Friday, 29 August 2014

Giants of Academia & the Arts


… but, then again, nobody is perfect

Anthony Trollope (24 April 1815 – 6 December 1882)





Trollope was one of the most successful, prolific and respected English novelists of the Victorian era, penning no less than forty seven novels, numerous short stories, several travel books and an autobiography but, despite all that, and like many another Giant before and yet to come, posterity often pushes a lifetime’s achievement to one side to remember him for something else altogether: in this case, as the man who invented the pillar box. Which he didn’t even do.







The slightly unfortunate name of Trollope, butt of many a snicker and chortle down the years, actually derives from the place-name of Troughburn in Northumberland, originally Trolhop, a Norse name meaning valley of trolls, those mythological cave-dwelling beings of folklore. So, Trollope has nothing whatsoever to do with ladies of ill-repute (their troll being in the sense of to wallow or roll about), meaning that we certainly shan’t be repeating, or even so much as mentioning, Prime Minister (and Trollope devotee) Harold MacMillan’s infamous remark that he liked nothing better than “to go to bed early with a Trollope.” SuperMac, as he was known, and not because of the size of his raincoat, was clearly a man who loved a good laugh, seeing he also came up with “You’ve never had it so good” (what he actually said was, “Most Britons have never had it so good”) and also organised something called the Night of the Long Knives (on Friday the Thirteenth, as it goes, 1962), sacking from Cabinet anyone who didn’t completely agree with him, about which another upcoming wit, young Liberal MP, Jeremy Thorpe, remarked that, “greater love hath no man than this, than to lay down his friends for his life.”


Anthony Trollope was born close to the present Birkbeck site, at 6 Keppel Street, to Thomas Anthony Trollope and Frances Milton. The father, like many another unwitting sire of greatness, decided to name no less than two of his sons after himself, possibly in the vain hope that he might achieve success vicariously, which was about the only way he ever would, seeing that, though he was an intelligent, well-educated man and a barrister, he was (quite literally) a miserable loser, being of an especially gloomy disposition and someone who blundered from one failure to the next almost effortlessly. Thanks to his notorious bad temper, his law practice dwindled into terminal decline as fewer and fewer clients were prepared to put up with his abuse; his radical (and entirely unqualified) shift into the world of farming also proved unsurprisingly unprofitable; and, just to put the proverbial tin lid on matters, an inheritance he had been banking on from an elderly and childless uncle went belly up when the dastardly fiend decided to get married and have children after all. Young Tony, rather like his contemporary, Dickens, found his childhood blighted to misery by a decline into hard times.


At the age of one, the infant Trollope was taken to a house called Julians near Harrow, ostensibly for farming reasons but actually so he could attend Harrow School as a free day pupil, beginning his attendance in 1822 as a dirty and badly dressed outcast, quickly attaining the status of class dunce, taking regular floggings and getting bullied into the bargain. In 1825, he was transferred to Arthur Drury’s private school at Sunbury, where he achieved yet more disgrace and notoriety, before finally following in his father’s footsteps by going to Winchester in 1827 to continue in much the same vein, with no money and no friends. To make matters slightly less bearable, his brother, Thomas, was already a prefect there and, as his tutor and a “student of Draco,” was happy to furnish him with a regime of daily beatings with a “big stick.” Finally, in 1830, it was back to Harrow once more in a cost-cutting exercise and to complete the most miserable education that even his already elaborately imaginative mind might possibly have come up with.


So far, then, he had achieved nothing in his education, had been bullied, disgraced and an outcast, and had even flirted with the idea of suicide. In terms of becoming a literary giant, almost the perfect credentials.


Meanwhile, his mother, unimpressed enough by 1827 with the father’s catalogue of disasters, had taken off for America with the three younger Trollope siblings, a bluestocking and a French painter, firstly to the Nashoba Commune (which failed) and then to set up a bazaar in Cincinnati (which failed horribly and precipitated the final ruin of the family), proving that anything he could do, she could do just as abysmally at too. At which the Trollopes fled to Bruges. To be fair to Frances, her income supported the entire tribe of them as, by 1832, she had taken up the pen and begun writing, novels mostly, though beginning with a number entitled Domestic Manners of the Americans. Which the Americans themselves didn’t care for one little bit.


