A wry view of life for the world-weary

Category Archives: Culture

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.

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.

A La Mode


Fashion is cyclical, I’m told, and my wardrobe, basically unchanged since the 1980s, bears testament to this. Occasionally, my tried and tested garments come back into fashion and I can preen myself that I’m on trend with little effort from myself.

One of the oddest fashions to my mind is the platform heel. It has a long legacy – there are statues of Aphrodite in elevated footwear and there is evidence that Roman women wore them, perhaps to lift their clothing from the mud and detritus in the streets. But perhaps the most extreme form of platform heel was the chopine, a popular fashion accessory in Spain and Italy, principally Venice, during the 15th to 17th centuries.

Seeing women tottering around on ludicrously high heels has always drawn scorn from unreconstructed males. William Shakespeare, no less, could not the opportunity pass, Hamlet noting in Act 2 Scene 2 “By y’r Lady, your ladyship is nearer to heaven than when I saw you last, by the altitude of a chopine.” English visitors to Venice scratched their heads and called these fashion victims “half wood, half woman.

Spanish chopines, which seem to have been adapted from the Moorish footwear style, were made of cork with highly worked and embossed leather. As the Spanish women wore their skirts down to the top of the chopine, their intricate design was shown off to the full, contrasting with the sombre black of their outerwear. Some of them had diamonds and other gems sewn into them, hardly indicating that their sole purpose was to protect the wearer from the mud. Rather, perhaps, their purpose was to suggest that beneath the woman’s dour black mantle there was to be found splendid and colourful vestments. In other words, they were indicators of the wealth of the wearer. So popular were they in their day that the confessor to Queen Isabella noted “there’s not enough cork in all of Spain to meet the needs of women in regard to their chopines.

Italian chopines, on the other foot, were made from wood and were known in the local lingo as zoccoli, from the Italian zocco meaning a stump or block of wood.  They were worn in a different way from the Spanish style, being incredibly tall, some boasting heels of up to twenty inches, and were completely covered by the skirt. As much of Venitian economic power came from its control of the textile trade, it would seem that the primary motivation of elevating a woman was to boost the sale of fabrics and to demonstrate the fineness and luxuriance of the materials. Effectively, they were a form of undergarment.

It is also worth remembering that the lot of a Venetian noblewoman was not a happy one, being confined to barracks for most of the time and were only seen in public on ceremonial and state occasions, often atop a float bearing testament to the affluence of their family. Walking in the ludicrous chopines was a trial, certainly beyond the competence of an aspiring Naomi Campbell, and often the poor woman could only move around with the aid of a couple of servants to keep her steady. A considerable accomplishment would be to be able to walk unaided and perhaps even shake a leg during a mannered and stately dance.

Mercifully for all concerned, the chopine eventually fell out of fashion, reflective of the fall from influence of the Venetian empire. What replaced it was a new development in footwear fashion, the heel, which began to find favour in the French court via the Near East and was adopted by men.

Eventually women caught up!

I Predict A Riot – Part Thirty One

The Rite of Spring Riot, 1913

Every artist is precious about their work and the day that it is revealed to the public is a nerve-wracking affair at the best of times. How will it be received?

In Igor Stravisnky’s case, the debut performance in the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris on 29th May 1913 went down a storm.

It is a difficult work, not to my taste, full of frenetic rhythms and dissonant chords, eschewing most of the tried and tested conventions of classical music but it undoubtedly exerted an enormous influence on jazz and minimalism. But at its first performance no sooner had the opening bassoon part finished – high-pitched and meandering – then the jeers started. The next passage, pounding percussion, jarring rhythms and cacophonous noises, just provoked the audience more.

By the time the ballet dancers from the Ballets Russes under the direction of the famed Vaslav Nijinsky had taken to the stage, the audience had reached fever-pitch and so loud were the catcalls that the ballerinas, who were treating the onlookers to a feast of jerky, violent moves rather than the graceful athleticism that you would expect, couldn’t hear the orchestra. Nijinsky was reduced to barking out orders from the back.

Eventually a scuffle broke out between the traditionalists who take comfort in the old ways and those who were keen to promote progress. There is evidence that some were primed for action because a number of objects, including vegetables, were thrown at the performers. After all, who takes a bag of vegetables to a night at the opera?

