Saturday 13 July 2013

From Beer Hall to Milk Bottle

Today is the 51st anniversary of the Night of the Long Knives, when the Conservative British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan offed a third of his cabinet colleagues and replaced them with other slightly less crumbly, hopefully more charismatic, vote-attracting Conservative politicians. When I say 'offed' I mean that he invited the to-be-dispatched to a glass of sherry at 10 Downing Street, and told them the bad news.  It was thus a much more gentlemanly affair than the real Nacht der langen Messer in 1934, when Reichskanzler Hitler purged his inner circle of such bowsies as Ernst Röhm, Gregor Strasser, and Gustav Ritter von Kahr, the latter, for example, scapegoated for the failure of Hitler's Munich Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, was butchered with an axe and his body dumped into a swamp.

In any case, in 1962, it wasn't news to the British retirees, because one of their colleagues, Home Secretary "RAB" Butler, in whom Macmillan had confided, had gorn orf to luncheon the previous day with Esmond Harmsworth, the proprietor of the Daily Mail and blabbed the details of the re-shuffle over coffee.  Harmsworth got his journos onto this hot scoop and they splashed it on the front page on 12th July.  Nobody knows if Butler was merely naively indiscrete or culpably disloyal.

That paints Butler as a Bad Man, but his record is otherwise, including his pushing through the 1944 Education Act (in the middle of WWII, mind), which raised the school leaving age to 15 (aspirationally 16) and made 2ndry education freely available to everyone.  This had the effect of giving smart working class girls a chance to beef up their education and as each cohort went through the system increasing numbers of such women went on to 3rd level.  That can only be good.

That Act also provided for free meals for all school-children under the age of 18 and, bizarrely to modern notions, a third of a pint of free milk. Subsequent Labour and Conservative governments rowed back on the free milk a generation later.  I remember the desperately cold winter of 1962/63 at least partly because our rations of milk were boiled up together and served to us as hot cocoa - which on at least one occasion stripped the skin of my palate (hmmmm, so good).  But the milk was a penance of some and foodie Nigel Slater tells of barfing his up after being forced to drink it rather than trade it.  Lactose-intolerance hadn't been invented then so it must also have been tough for the Asheknazi Jews in the East End of London and elsewhere, in which population that particular genetic tic is rather common.  Maybe that's what encouraged so many of them to ship off to Israel as soon as that state was founded.

That government milk diktat had positive consequences for British dairy farmers and the glass bottle industry which was invited to tender for the production of millions of pint/3-sized bottles.  In those days, empty milk bottles of both sizes were (of course, in economics of the day) collected, cleaned, steam sterilised and re-filled.  There was some natural wastage ("Dairy deluge - milk-float in collision with steam train"), but a lot of these bottles were also taken out of the milk cycle, filled with mashed banana and used as handy and available incubators for Drosophila fruit-flies in genetics laboratories across the country.  The idea had been pioneered by Thomas Hunt Morgan before WWI as he developed the One True Genetics (and Drosophila is his Prophet).  Although (of course), the US pint is but 4/5ths of the Imperial Pint.  So American geneticists used a 8 fl.oz. (225ml) bottle which was bigger that the 6.7fl.oz (185ml) bottle which Butler had mandated and which had to satisfy British geneticists.  One of the pictures above is Thomas Hunt Morgan.  The other is a British author who had to win a County Council scholarship to get his secondary education - clue: Mellors.

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