Tuesday, 10 January 2012

An Effing Round

Around the time that the QI F Annual was being put together, I was asked to produce a promotional 'round' themed to the letter F. This was it. Some of the material appeared in Joined-Up Thinking and some will appear in the sequel, due in 2012. Enjoy!

Diana Dors (1931-1984) was Britain’s answer to the ‘blonde bombshells’ of Hollywood – Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren – also known as The Three Ms. Born in Swindon, Wiltshire, Dors was christened Diana Mary Fluck. Upon entering showbusiness she was asked to change her name because (in Dors’s own words), 'I suppose they were afraid that if my real name, Diana Fluck, was in lights, and one of the lights blew ...’

Her surname is also the focus of a story, recounted in her autobiography, of when she was asked to open a fête in her home town of Swindon. Before proceedings began, she had lunch with the local Vicar who was due to introduce her. During the course of the conversation she revealed her birth name and asked that it be used. The Vicar became worried that he would mispronounce her name and cause embarrassment so spent an hour or so fretting and rehearsing what he would say. He then marched out onto the stage and introduced Dors with the immortal words:

'Ladies and gentlemen, it is with great pleasure that I introduce to you our star guest. We all love her, especially as she is our local girl. I therefore feel it right to introduce her by her real name; Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome the very lovely Miss Diana Clunt.’

Dors’ untimely death in 1984 left behind a mystery worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster. Dors claimed that she’d hidden two million pounds in banks across Europe and, learning that she had ovarian cancer, she gave her son Mark a piece of paper upon which was a code that would lead him to the money after her death. Diana was an avid crossword fan and delighted in codes and ciphers and she had lodged the key to translating the coded message with her husband, Alan Lake. However, when Lake committed suicide without revealing the key, five months after Diana died, son Alan Jr was left with nothing but a page of apparently meaningless letters and numbers. He contacted cryptographers to solve the mystery and the code was eventually Vigenère cipher. Using a decryption key based on a ten letter code (in this case it turned out to be DMARYFLUCK), they decoded a list of names and locations across the UK. The first name led them to a bank statement found among the late Alan Lake’s papers but there was insufficient detail to trace the money any further. It has been suggested that there may have been another sheet of paper that may have given bank details to match the names and locations but nobody knows. The money is still lost.

Fantastic, fascinating, foxy, full-figured and frustrating. That was Diana Fluck.

Peter Fluck (b. 1941), and his working partner Roger Law (b.1941) were the caricaturists behind the popular satirical British TV series Spitting Image that ran from 1984 to 1996. The series, created by QI founder John Lloyd, used 3D puppets of celebrities, politicians, the Royal Family and other newsworthy individuals to perform sketches based upon current events. Several of the caricatures started to develop their own curious idiosyncracies: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was always seen in a gents’ pin-striped suit; Liberal leader David Steel appeared as a mouse-sized figure in the pocket of SDP leader Dr David Owen (a fact that Steel later claimed seriously affected his political credibility); Pope John Paul II played the banjo; and anti-immigration politician Enoch Powell was shown as black. The show featured many of the UK’s top writers and impressionists, many of whom went on to fame in their own right such as Steve Coogan, Chris Barrie, Rory Bremner, John Sessions, Ben Elton, Jon Culshaw, Jan Ravens, Harry Enfield and Alistair McGowan.

Fiercely satirical, famously acerbic, fault-finding, famicidal, fleering, factious but always funny Spitting Image.

The term ‘Spitting Image’ is a corrupted and condensed version of the phrase ‘Spirit and Image’. A good portraitist should capture both. Its use as a title for the show was based upon the idea that people who verbally attack others are often said to be spitting venom or acid.  Formic acid (also called methanoic acid) is ‘spat’ by certain formidable species of ants as a defence mechanism. The acid was named after the insects’ family name: Formicidae. The Formicidae are the most numerous creatures on the planet and it has been estimated that ants account for somewhere between fifteen and twenty per cent of the entire animal biomass of this planet. All ants can deliver formic acid by biting, but some species, such as the British Red Wood Ant (Formica Rufa), can also squirt or spit it from their abdomens. All such ants are of the species Formica.

Formica has nothing to do with either ants or acids. It is a plastic laminate invented in 1912 by Daniel J. O'Conor and Herbert A. Faber, who, at the time, were developing it as an electrical insulator for the Westinghouse Corporation. The idea was to develop a cheaper substitute 'for mica’ hence the name they gave to their new plastic. Mica is a heat resistant silicate mineral that can be split into flat sheets. Because of its colour and semi-transparency, it has been used throughout history as a substitute for glass. The Padmanabhapuram palace in India, built around 1601, has beautiful windows made from thin sheets of mica.

The Latin for ‘window’ is ‘Fenestra’ (meaning ‘little opening’), from which we get the term autocide-defenestration – the act of committing suicide by leaping from a high window. It is often shortened to the shorter ‘defenestration’ although, technically, this just means ‘to throw out of a window’ and could be applied to any object or person. It seems to have been quite a popular activity in Czechoslovakia at one time. In 1419 a group of Hussites (i) showed their disdain for the way that they were being persecuted by the Catholic church by throwing several members of the Prague Council out of the window of the town hall onto some spikes below. Then in 1618, just before the 30 Years War, rebels opposed to the ruling Habsburgs threw two of the King’s vice-regents out of the window of Prague Castle. Thankfully, on this occasion, their fall was broken by piles of garbage. Then in 1948, Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk was found dead below a high window. It is not known whether he committed autocide-defenestration or if he was given a hand by Communist agents. Incidentally, a more common form of execution is death by firing squad, which is another F word Fusillation.

There is a notable defenestration to be found in the Book of Kings in the Bible. Queen Jezebel of Israel, widow of Ahab and mother of Ahaziah and Jehoram, had turned her people from the God of the Israelites towards pagan gods like Baal. God was furious and instructed Jehu to deal with her. Consequently, he ordered her to be thrown out of the window by her servants where she was eaten by feral dogs. Jezebel’s name is forever asociated with naughtiness of a sexual nature because she encouraged lewdness and impropriety.

Filthy, fornicating, facinorous, faithless Jezebel!

Which nicely segues into the F word. So much has already been written about it elsewhere that I wondered what to tell you about Fuck. And then I found myself listening to the radio adaptation of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy: Tertiary Phase, which corresponds to book three in the series: Life, the Universe and Everything. In this phase of Arthur Dent’s story, the robot warriors of Krikkit have to assemble a key to free their world from imprisonment. One of the component pieces turns out to be a silver rod that is used as the Rory Award For The Most Gratuitous Use Of The Word ‘Fuck’ In A Serious Screenplay (ii). It made me wonder what the winner would be if such an award was held on Earth.

At Number One, with 824 incidences of the word in a 93 minute film is Fuck (2005); a documentary about the use of the word (which appears on average once every 8.8 minutes). Maybe this isn’t a fair inclusion in the list (iii) but the point the film makes is that Fuck has had a bad press. Why should such a flexible word be considered a bad word? Why is this particular arbitrary group of four letters any worse than flan, fork, from, feel, funk, form, food, fuel, fain, farm or fool? As QI presenter Stephen Fry once wrote in his book Paperweight:

'If school teachers describing animals talked about the way in which they fucked rather than 'the mating process', if barristers and judges used 'fuck' in court cases where penetration is an issue, instead of relying on those strange forensic phrases 'intimate contact' and 'physical relationship', if parents used it when explaining reproduction to their children, then a generation would grow up for whom the word held no more mysterious guilty terrors and strange dirty thrills than the word 'omelette'. What would that do to the sex crime statistics? Were we to have taboos about the word 'kill' or the words 'maim' and 'torture', however, it might perhaps be healthy: cruelty and homicide are things we really should be ashamed of.'

Such is the taboo surrounding the word that people use curious variants instead like freck, frag, fook, frick and the much beloved Irish feck. There are quite a few other F words that sound rude but aren’t. They include Futtock, which is the name given to the rib of a ship, Farctate (full, stuffed to capacity), Fipple (a plug used in the mouthpiece of woodwind instruments), Flench (to cut up blubber), Fossick (to turn over earth in search of something) and Furcula, which is the correct name for a wishbone. It is V-shaped and is made from the fused clavicles (collar-bones) found in birds. It used to be believed that only birds have them but a study of fossils has shown that some theropod dinosaurs also had them – thus strengthening further the assertion that birds developed from dinosaurs.

The custom of breaking a wishbone can apparently be traced back to the Etruscans of pre-Roman Italy who fervently believed in the soothsaying power of chickens. After all, a cockerel could predict the dawn and hens squawked before the miraculous appearance of an egg. Therefore, the science of Alectryomancy was born - Chicken Fortune-telling. It worked like this: A circle was drawn on the ground. This was then sectioned off into 20 segments – one for each letter of the Etruscan alphabet. Then, some food was placed in each segment and the chicken was loosed. Her chosen route would take her through a sequence of letters – like a living, clucking Ouija board – and a priest of some kind would interpret the message. Then, when the chicken was eventually killed, its wishbone was saved and dried. After all, it was special; no other animal had a V-shaped bone. And the V-shape symbolised the crotch and the crucible of life. Any Etruscan wanting to extract some post-mortem prognostication would rub the bone and make a wish

It was several hundred years later, when the Etruscan civilisation had been fully absorbed into Roman culture, that people started to break the wishbones for luck. It may be that the expression ‘lucky break’ came from the tradition. The Romans brought the superstition to the UK where the wishbone became known as a ‘merrythought’. And the Pilgrim Fathers took the tradition to the USA where it quickly became established as an integral part of Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Curiously, ostriches do not have a wish bone. Being a ‘primitive’ form of avian, they have a flat breastbone and lack the characteristic ‘keel’ found in most birds. Ostriches are extraordinarily useful birds. Their meat is delicious, they can be ridden like horses (Cleopatra is said to have enjoyed riding one), and their eggs are delicious – although it does take at least 40 minutes to boil one. Ostrich feathers are used in the top end of the automotive industry on special rollers used to remove dust before paint is applied to the metal of the bodywork. Interestingly, there are wishbones on cars too. The wishbone joints form part of the suspension system and posher cars – of the kind that would get feather dusted – have double wishbone suspension.

The credit for us being able to afford a car lies with Henry Ford (1863-1947). Ford may not have invented the motor car but he was the first to mass-produce them and bring the cost of ownership down.

Ford began producing his Model T in 1908 and by the time the model was discontinued in 1927, over 18 million had rolled off the assembly line. Ford was a brilliant businessman; he invented the modern system of manufacture using assembly lines, he offered good wages and working packages for his staff – so-called ‘Welfare capitalism’ – as long as they worked hard and kept production running high. He is credited with creating the concepts of the 40 hour working week and minimum wage.

There are rumours of a darker side to Henry Ford. He had bought a newspaper called The Dearborn Independent that held extremely anti-semitic views. Ford never directly contributed to the newspaper’s articles. Nor did he ever publicly espouse any anti-Jewish sentiment. However, his association with the inflammatory paper and his failure to sanction it made him appear to be of extreme right-wing views. Despite this, he is remembered as great philanthropist, a donator to various charities, and he set up the Ford Foundation to fund programs that promote democracy, reduce poverty, promote international understanding, and advance human achievement. He was also involved in aviation design and improving the railroads. And he invented the charcoal briquette.

Another innovative car manufacturer who also responsible for inventing some everyday household items was Frederick Henry Royce (1863-1933). He started his working life as a newspaper and telegram delivery boy but, following an apprenticeship with the Great Northern Railway Works in Peterborough, developed an interest in electrics. After working for the  Electric Light and Power Company, he set up his own firm with his friend Ernest Claremont making small electrical components. But the company soon showed itself to be more than just a manufacturer. In just a few short years, Royce Ltd had created and patented the three wire electrical wiring system and plug, and the bayonet fitting light bulb – both still in use to this day.

Royce had bought himself a series of cars but had been hugely dissatisfied with their shoddy performance and unreliable electrics. So, being the kind of man he was, he designed and built his own. Among his innovations were a new type of smoother clutch, a three-speed gearbox driving a live rear axle, a rear footbrake and a handbrake. Word soon got around and eventually reached Charles Stewart Rolls (1877-1910), an importer of foreign cars based in Fulham, London. Rolls had been frustrated by the lack of innovative and well-built British cars on the market and was fascinated by Royce’s designs. The two met in the dining room of Manchester’s Midland Hotel in 1904 and decided to go into business together. The Rolls-Royce Motor Car company was born. Rolls agreed to sell as many cars as Royce could build but Royce was determined not to follow the Henry Ford path of mass production. His mission, in his own words, was to ‘to turn out the best car in the world regardless of cost, and to sell it to those people who could appreciate a good article, and were able and willing to pay for it.’ No one could argue that Rolls-Royce achieved their aim.

Many celebrities have owned Rolls-Royce cars as they are an obvious symbol of wealth and success. The 1960s was the car’s height of popularity. John Lennon had his 1965 Rolls-Royce Phantom V controversially painted with psychedelic patterns by a group of travellers and river people. This enraged many people including one old
lady who attacked the car with an umbrella while Lennon drove it through London. The car is now kept on display in the Henry Ford Museum.

A 1937 Rolls-Royce Phantom III was one of the stars of the James Bond film Goldfinger. Auric Goldfinger and his henchman Odd Job used the car to smuggle gold between the UK and Switzerland by having solid gold car parts made and fitted.

During this heyday of the Rolls-Royce, the youngest registered keeper in the UK, at just 20 years old, was a successful young actress called Diana Dors.

Diana Dors (1931-1984) was Britain’s answer to the ‘blonde bombshells’...


(1) A Christian movement that became one of the forerunners of the Protestant Reformation. It followed the teachings of John Huss (circa 1369–1415).

(2) When the book was published in the USA, the word ‘Belgium’ was substituted for ‘Fuck’. I’m sure the Belgian people felt honoured by this.

(3)The top five (barring Fuck itself) are Nil by mouth (1997) with 428, Casino (1995) with 398, Alpha Dog (2007) with 367, Twin Town (1997) with 318, and Running Scared (2006) with 315.

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