A wry view of life for the world-weary

Gin O’Clock – Part Thirty Eight

The ginaissance seems to have spawned a bit of a competition at the moment – who can come up with the strangest combination of taste sensations to mix up into a gin. I suppose it helps to raise the profile of my favourite spirit but I find that the search for eccentric or outlandish mixes of botanicals comes at the expense of the more traditional tastes that we associate with gins, principally juniper, as also rans.

Here are two that have almost kissed juniper goodbye but in their different ways provide us with flavoursome contemporary styled gins. Such is the popularity of chocolate – for many it is the ultimate comfort food – that it was inevitable that a chocolate based gin wouldn’t be too long in making an appearance. When it emerges with the imprimatur of the master chocolatiers that are Hotel Chocolat, then it is one to take note of. So I was intrigued to try Hotel Chocolat’s Cocoa Gin which, as far as I can tell, is only available via their outlets (and the web, of course).

The grey labelled dumpy 50 ml bottle, which was of two which Santa kindly brought me, informed me that the gin uses seven botanicals – juniper berries, lemon peel, macadamia nuts, angelica, coriander, roasted cocoa shells and minneola aka tangelo which is a hybrid of a Dancy tangerine and a Duncan grapefruit, some of which come from Hotel Chocolat’s Rabot Estate in St Lucia. The base spirit is a vodka made by the English Spirits Company and the label states that this “small batch artisanal gin” with an ABV of 42% is “infused with cocoa shells.” From this I can only deduce that this is done after the gin has been distilled which would account for the slight discolouration of the gin.

As you might expect having perused the list of botanicals, the aroma upon removing the black wax cap is heavily citrus-orientated but there were hints of chocolate coming through. To the taste it had a strong citrus flavour with a smidgeon of chocolate coming to the fore. The juniper was very much in the background but spices did come to the fore as it moved to the back of the throat, leaving a pleasant, mellow aftertaste. It certainly seemed well made but without a very strong chocolate taste or, indeed, a more traditional juniper-heavy feel to it, it seemed to me to be neither one thing nor the other. It did complement the chocolates that accompanied well, though.

I’m not much of a cake eater but I do like a Bakewell tart. A gin which boasts the principal ingredients of the tart, cherries and almond, was bound to pique my interest and I was lucky enough to be offered a sample of Bakewell Gin. This is a craft gin which features juniper, cubeb peppers, sweet gale, cardamom, hibiscus flowers and cherries and almond. It has a very distinctive pinkish-red colour to it and at 40% ABV has enough kick in it to tickle any palate. The cherry and almond are to the fore but not at the expense of the more traditional flavours and the aftertaste is a subtle mix of cherry and pepper. It is not as sweet as you might think and if you are after something very different, then it is well worth a try.

I was looking at my rapidly diminishing gin supply and I may well have to make a trip down to Cornwall soon. Until the next time, cheers!


Our Crime Against Criminals Lies In The Fact That We Treat Them Like Rascals – Part Five

Valerio Viccei and the Knightsbridge Vault Robbery, 1987

Valerio, the son of a lawyer, already had previous before he masterminded what was dubbed the crime of the century. Quite a bit of form as it turned out, having skipped his homeland of Italy for England because he was wanted for fifty armed robberies. He enjoyed la dolce vita and carried out robberies to fund his lavish lifestyle. It was this taste for the luxuries of life that led to Valerio’s undoing.

The robbery was simple enough, Viccei targeting the Knightsbridge Safe Deposit Centre where the great and the good deposited their valuables. The centre was managed by Parvez Latif who was heavily in debt and a cocaine user. Viccei pressurised Latif to be co-operative.

On 12th July 1987 Viccei and his accomplices walked into the Centre which was on Cheval Place on the pretext of renting a safe deposit box. They were shown into the vault and whilst there brandished their guns and overpowered the manager and the security guards. This achieved, the gang let in more of their members who were dressed in security guard uniforms and carrying walkie-talkies. They then hung a sign on the door saying that the Centre was temporarily closed.

With Latif’s complicity the gang set about rifling as many of the deposit boxes as they could. In under two hours they had forced open 114 boxes and had got a haul estimated to have a value of over £60 million. Those who were relieved of their possessions included royalty, celebrities, millionaires and other criminals. No one was injured during the raid and no shots were fired. Only around £10 million was ever recovered.

An hour after the thieves had left the Centre, there was a change of shift and the robbery was discovered. During their forensic investigations, the police found the traces of a bloody fingerprint. Tests showed that it belonged to Viccei. The police had something to go on but by this time Viccei skipped the country to settle temporarily in South America.

Some of his accomplices were not so prudent, remaining in Blighty hoping to ride out the storm. But after extensive surveillance operations a number had their collars felt in a series of co-ordinated raids on 12th August 1987. They all appeared before the beak and spent some time in prison for their misdemeanours.

But it was his love of the finer things in life that allowed Viccei to fall into the hands of the police. He had bought a Ferrari Testarossa and returned to England to make arrangements to have his pride and joy shipped to South America. It was true to character as Justine Marr, Latif’s secretary, noted; “I found him boring, showing off his Rolex watch and talking about his fast cars.” The police were not going to miss him this time and set up a roadblock and dragged him out of his car.

At his subsequent trial Viccei was sentenced to 22 years in chokey, which he served in Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight. In November 1992, under the Treaty of Strasbourg, he was transferred back to Italy where he served the rest of his time. For most of the time there he seemed to be able to live a normal life, the only restriction being that he had to be back in his cell by 10.30pm. Viccei was gunned down by the police in a shoot-out in April 2000 when he was on day release, after acting suspiciously.

Viccei was clearly a complex character. One detective remarked that “he wanted to be known as the mastermind of the world’s biggest robbery. He had the ego the size of the Old Bailey.” At the trial Viccei told the judge “maybe I am a romantic lunatic but money was the last thing on my mind.

Perhaps he was right.

An Eye For An Eye Will Only Make The Whole World Blind – Part Two

The Pig War of 1859

Geography is no respecter of human logic.

It should have been quite simple. The aim of the Oregon Treaty, signed by the United States and Britain, was supposed to settle for once and for all the long running border dispute as to where the States ended and British America, later to become Canada, began. The 49th parallel was established as the border and it remains so to this day.

There was just one problem though – the islands to the south-west of Vancouver, particularly San Juan island, which commanded a strategic position at the mouth of the channel. The treaty gaily drew a line down the middle of the channel along the 49th parallel, bisecting the island into two. Both countries claimed sovereignty and by 1859 the Brits had a sizeable community there and the Hudson’s Bay Company had established a salmon-curing station and a sheep ranch there. There were some 20 to 30 American settlers, including a farmer, a certain Lyman Cutlar.

On 15th June 1859 Cutlar noticed a pig rooting among his potatoes and in a fit of pique shot and killed the porker. The pig’s owner, a Brit called Charles Griffin, confronted Cutlar and sketchy contemporary reports record the conversation as going something along the lines of; “Cutlar: …but it was eating my potatoes!” Griffin: “Rubbish. It’s up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig”. One can imagine this is a somewhat bowdlerised version of the actual conversation. Griffin was offered $10 by the American farmer but refused the compensation.

Instead Griffin reported the incident to the British authorities who threatened to arrest Cutlar, prompting the American settlers to petition to their authorities for protection. The recipient of the petition was the commander of the Department of Oregon, General William S Harney, who was well-known for his anti-British views, and on 27th July he despatched a 66 man company of the 9th Infantry to the island.

The dispute quickly escalated, the governor of British Columbia, James Douglas, dispatching three British warships to the channel in a display of Palmerstonian gun-boat diplomacy. The Americans refused to back down and during the summer the number of forces on each side steadily increased, although the Brits held the numerical advantage. By the time the Commander-in-Chief of the British Navy in the Pacific, Robert Baynes, had arrived with his vessels, there was something like 5 warships, 84 guns and over 2,600 men involved in the stand-off.

Douglas ordered Baynes to invade San Juan and engage the 9th Infantry in combat. Sensibly, Douglas refused, commenting that he would not “involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig.” Instead, the governments in Washington and London stepped in as word of this bizarre squabble reached them and agreed a temporary solution, restricting the number of people on the island to one hundred apiece. The Brits occupied the north of the island and the Americans the south.

And there they stayed until the dispute was finally resolved in 1872 by an international commission led by Kaiser Wilhelm I. They ruled in the favour of the Americans. Today, San Juan island is the only bit of American soil where a foreign flag is regularly hoisted, the Union Jack having been donated by the British as a peace gesture.

I have no idea what happened to Cutlar and Griffin or whether the pig was eaten, for that matter.

The Streets Of London – Part Seventy Three

Marylebone Road, NW1

Traffic congestion is nothing new to Londoners. What is now known as Marylebone Road, running in a westerly direction from Euston Road at the south-eastern corner of Regent’s park to the A40 Westway at Paddington, can be fairly described as London’s first bypass.

For centuries the only approach into London from the north was via St Giles, High Holborn and Newgate. The growth of wheeled traffic in the 18th century which mixed with pedestrians and droves of animals en route to be sold and slaughtered at Smithfield meant that travel times deteriorated dramatically. A coach journey from Grosvenor Square to the Bank of England could take upwards of two hours to complete. Something had to be done.

It is salutary to remember that at the time, 1755, St Marylebone, Paddington and Islington were each separate villages, yet to be absorbed into the great wen that the metropolis was to become. Worthies from the three villages petitioned Parliament for the construction of a turnpike road for the use of drovers and their animals, the route designed to steer them from the crowded thoroughfares of central London and offering a more direct route to the Smithfield market.

Despite opposition from the Duke of Bedford, the bill received Royal assent in May 1756. Responsibility for the upkeep and the collection of tolls was split between two existing turnpike trusts, St Marylebone for the stretch running from Edgware Road to Tottenham Court and the Islington trust for the road between Tottenham Court and the Angel. Construction requirements were specified – the road had to be a minimum of 40 feet wide, although when it was built it was 60 feet wide and no building was allowed to encroach within 50 feet of the road. After all, you wouldn’t want cows nuzzling against your front door.

The New Road, as it was known, proved an instant success, raising £400 in tolls for the Marylebone Trust in 1757, an amount which rose to £700 in 1764. In 1769 the road was extended south-eastwards to Old Street and terminated near Moorgate. The Trusts employed watchmen to guard travellers against the predations of highwaymen who lurked in the neighbouring countryside.

Inevitably the road became the new northern boundary for the City and soon properties were built north of Oxford Street and High Holborn to create what we know today as Marylebone and Bloomsbury. The prohibition of building within 50 feet of the road was studiously upheld. But the growth of population and the demand for accommodation was such that in the 1780s Somers Town and Pentonville were built beyond the boundaries of the New Road. The urbanisation of rural London was underway.

The road, which originally was little more than a gravelled track, was eventually metalled and by the time George Shilibeer launched London’s first horse omnibus service from the road, it was bordered by fashionable houses. From that time onwards it became one of the main arterial routes for London’s traffic and the optimistic thoughts that it would relieve traffic were thwarted. It is ever ths with by-passes.

In 1857 the New Road was renamed and split into three, becoming Marylebone Road, Euston Road and Pentonville Road. Its route was followed by London’s first underground line, built in 1863, the Metropolitan Railway which linked up Paddington and Kings Cross stations.

The road was at the forefront of London’s growth.

We Call Upon The Author To Explain

The Eric Hoffer Book Award is one of the top and most prestigious American literary awards for independent books. Last Monday (May 14th) the results of the 2018 Book Award were announced.

I am delighted to reveal that my latest book, Fifty Curious Questions, made its way through a packed field to be named as a Category Finalist. If nothing else, it is gratifying to know that a quirky piece of English whimsy written firmly in a tongue-in-cheek style has transferred successfully across the Atlantic.

The book is available in all formats via

Shed Of The Week (2)

Every sort out at Blogger Towers seems to start with the garden shed. It has become so regular an event that I have begun to consider alternative uses for this outhouse. So it was with some interest that I came across this week reports of derring-do on the Welsh Pendine Sands in Carmarthenshire.

Intrepid Kevin Nicks has built himself what he claims to be the world’s only road-legal motorised shed, cannibalising, initially, his old VW Passat that was festering on his driveway. He has driven over 20,000 miles in it, mainly in support of charities, including a trip from Land’s End to John O’Groats.

The addition of an Audi RS4 engine enabled Nicks to smash his previous record of 80 mph and reach an astonishing 100 mph on Pendine Sands.

But Nicks isn’t finished yet. He plans an attempt on his new record this weekend, on tarmac at Elvington near York.

Let’s hope he does it.

Icon Of The Week

I despair of the snowflake generation.

In the days before ring pulls, invented by Ermal Cleon Fraze in 1962, since you ask, opening a can was always a bit of a challenge. I fondly remember lugging party sevens to friends’ homes – great tins full of crap beer – and then setting about opening them with chisels and hammers, drenching myself and anyone else foolish enough to be within the vicinity. It was ever thus – after all, it took mankind nearly half a century after the invention of the tin can to come up with an opener. (

For those of us keen to recreate the glorious days before ring pulls, one of the last bastions of joy has been the Fray Bentos pie. But, alas, I read this week, its manufacturers are bowing to consumer pressure to make the tin fortress that guards assiduously its haul of gristly meat bathed in succulent gravy easier to open. I always thought that was the purpose of the pie – you cooked it and then threw it away, unopened and uneaten. It was a powerful political statement during the Falklands War!

Anyway, social media has been full of moans about the pie tin and there have even been videos posted of people using the traditional method of hammers, screwdrivers and chisels to open them. Modern lightweight can openers don’t seem to touch them.

The pie manufacturers, Baxters Food Group, have had to resort to advising customers “to use a robust can opener.” They even, helpfully, recommend an opener, retailing at £8.50, four times the cost of the pie.

But for some this still won’t cut it and the Fray Bentos tin is now being redesigned in a bid to “improve openability”.

So the end is nigh for an icon of life as it used to be.

Sad. Of course, the snowflakers could just buy something else.

What Is The Origin Of (180)?…


There are only so many words you can use in your daily speech that, inevitably, many words fall into obscurity and unwarranted neglect. It is a shame and part of my mission is to rescue some of the more colourful words and phrases in our wonderful language from their unwarranted obscurity.

One such is the noun blatherskite which, when it is used, is generally used pejoratively to describe someone who talks a load of nonsense. We have all met a number of them in our lives. But blatherskite can also be used to describe the nonsense that they are spouting  so you would expect a blatherskite to be talking a load of blatherskite. There are variants around – bletherskate, bletherskite and bladderskate – and the Oxford English Dictionary shows a marked preference for bletherskate. We can trace the earliest usage to bletherskyte and blatherskite seems to be more of a North American variant.

It crops up in the lyrics of a Scottish ballad called Maggie Lauder, attributed to Francis Sempill and dating to around 1643. In the first verse, the bonnie wee lassie that is Maggie when confronted by a bold piper “right dauntingly she answered him/ jog on your gate ye blether skyte.” The song was popular, crossing the pond to become part of the repertoire of the Yankee soldiers fighting in the War of Independence. From there it became part of colloquial speech rather than in written English. The consequence of this is twofold; there are few examples to be found in literature and when it is transcribed, dialects and speech characteristics can change its spelling.

The word was used as a description of nonsense in an editorial in The Nation dating from 1900; “Instead of inviting a pro-slavery man or a doughface to dinner, and listening to his blatherskite apologies for his own position, he held him up to the scorn of gods and men.” It was used to describe the purveyor of nonsense by John Dos Passos in his 1930 novel 42nd Parallel; “Bryan’s a big bellowing blatherskite but even he represents something.” And the New Republic in 1943 reported that “Memphis can run its own affairs and no blatherskite or demagogue of the North or South should be permitted to interfere with the friendly relations between the races that now exist in Memphis.

Note the variant spellings but each of the quotations uses the word to denote a high degree of scorn and disdain. Perhaps it is not surprising that it often appears in a political context. To logophiles, it also has a very pleasing dactylic metre, making it all the better to criticise an opponent with a mellifluous word.

As for origins it is clearly a compound word, both elements of which appear to have their roots in Old Norse. Blathra meant to talk nonsense and from that blether and blather were introduced into Scottish dialect. They both meant talking nonsense or claptrap. Blither and from that the once popular English epithet blithering come from the same source.

The second part of the compound is more problematic. A skate or skite in Scots dialect was used to describe someone who is held in contempt, mainly because of their pomposity, and owes its origin to an Old Norse for excrement.

Any more of this and I will be accused of being a blatherskite.

Closed Book

Here’s an intriguing questions to pose to bibliophiles; do you ever give up on a book?

According to one of those clever infographic things, this one produced by the book reader’s friend, Goodreads, 38.1% of readers plough on to the bitter end whereas 15.8% abandon all hope within the first 50 pages. 27.9% of those surveyed gave the book the benefit of the doubt before giving up before they had turned 100 pages.

As a reader I am reluctant to give up on a book entirely. Someone has slaved away over a hot keyboard or with a scratchy quill pen to put their thoughts down on paper and someone in the publishing world – although not necessarily so these days with the exponential growth in self-publishing – has thought that the work has sufficient merit to attract a wider audience. I feel that their work should be given due attention, even if at the end of it I conclude that I will give that writer a wide berth in future. Even if I profoundly disagree with their thesis or find their work a hard slog, I prefer to stick with it. Perhaps I am ever the optimist.

But there are occasions when I have given up a book in disgust, never to pick it up again. Usually it is for stylistic reasons. The writing style is too turgid or convoluted for my taste. More often, if I find a book hard going, I will put it down, pick up another and then return to it at a later date when I am ready to pick up the challenge again.

One of the benefits of reading e-books is that you can download a sample, usually the opening chapter or so. You can usually get a sense of whether you are going to get on with the book from this brief taster before you commit to purchasing it. The smart writer, though, will front-load their book with literary gems and intrigue to suck the reader in. Perhaps never judge a book by its first chapter is the e-book equivalent of the sage advice about covers.

We live in an age of instant communication and ever shortening attention spans. That being the case, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that 67.9% of readers jettison a book before they reach the end. I’m sure that percentage is likely to increase over time.

But it does raise an even more important question; why do we read? Of course, there are many reasons, ranging from a desire for entertainment, a thirst for knowledge, to stretch or improve the mind, to reduce stress, out of habit, to retreat into an imaginary world or just to pass the time away. It may just be that our motive behind picking up a book informs our decision whether to put a book down and never pick it up again.

Discarding a book is just as personal a choice as selecting it in the first place. We shouldn’t feel too bad about it. After all, the writer has had the benefit of the royalty.

Book Corner – May 2018 (2)

Afternoon Men – Anthony Powell

Humour is such a personal thing that I generally run a mile from a book described by some critic or other as the funniest thing you will ever read. But at least the tag, the funniest book you have never read, has a hint of mystery and intrigue about it. I am a fan of Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time series and am slowly working my way through some of his other works. Afternoon Men, published in 1931, was his first novel.

Probably like much of Powell’s work, it is like Marmite – you will either love it or hate it. There is no middle ground. In some ways it is much ado about nothing as very little of note happens as the subject matter is the aimless socialising of a group of vacuous promiscuous, privileged bohemians who are trying to make their way in the world of art, literature and journalism. This is classic Powell territory as are the plethora of characters who drift in and out of the book and the grand set pieces such as the drunken parties held in London, Mrs Race’s party which features a particularly dreadful batch of Balkan liqueur, a visit to a boxing match and a country house party.

Another Powell trait is that the narrative is seen through the eyes of a central character, William Atwater, who is a cynical and somewhat jaundiced commentator on the events going around him. The book is split into three parts – Montage, Perihelion and Palindrome – and there is a certain circularity that we come to expect of Powell’s later works in that at the end of the book the same group of friends, with one exception, meet in the same dreary club and make plans to attend yet another party without any degree of enthusiasm.

There are moments of comedy, particularly around the abortive suicide attempt of Raymond Pringle, a struggling painter, who had caught his friend, a better painter, in flagrante delicto with his mistress. Rather like Reggie Perrin he walks into the sea, leaving his clothes on the beach. His actions are observed by Atwell and Pringle’s mistress but they merely comment on his poor physique and, when he gets into trouble, his “pretentious side stoke” and how his head resembles “some curious red fruit floating along in the water.” Inevitably, Pringle is late for lunch, the guests find his suicide note and, then, in a moment of pure comic genius, Powell writes, “hungry, but thinking it hard to eat while their host’s body was driving down the channel, Atwater said: what shall we do?

Much of the book is taken up with dialogue, most of it inconsequential, but then most of our own dialogue is, somewhat oblique and full of knowing comments. It reminded me of Hemingway but without his portentousness. The longest speech begins ostensibly as a defence of friendship but then broadens out to a condemnation of the lives they are leading; “all the thousand hopeless, useless, wearying and never to be sufficiently regretted pleasures of our almost worse than futile lives inevitably lead us to.” In any other writer’s hands, the book could have become a bleak and wearying affair but Powell’s lightness of touch makes it an enjoyable read.

For those of sensitive dispositions there are moments of anti-semitism and male chauvinism but this was written at the start of the 30s, so I guess we have to expect it. The book reminded me of a gentler, archer, more knowing version of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. They both moved in the same circles, after all. An interesting book that can be read in an afternoon, if you can be bothered.