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  • Writer's pictureCarl Plummer

Pelham on Parole. Some notes for Chapter 5(a). Delve into the world of Pelham Hardimann.

Delve into the world of Pelham Hardimann and learn more about Cooper’s Oxford, the London Charivari, ha-ha, Assegai, fags, and more…

The old argentum spoon

Simple enough: for hundreds of years, spoons were made of wood. Only the aristocracy could afford a utensil or piece of cutlery made of silver. It was also common – for members of wealthy families – to give small silver spoons as gifts for Christening ceremonies.

Although it is expected to be an English phrase, the first citation of the phrase about being born with a silver spoon in the mouth was in the U.S. Congress in 1801. It was a common proverb that few lawyers were born with silver spoons in their mouths.

1n 1988, Texas State Treasurer, Ann Richards gave a lovely twist to the idiom when talking about George Bush at the DNC. Poor George, he can’t help it – he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.

Genus prunus

Prunus is the genus commonly known as prune, of which there are nearly 450 species including plums, cherries, apricots and even almonds. Again, Pelham showing off a little of his latin, and we can guess this knowledge to be minimal; it often is with those who love to add dashes of it in their conversations: just bleedin’ show-offs, as Studely would put it.

Prunus Sargentii

This line may also be a sideways reference by your writer – Carl Plummer – giving a nod to Pelham Grenville Wodehouse – known by his family as plum.

Simply speaking (excuse the pun, I use them rarely) to speak with a plum in your mouth is to speak all hoity-toity, posh, and snobby, as though speaking with a plum in your mouth.


American readers, and welcome to you, may know the game as wickets. It is a game supposedly created by the French and introduced to England during the reign of Charles II (the Charles who didn’t have his head chopped off). The game was first known as pall-mall – in French, paille-maille – meaning ball and mallet. The roquet of croquet is the shot resulting in whacking another player’s ball, entitling you to a further stroke. The object of the game: send your wooden ball through a hoop.

Croquet Scene by Winslow Homer

It was a game popular amongst the middle and upper classes – people who could afford a tonsured lawn of at least 40 feet squared and became extremely popular in the 19th century. Keep in mind, Wimbledon Tennis may be an international sports event, but the name of the venue is The All England Lawn tennis and Croquet Club.

A Game of Croquet – on the beach – by Louise Abbema.

One thing to keep in mind: like all good sports and games with an air of gentility, roquet can be quite vicious at times. Finlo Rohrer in his BBC articles gives us some clues to this nastiness in his essay 2006 Croquet’s Dark Side. One correspondent to the Daily Telegraph describes it as "one of the most self-serving, unsporting games ever played, requiring ruthless meanness and ungenerosity of spirit towards one's opponents".

Another correspondent, in the Times, recalls an episode where the Archdeacon of Oakham was quite insistent that it was "a vicious game". Vicious? It is a game with a simple objective: getting your balls through a hoop, but much of the time one is simply bashing everyone else’s balls.


Should I tread gently here? For our Sherman cousins, the use of fag here is not an objectional and insulting term for homosexual and I have never heard an Englishman or English woman use the word in that sense. There are, however, other meanings – whether it be a bundle of sticks (faggot, similar to the Italian word for bundle of sticks fascio, from where we get Fascist), a style of meatball (faggot), a lower boy scurrying around for older boys in a public school such as Eton or Winchester (fag) or the common English slang for cigarette (as in I’m popping down the road to buy some fags or I’m dying for a fag). Fag can also be used in other ways, such as fagging away – working hard or being exhausted after so much fagging – I’m fagged out. It can also be used as a politer form of I can’t be arsedI can’t be fagged to do this work.

Keep in mind that the word fag goes back to the early 14th century and does not take on the derogatory term for homosexual (in the USA) until the early 20th century. We get more of this confusion and wordplay with Studely in the third Pelham Hardimann adventure Pelham on Tin Islands, where Studely is mistaken for Pelham’s fag, and Studely gets the wrong end of the stick. (Another pun there, yes? See what I did? Faggot – bundle of sticks – Studely getting the wrong end…too easy, eh?)

In Pelham on Parole, Pelham is referring to his growing up with the British Public School experience where fags were junior boys who ran around doing menial and boring tasks for older boy – such as polishing shoes, collecting books, collecting snacks, or even charging the fire.

For more on this fag issue I suggest an interesting post by H.S. Cross, author of Grievous (2019) and Wilberforce (2015), who sets his novels in public schools during the inter-war years. Perhaps the most famous book regarding the goings-on at British public schools is still Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays, where fagging, bullying, and flogging abound.

A ha-ha

The ha-ha or saut de loup was a trompe l’oeil, a visual illusion to hide a foss or ditch in an extensive lawn or grassy area in the grounds of great estates. Landscapers used them to separate herbivores – sheep usually – which were employed to keep the grass short: no lawn mowers in those days, but the landed gentry enjoyed a well cut lawn, and loads of symmetry to go with it. Rather like golf courses and their faux countryside look, much of the English landscape is fake.

This landscape trickery was put to great use by Capability Brown and William Kent. Yes, the ha-ha aspect is the surprise expressed by those who expect a long and leisurely stroll through extensive grounds when they come across the ditch.

Thomas Jefferson, on visiting Stowe in 1786 (where there is an excellent example) is purported to have reported the enclosure is entirely by ha! Ha! Fret not, readers from the USA, your Washington Monument is protected by a ha-ha wall. Have you noticed it? Well, you wouldn’t, would you. You are not really meant to notice it.

Western Park.

The saut de loup is of French origin – unbeknown to Horace Walpole who commends Charles Bridgeman for its first use. The contiguous ground of the park without the sunk fence was to be harmonized with the lawn within; and the garden in its turn was to be set free from its prim regularity, that it might assort with the wilder country without.

A Screen at Lord’s Cricket Ground

Should you be an Englishman, Indian, Pakistani, Australian, New Zealander, South African, Zimbabwean or West Indian (the islands of the greatest cricketers ever) and not know of Lord’s Cricket Ground – hang your heads in shame. This section is to help enlighten our American friends and give them an insight into the most civilized and cerebral of sports.

Lord’s Cricket ground, home of the Marylebone Cricket Club (the MCC) is the home of cricket.

The screens (sight screens) are giant white walls – usually of wooden slats, and at times of cloth sheeting positioned beyond the boundary rope – behind the batsman and behind the bowler. The purpose of these screens it to give the batsman a clear view of the bowler’s delivery. Just as a competent tennis player can read a server’s intent before racket and ball make contact, a good batsman is reading the bowler’s delivery before the ball is flying toward him.

Think of the batter’s eye in baseball. Sure, red ball and white screen, but over the past few decades black screens have been employed for Twenty20 or One Day Internationals where a white ball is used. A white ball in cricket: hell’s teeth! Anyway, you get the gist, and some of these famous portraits or paintings of famous racehorses in large country estates are ginormous – and not Pelham’s cup of tea.

Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade

Some snobbery on my part here, for which I offer no apologies. Frank Cooper’s Oxford Coarse Cut Marmalade is the king or queen of marmalade as far as I am concerned. It was a recipe devised by Sarah Jane Cooper in 1874 – Seville oranges, good chunks of peel, not too much sugar, a caramel taste, and very tangy.

If you cannot find Cooper’s Oxford, I suggest you boil an egg and go for the dipping-soldiers routine.

Pelham’s father may be brassic-lint (borasic lint), totally skint (stony broke), but he does not skimp when it comes to breakfast.

As for the cleaning the knife by snicking it through the edge of the toast – a habit I picked up as a child.

The London Charivari

Satire is comedy at its best, I feel. Good satire pokes fun at power, pricks the balloon of pomposity, and brings power to account, but must contain wit – it must be funny. A lot of comedy now, I feel, is disappointing – all too ready with insults and blatant hatred, with little or no humour – perhaps taking itself too seriously. We must learn to laugh at ourselves and see our own faults before exploiting the faults and weakness of others, I think. Humour is a serious busines – someone once said – but too many humorists now take themselves too seriously; they fail to entertain as they lecture.

Satire goes back thousands of years to the greats like Aristophanes, Juvenile and Al-Jahiz, but the British also have a great tradition, much of it at its best in the 16 and 1700s with greats like Alexander Pope, Jonathon Swift, and Daniel Defoe. The political cartoon really comes to the fore in the 18th century with Hogarth and Gilray.

The Victorian era saw the arrival of Punch and Fun. For a detailed insight into The London Charivari (1841-1992), I suggest a visit to an excellent website: The Victorian Web, where you can get a hearty dose of literature, culture, and history of the age of Victoria. The title of the famous magazine of Victorian humour, Punch, might have been short for Punchinello, adapted from the Neapolitan dialectal "polecenella," a young turkey cock, to the hooked bill of which the hooked nose of Punch's mask in the Commedia del Arte bears some resemblance.

Few notaries escaped the wit of Punch, including Robert Peel, Prince Albert, and few subjects of import escaped – The Crimean War, The Second Reform Bill, and great debates over Irish Home Rule. In the December 29th1920 edition, Winston Churchill does not escape in the cartoon Essence of Parliament, along with Bonar Law, Lloyd George, and Chamberlain, at the time when W.S. Churchill was the Secretary of State for War and Air. ‘You’ve worked splendidly up to Christmas, and if you’ll put your backs into it for the New Year trade I’ll see if I can’t give you a good long holiday in the autumn.’

One of my favourites is from 1912.

Purdey shotguns

I have never entertained the idea of owning a shotgun, but if I were to do so I would endeavour to buy a Purdey – and need plenty of patience as I wait nearly two years for a bespoke gun. As they will tell you themselves: SINCE 1814, JAMES PURDEY & SONS HAVE BEEN PERFECTING THE ART OF THE 'BEST' LONDON GUN.

Pelham’s father, posh as he is – remember the marmalade – would end his life with nothing less than a hand-crafted Purdey. I hope the great gun-making dynasty will not hold the incident against me. Even a ‘used’ Purdey is an investment, demanding hundreds of thousands of pounds for a pair. Deadly and exquisite.

Cumberland sausage

A good Cumberland Sausage is a meaty swirl. The best Cumberland Sausage is made from chopped meat – not minced.

As the name suggest, this pork sausage is a delicacy from Cumberland – now part of Cumbria – and should begin at least 21 inches long before being coiled. Its history goes back for over five hundred years, making use of traditional herbs such as thyme and sage, but the introduction of exotic spices – through the spice trade – coming into the port of Whitehaven peppered things up a bit by the 18th century, with ginger, black pepper, nutmeg and cayenne.

Singer Cars

Pelham likes his cars. We meet his beloved SS100 later. For now, in his youth he has his eye on a Singer Ten, a model built between 1912 and 1924. A four-cylinder 10hp engine and three speed transmission, the car had semi-elliptical suspension, and rear brakes only.

The Coventry Premier trademark (formally a cycle manufacturer – as so many motorcar companies were at their birth) was used by William Herbert and William Hillman, along with George Cooper in 1876 before being sold to Singer in 1920. The Hillman car company (to become part of Rootes, which became part of Chrysler) continued until 1976, were rebadged as Chryslers until 1979 then Talbots until 1981.

The cars I best remember were the little Minx, and then the Avenger.

Perhaps the most famous engine was the Coventry Climax all alloy, put to best use by Colin Chapman in his Lotus Elite Series 1 in 1957 before he moved on to the Ford-Lotus twin-cam.

The Maxim

The Maxim gun was invented on the Clerkenwell Road in London by Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim, a British-American, in 1884. It is perhaps the machine gun most associated with British expansionism, especially in Africa. This water-cooled weapon was heavy and cumbersome, needing a team of six men to operate it, but it could fire up to 600 rounds a minute, hence the satirical tone when Pelham talks of his Uncle Mortimer’s ‘heroic’ struggle against native Africans who were armed with the assegai.


Perhaps from the Berber word for spear – zagaya – or the French azagaie, the assegai is a lightweight javelin with a point of iron – or sometimes the wood is fire-hardened.

Zulu Warrior by Andrew Jordan.

The assegai is a tree, common in southern Africa, providing strong and supple wood suitable for spears – and a favourite of the Bantu speaking people of southern Africa. This weapon was widespread, used most famously by the Zulu, Xhosaand Nguni tribes of southern Africa. This weapon was employed for range attack formations.

The Hadithi, also known for their warrior queens, part of the Bantu that overpowered the Swahilis.

The Zulu nation created a shorter stabbing spear for close quarter fighting – the iklwa or ixwa, an onomatopoeic word resembling the sound the spear makes when being removed from the victim’s body.

Carl Plummer 2020

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