A wry view of life for the world-weary

Irony Of The Week (6)

Whatever your view on climate change, soaring temperatures in the Arctic leading to ice melting and heavy rain have had some amusing consequences.

In 2008 the Norwegian government built the Global Seed Vault deep into the side of a mountain on Spitsbergen to lodge a million varieties of seeds with the aim of preserving our food supply, come what may. Of course, the unthinkable has happened – meltwater has inundated the entrance tunnel, giving the precious seeds a dousing. “It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that,” said a spokesperson. With planning like that, I bet they forgot a packet of lettuce seeds.

And then I read this week that a team of 40 scientists from five Canadian universities have had to abandon an expedition into the Hudson Bay to research the impact of climate warning. The reason for putting the four-year project on ice – warming temperatures created perilous ice conditions off the coast of Newfoundland, making it dangerous for their ships to go any further. So these climate change warriors became victims of climate change but at least they got their hands on some empirical evidence.

Toilet Of The Week (11)

Are children really so reluctant to use school toilets because of the noises that accompany the relieving of their bowels and bladders? Apparently so, if Cecilia Cato, a councillor in the Swedish town of Tingsryd, is to be believed.

Her solution is to pipe music into the bogs and the Council are to vote on her motion, I learned this week. This innovative ploy has already been introduced at the newly built music school in the town and some claim that the mellifluous atmosphere provided by the sound of music will be environmentally friendly, reducing the temptation to run taps and use excessive toilet paper to drown out the sounds.

If the motion is passed, what to play? Handel’s Water Music is an obvious as is Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture. What about Beethoven’s Battle Symphony, scored for 200 cannons, or Abba’s Waterloo? Suggestions will be gratefully received.

What Is The Origin Of (132)?…

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water

This is a curious expression and when used, it is intended to convey an admonition – in your haste in getting rid of something unpleasant and undesirable, don’t mistakenly eject something that is of value. Harassed parents of infants may demur, but, of course, the baby is what is valuable. The development of internal plumbing and fixed bathroom fittings make this warning somewhat otiose these days but it makes for an entertaining figure of speech.

The phrase appears to be German in origin and first made its printed appearance in 1512 in Thomas Murner’s Narenbeschworung which translates as Advice to Fools. Whether this was a hazard facing Teutonic tots or not is not clear but the title of Murner’s meisterwerk and the fact that it is a satire suggests that he was writing with his tongue firmly in his cheek. Whatever the rationale behind using the phrase, it became popular, its most usual formulation being das Kind mit dem Bade ausschutten.

A variant appeared in Sebastian Franck’s book of proverbs, Spruchvorter, published in 1541. He illustrated the proverb by citing someone sending an old nag to the knacker’s yard but omitting to take the saddle and bridle off first – an unexpected bonus for the knacker. The astronomer, Johannes Kepler, wrote in his Tertius Interveniens, published in 1610, “this is a caution, lest you throw out the baby with the bath water.

The phrase didn’t appear in Blighty until the middle of the 19th century when Thomas Carlyle used a rather clumsy rendition of the proverb in his article in the Fraser magazine in December 1849 which then became a pamphlet four years later. “The Germans say you must empty out the bathing-tub”, he wrote, “but not the baby along with it….How to abolish the abuses of slavery, and save the precious thing in it: alas, I do not pretend this is easy”. The precious thing in this instance is the slave – hardly a statement which would resonate with our sentiments today.

In the English speaking world the phrase didn’t reach a degree of popularity until the early 20th century and this may well be down to George Bernard Shaw’s usage in the preface to Getting Married, published in 1911. There he wrote, “we shall in a very literal sense empty the baby out with the bath”.  And there we have it.

I may be accused of casting aspersions about Carlyle’s attitude to slaves and slavery. When we cast aspersions we criticise someone or something, their ability and there is a sense that the allegations may not be entirely fair and are certainly made by innuendo rather than directly. What is interesting about this phrase is the word aspersions whose root comes from the Latin verb aspergere, meaning to sprinkle. An aspersion was the ritual sprinkling of water and in the Roman Catholic Church was a form of baptism.

By 1749, however, there had been a complete volte-face in its meaning. Instead of sprinkling something beneficial, the sense is that we are showering someone with damaging statements or, possibly, false accusations. It appears in this sense Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones; “I defy all the world to cast a just aspersion on my character; nay, the most scandalous tongues have never dared censure my reputation”.

Is it too fanciful to think this change in meaning is a consequence of the Reformation and the consequent fall from grace of all things Catholic? I wonder.

I Don’t Want To Belong To Any Club That Will Accept People Like Me As A Member – Part Thirty Eight

The Ivy Lane Club

This was a relatively short-lived club, founded in the 1740s, the brain child of Samuel Johnson who wanted to fill his leisure hours with good conversation and a forum in which to impress his comrades with the breadth of his knowledge and acerbity of his tongue. The assembled company met on Tuesday evenings at the King’s Head, a tavern and beefsteak house which was to be found in the eponymous Ivy Lane, off to the left of Paternoster Row, if you were looking down it from the west, under the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral.

As well as the good Doctor, its members included his good friend, Dr Richard Bathurst, the author John Hawkesworth, the publisher John Payne, John Hawkins, an attorney, and the Archdeacon of Norwich, Dr Samuel Salter. Evenings were engaged in literary discussions, Johnson often using the occasion to try out his latest theories or road test his compositions. Inevitably, food and drink were partaken.

Occasionally, the club would move venue, as it did upon Johnson’s suggestion to celebrate the publication of the first book by one of his literary proteges, Charlotte Lennox, The Life of Harriott Stewart, Written by Herself. Although the idea was hatched at the Ivy Lane the club members together with Charlotte and her husband assembled at the Devil Tavern in Fleet Street at 8 o’clock. There were twenty there in all. Johnson had arranged for a magnificent hot apple pie to be baked in Lennox’s honour, topped with bay leaves symbolising the fact that she was now an authoress. Invoking the Muses with all due ceremony, Johnson placed a crown of laurel leaves on the astonished woman’s head.

Sir John Hawkins picked up the story. “The night passed, as must be imagined, in pleasant conversation and harmless mirth, intermingled, at different periods, with the refreshments of tea and coffee”. About five in the morning, Johnson was beaming, although he had only imbibed lemonade. The restraint shown by Johnson was not replicated by his companions who were with difficulty persuaded to forsake the delights of Bacchus for another round of coffee. When it came to getting the bill, there was another difficulty. “The waiters were so overcome with sleep, that it was two hours before we could get a bill, and it was not till near eight that the creaking of the street-door gave the signal for our departure.”

One of the benefits of being a member of a club is the connections one makes. John Payne was looking to establish a literary magazine, the Adventurer, which, although running from 1752 to 1754, was one of the most influential periodicals of the 17th century. He appointed his fellow Ivy Lane clubman, John Hawkesworth, who was then a jobbing journalist. But Hawkesworth had learned at the feet of Johnson and he learned to emulate the moral and literary voice of his master, so much so that readers were scarcely able to determine what was Johnson’s and what had been written by Hawkesworth. In many ways, the Ivy Lane club was Hawkesworth’s finishing school.

Alas, though, things didn’t last. Hawkesworth was said to have made much of his close association with Johnson which pissed the Doctor off and they fell out in 1756. The club disbanded and when Johnson in 1783, a year before his death, tried to reassemble as many of the old crew as were left, he found that the old landlord of the King’s Head was dead and the pub shut down. And that was the end of that.

Brief Notes

Recently I had to have a medical procedure, the preparation for which required me to sit on a toilet for several hours. The ominous gurglings emanating from my bowels brought to mind Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote, “what comfort can the Vortices of Descartes give to a man who has whirlwinds in his bowels”.

Rather than seeking solace in Descartes’ vortices, I found myself scrutinising the label of the inside of my briefs. I have already pondered the meaning of the warning “keep away from fire” – yes, it was there again – but this pair had another somewhat mystifying notice, “part of a three piece set”.  Without anything else to do and fearful of the consequences of moving from the porcelain throne, I mulled this over in my mind.

When I buy underpants, there are a number of criteria that that the garments have to satisfy. They have to be capacious enough to accommodate my nether regions comfortably, they have to be of a fabric that won’t irritate, there has to be the correct number of pants in the packet and they have to be of a colour that wouldn’t cause me to die of shame if I was carted off to hospital unexpectedly and they were revealed to the medical staff. I can understand that the reference to my briefs being part of a three piece set being marginally useful at the point of sale, but is there a deeper meaning, I wondered?

Slightly horror-struck, I began to wonder whether I had been wearing underpants incorrectly throughout the years. Perhaps they had to be worn in layers, three being designed to provide maximum comfort. And rather like a matryoshka doll, was each imperceptibly bigger than the other to ensure that perfect fit? And how do you know the order in which to put them on? When I was able to liberate myself I saw that the other two pairs of briefs had the same label. No help there, then.

Perhaps I had inadvertently bought a packet of briefs designed for the exclusive use of triplets. You can imagine the scene. A person is found wandering the streets. The helpful sign in their underpants alerts the authorities that they are one of three. This sort of knowledge may help enormously in returning the lost soul to the bosom of his family.

Perhaps on a more mundane level, the label is designed to engender some order into the drawer containing your briefs. Helpfully, the label will allow you to store two other pairs of briefs bearing the same label with this one. But the system breaks down if you are wearing a pair – clearly there will only be two in the drawer – or if you were foolish enough to buy several packs of briefs bearing the label. Think of the chaos.

The only sane conclusion was that it was of no interest to the wearer but at least pondering the question gave me something to while away the time. Fortunately, the results of the procedure were rather like my bowels – all clear.

A Measure Of Things – Part Five


As an unreconstructed male, I have only ever had a very passing interest in jewellery and the terminology applied to describing the qualities of the bijou leave me nonplussed. I don’t really know my 18 carats from my 9. What do these descriptions signify? And what exactly is a carat?

It all started with the edible pods of Ceratonia silique or the Carob Tree. Traders in the Middle East weighed gold and gemstones using carob seeds in the belief that of all the seeds available, the carob was the most uniform in mass. In reality it was no more standard in size and weight than any other seed but let’s not spoil a good story. The solidus was introduced into widespread circulation by the emperor Constantine. It was almost pure gold and weighed around 4.5 grams or the equivalent of 24 carob seeds.

The fallacy that all carob seeds were uniform may have meant that you might have got a good bargain or were ripped off but at least it provided the etymological root for the unit of measure we now associate with gold and diamonds. The Greeks called the seed keration and this term was modified by the Arabs to qirat. It appeared in Italian as carato and first appeared in English sometime in the 15th century as carat.

Each country had its own standard for a carat which must have been very confusing for traders. In Cyprus a carat was 187 milligrams in weight whilst in Livorno it was 215.9. In London the carat was set originally at 205.409 milligrams but in 1887 it was adjusted to 205.303 milligrams. So confusing was the situation for international traders and consumers of jewellery that there was a demand for international standardisation.

This task fell to the General Conference of Weights and Measures which had been established in 1875 and met every 4 to 6 years in Sevres in France to thrash out agreement on internationally accepted units of measure. It was the Fourth Conference meeting in 1907 that turned its collective minds to the question of the carat and they concluded, not unreasonably, that what was good enough for the Romans was good enough for them. A carat or, more precisely, the metric carat was set at 200 milligrams, a figure that can easily be subdivided into tens and hundreds. Pure gold was 24 carats.

Talking of gold, the designations that apply to jewellery saying that it is 9 carat or 18 carat gold merely detail the amount of pure gold in the piece. 24 carat is as high as you can go – this is pure gold. 22 carat gold has 22/24ths of pure gold or around 91.6% whereas 18 carat has around 75% and 9 carat around 37.5%. The higher the carat rating the more expensive the piece but ironically, the lower the gold content the stronger and more durable the metal is. When you are accused of penny-pinching for going for the lower carat, just remind your beloved that it will be harder wearing. It might just work!

When it comes to diamonds, a carat is used to describe how much it weighs and this has been the case since around the 1570s. Each carat can be subdivided into hundredths, known as pointers in the jewellery trade. When used to describe gems, a carat has the same value as it has when applied to gold – 200 milligrams. A one carat diamond weighs 200 milligrams whereas one described as a 0.5 carat diamond will weigh 100 milligrams, one that is 0.25 carat, 50 milligrams – you get the picture. Its carat, together with clarity, colour and cut, goes a long way to determining its value.

Double Your Money – Part Twenty

Victor Lustig (1890 – 1947)

Born in Hostinne which was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire but is now in the Czech Republic, Lustig has been called America’s greatest fraudster. Whether that was really the case or not, he made a career out of scamming, his piece de resistance being the sale of the Eiffel Tower, not once but twice.

Paris in 1925 was emerging from the doldrums of the First World War but its iconic landmark was proving a drain on the civic resources, requiring constant maintenance and decoration. Reading a newspaper article about the city’s dilemma over the tower, which was only ever intended to be a temporary structure, gave Lustig an idea. Using forged government papers and posing as the deputy-general of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs, Lustig invited the heads of six of the city’s scrap metal dealers to a meeting at the Hotel de Crillon.

There he laid out a tale of woe. The bill for the upkeep of the Eiffel Tower was so high that the authorities had only one course of action – to demolish it and sell the structure off for scrap. Because the public outcry would be great if news of the plan leaked out, the scrap metal dealers, who had been selected for their probity, had to keep everything under their chapeaux. The dealers would have the opportunity to bid for the business. Only when the demolition began, would the public be aware of what was going on.

The dealers were then taken on a tour of inspection, giving Lustig the opportunity to see who was the keenest for the business. He identified Andre Poisson as his mark – Poisson was struggling to break into the big time and saw this as his opportunity. He took the bait. La Poisson, however, smelled a rat and wondered why everything was being transacted with such speed and secrecy. Lustig offered Poisson another meeting in which he revealed that times was hard, it was difficult to make ends meet on an official salary and if Poisson could see a way to grease his palms, he would be guaranteed the contract. The sum mentioned was a whopping $100,000.

Poisson who had fallen for the scam hook, line and sinker went to his office, returned with the money and, surprise, surprise, Lustig and his colleague took a train to Vienna with a suitcase of money to let the dust settle. Poisson was so embarrassed by being duped that he didn’t report the scam to the police. Lustig had chosen his mark well.

As the police had not been alerted, Lustig returned to Paris and, astonishingly, convened a meeting with another group of six scrap dealers, rolling out the same story and scam. This time, the chosen mark became suspicious and took the forged documentation to the gendarmerie. By the time they came a-calling, Lustig and his accomplice had made good their escape.

To Lustig is attributed the Ten Commandments for Con Men. As well as being a good listener, never looking bored and being tidy and sober, the master fraudster recommended agreeing with the political and religious views of your victim. Key to a successful scam was never prying into the mark’s personal circumstances – they will reveal them themselves – and never boast. Advice to lock away in the memory, for sure.

We will look at some of Lustig’s other scams next time.

Lessons Of The Week (2)

Never make an important decision whilst walking in Snowdonia.

Teaching Aid Of The Week

For children of a certain age, there is an irresistible fascination with the word poo. Parents and relatives react with shock when their little darlings use the word inappropriately whereas the kids find doing so highly amusing. But instead of feigning shock and surprise, wouldn’t it be a good idea to harness the young’s interest in matters scatological into something positive?

Well, this was the reasoning of publisher, Shuji Yamamoto, who, I learned this week, has developed a series of books around a character called Professor Poo  – a spectacle wearing, moustachioed turd. The books have been flying off the shelves like shit off a shovel – some 1.83m copies have been sold since March.

The books feature various exercises called Unko Kanji Doriru (poo kanji drill) and are designed to put some fun into the balls-aching work of memorising over two thousand kanji characters. Each sentence the children learn includes the word poo and this novel approach appears to be a hit with students and parents alike.

School wasn’t that much fun in my day!

Sangfroid Of The Week

Here’s a question to mull over. If you were in the fortunate position of having a little bit of warning before disaster struck, what would you do? For some it would be to check that they had clean underwear on and, perhaps, a freshly laundered shirt. For others it might be to eat your favourite food or a glass of hooch. But, I must confess, it has never crossed my mind to go out and give the lawn that final cut.

This astonishing picture shows Theunis Wessels cutting his lawn in Three Hills, Alberta in Canada whilst in the background there is a fully formed tornado only a couple of kilometres away. The twister headed away from the house and five minutes later was gone.

Hardly worth putting the mower away for.