

Then along came Stephen Mills. He and his family paid a visit to the museum and after hearing the saga of the safe decided to have a go at opening it. Noticing that the combination lock’s numbers ran from 0 to 60, he entered the sequence 20-40-60 and turned the knob. Hey, presto the door sprang open.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a pile of cash inside, just an old pay sheet and a restaurant order pad, including receipts for a mushroom burger (C$0.59) and a packet of fags (C$1.00). But at least the mystery is over and with it, possibly, the museum’s only claim to fame.

I wonder if Stephen bought a lottery ticket when he left the museum.

What Is The Origin Of (235)?

Darby and Joan

There are some benefits to growing old. Admittedly, the limbs are not as supple as they once were, there are more aches and pains and the faculties are not as sharp, but it is a pleasure to be able to do what I want at a pace of my choosing. My wife and I are in danger of becoming that archetypal elderly couple, Darby and Joan, spending our final years, decades I trust, in contentment. Where does the phrase come from and who were Darby and Joan, if anyone?

There is a tendency, as we have seen, in etymological researches to seek to identify a phrase with real people, often erroneously. That may be the case here. The starting point is a reference that the eccentric lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, in the Literary Magazine in 1756 to a ballad about Darby and Joan. Johnson may have had in mind an anonymous poem, printed in the weekly journal, the Gentleman’s Magazine, in March 1735, entitled The Joys of Love never forgot. It contains these lines; “Old Darby, with Joan by his side,/ You’ve often regarded with wonder:/ He’s dropsical, she is sore-eyed,/ Yet they’re never happy asunder.

The devoted couple are thought to have been John Darby and his wife, Joan, a printer who lived and worked in Bartholomew Close in London. The poem is ascribed to Henry Woodfall who worked for him. However, in The Literary Janus, edited by J Wilson and published in the early part of the nineteenth century, there is a similar poem by the title of The Happy Couple. The only difference in the text is you’ve is replaced by I’ve in the second line and in the fourth line reads “and yet they are never asunder.” The couple are supposed to be long-standing residents of a Yorkshire village, three miles from Tadcaster, called Healaugh, and the poem is attributed to Lord Wharton, who was Lord of the Manor of the village.

It is difficult to know what to make of this. A reason to doubt the Woodfall story is that Darby the printer is thought to have died in 1704. Is it likely that he would have waited thirty years to laud his master and his devoted wife? The Yorkshire Darby and Joan seemed to have lived an idyllic life, Darby smoking his pipe and quaffing his ale while Joan “in all the garrulity of age, relating tales of days long passed away” and going to church on Sundays. Are these the prototypical happy, contented couple? I’m not sure it matters.

What is clear is that by the beginning of the nineteenth century the phrase was well established. The Times noted in its edition of May 26, 1801 that a new dance by the title of Darby and Joan was being “received with loud and general plaudits” and in June there was a ballet of the same name doing the rounds. On February 1, 1802 the Thunderer announced that what it termed as a “comic divertissement” was being performed at London’s Royalty Theatre by the name of Darby and Joan; or The Dwarf.

By the middle of the century Darby and Joan was being used to describe a seemingly devoted couple. In He Knew He Was Right, published in 1869, Anthony Trollope wrote, “when we travel together, we must go Darby and Joan fashion.” The verbose Henry James, writing in The Golden Bowl, published in 1904, described a couple thus; “their silence eked out for her by his giving her his arm and their then crawling up their steps quite mildly and contentedly, like some old Darby and Joan…” Darby and Joan were the names given to the devoted couple who provide hospitality in Herman Melville’s Omoo from 1847.

There was a popular song in the 1890s, written by Frederic Weatherly, entitled Darby in Joan in which Joan serenades her hubby with these words; “Darby dear we are old and grey,/ Fifty years since our wedding day./ Shadow and sun for every one,/ as the years roll by.” The couple also made an appearance in Hammerstein and Kern’s 1937 classic song, The Folks Who Live on the Hill.

Whoever they were, they have been an enduring symbol of a long and happy marriage and long may it continue.

Gin O’Clock – Part Sixty Seven

The ginaissance is so competitive these days that any gin hoping to make a splash must have a back story. Some seem to be the real McCoy but others have more than a little hint of the fevered brain of a marketing wallah about them. It’s probably best to take them with a pinch of salt or perhaps a slice of lemon and a dash of tonic. But one that seems to be the real deal is the one relating to Xoriguer Mahón Gin, a bottle of which I picked up in Alicante airport’s duty-free shop, as you do.

From 1708 to 1802 the island of Menorca, one of the Balearics in the western Mediterranean, and, specifically, its capital, Mahón was a regular stopping off point for British soldiers and sailors as they moved from Blighty to one of the far-flung parts of the Empire or vice versa. The troops and matelots, after being cooped up in confined quarters for so long, liked to stretch their legs and quench their thirst. One of the tipples that they kept asking for was gin. Rather than go to the cost and trouble of importing gins, the locals decided to have a go at distilling their own. The result was this gin, which was so popular, that when the military disappeared the locals continued distilling it for their own use.

What first caught my eye was the bottle. It is a bottle-green colour and shaped like a wine bottle with a dinky handle at the base of the neck. The top is a red screw ap. The front of the label has a picture, more accurately a drawing, of a windmill behind some agricultural buildings and the rear bears a description in Spanish which roughly translates as “made by complete distillation with juniper berries and wine alcohol, it offers a pleasant taste and represents the pride of an ancient tradition.” I may be doing the marketese an injustice, my Spanish is not that good, but I think you get the drift.

The two points to note are that it is juniper led, always a firm tick in the box for me, and that the base spirit is distilled from grapes, not so much of a tick from me but it seems to be the way with gins distilled in foreign parts. That, it seems, is a peculiarity of Xoriguer because to qualify as Mahón Gin any form of alcohol base, be it from grape, potato, sugar beet or wheat, will do. The next essential ingredient is juniper berries which must have an oil by weight content of between seven and nine per cent. The third component is distilled drinking water. And that’s it. No other aromas or extracts can be added.

What is absolutely essential, and a point the locals get steamed up about, is that the spirit together with the junipers are distilled in a copper still over a wood fire. Once distillation has been completed to their satisfaction, the hooch is filtered off. At an ABV of 38% it is at the lighter end of the gin strength spectrum but what it lacks in punch it makes up for in taste.

To the nose it is juniper heavy and there is very little else coming through, perhaps unsurprisingly given the proscriptions on the ingredients. To the taste it is incredibly thick and luscious, you almost get a juniper rush but there are some elements of citrus in there, admittedly faint but even these jaundiced taste buds detected it. The aftertaste is long and dry, peppery and a lingering taste of juniper.

If you love a juniper-heavy gin, and I do, check this one out. Ditch the stuffed donkey and sombrero and get yourself a bottle.

Until the next time, cheers!

Book Corner – June 2019 (2)

Riotous Assembly – Tom Sharpe

Published in 1971, this is Sharpe’s first novel in which he takes up, aims and fires a large elephant gun at the apartheid system that blighted South Africa at the time. His bullets are his excoriating wit, a far more effective weapon than a dry treatise on the evils that were bedevilling the country. As a Brit, he gives an outsider’s perspective.

The action is based in a sleepy South African town called Piemburg which Sharpe describes as half the size of New York Cemetery and twice as dead.” But scratch beneath the surface and it is a microcosm of the pre-Mandela South Africa. The police, bumbling and inefficient, have developed a nice line of torture techniques which they are more than willing to try out, perfect and extend on any person of colour who is unfortunate enough to get in their way.

The action starts when a respected member of the community, of British stock, Miss Hazelstone rings the police station to demand that someone comes around to arrest her as she has just shot and killed her Zulu cook. It transpires that she shot him out in the garden. The Chief of Police, Kommandant van Heerden, vainly tries to persuade her to move the body indoors but she will have none of it. This simple exchange kickstarts a series of events which soon spiral out of control into a series of mind-bogglingly ridiculous and funny set pieces.

The fall guy in the whole shebang is Miss Hazelstone’s brother, Jonathan, the Bishop of Barotseland. Through a series of twists and turns in the plotting, he is marched out to the gallows to be hung, simply so that van Heerden get his hands on his heart which he wants to transplant for his own. Things don’t quite go to plan and the Bishop, who is the only sympathetic character in the book, lives to tell another tale.

As investigations into the murder progress, it becomes obvious that the cook and Miss Hazelstone were having intimate relations, miscegenation being illegal at the time, and their perversions included rubber wear and an innovative use of novocaine.

Had van Heerden just done what Miss Hazelstone had requested, arrested her for killing the cook, then the peace and quiet of Piemburg would not have been disturbed. But Hazelstone’s actions and attitudes were an affront to any right-thinking Boer.

It was perfectly acceptable, as the laws stood, for her to kill her cook indoors but not outside, hence the request that the body be removed from the garden. Her sexual perversions and passion for her Zulu cook were not only illegal but so shocking to van Heerden that he could envisage that were they to come out into the open, the fabric of South African society would be irreparably damage and a cloud of shame would descend on Piemburg. The South African police and secret service, BOSS, were notorious for their indiscriminate use of violence and torture against the people. By focusing on and magnifying these stupidities Sharpe, as well as creating an entertaining and comic read, makes his points with deadly precision.

As a book, though, I found it a little patchy. The first half was well plotted, gripping and funny but by the second half the plotting got more laboured and it seemed to wheeze and pant as it struggled to get to the finishing line. Perhaps it is difficult to maintain something where the dial is set perpetually at eleven. However, if you are looking for an absurd, bawdy, comedic novel, this is as good as any you will find.

Mores Romani

I’m not normally one for fancy dress but I was looking forward to a trip to Rome as an excuse to liberate my leather centurion’s breastplate and toga from the stygian depths of our attic. But it seems I have missed my chance.

The authorities in Rome have just issued a slew of rules aimed at clamping down on what they consider to be uncouth behaviour. Dressing up as a Roman (ancient, that is) is now verboten as is what they term as messy eating in front of historic sites. Whether you will get a spell in what the Italians call al fresco or just a flea in your ear for eating a pizza or ice cream in the open outside some pile or other is not clear.

Other infractions on Roman sensibilities that are now beyond the pale include dragging wheeled suitcases and buggies up and down historic staircases, walking around bare-chested (all sexes, I assume), singing on public transport, and wrapping your mouth around the nozzles of the city’s drinking fountains. And if you must do your laundry, don’t hang it out in the space between buildings.

I suppose, as St Augustine wrote in around 390 CE to Januarius, it is a case of “Romanum venio, ieiuno Sabbato; hic sum, non ieiuno” which has been (very) loosely translated as when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Or perhaps the Stooges got it right; “No fun, babe, no fun”.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Ninety Five

Angela Ruiz Robles (1895 – 1975)

Books do furnish a room.

You can tell a lot about a person by the presence or absence of books in their house. When I encounter a bookshelf, I feel drawn towards it, as if I am answering the siren call. There is something magical about the physical properties of a book, the feel, its weight, the cover, the spine, its illustrations, the layout of the text, even the type selected.

Beautiful as they undoubtedly are, they are heavy and take up a lot of room.

I’m a voracious reader and get through books by the dozen. I have a few favourites, which I return to from time-to-time, but most of my reading matter is engorged once and once only. And one of my personal nightmares is being away from home, travelling or on holiday, and running out of reading material.

To me and, I’m sure, many others, the e-reader is a Godsend, allowing me to have almost instantaneous access to hundreds of books in a portable rectangular device. Aesthetically pleasing it is not and unlikely to revolutionise the way books are delivered as the format’s early evangelists once claimed, but it is convenient and, for bookworms like me, an invaluable support prop.

The concept of an automated reading device dates back to the 1940s, the brainchild of the director of the Instituto Ibanez Martin in Ferrol in Spain, Angela Ruiz Robles. Her vision was to make teaching easier and to enable her students to maximise their knowledge with the minimum of effort.

Fundamental to achieving this aim would be the development of a mechanical book, which contained all the texts that a student would need. Instead of volumes of battered text books, all their satchels would contain would be a light-weight, portable, easy-to-use mechanical reader.

Angela worked away on her idea and by 1949 had come up with a pastel-green coloured metal box which she called, snappily, I feel, Procedimiento mecánico, eléctrico y a presión de aire para lectura de libros or, in English translation, “a mechanical, electrical and air pressure procedure for reading books”.

Inside were a series of tapes on interchangeable spools, some containing text and others illustrations, all protected by a transparent and unbreakable sheet. It came with a magnifying lens and a light so that it could be used in the dark. The mechanical encyclopedia even had an audio component, which brought the text to life.

Angela had considered a wider application for her book than just Spain, proposing alphabets and texts in a number of languages. Content could be read from start to finish or the reader could skip to a new chapter by pressing a button. She even envisaged an interactive index and a list of installed works, which the student could move between by pressing one or more buttons.

To entice the publishers, Angela proposed a standard size for cartridges and, of course, some of the production costs associated with book production, such as pasting and binding, would be eliminated.

What was there not to like?

Satisfied with her prototype, Angela applied for a patent. On December 7, 1949 she was awarded Spanish patent 190,698 for what was described as a mechanical encyclopedia. She paid the annual renewal fee up until 1961 but was unable to attract sufficient funding or interest from publishers to make her vision of an alternative to a book a commercial reality.

Undaunted, on April 10, 1962, Angela applied for and received a patent (No 276,346) for an “apparatus for diverse readings and exercises”. Although it contained many of the components of the original mechanical encyclopedia, it had a slightly more streamlined design. Be that as it may, it still met the same fate as Angela’s original machine. No manufacturers or publishers would back it with cash to bring it into production.

And, so, the idea of a mechanised book or reader as we would now call it withered and died, only to be picked up again by Michael Hart in 1971 with the prototype of a truly electronic reader.

Belatedly, Angela’s contribution to the development of e-reader has begun to be recognised but she missed out on the commercial gains of her brainwave. A version of her early prototype, a splendid affair made from bronze, wood, zinc, and paper can be seen to this day at the Science and Technology Museum of La Coruna.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone