Church Of The Week

The Church of England is wringing its hands about falling church numbers but here’s an idea, I give it gratis, that might have the congregations flocking back.

They could do worse than take a leaf out of the book of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’ Name in Middlesboro, Kentucky. They take their inspiration from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 16, verse 18. In case you can’t immediately bring the passage to mind, and to save you the trouble of Googling it, it goes; “They will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them.

And that is what they do.

Whilst the pastor preaches his sermon, he swings a rattlesnake around. For the congregation, there is the frisson of excitement as to whether the snake will get so pissed off with its unwanted participation in the service that it will bite someone.

And they do.

News reached me this week that Pastor Cody Coots, in mid flow, was bitten by an ungrateful snake. Pictures appeared on social media of Cody splattered in blood. He then asked his flock to take him to the mountain top where God would judge whether he lived or died. Unfortunately, someone misinterpreted his request and rushed him to hospital where Cody survived to tell the tale.

Perhaps God is a doctor.

He was a bit luckier than his Dad, Jamie Coots, who was also Pastor of the church. He was bitten by a snake in 2014 and died shortly afterwards. Snake handling churches have been in existence for a century or so in the Appalachians.

We should try it over here. Even I might turn up!


Spoilsports Of The Week

It seems that at this time of the year all sense of reality goes out of the window.

News reached me this week that a stand in teacher has been fired from Cedar Hill School in Montville, New Jersey.

Her crime?

She told her class of six and seven-year-olds that Father Christmas didn’t exist. She was clearly on a roll because she went on to debunk elves, reindeers, tooth fairies, Easter bunnies and leprechauns.

And there was me thinking that part of the education process was coming to terms with unpalatable truths. Next thing you know they will be denying evolution.

I’m sure that all the teacher now wants for Christmas is her job back.

What Is The Origin Of (210)?…

As clean as a whistle

This is another of those idioms that take the form of a simile. We use it to denote that something has been done completely, neatly, thoroughly or with great skill. If you were to be beheaded you would hope that the blade would remove your head as clean as a whistle. Alternatively, it describes something that is extremely clean.

But why a whistle and why clear?

As with many an etymological enquiry, there is no consensus and the best we can do is pick our way through the evidence. The earliest usage I can find in print appears in Joseph Reed’s The Register Office: A Farce of Two Acts, published in 1761. One of the characters, Gulwell, bemoans his financial disaster; “So Dick is unshipp’d and the Bond not worth a farthing! – I have lost the five hundred pounds as clean as a whistle.” There are two things to note; clearly Reed felt he could use the phrase without any gloss and that it means completely or entirely, perhaps with a hint of rapidity.

William Carr in his The Dialect of Craven, in the West Riding of the County of York, published in 1821, confirmed this usage when he defined our phrase as “a proverbial simile, signifying completely, entirely: as, “I’ve lost my knife as clean as a whistle.” Unhelpfully, though, he adds, “but I know not the propriety of the simile.

But then we have to take into account a passage in Robert Burns’ poem The Author’s Earnest Cry and Prayer from 1786. There he writes “Her mutchkin stowp as toom’s a whissle.” Translated for delicate Sassenach ears, it means “Her pint bucket is as empty as a whistle” and has given rise to the supposition that in order to make a note, never mind a bright, clear sound, a whistle needs to be free of spittle. In other words, clean.

Another theory is that the phrase is intended to conjure up the whistling of a sword as it moves through the air. Swordsmen were encouraged to let their tutor hear their sword whistle. It was used to denote a clean cut in the 19th century, as it is today, as this quote from 1849 shows; “a first rate shot. [His] head taken off as clean as a whistle.” But more prosaically, Rick Wiebe in his Whittlin’ Whistles, published in 2012, describes how to make a slip-bark whistle, adding that clean as a whistle relates to the smooth cuts necessary to make one and without which the whistle would not work.

Beguiling as this theory might be, it doesn’t take account of the 18th century usage which was clearly intended to convey the sense of completeness. There was a variant around at the time, clear as a whistle, which replicating the distinct and recognisable sound of the everyday instrument meant unmistakable or unambiguous. It is not inconceivable to suppose that clear mutated to clean or that the whistle was used as a simile to reflect certainty or completeness. Even Robbie Burns’ use of a Scottish variant can be seen to fit this interpretation. The woman’s bucket was completely empty.

The usage of clean as a whistle to mean clean or pure is a later development, not the original sense.

This may all seem to you to be about as clear as mud but I think we are on the right track.

Gin O’Clock – Part Fifty Five

Sitting here writing this post, summer seems so far away. It is the time of year that TOWT and I flee cold, misty, and frosty Blighty for warmer climes for a bit of winter sun.

There is a school of thought that gin is a summer drink, best enjoyed sitting outside when the sun is setting. That may be so and there are certain gins, generally with more of a floral overload, that seem best suited for quaffing al fresco but for the true aficionado gin is surely an all around the year drink. Such is the wide variety of the gins available, courtesy of the ginaissance, that it is possible to find one whose attributes either fit in perfectly with the prevailing weather conditions – perhaps one with a high spice content for those winter evenings – or help you recapture the mood of a balmy summer evening.

I have already commented that one of the trends in the gin world in 2018 is the production of coloured and flavoured gins. Pink, particularly strawberry, and orange seem very much on trend this year and you can tell something is stirring in the undergrowth when one of the undoubted big boys join in.

For me, Tanqueray, owned by Diageo, can do nothing wrong. Their No 10 is to die for and their London Dry Gin is always a reliable companion. I always ensure that I have one or the other (or both) on my shelf for those times when I want to return to the arms of a faithful companion. In April 2018 they added another to their range, Tanqueray Flor de Sevilla.

It comes in the familiar, Tanqueray-shaped bottle, fluted with an indentation near the neck in which is the Tanqueray seal. But instead of bottle-green the glass is clear, the better to show off the coloured spirit, which looks a bit like Lucozade. The label is colourful featuring segments of oranges and the legend advises that it is made with bittersweet Seville oranges.

On opening the screwcap, the aroma is a heady mix of oranges and juniper and despite my scepticism about flavoured gins, I found it inviting. To the taste it was not as sickly as I had anticipated, the zesty taste of the oranges complemented by the traditional botanicals of Tanqueray’s London Dry Gin. With an ABV of 41.3% it makes for a very satisfying, smooth drink, fruity and full of flavour, leaving a nice sensation of orange and spice as an aftertaste.

The inspiration for this gin, apart from jumping on a bandwagon, is apparently a recipe concocted by Charles Tanqueray himself whilst he was traipsing around the orange groves of Spain. The cynic in me thinks that it is London Dry Gin with oranges added but I’m sure there is more to it than that.

If flavoured gins are your bag, then you can do no worse than go for the one produced by one of the acknowledged market leaders. Did it transport me to the sun-soaked orange groves of Spain? I’m not sure. I will have to drink a bit more of it to be able to give you a definitive answer.

There will be no more gin reviews until Father Christmas has been. So, until 2019, cheers!

Book Corner – December 2018 (2)

The Life and Death of Harriett Frean – May Sinclair

This is a curious book, published in 1922, by a novelist I hadn’t read before and which I would probably never have bothered with if it hadn’t been in one of those Eternal Masterpieces of Literature which you can clog your Kindle up with for a few coppers. Jonathan Coe went as far as to describe it as a “small, perfect gem of a book.” Far be it from me to disagree, but I found it quite irritating and profoundly sad.

You can’t go wrong by following Philip Larkin’s profound advice in This Be The Verse; “they fuck you up, your mum and dad/ they may not mean to, but they do./ They fill you with the faults they had/ and add some extra, just for you./ But they were fucked up in their turn/ by fools in old-style hats and coats,/…Man hands on misery to man./ It deepens like a coastal shelf./ Get out as early as you can,/ and don’t have kids yourself.” If you want a synopsis of Sinclair’s novel, that’s pretty much it.

As it says on the tin, the novel follows the life and times of Harriett Frean, a woman who is raised to respect the ideals of Victorian life by her parents and to behave beautifully. She falls in love with her best friend’s fiancé and instead of following her heart, which might have made for a more interesting story, she makes the noblest of all sacrifices and gives up her beau.

Harriett feels morally superior after her sacrifice and takes a perverse pleasure from her decision but all she is doing is condemning her childhood friend and her lover to a loveless marriage. She does nothing with her life, living in the claustrophobic family home. Her father, who is supposedly a whizz on the stock exchange, loses his money and, it later transpires, the monies of others. He is not the paragon of virtue that Harriett thought.

Indeed, as the book progresses and Harriett gets older, losing her parents along the way, she becomes more and more reclusive. What social life she had, slowly recedes into the distance and she takes comfort of a boring routine of meals, reading, sewing and the odd visit out to friends with she seems to have increasingly less in common with and less time for. In the end she dies, having accomplished nothing tangible, save for wrecking some lives along the way, and she may as well not have existed. At least she didn’t have any kids.

Sinclair’s style is simple with the occasional flash of wit but I found it hard to make sense of what it was all really about. Is it a fierce feminist polemic against the tyranny that the patriarchical society imposed (and, perhaps, still imposes) on womenfolk? Or is it a tale of a timid woman who is afraid of her own shadow and, consequently, wastes her own life and destroys the lives of those around her? You pays your money and takes your choice but I lean towards the latter interpretation.

Either way, my advice is; read Philip Larkin’s poem, instead. It’s shorter!

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Nineteen

Fritz Kreisler (1875 – 1962)

For many years I was involved with the English Haydn Festival, held annually in the beautiful Shropshire market town of Bridgnorth. Our resident music adviser was the renowned Haydn scholar and larger than life figure, H C Robbins Landon.

Haydn was a prolific composer and with Eastern Europe opening up in the 1990s, there was always the possibility that some lost works of the maestro would turn up in some dusty corner of a museum or monastery. Lo and behold, six sonatas turned up and Robbins Landon verified them as the work of Haydn. It caused quite a stir at the time but not as much as a stir when the Haydn Institute in Cologne declared the manuscripts to be fakes.

Red faces all round. Robbins Landon had to own up to the fact that he had been duped. They were actually the work of Winfried Michel, a very clever and convincing pasticheur.

Even when Haydn was alive, there was a roaring trade in forged works. Perhaps the best Haydn forger was a Bohemian, Franz Kotzwara, who had the maestro down to a tee. London music publishers made a fortune passing of Kotzwara’s compositions. The forger was eventually hung in 1791, not by the judiciary, but in a sadomasochistic experiment in a brothel in London.

The Kotzwara of the 20th century, although without the sexual predilections, was the Austrian violin virtuoso, Fritz Kreisler. A child prodigy, he was admitted to the Vienna conservatory at the age of seven and gave his first public performance two years later. The composer, Anton Bruckner, taught the young Fritz musical theory and he went on to study at the Paris Conservatory. But Fritz decided to put his bow away after a less than successful tour in the States, deciding instead to practise medicine and later to serve in the Austrian army.

But the siren call of Euterpe was too much for Fritz to resist and on the December 1st 1899 he made his comeback with the Berlin Philharmonic. He became phenomenally successful as a soloist and the music crowds could not get enough of him. Elgar even composed his Violin Concerto for him and Keisler was foresighted enough to exploit the nascent recording industry.

The highlight of a Kreisler was the airing of a lost classic from the pen of the likes of Corelli, Pugnani, Vivaldi, and Couperin, which, he claimed, he had found languishing in the archives of libraries and monasteries around Europe. One monastery in deepest France was a particularly fruitful source of these lost treasures. The rediscovered masterpieces became a feature of Kreisler’s performances and were well received by audiences and critics alike. They even found their way int o the repertoires of other soloists.

No one seemed to pay much attention to how Kreisler got his hands on such a stock of forgotten masterpieces. That is until his 60th birthday on February 2nd 1935.

The music critic of the New York Times, Olin Downes, sent Kreisler a telegram – remember them? – wishing him a happy birthday and innocuously commented that it was as if he was the composer of all these lost classics he got his hands own. To Olin’s astonishment, Kreisler said he was.

The revelation of Kreisler’s hoax split the music establishment down the middle. Some critics thought that he had behaved appallingly by foisting these now worthless pieces of music on the classical canon. Others, though, applauded him. More importantly, his paying public did not seem to mind and his career carried on as before, undisturbed by the furore caused by his confession.

As Kreisler rightly pointed out, the value of a piece of music should be judged solely on its merits not by who penned it.


If you enjoyed this, discover more ingenious hoaxing, financial skulduggery and medical quackery in Martin Fone’s Fifty Scams and Hoaxes, an ideal Christmas present


Double Your Money – Part Thirty Six

Bertha Heyman

If you stumble upon a winning formula, why not exploit it for all it’s worth? This seems to have been the motto of Bertha Heyman, the so-called Confidence Queen of 1880s America. Born in Prussia in the early 1850s, she migrated to the States in 1878, settling in New York. There she started to put her God-given talents to use.

In appearance Bertha was a striking woman, just 5 feet 4.5 inches tall and weighing 245 pounds. Some contemporary reports claim she had a pleasing face but, according to a 1923 article in the New York Times, her picture was “one of the least attractive in the police records of that day.” Her appearance earned her the rather uncharitable sobriquet of Big Bertha. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I guess.

Bertha’s initial strategy was to carry out what we now term as advance fee fraud – we came across it before with the Letters of Jerusalem. The story was fairly simple. She had married a rich man whom she was now trying to divorce. If only she could raise enough money to initiate divorce proceedings then all would be hunky dory. The mark would give Bertha the requisite money, on the promise of a share of the riches his generosity had unlocked, but, of course, he would never see Bertha or his money again. Another variant was that she owned some land but without access to her hubby’s money, she couldn’t afford to sell it. The mark would lend her the money against a share of the sale proceeds of the land.

Bertha was very selective as to her victims. She saw a successful scam as an intellectual challenge and so saw no fun in duping fools. As she told the New York Times in 1883, “the moment I discover a man’s a fool, I let him drop, but I delight in getting into the confidence and pockets of men who think they can’t be skinned. It ministers to my intellectual pride.” Some consolation, I suppose, to her victims.

But all good things must come to an end and having defrauded dupes of several thousand dollars, Bertha was arrested and sentenced to five years in chokey on Blackwell’s Island. But being incarcerated didn’t stop her. She is reported to have relieved a prison warder of his life savings!

Realising that New York was on to her, Bertha moved to California and resumed her old ways. In February 1888 she met the Chief Rabbi in San Francisco and span the old story. She was a widow, inheriting $300,000 but the money would only be available to her if her next husband was a nice Jewish man. She even offered $1,000 to the person who would found her next hubby. She was feted and eventually introduced to Abraham Gruhn, a wealthy businessman who was besotted by her, showering her with gifts and jewellery.

There was one problem, though. Bertha’s stepson, Willie, was opposed to the liaison and so to smooth the way Gruhn “lent” him $500. This was the cue for Bertha and Willie to scarper, only pausing to pawn some of the jewellery. Gruhn went to the police and when he told his story, bells started ringing and he recognised Bertha from a photograph held in police records. A warrant was out for her arrest and the duo had their collars felt in Texas.

Bizarrely, a theatre impresario called Ned Foster paid her bail and put her on the stage where she played to large audiences reciting a poem The Confidence Queen in which she painted herself as the misunderstood victim; “”so when vain grasping men/ pant for glittering gold/ and find their bonanza in me/ is it wicked to show up how/ badly they’re sold/ and the rogues that men/ can sometimes be.

Even Foster became a victim of sorts, falling for a story that Bertha’s trunk had a false bottom in which were secreted thousands of dollars, bonds and some expensive jewellery. On the cusp of paying her $1,600 for the trunk, he had the wit to inspect it. Naturally, there was no false bottom.

Bertha spent the rest of her life running honky-tonk saloons. Willie was less fortunate. He did time for his part in the Gruhn scam.

If you enjoyed this, try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone