What Is The Origin Of (202)?…


I’ve been spending a lot of time recently in Birmingham, England’s second city. The denizens have a a very distinctive accent, characterised by the flattening of vowels. There is a rather patronising joke, which I won’t repeat, that centres round the mistaking of a cup of tea for a kipper tie. A study, published in 2015, rather rudely suggested that if you had a Brummie accent, you would be best advised to keep quiet. The respondents rated it as the worst regional accent and that the flat vowels were suggestive of low intelligence.

Be that is it may, Brummie is an abbreviation of Brummagem which, in turn, was a variant for Birmingham. In the late 17th century, Birmingham was little more than a village but it came to national prominence and, dare I say it, notoriety because it was the centre for an extremely effective money counterfeiting operation.  Guy Miege observed in his The New State of England, published in 1691, that Birmingham was “particularly noted a few years ago for the counterfeit groats made here, and from hence dispersed over all over the Kingdom.

Soon Birmingham and its variant, Brummagem, became synonymous with forgeries and inauthentic goods. The industrial revolution saw a transformation in Birmingham’s size and fortunes, although the soot and noise that followed mass manufacturing at the time soon made its mark. Not for nothing was the area known as the Black Country. The city embraced canals and to this day has nine more miles of waterway, mostly all navigable, than that illustrious city more noted for its watery streets, Venice.

In 1862 George Borrow, in his tome Wild Wales, was inspired to call Birmingham “the great workshop of England” and it was certainly a hive of industry. But all the energy was not necessarily directed towards quality. Indeed, a sizeable part of its industrial output consisted of cheap plated goods, such as trinkets and gilt jewellery. The consequence was that the term brummagem once more became associated with things that were not all that they seemed, a bit common and tawdry.

Rees Howell Gronow’s rather grandiloquently entitled book, Reminiscences of Captain Gronow, formerly of the Grenadier Guards and MP for Stafford, being Anecdotes of the Camp, the Court, and the Clubs, at the close of the last War with France, related by himself, published in 1862, illustrates the point; “The equipages were generally much more gorgeous than at a later period, when democracy invaded the parks, and introduced what may be termed a ‘brummagem society,’ with shabby-genteel carriages and servants.”

The idea seems to have been transported to Australia – perhaps some of the groat counterfeiters ended up there – and Brummy is slang used to denote something which has been poorly manufactured or is flashy and not what it seems. And back home a Brummagem screwdriver is a hammer, perhaps immortalising the impression that the city’s workforce is cack-handed and not altogether skilled.

These days these connotations seem to have disappeared and Brummie and, to a lesser extent, are affectionate terms for the inhabitants of the city. The only fault the uncharitable find is with the accent.


Book Corner – October 2018 (3)

Circe – Madeline Miller

Every now and again I am asked to explain what relevance an education in the classics, by which I mean Roman and Greek culture and literature, may possibly have in the 21st century, bizarrely, perhaps, the latest being the rather desperate Classics faculty at Cambridge. It is easy to be flippant – the ability to think logically, crack problems, complete cryptic crosswords, logophilia – but the well of mythology is so deep, rich and so embedded in the fabric of Western thought and its literature, that it would be a crying shame if they were let go by default.

Part of the drive to give the classics modern relevance is to focus on and indeed boost the role of women. In my day, the diet was an unremitting one of men and gods. The number of women I encountered in my studies could be counted on the fingers of a rather cack-handed carpenter and they were mostly divinities. Women played a bit part, decorative, supportive, occasionally mad, bad and dangerous. But they were definitely second class citizens, just a notch above the slaves on the social scale.

It is hard other than to see Miller’s enjoyable novel, Circe, as part of this trend to assert the role of women. As Circe herself says at one point, “humbling women seems to be the chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and creep.” The fight back starts here. But in Homer’s Odyssey, Circe only plays a bit part, delaying Odysseus and his men by seducing the former and turning the latter into pigs and then within a few lines of the epic, they are all set free. Pretty thin gruel upon which to build a feast, you would, think, but one of Circe’s qualities is that she is well-connected.

The spinning wheel made by Daedalus looms large in Miller’s tale, used initially by Circe herself and then Penelope. By extension, as if she was weaving a garment, Miller creates a seamless tale intertwining the myths of some of Circe’s multitudinous family. So in her pages we meet Aeetes, Circe’s brother and keeper of the Golden Fleece – cue Jason – Pasiphae, her sister, wife of King Minos and mother of the Minotaur – cue Theseus – and Medea, Circe’s niece, Jason’s bride and killer of her brother, Absyrtus.

Exiled to a deserted island, Aiaia, for transforming her rival Scylla into a twelve-legged sailor-gobbling monster, Circe fills her time by developing her talents as a sorceress and taking on a string of paramours – Hermes, Daedalus, Odysseus (natch) and Telemachus, the itinerant hero’s son by Penelope. Miller draws from sources as disparate as Ovid, Homer and the lost epic, the Telegony, to create a finale where her son, Telegonus, by Odysseus, unwittingly fulfils Teiresias’ prophecy by being instrumental in his father’s death. The grief-stricken son brings Telemachus and Penelope to Aiaia where Telemachus and Circe hook up and Telegonus, at the goddess Athena’s prompting, leaves to found cities in Italy.

But the book’s key encounter occurs early on, when Circe meets Prometheus who is taken to Helios’ court to be flogged as a precursor to his more famous and eternal punishment. It is here that Circe learns about mortals, a subject which fascinates her, and as Miller’s tale unfolds we learn that the disdain in which Circe is held by her family is in part attributable to her voice, “thin sound”, that of a mortal. Circe’s peregrinations through Greek mythology are fuelled by her desire to understand mortals.

Miller has crafted a romp of a book. I found it less successful than her earlier The Song of Achilles but she has successfully transformed a Homeric bit player into a woman who knows her mind and is in control of her destiny. If you are looking for the relevance of classics today, you need look no further to the wealth of stories to be found in Greek mythology, each of which is capable of being crafted and transformed to meet the zeitgeist.

A La Mode – Part Twelve

Ellwood’s patent air chamber hat

There are many curious things about the Indian Raj, not least the Brits’ insistence on wearing clothing that was totally unsuitable for the climatic conditions to be found in the sub-continent.  Still, wearing a hat was a sensible precaution against what was quaintly known as coup de soleil or as we Brits now know it as, sunburn. The problem was that they were often made of fabrics and so designed that they left the wearer perspiring profusely.

Hat makers, J Ellwood and Sons, who were based in London’s Bankside, thought they had come up with an ingenious solution, which they patented in 1851. Founded in 1811 they had already made significant inroads into the lucrative Indian market from at least the 1840s by supplying officers of the East India Company with felt hats. But their air chamber hat was something else.

It consisted of an inner shell which fitted snugly on to the wearer’s head. There was also an outer shell which was considerably larger than the inner, thus creating a chamber between the two. The genius of the design was a number of perforations on the brim of the hat and a small aperture at the top. The idea was that as the external temperature rose, air would enter the hat through the perforations, circulate through the upper chamber and escape through the top of the crown. In this way there would be a constant flow of air which would keep the wearer cooler.

The principle could be applied to all sorts of hats, at least the adverts claimed, enabling the men who wore one “to do their duty with greater comfort.”  It seems to me there is one major flaw with the design. There is no allowance made for heat which rises directly from the wearer’s head into the inner chamber.  Given the hot and humid conditions in the tropics, the wearer is bound to sweat. This design flaw must have impacted upon the performance of the hat.

Be that as it may, the British Army bought the air chamber hats by the thousands. Having secured their patent and cornered the market, Ellwood’s were determined to defend their turf. Adverts for their hats warned against inferior copies and recommended any prospective purchaser to check that their headgear had the manufacturer’s name and details in the inside. Matters came to a head when The Times reported on 19th December 1864 that “Elwood’s solicitors…let it be known that they would proceed in Chancery against all persons manufacturing hats, caps or helmets constructed on the principle of Ellwood’s patent air chamber hats and helmets.” So there!

But there is only so much a manufacturer can do to protect their position and Ellwood’s soon came under threat from another source. Hawkes & Co entered the Indian market with some gusto, their opening effected by the British military’s desire, post the 1857 rebellion, to have a titfer more suited for the climate. Hawkes & Co patented a cork helmet with an air vent at the top and this was issued to all regiments serving in the sub-continent from the 1860s.

Ellwood’s never really recovered from this blow but soldiered on until 1938. Their former factory on Bankside was destroyed by bombs during the Second World War.

Still, for a time in the 1850s, an Ellwood’s patent air chamber hat was a la mode for the gentlemen of the Raj.

Double Your Money – Part Thirty Four

The Black Friday Gold Scandal, 1869

One of the (many) consequences of the American Civil War was that the United States moved off the gold standard – gold was at the time the official currency of international trade. In order to raise money to fund the Unions’ war effort Congress had authorised the issuance of $450 million government-backed greenbacks. Once the war had ended it meant that there were two competing currencies in circulation.

That there was only $20 million of gold in circulation at any one time and Wall Street had created a special Gold Room in which brokers could trade, Jay Gould thought he had found the perfect get-rich-quick scheme. If he could only corner the gold market, he would be able to drive up its price, sell at the height of the market and make a fortune.

There was one significant problem. Ulysses S Grant and his administration had a policy of buying up greenbacks with gold and such was the government’s pre-eminent position that it controlled gold prices and could thwart a speculator simply by selling off gold and driving its price down. For the scheme to work, Gould had to persuade the Government to abandon its policy.

The solution to that conundrum was simple and, in many ways, elegant. He simply bribed officials, in particular the President’s brother-in-law Abel Corbin, whose palm was greased with $1.5 million in gold. Suitably encouraged, Corbin used his political influence to have General Daniel Butterfield appointed as US sub-treasurer in New York. He too was given $1.5 stake in the scheme and a $10,000 loan, his role being to alert Gould to any imminent government gold sales. By the late summer of 1869 Corbin had succeeded in persuading Grant to abandon his policy of selling gold.

This was the signal that Gould and his co-conspirators were waiting for. They had been stockpiling gold during the summer but went into overdrive, using an army of brokers to buy up as much gold as they could. By mid-September they held as much as $60 million in gold – one of Gould’s partners, Jim Fisk, bought $7 million – and the price rocketed. Rumours spread that speculators were manipulating the market and pressure was exerted on the Treasury to take some action.

Corbin advised Gould that the President had rumbled them and was going to resume selling gold, information that Gould omitted to tell his partners. When trading resumed on 23rd September, Gould sold as much gold as he could and the price closed at $144.5. On Friday 24th September when trading resumed it reached $160 and Fisk was filling his boots, confident that the price would rise still further.

At midday, the President announced that the Treasury would sell $4 million of gold the next day. The reaction was cataclysmic or, as the New York Herald noted afterwards, “possibly no avalanche ever swept with more terrible violence.” Gold prices plunged, even the stock market took a dive, dropping 20% and bankrupting or severely damaging a number of old Wall Street firms in the process. Thousands of speculators were left ruined, foreign trade stopped and farmers saw the value of their crops halve.

As for the protagonists, Gould is said to have made around $12 million from his fire sale of his gold stock whilst Fisk was able to evade his massive losses by claiming that the trades were made by third party brokers without his knowledge. Despite numerous inquiries and claims of malfeasance, the array of lawyers they deployed and their political influence and network meant that the duo evaded justice. Grant’s presidency, though, was blighted by the affair and the American economy took some time to recover.

If you enjoyed this, look out for Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone,


What Is The Origin Of (201)?…

Grasp the nettle

I may as well grasp the nettle on this one and tackle it head on. When we grasp the nettle we tackle a difficult problem or situation with determination and vigour. An example of anything but grasping the nettle is the Government’s lamentable approach to extricating the United Kingdom from the European Union. But that is another issue.

Occasionally, I see the phrase expressed as grasp the mettle. Users are simply displaying their ignorance because it is simply a meaningless corruption of our phrase. Perhaps they are discombobulated by the image of someone deliberately wanting to touch Urtica Dioica, aka the stinging nettle. All will be explained later.

In the halcyon days of my youth when I wore short trousers and lived in the countryside, one of the (many) hazards of taking a stroll down the lanes near where I lived was inadvertently brushing one’s skin against the leaves of a nettle. The result was an irritating pain and a rash, caused by the pesky plant injecting toxins into the skin of its victim through its stiff, hollow hairs.

Fortunately, assistance was often at hand. Crushing and rubbing the leaf of a dock, which usually grew adjacent to a patch of nettles, on the affected area seemed to do the trick. Quite why, nobody seems to know. It may be that the dock leaf simply cools the inflamed area or that there are some antihistaminic properties contained within the leaf. Or it may simply be the power of a placebo.

It should come as no surprise in a country like England that was essentially rural, that the stinging properties of an inadvertent brush with a nettle were well-known. In 1578 John Lyly, in his didactic romance entitled Euphues, pointed out the perils of a pusillanimous approach to a nettle; “true it is Philautus that he which toucheth ye nettle tenderly, is soonest stung.” If you feel the need to grasp a nettle with your hand rather than cut it with a blade, you are best advised to grasp it firmly at the base of the plant where there are no or very few of those perilous hairs.

The correct way to handle a nettle was enshrined in verse in 1753 by Aaron Hill; “Tender-handed stroke a nettle/ and it stings you, for your pains:/ Grasp it like a man of mettle,/ and it soft as silk remains.” You will note that mettle appears in the verse and this may, if one is being overly generous, explain why it appears in the mangled version of our phrase.

Hill used it, almost certainly, because it rhymed with nettle, not to sow the seeds of confusion. Indeed, the origin of mettle is altogether different. It started out life as a variant of and interchangeable with metal. Naaman the Syria, his disease and cure, written by Daniel Rogers in 1642 illustrates the point; “then she shewes the metal she is made of….to try the spirit of men, of what mettle they are made of.”

Showing your mettle made its appearance as early as 1619 in John Fletcher’s Monsieur Thomas: “When did he ride abroad since he came over? What Tavern has he us’d to? What things done That shews a man, and mettle?”  By the 18th century the two words diverged in meaning, mettle being used to describe the disposition of someone’s character as this extract from the Free-Thinker of 1719 shows; “I like the Lady’s Wit and Mettle.  

So I show my mettle by grasping the nettle. Let’s consign grasping the mettle to the dustbin of history.

We Call Upon The Author To Explain (3)

Well, that was an interesting morning.

I’m pretty impressed with my new publisher. Thanks to the sterling efforts of Troubador’s Marketing Controller, Emily Castledine, she is managing to drum up some media interest for my new book, Fifty Scams and Hoaxes.

Following a Press Release, the Daily Mail and the Big Issue Ireland have asked for review copies. I must remember not to say “Bless you” when I pass one of the Issue sellers in future. But the piece de resistance, to date, was a request from BBC Surrey to attend their studios in Guildford for an interview to be featured on a forthcoming edition of their Breakfast Show.

After a nanosecond’s deliberation I agreed and arrangements were set for me to turn up at in good time this morning for a 10.15 pre-recorded interview. No stretch limo for me – I got there through a combination of the ever-reliable Shanks’s pony and the not so trustworthy South Western Railways.

I was parked in the green room – now, there’s a curious question; why is it so called? Oops, wrong book! – or what passed for it. It was actually a couple of red sofas in the corner of the general office which looked a bit like an aircraft hangar.

I was given a cup of coffee whilst my interviewer, co-host of the Breakfast show, Lesley McCabe, read the ten o’clock news. This gave me time to compose myself and to re-read the helpful interview preparation notes available on Troubador’s website.

It is too easy to over psych yourself up on occasions like these. It was time for a few deep breaths and to remember a piece of sage advice given to me many moons ago by a boss, that I would know far more about my chosen subject than anyone else present so what was there to worry about? And if you don’t know why you wrote the book and what it is about, perhaps you shouldn’t be addressing the great British public.

World and local affairs safely put to bed, Ms McCabe came out, greeted me and ushered me into a room. Her friendly style quickly put me at ease and after a sound level check, the tapes, or whatever their digital equivalents are, started rolling. Surprisingly, I was very comfortable behind the microphone and all my anxieties and fears of the previous twenty-four hours disappeared as I talked about the virtues of my book. It was all wrapped up in one take. The interview file was saved and that was it. Job done!

Of course, the proof of the interview is in the hearing but it didn’t feel like a car crash, Diane Abbott stylee.

I will post details of the interview if/when it sees the light of day. And on the way out I received news that TalkRADIO had booked me for next Tuesday afternoon, live this time.

Who said video killed the radio star?

For more details about Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone, visit https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/business/fifty-scams-and-hoaxes/ or https://wp.me/P2EWYd-37w

Book Corner – October 2018 (2)

Sister Carrie – Theodore Dreiser

I’m a great fan of these collections of the world’s greatest books that you can find to feed your Kindle for less than a pound. One that took my fancy was the grandiloquently titled One Hundred Eternal Masterpieces of Literature, although you actually need to buy both volumes to get the ton. As well as the usual suspects – I find it comforting to know that if I’m knocked down in the street, at least those who scoop me up will be impressed to see what I’m reading – the contents of your Kindle are the modern day clean pair of underpants, I feel – you can come across something that you might not otherwise have bothered with. Dreiser’s Sister Carrie falls into that category.

Published in 1900 by, according to Dreiser’s biographer, “a publisher who detested both the book and the author”, it met with mixed critical reaction and was condemned for its immorality and philosophy of despair. Others saw it is as the dawning of 20th century American literature, hailed by H L Mencken as capturing “the gross, glittering, excessively dynamic, infinitely grotesque, incredibly stupendous drama of American life.”

I found it a strangely compelling read, even though I found the main characters hard to empathise with and Dreiser’s prose unpolished and clunky, betraying his journalistic past. Perhaps Saul Bellow was right that it should be read at a gallop. But if you stick with it, you get a very powerful, closely observed picture of life in the booming Chicago of the late 1880s and early 1890s. This is not a story set in the refined salons inhabited by the upper classes a la Henry James. This is life in the raw and Dreiser paints a vivid picture of the drudgery, grind, hand to mouth existence that many who were chasing the American Dream had to endure.

Dreiser’s world vision is that essentially life is a Manichean struggle, leaving no room for any shade of grey. That this is the case is made pretty clear on the opening page; “When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse.”

The story tells of the rise of Carrie Meeber, the eighteen year old who leaves home to find her fortune, falls into the clutches of George Hurstwood, escapes and then makes her name as a theatrical star. But for all her riches, she is unfulfilled, her eyes having been opened to greater things by the slightly other worldly Mr Ames who told her that “riches were not everything; that there was great deal more in the world than she knew.

The counterweight to Carrie’s (eventual) rise is George Hurstwood’s decline into abject poverty and despair. I found his story much more compelling than Carrie’s and Deiser’s narrative shows the momentum of decline once poverty has you in its clutches. It was ever thus and will continue to be so. Deiser spares no details as he paints his picture of the desperation to find something to eat and somewhere to lay your head, an even more galling experience for someone who had previously been so proud and relatively well-off as George. His suicide is a merciful release.

Deiser’s rather priggish interjections can be a bit tiresome and his protagonists are not nuanced characters. But their rather black and white characteristics fit in with the tale he wants to tell and Deiser delivered what many consider to be America’s first naturalistic novel.

I’m glad I found it.