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.

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.    

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Thirty Seven

The Kittanning baldness epidemic of 1926

Even at my age I’m blessed with a full head of hair, although it is going a rather distinguished shade of grey at a faster rate than I would have hoped. Fortunately, baldness is not really on my radar screen, but I can imagine the horror when chaps, particularly at the younger end of the age spectrum, realise that the top of their head is beginning to be exposed to public gaze. There, but for the grace of God, go I.

On January 17, 1926 the New York Times ran a story from their correspondent in the Pennsylvanian town of Kittanning which would have put the willies up all young men with a full head of hair. Headlined “mysterious germ makes 300 bald”, its leading sentence reported that “a strange malady, which so far has defied diagnosis by physicians and scalp experts is rapidly denuding the heads of the town’s young men of hair”. A meeting of doctors, it reported, had claimed that they had upwards of 300 men between the ages of 19 and 30 reporting signs of premature baldness.

The cause of the sudden loss of hair was not known, barber’s itch, some form of ringworm or other scalp disease often spread by unsterilized barber’s equipment, was ruled out, and the medics advised the young men not to wear hats, to expose their heads to the rays of the sun, and to apply plenty of elbow grease to their scalps. And there was me thinking that men wore hats because they were bald, not that wearing a hat made them bald.

The story crossed the States and was picked up by the Los Angeles Times which two days later, and acknowledging the New York Times as their source, reported that a “mysterious germ makes 300 bald”. Their take on the hair disaster mirrored their primary source.

But one man’s disaster is another’s opportunity. The town experienced “a great influx of hair tonic salesmen which the widely circulated story has brought about. Manufacturers of sure-cure for baldness and hair restorers have descended in hordes”. So concerned were the town’s authorities that Kittanning would gain a reputation for being known as alopecia-central that they issued a speedy rebuttal of the story. True enough, twelve young men in the town had recently gone to the doctors complaining about losing their hair in patches. The medics weren’t too sure what the cause was and put it down to “a disturbance of nerves at the root of the hair” but, perhaps, was just a surge of testosterone, which can affect hair.

The local newspaper, Simpson’s Daily Leader-Times, duly reported on the phenomenon, stating that 12 young men had suffered this mysterious hair loss. But twelve smacks a bit of a dog bites man story and by the time it had got into the hands of the big dailies, twelve had been inflated to 300 to make a bit more of a story. Who said fake news is a modern phenomenon?

This wasn’t the first time that the New York Times had run a story about an epidemic of hair loss. In its edition of September 15, 1901, its correspondent going by the nom-de-plume of Spectator wrote. “European women who are resident in Japan must live in a state of constant dread. For, according to reports from that country, they may at any time lose that greatly valued possession – their hair”. It went on to report that an epidemic of hair loss was sweeping the country, affecting women and men alike.            

Once again, numbers had been greatly exaggerated. There had been a flare-up of secondary syphilis in Japan at the time and one of the consequences, for some sufferers at lease, is patchy baldness. Perhaps this also was the cause of the baldness in Kittanning and everyone was too coy to admit it/ Who knows?

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

What Is The Origin Of (273)?…

The devil to pay

One of the intriguing things about etymological researches is how many who engage in this rather dry but enlightening pursuit seem desperate to find an origin to a phrase which is other than what might be termed the bleedin’ obvious. Take the devil to pay, for instance, which signifies that there will be serious trouble if something happens. Why shouldn’t the devil in the phrase be Satan?

The devil, the personification of evil, has been in popular culture since at least Biblical days and is someone’s whose wiles all God-fearing people should shun, like Christ did after fasting for forty nights and forty days. Our phrase first crops up in a manuscript dating from 1481 in which the anonymous scribe wrote, “it would be better to stay at home/ than to serve here to pay the devil”. There is no question that the devil here who might otherwise be pacified, the original definition of pay and later extending to the idea of pacifying creditors by paying up, is none other than Satan.

It was not until the early 18th century that the phrase cropped up again, for example in Thomas Brown’s Letters from the Dead to the Living, published in 1707; “we knew we should have the Devil to pay one time or other, and now you see like honest men we have pawn’d our Souls for the whole Reckoning”.

The satirist, Jonathan Swift, was fond of the phrase, adding and all as an intensifier to give the phrase additional emphasis. In a letter to Esther Johnson dated September 28, 1711 he wrote, “The earl of Stafford is to go soon to Holland, and let them know what we have been doing and then there will be the devil and all to pay”. On November 17th that year he wrote, “this being queen Elizabeth’s birth-day, we have the Devil and all to do among us” and in 1738, fearing the wrath of his wife, he penned, “I must be with my Wife on Tuesday, or there will be the Devil and all to pay”.  

