A wry view of life for the world-weary

A Better Life – Part Twelve

William Riker (1873 – 1969) and the Holy City

 The fact that you may have found your own way to enlightenment doesn’t mean that you are a nice man. Take the curious case of William Riker who founded Holy City in the Santa Cruz Mountains, conveniently situated just off the Santa Cruz highway, in 1918.

Riker had a chequered history before he found his own particular road to enlightenment. He made his living reading palms, earning the sobriquet The Professor, and travelled the country performing a mind reading act before the long arm of the law caught up with him for being an alleged bigamist. He skipped the border to Canada where he developed the Perfect Christian Divine Way. In essence, it required abstention from alcohol, a commitment to celibacy and communal living and a belief in the supremacy of the white race.

Coming back to the States Riker bought 30 acres of land for $10 just south of Los Gatos and established his commune where living quarters were segregated strictly by sex. Holy City, which never had a church – the now-styled Father Riker gave his followers the benefit of his wisdom from an adjacent redwood grove – started with 30 adherents who were mainly elderly and who had pledged all their wealth to their prophet. At its peak the commune had some 300 followers, all of whom had agreed to renounce their worldly possessions and to live without money.

But all in the gardens of Elysium was not rosy. Despite the strict celibacy rule, Riker married again. This breach so incensed one follower that he sued the Father but wasn’t able to obtain legal redress. Poverty may have been what the followers had signed up for but sack cloth and ashes weren’t for Riker. If you drove down the Santa Cruz highway in the 1930s you would come across a bizarre sight – eight statues of Santa Claus. You would also have come across notices enticing you to stop at Holy City – it was now a sort of motorway services for curious travellers. Amongst some of the claims were “The only man who can save California from going plum to hell. I hold the solution” and “Holy City. Headquarters for the world’s perfect government. Stop and investigate”.

For the less idealistic, what they could find there were attractions such as alcoholic soda pop, peep shows, a restaurant, an ornately decorated petrol station, a ball room, a hairdresser’s, a radio station and a zoo. In its pomp, Riker was making around $100,000 a year. Not everyone was welcome. Signs warned Asians and negroes to stay away until they had learned their place. Riker was a man of many contradictions. Despite the vow of abstinence he encouraged the restaurateur to open a bar, although he later revoked permission because too many of his followers were sampling the amber nectar. Despite being a rabid adherent of Adolf Hitler, he was very pally with members of the Jewish faith.

Towards the end of the 1930s when the economic conditions began to improve, it dawned on many of Riker’s followers that he was a fraud and a manipulator. By 1938 the community was down to 75 men and 4 women – the female population was particularly affected by allegations, never substantiated, that the Father forced himself sexually on them. What did for the commune was the building of a new highway which bypassed Holy City, Riker’s indictment for sedition in 1942 and a whopping $15,000 fine and the loss of most of his land in 1959 in a property deal that went wrong. In the same year a series of mysterious fires destroyed most of the buildings on the site and he lost control of the commune in 1960. When Riker died in 1969 – he had converted to Catholicism in 1966 – there were just three followers hanging on.

He was a charlatan and a nasty piece of work preying on the vulnerable with odious political and racist views. Another side of utopia, for sure.

It’s The Way I Tell ‘Em (29)

I feel we all need cheering up so here are the ten best jokes from the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival:

  • Insomnia is awful. But on the plus side – only three more sleeps till Christmas – Robert Garnham
  • Centaurs shop at Topman. And Bottomhorse – Dan Antopolski
  • Oregon leads America in both marital infidelity and clinical depression. What a sad state of affairs – Paul Savage
  • I’m very conflicted by eye tests. I want to get the answers right but I really want to win the glasses – Caroline Mabey
  • Relationships are like mobile phones. You’ll look at your iPhone 5 and think, it used to be a lot quicker to turn this thing on – Athena Kugblenu
  • My vagina is kind of like Wales. People only visit ironically – Evelyn Mok
  • In the bedroom, my girlfriend really likes it when I wear a suit, because she’s got this kinky fantasy where I have a proper job – Phil Wang
  • The Edinburgh fringe is such a bubble. I asked a comedian what they thought about the North Korea nuclear missile crisis and they asked what venue it was on in – Grainne Maguire
  • How did the Village People meet? They obviously led such different lives – John-Luke Roberts
  • If you’re being chased by a pack of taxidermists, do not play dead – Olaf Falafel


Pub Of The Week

I shall be going to Scunthorpe next March – I know, it is an exciting life I lead – and I must really make an effort to find the Mallard in Scotter Road to see if the luck of the pub rubs off on me. Landlord, Ian Brooke, I learned this week, has won the Lotto million pound jackpot.

Nothing too unusual in that but, incredibly, he is the third person associated with the pub to have won a million quid in the last four years, regulars, David and Kathleen Long, winning the Euromillions raffle twice, in July 2013 and March 2015.

There is no truth in the rumour that scores of people have been struck by lightning whilst trying to get to the pub!

Plastic Bag Tax Update (2)

So from August 28th if you pop into your local Tesco store, buy some goods and then realise that you have nothing to carry them home in, you will no longer have the option that 637 million of us took in their shops over the last twelve months and buy a 5p bag. No, your only option, other than to walk out, is to buy a bag for life which will set you back 10p. Of course a bag for life is only a bag for life if you remember to cart the thing around with you. It also uses three times the amount of plastic that goes into a single-use bag.

Still, you can console yourself with the thought that the money that you have paid for a bag will go to a good cause. But figures released by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) show that of the £105 million raised through the so-called plastic bag tax last year, only £25 million went to named charities. A further £42 million went to unnamed good causes whilst £17 million was paid in VAT and £4 million was taken by the stores to cover costs. That leaves a shortfall of £17 million unaccounted for.

HMV donated only 43.5% of the monies raised to charity, W H Smith 64.5% whereas Sainsbury donated 80.77%. Tesco donated 71.87 per cent. With supermarket profits under pressure, every little helps, I suppose.

What Is The Origin Of (141)?…

Crocodile tears

When we weep crocodile tears we are said to be putting on an insincere show of grief. But why crocodiles? And do they really weep?

The idea that a crocodile weeps insincerely has a long pedigree. It was thought that crocodiles, while they were luring and devouring their prey, shed tears. As far back as classical times, a collection of proverbs attributed to Plutarch compares people who desire or cause the death of someone and then lament publicly afterwards with the behaviour of a crocodile. The concept was picked up by the mediaeval theologian, Photios, who gave it a Christian gloss and used it to exemplify the concept of repentance.

The mediaeval world was fascinated with stories of strange and exotic places and the fauna that went with them. One such account was written by Sir John Mandeville around 1400 in which he described the crocodile, comparing them to serpents. He goes on to write, “these serpents slay men, and they eat them weeping.” The reptile had become a symbol for hypocrisy. The naturalist Edward Topsell, writing in 1658, noted that “to get a man within his danger he [the crocodile] will sob, sigh and weep, as though he were in extremity, but suddenly he destroyeth him.” Topsell went on to remark that some authorities claim that the crocodile wept after noshing on a human, much as Judas did after betraying Christ.

For Topsell then, the crocodile used its tears both as a trick to lure its prey and as a sign of repentance. And this duality of motive for its lachrymose behaviour appears in the works of Shakespeare, some half a century earlier. In Othello the protagonist is convinced that his wife is cheating on him and declares “If that the earth could teem with woman’s tears,/ Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile.” – a clear usage of it to indicate fake repentance. On the other hand, in Henty Vi Part Two we have an example of its usage to indicate trickery; “Gloucester’s show / Beguiles him, as the mournful crocodile / With sorrow, snares relenting passengers.”

In the Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser consolidates both senses when describing the reptile as “in false grief, hiding his harmful guile/ Doth weep full sore, and sheddeth tender tears”. Purcells’ opera, Dido and Aeneas, performed in 1688, contains the heart-rending scene where Aeneas tells his paramour that he must leave. Dido responds by saying “thus on the fatal banks of the Nile/ weeps the deceitful crocodile.” And this sense continued into modern times. Rudyard Kipling in his Just So Stories, published in 1902, wrote, “come hither, little one, said the Crocodile, for I am the Crocodile and he wept crocodile-tears to show it was quite true.

And so the big question is, do crocodiles really cry? I’ve not been close enough to one to find out but I’m told that although they do not have tear ducts, the glands that moisten their eyes are adjacent to their throat. When they open their mouths and start chomping on their prey, the effort involved forces moisture from the glands and give the impression of tears. So there we are.

And as a post script, Bogorad’s syndrome, known colloquially as crocodile tears syndrome, is an unfortunate side effect of recovery from Bell’s palsy, causing the sufferer to shed tears when they eat. This side effect was first described in 1926 by the Russian scientist, F A Bogorad who gave his name to it. I much prefer the colloquialism.

Stone Walls Do Not A Prison Make

The Wall of New Amsterdam

There is a certain psychological comfort to be derived from a barrier of some sort. It gives the feeling of safety and acts as a deterrent to those you don’t like from invading your space. Of course, not all were successful or to adapt Richard Lovelace’s famous quote, didn’t necessarily provide the level of isolation that the builders anticipated. In this series we will look at some of the more unusual physical barriers erected by man against man.

When the Dutch occupied what is now known as Manhattan Island, they did not have an easy time of it. Not only were they harassed by the local Native Americans, who not unsurprisingly took umbrage at their presumption, they also had to deal with incursions from the pesky British. To strengthen their hold on the island, the Dutch decided to construct a wall which would seal off their settlement and provide protection against and discouragement to potential invaders.

The wall started out life as picket fence, constructed in 1653, and over time was built into a more solid structure, standing some twelve feet high with guard points dotted along its length. It stretched from Pearl Street, which was situated on one shore of Manhattan to what is now Temple Place on the other side.

However, construction was nearly sabotaged not by the slings and arrows of outraged opponents but by those of outrageous fortune. The problem was pigs. It was the custom at the time for the Dutch to engage what would now be termed free range farming. In other words, their livestock roamed the streets willy-nilly and were often to be found uprooting orchards and gardens. A favourite spot for animals to run riot was where the wall was being built. So serious was the problem of damage to and interference with the construction work that Peter Stuyvesant was moved to write to the government, detailing with “great grief the damages, done to the walls of the fort by hogs, especially now again the spring when the grass comes out.”

The government, in response to Stuyvesant’s complaints, employed some herdsmen to protect the construction site but their efforts were futile. In August Stuyvesant was at it again, pointing out that the city officials needed to “take care, that what we with great pains and labour have brought us far will not again be destroyed by hogs, and thus all our labour be rendered useless.” The authorities responded this time with more concerted action to allow the construction to be completed, by ordering each resident to “take care of his hogs or keep them in the sty.

Alas, though, the wall proved to be ineffective and the British seized the colony, renaming it New York, after the King Charles II’s brother, James, Duke of York, and whilst the Dutch temporarily regained it in 1673 it was surrendered permanently to the Brits in 1674 after the Third Anglo-Dutch War. The wall was dismantled in 1699 and replaced with a paved street which commemorated the former structure by being named Wall Street. Nowadays it is used to having bulls and bears wandering along it, although pigs roaming wild and eating the accumulated piles of rubbish were still a feature of the nascent New York well into the 19th century.

Book Corner – August 2017 (2)

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities – Bethany Hughes

If I was pinned up against a wall and asked what was my favourite city break, I would probably say the one I went on to Istanbul about two decades ago. I fell in love with the city with its magnificent buildings – the wonderful Hagia Sophia is just breath-taking – and, as the Americans might say, you are surrounded by a sense of history. And it was fun walking over the Galata bridge from Europe into Asia and evading the attentions of the street sellers desperate to sell us carpets, plying us with fragrant apple tea, and the boot polishers offering us a ten year guarantee on the shine they would apply to our dusty shoes. Alas, I fear I will never return.

Still, as compensation you can immerse yourself in this lengthy but light history of a city that can legitimately claim to have been at the centre of the world. Hughes’ style is at times gushing but she has a wonderfully poetic, dare I say it, Homeric turn of phrase. The book book benefits from the latest archaeological finds following the construction of the Istanbul metro.

The site of the city, as any visitor will attest, has enormous strategic importance. The original settlement, founded in 657 BCE by Byza of Megara, from which its name Byzantion was derived, positioned between the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, was easily defensible and the waters were full of fish. The Chalcedonian settlement built on the eastern side of the Strait of Bosporus was called the land of the blind by the ancients because they had chosen to eschew the obvious attractions of Byzantion. But, as Hughes reveals, a coffin with the remains of woman dating back some 8,000 years has just been unearthed  – possibly the earliest ever found – which suggests that the site was already taken and the Chalcedonians didn’t fancy a dust up. The Megarians, fortified by an oracle from Delphi, according to Tacitus, were made of sterner stuff.

