Sting Of The Week (2)

It is good to see that the Government is taking the bull by the horns and encouraging the farming community to provide an environment which is favourable to pollinators. The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) have even set up a whizzy website called Bees’ Needs as part of its national pollinator strategy.

There was a bit of a problem, though. When visitors to the site clicked on a link for further information, they were directed, in what can only be described as a honey trap, to a site which advertised the services of independent escorts throughout the land. Every campaign needs its incentives, I suppose.

The error has now been corrected and the correct link directs users to a site rich in information. But it took a while for the problem to be unearthed, which raises its own questions; are farmers not that bothered about bees or were they grateful to Defra for alerting them to the opportunities to doing their own bit of pollinating?

If you are not too careful, though, bees can cause a bit of a problem.

Take the astonishing case of Ms He who took herself to Fooyin University Hospital in Kaohsiung in Taiwan, complaining of a swollen eye. On examining her, doctors found four sweat bees living inside her eyelid, feeding on her tears. They were extracted, the doctors managing to save the creatures as well as the unfortunate woman’s eyesight. When she was weeding in a garden, Ms He felt something go into her eye.

She was not wrong.


What Is The Origin Of (227)?…


These days we use the term copper-bottomed to describe something that is certain, genuine, trustworthy and unlikely to fail. The derivation of our phrase is equally copper-bottomed. It is all to do with the treatment of ships.

In the days of wooden ships, maintenance was a considerable headache. The activities of one creature in particular, Toredo worms, were positively migrainous. These saltwater clams have a particular appetite for boring into wood which has been immersed in seawater. Over time, of course, if their actions are not detected or treated, then the wood can disintegrate, causing a bit of a problem if you are sailing the seven seas.

To counteract the problem, the British Navy, in 1761, started a process of adding copper plating to the underside of the hulls of their ships. So, the ships were literally copper-bottomed. By March 1781, at least according to the London Magazine who reported the rather self-satisfied remarks of Admiral Keppel, it was job done, despite the laggardly behaviour of Lord Sandwich; “he reproached Lord Sandwich with having refused to sheath only a few ships with copper at his request, when he had since ordered the whole navy to be sheathed.”

There were other benefits to this enhancement to the engineering of the fleet of the British navy. Their copper bottoms meant that the speed through which they travelled through the water increased and their manoeuvrability was enhanced, both features contributing to the fleet’s naval hegemony.

But there was a down-side, isn’t there always?

The copper plates were often attached to the hulls using iron nails. The combination of copper and iron together with seawater creates the perfect conditions for something called electro-chemical corrosion, where electrons from other compounds are attracted to the ions in the metal allowing the seawater to corrode the metal. This was almost as dangerous to the mariners as worm-infested timbers and so to resolve the problem iron nails were replaced by copper ones in a process known as copper-fastening.

In the late 18th century a boat which was copper-bottomed and copper-fastened was the real deal. For confirmation of this statement you only have to look at the Hull Advertiser for July 9th 1796 where it announces, “she is copper-fastened and copper-bottomed, and a remarkable fine ship.

It was not too much of a stretch to see how copper-bottomed could move from a prosaic description of the features, and thereby enhanced seaworthiness, to a figurative sense of trustworthy, genuine or reliable. One of the first instances of its usage in a figurative sense appeared in the satirical periodical created by Washington Irving and his brother, William, called Salmagundi; or the Whim-whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff & Others. Launched at the start of the 19th century Irving used it to lampoon New York culture and politics. In the edition of May 16th 1807 he wrote, “..except by the celebrated eagle, which flutters his wings over the copper-bottomed angel at messrs. Paff’s in Broadway.

Irving was clearly on a roll that year, ascribing in the edition for November 11th the name, well known to aficionados of Batman, of Gotham to New York, apparently as an analogy to the supposed stupidity of the residents of a village in Nottinghamshire by the same name. In 1894, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in the Ebb-Tide, which he co-authored with his stepson, Lloyd Osborne, “The real, first-rate, copper-bottomed aristocrat.

The term was sufficiently established in the vernacular by 1890 to appear in Slang and its Analogues, a seven volume meisterwerk compiled by J S Farmer and W E Henley. There they helpfully define the term thus; “in mercantile circles, the expression has become popularly current, in a figurative sense, to signify the highest commercial credit; and first-class, first-rate.

Copper-fastened, a different technique, as we have seen, has also been used figuratively but not until the middle of the 20th century. The Evening Independent in November 1848 wrote; “we had some striking examples of what happens when a guy gets so big for his britches that any pal of his is automatically a copper-fastened genius.” The sense seems to slightly different, denoting certainty rather than trustworthiness.

Gin O’Clock – Part Sixty Three

The ginaissance still shows no sign of running out of steam. Far from it.

Figures released recently by HMRC showed that export sales of British gins had doubled in value since 2010, reaching the heady height of £612 million in 2018. Meanwhile in Blighty, we consumed 66 million bottles of gin, a 41% increase on 2017.

Impressive statistics but, as I noted a few weeks ago, there is a discernible attempt to exercise some control of what is rapidly resembling the Wild West. Some companies have been playing fast and loose with what were the commonly held tenets of the gin industry, not least what a gin is.

The two key articles of faith, if I can put it that way, are that the spirit has an ABV of 37.5% or more and that it is juniper-led. The Gin Guild, which seems to be emerging as the self-proclaimed gatekeeper of all matters gin, puts it more succinctly on their website, recognising only “gin styles produced by distilling ethyl alcohol in stills traditionally used for gin, in the presence of juniper berries and other botanicals – provided that the juniper taste is predominant.” You can’t say fairer than that.

So, where does this leave the so-called gin liqueurs? The few that I have tasted have been fruit-heavy, sweet and with low ABVs, often as low as 18%. On so many levels, they fail the gin test. At best they can only be described as a juniper flavoured drink. The only reason that gin is mentioned on their labelling is that is so on trend that gullible consumers are likely to be attracted to it. There is a very strong case for forcing them to remove their misleading labelling. According to press reports, Nicholas Cook, director-general of the Gin Guild, has already reported a number of these liqueurs to Trading Standards. I shall be interested to see what they do, if anything.

The undoubted success story of 2018 has been the growth of coloured and flavoured gins, which now make up around 20% of all gin sales in the UK, contributing to around a half of the overall increase in gin sales in 2018. Pink gins make up around 75% of the increase in flavoured gins alone. Personally, I feel they are too sweet for my palate and on occasion the distinctive taste of juniper is overwhelmed. And, once more, it is hard to make a case for some to be included within the classic definition of a gin. Another area for Trading Standards to keep an eye on, methinks.

I am not arguing that there is no place for these drinks, just that they are labelled responsibly so that the consumer knows exactly what they are getting. That is not too much to ask, surely.

One development I will watch with interest is the launch and development of the Gin Guild flavour guidance or Gin-Note. As bottles of premium gin are expensive, it pays to do a little research before making a purchase. An impulse buy based on the shape of the bottle or the marketeer-ese description on the labelling can be the precursor to an expensive mistake. The idea behind the Gin-Note is that it gives a standard flavour summary of each gin signed up to the scheme.

There are three elements to the Gin-Note – a visual representation of the general characteristics of the gin, a 20-word brand supplied description of the gin and two words, think tags, drawn from a pre-determined list which the supplier thinks best fits or describes their hooch. Provided that there is sufficient buy-in from the suppliers and that the standards are applied consistently and are broad enough to encompass most of the wide variety of tastes and flavours of true gins, it should be a boon to the consumer.

Until the next time, cheers!

Book Corner – April 2019 (3)

Best detective stories of Cyril Hare

One of the joys of the sort of crime anthologies that the inestimable Martin Edwards compiles is that you come across a wide range of writers, some of whom you are happy to have encountered on that one occasion but there are others whom you wish to explore further. Cyril Hare, the pseudonym of the English barrister, judge and crime writer, Gordon Clark, taken from the name of his Chambers, Hare Court, and his house in Battersea, Cyril Mansions, is one of the latter.

This collection of thirty short stories, some very short, was originally published in 1959 and in America appeared under the title of Death Among Friends. Many of the stories were written for the London Evening Standard in the days when newspapers and magazines dd their bit to foster and develop literary talent. Your fish and chips were wrapped up in a better quality of writing in those days.

What I liked about Hare is that he wrote with a certain panache, a pinch of humour, his plots generally held together and quite often there was a clever twist at the end. To a greater or lesser degree most of the stories in this collection exhibit some or all of these qualities and there are very few duds and most stand the test of time.

For me the one that didn’t was a story called The Rivals, a tale of two suspects, both romantically associated with a girl who is murdered. Both point the finger of suspicion at each other. The identity of the murderer is revealed in the final paragraph and, to be fair, the clues had been signposted during the narrative but you would have had to have had a detailed knowledge of what shoes a chap wore to dances at the time to crack it.

The funniest was The Tragedy of Young McIntyre in which a young, struggling barrister sues his voice coach for ruining his voice. The plot, of course, is absurd but Hare rescues what could have easily been a farce with some aplomb. Some knowledge of the laws of testacy wouldn’t come amiss for the opener, Miss Burnside’s Dilemma, but it has a clever and slightly surprising ending, which sets the scene nicely for what is to come.

In very broad terms, the book falls into three parts; stories involving the law and principally wills, good old-fashioned murder and what might be lumped together as miscellaneous crimes, the latter having more than their fair share of Hare’s characteristic black humour. Perhaps the most atmospheric, ghostly and even bizarre tale was A Life for A Life in which a World War One gas victim has an attack brought on by a pea-souper of a fog and is saved by a pharmacist who died a long time ago.

I am a fan of closed room mysteries and I enjoyed Weight and See which demonstrated that there are some advantages to being overweight. Inevitably, Hare’s most famous lawyer cum detective, Francis Pettigrew, makes an appearance in a couple of the stories and a number are set in his stomping ground of Markhampton. The Children of the Week stories, whilst all insubstantial, were clever and showcase Hare’s technique to good effect.

As always with these collections, there are some stories which are better than others but they are all short enough not to feel you have wasted too much time if you don’t like them.

Double Your Money – Part Forty

Titanic Thompson (1893 – 1974)

Titanic Thompson, born Alvin Clarence Thomas, was a larger than life figure, born to gamble, the more unlikely and remarkable the wager the better, so much so that separating the apocryphal from the kosher in his long and inglorious career takes some doing. Take his nickname, Titanic. It wasn’t because he escaped Davy Jones’ locker whilst a passenger on the ill-fated liner by dressing as a woman, as some sources suggest. No, it relates to the reaction to another of his outlandish bets.

After a hard day’s work hustling in a pool hall called Snow Clarks in Joplin, Missouri in 1912, he noticed a sign offering “$200 to any man who jumps over my new pool table.” This was a challenge Thompson could not refuse, even though the table was nine feet long, 30 inches off the floor and 4.5 feet wide. No one believed he could do it and so he had many willing takers for the best. Thompson left the room and came back ten minutes later dragging an old mattress which he put on the other side of the table, where he was to land.

Thompson performed a prodigious leap head first, doing a flip, clearing the table and landing on his back on the mattress. As he was collecting his winnings, someone asked the proprietor his name. “I don’t rightly know, but it ought to be Titanic”, the hall owner said, “He sinks everybody.” The name stuck and Titanic set out on a peripatetic gambling career, targeting the rich, famous and anyone brave or foolish enough to take him on at golf, dice, pool, poker, coin-flipping or to accept his outlandish challenges.

Titanic was ambidextrous when it came to playing golf, although he was naturally left-handed. He challenged an amateur, who regularly carded a gross score of 90, to a game. Playing right-handed he lost a close game. Inevitably, Titanic challenged the amateur to a double or quits game and to make it easier for the amateur Titanic would play left-handed. Of course, he won with a score of 80.

