Friday, 9 May 2014

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

May 9

So, what did our ancestors and forebears get up to on the Ninth of May? Well, for a start off and as far back as 1457 BC, the Battle of Megiddo was fought between Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III and the King of Kadesh with his large following of Canaanite rebels. This is generally known as “the Battle of Megiddo (15th Century BC)” as there were other battles there in 609 BC and again in 1918. The site may have lent its name (which means “strong” or “place of crowds”) to Armageddon (from har Megiddo, har meaning “mount” or “hill,” though it is only a hill because people have been building there for so long). Whilst our Battle of Megiddo may not have been the original instance of actual warring amongst neighbours, it is the first one to have been recorded in what is accepted as relatively reliable detail, including a body count. It is not known for certain, but not long after this must surely have seen the first appearance of the phrase “since records began.” 

In 1662, the day gave Sam Pepys something to note down in his diary when he spotted the prototype Mr Punch getting up to his antics in a show in Covent Garden, though at that time Punch was a marionette rather than a glove puppet. Not the most PC of gentlemen, counting wife-beating amongst his pursuits, Punch did possess a stick known as a slapstick and thus provided the name for a whole genre of comedy, and he also gave us the phrase “pleased as Punch,” meaning smugly self-satisfied. The day itself is known as Mr Punch’s Birthday in this country.

Another event also came well in time to make the Pepys notebook (he was on the go until 1703, aged 70) in 1671, thanks to the efforts of one Colonel Blood (though the “Colonel” bit was a lie, as he was never promoted above lieutenant). Whether or not you believe in nominal determinism, with a name like that, let’s face it, he was almost bound to be getting into some kind of bother or other. Which he did, quite spectacularly, by attempting to steal the Crown Jewels whilst disguised as a clergyman.
Like all good crooks (and all bad ones too, it would seem, seeing the heist failed), he “cased” the joint in advance with his wife (who wasn’t his wife – that was another lie), who then feigned a stomach complaint (another lie) in order to gain the sympathetic attentions of the Master of the Jewel House, Talbot Edwards. Having fully ingratiated himself with the Edwards’ over the following weeks and at the cost of four pairs of white gloves for Mrs E., Blood then made the suggestion that his “nephew” (yet another lie) be married to their daughter, as this would entitle the nephew to an income of several hundred pounds a year (and yet another lie). The day set for a meeting to take place was May 9 but, whilst the daughter waited nervously above to set eyes on her prospective husband for the first time, down below Blood and his cronies were savagely setting about her father with a mallet before stabbing him for good measure (a bit mean really, considering old Talbot was 77 and had been on the point of providing them all with a good dinner). The same mallet then came in handy again, this time for the battering flat of the St. Edward's Crown, whilst the Sceptre was filed in two, all for ease of concealment, though the Sovereign’s Orb ended up being thrust inside a third conspirator’s pants. Alas and alack, ‘twas all in vain for, right at the wrong moment and with the robbery still in full swing, Edwards’ son, Wythe, came back from Flanders and the Blood gang were forced to flee, another feat they failed to pull off, as all were apprehended. However, rather than meeting the traditional fate of hanging, drawing and quartering, they were let off. Blood was afterwards questioned and then pardoned by King Charles II himself, as well as being given, somewhat surprisingly, land in Ireland worth £500 a year. Perhaps the Merry Monarch really did enjoy a jolly jape enough to spare the life of the hapless rogue but some have gone so far as to suggest that the permanently short of cash Charles was hard up enough to have had a hand in proceedings himself. Blood even had the impertinence to offer Charles £6,000 for the Crown Jewels (worth an estimated £100,000), presumably on the grounds that they were by then damaged goods.

By 1788, the English Parliament had finally decided to do something about the slave trade when William Pitt (the Younger) ordered an investigation into it and asked William Wilberforce to begin the debate but, by May of that year, the Privy Council had still not produced its report and so, on May 9, Pitt introduced a motion to the House along the lines of, “Do you think we ought to wait a bit to do this, just until we’ve got more time?”
Happily, though there was a delay, Parliament soon got cracking on tackling the issue and by 1833 they’d got the whole thing sorted out, when the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, outlawing the trade throughout the British Empire. Well, except for “Territories in the Possession of the East India Company,” of course. And Ceylon. Oh, and the Island of St Helena as well. They were eventually included in 1843, meaning that, from start to finish, it had taken them less than fifty five years to achieve a complete abolition. The Mills of God may indeed grind exceeding slow but Parliament has always been happy to give them a run for their money. The phrase “sold down the river” originated in the Mississippi region during slavery when slaves who caused, or proved to be, trouble were sent to much harsher conditions further south or, literally, “sold down the river”.
May 9 1941 sees the capture of the German submarine U-110 during the curiously entitled Operation Primrose. On board is the latest Enigma cryptography machine which boffins at Bletchley Park will later use to break coded German messages and thus substantially shorten the conflict. The list of names of those associated with Bletchley Park is a long and impressive one and even includes that of Roy Jenkins.

Same day, same war but now we’re in 1944 and back on dry land as the Russians recapture Crimea by taking Sevastopol. Which may have rather a familiar ring to it, even today. The fact is that the place has been changing hands for as long as there has been a Crimea and occupiers have included ancient Greeks and Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, Cimmerians, Scythians, Goths, Bulgars, Huns, Khazars, Kipchaks, and the Golden Horde (Mongols). In 1783, under Catherine the Great, the Russians got hold of it and in 1921 it became part of the Soviet Union. The Nazis had it for a while, around 1941-42 and then it was retaken by the Soviets who transferred it to Ukraine in 1954, eventually becoming the Autonomous Republic of Crimea in 1991, which it (supposedly) still is today, with the somewhat overoptimistic motto of "Prosperity in Unity."

Naturally enough, with all this land-grabbing going on there, the British simply had to get involved as well. And a jolly good thing too, otherwise we would have been deprived of two of our most iconic knitwear items: the Cardigan and the Balaclava. In 1854, the Battle of Balaclava was fought near Sevastopol and knitted headgear was sent from home to help the soldiers survive the bitter weather conditions there, seeing the military had neglected to pack any warm clothing (though they weren’t called balaclavas until 1881). The battle included one of the most famous debacles in the history of conflict and James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan is alleged to have been wearing one of the knitted woollen waistcoats that now bear his name whilst (generally taking the blame for) losing the Light Brigade. He did give the order for the Charge, but only under protest, the ultimate command having come from Lord Raglan, who himself lent his name to a type of sleeve, of the sort he sported after having lost his arm at the Battle of Waterloo. Making it certainly our most knitwear-conscious military campaign ever.

Finally, and at the same time leaving out more of May 9 than we’ve had room to include, on this day in 1962, whilst the not-yet-Fab-Four Beatles were signing their first recording contract with Parlophone, a laser beam was being bounced off the moon for the first time by a team of scientists from MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thus pioneering uses for the laser beyond the previous ones confined to cutting, and thereby enabling precise measurements of travel time, and of atmospheric and gravitational forces. Sadly, however, after that, the laser’s main function would be that of attempting to make ageing rock stars appear somewhat less seedy. Still, rather like Colonel Blood must have thought of the luckless Talbot Edwards, worth having a bash at, at any rate …   

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