Book Corner – January 2020 (3)

The Incredulity of Father Brown – G.K Chesterton

Of the so-called Premier League detective fiction writers, I have found G.K Chesterton the hardest going. I persevere because, on the whole, he produces some well-written, satisfying stories. My problem, I think, is that they are heavily laced with the author’s Catholicism, something I could do without, and his pontifications can make the stories overlong.   

This book was published in 1926 and is a collection of eight stories, all featuring his unobtrusive priest-cum detective, Father Brown, and all but the first story, The Resurrection of Father Brown, having been published previously in Nash’s Pall Mall Magazine between 1924 and 1925, other than The Ghost of Gideon Wise which appeared in Cassell’s Magazine. The fact that most of the book has appeared elsewhere in short story form makes for a bit of a disjointed read. Brown is introduced, at length, to the reader each time and each story takes a bit of time to get going.

The Catholic priest has an unerring knack of being at the right place at the right time. Using his powers of observation and heightened sense of intuition, Brown solves a mystery which is beyond the ken of mere mortals. Father Brown is content to unmask the killer rather than see that justice is done. No one seems to be arrested or brought before the courts. Brown’s role is to provide a rationale for a series of events, some of which strain credulity, which have been set in train by a convoluted, some might say over-convoluted, plot. As Chesterton said in 1930, “the essence of a mystery tale is that we are suddenly confronted with a truth which we have never suspected and yet can see to be true”. That, in a nutshell, is what a Father Brown story is all about.   

There is also an element of the supernatural in the stories, a sense of forces or spirits which are operating at another level and impelling the unfortunate characters towards their doom. Brown, whilst acknowledging that there is such a thing as the devil and that miracles do happen, takes great delight in stripping a series of inexplicable events of their patina of the preternatural. The Catholic priest emerges as the least superstitious of the characters, perhaps Chesterton’s way of affirming the strength and veracity of the church.

Of the eight, my favourite was The Doom of the Darnaways, featuring a family curse which doomed the seventh heir at the seventh hour of the day. But all was not what it seemed, and the priest unravelled the mystery. I had read The Oracle of the Dog before and enjoyed it more second time round. Rather like Conan Doyle, Chesterton resurrects his sleuth in dramatic circumstances in the opening story but, unlike Conan Doyle, hadn’t bothered to kill him off in spectacular style in an earlier story. Opening a collection of stories with the death of your hero is always an anticlimactic way to go.

What makes Chesterton’s stories for me is his use of language and his wit. I enjoyed his portrayal of the Manichaean forces of capitalism and bolshevism in The Ghost of Gideon Wise. And as an opening to a story, The Arrow of Heaven, you can’t get better than this; “It is to be feared that about a hundred detective stories have begun with the discovery that an American millionaire has been murdered; an event which is, for some reason, treated as a sort of calamity.” Quite.

Game Show Of The Week

There was me thinking that the apogee of the British TV game show was the final of the second series of The Voice UK in 2013 which visually impaired chanteuse, Andrea Begley, won. We had a show which started out with four judges who couldn’t see the singers being won by a singer who couldn’t see the judges.

But I hadn’t taken into account ITV’s latest horror, The Masked Singer, which I had the misfortune to encounter last Saturday, based on the South Korean singing competition, King of Mask Singer. From what I could make out, we have a panel of four celebs I had barely heard of seeking to identify a singer wearing a mask, who I had certainly never heard of, whose performance the audience had deemed to be the worst of the lot.

I won’t make it to the final but the point, if indeed it can be so-called, of the show is for the winner to preserve their anonymity. The logical conclusion, therefore, is that they will not be identified when they win, perhaps ensuring that they won’t have an indelible stain on their CV for ever more.       

And we wonder why we are in the state we are in.

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

Ian Shanks (1948 – present)

Whilst a laudable idea in principle, patents, which give the inventor some time to exploit the fruits of their inventive streak without giving them an everlasting monopoly, can be fraught with difficulties and often the only winners seem to be the legal profession. One area of difficulty is who owns the patent when an employee invents something during the course of their employment and, even if they concede ownership of the patent, are they entitled to a share of the profits made by the invention, over and above their normal employment benefits? The case of Ian Shanks has done much to clarify this grey area, in the UK at least.

I am a bit of an aichmophobe and so I have the greatest admiration for diabetics who regularly puncture their skin with a needle to get their shot of insulin or to test their glucose levels. If it was a matter of life or death, I am sure I would overcome my fear, it is only a state of mind, after all. Undeniably, though, what has helped diabetics immeasurably is the nifty little glucose testing kit which has simplified the process and improved the accuracy of the readings. This was the brainwave of Scottish scientist, Ian Shanks.   

