Book Corner – April 2020 (1)

Some Must Watch – Ethel Lina White

This taut, psychological thriller, published in 1933, spawned a 1946 film, The Spiral Staircase, directed by Robert Siodmak. Some later editions of the book were also entitled The Spiral Staircase as they sought to cash in on the film’s success, but Lina White’s title, which comes from Hamlet, “for some must watch, while some must sleep: So runs the world away”, perfectly encapsulates this gothic-influenced tale.

Down on her luck, unemployed in the depression, a domestic servant, Helen Cadel, takes a post as a lady’s help in a remote house on the Herefordshire, Shropshire, Welsh borders. There are eight others in the house, including a bedridden, testy aunt of the head of the household, Professor Warren. Four young women have been murdered in the area and the location of the murders are getting nearer the house. When out walking at the start of the story Helen gets the sense she is being watched. Her sense of unease continues until she reaches the safety of the house.

The bedridden aunt, though, punctures Helen’s sense of security by hinting that she might be in danger. To add to the gothic atmosphere a gale is blowing outside making it difficult for the occupants to leave. And then there is the new nurse, given the seemingly impossible task of looking after the aunt. She is huge and cumbersome, prompting speculation amongst the household that she is really a man and not only that, but some kind of madman soon to wreak a trail of destruction. So prevalent is the speculation that the nurse frequently overhears it when she enters the room.

The nurse is well-conceived and adds a dash of humour to what might otherwise be an overwrought thriller. Indeed, part of Lina White’s genius is the quality of her characterisation, each of the characters are believable and have characteristics that make them slightly sinister, whilst it is easy to find Helen a sympathetic innocent stuck in the middle of something that is beyond her wit to comprehend. The other quality that stands out is Lina White’s mastery of narrative prose. The book zips along at pace, wringing out every drop from the atmosphere she has created and leaving the reader anxious to find out what happens next.

The action is confined to just a 24-hour period and for Helen, her sense of unease growing as she senses that there is really someone in the house to get her, it gets worse. For good reasons, members of Professor Warren’s entourage start leaving the house. Helen is there with just the aunt and the nurse, or so she thinks.

I won’t spoil the denouement but, suffice it to say, it is not a let-down.

There is a slight eugenic tone in the book. Helen is chided by the professor for wearing a cross. In her defence, she says, “The cross represents a Power which gave me life. But it gave me faculties to help me to look after that life for myself”. Someone, though, has decided that her life is not one worth living. The question is: Who? I will leave you to find out.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Thirty Eight

The Olympic Flame hoax of 1956

It’s 2020 and the Olympics were supposed to be back, now put back a year, Japan having the dubious honour of draining their economy and building white elephants which deliver little in the way of a sport’s legacy. One of the highlights, for me the only one, is the torch relay, which takes a burning torch all the way from Olympus to the host city.

In 1956 it was Australia’s turn to host the event and the torch was making its way from Cairns to the host city, Melbourne, via Sydney. The procession was not without its drama. Runners suffered from the heat of the sun, torrential rains threatened to extinguish the flame, and the torch was dropped and broken in Lismore. On November 18, the mayor of Sydney, Pat Hills, was due to receive the flame from cross-country running champion, Harry Dillon, make a short speech and then pass it on to another runner, Bert Button.

A crowd of around 30,000 lined the streets to see the torch’s arrival, the press was out in force, photographers and cameramen at the ready. At 9.30am the runner, a young man bizarrely dressed in grey trousers with a white shirt and tie, made his appearance, holding the torch aloft. The police shepherded him towards the mayor and the athlete thrust the torch into the hands of Hills.     

It was at that point that Hills realised something was amiss. His hands were sticky from paint that had come from the handle of the supposed torch. On closer inspection, he found that what he was holding was a chair leg with a tin attached to the top and a pair of underpants ablaze, doused in flammable material. By this time the runner had melted into the crowd. Regaining his composure, the mayor addressed the crowd with these words; “that was a trial run. Our friends from the university think things like this are funny. It was a hoax by somebody. I hope you are enjoying the joke”.  

The mayor may have not been fazed by the prank, but the crowd turned ugly and surged forward. Women began screaming, fearing for the safety of their children and order was only restored when the police cleared a path down which Dillon ran at 9.40. Hills accepted the torch for a second time, made his prepared speech and passed it on to Button he went on his way.

The name of the prankster, Barry Larkin, a veterinary student at St. Johns College at Sydney University, was not made public until several years later but when he got back to the college, he was treated like a conquering hero. Even the college’s rector shook him by the hand and congratulated him. Larkin wasn’t supposed to be the bearer of blazing underwear. One of his co-conspirators, dressed in conventional athletic wear, panicked at the last minute and Larkin stepped into the breach. Hence the tie.

There was a serious message behind the prank, a protest against the origins of the original torch relay that was a feature of the 1936 games in Berlin. As to the ersatz torch, it was taken to a reception at the Town Hall and then found its way into the possession of one John Lawler, who had been following the procession by car. He kept it under his bed, as you do, until it got thrown out during a spring clean.

When Sydney hosted the games in 2000, the papers were full of accounts of Larkin’s shenanigans and although there were several attempts to disrupt that procession, enhanced security saw them come to naught.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone.

What Is The Origin Of (275)?…

Punch’s advice – DON’T

There was a time when the weekly magazine Punch, or to give it its alternative title, The London Chiavari, was influential in the drawing rooms of England. Founded in 1841 by Henry Mayhew and the wood-engraver, Ebenezer Landells, it helped coin the term cartoon to denote a humorous illustration. To modern eyes, many of its jokes were rather lame but it lasted over a century, peaking in popularity in the 1940s, before closing for good in 2002. Doctors’ waiting rooms have never been the same since.

As well as cartoon, it promulgated a phrase which first appeared in its Almanack for 1845 under the month of January, namely, “advice to persons about to marry – don’t”. Sound advice, no doubt, although quite what prompted the organ to pour metaphorical cold water over the marital aspirations of a young man is not clear. One commentator thought it was a spoof on an advert going the rounds at the time. That might well be the case, although no such advert seems to have survived.

Of course, there is no point in looking for consistency in a humorous rag. To prove the point, when discussing the subject of clerical celibacy amongst Catholic clergy, Punch wrote on December 18, 1869, “one of the subjects likely to be debated in St Peter’s is, How to deal with priests who wish to marry. Mr Punch’s advice on this point would be very concise, only two words – let ‘em”.  

Mr Punch’s advice on matrimony other than concerning Catholic priests, though, found a ready audience and cropped up in pieces where people wished to make a forceful point in a jocular style. It was used in a piece about furnishing which appeared in Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts in its edition of October 12, 1861; “what has been viciously observed by Mr Punch in reference to matrimony, that I repeat, in all benevolence, with respect to this matter: To persons about to furnish. Don’t”.

Other examples appeared in an article about teetotalism in the Gloucester Journal of October 16, 1858 – “to tell a man not to drink, and then he will be cured of Drunkenness, is little better than a re-production of Punch’s advice to persons about to marry” – and in an account of a lecture given by a Lieutenant Verney on Queensland at Claydon Park School, as reported by the Buckingham Express on December 2, 1871; “the lecturer concluded by giving as the result of his experience, advice to those contemplating emigration, similar to Punch’s advice to those contemplating matrimony – Don’t”. For the school children it was a case of two aspirations being killed by one stone.

Punch’s advice had not only been applied to situations beyond matrimony but had also been abbreviated to rid it of the encumbrance of matrimony. It was used in any circumstance where the recipient of the warning was advised not to do something. It appeared in this sense in a short story published in the Eastern Daily Press on December 24, 1872; “if he contemplated interfering with the personal comfort of either myself or coolie, he had better take Punch’s advice, and Don’t”. It also cropped up in its abbreviated form in an advert in the Evening Chronicle of January 23, 1901; “Are you desponding? Take Punch’s advice and DON’T”. As well as following Punch’s advice, the proprietors of Roberts Sinclair’s Tobacco recommended an ounce of their baccy and one of their celebrated briars, a snip at a bob, to smoke it in as a cure for the blues, advice that may well be sniffed at now.

Our phrase is still used today, although the demise of the magazine may well see it fall into some obscurity. The Stage, the newspaper of thespians, printed a letter on April 27, 1995 in which any aspiring impresario was warned, “so what, apart from don’t can be Mr Punch’s advice to anyone who is contemplating running a theatre, dance or opera company?” Fortunately, there are some who still do.

Book Corner- March 2020 (4)

Ashenden; or The British Agent – W. Somerset Maugham

I am always interested in reading books that had a transformational effect on their chosen genre. Ashenden, published in 1928, is one which had a profound influence on the later direction of spy fiction. It was also the first Maugham book I had read.

It is loosely based on Maugham’s own experiences in the espionage world during the First World War. The eponymous hero is sent to neutral Switzerland, a hot bed of international espionage, by his spy master, R, the first time such a character appears in spy fiction. Unlike the earlier books penned by the likes of John Buchan and William Le Queux, where the British spies are handsome, dashing, fearless adventurers fired by patriotism and foreigners are dastardly and repulsive in manners and action, most of Ashenden’s time is spent collecting and passing on information and Maugham paints most of his adversaries in a sympathetic and humane light.

Far from swashbuckling feats of extraordinary derring-do Ashenden’s world is full of blackmail and assassinations. A spy a la Maugham has lost his moral compass and is engaged in a life and death struggle, using whatever weapons or tactics that are available. There is no sense in the pages that Britain holds the moral high ground as is the case with Buchan. British operatives are no better or worse than their foreign counterparts.

Indeed, running through the pages is a wave of sympathy for those who might otherwise have been tagged as villains. A case in point is Guilia Lazzari who is blackmailed into luring her Indian nationalist lover, Chandra Lal, into France where the police will arrest him. On the horns of a dilemma Giulia finally agrees and Lal falls into the trap but is able to swallow some poison before falling into the hands of the British. Maugham’s narrative sympathises with Guilia and her plight whilst leaving Ashenden looking morally bankrupt.

Ashenden is not a novel per se but a series of interconnecting episodes and this is another distinguishing feature from many spy thrillers that had gone before and were to come. Not being plot led, Ashenden allows Maugham, a literary writer rather than a spy novelist after all, the room to develop his cast of characters. And what a collection they are. R is an enigmatic, matter-of-fact head of British Intelligence who despatches his charges to their uncertain futures with a cold, dispassionate warning; “there is just one thing I think you ought to know before you take this job. If you do well, you’ll get no thanks and if you get into trouble, you’ll get no help”.           

Then there is the Hairless Mexican, a flamboyantly ruthless hired gun prone to the occasional unfortunate error, the British ambassador with a surprising past, the traitor, George Caypor, a devoted family man with a loving German wife, Anastasia Alexandrovna, a woman about town and a committed revolutionary, and my favourite character of all, Mr Harrington, whom Ashenden meets on a long train journey across Russia.

Ashenden finds the American a bore but can’t help admire his determination to conclude some business deals with the then Kerensky regime. Harrington is flushed with success that he has had his contracts signed, but the following day the government falls, violence hits the streets of Petrograd and Harrington meets his end in tragi-comic circumstances. The moral of the story is never worry about your dirty washing.Dry, humorous, emotionally distant, Ashenden is poles apart from Richard Hannay but sets the new standard for spies.

An entertaining, if disjointed, read.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part One Hundred And Three

Sir Kenelm Digby (1603 – 1665)

Until the arrival of the glass bottle in the early 17th century, wine was stored and transported initially in amphorae, two-handled ceramic vessels lined with beeswax, favoured by the Phoenicians, ancient Greeks and Romans, and then barrels made from oak or pine, an idea prototyped by the Gauls for storing their beer and then adopted by the Romans with some gusto. The early glass bottles, developed by Venetian glassworks, turned out to be ideal for wine, offering a chemically neutral and airtight container. The problem was that the process was phenomenally expensive, the glass was very delicate and only the very rich could afford to have their wine stored in them.

For the English, the storage of wine was a very real problem. According to WineGB 15.6 million bottles were produced in England and Wales in 2018, but in days of yore the climate was not conducive to growing grapes of a quality to produce something vaguely drinkable. As a significant importer of wine, England had a significant incentive to find a handier way of storing the stuff.

This is where Sir Kenelm Digby comes in.

Digby was what one might call a larger than life character with a penchant for scrapes and adventures, a trait he inherited from his father, who was implicated in the Gunpowder Plot and was hung, drawn, and quartered for his troubles. He killed a man in a duel, had to fake his own death to escape the consequences of an affair with Marie de Medici, the widow of Henry IV of France, and operated for a while as a pirate. In December 1627, he won royal approval to take a ship bristling with guns into the eastern reaches of the Mediterranean, launching a successful attack on some French ships anchored in the Venetian port of Scanderoon on the Turkish coast. Returning in triumph in February 1628, Digby was dismayed to find that the authorities had to quickly disavow his actions for fear of reprisals on English merchants sailing in the Mediterranean.

With his tail firmly between his legs, Digby retreated to the calmer waters of Gresham College where, in the 1630s, he developed his interest in matters scientific and, particularly, alchemical. He developed a substance, the “Powder of Sympathy”, which was supposed to possess magical healing properties. It is said that he dosed up his wife, Lady Venetia, with the potion when she was ill. Alas, it didn’t work, she died, leaving Digby mortified.

In 1615 King James the First had ordered that England’s precious stock of timber be used for building ships rather than providing fuel for furnaces. Henceforth English furnaces were fired by coal, the consequence of which, for glass making, was that hotter temperatures were achieved, making for stronger glass. Sir Robert Mansell had perfected the technique for firing glass in coal furnaces and in 1623 was given a monopoly to set up glassworks, making his fortune.

By 1633 Digby was experimenting with glass production, when he received a visit from a former manager of Mansell’s glassworks, James Howell. Howell wanted Digby to apply some of his wondrous Powder on a wound he had sustained breaking up a duel. Astonishingly, the powder worked its magic and a friendship was forged.

The combination of Digby’s alchemical knowledge and Mansell’s technical expertise also worked wonders. They worked out that the heat of a furnace could be increased still further by using tunnels to draw in oxygen. They also saw that the higher the temperature, the stronger and thicker the glass. Within a couple of years Digby had perfected a technique for producing a bottle that was a characteristic dark green or brown in colour, all the better for protecting the wine from ultraviolet rays, with strong, thick glass walls and a distinctive punt, a conical depression at the bottom of the bottle which strengthened it at its weakest point.    

Under licence from Mansell, Digby opened a furnace in the Forest of Dean at Newnham-on-Severn, an area with a plentiful supply of coal, and cracked the problem of how to mass produce strong, cheap bottles. This type of glass was now strong enough to store wines with high internal pressure, making the production of drinks like champagne possible. It is still called by the French verre Anglais.

But misfortune dogged Digby. He fought as a Cavalier in the Civil War and was forced to flee the country when the Roundheads triumphed. His rivals were quick to claim the kudos for inventing his cheaper, stronger form of bottle. Following the Restoration, Digby got his just desserts in 1662 when Parliament awarded him a patent for his endeavours. He could claim his crown as the inventor of the modern wine bottle. Much good it did him as he died three years later.

To us Digby’s wine bottle would look odd, having a fat bottom and a short neck. Over time, though, modifications were made, reducing its bottom and extending the neck. In 1821, Ricketts of Bristol was awarded a patent for developing a machine which could knock out identically sized bottles of a shape that we would recognise today.

Next time you pour a glass of wine, raise a toast to Sir Kenelm Digby, rightly described by the biographer, John Aubrey, as “the most accomplished Cavalier of his time”.

If you enjoyed this, check out The Fickle Finger by Martin Fone, the stories of 50 inventors who had to fight to get their just desserts.

What Is The Origin Of (274)?…


The description, fly-by-night, is rarely, if ever, used in a positive sense. It conveys the sense of someone who performs a shoddy job or service, takes the money and disappears. There is an element of untrustworthiness or unreliability about them, especially when the term is used in conjunction with business matters.

The original usage of the word was to denote someone who actually did, or at least according to folk tradition, fly during the night, a witch and by extension, a pejorative term for an old woman. As always, the inestimable Francis Grose in his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1788 provides us with a fulsome definition; “You old fly-by-night; an ancient term of reproach to an old woman, signifying that she was a witch and alluding to the nocturnal excursions attributed to witches, who were supposed to fly abroad to their meetings, mounted on brooms”. Quite how ancient he does not hazard to guess, but as the identification of witches was particularly commonplace in the 17th and 18th centuries perhaps it dates to around that time.

Perhaps inevitably, the term was extended to include other types of women of ill-repute, in particular sex workers and, by extension, that part of their anatomy they traded. These definitions were provided by John Farmer and William Henley in their Slang and its Analogues Past and Present in 1893. They add other usages of the term including “a noctambulist for business or for pleasure; ie a burglar or a common spreester”. Would that noctambulist and spreester return to our daily vocabulary.

The idea that a fly-by-night was someone who was a ne’er do well who is quick to disappear appears to have been in circulation during the 19th century. It may have originated in sporting circles, appearing in John Bee’s Sportsman’s Slang, published in 1825. There Bee, the pseudonym of John Badcock, defines fly-by-night as “run-aways who leave empty houses”. It is tempting to speculate that they were forced into this rather desperate act on account of debts incurred with bookmakers. Farmer and Henley also include this definition – “a defaulting debtor; one who shoots the moon. Also applied to the act” – and, helpfully, provides a gloss on to shoot the moon; “to shoot (or bolt or shove) the moon; to remove furniture by night to prevent seizure for rent”. In other words, doing what we would call a moonlight flit.

There was, though, a third strand of meaning to the term, a carriage. The Morning Post in introducing the term to its readership on April 9, 1818, felt it necessary to define it and also indicate the part of the country in which it was used; “a species of carriage, which, in Gloucestershire, goes by the name of Fly by Night”. What we know as a fly was a light horse-drawn carriage used for public hire and was certainly on the streets of Brighton by 1816. Perhaps the good folk of Gloucestershire were more au fait with the latest modes of transport than others.

The Oxford English Dictionary in 1897 went on to explain the development of this vehicular term; “the name was gradually extended to any one-horse covered carriage, as a cab or hansom, let out on hire”. It was abbreviated in this context to the better-known fly which the OED noted “is generally applied to a vehicle hired from a livery-stable, and not plying for hire”.

Modern usage is restricted to the idea of fleeing the scene, like the defaulting tenant.    

Book Corner – March 2020 (3)

The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane

A strange book, this. It is undoubtedly powerful and was ground-breaking in its time but for all its classic status, it has been a staple in the syllabus of American literature courses and has never been out of print, I found it a tad dull.

Crane died tragically young at the age of 28. He was not a victim of the carnage of the American Civil War which is the canvas for this book but in a German sanatorium from tuberculosis in 1900. As he was born in 1871 Crane had no direct experience of the horrors of that particular war, although it is fairly certain that he interviewed and obtained eye-witness accounts from some who had fought.

It is not unusual these days for an author writing about war to have no specific personal experience, relying on primary sources from the time they are writing about and, if possible, accounts from surviving combatants. But at the time The Red Badge of Courage, in 1894, initially serialised in the Philadelphia Press, Crane’s lack of first-hand knowledge of warfare was something critics seized on. And the furore rumbled on, Hemingway sniffily remarked, “Tolstoi made the writing of Stephen Crane on the Civil War seem like the brilliant imagining of a sick boy who had never seen war but had only read the battles and chronicles and seen the Brandy photographs that I had read and seen at my grandparents’ house”.

This was Crane’s second book and, despite his critics, it was well received, making his name. Although he doesn’t specify the battle, it is thought that the action in the book centres around the Battle of Chancellorsville fought out in the northern part of Virginia between April 30 and May 6th. 1863. It was one of the bloodiest encounters of the war with some 24,000 casualties and was notable not only for victory for the Confederate army but also the death of Stonewall Jackson, hit by friendly fire and then succumbing to pneumonia eight days later.

The protagonist in Crane’s book is Henry Fleming, a young farmhand from New York State, who, against his mother’s wishes, and fired by a naïve form of patriotism, enlists for the Union forces. As one of what the gnarled veterans called “Fresh Fish” Fleming wonders how he will react when liberated from the grinding monotony of camp life he faces the enemy’s guns for the first time.

Indeed, whilst the battle serves as the backdrop to the book, much of the narrative concerns itself with Fleming’s mental turmoil; will he be brave and earn his red badge of courage (a battle wound) or will he turn tail and run? The book explores the fine line between cowardice and heroism and the fears and hopes of a novice soldier entering the fray for the first time. The battle scenes are written in an impressionistic style, there is little sense of the broad sweep of the battle but rather the narrative concentrates on those pockets of action that Fleming experiences.

Inevitably, as you would expect if you have ploughed through the first hundred pages or so, Fleming does turn tail and flee but his escape route takes him to the back of the Union line where he encounters the wounded who ask him uncomfortable questions about where he was hit. In a tragi-comic moment, Fleming watches one of his comrades and friends, Jim Conklin, struggling to keep marching whilst visibly dying from the wounds he has sustained. It dawns on Fleming that war is a particular form of hell, but his experiences persuade him to return to the frontline. Ironically, he does sustain his red badge of courage, but it is when one of his own side hits him on the head to get him out of the way.

In subsequent skirmishes Fleming plays a prominent role in the action, being the flag bearer and being instrumental in the capture of the enemy’s flag. Within his regiment Fleming attains hero status.

It is a thought-provoking book and is interesting in that it shines a light on the horrors of war a couple of decades before the brutal slaughter of the First World War began. Rather like military life there are long stretches of tedium in the narrative before a burst of action. I can see why it became a classic but I’m on Hemingway’s side.