Friday, 30 October 2015

Book Display


If you’re one of those people who love to feel the chill of horror tingling down the spine, whether it’s tales read by the light of a flickering candle or movies watched beneath a waxing moon, let us whet your appetite for more of the same with our latest book display, all on the theme of Halloween – it may give you some blood-curdling ideas for how to spend the spooky season. But you’ll need to be quick: this manifestation is for Halloween only, after which all that will remain will be that unsettling creak from somewhere out in the darkness. Don’t have nightmares, though – the books and DVDs will still be here to frighten you to death long after that … 

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

October 30

A day of Much Happening down the years, so we’d best crack straight on with our selection, which begins in 1470, slap-bang in the middle of the Wars of the Roses. Which, like so much else in History, such as the Hundred Years’ War and the Peasants’ Revolt, wasn’t what it claimed. It was, in fact, a bloody conflict between the Houses of York and Lancaster, both of whom had dibs on the English throne via their lineage from Edward III. But there were a whole load more emblems on show than just roses during the battles (of which there were only twenty in the entire thirty years of fighting, though they made up for numerical paucity with some wholesale butchery when they did finally decide to get stuck in – the Battle of Towton, for instance, claimed possibly forty thousand lives and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, it went on for ten hours and took place during a raging blizzard. When it came to suffering, they liked to spread it on thick back then). It was actually Old Shakey himself who first came up with the roses imagery in a scene in Henry VI Part I where noblemen mooch around the gardens of Temple Church picking either red or white blooms to indicate their allegiance. Has anyone else noticed how you never seem to come across Shakespeare and Historical Accuracy in the same room together? Maybe it was this same fearlessness of facts that Mel Gibson was attempting to emulate (to outbard the Bard) in his risible cinematic twaddle and yet nobody has yet dared to describe him as the greatest ever wordsmith of the English language. Have they? A failing that applies equally to Walter Scott, who was the one to finally coin the term, in his novel Anne of Geierstein, as late as 1829. During the actual conflict, seeing it was basically the same family hacking each other to pieces (or getting their underlings to do the dirty work), it was known as the Cousins’ War. 

Back with 1470, it was this day when Henry VI managed to get the royal bot parked firmly back on the English throne once more, making him one of only two men who ever regained the crown having lost it (mainly because you generally got killed once you had). The other being Edward IV, the pair of them taking turn and turn about, depending on how the slaughter was proceeding. Henry’s grandfather was Henry IV (Bolingbroke the Usurper) and his dad none other than Henry V (the Agincourt bod, who suffered a hideous face wound, which is why you only see him in profile, though that still don’t explain the disastrous hairdo). Henry V was just about to fulfil his lifetime’s ambition and get his mitts on the French throne at last when he caught himself a fatal dose of the bloody flux (dysentery), leaving his nine month old son at the helm, the youngest ever to succeed.

Henry was shy, pious and hated bloodshed (though he did manage to found Eton and King’s colleges – so now you know who to blame), and was, by all accounts, about as easy to dominate as a chocolate éclair (the French word for lightning, by the bye, because they’re scoffed so quick). When it came to having his portrait done, he took rather the Cromwellian line – Oliver, that is, who said he’d “have it warts and all” and you’d have to go a long way to find anyone much wartier – seeing Henry seems to have asked that he be painted as an utter simpleton because that’s how History would always remember him anyway.

Thanks, in part, to Joan of Arc popping up on the scene, matters had been going none too well in the Hundred Years’ War, with Henry pretty much losing all the territory his father had won. August 1453 saw Henry finally lose his marbles, though he miraculously found them again on Christmas Day 1454. But, by that time, the scheming barons had decided they could perhaps do a tad better kingwise and turned Yorkist in order to bung their own man on the throne. Henry was imprisoned, then rescued, but then deposed on 29 March 1461 (following Towton, as it goes – never defend your crown in a snowstorm), at which Edward IV became monarch for a bit. So, it was back into clink for our man, who then went completely gaga and spent the whole of the Second Battle of St Albans (fought to free him) sitting under a tree singing and laughing. Is it worth it, his rescuers must’ve wondered. It sure was, at least for Warwick (the Kingmaker) and Clarence (of drowned in a butt of malmsey fame), who put Henry back on the throne this day in 1470. And ruled themselves. Alas, on 4 May 1471, along came the Battle of Tewkesbury, in which Henry was captured and his son killed. Less than three weeks later, he too would be dead, of melancholy, so the Yorkists reckoned, after he heard of his son’s death but, more than likely, they had him done in. While he was at his prayers, as it goes. Well, you’re off your guard, aren’t you? 

Fast forward to this day not all that much later – 1485, in fact – and, what do you know, another Henry is getting his scalp under the crown of England. That’d be Henry VII, or Henry Tudor, the Hero of Bosworth Field, of course. What’d happened was that Edward IV did a spot of reigning, sired himself two lads as heirs, and then pegged out (possibly of leprosy), at which point, his conniving brother, Richard, declared they were illegitimate, seeing Edward already had a wife (or so claimed Crookback Dick, as he’s fondly remembered) when he’d married the boys’ mother-to-be, so Richard locked the boys away (thus making them the Princes in the Tower) and said he’d be King instead, which was fair enough. Except everybody hated him, so back comes Henry Tudor with the fell intention of giving him what for, which is precisely what happened when they met at Bosworth, thus making Henry the last King of England to win his throne on the field of battle. (The last “English” monarch to lead his troops in battle was George II, incidentally, a dyed-in-the-wool Hanoverian). Henry did marry Elizabeth of York to end the Wars of the Roses, uniting the red and white into the Tudor version, but his antics at Bosworth were rather less than valiant. In fact, he skulked at the back, well out the way and with a fast horse standing by in case of a need to leg it sharpish, and he never took part at all. Once the battle had been won for him, Henry declared that he’d actually been King as of the day before, 21 August 1485, so anyone who had fought for Richard was then a ghastly traitor and could have their lands seized. Which pretty much set the standard for the rest of his reign. If it wasn’t for Bosworth, all this particular monarch would be remembered for was his notoriously dreadful teeth and his rapacious greed, taxing the living daylights out of anyone he could by any means possible. But then never spending any of it, hoarding it up and running through the books line by line to make sure he wasn’t being diddled. Even Old Shakey couldn’t be bothered to do a play about him but, then again, not a lot of mileage to be had from someone sitting there all day doing his accounts, is there?

