Friday, 30 October 2015

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

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