Saturday, 20 December 2014

Fresh Fish in the Desert

     These days, of course, you can probably get anything in Alice Springs although, since it is almost exactly in the centre of Australia, you are likely to pay a lot more than on the coast. Sixty years ago, however, things were a little different. If, for example, you wanted to eat fresh fish, you would need to have it flown in from Adelaide protected by ice packs. It would also mean exchanging one load of protein for another, for it would cost you an arm and a leg. But one man found a way around it. His name was Charles H. Chapman, who started the Granites gold rush in the Tanami Desert in 1932, eventually controlled the entire Goldfield until he retired in 1954. Prior to that, he set up his retirement headquarters not far from Alice Springs. I shall now quote from a contemporary article.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The Lost Soldiers of Stalingrad

     The greatest battle in history was certainly the Battle of Stalingrad, fought at the city of that name on the Volga between August 1942 and February 1943, and which became the turning point on the Eastern Front. The fundamental details can be summarised briefly. The German 6th Army under Field Marshall Paulus forced its way across the river into the city, fighting street by exhausting street and house by exhausting house. Eventually, the Soviet forces counterattacked, hemmed in the Germans and their allies and, when the river froze, surrounded them. The Germans now found themselves ground between a relentless enemy and a relentless winter, while their Commander-in-Chief, Hitler refused any permission to withdraw, for all his life he had triumphed by the principle that anything can be achieved if you set your mind to it. Finally, Field Marshall Paulus surrendered in order to save what remained of his troops. It was a vain hope, for most of them perished in captivity.
     According to Heinz Schröter, the official German historian, 220,000 German and allied troops perished, and 123,000, including 24 generals, capitulated, of which only 5,000 came home alive. The Soviet casualties were similarly horrendous, and the civilian deaths numbered in the five figures. There were four million stories in the Battle of Stalingrad. This is just one of them.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Git Them Bastards Out of the Daffodils!

    When Norman Workman collapsed at home, his doctor told him his blood has been poisoned by the chemicals in the dye factory where he worked. Of course, these days this would be the beginning of a massive lawsuit, but as far as I can establish this was just after the end of World War II, and nobody thought like that in those days. Instead, he and his wife, Gladys decided to move from California to the Umpqua Valley of Oregon which, like most out-of-the-way places, was just crawling with "characters", and newcomers lived on sufferance.
     What to do for a living? Norman was over 50, his wife aged 46. On impulse he went out and spent $3,000 - which was a terrible lot of money in those days, and practically everything they owned - on three tons of daffodils. Then, because he knew absolutely nothing about farming, he put an ad in the paper for a manager. Obviously, he didn't deserve to succeed, but we don't always get what we deserve, and the business thrived. All of this is a background to the following anecdote, as told by Gladys:

Sunday, 2 November 2014

The Burning Ground of Siberia

     On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers. Who could resist buying a book with that title? No even my wife, who is a slow and perfunctory reader. It turns out the original edition was published in 1892, the year after the events described, and the year the author, Kate Marsden became the first woman elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society. She presents as an upper crust English spinster with a strong Christian vocation to help the needy. As a girl of 19 she served as a nurse in 1878 in the Russo-Turkish War, where she first witnessed the ravages of leprosy. When she heard of a mythical herb used to treat leprosy which grew only in the Yakutia, she was determined to find it, and in late 1890, armed with referrals from Queen Victoria and the Empress of Russia, she set out on a 3,000 km journey into the heart of Siberia in order to locate the plant, to report on the condition of the lepers, and to otherwise lend assistance to them.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Bride of Salik

     Once upon a time in the land of Serbia there lived a man named Salik, who had a very jealous nature. And because of this, he had remained a bachelor until the age of 43, although he was both attractive and prosperous. Now, as some of you may know, in these countries marriage is not the individualistic thing it is with us. You are supposed to get married for the sake of the family and the property. Salik knew this, but whenever the subject was raised by his friends, he would reply, "Oh no! It would never work. I have a very jealous nature. Any woman attractive to me would be attractive to other men. It would only cause dissension in the family and contention is the community."
     However, after about twenty years of nagging, he eventually gave it. He went out, and after a few months, found the ideal wife: a hunchbacked dwarf with warts all over her face - and a limp.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Damned Bats and the River of Blood

     Every now and then we come across some rather curious beliefs from what we would regard as "backward" parts of the world. Because they involve what would normally be regarded as the supernatural, they are often lumped into the category of religion. However, since they don't involve any sort of worship, it is best to treat them as quaint stories created to explain unusual circumstances by people who don't follow our un-supernatural outlook on the world.
     Take, for example, this account by the adventurer, F.A. Mitchell-Hedges, who spent the years 1919 to 1921 in Central America, especially Honduras.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

The Old Man of the Blackfeet

     The religion of the American Indians was/is a mosaic of gods, nature spirits, and visions, but in the background is the figure, sometimes remote, sometimes overarching, of the High God, the Creator. Contrary to what you may have read, the Great Spirit was not a creation of Christian missionaries, although their teachings may have had an influence on modern Indian spirituality. Among the Blackfeet, as among the Crees, Arapahos, and Gros Ventres, he was Napi, the Old Man.
     But unlike the distant Great Spirit of the eastern tribes, and the complex, multi-faceted Great Mystery of the Sioux, the Old Man was a familiar, grandfatherly figure, even given to practical jokes, who departed after his work was completed.
     After creating the earth and the animals, the Old Man constructed his wife, the Old Woman out of mud, and together they designed the human race. Of course, said the Old Man, he intended to have the first say in everything. That was all right, agreed his wife, provided she have second say.
     Old Man said, "Let the people have eyes and mouths in their faces, and let them be straight up and down." But the Old Woman added. "Yes, let them have eyes and mouths; but they shall be set crosswise in their faces."
     Old Man said, "Let the people have ten fingers on each hand." "No," declared Old Woman, "ten fingers will be in the way. Let them have four fingers and a thumb on each." So the people were made.
     I like this story, for it reminds us that the relationship between men and women is much the same all over the world. I might also add that, as the man of the house, I always have the last word in everything. And usually that last word is, "Yes, dear."

Reference: John C. Ewers (1958), The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains, University of Oklahoma Press, pp 3-4, quoting Alexander Henry and David Thompson (1897), New Light of the Early History of the Greater Northwest, II, 528.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Love on the Run from the Japanese

     In early 1942 fourteen British and Australian servicemen made a break from Japanese-held Singapore. Only four of them survived to cross the strait to Sumatra. Then began a long and hazardous flight down the length of the island in order to link up with other Allied forces. By the time they reached the very south end of Sumatra, only three were left. They were Charles McCormack, R.G. Donaldson, and Chris Skinner, the last one of which was described as:
small, dark, profane and possessed of boundless energy and humour. An inveterate grumbler, he had a one-track mind and only one topic of conversation: women.
     In short, he was the last person you would expect to react as he did in the native village which sheltered them. It completely and utterly sidetracked the whole adventure. It was something no writer would think to introduce into any of those old wartime escape movies which were once so popular. He and the chief's daughter, Li-Tong fell for each other straight away, despite the fact that their stay was very short, and that neither of them spoke more than a few words of the other's language.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Napoleon's Rabbit Retreat and Other Trivia

What's more likely: being killed by lightning or by an asteroid? Absurd as it may seem, death by asteroid is almost twice as likely.
     That's a quote from The Noticeably Stouter QI Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson (Faber & Faber, 2009). For those not in the know, QI is a British television comedy panel game, from which this book is a spin-off. It is a vast compendium of fascinating, but useless information - and thus grist to my mill, and this blog.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Not Fit To Be a High-Class Train Robber

     As everybody knows, the American west in the nineteenth century was by no means a peaceful place. The Colt .45 was its defining symbol. Many people lived - and all too often died - by it. But they did accept a certain Code. One rule was that you didn't shoot women. Another was that you didn't shoot unarmed men, and for that reason, many men really did go unarmed. And that brings us to a  nasty character called  Red Buck Waightman.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Rounding Them Up R.A.F. Style

     Here's an interesting story from the First World War, when air warfare was in its infancy. It is actually the first reference to strafing I have come across:
. . . . .

     All manner of adventures fell to the lot of our flying men, but on one occasion two officers, while on a counter attack, had an experience rare for the ubiquitous R.A.F.
     The airmen were flying fairly low. Soon they became aware that they were being fired upon from a near-by trench and sunken wood. Down dived the pilot, to promptly discover a party of Germans there, nicely sheltered. At once he returned their fire with his fixed gun, killing one and wounding three. By subsequent counting, it was ascertained that the Huns totalled sixty-five in number. Seemingly panic-stricken by this aeroplane attack, they ceased firing. And immediately a white handkerchief popped up in token of surrender.
     No British infantry were near, so what were the captors to do?
     The pilot came down to within fifty feet of the ground, and he ordered the Germans to come out of the trench. Up they tumbled quite joyously, so long as he stopped firing. Rounding up the good-sized party, the British pilot headed them off in the direction of our own lines. Flying not very far above their heads, and circling round and round to make sure that none escaped, the pilot and observer carefully conducted the batch across No Man's Land, and handed them over to the nearest party of British troops. Then those airmen flew back again, in order to "get on with it!"

Reference: Raymond Raife (1919). 'More Heroes of the Air Service' Boy's Own Annual, vol. 42, pp 179 - 183 at page 181

Saturday, 17 May 2014

10,000 Cups for the Indians

       As you are probably aware, the largest producers of commercial rubber are Malaysia and Indonesia, and they accounted for an even greater proportion during the Second World War. But the natural home of rubber is South America. So when the Japanese swept down and gobbled up southeast Asia into their empire, it wasn't long before the U.S. sent a team of experts to Ecuador to set up rubber production in the trans-Andean jungles of that country. But what most people don't know is that, although most commercial rubber comes from Hevea brasiliensis, which is generally known as "the" rubber tree, what they now had to investigate was a secondary source, the castila or Panamá rubber tree, Castila elastica. And thereby hangs a tale.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

His Hair Stood on End

     We've all heard the expression, "his hair stood on end", but has it ever happened to you? Has it ever happened to anyone you know? In our safe, civilized environment few of us ever get scared enough to put it to the test. However, we may have been scared enough to get "goosebumps", which is a minor version of the phenomenon, for every one of our hairs possesses a little muscle which allows it to be erected. Let me quote a story by Michael Andrews, from his 1976 book, The Life That Lives on Man, p 15 of the 1978 Arrow edition.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

A Very Modest Hero

     Anzac Day is on the way, so now might be the time to tell the story of a man who combined extreme bravery with modesty. War may be hell, but at least it can be said about large-scale conflicts such as the World Wars, they allowed average Joes to channel their inner hero. As one commentator put it: when you hear about lone volunteers sneaking onto the Normandy beaches at night to make reconnaissance, or the members of Z Force sabotaging Japanese warships in Singapore Harbour, the question arises: what would these people have been doing if the war had never broken out? Probably catching the bus every day to a boring workplace, the same as everybody else.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Edison Executes an Elephant

     Did you know that Coney Island, in New York, once featured a hotel in the shape of an elephant? The Elephant Hotel stood 122 feet [37 metres] high and, to quote P. V. Bradford,
it had circular stairs in hind legs 60 feet in diameter each, glittering glass eyes four feet wide, telescopes on top and rooms scattered throughout its body, thighs, and trunk.
     It burnt down in the 1890s, but Coney Island also had a herd of real elephants, one of which was executed in a spectacular manner.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Solomon Wouldn't Have Cut It In Nigeria

     It's obvious, of course, that government was simple in the early days of civilisation. They didn't have to worry about fiscal policy, for example, or social welfare, health, or education. Let's face it: the only reason people agreed to follow a king is because they needed someone to do two things: lead them in battle, and administer justice. Thus, we find that the King of Israel spent a lot of time at the city gates settling his subjects' quarrels. Fast forward twenty-nine centuries, and in the British Empire we find the King's representative, the District Commissioner spending a lot of time at the bench settling his subjects' quarrels. And that is how a certain Frank Hives almost came a cropper in a situation made famous by the most famous of Israel's kings.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Hunting Aborigines for Fun and Dinner

     As every schoolboy knows, during the last four decades of the 19th century Queensland imported large numbers of Melanesians - kanakas - as indentured labourers on the cane fields. And no, "kanaka" is not a derogatory term in Australia. It is a technical term for  those indentured labourers and the descendants of those who were allowed to settle here. Melanesians who arrived in the 20th century are not called kanakas. And no, they were not slaves nor, except in the earliest few years, were they kidnapped. The government very quickly regulated the system and cracked down on abuses. At the expiry of their term, they would go home, bringing the consumer goods they had accumulated, and encourage their friends and relatives to do the same. Even so, in the last couple of decades Queensland had to compete with Germany and France for their services.
      In other words, the system worked to the mutual advantage to both sides. However, there were hiccups. For a start, the Melanesians were cannibals.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Beware of the Man-Eating Apes

