A wry view of life for the world-weary

An Eye For An Eye Will Only Make The Whole World Blind – Part Five

The Märket Lighthouse

As a result of the Treaty of Fredrikshamn, signed on 17th September 1809, the defeated Swedes were forced to concede the whole of Finland, as well as all its territory east of the Torne River, to the victorious Russians. A new border between the two countries had to be established and as is often the way a line was drawn between Sweden and the Aland archipelago, bisecting the tiny, uninhabited island of Märket, all 8.2 acres of it.

That part of the Baltic Sea is particularly treacherous. In 1873 alone, eight ships foundered as they overcorrected their course to avoid the rocky outcrop. Something had to be done and the obvious course of action was to build a lighthouse. Finnish architect, Georg Schreck, was commissioned to erect the structure in 1885.

The point he chose was, not unnaturally, the highest spot on the island, some 3 metres above sea level. There was only one tiny problem – it happened to be in the Swedish part of the island. But the Russians ploughed on regardless and on 11th November 1885 the lighthouse was commissioned. Perhaps reluctant to provoke the Russian bear again, bearing in mind what happened in 1809, the Swedes accepted this illegal encroachment on to their territory but it was a festering sore.

Fast forward to 1917 and following the disintegration of the Russian Empire, the Finns gained their independence and with it, the Russian half of the island of Märket. They manned the lighthouse and carried on as if they owned the spot of land upon which it stood.

From time to time the illegal Finnish occupation of the lighthouse was a source of friction with the Swedes but the matter wasn’t pressed hard as the lighthouse was serving a useful service to passing ships. It was not until 1985 that the thorny problem was resolved and the solution was something that only experienced diplomats could dream up.

The answer was to redesign the border so that the Finns retained the lighthouse – by now it was unmanned, the last lighthouse keeper having departed in 1977 – and the Swedes gained an equal amount of territory to that which they ceded. Rather like an inverted S the new line started in the middle of the island, veering into the Swedish area to ensure that the lighthouse remained under Finnish control and then into the Finnish area to give the Swedes some additional territory. To ensure that the new border was correctly recognised, holes were drilled into the rocks marking the spot.

Just to add some further unnecessary complications, the Swedish portion now falls into two separate municipal jurisdictions. But at least as both countries are subscribers to the Schengen agreement, there is no need for any passport control.

Having legalised their claim to the lighthouse, that seems to have been it as far as the Finns were concerned. It is still operational but is suffering from what can only be described as a lack of tender love and care. It is crumbling and badly needs some maintenance work. Since 2007 groups of volunteers have spent their summers on the island patching it up and showing intrepid visitors to the island.

If you are thinking of paying it a visit, check the weather.


Double Your Money – Part Thirty One

The New York County Courthouse scandal, 1871

The building standing at 52, Chambers Street in Manhattan was designed in 1858 by John Kellum as a statement of the greatness of New York and the esteem in which the law was held. By 1871 it stood as the living embodiment of one of the most egregious examples of municipal corruption. The villain of the piece was William Magear Tweed, who headed the Tammany Hall, the Democratic party’s organising committee in New York from 1858 and was elected to the New York senate in 1867.

The initial legislation specified that the new courthouse should not cost more than $250,000 but by 1871 more than $13 million had been spent on the building, with Tweed instrumental in pushing through the requisite increases in budget. And there was remarkably little to show for such the money and what there was far from impressive, consisting of a collection of gloomy rooms and dark halls, decorated with ugly, fake marble. One of the largest rooms, reserved for the Bureau of Arrears of Taxes, had no roof. The crowning glory of the building, the grand dome atop the temple of justice was never built.

Many smelt a rat but such was Tweed’s hold over the levers of power that he considered himself above the law. It took a combination of a disgruntled Tweed ring member, ex-Sheriff James O’Brien who supplied evidence, the investigative journalism of the New York Times and the indefatigable lampoonery of Thomas Nast whose cartoons were published in Harper’s Weekly to bring Tweed and his associates down in the autumn of 1871. Although Tweed tried to buy the Times off, it was the cartoons of Nast he feared most, famously commenting, “I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles; my constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.” The Tweed Ring offered Nast $500,000 to go to Europe to study art but the cartoonist refused.

The mountain of evidence pointing to wrongdoing grew ever larger and a meeting at the Cooper Union established a 70-strong committee, under the leadership of Samuel J Tilden, to bring about the fall of Tweed and his associates. The Tammany was crushed in the elections that autumn and Tweed’s associates did what all fraudsters do – upped sticks and fled to Europe or Canada. Only two faced trial – Mayor Hall, whose defence was “an ineradicable aversion to detail”, was acquitted whilst Tweed was tried and convicted of forgery and larceny in 1873 and sentenced to a 12-year stretch.

Tweed’s sentence was reduced to a year on a legal technicality but he did not enjoy his liberty for long, being arrested a second time on a charge of stealing six million dollars from the state of New York. Although under arrest, Tweed was allowed to visit his home under guard and on one such visit, in December 1875, he managed to elude his escort and fled to Spain via Cuba. But Nast was to prove his nemesis again – he was recognised thanks to a Nast caricature and in November 1876 was returned to New York and held in Ludlow Street Jail awaiting trial where he died on 12th April 1878.

At the time it was estimated across all their activities the Tweed Ring pocketed some $20 million but later estimates put the figure at anywhere between $40 and $200 million.

So how did they do it?

Such was Tweed’s insouciance that it was not very sophisticated. Companies under the control of the Tweed Ring would bill the city for work not done or if they did do some work, would submit vastly over-inflated invoices. The work which was done was deliberately substandard requiring it to be put right. And who did that? You guessed it, other Tweed Ring controlled companies. The fraud was committed with an element of humour. A cheque was made out to Fillippo Donnoruma and endorsed by Phillip Dummy, another to T C Cash and a ledger entry for brooms etc was for a whopping $41,190.95.

A popular pastime at the time was to calculate how far the furnishings and materials charged to the city would have stretched – one newspaper reckoned from New York to New Haven.

The courthouse finally opened in 1881.

Old Codgers Of The Week – Part Ten

Not that I’m an expert in these matters but it seems to me that to carry out the perfect robbery you need a clear plan, some way to get your message across and a speedy getaway. What let  69 year-old Kenneth Dodds down in his attempted crime spree in Newton Aycliffe in County Durham was his reliance on his bus pass.

The frail-looking pensioner allegedly terrified shop workers in Café Pronto and Young’s Newsagents at around 8.30 am on 22nd February, demanding £100 and brandishing what looked like a Colt-type revolver. He shuffled out of both premises empty-handed, save for his walking stick and imitation pistol, and had his collar felt at the nearby bus stop whilst waiting for his getaway charabanc.

Dodds was hauled before the beak on two accounts of attempted robbery and one of possession of an imitation firearm, I read this week. He was bailed to return for sentence at a later date.

A sorry tale in many ways.

Looking at the photo of Dodds it is hard to imagine that he cut a terrifying figure but in the heat of the moment who knows? You have to admire his chutzpah, even if his plan was less than perfect.

Perhaps a pint and a trip to the bookies would have been a better idea.

Pooch Of The Week

I’m no dog lover so I’m rather immune to the supposed charms of the creatures. It is rather gratifying to read, though, that we are encouraged to celebrate diversity in the shapes, sizes and behaviour traits of pooches, just as we do with humans.

Take the World’s Ugliest Dog competition, now in its 30th year, which was held in Petaluma in California last weekend. The winner was an English Bulldog – are you surprised? – going by the rather unlikely name of Zsa Zsa. The slobbering creature with a lolling tongue, chin that thrusts upwards and resplendent with nails painted a shade of pink, scooped the $1,500 prize for her owner, Megan Brainard from Minnesota. I’m reliably informed that the dog is on the left of the photo.

Last year’s winner was a Neapolitan mastiff called Martha whose stand-out features were her massive cheeks that drooped almost down to her knees and flapped around in a rather disturbing fashion when she moved her head.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as someone once said.