This day could’ve been such a good one for John J Loud, an American who trained as a lawyer but worked as a banker and then found himself in dire need of an implement that could write on leather (no doubt for scrawling CASH in big letters on the saddlebags). As luck would have it, he was also something of an inventor, so he came up with the world’s first ballpoint pen and got a patent for it on 30 October 1888. Not quite so lucky, however, was the fact that, as an entrepreneur, he was an absolute dead loss and couldn’t see any commercial future for his gadget, so the patent lapsed. Instead, he put his inventing energies into living up to his name, coming up with the Loud Firecracker and the Loud Cannon before going to his grave entirely unrecognised.
In 1938, some twenty two years after Loud’s sad demise, a Hungarian newspaper editor called László Bíró found himself getting increasingly miffed by constantly having to fill up his fountain pen, what with all the writing he was getting through, plus there was all the mess it seemed to make in blots and smudges and ink all over the place. Which is when he thought to himself, “Ez egy bocs állapot” – well, he was Hungarian, remember (“this won’t do”) – and then noticed how quickly newspaper ink dries – well, you would do, if you spend all day hanging around them – and put two and two together, coming up with a brand new pen very much along the lines of Loud’s original ballpoint version, which he patented on 15 June 1938. Then he decided to name his creation after himself and thus was born … the László. Until somebody whispered, “Ez egy bocs állapot” in his ear and suggested a rethink, which is how we ended up with the biro. Consider it, though: had John Loud had a bit more get-up-and-go, you could’ve found yourself needing a ballpoint to jot something down and having to ask the nearest person for a lend of their loud. The first major orders for biros came during the war from the RAF for their navigators, who found they worked better at high altitude than fountain pens, especially when it came to writing stuff like, “Have you any idea just how dangerous it is up here?”

Once Hitler was safely out the way – thanks in no small part to the biro – László sold his patent to one Marcel Bich, an Italian who would go on to found the Bic Company, the world’s largest manufacturer of ballpoints, having sold over a hundred billion and more of the things. Just think of it, if you were to put them all end to end, well, it’d take you flipping ages …

Still in 1938, but back with 30 October, today was when Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of War of the Worlds caused mass hysteria all over America, when citizens everywhere failed to heed the advice to “calm down, dear, it’s only a radio drama,” and believed that Earth was being invaded by Martians. Who, for some reason known only to a superior life-form, chose to land in the town of Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, where the residents were panicked into thinking the aliens had set up their HQ in the water tank, so they peppered it with buckshot to save the world. Actually, nobody at all went even the slightest bit berserk, mainly because hardly anyone was listening at the time. Most folk had tuned into a show called the Chase and Sanborn Hour but, once the comedy turn had finished and on came Nelson Eddy to do a musical number, they reached for their dials (making poor old Nelson the real culprit – just how bad was he?) and ended up with Orson Welles, but having missed all the repeated warnings that it was only make-believe. Even so, nobody ran amok in the streets, had unexpected heart attacks or threw themselves off the nearest high building in terror. About the most that happened was that one woman sued for fifty thousand dollars on account of her “nervous shock” (she was laughed out of court), the only successful claim being for a pair of men’s black shoes, size 9B, from a man who said he’d spent his shoe-money on a train ticket to flee the Martians (Welles supposedly paid for the shoes himself). Even Hitler managed to get in on the act, stating that the wave of panic was “evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy.” Whereas unbridled fascism is all lovely and cuddly, plus there’s plenty of elbow-room, now we’ve nicked the Sudetenland. There was some evidence of decadence and corruption on show, however, all of which came from the newspapers, who’d been haemorrhaging advertising revenue to this new-fangled radio gizmo and thought it could do with a little slapping down, just to keep it in check. So they created and maintained the whole scare simply to discredit the medium. Which was ironic really, as Welles’ whole point was that people shouldn’t swallow whatever comes at them but ask questions instead. Such as, “Why are these press barons such barefaced liars?” 

This day in 1952 was when “Birdseye sold the first frozen peas.” Or so one website confidently claims, though almost certainly erroneously, seeing they’d been knocking out the little green blighters since the Thirties. Still, we won’t let that deter us, as it gives us a chance to take a quick peek at the man behind the name – which is, in fact, the rather splendid Clarence Frank Birdseye II (his dad had the same name, bar the II) – and to give a quick plug to Birds Eye. After all, as they say, If It’s Fresher Than Birds Eye, it’s probably been had up for lewd behaviour. Our man, Clarence, was born in 1886 and wanted to be a taxidermist, so off he goes to Amherst College, paying his way by trapping rats and selling frogs to the zoo for snake food. Alas, lack of funds meant he had to drop out. So then he becomes an “assistant naturalist,” a job that turns out to mainly involve killing coyotes – he may not have made it as a taxidermist but, one way or another, the animals still ended up well and truly stuffed. After a stint with entomologist Willard Van Orsdel King, helping him to discover that ticks were the cause of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (his part being trapping animals, of course), the history-changing moment finally arrived in 1912, when he was sent on assignment to Labrador. As you probably know, there’s not much out there in Labrador, except for cold and fish, so it was inevitable that the conversation would eventually come round to those two subjects. Which is when the Inuits showed him their method of fast-freezing fish (we won’t question why they might need to freeze fish out there) and the Birdseye eyes instantly lit up with dollar signs, seeing it knocked spots off the existing process. So he hotfoots it back home to set up his own company. And promptly went bust. So, in 1925, he set up another one, which did so well that by 1929 he was able to sell it to Postum (General Foods Corp) for a cool twenty two million. And stay on as President – sounds a bit like having your fish and eating it. Especially when they founded a new division and called it Birds Eye. Clarence kept up the inventing lark and, by the time of his death in 1956 (ironically of a heart attack – the Birds Eye emphasis was ever on natural goodness), he held nearly three hundred patents. His ashes were scattered at sea. Which at least explains those black bits in the Birds Eye Fisherman’s Pie. Oddly enough, though he came up with the fish finger in 1927, they weren’t launched until 1955 (the year James Dean died, no connection), making the product now sixty years old. Which is what some of ‘em taste like. Since then, we British have knocked back some fifteen billion of the things, at a rate of over one million per day.

Now, if you were to lay all those end to end …

Choosing the Red and White Roses: By Henry Arthur Payne (1868–1940) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Henry VI: [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Battle of Towton: Richard Caton Woodville, Jr. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Henry VII: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Henry VIII: By Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger 1497/8 (German) Details of artist on Google Art Project [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
John J Loud: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
László Bíró: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Marcel Bich: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Orson Welles: Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Henry V: By unknown artist associated with other portraits. [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 23 October 2015

Word to the Wise

Neglected gems of the language for taking down the pub and introducing to your mates.


In-uhn-ish-uhn: Noun: exhaustion from lack of nourishment, starvation; lack of vigour, lethargy; mental or spiritual weakness

Related forms: inane, adjective, senseless, unimaginative, or empty; inanity, noun, lack of intelligence or imagination; a silly remark; inanely, adverb

The word inanition comes from the Latin, inanis, which means empty or void but with the added implication of useless or of no worth. It first appeared around 1400 time and was probably much needed just then, seeing this was just after the Black Death (1346-1353) had been doing its business of thinning down Europe’s population by about seventy five to two hundred millions, so there wasn’t much tuck around (what with nobody left to grow it), though there was a good deal of hunger and starvation. This was then followed by the Peasants Revolt of 1381, when the yeomanry (not peasants) rose up, mainly to object to the imposition of a Poll Tax to fund the Hundred Years War but also to moan about the unfairness of serfdom in general. The boy king, Richard II, rode out to meet the mob with a cry of “I shall be your captain,” – which was handy, seeing his men were, at that very moment, butchering the one they’d arrived with: Wat Tyler – and then agreeing to all their demands, just so long as they went home quietly. Which they did. Only for Richard to swiftly renege on his promises and to make them much worse off than they had been before. In other words, he behaved like a government. Exactly six hundred years later, in an act of almost breath-taking stupidity, a Conservative administration decided they’d wheel out the Poll Tax for another airing, which would prove just as popular, provoke another rebellion and end up with the hated Thatcher having to tearfully resign, though she did stop short of jetting off to live in exile in Chile under the leadership that she claimed was doing such a marvellous job there. As for Richard II, inanition would later come back to bite him …

Inantion was a particular favourite word with the Bronte sisters, seeing it turns up in Wuthering Heights and at least twice in Jane Eyre:

… how glad I was to behold a prospect of getting something to eat! I was now nearly sick from inanition, having taken so little the day before.


My head swam as I stood erect. I perceived that I was sickening from excitement and inanition; neither meat nor drink had passed my lips that day, for I had taken no breakfast.

Other especial favourites of theirs – which we should maybe consider reviving – include: penetralia, which appears to mean the innermost parts or secret matters (Gosh! Has it suddenly got very hot in here?), though the Haworth usage tends to refer to the rooms within a building; inly, much like your inwardly but, whereas inwardly implies “in the vague direction of inside,” inly is more your slapbang internal, what you might call intimately or sincerely; lief, as in gladly or willingly, but archaic even when they were using it; fain, much the same but a bit trickier to pin down, seeing it’s more a case of only gladly or willingly “under the circumstances,” with a smidgen of being compelled or obliged to do something and thus having to put a brave face on it while you’re at it. We would fain confess, it makes you wonder how we get by these days without such terminology to turn to. Mind you, back then, what with all the inanition they had to put up with, it was inevitable that, sooner or later, the talk would come back round to hunger and to food in general, which is when another word of theirs pops up (only the once, as far as we know), though it will prove devilishly ticklish to slip seamlessly into conversation. It appears in Wuthering Heights and it’s thible.

It racked me to recall past happiness and the greater peril there was of conjuring up its apparition, the quicker the thible ran round, and the faster the handfuls of meal fell into the water.

Nobody can really be doing without a thible, of course, and, to be brutally frank, our own specimen has taken such a hammering lately it’s about worn down to the stump, we don’t mind admitting. A thible turns out to be a stick for stirring porridge and, for such a specialised implement doing a job for which almost any stick would do, there are an awful lot of variations on the term: thivel, thyvelle, thyvil, thyvel, thieval, theevil, thibble, thybel, thavel, thaivel, thabble and theedle. If none of those suit you, how about spurtle or spirtle, much favoured by the Scots, who also happen to be keen imbibers of said oatmeal ambrosia, the term coming from the sixteenth century. No two spurtles are alike (they claim), being turned on a lathe from various hardwoods but generally having the Scottish thistle on the handle. Judging by some of the bemused faces on display out there now, some of you are wondering why on earth anyone should resort to a thible in the first place when we’ve got the perfectly utile wooden spoon in our culinary armoury already. These sceptics will probably also be blissfully unaware that there are certain deadly sins one can commit in the preparation of porridge, all of which should be studiously avoided (unless, like us, you were raised in the misguided belief that the glutinous lumpen masses you found therein were actually somehow obligatory). First up, adding the salt too early: this hardens the grain, preventing it from swelling; secondly, using a bogstandard spoon, though there’s more than a suspicion this is mere rumour put about by thible manufacturers; then there’s stirring widdershins (no kidding!), which is basically stirring in the wrong direction, or anti-clockwise, when you should be doing it deiseal, in the same direction as the sun. (You see how complex this porridge business really is now). If you do go at it widdershins, in which case more fool you, it’ll end up bringing bad luck or even invoking the devil, and you wouldn’t want that, now would you? After all, isn’t it bad enough that you’ve ended up with porridge for breakfast? Again.

In this day and age, however, at least in this country and despite the best austerity efforts of Caring Conservatism to revisit the Workhouse and Famine via a Foodbank culture in which the streets of London are paved with myriad homeless whilst elsewhere colossal luxury edifices stand empty as icons to foreign investment, there is still little actual inanition – physical debility caused by lack of food – and the only effective occasion on which we might employ the term is when we ring in to say we won’t be in the office today as we’re suffering from a touch of inanition, the spiritual weakness therein being caused by an inability to overmaster the comforts of the duvet. We might claim to be starving or ravenous or famished or just plain hungry (all of them oddish words, when you look at ‘em) but the worst it ever gets for us is feeling a bit peckish. Now, that is a strange word, but pretty much what it claims to be: disposed to peck. Though it can mean rather irritable. As in: having been repeatedly asked awkward questions about the hypocrisy of selling arms to a brutal Saudi regime bent on dishing out a public lashing to a pensioner found with a drop of homebrew, Mr Cameron became a tad peckish. (Though, to be fair, despite the lardy corpulent physique, the PM knows all about going without – many’s the occasion on whic he’s risen from the lunch table before the dessert trolley’s come round a second time). Peck is a variation of pick, the use of a beak part coming from Middle Low German and the eating in small bites sense coming in around 1580. 

So, what of the peck of pickled pepper picked by Peter Piper? Did they mean a mere beakful? Or were they referring to the other sort of peck: a unit of dry measure equal to eight quarts. Which is a mighty lot of pickled pepper, given the risks of botulism involved. Four pecks make a bushel, of course, the Americans favouring the Winchester bushel, whilst we in this country are devotees of the Imperial (stands to reason) bushel, or 36.38 litres. Bushel, it seems, is derived from the Gaulish, bosta, or palm of the hand, which makes it a mighty impressive hand, if it can hold thirty six litres in it. The bushel for hiding your light under – or, rather, not – is something altogether different and comes from the Bible, the parable of it appearing in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. (John was obviously off that day – a touch of inanition, maybe?) The bushel in this case, according to William Tyndale’s English translation (for which he would eventually be burned at the stake, though his executioners were caring enough to strangle him beforehand, save him any suffering) was a bowl and the light actually a lamp, the message therefore being, don’t light a lamp and then bung it under a bowl, Tyndale favouring putting it on a candlestick so it “lighteth all them which are in the house.” Wise move, especially if they’re just about to make some porridge …

Whilst inanition is the effect produced by lack of food, hunger is the (usually compelling) desire to do summat about it. It’s an Old English word, so we were clearly used to going without back then, except for our toffs, who went on gorging themselves like Cabinet Ministers, which still obtains today. Gorge comes from throat and meant eating greedily as early as 1300. Starving is also Old English – by heck, we had it tough in them days – meaning to die (of cold, usually), though its original sense was stiff (as in corpse), to which it’s related, and stare is along the same lines. The sense of to die of hunger dates back to 1570. Someone who is ravenous is also a person prepared to do something about his hunger, not merely by standing in the queue at Greggs but by seizing using force, not always foodstuffs either, from Latin, rapina, plundering or robbery, but with a touch of rapidus, rapid, thrown in, thus making it snatching and eating greedily – not the sort of behaviour you expect down Greggs, especially as their pasties are heated to take the roof off your mouth. Famished was originally famen, from the Latin, affamere, to bring to hunger, up until around 1400, when the –ish ending was added, famyschen, to make it chime with words like ravish, anguish, banish and thereby emphasise the do deliberately nasty work to element of it.

