Daylight Savings Time- The Big Fraud

Is time real or not?

While anyone who reads my blog knows, I’m not a conspiracy theorist.  But there is one conspiracy, one built on money and myth, that I want to expose.  It’s Daylight Savings Time- The Big Fraud.  Every year, we set our clocks forward or back in an effort to pretend that time is relative.  I’m not writing about how when it’s noon in New York, it’s 9:00 a.m. in Los Angeles.  That is a constant, something determined by location, and not something changed at the whim of some legislators.  But when the sun is directly overhead, it’s always high noon, right?  Wrong.  It’s 11:00 a.m. real time when observing daylight savings time.  But why this pretense?  Why pretend the time is not what it is?  The argument is that it saves energy, but I will show that it is a dated and invalid one.  Plus, the negative affects are often ignored.  I won’t do that.

Ben Franklin-
A smart man with a dumb idea

It started with Benjamin Franklin.  He was awakened by a noise at 6:00 a.m. one April morning in Paris and was surprised to see that the sun was giving light to the day.  Being  that he was 78 years old at the time and a scientist, I do find this rather surprising.  However, as the “penny saved is a penny earned” guy, he decided that a lot of money spent on candles could be saved if the work day started earlier and ended earlier instead of working after dark.  He proposed having this happen from March 20th to September 20th.  Since Parisians then usually started the work day at noon and continued until late at night, he calculated a large savings.  He wrote, “For the great benefit of this discovery, thus freely communicated and bestowed by me on the public, I demand neither place, pension, exclusive privilege, nor any other reward whatever.  I expect only to have the honour of it.”  (click here for entire text)  Interestingly, he didn’t just propose people start work earlier and get off earlier in the spring and summer, a much simpler solution than messing with clocks.

No one tried messing with time until the Germans and the British started changing the clocks to save money used to light factories during World War I.  The British plan was to add 80 minutes, in four separate increments of 20 minutes each on four successive Sundays.  The first Sunday was May 21, 1916, and they termed the change Summer Time.  But it was not adopted in America.

Train Wrecks-
A good reason for standardizing time.

Originally, all times were local, established by sundials, rather than standardized.  That meant noon was different in towns not that far apart.  But it could be confusing.  Let’s say you were to meet someone at noon in a town a hundred miles away.  But was that noon your time or the other person’s time?  Since the distance usually was not only East-West or North-South, it would be difficult to know how much difference there was in time between the two.  This problem was exacerbated with trains whose arrival and departure times needed to be standardized for scheduling as well as for safety, so two trains didn’t hit head on because of time confusion.  So time zones were created.  With a small country like the United Kingdom, there was only one time zone, Greenwich Mean Time.  Established when Britannia ruled the waves, it became the reference point for time zones. But America was different, far too large for noon in New York to be noon in San Francisco and the railroads devised their own until 1884. That was when the International Meridian Conference met in Washington DC, and drew up time zones on the globe.  Although Greenwich was set as zero point, interestingly enough the French showed Paris as such on their maps until 1911.  Franco-Anglo rivalry has deep roots.  The U.S. government did not officially adopt the time zones until March 19, 1918.  At the same time, it established Daylight Saving Time (more commonly known as Daylight Savings Time) from the last Sunday in March until the last Sunday in October.

Factories in World War I-
The real reason for introducing DST

Daylight Savings Time was not popular in the U.S., but we entered the war on April 6, 1918, so the energy-saving advantages in that day gave a strong reason for it during wartime.  However, it was repealed when the war ended with enough voters in Congress to override President Wilson’s veto.  It became a local option.  A few major eastern cities and states kept the “spring forward, fall back” schedule, but most of the U.S. happily abandoned losing sleep for much of the year.  In 1942, it again became a federal law because of World War II, becoming optional again when it was over in 1945.  Once more, the local communities decided, with some cities and counties choosing to follow DST, while a neighboring ones might not.  Confusion reigned.  On a 35-mile stretch of Route 2 between Moundsville, W.V., and Steubenville, Ohio, there were seven time changes.  Imagine trying to set up a bus schedule of stops along that route!  The Uniform Time Act of 1966 made standardized times, including the Daylight Savings Time schedule from the last Sunday of April to the last Sunday of October, within each time zone.  Only states or territories could opt out of DST, not cities.  The ones to opt out were ones close to the equator, where the daylight hours were the most consistent through the year, which were Arizona, Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the United States Virgin Islands.

Waiting to get gas in 1973

In the name of energy savings, Congress has continued to mess with our clocks.  During the gas crunch of the 1970’s, it passed the Emergency Daylight Saving Time Energy Conservation Act of 1973, which greatly lengthened he duration of DST, first starting it on the first Sunday in January, then changing it to the last Sunday in February.  That act expired in 1975, however, Congress changed the start and stop dates to the first Sunday of April and to the last Sunday of October in 1986.  Not satisfied with just a little messing with our minds and time, in 2007 they went for the second Sunday in March to the first Sunday in November.  All these expansions of DST are based upon flawed information and assumptions.

Main user of energy according to 1975 study

A 1975 study by the Department of Transportation estimated that Daylight Savings Time saved about one percent on energy usage per day it was in effect.  This was based upon the premise that most of the electricity used was for lighting.  Even if that were true then, it is not now.  Air conditioning, televisions and other such high electricity usages don’t care whether the sun is shining or not.  In fact, making people get up before the sun is up, which often happens with DST, more than offsets any gains on the other end.  A study by the Department of Energy in 2008 concluded that any saving was negligible.  (click here for study)  In fact, another study by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2008 concluded that it was actually costing more to have DST.  (click here for study)   Yet, the 1975 DOT study continues to have the most sway.

Farmers work by the sun, not clocks

Another claim is that it helps farmers get more work time in the fields.  In fact, when the California Legislature scuttled efforts to end DST in 2017, that was one of the justifications.  My father, who was raised on a farm, thought that the farmer argument was laughable, something only a person who had never worked on a farm would say.  Farmers don’t work by the clock, he told me, they work by the sun.  Changing the clock only causes problems.  Because other business run by the clock, farmers are forced to start earlier, disrupting their established schedule to comply with those of trucking companies and such.  In fact, farmers were instrumental in getting DST revoked in 1919.  Alas, they are less of the voting population now and have far less clout.  As a side note, my father, who left the farm and  got a job at GE, had to get up at six every morning to go to work and DST forced him to get up before the sun for much of the year.

“At least I had another hour of daylight!”

A recent article in Forbes gave the five most common justifications for DST and why they are wrong.  (click here for article)  It would seem that the so-called pluses are “fake news.”  What about the negatives?  We humans do not like our sleep habits changed.  Although there are conflicting studies regarding auto accidents and fatalities, with increases right after time changes well established, pedestrian fatalities also take a sharp uptick, as much as triple in some areas.  School children are very much at risk since when the change occurs, they are sometimes waiting for buses in the dark while groggy drivers speed by.  Also, there are more heart attacks when DST starts.  People have less sleep, often staying up later on the “new” time because their body is accustomed to it, while being forced to get up earlier.  All medical research shows that not getting enough sleep is detrimental to your health.  CNN recently did a piece on the many health risks from DST, such as strokes and heart attacks.  (click here for article)  WebMD stated that “Moving our clocks in either direction changes the principal time cue, light, for setting and resetting our 24-hour natural cycle, or circadian rhythm.  In doing so, our internal clock becomes out of sync or mismatched with our current day-night cycle.”  The universal opinion from all studies is that Daylight Savings Time is hazardous to your health.  Yet, unlike smoking, using opioids, or excessive drinking, there are no large movements to stop it, no petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatures sent to legislatures.  Like the mythical ostrich’s head in the sand, the body politic acts like ignoring the threat will make it not exist.  But it does.

So, why have DST?  It does give more time after work for outdoor activities like playing golf or grilling steaks.  Obviously, things like watching TV or movies, playing computer games or mucking around on social media are sun-neutral and do not benefit from DST.  While outdoor activities are good, the cost to get one more hour is too high.  Why not play nine holes before work and nine holes after instead of a full eighteen after?  Why not put lights on the patio for late-night grilling?  Daylight Savings Time is no longer needed.  It, like smoking and three-martini lunches, has been exposed as a danger, not worth the cost.  It’s time to kill it so we can live.

 

 

Gourmet, Gourmand, or Foodie?

Graham Kerr, the gallant Galloping Gourmet

I want to chat about food diversity, but first, what is the difference between a gourmet, a gourmand or a foodie?  Having lived more than a few decades, I am amazed at the changes in so many areas, including the English language.  I will leave what I term the “hijacking of words” to another post, but the changes in terms about food are fascinating.  Let’s start with the three in my title, gourmet, gourmand and “foodie.”  Gourmet was long the term for someone with a discerning palate.  It implied someone who tasted his food as an oenophile tasted fine wine rather than like a wino who chug-a-lugged jug burgundy.  For those of you old enough to remember, Graham Kerr’s “The Galloping Gourmet” hit TV with an energetic, non-traditional cooking show.  He was not like Julia Child, standing in front of the camera, stiffly instructing the viewers how to prepare some difficult dish like beef bourguignon, but a dashingly dressed, decent-looking, youngish man who liberally used cream, clarified butter and wine to add zest to his dishes.  He did it with a great deal of flair and wit in front of a live audience, with no retakes.  He would raise a glass of wine to his lips before commercials and would seem to be finishing a healthy (or unhealthy) swig when the camera returned to him.  However, he actually imbibed very little during the show.  It was, if you’ll pardon the pun, all for show.  At the end of each episode, he would be joined by someone from the audience (normally female) and the camera would zoom in on their ecstatic faces as they sampled his culinary triumph as the show closed.  While it took a few years for the food-show craze to fully hit America, Graham Kerr was the pioneer.  Gordon Ramsey, Bobby Flay, and Guy Fieri, you owe a lot to Graham Kerr.

Gourmand or glutton? You say tomato . . .

Gourmand is a word whose meaning has definitely evolved.  Originally, it meant a glutton.  Now it is defined by Merriam-Webster as “one who is excessively fond of eating and drinking” and also as “one who is heartily interested in good food and drink.”  Wikipedia, that font of all knowledge, gives “a person who takes great pleasure and interest in consuming good food and drink” as its first definition, with “glutton” as almost an afterthought.  In a nation that is known for overeating, saying someone is a glutton has become almost as forbidden as a racial slur.  “Excessively fond of eating” is the acceptable term, but glutton is not.  But making a euphemism so that a word no longer has bad connotations is to weaken the language in the cause of being politically correct.

The food photo fad. If food is only a hobby, then is collecting picture trophies more important than eating it?

Now there are foodies.  The term originally came from an article by Gael Greene in the New York Magazine in 1980 and has since come to such common usage that it’s almost passé.  Wikipedia defines a foodie as “a person who has an ardent or refined interest in food and who eats food not out of hunger but due to his interest and hobby.”  A hobby?  Like building model planes?  Whatever.  And what’s the difference between a foodie and a gourmet?  Again from the Big W, a foodie is “not as elitist as a gourmet, more discriminating than a glutton.”  Like a wine drinker who drinks Two-buck Chuck (now a little more pricey), but not box wine?  So what does all this have to do with food diversity?  Food has become more than something to eat.  It’s become fashionable.  And the more diverse and strange your tastes, the better.  It shows you are cool.

The size of a half order of spaghetti at Vince’s in the 1960’s

I grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  My parents moved to sunny California from Kentucky, not exactly a multi-ethnic state back then.  But my mom learned to do some rather bold dishes here, at least for that time.  Our neighbors were from Oklahoma and taught her a few Tex-Mex dishes.  Tacos, enchiladas and what was termed Spanish rice entered our diet.  Since the rice was not really Spanish style, I suppose it was a euphemism since Mexican had less “class” back then.  That was odd since Mexican restaurants were not termed “Spanish.”  Not logical, but that’s the way it was.  Our neighbors’ daughter-in-law was Italian-American and taught my mom to make spaghetti and meat balls as well as lasagna.  I remember how my mom would start making the spaghetti sauce in the morning and the wonderfully pungent aroma of basil and oregano would fill the kitchen as it simmered through the day.  I was a picky eater, but loved those “foreign” dishes.  We also had corned beef and cabbage, which is an American tradition on St. Patrick’s Day, but not really Irish.  On the rare occasions we went out to dinner (we were not wealthy), many times we went to Mexican or Italian restaurants, no doubt because they were often cheaper.  Vince’s Spaghetti in Ontario served a huge plate of spaghetti with meat sauce (their half order, no less) for 65 cents!  Although Shakey’s Pizza Parlors started the pizza craze in California in the 1950’s, their’s were not really Italian style, so I don’t include them in this post.  While there also were Chinese restaurants around, we didn’t go to them.  I don’t remember any other “foreign” cuisine restaurants around back in the day.

Dar Mahgreb- great atmosphere, even if not great food

As I became an adult, I was more ready to try new tastes.  My broadening of international food experiences started with Chinese food when I was in college.  The restaurant I went to was Cantonese, but then I didn’t know different regions of China had different styles of cooking.  Szechuan  is my favorite now, with its bold chili peppers and garlic spicing.  The next, if I remember correctly, was Japanese.  It was Miyako’s on Town and Country Road in Orange and apparently is no longer around.  This was in the early 1970’s and sushi was not known to the general populace, so raw fish was not on the menu.  I did love their sukiyaki and miso dressing on the salad.  Then came Moroccan.  A small chain of Dar Mahgreb Restaurants were built to look like imitation Alhambra palaces, with plush cushions on low couches for seating, it was a bit of experiencing North Africa in Southern California.  You ate with your hands out of a communal platter of food.  It was fun dining, even if the food was a little sweet for my taste.  A  belly dancer added to the atmosphere.  The one where my wife and I sat almost on the floor to eat was in Palm Springs.  Alas, it is now closed and I understand the last one of the chain in Los Angeles is too.  I say that not because I loved it, indeed I have not eaten at a Dar Mahgreb since the 1970’s, but it is the passing of a memory.  Another dining expedition of that decade was an Indian restaurant, name long forgotten, in Riverside, CA.  I do not remember what I had, but it was not good.  It took years before I tried Indian food again and loved it, but not at that now-closed establishment.

Sushi and sashimi can be found all over America now.  Few people say, “Raw fish, Eew!” anymore.

Jump forty years in time to the present.  Change can be good or bad, but the diversity of cuisines available now is definitely good.  Not all cuisines are equal or even, to my palate, good, but having the choice is.  Now finding Thai, Indian, Japanese, Greek, Persian, Ethiopian, Lebanese, Jewish and many other dining options is not confined to major cities.  Not only that, Mexican, Italian and Japanese restaurants have greatly expanded their menus.  No longer are tacos, enchiladas, tostadas and tamales of my youth the limit of choices in a Mexican restaurant.  Carne asada, chimichangas, empanadas and Tex-Mex fajitas as well as burritos with a multitude of fillings are the norm with more exotic items on the menus of many places.  I had never even heard of mole or chipotle in the old days.  And Italian used to mean tomato-based sauce.  Now, there is cream-based alfredo and my favorite, pesto.  Penne is so much easier to eat and saves many shirts from permanent stains, but only long spaghetti was available for so many years.  Risotto?  Never heard of it in the previous century.  Now, when you say “Japanese food,” sushi comes to mind, but few would have tried raw fish forty years ago.  Delightful chimichurri sauce was only in Argentina when I was growing up, but now is on many menus.  America often puts its own spin on the different cuisines, but the variety has expanded wildly.  And that is good.

The heck with the view, let’s eat.

Returning to the title of this post, am I a gourmet, a gourmand or a foodie?  To say I am a gourmet sounds presumptuous to me.  I don’t have that trained of a palate.  I know what I like, but that doesn’t mean I’m an expert on flavors.  I love hot and spicy, but hate sweet.  That, in itself, probably disqualifies me to so exalted a title.  Am I a gourmand?  Harkening back to the original definition as being a glutton, I hope not.  I do enjoy food, but try not to overindulge.  At least not on a regular basis.  So I guess that, by default, I’m a foodie.  I do have an interest in food and don’t always eat just because I’m hungry.  My interest is more refined than the person who raves about Egg McMuffins or Taco Bell tacos, so I am not at the bottom of the food-discernment chain.  I enjoy many cuisines and some of the more esoteric varieties as well as the common ones.  Do I approach my dining experience “not as elitist as a gourmet, more discriminating than a glutton?”  I suppose so.  But is food merely a hobby?  Not for me.  I love it too much.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kirkin’ of the Tartan

Bonnie Prince Charlie as a young man-
Egotistical and self-centered

Let’s start with the apocryphal history of the Kirkin’ of the Tartan (a.k.a. the Kirking of the Tartan or the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan).  In 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the son of the claimant to the British throne, James III, or the Young Pretender) led a revolt against the Hanoverian king, George II. While I could write a lot about how this French-born usurper used the Scots for his own purposes, that is another topic entirely.  (click here for more on Bonnie Prince Charlie) The relevant fact is that Charlie failed and many of his Jacobite (a term derived from Jacobus, Latin for James and the name of Charlie’s father, grandfather and great-great-grandfather) followers died at Culloden, Scotland, on April 16, 1746.  In the aftermath, the Proscription Act of 1746 had several parts, including banning Highland dress (kilts and tartans) and owning weapons.  As a side note, it is oft said that the bagpipes were banned as well, as a “weapon of war,” but there is nothing mentioned about them in the Act, nor any historical record of this.  (click here for Act)  But it was a time of oppression for many Scots and the fracturing of the clan system.  All this is authenticated history.  Now we get into the not-so-factual part.

Rev. Peter Marshall, the father of the Kirkin’ of the Tartans

The story is that the Scots would hide a swatch of tartan cloth and sneak it into the kirk (church) each year around St. Andrew’s Day (patron saint of Scotland) to be blessed.  the term “kirk” is the term used by Scots for a Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) church.  After 1782, the Proscription Act was repealed, so the Scots could openly wear their tartan kilts without fear of arrest.  However, there is no record of this Kirkin’ of the Tartan ever happening until the early 1940’s in America.  That was when the Rev. Peter Marshall, the pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, and an immigrant from Coatbridge, Scotland, preached a sermon entitled “the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartans” and the legend was born.  (click here for more on Peter Marshall)  It was either in 1941 or 1943, depending on your source.  Ironically, most of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army were Episcopalians and Roman Catholics rather than Presbyterians.  However, Rev. Marshall inspired Americans of Scottish descent to honor that supposed tradition and the Kirkin’ service spread like wildfire.  This year, Kirkin’s will take place all over America and Canada, as well as Australia and New Zealand.  Rumor has it that they will also happen in Scotland, but I have not been able to authenticate this.  If so, it would be ironic that an American invention of Scottish history was imported to the homeland.

Immanuel Presbyterian Church

Does the fact that the Kirkin’s themselves were not historical make this ceremony something to be shunned?  Not at all.  The honoring of our Scottish ancestors and acknowledging the actual oppression they endured is a fine tradition.  I have been an active part of many through the years, including huge ones at Immanuel Presbyterian Church on Wilshire Blvd, L.A.  Actor Hugh O’Brien (Wyatt Earp on TV) spoke there. It was even televised on network TV.  These services play an important role in keeping our Scottish heritage alive.  Much of what we think we know about Scottish history and traditions are, shall we kindly say, doctored.  That is true for every culture.  Since this is about the Kirkin’, I will not go into anything but the Scottish one, but romanticizing the past has been done as long as there is recorded history and, no doubt, before.

St. Andrews, Patron Saint of Scotland with the Saltire Cross

Since traditionally the Kirkin’ should be held around November 30th, St. Andrews Day, let’s consider this patron saint of Scotland.  Why was that honor given to him?  St. Denis is the patron saint of France.  He was the bishop of Paris in the time of the Roman Emperor Diocletian and was beheaded for his faith.  St. David is the patron saint of Wales and was a 6th century Welsh monastic known for his holiness.  St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland and was the man who had the greatest influence of converting Ireland to Christianity.  So shouldn’t the patron saint of Scotland be St. Columba (click here for more on St; Columba) or St. Ninian (click here for more on St. Ninian), the two men accredited with bringing Christianity to Scotland, right?  Wrong.  It’s St. Andrew, the fisherman disciple of Jesus and apostle of the church.  Church tradition has it that he was crucified on an X-shaped, or “saltire,” cross in Patras, Achea, date unknown.  According to legend, he preached in Fife, Scotland, or his bones washed ashore in the 4th century and were enshrined in St. Andrews, of golf course fame, but were lost during the Reformation.  Another legend is that 9th century King Angus saw a sign of clouds in the sky of a Saltire Cross, much like the sign seen by Constantine before the battle in 312 A.D. that made him Emperor, and Angus went on to beat the Saxons in battle.  In other words, St. Andrew has no factual tie to Scotland, but made a reputable patron saint since he was an apostle.  In 1286, it was used on the seal of the Guardians of Scotland and ,in 1385, the Saltire Cross is finally mentioned in an act of the Scottish Parliament.  The rest is legend, and not of the highest credibility.  (click here for more on St. Andrews) A bit like the Kirkin’ of the Tartan.

Scottish flag with the Cross Saltire

So I am proud to take part in this Scottish-American ceremony.  On Sunday, November 19th, the Gold Country Celtic Society in Nevada City will be holding our Kirkin’ of the Tartan at Trinity Episcopal Church and I will be at the fore as chief of the Society.  Let the purists criticize, but if not for such traditions, however recent in origin, much of the the real history of my Scottish ancestors might be forgotten.

The St. Nicholas Murders- A Cozy Mystery

St. Nicholas of Myrna Episcopal Church and Father Robert Bruce

The first of my Father Robert Bruce mysteries, The St. Nicholas Murders, will be out in a few weeks. Unlike so many crime-solving priests in novels, Father Robert Bruce is young, fit and handsome.  As an Episcopal priest, he can marry, although he hasn’t thus far.  This makes him the target of matchmakers and lonely women.  When a strange phone call leads him to think a murder has been committed in his small town, he starts investigating.  It is a cozy mystery, which is normally defined as a mystery that has no graphic sex, violence or language.  The crime-solver is an amateur, but normally has help form a professional detective or law officer.  That’s what happens in this book and the law officer is none other that Lee Garcia, who made a brief appearance in the last Morg Mahoney mystery, It’s Bad Business, as a detective in Colton P.D.  He has since retired to the Sierra Nevada Foothills, where he has taken the job of chief of police in Buggy Springs, CA.  Morg also plays a part in Father Robert’s investigation, but this is not her tale.  It is Father Robert’s, the rector of St. Nicholas of Myrna Episcopal Church in Buggy Springs.

Blue, a.k.a. The Dude

Never heard of Buggy Springs?  That’s because it is based upon Nevada City, which is also in the Sierra Nevada Foothills.  While the book is fiction, places in the book were inspired by living here and people I have met, not only here but throughout my life, influenced characters in the book, but there are no carbon copies.  If you’re too young to understand that term, Google it.  All names of people, places and things have been changed to protect the guilty.  What I’m saying is that no one in the book is a real person except for Blue, a.k.a. The Dude.  He’s my Aussie and has given full permission to use him in the book as long as I give him doggie treats every week.

Take a look at a few chapters on this website.  This story ends on Christmas Day, so the St. Nicholas title refers not only to Father Robert’s church, but the holiday.  Hopefully, you will like what you read enough to get the whole book, either in hardcover or Kindle.  Amazon will be carrying it.  The next in the series, The St. Christopher Murders, is already written and going through multiple editings.  It starts at a Fourth of July parade in Buggy Springs.  Stay tuned.

 

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.

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.