Archive for the ‘Culture & Media’ Category

festival of britain, abram games, festival emblem, festival star

A Festival of Britain poster designed by Abram Games, who also designed the festival emblem in the centre, the Festival Star.

On 3 May 1951, the Festival of Britain was opened by King George VI. It was conceived by the Labour Government, led by Clement Attlee, as ‘a tonic for the nation’, a cheerful, forward-looking event and a break from rationing, austerity and the brown landscape of a still bomb-scarred country. The heart of the Festival was constructed on a 27 acre area on the South Bank of the Thames in London between County Hall and Waterloo Bridge, that had remained untouched since being bombed in the war. But some not did see it in that light. Winston Churchill, Leader of the Opposition, was opposed to the Festival. He said it was all just ‘three-dimensional, socialist propaganda’ that squandered American financial aid. Churchill was to get his own back later.

The plan first mooted in 1947 was to celebrate the centennial of the Great Exhibition of 1851, but it was not to be another world fair. The festival was to focus entirely on Britain and its achievements. The Festival was to be funded chiefly by the government with a budget of £12 million. But there was a political dimension.

festival of britain, south bank, dome of discovery, royal festival hall, skylon, dan dare

On the South Bank site, there was to be a Dome of Discovery, the Royal Festival Concert Hall, numerous pavilions, and the iconic Skylon, a 296ft high Dan Dare-like needle that apparently floated above the ground.

Although the aim of the Festival was to promote British science, technology, industrial design, architecture and the arts, the Labour government, after five years in office following its landslide victory in 1945, was losing support. It was hoped that the Festival would give people a feeling of successful recovery from the war’s devastation. But again, many thought there were better ways of spending taxpayers’ money. There was still meat rationing and petrol shortages, and millions of homes needed re-building. Sir Thomas Beecham, conductor and impresario, described it as ‘a monumental piece of imbecility’.

However when the Festival  closed five months later on 30 September, eight and a half million paying visitors had come to the South Bank site, far more than predicted.

festival of britain, ronald searle, woolly smothers, herbert morrison

A pen and ink cartoon by Ronald Searle. Woolly Smothers MP says to the person in the ticket kiosk, who is obviously meant to be Herbert Morrison, the Labour minister responsible for the Festival of Britain.
‘And what’s more Sir – I still think it would be a waste of money if it weren’t such a success!’

The public enthusiasm and the support of the King and Queen for the festival resulted in the newspapers, which had been so hostile before the opening of the festival, now being supportive. King George could not attend as he was recovering from an operation. He died just over four months later, and his eldest daughter, Princess Elizabeth, became queen. The final net cost of the Festival of £8m (about £227m today) was less than budgeted. The Festival was acclaimed as a ‘triumphant success’.

However in a general election just weeks after the closing of the Festival, Winston Churchill was returned to power as leader of a Conservative government. Churchill, who saw the Festival as a celebration of the achievements of the Labour Party and their vision for a new socialist Britain, promptly ordered the dismantling of the landmark Festival buildings on the South Bank, with the exception of the Festival Hall (now a Grade I listed building). Here is a British Pathé newsreel about the demolition in 1952. Watch out at the end when the commentator says all the latest equipment is being used and then shows a chap wielding a sledgehammer, and then for the man who appears to survive a potentially fatal fall when the girder he is cutting smashes to the ground. There was no sense of irony and the commentator treats the incident surprisingly light-heartedly.

skylon, vertical feature, festival of britain, dome of discovery

The futuristic-looking Skylon was the ‘Vertical Feature’ that was an abiding symbol of the Festival of Britain. It consisted of a steel latticework frame, pointed at both ends, clad in aluminium louvres, and supported on cables slung between three steel beams.

The film also shows the supporting girders of the Skylon being cut. It is said that once the cables were severed, the Skylon toppled over into the Thames. Although the metal was sold as scrap, there are unsubstantiated stories that remains of the Skylon still lie on the bed of the Thames or in the River Lea (like the Euston Arch).

The Festival site was cleared completely and remained so for ten years. Today the site is occupied by a park, Jubilee Gardens, which was created in 1977. You can read here more about the Festival, as well as the events held across the country. A short film Brief City about the South Bank Festival buildings was made by the Observer newspaper. Here are part one and part two. The commentary is very much of its time, and to me, fascinating. Watch out for the milkman in Downing Street in part one, around 7.30 minutes.

