What Is The Origin Of (294)?…


Comedy comes in all shapes and sizes, from the erudite to the crude. At the far extreme of the comedy spectrum is slapstick, a form of knockabout humour, often featuring horseplay, exploiting ridiculous situations and carrying the menace of violence. In the hands of masters of the form, like the Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy and more recently Rowan Atkinson in the guise of Mr Bean, as well as that seaside favourite, The Punch and Judy show, it can be an effective and amusing form of comedy, more so than the politically correct, virtue signalling, diatribes that pass as comedy now.

The origin of the word is straightforward. In the period between the 16th and 18th centuries, one of the dramatic forms that flourished, initially in Italy. Possibly in Venice, and then through other European countries was the Commedia dell’Arte. It was known over here as Italian comedy. A mix of scripted dialogue and improvisation, it featured stock characters, each with their distinctinctive costumes. The harlequin, known as Arlecchino, carried a stick with which to assault some of the other players.

When physical assaults on actors were considered to be a breach of even the rudimentary ‘elf and safety standards that prevailed at the time, assaults were mimed, and the accompanying sounds were created backstage. To achieve that satisfying whacking sound, a device was developed, consisting of two flat pieces of wood, joined together at one end. It made a glorious noise and was given a vaguely onomatopoeic name, the slapstick.

As it was normally deployed in pantomimes and other forms of what were termed as “low comedies”, the name of the instrument was attributively given to that type of drama, sometimes used adjectively with the addition of comedy. A rather lukewarm review of a play called The Kindergarten appeared in The Cincinnati Enquirer on April 27, 1885; “as a satire we must in justice pronounce it a failure, but as the vehicle for the introduction of lots of fun of the slap-stick order the “thing” jogs along as merrily as the old one-horse shay”.     

The temptation to enhance the sound produced by a slapstick was sometimes too much for enterprising showmen to resist, occasionally with unintended and potentially lethal results. The Chicago Sunday Tribune on May 31, 1908, reported an incident involving a clown, James Balno, at New York’s Hippodrome. “A slapstick with a blank cartridge between the boards”, it noted, “was to be used in the act, and to test it Balno struck it against the edge of a door. The cartridge exploded and a piece of the metal shot into Balno’s shoulder, severing an artery”. Balno lived to tell the tale.  

By the start of the 20th century the word was beginning to be used as a noun to describe a farce or a piece of drama that relied on physical humour. The New York Times, on May 1, 1904, reported that “boys have laughed at their slapsticks, literal and linguistic”. The composer, Gustav Mahler, gave the slapstick an air of respectability when he scored an appearance for it in the original version of his Sixth Symphony.

As early as the second decade of the 20th century, the demise of slapstick was being signalled, the Albuquerque Evening Herald, on August 29, 1912, reporting the views of a movie actor, John Bunny, had him opining that “comic cinematograph scenes will hereafter turn from the prevailing style of slapstick humour towards the subtler laugh”. Mercifully, he was wrong.

Book Corner – August 2020 (1)

The Death of Mr Lomas – Francis Vivian

Francis Vivian was the nom de plume of Arthur Ashley, a Nottinghamshire-based painter and decorator until, in 1932, he turned his hand to writing popular fiction. The Death of Mr Lomas, published in 1941, is the first book in which he introduced to his readership his most famous detective creation, Inspector Gordon Knollis. There were ten Knollis stories in all, the last published in 1956.

Vivian was an inveterate collector of information, he was an expert on bee keeping, for example, and he could not resist sharing his love of the arcane with his readers. He was also known as playing fair, the attentive reader could always crack the problem from the data that had been given during the course of the narrative. Knollis would never pick up on a clue that had not been disclosed before. This technique makes for a satisfying read as you pit your wits against the Inspector and wait with anticipation for the end to see whether you had indeed fingered the culprit and understood how it was all done.

Vivian’s books were also noted for their fiendishly complicated plots and The Death of Mr Lomas is no different, a panoply of characters drifting in and out of the narrative. The book also touches on a couple of slightly surprising elements, cocaine dealing and cross-dressing, echoing Ethel Lina White’s Wax and Moray Dalton’s The Strange Case of Harriet Hall. The sensitive modern reader should be aware that Vivian does lapse into casually racist language at times in often the most surprising contexts, for example in this book when describing the colour of a pair of curtains.  

One day the Chief Constable of Burnham, Sir William Burrows, a bluff, blustering character, receives a visit from a respectable shopkeeper, Mr Lomas. Lomas shocks Burrows by claiming that he is being poisoned without being able to substantiate his fears. The policeman sends him away, suggesting that he is suffering from a nervous disorder. Later that night Lomas’ body is found in the river. He had consumed a lot of whisky that night, but the spirit had been adulterated with cocaine. Even more astonishingly, Lomas, who had a flourishing beard complete with moustaches, was clean shaven.

We find Knollis at home spending a quiet evening with his wife, both reading books, when he is disturbed with news of the murder. The discomforted Chief Constable relays to his Inspector the contents of the unusual interview he had had with Lomas. There is no doubt who is in charge of the investigation and there is a running joke throughout the narrative whenever the pair meet, the Chief struggling to identify the Emsworth that Knollis alludes to.

Knollis’ modus operandi is to work through the problem methodically, navigating his way through a rather convoluted series of events, some twists threatening to send him down a blind alley. The ending, given the stately progress of the rest of the book, seemed to me to be a tad rushed and melodramatic. However, all in all it was an entertaining read with flashes of humour, where the focus was solely and simply on the solving of the crime. Too many veer off to give us a rounder picture of the principal characters. This is a no-nonsense whodunit and all the better for it.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Forty Six

Rudolph Fentz, the accidental time traveller, 1950

Occasionally, I allow myself the luxury of fantasising about being a time traveller. I find it interesting to speculate what life would really be like at some time in the past or, indeed, in the future. This was the premise behind the successful TV drama, Dr Who, which has been going long enough to suggest that others are fascinated by this fantasy. Of course, I realise that it is the stuff of science fiction and there are little or no grounds to think that it could ever be achieved, but you never know. Take the curious case of Rudolph Fentz.

Around 11.15pm in the middle of June 1950, a strange figure appeared in the centre of New York’s Times Square. He cut quite a dash, wearing a tall silk hat, a tight coat and waistcoat. But it was his thick mutton-chop sideburns and his expression of bewilderment, as if he had never seen buildings so tall or such density of traffic or traffic lights. He seemed frightened by the experience and ran into the middle of the road, straight in front of one of the Big Apple’s famous yellow taxis and was killed outright.

When the police examined his body, they found in his pocket a stock of business cards identifying him as Rudolph Fentz with an address on Fifth Avenue. More astonishingly, Fentz was carrying in his pocket a copper token redeemable for a beer worth five cents at a bar no one had heard of, round $70 in old bank notes, an invoice for the ”feeding and stabling of one horse” at a stable on Lexington Avenue that was unknown, a letter dated June 1876 from Philadelphia, and a medal for coming third in a three-legged race. None of these artefacts showed any evidence of ageing. It was all a mystery. Just who was Fentz and where had he come from?

Captain Hubert Rihm from NYPD’s Missing Persons Department began to make enquiries. Fentz’s fingerprints were not on record and he was not known at the address on his business card. Rihm did get a breakthrough, finding the name, Rudolph Fentz Jr, in a phone book. He rang the number, only to find out that he had died around 1945, but that his wife was still alive.

What Fentz Jr’s widow had to reveal, though, was truly astonishing. Her father-in-law, Rudolph Fentz Sr, had disappeared without trace in 1876, leaving his house for an evening constitutional and never returning. Rihm checked the description of Fentz and the clothing he wore at the time of his disappearance and they tallied. The case was closed, marked as unsolved.

For paranormalists, though, the astonishing disappearance and reappearance of Fentz after seventy years, fresh as a daisy without any apparent ageing, was proof positive that man could time travel. What might have appeared to be an astonishing news story didn’t appear in any of the papers at the time and only gained currency when the Journal of Borderlands Science published an account in its May/June 1972 edition. The story then took off, cited in several articles, books and on the internet as factual, including, in 2000, in the Spanish magazine, Más Allá. This prompted Chris Auckleck, a bit of a spoilsport, to dig further.

What Auckleck discovered was that, surprise, surprise, there was no basis for believing that the Fentz had any basis in fact. He discovered a short story by the science fiction writer, Jack Finney, he of Invasion of The Body Snatchers and Time and Again fame, published in Collier’s magazine on September 15, 1951. The story, narrated by a police officer, Captain Rihm, tells of a 19th century man, named Fentz, making an unexpected appearance in Times Square.

Fentz’s time travelling was little more than a literary hoax, a clever one nonetheless, seized upon by those desperate for evidence that substantiated their theories. Time travel is just a pleasant fantasy, it would seem.

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


What Is The Origin Of (293)?…

Neither fish nor flesh

Rather like the later phrase, betwixt and between, neither fish nor flesh and its alternative formulation, neither fish nor fowl, means something that is indeterminate or difficult to classify, something that is neither one thing nor another.

For Christian folk, at least until the schism between Catholics and Protestants, fasting was part of their religious observances. During Lent and on every Friday throughout the year, they were meant to restrict their intake to one full meal which excluded meat. It was therefore of importance to determine what fell into what category and the ecclesiastical authorities helpfully categorised foodstuffs into flesh, meaning the flesh of land animals, fish and fowl. Thomas Aquinas, writing in his influential Summa Theologica in the 13th century, summed up the church’s attitude to meat. As animals were more like man in body, they gave greater pleasure as food and were, therefore, inimical to the purpose of fasting, namely “to bridle concupiscences of the flesh”.

Over time, though, what constituted a fish, particularly important to those following a pescatarian diet during Lent, became more open to interpretation. The Bishop of Quebec, in the 17th century, decreed that a beaver, of which there was a plentiful supply in the area, were fish and as recently as 2010 the Bishop of New Orleans advised his flock that “alligator is considered in the fish family”. These vagaries of classification gave rise to our phrase.

However, the earliest recorded instance of its usage, to describe Cardinal Wolsey and the Catholic clergy in a satire entitled Rede me and nott be wrothe for I say no thynge but trothe by William Roy and Jerome Barlow in 1528, is as an insult; “whom they call Doctour Standisshe/ wone that is neither fleshe nor fisshe/ at all tymes a comen lyer”. The transposition of the terms is merely to preserve the rhyme. I suspect Henry Standish, one time Bishop of St Asaph, was singled out because of the rhyming quality of his surname.

The epigrammatist, John Heywood, provided an extended version of the phrase in his A dialogue conteinying the number in effect of all the prourbes in the englishe tongue, published in 1546. There he records, “she is nother fishe nor fleshe nor good hearyng”. Apparently, herring cured in saltpetre turns a reddish colour.

One of Shakespeare’s best characters, in my humble opinion, is the bluff and boastful, John Falstaff. In Henry IV Part 1, Act 3, scene 5, when discussing the charms and qualities of mine hostess of the Boar’s Head Tavern, Mistress Quickly, he compares her with a beast. When asked by the concerned Quickly which beast, we are treated to this exchange, Prince Hal making up the threesome; “Falstaff: What beast? Why an Otter. Prince: An otter sir John, why an otter? Falstaff: Why? Shees neither fish nor flesh, a man knows not where to haue her”. Interestingly, Shakespeare plays on the fluid status in the theological system of the taxonomy of creatures that look animals but spend a good proportion of their time in the water. The Bishop of Quebec may have taken note.

A later development, perhaps, of the phrase was to turn into an expression denoting the making of an invidious choice or to show partiality by adding or implying the verb to make to it. A correspondent to the Fife Free Press on December 3, 1892 has been outraged by the decision to arraign a draper, one Mr Skinner, for displaying his goods on the pavement. “Why should”, he fumed, “they pounce upon any one individual to make a test case of, while others, who offend more heinously, are allowed to continue unmolested? This, however, is generally the way in Kirkcaldy, Fish of one, flesh of another”.         

These days, though, we talk of neither fish nor fowl b ut the principle and the original derivation is the same.

Book Corner – July 2020 (5)

The Batch Magna Caper – Peter Maughan

I find the best antidote to difficult times is to immerse yourself in a bit of light-hearted escapism and Maughan’s Batch Magna series, there are five in all, fits the bill admirably. This is the third of the series and whilst it avoids third album syndrome, I didn’t find it as good as the earlier two. Perhaps that is down to the introduction of characters extraneous to the quirky, motley crew who inhabit the sleepy village of Batch Magna, nestling on the banks of the river Cluny, half in Wales and half in Shropshire.

On opening the book, the reader is in for a bit of a shock. Instead of finding themselves in the heart of the countryside, the reader is taken to a shady pawnbroker’s shop where a gang of criminals, incompetent, naturally, and an unlikely mix of characters, are plotting a wages snatch on an engineering firm in Shrewsbury. They anticipate getting away with £100,000, still a tidy sum in the 1970s. As there is no honour amongst thieves, though, each member of the gang has their own plans to run off with the whole of the loot.

The raid takes place, news of it makes the front page of the local papers and even percolates into the consciousness of the residents of the Batch Magna. The carefully worked out getaway plan misfires and the money ends up in Batch Magna, triggering a farcical comedy of errors as various members of the gang try to recover it, whilst at the same time trying to do down their colleagues, and when the money is found in an outhouse of the Manor, the locals, who cannot resist a gossip and making two plus two equal five, think that the American lord of the manor, the flamboyant Sir Humphrey Strange, call me Humph, is the mastermind behind the operation, obviously he must have Mafia connections, and try their best to protect his reputation.

If you have criminals, you must have the police and a pretty inept lot they are. They regularly call in at the Manor to sample Shelly’s renowned hot dogs, a source of consternation to the gang, but they are too interested in feeding their faces to spot what is going on under their noses. The case is solved at a Civil War re-enactment in the grounds of the Manor in Ealing Comedy style by the downtrodden female sergeant, the fiancée of the incompetent Inspector Worth, much to his chagrin as he has made a point of eschewing traditional police methods in favour of modern psychological techniques.

The characters we have met before are all there, the Commander with his collection of glass eyes decorated for all occasions and his wife, Priny, who are moving off the water to live on dry land, Owain and Annie Owen, Humph, his wife Clem, and his mother, Shelly, Jasmine and her brood of children and, of course, the rouê that is Phineas Cook. Phineas manages, on a drunken night, to get engaged to the female police sergeant and both spend much of the book trying to disentangle themselves from the unsuitable arrangement.

Maughan does a sterling job in pulling all these strands together and there are genuine moments of farcical comedy interspersed with sharp observations of human nature. I did find, though, that the large cast and the competing themes and sub plots meant that the gentler innocence of the earlier books and the opportunity to immerse yourself in the trivia and petty squabbles of the carefree inhabitants of Batch Magna were somewhat lost. It was a brave decision by Maughan to deviate from a tried and tested formula. It did work but made for a less enjoyable book.