Wednesday 7 December 2022

Gotta Sell Those Hats!

       There's always another day in Tahiti. Apropos of the natives' light regard for time, Mrs. Winkelstroetter tells us of the boat from the Austral Islands that was about to return to that group when an old lady objected:
     "But, Captain, just wait a little. I have ten hats to sell yet."
     So he postponed sailing until the next day.
     But she still had seven hats to sell. Sailing was put off from day to day. Each morning the captain and passengers would assemble ready to depart. The old lady would complain and the boat would lie over. So it went for a week.
     "Now really," the captain said, "I must sail. Haven't you sold all your hats?"
     "All but one - but it is a very ugly one and nobody will buy it."
     The captain pulled out ten francs.
     "I'll buy it myself,"
     He did, and thanks to this prompt and decisive action on his part, the boat sailed only a week late.

Reference:  Willard Price (1955), Adventures in Paradise, quoted in The Wild World Magazine Oct 1956 (Australia), Sept. 1956 (UK), p x

Tuesday 1 March 2022

The Danger of Dealing with a Witch

      Unrequited love! One of life's great frustrations! Haven't we all been a position whereby a little love magic would come in handy - preferably a type which could not be used by our rival, or against us? (That's the trouble, of course, with magic: it works both ways.) In the 1920s journalist, W. B. Seabrook went to Haiti to investigate Voodoo, and reported on how a young man called Paul, besotted with a woman who had rejected him, asked his grandmother, Maman Célie for help. In response, she ground into powder a dead hummingbird, all the time chanting prayers or spells, added a few dried drops of her grandson's blood and semen, plus the pollen of jungle flowers, and placed it in a pouch made from the scrotum of a billy goat. Now the fun part: how was he going to get the object of his affection to eat or drink the stuff? 

Sunday 2 January 2022

A Noise Annoys a Caterpillar

      Caterpillars! They descended as a ravenous plague on the Catskill Mountains of New York State in the years 1897-9. Green worms, or tree caterpillars the farmers called them, as they watched in stupefied impotence while their fruit and maple trees were transformed into bare branch skeletons by the voracious pests. Nothing, it seemed, could save them from ruin. Nothing the scientists could suggest made any difference. Where was the Pied Piper when you needed him most?

Sunday 5 December 2021

Come Home; It's Time for Your Execution!

      Here's a scenario: you've committed murder, and have been sentenced to death. Alas! The facilities for your execution are not yet in place, so you are released on parole. We are talking about the original meaning of the term: you give your word (parole in French) that you will return on the required date - sort like bail without the money - and off you go. You leave the country and become a sporting celebrity. Then, after three years, you receive the summons: it is time for you to return home for your execution. What do you do?
     Well, if you were a Choctaw, there is no issue to discuss. You gave your word. Your word is your bond. And death is preferable to dishonour.

Saturday 6 November 2021

"Is This Not the Carpenter?"

     No matter how important you become, the people you will find hardest to impress are those you grew up with, who knew you when you were both snotty-nosed kids, and who watched you grow into an average Joe. Thus, when Jesus returned to His hometown of Nazareth, the reactions of the locals were: "Is this not the carpenter?" (Mk 6:3) or "... the carpenter's son?" (Matt. 13.55). So that is how we know how Jesus and St. Joseph earned their living. It also cast light on other passages. Thus, although "My yoke is easy" (Matt. 11:30) has a predominantly spiritual meaning, we should not forget that it came from a professional carpenter who once took pride in crafting yokes which did not chafe the ox.
     But does anyone have an idea what Jesus' or Joseph's workshop looked like? That famous, and mawkish, painting by John Millais really depicts a modern carpenter's workshop. Not to worry! Until about a century ago, the Middle East was culturally static. In March 1914, the National Geographic Magazine published an article by John D. Whiting on "Village Life in the Holy Land". And here is a colourised photo of a village carpenter which, apart from the clothing, might not have been out of place in First Century Nazareth. And yes, Jesus probably wore a turban.

Thursday 28 October 2021

How Gordon Died

      Of all late Victorian heroes, probably none has captured the imagination more than General Charles Gordon. It is little wonder: a lone Englishman, hundreds of miles from civilisation, valiantly attempting to hold the line against a horde of barbaric religious fanatics, only to be slain at the fall of Khartoum, just two days before the arrival of the force sent to relieve him. I first heard about him in the 1966 film, Khartoum. Who could forget the climax, where Gordon strode out to confront the dervish army in the governor's palace, only to be killed with a spear? But did it happen that way?

Monday 4 October 2021

"Seadromes": an Idea Whose Time Never Came

       In 1844 Edgar Allan Poe produced a hoax about a balloon crossing the Atlantic in three days. Fast forward a century, and we discover that balloons are out of fashion, but commercial transAtlantic flights by aircraft are still in their infancy. The first such flight, by Lufthansa, took place in 1938, and lasted 25 hours. You can immediately see a problem: compared to today, flights were much slower and, unlike balloons, required copious amounts of fuel. Also, there existed other, longer stretches of ocean. The first commercial transPacific flight may have been in 1935, but it involved a series of island hops. Nevertheless, a solution had been suggested for the problem: just as aerodromes were scattered all over the land, it might be possible to scatter the sea with marine aerodromes, or "seadromes" as they were called. Much later, the concept was used to produce floating oil rigs but, basically, it was an idea whose time never came. For your information, nevertheless, I shall introduce you to this forgotten topic by reprinting an essay from the same 1939 British boys' magazine as in my previous article.

Sunday 5 September 2021

The Remarkable Birth of Television

       At one point in The Living Shadow, the first novel in The Shadow series, the mysterious crime fighter communicates with his agents via television. The year was 1931, and television was ultra-high-tech - so high, in fact, that the author does not appear to have introduced it again. By the end of the 1930s a few countries had a few television stations in a few cities for a few customers, but introducing the technology involved a vast network of channels, performers, and customers, that it is no wonder that it did not take off until after the war. Television has been part of our lives for so long, that hardly anyone knows the remarkable series of events which led to its development. Fear not, I happened to discover an article on the subject in - believe it or not! - a British boys' magazine of 1939, which I am pleased to share with you. You may also care to note the predictions made by the author, and see how they turned out.

Saturday 24 April 2021

The Fabulous Londonderry Gold Bubble

       It is a little known fact that Scrooge McDuck arrived at the Kalgoorlie gold fields in the pouch of a kangaroo. It just goes to show that, although separated by half and century and half the world, the story of the great Western Australian gold rush of the 1890s had come to the attention of a well read cartoonist. Kalgoorie is still a major town, with a gigantic open cut mine, because it is no longer feasible for gold to be extracted except on a massive industrial scale. The site of the first discovery, Coolgardie is now a village living on tourism and its history. But 14 km from Coolgardie stands the ghost town of Londonderry. This was the site which, in 1894, brought wealth beyond the dreams of avarice to the original discoverers, and a huge financial "bubble" which brought disappointment and ruin to innumerable others in its wake.

Wednesday 25 November 2020

A Leopard by the Tail

     Yes, it is possible to kill a leopard in single combat, but it is not something recommended. Five years ago I reported two cases: taxidermist and animal collector, Carl Akeley, who straggled one, and the one-handed giant, Jean-Pierre Hallet, who slew one Tarzan-style, but leaping on its back and stabbing it. So this time, I shall tell the story of Captain Edward Wood, formerly a forestry official in British India, who gave a whole new meaning to the expression "swing a cat".

Thursday 1 October 2020

Of Cricket Balls and Sparrows

      Considering the Brits' penchant for tradition and eccentricities, I'm not surprised that the stuffed cricket is still in the M.C.C. Museum at Lord's. For those who are unaware, Lord's Cricket Ground in St John's Wood, London is considered the home of cricket, although it is owned by the Marylebone Cricket Club or M.C.C. Which brings us to the events of 3 July 1936.
      It was a game between the M.C.C. and Cambridge University, with Jahangir Khan, a pre-independence Indian bowling for the University, and Tom Pearce batting for the M.C.C. Pearce hit the ball hard. It sailed through the air - and killed a sparrow in full flight. Apparently both the sparrow and the ball are now in the M.C.C. Museum.
     Something similar happened at Kennington Oval, the home of the Surrey Cricket Club. I presume this was before 1934, when Jack Hobbs retired as batsman. He was considered one of the greatest batsmen of all time but, unfortunately, on this occasion none of the other members of the team were up to scratch. Surrey needed three runs to win when Hobbs sent the ball on a long flight towards the boundary. Just then, a sparrow got in the way. It was killed, of course, but the ball was slowed down, and Hobbs was able to make only two runs. A game lost because of a luckless sparrow!