Byzantion was at the centre of many of the key clashes of the ancient world, being the point where the Persians sought to launch their invasion of the Greeks and the Greeks fought to hold them back. The citizens of Byzantion often changed sides, depending upon which way the wind was blowing. It was then absorbed into the Roman Empire and over time became the acknowledged capital of Rome’s eastern provinces.

The first major transformation in its fortunes was when Constantine, the newly converted Christian emperor, declared it the New Rome and vowed it would become the greatest, wealthiest and most cultured city in the world. Justinian and Theodora took up the baton and some of their buildings, including the cathedral, now mosque, Hagia Sophia, still stand today. Remnants of less fortunate buildings can be found almost wherever you look. Hughes revels in describing the dowdy surroundings in which some of these marvels rest.

The growth of Islam meant that Constantinople, as it now was, was in their sights but such were the strategic advantages and the strength of the defences of the site that it took them 800 years to storm the city, convert the Hagia into a mosque and rename the city Konstantiye. It became the capital of the Ottoman empire and a magnet for European travellers keen to sample the exotica of the east.

One of the underlying themes that comes through the book is that following the collapse of the western Roman empire and the establishment of Constantinople as the head of what remained and even under Ottoman control, the city was just hanging on, waiting for the next crisis. There was little attempt to expand further and, indeed, the last 150 years or so of the Ottoman empire saw its territories whittled away. The empire collapsed after the First World War.

Oddly, Hughes finishes her story in 1923 when Kemal Ataturk established the neutral Ankara as the capital of the new republic of Turkey. I can see why. Its domestic influence had waned but to most non Turks the wondrous city of Istanbul has no peer.

Gin o’Clock – Part Twenty Seven

Perhaps it is my inner Brexit spirit buried deep within me but with so many British gins to sample during my extensive investigation of the ginaissance, I have fought shy of any distilled abroad. A staple on the shelves of our local Waitrose is Gin Mare which comes from Spain. Having run through all the other gins in their section and noticing that it was available at a heavily discounted price which with an eight pound voucher, it seemed that now was the time to put my prejudices to one side.

Gin Mare is made in the small fishing village of Vilanova i la Geltru near Barcelona on the Costa Dorada. The distillers are a family firm, Destilerias MG, who have been making aromatic cordials and dealing with wines since 1835, although to obtain global reach it has been part of the Global Premium Brands group since 2007 when this incarnation of the hooch was developed. As you might expect, it has a very distinctive Mediterranean feel about it as most of the botanicals are sourced from the region.

There are of course the traditional botanicals that you would expect to find such as juniper – the berries are hand-picked from the owners’ estate in Teruel and have a very soft skin – coriander seed, cardamom and citrus. The citrus is a custom blend of oranges, sweet from Seville and bitter from Valencia,  and lemons from Lleida, which are macerated for a year in a neutral spirit in clay jars before use. But the Mediterranean flavour is provided by rosemary from Turkey, thyme from Greece, basil from Italy and Arbequina olives which are local to the area.

Other than the citrus, each of the other botanicals are macerated separately for 36 hours and then distilled individually in a 250 litre Florentine still for around 4.5 hours. The separate distillations are then blended with a neutral spirit and water to produce the hooch which comes in a distinctive pale blue, rounded, pyramid-shaped, heavy bottle with a grey screw cap. The hooch weighs in at an acceptable 42.7% ABV and the label has a picture of herbs and towards the top of the bottle is the legend “Mediterranean gin, coleccion de autor.

So what is it like? To the smell it is distinctly herby with juniper and thyme to the fore. The clear spirit has a bold taste, initially of juniper and then the herbs give it a drier consistency, marking it out as a gin the like of which I have not tasted before. The aftertaste is dry and the spices come into play. It is a very flavoursome gin and with such a high herbal content could even be used as an accompaniment to a meal, Mediterranean style of course. My prejudices have been dispelled.

With so much care taken by the distillers, not just of Gin Mare, to create a distinctive taste, it behoves the toper to take some care over which tonic to pour in. I came across a new one on me the other week when I was browsing through the supermarket mixer section, Qcumber.  As its rather contrived name suggests – the marketeers have worked overtime – it has a predominant cucumber flavour, although it also has beet sugar and citrus, and is manufactured using spring water from the Welsh hills in Radnorshire. It is light with a very fresh taste and not so overpowering that it ruins the carefully crafted flavours of some of the more complex gins. My preference would be to use it with more floral gins.

A Measure Of Things – Part Eight

Having looked at beer, it would only be appropriate to look at some of the measurements associated with wine. Perhaps it is no surprise that until 1826, a wine gallon was different from a beer or ale gallon. From at least the 16th century and by statute from 1707 a wine gallon was designated as 231 cubic inches or 3.7854 litres or about 6.66 imperial pints. This reflected the amount of liquid you could store in a cylinder six inches high and seven inches in diameter, if you allocate the approximate value of 22/7 to pi.

But there were variants. John Wybard, who conducted some experiments between 1645 and 1647, found that the wine gallon standard adopted at London’s Guildhall was 224 cubic inches while John Reynolds, a colleague of Wybard’s, found that the standard used at the Tower of London was 231 cubic inches. These variations not only caused confusion but meant that as the tax man based their excise calculations on the 231 standard, those who used the other measures were either overpaying or underpaying tax. To sort out the mess, an Act of Parliament in 1707 imposed the 231 standard. In 1826 the imperial gallon was adopted as the measure for the wine gallon.

We’ve met the Single Bottle Act of 1861 before but this had a transformational effect on the consumption of wine. It meant, for the payment of a licence fee, retailers could sell wine for drinking off their premises. The principal means for conveying the vino from the offie to the home was a bottle, a glass one at that. Before then, wine was stored in casks and barrels and these came in a bewildering range of shapes and sizes.

The largest was a tun which held 252 wine gallons. However, the standard seems to have been a bit fluid because there is a list of custom duties dating to 1508 which equates a tun to sixty sesters, a sester being four gallons. Whether 252 or 240 wine gallons, the tun was the measure against which the other, smaller sizes were compared. When the imperial gallon was adopted, a tun was 210 gallons.

A pipe or a butt was half a tun in volume. Perhaps the most famous butt was that in which the Duke of Clarence was supposed to have been drowned on 18th February 1478. Although there is no incontrovertible evidence that this was the way poor old George was assassinated, it makes for a good story. A puncheon held a third of a tun and possibly was so called because the barrel was marked with a punch to denote its contents. A puncheon had an alternative name, tertian, which clearly denotes that its volume was a third of a tun.

A hogshead of wine was the next size down and that denoted a volume equal to half of a butt or a quarter of a tun. A tierce held half a puncheon or a third of a butt or a sixth of a tun. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the term was first used in printed English to denote a measurement of volume in 1531. The poet and playwright, Ben Johnson, in his role as poet laureate, successfully negotiated a pay rise in 1630. Part of the enhanced pay and benefits package was an annual tierce of Canary wine, doubtless to aid inspiration. This not inconsiderable perquisite went with the position until the disastrous appointment of Henry James Pye in 1790 – his verse could have done with the benefit of copious quantities of alcohol.

To complete the set, a wine barrel was half a hogshead or an eighth of a tun or 26.25 gallons and rundlet a seventh of a butt or a fourteenth of a tun.

I think I will just stick with a bottle for the time being.

Pee Of The Week

It’s a funny thing but whenever I’m watering the garden, I almost immediately feel the need to relieve myself. Fortunately, I have sufficient self-control to make it to the toilet before letting go. Not so, I learned this week, stable staff when they are mucking out their horses. Their habit of having a wazz, whilst going about their horsekeeping duties, is so endemic that trainers are now erecting signs in their yards reminding their staff not to urinate in the boxes.

It all came to light when a horse, Wotadoll, finished unplaced in a race in Wolverhampton last year but was found to have a metabolite of the painkiller, Tramadol, in her system. An enquiry has revealed that the probable cause was Shaun Cuddy having a wazz while mucking out. So seriously have the British Horseracing Authority taken this behaviour that they fined the horse’s trainer £750 for spending a penny.

Leaving a deposit has had even more disastrous consequences for Andrew David Jensen who allegedly broke into a house in the Californian city of Thousand Oaks. Whilst he was rifling through the house owner’s possessions, he answered an urgent call of nature. The police were able to collect sufficient DNA from his poop to identify Jensen on their database. Some nine months after the burglary, he has had his collar felt and is up before the beak. Always flush after you’ve been is my motto.