Talking of famished brings us back round to Richard II, who knew all about it in the having it done unto sense, not to mention being able to describe just how inanition felt from the inside perspective. What happened was that after his triumph over the Peasants’ Revolt, and once he’d got through with executing about two thousand of the rabble to make sure they didn’t do it again, he got just a tad too big for his boots. By introducing terms like “Highness” and “Majesty” for people to call him by. And then having himself portrayed in the Wilton Diptych with three saints admiring him and wearing expressions of “This lad’s a good ‘un all right,” whilst the Virgin, accompanied by a horde of angels, all sporting Richard’s white hart badge, look benignly on as Mary meekly offers him the Christ child, like she’s asking him, “What do you reckon, then?” Such colossal arrogance could only come a cropper, especially once he started nicking other people’s lands for himself. The last straw came when he fell out with his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (John of Gaunt’s lad) and ordered him to fight the Duke of Norfolk but then called the whole thing off at the last second, just as they were squaring up to each other, banishing them both instead. John of Gaunt happened to be a massive landowner and so, when he died, Richard couldn’t resist the temptation of adding the Gaunt acreage to his own. Fatal error. Naturally enough, Bolingbroke was none too chuffed about this development and came steaming back hotfoot from exile to sort things out. As it goes, much of the nobility had been getting a tad edgy that the same thing might happen to them so, when Henry appeared on the scene in fighting mood, they lent their not insubstantial weight to giving the kingly backside a right royal kicking. Once they’d nabbed him, they didn’t want to do anything unseemly like kill him, so they bestowed an even worse fate upon the hapless Richard: they sent him to Pontefract. There, they locked him up in the castle and simply let him starve slowly to death.

Now, what Richard could’ve done with just then was a cook. Any cook. With the possible exception of Richard Roose (or it may have been Rouse, Rose or possibly even Rice), who wore the chef’s hat for John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, in the time of Henry VIII. This Roose fellow (or shall we call him Rice?) was clearly something of a joker because he added some powders to the ecclesiastical supper pot (a porridge – let’s hope he used a thible – or a potage) for a laugh – he would later claim he thought they were laxatives, the wag – but, come time to dish up, the good bishop’s lost his appetite, though his guests still tucked in heartily enough. And paid the price, two of them dying. Unfortunately for Roose (or Rice), it turned out the joke was on him when they caught him straight away and he confessed. Henry VIII took a very dim view and decided that a new punishment ought to be devised for the culinary comedian – not because the crime was particularly heinous but more likely due to the fact that Henry couldn’t stand Fisher since the bishop had got in the way of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, thus it was Roose’s failure to do him in that had so got up the King’s nose – and he was boiled to death. It seems they didn’t go for the sticking him in cold water and then slowly heating it up method, preferring to lower him in for a dip before hauling him up and then dunking him again until he was dead. Apparently, there was a good turn-out but the poor fellow “roared mighty loud, and divers women who were big with child did feel sick at the sight of what they saw, and were carried away half dead.”

So that’s inanition. Now, who’s for Boiled Rice ... ?

Mayor Walworth murders Wat Tyler (Peasants’ Revolt): [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Charlotte Bronte: Author, taken in the church at Haworth from an original on display
Top Withens: Author
Porridge: William Hemsley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Workhouse: By Photograph donated to library by Perry, Jean, fl 1985, of Crumpsall, Manchester (see - considering the photograph's date (late 19th century) it seems unlikely that Jean Perry (who seems to have been a medical illustrator at Crumpsall Hospital) was the image's creator. The photographer's details will be extremely difficult to ascertain, and judging from the image's age, I would say that copyright has long expired. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Tyndale: By John Foxe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Eric Pickles: By Communities and Local Government Office [OGL (], via Wikimedia Commons
Wilton Diptych: By Unknown (English or French) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Gordon Ramsey: By Dave Pullig [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 16 October 2015

Man Booker at Birkbeck

Our latest book display celebrates the Man Booker prize, and we also have copies of one of the short-listed books, "How to be both" by Ali Smith, to give away. They are available to pick up from tables in the Library, so come and get one before they're all gone.

Ali Smith will be talking about her book at an event here in November - more details and book your place at

Image result for how to be both ali smith

Giants of Academia & the Arts

… but, then again, nobody is perfect

Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm (9 June 1917 – 1 October 2012)

Yes, it’s one of Birkbeck’s very own Giants – a colossus, in fact – in the unmistakable form of Eric Hobsbawn, the eminent “British” Marxist historian and a name that will be instantly recognisable to anyone who hasn’t been hiding away in a rain forest these past ninety eight years. Because Eric’s prominence and world renown came about chiefly in the last twenty five years of his (extremely long, and contentious) life, the image we tend to have of him is that of a very old man, though one every bit as sharp and quick-witted as the young man whose formative times took place against the backdrop of some the most significant events in history, ones he would later write about in the over thirty books he went on to pen.

Our story begins many years ago, back in the days when Britain still had an Empire and long before anyone could ever have imagined that an obscene disaster like the First World War was even remotely possible. Because it wasn’t. Not once the powers-that-be had sat around the table, chewed over the fat and decided that the best thing all round was if Europe divided into two opposing factions, both armed to the teeth with industrial-strength weaponry, so that each camp neutralised the threat of the other: that way there never could be another war ever again. It was a brilliant plan, although it did have one tiny flaw in it: it was utter cobblers. Anyhow, while Gavrilo Princip was still looking for the nearest gunshop, an uncle of the as-yet unconceived Eric, Sidney, went off to Alexandria in Egypt, then a British protectorate (by “protectorate” we mean somewhere with stuff worth nicking off the defenceless natives) and, while he was there, managed to wangle a job in a shipping office for his brother, Leopold Percy Hobsbaum (the dad-to-be), both of them being sons of a Polish Jew who had come to London in the 1870s. It wasn’t just exports that Leo had his eye on out there because, in 1914, it fell upon the daughter of a middle-class Viennese family, Nelly Grün, who had won her trip to Egypt for doing so well at her schooling. With that kind of brains and brass, she was clearly something of a catch and so Leo lost no time in popping the question. Alas, before anyone could say, “the path of true love never ran smooth,” an Archduke’s chauffeur had taken a wrong turning and all hell broke loose. It would be 1916, in Switzerland, before they could get married, though they were back in Alexandria in plenty of time for Eric’s birth in June of the following year.

Things didn’t get off to the best of starts because, a touch ironically perhaps for such a distinguished man of letters, Eric was to set out in life as a typo. Well, more your clerical error really. His old man had originally been called Leopold Obstbaum, which, when translated, would’ve given our lad the rather marvellous name of Eric Fruit Tree, except that the dad had already changed the spelling to Hobsbaum (Pulling Up Trees). And then, in an administrative blunder that could’ve been avoided by a simple visit to Specsavers, the name that got filled onto the form was Eric Hobsbawm and there’s no point in arguing with bureaucracy, especially when they’ve got the paperwork to prove it, so Hobsbawm he was from then on in. Being born in 1917 meant that he arrived on the scene just as History had her hands pretty well full, what with the First World War getting into full-flow on the one hand and, on the other, the February and October Revolutions in Russia. Which, thanks to the Russians still using the older Julian calendar, actually took place in March and November. Depending on which way you look at it. Though it does show how tricky this History business really is. By 1919, once the great Houses of Europe (most of ‘em cousins) had got through bickering with each other and had just about run out of young men to slaughter in their squabble, things calmed down a tad and the family was able to move to Vienna. There, in 1927, Eric would witness an event that would become one of his earliest political memories. The workers had taken great umbrage with their anti-Semitic Catholic clergyman Chancellor – Ignaz Seipel, or “the Bloody Prelate” – because of his constant cosying up to wealthy industrialists whilst inflicting harsh austerity measures on everyone else, so they burned down his Palace of Justice, to see what he’d do about that then, matey. What he did was to unleash his paramilitary thugs and armed police, who shot into the protestors, killing eighty four and injuring over six hundred more.

In 1929, when Eric was twelve, his father suddenly died of a heart attack and then, not two years later, his mother was taken off by tuberculosis. Once again, Uncle Sidney stepped into the breach and took Eric (and sister Nancy) off to live in Berlin, then part of the Weimar Republic, where history and politics were not just in books but actually out there on the hoof. Meanwhile, in order to help support the family, Eric took work as a tutor and an au pair. Now, before anyone starts to run away with misleading images of our man in a little black dress and frilly apron, au pair comes from the French, meaning at par or equal to, thus indicating that such a person was treated, if only temporarily, as a member of the household, rather than a servant (Stella Rimington and Jennifer Saunders were both au pairs in their time, so he’s in good company). He read Marx for the first time and became a communist, an experience that would shape the rest of his days. On 30 January 1933, on his way home from school (the Prinz Heinrich-Gymnasium) Eric emerged from the railway station to discover that Germany had elected a new Chancellor: Adolf Hitler. In a move designed to “keep the Nazi Party in check.” Which, like the Let’s Prevent Wars one, didn’t quite work out. The country became polarised and, much later, Eric would observe that, “In Germany there wasn't any alternative left … If I'd been German and not a Jew, I could see I might have become a Nazi ... I could see how they'd become passionate about saving the nation. It was a time when you didn't believe there was a future unless the world was fundamentally transformed.” However, he decided firmly against dipping a toe in the Nazi slime. Instead, he joined the Socialist Schoolboys and sold its publication, Schulkampf (School Struggle), riskily keeping the organisation’s duplicator under his bed and, more than likely, writing most of the articles himself. Later that year, Uncle Sidney was reposted to England and Eric found himself in London.

Eric attended St Marylebone Grammar School (whose pot pourri of alumni includes Adam Ant, Len Deighton, John Barnes and Jerome K. Jerome), where he excelled. During this period, he was introduced to jazz and became hooked on what he called the “unanswerable sound,” experiencing an epiphany when he first heard the Duke Ellington Band. Later, in the 1950s, he was jazz critic for the New Statesman and even published a Penguin Special on the subject, The Jazz Scene, albeit under the pen-name of Francis Newton (shamelessly pinched from Billie Holiday's trumpet player), though now available under the Hobsbawn banner. From school, it was off on a scholarship to Kings College, Cambridge, to study History and be doctored when he received a PhD for his dissertation on the Fabian Society. Whilst there, he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, where the phrase quickly developed amongst his colleagues: “Is there anything that Hobsbawm doesn't know?” He was also elected a member of the legendary (and notorious) group, the Cambridge Apostles, so called because of their original twelve members and boasting some big names amongst their former ranks, including: John Maynard Keynes, Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Bertrand Russell, E. M. Forster and Rupert Brooke. Wittgenstein was another, though he hated it, mainly because he saw it as boffins being unserious and a bit too chummy with one another, neither of which he could stand. It was also a happy hunting ground for the KGB, who enlisted Burgess, Philby, MacLean and Blunt from their number, and there was even an extravagant suggestion that Wittgenstein was recruited, though this seems unlikely, seeing he was far too much of a miserygut, even for the KGB.

When “keeping the Nazi Party in check” proved to be wildly over-optimistic, along came another war and Eric swiftly volunteered, with the idea that, being something of a brainiac who could speak German, French, Spanish and Italian fluently, and read Dutch, Portuguese and Catalan, intelligence work might be his cup of tea. Alas, a cretinous Army hierarchy unceremoniously widdled on that particular bonfire and rejected one of the sharpest minds of those times (perhaps any), ostensibly on the grounds that they knew all about his communist background (which hadn’t deterred the Foreign Office from recruiting the entire Cambridge Spy Ring from the same source) but, more likely, it was because Hobsbawm would probably outboffin the rest of ‘em into a cocked hat and make them appear intellectually feeble. Especially if they decided (as they did) that someone of Eric’s calibre would be better off employed as a sapper digging ditches, which is what he ended up doing with the Royal Engineers, though he was exposed (and converted) to the working class for the first time during this period, whom he described as, “not very clever … but they were very, very good people.”

It wasn’t all just work as far as Eric was concerned and, in 1943, he married one Muriel Seaman but, like many another wartime romance, it would all end in tears, when she ran off with another man. They divorced in 1951. By way of getting his own back, Eric went sowing a few wild oats of his own, having a fling (not to mention a child) with a married woman, though she too would give him the old heave-ho, preferring to stay with her husband.

In 1947 came the move to Birkbeck, joining as a lecturer in History and thus beginning a lifelong association with the College, becoming reader (1959), Professor (1970), Emeritus Professor (1982) and then President (2002). For any out there unsure – like us – the word emeritus is said as if by a Yorkshireman: Ee, merit us! It’s from Latin (ex, out of, and merere, to serve or earn), and basically means a retired professor that’s still on the go. Why couldn’t they just say that? What Eric did say was that, “A centre of evening education is essential to a world city … There is still no other place like Birkbeck.” Despite the cloak of academia, there was still a streak of the laddish bohemian about our Eric and many a night, way into the wee small hours, he’d be off getting into all kinds of jazz-scene capers with the likes of Colin MacInnes, George Melly and Francis Bacon, though rock ‘n’ roll would never be his bag (“infantile”) and he absolutely drew the line at blue jeans. Come on, Eric – bit difficult to imagine the proletariat rising up en masse sporting cavalry twills, wouldn’t you say? Denims or no, MI5 and Special Branch were still keeping their beady eyes on him at this time, monitoring his contacts, intercepting his private correspondence and tapping his phone calls, in order to “unearth overt or covert intellectual Communists who may be unknown to us.” Surely if they’re “overt”, they shouldn’t be “unknown” or need much “unearthing,” should they? Still, at this stage, they didn’t have the faintest idea of what Blunt was getting up to right under their very noses when he wasn’t poking around amongst the Queen’s pictures, so expectations weren’t especially high and nobody had actually used the word “intelligence” in their case. Eric was also a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, from 1949 to 1955 and, in both posts (Birkbeck and King’s), he just about scraped in under the wire before the Cold War really started to kick in, seeing a diluted version of McCarthyism was rampant at that time: you didn’t get booted out but nor did you get promoted: both Colleges would block him from advancements in the spirit of rabid paranoia.

His first book, Primitive Rebels, was published in 1959 and then, in 1962, he once more took the plunge and married Viennese-born Marlene Schwarz, who would prove an altogether better (and longer-lasting) choice in the happiness stakes. More books (plus two children: Andrew and Julia) followed in swift succession, including The Age of Revolution (1962), Labouring Men (1964), Industry and Empire (1968), and Bandits (1969). He was also then a visiting professor at Stanford, then MIT, though fanatical American anti-communist hysteria meant a limey pinko like our Eric would have a hard time of it getting in each time he popped across the Pond.

Despite the numerous setbacks and countless ticklish situations that his pro-Communist (and often pro-Soviet) stance had undoubtedly landed him, he remained steadfast throughout, even when most of his comrade-colleagues did a swift abandon-ship following the invasion of Hungary and the brutal repression of the Prague Spring (both of which Eric condemned). His views on the subject are well known, so we’re going to gloss over them rather, much after the fashion of the great historian himself whenever some matter a tad awkward to his position hove into view, such as when the Russians and Nazis signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (1939–1941) to become matey for a while, about which Eric merely remarked “that need not detain us here.” On the tricky question of why communist regimes share the characteristics of state terror, oppression and murder, he had a side-step shimmy that would have graced any jazz club dancefloor, responding that it “is not part of the present chapter.” His loyalty to the Party was unswerving.

“The Party . . . had the first, or more precisely, the only real claim on our lives. Its demands had absolute priority. We accepted its discipline and hierarchy. We accepted the absolute obligation to follow 'the lines' it proposed to us, even when we disagreed with it . . . We did what it ordered us to do....Whatever it had ordered, we would have obeyed....If the Party ordered you to abandon your lover or spouse, you did so.” 

The “lines” he so dutifully followed included: accepting the order to side with the Nazis against the Weimar-supporting Social Democrats in 1932; accepting the order to side with the Nazis (against Britain) following the Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact; and condoning the show trials of men like Laszlo Rajk in Hungary. In 1954, just after Stalin's death, he visited Moscow as one of the honoured members of the Historians' Group of the British Communist Party. Finally, in 1991, not long before that party’s dissolution, he at last allowed his membership to lapse.

Well, nobody’s perfect. Besides which, Eric was most decidedly uncommunist when it came to status and titles and all that kind of carry-on. In 1971, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and then followed that up by becoming a Fellow of the British Academy in 1978. Further proof of his mellowing out came in 1983 when he went all politically mainstream, helping to drag the Labour Party up out of the nadir it had mired itself in and, in so doing, getting himself dubbed as “Neil Kinnock’s Favourite Marxist” whilst also paving the way (well, the Third Way, you might say) for what would eventually become New Labour. Mind you, Eric far from approved of what that particular beast would evolve into and even went so far as to describe Blair as “Thatcher in trousers,” though that in no way prevented him from accepting when Tony decided to thank him in the now traditional New Labour fashion by dishing out a gong to him, making him a Companion of Honour a few months after his eightieth birthday. In 2003, he would receive the Balzan Prize for European History and then, in 2006, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Eric continued to churn out the books – The Age of Capital (1975), Workers (1984), The Age of Empire (1987), The Age of Extremes (1994), On History (1997) and Uncommon People (1998), to name but a handful – but it was ever in the teaching, particularly at Birkbeck, where his heart lay. Indeed, many of the books grew directly out of lectures, where his standard was to see things through the eyes of his own students: “You work all day long and then you have two-hour lectures. Can I keep you awake? That was the test.” Well, Professor Hobsbawm, we’re pleased to say you’ve passed with flying colours. In 2007, he congratulated his graduates for their “sheer grit and resolution,” telling them that, “we have the satisfaction that Birkbeck is living up to its mission, which is to give the chance of university education or just a second chance to men and women who wouldn’t get one otherwise, to slake the thirst for a lifetime of learning and intellectual curiosity, and to do so at the highest standards.” Perhaps the last word, though, should be taken from his ninetieth birthday celebrations, when he commented that “One of the inestimable advantages of teaching such students as those in Birkbeck is that so many of them in my time were, as the College still is, committed not just to self-improvement but to making a better world.”

After quietly fighting leukaemia for a number of years, Eric Hobsbawm died of pneumonia in the early hours of 1 October 2012.


Late Eric: By Rob Ward (Flickr: HayFestivalA-011.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Princip assassinates Archduke Franz Ferdinand: By Achille Beltrame (Cropped version of File:Beltrame Sarajevo.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Ignaz Seipel: Wenzl Weis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Duke Ellington: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Windsor Davies: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Ribbentrop: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H04810 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons
Blair: Müller / MSC [CC BY 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 9 October 2015

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

October 9

This day in 768 sees Charlemagne and his brother Carloman I crowned Kings of the Franks as joint rulers. Which was a kind of follow-on from their father, Pepin the Younger (aka, erroneously, Pippin the Short) who’d had co-command with his brother, Carloman, in a partnership that hadn’t worked out all that well and only ended when Carloman was forced into a monastery to have a long hard think about himself. Still, no reason not to give it another go. The Franks (who were actually Germans) weren’t ones for wasting time thinking up new names, especially when they already had the highly functional Pepin and Carloman to be going on with, though it does tend to make this era of History a tad confusing. Charlemagne was born around 742 which, rather awkwardly, precedes the marriage of his parents in 744, with the obvious unfortunate consequences, over which he and Carloman (who was born in wedlock and took every opportunity to point this out) would have some Oasis-like fraternal disagreements. Usually, if you happened to be Carloman anyway, based on the notion that you had to be legitimate to be King, which didn’t go down any too well with his brother, who was only too capable of living up to his misbegotten status. It could only end in tears. Which it did. When, in 771, Carloman mysteriously died. Of natural causes: “Severe Nosebleed to Blame, Claims King.” 

Just to prove he had nothing whatsoever to do with this highly convenient episode of epistaxis, Charlemagne named his second legitimate son Carloman in honour of his deceased sibling. Though, by 781, he decides he’s not quite so keen on that name after all and settles for something completely different. Pepin. Perfectly good name, he reckons. Even though he’s already got a son called Pepin, descriptively known as Pepin the Hunchback, the two Pepin boys being half-brothers. This came about because the despicable and entirely unreliable Charlemagne had, in 770, signed a treaty with Duke Tassilo III of Bavaria (probably known as Tassilo the Utterly Gullible) and married a Lombard princess, Desiderata (all in order to get his hands on a vast swathe of lands), impregnated the poor girl with his vile seed (to produce the elder Pepin of the hapless soubriquet) and then promptly left her for a thirteen year old Swabian called Hildegard. Pretty much par for the course where Charlemagne was concerned, seeing he had eighteen children with his ten wives and concubines. Pepin (the elder) rather got the hump when his father, around 781, started calling Pepin (the younger, Carloman as was) Pepin of Italy, in a move to disinherit the Desiderata offspring, so a damp squib of a revolt was hatched by the disgruntled Pepin (it never got off the ground), which ended with his cruel demise. As revenge, they tonsured him and sent him to a monastery. Thus sending out a clear message to any such like-minded conspirators: don’t mess with us or we’ll shave your hair off.

Charlemagne was, in fact, a hardened supporter of the papacy and a mustardkeen spreader of the Christian message. Having undermined the Lombards (chiefly by marrying into them), he swept them from power in Italy and then, for good measure, had a pop at the Muslims in Spain. But his best efforts he reserved for the beastly Saxons, who were proving thoroughly resilient to the idea of conversion, so much so that Charlemagne was forced to make them choose: become Christian or be slaughtered horribly. It seems they opted for the latter and, before you could say “the Saxons are revolting,” the Saxons were revolting. And then four and a half thousand of the blighters found themselves in captivity, at the mercy of Charlemagne. Who wasn’t especially noted for his clemency and, haircutting being too good for this little lot, he went in for the Massacre of Verden instead, butchering every one of them and leaving them in little doubt as to what Carolingian Christianity stood for. Charlemagne, for his part, argued that he was simply behaving like a “true King of Israel” and was just dishing out the same treatment as King David had to the Moabites when he slaughtered them. Though, strictly speaking, David only had two in every three killed and, fair dos, he chose his victims by using a piece of string as a measure, as one tends to in such situations. Charlemagne (Charles the Great) was handed a sainthood in the twelfth century, but you won’t find him amongst the twenty eight Charles’s listed in the Roman Martyrology now. Can’t think why not.

By 9 October 1000, there were only four hundred and eighty two years left before Columbus would make his spurious claim to have discovered America so, clearly, something had to be done sharpish. As it turns out, in Greenland at that very time, there just happened to be a fellow by the name of Leif Eriksson, who had been giving that very situation some serious mulling over. Leif was born around 978 or 980, possibly in Iceland, son of Erik the Red (Erik Thorvaldsson), who himself was son of Thorvaldr Ásvaldsson. As we can see, the Vikings – that’s what they all were – didn’t put a great deal of effort into their naming either, thus Leif became “Erik’s Lad” and even Erik the Red comes from the prosaic reason of his beard colour. Anyhow, granddad Thor somehow managed to get himself banished from Norway by the Vikings (just how unpalatable would you need to be for that?) and so he went off into exile in Iceland, taking young Erik with him, who then got himself banished from Iceland, apparently for the manslaughter of a chap called Eyiolf the Foul (you’d’ve thought they might’ve been a bit more grateful in that case) and so he went off to a place he named Greenland, where he established the first permanent settlement in 986. Wanderlust, if not exactly on a voluntary basis, was already in the blood when along came Leif, later to become known as Lucky Leif.

Keeping up the family tradition, Leif set off for Norway in 999 but ended up being blown off course and having to spend the entire summer in the Hebrides. Which wasn’t all that lucky. When he did finally make it to Norway, he was converted to Christianity and then tasked with the mission of converting the Greenlanders to that religion – they were Vikings, remember, more into your bloody heathen rites, so a big ask but off he went nonetheless. By now, he would undoubtedly have heard (and been miffed by) tales of a merchant called Bjarni Herjólfsson, who claimed to have sighted a land to the west of Greenland that shouldn’t’ve been there (neither should Bjarni – he too had been blown off course), thereby beating Leif to the first sighting of America. Ah yes, but he hadn’t actually set foot there, had he? As luck would have it, on his way to Christianizing the butchering pagans of Greenland, Leif just happened to be blown off course (it’s amazing that the Vikings achieved as much as they did, what with the wind playing such havoc with their plans and fetching them up any old where) and, what do you know, he’s landed in America. What a stroke of luck! He’s not only avoided having to tell a bunch of bloodthirsty heathens about what went on a thousand years ago and what good news that all is, but he’s also going to go down in History for being the first man to reach America, on 9 October 1000. What he discovered there were “self-sown wheatfields and grapevines,” with more grapes than you could point a spathae at and so, naturally enough, he decided to name the place Vinland and lost no time in loading up his boat with a cargo of the berries (it seems, as the botanists will confirm, that grapes are berries – defined as being a fruit produced from the ovary of a single flower in which the outer layer develops into an edible fleshy portion, the pericarp). Not that Leif was at all bothered about such niceties. However, just as his thoughts were turning towards winemaking activities to come, he then made his second discovery there: a pair of bedraggled castaways. From Iceland. Which then made Leif the Third Man to Set Foot in America, which isn’t quite so impressive. Or all that lucky really. Still, he agreed to rescue them, just so long as they said nothing about the incident and simply let the world go on thinking he was the first man on American soil. Which he still is. If you don’t count the indigenous population, of course.

Incidentally, there may be one or two of the more nitpicking variety out there amongst you who might’ve noticed a certain vagueness about some facts along the way – such as “born around 978 or 980, possibly in Iceland” – and are now wondering how it is that we can pin down the date of Leif’s landing as accurately as 9 October. The answer to that is as simple as it is unimpeachable: this day was the one on which the first organised party of Norwegian immigrants landed in New York. In 1825. Besides which, 9 October in America is Leif Eriksson Day, so you can’t argue with that, can you? So, why was he called Lucky Leif when he was always being blown off course, given rotten jobs to do and didn’t discover America or set the first foot on it? Because Robert Calvert (of Hawkwind fame) would, some nine hundred and seventy five years later, record an entire album – Lucky Leif and the Longships – about the saga, which is pretty lucky in anybody’s book, we’d’ve thought.

Not a particularly good day in 1582, this one, for any of the good folk anywhere in Italy, Poland, Portugal or Spain. Nor either an especially bad one, come to that. In fact, nothing happened at all. Thanks to the implementation of the Gregorian calendar, they simply didn’t have a 9 October.

This day in 1604 and it’s a supernova, which would be called, would you believe, Supernova 1604 (it seems that the world would have to wait for inventive naming to really come into its own until Bob Geldof became a father), which is still the most recent one to have been observed with the naked eye in the Milky Way. That’s probably because it occurred no farther away than six kiloparsecs, which, for all the non-boffins amongst us, is about twenty thousand light years from Earth or a bikeride you’d probably want to pack sandwiches for. Just for the record, a parsec is equal to about 3.26 light-years (nineteen trillion miles) and a kiloparsec, as you may have guessed, is a thousand of ‘em. The nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is around 1.3 parsecs from the Sun (you would’ve thought they’d’ve used that distance as nicely convenient for their parsec but, no, they had to get into all manner of ticklish calculations before they came up with their version) and the stars you can see in the night sky are all closer than five hundred parsecs. Back with our Supernova 1604, which was visible during the day for about three weeks, that was also known as Kepler’s Supernova, after the seventeenth century German astronomer. Not that he was the first to sight it (you don’t really need to do that, as we’ve seen with Leif Eriksson) but he did track it for an entire year and wrote a book about it, catchily titled, On the New Star in Ophiuchus's Foot, a big hit back in 1606. As far as we know, no songs have been penned about Supernova 1604 but there is at least one about Johannes Kepler, which kind of makes all his stargazing efforts worthwhile. And proves that there is a rhyme for perihelion.

This day in 1701 and the Collegiate School of Connecticut is chartered in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. It seems that the General Court there spotted a need for an institution to train up clergymen and sundry Christian word-spreaders and so ten worthy Congregationalist ministers got together to act as founders of the college. This group is now known as – you’ll never guess – The Founders. The school would move first to Wethersfield and then, in 1716, to its current home in New Haven. Colleges, in those days, might have been run by ecclesiastically-minded sorts but they weren’t above a bit of fighting amongst themselves, when push came to shove. The sixth president of Havard, one Increase Mather (nice naming job there, Ma and Pa Mather) was getting a tad fed up with his own institute’s lax attitude in religious matters and so he started championing the Collegiate School instead, in the hope of turning it Puritan. Increase would then go on to commit the highly un-Puritan sin of fornication, which resulted in him siring a son: not to be outdone by his parents, he called the boy Cotton.

This Cotton Mather would turn out to be every bit as Puritanical as his father and thus opposed to all forms of pleasure whatsoever, at the same time holding a rigid set of beliefs that denied the transubstantiation and pooh-poohed priestly vestments but did insist doggedly that there was such a thing as witchcraft and witches, no doubt about it. And he could prove it. Which he did to great effect during the Salem Witch Trials that saw twenty witches get their come-uppance at the end of a rope and which made Connecticut a far better place for the smugly pietistic to strut around in their sanctimonious self-righteousness. Busy man though he obviously was, Cotton Mather still found time to help the Collegiate School out by button-holing a successful businessman, son of one of the original pioneers, to see if he could get him to part with a bit of cash to help the school out. This was Elihu Yale but, rather than corrupt the Pilgrim Fathers with the temptations of Mammon, instead of cash he gave them nine bales of goods, which sounds a bit curmudgeonly but did turn out to be worth over £560. Cotton Mather thanked him profusely, with the promise that he’d get his reward in heaven but, when he perceived it was a hard-bitten capitalist merchant he was dealing with, he thought what the hell, how about we name the school after you? So that’s what they did. Though it wasn’t until an act of 1887 that it gained its shorter name of today: Yale University.

Yale University Library holds over fifteen million books, though that’s still only the third biggest university collection in America: being as it is Third Best, they might’ve had the decency to call it the Leif Eriksonnian, don’t you think? Still, Yale boasts a highly impressive list of alumni, including Presidents Ford, Bush, Clinton and Bush Jr, plus John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Gary Hart and Pat Robertson. Then there’re Paul Newman, Henry Winkler, Vincent Price, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Jodie Foster, Benjamin Spock, Norman Foster and Richard Serra, to name but a few. Oh, and let’s not forget Cole Porter, which brings us to the inevitable song that this day seems to require: he penned the Yale Fight Song (something to do with what our American cousins are happy to refer to as “football,” apparently), which glories in the line: “Bulldog, bulldog, bow wow wow!” Not perhaps his finest lyric but still going strong today. We should also mention Nathan Hale, who you may not remember at all, apart from one immortal line he is supposed to have spoken during the American Revolutionary War. We British got a hold of him and condemned him for his spying activities and, as he stood below the rope, he uttered these defiant words: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” Stirring stuff, enough to have him made State Hero of Connecticut but, alas, possibly with a hint of Yale self-hype in there amongst it.

We now discover that we haven’t left time to even mention this day in 1855, when Joshua Stoddard patented the first calliope and, if you’re anything like us, you’ll be wondering Who He and what’s a calliope when it’s at home blasting the wax clean out of your lugholes? The first thing to establish is that the word has four syllables – Kah-lye-o-pee – and is pretty much Greek for beautiful voice, which is an outright lie. Stoddard was a noted apiarist and, when he wasn’t tinkering with bees, he thought he might as well invent a steam piano to replace the bells in churches. There were several snags to his plan, including the fact that it’s notoriously difficult to tune (and, with all that steam about, apt to go out of tune very quickly) and, once you have tuned the blighter, almost no variation in tone or volume so all you can manage by way of expression is timing and duration of notes. It is also unbelievably loud, so much so that the thing could be heard for five miles and so he ended up being banned from “playing” it within earshot of his home town of Worcester (Massachusetts). The instrument wasn’t entirely a dead loss, however, as Bruce Springsteen would make mention of one in the song Blinded by the Light.

Whisking swiftly past (mainly on the grounds that, as far as we know, they haven’t had songs written about them or gotten into any kind of naming difficulties) the opening of the Washington Monument (1888), St Paul’s being hit by a bomb (1940) and the first electric blanket sold (1946), we finally arrive at this day 1967, not a good one for Dr Ernesto Guevara. He’d been captured by the CIA on 8 October and the following day they decided to finish the job. Guevara, despite suffering crippling bouts of acute asthma, excelled as an athlete, especially in rugby union and cycling, and was also pretty nifty at chess. He read widely and avidly, authors such as Faulkner, Keats, Whitman, Kipling, Marx, Camus, Kafka and Satre, to name but a mere few. A CIA report of 1958 begrudgingly described him as “quite well read” and also “fairly intellectual” before adding, “for a Latino.” To be strictly fair, it was actually the Bolivians that did the dirty on him, once they’d caught him stirring up a revolutionary hornets’ nest in their back yard, and President Barrientos who issued the order for his execution, to save any possible awkwardness putting him on trial might involve, and with the aside that they should make it look like he’d been killed in a firefight. Mario Terán, a drunkard army sergeant, actually volunteered for the job. He shot him with a semi-automatic weapon. Nine times. In the legs and arms mainly, before finally hitting him in the throat (well, you try keeping a steady aim when you’ve had a drop or two). Then they cut off his hands and nicked his watch – despite the fact that he was such a staunch anti-capitalist, this turned out to be a Rolex.

So, finally, we’re back at names again. Guevara’s was actually Ernie, the Che being a nickname that means something along the lines of mate, boy or even dude. As a youth, however, he had been dubbed the somewhat less flattering Chancho, meaning pig, because of his appalling bathing habits and, all through his life, people would comment on his exuberant whiffiness, though rather less so, once he had the power to execute them on a whim. Which he often did, personally. He was also highly reluctant to change his shirt more than once a week, which is ironic really, seeing his iconic image would end up on so very many of them, even to this day.

Charlemagne: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Tonsure: Carlo Crivelli (circa 1435–circa 1495) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Charlemagne and the Pope: By Antoine Vérard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Leif Eriksson: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Leif Eriksson Discovers America: Christian Krohg [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Bob Calvert: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Kepler Drawing of SN 1604: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Cotton Mather: By Peter Pelham, artist ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Testing a Witch: By Thompkins H. Matteson, painter (Collection of the Peabody Essex Museum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Nathan Hale’s Execution: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Bruce Springsteen: By Bill Ebbesen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Young Che: By His Father (Museo Che Guevara) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Che Image: By Alberto Korda (Museo Che Guevara, Havana Cuba) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons