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.