windowthroughtime

A wry view of life for the world-weary

Book Corner – November 2017 (3)

Miraculous Mysteries – edited by Martin Edwards

You must have read or seen something like this. A crime, invariably a murder most foul, is committed in circumstances which at first blush, and many subsequent ones, seems either impossible to have been committed or for the perpetrator to have got in and/or out. In the world of detective fiction these stories are known as locked-room mysteries – the classic scenario is when the victim is found knifed in the back or shot through the head in a room where all the doors and windows are locked from the inside (natch). The earliest example of the genre was Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

Drawing upon his encyclopaedic knowledge of detective fiction, Martin Edwards has produced an entertaining collection of sixteen stories that push the rather limited limits of the genre to the edge. Unusually in a collection like this, I hadn’t read any of the stories before, an added bonus to be sure. Some of the authors are familiar to the modern reader – there are stories by Conan Doyle and Dorothy L Sayers – but many are by writers I have come across for the first time. Some are superb whilst others, whilst retaining some interest, are more pedestrian, show their age or telegraph the denouement. The pleasure for the reader is doubled because it is not just a question of whodunit but working out how the dastardly deed was committed. I won’t spoil your enjoyment in this review.

To commit a locked-room crime requires ingenuity and resourcefulness on the part of the felon. But as Dr Tancred says in Too Clever By Half by G D H and Margaret Coles, if you do intend to murder, don’t make the mistake of trying to be too clever. There is always something you overlook, some little trace that ultimately gives you away.

The collection opens with a Conan Doyle story, always a smart move I think. The Lost Special isn’t a Sherlock Holmes story and it concerns itself with a train which disappears somewhere between Liverpool and London. The final story, The Villa Marie Celeste by Margery Allingham was published in 1960 and is the most recent story. It concerns the disappearance of a married couple who depart with just a pair of linen sheets. Although it is relatively modern, its central premise is how a win on the football pools can change people’s behaviour.

A personal favourite of mine is Christopher St John Sprigg’s Death at 8:30, a kind of rerun of Edgar Wallace’s Four Just Men. This time it is the Home Secretary who is threatened with death at a very specific time unless a ransom is paid. The unmasking of the felon, X K, involves some rather unsporting behaviour by the old bill which would certainly have involved a full and comprehensive enquiry by the authorities these days.

Harking back to the days when the cat’s whiskers were a novelty, Grenville Roberts’ The Broadcast Murder features a murder which is broadcast live on the radio, to the consternation of the listeners. I suppose it is something that could go wrong with a live broadcast and might pep up our rather lame programming if it made a reappearance every now and again, just to keep us on our toes. There is a Father Brown story, set in America, The Miracle of Moon Crescent, in which the cleric investigates a death seemingly caused by a curse and in Marten Cumberland’s The Diary of Death, Lilian Hope’s diary lists all the victims, people she hated, who are to meet their maker.

If you like detective fiction and want to spend a couple of evenings by the fire, puzzling over how the corpse met its fate, you cannot go wrong here.

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The Streets Of London – Part Sixty Seven

Herbal Hill, EC1

We have seen that many of London’s streets are named after pubs that one stood there or a trade or industry or activity that once flourished in the area. If you walk down Clerkenwell in an easterly direction, then just before the junction with Farringdon Road, on the left-hand side you will find Herbal Hill. This street was previously known as Little Saffron Hill, only gaining its current name in the late 1930s.

Hard as it is to believe today when all around consists of brick, concrete and tarmac, but this area was once the one of the most fertile in the City with gardens and vineyards aplenty. As what might be termed a scientific approach to medicine was fairly rudimentary, much faith was placed on the homeopathic qualities of plants and spices. Rather in the way that we reach for an aspirin or some paracetamol when we feel under the weather, so half a millennium or so ago people would turn to herbal medicine to sooth away aches and pains. It was only in extremis that a doctor was summoned, partly because of cost and partly because there was little faith, and rightly so, that the doctor knew what he was doing.

Whole gardens or parts of gardens were given over to the cultivation of herbs to supply the herbalists or for home use and in the 16th century there was an established garden in what is now Herbal Hill. Who owned it is not certain. There was a nunnery, St Mary’s, to the east of Farringdon Road and so it is unlikely that their land stretched to our road. The next pretender is the Bishop of Ely who was reputed to have a fine garden and a flourishing strawberry patch. The latter gets a name check in Shakespeare’s Richard III; “My Lord of Ely, when I was last in Holborn I saw good strawberries in your garden there.” Records suggest, though, that Herbal Hill was outside of the Bishop’s garden.

The likely horticulturist whose work is celebrated in our street’s name is John Gerard who moved from Cheshire to take up a position as the head gardener to William Cecil in 1577. He tended two gardens – one in the Strand and the other at Theobalds to the north of the Bishop of Ely’s gaff. Gerard lived somewhere between the two. He was a great experimenter and became famous for the range and variety of his plants and his ability to propagate unusual species successfully. In 1597 he wrote a book entitled Herball or Generall Historie of Plants which is reputed to be the first catalogue of all the plants to be found in a garden, although some say that it was a translation of a Flemish guide.

It is true that there are passages where Gerard compares and contrasts the fortunes of his horticultural endeavours with those of the Flemish. The following is an example “my selfe did plant some shoots thereof in my garden, and some in Flanders did the like, but the coldness of our clymat made an end of mine, and I think the Flemish will have the like profit of their labour.” Rather like dear old Monty Don, not everything he turned his hand to flourished. But it is hard to see that this is a mere translation. Whatever the truth is, Gerard’s expertise was recognised by Anne of Denmark in 1602, giving him two acres of land to rent where King’s College stands and his horticultural endeavours have borne fruit in the name of our street.

What Is The Origin Of (155)?…

Gaffer

We are some way into what seems to be another interminable football season where outrageously overpaid “stars” hog our TV screens and back pages of our newspapers. Invariably when said “stars” are able to string a couple of words together in the always illuminating post-match interview, there is a reference to the gaffer, the manager or the boss. Football seems to be one of the last industries in which this quaint term for the person in charge is used but where did it come from?

The earliest recorded reference to the noun was, according to etymologists, around 1565 to 1675. It was used as a term of respect, employed by country folk to refer to their elders and betters, someone to whom due deference had to be accorded on account of their experience or position in the community. It appears simply to have been a contraction of either godfather or grandfather, or both. It is comparable to gammer, a noun to describe an old woman, which was a contraction of godmother or grandmother and first appeared around the same time. Unlike gaffer, though, gammer sank into obscurity, perhaps only to re-emerge when the first female professional football manager is appointed.

As time moved on, its meaning broadened to indicate an old man, irrespective of status and prestige, particularly an old rustic, with a slightly patronising, if not pejorative, side to it. By 1841 it was being applied to the head of a group of labourers or what we might term the foreman, again showing that it was being used as a mark of respect or at least an acknowledgement of rank or position. Our noun appears in the English translation of Honore Balzac’s Two Poets, the original published in 1837, with the sense that the gaffer is the boss or leader of a group; “He had dragged the chain these fifty years, he would not wear it another hour, tomorrow his son should be the gaffer.” And it has kept that sense to this day.

If you stay long enough in a cinema and have eyesight sharp enough to make sense of the credits – I fail to qualify on either count – you will see that someone occupied the position of gaffer. The gaffer in the film industry is the head electrician and their responsibilities include the execution and, occasionally, design of the lighting plan for a film. The pre-eminence of the position amongst the techies may have earned it the title of gaffer, adopting the sense of the noun as it has developed over the centuries. However, it may also have a different origin, reflecting the fact that overhead equipment was moved in the early days using a gaff, a handle or pole with a hook on the end. I think this is probably where it came from in this particular context.

The term gaffer as a term in the movie business first appeared in print in 1929 in Mary Eunice Macarthy’s The Hands of Hollywood, seven years earlier than the first citation attested in the Oxford English Dictionary. The gaffer’s assistant is known as the best boy, irrespective of sex.

And just to finish off our consideration of the term gaffer, the Irish, to illustrate their contrariness, use it to describe a youngster, usually male, while in glass blowing circles, the gaffer is the master blower, responsible for shaping the glass.

I Predict A Riot – Part Twenty Eight

The New York City Police riot of 1857

Handling a transition is always a tricky business, especially as the entity to be replaced is reluctant to relinquish its role as the reorganisation of the New York Police authority in 1857 reveals. The original force, the Municipal Police, was under the control of the City Mayor and was widely regarded as being corrupt. A law was passed by the state legislature in the spring of 1857 abolishing the Municipal police and replacing them with a Metropolitan police force under the control of the boroughs that made up the Big Apple.