Paris was at the forefront of the modernist movement. Many Parisians had still not forgiven the erection of that metal monstrosity that is the Eiffel Tower in 1889 and the city was full of the unmistakable signs of progress – motor vehicles, aeroplanes, telephones, electric lighting, lifts. The old ways were fast disappearing and the rate of progress could have been unsettling for many. The art world was changing fast – Picasso was experimenting with Cubism, and a number of Paris-based writers, Gertrude Stein to the fore, were testing the meaning of language and overthrowing some of the customary narrative techniques and constructions. Perhaps for some the trashing of music and dance conventions was the final straw.

Others sought to blame the influence of Nijinsky and the impresario, Diaghilev, who had previous for putting on a particularly erotic version of Claude Debussey’s L’Apres-mid d’un faune. Their involvement may have left the traditionalists fearing the worst and they came spoiling for a fight. Some like Le Figaro’s music critic, Henri Quillard, saw the opening performance of The Rite of Spring as being deliberately provocative, labelling it as an exercise in “puerile barbarity.” Others thought it was a publicity stunt to attract press attention and to boost ticket sales. Who knows?

Stravinsky recognised that it was a difficult work, plumbing the depths of man’s animalistic spirit and leaving “simply no regions for soul-searching in the Rite of Spring”.

Even the actual events of the evening are hard to reconstruct with any certainty and it is far from clear whether the opera house received a visit from the gendarmerie. But reports suggest that around 40 of the most vociferous critics of the performance were shown the door. Astonishingly, the orchestra and ballet dancers, showing remarkable sang-froid, soldiered on and finished the performance, making it a night at the opera never to be forgotten.

What Is The Origin Of (179)?…

A Mickey Finn

One of the more lamentable perils of drinking in a bar is someone slipping you a Mickey Finn. By this we mean someone has put a substance, be it another liquid or some form of powder, into your drink with the intention of making you insensible or more pliable to their wishes.

But who or what was Mickey Finn?

Well for once in our etymological enquiries there seems good reason to believe that there was a real Mickey Finn – it is a common Irish name, after all – and that the Mickey in question ran between 1896 and 1903 the Lone Star and Palm Garden in what was known as Whiskey Row on Chicago’s State and Harrison streets. It seems that in 1898 Finn met a mysterious travelling salesman who, as well as supplying heroin and cocaine, had some unusual brown bottles filled with a liquid and white powdery chemical. Quite what they were no one ever determined but Finn purchased a job lot of them and they fuelled an unusual and lucrative crime spree.

As a bartender Finn was in a prime position to dispense the contents of one of these bottles into what he called his “special drink”. Whatever was in the liquid when mixed with raw alcohol, was powerful enough to put the unwitting toper into a state of unconsciousness. Finn would then relieve them of their valuables and dump them out in the street where, eventually, they would recover consciousness and wonder what on earth had happened to them.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. Persistent reports of dopings at Finn’s gaff led the police to take a closer look at what was going on. By this time, in late 1903, it had earned the reputation as being one of the worst dens in the south side levee. A damning report was submitted by an Inspector Lavin to his Chief O’Neill and acting upon their recommendation, the Mayor, Carter Harrison, issued an order on 16th December 1903 for the forcible closure of the Lone Star. Shortly afterwards, Finn left town.

But it seems that the habit of doping drink or foodstuffs disappeared from Chicago with Finn’s departure. It has been suggested that the enterprising Finn sold the remainder of his stock of his knockout drops to other publicans in the area.

The custom, if we can term it thus, also was a feature of the restaurant trade as this report from The Washington Post in June 1918 shows. One hundred waiters were up before the magistrate for using coercive techniques to ensure that customers gave tips. It goes on “Mr Hoyne had a report that waiters used a certain powder in the dishes of known opponents to the system. The powders, according to Mr Hoyne, produced nausea and were known as Mickey Finns. It is thought that many cases of supposed ptomaine poisoning reported after meals in downtown cafes and hotels may have been caused by the Mickey Finns.

In this case, the Mickey Finn was a tartar emetic but the report is probably first recorded usage of our phrase.

The modern usage reflects the same type of behaviour that brought Finn his notoriety and there is no need to consider the author Ernest Jarrold who wrote in the 1880s a series of stories published in the newspapers featuring Mickey Finn. Although these predate our bartender, the name was sufficiently common amongst the irish communities for it to be used without any special connotation.

No, Mickey Finn of the Lone Star Saloon is yer man.