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.

 

Alice in Wonderland

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland A early edition

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
An early edition

This is Alice’s 150th birthday and she certainly doesn’t show her age.  You’d never believe she’s a day over 100.  Like the brainy Athena from the skull of Zeus, Alice sprang from the imagination of  Lewis Carroll.  While oft mistakenly considered merely children’s books, both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (shortened to Alice in Wonderland) and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Saw There (shortened to Through the Looking Glass) are not simplistic.  True, they can be taken on the children’s level, where they are amusing and entertaining.  Queen Victoria enjoyed Alice so much that she sent for all Lewis Carroll’s other books and was surprised to receive mathematics treatises.  You see, Lewis Carroll, the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, was an Oxford don of mathematics.  Droll, erudite wit permeated both books.  Even his pen name is a reversal of the Latin translation of his first and middle names.  Originally, he planned to use an anagram of them, Edgar Cuthwellis, but his publisher thankfully nixed that idea.  So Charles translated his names to Carolus Ludovicus, then swapped them around and Anglicized them to Lewis Carroll.  Simple, eh?

Alice Liddell at 8 years old July 1860

Alice Liddell at 8 years old
July 1860

Although books have been written about why he penned Alice’s tales and what then happened, the short version is that the bachelor don took the  three daughters of his friend and college dean, Henry George Liddell, out rowing on July 4th, 1862.  Ten-year old Alice, the middle child, begged him to tell them a story.  He spun a fanciful tale about a young girl named Alice who followed a white rabbit down a hole to Wonderland.  At Alice’s urging, he put it on paper.  The working title was Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.  Fortunately, Carroll was persuaded to change it because the book might be thought to have something to do with mining, but he did give a handwritten copy with that title to Alice in 1863.  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published on November 26th, 1865.  While Dodgson expected to sell about 400 books, it was soon a runaway hit.  It continues to have many incarnations, including ones by Disney, Depp and even a porno version.  Alice’s tales have become a mainstay of children’s (and adult) fiction.

Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall

Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall before the fall

All this is nice, but so what?  It doesn’t make these books of enduring quality or Mensa standing.  Although Dodgson was a mathematician, there are no profound formulas or theorems of great repute in the two books.  Instead, it is the way he uses the English language, the banter and brilliance, the puns and portmanteaus that stand the test of time.  Consider that scrambled egghead, Humpty Dumpty, who uses “glory” to describe a “nice knock-down argument,” in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Saw There.  It sounds like nonsense, right?  Yet it had to do with a linguistic debate as to whether words have an intrinsic meaning that is inbuilt and inherent or whether they can be defined or redefined at will.  When Carroll wrote the books, there was a strong school of linguistic thought that words had an intrinsic meaning.  Few now follow that school and the other view seems to be what we now follow.  “Cool” has nothing to do with temperature, but with popular acceptance.  “Sweet” doesn’t describe the sugar content of a food, but means “cool.”  “Ill” doesn’t mean sick, but “cool” or “sweet.”  Who knows what the newest and latest word will be tomorrow.  Since traditional dictionaries cannot keep pace with this rapid “evolution,” there are even “urban dictionaries” to help you keep up on this ever-changing patois of the youth culture, since yesterday’s youth are today’s AARP.  The upshot, it seems, is that Humpty was right when he said, “When I use a word, . . . it means just what I chose it to mean.”   An existential etymology.  Meaning of words do change over time, although that has been greatly accelerated in the last few decades.  Not exactly the stuff of a children’s book.

Jabberwocky. The stuff that fantasy is made of.

Jabberwocky.
The stuff that fantasy is made of.

Another bit of linguistic wit is the poem “Jabberwocky,” which I can still stumble through  by memory to this day.  Again, it is from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Saw There and found by Alice in a book.  It is a masterpiece of pun and portmanteau words.  In fact, Carroll first coined that phrase for “two meanings packed up into one word.”   A portmanteau is a small suitcase with two equal compartments (ever hear of one now?), so Carroll used it to describe two words combined into one with elements of both.  Who does not understand that a motel is a motorists hotel?  Or that a brunch is a combination of breakfast and lunch?  Even the air many breathe has long been smog, or smoke and fog.  But the list keeps growing, with Labradoodle (Labrador Retriever/poodle mix) and frappuccino (frappe/cappuccino blend) now common parlance.  But grue as green and blue?   Chuggers from charity and muggers, meaning people who accost you for contributions for their favorite cause?  To me, chuggers were guys who downed mugs of beer quickly.  But I’m obviously dated.   I could go on, but there are far too many to list here.  And all this came from Lewis Carroll.  Consider this poem, which I quote in full because I like it and it’s my blog.  Hmmm.  My web log?

 Jabberwocky

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
      The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
      The frumious Bandersnatch!”
He took his vorpal sword in hand;
      Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree
      And stood awhile in thought.
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
      The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
      And burbled as it came!
One, two! One, two! And through and through
      The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
      He went galumphing back.
“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
      Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
      He chortled in his joy.
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.
While it may seem like nonsense words, Carroll had specific meanings in mind for some of them, which he has Humpty Dumpty explain.  Some are portmanteau words, some are variations or derivations of normal words and some are whimsys.  Here is Humpty’s explanations.
  • “Brillig”: four o’clock in the afternoon — the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.
  • “Slithy”: lithe and slimy. ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active’.
  • “Toves”: curious creatures that are something like badgers, something like lizards, and something like corkscrews. They make their nests under sun-dials and live on cheese.
  • “To gyre”: to go round and round like a gyroscope.
  • “To gimble”: to make holes like a gimblet.
  • “Wabe”: the grass-plot round a sun-dial. It is called like that because it goes a long way before it, and a long way behind it. And a long way beyond it on each side.
  • “Mimsy”: flimsy and miserable
  • “Borogove”: a thin shabby-looking bird with its feathers sticking out all round; something like a live mop.
  • “Mome rath”: a ‘rath’ is a sort of green pig. Humpty Dumpty is not certain about the meaning of ‘mome’, but thinks it’s short for “from home”; meaning that they’d lost their way.
  • “To outgrabe”: ‘outgribing’ is something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle.

The question I posit is that, even without an explanation of the words, do you understand the action, the basic concept?  The words bring images to mind, perhaps a little different for each reader.  Vorpal sword.  Manxome foe.  Uffish thought.  Snicker-snack.  Beamish boy.  You get a feeling for the intent without fully understanding the meaning.  It is a masterful stroke of lexical lightheartedness.

Cheshire Cat Pheline Philosopher or Feline Filosofer?

Cheshire Cat
Pheline Philosopher or
Feline Filosofer?

I tend to menander (mentally wander) a bit, so I will close with another favorite of mine, the Cheshire cat from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  He explains to Alice why he is mad.

“And how do you know that you’re mad?”    “To begin with,” said the Cat, “a dog’s not mad. You grant that?”                                   I suppose so, said Alice.                        “Well then,” the Cat went on, “you see a dog growls when it’s angry, and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad.”

In other words, madness (insanity, not anger) is going against expected behavior, not diminished mental capabilities.  By such a standard, I am happily mad. When Alice asks him which road to take, he gives her another delightfully illogically logical answer that pretty much sums up the way many live their lives.

Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, who was sitting in a tree, “What road do I take?”
The cat asked, “Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know,” Alice answered.
“Then,” said the cat, “it really doesn’t matter, does it?”

Try explaining these concepts to an eight-year-old.  Yet an eight-year-old can enjoy Alice’s adventures without worrying about deeper meanings.  That is the genius of Lewis Carroll.  Happy birthday, Alice.  You look marvetastic.

 

King of Mann

Since my last entry, I watched the latest Suddenly Royal episode and had to fire another salvo.  His Royal Buffooness has kept up the pace, I’ll say that.  First he smokes the clutch on a motorhome he rents in what looks like the first few miles.  The motorhome looked fairly new, so the clutch would have been, too.  He should have let his wife drive if he’s so incompetent with a manual transmission.  I wonder who has to pay for repairs.  That, however, was not what really irritated me.  The two things that got to me were the TT Races and King Orry.

“King” Dave’s “royal secretary” Lord Kiss-up, I mean Kevin, tells KD (my new designation for “King” Dave) that he will have entry to the VIP hospitality suite for the hoi polloi because of his status.  Upon arrival, Lord K tells KD that it fell through at the last minute, hinting that it was a plot against his kingship.  KD notes a security person that would keep him out.  Bull.  Anyone can get into the VIP suite who buys the VIP Club package.  (Click here for the one for the race KD went to)  Either Lord K was too cheap to buy the ticket, they were sold out or TLC thought it would be dramatic.  Perhaps all three.  As a consolation, KD gets to ride in a car with a professional stunt driver at high speed around the TT course.  Anyone can do that when the races aren’t being run for the day and, with no speed limits unless posted, it’s legal to go as fast as you want in sections.  I drove it in my ’63 Vette at some pretty high speeds when I lived there, so I know.  Since the Manx have a rigorous driver’s test (17% pass rate, including retests, when I took mine and passed on the first go) and traffic laws (there will always be a ticket for an accident, since someone was driving unsafely), they have surprisingly few accidents.  Notice that KD didn’t drive.  I guess TLC learned his competency with the motorhome incident.  Also notice he did not go with a TT racer.  They have sidecar racers, but they didn’t have KD ride on one of those bikes, probably for the same reason.

King Orry

King Orry

Then came KD’s trip to King Orry’s grave to honor his ancestor.  His ancestor?  I thought he was related to an English Earl, not a Celtic-Norse king.  And a semi-legendary one at that.  I wonder how he did that genealogy.  Then KD identifies King Orry as Godred Haroldson (as is speculated by a few historians), but A.W. Moore, in his authoritative A History of the Isle of Man, does not.  I suppose a king doesn’t need to read the history of his kingdom any more than he needs to prove his lineage.  Since KD can claim to be descended from a legendary king without proof, I can now reveal that I am descended from King Arthur and want my kingdom, too.  Prove I’m wrong.

Queen Elizabeth II, "nobility within the Royal House of Mann" according to "King" David

Queen Elizabeth II is “nobility within the Royal House of Mann” according to “King” David

However, what really frosted my corn flakes was when I stumbled upon his website, http://www.kingdomofmann.org/   It deserves a full broadside.  Here’s a direct quote: The dynastic Royal House of Mann has legalized status and recognition as an autonomous part of the United Kingdom constitutional monarchy system, by royal assent and proclamation of Queen Elizabeth II in 2007, having binding effect by force of law. It was legalized as the “Independent Kingdom of Mann”, establishing and confirming it as a separate historical institution with its own sovereignty, that predates the UK system.   Let’s study this claim.  First, when did the Queen give royal assent and proclamation about KD’s claim?  He posted it in the London Gazette (not owned by the Queen, as stated in the show) and no one responded.  That doesn’t make it a legitimate claim.  The Queen doesn’t create monarchies and if she responded to every wack job that made claims of royalty, nobility, etc., it would lend them a legitimacy that they don’t have.  Better to ignore the little pests and let them fade away, as so many do.  There is no “binding force of law” here.  Where did KD come up with that?  It surely wasn’t from the Manx people.  The House of Keys (Manx elected parliament) has confirmed that the Queen is the Lord of Man and that there is no king!  For him to claim to be king is to go against the will of the very people he claims kingship over.  Perhaps the Manx need to handle this unwanted king the way the French handled Louis XVI.  He also mentions that the Kingdom of Mann predates the UK (United Kingdom).  So what?  The kingdoms of Scotland, Ireland and Wales also did.  That has nothing to do with anything.  The Isle of Man is not and never was a part of the UK, but is a Crown Dependency.  It has no more ever been a part of the UK than the USA was.  This paragraph shows that KD doesn’t even know the governmental status of the Isle of which he claims to be king.  I could go on about this joke of a website, but suffice it to say it is all as ignorant as that example paragraph.

One parting shot at the website is an official-looking UN logo and text on the right side that says, “The Dynastic Royal House of HRH Prince David, King of Mann, is recognized and supported by United Nations (UN) Non Governmental Organizations (NGO)”  The NGO listings include organizations like Baha’i International Community, The Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and World Young Women’s Christian Association, to name just a few, but has nothing to do with governments (as noted in its name).  So what that has to do with KD’s claim, I have no idea.  However, I went to the list and The Dynastic Royal House of HRH Prince David, King of Mann was not on it!  Click here to see for yourself.  Making false claims is not nice.  But then, that seems the modus operandi of KD.  I suppose he never expected to have anyone actually check him out.

 

 

Magna Carta

King John signs the Magna Carta

King John signs the Magna Carta

The Magna Carta was signed by the wicked King John on June 15th, 1215, and it is having its 800th birthday this year.  Why is that important?  Because the Magna Carta is kind of the same as our Declaration of Independence and our Bill of Rights, establishing the rights of the people in England, right?  Aside from using the word “right” too often, that sentence has a serious problem.  The Magna Carta Libertatum, or Great Charter of  the Liberties, said little regarding the rights of all of the people.  Only in sections 15, 20, 27 and 39 are “freemen” directly named (more here).  Serfs, of course, are not. Then again, neither are black slaves in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, except for how many representatives slave states may send to Congress.  Neither serfs nor slaves had rights in any of these documents.  What was addressed in the Magna Carta?  A group of powerful barons (the 1% of their day) had a number of beefs with King John and were in revolt.  This was, in effect, a peace treaty offered to John with a threat dangling overhead like the sword of Damocles.  A number of the sections in the Magna Carta had to do with inheritance, keeping the king from plundering estates of dead nobles.  Others dealt with legal rights and the church’s standing.  However, some of the more interesting sections deal with removing relatives of Gerard de Athyes from positions of authority and freeing the son of Llewellyn and all the Welsh hostages.  Ever heard of Gerard de Athyes?  Obviously, it was meant to address immediate complaints as well as general principles.  Yet it is considered a milestone of contractual government.  Why?

Robin Hood.  Original artwork for Look and Learn (issue yet to be identified).

Robin Hood, real or not.

At the time the barons met with King John (yes, the bad guy who didn’t get along well with Robin Hood) on the Runnymede meadow, the concept of “divine right” was strongly ingrained in kings and, they hoped, the people.  After Charlemagne was crowned by  Pope Leo II, the king was seen as anointed by God.  At least by the kings.  As such, to revolt against him was to revolt against God.  Not a good idea.  Yet revolts happened.  Either there were those who did not recognize a king’s divine right or they were willing to risk the wrath of God for gain on Earth.  If the papacy also had an issue with a king, divine right became a non-issue.  Such was the case with poor King John.  In fact, the highest ecclesiastical authority in England, Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, is said to have written the original Magna Carta.  However, things soon went south for the barons.  After a dispute with Pope Innocent III a couple of years before, John had surrendered England to the papacy as a feudal holding.  In other words, the Pope was John’s liege lord.  Wily John contacted Pope Innocent III about this charter and the Pope, seeing it as an infringement on his authority, declared it “null and void of all validity for ever.”

Magna Carta Libertatum

Magna Carta Libertatum

Yet, we have the Magna Carta around to this day.  During a war with King John against his barons in which they offered the throne to French Prince Louis, John died of dysentery, or severe diarrhea.  You might say he had the crap kicked out of him.  His son, Henry III, agreed to the basic terms of the Magna Carta.  Although it went through a few other revisions in the next few years, it survived to this day. Three sections still ring true: the ban on cruel and unusual punishments, trial by a jury of one’s peers and the idea that justice should not be sold or unnecessarily delayed.  Why is that so important?

The key issue here is the authority of a government.  Does God (or Allah) appoint a ruler who can do what he wants with impunity?  Or does a governing person or body rule with the consent of those governed?  The Magna Carta, in effect, says, “There is a contract between the ruler and those who are ruled.  Unless the conditions agreed upon by those being ruled are followed, that contract is null and void.”  It was an agreement between those ruled and those who rule.  It was, in a very real sense, the precursor of John Locke’s Social Contract, a theory that was a key part of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and the founding of the United States of America.

On the 800th anniversary of the first signing of the Magna Carta, let us remember the main points: the ultimate authority is with those governed, we allow others to run the government and can rescind that power at any time, and no man is above the will of the people or has authority to act with impunity.

Battle of New Orleans

John Cherry?

Did Great-great-great-great Grandpa John Cherry look like this?

In 1959, Johnny Horton sang a song entitled “The Battle of New Orleans.”  (click here to listen) In it, he told of going with Colonel Jackson down the “Mighty Mississip” in 1814.  While this might have been true as far as the date of the trip, the battle did not take place until January 8, 1815, and this year is its bicentennial anniversary.  It should be noted that Andrew Jackson was actually a major general both in the Tennessee Militia and the U.S. Army by then.  There are two things I find very interesting about this battle, the most famous American victory in the War of 1812: first is that my direct ancestor, John Cherry, served in the battle with the 2nd Regiment of the West Tennessee Mounted Gunmen under “Old Hickory” and the other is that the battle had no affect on the outcome of the war.

Let’s address the first interesting point, well, first.  Although I have had ancestors serve in the Revolutionary War (yes, I could be a Son of the American Revolution, if I wanted to take the time and effort), the War of 1812 and the Civil War (on both sides, no less), the only one who bore the Cherry name was John.  The Tennessee Mounted Gunmen were militiamen, not regular army, and knew Jackson very well.  In 1812, he had led them in an aborted attempt to shore up the defenses of New Orleans (a major port and the defender of the Mississippi River artery), but had to turn back when Congress refused to fund the operation (Congress has always shown such great wisdom).  After the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, where Jackson defeated the “Red Stick” Creeks, he was made a major general in the U.S. Army, as well as the commander of the Seventh Military District, which included New Orleans.  And so, in 1814, he took a little trip with the militias from Kentucky and Tennessee.  That included Great-great-great-great Grandpa John Cherry.

Major General Andrew Jackson

Major General Andrew Jackson

The British Navy sailed into the Gulf of Mexico on December 12, 1814, and easily swept aside a makeshift American fleet.  They landed troops and made camp.  After a night attack by Jackson on the 23rd, the British realized that taking New Orleans might be more of a challenge than the sacking of Washington earlier that year.  The British commander, General Pakenham, decided to slow his advance and to do a reconnaissance-in-force to assess the American position.  This gave much needed time for Jackson to prepare his defenses.  He set up eight batteries with twelve cannons and had his men prepare their earthwork defenses.  Records state that Jackson had 4,732 men comprised of 968 US Army regulars, 58 US Marines, 106 US Navy seamen, 1,060 Louisiana Militia and volunteers (of those, 400 to 600 were free Blacks), 1,352 Tennessee Militia (one of whom was John Cherry), 986 Kentucky Militia, and 150 Mississippi Militia.  There were also 52 Choctows (traditional enemies of the British Creek allies), along with an unknown number of men supplied by Jean Lafitte.

Jean Lafitte Pirate, Patriot or Both?

Jean Lafitte
Pirate, Patriot or Both?

An interesting side note on the the pirate and smuggler, Jean Lafitte, is that the British had tried to woo him to support them.  The Americans had even attacked him to prevent him from helping the British, seizing property, ships and men.  Lafitte had not put up a fight.  He was charged with abetting piracy, but he then offered Louisiana’s Governor Claiborne his assistance in fighting the British and the governor sent word to Jackson.  Jackson replied, “I ask you, Louisianans, can we place any confidence in the honor of men who have courted an alliance with pirates and robbers?”  Nonetheless, Lafitte and his men manned American batteries and served on U.S. ships during the battle.  In fact, they fought so well that Jackson commended them and they received pardons.  Unfortunately, this leopard could not change his spots and spent his life oft overstepping the piracy and smuggling laws.  He normally tried to get letters of mark so that he was a legitimate privateer, but did fudge on that.  He died in 1823 attacking what he believed to be Spanish merchant vessels off the coast of Honduras.  They were actually either well-armed privateers or warships.  It is worth noting that he never attacked American vessels and even escorted them safely through dangerous waters at times.  Whether he fought for the Americans out of loyalty to America, hatred of the British or just out of pragmatism we will never know, but I like to think it was for the first reason.

Battle of New Orleans

Battle of New Orleans, with artistic license

The battle has been covered in detail by many sources, including Wikipedia (click here).  In summary, Pakenham’s 8000 men, although outnumbering the Americans, were delayed almost twelve hours in their “dawn” attack.  They suffered under the American artillery barrages (although there is no record of an alligator being used in place of a cannon, as related in Johnny Horton’s song), then hit withering fire from the muskets and rifles.  Since American forces were mainly militiamen, they did not have the inaccurate smoothbores, but rifles (called squirrel guns in the song).  Known as Kentucky long rifles (although not made there), they were accurate for up to over 200 yards, twice that of a musket.  Although they were slower to load and could not mount a bayonet, they were great for men sitting “behind cotton bales” and picking off British soldiers.  Although the British did push back the Americans in the west, their main attacks were thrown back with heavy losses.   When the battle was over, three British generals (including Pakenham) and eight colonels were among the 251 British killed. 1,259 were wounded and 484 were missing in the battle. The Americans lost a total of 11 men and 23 wounded, with no major officers in that number.  It was the greatest American victory of the war.  Or was it?

Here comes the second interesting point: the war was already over.  On December 24, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent had been signed in Belgium.  However, there was no telephone to send the word to the armies.  In fact, the Senate did not ratify it until February 18, 1815, for the simple reason that they did not have a copy to do so.  So the battle had no effect on the outcome of the war.  Save one.  It restored national pride, giving Americans a land battle in which they could celebrate.  The outnumbered American militiamen had righteously “whupped” some of the best professional soldiers in the world.  The battle also created an American hero that came only second to George Washington in the eyes of the people: Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Johnny Horton April 30, 1925 – November 5, 1960

Johnny Horton                       April 30, 1925 – November 5, 1960

An amusing side note is that Johnny Horton found that “The Battle of New Orleans” was not selling very well in the British Isles.  Wonder why?  So he was convinced to make a different version with a different take on the battle, one more British biased.  (click here)  While Johnny was not anti-British (his song “Sink the Bismark” proves that), he should have left well enough alone.  This  revisionist version of the battle just doesn’t work.  Sadly, Johnny died in an auto accident after four short years of hits.  His rockabilly songs and historical ballads are still played and enjoyed by people like me.  Thanks to Youtube, they live on.

 

Christmas Truce

French Soldiers Marching to War

French Soldiers Marching to War

When the “War to End All Wars” began in August, a hundred years ago, governments on both sides were so sure of a quick victory that they assured their soldiers that they would be home by Christmas.  As a line of opposing trenches stretched from the English Channel to the Alps and men settled into living ankle-deep in mud and futile, suicidal attacks against entrenched riflemen, machine guns and cannons, the men soon realized it to be a vain hope.  Both sides were too strong and too determined for the war to have a quick conclusion.  Christmas would be spent in the trenches, with rats and trench foot instead of reindeer and stockings for Santa.

Washington Crossing the Delaware- He Well Might Have Been Standing in the Flat-Bottomed Boat

Washington Crossing the Delaware on Christmas night – He well might have been standing in the flat-bottomed boat.

The First World War was different from previous wars in so many ways.  Killing was much more efficient, with machine guns and monstrous cannons.  It was truly the birth of mechanized warfare, with trucks for transportation, airplanes for bombing and tanks for driving over the top of infantrymen.  And it spelled the end of armies going into winter quarters.  Up until the end of the nineteenth century, armies would have an unspoken truce during the harsh months of winter.  It was due to the impassable roads and difficulty of moving and provisioning of the troops in those conditions rather than compassion for the troops.  The men would usually be housed in rude cabins, where they would spend Christmas in time of war.  That is why George Washington’s attack on Trenton on the 26th of December in 1776 was such a surprise to the Hessians; he attacked in weather not considered suitable for military maneuvers.  While the mechanization of the armies did not eliminate those problems, it reduced them enough that there was no pause in the fighting for winter.  Christmas in 1914, the first of the war, would be spent in the muddy, cold trenches.

German Postcard from World War I

German Postcard from World War I

In an effort to to alleviate the misery of Christmas in the trenches, both the British and German governments sent packages and cards to their troops.  The Germans also received small Christmas trees with candle-lit lanterns.  In Germany, the main Christmas celebration is on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day.  So the German troops lighted their lanterns and set the trees in front of their trenches, then started singing Christmas carols.  Since there had been a sudden frost, the landscape had a cover of white, like snow-frosted Christmases back home for both sides.  Understand that in many places the opposing trenches were so close that the soldiers had often yelled taunts at each other in the months before.  Now the lights and music of Christmas wafted across the war-torn terrain.  Since these were predominately men who were Christians and might even have visited each others’ countries before the war, no doubt the soldiers began to think that it was not right to kill each other on such a holy day.  They started singing the carols together.  They started calling to each other, with well-wishing rather than taunts.  Then, on Christmas morning, something most unusual happened.  In a number of places, the shooting did not resume with the daybreak.  An ad-hoc truce had started.

Private H. Scrutton of the Essex Regiment described it this way: “As I told you before our trenches are only 30 or 40 yards away from the Germans. This led to an exciting incident the other day. Our fellows have been in the habit of shouting across to the enemy and we used to get answers from them.  We were told to get into conversation with them and this is what happened:-
From out trenches: “Good morning Fritz.” (No answer).
“Good morning Fritz.” (Still no answer).
“GOOD MORNING FRITZ.”
From German trenches: “Good morning.”
From our trench: “How are you?”
“All right.”
“Come over here, Fritz.”
“No. If I come I get shot.”
“No you won’t. Come on.”
“No fear.”
“Come and get some fags, Fritz.”
“No. You come half way and I meet you.”
“All right.”
One of our fellows thereupon stuffed his pocket with fags and got over the trench. The German got over his trench, and right enough they met half way and shook hands, Fritz taking the fags and giving cheese in exchange.”

