A letter in today’s Guardian reads:
I wish Ed Miliband would drop the phrase “this shower”, and replace it with “this lot”. “Shower” makes him sound like a wartime Spitfire pilot.
Pontefract, West Yorkshire
And what precisely is amiss with a sounding like a wartime Spitfire pilot, Mr Lewis? Since the rest of Miliband’s speech was invoking the ghosts of the past in the cause of national unity, of One Nation Labour, it seems fair game.
Yet, Malcolm sees Mr Lewis’s etymological point, which is the authorised version, as endorsed by the Oxford English Dictionary:
f. A group or crowd (of people). Usu. derogatory, a pitiful collection or rabble. slang.
And gives the earliest citation as:
1942 G. Kersh Nine Lives Bill Nelson ii. 13 I’ve seen him with some of the lousiest showers of rooks you ever saw in your life.
That would be Gerald Kersh, one of the more extreme characters on the fringes of British literary life from the 1930s. The novel cited there is The Nine Lives of Bill Nelson, written when Kersh was — or wasn’t — working for the Army Film Unit.
His best-known (even most notorious) novel was Night and the City from 1938, which pioneered a particular kind of anti-hero. Harry Fabian is a Soho (that’s London’s Soho) wide-boy, who operates any rackets he can, poses as an American song-writer (with, alas, an unconvincing accent and scanty knowledge of his topic or his artists), and eventually sells off his girl-friend into prostitution. That would make it mere sexploitation, except that Kersh has an eye for squalor and strikes a totally-different tone to the glitz and pseudo-glamour of the American pulp:
Bagrag’s Cellar is a dragnet through which the undercurrent of night-life continually filters. It is choked with low organisms, pallid and distorted, unknown to the light of day, and not to be tolerated in healthy society. It is on the bottom of life; it is the penultimate resting place of the inevitably damned. Its members comprehend addicts to all known crimes and vices …
Kersh sold the film-rights of Night and the City for $40,000, and Jules Dassin directed Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney in a London setting. Since Dassin was on the McCarthyite black-list, the film had numerous difficulties. Even so, it has risen from obscurity, is widely recognised as a prime example of English noir, and IMDb rates it as 8/10. The Finns didn’t like it, and it was banned for fifteen years.
Irwin Winkler’s 1992 remake, translated to New York, with Robert de Niro and Jessica Lang, is late-night TV movie fodder, and nowhere in the same league.
Although a devoted admirer of all-things OED, Malcolm knows that for vocabulary dredged from the lower depths Eric Partridge is your only man, and the editions of his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English the authority. Here we find illumination:
5. In what a shower!: army c[atch].p[hrase]. directed at members of another unit: since 1919. ‘Some of the lousiest showers of rooks you ever saw’ (Gerald Kersh, Bill Nelson, 1942). L[aurie]. A[tkinson]. notes the phrase’s prob. origin in shower of shit from Shropshire: Londoners’ early C.20. Reinforcement by alliteration. What a shower!, or the derive. it’s showery!, was in the RAF, ca. 1930-50, a c.p. ‘addressed to one who has just made a bad mistake’ (Partridge, 1945).
Malcolm therefore disagrees with Mr Lewis. Knowing the full Salopian version of the term adds extra spice.
If the expression has military origins (which seems likely), and was — hypothetically, like much else — imported and borrowed from military service, then there is another possible approach.
It amounts to Oswestry.
In 1915 the Army took over Park Hall, just outside the town of Oswestry (which itself is close to falling out of Shropshire and into Wales). It became one of the main initial training depots for the infantry. The soldiery, especially if they were away from the big cities for the first time, were none too chuffed about Oswestry: it was a long way from home, rural if not rustic, isolated, lacked what they saw as basic amenities (booze and … female company), and it rained a lot.
By one of those mysteries that might not be too hard to explain, a conflagration destroyed Oswestry Camp soon after Armistice Day, 1918. Only when the Second Unpleasantness came along was the site re-occupied.
Even after that, the dreaded “call-up” papers might arrive, summoning callow youths to Oswestry. Not that this was a far worse option than, say, Catterick or Aldershot, but the odour prevailed. The precipitation of Shropshire might not, therefore, be merely Reinforcement by alliteration — the Londoner using the term might well know of what he spoke.
One last problem, though
A couple of recent times, when the Lady in his Life and Malcolm were frequenting London “gastro-pubs”, there appeared on the menu “a half-Shropshire chicken”. What is never explained the other half of its ancestry.