A wry view of life for the world-weary

The Streets Of London – Part Sixty Eight

Steelyard Passage, EC4

What is now known as Steelyard Passage is a covered passageway running underneath Cannon Street station, linking Cousin Lane to the west with All Hallows Lane to the east. Handy as it is for getting from A to B in one’s rush to get to one of the many eateries in the area, what I hadn’t appreciated was that it was an area steeped in history. The Steelyard, derived from the Middle Low German word, stalhof, was the centre of the Hanseatic League’s trading operations in London.

What made the area particularly attractive to the German merchants was that it was situated on the northern bank of the Thames by the outflow of the Walbrook river. So ensconced were the Hanseatics there that they were able to build their own walled community which contained warehouses by the river, weighing and counting houses, residential blocks and chapel. They even had their own laws and, naturally, conversed in their native tongue. Traces of the trading house which was the largest trading complex in mediaeval London were uncovered in 1988 when maintenance work was being carried out on the station.

Records suggest the presence of a German trading post on the banks of the Thames as far back as 1282. In 1303 Edward I regularised the position of the Hanseatics by issuing a Carta Mercatoria which gave them tax and customs concessions. The heyday for the trading post was probably in the 15th century when the site was extended and the German merchants made a play for the English cloth making trade. This often led to friction between the two sets of merchants, often ending in violence. This culminated in the destruction of the Steelyard in 1469. Edward IV allowed the merchants from Cologne to stay in the city, which in turn caused dissension with the other members of the league, resulting in Cologne’s expulsion.

England and the Hanseatic League then went to war but following the peace treaty of Utrecht, the Hanseatic League bought outright their land on the banks of the Thames. Part of their obligations was to maintain one of the city’s great gates, Bishopsgate. The community’s fortunes flourished in the 16th century and a number of the members – they were stationed in London for a few years and then returned home – sat for portraits by the likes of Hans Holbein the Younger and Cornelis Ketel. John Stow in 1598 described their imposing edifices facing on to Thames Street; “large, built of stone, with three arched gates towards the street, the middlemost whereof is far bigger than the others and is seldom opened; the other two bemured up; the same is now called the old hall.

Impressively built as the trading area was by contemporary standards, it could not escape the flames of the Great Fire of 1666. Samuel Pepys who had once been drawn to visit the Steelyard, attracted by its fashionable “Rhenish winehouse”, sat in a barge on the Thames watching the flames of the fire licking the Steelyard’s walls. The warehouses were rebuilt and they concentrated on trading in steel but from that point the fortunes of the Hanseatics in London waned. With typical tenacity they soldiered on but in 1852 the remaining members of the League, Lubeck, Bremen and Hamburg, sold their London outpost to the South eastern Railway. The site was demolished and Cannon Street railway station was built, opening to the public in 1866.

Sadly, nothing remains of the Steelyard but the Banker pub occupies the spot where the weigh house once stood with what is left of the once mighty Walbrook trickling down a pipe affixed to one of its walls.


Statue Of The Week

In the South Australian city of Adelaide there has been a bit of a stushie surrounding a new statue erected at Blackfriars Priory School, I read this week.

The statue shows the Peruvian born saint, Martin de Porres, offering a bread roll to a boy kneeling by his side. What may have looked fine in two-dimensional form caused an uproar when the three-dimensional statue was unveiled. Instead of an image of saintly kindness and devotion, to those with a certain disposition it seemed to depict the tradition of a priapic priest offering himself to a bewildered boy.

The statue has now been fitted with a burqa until the authorities decide what to do with the statue.

Size, proportion and positioning is everything with statuary, I feel.

Performance Artist Of The Week

The courthouse of the Belgian coastal town of Ostend was the venue for an unusual piece of performance art, I read this week. The rules of what constitutes art are not set in stone but Mikes Poppe was, using a 10 foot long shackle to chain himself by the ankle to a four ton block of Carrara marble. |In the piece entitled De Profondis the stone represented the inescapable burden of history – of course it did, silly me – and the idea was that Poppe would chisel his way to freedom.

Unfortunately, 19 days after, despite constantly chipping away and eating and sleeping on the job, Poppe still hadn’t freed himself from the shackles of history and Joanna Davos, the curator of the courthouse, decided that enough was enough. In another piece of performance art a workman was sent for who, angle grinder in hand, cut the artist out.