Rifleman C. H. Brazier of the Queen’s Westminsters, of Bishop’s Stortford, described what happened to him in this way: “You will no doubt be surprised to hear that we spent our Christmas in the trenches after all and that Christmas Day was a very happy one. On Christmas Eve the Germans entrenched opposite us began calling out to us, ‘Cigarettes’, ‘Pudding’, ‘A Happy Christmas’ and ‘English – means good’, so two of our fellows climbed over the parapet of the trench and went towards the German trenches. Half-way they were met by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows. I got one of them to write his name and address on a postcard as a souvenir. All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us and one played ‘God Save the King’ on a mouth organ”

Sharing a Truce Cigarette

Sharing a Truce Cigarette

This was not planned.  There was no coordination to the truce.  It was not universal.  In some places, the firing continued and men died.  Germany had been a united country less than 50 years and not all German troops reacted the same way.  In one location, the British who came out of their trenches were fired upon by Prussian troops (much more regimented and militaristic than other Germans) and a couple were killed.  However, some Saxon troops near them threatened to shoot them and they stopped.  The Saxons even ventured out to put up a table to host their British enemies.  During Christmas Day, many locations down the line had an unofficial truce.  Hymns, carols and other songs were sung by the soldiers from both sides.  Souvenirs, food, tobacco and stories were shared.  Footballs (soccer balls) appeared and were kicked around.  There was even time to bury the dead who had fallen in no-man’s land, where trying to reach them would have meant almost certain death.

All too soon, the day of celebration was over and the killing began again.  On the same land where the day before soldiers had shared food, stories and bon humour, men were again mowed down by machine guns.  Although the top brass tried to stifle news of the 1914 Christmas Truce, censorship had not yet been formalized and stories leaked out to the general public from soldiers’ letters home.   However, as the war and killing ground on, the Truce was all but forgotten and never happened again.

Sainsbury TV Ad

Sainsbury TV Ad

Although briefly depicted in a couple of movies, the 2005 movie “Joyeux Noël” was devoted to the Christmas Truce and was shown at the Cannes Film Festival that year.  Now, on the centennial of that truce, Sainsbury supermarkets has made a TV ad depicting it, including the British Tommy handing a Sainsbury chocolate bar to his German counterpart (click here).  While some have claimed that this is blatant commercialism, at least it brings to light this most unusual event.  In doing so, it gives food for thought.  As a Highland Regiment officer wrote in The Times in 1915:  “It is a great hope for future peace when two great nations hating each other as foes have seldom hated, one side vowing eternal hate and vengeance and setting their venom to music, should on Christmas day and for all that the word implies, lay down their arms, exchange smokes and wish each other happiness.”

 

Word-Cross or Crossword Puzzles

The Mother of all Addictions -Crossword, that it.  December 13, 1913

The Mother of all Addictions -the Crossword one, that is. December 13, 1913

My name is R.L. Cherry and I am an addict. If I go too many days without my crossword puzzle, I break into a cold sweat and become disoriented. A pun clue for disoriented would be someone who emigrates from China to the USA. Sorry, I couldn’t help it. Too many crossword puzzles. I blame my condition on Arthur Wynne, an Englishman whose first “word-cross” puzzle appeared in the New York World on December 13, 1913. He is generally considered to have created the first form of this addictive pastime, but some dispute this. Yeah, I know I should have written this on the centennial of that date, but I was not aware of this fact until recently. Art’s puzzle was diamond shaped instead of the current standard square and had no blacked-out spaces, but the genie was out of the bottle and, like crack cocaine, soon had unsuspecting puzzlers addicted. Fortunately for people like me, it does not destroy body and mind like cocaine, just takes control of them. Wynne and the World were sole suppliers until the Boston Globe took a piece of the action in 1917. By the Roaring Twenties, the nation was hooked on “cross-word” puzzles. Interestingly enough, The New York Times, which now publishes the acme of American crossword puzzles, wrote in the 1920’s that they were a “sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex. This is not a game at all, and it hardly can be called a sport . . . [solvers] get nothing out of it except a primitive form of mental exercise, and success or failure in any given attempt is equally irrelevant to mental development.” They did not include them in their paper until 1942. English newspapers held firm against the onslaught until 1930, when the Times succumbed. British crossword puzzles are quite different however, from the ones on this side of the Pond. And the rest is history. Well, all of that was history, too.

My personal story began in the 1980’s. I was pretty much puzzle-free for most of my life. Sure, there was the occasional experimentation in my youth. Most people do, right? They just never admit it. Anyway, a woman who was a secretary at our business offered me a puzzle from the local paper, the San Bernardino then-named Sun Telegram. How often does it start that way, a friend saying, “Just try it. You can walk away any time you want to.” It was an entry-level puzzle, not the hard stuff. I remember when I had the clue of “a Malaysian canoe.” The answer, of course, was a proa. I said, “Not fair. Who ever heard of a ‘proa’?” I should have walked away then, seen that this could not end well. Instead, soon the Sun Telegram no longer gave me the thrill I needed. I progressed to the Los Angeles Times and, finally, to the real hard stuff, the New York Times. Sure, I occasionally dabbled in the Boston Globe’s and the San Francisco Examiner’s offerings, but they were just diversions, not completely satisfying. New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz became my main supplier, giving me the stuff that I needed. I was happy, at least for the time it took to finish my morning puzzle. Then I moved to the Isle of Man in the British Isles.

British Crossword Puzzle

British Crossword Puzzle                            For the solution to this puzzle, click here

Crossword puzzle withdrawal is not a pretty sight. The sufferer often finds him or herself rooting through old newspapers and books for a hidden puzzle. Sleep is difficult, often interrupted with visions of grids and clues. Fortunately, I found the British version. It is much different from the American one. As you can see by the example here, they have fewer crossing of letters and fewer words in the grid, making it necessary to solve each clue without the help of the crossing words for other clues. They make extensive use of puns and word play. The clues normally have two parts, one a more direct hint and the other more obscure. The solver must completely immerse oneself in that thought pattern. If you have read my book, Christmas Cracker, you experienced one when Morg encounters the diabolical British crossword puzzle in the course of solving a mystery. Often I would not solve the puzzle in one day, but would clip it out to finish it the next day. But the next day had a new one, adding to the pile. I became frantic, trying to complete puzzles days old while not finishing the current one. I was in serious danger of O.D.ing on words when we moved back to America.

I now have my habit under control. I can do my crossword in the morning, then have a normal life for the rest of the day. The only problems are Monday and Tuesday. Will Shortz starts the week (Monday) with an easy one, steadily making them more difficult each day until nirvana on Saturday. Sunday’s puzzle is large and difficult enough to give a thrill. But Monday and Tuesday’s are just too easy. There is no high in finishing them. I avoid them, knowing that they will only leave me with a craving for the harder stuff. But I endure it. I’m tough. Wait, is that a crossword puzzle from the Times that I never worked? Give it to me! You value that hand, give it to me now!

My Corpse, My Corpse, a Compromise for My Corpse

 

Richard III No Coward in Battle

Richard III
No Coward in Battle

Before I make my compromise proposal, I will give a recap of my post back in August of last year.  I wrote about the legal battle over the skeleton of Richard III, who  had been killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field, near Leicester, while battling Henry Tudor (soon to be Henry VII) in 1485.  His mutilated body was buried in a graveyard in the Greyfriars church in Leicester (no cathedral burial for Richard).  When Henry VIII disbanded the monasteries, the friary was seized and sold.  Eventually, poor Richard’s grave was destroyed and forgotten.  Sic transit gloria.

 

 

Richard III's Bones

Richard III’s Bones

Vilified by Shakespeare’s masterful propaganda piece, Richard III, as a man of a twisted body, mind and soul, he came to be considered the epitome of cruel, ruthless ambition.  However, in the last century several groups were formed to promote a more sympathetic view of Richard.  In 2011, the oldest one, the Richard III Society, began a search and, eventually, found Richard under a green 1987 Mini Cooper.  Well, not exactly, but he had been paved over for a parking lot, so he might have been under one at some point.  Anyway, the government, Leicester City Council, the University of Leicester, Leicester Cathedral, York Minster, and the Richard III Society all agreed to let Richard lie in Leicester Cathedral.  He was even to get a table tomb, like many more beloved English monarchs.  It looked like Richard might rest in peace.

The Broom Plant a.k.a Genista

The Broom Plant
a.k.a Genista

Enter the Plantagenet Alliance.  The word Plantagenet evidently was a nickname given to Geoffrey of Anjou because he wore a sprig of the broom plant (genista) in his bonnet, planted brooms to provide cover for his hunting grounds or for some unknown reason lost in the mists of time.  Not long after he went to the happy hunting grounds, his son became Henry II of England in 1154.  Three centuries later, Richard, Duke of York, called himself Richard Plantaginet (sic) when he took the throne and was the last Plantagenet king.  After Richard was disinterred in 2012, some fifteen collateral descendants (not direct-line, but from a relative) formed the Plantagenet Alliance to stop the Leicester contingent from having his bones.  (Too bad Geoffrey hadn’t been nicknamed Broom.  The Broom Alliance would have been funnier).  The Alliance said they should decide and York Minster was their choice.  Other proposals cropped up, including Westminster Abbey and the Worksop Priory Church.  That last, little-known place was proposed by the MP from that region, claiming it was a good compromise because it was located halfway between Leicester and York.  I’m sure it had nothing to do with the expected £4,000,000 in tourist revenues from Richard’s bones.  The courts recently ruled that Richard would stay in Leicester, saying that there was “no direct evidence of any definitive wishes expressed by Richard III as to his place of burial.”  The Alliance is threatening an appeal.  The Mayor of Leicester has said, “Those bones leave Leicester over my dead body.”  Lawyers’ fees could outstrip tourist revenue if something is not done.  So I have a proposal: divvy Richard up.

Many saints of the church have a bone here and another one there, known as relics and often stored in a fancy container known as a reliquary.  Take ST_OSWALDSt. Oswald, a sanctified king of 7th century Northumbria.  Originally buried at Bardney Abbey, three of his bones are still there, or so they say.  Peterborough Cathedral claims an arm and monasaries across England (Bath, Glastonbury, Reading, St. Albans, Christchurch (Hants), Tynemouth and York) say they have a bone or two.  Hildesheim, Germany, built a shrine that supposedly houses his head,  All of these locations got some play from the pilgrimage crowd.  Many others, including St. Andrew, St. Paul, and St. Thomas á Becket, are scattered as well.  Why not Richard?  While I would not call Richard a saint (all indicators point to him having killed his young nephews for the throne and had at least a couple of affairs), it would end the legal haggling and expenses of those involved to follow those precedents.  Put his rib cage (heart) in Westminster Abbey, near his wife Anne Neville.  His head (brain) should go to York, where he plotted his rise to power.  His pelvis is a different matter.  He had two, maybe three, illegitimate children of unknown mothers.  Since John of Gloucester was the most famous one, let Gloucester Cathedral have his pelvis until better claimants arise.  As for the rest of his bones, bury them at Leicester.  Well, except for his right hand.  I’m sure Richard would want that to go to St. George’s Chapel in Windsor, in front of the tomb of Henry VII, middle pointing skyward.

 “As long as I don’t get covered too much in egg and tomato I’ll be all right.”

“As long as I don’t get covered too much in egg and tomato I’ll be all right.”

To date, the royals have abstained from  commenting on where should Richard’s final resting place should be.  I suppose they feel they have had enough embarrassment in the press for verbal faux pas in the past and are lying low.  But now is the time to act, before the nation descends into a civil war to rival the so-called War of the Roses.  Send Richard’s bones to be ambassadors of good will and financial gain to the far regions of England.  I know he would have a good laugh about that.

My Corpse, My Corpse, a Lawsuit for My Corpse

Shakespeare's Richard III

Shakespeare’s
Richard III

In Shakespeare’s Richard III, the last Plantagenet king is an ambitious, heartless and scheming hunchback.  As Richard of York, he marries Anne Neville, saying he will get rid of her when she has served her purpose (provided him a wealthy estate).  He murders a number of people, including his brother Clarence and his two nephews, sons of the deceased Edward IV.  Unhorsed in the final act at the Battle of Bosworth, he cries in despair, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.”  He is slain and the first of the Tudors, Henry VII, takes the throne.  If this were an oater, Richard would wear a black hat and Henry Tudor a white one.

Real life was not very kind to the dead king.  He was so despised by the victors of the battle that his body was mutilated and defiled before being dumped into a shallow grave at a friary in Leicester, the Church of the Grey Friars.  Years later the friary was destroyed under the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII (son of Richard’s bane) and an outhouse later became the new neighbor of Richard’s grave.  Henry Tudor would have appreciated that.  Then the University of Leicester, the city of Leicester and the Richard III Society (who have long contended that Richard got a raw deal in life and in history) started a search for poor Richard (no relation to the almanac by Ben Franklin) and announced on September 12, 2012 that they had found his remains under a parking lot.  After making a study of his bones (all that was left), they would re-bury him in Leicester Cathedral with pomp, circumstance and a 1.6 million dollar monument and museum about him.  So Richard will soon rest in glory (deserved or not) in Leicester Cathedral, right?  Well, maybe not.  Richard seems to be involved in as many battles in death as he was in life.

Richard III's bones Note the scoliosis

Richard III’s bones
Note the scoliosis

It seems that some descendants of Richard in the Plantagenet Alliance have a bone to pick with the Leicester group.  They claim dibs on Richard’s ribcage and all his other ossien remains, wanting them buried in York Minster.  Although one court has ruled in favor of Leicester, another has allowed the Plantagenet Alliance’s suit filed this month to proceed against Leicester’s claim.  Although Justice Haddon-Cave has warned both sides against having this become a “War of the Roses Part Two” (referring to the decades-long feud between the rival Plantagenet branches of York and Lancaster that was ended when Richard was killed and the Tudors ran away with the crown),  they are going after poor Richard like two dogs after a bone.  Or bones.  (Click here)

Richard III

Richard III

So, was Richard really the villain portrayed by Shakespeare?  If not, why did the Immortal Bard make him such a misshapen cad?  The answer to the first question will vary from historian to historian, but the current view is that he was a pretty good king, initiating some legal reforms and dealing fairly with the people (the commons).  Even a number of Tudor toadies who later called him evil wrote of his legal fairness. On the charge of murdering his brother, Clarence, I find him innocent.  Clarence was mentally unhinged and plotted against his brother, King Edward IV.  It was the king who prosecuted him and had him privately executed, although we may never know if he was really drowned in a vat of malmsey (wine) as legend has it.  Did he kill his nephews, the twelve-year-old Edward V and the nine-year-old Richard?  Probably.  They were all that stood between Richard and the throne he wanted, and disappeared while under his care.  Whether they were the skeletons found in the Tower of London in 1674 or not, we may never know.  Some claim Henry VII eliminated them in the manner the Tudors eliminated all possible claimants of the throne, but the lads disappeared before Henry grabbed Richard’s crown.  If Richard did have the lads killed, it was a dastardly deed.  But they were dastardly times.  Was Richard the hunchback with a withered arm of Shakespeare’s play?  Highly unlikely.  He was tall and fought valiantly in many battles.  When he was struck down at Bosworth, he was charging at Henry Tudor to fight him mano a mano.  History probably would have been changed if he had succeeded, since Henry was no warrior.  Richard’s bones do indicate severe scoliosis, which would have made his right shoulder higher than his left, (click here) but no hunchback and it never stopped him from being in the thick of the battle.  So why did Shakespeare make Richard so unsympathetic?  Maybe a bit of kissing up and maybe a bit of self-preservation.

Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas More

Anyone who criticized the Tudors when they were in power would end up in the tower or under the executioner’s axe.  Thomas More, a “friend” of Henry VIII and loyal subject to him, ended up a bit shorter and dead when he refused to acknowledge Henry as the head of the church in England instead of the Pope.  What better way to endear himself to the Tudor Queen Elizabeth I than to vilify the man from whom her ancestor seized the crown?  The nastier he could make Richard the better.  Forget all those the Tudors killed to get and  keep the crown, make Richard the ultimate bad guy.  And the propaganda worked. To this day, Richard III is synonymous with twisted evil both in body and in soul.

William Shakespeare- Tudor toadie?

William Shakespeare-
Tudor toadie?

With a new battle looming, one of suits and torts instead of swords and shields, maybe Richard would have rested more in peace if he had been left under the asphalt of the parking lot.  Shakespeare’s grave in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, has this inscription:

Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forebeare
To digg the dust enclosed heare;
Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones

Too bad he never wrote such an epitaph for Richard.