Friday, 8 April 2016

Giants of Academia & the Arts

… but, then again, nobody is perfect

Hans Christian Andersen (2 April 1805 – 4 August 1875)

An instantly recognisable name, this one, belonging to the most famous writer Denmark has ever produced. Well, with the possible exception of Kierkegaard, of course – who happened to be on the go at much the same time – but, unless you do happen to be one of the select few who can boast proud ownership of a well-thumbed copy of Fear & Trembling, then it’s a fair bet that you’ll be like the rest of us, who can safely claim absolutely no Kierkegaardian knowledge whatsoever. Except that the name translates roughly as graveyard, which is rather apposite in his case, seeing he was one of those gloomy existentialist philosophers who spend their time moaning about how “life has no meaning” and then trying to make everyone else as miserable as they are. Whereas, with your Hans Christian Andersen – your good old HC – we know exactly what that fellow was all about and no mistake, seeing we’re all of us familiar with his output to one degree or another, even if we might not always associate the man with the works: The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Ugly Duckling, to name but two.

He wrote fairy stories, of course, though HC himself preferred to describe them as “fantasy tales.” Mind you, he penned plenty of other stuff as well, including plays, poems and novels, though they all seem to have ended up stuck on the shelf with the Kierkegaards, gathering dust and long since forgotten about. We should also mention his travelogues while we’re at it, seeing he was an inveterate tourist who liked nothing better than to bung down on paper exactly what he’d seen. Along with throwing in a spot of philosophy, what it was like being a writer and, now and again, the odd fairy-tale or two, just to keep the whole thing ticking over nicely. Well, which of us hasn’t leafed through some travel guide or other, only to find ourselves suddenly thinking that, “actually, what this could really do with is a precipitous and inexplicable departure into the realms of implausible fantasy at this point, in order to liven it up a tad”? Alas, however, all his wayfaring activities may be little more than the result of people tending to fall into the habit of suggesting that he might “Go away,” which would become a phrase only too familiar to him. Not that there was any shortage of companions for his journeys, though it was a mistake they would make but once. After all, this is a bloke who spent most of his adult life immersed in all that is utterly weird and outlandishly bizarre so, as you might expect, he was about as fruitcake as they come, and yet still able to give the impression that he was altogether half-baked.

Hans Christian Andersen was born in the town of Odense on 2 April 1805, a Tuesday as it happens, which should’ve made him, according to the children’s rhyme, “full of grace,” though, being all elbows and knees, he turned out to have all the grace of a rabble of Young Conservatives lining up for lunch at the Bullingdon Club who’ve just been told that the pig’s head is off the menu. Again. (That’d be down to the honourable member for Witney, that would). Hans was named after his father, a humble shoemaker, though the dad did possess something of a lively imagination, fervently believing that the family belonged to a much higher social class than the impoverished “duckyard” they found themselves stuck in. To be fair, it was the grandmother who was mostly responsible for putting that story about, making it a case of “what big teeth you’ve got, Grandma – did you get them to match those tall tales of yours?” She was forever insisting that Hans Senior was actually the lovechild of no less a personage than King Christian VIII of Denmark himself. This, by extension, carries the unmistakable implication that the other half of this unlikely tryst would have to have been none other than the grandmother (“Oh, Grandma, what big porkies you do tell”). All of which may indicate where the other part of HC’s name came from and also how he ended up with such a gift of febrile fancifulness.

Simple cobbler or no, one thing the dad did manage was to introduce his increasingly lanky lad to literature, including The Arabian Nights, from which emerge characters like Aladdin, Sinbad the Sailor and Ali Baba. Strictly, though, it should be referred to as One Thousand and One Nights, seeing it’s supposed to contain one thousand and one tales, all of ‘em soaked with bloodshed, murder and erotic goings-on – just the sort of stuff any self-respecting father would want to be cramming into the mind of an impressionable young boy. Basically, the whole thing revolves around some sultan sort who gets thoroughly cheesed when he discovers that his wife’s been playing fast and loose behind his back, which he puts a stop to by having her executed. He then decides that the misogynistic approach is the safest bet where these fickle women are concerned, and so he takes to marrying virgins and then, in the morning– when they’re presumably not virgins any longer – he has them executed, before they can bring shame on him. Which might, by some, be considered a wise enough move, though it don’t half get through the supply of virgins like a ferret in a chickenhouse. Eventually, the only one left is the daughter of the bod whose job it is to provide them, only she’s got a plan, hasn’t she? To start telling the king a story, get to a cliffhanger point and then say, “And that’s all we’ve got time for tonight.” What can the sultan do, apart from holding back on the execution so’s he can find out what happens next? Only for the same thing to happen again. A thousand and one nights they’re at it, at the end of which he decides that he might as well let her off. The moral of all this being, girls, keep in his earhole long enough and he’s eventually bound to crack.

Fate, not content with placing HC at the tender mercies of a bloodthirsty cobbler, had one more fateful roll of the dice to play in his childhood that would go a long way towards shaping his future career: by pure chance, Odenese happened to be the only town in Denmark, outside Copenhagen, that could boast a theatre, which is where our hero liked to take himself off to of an evening and so, before you could shout out, “He’s behind you,” the greasepaint was coursing through his veins. By now a tall and gangly youth, HC would enthral the townsfolk by reciting long passages from plays, performing especially clumsy dances or, for anyone who couldn’t get out of earshot swiftly enough, insisting on giving them a song or two. After which, in that “well, what d’you think?” moment, they would retaliate by suggesting he got himself a trade. Entirely unmiffed, he went right on insisting that one day he would be famous. “Poor boy,” they must’ve thought, “lives in a fantasy world and where’s that ever going to get him?”

He’d show them! On 4 September 1819, he turned his back on the bally lot and, aged just fourteen, headed for Copenhagen. The old man had died in 1816, forcing the mother to go washerwomaning again and HC into being a tailor’s apprentice, though she soon managed to get herself remarried, which is when HC decided to ask her permission to seek his fortune among the bright lights. “Go, by all means,” she (might’ve) said – it’d be a weight off her purse-strings, if nothing else. So, off he went. Next thing he knew, being a half-decent soprano, he’d been accepted into the Royal Danish Theatre and was on his way. Of course, being HC, the next thing after that was that his voice broke, at which someone suggested he go and be a poet instead. “Be a poet?” thought HC, considering the idea carefully, though it was more a case of “Well, go. And be a poet.” In 1822, Jonas Collin, director of the Theatre, who had taken a shine to the lad, decided the best thing all round was to send him away for some schooling in Slagelse. About sixty miles away, in fact, and even managed to get King Frederick VI to cough up some of the funding for it.

He was to stay there until 1827. These were to be grim days. For one thing, he was twenty two by the time he left and much older than the rest of the pupils. And, for another, he was subjected to the usual bullying and abuse, though, in his case, this came at the hands of the schoolmaster. Who claimed it would “improve his character.” Clearly one of the “it never did me any harm” brigade of rampant fascists. HC was actually a born dyslexic, which can’t’ve helped and he never did learn to spell properly, though this would result in his writing style remaining close to the spoken language, aiding his later success and keeping the stories sounding fresh. He would eventually graduate from Copenhagen University, though educationalists would probably have a word to say about that today. His first story, The Ghost at Palnatoke's Grave, was published early on in this period.

In 1829, his first book appeared, called A Walking Tour from the Holmen Canal to the Eastern Point of the Amager – OK, perhaps he could work on coming up with catchier titles – which featured the likes of St Peter and a talking cat. Soon afterwards, his first play was performed, followed swiftly by a volume of poetry. He was doing all right for himself so he thought why not treat himself to a proper trip this time? And away he went. He wanted to meet an old schoolchum, Christian Voigt, living at Fåborg, but the first person he encounters is Christian’s twenty year old sister, Riborg. Our lad is instantly smitten. Turned utterly soppy, in fact. Trembling, blushing, weeping, the lot. Though this would turn out to be pretty much his general strategy with most of the women he’d fall for. The big snag was that she was half-promised to the spotty son of some chemist, even if the Riborgs did think they could do a deal better for themselves in the son-in-law stakes. When she was summoned away to nurse a sick friend, decisive action was called for, and quickly. So HC did what any hot-blooded male would do in such a situation: he wrote her a letter of proposal. Which never made it absolutely clear it was a proposal at all. When she returns in the autumn, he hands her the letter. By which time the Riborgs, having got to know HC, decided that even a spotty chemist’s son was an improvement on a simpering, frog-eyed poet with feet the size of an elephant’s, and so our lad gets the elbow.

Two years later, in 1832, he’d already penned his first autobiography – yes, first – and he gives it to the youngest daughter of his patron, Louise Collin, this turning out, once again, to be pretty much an attempt to lure her into the marital bedlinen. She, for her part, doesn’t quite know what to say to this. So she says nothing. And, not long later, gets engaged to someone else. Which is a kind of an answer, wouldn’t you say? To be fair, mind, it did galvanise him into a period of sustained writing: in 1835, his first novel, The Improvisatore, came out and, in the May, his first collection of fairy tales, followed by a second set in December. Alas, they bombed. Undaunted, a second novel, O.T., sprang to life in 1836 with, hot on its heels, another one, Only a Fiddler (1837), which a young, but every bit the miserygut, Søren Kierkegaard, would be particularly sniffy about. Which didn’t bother HC all that much, seeing he was well into his flow by now, and less still when the King granted him four hundred rigsdaler (about four grand now) per year to thumb his nose at the miffed existentialist. The Little Mermaid and The Emperor's New Clothes also turned up around then, so he was doing pretty OK, as it goes. Well enough to swan around Italy, Greece and Constantinople for a bit, anyhow.

Never far away, however, Eros lurked with his poisoned arrows. In 1843, the singer, Jenny Lind, came to Denmark on tour, where HC got to meet her and, true to form, fell instantly and hopelessly in love with her. You can probably guess the next part: he hands her a letter which “she could not fail to understand”; she replied nothing, not even the marrying-someone-else routine (until 1852, anyhow), though they did manage to remain friends. She is supposed to have inspired Beneath the Pillar, The Angel and, famously, The Nightingale – she would later be known as the Swedish Nightingale – but also to have been the basis for his portrait of The Snow Queen with a heart of ice. Ironically, The Ugly Duckling surfaced at this point too. HC would say that it didn’t matter in life if you lived in a duckyard, so long as you were born of a swan’s egg. Clearly still convinced of his own noble blood, something repeated cash from the King can’t’ve staunched much. 

By 1845, it was time for a second stab at autobiography, this one being The True Story of My Life, the first being, in essence, a damp squib of a marriage proposal. Now his works were finally translated into English at last. Which was very much a break-through moment for him, meaning he was able to pop over to England in 1847 and to rub shoulders with some real nobs, attending the Countess of Blessington’s do’s for intellectuals, where he finally got to meet his all-time hero at last: Charles Dickens. Oh, he was mates with plenty of pretty big fish and could drop names like Balzac, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Dumas, Victor Hugo, Ibsen and Wagner. Not forgetting Brahms and Liszt, of course, though whether he met both at the same time isn’t recorded. But it was always Dickens who was the real Jammy Dodger in that particular biscuit barrel for old HC. Dickens would afterwards call at HC’s lodgings with a gift of twelve volumes of his works but, true to form, HC’s luck ensured he was out at the time, though they did start corresponding after that. Dickens also invited HC to come stay at his place sometime, probably hoping never to be taken up on the offer.

As it goes, HC had every intention of doing just that, though he had to pop home for a bit first, in order to get one or two little jobs sorted. Like writing a patriotic novel about the Danish-Prussian War, a travelogue on Sweden, a volume of fairy stories and, not before time either, his third autobiography, The Fairy Tale of My Life (1855). By 1857, it was off to Gads Hill for a fortnight with England’s foremost man of letters. Being an unassuming sort of guest, he told Dickens that, “I shall not inconvenience you too much.” Alack, once a teller of fairy stories … only this was to have no Happily Ever After. In fact, he hadn’t even told Dickens he was coming, leaving that to the press to announce, and it wasn’t the best of times (but might’ve been the worst of times) for his host, seeing Little Dorrit had just come out to scathing reviews, just as the Great Man was on the point of ditching his wife for a younger model, a friend of his had died and he was up to his ears in rehearsals for a Wilkie Collins play, which he ended up writing most of. The visit didn’t get off to the best of starts, with HC complaining that the place was a bit nippy and then getting rather miffed because no servant had been provided to shave him in the morning! What on earth was Charlie D thinking of? There was also something of a misunderstanding when HC suggested that Dickens’s son might take the job on so, after that, a coach was procured to whisk him into the town barber’s first thing each day. At an initial dinner, when Dickens offered his arm to a visiting lady to escort her in, who should come swooping in to take it but HC, leading the startled novelist to his nosebag himself. In great triumph, it was said. It would be pleasing to imagine that, at a later stage in the meal, Charles had turned to our man to enquire, “Crackers, Mr Andersen?” though he did confide to a friend what sort of guest they had staying: “Hans Christian Andersen may perhaps be with us, but you won’t mind him – especially as he speaks no language but his own Danish, and is suspected of not even knowing that.”

The fortnight eventually passed but still HC showed no signs of slinging his hook, even though the atmosphere had turned chillier than HC’s bedroom. Luckily for Dickens, the rehearsals kept him up in London and well out of it mostly, but the rest of the family suffered on in tight-lipped silence, though daughter Kate did give vent to the opinion that, “He was a bony bore, and stayed on and on.” The obsequious Uriah Heep, of David Copperfield fame, is said to have been modelled on Andersen but, seeing that was published in 1850, some seven years earlier, old HC can’t’ve been held in very high regard from the start. At last, after five long and frosty weeks, HC decided it was time for him to go – “No, please, you shall not dissuade me” – and a collective sigh of relief was heaved throughout Gads Hill.

For such a well-intentioned fellow, our lad was a pretty insensitive perisher and known to be a tiresome travelling companion. Though that didn’t stop his friend, William Bloch, from taking a trip with him in 1872, by which stage HC had become a convinced hypochondriac, fretting that a tiny mark on his eyebrow would swell to cover his face and believing that being touched by Bloch’s walking stick would rupture his stomach. Not that Bloch was at all your belly-poking type, more that his companion was a sheer fantasist, and one with a morbid fear of being buried alive, so much so that he carried a note on his person that said, “I only seem to be dead.” Which don’t say a lot for his conversational powers, now does it?

Hypochondriac or no, Andersen died not long later when a giant carrying a mermaid on his back climbed down a magical beanstalk and ate him for his breakfast, crushing up his bones to make soup for the mermaid. Sadly, that isn’t what actually happened, though it’s a deal more likely than what really befell the greatest Danish writer of them all: he fell out of bed. Somehow, he was severely hurt (maybe he’d been lying way up on twenty mattresses?) and never recovered, soon after starting to show symptoms of liver cancer. On 4 August 1875, he died. In a house called Rolighed (it means calmness) which, in a typical Andersen touch, wasn’t his but some friend he was outstaying his welcome with. His birthday, 2 April, is now observed as International Children’s Book Day. 


Perhaps some of you may even have read some Hans Christian Andersen to your own children? The Little Mermaid, perchance? That’s the one about the mermaid (aged fifteen, incidentally) who swims to the surface, spots and falls in love with a handsome prince, and rescues him from death. Luckily, a Sea Witch is on hand to sell her a potion to give her legs (the price being cutting out her tongue) so she can be human, though swallowing the potion will feel like a sword going through her. Though she’ll be able to dance like nobody’s business afterwards. But that’ll feel like walking on knives every time – worth it, mind, to bag her prince. Who, inevitably, marries somebody else, leaving her to top herself.

On a more cheerful note, how about The Red Shoes? Featuring an anti-heroine called Karen (HC had a detested half-sister called Karen) who’s supposed to look after Grandma but, once she’s given the eponymous shoes, she flounces about in them instead, showing them off in church, all that caper. To teach the little madam a lesson, the shoes start to dance non-stop, night and day, until Karen has to beg an executioner to cut off her feet with his axe. The axeman obliges, though he does give her a pair of wooden feet and some crutches but, meanwhile, the shoes go right on dancing, even barring her way from getting into church to repent her former vanity, and with her amputated feet still stuffed inside ‘em.