In Belgium, Anthony was offered a commission in the Austrian cavalry but, instead, he took the next logical step towards a career in penmanship: he got a job with the Post Office. And, just as tradition demands, he was neither good at it nor at all conscientious, adding the other prerequisites of insubordination and unpunctuality while he was about it. Once again, as a budding author, he was ticking all the right boxes. Though he hated every minute, saying that, "the first seven years of my official life were neither creditable to myself nor useful to the public service." Faulkner himself would have recognised the potential and been proud of him. Except that Trollope did it all first. When a rather undesirable opportunity arose in Ireland (ironically, to replace someone incompetent), Trollope leapt at the chance of escape and his boss, William Maberly (longtime soldier and later to be parodied by Trollope as Sir Boreas Bodkin in Marion Fay), keen to be rid, didn’t stand in his way.


In Ireland, he did well, something of a blow to his literary aspirations, perhaps, though he did set the trend for writers by indulging in foxhunting, pursuing that pastime enthusiastically for the next three decades. There, at Kingstown, he met Rose Heseltine, “the daughter of a Rotherham bank manager,” (it says, meaning history recalls two things about her dad but nothing of her), though they could not marry until 1844, because of Trollope’s debts and “her lack of a fortune” (it also says). It was now that he started to write, setting himself the specific goals of producing a certain amount of work each day that he would later be so roundly criticised for, working from five until eight each morning and paying a servant £5 a year to wake him with a cup of coffee. Presumably first thing, while he was still in bed, rather than when he’d dozed off over the Vicar of Bullhampton. The main carp over this method of his was that it seemed focussed on quantity more than actual quality. He would spend half an hour correcting what he had written the day before and then would dip his pen, managing about a thousand words an hour and filling ten pages before ever setting off for the Post Office. And this every day, mind, week in week out. Loads of it.


By 1851, he was back in England, having taken the post of Surveyor General (and a cool £800 a year) and spent the next two years travelling around, mostly on horseback, a time he described as, "two of the happiest years of my life.” Posterity doesn’t record what his wife thought about his “happiest years” being in the saddle and far away from her. Nor, for that matter, does it tell of what the horse made of it, seeing that Trollope was a strapping big lad, after all (“For so large a man, he could sit a horse, if not with elegance at least with monumental certainty”). It was during these peregrinations that happened to find himself one day in Salisbury, a happy chance that would inspire the plot of the Warden, for which he would receive, in the first year of its publication a princely £9 8s. 8d. (almost a tenner) and, in the second, a further £10 15s. 1d. Undeterred, he plunged straight into Barchester Towers, which did equally as well, and then the Three Clerks: rather than wait for the money to come trickling in this time, he sold it for a lump sum of £250.



Early spring of 1852 and our man finds himself being sent to the Channel Islands to find out what the problem is there with the post. Which turns out to be the irregular sailings of the mailboats (thanks to choppy seas and all that), so Trollope comes up with the solution of having an octagonal box in the shape of a pillar (a “pillar box”), an idea he almost certainly nicked off the French when he saw their version whilst in Paris. How this solves the rough seas situation is never adequately explained, though it writes Trollope down as the Man Who Invented the Pillar Box: slightly better, though only just, than being the Man Who Pinched the Idea. Trollope decided to paint his olive green, so they’d be unobtrusive, which certainly worked, seeing people kept walking straight into them, though it wasn’t until as late as 1874 (the Post Office: just as speedy then as today) that they got round to painting them red and, even then, it took another ten years to do the whole lot.



The big literary break finally comes in 1859, when the Cornhill Magazine appears, edited by William Makepeace Thackeray (who couldn’t have been as miserable or as snooty as he looked) and Trollope decides he wants a slice of the action, extending his services as a penman, for which he is offered a towering £1,000 if he can come up with a novel to be serialised. The catch being that it has to be ready in six weeks. No bother, thinks Trollope, and he comes up with Framley Parsonage, thereby shortcutting the entire process by reusing the characters from Barchester Towers and creating yet more from the same wood. It is an enormous success, securing his reputation.



Miffed by being passed over for promotion in 1864, Anthony flounces out of the Post Office in high dudgeon, though not until 1867 when he’s saved up enough cash to cover the pension he will lose by leaving before he is sixty. Instead of going writing full-blast, however, he decides to have a crack at politics by standing for election as an MP in Beverley, this being a longstanding dream of his. The outcome perhaps wasn’t, though, as he spent £400 on his campaign, which he described as "the most wretched fortnight of my manhood" (he meant his adult life, of course – nothing unseemly about Trollope) and, of the four candidates standing, he came fourth. Parliament’s loss was literature’s gain because in 1871 he headed off to Australia to see his sheepfarming son. On the way out, he wrote Lady Anna; on the way back, Australia and New Zealand, in which he calls the Australians “braggarts.” The Australians don’t care for this one little bit and never forgive him, though it does keep up the family tradition, started by his mother, of visiting the colonies and then insulting the natives. Undaunted, Anthony has the nerve to go back there in 1875, to keep up another family tradition - helping close down the son’s failed farming enterprise. The Australians still hadn’t forgiven him.


“His voice was bass and resonant.... His laugh was, at its healthiest, a bellow.” At Garland’s Hotel, Pall Mall, on 3 November 1882, whilst laughing at a family reading of F. Anstey's Vice Versa, he was struck down by a paralytic stroke, dying on 6 December. Which is about as close as you will ever get to the old saying, “You’ll die laughing.” In the end, Trollope, who unashamedly wrote for money and said of inspiration, “it would not be more absurd if the shoemaker were to wait for inspiration,” really did have the last laugh.




Images:
"Harold Macmillan number 10 official" by Vivienne (Florence Mellish Entwistle) (Active 1940, died 1982) - http://www.gac.culture.gov.ukhttp://www.gac.culture.gov.uk/work.aspx?obj=27194 http://www.number10.gov.uk/past-prime-ministers/harold-macmillan/http://www.number10.gov.uk. Via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Harold_Macmillan_number_10_official.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Harold_Macmillan_number_10_official.jpg

"Picture of Anthony Trollope" by Napoleon Sarony - The New York Public Library: http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/dgkeysearchdetail.cfm?trg=1&strucID=301796&imageID=484405&word=Anthony%20Trollope&s=1&notword=&d=&c=&f=&k=1&lWord=&lField=&sScope=&sLevel=&sLabel=&sort=&total=3&num=0&imgs=20&pNum=&pos=2. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Picture_of_Anthony_Trollope.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Picture_of_Anthony_Trollope.jpg

"Orley Farm frontispiece illustration" by John Everett Millais - Internet Archive. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Orley_Farm_frontispiece_illustration.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Orley_Farm_frontispiece_illustration.jpg

"Victorian post box Guernsey" by Man vyi - Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Victorian_post_box_Guernsey.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Victorian_post_box_Guernsey.jpg

"William Makepeace Thackeray by Jesse Harrison Whitehurst-crop" by Jesse Harrison Whitehurst (1819-1875), scanned by BPL - William Makepeace ThackerayUploaded by Trycatch. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_Makepeace_Thackeray_by_Jesse_Harrison_Whitehurst-crop.jpg#mediaviewer/File:William_Makepeace_Thackeray_by_Jesse_Harrison_Whitehurst-crop.jpg

"Anthony Trollope Vanity Fair 5 April 1873" by Leslie Ward - Published in Vanity Fair, 5 April 1873.Downloaded from http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/largerimage.php?mkey=mw136861&LinkID=mp04701. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Anthony_Trollope_Vanity_Fair_5_April_1873.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Anthony_Trollope_Vanity_Fair_5_April_1873.jpg 

Friday, 22 August 2014

Bank Holiday Weekend Hours

Monday 25 August - Closed

For any of you who may have missed our last reminder post, the Library will be closed on the coming Bank Holiday Monday. On Saturday and Sunday we are open from 10.00-6.00 (Self Service) and re-open as normal on Tuesday at 10.00.

 

Saturday     10.00 until 6.00     
                    Self Service


Sunday        10.00 until 6.00     
                    Self Service


Monday       CLOSED


Tuesday       Re-open at 10.00





Today's the Day


Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

August 22


Another action-packed date throughout history, this one and, while much of what went on involved the all-too-familiar themes of bickering, brutality and bloodshed, with the academic barely getting a look in, we can at least get today off to a promising start with an actual saint, in the form of St Columba, who ended up with a couple of notable firsts to his name. Saint or no, however, and despite the fact that the name, in his native Irish, comes from Colm Cille, or church dove, Columba was an argumentative so-and-so who thought nothing of using his fists to settle a dispute. As luck would have it, St Finian happened to be around at the same time and, being of much the same mind (it would seem the entry requirements for canonization were rather lower back in those days), he gave him a run for his money. Around 560, the holy pair of them got into a highly unchristian squabble over a psalter (basically a book of psalms and other material), Columba spiriting away (without asking) Finian’s one in order to copy out a version for his own use, which Finian took none too kindly to when he found out, claiming that because he owned the original, he also owned the copy: hand it over, demanded Finian; certainly shan’t, replied Columba. In the end, they took it before King Diarmait mac Cerbaill for a final decision and he famously ruled that, "To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy." Naturally enough, Columba didn’t agree with the decision and so the good saint decided the best way to sort the whole thing out once and for all was in pitched combat, the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne in 561, during which three thousand men were killed. All because of a dispute over copyright, this being one of the first in history.


As a result, Columba went into exile in Scotland, where he determined to convert as many souls to Christianity as had perished in the “Battle of the Book.” It was here that he began working his miracles: healing people with diseases, expelling malignant spirits, subduing wild beasts, calming storms, and even returning the dead to life, not to mention casting out a demon from a pail and then restoring the spilt milk to it. But it was on 22 August 565 when he pulled off the big one: he made the first sighting of the Loch Ness Monster. Well, so some people think. Of course, we don’t mean that he went back to his followers and said, “Hey up, lads, I reckon I’ve just seen Nessie, so I have,” or anything like that. No, what is supposed to have happened, according to Adomnán (pronounced Athovnawn), yet another saint (and we’ve seen how reliable they are), Columba came across a group of Picts who were burying a man who had been killed by a ferocious water beast (meaning he couldn’t have been first to spot it, in that case) and so, being Columba and probably not wanting to get his feet wet, he sends in another swimmer to lure the dread beastie, which duly turns up. Columba then leaps into action with a sign of the Cross and the order, "Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed," at which the “terrified” monster (possibly a walrus that had lost its bearings) flees, leaving Columba hero of the hour. One tiny flaw in this Loch Ness Monster Sighting tale is that Adomnán specifically states that it happened in the River Ness but, seeing quibbling with Columba generally ends in wanton bloodshed, we’ll let that one go, shall we?


This day in 851, Charles the Bald was defeated by Erispoe at the Battle of Jengland in Brittany. Though Charles was always being beaten by someone or other (Bretons and Aquitaines mainly, with a few Vikings thrown in for good measure) and generally having a hard time of it. When he was born, his elder brothers were already adults with their own subkingdoms and, try as he might, Charles’ dad never did quite manage to find one for his youngest son, eventually making him heir to Gaul, which is what caused the trouble in the first place. Bit of an odd name, though, isn’t it? You can understand ones like Eric Bloodaxe (speaks for itself) and Rolf the Ganger (Ralph the Walker, who was such a huge bloke no horse could carry him), but then we come to Ivar the Boneless, which may be a Viking euphemism for impotence or a reference to a highly supple physique, but it may also equate to “legless” (the German bein means leg) as he may have been lame or had Brittle Bone Disease – whichever one, he was still able to be a vicious thug who supposedly killed St Edmund in East Anglia. Back with Charles, his nickname, rather like that of King John of England (John Lackland), may have been a reference to his landlessness; others believe it may be sardonic and that he was, in fact, extremely hairy; possibly, though, it was just because he really was bald. As a coot. Coots being bald in the sense of being marked with white, the same as with a “piebald” horse. Charles must have found nicknames tremendously amusing, seeing he named some of his offspring Louis the Stammerer, Charles the Child and Lothar the Lame.


An inauspicious day for at least two kings of England, firstly Richard III, last of the Plantagenets (a word derived from the medieval Latin, planta genista, the broom plant, which the first of them, Henry II, is supposed to have sported in his hat) was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 by Henry VII, first of the Tudor monarchs. The whole day hinged on the intervention of the Stanleys, who, in true chivalric style, held back to see which side it would be most advantageous to join. When Richard made a headlong cavalry charge for Henry to finish things off quickly, he became separated from his forces, leaving him vulnerable, especially when he was unhorsed, which made the Stanley’s minds up for them and in they went. Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, also switched sides to the winning one, making your medieval aristocracy every bit as reliable as your Pictish saint. Henry VII later hired chroniclers to portray the Battle of Bosworth as a victory for good over evil and to show his reign (which was a usurping one) in a favourable light, one of the earliest instances of the use of spin doctors. History, however, remembers him as a grasping miser, so it doesn’t always work.





Not so good either in 1582 for James VI of Scotland (later James I of England), who was captured in the Raid of Ruthven (or abducted, depending on which spin doctor you believe) and held for almost a year, with Elizabeth I of England, highly pleased at the development, sending up £1,000 as wages for the guards to keep him under lock and key. In 1603, she died and he took her throne to become the first of the Stuart monarchs. His own son, Charles I, chose the selfsame day of 22 August in 1642 to call Parliament and its soldiers traitors, declaring war on them at Nottingham, which would soon lead to the Battle of Edgehill (October 23) and eventually to Charles losing his head.


 
August 22 didn’t improve much from a monarchy point of view, despite the fact that Captain Cook claimed Australia for George III this day in 1770. Only five years later, George (he was the mad one, of course) would be proclaiming the American Colonies to be in open rebellion, seeing they didn’t quite care for Taxation Without Representation or for being scammed over tea prices, so decided to have (and win) a War of Independence. In 1864, however, twelve nations signed the Geneva Convention “for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field,” which was actually the first of four such conventions and brought about the foundation of the International Red Cross at the same time (the others being 1906, 1929 and 1949, the one referred to today by the term).
  
This day in 1906 saw a bit of inventing, when the Victor Victrola hit the shelves, this being the first gramophone with an internal horn, which proved hugely popular. The Victor Company owned the rights to use the famous image of the terrier listening to a Berliner Gramophone, originally painted by Francis Barraud in 1898 as a memorial to his deceased brother, who had bequeathed him both an Edison-Bell cylinder phonograph (complete with cylinders) and his dog, Nipper (who was much given to doing just that). Every time Barraud played a cylinder recorded by his late brother, the dog would run to the horn, cock his ear and listen intently. If you look closely at the picture, Nipper is seen sitting on a polished surface and there is much dispute as to whether this is a tabletop or actually the lid of his deceased master’s coffin. Barraud never said. The image was used in magazine adverts, urging record buyers to “Look for the dog,” and became known as “His Master’s Voice.”


August 22 1914 saw the first major encounter between British and German troops of World War One. The first actual coming together occurred the previous day when a British bicycle reconnaissance team encountered a German unit near Obourg and Private John Parr became the first British soldier to be killed in the conflict. He was seventeen, only five feet three tall, and was nicknamed “Ole Parr,” possibly (and ironically) after Old Tom Parr, who was said to have lived to be just short of one hundred and fifty three. The next day at 6.30 a.m., the 4th Dragoon Guards gave chase to a patrol of German lancers at Casteau (near Mons), led by Captain Charles Beck Hornby, who then became the first British soldier to kill an enemy. On horseback, armed with a sword, fighting against a lance. Drummer Edward Thomas is then reputed to have fired the first shot of the war for the British Army, hitting a German trooper.


At the other end, Private George Lawrence Price, a Canadian soldier, is traditionally recognized as the last soldier of the British Empire to be killed during the First World War. At 10.58 a.m., just two minutes before the Armistice came into effect. Thanks to the blundering egotistical conceit of generals bound on last minute vainglory and seizing every inch of ground whilst they still could (Pershing amongst them, who also refused point blank to lead black troops) almost eleven thousand men died needlessly that November 11 day (all the generals survived, of course), which exceeds the ten thousand casualties suffered by all sides on D-Day, 6 June 1944. The men storming the Normandy beaches were risking their lives to win a war; those who fell on November 11 were made futile sacrifice of in a war already won, for no better reason than to pin tatty ribbons on the undeserving chests of gilded and brasshung selfserving barbarians: come the Cenotaph next Remembrance, spare a thought for these worthless wretches also, who “toddled safely home to die, in bed.”



Images:

"James I of England by Daniel Mytens" by Daniël Mijtens (circa 1590–circa 1647) - Scanned from the book The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson, ISBN 1855142287.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:James_I_of_England_by_Daniel_Mytens.jpg#mediaviewer/File:James_I_of_England_by_Daniel_Mytens.jpg

"Boston Tea Party Currier colored" by Nathaniel Currier - http://www.octc.kctcs.edu/mmaltby/his108/Boston%20Tea%20Party.jpg[dead link]. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boston_Tea_Party_Currier_colored.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Boston_Tea_Party_Currier_colored.jpg

"His Master's Voice" by Original uploader was NewYork1956 at en.wikipedia - Originally from en.wikipedia; description page is/was here.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:His_Master%27s_Voice.jpg#mediaviewer/File:His_Master%27s_Voice.jpg

"George lawrence price" by Gord Goddard - http://www.nwbattalion.com/memorial/gl_price1.doc. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:George_lawrence_price.jpg#mediaviewer/File:George_lawrence_price.jpg

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Bank Holiday Monday closure

Just a reminder that the Library is closed on Bank Holiday Monday (August 25th). We are open Saturday and Sunday 10am to 6pm (self service) and then re-open on Tuesday at 10am.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Word to the Wise


Neglected gems of the language for taking down the pub and introducing to your mates. With a True Tale by way of illustration.

Senescence

See-ness-uhnss: Noun: the process of becoming old and showing the signs of aging.

From the Latin, senescere, to grow old, originally from senex, old man.

Related forms: senesce, verb, to grow old; senescent, adjective, in the state of growing old.


An excellent word for something common to everything and to all of us, which we all indulge in pretty much the whole of our lives, though it is possible to use the negative version, unsenescent, even if you might be hard pressed to slip that into conversation other than in an ironic way. The opposite would be juvenescence: being, or having the power, to grow young or youthful. From the same senex root, we also get senile, senior, senate, senator and the rather less utile seneschal (that's one in the Santa headgear), this being a senior ranking officer having charge of the domestic arrangements in the household of a medieval dignitary (though there are still some on the go today). The terms senor, senora and senorita are also derived from the same root. Thus, in the right circumstances (you’d probably need to be in Spain, or talking to a Spaniard at least), it would be possible to say that, “the unsenescent seneschal took a senior position in the senate, as a senator, until he became senile, senor.” Wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for the chance to use it, mind.


Having claimed bare seconds ago that senescence is the inescapable lot of all things, it turns out that this is not the absolute fate of every organism after all, there being scientific evidence enough to suggest that cellular senescence developed in certain species to prevent the onset of cancer, which would seem to be, in evolutionary terms, a strange choice: getting old and dying before the tumescence has a chance to get at you. Mind you, it is only a few simple species that have not taken this route, such as the Hydra, for example, and all of which have no "post-mitotic" cells, mitosis being the technical term for the cell division that does the damage. The planarian flatworm is said to be biologically immortal, having “apparently limitless regenerative capacity fuelled by a population of highly proliferative adult stem cells.” The main drawbacks to this strategy are that (1) you live for ages but only as a flatworm and, more significantly (2) you’re only biologically immortal: you still die.

Senescence, if indirectly, is easily the leading cause of death (unless you count cerebral hypoxia – lack of oxygen to the brain – which it would be technically accurate to say is the immediate cause of all human death) and, of the approximately 150,000 people who die each day all over the world, two thirds die of age-related causes, the figure rising to some ninety percent in industrialised nations. Which, by extension, means that the other 50,000 – a goodish attendance at a football match – die before their time is up every single day.



The oldest person to have ever lived (that can be verified) was Jeanne Calment, a French woman born on 21 February 1875 and who died on 4 August 1997 when she was 122 years and 164 days old. Of the top ten oldest people ever, no less than nine have been women, with just the one bloke managing to scrape in at number 10, a Japanese gentleman by the name of Jiroemon Kimura, who died in 2013 aged 116 years and 54 days. As for the oldest people still alive now, the top slot for that is also held by the Japanese, with another compatriot at number 9; an impressive tally of six are from the USA and the numbers are made up by one each from Italy and the UK, ours being Ethel Lang (née Lancaster), who was born in Barnsley (Yorkshire) way back in the reign of Queen Victoria.



When it comes to life expectancy, Monaco is the place to be, with an average of 87.2 (89 for women and 85.3 for men), even if it is the second smallest and the most densely populated country in the world, though only 37,579 people actually live there, most of them doing nothing more dangerous than banking, gambling or tax avoidance. Japan, once again, comes next, with the UK only managing a dismal twenty ninth place (average 81) and the USA, despite their current plethora of supercentenarians, languishing all the way down at thirty fifth (79.8). Greenland’s figures are spoiled by having the highest suicide rate but, even so, they still manage to tie with Denmark in one hundred and forty fourth (70.07). As for senescence, Japan has easily the biggest percentage of population aged over sixty five (in nations of over 40 million, at any rate), weighing in with 24.9%, just a smidge short of a quarter, though they also have the equal smallest when it comes to children under fourteen with a meagre 13.1%, in a draw with the Germans for it (who will no doubt win the penalty shoot-out). Can it be coincidence that these are also two of the most successful economies in the world right now?


This time’s True Tale features senescence in the frail form of Barbie - an occasional visitor back in the bygone days of the Wishing Well - a sweet old lady who would drift in now and then from the care home across the way. How she managed to escape from under constant supervision there never was fully established but she did and, for half an hour or so, she would entertain the somewhat malicious humours of the regulars at the Well with her antics and eccentricities before being escorted back to the home. Harmless enough and often quite lucid, the grip of dementia still made her prone to unshakeable delusions at times, maintaining absolutely that the war was still on and remaining convinced that the bombers would be rolling overhead at any moment. Mind you, given the amount of fighting that sometimes went on in there, that was an easy mistake to make.

‘I see all the mobile phones’ve come out,’ the barmaid remarked to us in aside this one particular night.

Looking round, indeed they had, with every one of the few who were in either talking into one in an overexcited gibber or else wielding it in a manner threatening photography, though there seemed to be no discernible reason for this sudden frenzy of activity whatsoever.

‘Damon Albarn, innit?’ our informant helpfully supplied in a stage whisper.

And there he was, the legendary Blur frontman himself and, in a kind of buy-one-get-one-free type deal, sitting alongside him was no less a figure than Graham Coxon, former guitarist with the aforementioned band, the pair of them with nothing more on their minds than discussing the possibility of Coxon’s rejoining the supergroup (following bitter dispute) over as quiet a pint as could be hoped for in a starstruck backstreet watering hole. Just such a reunion did, in fact, eventually take place and, in all probability, it’s mainly thanks to the intervention of Barbie.

Some while later, as soon as the two lads made ready to go, Barbie was instantly up on her pins. She could sense that something out of the ordinary was occurring, even if she had not the faintest idea what, and she was now determined to get to the bottom of it. Waylaying the hapless singer, her eyes narrowed like a snake’s as it fixes onto its next victim whilst she scrutinised him from top to bottom and back again before demanding of him, as if he had already denied it:

‘I know you, young man, don’t I?’

Albarn appeared to be struck entirely speechless by this unexpected assault, unsure as to how to respond to it, though Coxon, from the relative safety of behind, seemed to be richly relishing his friend’s exquisite dilemma. Here was the frontman of a world supergroup, who has performed in front of audiences of thousands, now being terrorised by a little old lady.

‘I don’t think you do,’ he said at last, timidly.

‘I do!’ Barbie insisted vehemently. ‘I do know you, young man. I’ve seen you.’

‘I don’t think you can have,’ came the tactful reply.

‘Yes!’ said Barbie, wholly undeterred and still convinced of her own veracity. ‘Yes, I know you all right. I do. I know you.’

A mere shake of the head this time by way of rebuttal, while Barbie assayed him afresh with piercing eyes, still as if she meant to make a meal of him the very moment she recalled who he was. And then a light suddenly flashed into them, a glow of unadulterated triumph, and a smile of satisfaction spread across her face.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I knew it! I do know you. Don’t you work in Argos?’


Photo Credits:

The Planarian Flatworm:
"Polycelis felina" by Eduard Solà - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Polycelis_felina.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Polycelis_felina.jpg

Blur:
"Blur Newcastle 2009 Coxon Albarn" by Lola's Big Adventure! - http://www.flickr.com/photos/kokalola/3687763151. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blur_Newcastle_2009_Coxon_Albarn.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Blur_Newcastle_2009_Coxon_Albarn.jpg