Poppe claimed he had misjudged the strength of the marble – you don’t say? Still, undaunted, he claimed that his moment in the spotlight was a success. After all, you just can’t escape the burden of history. I could have told him that and saved him all the trouble. Artists, eh?

What Is The Origin Of (157)?…

At sixes and sevens

This curious phrase is used to signify that things are in a state of confusion or disorder. It can also be used to indicate that two parties are in dispute or having a disagreement. So how did this phrase evolve and why sixes and sevens?

A variant of our phrase first appeared in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde which was written in 1374. There we find “Lat nat this wrechched wo thyn herte gnawe, But manly set the world on sexe and seuene” which translates into modern English as “Let not this wretched woe gnaw at your heart, But manly set the world on six and seven.” One of the interesting aspects of this phrase is that you can trace its mutation over the centuries from Chaucer’s on six and seven to at six and seven before settling upon the familiar at sixes and sevens.

By the time Shakespeare penned Richard II in around 1595 at six and seven was the normal formulation – its first citation dates to around 1535. The Duke of York remarks in Act 2 Scene 2 remarks, “I should to Plashy too, But time will not permit. All is uneven, And everything is left at six and seven.” Some seventy-five years later the numerals began to appear in the now familiar plural form.  In 1670 the bashful G.H “faithfully Englished” Leti’s Il cardinalismo di Santa Chiesa and there we find “they leave things at sixes and sevens.” And our phrase appears in Francis Grose’s invaluable Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1785 complete with a definition; “Left at sixes and sevens, in confusion, commonly said of a room where the furniture, etc. is scattered about, or of a business left unsettled.

As for the significance of the numerals in our phrases, the authoritative sources are (ahem) at sixes and sevens. The Chaucer citation rules out the theory that it relates to a dispute between two London Livery Companies, the Merchant Taylors and the Skinners, over precedence. In 1484 the Lord Mayor, Sir Robert Billesden, ruled that the two companies should alternate between sixth and seventh place on an annual basis, a practice that remains today. Shame, because it is a nice story.

The Chaucer citation could well provide a clue because the sense it conveys is one of reckless behaviour akin to a risky throw of the dice. Dice were commonly used in gambling games in the Middle Ages, particularly in to us the rather obscure and complicated game of Hazard. The numbers on the faces of a die were based on Old French numbers, ace, deuce, trey, quatre, cinq and sice. The riskiest and most reckless bet in Hazard was to go for the high numbers, five and six. We have noted how over the centuries the English have been a bit tin-eared with foreign words and phrases and are past masters of the mondegreen. We are asked to believe that cinq and sice was corrupted and mangled into six and seven, losing along the way its association with gambling. This seems to be good enough for the Oxford English Dictionary but I’m troubled by it.

It may be that we have to say that the real association with six and seven has been lost in the mists of history. But I leave you with a couple of thoughts. The sum of six and seven is thirteen, a notoriously ill-starred number. May this be the origin? Alternatively, it may be a bit of a joke. Most dice have six faces and so to have a die with a seven is the sign of a disorderly gambling establishment. Perhaps it is no more than that.

Double Your Money – Part Twenty Six

James Whitaker Wright (1846 – 1904)

There was a time when being a company director was a bit of a sinecure, earning the trustee of a company’s fortunes a hearty lunch every now and again, a fee and a share of any dividends that were going. There was no shortage of the great and the good willing to put themselves forward to serve on a Board and for the unscrupulous entrepreneur, stacking the board of their companies with titled dignitaries gave their venture the patina of respectability. For the unwary, though, this could be the road to ruin as the story of James Whitaker Wright shows.

Born in Stafford, Wright trained in chemistry and assaying and upon the death of his father, he emigrated to Canada and then the States where he became an American citizen. He made a fortune, becoming a millionaire, by promoting silver-mining companies in Leadville, Colorado, and Lake Valley, New Mexico. Although initially Wright did well out of these ventures, his investors did not see a penny and by the age of 31 he had lost his fortune and returned to Blighty penniless.

Undaunted, he started again, promoting on the London stock exchange a number of Australian and Canadian mining companies. The boards of many of his companies consisted of aristocrats. Perhaps his most significant catch was the former Viceroy of India, the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, who agreed to be chairman of the London and Globe Company, formed in the 1890s. The company floated numerous stock and bond issues associated with mining, appropriating the term consols to describe the offerings. These were not to be confused with the consols which described the state bonds issued by the British government which were safe and reliable but unwary investors would be forgiven for thinking that they were the same thing.

For a while all went well and by 1897 Wright had become a millionaire for a second time. He bought himself a mansion, Lea Park, which boasted a smoking room underneath a rooftop aquarium. His affairs started to unravel when he founded the British America Corporation with the intention of financing the construction of the new Bakerloo underground line. The bond issue associated with this development was nothing short of a disaster, the construction was difficult and costly and Wright soon found himself short of funds. The situation called for desperate measures.

The solution Wright adopted was to shift money around between his companies in the form of loans. This practice strengthened balance sheets at the time when results had to be published but meant that there was nothing with which to pay dividends. So although he was claiming all in the garden was rosy, there was no pay out for the investors who began to smell a rat. By December 1900 the whole pack of cards collapsed, Wright was accused of misusing investor funds, shock waves were felt in the international mining industry and questions were even asked in Parliament.

After hiding for a week in the ice house at Witley Park, Wright scarpered to Paris and then to New York. New technology meant that the authorities could telegraph a warrant for his arrest to New York and even though he was travelling under a false name, he was arrested. He managed to delay his extradition until September 1902 and didn’t face an unsympathetic judge and jury until 1904. On 25th January 1904 Wright was found guilty of fraud and sentenced to seven years in chokey. But he had the last laugh.

Protesting his innocence and calling for a large whisky and a cigar, he did a Praljak by ingesting a cyanide capsule in an ante-room of the Royal Courts of Justice and died on the spot. For good measure, the police also found a loaded revolver on his person. As for the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, the shame of the collapse killed him in 1902, proving that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Christmas Crackers (3)

As a public service I bring you some dreadful one-liners, some of which may be appearing in a Christmas cracker near you this year:

  • What do you call a line of men waiting for a haircut? A barberqueue
  • Why was the turkey in the pop group? It was the only one with drumsticks
  • My wife has just rearranged the herbs in the kitchen cupboard. How do you find the time? I asked. It’s next to the sage.
  • What do you call a boomerang that doesn’t come back? A stick
  • What do snowmen wear on their head? Ice caps
  • Why was the snowman looking through the carrots? He was picking his nose
  • What did Adam say the day before Christmas? It’s Christmas, Eve
  • What does Santa do with fat elves? He sends them to an Elf farm
  • What did Cinderella say when her photos didn’t arrive on time? One day my prints will come
  • When do vampires like racing? When it’s neck and neck
  • What do snowmen have for breakfast? Snowflakes
  • What do you give a dog for Christmas? A mobile bone
  • Why did the pony have to gargle? Because it was a little horse
  • Why are Christmas trees very bad at knitting? Because they always drop their needles
  • What do you call a train loaded with toffee? A chew chew train
  • What happened to the man who stole an advent calendar? He got 25 days
  • And finally, why couldn’t the skeleton go to the Christmas party? It had no body to go with

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Sixty Three

Ali Ahmed’s Treasures of the Desert

The development of trade and the expansion of the British Empire meant that the world was a smaller place in Victorian times. As a consequence there was a certain mystique about things oriental and this gave the practitioner of the art of quackery a fertile source to tap into. One such was the curious tale of Ali Ahmed and his cough pills.

Ahmed was said to be of Persian origin but had to flee to Aleppo where he flourished “between the years of the Herah 420 to 488.” There he discovered many wonderful secrets which he passed on to his family on his death bed. They were discovered by “an excellent and philanthropic Englishman” who (natch) considered it his duty to make them available to the folks at home. And so, within the fourteenth instalment of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House containing chapters 43 to 46 was to be found an eight page advertising supplement extolling the virtues of Ahmed’s cough pills.

The advertising copy gave a bit of local colour by way of background, claiming that the pills were so famous in Aleppo that anyone running furiously was said to have “ran as though he were running for the celebrated cough pills.” The supplement was decorated with swirls and squiggles, perhaps to mimic Arabic calligraphy, and featured a couplet which roughly translated read, “Men of all ages, four score years or nigh/ run to the mart old Ali Ahmed’s Pills to buy.” Then there were testimonials, from a man in Damascus and another in Bangkok who vouched that a course of Ahmed’s pills was enough to cure the cough that had plagued Prince Choo Fan of Siam whereas all other medicaments had failed. There was even a specially carved bust of Ahmed on display at the depot in St Bride’s Avenue, off London’s Fleet Street, where the pills could be procured in boxes of varying sizes with prices ranging from thirteen and a half old pennies to 10 shillings and sixpence.

The advert went on to warn against the noxious compounds developed by the European medical profession. Instead of strychnine and morphine, Ahmed’s drugs were “simple and pure; the mountainside furnishes him with herbs and roots and the plains are bountiful in bulbs.” The drugs were described as “the kindest gifts of nature to suffering humanity.” What not to like?

In addition to the Pectoral Antiphthisis Pill which was designed to fight off colds, coughs and consumption, there were two other remedies available from the Ahmed range. The Sphairopeptic Pill was designed to deal with liver and digestive complaints whilst the Antiseptic Malagma was a type of plaster to be used on ulcers and wounds and to deal with gangrene.

So what was in them and did they work? The Pectoral Pills, according to Cooley’s Cyclopaedia, contained myrrh, squills (which can be toxic in large doses but acts as an expectorant), ipecacuanha (another expectorant), white soft soap, aniseed oil and treacle whilst the Sphairopeptic Pills contained aloes, colocynth pulp, rhubarb, myrrh, scammony (yet another expectorant), ipecacuanha, cardamom seeds, soft soap, oil of juniper and treacle. The presence of the Central American ipecacuanha seems to give the lie to the claim that these were Ahmed’s original recipes. The Malagma consisted of a calico strip smeared with a mix of lead plaster, a sort of thickened turpentine, salad oil and beeswax.

As to efficacy, the expectorants may have helped but Punch suggested at the time that it was only by following the lifestyle adopted by Ahmed that they may have induced them to work. So probably not, then.

Bread Of The Week

I like a nice crusty loaf but this may be verging on the ridiculous. Finnish bakers, Fazer, taking advantage of their government’s decision to allow the sale of insects as food, have just launched a new bread, I read this week.

Made from flour ground from dried crickets – you get about seventy to a loaf – as well as wheat flour and seeds, it contains more protein than normal bread. A spokesperson helpfully added that the insects also bring good fatty acids, calcium, iron and vitamin B12, and a satisfying crunch, to the mix.

If you happen to be at a loose end in Helsinki, seek out Fazer Sirkkaleipa. Mind you, this gastronomic delight comes at a price, retailing at almost double what the humble loaf would ordinarily set you back

Will it catch on? Reports already suggest the loaves are jumping off the shelves. Anyone thinking about appearing on next year’s I’m A Celebrity may want to get a supply in!

What Is The Origin Of (156)?…

Beck and call

To be at someone’s beck and call – harassed parents may relate to this – is to be in a state of responsiveness to someone’s every whim and wish. The point of interest in the phrase is the noun beck which, other than in this phrase, has pretty much disappeared from our everyday language.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, beck’s root is to be found in the Old English biecnan or becnian which modernised becomes beckon. Beck which appeared in Middle English around the start of the 14th century was an abbreviation of the verb beckon which by that time was spelt with and ending of –en, which was then the common form of an infinitive. It may be that the tenses were parsed in a way that assumed that the –en ending was the infinitive form. Who knows but the result is that beck was firmly established in our language from the 14th century.

A beck covered a range of gestures, from a nod of agreement or of greeting to a curtsey or a bow showing respect to one’s betters. The distinction is clear between a beck – a gesture – and a call which is a vocal summons. This usage of beck is well illustrated in Bartholomew Yong’s translation of Diana by Jorge de Montemayor, dating to 1598, “Giving a beck with his head to his Shepherdess in token of thanks.” By the early part of the 17th century beck had the connotation of an inferior being at the command of a superior and so phrases such as to have at one’s beck and to hang upon the beck of gained currency.

The natural progression from to have at one’s beck was to reinforce it with call in what is described by grammarians as a doublet form, where the second term emphasises and reinforces the first. In 1611 it duly appeared in a set of poems written by Aemilia Lanyer in 1611 called Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, “The Muses do attend upon your Throne/ with all the artists at your becke and call.” In James Usher’s Eighteen Sermons Preached in Oxford, 1640 but actually published in 1660, we find in the seventh sermon, “Satan shall use them at his pleasure: both in soul and body they shall follow him at his beck and call.

Joseph Glanvill used the phrase in an essay which he wrote, Some Considerations About Witchcraft, dated in 1668 but not published until 1681. There we find, “and they are not certainly at the beck and call of an impious Hagg.” Surprisingly, the Oxford English Dictionary, eschewing devilry and witchcraft, dates its first citation to 1875 and the Scottish preacher, Alexander Maclaren who wrote, “Christ’s love is not at the beck and call of our fluctuating affections.” This cannot be right – the first citation, I mean, not the Christian sentiment.

Language is constantly evolving and in part this series is a celebration of the fact. In more recent times a variant of our phrase has emerged, beckon call. For those of us of a charitable disposition, it is relatively easy to see how this might have come about. Beck is an archaic noun and beck and makes a pleasing elision into a word with which we are familiar, beckon. The more hard-hearted amongst us might regard it as an example of a mondegreen where the listener substitutes words that sound familiar. An example appeared in print in the West Fargo Pioneer of 6th September 2011, “With knowledge of a lifetime of growing produce at his beckon call…” Whether it will catch on, only time will tell.

Gin o’Clock – Part Thirty One

The ginaissance shows no sign of running out of fizz. For those of us who cannot get enough of the hooch, there is, mystifyingly in my view, a whole range of products on the supermarket shelves that are trying to cadge a lift on the gin bandwagon. How about having a gin-flavoured yoghurt, containing 0.25% alcohol, for your breakfast or, perhaps, gin-infused salmon for lunch or gin-flavoured popcorn and sweets whilst slumped in front of the telly? Is there no end to this madness?

That said, there is something vaguely appealing about taking a perfectly acceptable product and making it into something somewhat inferior. With this in mind I decided to have a go at making my own rhubarb gin. It all started with TOWT buying a few sticks of rhubarb which I found lurking in the back of the fridge. As she was showing no intention of making good on her original promise of a tasty rhubarb crumble, I negotiated the deployment of said sticks for my gin making.

Recipes are easy to find on the internet and boil down to three components – gin, caster sugar and rhubarb. The secret, of course, is in the ratios. The two constraining factors are the amount of rhubarb you have at your disposal and the amount of gin – I used cheap supermarket gin – you are prepared to sacrifice. Chop your rhubarb, after washing it and getting rid of the harsh exterior string – into segments of around 2 to 3 centimetres long. Weigh them and put them in a jar, adding 62.5 grams of caster sugar for every 100 gram of the vegetable. Seal the jar, shake vigorously and leave for 24 to 48 hours, stirring the mix  from time to time.

What you should find is that the sugar gets to work on the rhubarb and extracts the juice. By the end of 48 hours you will be surprised by how much juice you have in your jar. Then you add the gin – the ratio I used was 175 millilitres of gin for every 100 grams of rhubarb. Seal the jar, shake vigorously and leave for 4 to 5 weeks, agitating the liquid occasionally. The resultant liquid has a distinctive rhubarb smell. You then need to remove the pieces of rhubarb, strain the hooch a few times to get rid of those bits of the rhubarb that have broken off and pour the remaining liquid into a bottle.  My gin was distinctly cloudy but absolutely delicious.

There are two types of bar staff in my experience. There are those whose grasp of the basics of addition and subtraction are so tenuous that the time taken to complete any transaction defeats what urge to engage in conversation  you may have had and those who are the fount of all local knowledge. Fortunately, Emily at the Trengilly Wartha in Cornwall, a fellow gin enthusiast, was definitely in the latter camp. On learning that I was on the hunt for Cornish gin she recommended that I went to the Constantine Stores in the rural hamlet that is Constantine, near Falmouth.

Never judge a book by its cover. I parked up at an unprepossessing village shop, the type you might be lucky to get your papers, fags and a bottle of chateau grog in. But I was astonished to find upon entering the establishment that it had a stack of shelves groaning under the weight of upwards of seventy or so different gins. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. The boot of my car was laden with a wide range of gins which will give me enough material to review for the foreseeable. It is also the headquarters of, an online wholesaler that ships around the world. It is well worth a look.

Until the next time, cheers.