But the Municipal police would not give up their place on the gravy train so easily. Supported by the mayor, Fernando Wood, who resisted attempts to enforce the new legislation, they continued to patrol the city, as did the newly established Metropolitan force. Chaos ensued. Felons arrested by the Municipals would be released by the Metropolitans. Something had to give. Even though the State Supreme Court backed the new legislation in May 1857, Wood held out, organising public meetings to rally support amongst the Municipals. In a vote, 15 police captains and 800 patrolmen elected to support Wood whilst the rest, led by George W Walling decided to side with the Metropolitans. The Municipals filled up the vacancies caused by the split.

The spark that caused the riot was the appointment of a new Street Commissioner. When the new appointee, Daniel Conover, arrived at City Hall to take up his post he was informed that Wood had appointed Charles Devlin instead and was forcibly removed by some Municipal officers. Conover immediately took a couple of warrants for Wood’s arrest and Walling was detailed to effect the seizure of the Mayor.

Walling entered City Hall but his attempts to carry out his commission were rebuffed. There were some 300 Municipal officers in the building and Walling returned with a force of some fifty officers. Walling met with fierce resistance. The Municipal officers charged out of City Hall and for the next thirty minutes or so there was fierce fighting between the two sets of police, during the course of which 53 were injured. The injuries sustained by a patrolman by the name of Crofut were so severe that he was crippled for life.

The result of the fighting was that the Metropolitans had to beat a hasty retreat, the wounded brought into the offices of the City’s Recorder to be patched up while the Metropolitans celebrated their victory in Wood’s office. But that was not the end of matters. The Metropolitans sought reinforcements from General Sandford and the Seventh Regiment who were just about to go to Boston and the reinvigorated force marched once again to City Hall, surrounded it and demanded the surrender of Woods. Realising he had met his Waterloo, Woods surrendered and was arrested.

Within an hour, though, Woods was at liberty and was never charged for his part in bringing disorder to the streets of New York. Those officers who were injured sued Woods successfully and were awarded compensation to the tune of $250 each. True to form, Woods did not pay up and the City had to meet the bill from its coffers.

During the early part of the summer the city had two police forces operating. Instead of increasing peace and security, each force would interfere with whatever the other was doing, releasing prisoners captured by the others as before. Gangs flourished and the situation could not be allowed to continue and eventually, in the autumn, the Court of Appeals upheld the Supreme Court’s decision and the Municipal Police Force was disbanded.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Seventy Eight

Dr Louis Slotin (1910 – 1946)

We’ve all done it, I’m sure – moaned about the red tape of bureaucracy and ‘Elf and Safety which hinders us from getting on with what we are trying to do. But, occasionally, there are good reasons why a bit of safety awareness wouldn’t come amiss as this cautionary tale involving our latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Canadian scientist Louis Slotin, amply illustrates.

Slotin was one of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos during World War 2 and he earned a reputation as one of the pre-eminent assemblers of nuclear warheads. Following the destruction of Horoshima and Nagasaki and the conclusion of the war, Slotin continued to experiment with nuclear fission. His particular sphere of interest was measuring the beginnings of the fission reaction, by bringing two semi-spherical pieces of radioactive material into close proximity. Of course, if the two actually touched there would be an almighty explosion and so a degree of precision, as well as a steady hand, was called for.

For some people, playing your part in developing something that could fry large portions of the world’s population is not enough. It would seem Slotin was a bit of a character who liked to spice up his life. That may be the reason why he eschewed any of the fancy-dan safety equipment available and relied upon a humble screwdriver to keep the two hemispheres apart.

On May 21st 1946 Slotin was training a colleague, the aptly named Alvin Graves, at the Omega Laboratory and for his piece de resistance a small crowd of his colleagues assembled to watch his performance. Unfortunately, at the critical moment at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the screwdriver slipped and the two pieces of radioactive material made contact. The official report into the incident reported, “The blue flash was clearly visible in the room although it (the room) was well illuminated from the windows and possibly the overhead lights. . . . The total duration of the flash could not have been more than a few tenths of a second.”  Showing a remarkable presence of mind, Slotin pushed the top hemisphere of plutonium off with his bare hands, thus ending the reaction.

It was calculated that Slotin’s screwdriver slip had set off about three quadrillion fission reactions – it sounds a lot but the bang, in fact, it was about a million times smaller than the first atomic bombs. The blue flash was caused by the high-energy photons emitted when the electrons in the air settled down after their agitation. But the damage was done. Slotin complained of a burning sensation in his left hand and a sour taste in his mouth. He was rushed into a car and taken to hospital, but during the journey started to vomit, a symptom of severe radiation poisoning. Slotin said to his colleagues, “You’ll be OK, but I think I’m done for.”

He was not wrong, dying nine days later of radiation exposure. He was commended for his actions in a citation read to him before meeting his maker; “Dr Slotin’s quick reaction at the immediate risk of his own life prevented a more serious development of the experiment which would certainly have resulted in the death of the seven men working with him, as well as serious injury to others in the vicinity.” It was a rather optimistic assessment; within two years of the incident, two of his colleagues had died of radiation sickness.

Clearly, Slotin’s approach to the experiment had been cavalier.  After all, there had been an incident a few months earlier when Harry Daghlian dropped a brick of tungsten carbide onto a plutonium mass, bathing him in radiation. He died a month later from radiation sickness.

For conducting an experiment that caused your demise, Louis Slotin, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Four

H L Mencken (1880 – 1956) and the Bathtub

Sometimes what is intended to be a bit of harmless fun gets out of hand and once the metaphorical cat is out of the bag it is difficult to regain control. A classic example of this is the curious case of the respected journalist and so-called sage of Baltimore, H L Mencken, and the history of the bathtub.

It was the dark days of December 1917. America had entered the First World War, something Mencken opposed, and news from the front was dreadful. In order, as Mencken said later, “to have some harmless fun in war days” he wrote an article on the history of the bath tub which was published in the New York Evening Mail. In it Mencken claimed that Adam Thompson installed the first bath, made of mahogany and lined with sheet lead, in Cincinnati on 20th December 1843. It caused a storm, some attacking it as an example of epicurean luxury whilst some medics claimed that bathing in this fashion was detrimental to one’s health.

It was Millard Fillimore, claimed Mencken, who gave the bath a fillip. When Vice President he visited Cincinnati, had a bath, felt no ill effects and quite enjoyed the experience. When he was elected President in 1850, Fillimore had one installed in the White House and the rest is history. But of course it wasn’t, it was all bunkum and was a hoax designed to test the gullibility of the general public and fellow journalists.

The fact that it was written by Mencken, was well-written and seemed plausible meant that the story had legs. To Mencken’s surprise his article appeared in a number of other journals and many papers printed abbreviated versions. It was then picked up by learned journals and histories of public hygiene and once it had taken root in the groves of academe, it was well-nigh impossible to shift.

Eight years later Mencken decided to own up to his hoax, writing a front-page article for the Chicago Tribune on 23rd May 1926, entitled Melancholy Reflections. In his mea culpa he wrote, “This article..was a tissue of absurdities, all of them deliberate and most of them obvious..[it] was planned as a piece of spoofing to relieve the strain of war days and I confess that I regarded it, when it came out, with considerable satisfaction. It was reprinted by various great organs of the enlightenment, and after a while the usual letters began to reach me from readers. Then, suddenly, my satisfaction turned to consternation. For these readers, it appeared, all took my idle jocosities with complete seriousness. Some of them, of antiquarian tastes, asked for further light on this or that phase of the subject. Others actually offered me corroboration!

He went on, “Pretty soon I began to encounter my preposterous “facts” in the writings of other men.. I began to find them in standard works of reference. Today, I believe, they are accepted as gospel everywhere on earth. To question them becomes as hazardous as to question the Norman invasion…” In 1949 he wrote,Scarcely a month goes by that I do not find the substance of it reprinted, not as foolishness but as fact, and not only in newspapers but in official documents and other works of the highest pretensions.”

The story wouldn’t die. Between his exposure of his own hoax and 1958, according to Curtis MacDougall, there had been thirty-eight instances of Mencken’s story being presented to the general public as fact. It still persists. A Kia advert in January 2008 for Soap on a Roap repeated the canard without realising they had been had.

Supermarket Of The Week

One of the highlights of my week now that I am retired is the trip to the supermarket. I am prone to the odd bout of sarcasm. However, things would be brightened up considerably if I lived within striking distance of the Morrison’s store in Guiseley, near Leeds.

