$10 & zero cents for all that English History

So that was a good find …. the hardback edition of 1066 and all that as it was inducted into the Folio Society collection in 1990. It is well regarded as a minor English comic classic and the writer of the Introduction placed it appropriately alongside Three men in a boat. Jolly good show, I say.

1066 and all that became an instant classic upon its release in 1930 and there was a London musical running by 1932. Sellars and Yeatman borrowed the “and all that” from their friend Robert Graves’ best selling kiss off to England, Goodbye to all that. In turn they were appropriated by Arthur Mailey, the Australian slow bowler, in his memoir commemorating his best bowling figures of 10 for 66 and all that.

Sellars and Yeatman almost look as if they have compiled a bunch of schoolboy howlers from English History exams from the era when history was delineated by the reigns of monarchs. What they actually did was to write up the bits of history that managed to penetrate the skulls of disinterested schoolchildren and almost stay there. Of course, a mangled version of history lends itself to a wondrous array of bad puns, spoonerisms, malapropisms and other literary devices which my modest comprehension of English history (itself mangled years back by 1066) and absent understanding of “the classics” render me inadequate to decipher. But the bits I get are pretty funny, even 90 years on. It is justifiably a minor comic classic.

Chapter XII – Rufus, a ruddy king  (William II 1087 – 1100)

This monarch was always very angry and red in the face and was therefore unpopular, so that his death was a Good Thing: it occurred in the following memorable way. Rufus was hunting one day in the New Forest when William Tell (the memorable crackshot, inventor of Cross-Bow puzzles) took unerring aim at a reddish apple, which had fallen on to the King’s head and shot him through the heart. Sir Isaac Walton, who happened to be present at the time, thereupon invented the Law of Gravity. Thus was the reign of Rufus brought to a Good End.

The illustration pads this brief chapter out to 3 / 4 of a page.

and, Spoiler Alert, the final chapter which includes a punctuation joke:

Chapter LXII – A Bad Thing

America was thus clearly top nation, and History came to a .

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Sir Richard Tangye & the Cornubia: Steam Age dreamtime

Once upon a time (1833) in a small Cornish village (Illogan, near Redruth) two brothers had sons they called Richard. This in itself was not unusual in that time and place as the same names keep cropping up, over and over. Richard Tangey married Jane Michell and they honeymooned on the ship out to Victoria where they eventually settled in Castlemaine and raised 10 children. Richard then moved to Tasmania and inherited and added to a second family, but we don’t speak of that too often.

While my great grandfather was mining and butchering in Castlemaine his cousin Richard Tangye (the spelling wasn’t great in Cornish villages in the early C19) moved to Birmingham to work with his brothers in developing the steam powered future. This may not have been entirely unexpected as Richard’s full name was Richard Trevithick Tangye in honour of the recently deceased Cornish steam engineer Richard Trevithick who had been born just south of Redruth. It would be like calling a Syrian kid in San Francisco Steve Jobs Surname to encourage him to turn into a software mogul.

In any case it worked out that way. Tangye Bros. were major players in the mid C19 steam economy and Richard Tangye is a steam age entrepreneurial hero. The Tangyes first rose to fame by getting the largest steamship built to that time out of drydock and on to the water. “We launched the Great Eastern, and she launched us.” Tangye Bros. had great success with their steam engines and pumps and in his later years Sir Richard Tangye toured the colonies touting his wares. He sold a few to the Chaffey brothers up in Mildura and I saw a pump about 10 k east of town early this century. He was also a philanthropist with a strong cultural bent and he was a significant donor to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. He was so impressed with the Macquarie library in Sydney that he donated a Shakespeare first folio, the only one in Australia. A long time back I picked up an essay prize at the State Library and as I was the closest thing to a relative of Sir Richard’s the library had ever seen they gave us a look at it. Very nice, if you like C17 books.

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Rats, Lice & History – Hans Zinsser

Hans Zinsser’s Rats, Lice & History was written in 1934 as an explanation of one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments – the understanding and control of deadly infectious diseases, especially typhus. It was only in 1909 that Charles Nicolle identified lice as the means of transmission between humans. Subsequently the role of rats in the process of disease transmission came to be better understood. World War I added considerably to our knowledge of these diseases which had ravaged Europe in particular for centuries. Many of the great breakthroughs in our knowledge of these diseases came about as a result of a concerted international effort studying the impacts of the disease during WWI and the Russian revolution where 25 million people contracted typhus between 1917 and 1923 with 3 million dying as a result. The League of Nations helped to coordinate medical communications between the USSR, Germany and the western nations and great progress was made between 1928 and 1934 when the book was published – some of the scientific papers had not yet been published when the book was written.

Zinsser writes in an engaging not too technical style about a topic which really should form an essential part of any study of the longer term in history, and especially for economic and military historians. It is important that anyone postulating great themes in history should be aware that diseases themselves have histories. Rats were not known in Europe until the C12 when they arrived with returning crusaders from the Levant, a very early instance of blowback. These were black rats which were the predominant type until they were supplanted by the more aggressive brown rat in the C18. Medical historians in Zinsser’s time understood that typhus and the bubonic plague were not known in Europe prior to the arrival of the rat which aided the transmission of these diseases by sharing fleas and lice with humans. The Thirty Years War of 1618 -1648 is described as the most gigantic natural experiment in epidemiology to which mankind has ever been subjected. The war rolled back and forth across Europe bring first typhus and then plague in its wake.

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Beatles or the Stones? A parliamentary verdict

Searching the Australian Federal Parliament Hansard between 1901 and 1980

#HistoricHansard now comes with its very own search facility. It’s still in beta, but feel free to play: http://search.historichansard.net/ 

Thanks to @wragge it is now possible to search Hansard from 1901 to 1980. This is an invaluable historical resource so what better to do in a shallow age of short term gratification than waste all that computing power on something tremendously trivial.

Let’s do some comparison shopping on one of the great vexed questions of my youth – the Beatles or the Rolling Stones? Admittedly very few MPs prior to 1980 could be expected to be legitimate fans of these bands who came to prominence after 1963, so all we are doing here is poking fun at the old squares. Really, it never goes out of fashion. Just ask my kids.

The Beatles clearly won the name recognition factor in Parliament once we stripped out references to misspelt insects and the proverbial use of the moss-less rolling stone. The self proclaimed bad boy middle class London college students attracted one neutral musical reference and two comments about their drug depravity. To be fair one of these was fended off by Bill Snedden, the Minister for Immigration, who nonetheless got a solid jab in at Mick Jagger’s unsuitability as Ned Kelly.

On the other hand there were seventeen references to the working class louts from Liverpool who Brian Epstein re-invented as lovable moptops. These ranged from the trivial to the borderline deranged. The honour of the first Beatles reference goes to Senator Ormonde on February 27, 1964 who laboured to score a point off the LNP government for having the DLP as a secret weapon in the same way that the British PM had referred to the Beatles as England’s secret weapon in America. This may help to explain why Senator Ormonde has left no trace in my memory.

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Bobby’s in the Basement


…. and the Band’s down there as well. The tape recorders were on and over 100 songs were recorded on and off over several months in the summer and autumn of 1967. The music gradually filtered out into the wider world in dribs and drabs as the Basement Tapes. First up was an acetate pressing distributed to other musicians and friends. This led to hits for Manfred Mann ( Mighty Quinn ) and Julie Driscoll with Brian Augur and Trinity ( Wheel’s on Fire ) among others. The Basement Tapes was released as a double album in 1975 and in the early 1990s a 5 CD completist box set was released. Greil Marcus provides tasting notes to each song once his story of the Basement Tapes has been told.

Hillary Clinton told us that it takes a village to raise a child. In Marcus’ reading it takes a whole country to rear a Nobel Laureate. Bob as the distillation of the restless, ever questing, democratic American spirit (TM) etc. So:

  • John Winthrop’s City on a Hill speech to the Puritans as they sailed across the Atlantic
  • Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address – “…until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be repaid with another drawn with the sword.”
  • Martin Luther King “I have a dream”

Add to this mix such incidents as the West Virginian Miner’s war of the early 1920’s, the lynchings and killings associated with the Civil Rights movement and America’s war on Vietnam and we can see how history is bearing down on Big Pink in upstate New York.

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The Book of Mormon – Gold plated entertainment

We had the pleasure of seeing The Book of Mormon last week which is a wonderful satire of religion in the form of a Broadway musical. The evolution of the relations between the Mormons and the Ugandans gives some nice insights into “human development” and what can be thought of as “white privilege”. The Mormons will go back to a safe place while the Ugandans remain in a country terrorised by religious and tribal warlords. The stakes are much higher for the Ugandans in relation to any affiliations they choose, while the Mormons have a return ticket to Salt Lake City.

There are some good insights into the foundations of religion, at least at the sociological and historical level. How best to meet human beings spiritual needs is a very different question to enquiring into the motivations of the founders and the spiritual / ideological foundations of organised religions. The foundational periods of the world religions are so far back in time and so shrouded in myth it is difficult to clearly see them at the moment of their formation. An additional question is what documents survived to tell us about the foundation moment – were critical documents destroyed, were “fake news” propaganda documents written down much later, etc.?

This is why I love Mormonism and Scientology – the foundation moment is so recent that there are plenty of observers out there who were and are able to provide real time commentary on the character and beliefs of the founders and on the subsequent institutional evolution of the “church” founded in their name. It is all very well to say of religion that it provides community and welfare for its adherents but if these positive features are built on a gimcrack fantasy set of beliefs is this a fair trade off – modest psychological security in exchange for blind obedience to potentially dangerous and anti-scientific beliefs? Perhaps we can look back at Galileo and Darwin and think – that was a long time ago, – but the conservative religious are those most easily duped into believing global warming does not exist. Jesus F. Christ you people.

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Hoax squared- New York Sawed in Half

Many people have written about specific historic feats of building and engineering such as the construction of the Erie Canal. Others have written about particular hoaxes which fooled large numbers of people, and biographies of the hoaxsters have also been written. The career of PT Barnum seems as if it would repay study to prepare us for Herr Drumpf.

New York Sawed in Half by Joel Rose traces a story without the solidity of an engineering feat and without even the crowd of slack jawed rubes left behind as the hoaxster rides out of town on a fast horse with some of their hard earned cash in his pockets.

The story goes that an old Market Butcher in around 1860 sought to preserve the history of New York’s markets from the early days before refrigeration, reliable waste disposal, trains, cheap popular newspapers and all the other mod cons of the mid C19. One of his sources for tales of old New York was a distant cousin who incidentally passed on the tale of how he and an associate (“I’ve forgotten his name.”) had convinced a desperate group of the unemployed during an economic downturn in about 1825 that they were in charge of digging a ditch across Manhattan to stop the lower end becoming overburdened with its 150,000 people and sinking into the sea. Reputedly hundreds of men turned upon the appointed day with picks and shovels ready for work while butchers had already set up holding pens with livestock ready to be slaughtered to feed the workers.

There was a degree of plausibility around this large scale ditch digging enterprise in the aftermath of the completion of the Erie Canal which connected Buffalo and the Great Lakes with the Hudson River at Albany via an 8 foot wide barge canal and it’s many locks hacked out of over 300 miles of creeks and swamps at the cost of over 1,000 lives. Admittedly many of the casualties were just cheap, expendable bog Irish migrants. This canal fundamentally changed New York’s status among North American ports by giving upstate New York and the mid-west access to New York’s all weather port instead of the seasonally frozen St Lawrence River. This was one the critical events in the economic history of New York, the USA and the world as it gave Europe regular access to the food products and resources of the American Mid-West before the rail era.

The amateur historian duly inserted the story in his book about the New York markets and soon discovered his leg had well and truly been pulled by his cousin. He was not pleased by this, but the story eventually attracted enough amused attention to become part of New York’s folklore. Joel Rose thought he was undertaking an archival research project tracking down the hoax through contemporary journals, letters and diaries of the 1820’s, only to find that all roads led back to the same source – the first and only mention in the Markets book of 1860. New York Sawed in Half was in fact a story about a hoax of a hoax, spun into whole cloth one day in the 1850’s by an old man happy to chatter away to his younger and more earnest cousin.

Well played, that man!

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