Thompson once bet that he could drive a golf ball over 500 yards at a time when even the best golfers could only achieve around 300 yards. There were a lot of takers for this wager. Allowed to select his golf course, Titanic chose a tee on a hill overlooking a lake at Long Island. The lake was frozen. He struck the ball towards the lake, where it landed and slid and skidded for at least the requisite distance.

You had to read the small print when you struck a bet with Titanic. Irritated by a particularly obnoxious boxer, he bet the champion $1,000 that he could not knock him out while they both stood on the same piece of newspaper. This seemed too good to be true and the boxer accepted the challenge. Thompson laid a copy of the Spring Valley Herald across the threshold of the door, shut the door with him on one side and the increasingly frustrated boxer on the other.

Titanic was also known to play fast and loose with the rules. Horseshoe throwing was a popular sport at the time and the standard distance between the point where the thrower stood and the ring was forty feet. A champion pitcher, Frank Jackson, had issued an open challenge to all-comers with a prize of $10,000. Thompson challenged him and Jackson was astonished to find that his usually unerring throws were falling a foot short. Naturally, Thompson had set the ring forty-one feet away from the line.

A similar trick was played with sign posts. Returning to from a fishing trip to Joplin with a couple of inveterate gamblers, they noticed some workmen erecting a sign saying it was 20 miles away. The next time the trio passed the sign, Titanic wagered the pair that it was only 15 miles away. The bet was accepted, the odometer was studied, and, lo and behold, the distance was 15 miles. Thompson scooped the pot. Of course, he had had the sign moved!

He liked to throw a piece of fruit over a building. After the bet was struck an adjacent fruit seller would pass a weighted piece of fruit to Titanic and the feat was accomplished. He even hooked in Al Capone. Scarface wanted to investigate the lemon before it was thrown and only sleight of hand enabled Titanic to show him a real lemon before throwing the doctored fruit.

Damon Runyon, a writer, wanted to write a story about Thompson’s exploits but was rebuffed on the basis that Titanic’s occupation wasn’t conducive to publicity. In retaliation Runyon based Sky Masterton in a story that later became Guys and Dolls on him.

But there was a seamier side to Titanic. During his career he killed five men, four of whom were in self-defence. He is a subject I shall return tom no doubt.

If you enjoyed this, why not try out Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin fone

Names Of The Week (4)

At the best of times, voting can be a bit confusing. Who do you vote for, what are you voting for, are you convinced they are even vaguely competent?

As Churchill once said, “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter” Perhaps we should take to heart Mark Twain’s aphorism; “if voting made any difference they wouldn’t let you do it.

Here in Britain we’ve made a pretty poor fist of matters psephological in recent times, so imagine what we would do if we had the dilemma that the voters in the district of Kensington-Malpeque on Prince Edward Island in Canada face on April 23rd.

The incumbent is a 37-year-old estate agent called Matthew Mackay. One of his challengers is a 64-year-old graphic artist called – you guessed it, Matthew Mackay.

Perhaps it is a legacy of the Scottish settlers who colonised the island off the east coast of Canada or the fact that the people there are not very imaginative when it comes down to names, either way it is a tad confusing. The elder candidate has sportingly offered to use his middle initial, J, to minimise the confusion and with an electorate of just 4,000 in a close-knit community, it may not matter too much.

That is, until the result is in, as we know to our cost.

Frustration Of The Week

It never ceases to amaze me what people will get up to in order to secure a place, if only for a while, in the Guinness World Record book.

Sometimes it doesn’t always go to plan. Take poor old Carlos Silver, a singer from the Dominican Republic.

He was attempting to smash Sunil Waghmore’s record, set in the Indian city of Nagpur in March 2012, of singing non-stop for 105 hours. All seemed to be going well for Carlos when he broke the 106 hour barrier.

Unfortunately, in order for a record to stand it has to be verified by officials from Guinness. Carlos’ problems started when they were shown a video of his performance and noted that he was taking breaks of up to two minutes between a song. The rules are very clear on that point; the singer can only take a break of up to 30 seconds. The hard-hearted men from Guinness had no option but to disqualify Carlos, the second time he has failed to secure the record.

Never mind, I’m sure he consoled himself by humming “Always look on the bright side of life”.