Reference: 'The funny side of cricket' by Jack Graydon, Chums Annual 1939, pp 138-9

Thursday 10 September 2020

Women of Tunisia, 1913

      Far be it from me to claim an intricate knowledge of the fine points of Islamic law. However, I understand that men are required to cover themselves from at least the navel to the knee, and women all except their hands and face. For women, I gather that the head scarf is obligatory, but the face veil optional, its use dependent on custom. In rural areas, where women need to work extensively outside the home, it is rarer than in the cities. You will find many websites contrasting the bare heads of educated Muslim women in the 1960s and '70s with their scarf-covered sisters of today. But what was it like a hundred or so years ago? Well, the whole of the January 1914 issue of the National Geographic was given over to an account of North Africa, especially Tunisia, by a Frank Edward Johnson, and although women were only part of the story, they did appear in many of the photographs. As far as I can tell, the photographers were male. In other words, it is not as if some female photographer gained access to naïve inhabitants of the harem. 

Tuesday 25 August 2020

The Fireman Prince

      We know him as King Edward VII - Edward the Peacemaker - but for most of his life he was Bertie, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of Queen Victoria. And because she refused to ever provide him with royal duties, even to train him for his future role, he was left to follow the dissipated life of the idle rich. History tends to remember him for his mistresses, his parties, and his gambling, but there was another side of him hardly ever shown to the nation. To understand this, you must be aware that his London residence was Marlborough House in Pall Mall.

Monday 10 August 2020

Hide! The Comet is Coming!

      Halley's Comet, as everyone knows, appears every 76 years - more or less. Its return in 1986 was a damp squib. We were all disappointed. But in 1910 its appearance had some interesting effects. Here is the brief account given by Frank Edward Johnson about what happened in Tripoli, in what is now Libya, on that occasion.

     Rain water is the only drinking water used and is kept in huge cisterns build under the houses. During the passage of the Halley comet the Jews of Tripoli were afraid of dying and took refuge in their great cisterns, which they had pumped dry for the purpose. Twenty-four hours having elapsed, they came out of their hiding places to find the world the same as before.
     The Arabs said that they were in the hands of Allah and refused to take refuge in their cisterns. So the few foreigners and the Arabs were the only ones who had any drinking water left, and the Arabs sold drinking water to the Jews until the next rains, about six months later.

     And if my experiences were anything to go on, the two groups would have lived in separate quarters of the city.

Reference: Frank Edward Johnson, 'Here and There in Northern Africa', The National Geographic Magazine, Jan. 1914, at pages 95-6

Sunday 13 October 2019

The Blind Girl Sees

"I see men; but they look like trees, walking." (Mk 8:24, RSV)
     Such were the words of a blind man in the process of regaining his sight. Those who have lost their sight, I presume, remember to some extent what the world used to look like. But what about those born blind? Initially, in fact, they would not even know they were blind.

Wednesday 14 August 2019

Chased by Mickey Mouse Gas Masks

     What was it like on the home front in England during the Second World War? Well, for a start, they suffered very severe rationing. Also, everyone had to practice using a gas mask. This could lead to farcical results, as this story by a governess of a high society family illustrates:

Sunday 23 June 2019

The Virgin Matriarchs of Albania

     Here's a scenario: imagine you live in a backward society where the male population keeps getting whittled away by blood feuds. What do you do when your family runs out of males? In the boondocks of Albania, among the European equivalent of hillbillies, the problem is solved by the eldest unmarried daughter becoming socially a man.

Thursday 9 May 2019

The Balloon Locomotive

     Due to its weight, a train requires a low gradient, which normally means cuttings and switchbacks in mountainous terrain. However, reaching the top of  mountain is another matter, since removing removing the summit is not an option, and one of the ways of scaling such steep inclines is a funicular. Almost most of you will have heard the term, but how many know what it really means? It is essentially two trains operated on the counterbalance system. The ascending and descending lines form a loop, and the two trains are linked by a continuous cable. As one train goes down, its weight pulls the other one up. Sometimes, at the top, water is added to the descending train to increase the weight. Of course, the locomotive must still be powered - there is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine - but gravity significantly reduces the power bill.
     However, in late 1897, in the Austrian Alps, a single rail line was introduced driven, not by steam or electricity, but by a balloon!

Wednesday 10 April 2019

The Witches Who Failed to Fly

      It is, of course, well established that the Great Witch Craze of the 16th and 17th centuries, stretching even into the 18th, represented a resurgence of pre-Christian superstitions. They had once been ignored and mocked, but were now being taken seriously. However, I didn't realise just how ancient these beliefs were until I reread Apuleius' second century novel, The Golden Ass. There, the author describes how he watched a Thessalian witch strip naked, rub herself with a magic ointment, and promptly turn into an owl. That was very similar to what witches were accused of doing 13 or 14 centuries later! Some were even trying it out themselves!

Thursday 17 January 2019

The Dubious Delights of the Upper Salween

      Often a reader of earlier publications realises he has stepped into a world which no longer exists. The south western province of Yunnan is home to a greater variety of ethnic groups than any other Chinese province. As the eastern foothills of Tibet, its mountainous terrain is bisected by deep north-south ravines, being the headwaters of some of the great rivers of east and southeast Asia. Into this forbidding terrain, in late 1909 came botanist George Forrest, to explore the region of the Upper Salween, home of the Lisu. Chinese authority was weak in the area, often fading out completely, for this was almost two years before the first Chinese Revolution, and decades before the great transformation of Lisu society. Essentially, the botanist had stepped into a forgotten corner of the world, where poverty, filth, violence, vice, and superstition had held sway for hundreds of years.

Thursday 20 December 2018

Would You Like to Live in a Palace?

     People think that a royal palace is the last word in up-to-date luxury, replete with everything the heart can desire, and that people who live there do so in absolute comfort. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Life in a palace rather resembles camping in a museum. These historic places are so old, so tied up with tradition, that they are dropping to bits, all the equipment there decades behind the times.
    That was the summation made by Marion Crawford ("Crawfie") of her experience of moving into Buckingham Palace when her employer, the Duke of York had unexpectedly and unwillingly become King George VI.

Tuesday 20 November 2018

Traitors to the Human Race

     "The love of money", said Phocylides, "is the mother of all evils" - a maxim which was to become proverbial in the ancient world, being changed to the "metropolis of all evils" by Democritus, and the "root of all evils" by St. Paul.
     Greed for money and, as we shall see, for power can be a strong solvent of a person's morality. Thirty pieces of silver was enough to buy Judas Iscariot's treachery, and a long list could be made of those who turned traitor for the sake for pay. Greed can also dissolve the critical faculty. No-one would possibly fall for the Nigerian scam, for instance, if the prospect of enormous riches hadn't blinded him to the extreme improbability of the proposal. However, it takes a massive combination of baseness and stupidity to fall for a project which is both evil and utterly ridiculous, and one can must grant a certain grudging respect to a con artist who realised it would actually work.

Wednesday 19 September 2018

The Riddle of the Amazonian Amazons

      Imagine, if you will, that beyond your towns and farms - the only world you know - dwell large settlements of aliens from outer space, of which you know very little, except that they are completely different, and incomprehensible. You see their flying saucers passing overhead, and more and more frequently they themselves are intruding into your domain. But you keep your distance, because oral tradition tells how they once committed terrible atrocities against your kind, or that once there were friendly relations, but then they brought the plague upon you.
     This, essentially, is the experience of thousands of Indians who are literally hiding from the outside world in the fastness of the Amazon jungle. Every time it is announced that the last uncontacted tribe has been discovered, another turns up. But once there were millions of them - only to be wiped out by massacre and enslavement, but mostly, as in North America, by infectious diseases which could devastate whole communities before any white man arrived. And somewhere in this maelstrom of destruction there was lost a community which most people now relegate to mythology: the women warriors after which the Amazon River was named.

Tuesday 14 August 2018

The Tale of a Silly Shakedown

     1995. It's said that bad luck comes in threes. I had just injured my leg in a skiing accident, my tenants had done a flit and let the house filthy and unrentable, and now my car had been stolen. I got off the train and limped down to the station car park, but where was the car? I looked back and forth, but it wasn't there: just a pile of broken glass to suggest that entry had been made through a rear window. What the ...? Didn't this sort of thing only happen to other people? All right, I will admit that repairing it was still cheaper than its purchase price, but the paint was fainted from 17 years in the sun, and unkind people were known to use the term, "rust bucket" when talking about it. Who'd want to steal something like that? At the Sandgate Police Station an officer entered the details into a computer and told me that, if it had been taken for a joy ride rather than parts, they would likely find it in a few days, for they usually cruised around car parks at night looking for stolen cars.
     That was late on Thursday. None of us could have predicted the sort of craziness which the weekend would bring.

Wednesday 13 June 2018

Weird Happenings at the Battle of Acoma

     God, gold, and glory should have been the motto of the Spanish conquistadors. Possessed of an inordinate greed for wealth and power, combined with a hypocritical, but nevertheless sincere, religious zeal, they cut a swathe of cruelty and plunder through Central and South America. In the pursuit of these goals they were prepared to endure any hardship, and face any odds. Though their crimes were execrable, their deeds were nevertheless some of the most heroic ever recorded. This story is about the Massacre at Acoma in January 1599, but more particularly some very strange incidents at its climax.

Tuesday 1 May 2018

Quick Thinking in Time of Danger

     Picture the scene: South Africa, 1877. The Zulu War is raging. Meanwhile, Britain has officially annexed the Transvaal, and the locals are getting restless. 4,000 armed Boers had camped at Kleinfontein. A detachment of six or eight Britons were sent to keep a watch on the camp, under the command of the young man who had recently raised the Union Flag at Pretoria, H. Rider Haggard, soon to become the leading adventure writer of his time. Haggard and his men were billeted in a nearby inn, under strict orders not to fight unless first attacked, when a commando of fifty or so Boers took positions around the inn, and a number entered.

Wednesday 4 April 2018

"We Could Have Been British Saboteurs"

     One moonless night in May 1942, six British Commandos drove into Italian occupied Benghazi in a "battle waggon" painted  to resemble a German staff car with a broad white stripe across the bonnet, the German air-recognition mark. But appearances were deceptive; it was filled with high explosives, along with two inflatable rafts, and mountings for two machine guns, which could be removed and hidden out of sight on the floor. Benghazi was in for some serious business. One of the commandos, in fact, was the son of the British Prime Minister, but it was under the command of Fitzroy Maclean, who soon faced his first crisis: a military check point.

Thursday 1 March 2018

An Island Without Wheels

     For twenty years before I was married I travelled the world - from Greenland to Madagascar to Easter Island. Even so, I had the constant feeling that I had come in too late. Everywhere was starting to look like Everywhere Else. For example, I shall probably never get a chance to visit Madeira, but I see from Google Earth that its capital, Funchal now has normal roads, with normal cars to run on them. Now, if I had arrived 110 years ago, I wouldn't even have found a horse and buggy.

Thursday 1 February 2018

African Stupidity

     Even first aid has changed since I was a boy. I can remember when mouth-to-mouth resuscitation came in. Before that, artificial respiration involving folding and pumping of the arms was all in vogue. As for snake bite, the practice was to bind a tourniquet really tightly around the upper part of the limb, make an X-shaped incision a quarter of an inch deep over the bite itself, then suck out the venom. Snake venom can easily be swallowed without harm, but it could still enter through a cut or sore in the mouth. Also, if you were alone, it helped if you were a contortionist. Just the same, you must remember that antivenene was not readily available at the time, so the method probably did save a lot of lives. You can read about my uncle's adventure with this sort of procedure here. But what has this got to do with Africa and stupidity?

Sunday 14 January 2018

Elephant Antics

     When the platypus was first discovered by Europeans, many people refused to believe it was a real animal. But what about elephants? If elephants had not been known for thousands of years, but had just been recently discovered in some small, remote part of Africa or Asia, who would believe in them? Think about it: as big as a house, legs like pillars, ears like great leather fans, two white horns sticking out the mouth and - wondrous to relate! - a nose like a snake! Come off it! A unicorn is much more plausible.

Saturday 2 December 2017

A Real Life Evangeline

     Evangeline was a famous poem by Longfellow about a woman who lost her lover, Gabriel during the Acadian expulsions, and continued searching for him for years, only to be reunited with him at his deathbed. Recently, however, while searching through the Trove of digitalised Australian newspapers, I came across an article entitled, "Evangeline in Real Life". It was apparently originally published in the New York World some time in 1877, but I shall cite the earliest Australian report, that of the Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney) of Saturday 10 November 1877, on page 31. It's a pity they failed to mention the lady's name. One is also bound to wonder whether her "Gabriel" wanted to be found, since he could easily have written to her, if for some reason he was unable to return immediately.

Sunday 19 November 2017

Egypt's Cannibal Year

     Famine! You don't hear about it any more in industrial societies, but in pre-industrial periods its grim spectre was always lurking in the background. Thus, May is a balmy month in Europe, but in the middle ages it was also often the hungry month for poor peasants, as the harvest of the previous year ran out before the new one was available. Thus, it required only a poor harvest, a hard winter, or the depredations of an army for those living on the edge to be pushed over. In really bad years, most of the population would be affected, and mass starvation ensured. Ironically, at such times a plentiful supply of meat was available, but a heavy taboo lay upon it: the bodies of the dead. Initially, no doubt, the taboo was broken when starving individuals sliced off a steak from the body of someone who had already succumbed to starvation. Since no-one was actually harmed, it is difficult to hold it blameworthy. However, later the temptation would arise to deliberately hasten the death. But what happened in Egypt in 1201 was truly horrible.

Saturday 14 October 2017

Hunting Squirrels with Snogg and Squail

     Until recently, it never occurred to me that Englishmen ate squirrels. Heck! They weigh only a half or three quarters of a pound [220 to 330 grams] - including tail, ears, and claws. Nevertheless, I was able to find recipes for them on the internet, and up until at least the beginning of the last century, it used to be a custom for Commoners to hunt them with snogg and squail in the New Forest in order to obtain squirrel pie for Christmas.

Wednesday 27 September 2017

The Girl I Met Without a Face

     I've just seen just seen the trailer for the family movie, Wonder, based on the children's book of that name, about a boy with facial disfigurement due to a birth defect. Well, thirty-five years ago I met someone just like that.
     It was 1982, and I was about to embark on a 6½ month journey through North and South America commencing, ironically enough, with a bus journey southwards from my home city of Brisbane. On such trips my custom was to chat to whomever fate had placed in the seat next to me, for travellers tend to have interesting life stories to relate. This time I found myself next to a young lady who was nothing to look at on the outside. She wore a pair of thick glasses, her face was misshapen, and her nose was just a shapeless lump, but shyness and diffidence did not come with the features. I shan't repeat her name, although she probably wouldn't mind, but she informed me that she was almost nineteen, and was returning home after receiving her twenty-first operation to repair her face.

Saturday 9 September 2017

The Slaves of Savage Senegal

    Of course, slavery existed in black Africa long before the white man arrived. Across the western grasslands and into the dense tropical forest stretched a row of barbaric ie non-literate kingdoms with complex systems of government and distinct social classes, even castes, of which the slaves were the lowest. In fact, this was the initial impetus for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Due to conflict with Muslim raiders, slavery had never completely disappeared in southwestern Europe. The result was that, when their explorers moved southwards down the African coast, the natives came out to offer them various items for trade, including prisoners of war. It was only when the plantation system developed in the New World that the true horrors of the slave trade developed, for these early slaves ended up in Portugal and Spain living a far better standard of living than they could have experienced in Africa. That is, of course, assuming they were merely enslaved and not killed. Once, when John Hawkins went on a slaving expedition, he was dismayed when his African associates decided to eat the captives rather than sell them.

Friday 11 August 2017

Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean

     Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean (2009) by Edward Kritzler: when you see a book with this title going cheap in a collection of remainded books, how could you possibly resist buying it? Of course, the title was chosen to piggyback on the popularity of a certain movie. As it turned out, the few Jewish pirates mentioned did their dirty work in the Mediterranean, while few of  the Jews of the Caribbean were actually pirates; they were just up to their necks in the business. But it least it cast light on a little known chapter of history: to quote the subtitle of the book: "How a generation of swashbuckling Jews carved out an empire in the New World in their quest for treasure, religious freedom and revenge."

Sunday 25 June 2017

Swinging a Dead Cat

     Now doubt many of you will have enjoyed the James Herriot stories about a Yorkshire vet in the 1930s and 1940s, and the television series it spawned. Alf Wight was the author's real name, and he lived in Thirsk, not the fictitious town on Darrowby. Nevertheless, the Royal Mail used to religiously deliver fan mail to him addressed simply, "James Heriot, Darrowby." In one case, a letter was received addressed simply to "James Herriot, It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet" (the title of his second book), to which some wag had added: "It shouldn't happen to a postman, either."
     One thing you must understand is that, when he first started writing, he never expected to be world famous. He saw his books, not as mémoires, but as novels: collections of short stories about a fictitious vet called James Herriot, who just happened to have a lot in common with Alf Wight, and who was married to someone unlike his real wife, but possibly modeled on his first girlfriend. As for the stories themselves, they were fiction based on fact, inspired by his own experiences and those of other vets, plus anecdotes which did the rounds of the profession, and which the members considered believable. But some true (?) stories were just too bizarre to be included. Take, for example, this tale recounted by his biographer.

Saturday 10 June 2017

Holy Suicide

     The word "Juggernaut" entered the English language to describe something huge and inexorable, implacably crushing down anything in its path. Originally, it was inspired by the custom of devotees of Jagannâth ("Lord of the World") of throwing themselves under his great temple car when the latter was taken in procession through Orissa (now Odisha) in northeastern India. Nowadays, you will read (for example, here) that the story is a myth, inspired by accidents when devotees fell under the wheels due to the press of the crowd. This is quite untrue.

Wednesday 24 May 2017

How a Drunken Sailor Captured a Fort

     The British Empire, it is said, was won in a moment of absent mindedness. Certainly, it wasn't planned. On the coasts of India, for instance, the European powers were permitted to establish trading posts, to the mutual benefit of both sides. In 1690 a doctor of the English East India Company saved the life of a daughter of the Mogul Emperor, as a reward for which the Company was allowed to set up shop at Calcutta. Alas! The oppressions of the fanatical Emperor Aurangzeb against his Hindu subjects meant that the Empire quickly began to tear itself apart with multiple rebellions and invasions. By 1756 Bengal was in the hands of an upstart ruler who wanted the Company out. The result was a battle notable for the extreme courage of the British soldiers and the extreme cowardice of their leaders, and which ended in the notorious Black Hole of Calcutta. It was clear to the Company that if they were to have any future in India they were going to have to fight. And their numbers were pitifully small against those pitted against them.

Saturday 13 May 2017

You DON'T Know What You're Standing in Line For?

     A writer who had lived many years in Hong Kong claimed that Asians in general, and Chinese in particular, do not queue. They will push up to the counter; they will take you taxi if you're not quick enough. Queuing, she said, is for affluent societies whose citizens know that there will always be enough merchandise, taxis, or tickets to go around. She obviously hadn't lived in Mao's China, where acute shortages, combined with strict rationing, produced the same sort of interminable human lines for which the old Soviet Union was notorious. There is nothing like manmade disasters, such as wars or Communism, to make people stand in line.

Monday 17 April 2017

Born in a Forced Labour Camp

Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire? (Zechariah 3:2)

      I am writing this on Easter Day, an appropriate day, one might think, to reflect on the miraculous. Take Paul Israel Kraus, for instance. His first claim to fame is that he is the longest documented survivor of mesothelioma, a lung cancer caused by asbestos. His second is that he is probably the only Jewish Holocaust survivor in the Australian Lutheran Church, for he was born on 20 October 1944 in a Nazi Forced Labour Camp. But the real heroine of the story is his mother, Clara.

Friday 31 March 2017

A Life Cut Short at 109

      Cobar, New South Wales: in 1870 three teenagers camped by a waterhole, where they collected some colourful rocks. When they showed them to a Cornish woman, she recognized them as copper, and the mining boom began. Later, one fellow picked up a rock to throw at a noisy possum, and noticed a fragment of gold the size of a postage stamp adhering to it. And for 31 years it was the last stamping ground of a remarkable character known as "Old Norman" Fersen, whose life was cut short by a tragic accident when he was just over 109 years of age. To tell the story, I can think of no better way than to copy verbatim the pamphlet produced by the city's Heritage Centre. In reading it, kindly remember that the old age pension had been introduced to the state only in 1900.

Saturday 4 March 2017

Quick Thinking in the Heat of Battle

     Robert Clive! He was one of the heroes we learnt about in primary school, the way Americans learnt about George Washington. At least, we did in my day. If the current generation has failed to do so, then they are to be pitied, for they have lost an essential part of their history and heritage. Sent over to India at the age of seventeen, most likely to get him out of his father's hair, it was hoped that, after five years of living on a miniscule wage, he would be allowed to indulge in private trade, and thus grow rich. But it didn't work out that way. After just a few years, he found himself in the crosswires of the French plan to destroy the British coastal trading posts. Without any military experience, he enlisted in the army, and soon became a man of destiny. This is one minor episode in his rise.

Sunday 12 February 2017

The Black Pearls of Fatu Hiva

     It's not often that an apparently improbable account is confirmed by a unrelated story. Careful readers of this blog may have noticed that I am an avid collector of the old Wide World Magazine, in which ordinary people from all over the world described their own adventures. They were supposed to certify that they were "strictly original and true in every detail", and most of them, I believe, were. They don't normally have the clear-cut beginning, middle, and end of fiction. Nevertheless, there was no available method of confirmation, and fiction certainly had occasionally turned up dressed as fact. One of these which sounded too pat to be above suspicion was "The Black Pearls of Fatu-Hivu" by the baronet, Sir Graeme Sinclair-Lockhart in the January 1951 issue (February 1951 in the Australian and New Zealand versions.)

Friday 6 January 2017

Voyage to the Edge of the World

     "No-one goes beyond the reef!" insisted Chief Tui in Disney's latest cartoon, Moana. Of course, as the story developed we were reminded that the people of the Pacific had no concern about the moana, or ocean. They colonised its countless islands by exploratory voyages extending hundreds, even thousands of miles. Nevertheless, it is a fact that the inhabitants of the Gilbert Islands, now known as Kiribati, once believed that if they sailed too far west, they would fall off the edge of the world.

Sunday 11 December 2016

A Sherry for the Saviour

     Now that Christmas is coming up, we might take a glimpse at its celebration in India in the 1920s. One person who went there at the age of eight described his experiences in The Colonel's Son (1962) under the pseudonym of Nigel Eldridge. It turns out that the highlight of the pre-Christmas season was his being cast as the chief angel in the nativity play put on by the twenty-eight pupil Regimental School, written and produced by the music mistress, Miss Trouvel, and staged in the school gymnasium. I know this might sound extraordinary to some of my American readers, but I assure you that, in realms where the fatwas of SCOTUS do not run, such things are regarded as unexceptional - as, I am sure, they also were in the U.S. in those days. But let Mr Eldridge tell the story:

Wednesday 23 November 2016

Sex, Sorcery, and Swordfish

     The power of mind over matter can be quite spectacular, when the "matter" is the human body, and not always for the best. Take, for instance, a phantom pregnancy, when a woman wants a child so much that her body goes through all the features of pregnancy, except that no child has been conceived. The classic case was that of England's first queen regnant, the unfortunate Mary I ("Bloody Mary"). Married to the King of Spain at the age of 40, and desperate for an heir, she was apparently pregnant for eleven months, but nothing came of it. Even worse is "sorcery death" or voodoo death. Recorded in many parts of the world, the most dramatic is the phenomenon of "pointing the bone", also known as "singing to death" among the Australian Aborigines. When a person has a curse put upon him by a witchdoctor by having a bone pointed at him, he literally wills himself to die within a few days or a few weeks, unless the curse is removed.
    But what happens when both phenomena occur together?

Monday 31 October 2016

The Adventures of a Curio Collector

     Every now and then one comes across people whose adventurous lives one can only envy. Thus, in my university days, when I imagined I had a future as a wildlife zoologist, I read George Schaller's account of his studies on mountain gorillas deep in the African jungle, even before Dian Fossey went in and did the same. Then I followed him as he studied lions in the Serengeti (I still have that book), tigers in India, snow leopards in the Himalayas, and pandas in China, among many others. The lucky devil! Again, to someone who spent the holidays of his bachelor days travelling the world, a major source of envy was Robert Ripley who, once his cartoon, Ripley's Believe It or Not! got started, never took a holiday, but travelled the world into far more exotic locations than a tourist like me could hope to enter, collecting items weirder and more wonderful than anything on the tourist trail.
    But recently, I came across yet another source of envy: Frank Burnett (1852 - 1930), whose 1,200 Pacific Island artifacts was donated to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and became the founding collection of the UCB Museum of Anthropology.  And I can't think of a better way to introduce him than to quote verbatim from this 1920 article by Francis J. Dickie.

Wednesday 5 October 2016

Tombstone for a Trout

   I think this photo speaks for itself. I took it, believe it or not, from the Boy's Own Paper of June 1920.

Saturday 24 September 2016

The White King of the Kikuyu

     With 22% of the population, the Kikuyu are the dominant and most progressive tribe in Kenya, and they provided its first president, Jomo Kenyatta. The reason is not hard to discern: living in the vicinity of Nairobi, they experienced the strongest effects of British civilisation. But it wasn't always so. Up to the end of the nineteenth century they dwelt ensconced in fortified villages, every clan being at war with every other. Not even a rooster was allowed in the village, lest its crowing alert enemies to the village's location. The breeding stock was hidden in coops out in the bush. Outsiders kept clear of their territory, for they would be marked for death. The first thing a passing caravan would know of the danger lurking in the undergrowth would be the twang of a bowstring, and a poisoned arrow striking down a laggard. Or else they would blunder into a poisoned skewer set into the underbrush at stomach level. All this came to an end when an intrepid white man arrived to trade, and unexpectedly became the white king of a savage tribe.