Mayoral Sandpapering



So Mair succeeded in skewering the mayor. One of the charges levied against him and not denied by Boris Johnson was that in the late 80s, whilst a journo at the Times, he made up a quote from his godfather, Sir Colin Lucas, about Edward II enjoying a reign of dissolution with his catamite, Piers Gaveston, in his then newly discovered palace south of the Thames which was built in 1325. The problem was that Gaveston was beheaded in 1312. In an era where we are familiar with egregious press behaviour – phone hacking et al – this seems a rather minor peccadillo, although in my limited experience of academics the one thing they like more than being cited is being cited accurately. The then editor of the Thunderer fired Boris after complaints from Lucas.

The question on everyone’s lips is who was Piers Gaveston (c1284 to 1312). Gaveston, an English nobleman of Gascon birth, had an Icarus-like career, reaching the heady heights of being appointed the first Earl of Cornwall (1307) by his alleged lover, the recently crowned Edward II, and acted as regent in 1308 when the king left the country to marry the French king’s daughter, Isabella. However, on his way up the greasy pole, Gaveston made many enemies, partly as a result of a humiliating defeat he and his cronies inflicted on a powerful cabal of barons at a tournament held at Wallingford Castle. The pressure for Gaveston’s exile grew to such an extent that the king had no option but to dispatch his paramour to Ireland and stripped him of his earldom.

Whilst in Ireland Gaveston had considerable success in pacifying the Irish rebels and for his efforts was reinstated as Earl of Cornwall in August 1309. However, Piers soon ruffled the feather of his opponents once more and in November 1310 was exiled only being reconciled with the king again in early 1312 and having his lands restored.

Relations between the king and the barons had deteriorated to such an extent that a civil war broke out and in the early summer of 1312 Gaveston was captured by the Earl of Warwick and condemned to death at Warwick castle. On 19th June 1312 Piers was executed and buried behind the site of his execution. Peace was restored in 1313 but the king had to wait until 1315 when he had secured his favourite’s absolution, to move his body to the Dominican friary at Langley. In 1823 a cross was erected at Blacklow Hill on the alleged site of his execution.

A fascinating tale and one can’t help thinking that some aspects of Gaveston’s meteoric career mirror those of our benighted mayor. Boris’ career is unlikely to end, literally, on the executioner’s block but, metaphorically, who knows?




To my everlasting shame (probably), I must confess I was unfamiliar with the works of Federico Barocci (around 1533 to 1612). Although guilty of the charge of general ignorance, I would point out in my defence that his work centres around what might be termed as Catholic iconography (not really my cup of tea) and there are only two examples of his work normally resident in this country. Federico was acknowledged by his peers as a rare talent and even survived an assassination attempt by poisoning in the 1560s by jealous rivals that left him debilitated through the rest of his life. So it was with a real spirit of adventure and discovery that I went to the National Gallery’s Barocci : Brilliance and Grace exhibition.

Many of his most famous pieces are in Italian churches and museums and, although some of his masterpieces are not in the exhibition, there are enough to get a sense of his power and style. Housed in six smallish rooms in the Sainsbury’s Wing of the Gallery, the abiding impression is his vivid use of colour coupled with astonishing power of composition. The sixth room is an odd farrago of landscapes and portraits, as if they are left-overs from the main show.

For me, the stand out works were the Entombment from the Chiesa della Croce with a multi-coloured Mary Magdalene portrayed alongside the almost clinically drawn tools of the crucifixion positioned in the left foreground– the hammer, nails and crown of thorns – the Visitation with its vivid and bold use of colour to depict the folds of the clothing of the two pregnant women and the Last Supper from his home town of Urbino which contrasts effectively light and dark.

Alongside his paintings are sketches in oil and drawings. It would seem that Barocci prepared diligently for his works with numerous compositional studies and attempts to master the requisite anatomical features of the poses his characters adopt. The impression I was left with was that whilst his drawings of certain anatomical features such as hands and faces were full of life and accuracy, his drawings of the full torso seem somewhat clumsy. The classical nude is eschewed in his formal works, although most of his drawings feature naked characters or limbs – perhaps as a result of the overt influence of the counter Reformation or perhaps because of this technical deficiency.

What comes through loud and clear in this wonderful exhibition is the emotion of his paintings in which he depicts a sort of idealisation of grace, joy and ecstasy of man in the presence of the divine. His compositions are bold and full of energy whilst his use of colour is stunning. The subject matter may not immediately be to the taste of us puritanical Brits but by the time you leave the exhibition you may be won over. Recommended.

A Prickly Problem



I can’t say I had ever given it any thought before but my interest was pricked by an article in the Sunday papers as to how a sauropod such as a Stegosaurus procreated. The problem with these dinosaurs is that whilst they were herbivores they were bristling with spikes and plates to protect them against some of their carnivorous foes.

Normal dinosaur sex seems to have been conducted doggy-style or, perhaps, we should call it brontosaurus-style. The problem for the Stegosaurus is that with all those spikes and plates the male mounting the female is likely to run the certain risk of castration or fatal injury. As the bones at the top were fused, the female could not assist by raising their tails. Given that there is fossil evidence that there were many stegosauri roaming around the earth, the process of procreation could not have been so deadly. So how did they achieve it?

According to some recent research conducted by the Museum of Natural History in Berlin, it seems that the most likely answer was that dinosaurs such as the stegosaurus procreated using a version of the missionary position – the female rolling on to her side and the male resting his torso over hers. Alternatively, some sauropods may have ad sex by backing up to each other.

As with any theory, there are others who poo-poo the idea, claiming that animals alive today who encounter the same problem, such as armadillos, have developed extremely long sexual organs. Why would this not apply to spikey dinosaurs?

The only way of resolving this conundrum definitively is to find fossil evidence of dinosaur sexual organs. However, soft tissues are rarely preserved during fossilisation so this is highly unlikely to happen.

I guess, as with everything, you pay your money and take your choice. I can’t help thinking, though, that if I sat in an ivory tower with access to public funding and with time to ponder such questions, I would have come up with this range of possibilities.

Isn’t science wonderful?


What Is The Origin of (11)?…


Cast ne’er a clout till May be out

I had not come across this proverb before I met TOWT, who informed me that it was often used within her family.

The first written citation of this peculiar proverb dates back to 1732 in Dr Thomas Fuller’s Gnomologia, “leave not a clout off till May be out”, although the component parts have an earlier origin.

Since as early as the 15th century clout has been used to describe, variously, a blow to the head, a clod of earth or clotted cream or a fragment of cloth or clothing. The use of clout to mean clothing can be traced back in written form to the Early English Miscellanies of Prose and Verse of 1485, “he had not left an holle clowt, wherein to hyde hys body abowte”.

So it is pretty certain that the first part of the proverb warns you not to get rid of your clothing, presumably your warm winter clothing.

There is some uncertainty about the usage of the word may. It could just be the calendar month. The English weather is so uncertain you would be best advise not to discard your winter wear until the end of May.

However, there may be an alternative meaning. The hawthorn was a common feature of the English hedgerow – 200,000 miles of hawthorn were planted as hedgerow in the period of the enclosures between 1750 and 1850 – and its distinctive and beautiful display of flowers occurs between late April and early May. It is known as the May tree and its blossom as May.

Shakespeare in his sonnets describes the darling buds of May (Sonnet 18) and the old rhyme, April showers bring forth May flowers, clearly uses May in the context of the hawthorn.

While this explanation is appealing, there is Victorian evidence that the more prosaic calendar meaning is likely to be correct. In 1855 F K Robertson wrote in his Whitby Gazette, “the wind at north and east/was never good for man nor beast/so never think to cast a clout/til the month of May be out”.

Either way, given the state of our weather, this advice is sound.

Winter Blues


Well it’s snowing again – TMS match off. Don’t know about you but this winter seems to be interminable, probably because we didn’t have much of a summer. It is incredible to think that 12 months ago we were basking in temperatures in the early 20s (centigrade).

Although we seem to have had nothing but unremitting gloom, history can usually tell us that someone somewhere at some other time  had it worse than us. Cold comfort, perhaps, but comfort nonetheless.

I am old enough to remember the winter of 1962/3 – we actually moved house in the December and were confronted with frozen pipes when we got to our new abode. The snow started in November in the South West but the really bad weather started on Boxing Day with the country blanketed in feet of snow. The thaw didn’t start until March.

Post War Britain had to endure one of its worst ever winters in 1946/7. Snow fell in southern England on 19th December but then there was a notable mild spell with temperatures reaching 14c. Hopes for a mild winter were soon dashed when the weather deteriorated on 22nd January 1947 with continuous snow right up until 17th March.

Between the 15th century and the early 19th century, a period described as the Little Ice Age, the UK often had severe spells of weather. In 1564/5 the Thames froze between Christmas Day and January 13th. Elizabeth the First was reported to have enjoyed daily trips on the ice. The Thames was much shallower in those days (and more clogged up) so the waters did not flow as freely.

The crafty cockneys, not wishing to miss the opportunity to make an extra bob (or groat), saw the frozen and unencumbered waste of the Thames as a large but temporary market place and developed the tradition of the frost fair. The first recorded fair was held in 1608, although Henry the Eighth travelled from London to Greenwich along the Thames by sleigh in 1536 – the ice must have been thick.

The winter of 1683/4 was particularly harsh and ranks alongside that of 1947 for the prolonged period of cold temperatures. The Thames was frozen all the way up to London Bridge by early January 1684 with ice up to eleven inches thick and remained frozen for a couple of months. In Somerset the ground was frozen up to four feet.

The diarist, John Evelyn, has a famous report of the teeming activity on the frozen Thames. “Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets; sleds, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water”.

The last recorded frost fair was held during the harsh winter of 1813-14, which again had bitter cold from January to March. That winter was the last time that the tidal stretch of the River Thames froze – the removal of the old London Bridge and works to deepen the river meant that the river flowed more easily and was less prone to freezing.

Still, the frost fair in 1814 went out with a bang. It began on 1st February, lasting for 4 days, and featured an elephant which was led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge.

It seems our ancestors made the best of a bad job, perhaps a lesson we would do well to learn.