What Is The Origin Of (186)?..

Fit as a butcher’s dog

If I was to come back as a dog, perhaps being assigned to a butcher would be the dog’s bollocks. After all, there would be all that food around and surely even the most curmudgeonly of purveyors of meat wouldn’t begrudge me of some scraps. The upside would be that there would be a veritable feast to enjoy and I would be as full as a butcher’s dog, as the Australians so eloquently describe someone who has indulged in a substantial meal.

The simile, fit as a butcher’s dog, emerged in the 20th century, probably in Lancashire, to describe someone who is the epitome of rude health, fitness and robustness. In a sense there is a bit of an oxymoron in its current usage because having access to and being fed so much meat is likely to make the pooch fat and unhealthy, unless it is exercises vigorously.

The reason behind this disconnect is that the attributes to be sought in a butcher’s dog have changed over the years. The phrase butcher’s dog originally described an animal that could stay impassive amongst all the temptations of a butcher’s emporium or, as John Camden Hotten put it in his Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words, published in 1859; “To be like a butcher’s dog, that is, lie by the beef without touching it; a simile often applicable to married men.”  This sense of stoically resisting something close at hand has disappeared into the mists of time.

Being a butcher’s dog, though, has to be better than a barber’s cat. Being confined to a barber’s shop would mean that other than for the odd stray rat or mouse there would be nothing for the moggy to feed on. No wonder then that the barber’s cat was a scrawny thing. It was used figuratively to describe someone who was full of piss and wind, unnecessarily loquacious, a blatherskite. This figurative meaning caused the inestimable Hotten some difficulty when he came to define it in his Dictionary, commenting that it was “an expression too coarse to print.

The Dundee Courier and Argus in its edition dated 8th September 1877 was almost as bashful, using a carefully bowdlerised euphemism, but the sense is clear; “He should be the very last man in Dundee to call anyone a windbag, for it is a well-known fact that…he is generally considered the very Prince of Windbags. Indeed, it is often remarked about him that he is all wind and water, like the barber’s cat.

James Plunkett’s 1969 historical novel, Strumpet City, set in Dublin, gives us probably the rationale behind the phrase; “Do you know the expression – wet and windy, like the barber’s cat? I know it well, Matthews confessed. Why the barber’s cat, I wonder? A consequence of frugality, the poet explained, its staple diet is hair and soapsuds.” James Joyce used a variant of the phrase in Ulysses; “all wind and piss like a tanyard cat.” –

But are we barking up the wrong tree in thinking that the barber’s cat is a moggy? One commentator has noted that a barber’s cat was a bottle of water with a pump which when operated by the barber sprayed water finely over the hair of his customer. I recall them but never knew them by that name and, of course, they operate by wind and water. But Joyce was clearly thinking of a cat and other phrases in which the barber’s cat appears – as poor as a barber’s cat to describe someone who was painfully thin and starving and as conceited as a barber’s cat to paint the picture of someone who fancies themselves – tend to suggest that we are thinking of felis catus here.

Everything Is Possible For An Eccentric, Especially When He Is English – Part Twenty Three

Richard Whately (1787 – 1863)

An economics professor at Oxford in the 1820s who made his name with two hefty tomes, Elements of Logic and Elements of Rhetoric, sartorially Richard Whately cut quite a dash. Eschewing the traditional academic gown he favoured a long white cloak and a beaver hat, earning himself the sobriquet of the White Bear. To his astonishment, not least because he was sympathetic to the Catholic cause, he was plucked from the groves of academe in 1831 by Lord Grey and appointed Archbishop of Dublin in 1831.

Already regarded with suspicion by the Protestants in Ireland, Whately’s character failed to endear him to the locals. He enjoyed an argument, peppering his conversation with puns and word play, but always had to have the last word. Perhaps his most famous contribution to what passed as 19th century humour was this rather contrived quip; “Why cannot a man starve in the desert? Because he can eat the sand which is there. But how did the sandwiches get there? Noah sent Ham and his descendants mustered and bred.”  Boom, boom.

Whately could also be insensitive and rude. When a cleric asked his Grace’s permission to go to New Zealand for health reasons, he responded; ““By all means go to New Zealand; you are so lean that no Maori could eat you without loathing.” Annoyed by a cleric who was droning on, Whately suddenly piped up and asked the poor man, “Pray, sir, why are you like the bell of your own church?” The Archbishop then enlightened him by revealing the answer to the riddle; “it is because you have a long tongue and an empty head.”

Perhaps more disconcerting to the great and the good of Dublin society were some of Whately’s physical traits. He seemed unable to keep his feet still. He would pace up and down whilst waiting for his dinner, sometimes take out a pair of scissors and trim his nails or, if the pre-dinner small talk was particularly annoying, he would take the calling cards and fling them across the room. Another pre-prandial trick was whilst talking to whirl a chair round on one of its legs. Sometimes the leg would break – Lady Anglesey, a regular hostess, is said to have lost six of her best chairs this way.

It was perilous to be seated next to the Archbishop at a dinner as Provost Lloyd found out on one occasion. Whately was giving the after dinner speech and was in full flow, telling stories and cracking jokes. But what caught his fellow diners’ attention was what was happening to his right foot. Somehow Whately had managed to double it back over his left thigh, grasp the instep with both hands as if to strangle it and then placed it on the poor Provost’s lap. And there it stayed for the duration of his speech. The stoic Provost is said not to have turned a hair.

Chief Justice Doherty was sitting next to Whately at a Privy Council meeting and felt the need to sneeze. Reaching down to his pocket for his handkerchief he was astonished to find Whately’s foot already nestling in there. Perhaps even more alarmingly for society hostesses, Whately would often draw a chair up to the fireplace and rest his legs up on the mantelpiece, oblivious to any valuable objets d’art that may have been deposited there.

Regarded as pro-Catholic by the Protestants and a wolf in sheep’s clothing by the Catholics, Whately’s attempts to reform the Irish education system and enhance the lot of the poor were stymied. His spirit was broken and he lived out his final decade almost as a recluse. His beloved wife died in 1860, plunging him further into depression. He became reclusive and with his health failing, he turned to homeopathy. He finally met his maker in 1863 and there is a rather splendid memorial to him in Dublin’s St Patrick’s Cathedral.

These days Whately would have been diagnosed with some fancy syndrome, perhaps autism, but at the time his eccentricities gave his enemies plenty of scope to make mischief.

Book Corner – June 2018 (2)

The Long Arm of the Law – edited by Martin Edwards

Very few policemen make it into the golden pantheon of literary detection. Of the crème de la crème only Maigret, in my view, is comparable with Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey and Agatha Christie’s creations, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. Where the local plod appear in the pages of Conan Doyle, Christie, Chesterton, Sayers et al, they are pedestrian, slow-witted, literary devices to illustrate the brilliance of the grey cells contained within the cranium of the amateur sleuth.

Of course, if we are looking for the antecedents of literary detection, we cannot ignore Dickens’ Inspector Bucket (Bleak House, 1853) and Wilkie Collins’ Sergeant Cuff (The Moonstone, 1868) but they are both preceded by Edgar Allan Poe’s amateur, Auguste Dupin, whose mastery of ratiocination was amply exemplified in The Murders of the Rue Morgue (1841). In an attempt to rescue the much maligned officer of the constabulary, the indefatigable Martin Edwards has put together an interesting collection of fifteen short stories showing the professional policeman at his best.

Anthologies are patchy in quality at best and I sensed at times that Edwards was scraping the barrel to provide enough examples from a varied array of writers to make his point. The other problem is that often the resolution of the problem is not the result of structured, forensic enquiry and investigation which, I assume, is the staple fare of police work but the inspired deduction of one of the officers. In other words, there is little difference in the way the culprit is unmasked it just happens that the grey cells belong to a police officer, not a leisured amateur.

