High School Class Reunion

The CHS Wolf, courtesy of the CHS Alumni Society

Before I begin, let me say that I did not have a lot of school spirit when I graduated from Claremont High (CHS) in 1967.  For those of you doing the basic math, yes, it has been 50 years since my graduation.  I didn’t hate high school, but this was the late Sixties and California’s CHS students had a more blasé attitude rather than a rabid “rah-rah, go team” one.  We were the Wolfpack, which is a name I now like, but it wasn’t important to me then.  I was never in any sports, never on any student council, never held any class office.  I was very quiet then, rather shy.  While I had plenty of friends and was not a nerd, I was never a “sosh” or a “jock.”  However, I lost track of most of my high school friends when I went to college and then got married.

Gone and best forgotten, like the 5-year reunion

Fast forward to my 5-year high school class reunion.  I’m not sure to this day why I went.  It was held at a restaurant in the now-defunct Ontario Motor Speedway.  There is something apropos about that.  The snobs were still the snobs and none of my friends attended, so I ended up sitting at a table with people I didn’t even know.  It was like no one had graduated from high school.  The same cliques, the same pettiness.  I decided to never go again.

Class theme song? Click here to listen.

Fast forward to my 20-year high school class reunion.  My wife, who graduated from a different high school in the same year and been very active in sports and school activities there, was going to her reunion and encouraged me to go to mine.  Reluctantly, I did.  Surprise of surprises, I enjoyed it.  Some of my old friends were there.  Sure, not everyone was over high school, but enough were that it was a fun time.  For some reason, “Gloria” by Them was sort of a class song and when the DJ started the night with it, about everyone hit the dance floor.  It was like 20 years evaporated, but in a good way.

Fast forward to my 40-year high school class reunion.  Although I lived in NorCal, I was spending a lot of time in SoCal because of family and got on the reunion committee.  The chair was a woman who had been in one of my Latin classes in high school and we shared a few humorous remembrances of “dear days at Claremont High,” as is said in our Alma Mater.  I was the only guy on the committee.  When I told my best friend, whom I’d known since my freshman year at CHS, he said, “I hate those things.”  However, his wife put him in a full-nelson (figuratively) and said, “Your brother’s on the committee and you’re going.”  While we may not be biologically brothers, we are spiritual ones.  Anyway, we went and both had a great time.  Fewer people were living back in high school and most were just enjoying seeing people they hadn’t for 40 years.

Fast forward to my 50-year high school class reunion.  Wait, it hasn’t been ten years, has it?.  Five, maybe six at the most, right?  But who’s that old geek in the mirror with gray hair, a gray beard and lots of wrinkles?  Is that me?  Naw!  But it is.  And I was headed for the big 5-0 reunion.  Although I helped with some emailing, I did little for the reunion committee.  My best friend grumbled a bit about attending, but sent in his registration.  He said, “This is the last one.”  I told him, “You’ll go to the rest of them to see if you’re the last man standing.”  We both made reservations at what used to be the Griswald’s Hotel.

Griswold’s Smorgasbord in its heyday

Okay, here’s a rabbit trail, but it’s Claremont history and I’m a history buff.  Griswald’s had a smorgasbord buffet restaurant that had been the hot thing in the Sixties.  It had started as a fruit stand by college professor George Griswald (no, you Christmas Vacation fans, not Clark) in 1909.  In 1950, the Stanfords (no relation to Leland) bought it and added the smorgasbord and bakery that made it famous.  They later bought the old Claremont  High School when the school moved a few hundred yards north (it happened during my tenure there) and converted it to the “Old School House” with shops and restaurants.  Then they built a new hotel.  My wife and her parents stayed there the night before our wedding in 1971 and we had the reception there.  But Griswald’s got too ambitious and opened two more locations they were not equipped to run.  In 1992 they went bankrupt and now the Claremont hotel is under Hilton’s Double Tree banner.  Sic transit gloria mundi.  Roughly translated, it means, “so passes the glory of the world.”  Okay, since I took Latin for three years in high school, I had to show that I remembered a few words fifty years later.

Not the real room, but you get the idea.

So, we checked into the Double Tree.  I’m not saying the room was small, but if you took two paces across from one side to the other, you’d bump your nose on the wall.  Especially if you’d had a glass or two of wine.  I know.  Just kidding.  But the small room did not damper the great time I had.  Although the hotel was a bit pricey for what it was, the event was not.  It was $100 for the weekend, which encompassed a Friday hors d’oeuvres party where everyone brought a food contribution with about 100 people crowding into an alumna’s house and backyard, a Saturday catered event with over 140 people that included a professional portrait photo and a gift bag with two 60’s music CDs, and a Sunday finger-food brunch with maybe 40 attendees.  Since I wasn’t there on Sunday, that’s hearsay.  But beer, wine and soft drinks were included in the $100!  Such a deal.  The committee deserves an award for getting the most cluck for the buck.

Remember your 5-year reunion, my pretty?  Ha, ha, ha!

While this has been a rather long intro, let’s talk about the people.  I will use no names, mainly to protect the mostly innocent.  There was only one woman (who shall not be named, but was at the 5th) who seemed to still have her nose too high in the air to see the peons, but now she reminded me a lot of the Wicked Witch of the West in appearance.  Well, her skin wasn’t actually green, but . . . .  The rest of the alumni were there to reminisce and enjoy each other.  Let’s talk about my good impressions.

I talked to many people.  The football quarterback and the ’67 annual’s best “looks” guy were downright warm.  I knew them both, but we had never really been friends.  Now, I’m not saying we went up and hugged or anything like that, but we had nice conversations.  Something that would not have happened in high school.  I had a chance to have chats with people I had not seen in over 40 years, including one guy I’d  known thorough college with whom I had enjoyed engaging in theological discussions, but not seen since I was married in 1971.  He had recently retired as a Methodist minister.  He, like many, had traveled many miles to be there.  I spoke with so many about shared experiences and memories that I have lost track of the numbers.

The real Grace Kelly

There is one meeting that I have to describe.  There was a woman there who had always reminded me of Grace Kelly.  While not a doppelganger, she had that same classic beauty.  But more than that, she had an inward beauty that made her just as wonderful to know as to see.  I can honestly say that I didn’t have some schoolboy crush, some weird fantasy we would get together and live happily ever after, but I did appreciate her beauty and enjoyed talking with her.  I wanted her to know that I and many guys in high school saw her that way, but how do you tell a woman that without sounding like some kind of perv or stalker?  Now I’m going off on another rabbit trail.

My wife and I went to her 50th in June of this year.  At our table was a guy who was probably 3 inches taller than I am and 100 pounds heavier, none of it muscle.  He was wearing a black suit, white shirt and black tie, improperly tied.  I do know how to do that.  He also had on a short-brimmed black straw fedora that he wore throughout the evening.  I see red when a guy wears a hat indoors, but I said nothing.  He had a cane and would walk across the dance floor, tapping his cane and forcing dancers to get out of his way.  That evening, he went up to one of the “popular” girls and told her, while her husband was not by her, that he’d been madly in love with her from afar all through high school.  Creepy.  She didn’t know how to respond.  I did not want my Grace Kelly from high school to think I was like that.

If you want to be sure that a woman knows you’re not “putting the make” on her, be with your wife when you talk to her.  Being married for almost 46 years, I was not going to take any chances on misinterpretation.  Actually, it was my wife’s idea that we go over to Grace Kelly, so I had double protection.  When I said the line about inward and outward beauty, a guy sitting at Grace’s table said, “Amen!”   Well, maybe not that exact word, but he expressed that same sentiment.

The Lost Patrol

For the first time in many years, four of my group in high school that termed itself the Lost Patrol were reunited.  Since only one of them, my best friend, had said he was coming, the other two were unexpected and we had a great talk.  Sadly, one of our Patrol died in March of this year.  He had a lot of issues in high school and they only got worse over the years.  They became serious mental problems and I had not spoken to him in decades.  In some ways, it was surprising that he had made it this long.  It was a reminder of our own mortality.

This is on the driver’s door of my Ford Explorer. Look familiar?

Remember I wrote that my best friend said he would not be going to another one after the 40th, but came to the 50th?  He volunteered to be on the committee for the 55th reunion.  It looks like we’re both going to be at that one, God willing and the creek don’t rise.  I hope even more of the class of ’67 make it.  Maybe the older you get the more important the memories of your youth become.  So now I say, “Go, Wolfpack!”

Conspiracy Theories

Before I begin, I’d like to warn any readers that believe that the Twin Towers were destroyed by the CIA, that the Illuminati still exists (especially if you believe they are in any way associated with Freemasonry), that the Knights Templar continued as a secret society after 1312 A.D., the Holocaust is a lie, that the Moon landing was faked and/or that aliens are kept in cold storage at Area 51, that you should skip this post lest your blood pressure skyrocket and you say I conspired with unnamed government agencies for that to happen.  For a partial list of conspiracies, click here.  Now, this is a Wikipedia list, so use caution.  Anyone can edit it, including those who are conspiracy theorists and those who wish to brand their enemies as conspiracy theorists, so be discerning.  I could add more to this list, but you get the idea.  The point is that conspiracy theories are pure rubbish and I will trash them here (like that double-lined garbage bag?).  They fall right in line with alt facts, fake news, etc.  They are the fodder upon which weak minds feed.  Sorry if you think that was insulting, but it was much kinder than my actual opinion.

True cowards, the KKK.

Conspiracy theories, in and of themselves, are not new. Often they were used to justify prejudices and violence. Anti-Semitism was used from the Middle Ages (Christ Killers) all the way to Hitler’s Holocaust (yes, it really happened) to justify violence against Jews for no other reason than their ethnicity. The Ku Klux Klan used the “plot” of non-WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) against society to justify violence, including lynching of blacks. Don’t get me wrong, the majority of conspiracy theorists are neither violent or seeking to harm anyone. The danger is that the mentality of finding someone to blame for things in society one doesn’t like is that the extreme fringe will resort to taking action with their own hands. However, most modern conspiracy theories are not a matter of justifying prejudices, but trying to make sense out of what seems senseless and/or mistrust of a government that has, however ineffectually, kept secrets at times. There are also those who want to romanticize history into what they would like it to be. All are delusional.

Who had JFK in the cross hairs?

The first conspiracy theory that hit the big time was the JFK assassination. Without a doubt, the nation was stunned, wondering, how could this have happened? I was in high school at the time and felt total disbelief. People started to wonder if there was a reason, a plot to kill a popular president. Jack Ruby did the biggest service to theorists by killing Lee Harvey Oswald. But did that prove a conspiracy? I wonder how many hours have been spent by theorists studying the meager film of the shooting. Did his head move in the right direction for being shot by Oswald? Was there a second sniper hiding behind the infamous “grassy knoll?” If so, was he hired by the Mafia, who Bobby Kennedy was targeting as Attorney General, or the CIA for some not-quite-clear reasons, or the Emperor of Japan? Actually, I’ve never seen the last one, but if it starts cropping up, you read it here first. For some of the theories about who did the dirty deed, click here. Oliver Stone even made a movie that catered to such theories, JFK. In it, the FBI, the CIA and the military worked together. If the idea of that is not fictional, nothing is. Of course, Stone has never had a problem with twisting facts to make his movies sell. He said, “I will come out with my interpretation. If I’m wrong, fine. It will become part of the debris of history, part of the give and take.” In other words, no apologies for errors. And his many errors in the film provided fuel for the fire of conspiracies. He’s like a guy yelling fire in a theater, causing panic, then saying it wasn’t his fault. He was being creative. The interesting thing about so many of the theories is they dispute each other’s “facts.” There is not agreement about what actually happened. To me, it’s all smoke and mirrors. I do believe Oswald might have been at least encouraged to kill Kennedy. Fidel Castro had good reason. The Bay of Pigs happened right after JFK took office and there seems to be credible evidence that the CIA did try to assassinate Castro, so Castro well might have had hard feelings. Also, Oswald spent time there. Do I consider this positive proof, worthy of devoting my life to proving this possibility? No. That’s called an obsession. That’s called nuts.

The Internet brought conspiracy theories to new heights. Anyone who has received a forwarded email that was not factual knows how fast lies can spread online. I once corrected someone on forwarding false information before verifying it and was told, “I don’t have time for that. I just send it on.” I shuddered. So much for personal responsibility. But anything can go viral, and often does. Truth be damned, full speed ahead. So let’s look at a few.

September 11, 2001

The Twin Towers were destroyed by the CIA so that President George W. Bush could start a war for control of Iraqi oil, or was instigated by Wall Street insiders to manipulate the market, or was orchestrated by the Israelis to get us to attack Iraq. They claim that the Towers could not have collapsed as they had without planted explosives to bring the buildings down and have their experts to verify that. Okay, other experts have said the flaming jet fuel pouring down the elevator shafts definitely would have compromised the structures to that extent, especially since they were never designed for such a scenario. Also, the amount of explosives claimed to have been used could hardly have been brought in surreptitiously by a few agents and secretly planted. That’s by far wilder than jet fuel. Then there is the relatively unsuccessful attack on the Pentagon and the crashed Flight 93 where some passengers not only gave their lives to stop an attack, but left a cell phone legacy. As to the so-called motives, they are far more unbelievable than Jihadists willing to die for their cause. And do you honestly think that all the individuals in as many agencies who had to be involved could have all kept their mouths shut for all these years? Get real.

This is supposed to be derived from the symbol for the Illuminati, according to conspiracy theorists.  Look familiar?

The Illuminati, with all its various addenda, is my next focus of illumination. The only historical Illuminati (which means enlightened) was a Bavarian group that was organized in 1776. Their purpose was to control superstitious and religious influences in government. Originally in competition with Freemasonry, they then tried to recruit from it, with limited success. At its height, the order had between 650 to 2500 members (depending on which source you believe). In 1785, Bavaria banned the organization and by 1787, it had ceased to exist. Sic transit Illuminati. Unless you believe the Internet. According to the conspiracy theorists, they are alive and well, controlling the economies and governments of the world. Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons gave legs to the myth. As with so many of his books, the gullible were sucked in by the fiction (and his books are fiction). The phantom Illuminati are working toward a “New World Order,” a one-world government controlled by this secret society. They are also behind the Twin Towers. Remember the Wall Street insiders? They’re the ones. They control everything, yet are invisible. The interesting thing is, if they’re so ruthlessly secretive, how do we know about them? Ah, there’s the rub. There must have been a leak. And a bigger one that gave all the insider information to the conspiracy theorists. And no one stopped it, even though it’s been a secret for over 200 years and people were killed to keep it so. Hmm. Does that sound odd to anyone else but me? Anyway, I do love that there is an Illuminati Official Website (click here) that says, “The Illuminati is an elite organization of world leaders, business authorities, innovators, artists, and other influential members of this planet. Our coalition unites influencers of all political, religious, and geographical backgrounds to further the prosperity of the human species as a whole.” It even has pictures of its members. Oddly enough, I’ve never heard of any of these movers ans shakers.

Emblem of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon or Knights Templar.  Too bad they didn’t copyright it.

My last example is the Knights Templar. “How are they a conspiracy theory?” you ask. Because people don’t accept that the order ended when the last Grand Master, Jacques De Molay was burned at the stake and Pope Clement V disbanded the order in 1312 and think they’re still around. I will not go into the lies that were said about the order by King Philip IV to justify what happened, but let’s just say that avarice reigned supreme with the king. However, that was the end of the Templars. Much of what is now fodder for believers that the Templars not only continued on, but helped the Scots win the battle of Bannockburn is pure bunk, since Templar tactics were nothing like what were used by the Scots. Then Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigant, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln claimed that the Templars were guardians of the Holy Grail, which was the seed of Jesus in Mary Magdalen. And the line continues to this day, kept secret by a secret society of Templars. A leg upon which the “proof” in the book stands is the Priory of Scion. This was a scam started in 1956 by Pierre Plantard. He claimed the Priory was a secret society that protected the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalen, which was tied to the Merovingian kings of France before Charlemagne. He even went so far as to plant false documents in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France to prove his fabrication, but has been thoroughly discredited (click here). The book was based on “historical evidence” such as this. But when Dan Brown wrote The DaVinci Code, two of the authors sued him for stealing their intellectual property. They finally lost because, if it were really history as they claimed, how could it be intellectual property? If you claim fiction is fact, you can’t own it. But, since they must have known it was fiction, to say it wasn’t would make them liars about what they wrote. Tough choice.

Conspiracy theorists love “experts.” Normally, they’re as bonkers as those who follow them. But watch out for terms like “it’s obvious that,” ” anyone can surmise that,” or experts agree that.” Generalities are the enemy of academia. Plus, how convoluted are the arguments? Occam’s Razor, a wise philosophical concept, says that the simplest solutions are normally the best. That is not the motto of conspiracy theorists. When you consider how effective the governments have been in hiding what they do for the long term, it makes it very dubious they could do so well on so many issues as the theorists would have you believe. While I would agree that governments often lie, so do a lot of other people. While I don’t say that all the theorists knowingly embrace lies, they do unwillingly lie to themselves when they buy into the wild conjectures that are flying around the Internet these days. Always doubt. It’s a good starting place.

Fake News, Altnews and Alternative Facts

Nowadays, fake news, alternative news (#altnews), and alternative facts are hot topics.  Both sides of the political spectrum accuse the other of engaging in the practice while doing the same themselves.  They both claim they want objective news.  But does such an animal exist?  Did it ever exist?  The answer to both questions is “No.”   MSNBC, Fox, CNN and such stations all have a slant, a perspective.  Even ones like ABC, NBC and CBS do as well.  Whether it be an obvious bias by reporters or commentators (as is evident in some) or even merely by what they choose to report, what questions they ask and how much time they spend on certain issues, news sources are biased.  That’s true of newspapers, radio and online reporting as well.  While I am not truly objective (Who is?), I can see that even for sources with whom I agree, they have a bias.  But while I may not be objective, I am logical.  There is an old saying that there is nothing new under the sun.  Fake news, alternative newsand alternative facts have been that way all through recorded history.

Ramses II and the battle of Kadesh

We think of history as a study of facts.  That is not the case.  It is the study of what has been recorded by people about events.  And, as I said, no one is truly objective.  The first account of a battle recorded was the Battle of Kadesh in modern-day Syria.  Ramses II of Egypt led an expedition against King Muwatalli II of the Hittites and in  1274 B.C., they met in battle.  According to the detailed account, Ramses foolishly stumbled into a trap laid by Muwatalli, misled by Hittite informants who were actually spies.  He divided his forces and the army he led was attacked by a much larger Hittite force with 2,500 chariots.  According to the detailed account, Ramses bravely rallied his forces and drove the Hittites from the field, soundly defeating them.  Sounds factual, doesn’t it?  However, this account was written by the Egyptians after the battle.  The hieroglyphic account shows Ramses in his chariot, firing arrows at the foe.  There is a saying that history is written by the victors, but it can also be written by those who want to be remembered as the victors.  There is a Hittite account, not nearly so detailed, that claims a Hittite victory.  Most historians, after a study of the account and the aftermath of the battle, think it was a draw, that neither side had a clear-cut victory.  (click here for full account) Since the Hittites continued to occupy Kadesh after the battle, they may have won.  But, unless someone invents a working time machine, we can only guess.  Such is the case with much of history and, unfortunately, news.

Julius Caesar, the conqueror

The next example is Julius Caesar’s Gallic War Commentaries.  It is the best account of the Roman conquest of Gaul, yet how much can we trust?  Caesar wrote them in the third person, no doubt to make them sound less subjective.  After all, they are the tale of Caesar’s conquest of Gaul and were a prime propaganda piece for his struggle to become the top dog in Rome.  Caesar did conquer Gaul.  We know that because it became a Roman province.  Did he exaggerate the armies he beat?  Very likely.  Since there was no way he could have counted the quarter of a million Celts in the relief army trying to help the besieged Gallic chief Vercingetorix and his supposedly eighty thousand men, no historian believes the numbers.  Although the Roman army was the elite force of their day, Caesar had maybe forty thousand men and that made it eight-to-one odds against him, at best.  (click here for full account)  It simply made good press back home to add a few tens of thousands to the enemy forces they conquered.  While it is a history of that conquest, it was also meant to justify Caesar’s seizing territory that was not Rome’s.  One of the key points in Roman expansion had been that it justified doing so because of being attacked.  In Caesar’s case, no one was attacking him.  However, if an ally in Gaul was attacked, he would rush to their aid.  Then he would stay.  Slowly but surely, Caesar expanded Roman territory to the Rhine and even made a foray into Britain, all without authorization from Rome.  His enemies in Rome cried foul, but he sent back a fortune in spoils of war as well as establishing more income from the Republic in taxes and tributes from the newly-conquered Celtic tribes, along with his embellished battle accounts to bolster his standing.  Along the way, he made a sizable fortune for himself from his share of the spoils.  He entered Gaul an impoverished patrician and left a very wealthy, popular general. Within a couple of years, he was appointed dictator of the Republic for life.

Recorders of history often used their accounts to promote their views, twisting facts to fit them.  There were no newspapers in the ancient world, but when they were invented, they became another source of disinformation.  There are many examples, but one stands out because it gave us a term used to describe such reporting: yellow journalism.  When the armored cruiser USS Maine blew up on a “visit” to Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, 261 of the 355 men on board died.  America was stunned and wanted to know why.  Now the ship was there to protect American interests in Cuba during an insurrection by Cuban rebels against Spain, who still owned it as a colony.  Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal started a campaign to blame Spain, claiming the explosion was due to a mine or a bomb and demanding an American response.  While a Spanish investigation saw evidence of an internal explosion in the coal bunker, an American investigation by rather amateur investigators concluded it was caused by a mine.  America made demands on Spain, finally demanding it surrender control of Cuba to America.  Spain responded by declaring war on America, a major mistake.  The role of the two newspapers in forging popular opinion and political pressure cannot be ignored.  They incited the public, who adopted the slogan, “Remember the Maine!  To hell with Spain!”  The term “yellow journalism” came from the New York World and the New York Journal, because of a cartoon character that first appeared in the World and then in both papers, the Yellow Kid.  Although originally a secondary character in a black and white cartoon drawn by Richard F. Outcault, the Kid gained fame when he started appearing in a yellow nightshirt in the newly colored Sunday paper.  The two papers that carried him were soon known as the Yellow Papers and their policy of sensational headlines, wild exaggerations and inflammatory accusations became known as “yellow journalism.”  (click here for more)  As a side note, later evaluations of the evidence concluded that the explosion was most likely a result of volatile firedamp released from the bituminous coal used as fuel.  (click here for full report)  So much for truth in journalism.

When I was teaching American history to a middle school class in the late 1980’s, I broke the class into thirds and assigned each group the job of making a TV news story about the sinking of the USS Maine.  One group did it as a Spanish station, one as an American station and one as a Cuban station.  They then acted out their news coverage.  The Spanish one did it as a tragic accident, but emphasized that the Spanish government had nothing to do with it.  The Cuban station blamed the Spanish and the American group really got into the assignment.  They had an anchor desk doing the main story then kept breaking to “live” interviews.  Some students even portrayed survivors with bandages and fake blood.  All of them told the story with a mine causing the explosion and that the Spanish must have done it.  While we did not settle the true cause of the explosion with the assignment, the kids got the idea: “news” is not so much about truth and facts as it is about flash and innuendo.

“Sedona, Arizona’s ‘sacred’ McDonald’s brings energy to the town’s spiritual vortex.”   Picture from the Nevada County Scooper.

It is interesting to note that fiction also plays a part in false news or false history.  In this day of Facebook, tweets and questionable websites, it is becoming all the rage.  It can make such an impression that it becomes accepted fact, especially when it gets in mainstream media.  A woman was quoted in a newspaper saying that “psychic healer Edgar Cayce pointed to Nevada City (CA) as the first ‘City of Light’ in the world.”  The woman got that from an article in the spoof news-site, Nevada County Scooper.  (Click here for a laugh.)  Considering that the site’s article said Nevada City was competing with “sacred” McDonald’s in Sedona, AZ for being Cayce’s “spiritual vortex of the known universe,” she should have been suspicious.  However, now this joke has become archived online as a fact, or at least claimed as one, in a regular newspaper.

Richard III

But sometimes the fiction has a more political purpose.  Consider the play by William Shakespeare, Richard III.  The book, Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, that was first published in 1577 is widely accepted as Shakespeare’s historical source for many of his plays.  (click here)  The three witches in Macbeth first appear there and that can be no coincidence.  However, like the witches who morphed from Holinshed’s nymphs to Shakespeare’s hags, the history was not slavishly followed.  Even a cursory reading of Shakespeare’s play reveal a conniving, manipulative, unscrupulous and murderous character.  He is even more evil than Holinshed’s version.  Although he may well have eliminated his nephews Edward V and Richard (definitely not a nice thing to do), he did not kill the Earl of Warwick and Edward of Westminster in order to marry Anne Neville, as he says in the play, and all indications are that he was upset when his brother, King Edward IV, executed their brother, the Duke of Clarence, rather than plotted it.  The man Shakespeare described as a hunchbacked “bottled spider” did suffer from severe scoliosis, but was still a noted warrior who died in battle trying to physically come to grips with Henry Tudor, the future Henry VII.  His acts while king were noted for their concern for his kingdom, not personal gain.  So why did Shakespeare make Richard III the epitome of evil in his play?  Consider when he wrote the play, 1597.  Elizabeth I was queen, the granddaughter of Henry VII, the man whose crown came from the head of the slain Richard III, the rightful king.  The Tudors were not known to suffer any questioning of their right to the crown.  It was a good way to secure a room in the Tower until execution.  But praising them, making them seem glorious rulers was a way to royal favor.  What would you do if you were Shakespeare?  But the picture painted by the playwright is the one that has lasted through history.  When the play is on stage, Richard usually has a hunchback and lurks in dark corners, monologuing his nasty plots.  Fiction has created fact.

While I could go on about how society takes fiction as fact, that is another topic, one that will include conspiracy theories.  Next time.  But remember that in the TV show House, Dr. House’s favorite adage was, “Everybody lies.”  I don’t say everybody does, but far too many do.  Keep that in mind when you watch, hear or read the “news.”

 

George MacDonald Fraser Interview , Father of Flashman- Part 2

 

George MacDonald Fraser at the Sefton Hotel, Isle of Man, 1995

This is the second part of my 1995 interview with George MacDonald Fraser on the Isle of Man.  His knowledge of history shown in his books, gained without a formal degree, was impressive.  I went to my first writers seminar, on the Isle of Man, a few years later.  One wanna-be writer criticized Mr. Fraser for being too accurate in his historical fiction!  I met with Mr. Fraser one more time, in 1999.  He was doing a book signing of Flashman and the Tiger at a local bookstore.  After chatting for a while, where I told him of my own writing efforts, he kindly offered to allow me to use his name when I contacted his agent.  This was before many revisions of my book and it was not print-ready.  Of course she declined to represent me, but did send a nice personal note.  I wonder what she thought of him recommending a hack-writer like I was then to contact her.  George MacDonald Fraser passed away in 2008.  He was a polite and gracious man.

RLC: Moving along to your books on the Gordon Highlanders that you based on your own
experiences.                                                                                                                              GMF: They’re sort of half truth. Some of them are truer than others.                                  RLC: Right.  Are most of the people in them real characters and you changed the names to protect the guilty, as it were?
GMF: That’s right.  Most of them recognized themselves.  They couldn’t help that, you know.  Well, they don’t mind, so that’s okay.
RLC: That’s good.
GMF: I think they’re rather pleased.  The final amalgamation took place last year.  The Gordons ceased to be and went in with the previously amalgamated Camerons and Seaforths.  They have become one regiment, simply called the Highlanders.  I was greatly delighted that the new design for The General Danced at Dawn they’ve adopted as their Christmas card.   Mind that was some time back.
RLC: I’ve noticed, to return to Flashman, most of the wiser are the non-commissioned, whereas the officers many times seem to be either pompous or foolish, or both.

21 year-old Lt. George MacDonald Fraser of the Gordon Highlanders

GMF: Of course, a great many of them were.  I think it’s fair to say that you get a fair number of mutton heads among the professional military.  Certainly the NCO’s, the non-coms, those who rose at all were pretty good.  Yes, but on the other hand there were some soldiers who were absolute geniuses, there’s no doubt about it, around at that time.  They come in all shapes and sizes.  Generally, in wartime, the best men get to the top, thank God.  That happens in every country, I suppose.
RLC: Would you consider your military experience a positive, good one?
GMF: I loved it.  Yes. I liked soldiering, but I wouldn’t want to be a peacetime soldier.  There doesn’t seem to be much point. And, of course, the huge change that came over Britain after the war.  From having had this enormous empire, suddenly it had gone, pretty well.  There wouldn’t have been the opportunities for getting on as a soldier that there had been.
RLC: Is there any little anecdote that you could share that’s not in your books?
GMF: Nothing really particularly.  I’ve milked pretty dry by now.  I think they’re all in there.  I’ve covered my times with the Gordons in those three books of short stories and my time in Burma in a sort of an autobiography that I wrote a couple of years ago, called Quartered Safe Out Here.  Outside of that, not a great deal.  You know, military life tends to be, on the whole, fairly humdrum.                                                                                                     RLC: You’re more noted among some people for your history writing. The Steel Bonnets is very important to the Scots.

Steel Bonnets- the story of the Border reivers

GMF: That was a labor of love . I’d been born in the Border country and no one had ever done it. There had been lots of little romantic histories and so on, but no one had ever done a real history, a factual history of it, so I decided to do that.  The only thing is that it could have been ten times as long.  I had to be selective because there was so much that there just wasn’t room for.  It was an enormous book as it was.
RLC: Do you find that you are drawn to certain historical eras in your studies?
GMF: Yes, the Victorian era and the sixteenth century, particularly.  Those are the ones I write about because by now, they’re the ones I know most about.
RLC: You have also done some fine work on American history, The Buffalo Soldiers.
GMF: Well, thank you.  As in the Flashmans, American history in the last century is terrific.  It’s a fantastic story.
RLC: Basically, though, you confined yourself to British and American.  That’s your primary focus.
GMF: Oh yes.  For one thing, the language.  I would love to have written, or be able to write the history of the buccaneers.  But I don’t speak French, I don’t speak Spanish, and I don’t speak Dutch.  If you’re going to do it, you ought to be able to research in all those languages.  Also, it would call for two or three years travel around the Caribbean and, tempting though it might be, I think I might probably get fed up with it.
RLC: I note that you basically do historical novels or history.  It shows your primary interest.  You don’t do a lot of fiction like Archer or someone like that where you can sit down and reel it off.  Yours are more difficult by far.
GMF: Yes, you have to do the research and, as I say, that is the bit that I enjoy most.  No, I have no desire to write about my own time at all.  Everybody else is doing it, so why should I.  My daughter writes.  She has published three novels and are all contemporary, because she was a barrister.  Although, she’s now got four children, so she is retired.  They’re about the law, but that’s her particular area. No, I’ve no great interest in the twentieth century.
RLC: Well, we’re very appreciative of your works.  That’s what drew me is the historical aspect.  That’s my great love.  Are you working on any particular writing now?
GMF: Not at the moment, no.  I should.  I’ve been lazy.  Of late I wrote a little book about Border history, a little piece of fiction called The Candlemas Road.  The BBC asked me to dramatize it.  I then dramatized it.  It went out a couple of weeks ago.  That is the last work that I’ve done.
RLC: So that should be appearing fairly soon, then?                                                        GMF: No, it’s been broadcasted.
RLC: Oh, when?
GMF: About three weeks ago.  Middle of July.
RLC: I think that’s one the saddest things is that we don’t know about things like this because BBC doesn’t publicize much.
GMF: No, it doesn’t.
RLC: American TV tells you what’s coming.  They put it in TV Guide for weeks.  Here you have to dig for it on the BBC.
GMF: Lots of things pass by.  There was a program I wish I’d seen called “Highlanders,” which Sean Connery narrated, just a week ago.  It was about an hour long documentary about Culloden and the ’45 Rebellion.  I missed it.  Again, they didn’t publicize it.
RLC: I didn’t even hear about it.  I guess if you are what we call a “couch potato” in the States you have a better chance.
GMF: You just have to study the programs in advance, which I never do.
RLC: One enjoyable story of yours is about your grandmother who ran the Highland inn and the still operation.
GMF: That’s almost entirely true, that story.  That’s the trouble.  I just don’t have any connection with the Highlands now at all, because all the older members of my family, of course, are dead and I sort of lost touch.  In fact, I haven’t been back in the Highlands for ten years or more, although it is just across the way.
RLC: Have you ever gone to any of the games there?  Of course, the games are different there than in the States.  In the States, they’re more like a Highland fair, with games only as a part of the event.
GMF: No, the only Highland gathering I’ve been to since I was a child was the one in North Carolina, and that went on for two or three days.  Obviously, they’re a big thing and they take place in all parts of the USA and Canada.

R.L. Cherry in Fraser tartan kilt before marching in the 2105 4th of July parade

RLC: Yes, I was involved in Southern California.  They have large ones in Santa Rosa in Northern California and Costa Mesa in the South.  So then I take it you don’t have a kilt?
GMF: Oh, yes.  Yes.                                             RLC: You do?  Great!
GMF: I got it, actually, before I went to Grandfather Mountain and have worn it several times since for weddings and that sort of thing. The peculiar thing that came out of The General Danced at Dawn is that about five or six years ago Simon Fraser University in British Columbia wrote to me and said we have read all about this, your story about people dancing 32, 64, 128ths in reels. We intend to dance a 256-some reel.  And they did.  They sent me a video of it.  And they actually did it.  As a result of that, the year before last, the Toronto Country Dance Society decided they would dance a 512-some reel.  They got dancers from all over the United States and Canada, New Zealand, oh God knows where.  Again, I saw a video of it and it’s in the Guiness Book of Records now.  But, in fact, I think it wasn’t as genuine as the 256-some they did in British Columbia, because that was one bloody, great reel.  The Toronto looked more to me like a lot of groups of reels.  But, still, it was accepted by the experts, so I guess it was all right.  It was an impressive sight, I’ll tell you.  512 maniacs weaving in and out, you know.  They announced they were going to have a shot at the 1024-some.  They’re not getting me, I know that.
RLC: You’ve met the Frasers at Grandfather Mountain.  Have you had much contact with other Frasers in Scotland?
GMF: No, not really.
RLC: Did you ever meet Lord Lovat or Lady Saltoun.
GMF: No, I never did.  That was a piece of one-ups-manship by Charlton Heston.  He had met Lord Lovat.  No, I never met him, old MacShimi.  He had a gathering of Frasers in the 1950’s, and I think one of my uncles went to it.  They figured they would get a few hundred and they got 70,000.  They must have eaten him out of house and home.
I haven’t had much contact with other Frasers.  There was Lord Fraser, who bought the paper on which I worked, the Glasgow Herald.  He was a financier and businessman, died about thirty years ago.  He was a distant cousin of mine.  I mean, okay, if you are a Lovat Fraser, you’re probably all related some way, anyway.  But he was a traceable sort of second cousin.  He was the man who bought Harrod’s.  There was a huge take-over battle in the ’50’s and he succeeded in buying Harrod’s.  He was a tough little bandit.  I knew him and his son.  But no, one notes the Frasers turning up in various positions, but I’ve not had any particular comings and goings with them.
RLC: There have been a few other Fraser authors.  David Fraser, a cousin of Lady Saltoun, has written And We Shall Shock Them, The Killing Times, and others.            GMF: The reason my name on my books is George MacDonald Fraser is because it is my middle name, anyway, but also there was a Scottish poet called George S. Fraser.  My publisher said that just so there is no confusion, let’s have your middle name.  And so there it went.  Oh, yes.  And then, of course, there’s Antonia Fraser…
RLC: That’s by marriage.                                                                                                  GMF: Yes, that’s by marriage.
RLC: Now she’s married to Harold Pinter.
GMF: That’s right.  I’ve never met her.  Then, I haven’t met many authors.  I tend to steer clear of other authors.
RLC: You don’t go to “author clubs?”
GMF: No. I’m trying to think how many authors I know.  Kingsley Ames, I think he’s about the only one.  Yes, just about.  There are one or two on the Island.  Then again, we don’t get together.  There is an Isle of Man Authors’ Society, but, then again, I don’t attend it.  I suppose I feel that an author’s job is writing, not meeting other authors.
RLC: Just because you write doesn’t mean you have the same interests as someone else who writes.
GMF: Quite.  I mean you’d just end up talking about royalties, agents, and publishers anyway.

Lord Lovat’s memoirs with great recounting of his time with the Commandos

RLC: Did you ever read Lord Lovat’s book?  He wrote March Past.
GMF: No, I didn’t know he’d written one.
RLC: I thought that since you were both military men, it might be of interest.
GMF: The only military Fraser I knew was, again, a cousin, Bill Fraser, who was in the Gordons with me.  God knows what happened to him.  You lose touch very easily.  There are Fraser relatives scattered around the States and Canada.  My parents were in touch with them, but him, I’m not.  I’ve got a cousin actually living in…What’s the name of the place…not Santa Monica.  He was at Venice Beach.  He ran a restaurant at Venice Beach.  But he’s talking of, and I don’t know whether he’s done it, moving to Houston.  Whether he will or not, Lord knows.  A lot of Frasers are in the Los Angeles phone book.
RLC: Oh, yes. It’s not quite like British Columbia, but…                                                       GMF: British Columbia, oh!  And Saskatchewan.  My wife and I worked in a newspaper in Regina back in, oh, what 1950, and there were Frasers everywhere.  You couldn’t move for the brutes.
RLC: You worked for the Glasgow Herald.  What other papers did you work for?
GMF: I worked for a local one in Carlisle, the Carlisle Journal, then went to Canada where I worked for the Regina Leader Post, back to Carlisle, worked the Cumberland News, and then to Glasgow and worked for the Glasgow Herald.  That’s my journalistic story.  Did over twenty years.  It’s a lovely job, newspaper work.  I wouldn’t like it now.  The new technology.  Forget it.  It means nothing to me.  I don’t really like newspapers nowadays, anyway.  For one thing, they’re too damn big.  The strain of filling the space is obviously showing in a lot of them.
RLC: Do you find them more sensational now?
GMF: Yes. Oh, standards have slipped.  I mean, I sound like a dinosaur, but they have.  Not only journalistic ethics, what is permissible and what isn’t.  I mean, there’s no holds barred nowadays.  But also literacy.  I mean, they don’t know the difference between who and whom, may and might, and like and as.  I’m appalled at some of the garbage that I see.  In fact, I skim the headlines now and rely on television.  I don’t want to know what is happening anyway, very much.  Forget Bosnia, as far as I’m concerned.  That’s just a hell of a mess.
RLC: I don’t think I would want to be one of the soldiers there.  Not being able to shoot back and watching people killed in front of your eyes.
GMF: Quite.  I don’t think we should have been near it in the first place, or anyone else for that matter, and I think it would have got over a lot quicker without UN interference.  Okay, humanitarian efforts, by all means, but to send in observers, the way they have, they’re useless and just hostages.  But, that’s the way.
RLC: It’s almost as though now we don’t have clear-cut enemies.  We’ve lost the Russian hegemony.
GMF: No.  I don’t blame the United States for not wanting to get involved in Yugoslavia.  I don’t think any of us should’ve.  But that’s not the popular, moralistic view. If any of the back-bench heroes who are always demanding that we should get further involved…okay, let THEM go, if they want to.
RLC: Just out of curiosity, how did you end up on the Isle of Man.  You’ve lived in Canada, the U.S., and Scotland.
GMF: Well, there’s nowhere in particular that we belong to, and we knew the Island.  When I wrote Flashman, I thought, “I don’t know, but this could be the start of something.  And I have no desire to pay ninety percent tax to the British government.  So we came over here, thank God.  If they altered the tax rate in Britain now, I wouldn’t go back.  It’s nice here.  We like it and it’s old fashioned and fairly quiet.  Not as old fashioned and quiet as it was when we first arrived, but still I prefer it to that mess over yonder.
RLC: How long have you lived here?
GMF: Twenty…twenty-six years.
RLC: You’ve-seen a lot of changes.                                                                                 GMF: And yet, not all that many.  It’s still pretty much the same.  The number of cars has increased frantically.
RLC: Have you ever been to the TT’s?
GMF: Yes, when we first came.  But we haven’t been back since.  Okay, you stand and you watch the show going by, you know.  It struck me then that it’s the nearest thing to the Roman arena extant.  There were six killed in the actual races the year that we watched.  It doesn’t seem to be quite so bad now.  It’s sooner them than me, you know.
RLC: It’s not even safe to be a bystander at times.

Making a tight turn on the TT race

GMF: Quite.  I mean the guy who’s our electrician, the guy we call on if anything goes wrong, he rode seventh in the Senior about twenty years ago. That’s mad!  I mean, he really is mad.  You can tell by the way he goes about his electrical work.  But he’s a good electrician.  It seems to me he takes appalling chances.  When I consider that course, which, incidentally, Steve McQueen knew intimately.  He’d never been here himself.  He knew all about the Isle of Man, the TT and the different names and places on the course.  I said to him, “the next time you’re in Europe, you’ll have to come over and go ’round it.”  He said, “You can drive me.  In a leisurely way.”  He said, no, he wasn’t into actually racing any more.  Our favorite trick with visitors was to take them to the grandstands, then around the course, and then say, “Right, you do that in twenty minutes.”  It is a horrifying thought, when you consider it.  You know Gray Hill in Douglas?  That’s the big hill, down from the grandstands before you come to Quarterbridge.  The police used to put their guns, their speed guns, on that.  They found one of the riders coming down at 197 mph.  When you consider that through the streets of the town…I mean, they’re nuts!
RLC: I always find it interesting that they’re putting pads on the stone walls.  If you hit that at 165 mph it’ll give you a soft death.
GMF: That’s about it.  That’s about it.  Still, they seem to like doing it.  And God knows, I don’t know what would happen to the Island’s economy in the summer without it.  I’m always glad to see them come, but I’m personally always glad to see them go.                     RLC: I agree.
GMF: Of course they’ll be back here in a few weeks time for the Grand-Prix: Note: Grand Prix is the amateur’s TT.                                                                                                    RLC: I always find it interesting to see the signs along the road “Fahrens.”
GMF: “Fahren links.”  Yes, that’s it.  For the Germans.  Used to be a lot of Italians came. Not so many now, I don’t think.  That was when Agostini won it six years on the run, on the trot.  Then he retired, said he wasn’t coming back.  Because, he said, it was getting too dangerous.  Oh, no one could call him “chicken,” you know.  He won the damn thing for six years running.  And the Italians haven’t been as prominent as they used to be.
(Note: The signs advising “Stay left” in German are put up during TT and Grand Prix to remind German motorcyclists visiting the Isle to stay to the left.)
RLC: Remember I said, about the President, if I don’t think about it…                               GMF: Yes…
RLC: It was Rutherford B. Hayes.
GMF: Yes, okay.
RLC: His wife was known as “Lemonade Lucy” because she would never serve any alcohol in the White House.
GMF: Hayes.  He’s one of these that you never hear of, you know.
RLC: He didn’t accomplish much because of the deal that had been made and everyone knew it.  It (the Presidency) should have gone to the Democrats.  But the Democrats would have had the White House with a Congress that was Republican.
GMF: Mind you, I’m not sure that these undistinguished persons aren’t the best Presidents. I mean nothing happens, so, ah, there is a case for saying the best Prime Minister there has been in Britain for a long time was Alec Douglas Hume.  Because, as he said himself, in the eighteen months in which he was Prime Minister, nothing happened!
RLC: Are there any current British politicians that you have found interesting, that you like or dislike intensely?
GMF: None that I found interesting.  I mean, we are not part of the British political scene, thank God.  No, I’m quite content with the fact that the Island has its own little government and, on the whole, it’s pretty non-political, you know, non-party.  There’s something comforting about when you’ve got to vote, you’re not voting for someone picked out by a machine and who you don’t know and suspect.  We’ve got a chemist in Laxey who’s now our MHK (Member of the House of Keys). Well, there is something comforting about that, because at least you can get at him…if you want to.  The last MHK we had before was our doctor, Dr. Mann.  I must say, I think it’s…I just hope the Island can stay the way it is.  It’s our little bastion of sanity.  How long it will last, God alone knows.                                   RLC: Would you be termed a conservative?                                                                            GMF: Yes.  I don’t mean conservative with a capital “C.”  I don’t like the present government in England one bit.  I think that the Labour government would be even worse.  It generally is.  But this lot have been in too long.  That is the trouble with British politics. There is no one you would willingly vote for.
RLC: It’s true in America, too.                                                                                          GMF: We were in Hollywood at the time of the Bush-Dukakis election, and I remember the gloom that settled over Universal Studios when the result came through.  Oh, God!  I was a neutral bystander.  I didn’t really mind.  I was slightly in Bush’s favor because his Vice President was Manx, or at least of Manx descent.  Although, I don’t know that he was the greatest, either.   I remember poor John Landis the day after the election.  It was as though the sky had fallen in.  I think…the impression I got the day or two before was that they thought Dukakis was going to win.                                                                                      RLC: They hoped.  Hollywood is traditionally liberal.  Charlton Heston and a couple like him are conservatives.                                                                                                                   GMF: An impressive person.  He’s a big picture man.
RLC: My wife rewatches Ben Hur every so often.
GMF: On The Prince and the Pauper, he took me aback.  He said, “What other English kings can I play?”  I tried to think, and I said, “Well, why not go to Edward I?”
RLC: That’s what I was going to say, “Longshanks.”
GMF: Yes.  “Because,” I said, “you’re exactly right, physically.”
RLC: Of course, I don’t think he would want to play the “Hammer of Scotland.”
GMF: That’s right.  I said, “Get Sean Connery to play Robert the Bruce and you’re well away.  He pondered this a long time.  I think he would rather play Robert the Bruce.
RLC: Did you ever meet Sean Connery?
GMF: No, never have.
RLC: I thought when you did…Octopussy.   But that was Roger Moore.                        GMF: That was Roger.  Yes.  No, we’ve sort of almost coincided several times, but never, in fact.  Moore’s a nice, laid back man.  Didn’t take himself for Bond terribly seriously, unlike Cubby Broccoli, who took it very seriously.  When I proposed putting Bond in a gorilla suit in one scene, he reacted with horror.  However, Bond did end up in a gorilla suit. In Octopussy, very briefly.                                                                                                                                                                                    RLC: How many Bond pictures did you write?         GMF: Just the one.  The only person who wrote more than one is…oh, he’s died now…oh God, I’ve forgotten his name.  He contributed to every Bond picture, from the beginning. Old Hollywood script writer…gentleman from West Point.  He’d retired, pretty well, by the time I came along.  Although he and Michael Wilson put in a couple of scenes in my screenplay.  I don’t know why.  I watched them and wondered what the hell they were all about.  Professional charity, probably.  They tend to get a different writer for each.   Or they did.  Now, I think, Michael Wilson does them.                                                                         RLC: Now that they’re out of the books.
GMF: Yes. Quite. Well, we were pretty well out of the books with Octopussy. It was a short story, a novelette.
RLC: About a marine biologist, really, who loved octopi, not about a woman with a tattoo. GMF: That’s right.
RLC: They were fun. They always were fun.
GMF: They were good fun and they were very professionally made. That was their saving grace.                                                                                                                                RLC: It was always interesting to see what new gadget could be brought out for Bond to use. And normally the gadgets didn’t work. They would work at first, but there would be something that made it fail. Like the car in Goldfinger that he ended up crashing. It was like they wanted him to have to use something besides the gadgets.
GMF: That’s right. They’re still making one, I think, at the moment. Although I think Cubby Broccoli is not a part of it. I think it’s his daughter and Michael Wilson who are the producers. And it’s a new Bond. It’ll do alright. I think the magic name will still get them.
RLC: Not the mega-hits they were before, but…
GMF:  No. Connery and Moore were at their peak. Oh, at MGM, I discovered, when you were working on Octopussy, you could do no wrong. They practically carried you into the building.  How are we on this for length?
RLC: Great.  Thanks for meeting me.  I’ve really enjoyed this.                                        GMF: Well, I’ve enjoyed it, too. Thank you very much.

George MacDonald Fraser, Father of Flashman

George MacDonald Fraser

Back in 1995, when I was living on the Isle of Man, I was able to interview George MacDonald Fraser (click for more info).  I was the vice-chairman of Clan Fraser Society of North America (even though I had moved to the Isle of Man) at the time and did so for the newsletter.  One afternoon, my wife and I met with him at the Sefton Hotel on The Strand in Douglas, across the street from the harbor.  We had tea and I interviewed the author of the Flashman novels (click for more on Flashman), several semi-autobiographical books about his experiences in Southeast Asia during World War II (click for a synopsis of one) and histories (click for a review of one).  The chairman of CFSNA was a big fan and, although I was not that familiar with his works, I read some of his books and studied up on him before the interview.  I was impressed with his writing and, as I interviewed him, the man.  He was most gracious and interesting.  Here is the first part of my interview with the late George MacDonald Fraser.

RLC: You have written fictional books and short stories, history, reviews, magazines articles and even worked for Hollywood. Do you have any favorite type of writing?
GMF: I would say the short stories are less trouble than anything else because I don’t have to do any research. And the same holds good for the film scripts. Again, very little research is necessary, and you can just sit down and do it, you know?  The Flashmans take an awful lot of reading and research in advance.  Naturally, any historical novel does.  But I wouldn’t say that I have any particular favorite.  No.
RLC: You worked as a newspaperman in Scotland as one of your notable jobs.  What was your most memorable story or event of this time of your life?
GMF: I think interviewing Oliver Hardy, because he was such a nice man, and exactly as I had imagined and exactly as he was on screen, sitting there in his bowler hat, looking rather weary, which he probably was.  Oh, I can think of things in Scotland when I was deputy editor of the Glasgow Herald, we effectively dealt a blow to Scottish nationalism,which I don’t approve of, although I’m getting more and more sympathetic to it as time goes by, and that was a great satisfaction at the time.  No, no particular stories.  How long have you been here?
RLC: We moved here in November.
GMF: Oh, I see.  Then the name Bill Shankly won’t mean anything to you.  He was a famous football manager with Liverpool.  I mean, he had this sort of reputation in Britain that Casey Stengal and people like that used to have in the United States.  When he managed a very small club I happened to be covering it for my local paper and I got to know him extremely well.  I discovered that of all the people that I have met, he is the one whose name, when dropped, excites the most offense.  Particularly in the north of England.                                                                                                                                   RLC: I think that is one of the things I had to get used to. The household names in America might not be the household names here, and vice versa. We always think that because of our common language, that everything is the same.
GMF: Oddly enough, I think it’s probably most marked in TV entertainment.  I mean, there are all sorts of household names in the States, Johnny Carson for example, that are almost unknown here.  And David Letterman and people like that.  Similarly, the same sort of thing in Britain.  There are those no one in the States ever heard of.  In fact, no one in the States heard anything about British entertainment at all until the Beatles arrived.  That changed everything.
RLC: Having spent some time in America, do you prefer the type of screenwriting on British TV to American, especially in regards to humor and that sort of thing?
GMF: I’ve never subscribed to the belief, which has always been proclaimed over here, that British television is the best in the world.  I don’t think it is.  In fact, I think it has deteriorated very badly.  No, I must say, when I go to the States (and I haven’t been for a few years now) I find myself slipping into it very, very easily and watching TV in hotel rooms and so on.  In no time at all I find myself on the wavelength, you know.
RLC: Did you find any particular shows you liked?
GMF: I’m trying to think.  Mind you, a lot of them are now seen in this country.  Um … well, of course, it was shown over here, I liked Soap.  It was shown a few years ago.  I suppose that it has died now.
RLC: Yes, it was actually fairly short-lived.
GMF: Recently I was asked by a producer in Hollywood (he’s trying to get a television series started and he wanted me to do it) and he sent me tapes of a show called Hercules. Have you ever seen it?
RLC: No.
GMF: It’s abysmal!  But anyway, he said this is the type of thing that is peak viewing in the United States and well up the charts.  I said, “I don’t believe it.”
And he said, “Oh, but it is.  You have no idea how things have changed.'”
It is pretty basic, I mean the Hercules myth, but you wouldn’t recognize it.  It’s just an excuse for slam, bang karate and that sort of thing.  No, I’m not a great television viewer in this country.  I don’t watch an awful lot, aside from news bulletins and old movies.  I generally watch an old movie before I go to bed, or a bit of one, you know.
RLC: I know you did some screenwriting. What was your impression of Hollywood? The type of “feel” you get there, the whole genre?
GMF: You know, I found it very quiet, a rather relaxing place.  I mean the longest stint I had there was at MGM, Culver City, when I was doing a James Bond, Octopussy, for Cubby Broccoli, and that was very civilized living.  I used to turn up and park in the car park every day and watch Walter Mathau striding across looking very lugubrious.  I used to work in the building and that consisted not of writing but entirely of discussing.  That went on for weeks.  Then I think no one wrote it, you know.  But for the rest, most of the time I thoroughly enjoyed it.  My wife and I sort of lived in the “golden triangle” in Beverly Hills and very pleasant it was.  I must say they’ve got it licked for peaceful, quiet living, or so it seemed to me at the time.  I don’t know what it’s like now.  We had good friends there. Dick Fleischer, the director and others, Martin Ritt, who, alas, is now dead.  Most of my time there was actually spent in talking.  I didn’t do any writing there.  As I say, the usual procedure of a movie was to go and talk for long periods.  Then I would go home and write it and then go back and have more discussions and then come back and rewrite, you know.  I must say I liked it.  Last time I was there was to do The Lone Ranger, which never came off, for John Landis.  John and his wife are good friends, although I haven’t seen them now for a couple of years. I doubt if I’ll be going back.  I see no particular reason why I should.  The film industry is changing.  It was incredibly international when I was doing it. Movies would draw their people, their talent and so on, from all corners of the globe and filming would take place all over the world.  Now it seems to be getting more back to the old “studio” system.  More stuff is made in the States and, well, the tax advantage for working in Britain, I gather, is gone. It is a less international feel about it. And I think, too, my generation is getting a bit long in the tooth.  I mean, the people I worked with, an awful lot of them are now dead or my age.  People like Charlton Heston and George C. Scott must now be in their seventies and not as active as they were.  I don’t know the names of all the young producers and directors nowadays.
RLC: Did you have any producers, directors, actors and actresses that made an impression, either positive or negative, that is very memorable?
GMF: Steve McQueen.  We were to do a movie upon which six million dollars had already been spent, called Tai-Pan.  It was eventually made by Dino De Laurentiis with a different script, not mine.  But they sold my script to McQueen and we were all set to do it when the money ran out, or something.  I never discovered what.  Also, the poor guy was physically unwell at that time and died a few months later.  It would have been his last picture, if it had been made.  A funny thing about him was we met in his home which, at that time, was a penthouse in the Beverly Wilshire.  The director and I went up to meet him and talk over the script.  Within thirty seconds he said to me, “You’re from Scotland.”
I said, “Yes.”
He said, “I’m Scotch.”
And out it came. For about ten minutes I got the history of the McQueens.  He was very nationalistic. Very proud of his Scottishness was McQueen.  We got on very well.  Nice chap.  Reserved, in a quiet way.  Burt Lancaster. I spent a week with him.  Again, discussing a movie that never got anywhere.  That was a very civilized man.  Again, with whom it was very easy to talk.  Much better educated than the average movie person.
If I had to write again for someone, I couldn’t pick anyone better to write for than George C. Scott, because whatever you write he will make it sound a hell of a sight better than it is. And Oliver Reed.  I made five pictures with him and he’s never let me down yet.  Again, he can make it sound better than it is. Some people just have the gift.
RLC: Did you work with Charlton Heston?  Because, you know, he is a Fraser as well.
GMF: That’s right.  Oh boy, I heard about that.  Yes, his son, of course, is christened Fraser.  Fraser, who is now, I think, a director.  Yes, I made three pictures with him in two of which he was Cardinal Richelieu (click for more info on the Musketeer pictures) and the other one he was Henry the Eighth (click for more on Crossed Swords).  He was a very good Henry the Eighth, too.  Worked terribly hard and immersed himself in it.  Going through the script again before hand, I’d had Henry saying something about being king for five and thirty years.  He said, “Actually he’d been king for thirty-seven years.”  And I said, “Yeah.  Poetic license.”  He knew his business.  And we’ve corresponded now and then ever since.  He must be, I should think, thinking about retiring, you know.  Although, actors never retire.
RLC: They become more character actors, as time goes along, I suppose.  Do you have anything waiting in the wings, as far as screen plays?
GMF: At the moment, no.  There is always a sort of permanent thing of people saying they want to do Flashman for the movies or for television.  One of these days it might happen. I’m not particularly worried whether it does or not.  I’m quite happy with them in book form.

Flashman
1st American Edition
Signed by the author

RLC: Mentioning Flashman brings me back to the book. It was my first introduction to your writing.  It was a very interesting book. The first time you pick it up and you start reading about this fellow…very unique.  Probably the most famous anti-hero in literature, I would say.  Aside from the fleeting description in Tom Brown’s School Days that you attribute this character to, how did you become inspired to create this fellow, who is the ultimate in self-interest?
GMF: I don’t know.  I know I wanted to write a Victorian novel and I ‘d had the thought, I don’t know when, probably when I read it when I was about twelve years old, “What happened to this character.”  In a sense the work was done for me because it’s clear from Tom Brown’s School Days when he was expelled from Rugby, in the late 1830’s.  Right.   What would he do? He’d go into the army.  What was happening in the military world at that time, and so on.  So it was just a question of fitting him into history, which is what I’ve been doing ever since.
RLC: Having read them, I’ve found them to be full of detailed descriptions not only of points in history, but also locations, such as Afghanistan during that period and the Civil War period in America with Custer and the gang.  The incredible amount of research in there, obviously.
GMF: That’s the best bit of it.  That’s the best part.
RLC: What I noticed in that is there are certain times the characters become very alive, and sometimes in a negative way.  Custer and Elphey Bey and such.  You see them as pompous fools and idiots?
GMF: Well, an awful lot of them were, you know.  Or so it appears now. Yes, I suppose all the great names of history have their weaknesses and their follies.  An awful lot of history is as incredible as fiction.  You wouldn’t get away with it as fiction.  That, as I say, is the fun in finding out, and finding out, where possible, the real truth behind the legend.  You know, just the small facts and the small details.
RLC: Yours, of course, are considerably more fleshed out than you can find in history because that is the nature of fiction.  If you just had a dry recitation of facts it would be quite boring.                                                                                                                            GMF: That’s right. You have to have Flashman in the middle of it, you know.
RLC: How much freedom do you feel to make someone like Elphey Bey or Custer more fallible than they were or do you try keep-
GMF: I try to keep exactly as it was.  There is only one person I am conscious of perhaps having made out to be a bit more of a villain than he was, and that is Bismarck.  And yet, he was a thorough swine.  There was a Russian called Ignatiev (Count Nicholas Pavlovich Ignatiev, statesman and diplomat) who I may have been a little unfair to, but that’s all.  I will not, in any circumstances, take liberties, particularly with female characters. Unless they were promiscuous I won’t say they were.  I won’t attribute misbehavior to any historical female who wasn’t guilty of it.
RLC: Now, I have noticed in your Flashman books quite a few characters who sound very historical.  Do you bring in what I would call minor historical characters that people might not even have heard of that you encountered in your research?

Alexander Haughton Campbell Gardner a.ka. Gordana Khan (1785–1877)

GMF: Oh, yes.  When I did the one before the last one, Flashman and the Mountain of Light, I discovered, about the Sikh War in the 1840’s, these two American adventurers of whom I had never heard.  Incredible men upon whom I am convinced Kipling based The Man Who Would Be King, because their careers are so parallel and the timing is right.  One of them published his memoirs in 1891 (extracts from Gardner’s journal were published in 1853 and Harlan published his in 1842.  Both men died in the 1870’s.) and Kipling produced The Man Who Would Be King five years later.  I’m quite sure he was inspired by them . That kind of character, this man Gardner (Alexander Gardner-click for more on this adventurer) who came from Wisconsin and went about Afghanistan dressed in a full suit of tartan including a tartan turban.  I mean, there he is, and there’s a photograph of him, God help us.  And another, a fellow from Philadelphia (Josiah Harlan-click for more info on his incredible story), who made himself, very briefly, king of a tiny Afghan kingdom.  That is where, I’m sure, Kipling got the idea.  He didn’t last long, and ended up as a dentist in San Francisco, as far as I remember.  But an astonishing career.  There were some very hard fellows about in the last century.  (Some sources consider Sir James Brooke to be one of the inspirations rather than Gardner- click for more)
RLC: One of the things that is very obvious is that Flashy always comes out ahead, in spite of what you would think were some very grave errors of judgement where you think he would be branded a coward.  You always make sure he has an “out.”  How does this inevitable survival of such a person reflect your attitude toward this sort of real life individual?

President Custer?

GMF: I think they do.  I often wonder how many great reputations are genuinely earned.  The more you look into historical characters the more faults and the more virtues you find.  You generally find, this is my experience, anyway, that where there is a myth, so-called, there is a genuine basis for it.  I mean, everybody knows about Custer.  They may not know all the facts and all the details about Custer, but he wasn’t a bad sort.  He made a terrible mistake.  And it was a mistake he could have attempted to justify, because he had done the same thing before and it had worked.  But at Little Big Horn it didn’t.  What is not generally known about Custer is his political ambitions, that he genuinely had his eye on the Democratic nomination.  And he hoped in the far West, in the Little Big Horn campaign, hoped he would win such a glorious reputation that it might see him not only into the nomination, but into the White House.  And God knows, why not?  It happened to Eisenhower, you know. I suppose it happened to Andrew Jackson.
RLC: And even Washington.
GMF: And Washington, quite.  What Custer would have been like as president, God alone knows.  Because he was a pretty hysterical character, or very emotional, anyway.  I don’t think he would have been a great success.  Mind you, I’m not sure who became president that date, after Grant.  Johnson?  No, Johnson was before that.
RLC: After Grant was, ah….                                                                                              GMF: What was the one that was assassinated?
RLC: That was McKinley.
GMF: Wasn’t there one who was assassinated around about 1881?                             RLC: Garfield. After Garfield was Arthur.
GMF: Was it Arthur?
RLC: Chester A. Arthur was later. Then you went to Cleveland, then Harrison, then Cleveland again, and come to McKinley.
GMF: Early 70’s.
RLC: Tilden ran against him, ah….
GMF: Tilden.  That’s a name that rings a bell.
RLC: They made a deal.  Actually the Democrats had the majority in the election and they made a deal with Republicans that they would get the White House in exchange for pulling out the occupation troops in the South…Lemonade Lucy was his wife…I’m into history and it’s like all of a sudden I can’t remember anything.  I hate that.
GMF: I know that Grant was still President.  Grant did two terms, if I remember.  And I think he was just about going in ’76.  That was just about the end.
RLC: Lincoln won in ’64.  After him, up to ’68, was Johnson.
GMF: That’s right.  Through ’72 and ’76 was Grant.  I don’t know who it was from ’76 to ’80.
RLC: If I don’t think about it, I may come up with him.  That would have been interesting, Custer as President.

End Part 1

I believe in Santa Claus

Doubting the existence of Santa is not new.  On September 21, 1897, the editor of The New York Sun newspaper published a reply to a letter from a an 8 year-old girl that has become a classic.  In it, he gives that famous line, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”  Now I am here to say, “I believe in Santa Claus.”  (click here for the entire article)  He also wrote, “The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.”  Maybe part of the reason is that I am Santa Claus, to give the children a Santa to see.  Well, not all year, but a few special occasions each year.  But more on that later.  Let’s talk a little about who Santa Claus is.

St. Nicholas of Myrna

St. Nicholas of Myra with a white beard and the red attire of a bishop

Being in love with history, I am compelled to give a little history of the old fellow.  The name Santa Claus is derived from the Dutch Sinterklaas (click here for more), a red-cloaked bishop with white hair and beard who brings gifts to good children on the eve of St. Nicholas’ Day, December 6th.  His name comes from Saint Nicholas, the Greek Bishop of Myra (now in Turkey), who was known for his generosity (click here for more).  Early on, gifts were given to children in some countries on St. Nicholas Day, not on Christmas Day.  From Jolly Olde England came Father Christmas.  As early as the 1400’s, King Christmas would ride in the Christmas festival on a decorated horse.  Remember, Christmas trees were not a part of the English Christmas celebration until German Prince Albert brought them across the Channel when he married Queen Victoria (although they had been a part of the Royal Family’s since the time of George III), so decorating a horse had to do.  Over time, he also became known as Father Christmas, an old man in a long, fur-trimmed cloak.  However, King Christmas was known for bringing fine food and drink to the Christmas celebration, lots of it, rather than toys for children.

Father Christmas

Father Christmas

When the Puritans took control of England in the mid-17th century and banned the celebration of holidays, originally Holy Days, by anything but church attendance, Father Christmas was a casualty.  He also became a cause célèbre for the Royalists who longed for a return to the wilder, less restrictive days of the Stuart kings.  After the Restoration, when Charles II regained the throne, poor Father Christmas had served his purpose and was almost forgotten.  However, in the Victorian Age, he returned to prominence as the spirit of Christmas.  In fact, the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a version of Father Christmas, dispensing Christmas cheer from his torch.  Check out the movie version with George C. Scott for a great example of how he looked to the English of that era (more on that and other versions of the movie here). But how did he join with Sinterklaas to become Santa Claus?  That’s an American tale.

Thomas Nast's Santa Claus

Thomas Nast’s 1881 Santa Claus

When Clement Moore’s (click here for author dispute)  “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (also known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”) was published in 1823, it created much of the mythos.  (click here for the entire poem)  This was the first time we have a sleigh with the reindeer numerated and named.  St. Nicholas is dressed in fur (not red, though) and comes down the chimney to fill stockings.  While much of this is in the Dutch tradition, he does his good work on Christmas Eve or early that morning, not on St. Nicholas Day!  Next came Thomas Nast’s drawings that appeared in Harper’s Weekly from 1863 through 1886.   Nast is best known for creating the elephant as the symbol of the Republican Party and the donkey for the Democrats, but also did Santa.  His elaborate drawing of “Santa Claus and His Works,” was included in an 1869 printing of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and gave Santa his now-traditional red attire.  St. Nicholas had become Santa Claus.  Nast also gave us Santa’s home in the North Pole that he termed “Santa Claussville, N.P.”  and evolved Santa from a short elf into a full-grown man.  The drawing of Santa he did in 1881 is much like the current standard concept of Santa, except for the politically incorrect pipe.  Thank you, Thomas, for giving us our Santa.

Santa and Coca Cola

Santa and Coca Cola

In the movie “Miracle on 34th Street,” the young Alfred says, “there’s a lot of bad ‘isms’ floatin’ around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism.”  Yet, it is a commercial ad campaign that refined our image of Santa Claus.  Nast’s Santa looks dated to us now, too 19th century.  It was Coca Cola that gave us the 20th century version that we still identify as the real Santa.  Although Coca Cola began using Santa in its ad campaigns in the 1920’s, it was Haddon Sundblom who drew the ones in the 1930’s until the 1960’s that we now consider the real Santa.  Since Santa didn’t and wouldn’t get any residuals from his images, the jolly old elf was the perfect promoter for Coke.  Still, we do get to enjoy the art and Haddon’s images are our image of Santa to this day, so that wasn’t all bad.  (click here for the Coca Cola Santa story)

Santa and a believer at the Roamin Angel Toy Drive in 2015

Santa Claus and a true believer                                  at the Roamin Angel Toy Drive in 2015

So what about me being Santa?  I believed in Santa as a child.  When I found that he was my dad, it didn’t damage my psyche.  I appreciated the magic that my parents gave me at Christmas, how they made the holiday even more special.  Since Christmas is about God’s gift of his Son as a child to mankind, isn’t there something appropriate about having a saint’s namesake bring gifts to children?  Even the idea of naughty and nice lists teaches accountability for our actions. I still believe in Santa.  In the mid-1970’s, my parents gave me a Santa suit for Christmas.  It was not an expensive one and they did so more as a joke, but it began a change in my life.  I wore it to our towing company Christmas party at a local restaurant, kidding around with the office staff and the drivers.  One of the drivers was sitting on my knee, telling me what he wanted for Christmas, when a waiter came up and told me a little boy would like to talk to Santa.  I went over to his table and took him on my knee.  As he told me of his Christmas wishes, it all changed.  It was no longer a joke.  I was taking on the mantle.  Since then, I have been Santa for many children, including my own daughter.  I only hope I have given as much joy to them as they have given to me.

Santa MacClaus and Mikey MacElf ring that bell.

Santa MacClaus and Mikey MacElf ring that bell.

I have also appeared as Santa MacClaus, ringing the bell for the Salvation Army at Christmas.  The response has been great.  Seeing people laugh at the Scottish Santa and contribute to help others at Christmas is wonderful.  Having the kids, eyes going wide to see Santa in a kilt, is hilarious.  Interestingly, none of the kids have a problem with that,  Santa is Santa no matter what.  And the cause is great for Claus.  All the money we raise goes to help others in our local community, whether it be for toys and clothes at Christmas or to keep the homeless from freezing to death in cold weather, it’s worth a little of my time.  Plus I love being Santa, bringing joy where I can.  I will keep doing it as long as I am able.  After all, I believe in Santa.

