Coincidences Are Spiritual Puns – Part Eight

The Beatrice church explosion, 1950

Punctuality is the virtue of the bored, well at least according to Evelyn Waugh. I always make an effort to arrive for an appointment in good time but sometimes even the best of plans can go awry. The consolation of tardiness, at least according to a friend of mine, naturally someone who was notoriously late for anything, is that you are only late when you arrive. Sometimes being late can be a blessing as this curious story shows.

On the evening of Wednesday 1st March 1950 at 7.25 an explosion ripped through the West Side Baptist Church in Beatrice, Nebraska. The force of the blast was such that it could be heard in almost every corner of the town. The walls of the church were blown outwards, causing the heavy roof to crash down. Properties nearby had their windows blown out and the local radio station was forced off the air. Mercifully, nobody was injured.

But it so easily could have been a major tragedy.

You see, Wednesday evenings was when the fifteen strong choir assembled at the church for their choir practice. In fact, it always started at the oddly precise time of 7.20. As a rule, they would all start assembling around 7.15. Because they all had busy lives to lead, not all turned up for every session or some arrived slightly after the scheduled start. If you had to put a number, perhaps each chorister would be late once in about four times. But on this night, all of them were late and it was to their tardiness that they owed their lives. What are the odds of that happening?

As was his wont, the Reverend Walter Kempel went to the church in the afternoon to set things up for the choir. As it was a chilly day, he decided to light the boiler so the church would be nice and warm for the singers. It was thought that the blast was caused by a gas leak from a broken pipe which was then ignited by the fire in the boiler.

Having completed his preparations, Kempel went home for his dinner. At 7.10 when he was due to return to the church, this time with his wife and daughter, they noticed that their daughter’s dress was dirty. Their departure was delayed as Mrs Kempel had to run her iron over another dress for her daughter to wear.

And the other choristers were delayed by equally mundane occurrences. The diligent Ladona Vandergrift was puzzling over a tricky geometry problem and decided to forego her usual custom of arriving at the church early in order to finish off her homework. This delayed Royena Estes and her sister, Sadie. Their cars wouldn’t start and Ladona was due to pick them up.

Herbert Kipf stayed to finish off an important letter and Joyce Black decided to delay her departure as long as possible so she could enjoy the warmth of her hearth. Marilyn Paul, the pianist, nodded off and only woke up at 7.15, delaying her and her mother’s departure.

An engrossing radio programme which did not finish until 7.30 delayed Lucille Jones and Dorothy Wood, while Harvey Ahl got engrossed in conversation and lost track of time. And Mrs Schuster had to go to her mother’s house to help her get ready for a missionary meeting.

All mundane occurrences, for sure, but the cumulative effect was that no one was in the church when it blew up. Is there a God out there, after all?


What Is The Origin Of (193)?…

High dudgeon

Getting annoyed is a natural human emotion. Most of us encounter something irksome during the course of the day. So it is not surprising that there are many words and phrases available to describe our blood boiling. One of my favourites is in high dudgeon by which we mean having a feeling of anger, resentment or simmering outrage. There is an air of theatricality around its usage – people often storm out of rooms in high dudgeon.

Dudgeon is a curious word, not least because its ending –udgeon is a fairly uncommon one in the English language. The only other two I could bring to mind without causing my little grey cells irreparable damage were bludgeon and curmudgeon – a state to which I aspire and the only English word ending in –mudgeon. My researches also unearthed gudgeon, a small fish which is easily caught and by extension is used to describe someone who is gullible, the Scottish humdudgeon, used to describe an unnecessary cry or complaint or an imaginary illness, and trudgeon which is a variant of trudgen, a type of swimming stroke.

The other curious feature of our word is that its origin is far from certain. One theory is that it comes from the Welsh word, dygen, which means malice or resentment, a suggestion rather firmly scotched by the Oxford English Dictionary. It does not give any reason for this rejection and whilst there is a similarity in form, the meaning of the two words is some distance apart. Perhaps we should bow to the OED’s superior knowledge and decidedly anti-Celtic stance.

The next suggestion is that it comes from the Italian, aduggiare, meaning to overshadow, rather like the English word umbrage, which is also used to describe a temper tantrum. But there is no citation to move this on from pure speculation. Another, perhaps more hopeful, suggestion is that we look at the French word, indign, which spawned our indignant. The English are notorious for mangling foreign words and phrases and perhaps in dudgeon came from mangling en indign. Endugine does pop up once, in 1638, and the sense is the same but to build too much on this hapax legomenon may be dangerous. But it certainly intrigues me.

What is certain, though, is that dudgeon existed from around the 16th century and was used to describe the wood that made up the handle of a knife or a dagger. Shakespeare uses it in Macbeth to describe the hilt of the dagger; “I see thee still,/ and on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood/ which was not so before.

It is tempting to think that Shakespeare was at the cutting edge of all developments in the English language but in the usage of dudgeon he was pretty old school. Gabriel Harvey was a pre-eminent writer in the Elizabethan era and pretty disputatious too. In his Letter-Book of Gabriel Harvey, published in 1573, he provided the first example of dudgeon being used to describe temperament; “who seem’d to take it in marvelus great duggin.

It was Samuel Butler, the 17th century poet not to be confused with the 19th century novelist, who first linked the adjective high to dudgeon in his mock heroic poem, Hudibras, published in 1663; “when civil dudgeon first grew high/ and men fell out they knew not why..”  There’s no point in being in low dudgeon, I suppose. And in 1885 we see its modern-day usage, the Manchester Examiner reporting; “[He] resigned his position as reporter of the Committee in high dudgeon.

Whilst it is tempting to see the figurative grasping of the handle of a dagger as illustrative of a temper, I rather like the idea that dudgeon comes from the mangling of a French word. My only hesitation is that the singular appearance of endugine comes sixty years after Harvey’s use of dudgeon.

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

The health jolting chair

It is often said that one of the main ways to keep healthy is to indulge in exercise. For many, either through physical incapacity or inclination – I am firmly in the latter camp – this is a step too far. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could get all the benefits of exercise by sitting in a chair. This is what the Health Jolting Chair Company of 150 West 23rd Street, New York, claimed to be able to do in adverts that did the rounds in magazines such as Harper’s Weekly in the 1880s.

The claims for the chair were, as you would expect, fulsome. It was “the most important health mechanism ever produced” affording “a perfect means of giving efficient exercise to the essentially important nutritive organs of the body in the most direct, convenient, comfortable and inexpensive manner.” Judging by the illustration that accompanied by the text, it seemed, at least by modern standards, anything but comfortable, resembling a wooden, unpadded chair with a pair of levers which, presumably, controlled the movement of the chair and a handle beneath the seat which might have been used to adjust the height. How it actually operates is very unclear although the advert does say “it can be regulated so as to give it any degree of severity desired.

Perhaps the manufacturers were more interested in flogging the things than in instructing the suckers who bought it how to use it. And their potential market was enormous. It was “suitable for all ages and most physical conditions” and “indispensable to the health and happiness of millions of human beings who may be living sedentary lives through choice or necessity.” Particularly targeted was the fairer sex who, if the copywriter was to be believed, did nothing all day but sit around, a habit which has either caused or will cause disease.

Gloriously, the advert concluded that “no dwelling-house is completely furnished without The Health Jolting Chair.

If you weren’t convinced by any of this, it went on to list the specific health benefits that anyone sitting in the chair could expect to receive; a stronger heart, improved circulation, an increase in respiratory movement, exercise of the body’s nutritive organs, and muscle development, particularly of the arms, trunk and neck, “with the minimum strain on the heart and other muscles.” As well as being “a mechanical laxative, diuretic and tonic”, the chair specifically cured constipation, dyspepsia, the effects of a torpid liver and kidneys, nervous prostration, melancholia, anaemia, general debility, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, rheumatism, gout and neuralgia. It could also be used when it was too wet, hot or cold to take outdoor exercise.

What not to like?

I have been unable to ascertain the retail price to see whether it was really inexpensive – the manufacturers were surprisingly coy on that point. Anyone interested in purchasing the chair, could send off to the manufacturers and receive, by return of post, a pamphlet entitled Exercise of the Internal Organs of the Body Necessary to Health, which they claimed was “interesting.” The chair was sold by furniture and house-furnishing goods dealers under the trademark Vis Preservatrix – always good to have a Latin tag to boost your product’s credibility.

And the $64,000 question is; was it any good? Other than a placebo and giving the sitter the feeling that they were doing themselves some good by being shaken about a bit, probably not.

It is worth noting that the company that owned the Health Jolting Company also manufactured the electric chairs that sent malefactors to an early grave. When your chair arrived, it might just have been worth checking that you had got the right one!

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

Bir Tawil

We have seen before that drawing a straight line on a map may be a pretty neat solution for diplomats but it can cause unanticipated problems on the ground. Take the curious case of Bir Tawil, the land nobody wants.

It’s easy to see why. It amounts to 795 square miles of unforgiving, hostile desert and mountains with no permanent inhabitants, on the border between Sudan and Egypt. Neither country is keen to claim sovereignty over it. On the other hand the Hala’ib Triangle, about ten times larger in area and much more hospitable with extensive grazing lands and bordering the Red Sea, is a prize worth having.

The problems started in 1899 when the British, who controlled the area, established the 22nd parallel as the border between the two countries. The Anglo-Egyptian Condominium Agreement for Sudan established a nice straight line which placed the more desirable Hala’ib Triangle in Egypt and Bir Tawil in Sudan.

But in 1902 the Brits had another think and decided that the dividing line between the countries should better reflect the indigenous characteristics of the people on the ground. Bir Tawil was used by the Ababda tribe who were based near the Egyptian town of Aswan. So the Brits amended the border to put it into Egypt. The Hala’ib Triangle, though, was given to the British governor of Sudan because the population culturally were more aligned to the Sudanese of Khartoum.

Life in the area went on pretty much as normal until in 1956 Sudan gained its independence. Keen to assert its new independence the Sudanese government defined its national borders in accordance with the 1902 agreement, laying claim to the Hala’ib Triangle and passing Bir Tawil to Egypt. They even planned to hold elections in the Triangle. The Egyptians, however, claimed that the 1902 agreement was only ever a temporary arrangement and that the 1899 agreement had established the borders once and for all. When he got wind of the forthcoming election General Nasser sent troops to the area to reaffirm Egyptian control of the Triangle.

Blows were not traded and whilst both countries maintained their claim to the Triangle, it was effectively under joint control. There were the occasional disputes and when relations between the two countries worsened in the mid 1990s the Egyptians expelled Sudanese police and officials from the area in an attempt to strengthen their control. By 2000, when relations had thawed somewhat, the Sudanese withdrew their officials from the area, effectively ceding control to Egypt, unofficially of course.

But what about Bir Tawil?

Technically, it remains a terra nullius, with neither country keen to absorb it within their borders. To do so formally would probably be tantamount to giving up their claims to the Triangle. And so it remains almost certainly the only part of the world which no country actually owns. It remains so to this day.

Where there is a void, someone will try to fill it and a couple of individuals have made trips to Bir Tawil to stake a claim. In a 2016 article in the Guardian Jack Shenker wrote an account of his trek to the area in 2011, planting a multi-coloured flag in the desert to legitimise his claim. In 2014 a farmer from Virginia, Jeremiah Horton, made a journey to the area, planted his flag, proclaiming it the Kingdom of North Sudan. He declared himself the sovereign and his daughter, Emily, princess, thus fulfilling her birthday wish to be a princess.

Needless to say, neither of these claims has been recognised internationally. Some time, I expect, the Sudanese and Egyptians will get round to resolving the issue. But maybe they won’t.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Eighty Two

Mary Anderson (1866 – 1953)

It’s an everyday scene. You jump into your car, notice the windscreen is a bit smeared, so you flick a switch and two mechanical arms, fixed to the exterior of your car, spring into action and clear it for you. When it is raining or snowing, the windscreen wipers are invaluable to help you see where you are going. But have you ever considered whose brainwave the wipers were?

This is where the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Alabama born Mary Anderson, comes in.

While in New York during the winter of 1902 Mary was travelling on a trolley car and it was sleeting. The stately progress of the vehicle was interrupted every now and again because the driver had to get out and clear the front window of the snow and ice that had accumulated. Instead of fuming about the delay that this operation caused to her journey, Mary started wondering whether some kind of blade could be produced which the driver could operate from inside the trolley car, allowing him to clear the screen without having to stop and start the vehicle.

Food for thought, indeed.

When she got back to Birmingham, Alabama, Mary’s musings were sufficiently advanced that she was able to commit a rudimentary design to paper. She then wrote a description of how it might work and hired a local company to make a working model. It was remarkably simple, consisting of a lever fixed to the inside of the vehicle which controlled a rubber blade fixed to the exterior of the windscreen. By controlling the lever, the blade, which was counterweighted to ensure contact, would go back and forth across the windscreen, clearing it of any obstructions. The blade was detachable, “thus leaving nothing to mar the usual appearance of the car during fair weather.

On 18th June 1903 Mary submitted her application for a patent for what she quaintly described as a Window Cleaning Device. In the supporting documentation Anderson described how the wiper was to be operated by a handle inside the vehicle which was detachable.

On 10th November she was notified by the United States Patent Office that a patent had been granted, number 743,801, and that she had exclusive rights over her invention for 17 years.

But, as we have seen before, inventing something is the easy part. Making a commercial success of it is another kettle of fish altogether.

Mary started searching for commercial partners but, surprisingly, found no takers. Rather like an aspiring author seeking a publisher, she received rejections by the sack full. Perhaps the letter she received from the Montreal firm, Dinning and Eckstein, on 20th June 1905 was typical; “we beg to acknowledge receipt of your recent favor with reference to the sale of your patent. In reply, we regret to state we do not consider it to be of such commercial value as would warrant our undertaking its sale.”

So that was that and Mary seems to have abandoned her attempts to put her invention into production, concentrating on managing some flats she had built instead.

Her patent expired in 1920. By that time many more people owned cars and vehicle manufacturers were looking to enhance the specifications of their models. In 1922 Cadillac was the first to include windscreen wipers on all of their models and soon they became standard equipment. The timing of their adoption was not coincidental, depriving Mary of cashing in on her simple but essential invention.

It was not until 2011 that Mary’s contribution to automobile safety was recognised by the Hall of Inventors, making her a worthy inductee into our equally illustrious Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

For more enquiring minds, try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone

What Is The Origin Of (192)?…


Kid Creole and the Coconuts, remember them? To my eternal shame, their 1982 hit Stool Pigeon persuaded me to buy their album, Tropical Gangsters, a disc which seems to have long since escaped my still impressively large collection of vinyl. The most common usage of this phrase is to describe a police informant, usually one that spills the beans in return for charges being dropped or a reduction in sentence but where does it come from?

The phrase seems to have originated from the world of hunting where a bird, a pigeon in this case, was used as bait to attract other, more attractive game. This is how the famous lexicographer, Noah Webster, used it in his History of Animals: Designed for the Instruction and Amusement of Persons of Both Sexes, published in 1812; “in this manner, the decoy or stool pigeon is made to flutter, and a flock of pigeons may be called from their flight from a great distance.

Some etymologists claim that stool was a variant of the French word estale which referred to a pigeon used to lure a hawk into a net and which moved via stale – used in the late 16th century to describe a person who entrapped another – and stall – used in the vernacular of 16th century pickpockets to describe the person who distracted the victim while the thief emptied their pockets. It may be the case but it seems quite a transformation to me. A pigeon, interestingly though, was a slang word from the same period to describe a simpleton or a fool.

What is more certain is that within a decade of Webster’s use of the phrase in a hunting context, it was being used figuratively to describe a human decoy. A court report dating to 1821 reports the testament of a witness who asserted “that Van Ort made use of him as a kind of stool-pigeon, to decoy or persuade other blacks to go to the south with him.” In a newspaper from 1825 a stool pigeon appears to describe a Methodist priest who was acting as a decoy or as the journalist put it “to have sold himself for a tool, or rather a stool-pigeon to decoy other Methodists into the snare designed to entrap them for the Presbyterian clergy.

In the 1830s and 1840s the phrase was being deployed to describe people who acted as decoys to catch or trick others who were often naïve or simple-minded or simply were unaware that they were being duped. Stool-pigeons at the time were on the wrong side of the law rather than acting in cahoots with the police and in the Revised Code of the District of Columbia of 1855, acting as a stool-pigeon was an offence against public policy.

But the police, who doubtless knew a good thing when they saw one, were soon using stool-pigeons to act as decoys for themselves. So common seems to have been the practice that the 1859 Dictionary of Americanisms found space to define a stool-pigeon as “a decoy robber, in the pay of the police, who brings his associates into a trap laid for them” and stool-pigeoning as “the practice of employing decoys to catch robbers.

A decade later the phrase was used without any specific link with the police or detecting but as a general epithet for an informer, as this extract from a House of Representatives report on electoral frauds, published in 1868, shows; “I do not want to have anything to do with giving names…I do not want to be a stool-pigeon for anybody.” By 1893 it had become a pejorative epithet for a useless person; “it was the first time in his life that he had been branded (in print) as a shyster, an impecunious fraud, a lazy stoolpigeon and other such epithets.

It still has pejorative connotations. No one likes a grass, after all.

Book Corner – August 2018 (1)

Tortilla Flat – John Steinbeck

I’m going through a bit of a phase of trying to plug some obvious gaps in my literary knowledge. After all, I don’t want to be sitting on a cloud and being asked, during a break in harp practice, whether I have read much Steinbeck. Fortunately, Penguin Modern Classics came to my aid a while back by offering Kindle versions of his novels for £0.99 a go and so this is the first of two that I selected.

In many ways it is appropriate that I chose Tortilla Flat which, although it was his fifth novel, published in May 1935, it was the one that made his name. The reviews were favourable, it began to sell well and Steinbeck was able to sell the film rights. It is easy to see why. It is a humorous collection of essentially shaggy dog stories, written with a light touch and imbued with an easy sense of whimsical humour. The characterisation is strong and the style is no-nonsense.

The book focuses on a group of ne’er do well Mexican-Indian-Spanish Americans, known as paisanos, who eke out an existence in Tortilla Flat near Monterey in California. They are work-shy, have voracious appetites for wine, argue and fight with each other but somehow, perhaps because they have no other option, rub along together in a communal house. Think of hippies without the drugs.

The glue which holds the book and the community together is Danny, who, upon his return from the Great War, finds that he has inherited a couple of houses from his dead grandfather. This good fortune raises Danny’s stock in the eyes of his fellow paisanos and he soon collects a motley collection of picaresque characters who vow their allegiance to him but at the same time see him as a bit of a gravy train. The book relays the tales of their life together.

It is easy to see some obvious Arthurian parallels in the story. King Arthur was a commoner, elevated to royalty by his ability to remove a sword from a stone. Like Arthur Danny initially has trouble getting his followers to meet their obligations but eventually wins them round, winning their undying pledges of loyalty. Danny’s house is a round table manqué and the Catholic symbolism which imbues Mallory’s tale is found in spades in Steinbeck’s novel.

There are many moments when the reader will find a smile cross their face as they race through the pages and there are pieces of superb comedy. I particularly liked the story of the Pirate who had pledged a gold cross to St Francis upon the miraculous recovery of his dog from some illness, the task of collecting the thousand dollars necessary becoming a life’s work. The dog, however, was run over a few weeks later. And the story of the woman who was given a vacuum cleaner, without a motor (natch), which she dutifully pushes around her house. If you have a status symbol, you have to flaunt it.

But, rather like Henry IV, uneasy lies the crown on Danny’s head. He is a man to whom responsibility is anathema and the book, on another level, portrays his descent into despair and culminates in a deeply tragic and moving finale. Again, all of this is done with an incredibly light touch.

There are some troubling aspects with the book. Was Steinbeck racist in his portrayal of the paisanos? Even the author had doubts when he saw how his characters were viewed as nothing more than good-for-nothing bums. Women are portrayed either as objects of lust or little more than domestic skivvies. And there is an undercurrent of anti-Semitism. But, as I have often said, we impose our values on literature at our peril.

If you want an introduction to Steinbeck, this is probably as good a book as you could find to dip your toe in the water.