To help shoppers endure the experience, particularly as Christmas looms, they have opened up a bar, located near the café, where shoppers and trolley pushers can refuel with Saltaire Blonde ale or, if they prefer, wine or a selection of bottled ciders and lagers. Helpfully, it is open from as early as 6 am so you can get your early morning hair of the dog.

Gets my vote but the aisles could be a bit dangerous if shoppers imbibe too liberally. Can you be done for being drunk in charge of a shopping trolley? A new definition of being trolleyed, perhaps?

 

Sporting Event Of The Week (8)

Ordinarily it would take the longest stretch of the wildest imagination to describe last Saturday’s Evo-Stick North Premier league fixture between Halesowen Town and Shaw Lane AFC as such, notwithstanding the visitor’s recent FA Cup exploits. It was a typically dour 0-0 draw with the visitors starting off stronger but the Yeltz clawing their way back into the game and, perhaps, being unlucky not to snatch a win.

For me it was a landmark game – it was the first time I had taken my eldest grandson, BoJ1, to a football match. It was going to be Shrewsbury versus Charlton but international call ups, primarily but not exclusively from Charlton, put paid to that. If he gets half the enjoyment I have had from watching football at all levels, I will have done him a favour!

What Is The Origin Of (154)?…

A bull in a china shop

This figurative phrase is used to describe an extremely clumsy person who in their haste to do something causes untold damage and havoc. It is a very vivid image and the meaning is easy to devine. Porcelain aka china was much prized but didn’t make its way from the East, China actually, until the 16th century and not manufactured in Western Europe until the 18th. So we can assume that the genesis of our phrase is relatively recent.

The first recorded usage of it appears to be in a review of a pantomime called The White Cat or Harlequin in Fairy Land which appeared in the London Review and Literary Journal of January 1812. There we find the critic reporting that “The extraordinary spectacle of a Bull in a China Shop afforded great entertainment; and an artificial elephant introduced, was welcomed with loud plaudits.” I can only assume it was akin to a party trick or those annoying intervals in modern pantomimes when some minor celebrity sings their latest ditty. What is interesting is that the bull appears to have been an elephant and echoes the image in other languages such as Russian, Dutch, German, French, Italian and Spanish where an elephant crashes through a shop, usually a china shop although in Italy and Spain through a shop selling glassware.

It could well be that the phrase is more generic than particular to English and it makes sense. Elephants are massive creatures and are not known for their daintiness. In the wrong place a pachyderm can make quite a mess, particularly to a shop load of valuables. Perversely, though, we Brits have substituted a bull for the elephant, probably because the average citizen was more likely to encounter one in their daily life and of the domesticated creatures, the bull was surely the most powerful.

Frederick Marryat uses the phrase in a figurative sense in Chapter XV of Jacob Faithful, published in 1831. Mr Turnbull has trouble controlling the wayward tails of his coat and remarks, “Whatever it is it smashes, Mrs T always swear it is the most valuable thing in the room. I’m like a bull in a china shop.” And three years later, the antics of a bull in a china shop made their way into a music hall song which appeared in the Universal Songster or Museum of Mirth. The song included the following lines; “So frisky he was, with his downs and his ups,/ Each tea service proved he was quite in his cups./ He play’d mag’s diversion among all the crates,/ He splinter’d the dishes, and dish’d all the plates.”

And so the phrase slipped easily into our vernacular but to the enquiring mind the obvious question is how would a bull react in a china shop? Jim Moran, whose sobriquets included America’s No 1 prankster and the last great bunco (con) artist in the profession of publicity, made his name in the 1930s and 1940s by devising outrageous stunts on behalf of his clients, usually to test the veracity of a popular saying. It will come as no surprise, then, to learn that in January 1940 he led a bull through a china shop in New York. The bull did not cause any damage but a bystander stepped back to get out-of-the-way and knocked over a pile of plates. A bull off the leash might be a different story, though.

Announcement Of The Week

I have been writing this blog for over five years now and I am beginning to find that the well of inspiration is running rather dry. In order to maintain what quality there is  I have decided to reduce the frequency with which posts appear on the blog. There will be a minimum of three posts per week and I will be concentrating principally on reviews (books, art and gin), etymology, and some of the features which from WordPress statistics seem to elicit the most views and/or likes.

I hope you continue to enjoy the blog and thank you for your support to date. You never know, I may get a second wind in the new year!