 

Cozy Mystery

St. Nicholas of Myrna, Father Robert Bruce's church

St. Nicholas of Myrna, Father Robert Bruce’s church

My next book, The St. Nicholas Murders, is what is known as a “cozy mystery.”  That brings to mind sitting in front of a warm fire, sipping tea and uttering, “My, my,” as one reads the yellowing pages of a hardbound book.  As with many generalities, there is an element of truth in that.  One website seems to say that (click here) and I find much of the description to be right.  However, I must clarify what my book is and what it is not.  If you checked the website, she says that the amateur sleuth is normally a woman.  Well, Father Robert Bruce is very manly.  Unlike Father Brown, he is tall, handsome and fit.  I will defer to the “usually” and say that Father Robert is very unusual.  He is an amateur who is drawn into the case and becomes a friend of the local chief of police, the Chief.  I think they are very likeable, unlike my favorite P.I. Morg, who is the protagonist in two of my books and often lashes out at those who get in her way.  Still, I think she’s lovable, too.   Anyway, there is no graphic sex or violence.  The language shouldn’t be offensive, unless one is a total prude.  I mean, if bitch or bastard singes your ears, don’t read any of my books.  Hopefully, that will not be the case for most cozy mystery readers.  But enough about my latest book, let’s talk about what makes a cozy mystery such an oxymoron.

Important Update:    I went to a writers’ conference on Kauai this month.  I met with an agent who is looking at The St. Nicholas Murders, so I will not self-publish until I hear from her.  Although I do hope she will take me on as a client, I am too old to count on it.  More as soon as I know what will be the fate of my latest book, but it will not be by Christmas.

Freddy Kruger, not my kind of guy.

Freddy Kruger, not my kind of guy.

Most cozy mysteries are about murder.  Merriam-Webster defines cozy as “providing contentment or comfort.”  How can murder be linked with cozy?  Perhaps it is just because there’s no blood and guts spewing in any of the scenes, but still has all the drama.  Still, it is odd.  Since I am not a fan of gory books, movies and TV shows, I feel much the same about sanitized crime, but it doesn’t explain why I love a good murder mystery.  Is it because murder is the ultimate violation of another person and we wish to see the perpetrator brought to justice?  For me, part of it is my love of solving puzzles, but why isn’t the puzzle about robbery or embezzlement?  True, there are mysteries about those crimes, but ones about murder far outnumber all of them combined.  Perhaps there is something in the human psyche that is drawn to the macabre.  After all, people slow and gawk when there’s an accident on the freeway.  And look at the popularity of Halloween.  There’s also the thrill of fear, evidenced by the popularity of roller coasters and scary movies.  Is the fear of death and cheating it part of this fascination?  And might reading about a murder be a safe way to get that thrill?  I’ll let you decide.

Sherlock Holmes in a three-pipe case

Sherlock Holmes in a three-pipe case

I do find it interesting that the murder mystery is a particularly English art form, the people known for polite restraint.  I remember reading about an accident in the Tube.  People started panicking and cramming the exits.  One gentleman said, “Here, here!  We’re English!”  Everyone queued up and orderly got off the train without injury.  While the yobs rioting at football (soccer) games have been far more common in the last few decades, the murder rate in the British Isles is far less than in America, about one fourth.  Yet the British have long had an obsession with murder.  Is this a paradox?  While, with the exception of Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, the murder-solving detective was the invention of the Brits while the “hard-boiled” detective was an American innovation.  Sherlock Holmes solved crime by observation and logic rather than with fists and guns.  Poirot only uses a gun once, in the last episode when he dies.  It was published in 1975, just a few months before Agatha Christie’s own death and may reflect her failing health.  The idea of a little old lady solving crimes in her little village also came from the English.  Miss Marple far predated Jessica Fletcher.  As an aside, I do wonder how her village could continue to exist with so many people being murdered, but that’s a problem with a cozy mystery series. The English have long enjoyed reading about a good murder, both fictional and non-fictional.  Jack the Ripper was great for newspaper sales.  For the English person who reads of murder, it might be a way to break out from conventions of polite society without doing any harm.

Now that you have explored why you read cozy murder mysteries, indulge in one.  Make a Christmas present for yourself or someone you know of The St. Nicholas Murders.  It will be out by Christmas and would be a killer gift.

Alexander Rossi

Alexander Rossi stands by his car during qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Sunday, May 22, 2016. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Alexander Rossi stands by his car during qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Sunday, May 22, 2016. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

As stated in my The Union newspaper column on Saturday, September 10th (click here to read), recently I had a telephone interview with Alexander Rossi.  It was Wednesday, August 31st, and he was standing in line at airport security, getting ready to board a plane for the Indy car race at Watkins Glen.  At one point we paused our interview so that his phone could go through security.   I recorded it on my computer, but I had a problem.  The last two minutes of the almost 14 minutes are badly distorted.  I have no idea why and have been unable to clean it up.  Ain’t technology grand?  I have included the whole interview in case you would like to endure those last two minutes, but feel free to stop if it becomes too aurally painful.

Here is the interview in its entirety.

Alexander Rossi sits in his car on pit road as his team makes adjustments during an Indycar auto racing practice at Texas Motor Speedway, Friday, June 10, 2016, in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP Photo/Larry Papke)

Alexander Rossi sits in his car on pit road as his team makes adjustments during an Indycar auto racing practice at Texas Motor Speedway, Friday, June 10, 2016, in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP Photo/Larry Papke)

Since Alexander grew up in Nevada City, he’s a source of local pride.  He has come to town for this weekend and will be featured at several events.  The editor of the paper, Brian Hamilton, also did an interview and wrote a fine, front-page article that gave a lot of information on Alexander’s racing history and what is happening next for him.  You can read it by doing a search on the paper’s website, http://www.theunion.com/News/  I recommend it.

Gaining a Friend through Aussie Rescue

Cordon Bleu, better known as Blue

Cordon Bleu,
better known as Blue

On Monday, June 20th, Kelly and I finished the adoption process for Cordon Bleu through Aussie Rescue.  I never knew adopting a dog had so much paperwork.  We agreed to many things, including that we would never give Cordon Bleu, known as Blue to his friends and family, away to anyone, that we would never shave him (No way would I ever do that anyway.  I’d sooner shave my hair and beard.), never to let Blue ride in the back of a pickup (Again, something I would never do.), always keep him on a leash outside unless in a fenced backyard for 12 weeks (A good policy even for after that period.), etc.  We underwent a written online survey and a home inspection, as well as meeting Blue before we could adopt.  I haven’t felt so “under the microscope” since we applied to move to the Isle of Man, maybe even more so.   Am I complaining?  Absolutely not.  NorCal Aussie Rescue (click here) and Kim, who runs the operation in the area, want to make sure that the dogs she rescues aren’t sent to someone who will not take good care of them.  There is even a 30-day full refund period after adoption.  Considering some idiot abandoned Blue, I am in full agreement with a process to prevent that ever happening again.

Jilly-dog A real sweatheart

Jilly-dog
A real sweetheart

If you’ve been a reader of my blog, three years ago I wrote about the loss of my companion and family dog, Jilly, an Australian shepherd. (click here to read)  I was devastated.  After almost three years, I yearned to have the “friendly presence” of a dog in the house again.  Although I like the long-haired “working dogs’ like Aussies, I was afraid that I would always be reminded of Jilly and expect the next one to be a clone of her, so I checked out rescue border collies.  I filled out the application and kept a watch on the adoptable dogs.  Since I was looking for a dog no more than four years old and not too hyper, it limited my choices.  One great thing about rescue sites is you get a bio on each dog, letting you know age and personality, with a photo.  There was one dog that seemed ideal, but when I emailed the site there were eight others ahead of me in line!  Then, in January of this year, I checked NorCal Aussie Rescue.  At the rescue site, I saw Condon Bleu , who sounded good.  Then I read that he was “reactive with strangers” and wasn’t ready for adoption.  There was another Aussie, Rocco, who seemed a possibility.  I filled out the application and Kim, the person who had told me about Jilly being kept in Woodland’s animal shelter in 2004, responded.  She brought Rocco, who was called Rocky, out while she inspected our place.

Rocco, a.k.a. Rocky A big boy

Rocco, a.k.a. Rocky
A big boy

Let’s just say that at 70-plus lbs. and tall for an Aussie, Rocky was in the heavyweight class, as well as quick on his feet . . . er, paws.  He also put his paws on our marble table and on the grand piano (fortunately covered).  It wasn’t that he was a “bad dog,” just large and a bit rambunctious for our life style, never stopping his roaming around the house.  Still, I felt that familiar tug at my heart when Rocky was in the ring . . . er, living room.  I felt he could be trained.  After Kim and Rocky left, Kelly and I were discussing Rocky when we got a call from Kim.  She didn’t feel Rocky was a good match for us.  She takes her duties very seriously and did not want Rocky going to a home where there would be problems in the relationship.  Still, it was disappointing and we felt that the problems were more with us.  “We flunked,” Kelly said.

Cordon Bleu's photo on the Aussie Rescue website. Who wouldn't love a face like that?

Cordon Bleu’s photo on the Aussie Rescue website. Who wouldn’t love a face like that?

I would go on the the rescue websites periodically to check for new recruits, but no joy.  Days went into weeks and weeks into months.  Then I noticed that Cordon Bleu’s bio had been updated.  He was doing very well with people and dogs and was ready for adoption.  Well, he had problems with chickens and cats, but we have no cats and only eat chickens we get normally from Costco, so that would not be an issue.  I contacted Kim again and she brought Cordon Bleu (who I will henceforth call Blue, since the French word sounds too much like “blah”) out to see how he would do with us.  She told us that he was very attached to her, sticking close to her all the time, and was not sure he would do well with a man.  When she got here, we took him out into our fenced yard and played a little ball with him, then went inside and sat in the living room.  Blue came over to visit me at my chair and I rubbed his spine.  We seemed to get along.

After Kim left with Blue, I wasn’t sure if we’d made the grade.  After a day of no word, I was concerned.  Once I’d met Blue, I really wanted him to join our home.  Hesitantly, I emailed Kim and asked her what was the next step, fearing that there would not be one.  She said we needed to have three days in a row when we would not leave Blue alone and that it would have to be after she took Blue to the vet again.  Kelly and I were meeting our daughter and son-in-law for lunch on Father’s Day, but it looked like late afternoon of that Sunday would work.  I was like a kid waiting for Christmas morning.  Due to misunderstanding on telephoning procedures, it ended up that Blue could not come to his new home until the next day.  I’m way too old to feel like the kid who Santa missed, but I did.

Kim brought Blue to his new home on Monday.  We went through all the signing, agreements and info on caring for Blue.  I’ve done some real estate deals and they do take more paperwork, but so does dog adoption.  Especially the part where you slice your palm and drip blood on the contract to seal the deal.  Just kidding.  I think.  Anyway, Kim trusted us and left Blue with us.

Blue's first day with us.

Blue’s first day with us.  He looks a little unhappy, but that soon changed.

He was anxious for several hours after she left, pacing the house, but calmed by the evening and was even sleeping on his back behind my chair.  When we put him in the crate last night, he would whimper a bit, but stopped when I said “no.”  I walked out of the room to do a quick email and he whined, even though Kelly was there.  One time he banged on the crate door and I took him out to see if he needed to wet, but he just wanted to stay up and play.  After about a half an hour, he was fine and slept through the night.  It’s sort of like a kid who has his first night at camp and misses home.  He never whimpered in his crate again.  In a couple of months, we hope to have him sleeping on his own bed.  I may have to put it right next to my side of the bed.

Blue on a leash. We weren't actually on our walk, but Kelly doesn't want to get yup at 5:45 a.m. to take a photo!

Blue on a leash. We weren’t actually on our walk, but Kelly doesn’t want to get up at 5:45 a.m. to take a photo!

Blue and I went for our walk at 5:40 a.m. the next morning along the Nevada Irrigation District canal (that I call the ditch) and he loved it.  It is a dirt trail that is right along the running water, with lots of trees.  There was no one on the trail, so we had a great time.  Jilly used to wet one or two times on the walk, but he marked our trail about thirty times!  I wondered how big his bladder was.  At least he did his part against the drought.  We have gone every morning since and he has been fine with the few people and animals we have met.  Well, except for the doe and fawn on the trail in front of us one time.  He really wanted to prove he could run them down.  We serve him Taste of the Wild dog food, so maybe he wanted a real taste of the wild.  When I went home afterwards I may have found out why he had so much energy.  I found the empty container for some cookies that had been on the kitchen counter.  He must have grabbed it while I was in the bathroom before we left for our walk.  He was on a sugar high.  Our walk has lengthened from about 2 mi. to 3.7 mi. (per the Mapmywalk app on my phone).  Blue seemed tired and slowed a lot the first day, but no longer.   I bet he could got 10 mi. now, but I don’t know that I could.  There is saying that a fat dog is the sign of an out–of-shape owner.  As lean and strong as Blue is, I only wish I were in commensurate condition.

It’s been about three weeks since Blue joined the family.  He tries to stay beside me all the time.  Whenever I leave a room, he follows right behind me.  I call him the strong, silent type because he’s not a barker, but sometimes he does whine a bit whenever I leave.  I also call him my bud, Ol’ Blue Eyes, True Blue and Blue Dog, but I like nicknames.  He’s only about 8 months old at most and I’m happy with that because I am very attached to him already.  I want him with me a long time.  Young age and a good disposition were the two key requirements for choosing a dog, but if I’d made a long list of wants, he’d have fulfilled about every one of them.  He is one great dog.

They trust us, giving us loyalty and love. This is how they are treated.

They trust us, giving us loyalty and love. And this is how they are treated.

There is a moral to this message: rescue a dog.  The dogs deserve better than they have been treated.  Dogs have given their lives in the military, will sacrifice themselves to save their masters from harm, and give unswerving devotion to the humans that own them, yet far too often are given only cruelty and abuse in return.  There are too many of our four-legged friends that have suffered by the hands of humans and we owe it to them to reach out to them.  Dog rescue services try to right some of these wrongs.  The people who run the rescue operations are some of the most dedicated, unselfish people you will meet.  If you prefer, go to an animal shelter and save one of those poor, neglected dogs.  A quick Google search will locate the rescue operation or animal shelter in your area.  So, rather than buying from a breeder or “puppy mill,” rescue a dog in need.  I close with a quote from John Galsworthy that speaks to me.  “The family dog – the only four-footer with rudiments of altruism and a sense of God.”

 

 

 

 

 

Scottish Games

A Pipe Band at a Scottish Games

A Pipe Band at a Scottish Games

Over Memorial Day weekend, I will be attending the United Scottish Society’s Scottish games in Costa Mesa, CA, known as Scottish Fest, (click here for info) selling my Celtic saga, Three Legs of the Cauldron.  Alas, I have only attended Scottish Games in California, so my impressions are not of any Games in Scotland.  Those are competitions in athletics and dancing, far different than the Celtic fairs of America.  Even the one at Braemar that the Queen regularly attends and draws about 20,000 people is focused on the competitions.  There will be kilts and pipe bands, but no clan booths or musicians (sorry, pipers, I mean no slight to your musical talents).  They harken back 950 years to the time of Malcolm II, known as Canmore or Bighead, who is said to have had the games as a way to have Scots compete with each other without someone literally losing his head. Since he’s the guy who killed the historical Macbeth, there may be some irony there.  But I digress.  Back to the New World.

Lady Saltoun, chief of the name Fraser and Lord Lovat, chief of the Lovat Frasers

Lady Saltoun, chief of the name Fraser and Lord Lovat, chief of the Lovat Frasers

The games in America are more of a fair or festival, hence the name Scottish Fest for Costa Mesa.  I first attended these games when they were held at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona.  It was 1981, a hot Sunday afternoon, and my little clan (family) barely made it to them before closing time.  They were a rather small affair then, but I was bitten by the Scottish bug.  My nearest tie is through my father’s mother, a Fraser.  A couple of years later, I went to the games the Clans of the Highlands used to hold in Chino as a member of Clan Fraser Society of North America.  Although a small games, they had the necessary components of a games in America: clan tents, vendors of about every item Scottish and not so Scottish as well as food and drink, and Scottish, or at least Celtic, musical entertainment.  Oh, yes, they also had Scottish athletic and dancing competitions as well as pipe bands.  Other games might add a Highland animal exhibit, sheepdog competitions, whisky tasting, historical re-creationist groups (Want to meet Mary, Queen of Scots?  Well, not the real one, since she’d be rather decomposed by now, but someone who has taken a lot of time to learn to act like she would have.  She just might be there.), and even odd events like beard competitions.

Caber Toss

Caber Toss

What do the Games in Scotland and the Scottish Games in America have in common?  Much.  The athletic competitions always have some uniquely Scottish events.  The most dramatic is the caber toss, which has been termed the telephone-pole toss by those of non-Scottish descent.  Some burly guy in a kilt balances a log the size of a telephone pole upright against his shoulder, slowly trots ahead and heaves it upward so that it lands on the other end and falls forward.  It’s supposed to land perfectly upright and fall directly away from the competitor.  Take it from me, it’s not easy even with a smaller, practice one. (click here to see)  Then there is the stone toss.  It’s like shot putting, except with an irregularly shaped stone weighing about 18 lbs. and done with no approach, feet firmly planted.   (click here to see)  Next is the weight toss over a bar, similar to a pole vault bar.  The 56 lb. weight has a ring attached for gripping and tossed over a bar 18 ft. or more directly overhead.  Not keeping an eye on the weight could be fatal.  (click here to see)  Then there’s a 28 lb. weight toss for distance.  Finally, there is the 22 lb. hammer throw for distance.  This is also an Olympic event.  In the Scottish games, the big guys throw it 185 ft. or more.  (click here to see)  In the Olympics, the record is 284 ft.  Of course, the Olympic hammer is 6 lbs. lighter and has an easily-gripped handle on the end of a chain instead of a simple pole!  Maybe the Scottish one is a little too much for the rest of the world.  The real kicker is that, unlike the Olympics, Scottish heavy competitors compete in all these events and over a relatively short period of time.  Not exactly the same, is it?

Highland Fling

Highland Fling

Another common ground for Scotland and America are the dancers.  Highland dancing is not done with a partner and is energetic, to say the least.  The sword dance is done over a pair of crossed swords, supposedly originally done by Malcolm Bighead celebrating his victory over Macbeth.  If a dancer touches one of the swords in this difficult dance, he or she loses major points.  (click here to see)  The Highland fling requires the dancer to stay in the same spot while going through fast and rigorous steps.  (click here to see)  Both of these are performed mainly on tiptoe.  Although there are other dances like the sailor’s hornpipe, these are the essentials of Highland dance competitions.  There is no improv in any of these dances.  The dancer must learn the steps and follow them.

Bagpiper

Lone Piper

The last commonalities for the New World and the Old World games are pipers and the kilts.  Pipe bands are the mainstay for the music at the games.  You can hear pipers practicing their music, often eerily wafting through the games.  You either love them or you hate them.  There is a joke that says that a bad piper sounds like someone strangling a cat.  A good piper sounds like someone strangling a cat gently.  However, if you’ve got any Scots blood in your veins, the sound of a good pipe band will send cold chills down your spine.  (click here to see and hear)  I remember when my wife and I were first in Scotland in 1986, we were driving along a glen when we saw some red deer and got out for a photo.  It was about 11:00 at night, but still twilight and the hills along the burn were covered with heather.  There was not a person or a house in sight.  A lone piper was playing somewhere in the far distance, echoing along the glen.  It was so beautiful it almost brought tears to my eyes.  (click here to listen)  I am a Scot, not only by some of the blood in my veins, but in m heart.

James Bond in a Kilt. No one to mess with.

James Bond in a traditional kilt. No one to mess with.

And then there is the kilt.  I cannot take the time to go into the entire history of the kilt and tartans, but what has evolved is a pleated wool garment with a tartan that is registered with the Scottish Register of Tartans.  For most, that means a Scottish Highland clan or Lowland family.  In America, you will see many men in these kilts at the games. but many more who are not.  They are custom tailored, somewhat expensive and, quite frankly, take a little courage to wear.  Although, as I said, I have not been to any Games in Scotland, I would imagine that is the case there.  Here, however, things have changed since I got my kilt in 1983.  Now there are Utilikilts and their Pakistani knock-offs.  These are off-the-rack, made in heavy cotton, solid-color or camo instead of tartan cloth and (shudder) have pockets.  While it’s a free country and anyone can wear whatever they wish, I will never wear a Utilikilt.  To me, it would be like wearing Jockey underwear (Y-fronts for my British friends) and calling them swim trunks: not the same thing and rather embarrassing to be seen in in public.  An American site summarized my thoughts very well.  “They took a traditional garb and perverted it.  A kilt is a symbol of Scotland and its history.  A Utilikilt is someone trying to functionalize culture.”

Scary dude in Utilikilt

Scary dude in Utilikilt

It’s like wearing white athletic shoes with a tux: just not right.  If you figure the cost of my kilt for the 30-plus years I’ve owned it, it’s not that much, far less than an iPhone and lasting far longer.  If you want to show your Scottish heritage, do it with the real thing and not a cheap substitute.  When you walk in a real kilt, there is a “swoosh” of the fabric side to side.  When you walk in a Utilikilt, it hangs stiffly down.  A U.K. site called it, “hardly a kilt at all, but a man skirt, marketed as a kilt.”  If you wear a Utilikilt, just be honest and say it’s a man-skirt.  Like a man-purse or a man-bun, it’s a masculine version of a feminine fashion item.

Wicked Tinkers- not exactly traditional Scottish music.

Wicked Tinkers- not exactly traditional Scottish music.

 

But back to the games.  For Americans, they are a Scottish festival as well as competitions.  The music reflects that, although I do wish there were more in the traditional style than the modern, rock-type, but the organizers book what draws the crowds.  While they’re not to my taste, I guess I can live with that.  The vendors provide a chance for purchasing British food and drink, Celtic jewelry, British knick-knacks and Celtic-themed clothing that varies from T-shirts to kilts and tracing your name’s ancestry.  There are also books on Celtic topics, which is where I fit in.  As I said, I will be autographing and selling Three Legs of the Cauldron at the Celtic Nook booth in Costa Mesa as well as Pleasanton, CA, over Labor Day weekend.  (click here for info)  Then there is that American innovation, clan tents.

Clan tents

Clan tents

For native Scots, they consider clan membership to be a matter of birth, not joining.  If you’re born a Fraser in Scotland, you are a member of the clan.  However, in America (and I now understand in a number of other countries as well), you join a clan society.  Requirements vary, but most bend over backwards to find a way to include those interested in membership.  We are a nation of mutts, so pure-blooded Scots are rare and oft times the connection is many generations back.  Many clan societies have ties with the clan chief or chief of the name in Scotland, but there is no copyright on a name and some are not connected with Scotland at all.  Nonetheless, it is all about preserving our Celtic heritage.  In this modern, mobile and transitory society, many of us are looking for roots, a tie to the past that will keep us grounded in the present.  Having manned the Clan Fraser Society of North America clan tent as Southern California Convener for many years, there is a special place in my heart for those who put time, effort and money into preserving this heritage.  That great duo, Men of Worth, have made a tongue-in-cheek song about them entitled The Clan Tent Cavaliers(Click here to listen)  At the clan tents, diasporan Scots can find their connection to their heritage.  Dedicated volunteers are more than willing to share their research and knowledge with any who stop by.  It’s all free.  If you attend the games in America and have any Scottish name in your ancestry, take the time to check out your clan tent.  It’s a part of the Scottish games experience in America.