But two miles upstream from the South Bank in Battersea Park, on the opposite side of the Thames from Chelsea, a more frivolous exhibition had also been opened in 1951, the Festival Pleasure Gardens. This exhibition harked back to the English pleasure gardens of the 17th and 18th centuries elsewhere in London at Vauxhall, Ranelagh and Cremorne.

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The Christmas tradition of putting a plastic net bag of gold-foil wrapped chocolate coins in children’s Xmas stockings along with a satsuma or clementine took a bit of knock in 2014. Cadbury’s announced in October that year that it had stopped making its chocolate coins. The chocolate-maker said shoppers had switched to cheaper, own-brand versions sold at supermarkets such as Aldi, Lidl and Poundland, leaving its own sales in decline.

cadburys chocolate coins

As well as declining sales, Cadbury’s said that wrapping the foil around the coin-shaped chocolate was ‘quite fiddly’. Wasn’t fiddling with the foil and trying to remove it intact, part of the attraction of the coins at Christmas. Apparently the last remaining box of 24 bags of coins were snapped up on eBay for £100, well before their sell-by date.

A spokesperson explained that the coins, which were made by a ‘separate contractor’, had proved difficult to sell and that the process of wrapping the foil around the coins was not easy, adding ‘we are sorry to see the coins go, but that’s business’. Making chocolates has always been a business where continuous reinvention seeks to repeat the success of earlier forever popular chocolate bars.

The first company to make a moulded chocolate bar as we know it today was J S Fry & Sons in 1847 at their factory in Bristol, England. Joseph Fry found a way to mix cocoa powder and sugar plus a little melted cocoa butter extracted from the beans, to produce a paste that could be moulded into a chocolate bar suitable for large-scale production. It was coarse and bitter by today’s standards, but it was still a revolution. The paste could also be poured over fillings and in 1866, Fry’s Chocolate Cream was launched (image below).

frys chocolate creamDuring the late 1800s, and early 1900s, the manufacture of cocoa and confectionery in Britain was largely dominated by Cadbury’s in Birmingham, Fry’s in Bristol, and Rowntree’s and Terry’s both in York, all of whom were Quaker families. This wasn’t just a coincidence. The Quakers were social reformers, and extracting cocoa from cocoa beans to make drinks was a reaction against the perceived misery and deprivation caused by alcohol. Then the companies turned to the making of chocolate. But today these names exist only as brands owned by international companies. Cadbury (the ‘s’ was dropped in 2003) and Terry’s are now owned by US-based Mondelēz International, the second-largest confectionery manufacturer in the world after Mars (though Mondelēz is looking to sell the Terry’s brand). Fry’s was taken over by Cadbury’s in 1919, and Rowntree’s is owned by a Finnish company, Raisio Group.

Confectioners Are Swallowed Up 

sharp's super-kreem toffee, sir kreemy knut

Sharp’s introduced Sir Kreemy Knut in 1919 to promote their Super-Kreem Toffee, a dapper aristocratic character with cane and bowler hat. After WWII, Knut was resurrected as a live diminutive sales rep Nobby Clarke, a regular visitor at shows and seaside resorts during the 1950s, who arrived in a Rolls Royce. Sadly none of the brands made by Sharp’s survived for long after its sale to Trebor in 1961.

Though Fry’s was swallowed up in 1919 it wasn’t until the 1960s that other major confectioners went the way of Fry’s, or merged, often a euphemism for a take-over.

Trebor bought Sharp’s in 1961, and Clarnico in 1969. Bassett’s bought Pascall in 1965, and Barratt’s in 1966. Bassett’s then merged with Maynards and Trebor in 1990, and were then bought by Cadbury Schweppes in 1998, and finally by Tangerine Confectionery in 2008 (now the largest independent confectionery company in Britain).

Mackintosh’s bought Wilkinson’s in 1964, Fox’s in 1969, and then merged with Rowntree’s in the same year. In 1988, Rowntree-Macintosh was bought by Nestle, and Paynes was bought by Northern Foods. Fox’s (still owned by Nestle) was bought by Northern Foods in 2001, then Fox’s and Payne’s were bought by Big Bear Confectionery in 2003, which was then bought by Raisio in 2011.

Cadbury’s and Terry’s came to be owned by Mondelēz as a result of Kraft Foods buying Terry’s Suchard in 1993, and Cadbury’s in 2010. A year later, Kraft Foods split in two with the confectionery arm, which included Cadbury and Terry’s, becoming part of Mondelēz.

Some Sweets Still Live on

Though the original confectioners have long gone, their names live on as brands as do some of their most popular lines. Each sweet and each company has its own story, but here are a few snippets.

tangerine confectionery, barratts sherbet fountain

When Tangerine Confectionery, owners of Barratt’s Sherbet Fountain, updated the sweet’s packaging in 2009, they faced a predictable backlash from customers. The new, hermetically sealed fountain may have protected the product from moisture and avoided spillage on newsagents’ shelves, but generations of kids delighted in its original, eccentric, sherbet sucking and tongue tingling form. Tucked in the back pocket, the yellow paper tube looked pleasingly like a stick of dynamite.

Barratt’s Sherbet Fountains was first sold in 1925, the sherbet contained in a paper wrapped cardboard tube with a liquorice ‘straw’ stuck in the top. The tip of the straw was bitten off so as to suck up the sherbet, though it could get clogged up and the stick was then used a dip. The traditional packing was replaced in 2009 by a plastic tube and a solid liquorice stick which caused a media outcry. The Barratt’s factory was in Wood Green, London. By the early 1900s it had become the firm’s custom to give every worker a Christmas present. In December 1913, this took the form of an alarm clock, and it is said that Mr G W Barratt, son of the founder, personally presented about 2,000 of them.

When sales representative for Bassett’s, Charlie Thompson, in 1899 spilt a tray of liquorice and cream paste samples of chips, rocks, buttons, cubes and twists samples in front of a shopkeeper in Leicester, Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts was born. The resulting colourful mix impressed the chap who placed the first order for ‘allsorts’. Bertie Bassett, Bassett’s promotional mascot was introduced in 1929. Bertie has remained a popular figure ever since and to celebrate his 80th birthday, Cadbury arranged in 2009 for Bertie to marry his sweetheart Betty Bassett in the Sheffield factory where Allsorts were then produced.

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apocalypse now, kurtz, willard, francis ford coppola, marlon brando, macguffin

There are only fleeting glimpses of Kurtz when Willard meets him face to face in the closing acts of the film, but the character of Kurtz drives the action of the film from the very beginning.

Well, it’s all to do with films, and here are two films that have MacGuffins in them.

In the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent during the Vietnam War on a secret mission up the Nang river through war-torn jungle to assassinate the renegade and insane Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has set up camp in a remote abandoned Cambodian temple. And yet in the film, which was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Kurtz does not appear until two and a half hours have passed, and then is on-screen for only 18 minutes, mainly delivering a rambling monologue.

The opening scenes of the 1997 film Titanic, directed by James Cameron, concerns a treasure hunter Brock Lovett searching the wreck of RMS Titanic for a necklace with a rare blue diamond, the Heart of the Ocean. Lovett’s team recover a safe from the wreck which contains a drawing of a young woman wearing only the necklace. The women in the drawing, Rose Dawson Calvert (played by Kate Winslet when young and Gloria Stuart when old), had survived the sinking and is located and brought aboard the survey ship. She then tells her story of the voyage. The diamond seems at first to play a crucial part in the plot, but the film is actually about a romance between two people, Rose and Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) from different social classes set against the sinking of an ‘unsinkable’ ship.

titanic, heart of the ocean, blue diamond, billy zane, kate winslet, leonardo dicaprio. macguffin

Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) gives Rose (Kate Winslet) the blue diamond necklace as an engagement present. To keep Rose away from Dawson, Hockley has the diamond planted on Dawson, who is then arrested, but the diamond plays little or no further part as the Titanic has already collided with the iceberg.

What both these films have in common is that a character, Kurtz, and an object, the diamond, seem to be of critical importance to the film’s plot, but the main action of the film doesn’t depend on them. Coppola envisioned Apocalypse Now as a definitive statement on the nature of modern war, the difference between good and evil, and the impact of American society on the rest of the world. Kurtz could just as well have been an enemy commander. In Titanic, the diamond could have been a diary or a photograph. Kurtz and the diamond are just catalysts, plot devices to drive the action forward, to get the characters moving, and they are called MacGuffins.

It’s mostly irrelevant what the MacGuffin actually is. It may be an object, a place, or a person. Or it may take more abstract forms such as money, survival, power, love, or some unexplained force. The MacGuffin device is especially common in thrillers. It is usually the focus of the film at the beginning, and thereafter declines in importance.

The term MacGuffin was originally popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, and his first recorded usage was in a lecture that he gave at Columbia University on 30 March 1939.

We have a name in the studio, and we call it the ‘MacGuffin’. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is always the necklace and in spy stories it is always the papers. We just try to be a little more original.

For Hitchcock, the MacGuffin is the engine that sets the story in motion; it serves as a pivotal reason for the suspense to occur.

39 steps, thirty-nine steps, richard hannay, robert donat, mr memory, macguffin

In the theatre, Hannay asks Mr Memory ‘what are the Thirty-Nine Steps?’. Mr Memory compulsively answers that it is a secret organisation of spies but is shot before he can finish. Backstage, the dying Mr Memory recites the details of the aircraft engine he has memorised, the MacGuffin, and says before he dies ‘It was the biggest job I ever tackled …. I’m glad it’s off my mind.’

In The 39 Steps (1935), the MacGuffin is the coveted design for a silent aircraft engine stored in the mind of a vaudeville performer named ‘Mr Memory’ but for the cinema audience the real action is in the hero, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), being chased up and down the country by police and villains alike. In Psycho (1960), it is the $40,000 stolen by Marion Crane from an estate agent, though the plot actually centres on the unnerving behaviour of Norman Bates, the proprietor of the Bates Motel. Crane becomes a MacGuffin herself as she is killed less than halfway through the film. In The Lady Vanishes (1938), it is a coded message contained in a tune performed by a folk singer overheard by a guest, Miss Froy, whilst staying at a remote eastern European inn. It is one of the most abstract of Hitchcock’s MacGuffins. The audience however are more interested in the quest of a young English tourist, Iris Henderson, in trying to find Miss Froy, who has mysteriously disappeared on the train that is taking them both back to England.

Hitchcock may have got the idea of the MacGuffin from a brief story told by his friend screenwriter Angus MacPhail, who delighted in wordplay and puzzles, and who at one time earned his living by making up jokes for Tommy Trinder who was a popular comedian at the time.

Two men were travelling on a train from London to Scotland. An odd shaped package sat on the luggage rack above their seat.

‘What have you there?’ asked one of the men.
‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin,’ replied his companion.
‘What’s a MacGuffin?’
‘It’s a device for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’
‘But there aren’t any lions in the Scottish Highlands!’
‘Well, then, I guess that’s no MacGuffin!’

Earlier versions place the action in the Adirondack Mountains in the USA, rather than Scotland, which is obviously a better location given the choice of name.

In an interview with director François Truffaut in 1967, Hitchcock explained the idea in more detail.

The theft of secret documents was the original MacGuffin. So the ‘MacGuffin’ is the term we use to cover all that sort of thing: to steal plans or documents, or discover a secret, it doesn’t matter what it is. And the logicians are wrong in trying to figure out the truth of a MacGuffin, since it’s beside the point. The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents, or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they’re of no importance whatsoever.

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large hadron collider, cms detector, cern

This is the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) detector which analysed the data for the Higgs boson discovery in 2012. It is one of four separate detectors on the LHC ring. At 12,500 tonnes, it is the heaviest, containing twice as much metal as the Eiffel Tower.

The Large Hadron Collider under the France-Swiss border captures the headlines every so often. The big story this spring was that the LHC had been successfully re-started with protons circling the 27km long accelerator ring for the first time in more than two years. A month later proton beams collided at 99.9% of the speed of light at the ‘record-breaking energy of 13 TEVs’, and the machine began to deliver the much sought-after physics data.

But one news headline caught my attention. ‘What would happen if you got zapped by the LHC?’ One might guess it wouldn’t be very nice.

The LHC is the largest particle collider in the world and the largest single machine ever built. Although one TEV (or tera-electron volt) is roughly equivalent to the energy of motion of a flying mosquito, the energy within the LHC is squeezed into an extremely small space, about a million, million times smaller than a mosquito, and it is this intensity which causes the protons to be smashed apart. I’m not sure the mosquito analogy works. I know that energy like this can’t be quoted in terms of so many London buses or Olympic size swimming pools, though I did read somewhere that each beam contains the energy of a Eurostar train travelling at full speed. That’s more like it.

large hadron collider, accelerator ring, beam pipe, cern

The ring encloses two vacuumed ‘beam-pipes’ along which the protons travel in opposite directions at a speed of 11,000 revolutions of the ring per second before being made to intersect at four locations, at each of which there is a massive particle detector.

Back to the zapping. You’ve managed to get through security, down one of the eight shafts (which are up to 175 metres deep), and you’ve found a quiet spot in the 3.8 metre concrete tunnel close to a hypothetical inspection hatch into the accelerator ring. Though the collider should shut off if anyone starts tampering with the ring whilst it’s running, make believe that you’ve by-passed the safety systems and managed to stick your head inside the ring and into the proton beams. What happens next?

It depends on how many protons collide with nuclei in the tissues in your head, and how many zip through undisturbed. If the beam was of single protons, there would be little chance of impact, but there are 320 trillion protons spinning around each pipe of the LHC, and the beam would almost certainly burn a hole through your head. And as protons fling off secondary particles when they hit something, which incite another round of collisions, the beam would create a space that spreads out laterally. Rather than boring a hole a few microns wide in your head, a beam might carve out a large cone of tissue. You would be toast!

anatoli bugorski, proton beam, large hadron collider, u-70 synchrotron

The beam burnt a hole from the back of Bugorski’s head, through his skull and brain, and exited just beside his left nostril. And the Russian machine had only one hundredth the power of the LHC

Is this all conjecture? Well not entirely. In 1978, Anatoli Petrovich Bugorski, a 36-year-old physicist at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino, Russia, was checking a malfunctioning piece of equipment in a particle accelerator, the U-70 synchrotron. The machine was switched on inadvertently, and unfortunately the safety mechanisms failed to work. Bugorski’s head was in the path of the 76 GeV proton beam. Reportedly, he saw a flash ‘brighter than a thousand suns’ but did not feel any pain.

Over the next few days, the left half of Bugorski’s face swelled up and his skin started peeling around the spots where the beam had entered and exited his head. Believing that he had received far in excess of a fatal dose of radiation, Bugorski was taken to a clinic in Moscow for observation as the doctors fully expected him to die within a few days. Bugorski survived however, though he lost the hearing in his left ear, the left half of his face was paralysed due to nerve damage, and he was to suffer from occasional seizures. However, there was virtually no damage to his intellectual capacity. (more…)

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‘More than 5,000,000 of these biscuits made and sold every week’. So it says on the wrapper of a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer which is made in the Tunnock’s factory in Uddingston, a small town seven miles from Glasgow in Scotland. Five million bars is an impressive number of bars. If this is made up the number of the biscuits made in a week and the number sold in a week, it’s a bit like double counting.

tunnocks tea cakes, tunnocks boy

This is a box of 48 milk chocolate Tunnock’s Tea Cakes with the rosy-cheeked face of the Tunnock’s boy from the mid-1900s.

Tunnock’s, registered name Thomas Tunnock Limited, has two main lines, the Caramel Wafer and the Tunnock’s Tea Cake, both sold in milk or dark chocolate. A Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer is a bar of five layers of wafer, interspersed with four layers of caramel, and coated in chocolate, made from cocoa and milk solids. The milk chocolate wafers are wrapped in red and gold foil paper, the dark chocolate variety in blue and gold.

A Tunnock’s Tea Cake bears no relation to a teacake, which is a sweet roll with dried fruit added to the mix, which is usually served toasted and buttered. It consists of a small round shortbread biscuit covered with a dome of Italian meringue, a whipped egg white concoction similar to marshmallow, which is encased in a thin layer of milk or dark chocolate. The milk chocolate teacakes are wrapped in red and silver foil paper, the dark chocolate teacakes in blue and gold. Three million Tunnock’s Tea Cakes are sold and made every week.

tunnocks caramel wafers

Here’s a pack of eight dark chocolate Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers.

Both the wrappers of the tea cakes and the wafers are ‘dead-wrapped’, that is without glue, so the wrappers come off quickly. There are two other Tunnock products, the Snowball, soft marshmallow with a chocolate flavoured coating, and the Caramel Log, a wafer and caramel biscuit, again with a chocolate flavoured coating, both sprinkled with roasted coconut.

tunnocks delivery van, bothwell, uddingston

Vans like this one were used to deliver Tunnock’s products to shops in the 1920s and 30s throughout the central belt of Scotland. Bothwell is where the factory is sited, a couple of miles from Uddingston.

The company was formed as Tunnock’s in 1890 by Thomas Tunnock, who was born in 1865, when he purchased a baker’s shop for £80 in Lorne Place in Uddingston. The two core products were introduced in the 1950s to replace cake which used sugar and fat that was still rationed after the Second World War, and which had a short-shelf life. The company is said to be the 20th oldest family firm in Scotland still in operation. It employs 520 staff and is headed by the grandson of Thomas, Boyd Tunnock CBE. The company has resisted pressure to make own brand biscuits for supermarkets. The face of the Tunnock’s Boy appears on much of the packaging of Tunnock’s products. You can read more about Tunnock’s and the factory in Uddingston here.

tunnocks caramel wafer

Grandson Daniel shows obvious delight in anticipation of what is believed to be his first Tunnock’s Milk Chocolate Caramel Wafer

In Scotland, Tunnock’s Tea Cakes have an iconic status, possibly evoking memories of childhood or symbolising ‘home’ for Scots around the world: the company exports to 30 countries, the biggest being Saudi Arabia. Factory tours are so popular that the there is a two-year-long waiting list. It is said that the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service gives Tunnock’s Tea Cakes to blood donors after giving blood. Dundee University has a Tunnock’s Tea Cake Appreciation Society and St Andrews University in Fife has a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer Appreciation Society.

Other products or brands have followers and fan clubs, one of the more well-known is the spotters club of Eddie Stobart trucks which has over 25,000 members. There is a fan club for the chocolate spread Nutella, and for the canned meat Spam. There is even a fan club for the penetrating oil WD40. Whether or not this is a case of a company seizing an opportunity, or an otherwise ordinary even dull product catching the public eye, I don’t know, but Tunnocks is in a different class. You can’t feel fondness for a truck surely.

Ted Hughes, Poet Laureate 1984-98, seems to have had a soft spot for Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers. He wrote three ditties on the back of wafer wrappers and donated them to the St Andrews’ appreciation society. One of them is now in the hands of the Scottish Poetry Society.

To have swallowed a Crocodile
Would make anybody smile
But to swallow a Caramel Wafer
Is safer

tunnocks tea cakes, glasgow, commonwealth games, celtic park

At the opening ceremony of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games on 23 July 2014, dancers dressed as Tunnock’s Tea Cakes had a starring role as they pranced around Celtic Park stadium.

Tunnock’s Tea Cakes may have iconic status, but to me Tunnocks still sounds mildly humorous, a bit like tussocks, or the Trossachs, a range of hills north of Glasgow. It’s a catchy name, and it’s a big name. The Tour of Mull, an annual car rally held on the Isle of Mull, off the west coast of Scotland, has been sponsored by Tunnock’s since 2005. Promotional items such as teacake and wafer wrapper tea towels, aprons, cushions, tote bags, umbrellas and mugs, and even a Tunnocks truck and a van, are produced by a Glasgow-based firm, Orb. In 2013, Tunnock’s agreed that the supermarket giant, Tesco, could sell its promotional items.

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It’s a dog’s breakfast. It’s a dog’s dinner. What lovely phrases. Figures of speech that I think are a delight to use, provided of course that you’re not involved. So where do they come from and what do they mean?

Animals figure prominently in many expressions. A kettle of fish, the cat’s whiskers, pearls before swine, the cat that got the cream, a fly in the ointment, the bee’s knees, a pig in a poke, a nest of vipers. Dog expressions for some reason are particularly numerous: gone to the dogs, why keep a dog and bark yourself, in the doghouse, it’s a dog’s life, a shaggy dog story, the tail wagging the dog, every dog has its day.

‘It’s a dog’s breakfast’ means a complete mess – something or someone that ​looks ​extremely ​untidy. Or a muddle, a shambles or a botch – something that is very ​badly done – as in ‘we’ve made a real dog’s breakfast of it’. There’s a few other phrases that mean much the same: a pig’s ear, a hodgepodge, a mare’s nest.

It’s a 20th century phrase that was first cited in the 1937 edition of Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English as ‘a mess: low Glasgow (1934)’.

dog's breakfast cartoon, waiterThe reference to a dog and breakfast suggests that the phrase had something to do with a cooking calamity: a half-cooked omelette, watery porridge, burnt sausages. Couple this with the notion that a dog will eat anything – though dog lovers would not be amused at this idea – and you have the phrase. But nowadays, whatever its origins, this figure of speech covers much more: a badly planned party or meeting, instructions that are incomprehensible, a do-it-yourself disaster.

There is a similar phrase ‘a dog’s dinner’ which many online references say means the same as ‘a dog’s breakfast’; that it is used interchangeably to mean a mess or a muddle.

But the full phrase is ‘dressed up like a dog’s dinner’, or ‘done up like a dog’s dinner’, meaning to wear ridiculously smart or extravagant clothes, clothes which are inappropriate for the occasion: ‘My mum really embarrasses me, she always dresses like a dog’s dinner, even when we’re just going to the shops!’. It’s a fairly negative way to describe someone, and it would be more polite to say someone was ‘overdressed’.

It is also used to express surprise what someone dresses in an unexpected way. If you were a man used to wearing a morning suit or white tie in the evenings you might not think twice about what you looked like. But if you usually wore more casual clothes: jeans, open neck shirts, trainers, then putting on a business suit and tie – even if it was necessary for an interview or a formal occasion – might draw comments from family or friends that you were ‘dressed up like a dog’s dinner’.

dog's grand dinner party, dame dingles series, mcloughlinIt’s not clear how two similar phrases have completely different meanings, at least when ‘dressed up like’ is added to ‘a dog’s dinner’. How is being dressed up likened to a dog’s dinner? It is said to refer to the stiff collars that were the height of male fashion in the 1890s and which actually looked very like dog collars. But where does the dinner come in?

Others say that in Medieval England the finest shoes were made of dog skin, and that if you were invited to a castle for a feast you would dress in your finest, and for shoes, you would ‘put on the dog’, meaning shoes made of dog skin. In the full Oxford English Dictionary, ‘to put on the dog’ was ‘to assume pretentious airs’, but did this become ‘dressed up like a dog’s dinner’?

dog's dinner party, harrison weir, routledge

This picture from The Dog’s Dinner Party by the renowned Victorian children’s illustrator Harrison Weir, shows Mr Foxhound presiding over dinner. © harrisonweir.com

In the 19th century, a number of children’s books came out on the theme of a dog’s dinner party. In America in 1869 there was the The Dog’s Grand Dinner Party with illustrated verse. In Britain a year later, The Dog’s Dinner Party was a story in My Mother’s Picture Book with lavish illustrations that gave the dogs apparent human traits and personalities. In Cock Robin’s Picture Book published in 1873, an illustration of a dog’s dinner party has the caption:

At last the day of the grand dinner-party arrived, and the guests all assembled, in good spirits, with keen appetites for the feast. Never had so many sleek, well-dressed dogs met together before, and the variety of their coats and countenances was very striking.

Is it possible that these stories somehow gave rise to the phrase?

But back to ‘it’s a dog’s breakfast’. I wonder why its origin is said to be ‘low Glasgow’ in 1934? Do any Glaswegians know?

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It wasn’t who was thrown off Hammersmith Bridge, but what. And as it happened over a hundred years ago, you’d expect it to be long forgotten. But someone couldn’t help dredging up the past. Before we get to that however, I’ll need to tell you a little about typefaces.

When books and newspapers were typeset manually, a font referred to a particular size, weight (light, bold) and style (regular, italic) of a typeface. Each letter in the typeface had its own type or ‘sort’ like those at the end of the hammers of an old-fashioned typewriter. A typeface comprised a range of fonts sharing the same overall design. The word font (traditionally spelt fount in British English) comes from Middle French founte meaning ‘something that has been melted; a casting’ and refers to the process of casting metal type at a type foundry. All this has of course been superseded by and large by digital printing, though we still refer to electronic typefaces as fonts like Calibri, Helvetica, Times Roman, and Verdana.

edward johnston, johnstone typeface, london underground, roundel

The Johnston typeface first used in 1916, and an underground roundel from the 1920s that uses the typeface. A licence is required from TfL if you want to use the font or its successor New Johnston.

Some typefaces are better known than others. Johnston has been the corporate typeface of public transport in London since the foundation of the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) in 1933. Its use is one of the world’s longest-lasting examples of corporate branding, and it remains a copyrighted property of the LPTB’s current successor, Transport for London. Edward Johnston was commissioned in 1913 by Frank Pick, Commercial Manager of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London to design a typeface as part of his plan to strengthen the company’s corporate identity. Pick specified to Johnston that he wanted a typeface that would ensure that the Underground Group’s posters would not be mistaken for advertisements, and that it should belong ‘unmistakably to the twentieth century’. The typeface was originally called Underground, then Johnston’s Railway Type, and later simply Johnston. In 1979 the typeface was re-designed to make it more versatile and this became New Johnston.

eric gill, gill sans typeface, edward young, penguin books

Gill Sans was used by designer Edward Young on the modern, minimalist, and now iconic covers of Penguin Books. This was one of the first editions launched on 30 July 1935

The Johnston typeface however was not available for use by anyone else. It was one of the public faces of the London Underground and no one else would be allowed to use it. One of Johnston’s students at London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts, Eric Gill, who went on to become a well established sculptor and graphic artist, had however worked on the development of the Johnston typeface. He went on to produce a new typeface, Gill Sans, that blended the influences of Johnston, classic typefaces and Roman inscriptions. The design of the new font was intended to look both cleanly modern and traditional at the same time. When it was released in 1928, it was an immediate success, with the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) using it for its posters, timetables and publicity material. On its formation in 1963, British Railways continued to use Gills Sans. In the digital age, Gills Sans remains in widespread use, and is one of the fonts bundled with Mac and Windows software.

In England, type foundries, where typefaces were designed and type was cast, began in 1476, with the introduction of the printing press by William Caxton. The creation of typefaces required considerable design and typographic skills (typography is the art and technique of arranging type to make written language readable and appealing), and type designers were immensely proud of their work. In fact most people in the printing trade were characteristically proud of their work. In the early 1900s, a bitter dispute over a typeface between the two partners of a printing press led to one of the most infamous episodes in typographic history.

emery walker, thomas james cobden-sanderson, doves press

Emery Walker and Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson: friends, business partners and then bitter enemies. © Wilson Cheltenham Art Gallery

The Doves Press was a private press based at 1 Hammersmith Terrace in west London, and was named after the Dove Tavern, an old riverside pub nearby that still stands today. The press was founded by a bookbinder Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson (who already ran the Dove Bindery on the same site), and an engraver and printer Emery Walker. Cobden-Sanderson and Walker had been close friends of William Morris, the English textile designer, poet, novelist, and socialist activist, who had died in 1896. It was Morris’s wife, Jane, who had encouraged Cobden-Sanderson to become a bookbinder, and Walker’s expertise and his collection of 16th-century typefaces inspired Morris to create the Kelmscott Press. All three men were closely associated with the British Arts & Crafts movement.

Cobden-Sanderson chose the books and had the final say in their design, and Walker managed the technical side of the business. Cobden-Sanderson had commissioned a new typeface in 1899 which was to become the Doves Type. It was crafted by master punchcutter Edward Prince, based on drawings produced by Percy Tiffin of the pioneering Venetian type created in 1470 by the French designer and engraver Nicolas Jenson.

john milton, paradise lost, doves type, doves press

A page from John Milton’s Paradise Lost illustrating the Doves Type which was printed in two volumes by Doves Press in 1902-05.

The books published by the Doves Press looked very different to most private press books of their time. The clear typeface and the lack of decoration gave the books a very simple and austere look. The only decoration in the books were the capitals created by Edward Johnston (who was later to design the Johnston typeface described above) and ink flourishes by the calligrapher Graily Hewitt. Although most of the Doves Press books were simply bound in vellum, many of the bindings produced by the Doves bindery were very ornate and elaborate. The masterpiece of the Press was their five-volume Bible, completed in 1905. It was set by hand and printed on a hand press, with the only decoration being printed red initial letters by Johnston.

But while the books were successful, the partnership between Walker and Cobden-Sanderson became unworkable.

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