Once upon a long time ago, when everything was ticketyboo, there used to be a regular train service from London to the Shires. The train in question was a very special freight carrier and the cargo was freshly made, piping hot gravy. Obviously, the trucks had all been specially adapted so that the gravy did not spill or get cold on the long journey.
The job of designing these trucks had been given to none other than the greatest engineer of his day, Isambard Kingdom Boxo. This was the man who had pioneered the transport of gravy in all parts of the Empire. It was even rumoured that he was the first to arrive in Mafeking, breaking the 217 day siege by distracting the encamped Boers with salvos of gravy encrusted Yorkshire puddings fired from a specially adapted eight inch calibre mixing bowl that he had, had specially mounted on the front of the train.
Here, however, his task was to be a lot more difficult. Not only did he have to please his paymasters in Government, he also had to please the public at large. let’s face it, once you find a good gravy train you would be foolish to give it up.
His first priority was to be the laying of new track; a special train needs special rails and so he put his considerable engineering mind to the task. Traditional materials were cast aside, he could not afford to have his new train sliding off the rails at the first spillage of gravy. It was this project that gave him, possibly, his greatest idea. Pre-cast, high tensile, liquorice coated, knot free gnarly wood.
He had first come upon gnarly wood whilst designing a log flume for use on the Dutch canal system. Over the course of two hundred years, gnarly trees grow to a height of precisely five feet two and one half inches. They grow on the cool slopes of extinct volcanoes in the Lesser Antilles. Whilst only five feet two and one half inches high, they have a girth of exactly thirty nine and one quarter inches when fully mature. It is probably the softest wood in the world. Not great if you want to run a gravy train on gnarly wood rails.
Kingdom Boxo was, inadvertently, shown by the Dutch canal and dam puddlers how to convert this soft wood; which they used to fill cracks in their dams as it swelled when soaked in water; into one of the hardest materials known to man. Alongside the dams, the engineers would dig huge saw pits into the thick china clay, here they would saw the gnarly wood into strips for use in the construction of the dams. The sawyers would take the sawdust and use it on their fires. Sometimes they would unknowingly pick up a quantity of clay with the sawdust and throw this on the fire as well.
It was whilst enjoying a medicinal spliff and coffee with the sawyers one evening that Kingdom Boxo saw, in and old fire pit, a dull brown lump. At first he thought that it was a rock but one of the sawyers told him that it was just a clinker from the fire and quite useless as it could not be broken or shaped for any use. This set him thinking and he took the dull brown lump back with him to his workshop in Knorr-le-Stock, a small village just north of Griddlestone. After many months of trial, error and badger baiting; he liked the distraction, he devised a method by which he could machine the gnarly wood/clay alloy into any shape that he wanted. What is more, he perfected a method of making gnarly wood alloy in his own foundry.
He soon incorporated the use of gnarly wood into all of his new design projects, from bridges to public buildings. He had thought of using gnarly wood for his new rail system but every train that ran on his experimental rails got precisely nowhere. The reason, gnarly wood is so hard and smooth that the wheels of the train engine just could not get any grip, they would just spin, causing clouds of evil pink smoke. He was running one such trial when his son came down to see what new invention dad was working on. The boy was sucking on a stick of liquorice at the time and when admonished by his father he dropped it onto the smoking gnarly wood rail of the last trial. Of course, the liquorice immediately melted and formed a dull coating on the rail. Kingdom Boxo was about to admonish his son for a second time when his staff pushed and pulled the steam engine into place for the next trial. The staff and crew had not had time to carry out any modifications, they just hoped that scorched gnarly wood would offer more traction.
He told his son to go away and leave him whilst he was working and then paid full attention to the new test. To everyones surprise the locomotive started to move along the rails; everyone started to cheer, Kingdom Boxo included but, after ten yards, it stopped, with the wheels spinning furiously. Another failure. However, Kingdom Boxo was not so sure, why had the engine moved straight away and why, had it stopped so suddenly? That’s when he noticed the dull stain down the side of the inner rail. He was also alerted by the strong smell of burnt liquorice. That was it, he would heat the pre cast high tensile gnarly wood rails in his furnace and then coat them in liquorice as they came out. It worked, as soon as the engineer put the train into gear traction was immediate. Not only that, but the North Yorkshire Liquorice Allotment Society suddenly found themselves inundated with orders for industrial strength liquorice and the Lesser Antilles became the Greater Antilles because of the wealth generated by the foresting of gnarly trees.
However, the Dutch Canal and Dam Puddlers Association were less than happy, claiming that Kingdom Boxo had stolen their idea for high tensile gnarly wood, naturally, the British High Court threw their case out on the grounds that Kingdom Boxo had used gnarly sawdust and all sorts of materials to make his alloy; a fact that gave a juror by the name of Basset a fleeting idea, whereas the Dutch claimed it was simply clay and wood dust and heat.
The rails were done and now Kingdom Boxo set to the task of designing specialist trucks for the transportation of the hot, fresh gravy. He first tried gnarly wood but a chemical reaction between the wood and the components of the gravy turned the whole mixture pink and gave it the smell of a field latrine.
Undeterred, the great engineer turned his attention to the actual shaping of his new gravy vessels and came up with the idea of shaping them to look like a dingy on wheels. He put in a double bottom and sides for greater insulation and fitted windproof tea lights with adjustable wicks in order to keep the temperature of the gravy precisely at the manufacturers recommended level. He also designed and fitted anti spill skirts along the top of each vessel; these were made from dried gravy sludge which was found, and usually discarded, at the bottom of all commercial gravy vats. He discovered that if bat droppings were mixed with the gravy at room temperature, the resulting compound solidified into an elastic block within one hour.
However, as with most great inventions, luck played a major part; he made his discovery whilst camping in a cavern which was part of the Greater Hemel Hempstead cave system. He was there to study the habits of the bats that inhabited the myriad of caverns; he liked the distraction and it added to his CV. He and the other two enthusiasts, similarly dressed in snug blue duffle coats with GHH Cavers emblazoned across the back, who were accompanying him were sitting eating their meagre rations of roast beef and Yorkshir
pudding with roast potatoes, cabbage, carrots and peas when an inverted bat emptied its bowels. The contents of said bowels landed in Kingdom Boxo’s gravy, narrowly missing his Yorkshire pudding which, he always left until last. This however, was to be one of those Eureka moments, he threw the plate down in disgust only to watch as it bounced back onto his lap. The ratio of excrement to gravy being such that the resulting compound solidified almost immediately.
Subsequent trials proved that the compound was only successful when using the excrement of the Hemel bat. He was later to find that this was because of the diet of said bats. They fed on the very rare but, extremely annoying, Hemel four ringed, bilious mosquito. So called because the entomologist who found them not only rolled his R’s but also had a lisp. He tried to say that the mosquitos; the Hemel Saw Winged variety, were vile mosquitos. He added the vile because of the persistence of the blood thirsty creatures. To his assistant it sounded like four ringed bilious and the name has stuck and that is what he wrote in the entomologists journal.
Kingdom Boxo’s trials of the new vessels were a great success, proving that the shape of the new trucks had a better drag coefficient than conventional trucks and spillage was zero. Even at high speed, the vertically challenged employed by Kingdom Boxo as tea light wick management operatives were able to trim the candle wicks and maintain a steady temperature; as per the manufacturers manual for safe yet tasty gravy. He had been forced to employ vertically challenged people because they were the only ones, apart from children, who were small enough to attend to the tea lights.
Kingdom Boxo was keen to stress to the assembled press that not one VCP was harmed during the trials and that they were all given extra perks and bonuses for carrying out their work. A cynic might say that the derogatory term ‘gravy train’ evolved around the VCP wick trimmers because it appeared that the small minority always got the extras.
You may also have guessed that it was the shape of these gravy vessels that brought the term ‘gravy boat’ into the English language.
The line was opened to great fanfare in 1889 and ran into trouble almost immediately. The Dutch canal and dam puddlers formed a militant group named the Dutch Canal and Dam Puddlers. The DCDP caused havoc by scraping the liquorice from the gnarly wood rails which brought the trains to a wheel spinning stop. They would then throw buckets of Hemel bat droppings into the gravy rendering it useless and incurring days in the maintenance sheds whilst the resulting elastic goo was removed. Several vertically challenged people were mummified during these atrocious attacks when they tried to scoop the poop from the gloop and fell into the gravy.
The militant wing of the North Yorkshire Liquorice Allotment Society offered to stand guard on the track to prevent the DCDP from damaging the rails but their offer was politely refused. The NYLAS boys had a reputation for taking the law into their own hands and The Greater London Freeboating Rail and Gravy Company could not afford a scandal. meanwhile, questions were being asked in The House. Were we, as a nation, in danger of going to war with the Dutch over this dispute? The Prime Minister; himself a great advocate of the gravy train, said that this country was in the best possible position to ride out this storm.
The Opposition leader disagreed, saying that positive action was needed now as the crisis was escalating. He pointed out that only that very morning a gravy train had been stopped on its approach to Gravy-Le-Hill near Birmingham, mummifying two more midgets in quick setting gravypoop alloy. He was, later, forced to apologise for his unfortunate slip of the tongue. He added that vertically challenged people were valued members of society and questioned their use in this endeavor. The House was in uproar, with accusations being thrown from right to left and vice versa. The Speakers cries of order, order, went unheeded and the Sergeant at Arms had to be called in to help the Speaker gain control.
A delegation from the Dutch Embassy delivered a petition to Downing Street demanding the rights to gnarly wood alloy and five members of the DCDP, who were being held in Gnarlywood Scrubs on suspicion of causing excessive spin, were put on suicide watch.
The Government, ever mindful of Public opinion, called Mr Kingdom Boxo to Downing Street where he faced questions from a hastily assembled committee of the Nimby Society.
Two hours later a disheveled and broken Isambard Kingdom Boxo appeared before the press, who were gathered on the steps of No Ten. He said that the DCDP had caused a lot of spin which had halted the gravy train and that the country and, especially the Politicians, was all the poorer for it. The gravy train had, effectively, been derailed and, for the foreseeable future, hundreds of whom he referred to as ‘the little man in the street,’ would now be denied gainful employment!
He added that he felt that he had been made a scapegoat by the Government and because of this he was retiring, effective immediately.
The moral of the story is; the little man always suffers when there is too much spin.