Shanks was already a leading scientific pioneer, publishing the first paper on 3D televisions and being at the forefront of the development of liquid crystal display (LCD) technology. Around the summer of 1982 he wondered whether he could deploy LCD technology to make some form of biosensor. If you could suck a liquid, blood, for instance, between two glass plates and coat one of the plates with a material that broke up the molecules you wanted to measure, say glucose, then you should be able to measure its concentration.

Using the glass slides from his daughter’s toy microscope, Shanks played around with his idea until he had developed a working model. Excited by his discovery, he had the prototype for a cheap, pain-free device to test glucose levels, he took it to his employers at the time, Unilever. As Shanks was their employee, Unilever took ownership of the idea and filed for a patent, which was granted. And then they did nothing.

Grudgingly, in the 1990s Unilever began to sell off licences relatively cheaply to other companies to manufacture and sell the glucose sensors. They revolutionised the lives of diabetics but, for reasons best known to themselves, Unilever had missed the boat, earning around £24 million from the licences rather than a billion or so they would have amassed if they had taken the trouble to market and distribute the device themselves. As for Shand, apart from his salary and employment benefits, he got nothing and he wasn’t happen.

Now Section 40 of the Patents Act 1977 enters our story. Under this piece of legislation an employee, who invents something from which their employer derives an “outstanding benefit”, is entitled to a “fair share”. Suitably vague wording, a clause described by an Appeals judge as drafted “on Friday night and after closing time”, it nonetheless offered Shand some hope. He sued his employers and after many a knockback, it took him thirteen years to get justice, in October 2019 the Supreme Court found in his favour.

Lord Kitchin, in his judgment, opined that the rewards Unilever enjoyed “were substantial and significant, were generated at no significant risk, reflected a very high rate of return and stood out in comparison with the benefit Unilever derived from other patents”. Their lordships awarded Shand £2 million. He had got there in the end. The first award made under section 40 was not made until 2010.

Millions of diabetics around the world owe a great debt of gratitude to the genius of Shand.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone

And look out for The Fickle Finger, now available in e-book format.

What Is The Origin Of (264)?

Waiting for dead men’s shoes

Workplaces were much more structured and hierarchical when I started out on my career. I remember that in order to move up to the next meaningful step in the ladder, you had to have a certain number of years’ service or have attained a certain age, as if either factors had much to do with whether you could do the job. The other problem was that there were strict caps on the numbers of employees on any particular grade so, even if you qualified on the grounds of experience or age, you had to wait for an opening to crop up. These only materialised if someone else was promoted, left, was fired or died in harness. It was extremely frustrating for young guns who thought they were the bee’s knees.

In such a situation, you might describe yourself as waiting for dead men’s shoes, promotion not being solely down to your merits, or otherwise, but achieved only when someone to retire or die so you can take their place or, in a figurative sense, step into their shoes. It was a forlorn and frustrating situation to find oneself in and must have been even more so in days gone by when there was no retirement age and people only relinquished their position when they were carried out in a box.

The origins of the phrase go back until at least the 16th century and it is clear from the contexts in which it was used that there was little sympathy for anyone who found themselves in such a situation. Indeed, the explicit message was that you use your time much more profitably by doing something else. In 1562 the English playwright and epigrammatist, John Heywood, published his Dialogue contaynyng the number of the effectuall prourbes in the Englishe tounge. There we find, “who waitth for dead men shoen, shall go long barefoote”.  

A variant of this phrase, slightly more grandiloquent but the result is the same, appeared in Old Meg of Herefordshire for a Mayd-Marian from 1609; “it were no hoping after dead mens shooes, for both vpper-leather and soles would bee worne out to nothing”. And in The Independent from Wexford on July 14, 1847, in an article full of advice in proverbial form, we are told “he who waits for a dead man’s shoes may have to go for a long time barefoot”.

Twentieth century variants included “he who waits for a dead mans shoes may get cold feet” (Evening Telegraph and Post, September 1, 1913) and “while waiting for a dead man’s shoes you could probably earn a better pair” (The Pall Mall Gazette, April 7, 1916). How pathetic a practice it is was encapsulated by The Daily Mail from Hull on January 16, 1932; “the man or woman who waits for dead man’s shoes, or who lives in the future, is a most pathetic figure”. These days when the phrase is used the consequences of such action or the pejorative sense of the phrase is omitted.

Corporate and management structures a re much flatter these days which means, in theory at any rate, that opportunities are less restricted for genuine talent and that promotion is not dependent upon placeholders shuffling off elsewhere. Whether that is a good thing, of course, is another matter entirely.    

Book Corner – January 2020 (2)

The Measure of Malice – edited by Martin Edwards

In these days of DNA testing and face recognition technology, it is hard to comprehend how the tools and techniques available to detectives, whether professional or amateur, have increased and improved by leaps and bounds over the last century. The indefatigable curator of detective stories that Martin Edwards has assembled an anthology of fourteen stories, the organising theme being the use of scientific, quasi-scientific and forensic techniques to solve a seemingly insoluble crime. The results are not only entertaining, with a couple of exceptions, but also serve to remind us that the guardians of the law were often operating with one hand tied behind their back.

The oddest piece of pseudo-science appeared in CE Bechhofer Roberts’ 1926 story of murder amongst the Italian scientific community, The English Filter. The idea behind optography is that the retina retains, rather like a photographic plate, the image of what it has seen. If you could interrogate the retina of the victim of a murder you would be able to see the image of what he last saw, the murderer. And, lo and behold, after ruining one of the eyes they were able to and the case was solved.  

The prize for the most irritating detective in the collection goes to Ernest Dudley’s Dr Morelle in the Case of the Chemist in the Cupboard. To say he is a male chauvinist pig is to put it mildly and it is a great shame that he wasn’t the murderer’s victim. I also found H C Bailey’s The Broken Toad a tad overlong. I’ve always found Reggie Fortune a bit of an acquired taste and whilst it is better than some of the short stories featuring him I have read, it was one of the weaker ones in the anthology.

As usual in an Edwards’ collection, Conan Doyle opened the batting with a Sherlock Holmes’ case, The Boscombe Valley Mystery. It is not one of Doyle’s finest but is serviceable enough and gets the book off to a reasonable start. Footprints in the soft ground and Holmes’ encyclopaedic knowledge of cigar ash – he wrote a monograph on the differences between the ash of 140 types of cigar, don’t you know? – help unmask the murderer, although, frankly, it was pretty self-evident.

The Horror of Studley Grange, by the crime writer and surgeon combo of L T Meade and Clifford Halifax, was a bit of a romp and more of a horror or ghost story than of crime. It was entertaining enough as was C J Cunliffe Hyne’s The Third Smoker where the shape of the lethal wound provided the clue to unmasking the villain. I also enjoyed Anthony Wynne’s The Cyprian Bees. An especially venomous strain of bee is used to commit a murder, the ingenuity of the plan, though, is not sufficient to defeat Dr Hailey.

A Dorothy L Sayer story is always a treat and Lord Peter Wimsey is on form in In The Teeth of the Evidence, using the skills of his dentist forensically to crack the case. Wimsey is a marmite figure to many, but I enjoy the dash of humour that comes with him. The most recent story, as recent as 1955, is Freeman Willis Croft’s The New Cement in which Inspector French’s knowledge of chemistry foils an assassination attempt and unmasks the culprit.

These are the stories which piqued my interest, but the others were all passable in their different ways. The joy of anthologies like this is that there is always something for everyone, an opportunity to discover new writers, and, if you can’t get on with one story, there is always another.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Thirty Three

William Mumler and the Spirit Photographs

There is a thin line between a hoax, a fraud and an innocent mistake that gets out of hand. Into which category the curious case of William Mumler and his spirit photographs falls, I will leave you to decide.

William was working as a jeweller in Boston, dabbling in photography as a hobby. In 1861, after printing off a portrait of himself, he noticed what seemed to be the shadowy figure of a young girl behind him. He thought it must have been an accident, the vestiges of an image of an earlier photo that was still on the plate, but friends, when he showed them the picture, identified the wraith as Mumler’s dead cousin.

Word of the remarkable photograph soon got around and was pounced upon by the spiritualist community. The tragic death toll of the Civil War meant that interest in the paranormal was never greater, grieving relatives wanting to get in touch with their lost loved ones. Spiritualists in the Boston area quickly proclaimed Mumler’s photograph as the first ever taken of a spirit.

Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Mumler set up shop as the world’s first spirit photographer and did a roaring trade. During the course of the 1860s he took thousands of photographs, all with a characteristic grainy wraith in the background. The greatest showman, PT Barnum, never one to miss a trick, displayed several of Mumler’s photographs in his American Museum.

As Mumler amassed his fortune, more conventional photographers poured scorn on his work, accusing him of blackening the reputation of the nascent profession. Even the spiritualist community was divided, some claiming that the photographs were frauds, even suggesting that some of the so-called spirits were not only still alive but also bore a remarkable similarity to some of the subjects of Mumler’s earlier photographs. Nevertheless, there were still enough people desperate enough to try to contact loved ones from beyond the grave to give him a healthy income.

Mumler’s troubles, though, began in 1869 when he moved to New York. Despite moving he couldn’t shake off the allegations of fraud and after the local Police Department sent an undercover agent to have his portrait taken. Sure enough, a wraith appeared in the background. The Police launched a case against Mumler for fraud.

The trial pitted supporters of spiritualism and sceptics against each other and caused a minor sensation. Some photographers testified that what Mumler was doing using a technique called double exposure, superimposing one image on top of another. The photographer, Abraham Bogardus even produced an example, a portrait of PT Barnum with the gjostly image of Abraham Lincoln behind him.              

But for every naysayer, there was a believer prepared to speak out on behalf of Mumler. In a rather touching testimony Paul Bremond, who lost his daughter in August 1863, told the court that “she told me when she died that if I were permitted she would return to me from the spirit land. By this photograph I see that she has returned”. The court were prepared to give Mumler the benefit of the doubt and acquitted him. He continued his business, producing perhaps his most famous photograph, in 1871, of Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghostly image of her dead husband, Abraham, embracing her. It is claimed that she introduced herself to the photographer as Mrs Lindall.

Mumler’s business never really recovered from the court case and he gave up spirit photography in 1879. He did, however, invent the Mumler process which allowed the first photographs to be printed on newsprint, revolutionising the look and feel of journalism for ever. But by the time he took his own place in the spirit world in 1884 he was penniless.

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

What Is The Origin Of (263)?…

Put on your thinking cap

If you are about to engage upon the lengthy consideration of a question or a problem, particularly when you might be thought to require some inspiration or guidance, you might be encouraged to put on your thinking cap. This metaphorical cap presumably warms the little grey cells in your brain ensuring a more considered opinion or the right answer, if you are endeavouring to crack what Sherlock Holmes called a three-pipe problem.

This metaphor has been around since at least the seventeenth century, although the cap in question was a more satisfyingly alliterative considering cap. The English comic writer and actor, Robert Armin, used the term in his Foole upon foole, published in 1605, thus; “The Cobler puts off his considering cap, why sir, says he, I sent them home but now”.   

Perhaps the most famous considering cap was the one described in The History of Little Miss Goody Two-shoes, an anonymous work published by John Newbery in 1765. In a chapter entitled The Whole History of the Considering Cap, the author describes a considering cap possessed by a Mrs Margery which was “almost as large as a Grenadier’s, but of three equal Sides; on the first of which was written, I MAY BE WRONG; on the second, IT IS FIFTY TO ONE BUT YOU ARE; and the third; I’LL CONSIDER OF IT”. Whoever had it was encouraged “whenever he found his Passions begin to grow turbulent, and not to deliver a Word whilst it was on”. It was also described as “an universal Cure for Wrong-headedness”.    

This figurative use of a cap has prompted some to speculate as to whether it has its roots in practice. Judges did put on caps to pass sentence, at one time for all cases, not just those involving the death sentence. But, methinks, the deliberation had been completed before the headwear was donned. Others point to the fact that in the 16th and 17th centuries the educated classes, those who practised law or taught, often wore caps. Perhaps, they surmise, the uneducated, working classes thought that the headwear enabled them to think more clearly. We are in the realms of speculation and, perhaps, the idea is no more than that the cap helps to keep the head warm and thus ensures that the brain has an environment conducive to thinking clearly.

The, to my mind, less satisfactory, phrase thinking cap appears to have appeared early in the nineteenth century, at least in the printed page, in America, possibly by way of Ireland. The Western Carolinian, on October 16, 1821, exhorted the editor “to put his thinking-cap on, before he hazards another such assertion”. My reason for suggesting an Irish connection is this quotation from the Enniskillen Chronicle and Erne Packet from November 18, 1824; “if thou art not wise enough to take a hint from these proverbs, thou mayest put on thy thinking cap again to guess at my intentions”. Irish migrants took more than their good selves to the Americas.        

Back in America the Kenosha Times from Wisconsin in July 1857 wrote, “this tendency is a very good thing as the safeguard of our independence from the control of foreign power, and it obliges every man to keep his thinking cap on”. It is this version of the phrase that has found favour to this day. That said, I shall use considering cap from now on, in the event I ever need to think deeply about anything, which, somehow, I doubt.