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A wry view of life for the world-weary

Everything Is Possible For An Eccentric, Especially When He Is English – Part Nineteen

Henry de la Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford (1811 – 1859)

We have come across our Henry before when we were examining the origins of the phrase, paint the town red, but his exploits are worth examining in more detail. To many they seem just the product of what extreme wealth and no gainful employment can do but if we measure eccentricity as behaviour out of kilter with the mores of the time, then the mad marquess, as he was known, is right up there.

Henry was actually the second son of the Second Marquess of Waterford but inherited the title upon his father’s death in 1826, because his elder brother had shuffled off this mortal coil in 1824. The title and the money that went with the grand estate in Ireland seems to havre gone to his head and during the late 1830s he was frequently in the news. His particular penchant was to drink heavily, brawl, vandalise property and strike peculiar wagers – a bit of an erstwhile Oliver Reed character.

At that time there was little in the way of an established police force and significant properties or thoroughfares were guarded by night watchmen. These poor individuals were seen as fair game by Henry and nothing rounded off a good evening on the electric sauce than beating one (or more) of them up. An even more sinister character trait was his love of a sick joke. On one occasion he wrote to the London and Greenwich Railway Company, offering them the princely sum of £10,000 if they would stage a train crash that he could watch. The thrill for him would be to observe the distress of the victims. Although train safety was parlous at the best of times in those days, thankfully the Company politely refused his offer.

Henry would do anything for a laugh. On one famous occasion, he bought several large casks of gin and stationed himself in London’s Haymarket, offering free mugs of the hooch to anyone who cared to take them. He seemed to see it as a bit of a social experiment, keen to see what would happen when the grateful public indulged in his largesse to excess. Well, what happened was that a riot broke and Henry had to be carted off for his own safety.

Beresford was a reckless horse rider and was brought up before the beak for riding at high-speed through a crowded street, without any concern for any of the poor pedestrians who may have been in the way. Arriving at the court on horseback, Henry demanded that his nag be cross-examined. After all, he argued, only the horse knew exactly how fast he was going. Whether it was the strength of his forensic arguments or his nobility that caused the case to be dismissed, we will never know. Mind you, he could have done with a fast horse when he rode in the 1840 Grand National. His horse, the Sea, was all washed out and finished last of the four to finish, half a mile behind the winner.

Such was Henry’s notoriety for practical jokes, or rather hooliganism, that the finger of suspicion was pointed at him as the perpetrator of what were termed the Spring Heeled Jack incidents. The Reverend E C Brewer, no less, attested in 1880 that he “used to amuse himself by springing on travellers unawares, to frighten them, and from time to time others have followed his silly example” These incidents occurred between 1837 and 1904, so Henry couldn’t have been the sole perpetrator but perhaps the Reverend was on to something.

The first incident occurred in Clapham Common  – Henry was in London at the time – when Mary Stevens was assaulted by a figure that leapt out of the dark and the following day another girl was attacked, the perpetrator effecting its escape by scaling a nine foot wall.

Whether Henry was involved is unclear but as well as painting the town red, he was tarred with the same brush, it would seem.

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Living In The Past

Jethro Tull 50th Anniversary Concert, Royal Albert Hall, 17th April 2018

It’s all too easy to take the piss out off a Jethro Tull audience. Perhaps the gig would have been better called the Prostate Prom or even Too Old To Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die. For many it may have been a new day yesterday but it is certainly an old day now.

It is true that there were some members of the post baby boomer generation in the audience – I even saw a couple of children and thought about contacting Social Services – but even with a more severe haircut than normal I found myself in possession of more follicles than most of the males there. And you know that nature is telling you that your bohemian days are over when the queues to the male bogs are longer than those for the female equivalents and a couple of pints of Old Speckled Hen – lovely but so it should be at £6 a pint – means impromptu visits to the toilets by many to the general inconvenience of the rest of the row. Alas, the extended drum solo in Dharma for One – usually a signal for a mass exodus to the carsey – was too early in proceedings to serve its purpose.

I’m not a fan of the Royal Albert Hall. You could hardly call what Philomena Cunk deliciously described as the receptacle for Adolf Hitler’s missing bollock as an intimate venue. Sitting in the circle we were far away from the action and the sound in the early part of the concert was a bit muddy. Fortunately, either the engineers got the balance right as the show went on or my ears grew more accustomed to it all.

The band consisted of Dave Goodier on bass, John O’Hara on keyboards, Florian Opahle on lead guitar, Scott Hammond on drums and, of course, the only survivor of the original band, the septuagenarian Ian Anderson on flute, vocals, acoustic guitar and, occasionally, one leg. Anderson was helped out on vocals from time to time by virtual artists beamed up on the screen behind him, a triumph for timing, if nothing else. The video screen was also used to beam in messages from former members of the group – over the years Tull has had 37 members – and good wishes from some of the great and good of rock. While the band performed, we were treated to footage of the band in their heyday, considerably more hirsute than they are today, and fascinating as it was, I found it all a bit distracting.

Tull in the early 70s were probably the most exciting live act I had seen and, sensibly, Anderson chose to plunder his back catalogue from the first ten years of the band’s existence, ranging from the bluesy Mick Abrahams influenced numbers to the more folky rock numbers of the mid to late 70s. But their glory days were encapsulated by the albums I return to most, Aqualung and Thick As A Brick. My God, when the band is on form, as they were, there is nothing like Locomotive Breath, Cross-eyed Mary, Aqualung and a wonderful abridgement of Thick As A Brick to set what few hairs you have left standing on end. I could even forgive them a reprise of A Passion Play.

As I listened to the early numbers, I couldn’t help musing what sort of band Tull would have been if Abrahams had stayed. But there was never going to be room for two egos and look what happened to Blodwyn Pig.

Musically, it was a great night of nostalgia, featuring Tull, one of rock’s greatest survivors, at their best. Don’t tell TOWT but I have got her an early Christmas present – tickets for the Tull gig at Birmingham Cathedral in December. I wonder if they will play My God!

Innovation Of The Week (6)

Is there no limit to the lengths supermarkets will go to to pander to the strange predilections of the so-called snowflake generation?

One of those fatuous surveys that are all too common these days has found that 37% of those born after 1980 prefer to avoid handling raw meat. Seeing the way the wind is blowing, from May 3rd Sainsbury’s, I read this week, are launching rip and tip pouches, known in the trade as doybags, which allow the poor souls to put their raw chicken into a pan without having to touch it.

Whatever next? Next thing you know they will be cooking it for them!

While we are on the subject of modern-day nonsense, I went to the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday – more of that anon. The following day I received an e-mail inviting me to complete a survey on my experience – you could spend a day filling these things in.

I was encouraged to tell them what I “really and truly thought”, but their desire for my opinion was not such that they would guarantee to respond to any comment I made. The e-mail was signed by Claire Baker who styled herself as Insight Manager.

Wtf?!

I have noticed recently a trend amongst organisations to saddle their employees with ever more ludicrous job titles but this takes the biscuit. Any insight into what this job actually entails would be gratefully received.

Verdict Of The Week (3)

On the thoroughfares near Blogger Towers we have poles with lights on top. In the days before austerity the lights used to come on just before dusk and would be extinguished shortly after dawn. Nowadays they seem to come on when it is light and go off halfway through the night, rendering them of little use to the carousing pedestrian.

But they are of use to beast, or at least dogs, serving as a handy upright against which they can cock a leg and unleash a stream of steaming urine. And they can continue this practice, thanks to a judgment handed down by the High Court, I read this week.

Richmond Council were seeking to impose a ban on dogs peeing on lamp posts and against properties and generally causing a nuisance to honest, law abiding citizens. Any hound found to be in breach would lead their owner to have a visit to the beak. This not unreasonable restriction was challenged by a group of dog walkers in the area and the court ruled that the intended Public Spaces Protection Order was a step too far.

So, there we have it, dogs are free to cock a snook at all and sundry.

A word of warning though – the right does not extend to humans. If you are caught short, you will still have to find a phone box.

I enjoy the hustle and bustle of a market and the sound of the costermongers shouting their wares. But Lymington and Pennington Town Council have caused a public outcry by slapping a ban on a fruit and veg stall-holder because his voice is too loud.

His name? Wayne Bellows, of course.

You couldn’t make it up!

What Is The Origin Of (176)?…

Blue-blooded

When you look at your veins poking through your skin, they appear blue and you might be forgiven, if you had no anatomical knowledge, in thinking that the blood coursing through them is blue. As soon as you puncture a vein, though, the blood that spurts or trickles out is red. Does this mean that as soon as the blood comes into contact with the outside, it changes colour from blue to red because of some sort of chemical reaction?