A variant was to substitute the Devil with the name of his natural habitat. This variant, possibly for the purpose of preserving the metre, was deployed in Joseph Lewis’ The miscellaneous and whimsical lucubrations of Lancelot Poverty-Struck from 1758; “before that either gain’d the Day/ By Heaven! There was Hell to pay”. Another variation was devil to pay and no pitch hot. This was recorded and explained by Alexander Hamilton in his Gentleman’s Progress of 1744 in which the Scot regaled his readers of his travels including a visit to New York. There he met a man whose speech was peppered with proverbs, including “the devil to pay and no pitch hot?” which he helpfully defined as “An interrogatory adage metaphorically derived from the manner of sailors who pay their ship’s bottoms with pitch”.

Francis Grose, in his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue from 1788 helpfully defined the nautical connotations of the verb to pay. “To smear over. To pay the bottom of a ship or boat; to smear it over with pitch”. The nautical duo, William Smyth and Edward Belcher, shed light on the term devil, defining it in their The Sailor’s Word-Book of 1867 as “the seam which margins the water-ways…why only caulkers can tell, who perhaps found it sometimes difficult for their tools”.  

These later usages have led some to draw two conclusions; that the devil refers to a seam on the water-level of a ship and that the devil to pay is an abbreviation of the devil to pay and no pitch hot. I don’t think we need to jump to this conclusion. The devil to pay was already in use and well attested before the nautical version came upon the scene and it is clear that the devil concerned was Satan. The later phrase may simply have a separate origin or, more likely, the devil in it really was Satan and that some clever Dick decided to crowbar a nautical context on to it.

Who knows?

The Streets Of London – Part One Hundred And Four

Hare Place, EC4

Today Hare Place is not much to look at, a little side alley which runs from the southern side of Fleet Street into Old Mitre Court, a matter of a few yards. I used to walk through the alley on my way to El Vino’s which fronts on to Fleet Street and runs along Hare Place. The wine bar had a seedy feel to it, at least in the first decade of the 21st century, its heyday long past, when journalists from the Fleet Street would congregate. There were still some old telephones in situ down which, I fondly imagined, some correspondent would file their copy to an eager sub-editor before settling back down to their glass of wine.   

El Vino’s in Fleet Street was one of five established in London by Alfred Bower, a free vintner which meant that he was able to sell wine without the need to hold a licence. This loophole in the law was not closed until as recently as 2005. The interior of the Fleet Street bar was full of mirrors which made it seem roomier than it actually was, a testament to its former life when it was a Hall of Mirrors. I had always put any visual distortions down to the amount of wine I had consumed but it may have been the mirrors, after all.

The bars originally traded under Bowers’ own name but in 1915 he developed some political ambitions, wishing to become Lord Mayor of London and sought election as an Alderman. He was informed, discretely as was the custom in those days, that if he sought political office, he would need to stop trading in the City as Bower’s. El Vino was the registered trademark of the firm’s sherries and so, in 1923, the bars were rebranded as such. Bower achieved his ambition, becoming Lord Mayor between 1924 and 1925. In 2015 El Vino’s were taken over by Davy’s.

Hare Place is now what is left of a much longer street, Hare Alley, which ran along the boundary between the Serjeant’s Inn on Fleet Street to some buildings at its western end. It may have taken its name, as the nearby Hare Court does, from Sir Nicholas Hare, a Master of the Rolls from 1553 to 1557. There were two inns of the Serjeants-at-Law in London, one dating from 1416 in Chancery Lane and the other in Fleet Street, occupied from 1443. The Serjeants, an order of elite barristers, surrendered their lease on the Fleet Street premises in 1730 when the two inns merged. In 1737 the lease was acquired by the Amicable Society for a Perpetual Assurance Office, the world’s first life insurance company.

As is the way with life insurance companies, they built a rather splendid headquarters on the site, designed by Robert Adams. It was destroyed during the blitz in 1941 as was much of the surrounding area. The Serjeants sold their Chancery Lane premises in 1877 and although the order was not formally dissolved then, the members divvied up the proceeds between them, the last member, Lord Lindley dying in 1921.

The post-Second World War development of the area was not kind to Hare Place, the expansion of Mitre Court encroaching considerably on its turf, leaving it as the small ginnel that it is today. But for me it has a special place in my heart, as I raced up it in eager anticipation of a piece of El Vino’s delicious Dundee cake, washed down by a glass (or two) of Tokaji.