What Is The Origin Of (210)?…

As clean as a whistle

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

But why a whistle and why clear?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Corner – December 2018 (2)

The Life and Death of Harriett Frean – May Sinclair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Nineteen

Fritz Kreisler (1875 – 1962)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



Double Your Money – Part Thirty Six

Bertha Heyman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What Is The Origin Of (209)?…

The man on the Clapham omnibus

It is a while since I have been to Clapham, never mind travelled to or from by bus, but I suspect that the demographics of the area have changed since this phrase sprang up. It was used to denote the average or typical person, the man on the street or, as the Americans might put it, an ordinary Joe. We live in a much more polarised society but this mythical person was supposed to be the epitome of fairness and a true representative of the wishes, thoughts and opinion of the public at the time. Naturally, he was a chap as the opinions of women didn’t count for much at the time.

An omnibus was a four-wheeled public vehicle with seats for passengers, introduced to London in 1829. Over time it became a popular way of getting around the metropolis, at least until the development of the underground system, for those not wealthy enough to be able to afford their own means of transport.

Contrary to popular opinion, it wasn’t the journalist, Walter Bagehot, or a bright, thrusting QC who coined the phrase. We will come to them in a moment.

No, the first appearance in print appears to have been in a piece in the Journal of Society of Arts of 1857, moaning about the perennial traffic problems in London which, the correspondent claimed, the weary commuter endures with nary a complaint unlike the rail traveller who is quick to voice their indignation if their chosen form of transport is late. “But your dog-coller’d occupant of the knife-board of a Clapham omnibus, will stick on London-bridge for half-an-hour with scarcely a murmur.” Nothing ever changes, it would seem.

Walter Bagehot, in his magisterial The English Constitution, published in 1867, gave us a variant when discussing public opinion. He argued; “public opinion now-a-days is the opinion of the bald-headed man at the back of the omnibus. It is not the opinion of the aristocratical classes as such; or the most educated or refined classes as such; it is simply the opinion of the ordinary mass of educated, but still commonplace mankind.

So the component parts of the Clapham omnibus and the ordinariness of average traveller on public transport, with or without hair or dog collar, were there before the first formulation of our phrase, attributed to a junior counsel in 1871 later Lord Bowen, who was defending the Tichbourne Claimant case, a major case at the time and one which scandalised the nation. Richard Henn Collins, the Master of the Rolls, in his summation in the 1903 libel case of McQuire v Western Morning, noted; “Fair, therefore, in this collocation certainly does not mean that which the ordinary reasonable man, the man on the Clapham omnibus, as Lord Bowen phrased it..

Frustratingly, his Lordship gave no reference for Bowen’s pearls of wisdom and, so far as I can trace, no one has found it.

Perhaps it was already in the common vernacular or perhaps the phrase was regarded as an apposite description of the ordinary man but within twenty days of Collins’ use of the phrase, on 1st June 1903, it popped up in the Manchester Guardian; “The weaker section of the Liberal imperialists (those with an eye to the man on the Clapham omnibus) are generally declaring against Mr Chamberlain.

Inevitably, the English phrase spawned local variants around the Empire. So we have “the man on the Bondi tram” in New South Wales and “the man on the Bourke Street tram” in Victoria and “the man on the Shaukiwan Tram” in Hong Kong.

It has travelled far.

Book Corner – December 2018 (1)

Crimson Snow – edited by Martin Edwards

Christmas is coming. The geese I regularly pass in a field on the M40 are getting fatter and wearing an increasingly worried expression on their face. Christmas is a time for relatives and friends to gather, celebrate and fall out. Some might even resort to murder. Dastardly deeds over the festive period make up the common theme of this delightful collection of eleven stories, carefully and lovingly curated by Martin Edwards.

As with anthologies of this type there is a mix of familiar authors – in particular, Margery Allingham and Edgar Wallace – and more obscure writers who have been lost in the mists of time. The length and quality of the stories also varies, a couple take over an hour to read each and others show some signs of their vintage. There is even a play; Christmas Eve by S C Roberts is a Holmesian parody in which the winsome Violet de Vinne consults Conan Doyle’s creation about Lady Barton’s missing pearls and makes quite an impression on poor Watson.

The weather we traditionally associate with Christmas, thick snow, features in a number of stories, marooning the house party, as in Victor Gunn’s Death in December, and allowing Chief Inspector Bill “Ironsides” Cromwell and his sidekick, Johnny Lister, to solve the mystery without the suspects having the opportunity to make good their escape.  In one story we encounter a group of malicious carol singers who commit a dastardly crime but their elderly victim has the foresight to hang her most valuable jewels on the boughs of her Christmas tree. As you would expect, a couple of stories feature Father Christmas, the interchange of costumes in one story giving the felon the opportunity to commit his crime.

Ghosts are also associated with Christmas and seasonal spectres make appearances in a number of stories. Perhaps the best story in the collection is Fergus Hume’s The Ghost’s Touch in which the narrator spends the holiday season in a haunted house. Inevitably, the ghost makes an appearance but not all is as it seems and the ghost is a means to divert the direction of an inheritance. What the story lacks in subtlety of plot it more than makes up for in atmosphere and tension.

Another of my favourites is Mr Cork’s Secret by Macdonald Hastings, perhaps because it has an insurance-related theme and it demonstrates that those of us who worked in the industry may have enjoyed a good lifestyle but we were never off duty. Mr Cork is an underwriter and is following up on a theft of some jewels that his office had underwritten. Inevitably, there is a corpse involved and the finely attuned grey cells of Cork eventually get to the bottom of the mystery. One of the unusual features of the story was that it was originally a competition piece and Hastings held back some vital revelations as a challenge for his readership. Edwards prints the story as it originally appeared but at the back of the book provides the missing information together with the winner’s suggestions. A nice touch.

On the whole, I found this collection less satisfying than others from the same stable, perhaps because the Christmas theme, although offering a range of possibilities, ultimately is a bit restrictive. Writing Christmas stories is more of a money-spinning exercise than anything else and perhaps as a consequence the quality of the writing it engenders is more variable. But, as always, there is enough to keep you interested and entertained.

Whether it has made me anticipate Christmas more keenly is another story!

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

Hans Lippershey (1570 – 1619)

Twinkle, twinkle, little star/ How I wonder what you are” goes the nursery rhyme. There is something mystifying and deeply captivating about the celestial bodies that sparkle and shine above our heads at night-time and from time immemorial Homo sapiens has wanted to get to know them better. Today, of course, we can get a better view of them from terra firma by using a telescope. But who invented this very useful scientific instrument?

Popular theory gives the credit to Galileo Galilei but, inevitably, it is a lot more complicated than that. This is where the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Hans, or Johann, Lippershey, a German-Dutch spectacle maker comes in.

The techniques for making glass and grinding lenses came on leaps and bounds in the 16th century, making it easier to develop smaller and more powerful lenses. Inevitably, someone would have the bright idea of seeing what would happen if they held up two lenses. Indeed, an apocryphal story suggests that Lippershey conceived his idea of a telescope when two children held up a couple of lenses and made the weather vane of the local church appear closer.

Less charitable souls claim that he stole the idea from a neighbour, fellow eyeglass maker, Zacharias Jansen. The truth is buried in the mists of time but what is certain is that Lippershey developed a rudimentary form of telescope, consisting of a concave eyepiece which was aligned to an objective lens, concave, of course. It boasted a magnification power of three, pretty feeble by modern standards but at least it was a start.

Emboldened by his success, on October 2nd 1608 Lippershey applied to the States General of the Netherlands for a patent for what he called an instrument “for seeing things far away as if they were nearby” – a rather clumsy description but the word,  telescope, was not coined until three years later, by Giovanni Demisiani. Lippershey did not get a patent granted, perhaps the waters had been muddied by the controversy as to how he got the idea. Another complication was that a few weeks later the Dutch authorities received a patent application for a patent for a similar instrument, this time from Jacob Metius, another Dutch instrument-maker.

The emergence of a rival instrument led the authorities to draw the inevitable conclusion that the device was easy to make and, therefore, difficult to patent. At least Lippershey received a large fee from the Dutch government in return for the use of his design. Poor Metius had to make do with a small reward.

The device created a bit of a stir and was mentioned in a report issued and distributed around Europe of the visit of the embassy of the King of Siam to the court of the Dutch crown prince, Maurice, in Hague. The genie was out of the bottle and a number of eminent scientists began experimenting with the concept of using a pair of lenses to bring the image of something nearer to the viewer.

By the summer of 1609, the English scientist, Thomas Harriott, had produced a telescope with a magnification factor of six. He pointed his telescope at the moon and in August 1609 drew what he saw but never published the results.

And then Galileo got in on the act. His considerable intellect was piqued by reports of the Dutch perspective glasses which reached him in 1609. Within days he had created his own telescope, without seeing a Dutch version, which boasted a magnification power of twenty. With this he observed the moon, discovered the rings of Saturn and four of Jupiter’s moons. Galileo reproduced what he saw in astonishing ink drawings, which were published.

So Harriott drew the moon first and Lippershey can rightly claim to have been the first to develop a telescope. But Galileo scooped the glory.

Such is the fickle finger of fate and why Hans is a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone