Friday, 30 January 2015

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

January 30

For some obscure reason, this day down the years has turned out to be one on which events seem to turn spectacularly sour for most of those concerned but, as it goes, the day got off to a fairly promising start in 1592 when Ippolito Aldobrandini was elected Pope Number 231, for which task he took the papal name of Clement VIII. Though matters soon took a turn for the worse when his moniker proved to be the only thing even vaguely clement (mild, merciful, compassionate) about him, seeing he was one of those blokes you really wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of. Barely had he even warmed the papal throne before the air was thick with the aroma of human flesh crisping at the stake. It’s to be hoped he told a good knock-knock joke because otherwise this is a Pope with absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever.

Take the notorious case of the murder of Francesco Cenci who, hard though it is to believe, was an even nastier piece of work than Clement himself. He’d already been to jail for his various and violent crimes but, being a “nobleman”, was let out early (paid a hefty bribe), at which he thought he would vent his sadistic spleen on his wife and sons, and even contemplated incest with his daughter Beatrice at one point, which is when she decided enough was enough and snitched to the authorities. Despite the fact that all Rome knew what a despicable character Francesco was (you can find accounts that claim he wasn’t nearly as bad as he was painted, but let’s stick to the legend, shall we?), nothing was done about it. Apart from when Francesco got to hear about the betrayal and promptly banished Beatrice and wife Lucrezia to a remote fortress fastness perched high in the mountains, turning up now and again himself in order to carry on with the getting his own back. Someone should have warned him that you can push people too far, because they drugged him with opium, smashed his head in and then hurled him down the cliff face to make it look like an accident, only the whole family got rumbled and most of them, Beatrice included, were sentenced to death. There was a mighty clamour of appeals for leniency on Clement’s part but he remained adamant and had them executed, after a bit of judicial torturing first, of course. That’s the sort of chap he was. Naturally, there are those who claim that Clement was somehow implicated in the plot and had even ordered the murder himself but, seeing he refrained from keeping the confiscated Cenci property for himself (no, indeed, he gave it away - to members of his own family), that hardly seems likely, does it?

Clement was particularly severe on any who took even a slightly different viewpoint to his own but was generally able to get his point across, usually by having them burnt alive to show them the error of their ways, these including Giordano Bruno and Menocchio, both of whom had had the temerity to suggest that perhaps the earth wasn’t the centre of the universe after all. Bruno was a firm believer in free will while Clement was not, the Pope proving his rival’s assertion to be bunkum by sending him to the stake on his own say so alone; whilst Menocchio claimed that “the Pope had no power given to him from God,” though, given Clement’s track record, he really should have seen how that one was going to end. One thing which he is supposed to have liked, by all accounts, is coffee. The story goes that his advisors came to him complaining that the said beverage was the “bitter invention of Satan” – which had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that the Muslims were keen as kippers over it – only it turns out that Clement thinks it’s a drop of all right and declares that, “This devil's drink is so delicious...we should cheat the devil by baptizing it.” Imagine what he must’ve been like in the mornings before he’d had his first cup …

January 30 was not Charles I’s most favourite day. The one in 1648 wasn’t too bad, given the circumstances, but those either side were what you might call real rotters. Following a right royal hammering at Naseby on 14 June 1645, things went from bad to worse for the King, ending up with the Siege of Oxford, from which Charles escaped dressed as a servant. With the dastardly Parliamentarians in hot pursuit of him, he then thought the best thing all round would be to launch his own version of a Better Together campaign with the Scots – forgetting entirely that is was his attempt to foist the Book of Common Prayer onto them (which resulted in rioting and in Charles having to leg it south to call a Parliament to grant him funds to put down these Caledonian rebels) that had kick-started events leading to the Civil War – making them all kinds of promises he had no intention of keeping and which he would instantly retract, once he’d got what he wanted (what the Coalition would probably describe as a sound policy initiative). But, instead of meekly voting Yes, the Scots simply wanted the back-pay they were owed, tucked it away in the old sporran and, on 30 January, handed the monarch over to the English.

Charles, now in the hands of the Parliamentarians (Puritan zealots not known for their forgiving nature or for having any sense of fun whatsoever – they banned Christmas in 1647 and replaced it with a day of fasting, remember), realised he was in something of a ticklish situation and that his best bet would be to escape. Which he did. On 11 November 1647, possibly even thinking he’d be home in good time for his Christmas Dinner but, with about as much vision as a mole in dark glasses, instead of hightailing it for the Continent and safety, he headed to the Isle of Wight, having been informed he would be amongst sympathisers there, only to find himself under lock and key once more. Tsk! You just can’t trust some people, can you Charles? Entirely undismayed, he now started negotiations with both sides, telling the Scots he’d be well up for introducing Presbyterianism, if only they’d invade and get him his throne back, whilst at the same time talking religious toleration and political compromise with the English, keeping his fingers firmly crossed throughout and maintaining all the steadfastness of a modern parliamentarian by meaning not one word of any of his hollow promises. Unfortunately, however, back in those days most people could recognise a weasel when they saw one and simply lost patience with his evident slipperiness. Worse still, Cromwell had by now realised that being a viciously sadistic bullyboy was the only way to get things done around here and that folks would be a lot better off all round if Charles’ head was separated from his body. Naturally enough, in the interests of fair play, they had a trial first before they found him guilty and condemned him to the axe but, even so, on 30 January 1649, plain Charles Stuart stepped through a window in Whitehall to be sent from “a corruptible world into an incorruptible one” with a single swipe.

Next up for a bad day of it on January 30, fittingly enough, is Oliver Cromwell himself, Regicide-in-Chief and England’s Most Revered Thug who, as someone with something of a penchant for dates coincidental, would no doubt be smiling sardonically – had he not been such a po-faced joyless miserygut – at the sweet irony of what occurred this day in 1661. His Special Day was September 3, which he considered something of a well-starred one, as far as he was concerned. Firstly, he used it to launch the Siege of Drogheda (Ireland), which ended with the surrender of two hundred men, who had holed up in a fort, when they were told their lives would be spared. Cromwell proved as good as his word, for a whole hour anyway, then had them taken to a nearby windmill and killed, one of them, Arthur Aston, reportedly being beaten to death with his own wooden leg. Another hundred or so Royalists were in St Peter's Church, so Cromwell had it fired, thirty burning to death and fifty more getting slaughtered as they fled. The number of civilians butchered by the “Protector” depends very much on who you believe, varying from seven or eight hundred (Parliament, never reliable counters historically), to two to three thousand (Royalists), up to four thousand (Irish clericals). Whatever the final tally, it does show the kind of effort you’ve got to put in if you want your statue to stand outside Parliament inspiring our politicians.


 Then there was the Battle of Dunbar on 3 September 1650 (a slaughtering of thousands of Scots this time and, as Cromwell put it, “one of the most signal mercies God hath done for England and His people”), followed by the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651, the last of the (technically Second) English Civil War. But nobody can have things all their own way and, on Friday 3 September 1658, Cromwell died, probably of septicaemia brought on by a urinary infection caused by a gallstone (how very apposite: killed by his own bile) and, from thereon in, things never got any better.


In 1660, newly-proclaimed King Charles II decided that the decent thing to do would be to teach Cromwell and his erstwhile buddies, Henry Ireton, Robert Blake and John Bradshaw, a lesson they wouldn’t forget, so he had them shovelled up from their graves and ritually executed, by hanging them and then sticking their heads onto spikes (it worked: none of them erred again). Cromwell’s was put on a long pole above Westminster Hall and there it remained until 1685 or so when, during a storm, the pole broke and it fell into the street, where some guard spotted it and thought, “I’m having that” (as you would), though quite what you do with a well-rotted regicide’s head when you get one is rather less obvious (he stashed his up the chimney, which must have put the willys up Santa and no mistake). The trouble with Cromwell, of course, is he was every bit as fickle in death as he was in life, so nobody can be certain it was his body that was dug up in the first place, rumour having it that his loyal followers rather suspected that the Royalists were pretty likely to get up to something unseemly along these lines the moment they’d dusted off the crown (Charles II wasn’t called the Merry Monarch for nothing) so Cromwell’s mates did a furtive bit of grave-swapping in advance, just in case. The Lord Protector himself, not a man especially noted for his sense of humour, had been known to dabble in much the same sport, using deceased monarchs in his macabre game of musical coffins (except he didn’t approve of music) so, who knows, maybe he got the last laugh after all and it was a right royal relative that Charles ended up thrusting the spike into?

Just to prove this wasn’t an all-round washout of a day for all concerned, and to bring us as near as we’ll get to academia this time round, we now come to 1894 and Charles Brady King. He was something of a boffin and inventor who, in March 1896, would go on to become the first man to design, build and drive a self-propelled automobile – those of you who fondly believed that it was Henry Ford, you’re three months behind the times, so do try and keep up. He was the first to sell one too, so that’s Ford well and truly stuffed into the proverbial cocked hat (which he probably deserved, seeing he’d develop into a fiercely anti-Semitic mate of the Nazis, who awarded him the Grand Cross of the German Eagle in 1938). It was probably whilst pondering the vast wide endlessly straight highways of America (he was from Detroit) that King first conceived the glimmerings of the idea for his breakthrough invention, but then he must have thought to himself, hold on there one doggone minute buster, we’re putting the horse before the horseless carriage here – how can we get to the motor car before anyone’s solved the problem of where all the roadworks are going to come from to blight their every journeying? Not long later, he had come up with the pneumatic drill, which he filed a patent for this day in 1894. Strictly speaking, seeing he’s American, we should refer to it as a “jackhammer,” though that tends to suggest one of those little warbling birds you could imagine pecking happily at your goldtops, whereas this is machine combining hammer with chisel into a veritable instrument of torture that will leap into action the very second the thought crosses your mind to read or sleep or study or spend any kind of quiet moment lost in contemplation, instantaneously achieving an earsplitting and cacophonous hundred decibels or so (rather like MPs’ expenses, then: an intolerable and outrageous racket). But, as we’d say up North, “That’s nowt!”In 1972, Deep Purple played at one hundred and seventeen decibels, rendering three of the audience unconscious and then, in 1986, Motorhead hit one hundred and thirty decibels of volume, damaging the building while they were at it. No doubt an enraged man in hardhat and hi-vis vest then stomped into the hall and asked them to turn it down – a chap can’t hear himself drill out there.

This day 1908 started well enough for Gandhi when he was freed from a two month sentence early, having reached a compromise with South African leader Jan Smuts, though it tailed off rather when he got browbeaten by his own people for colluding with a reprehensible snake like Smuts. And he went off the day altogether in 1948 when he was assassinated on it by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu extremist, who shot him three times in the chest at point blank range. It was the fifth attempt on his life, most of them bungled, most of ‘em by Godse, who even conspired to botch the getaway here by shouting for the police himself. Another to meet a sticky end this day was Henri Désiré Landru, though seeing he butchered eleven victims Bluebeard style, it’s hard to see what the Désiré part is actually meant to convey. He disposed of the bodies so well that no trace big enough could be found to prosecute him over, the one small flaw in his otherwise unimpeachable plan was that he wrote all the details down in a ledger so, when they found that, they had him bang to rights, sentencing him to death this day in 1921. That certainly impeached him, good and proper, when Madame Guillotine came hurtling rapidly in his direction on 25 February 1922.

Now, if you happen to think that Nathuram Godse takes the biscuit for colossal blundering, we can hardly leave you without a mention for 30 January’s All Time Ineffably Incompetent Blunderer, none other than our own Richard Colvin Reid, though you probably know him better as the Shoe Bomber. Which is odd really, seeing he didn’t actually manage to bomb anything, his only achievement amounting to nothing more than being in a possession of a shoe, and we’ve all of us been guilty of that at one time or another. Reid was a career petty criminal son of a career petty criminal, neither of them in the least gifted at their chosen profession and consequently spending many a breakfast time over the porridge bowl. As ever, the question has to be: how is someone as patently inept as this radicalized to become an extremist fanatic. The answer, in this case, is simple: his dad told him, “Tell them you’re Muslim and they’ll give you better grub inside.” It occurred to young Richard that perhaps growing a shaggy beard wasn’t going to be convincing enough on its own so, in December 2001, after months of meticulous planning, he turned up in spectacularly, not to mention eye-catchingly, unkempt appearance to board an American Airlines flight to Miami (perhaps the plan was to visit Disney World afterwards?), cementing his inscrutable disguise by arriving with no luggage whatsoever but wearing a bizarre-looking pair of trainers with soles so big you could store something in them. Then came time to light the fuse. Alas! He’d chosen a rather rainy day for it and the flight had been delayed, so he was nicely damp by the time they took off which, combined with the fact of his heavily perspiring feet (he’d chosen trainers, remember) meant that the whole thing was quite literally a damp squib. His fellow passengers overpowered him and secured him with a set of plastic handcuffs (quite what they were doing in someone’s hand-luggage, we’d best draw a veil over), so that this day in 2003 he was given a life sentence. Well, with almost the same absurdity as hanging a dead Cromwell, it was actually three life terms plus one hundred and ten years “without parole.” Seems an awfully harsh penalty for having sweaty feet …


Images:
Clement VIII: By Unknown contemporary author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Beatrice Cenci: Formerly attributed to Guido Reni [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Burnt at the Stake: Grigoriy Myasoyedov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Before Edgehill: By Charles Landseer (1799 - 1879) (British) (Details of artist on Google Art Project) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Cromwell with Charles: Paul Delaroche [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Drogheda Massacre: Henry Doyle (1822-1892) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Cromwell Warts & All: By Samuel Cooper (died 1672) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Cromwell’s Head: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Charles Brady King: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Gandhi: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Shoe Bomber: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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