Thursday, 13 July 2017

Received Ideas (in Quotes) 5

‘You mean,’ went on Wimsey, ‘that women think in clichés... Formulae. “There’s nothing like a mother’s instinct.” “Dogs and children always know.” “Kind hearts are more than coronets.” “Suffering refines the character” – that sort of guff, despite all evidence to the contrary.’
(Lord Peter Wimsey in Have His Carcase, 1932)

An attempt was made to throw some light on [the name “foxglove”] by Dr Prior, an authority on the origin of popular names, in the 1866 book English Botany: Its Norwegian name, Revielde, foxbell, is the only foreign one that alludes to that animal… In France it is called Gants de Notre Dame; in Germany Fingerhut. It seems most probable that the name was, in the first place, foxes’ glew, or music, in reference to that favourite instrument of an earlier time, a ring of bells hung on an arched support… The “folks” of our ancestors were the “fairies”, and nothing was more likely than that the pretty coloured bells of the plants would be designated “Folksgloves”, afterwards “Foxglove”. (Quoted in A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup)

More than 20 Armada ships ran aground on the west coast of Ireland in 1588. I, with my olive skin and dark hair, am just one of the many so-called back Irish who are believed to be descendants of Spanish sailors. (Anna Murphy Times July 2017 The Spanish sailors wrecked on the Irish coast found themselves in a friendly country, and some stayed for a while. In England and Scotland they were prisoners of war. This site suggests earlier Spanish links.)

The use of any kind of powder to the face is foolish and injurious, and is sure to be rejected at a future time, as it makes the skin coarse. (Girls' Own advice‏ @GirlsOwn)

In rural Madagascar, men are prized for kabary: flowery, indirect speech that avoids putting others on spot, mode thought to be beyond women. (@Amanda_Vickery)

Magna Carta was a compromise born of necessity between the monarch and the barons. It did b****r all for the average working peasant. (@AndyGilder)

A trainee chef, instructed to make jam, egg and almond tarts, mistook his orders and mashed them all up together. (Letter to Times about Bakewell Pudding)

A cloth divided into squares was once used to help count revenues – "Exchequer" derives from an old French word for a chessboard. (@HaggardHawks)

A Redditor claims to have had a job spraying mud onto potatoes for sale in supermarkets. But the Waitrose potatoes were sprayed with peat... and he/she was known as “Factory Worker No. 84”.

When you're a kid, you eat an apple core and think an apple tree will grow inside you. And you swim after eating and think you’ll drown. (Angela Hartnett on Saturday Kitchen)

Joseph Connolly, the novelist, has warned about the pitfalls of book signings. At the launch of his latest, This Is 64, Connolly recalled one mortifying incident. After the first hundred punters he got so bored he stopped looking up as people came up for a scribble. “To whom am I inscribing it?” he asked one man, who identified himself as Ian. “Is that one ‘i’ or two?” There was a stony silence, until eventually Connolly looked up. “The guy only had one eye,” he said. (Times May 11 2017 Although there exist many thousand subjects for elegant conversation, there are persons who cannot meet a cripple without talking about feet. Chinese proverb)

And I was once told the story that military toilet paper ("Army Form Blank") was rough on one side and smooth on the other so the officers could use the smooth side and the enlisted men the other, but I've also heard that it was once rough on both sides until female personnel complained, so it was made smooth on both sides, to which the male personnel objected. So it was made rough on one side and smooth on the other. I suspect both stories are apocryphal. (MH)

Several phrases are said to relate to [the history of the Tyburn gallows], including “one for the road” (the last pint before the prisoner starts his journey) and “hangover”. Hanging days were raucous, boozy affairs so the day after you wouldn’t feel great! (Look Up London)

"From Hell, Hull and Halifax, may the Good Lord deliver us..." These words form part of the so-called Thieves' Litany, uttered in Mediaeval Yorkshire as a leave-taking "prayer" between two thieves as they parted. Hell was to be feared, course, as was Hull Gaol (in Yorkshire) with its evil reputation. Halifax - also in Yorkshire - was one of those towns granted the right to a gibbet, a particular savage form of early guillotine, and was notorious for its quick use against suspected villains. (FF)

In 1579, It was rumoured that Queen Margot of France had to use a spoon with a handle 2ft long to eat soup over her ruff. (@WhoresofYore)

Rumours have long persisted that the square of Lincoln’s Inn Fields was laid out by Inigo Jones to be exactly the size of the base of the Great Pyramid (debunked in 1878). (Fortean Times April 2017)

In the 1820s William Cobbett argued tea was a "corrosive & gnawing poison" that led women into prostitution and killed pigs. (Anna Mazzola @Anna_Mazz)

Daniel Dennett also apparently blames a nebulously defined "postmodernism" for some social ills, such as Donald J. Trump and people spending too much time on their computers. (Rationalwiki)

The modern child has many faults: a lack of initiative & a demand that all his leisure be planned. (M. Saville, 1950)

East Germany's Palast der Republik, in Berlin, was demolished in 2008. Some say its steel was recycled into the Burj Dubai. (Hugh Pearman)

Given that 85%  of communication is non-verbal, the impression you make is far less about what comes out of your mouth than how you look. (Professor Heather McGregor exec dean of Edinburgh Business School)

More here, and links to the rest.

More here, and links to the rest.

A is for Arsenic

A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie

Kathryn Harkup

Kathryn Harkup is a chemist and science communicator, lecturing on “the quirky side of science”.
A is for Arsenic covers the poisons used by Agatha Christie in her detective novels. She gives you the science, and also real-life cases. It’s a gripping read, but the Christie fan will notice a few slips.

In Sparkling Cyanide, George Barton dies from drinking poisoned champagne. A folded paper, like the kind then used for headache powders, is found under the table. It tests positive for cyanide. Or could the poison have been transported in a Cachet Faivre? Harkup confuses paper and cachet – medicinal cachets were rice paper cases, like Flying Saucers (full of innocuous sherbet).

Harkup repeats the fanciful Victorian explanation that foxgloves (containing poisonous digitalis) were originally “folks’ gloves”, or fairy gloves. (Fairies were sometimes known as the “good folk”.)

In her discussion of The Pale Horse (spoiler alert), she wonders why the conspirators don’t even ask the test victim’s name – but they’ve been told she’s Mrs Easterbrook, and she’s taken a flat under that alias. The fake Mrs Easterbrook mysteriously falls ill, but how? Then narrator Mark Easterbrook “sees the vicar’s wife treating her dog for ringworm”. It’s his cousin, Rhoda Despard, who is doctoring her dogs.

Digitalis poisoning may make a person view everything with a yellow cast, and see haloes around lights. A portrait of Van Gogh's doctor shows him surrounded by foxgloves. A hint that he prescribed digitalis to his famous patient? Does this explain the famous sunflowers and Starry Night, Harkup asks? She concludes it may just be a coincidence.

Christie’s short story The World’s End takes place in Corsica. Elderly, snobbish Mr Satterthwaite has been hauled off to the island by an aristocratic friend. She’s a Duchess, how could he refuse? Glittering with antique diamonds, the titled lady insists on roughing it. In their rather shabby (cheap!) hotel they meet a young painter, Naomi Carlton-Smith. She’s from a “good” family, so the Duchess is keen to make friends. Naomi shows some of her work.

"Good gracious, child, there was never a sky that color — or a sea either." 
"That's the way I see em," said Naomi...
"I've no patience with that sort of thing. Give me — " 
"A nice picture of a dog and a horse, by Edward Landseer." 
"And why not?" demanded the Duchess. "What's wrong with Landseer?" 
"Nothing," said Naomi. "He's all right. And you're all right." (The Mysterious Mr Quin)

Beware trying to explain away modern art as mere anomalies of vision. Dr Patrick Trevor-Roper did it better in The World through Blunted Sight.

More on Christie here.

Saturday, 8 July 2017


Let's invent:

Recipes for American crayfish with Japanese knotweed
24-hour tube trains (happening)
Trousers for schoolgirls
Wheelchairs and pushers for guided walks
Wall plugs at desk height

Tower houses as in Greece or Italy
Pencil blocks (more of them)
Turn redundant malls into housing – happening in America. Shops become flats.
Investment flat owners must rent them out.

Oscar Mendez's recycled plastic houses can be assembled in four hours.

Muzak-free zones
Busker-free zones
Really random shuffle
Pictures and subtitles for radio
Cheaper downloadable audio books
Pubs sell barista coffee and food, and provide more seats
Nicotine patches that look like tattoos
Three-day weekends (suggests the Green Party)
Train tickets to have OUT and BACK printed in HUGE letters.
Use fire engines to clean the pavements.
No-fault divorce.

Mobile phone recharging stations everywhere. (At some railway stations, apparently, and you can use hoover sockets at airports. And there are charging plugs in MacDonald’s.)

Open a zoo with lynx and wolves in the West Country. One day several breeding pairs escape onto Dartmoor...

Send couples, parents and families on the same customer care courses that have transformed shops, offices and transport. It’s easy: be nice, kind and polite instead of grumpy and miserable.

Rename register office marriages as civil partnerships and change wording to “I now pronounce you partner and partner”.

Print 3D models of the Elgin Marbles and return the originals to Greece.

Replace pubs with continental style cafes also selling coffee, chocolate, tea, soft drinks and food – on campuses and at Westminster. And refuse to serve drunk people.

Drain Doggerland and rejoin Britain to Europe. (Richard Littler)

Feed cows seaweed, to use up the seaweed and reduce methane emissions.

Teach all children evolution and sex ed. NO exemptions. (Teach them to touchtype properly as well.)

Racism roadshow: lecture, video, display and café for discussions. Teach some history. (You could do the same with critical thinking.)

Grids on the back of wrapping paper – what took so long? Like wheeled suitcases, very late improvement. Next, loops on towels for hooks. (@WillWiles)

More here, and links to the rest.

Reinventions and Disinventions 9

Let's reinvent windows


Nissen huts
Pin-striped suits
Two-way streets
Seats in shops
Tea shops
Huge porcelain stoves that you sleep on
Deposit on bottles
Sandwiches that don’t have to be toasted
Feather beds
Someone has reinvented the curtained four-poster bed – as the “bed tent”.
German couples sleep on two single mattresses under separate duvets.
Comfortable soft mattresses (Back now.)

Big windows
Mansion blocks (Nicholas Boyes Smith)
Terraced bungalows
Glass porches inside a front door, especially in restaurants (brrrr!).
Libraries – one room in your house where you keep all your books
Built-in seating: padded seats round the walls

The Arts and Crafts Style, Bypass Variegated and Span houses. I’m so sick of Barratt Homes feebly copying Poundbury – with tiny, tiny windows.

Lewisham's PLACE Ladywell is a modular development of 24 homes for homeless families, designed to last 1-4 years. 

A 2008 Cambridge University study concluded that keeping British Summer Time would save £485 million in energy bills and cut 170,000 tonnes in carbon emissions each year. (And if we had Double Summer Time in the summer?)

Refugee resettlement programmes are reviving dying Italian villages.

Put up the price of petrol in the US, and Americans will have to live next door to each other, and near shops, again.

Unlocking small spaces could be the key to solving London’s housing crisis.

Restore medieval cathedrals by removing all later additions – Victorian glass, Elizabethan tombs and that awful kitsch Gothic fan vaulting. And then repaint them in the original colours.

Temperance hotels and alcohol-free holidays at home and abroad (sell it as a “detox” and provide activities).

Schools are reinstating the house system. (The idea that children will work harder if they’re competing with each other refuses to die. “We’ve got the house shield for spelling this year!” I mean, who cares?)

Boar-hunting: The Countryside Alliance have time on their hands since the hunting ban. The UK wild boar population is out of control. Hunters – meet boar. (Reintroducing the wolf and the lynx would help, too.)

Pigeon and rabbit farming for food, stock private lakes with fish to catch and eat. And if people want to eat grouse, why not farm it? 

Mother Goddess worship Suit for breach of promise
Warning girls against cads and bounders – they never went away, but we pretended that all “relationships” were now equal partnerships entered into after mature discussion. 

Teach clerics how to hold up long skirts when going up or down stairs.

Import peat briquettes now everyone’s got a wood-burning stove (or make our own).

In the 1930s, Britain’s Ministry of Transport built an extensive network of bike highways around the country... For decades, it was entirely forgotten... so much so that no one seems to remember that these lanes had existed at all. ( There’s a move to reopen those that still exist.)

Jeans with the waist on the waist – “mom” jeans are the trendiest Spring 2017. (It's still hard to buy them – "mom" fashion is always five years behind.)

A pub in South London is keeping afloat by turning itself into a community centre (baby dance, knitting).

Community singing and sing-alongs of popular songs. But they’ve almost been reinvented by Gareth Malone.

Magazines like Woman’s Own circa 1975: stories, problems, medical advice, knitting patterns, recipes.

Don’t look now, but table service seems to be making a comeback.
And someone’s reinvented folding pince-nez “Your reading glasses are always with you!”

But the government will want all those nuclear bunkers back now.

For the Tories, “Let’s reinvent xxxx” means “Let’s revive some school types that were around when voters were young”. Labour reinvention changes the title, rewrites the history and rubs out the name of the original inventor because it has to be “New X!” to get the funding and the credit.

Improvements that aren't:
The sound quality on mobile phones is worse than on landlines.

Sixty per cent of workers spoken to would choose to work from their own desk... A measly 4% would opt to hot desk. (

Let's disinvent:
Lawns – too much time, trouble and water
Fitted kitchens
Concerts or plays of over an hour without an interval
Illegal religious schools. Make that all faith schools.
Envelopes you have to lick
"Neutering” (castrating) pet animals.

Remakes, because they’re all lame. (Except Maltese Falcon was a masterpiece.)

MEPs moving from Brussels to Strasbourg once a month, and back, with all their paperwork.

Policewomen's bowlers (unchanged since the 60s).

There are tentative suggestions that some train line may abolish first class on some routes at some times. (May 2016)

Can we scrape all the street food, boats, carousels, buskers and yellow paint off the South Bank?

And let’s ban:

The sale of acid and oversized kitchen knives
Mobile phones in class
Grouse shooting
High-stakes betting machines
High-strength alcohol
Balloon and lantern releases
Diesel engines
Puppy farms
Trophy hunting
Most dogs from cities
Very low chairs in restaurants

More here, and links to the rest.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Junk Statistics 6

150 people die every year from falling coconuts.

Web stats show that our attention span is now down to 5 seconds.

40% of food is wasted before sale. (Source? asks James Wong.)

A dog’s sense of smell is 1000 times more powerful than ours – a bear’s, 2000 times. Therefore ours is useless.

Britons think 45% of the population are atheists. It's 25%.
We think 25% are immigrants. It's 13%.
We think 43% of young people aged 25-34 live with their parents. It's 14%.
We think our average age is 51. It's 40.
We think 27% of us are under 14. It's 17%.
We think 30% live in rural areas. It's 18%.

Letters to the New Statesman, July 2015: highlight a claim that the average number of sexual partners in a lifetime is 12 for men but only 8 for women. If the average is the arithmetic mean then, if we assume each partnership has one man and one woman, and the number of men and women is roughly equal, this discrepancy is hard to explain. Numbers of reported partners are, however, likely to be different from reality. (Andy Couldwell)

What I find so surprising about these statistics isn’t their absurd impossibility: it is that they are so wholeheartedly believed, defended and repeated. I put this statistic to a number of men and women, who invariably said: “Obviously. Everyone knows men are more immoral than women.” Men concur with a certain amount of pride, whereas women agree with condemnation, while both assert its truth... (John Darlington)

Many women make false rape allegations. (Times Aug 2016 Hardly any, says Leila Segal of Voice of Freedom)

In the olden days nobody lived beyond 40? It's explained here.

Women earn less than men, spend more on caring for others, and are more likely to face poverty in retirement. (AP)

On average, women earn 24% less than men in the same job; Over 52 yrs, that is £298,064 less.

UK Female directors taking home £20,000 less than male counterparts. Up from £13,000 last year! (Architects Journal Feb 2016)

In 2015, a middle-earning woman who worked full-time was paid about 9.4% less each hour than men in the same position. (

12% of QCs are women.

Queen's birthday honours list: knights outnumber dames five to one. (2014)

Books by women don’t get reviewed as often as those by men. (New York Times. And books by men, about men, win more prizes.)

Intimate partner violence tends to be high where gender inequality is high. (

More women than men attempt suicide, say "official statistics". (Times)

In retail, women earn 68 cents for every dollar earned by men. (Demos)

Women make up 46% of Philosophy undergraduates in the UK, and yet are only 24% of Philosophy staff, and only 19% of Professors.

A floral painting by the late US artist Georgia O'Keeffe has sold for $44.4m (£28.8m) at auction, setting a record for an artwork by a female artist... The art auction record is $142.4m (£90.8m) for a Francis Bacon piece.

51% think that “common law marriage” exists. (British Social Attitudes Survey, 2008. It doesn't.)

IKEA is the world's 3rd-largest user of wood and sells 2 billion Swedish meatballs a year.

Solar power in the UK increased 50% in the first six months of 2016. (Springwatch)

13% of UK power is wind-generated.

A study by the Cook Ross Consultancy in the US in 2008, revealed that while less than 15% of American men are over 6ft tall (1.8m), almost 60% of corporate CEOs are over 6ft tall. Furthermore, less than 4% of American men, yet 36% of corporate CEOs are over 6ft2in tall.

One-third of US couples met on the internet last year. (2016)

Just over 55% refugees arriving in Europe currently are women and children. (UNHCR)

UK alcohol consumption rose 40% in the 70s.

In 2010 in the US, a child was injured by a bouncy castle every 46 minutes.

In 100 top grossing films of 2012, only 10.8% of speaking characters were Black, 4.2% Hispanic, 5% Asian, and 3.6% other.

Weekly attendance at Church of England services has fallen below 1 million.

New figures released by the Church show that just 1.4% of England's population attend Sunday services with the Church of England. 980,000 people attend church each week, based on figures from a survey carried out in October 2014, and there has been a 12% decrease in church attendance in the past ten years; equivalent to an average decline of little over 1% a year. 

Roughly 11 adults an hour are raped in England & Wales. (James O’Brien)

A woman or child is raped every 20 seconds in South Africa. (Sky News)

Privately educated people dominate the top echelons of the honours system as much as they did 60 years ago... The figure – 46% – has hardly changed since 1955, when it was 50 per cent, yet only 6.5% of the population goes to private school. (Times)

In Europe, 18% of women live alone, 36% of Londoners live alone. Women from Nordic EU states and Germany are most likely to live alone. Marriage in Europe has dropped from 3.4 million in 1964 to 2.1 million in 2011. Divorce rates have risen by 150 percent in the period. 16% of women in Riga are divorced. 

In the United States, shorter women and men of average height have the most reproductive success.

Finding a potential spouse with a steady job is a high priority for 78% of women. (Pew Research) 

The 59-year-old is somewhat unusual — just 13 percent of men his age had never married by 2012. (

Married people experience lower levels of cancer, heart disease, depression and stress. 

Crime in England & Wales down 31% since 2010-11 according to Crime Survey (and

41,000 Brits are living in Thailand.

Rough sleeping up 16% in London, 25% of Welsh families in poverty, 686,000 sanctions in 2014. (@imajsaclaimant)

My most popular blog post concerns euphemisms for heavy drinking.

More here, and links to the rest.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Was Ngaio Marsh a Snob? Part 4

Ngaio Marsh
Artists in Crime

This novel was written in the 30s, and comes early in Marsh’s mystery sequence. The action takes place at a country house that has been turned into an art school by a well-known painter, Agatha Troy. The story has many good points, but it is unnecessarily gruesome. The enjoyable satire (is nobody likeable?) is spoiled by Marsh's bizarre obsession with vomiting. OK, people may throw up when someone they know is murdered, but must we all go on and ON about it?

Before term starts, tutor Bostock writes to Troy about the set-up. She has booked Sonia Gluck as a model: “The little swine’s beautiful [but] It’s impossible to keep her in her place... Wat Hatchett’s voice is like the crashing together of old tin cans.” (He's Australian.)

Calling your fellow students by their surnames only was a Slade habit from before World War One. There are some rather posh students (Pilgrim, Seacliff and Malmsey), a couple of rough diamonds (Hatchett and Garcia), a rather ineffectual Frenchman (Ormerin) and a lower middle-class girl, Phyllida Lee.

Phyllida has a squeaky voice with a slight Midlands accent, and her original girlish personality keeps breaking through. She appears for her police interview wearing a deliberately unfashionable dress hand-printed with a pattern in red, and has long hair scraped back into a bun. But she's nice to Wat Hatchett, and despite her affectations and habit of listening at doors is the most sympathetic of the lot. Tutor Katti Bostock reports that Phyllida “was made to feel entirely superfluous” at the Slade. She tries to be detached and modern, but (Bostock again) she “sweats suburbia from every pore”.

The students never even seemed to see one, and if they did they looked as if one smelt. And at first this place was just as bad…

Wat Hatchett is more thick-skinned: “His Sydney accent was so broad as to be almost comic. One wondered if he could be doing it on purpose. It was not the custom at Troy’s for new people to speak until they were spoken to… He was so innocently impossible.

It’s poor Sonia who gets murdered. Roderick Alleyn, Marsh’s series detective, is staying with his mother nearby, so he’s sent to investigate. Lady Alleyn “pressed a bell-push, and when Clibborn came, said: ‘Mr Roderick’s overcoat at once, Clibborn, and tell French to bring the car round quickly.’” (Lady Alleyn also has a butler who seems wheeled on just so that Marsh can point out his flat feet and adenoids.)

To the police, Katti complains that Troy overpaid Sonia because she handed out some “sob story”. Sonia pulls faces while Katti is trying to paint her, and eventually Katti “lets her have it”. Why did Sonia behave so badly, asks Alleyn. “Because I treated her like a model!” says Katti.

Troy is always too easy with the models. She spoils them. I gave the little brute hell because she needed it… I said everything I’d been trying not to say for the past fortnight. I let go.

Katti also sneers at Sonia for living with Garcia, and letting him live off her. Fox and Alleyn disapprove of the students’ attitude to free love. Phyllida talks naively about “body urges”. Basil Pilgrim loves Valmai Seacliff for her “purity”. Troy and Katti decide Valmai is a “nymphomaniac” – but they mean something like “vamp” or “flirt”. Nobody justifies their attitudes: it’s not about sin, or damaging society. Was it all about keeping up appearances?

Troy is rude to her students and moans about them, apparently forgetting that they're paying her. Alleyn is abusive to his friend, the journalist Nigel Bathgate, and the students are vile to each other. Nigel is very rude about Hatchett (“He ought to be told how revolting he is whenever he opens his mouth. Antipodean monster.”), but that’s to give Alleyn an excuse to defend the Australian language.

And some people say civility has declined… I usually defend Golden Age mystery writers against blanket charges of snobbery from people who have read none of their books, but the prosecution rests.

More here, and links to the rest.