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

Johnny Roche and Castle Curious

Every person should have a dream. Some are even fortunate enough to realise them. One such was Johnny Roche. His dream was to live in a castle.

A son of a carpenter and blacksmith from Walltown, near Mallow, in Cork, like many an Irishman in the 19th century, Johnny upped sticks and sailed to America to find his fame and fortune. Alas, success eluded him and he returned to the Emerald Isle penniless. He turned his hand to running a mill by the river Awbeg and when that failed, he turned to making tombstones. At some point, around the mid 1840s, Johnny decided to make his dreams come true and build a castle by the banks of the Awbeg.

And he did it single-handedly.

Building to his own design and using sand from the river, lime from nearby Mallow, and stone from the neighbourhood, he toiled away for three years. The result was astonishing – a labyrinth of tiny rooms together with a tower some 45 feet tall and 27 feet in length, atop of which were two oval turrets, running at right-angles to the main building.

As the walls got taller, Johnny had to design a special winch to move the stones up to the height required. Quite a crowd would assemble to watch this man on a mission, shaking their heads sagely, convinced that he was mad.

And quite a sight he was too. Naturally, being such a resourceful man he span and stitched the material needed to make his own clothes – long flowing garments and a wide-brimmed hat pulled down low so that all the onlookers could see of his face was his bushy beard.

Johnny’s construction was soon dubbed Castle Curious and it still stands today, although pretty all that is left of the labyrinth is its framework. In 2013 it was up for sale for €130,000. In estate agent jargon it is a “detached three-bay three-storey rectangular house, now roofless..with recessed bowed turrets, crenellations and limestone eaves.” You get the picture.

When it was finished, Johnny, to the surprise of the locals, moved in. Well, why not? It even had its own well so Johnny could pull up the drawbridge and retreat into his own world. One source of annoyance was the pilgrims who visited St Bernard’s Holy Well which was a few yards from the castle’s walls. Johnny would lean over the ramparts of his castle, by now ornamented with gargoyles, and give the worshippers the benefit of his mind. Sadly, they didn’t get the message.

But Johnny was by no means a recluse. He would tour the countryside on a new-fangled bicycle or a decrepit coach, complete with bed and a stove, drawn by two mules. He also developed an unusual range of skills including pulling teeth, playing the bagpipes and the violin, and carving sculptures. His main line of business, though, was building and carving tombstones, which he did with some aplomb.

Johnny’s best friend, a man called Nixon, asked him to design his tombstone if he should go before Roche. He did but whether he would have been pleased with the result is debatable. A flagpole was erected over a stone bearing the accurate but utterly prosaic legend “Here lies Nixon.

It is no surprise that when it was Johnny’s turn to meet his maker, he had already inscribed his own epitaph; “here lies the body of poor John Roche./ He had his faults, but don’t reproach;/ For while alive his heart was mellow;/ An artist, genius and gentle fellow.” But his plans to have a resting place in the river were scotched by the local coroner, a man by the name of Byrne, who advised Johnny to “Go, rest thy bones in Mother Earth and don’t pollute the river.

If you are in the area, seek out Castle Curious and marvel at the determination, skill and, yes, eccentricity of Johnny Roche.

Book Corner – May 2018 (3)

The Complete Short Stories of Saki – Hector Hugh Munro

Munro’s last words were said to be “put out that damned cigarette” before he was hit by a sniper’s bullet in France. The tragedy was that he needn’t have served – he volunteered at an age when he was too old to be called up – and so English literature lost one of its finest exponents of the short story. One wonders what heights he would have reached had he not been killed.

There are many collections of Munro’s stories – the one I read lovingly over a period of a year or so, dipping in and out when I needed something to smile about or gasp in amazement, was issued by Vintage Classics. His nom de plume, Saki, means one who serves wine in Urdu and like a waiter he tantalises, pours out his heady brew and leaves the reader gasping for more. His style is very economical, rarely is a word wasted or ill-chosen. His characters are vividly drawn and his stories are peppered with a mordant wit.

What struck me was how inventive Munro’s similes were and how delicious were his turns of phrase. To take just half a dozen at random: “The black sheep of a rather greyish family”, “People talk vaguely about the innocence of a little child, but they take mighty good care not to let it out of their sight for twenty minutes.” “The sacrifices of friendship were beautiful in her eyes as long as she was not asked to make them.” “The young have aspirations that never come to pass, the old have reminiscences of what never happened.” “The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go, she went.” “I’m living so far beyond my means that we may almost be said to be living apart.”  Wonderful.

In many ways Munro is the staging point between Oscar Wilde who must have been an influence and P G Wodehouse, whom he influenced. Many of his characters could have come out of the pages of Wodehouse – two of the recurring characters in his short stories, Reginald and Clovis Sangrail, do nothing more than move from country house to country house, getting into scrapes or causing mischief. There is a childish delight in Munro’s stories at the prospect of cocking a snook and puncturing the pretensions of the middle and upper classes. His stories are humorous but there is more there than you would find in Wodehouse. There is satire, something dark lurking beneath the surface, a touch of the bizarre and the gothic. Many of the stories have an unexpected twist.

My particular favourites are Tobermory, which is about a cat that is taught to talk with disastrous consequences for all, The Unrest Cure where a house’s calm is punctured by the threat of a pogrom, Filboid Studge, The Mouse that tried to help, which is a wonderful satirical attack on the world of advertising and Laura, a strange tale of reincarnation where the protagonists returns as a destructive otter. But there is something for everyone. Most of the stories are very short, some barely lasting a page or two and mostly three or four, but each one left me in awe of the skill and craftsmanship of the author.

For those of a sensitive, politically correct disposition, there are phrases and attitudes that may cause offence but then Munro was a creature of his time just as we are creatures of our own. Just enjoy his stories for what they are, the finest examples of the story in its short form. Shame about the fag.

A La Mode – Part Two

The Bloomer Suit

In the 19th century women’s attire, at least amongst the better sorts, consisted of long, weighty skirts and restrictive boned fashion bodices. They were restrictive but for the male they served the purpose of protecting the modesty of the fairer sex.

Women wearing trousers was a known phenomenon, being a popular and immensely practical garb in the Middle East, earning them the sobriquet of Turkish trousers. Some American utopian communities, starting with the Community of Equality in Indiana’s New Harmony, espoused the wearing of straight-legged trousers under knee-length skirts. Similarly, trousers were recommended for women engaging in callisthenic exercise or taking cures at sanatoria. The fact that they were worn in closed communities provoked little public comment.

The game changed, though, in early 1851 thanks to the efforts of three women’s rights activists, Elizabeth Candy Stanton, Elizabeth Smith Miller and the editor of the Lily, a Ladies’ Journal devoted to Temperance and Literature, Amelia Jenks Bloomer. Bloomer used the pages of her journal to expound the virtues of a new form of dress, the invention of which she attributed to Miller, although history has bestowed them with her surname.

In the May edition, Bloomer wrote, “Our skirts have been robbed of about a foot of their former length, and a pair of loose trousers of the same material as the dress, substituted. These latter extend from the waist to the ankle, and may be gathered into a band … We make our dress the same as usual, except that we wear no bodice, or a very slight one, the waist is loose and easy, and without whalebones … Our skirt is full, and falls a little below the knee.”

They were an overnight sensation, selling out, particularly after the three ladies sported them on the streets of Seneca Falls in New York State. The Richmond Dispatch of 8th July 1851 gives a sense of the reaction wearing the attire caused; “Yesterday afternoon, Main street was thrown into intense commotion by the sudden appearance … of a pretty young woman, rigged out in the Bloomer costume-her dress being composed of a pink silk cap, pink skirt reaching to the knees and large white silk trousers, fitting compactly around the ankle, and pink coloured gaiters…. Old and young, grave and gay, descended into the street to catch a glimpse of the Bloomer as she passed leisurely and gracefully down the street…” The journo could not resist commenting that she was a fourth-rate actress.

The Rational Dress Reform Society, amongst other more radical women’s groups, adopted the bloomer but soon found it was rather counterproductive, their garments capturing all the attention rather than their rationale for the improvement of the woman’s lot. So by the mid-1850s it had fallen somewhat out of favour, the death knell perhaps being sounded in 1858 by Amelia Bloomer’s decision to forsake the trousers that bore her name for the new-fangled cage crinoline which eliminated the need for heavy petticoats.

What gave women’s trousers a second wind was the uptake in cycling as a pastime in the late 19th century. As early as 1880 The Girl’s Own Paper was recommending that for tricycle dress, there must no trailing garments to get entangled in the cog wheels of the cycle. The obvious solution was to wear trousers or at least bloomers and by 1895 they were accepted as the garb of choice for the enterprising female cyclist. The front cover of the Girl’s Own Paper in 1897 featured women cyclists wearing bloomers. Trousers had arrived but even their association was restricted to the narrow world of cycling.

It is remarkable to note that it was only in the mid-1960s that women wearing trousers became generally accepted.

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Sixty Seven

Baron Spolasco

One of the most remarkable of the early 19th century British quacks was the self-styled Baron Spolasco who first saw the light of day as plain John Smith in Yorkshire in the early 1800s. What’s in a name, after all?

Adopting an exotic name, blackening his hair and wearing theatrical rouge, Spolasco wandered the country, scattering his seed – he fathered a number of illegitimate children during the course of his peregrinations – and claiming to have the answer to pretty much any complaint known to mankind. His calling card claimed that he could ensure “the Consumptive cured – the Cripple made to walk – the Deaf to hear – the Dying to live – the Blind to see, and every other affection treated incidental to the human frame.”  After all, if you have such powers, why bother to list the particular diseases for fear that you may have missed some and narrowed your potential market.

For 22 shillings and sixpence, irrespective of what was wrong with you, you would be supplied with two pills wrapped in pink and blue paper and some powder folded in some white paper. These remarkable panaceas were probably composed of aloes and jalap and probably worked as strong laxatives. So busy and popular was Spolasco that when he was in Bristol as a “consequence of the number of sufferers who daily crowded around Baron Spolasco’s consulting rooms, he has found it necessary, in order to save his valuable time, to charge an admission fee of 5 shillings, which admission fee, if the patient be poor, will be received as consideration for the Baron’s advice, the wealthy will, of course, have to pay the usual fee of one guinea.

Another of the enterprising Baron’s sidelines was rhinoplasty. His advert for this particular service claimed that “any individual who has lost his, or her nose, can be supplied with a real one, Grecian, Roman or Aquiline, perfect and natural as by nature.” The procedure involved bringing down a flap of skin from the patient’s forehead with which to reconstruct the snout. Worryingly, the Baron expressed surprise that it involved the shedding of so much blood.

But it was not all plain sailing – the Baron was one of the lucky thirteen to survive a shipwreck en route to Ireland, although his son went down with the Killarney. Then a year later in 1839, he was up before the beak on a manslaughter charge, after Susannah Thomas had died. When accompanied by her mother to consult the Baron, he claimed he didn’t need to hear her symptoms and gave Susannah the usual two pills and powder. Susannah did not pick up and her mother foolishly summoned Spolasco’s assistance again. Within a quarter of an hour of the second consultation, the poor girl was dead, an autopsy revealing that her intestines were inflamed and her stomach ulcerated and gangrenous. But as it could not be proved conclusively that the Baron’s medicament hastened her demise, he was acquitted.

Spolasco spent a few months in jail in 1840 for forging government stamps on his pills but on his release he moved to London. He cut quite a dash with a flashy coach and a servant of colour dressed in uniform and cockades but the London folk had seen it all before and he was soon run of town.

He ended up in New York, living in penury and dying around 1856 from a cancer that his panacea could not help him with. By this time he was being described in the press as an outright quack who “wore a mountebank costume” and fitted Walt Whitman’s withering denunciation of such people in Street Yarn; “what a bald, bare, wizened, shrivelled old granny he would be.

Training Course Of The Week

For some the arrival of a fireman in full uniform when you are chained up with an object sticking out of an orifice might just be the icing on a pretty exotic cake. But such is the frequency of emergency calls involving men who have damaged or trapped their penises or had objects stuck up their backsides that firemen in the Dresden area of Germany are going through a special training exercise to show them how to handle the situation.

Some 600 polesliders have undergone the training course called, rather prosaically in the Teutonic fashion, Maschinenunfaelle or machine failures. According to the trainer, Eric Forberg, “sensitivity and delicate work counts”, which is good to know, and one of those on the course commented, “the training is not fun for us, but rather requires the utmost concentration. The patient is in enough pain, after all.” Quite.

With training in the correct procedures, removing a penis ring with a grinder should take less than fifteen minutes. But a word of warning; in Worms it took three hours to remove a weightlifter’s penis from the central hole of a 2.5kg iron weight.

The mind boggles.