March 0002



Stan and Jenny Pilchester,  from Otago, New Zealand write:

We think you could have said a bit more about Linea Xlll on the Metro in Mexico City. The fact that half of it is upside down causes real problems, and some of the problems have ingenious solutions. For example Passengers have to use seat belts all the time. There are handles in the floor and ceiling to enable them to disembark. It is the only means of public transport in Latin America which does not permit standing passengers.  Here’s the most remarkable thing of all. As you probably know, the Metro in Mexico City is one of the very few underground railways in the world to have catering cars on all its trains. How do you serve espresso and cappuccino in a train which spends half its time upside down? Answer: They serve them in sealed spherical containers, called

with a straw stuck into them. Also, the design of the carriages is remarkable. If you saw a train with wheels on the roof anywhere else, it would be a bad mistake by the constructor. Here they are essential.

Strange public transport is our thing. At the moment we’re finding out about the amphibious sedan chairs used in Venice in the Eighteenth Century.

Thanks, Stan and Jenny.


Mark Marx from Rochester NY writes:

Stan and Jenny Pilchester can save themselves some trouble. The amphibious sedan chairs are a myth. They appeared in a comic opera “

La Veneziana” by Claudio Schiffer, and are entirely fictional. He never intended anyone to take them seriously.


I took the liberty of sending this message to the Pilchesters. Here’s their reply.


This isn’t quite true Mark. Schiffer was actually poking fun at Luca Panetta, who had a small workshop where he was trying to manufacture these things. The effect of his comic opera was to popularize them, and they enjoyed quite a vogue for twenty years, until the Napoleonic Wars. You can see one in the big museum in Venice.


And from Mark Marx again.

I stand corrected.


Very gentlemanly, Mark. Thank you. Would the Pilchesters like to tell us a bit more about these amazing amphibious sedan chairs next month, as I don’t know anything about them. In particular, how did the people carrying them avoid drowning? I imagine they were amphibious to make use of the canals.



Masie Lambert from Bexleyheath, UK writes:

Dear Ropkind,

Do you, or does anyone out there know the origin of the phrase “The postillion has been struck by lightning?”  Somebody told me once, and I remember the true story is an astonishing one, but I’ve forgotten exactly what it was.

Danged if I know Maisie. Let’s turn this over to the readers.



Here’s some answers to Maisie’s question about the origin of the phrase “The postillion has been struck bylightening” in the last ish. Not much consensus, I’m afraid.

It’s the punchline of a joke but the joke wasn’t funny. It certainly isn’t worth repeating here. It’s a sort of metaphor for something that disappoints despite a promising ending.

Harvey McBean, Tooting, UK

This really happened. It was prince Rudolph of Wittelberg’s excuse for being late for his sister’s wedding, and his father, the Elector, didn’t believe him, and disinherited him irrevocably, only to be confronted with the smouldering remains of the wretched postillion. The Elector hung himself in shame, and the heirless Principality was seized by Bismark and added to Prussia.

Professor The Lord Reverend Barker, Brasenose College.

This is actually a Transylvanian proverb. It means that something unlikely has happened, but it doesn’t matter, as it happened to someone else. My grandmother used to say it all the time.

Valentin Tudorescu, now driving a cab in New York, but formerly of Cluj, Romania.

It’s the opening line of a novel by Bulwer Lytton. He asked a friend to suggest an arresting opening line, and this was the result. The novel was called The Ransom of Sabrina. I don’t know anyone who has finished it, and I wouldn’t bother reading it.

Mary Spavins, Perth, Australia.

This expression is rather pointless in English. It is used in Czech schools to teach simple grammar, as it contains one example each of all the main conjugations. It only works in the original Czech though.

Anonymous contributor.

The phrase about the postillion is a secret code. Reduced to digits and simplified, it gave the account number of the Hellfire Club’s account at the Bank of England.

Dilletante Brown, Glossop, UK

Baden Powell was responsible. It was one of his passwords at the siege of Mafeking. His soldiers, mostly cockneys, thought it was ridiculous, and took it back to the east end with them.

Piet, Cape Town.

It is a line from a horror film. It is from Sergei Voigtman’s early talkie version of Dracula, and it occurs when the heroes are fleeing from the castle in a thunderstorm. As I recall it goes something like this:

Crash! Flash! Thunk! Von Helsing: “What was that? Are the wolves upon us?” Servant: “Nay sire, it is only that the postillion has been struck by lightning.”

Heinrich Mann, Munich

I was responsible for this expression personally. When I was a student in the 1940’s we had a bet one night that we couldn’t get a meaningless expression into widespread use. “The postillion has been struck by lightning” was my offering, and it won. As you see, we were quite successful.

Allen Wheezeman, Stoke on Trent, UK

I’m surprised you don’t remember this. It was a line from an advertisement for a famous brand of chocolates in the 1960’s. Maybe you didn’t have it over there.

Marjorie Bell, Darwin, Australia.

I’m confident there is no such expression. Who on earth would say it and why?

Villiers Campbell, Douglas IoM.

It was the answer to one of the clues in the world’s first cryptic crossword puzzle.

Marie Regen, Paris, France.

I’m surprised you don’t know where the phrase comes from. It is from the thirteenth story in the Arabian Nights, in the Burton translation.

Petra O’Neill, Dundalk, Ireland.

Victorian nannies used to say this to their children when they asked what had happened. It was yet another way of saying “shut up”.

Augustus Bartlett, Hon. Sec. the Folklore Society.

This expression was founded in fact. Postillions used to wear a lot of silver braid etc. and being struck by lightning was an occupational hazard in stormy weather. As well as getting very wet, and catching flu.

Brigadier General Sir Miles Furlong, Cheltenham, UK.

Oh come on! Surely you know it was the longest name ever given to a racehorse. It belonged to the Earl of Chester, and won the Derby in 1837.

Stafford Bean, Ontario, Canada.

Oh Lord! I wonder who’s right.



Recently declassified documents reveal that the CIA carried out some interesting genetic experiments as early as the 1970’s. They appear to have concentrated on two major projects. One was to breed a flying scorpion, and the other to make a venomous spider as big as a horse. Both creatures are massively fertile, and were intended to be dropped on the Soviet Union or China in the event of a major war. Apparently they have retained quite large numbers of specimens of each, which are kept in escape-proof vaults under Los Angeles. Rumour has it that they are being considered for deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan.