A wry view of life for the world-weary

A Better Life – Part Fourteen

Elbert Hubbard and the Roycrofters

Sometimes you find yourself in a dead-end and know that there is something better you could be doing with your life. It matters not if you have made a small fortune as a partner in the Larkin Soap Company, if your dream is to be a writer and to promote high quality goods. So in 1894 Elbert Hubbard quit his lucrative position to set up a printing company in East Aurora, New York, taking as his inspiration William Morris and the English Arts and Crafts movement. His aim was to convince Americans that beauty was to be found in everyday objects.

The press was called Roycroft after two English printers, Samuel and Thomas Roycroft, who operated in London between 1650 and 1690. As important to Hubbard was the fact that roycroft was a title given to guildsmen who had achieved a high degree of skill and were thus qualified to make objects for the monarchy. The books produced by the Roycroft Press were noted for their elaborate book-binding and typography and used traditional skills and techniques. Hubbard’s espousal of high quality, traditional craftsmanship soon saw an influx of like-minded furniture makers, metalsmiths and leathersmiths. An arty community was born in East Aurora.

The Roycroft motto clearly spelt out their aims;The Roycrofters are a small band of workers who make beautiful books and things—making them as good as they can.” They took a quote from John Ruskin as their modus operandi – “a belief in working with the head, hand and heart and mixing enough play with the work so that each task is pleasurable and makes for health and happiness.” Eschewing some of the mistakes other communes had made, Hubbard deliberately excluded those who just wanted to spend their time there pontificating rather than getting their hands dirty. Instead, as Hubbard recalled, his preferred recruits were “boys who have been expelled from school, blind people, deaf people, old people, jail-birds and mental defectives” who all managed to do good work.

Although Hubbard owned the property, Roycroft was similar to other American utopian communes in that meals were taken communally, there were meetings, sports events and communal studies. Wages were low but then there was little to spend money on. The commune managed to create an atmosphere of shared values where work was satisfying and everyone looked out for each other.

Throughout the first decade of the 20th century, the community thrived and developed what was known as the Campus. In 1909 a powerhouse was built to provide the workshops with heat and electricity and hundreds of craftsman-style bungalows were built to house the artisans. By the early 1910s the Roycrofters were producing everything from lighting and stained glass to pottery and jewellery as well as the staple products of books and furniture. Much is still sought after today.

Hubbard, by this time, had seen commercial success from his books, Little Journeys and A Message To Garcia, and toured the States on lecture tours. This, of course, provided ample opportunity to attract and recruit like-minded craftspeople. Alas, though, tragedy struck Hubbard and by extension the Roycrofters in 1915 when he and his wife, Alice Moore Hubbard, a prominent campaigner for women’s suffrage, were lost at sea when the HMS Lusitania went down.

Hubbard’s son, Bert, assumed his father’s role and tried to wholesale the Roycrofters’ furniture into retail outlets. Sears & Roebuck eventually stocked some of the goods but it was a short-lived success, the commune closing its doors eventually in 1938, after the depression forced Bert to file for bankruptcy. Fourteen of the original Roycroft buildings can still be seen today.


Plastic Bag Tax Update (3)

The introduction of the plastic bag tax has led to the adoption of what are laughingly called bags for life. Those of us who have been suckered into using them glow with pride that we are doing our bit for the environment but at what cost to our health?

If you use them to carry raw foods such as fish and meat, I learned from the Food Standards Authority this week, you run the risk of contracting food poisoning. Apparently, there can be cross-contamination between produce if carried in the same bag, even if there is no obvious sign of leakage. The reason – traces of harmful bacteria that upset our tummies can often be found on the outer packaging of the meat and fish products.

The solution – plastic bags for life should be replaced on a regular basis – the life of a mayfly, perhaps – and fabric ones should be washed or cleaned. Or how about just using a one-off disposable bag?

Pumpkin Of The Week (2)

Regular readers of this blog will realise that pumpkins are a bit of a sore subject with me but I couldn’t resist this story. Rather like me, Christian Ilsley from Revere in Massachusetts was inspired by seeing enormous gourds at a local agricultural show to see whether he could grow a big pumpkin. Unlike me he succeeded, his aptly named Atlantic Giant weighing in at a very respectable 520 pounds.

The next question was what to do with it. Well, obviously, hollow it out, attach an outboard motor to it and pilot it across Boston harbour from Jeffries Point to Fish Pier and back. The pumpkin was harvested and hollowed out, the engine was attached and last Sunday the voyage was attempted.

All went swimmingly. Now that is what I call style!

Crime Spree Of The Week

I came across some distressing news for oenophiles this week. An unusually mild March followed by harsh frosts in April ravaged the fragile shoots of French vines – the result will be probably the poorest wine harvest in France since 1945, with output down to a mere 37.2 million hectolitres, a whopping 18% less than was harvested in 2016.

Worse still, the shortage of grapes has sparked off an unusual crime spree, which has left a number of growers crushed, if not shaken. Six and a half tonnes of grapes were nicked from a vineyard in Génissac, around 600 to 700 kg from one in Pomerol and around 500 vines were uprooted near Montagne. A fourth grape robbery occurred in Lelande-de-Pomerol. The local gendarmerie thinks that the culprits are professional vintners but, as yet, no one’s collar has been felt.

Irrespective of the euro pound conversion rate, it looks as though the prices of French plonk are set to rise.

You have been warned!

What Is The Origin Of (148)?…

Cucumber time

Every now and again I come across a phrase which is now redundant, at least in English, but which is so evocative that it deserves to make a comeback. A case in point is this week’s phrase, cucumber time, which was used to denote that flat time of the year when nothing much happens. These days we call it the silly season when newspapers are full of stories like man bites dog or nothing much happened today or what the Americans call a slow news season. But why cucumbers?

It first made its appearance in print in the ever useful A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, published in 1700. In its august pages cucumber time is defined as “taylers holiday when they have leave to play and cucumbers are in season.” We can deduce that it was already in use in the 17th century, at least among the lower sorts whose colourful language would make its way into a lexicon. A reference in Notes and Queries from 1853 shone some further light on the phrase; “this term…the working tailors of England use to denote that which their masters call the flat season.

Further explanation of the term was provided by the Pall Mall Gazette of 1867 which noted that “Tailors could not be expected to earn much money in cucumber season.” The reason cited for the downturn in the tailors’ earning power was that “when the cucumbers are in, the gentry are out of town.” With the toffs out enjoying a summer retreat in the country, there was no one around to order a new set of togs. The tailors were idle.

What is particularly interesting is that the phrase cucumber time or season (and in some cases the pickled version of a cucumber, the gherkin) appears in a number of European languages, all meaning the flat part of the year. In Dutch we have komkommertijd, in German sauregurkenzeit ,in Norwegian  agurktid  in Czech Okurková sezóna and in Polish  Sezon ogórkowy to name just a few. Perhaps, tellingly, there is a similar phrase in Hebrew, Onat Ha’melafefonim. Given the dominance that Jews had in the clothing trade and their diaspora, often enforced, throughout Europe, is it fanciful to suppose that the Hebrew phrase is the source of the phrase?

Tailors became known as cucumbers, giving further credence to the widespread adoption of our phrase and its association with the peaks and troughs of their workload. An illustration by Thomas Rowlandson, published in 1823, entitled Hot Goose, Cabbages and Cucumbers, makes the point. In the vernacular of tailoring, cabbage was a term used to describe the off cuts of cloth from an order. As they had already been paid for, the tailor could use them to make other garments – an added bonus. Cabbage also became a term for tailors and/or money and gave rise to a playful maxim that “tailors are Vegetarians, because they live on ‘cucumber’ when without work, and on ‘cabbage’ when in full employ.” In case you were wondering, the goose referred to in Rowlandson’s picture is an iron.

It was around the 1860s and down to an unnamed writer for the Saturday Review that the term silly season was born, to describe, ostensibly, that time of the year when Parliament and the courts were in recess and when newspapers had little or nothing with which to fill up their pages. It is a shame that that phrase stuck. It is high time we restored cucumber time to its rightful place in our language or am I just being silly?

Gin o’Clock – Part Twenty Nine

When in Rome, do as the Romans do – a piece of advice that dates back to at least 390CE and St Augustine. So, naturally, when I was in Spain a little while back, in order to extend my exploration of the ginaissance, I drank Larios, a local hooch, but part of the Beam Suntory stable. I tried two – Larios London Dry Gin and Larios 12 Premium Gin.

Whether it is the Brexit effect, I know not, but the London Gin has been rebranded and now goes under the sobriquet of Larios Ginebra Mediterranea, a welcome indicator of its land of origin. The bottle boasts a rather splendid label which is a riot of yellow and orange colours, informing us that Larios was established in 1866 and that the hooch was double distilled. The label at the back of the stubby, rectangular bottle confirms that it is London Dry Gin. The cap is a rather incongruous purple screwcap. At 37.5% ABV it as the weaker end of the gin spectrum but as I picked up a bottle for a very acceptable €8 at the local Aldi in Benijofar, I couldn’t complain.

As you might suspect from the labelling, citrus plays a key part in the flavour, the six botanicals used being juniper, lemon, bitter oranges, coriander, cinnamon and almonds. To the smell it is rather disappointing with the aroma of alcohol overpowering what hints of juniper and citrus can be detected. The clear spirit is quite harsh and the juniper has to fight hard to establish its presence, dominated by the citrus. Adding a tonic to it just provokes the citrus to overwhelm the drink to such an extent that it is difficult to consider it a London Dry Gin where juniper should take the lead. Perhaps that is why it has been rebranded and the spices may as well not have been there as they made little impact on my palate.

It wasn’t an unpleasant drink and one of the better budget gins I have tasted. But I suppose you get what you pay for.

Larios 12 comes in a tall blue bottle with an orange screwcap. The labelling is more subdued, using a white script with orange highlights. At least at the back the botanicals are listed, twelve in all which go through five distillations – orange, mandarin, coriander, tangerine, lemon, angelica root, lime, orange blossom, grapefruit, nutmeg, clementine and, oh yes, juniper. This gin has no pretensions to being a London Dry Gin and is firmly in the contemporary gin camp, where the juniper takes a very definite back seat.

To the smell there is a very distinctive orange feel to it with, perhaps, a hint of spice. The clear spirit, which is 40% ABV, provides a refreshing taste of citrus to the mouth but as I played with it in my mouth I began to detect the juniper struggling to make its presence felt, only to be overwhelmed by the more tart grapefruit in the aftertaste. On the whole I was a tad disappointed because the taste was a bit one-dimensional – not unsurprising given the heady cocktail of citrus. It is a perfectly acceptable gin but I think if you are looking for a contemporary gin, there are much better, even if they are more than twice the price.

Often I find that booze that was acceptable to swill when on holiday tastes awful when you get it home. I have to say that was not the case with either of the Larios hooches. If you are interested, they also seem to do a Rose gin, although a drop has not passed my lips (yet!).

Book Corner – October 2017 (1)

The Moor’s Last Stand – Elizabeth Drayson

The year of 1492 was one of major significance for the western world. We all know that it was the year in which Christopher Columbus had trouble with his sat nav and landed on an island which he dubbed as San Salvador, thinking that he had reached the East Indies. What is less well-known is that it was the year in which the last foothold of Islamic power was eradicated from Western Europe, a tale that Drayson tells with some gusto.

On 2nd January of that fateful year, Boabdil, the last Sultan of Granada, handed over the keys of the capital, ,which had been in Moslem hands for seven centuries, to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and went into exile. It is said when Boabdil reached the furthest point of his former land from which Granada could be seen, he sighed and burst into tears. His mother, Aixa, turned round and said, “you do well, my son, to cry like a woman for what you couldn’t defend like a man.” This is probably apocryphal but ever since Boabdil has had a bad rep and Drayson’s mission is to restore his credibility or at least explain why he gave up his kingdom without much of a fight.

Drayson traces the history of the Emirate of Granada from the conquest of large parts of the Iberian peninsula and the establishment of Al-Andalus from 711 CE by the Umayyads. The Nasrid dynasty, of whom Boabdil was the last, took control in 1238, although, in truth, their status was little more than vassals to the kingdom of Castille. What did for Boabdil was the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, uniting the kingdoms of Castille and Aragon, and Ferdinand’s determination to eradicate the Moslem thorn in his side. Ferdinand successfully played on divisions amongst Boabdil’s relatives and by late 1491 the writing was on the wall for Boabdil. Rather than risk mass slaughter, he negotiated a treaty of surrender.

About 200,000 Muslims emigrated to North Africa after the surrender and those who remained were guaranteed their property, laws, customs and religion under the terms of the surrender. But the Christian rulers began to turn the screw and following an unsuccessful rebellion in 1500 the rights of Muslims and Jews, who were collateral damage in the whole affair, were withdrawn. At best, Boabdil was naïve in trusting that the Christians would be true to their word.

This is a strange book. It is never a good sign when half way through the ostensible subject, Boabdil in this case, is dead and, frankly, the evidence and facts about him are painfully thin. Drayson spends more time exploring the early days of the Muslim presence in Iberia and then reviewing how later history, literature, art, poetry and music viewed the last Sultan than on the Sultan himself. The sense is that what would have been an interesting monograph has been padded out to make a book and parts of the last two chapters dealing with his posthumous reputation are deadly dull. I struggled to summon the enthusiasm to see it through to the end.

History, as they say, is written by the victors. From an objective standpoint, it is hard to see that the expulsion of the Muslims, and the Jews, was a good thing. Granada with its wonderful Alhambra is a testament to the architectural skills of the Moors. Their territories allowed learning and research to flourish and were a model of religious tolerance, allowing people of all faiths to live in what they termed convivencia or harmony. The surrender of 1492 ushered in intolerance and the Inquisition. Boabdil was a victim of realpolitik, no more, no less. I am grateful for Drayson for shining a light on an area of history I was painfully ignorant of. I just think she could have made a better fist of it.

A Measure Of Things – Part Ten

The invention and rapid adoption of printing technology was a revolutionary step forward for what we call Western civilisation. Of course, the Chinese and Arabs were light years ahead of us in that respect. And in order to print you needed paper. John Tate established the first paper mill in England near Stevenage in Hertfordshire in 1480, although it was not until the 1580s that the first successful commercial paper mill was established in Dartford in Kent by a German émigré, John Spilman.

Paper comes in a bewildering array of shapes and sized and it was not until 1959 that some order was established when Britain adopted the International Standards Organisation’s system of sizing paper, but we will save that for another time. Before that we had the British Imperial system of paper sizes. Some of the nomenclature that you may be familiar with includes Imperial which was a sheet sized thirty inches by twenty-two, the Emperor – a whopping 72 inches by 48 – and foolscap, which got its name from the watermark, a fool’s cap and bells, that was ingrained into the paper. Its dimensions were 13.25 inches by 16.25 in its cut form and 13.5 by 17 in its uncut form.

Many of the paper sizes were too big for practical purposes and so they were folded, to make it easier to print on and to bind into a book. Naturally, this developed a vocabulary of its own. A folio was used to describe a piece of paper that had been folded in half, to produce two sheets of paper and, assuming double-sided printing, four pages upon which to write. A quarto described a sheet of paper that had been folded twice to produce four sheets and eight pages. A paper that had been folded three times to produce six sheets and twelve pages was known as a sexton while an octavo had three folds but making eight sheets and sixteen pages. To complete the set, duodecimo had four folds producing 12 sheets and 24 pages whereas the four folds of the sextodecimo produced 16 sheets and 32 pages.

Turning back to the foolscap paper that we commonly used before the introduction of A4 paper, it was technically foolscap folio – something to throw in at the watercooler when you are reminiscing about the old days with your colleagues.

Paper in single sheets is rarely much use to anyone – it is normally sold in multiples and, as you might expect, a set of terms were developed to describe quantities of paper. As Brits, we cheerfully eschewed the convenience of that foreign abomination that was the decimal system and based our Imperial system of paper quantities on dozens. I suppose as that was the basis of our currency, it made pricing easier.

The basic unit of quantity was the quire which consisted of two dozen sheets. Twenty quires made up a ream and so if you ordered a ream of paper you would get 480 sheets. Two reams made up a bundle and five bundles – a total of 4,800 sheets – equalled a bale. Just to complicate matters further, a printer’s ream was made up of 512 sheets to allow for wastage so that the finished product was more likely to equate to the ream of 480 sheets that the customer was expecting.

All this was to change, as we shall see next time.

The Object Is An Actor

Matisse in the Studio – Royal Academy

Well, would you believe it? Henri Matisse owned a pewter jug, an Andalusian glass vase, a chocolate pot and a replica of a beautiful Venetian rococo chair – treasured possessions all. They made unusual and interesting shapes and, well, he included them in many of his still lives. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the point of a still life is to take some everyday objects and make an interesting composition out of them. Matisse was just following convention. Some of the objects were unusual – there were some interesting African masks, Chinese calligraphy and Islamic embroidery – but the premise of the Royal Academy exhibition in the Sackler Wing is that the 35 objects on display give us an insight into how they informed and influenced the 65 works on display.

The problem with this was that it turned the viewing experience into a bit of a game of I-Spy. I was more interested in spotting the various artefacts and shapes in the assembled collection that I almost forgot to appreciate the art as art.

Similarly, we are told that Matisse used to cut out his strange and colourful shapes and position them on the walls of his studio, moving them around until he found a pattern that met his approval. Interesting for sure but it poses the question as to whether knowing about the mechanics of how a piece of art was produced enhances our appreciation or whether it is unnecessary and distracting noise. Do we appreciate a book more because we know the author drank a bottle of whisky a day before putting pen to paper or used green ink on pastel blue notepaper? I think not.


Don’t get me wrong, there is some wonderful art on display and once I had got beyond the game of spotting the objects in the pictures, I began to get a better appreciation of an artist I had always previously thought of as a bit overrated. Rocaille Chair is a powerful minimalisation of the chair, down to its essence of shape and colour whilst Odalisque in a Turkish Chair seemed to set the convention of portraiture on its head, paying more attention to the objects around her than to the model herself. I wonder what she thought when she saw it?

I almost missed a small but lovely exhibition tucked away in the Tennant Gallery, featuring the works of Charles Tunnicliffe who through his etchings, wood engravings and watercolours captured the essence of British wildlife and the countryside in the first half of the 20th century. I was particularly struck by the Spotted Sow and the more restful and symmetrical Geese and Mallow. What I hadn’t appreciated is that Tunnicliffe illustrated a number of Ladybird books I adored as a child, including the wonderful What to Look At In Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, four books representing a time when we had four distinct seasons. Tunnicliffe also illustrated Henry Williamson’s Tarka The Otter, another childhood favourite, and a couple of series of cards that were contained in Brooke Bond tea packets and which I probably collected.

It must be an age thing but nostalgia gave me a spring in my step as I picked my way out of the RA which is beginning to resemble a building site as work continues on modifications to be completed in time to celebrate its 250th anniversary. The Tunnicliffe exhibition runs until 8th October and the Matisse until 12th November.

Social Media Victim Of The Week

Once upon a time one of the holiday rituals was to seek out a shop on the seafront which sold postcards, select a few and write some inane platitudes to friends and family. Invariably the scenes depicted on the cards bore no relation to reality – brilliant sunlit views as opposed to dank, damp, misty vistas – or were testaments to your questionable sense of humour. Often the wretched things would be received long after you had returned.

Nowadays the development of social media has made it so much easier to share the highs and lows of our holiday experiences with those who either couldn’t give a toss or are quietly seething with envy about another holiday. The consequence is that the postcard industry is dying on its feet.

Britain’s oldest postcard manufacturers, J Salmon, based in Kent, have announced, I learned this week, that they are shutting their presses at the end of the year, having been in business since in 1880. They cite social media and the change in holidaying habits – shorter breaks rather than a two-week stay – as the cause of their demise.

Perhaps in a year or so we will be sending them rectangular pieces of card with wish you were here dutifully inscribed. It will never catch on!