Sorry to disappoint you but the answer is no.

It is all down to the interaction between light and subcutaneous fat. The fat which forms a barrier between your skin and what is inside – we all have it – only allows blue light to penetrate to the veins and back. Other colours, such as red, cannot make it back to your eyeballs and so the only hue you can associate with your veins is blue. Deoxygenated blood, which is what veins principally push around the body, is a darker red than oxygenated and so as a result of the way light permeates our skin will seem darker. If you look at different veins around your body you will see that they are not uniform in colour – this is because the diameter and thickness of the walls allow more or less of the blue light to reach your line of vision.

The reason for this rather discursive explanation in what is meant to be an etymological discussion is to nail on the head the idea that members of the royal family and the aristocracy have blue blood. Now that any Mike, Kate or Meghan – a distinctly unroyal trio, if you ever saw one – can marry into the royal family, it would be hard to defend seriously the proposition that our so-called betters have blood of a different colour coursing through their veins. When royals and aristocrats studiously intermarried within their own charmed circle, it might have been possible to hoodwink the masses into thinking so but the odd execution of a royal – to be encouraged in my view – would have scotched that theory.

So why do we call royals blue-blooded?

Blame the Spanish and subcutaneous fat. The proud boast of some of the oldest and proudest families in Castile was that their stock was pure, having resisted the temptation to intermarry with Moors, Jews and the like. The consequence was that their skin colouration was lighter than the other indigenous population and their veins seemed darker. This phenomenon gave rise to the term sangre azul or blue blood.

By the 19th century the term established itself in the English language. Save for making a direct translation of it, we did little else. Maria Edgeworth testified to its origin in her 1834 novel, Helen; “from Spain, of high rank and birth, of the sangre azul, the blue blood.” By the time Anthony Trollope came to write The Duke’s Children in 1880, it was a familiar sobriquet for the oldest and most aristocratic families to be used without the aid of a gloss; “It is a point of conscience among the – perhaps not ten thousand, but say one thousand of bluest blood – that everyone should know who everybody is…It is a knowledge which the possession of the blue blood itself produces.

It takes one to know one, it seems.

Some People Are So Poor All They Have Is Money – Part Four

Illegal aliens

It’s always dangerous to draw too many generalised conclusions from odd snatches of conversation but I couldn’t help thinking that there is a rising sense of nationalism in India. In particular, in southern India there was overt antipathy towards their fairer skinned brethren of Indian-Aryan ancestry, characterised as invaders from Afghanistan, and criticism was directed at the hitherto sainted Mahatma Gandhi for vacillating on the Moslem question. With Moslem birth rates far outstripping those of other religious communities there is a heightening of tensions that have always lurked beneath the surface. It would be a shame if they erupted into violence but it was hardly coincidental that religious tensions had erupted again in nearby Sri Lanka at the time of our visit.

Foreigners have been part of the landscape on the sub-continent for centuries and it was appropriate that our tour began at the coastal city of Chennai (Madras in old money) which was the site of the first manifestation of permanent British presence in the area. The East India Company bought a strip of coastal land called Chennirayarpattinam and proceeded to build a fort there, to better protect the harbour and their trading activities. Completed on 23rd April 1644 it was christened Fort St George and over time was developed into an impressive fortification with thick walls some 20 feet high.

Notwithstanding its ramparts and large garrison, it fell into French hands between 1746 and 1749, eventually being restored to the Brits following the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. Today it is the administrative headquarters of the Tamil Nadu state government and is the garrison to some Indian troops. There is a museum which houses relics from the British occupation – worth a visit, although the curatorship is distinctly 1950s – and the church, St Mary’s, is the oldest Anglican one in India. Built between 1678 and 1680 it was where the nabobest of nabobs, Robert Clive, was married and its graveyard contains the oldest British tombstones on the sub-continent.

Despite the maps of the British Empire I pored over when I was a schoolboy, India wasn’t entirely red. Pondicherry was and is still distinctly French. The French East India Company established their headquarters there in 1674 and the area was fought over incessantly over the next two centuries by those implacable enemies, the French and British. When the British finally took control over all of India in the late 1850s, they rather magnanimously allowed the French to remain there and, oddly, even beyond Indian independence the area around Pondicherry was under French control. It was not until 1st November 1954 that it was incorporated into the Indian state.

Pondicherry has a very distinctive European feel with a broad promenade along the shoreline which boasted a pier until it collapsed in 1953 – this may have presaged the departure of the French – and a series of four broad boulevards running parallel in what is known as White Town. Even the local police sport jaunty red caps a la gendarmerie. The cathedral is a mini version of the Notre Dame and as the congregation dispersed we were mobbed by groups requesting us to pose for photos with them. We never did find out why!

Less welcoming to the Brits was Tipu Sultan, who along with his dad, Hyder Ali, did not quite see the benefits of being absorbed into the domains controlled by the East India Company. In all, the Brits fought four wars between 1767 and 1799 against these two, before finally winning a decisive victory at the Siege of Srirangapatna, during the course of which Tipu was killed. We saw the spot where he died. Tipu’s major military innovation was the use of rocket-propelled artillery, the like of which the Brits had not encountered before. However, sheer weight of numbers and Tipu’s folly of pissing off his wife, who then sided against him, and of relying on the French saw the Brits ultimately prevail.

Book Corner – April 2018 (2)

The Saint-Fiacre Affair – Georges Simenon

I am working my way through the welcome Penguin Classics’ reissues of the Maigret series and the 13th book, the Saint-Fiacre affair, is a curious one. Maigret returns to the village of his birth – the original book, published in 1932, was called Maigret Goes Home – because an anonymous note has been sent to the Paris police claiming that a crime would be committed during the first mass held there on All Souls’ Day. Despite his attendance at the service, he notices an old woman, whom Maigret recognises to be the Countess of Saint-Fiacres, sitting motionless in her pew with her head in her hands. She is dead.

How did she die and who was responsible for her death? Maigret encounters a range of potential suspects who seem to come out of the pages of Agatha Christie – a gigolo masquerading as the Countess’ secretary, a spendthrift son, the estate manager who has been salting away some of the family’s money and his son. Indeed, the denouement is straight out of Christie where all the suspects are assembled in one room, although not by Maigret but by the Countess’ son, and the felon is revealed. It is a rather unconvincing finale and, in many ways, the novel betrays a hastily constructed plot which hardly satisfies the hardened crime fan.

Perhaps, though, there is more to this book than meets the eye and the key may be that it is for Maigret a nostalgic return to the village of his birth. The last time he visited was for the funeral of his father – he visits the grave and is appalled by its poor state of maintenance – and he wanders around the village unrecognised, shocked by the change in those he meets and the deterioration in the fortunes of the village. My sense is that for Maigret there is something cathartic in the return and it allows him to put the past to rest. George Orwell treated the theme more satisfactorily in Coming Up For Air seven years later. The moral of the story is never try to recreate your past.

The Flemish House

The 14th book in the series, originally published in 1941, is a darker affair. Maigret arrives at the border town of Givet, on the Meuse, at the request of one of his wife’s relatives, to look into the disappearance – it turns out that she has been murdered – of Germaine Piedboeuf. The suspects are a Flemish family, the Peeters, the son having put the unfortunate Geraldine in the family way.

The atmosphere in the town of Givet is antagonistic with the well-to-do Flems despised by the local French residents. The crime and the obvious inference that the Peeters’ got rid of the girl to enable their beloved son to marry into a respectable Flemish family, as was originally intended, stokes up the ill-feeling. The Peeters are a family under siege.

Simenon is at his best here when with a few words he describes the grim town, worsened by a river in full spate and torrential rain. You can almost see and smell the steam coming off Maigret’s overcoat as he trudges around the town, observing, rarely asking questions but it is clear that he is ahead of the local police, led by the comically inept Machere, in understanding the motivation behind the crime. Simenon’s characterisation of the Peeters family is spot on and Anna is a striking and, ultimately, complex character.

As often is the case with a Maigret novel, the felon eludes  criminal justice – Maigret decides not to reveal what happened to the local police – but from the final chapter it is clear that a more natural and eternal justice has been meted out. That’s Catholics for you but I do wonder how Maigret keeps his job!

Our Crime Against Criminals Lies In The Fact That We Treat Them Like Rascals – Part Four

The Gardner Museum Heist, 1990

If you go to the Gardner Museum in Boston, you will find thirteen picture frames hanging on the wall, devoid of contents. They do not form part of a post-modernist art collection but hang there both as a reminder of an audacious robbery which deprived the museum of their prize exhibits worth around $500 million but also as a beacon of hope that someday, somehow the pictures will be recovered.

They haven’t so far.

The key to a successful robbery is perfect planning a keeping it simple. Too many moving parts in the plan merely increase the chances of something going wrong. And the Garner Museum heist was simplicity personified.

As a city with a large Irish community, St Patrick’s Day in Boston is one of the highlights of the year. March 17th 1990 was no exception and there were celebrations, some rather noisy and drunken, around the city and one in close proximity to the Museum. At 1.24 am on the 18th someone dressed in a police uniform rang on the museum’s bell. When a security guard – there were only two on the site at the time – opened the door, the policeman and his colleague said that they were responding to a report of a disturbance at the Museum and requested that they be let in.

The security guard, Richard Abath, wasn’t sure whether his orders to prohibit anyone from entering extended to include the police and so, on his own initiative, let the officers in. One of the officers looked him up and down and said that Abath looked familiar and that there was a warrant out for his arrest. Ordering Abath away from the security desk where the only security button was, the policeman handcuffed him. It was only then that Abath realised anything was amiss – the police officer was wearing a false moustache.

The second security appeared on the scene minutes later but was quickly handcuffed. When he enquired why the police had arrested him, he was told that they were not policemen but robbers about to steal from the gallery. The guards were taken to the basement and handcuffed to pipes and bound.

Although the museum had motion detectors and local alarm systems, the bogus policemen went about their unlawful duty, removing some of the gallery’s most prized exhibits, including Rembrandt’s only seascape, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Vermeer’s The Concert, five Vermeer drawings and an eagle finial which lay on top of a Napoleonic flag. They were unable to unscrew the flag from the wall and the mess that they left suggested that they had been unsuccessful in attempting to make off with other works of art.

In all, the robbery took around eighty minutes to accomplish and the thieves had enough time to make two trips to their car, a red Daytona, with their haul. They then went back to the basement to tell the guards that they would be hearing from them again in about a year. The guards never did hear from them and were not rescued, nor was the robbery detected, until 8.15 in the morning when other staff arrived.

Despite the fact that the thieves’ movements around the gallery could be tracked on the motion detection system, the police had no images to give them a clue as to the perpetrators. The FBI believe that it was the work of a criminal organisation based in New England, that the artwork was offered for sale in Philadelphia and that they have a good idea of the identities of the duo, both now dead. But there was not enough to press charges.

It seems those frames will be empty for quite a while.

Toilet Of The Week (14)

It’s enough to make Henry David Thoreau turn in his grave or at least be very pissed.

Walden Lake, near Concord in Massachusetts, immortalised by the naturalist and philosopher in Walden, or, Life in the Woods and described as lovelier than diamonds, is far from it now, according to a study I came across this week.

According to Dr Jay Curt Stager of Paul Smith’s College, the lake’s water is far from the pure, pristine state it was in Thoreau’s day in the mid 19th century. No surprise there, I suppose, but what is damaging it is the high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water which in turn causes algae to spread, blocking out the rays of the sun which the fish need.

And what causes these high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus? The report does not beat about the bush – swimmers pissing in the lake. It goes on to recommend the introduction of “swimmer-education programmes or construction of a separate swimming pool nearby to relieve pressure on the lake.

I think relieving pressure on the bladders of the swimmers is the key to it all. At least Thoreau didn’t call it the Golden Pond.

Demolition Of The Week

If I had my time again, one of the things I would like to have been is a demolition man. There must be something intensely satisfying in pressing a button and seeing some monstrous carbuncle which has blotted the skyscape for ages tumble down in a cloud of dust.

But occasionally something can go disastrously wrong.

Take this story of the demolition of a 173 foot silo tower in the Danish town of Vordingborg, which I came across this week. Months of meticulous planning went into organising the exercise and an area was cleared into which the debris was intended to fall.

The button was pressed but instead of the silo tumbling into the intended area, something went horribly wrong. To the astonishment of all – there was quite a crowd there to witness the event – the building toppled the other way – a phenomenon known amongst the demolition fraternity as a standup – smashing into a library and cultural centre, causing extensive damage.

Fortunately, no one was injured but an inquiry has been launched to find out what went wrong. Bit obvious, I would have thought.

If you want to see more, click the link