     A grieving female ape, having carried around her dead baby for several days, sees a human infant lying in a makeshift crib. Overjoyed, she drops the carcass of her own baby into the crib, and adopts the human one. This, of course, is the premise at the heart of Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic novel, Tarzan of the Apes. And it is also just about the most plausible aspect of the story. Bereft animal mothers have been known to adopt all sorts of unusual substitutes. Nevertheless, chimpanzees are carnivorous; their propensity for hunting monkeys in groups is legendary. Indeed, it has been pointed out on more than one occasion that, barring the unusual circumstances of Burroughs' novel, a chimpanzee would be more likely to eat a human baby than to adopt it. But I wasn't aware until now that such things had actually happened.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Some Elephants Don't Like Being Teased

"Chiwit [a Thai elephant] can make his meaning very clear, very quickly. A year or so back, he was teased by two boys when his mahout was out gathering fodder; he disliked it very much. He took the boys in his trunk, one by one, and dropped them down an empty well. It was not very deep, but they could not get out. They remained there, crying, until they were released. Meantime, Chiwit had relieved himself over the well. The boys never teased Chiwit again."

Reference: Gerald Sparrow, Opium Venture, quoted in The Wide World, Jan. 1958 (Dec. 1957 in the UK), page 128

Friday, 14 February 2014

A Penny to See a Corpse

     You will note my profile describes me as an "amateur polymath". I thought that would be the simplest and shortest alternative to "widely read collector of useless information". (Some people, knowing my reputation, have sought my assistance in obtaining useful information. It doesn't usually take them long to be disabused.) However, as an amateur polymath, I feel I must bow to the Rev. Lionel Fanthorpe, author, radio personality, member of Mensa, and leading light in several Fortean organisations. And it was thus that I found the following story - totally irrelevant to the essay in which it was included, I might add. And since the good Rev. Fanthorpe is a much better wordsmith than me (he once wrote 180+ books in a period of nine years), and since he is unlikely to sue me for plagiarism, or even read this site, I shall quote it in his own words.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

"Our Son Hasn't Started Menstruating Yet."

When I asked what she had come for I got the rather injured and indignant reply, "Are you not the man who makes women pregnant?"
     No, it's not what you think. The white doctor immediately understood that she required treatment for infertility. Werner Junge had come to Liberia in 1930, and pretty soon discovered that, what with infertile women, dying children, and adults suffering from all the horrible diseases the tropical jungle could throw at them, he had his hands full. But he was flummoxed when a boy of about twelve was brought to him with the complaint that his periods had not yet started.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

The Mill That Made Melbourne

See you that little mill that clacks,
So busy by the brook?
She has ground her corn and paid her tax
Ever since Domesday Book.
        Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook's Hill
     Well, here is a mill that should warm the heart of Puck, for it was also mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. Or, at least, it is on the site of the original, for no building is going to remain completely intact for nearly 1,000 years.
     It stands in Derbyshire, in the north of England, and was originally so important to the local economy that the stream, or "burn" which serviced it was known simply as the "mill-burn". Then the settlement which grew up around it took on the same name. In the Domesday Book it is recorded as "Mileburne", but the modern spelling is "Melbourne".
      Despite a population of just over 5,000, it was once the centre of a castle, Melbourne Castle, and still boasts a stately home, Melbourne Hall. This latter property had been inherited by Sir Peniston Lamb, so when he was raised from the baronetage to the peerage, he took the title, Viscount Melbourne.
      Then, when his son, the second Lord Melbourne, became Prime Minister, it seemed appropriate to name after him the new settlement at Port Phillip, which would later become the capital of Victoria.
     In the generations of cities, sometimes the daughter becomes greater than the mother. Most Americans, for example, are probably unaware that there is an older Boston back in England. Likewise, when most people think of Melbourne, it will be almost always the big city in the Southern Hemisphere. If the Australian Melbournians ever consider the name of their home town, they have probably heard that it was named after a British Prime Minister. But common sense should have told them that a nobleman always takes his title from his manor, and so there must be an original Melbourne somewhere.
     And it all started with a not-so-humble mill.

Reference: 'A Mill With a History', The Wide World, October 1945, p 311. (In the United Kingdom this issue would be September 1945.)