Question Of The Week (4)

In this blog we are not afraid of asking those really big questions, like; just how much do you value your friendship with your best friend? Or to put it the other way round; how much money would you take to ditch your bosom pal?

In a survey of 2,000 men and women, commissioned by that esteemed sponsor of all matters sociological, Foxy Bingo, 40% of the respondents revealed that if the money was right, they would turn their back on their most cherished friendship. And, it seems, the tipping point is £106,000 for women and £180,000 for men.

Scousers put the lowest valuation of a friendship, £62,000, whereas Glaswegians, who are reputed to know the value of money, would not be parted from their bessie for anything under £200,000.

I’m not sure what to make of all of this. It smacks of one of those on-line surveys that you fill in when you are bored and/or have had a tincture or two. But perhaps the old adage of in vino veritas applies.

It reminds me of that old joke, a version of which was attributed to Winston Churchill, in which a man asks a woman if she would sleep with him for a million dollars. “Sure”, she says. “And for ten dollars?” he enquires. “What do you think I am?, she retorts. “We’ve already established what you are. All we’re doing is haggling about price.” If you are prepared to put a financial value on a friendship, it is not a friendship.

But, hey, that’s life.

Names Of The Week (4)

At the best of times, voting can be a bit confusing. Who do you vote for, what are you voting for, are you convinced they are even vaguely competent?

As Churchill once said, “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter” Perhaps we should take to heart Mark Twain’s aphorism; “if voting made any difference they wouldn’t let you do it.

Here in Britain we’ve made a pretty poor fist of matters psephological in recent times, so imagine what we would do if we had the dilemma that the voters in the district of Kensington-Malpeque on Prince Edward Island in Canada face on April 23rd.

The incumbent is a 37-year-old estate agent called Matthew Mackay. One of his challengers is a 64-year-old graphic artist called – you guessed it, Matthew Mackay.

Perhaps it is a legacy of the Scottish settlers who colonised the island off the east coast of Canada or the fact that the people there are not very imaginative when it comes down to names, either way it is a tad confusing. The elder candidate has sportingly offered to use his middle initial, J, to minimise the confusion and with an electorate of just 4,000 in a close-knit community, it may not matter too much.

That is, until the result is in, as we know to our cost.

Gin O’Clock – Part Forty Seven

It’s been a while since I had some Old Tom Gin. I have already explained its history and where it sits in the gin spectrum before so I won’t bore you with this again. The temptation to rediscover the delights of this style of gin – Winston Churchill preferred it because he deemed it not as dry as London gin and not as sweet as genever – was too great when I was perusing the amply stocked shelves of the Constantine Stores, a testament to the depth and breadth of the ginaissance. So to complete my sextet I chose a bottle of Gin Lane 1751 Old Tom Gin.

The story behind the Gin Lane 1751 brand is interesting. It is a collaboration between a group of veterans from the drinks industry with a passion to recreate the authentic styles of Victorian gin known as the Bloomsbury Club, and a distiller, Charles Maxwell, of Thames Distillers who are to be found in the Clapham district of London. The name is redolent of the history of gin, Hogarth’s famous print of the suffering caused by gin and the Act of that year which, inter alia, prohibited distillers from supplying the hooch to unlicensed sellers and forced the hoi polloi to take up beer and tea instead.

There are four gins from the Gin Lane 1751 stable – I’ve featured their Victoria Pink Gin before – and they all have the same staple ingredients, the difference in strength and taste being down to adjustments in the quantities of each in the mix and their relativities. The front label on the slightly dumpy bottle helpfully lists the botanicals which have been added to the 100% neutral spirit base –  cassia bark, angelica, Sicilian lemon, coriander, orris root, Seville orange, juniper (of course) and star anise.

These days there are a couple of ways that distillers achieve the sweetness that is the essential characteristic of the Old Tom style, namely the use of sweeteners or, alternatively, deploying botanicals to give the illusion of sweetness. It is the latter route that Gin Lane 1751 has chosen to go, using two elements.

The first is star anise and the recipe requires the distillers to turn it up to number 11 on the dial. For those unfamiliar with the spice, it is a staple of Chinese cooking, combining a strong anise flavour with an aroma not unlike liquorice, and is often used as an alternative to cinnamon. If you’ve drunk some pastis, you will have had some. The other element used to up the sugar content is refined sugarcane.

Removing the artificial cork stopper the immediate sensation is one of juniper – always a good sign – and citrus. To the taste the spirit, whilst lighter and less intense than a London Dry, is a complex mix of juniper and pepper with the sweeter elements coming to the fore as you roll the liquid around in your mouth. The aftertaste, at least to me, was a little on the sweet side. Perhaps the dial should have been set to 10 for the star anise.

That said, it was a refreshing drink and a welcome option to have in the ever burgeoning gin cabinet.

Until the next time, cheers!

They Made Their Mark

Noah Webster (1758 – 1843)

As Winston Churchill once said, Britain and America are two nations separated by a common language. The man who made it his life’s work to ensure this was so was the Connecticut born descendent of a leader of the Pilgrim settlement in Plymouth, Noah Webster. He made a significant contribution to the development of the nascent country that was the United States.

Webster was adamant that not only should American children learn from text books produced in the country and reflecting American thought and philosophy rather than using those imported from England but that it should have its own language. As he wrote, “Now is the time and this the country in which we may expect success in attempting changes to language, science and government. Let us then seize the present moment and establish a national language as well as a national government.” The first step in this audacious plan was his publication in 1806 of A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language which was the first truly American dictionary.

But Noah didn’t stop there – he had bigger fish to fry – and started work on a more comprehensive dictionary which would change the face of English as it was written in America for good. In the course of his work he learned an astonishing 26 languages, ranging from Anglo-Saxon to Sanskrit, the better to understand the origins of words. When it was published in 1828, An American Dictionary of the English Language contained some 70,000 entries, 12,000 of which had never appeared in dictionaries before. Naturally, some of these new words were particular and peculiar to life in the States, such as skunk, hickory and chowder. Although Webster’s dictionary was critically acclaimed and marked a new standard in lexicography, it only sold 2,500 copies, forcing him to mortgage his home to raise the funds for a second edition and ensuring that he was in debt for the rest of his life.

What was truly revolutionary about Webster’s approach to lexicography was his determination to simplify some of the features of the English language, particularly in relation to spelling conventions which make English so tricky to learn. In particular, he eliminated many of the silent letters that peppered conventional English spelling. So the ending –our as in honour was simplified to –or as in honor and words which ended in ck shed their k. He also preferred more phonetic or simplified spellings so plough became plow and words ending in –re such as centre had their endings reversed to –er as in center.

It would be wrong to conclude that Webster invented these spellings – in fact, he chose existing variations – but was the first to adopt a rigid and concerted approach to establishing a spelling convention based on simplicity, analogy and etymology. Some of his suggestions fell on stony ground and so tung for tongue, wimmen for women and iland for island were consigned to the dustbin of history.

Another of Webster’s major contributions was establishing the letters j and v, which had hitherto languished as variants of i and u, as letters in their own right and so they are today, much to Benjamin Franklin’s chagrin – he had advocated getting rid of c, w, y and j entirely.

The second edition of Webster’s dictionary came out in 1840 and he died in 1843 shortly after revising an Appendix to the lexicon. The rights to his magnum opus were acquired that year by publishers, George and Charles Merriam, and his name lives on in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

What Is The Origin Of (88)?…


Keep a stiff upper lip

One of the qualities attributed to the Brits, at least in days of yore, was their ability to keep a stiff upper lip in all circumstances. The phrase conveys the sense of unflappability when all around you is going to pot, a not unusual turn of events when our ancestors were trying to enlighten a large part of the world as to the advantages of adopting British civilization.

From observing the BoJs it is the quivering bottom lip that is the presage to a burst of emotion, not the top so what is our phrase all about? It may have something to do with the fashion of the British soldiery of wearing moustaches. Indeed, following the Crimean War soldiers were specifically forbidden by army regulation from shaving above their top lip. Although beards were forbidden, this meant that all ranks who could do so were required to grow moustaches and some flourishing examples of the art of moustachioed topiary exist in the photographic records of officers and men serving in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The order was only rescinded on 6th October 1916 by Lieutenant-General Sir Nevil Macready who so detested his own that he shaved it off immediately.

A moustache bouncing around in time to a quivering top lip would only accentuate the sense of fear or alarm in the wearer, you would think. All the more reason, then, to take whatever measures you can, to keep the lip from moving.

The problem with this explanation, alluring as it may be, is that the first appearance of our phrase in print predates the wearing of moustaches in the British Army – particularly as the wearing of facial hair was uncommon in the ranks until the middle of the 19th century. What is more the phrase has an American origin.

The Massachusetts Spy of June 1815 reported, “I kept a stiff upper lip, and bought a license to sell my goods”. Fifteen years later the Huron Reflector used the phrase in the context we are more familiar with, “I acknowledge I felt somehow queer about the bows; but I kept a stiff upper lip…” Perhaps it is just a phrase that reflects the physical constraints we apply to our body to prevent our emotions being displayed and the Brits were just masters of the art. It was a phrase attributed to the Brits rather than one originating with them.

Churchill’s observation that the UK and the US are two nations divided by a common language is never more aptly illustrated than by the phrase keep your pecker up, an admonition we use in Blighty to give some encouragement to be brave and cheerful. In the US, of course, pecker is slang for a penis and a priapic down-in-the-mouth is probably the last thing you would want.

Here in Britain pecker is slang for a nose or mouth and owes its figurative origin to the way birds use their beak to peck at and manipulate its food. The Times of September 1845 gives a cruel but perfect illustration of the association of pecker with the snout, “Mr King..misstated the fact in saying that he had put a piece of lighted paper to the master’s nose while asleep in that house; it was his hot pipe that he applied to the sleeper’s nostrils, at the same time crying, Come, old chap, keep your pecker up”. A stiff upper lip might have come in handy then, methinks.

Democratic Moment Of The Week


It was Winston Churchill who said the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. The pragmatic politician – and we have not had one of those for some time – would only hold a vote they knew they were going to win. But there is a new mood abroad where voters seem increasingly eager to demonstrate their anarchic tendency aka inherent stupidity.

The latest victim of this trend is the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) who have a new multi-million pound research vessel. Some bright spark thought it would be a good wheeze to ask the public via the world-wide web to suggest and vote on a name for it. It has worked from a publicity perspective – the NERC has emerged from its erstwhile worthy obscurity – but they must have been taken aback by the frontrunner in the poll. Instead of some anodyne but safe as houses name like the Endeavour or the Sir David Attenborough, there is a tidal wave of support for Boaty McBoatface.

Fortunately, the NERC had the good sense to bury in the terms and conditions of the exercise that they were not obligated to accept the winning entry. Now why didn’t the Republicans think of that?

Don’t Mention The War


It is always fascinating to get an insight into how others see us. TOWT and I flew to Greece and back, courtesy of Germania airlines – I know, but when you are a pre-tiree and soon to be a retiree you’ve got to cut your cloth accordingly. As an admirer of Tacitus I approved of the airline’s name but, alas, as is the way it seems with anything German these days, the service was not all that it claimed to be.

As I was driving when we landed at Gatwick I was unable to partake liberally of the hooch available at illiberal prices. I was unable to doze and so I watched with growing fascination the flight information screen. In the days before the proliferation of sat navs these screens were often our first exposure to geo mapping software. There is always something deeply comforting to see the enormously out of scale aircraft cutting a trajectory to your anticipated destination. You are reassured that you have got on the right plane and that the captain has a vague notion of the directions.

And then of course the map helpfully points out some of the major conurbations you could see if you were near a window, it wasn’t dark or land was not obscured from your vision by a bank of clouds and/or the wing. You can marvel at the additional information provided – speed, height – in both metric and imperial measures – outside temperature, estimated time of arrival in both the time zone of your departure point and arrival. This is all useless information as it cannot influence any course of action you may be contemplating nor can you influence it but it is oddly comforting.

It was as we were approaching Albion, this sceptr’d isle, this green and pleasant land that I noticed something truly eccentric about the Germania flight information system. As the vaguely triangular shape of Kent hove into view three places were shown on the map. The first was London Gatwick which was fair enough as this was out destination. The next place was Dover. We all know Dover, whose formidable white cliffs form a barrier to all invaders etc etc. But the third and only other name was truly astonishing – Chartwell. Chartwell?

I haven’t been there for some time but the only thing there was at Chartwell was Chartwell House, the erstwhile residence of Winston Churchill and now a National Trust property. The nearest point of civilization and that was the point of Winnie living there was Westerham, a couple of miles away. Very noble, I’m sure, of the Germans to doff their caps to the home of Churchill but nonetheless truly bizarre. It is like British Airways pointing out Berchtesgaden on their map of Bavaria.

And it got stranger. We were circling now and Heathrow was in sight but the map helpfully chose to avoid confusing the passengers but rather than indicating the metropolis, pointed out Runnymede, another National Trust property –  a water meadow, actually, where the Magna Carta was sealed 800 years ago.

Next came a slide show of famous sights of England. One that particularly caught my eye was one entitled “St George’s Chapel and Windsor Castle on a clear day”, showing said buildings with a blue sky and, to my mind, quite a heavy bank of wispy white clouds, the clear implication of the caption being that you would be bloody lucky to see these piles in anything other than a pea-souper. Haven’t they heard of the Clean Air acts which banned emissions of black smoke and made smog a thing of the past?

I couldn’t help thinking that the Germania flight information system was stuck in a 1950s time warp, where the programmer thought we were still in thrall to our wartime leader, grateful for our monarch bestowing some powers to our lords and betters and groping around in a perpetual gloom. Clearly this EU experiment has not brought our mutual understanding of each other any closer!