A wry view of life for the world-weary

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


John Joseph Merlin (1735 – 1803)

One of the underlying themes of this series is the role that luck plays in success – being in the right place at the right time or, in the case of inductees into our illustrious Hall of Fame, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Perhaps a shining example of this is the Belgian-born inventor, John Joseph Merlin. Born in Huy, he studied at the Academie des Sciences in Paris where he became well-known for his inventiveness and was persuaded to move to London in 1760.

In London Merlin used his knowledge of automata and the mechanics of clocks to develop a range of innovative toys and musical instruments which he patented. In 1783 he opened in Hanover Square a Mechanical Museum where he displayed many of the toys and objects that he had developed. It was a great success, Madame d’Arblay noting that “Merlin was quite the rage in London where everything was a la Merlin – Merlin chairs” – he had developed a mechanical gouty chair – “Merlin pianos, Merlin swings…Merlin fiddles and Merlin mechanical pegs for violins and violoncellos”.

Merlin was lionised by the great and the good. He was a particular friend of Thomas Gainsborough, who painted a rather splendid portrait, possibly in return for one of Merlin’s mechanical instruments. He was a regular visitor at the house of the musicologist, Charles Burney. His daughter, Fanny, wrote that Merlin was “very diverting in conversation…he speaks his opinion upon all subjects and about all persons with the most undisguised freedom”. But showing a little Englander attitude even then, she noted “He does not, though a foreigner, want words but he arranges and pronounces them very comically”.

Another theme that runs through this series is man’s frustrations with the limitations that bipedalism imposes on the ability to get from A to B as quickly as possible. We have seen early attempts to create bicycles, air flight, submarines and the like. Merlin applied his ingenuity to the problem of how to accelerate man’s ability to travel and his light bulb moment was to hit upon the ice skate from which he removed the blade and replaced it with a couple of wheels. Attaching them to the feet he had made, and naturally, patented the first pair of roller skates.

Merlin was a showman and could not resist the opportunity to demonstrate his roller skates at one of the premier events of the 1771 London season, a soiree at the home of Mrs Cowley’s at Carlisle House. For maximum effect, Merlin decided to make his entrance on his roller skates while playing the violin – and why not? What happened next is to be found in Thomas Busby’s Concert Room and Orchestra Anecdotes of 1805. “when not having provided the means of retarding his velocity, or commanding its direction” – two major design faults, I feel –“he impelled himself against a mirror of more than five hundred pounds value, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces and wounded himself most severely”.

Merlin’s dramatic entrance set back the development of the roller skate by nearly 90 years. In 1863 James Plimpton, an American, came up with the idea of a rocking skate with four wheels for stability and independent axles. So successful was Plimpton’s device that roller skating took off. Plimpton’s design is still today.

For inventing the roller skate but putting back its development by nearly a century because of your eccentric demonstration, John Julius Merlin, you are a worthy inductee.


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

Sign Of The Week

One of my greatest fears is to be trapped in a lift. Imagine being trapped in a lift with a group of competitors from the World Irish Dance Championships.

Belfast is the venue for this year’s competition which comes to a climax today at the Waterfront Hotel. It is a city which has been through a lot and the hotels are well used to having to take precautions to minimise threats and enhance the safety of their guests. The Dance Championships pose a particular problem because the participants will insist on perfecting their Michael Flatley moves in the lift.

The Premier Inn has chosen to take direct action by posting a sign warning guests not to dance in the lift. It points out, not unreasonably, “if you dance in the lifts they will stop moving and you will be stuck here until we can get an engineer to come and rescue you”.  That should do the trick.

Best to give the hotel a swerve followed by a pirouette and a double somersault until the terpsichoreans have disappeared and left the law-abiding, stationary, lift users to go up and down in peace.

Sporting Event Of The Week (3)

TOWT, aka my wife, and I occasionally spend a pleasant weekend in the environs of the beautiful village of Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire. I have noticed the locals walk with a strange gait and now I know the reason why. It is all down to the ancient sport of shin-kicking, the championship for which has been held on the adjacent Dover’s Hill since 1612.

The rules are quite simple. The contestants stick straw down their trouser legs and assault each other’s shins with gusto. The winner is the last person standing and it is thought to be a variant of Cotswold Wrestling.

Alas, I read this week, the 2017 games, scheduled for June 2nd, have just been cancelled. The organisers cite a number of reasons for the decision including dwindling attendances, a reduction in the number of contestants and increased ‘elf and safety requirements, all of which have contributed to a shortage of dosh to stage this year’s event. The organisers hope, however, that they will be able to stage the event again next year.

As the fates of all of us are in the hands of a group of Alpha males, I have a suggestion. They could all be invited to Chipping Campden and settle the world’s problems with a few bouts of shin-kicking. They could then retire to the excellent Eight Bells and sample some of Hook Norton’s finest. I offer this suggestion to you, Boris, free of charge. Let’s see if you can make a mess of that.

The world would be a safer place and one of England’s finest traditions would be restored. What’s not to like?

What Is The Origin Of (123)?…


To a T

I used this the other day when I was writing about keeping my hat on and it occurred to me that I hadn’t a clue what the T in the expression was or meant. The phrase, of course, means that there is a perfect fit and usually follows a noun or pronoun such as that’s me to a T.

Before we plunge into finding out what a T is, it is worth noting that this has been around since at least the 17th century. Possibly the first usage in print is to be found, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in The Humours and Conversations of the Town by James Wright, published in 1693, where we find on page 102, “All the under-villages and towns-men come to him for redress; which he does to a T”. Variants, where T is spelt phonetically as tee, appeared in Edward Ward’s Labour In Vain, published in 1700, “Harry cajoled my inquirer, and fitted his humour to a t__” and Joseph Giles’ Miscellaneous Poems of 1771, “I’ll tell you where you may be suited to a tee”.

There are two possible explanations as to what a T may be. The first is a tee which is a right-angled instrument used primarily by stone masons and carpenters to draw and measure square corners. Obviously, a skilled practitioner of the art of teeing would ensure a perfect fit, with no gap or room to move. This would be a common or garden tool, found in many a workshop and building site, and its usage fits perfectly (pun intended) the meaning of our phrase. My hesitation in accepting as the root is because the first usage adopts T rather than tee. Of course, this may be a vagary of the spelling conventions which were somewhat looser then than they are now but perhaps it is not. But it also doesn’t really add to the sense. A tee is the means of ensuring a perfect fit, not a description of the fit itself.

The other contender is that the T is an abbreviation for the word, tittle. As a noun, it was used as early as the late 14th century to denote a small stroke or point in writing. Examples of a tittle might be the dot over the letter I or the cross in the letter t or an accent mark. From this a secondary meaning developed, that of a jot or a small particle, the weeniest mark or space possible. In English, tittle in a figurative sense is often accompanied by jot and did so in the King James Bible of 1611. In Matthew 5:18 we find, “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled”. An unaccompanied tittle appeared in the same version’s translation of Luke 16:17, “and it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail”.

A jot owes its origin to the Greek letter, iota, which was the smallest letter and so in concert with tittle, it emphasises the smallness of the aperture. We have already seen that tittle is found on its own and in the context of our expression, adds some sense – something that is missing from the alternative, tee. So it may be that the T in our expression is a tittle of the word, tittle, a satisfying result if that is indeed the case.

Double Your Money – Part Seventeen


The Letters of Jerusalem

Occasionally, just very occasionally, I get an unsolicited e-mail pop into my in-box, usually from an African unknown to me, telling me that they have access to untold wealth. If I would only send them a small sum of money and my bank account details, then they will transfer the money to me, I can take my slice and everything in the garden will be rosy. Smelling a rat, I have never been tempted but the sheer frequency of these e-mails suggests that some must take the bait, lured by the prospect of getting rich quick.

It seems that these emails, which are known as advance fee fraud, follow a long if ignoble traditions, dating back to at least the late 18th century and revolutionary France if an account published in his memoirs by Eugene Francois Vidocq is to believed. Vidocq was an interesting character, having been an accomplished thief who then became a policeman. When he retired from the force in 1827, he had amassed a fortune of 0.5 million francs. He was also the model for Jacques Collin in Balzac’s Pere Goriot, but that is by the by.

The scam was conducted by prisoners and guards at the Bicetre prison which was in a southern suburb of Paris. The starting point was to compile a list of the rich living in the targeted area, particularly those with anti-revolutionary sentiments. The scammers would then compose what they termed a letter of Jerusalem. Vidocq gave an extensive version of the type of letter, containing many of the characteristics of the modern scamming e-mail, which I will abridge for convenience.

It would start off, “you will doubtlessly be astonished at receiving a letter from a person unknown to you who is about to ask a favour from you; but from the sad condition in which I am placed, I am lost if some honourable person will not lend me succour”. The correspondent then went on to spin a tale in which he and his master were emigrating from revolutionary France on foot, to avoid suspicion, with a casket containing “sixteen hundred francs in gold and the diamonds of the late marchioness”. They were beset by assailants and the valet, acting on his master’s orders, threw the casket into a ditch.

Once the party had reached their foreign destination, funds began to run low and so the valet was sent back to France to recover the casket. The valet was about to recover the casket from the ditch when further troubles befell him. “I prepared to fulfil my mission, when the landlord .. a bitter Jacobin, remarking my embarrassment when he proposed to drink the health of the republic” – a phrase designed to further win the support of the recipients –“had me apprehended as a suspected person”. He was now languishing in jail and if the recipient could only find it in his heart to send some money, then the casket would be recovered and the profits split.

Vidocq claimed that 20% of the letters elicited a response, with correspondents offering to recover the casket from its hiding place. Often a batch of letters would raise the not inconsiderable sum of between 12 and 15,000 francs. Some even visited the area in the hope of finding the casket without the aid of their correspondent but needless to say, their searches turned up nothing. One cloth seller from the Rue de Prouvaires was caught undermining one of the arches of the Pont Neuf in an attempt to find the diamonds of the Duchess de Bouillon which is where his correspondent claimed to have hidden them.

It just goes to show, there is nothing new under the sun.

Book Corner – April 2017 (1)


Agnes Grey – Anne Bronte

Of the astonishing Bronte sisters, Anne, the youngest, is the forgotten one. She is the one you struggle to remember in a pub quiz. Of the three she was the only one who held down a job, living a miserable existence as a governess, one of the few occupations open to an unmarried woman in reduced circumstances, and the only one to be buried away from Haworth, in Scarborough.

For many these days the upstairs-downstairs world of 18th and 19th century England has a strange fascination – witness the inexplicable success of Downton Abbey. The governess, though, existed in a sort of mezzanine world, not good enough to spend much time with her betters (natch) but too good to be hobnobbing with the servants. The result was that the governess often led a miserable and isolated life, at the mercy of the spoilt brats she was supposed to keep out of mischief, if not actually educate.

Agnes Grey, published in 1847, is autobiographical and tells the story and struggles of the eponymous heroine as, in order to make a financial contribution to her hard-pressed family after the death of her father, the parson Richard Grey, she finds employment as a governess firstly to the Bloomfields and then the Murrays. The Bloomfields were horrid brats and led Agnes a merry dance, forcing her at times to restrain them physically. The Murray sisters were a notch up the social scale.   Rosalie, the elder, has ideas above her station, enjoys flirting and makes a socially improving disastrous marriage which she instantly regrets. The younger, Matilda, is besotted with her horses, wanders around with a whip in hand, swearing like a trooper.

Agnes is a rather passive voice relating the trials and tribulations that her charges bring on her. Although we are urged to see this as an early feminist novel – it is about a woman and written from the woman’s perspective but that doesn’t mean it is feminist in my book  – you can’t help thinking that Agnes is a bit too prim and proper, a little too whiny and annoyingly infallible. She is the epitome of a vicar’s daughter. Her beacon of hope is the kind, worthy curate, Mr Weston, with whom she eventually settles down. But it is not a tempestuous love affair, merely one acknowledged by the bumping of elbows together. It is an interesting period piece about the role of a woman trying to make a living for herself but I think it would be wrong to read too much into it.

The style is easy and the book is well paced. There is one unsettling image. Tom Bloomfield has brought a nest containing some small birds into the garden and is proceeding to torture them, much as a cat does with its prey. Agnes puts them out of their suffering by dashing them to death with a large stone.  But it is hard to say we get to know Agnes by the end of the book, what made her tick. She is slightly aloof from what is going on around her. Nonetheless, it is an interesting read and confirms what a literary powerhouse the parsonage in Haworth really was.

Anne’s relative obscurity is partly down to her big sister, Charlotte. Agnes Grey was accepted by publishers whereas Charlotte’s first effort, The Professor, was rejected but Anne was unfortunate in her choice of publisher and sales were poor. Charlotte’s second effort, Jane Eyre also dealt with the life of a governess in a rather more vigorous and romanticised style. It sold like wildfire and whilst Charlotte’s publisher took over the publication of the other sisters’ works and they were republished in 1847, Anne was destined to remain in her elder sister’s shade, not helped by Charlotte’s decision, after Anne’s death, not to allow the republication of the Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Sibling rivalry, eh?

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


The Red Lions

Sometimes the best of clubs are formed spontaneously without any real rhyme or reason. One such is the rather splendid Red Lions whose convivial banquets were not to be missed by those fortunate to be associated with them.

The story begins in 1839 when the British Association for the Advancement of Science met in Birmingham for a symposium. Some of the younger members, perhaps bored with the company of the older fuddy-duddies, decided to dine together at the Red Lion in Church Street. So convivial was the evening and so well did the diners get on that the assembled company determined that they would repeat the exercise wherever the British Association met next. And so they did, taking their name from the hostelry where they had held their first repast. When in London, they dined at Anderton’s in Fleet Street.

The fortunes of the club mirror the life of its leading light, Professor Edward Forbes, who held the title of President. He drew around him some close friends who were described in contemporary reports as “jovial philosophers” and membership was carefully controlled. There were some qualifications for entry – you had to satisfy the other members that you could sing or roar or come up with a bon mot – not necessarily a high bar for entry but one designed to keep out the hoi polloi. You would not necessarily go for the fare, plain roast and boiled being the food of choice. Invitation cards were issued for each meal, featuring the figure of a red lion erect, bearing a pot of beer in one paw and a clay pipe in the other. So that you were in no doubt that vegetarians were not welcome, the invite commenced with the words, “the carnivora will feed”.

During the proceedings, members were invited to talk, tell jokes and sing songs. When a contribution met with Forbes’ approval, he would gather up his coat tails as if they were a tail and wag it and roar his approval heartily. Taking Forbes’ lead, all the other members would follow suit. So celebrated did this form of approbation become that the secretary of the Zoological Society, a Mr Mitchell, presented the Club with the skin of a lion. This graced the President’s chair with paws at the elbows and the tail handily positioned so that it could be waved with gusto. A drawing of proceedings at a dinner in Aberdeen survives showing the lion in action.


All good things must come to an end, they say, and following Forbes’ death in 1854 the wind seemed to have gone out of the club’s sails. An attempt was made in 1865 when the British Association met in Birmingham to revive the club and sixty conference goers attended the dinner, although for some reason it was not held in the Red Lion. Alas, though, according to the Daily News, the atmosphere was not the same. The diners, none of whom had to demonstrate any of the qualities that Forbes had insisted upon, were relatively subdued, although there were some songs sung, including Professor Rankine’s own composition, the Mathematician In Love.

The revival never got off the ground and that was that. I wonder what happened to the lion skin?

A Better Life – Part Seven


The Town of Pullman

The idea of an industrialist creating a community for their workforce was not a new one by the time George Pullman – he of Pullman carriage fame – got round to it in 1880. After all, there were the successful models of Sir Titus Salt who created Saltaire in Yorkshire and the Krupp Munitions Company in Essen to emulate. The theory, perhaps, was that a happy workforce was a productive workforce but for the American industrialist what drove the venture was his belief that capitalism was the best way to meet all material and spiritual needs.

Pullman bought some 4,000 acres of land west of Lake Calumet in Chicago in 1880 for $800,000, although the actual town only occupied some 300 acres of the site. The first permanent residents, the Benson family, moved in on 1st January 1881 and by 1884 the town was completed, boasting some 350 residents. Pullman was run on a strictly capitalist basis and was expected to return a profit of 7% per annum. Employees were given two pay cheques, one for their rent which was immediately paid back to their landlord, and the other for the essentials of life which they could only buy from shops owned by their benevolent employer.

There was a strict demarcation policy as to who could live where. Detached, eight or nine roomed houses, commanding a monthly rent of between $28 and $50 were sited near the factory and were only available to company executives who were spared having to traipse past the less commodious dwellings. Foremen and company officials were allocated in Dutch colonial style row houses for which they paid $2 per month. Skilled workers had to make do with smaller quarters whilst the unskilled were accommodated in two room apartments. The houses, though, were well built and still stand today.

There was only one church in the town – after all the factory used interchangeable parts so why wouldn’t one church do for all denominations? – and there was no pub, although the hotel used to accommodate visiting dignitaries had its own private bar. According to mortality statistics, it was the healthiest place to live but it came at a cost. Pullman ruled the place with a rod of iron, prohibiting independent newspapers, public meetings and open discussion. Harper’s Weekly commented in 1885 that Bismarck was insignificant “compared with the ruling authority of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Pullman”. Regular inspections were carried out on the properties and if there was a breach of cleanliness a worker could be given 10 days’ notice to leave.

By 1892 the town had turned a profit and was valued at $5m. But although the place was aesthetically pleasing, man cannot live on views alone. In 1894 America was in the grip of a depression and sales of Pullman’s goods stalled. He cut wages but didn’t reduce the rents he was charging. The result was that the residents were trapped and plummeting into debt. This, in turn, fuelled discontent. As one resident was reported as saying, “we are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechised in the Pullman church and when we die we shall go to the Pullman hell”.

The only way out was to strike. The action received the support of the railway unions who removed Pullman cars from the trains and was only resolved when Federal troops were called in and started shooting strikers, 34 of whom were killed. The dust-up spelt the end for Pullman’s utopia, the Illinois Supreme Court, in 1898, a year after Pullman’s death, ruling that a company town was illegal and forcing the company to sell off the housing. It seems that capitalism isn’t all-powerful, after all.

Bollards Of The Week

I can’t resist a story involving bollards and Trossachs, so here goes.

If you are a knitter, are you bored with making socks, scarves, jumpers and baby clothes? If so, here’s a novel idea for you – bollard covers.

A circle of 40 knitters have made an Easter-themed cover for each of the 20 traffic bollards to be found in the Scottish town of Callander on the border of the Trossachs, I learnt this week. It took the ladies some 8 weeks and 100 balls of wool to finish the job.

They have form because this is the third bollard related project they have worked on. Last summer they knitted some Minion covers and for the town’s winter festival some on an Olaf theme (me neither).

From the photos I’ve seen they look cute and at least it took their minds off agitating for independence. I just hope they haven’t asked Cadbury or the National Trust to sponsor them.

Graffiti Of The Week

It is gratifying to know that they still do things in Cambridge with a dash of panache. Six new houses which have been built on the site of a pub (shame) in Water Street in Chesterton and selling for around £1.25m a time, have been daubed with graffiti. What is so unusual about what is regrettably an everyday occurrence is that the slogans were in Latin: “loci populum” and “locus in domo”.

Mary Beard – does the media think she is the only one with a working knowledge of Latin? – was drafted in to translate the slogans for the benefit of those who drifted through their version of the groves of Academe without an acquaintance with the ancient tongue. Her take was that it was too lovely a place to be turned into homes.

With vandals like these, Cambridge doesn’t need the services of the self-proclaimed, and to date anonymous, grammar vigilante who has prowled around the streets of Bristol at night for the last 13 years, rectifying the most egregious examples of the blight that is the grocer’s apostrophe. More power to his elbow and step ladder.

Illegitimi non carborundum, I say.