The book’s opening story, The Mystery of Chenholt by Alice and Claude Askew, sets the collection off on the wrong foot. The detective, in order to discover what was going on in the house, has to put his fiancée, albeit an officer in another force but not a detective, into the place as an undercover agent. Her evidence results in the unmasking of the villain. Reggie, the detective, pulls it all together but it is not a shining example of straightforward police brilliance.

That said, there are some gems to be found within. Laurence Meynell, a writer I had never come across although, according to Edwards’ insightful and punchy introductions to each story, he had been writing for sixty years across a number of genres, produced my favourite, the Cleverest Clue. The eponymous clue was staring all of us in the face but it took a stroke of genius for it to be spotted and its importance to be recognised. A great story.

After The Event, by Christianna Brand, was another of my favourites, not least because its format was so different and seeing two detectives competing and pitting their wits against each other was fun. Michael Gilbert’s Old Mr Martin has an unexpected twist at the end that I didn’t see coming – one that might offend the sticklers for the rules and conventions of detective fiction but provides a satisfying ending to the spookiest and most atmospheric of the tales.

Choosing a title is one of the hardest tasks facing a writer and my enjoyment of the entertaining romp that is Roy Vickers’ The Man Who Married Too Often was marred somewhat by the fact that the title pretty much gave the game away. None of the other stories reach the heights of these but that is one of the joys and risks of reading an anthology.

An interesting collection but I’m not sure that the case is made for a reconsideration of the merits of police officer-led detective fiction.

A La Mode – Part Four

The Peruke

One of the most notable fashion accessories of the 17th and 18th centuries was the peruke or powdered wig.

Long hair was a symbol of wealth and status. After all, if you were engaged in dirty, manual labour, the last thing you wanted was your flowing mane getting in the way. Loss of hair was a source of social embarrassment, as Samuel Pepys noted in his diary; “if [my brother] lives, he will not be able to show his head – which will be a very great shame to me.

And why would the loss of hair be life-threatening and socially embarrassing? Because it was a sign of syphilis which by the 1580s had reached epidemic proportions in Europe with, according to William Clowes, an “infinite multitude” of syphilis patients clogging the hospitals of London. To hide the tell-tale stigma – although other giveaways were open sores, rashes, blindness and dementia – victims took to wearing wigs, simple affairs constructed from horse, goat or human hair. Some were scented with lavender or orange to mask any unseemly odours.

What moved the wig from medical prosthetic to fashion accessory was the discovery by Louis XIV in 1655 that at the age of 17 he was getting thin on top. To hide his bald spots he hired 48 wig makers to design ever more extravagant structures. His sycophantic court followed suit and five years later Charles II, bedevilled with his own tonsorial issues, introduced the fashion to the English court.

Wigs escalated in price – an everyday peruke would set you back 25 shillings and the most elaborate could costs as much as £40 – and so were seen as a statement of wealth. They were also practical because in order to wear one you had to have your head shaved. That meant that the ubiquitous head lice had to decamp from your head, where delousing was time-consuming and painful, to your wig. To get rid of them, you sent your wig off to a wig maker who would boil it, thus removing the troublesome mites.

The finest wigs were white in colour but these were out of the reach of all but the wealthiest and so from around 1715 the practice was to dust them with powder made from starch or flour. It was a messy process, a special room being reserved for the purpose to contain the dust and special dressing gowns were worn to minimise the damage to clothing.

So common was the practice of powdering that not to do so was a social black mark, as Georgiana Cavendish revealed in her novel, The Sylph, published in 1778; “Monsieur bowed and shrugged..In a moment I was overwhelmed with a cloud of powder. What are you doing? I don’t mean to be powdered, I said. Not powdered, repeated Sir William, why you would not be so barbarous as to appear without – it is positively not decent.” In her journal for 1780 Mary Frampton noted, “at that time everybody wore powder and pomatum.

There were perils to wearing a wig. Boys were employed to secrete themselves in dray wagons and snatch a wig from a passer-by. By the time they had realised that they were minus their peruke – often someone would detain them on the pretence of offering assistance – the thief would make good their escape.

What did for the peruke was the French Revolution – it wasn’t safe for aristos to draw attention to themselves by wearing a wig – and in 1795 William Pitt’s imposition of a tax on hair powder on this side of La Manche. Short hair became the fashion.

Coincidences Are Spiritual Puns – Part Six

The Tierneys and the Hoover Dam

One of the highlights for me of a trip to the Las Vegas area many moons ago was a visit to the Hoover Dam. It was at a time before 9/11 when you could go inside the dam itself and admire the massive turbines and walk along the sluice gates. What was astonishing to me was the sheer size of the structure and the fact that a major Highway, 93, ran across the top. The Hoover Dam bypass, opened in 2010, means this is no longer the case.

Situated some thirty miles south-east of Vegas, near Boulder City, a town that was originally built to house the construction workers, and on the border of Nevada and Arizona, it is 726 feet high and tapers from a 650 feet base at the bottom to a 45 feet top and 1,244 feet long. A particular feature of its design is that it curves upstream, forcing the majority of the water against the rocks of the canyon. The reservoir which the dam formed is known as Lake Mead and is the largest by volume in the States.

The Hoover dam construction project was part of Roosevelt’s New Deal of public-financed works and was finished two years ahead of schedule in 1936, the 10,000 or so workers taking just five years to complete it. Although the project was only approved by Congress in 1928, significant survey work had been undertaken from the early 1920s. The Boulder Dam – its name was changed to commemorate President Hoover in 1947 – was officially dedicated on 30th September 1935 by Roosevelt. At the time it was the world’s largest hydroelectric power station and the arch-gravity dam was the world’s largest concrete structure.

The power of the river and the inclement conditions, together with the rudimentary health and safety standards prevailing at the time and the exploitation of workers who were desperate for any kind of paid work, meant that it was a dangerous place to work. Officially, 96 workers will killed during the survey and construction phase of the project but many feel that this is somewhat of an understatement. Accidents went unreported and workers who were injured but died either in hospital or at home were not included in the death toll.

What is incontrovertible is that John Gregory Tierney was the first fatality. Of Irish descent Tierney was a hard-rock miner, working with a survey crew looking for a suitable spot to dam the Colorado. On 20th December 1921 John was caught by a flash flood which carried him downstream. Tierney’s body was never recovered and it took almost two weeks for news of the tragic accident to reach Las Vegas. According to the Clark County Review newspaper on 6th January 1922, a spokesperson commented on the accident in a rather matter-of-fact manner; “when Tierney lost his life it completely demoralised our forces. The rising Colorado river has made the work extremely hazardous and about 15 of our men quit immediately. However, they will be replaced and the work will go on.

And on it went.

The last recorded death occurred exactly 14 years to the day of John’s death. An electrician’s helper fell some 320 feet from one of the two intake towers on the Arizona side of the dam and was swept away, his body eventually being recovered on the upstream side near where Lake Mead was filling up.

His name?

Patrick William Tierney, John’s only son, the two deaths book-marking the construction of the dam, a remarkable coincidence that the Las Vegas Evening Review was the first to spot in its report the following day.

Island Of The Week

In my experience Scotland is a land for the brave. Although the scenery is stunning, the weather is certainly on the temperamental side and the midges seem to make a beeline for the blood of any Sassenach foolhardy enough to present any skin to their gaze.

So a naturist club on the beautiful island of Inchmurrin in Loch Lomond is not for the faint-hearted.

But the Scottish Outdoor Club, as part of its 80th anniversary celebrations, has been accepted to participate in the nationwide Doors Open Day organised by the Scottish Civic Trust later this year. Textiles and non-textiles, as I think the terminology amongst the naturist fraternity is, are welcome and Teena Gould, social convener of the club, is hoping that they will even recruit some more members, so to speak.

She applied on spec, having read the criteria for acceptance, and hey presto, the club got the go ahead. It makes a welcome change from the usual collection of cathedrals, historic buildings and public buildings that usually make up the list. I will refrain from making any reference to old ruins.

Just hope the midges stay away.