And they all lived bloodily ever after. Night night, little ones. Sweet dreams …


Hans Christian Andersen 1869: By Thora Hallager (1821-1884) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Ugly Duckling: By The original uploader was LaSylphide at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

King Christian VIII of Denmark: By Creator:L. Aumont ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Scheherazade and Shahryār: Ferdinand Keller [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Andersen’s House in Odenese: By Ipigott (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hans Christian Andersen Statue in Copenhagen: By Daderot (Daderot) [CC0 or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Hans Christian Andersen 1836: Christian Albrecht Jensen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Søren Kierkegaard: By Neils Christian Kierkegaard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jenny Lind: Eduard Magnus [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Dickens: By Jeremiah Gurney (Heritage Auction Gallery) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dickens Family Group at Gads Hill Place: By Unknwn (Wikipedia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Uriah Heep: Fred Barnard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Andersen at Rolighed: By Israel B. Melchior [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Mermaid: John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 25 March 2016

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

March 25

This day in History, at long last, allows us to pay call upon the enigmatic Year 1 and to go rummaging through its contents to see what turns up. That’d be 1 AD, of course – or Anno Domini, the Year of Our Lord, in case there’s any doubt, so we all know what its main claim to fame might be, don’t we? Or do we? Leaving that aside for the moment, March 25 that year goes down as the date of the Dionysian Incarnation of the Word, or what we think of as the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel popped down to Mary with the gladsome tidings, which was all fine and dandy but was going to prove a tad awkward to explain to the doting husband when he got home. (“An angel, you say?”) Being as 25 March is a biologically handy exact nine months before Christmas, Dionysius considered this must be when the whole Anno Domini era kicked off. And, if you’re wondering who Dionysius might be when he’s at home in his calendar-making workshop, he’s Dionysius Exiguus, which, though he might not actually sound like that kind of fellow, what with his deciding When History Began activities, translates roughly as Dennis the Humble. Despite the misleading soubriquet, he was the one who dreamt up the whole Anno Domini caper in the first place, so he was pretty much in the driving seat when it came to deciding when the start of it might be. Though it seems he may well have had an ulterior motive or two up his monastic sleeve when it came to getting this new calendar of his into circulation.

One method of keeping track on the passing years that had been all the rage with folk back then was the AM system, or Anno Mundi, which put Year 1 down as the one in which the world was created, and they’d been able to calculate precisely when that was by using all those interminable lineages cited in the Bible – by which we mean the nonstop begatting business that started when Adam begat Seth, Seth begat Enos, Enos begat Kenan and so on. No mention of Cain, you’ll notice, seeing he’d had his collar felt for the first murder by then and was wandering around in the Land of Nod, east of Eden (oh yes he was!). So, armed with all that irrefutable data, the boffins were able to state categorically that the world had begun five thousand five hundred years before the birth of Christ and, just to prove that was no fluke, they also announced that it would end in the year 6000 AM (or about 500 AD). Come on now, be fair, it’s not such a bad stab at it as you might at first think. OK, they’ve missed out the whole dinosaur period and the actual age of Earth happens to be about 4.543 billion years, but they weren’t to know that back then, were they? What you’ve got to remember is that Genesis reckons that Adam lived to be nine hundred and Seth eight hundred – they were also both over a hundred when they were getting down to the actual begatting – so you can see how easily the odd inaccuracy might creep in. Strictly speaking, however, about as much nail-on-the-head precision as you get from those infernal perishers who ring you up to inform you that, “Our records show that you’ve recently been involved in a road traffic accident.” Yes, and I’m eight hundred years old too, you know. Anyhow, Dennis’s big beef wasn’t with the absurd ages of everyone involved (there were no road traffic accidents back then, so maybe they did live longer?) so much as with the fact that everyone was going around the place thinking that the world was about to end. Well, it was 500 or so AD by then, so there was good reason to be getting a touch edgy. Enough to do something about it, anyhow.

As it goes, Dennis was none too keen on the other year-counting convention that was in use at the time either, also known as AM, though in this case that stood for Anno Martyrum, being to do with the Era of the Martyrs, but also known as the Diocletian era (or Anno Diocletiani, or AD), seeing it was named after the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who began his reign in November 284, which made that a fair candidate for being the Real Year 1 as far as he was concerned. Dennis, on the other hand, thought this was a bit of a rum do all round, seeing that Diocletian was exactly the sort of brutal tyrannical blackguard that has ensured that the Romans have received such a bad press down the years, what with all that scourging and crucifying and picking on the Christians for every least little thing that went wrong. In fact, he it was who instigated the Empire’s last major persecution of the Christians, which is the very thing that put Dennis’s nose so out of joint, his feeling being that a blighter like that shouldn’t be brought to mind every time we checked out what date it was. 

This is the sort of oily tick Diocletian was: him and Galerius, a chum and fellow emperor, decided that they needed to see what Fate had in store for them next. Cue the haruspices – they’re the bods who can predict the future using only the entrails of sacrificed animals, with the livers of sheep and poultry said to be especially efficacious in such cases – but, alas, it seems they just couldn’t get a signal (bet nobody asked them if they’d “tried rebooting”) so it soon became clear that it must be the Christians up to their old tricks again, especially when there was a fire in the Imperial Palace not long later. There was an investigation but nothing was ever proven. Still, that wasn’t going to stop someone like Diocletian and, by that stage, they’d got all the executing gear ready anyway, so they might as well just crack on. Which is what they did. Even his own valet was suspected of being a Christian so, just in case, Diocletian had him stripped, raised up on high and then scourged until the flesh came away from his bones. But then, as if to prove that all Romans weren’t just a hardened bunch of scourgers and crucifiers, they then treated his wounds – well, by pouring salt and vinegar into them – before boiling him slowly over an open fire. Imagine what it’d’ve been like if it had been someone he didn’t like …

Thus, in order to thumb his nose at Diocletian, our man came up with Anno Domini (thereby getting rid of the despised AD system by replacing it with … well, the AD system), which is used to number the years of both the Gregorian and the Julian calendars. Mind you, it had to wait until 731 to really get going, which is when the Venerable Bede used it to date events in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Meanwhile, March 25 itself – or Lady Day – had been the traditional New Year’s Day in England right up until 1752. So 1751 was the last year to start on March 25, which ended up being only two hundred and eighty two days long.

So, what of the event of the Year 1 Anno Domini? It pretty much stands to reason that, if you’re thinking up a system that uses the birth of Christ as the starting point, then Year 1 would have to be the one in which Jesus was born, wouldn’t it? Ah, would that it were so. At the time when Dionysius was getting his thinking gear around the old Anno Domini business, he calculated (don’t ask how) that the current year would be 525 AD – fair enough – or 525 years since the Incarnation (Annunciation) took place. This implies that a full 525 years had completely passed since that event (just as a baby is one only when it has lived a full twelve months), which means that 25 March 1 AD is also a year on from the Incarnation, thus placing the Annunciation itself at 25 March 1 BC and, by extension, the birth of Christ some nine months later at 25 December 1 BC. That don’t sound right somehow, BC being Before Christ and all that. Still, things get even worse if you favour the dating-it-by-Herod method (he being the first-born butcherer, you’ll recall), seeing he died as inconveniently early as 4 BC. Before we all start pointing mocking fingers at poor old Dennis’s maths, perhaps it would be as well to reflect that not a few of us modern-agers fell for celebrating the Millennium (ie, a new one starting) a little prematurely when we’d only actually completed nineteen hundred and ninety nine by then.

25 March 1199 was not an especially good one, as far as Richard I of England was concerned. But, then again, he did tend to make a habit of having bad-hair days (except for the one on which his statue was done, in which his grooming is immaculate, suggesting that there must have been a whole host of topnotch barber’s shops around in the Twelfth Century Holy Land). Wherever the Lionheart was, things went wrong. All of which is enough to make one wonder why our goodly Parliamentarians should elect to have the effigy of such an immortal blunderer erected in their carpark as a figure of inspiration. It can’t just be the muscle-clad sword-waving machismo, surely? Marochetti’s bronze is an impressive piece sure enough, but even it was liable to suffer the same sort of mishap as its subject. The horse’s tail fell off the day it was installed (at the Great Exhibition, its original location) and, being bronze, that really was a clanger. Then, much like the recent Tory move to cut Disability Benefits, it was found to be riddled with holes. Plus it had never been fixed to the pedestal properly. Even the artist himself admitted it wasn’t an accurate depiction of a Twelfth Century knight but, apart from that (and the fact that it blew about in the wind), not bad.

So, what is it about this flaw-fuelled filibuster that makes our most upstanding members look up to him with such awe? Contrary to popular belief, he was born in this country and lived most of his childhood here – it was only after he got a whiff of power that he naffed off so conspicuously, spending as little as six months in England during his entire reign. (Lots of foreign jaunts for the powers-that-be? That’s got to go down well.) He spoke no English, only an obscure dialect version of French, in which tongue he was known as Oc e No (Yes and No) because of his reputation for terseness, so that’s another box ticked. He rose up in armed rebellion against the ruling powers (that’s be his dad, Henry II), got soundly thrashed, then blamed someone else (his mum) for egging him on before falling weeping and begging for forgiveness at Henry’s feet, who gave him the kiss of peace. All a bit unmanly, but we’ll brush over that. It seems that, like many of the Plantagenets, his hair was “between red and gold”, so more like your Boris or a young Michael Heseltine than your Dark Dave Cameron.

Then, on 3 September 1189, he finally got to park the royal backside on the English throne when he was crowned at Westminster Abbey. Despite having taken the precaution of barring all Jews from the ceremony, they had the temerity to turn up anyway and to come bearing gifts. Clearly, the only thing for it was to have the impertinent beggars stripped and flogged, then flung out on their ear. Mind you, he wasn’t completely anti-Semitic: when a rumour spread that he’d ordered all Jews to be killed and people got stuck into doing just that, he decided that this sort of behaviour wouldn’t do at all, though mainly because he was on the point of heading off on crusade and didn’t want his realm destabilised while he was away. So he organised some executions for the ringleaders to calm everyone down, and even released a royal writ telling folk to leave the Jews alone. But, the minute his back was turned, they held a massacre at York anyway, so fat lot of good that did. He remains one of a very few monarchs remembered by epithet rather than regnal number, his being Richard the Lionheart, of course, another being Ethelred the Unready, though this is a mistranslation, seeing it should be Æthelred Unraed or, at a push, Ethelred the Redeless, turning his whole name into something of an Anglo-Saxon pun, the Ethel part meaning noble and the raed (or rede) meaning advice or counsel, which would then make him Nobly Advised Badly Counselled. Not such a rib-tickler nowadays, admittedly, but it would’ve had them rolling in the aisles back then. Or a hundred and fifty years after the poor chap pegged it, when they first started to use the name, anyhow.

Back with Richard I, he’s now chomping at the bit to get off on the Third Crusade but crusading’s a costly business, so he’s going to need cash and loads of it. Having used up most of his father’s treasury, he then raised taxes, granted William I Independence for Scotland for ten thousand marks (there’s an idea) and he even went in for a spot of selling privileges and titles (nice New Labour touch) and charging those who already had them exorbitant fees to retain them. Famously, or infamously, he is said to have declared that, “I would have sold London if I could find a buyer.” Can’t you just hear, floating in the background somewhere, the phrase, “This is a good deal for Britain”? Having safely pocketed his wedge, he then had to agree to going with his sworn enemy, Philip II of France, mainly because they were both such perfidious and suspicious blighters that they couldn’t trust each other not to nick their lands while they were away, thereby unwittingly establishing an early basis for the entire European Community. On the way over, he further enhanced his credentials as a great political leader by showing just how untrustworthy he really was: in Cyprus, he married Berengaria of Navarre even though he was still officially betrothed to someone else. Be fair, though, she did come with vast swathes of land, so that was “a good deal for Britain” too. Well, Aquitaine, anyhow.

From thereon in, it was onwards and downwards. When they reached Acre in June 1191, Richard was already sick with scurvy. Give him his due, mind: he was the sort of guy that got things done. Ill or not, he was still able to maim, debilitate and kill, by having himself carried about on a stretcher so he could take potshots at the guards up on the ramparts with his crossbow. Faced with that sort of thing, the residents of Acre soon threw in the towel but, even then, Richard was able to contrive calamity from the jaws of victory: he took great umbrage when Leopold of Austria had the brass neck to raise his standard inside Acre next to those of England and France, so our man had it torn down and thrown into the moat, at which Leopold flounced off in a huff (falling out with colleagues and allies? You wouldn’t find such goings-on in Parliament, now would you?), which left only Philip on his side, so he promptly bickered with him, leaving Richard as the last man standing. Or Dickie No Mates, as the case turned out. Well, apart from the two thousand seven hundred Muslim prisoners he’d captured, whose bogging-down presence was now hindering his pressing on for Jerusalem so, when Saladin kept dragging his heels over the surrender terms, he had the whole bally lot executed one by one in a spot where Saladin could see precisely what was going on. Henry V, our other great chivalric hero, would employ similar tactics at Agincourt.

Having left Philip free to go plotting with his own brother, John, and with Jerusalem in sight, Richard was forced to pack the whole crusading thing in as a dead loss, meaning a total failure of all his plans. Instead, he made a deal with Saladin, no doubt a good one for Britain. On the way back, bad weather forced him to put in at Corfu (land of Emperor Isaac II Angelos, who he’d also squabbled with) but, undeterred, he disguised himself as a Knight Templar and sailed away again. Only to get shipwrecked. So that meant going overland. It seems he was no great shakes when it came to the fancy dress business either because it was instantaneously seen right through, though the fellow that captured him just before Christmas 1192 had something of an advantage: he’d met him. It was Leopold of Austria, who can have lost no time in renewing the acquaintance. “Do you recall that time back in Acre? When you chucked my flag into the moat?”

Our hapless monarch then found himself banged up in Dürnstein Castle and, being something of a balladeer, beguiled the time by writing a song moaning about how he’d been abandoned by his people. Even though they were at home where they’d always been and he was the one who’d gone walkabout, leaving them to it. He was then handed over to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI, who just happened to be someone else in dire need of cash, so decided ransoming might bring some his way. All he was asking for, in order to let Richard go, was a hundred and fifty thousand marks, the equivalent of two or three times the national income (about £1,150,000,000,000 today). Up went taxes once again, and not just for the highest earners but across the board, in a kind of early version of One Nation politics that nearly bankrupted the country in the so-doing. Still, never mind, at least we got our King back. Though not for long, seeing he was off again more or less the moment he landed.

In March 1199, this Holy Christian Warrior of ours spent Lent in “devastating the Viscount Aimar V of Limoges’s lands with fire and sword,” then besieging the puny castle of Châlus-Chabrol, on account of the fact that he’d heard that a treasure trove of Roman gold had turned up there, which he reckoned must be his, being feudal overlord and all that. So, come the evening of 25 March, there he is, strutting around the walls without having bothered to put on his chainmail, as you would in a siege situation – and if you also happen to be an arrogant fathead who’s temporarily forgotten that blundering bad luck seems to dog him everywhere he goes – checking out how the sappers are doing and calculating how long it’ll be before he gets his mitts on the dosh, when some wretch armed with a crossbow takes a potshot at him. But misses. An amused Richard, who’d evidently not come across the saying, “He who laughs last,” sarcastically applauds this failed attempt. At which, a crossbow bolt instantly thuds into his left shoulder, wiping the grin clean off his face. The doctor then botches the removal and the wound turns gangrenous, which is pretty much your Twelfth Century sentence of death. As he lies dying, Richard summons the marksman to be brought before him. No point in bearing a grudge now, so Richard forgives him and even gives him a hundred shillings before ordering that he be allowed to go free. Which, given all the misfortune he’d suffered, was a nice final gesture. Richard died on 6 April 1199 in the arms of his mother.

Didn’t do the archer much good, mind. As usual, the minute the King was out the way, they took not a blind bit of notice of him, had the poor wretch hauled outside, flayed alive and then hanged. Richard's heart was buried at Rouen in Normandy, his entrails in Châlus, and the rest of him at Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou. About which, you might say, “That’s him all over, that is … ”


Campin Annunciation: By Ad Meskens (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Adam & Eve: Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Monk in a Scriptorium: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Diocletian: By G.dallorto (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

The Venerable Bede (“The Last Chapter”): By James Doyle Penrose ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nativity by Rogier van der Weyden: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Richard the Lionheart: Merry-Joseph Blondel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ethelred the Unraedy: By See description [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Berengaria of Navarre: By MOSSOT (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Surrender of Acre 1191: Merry-Joseph Blondel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dürnstein Castle: By QEDquid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Tomb of the Lionheart: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 4 March 2016

Word to the Wise

Neglected gems of the language for taking down the pub and introducing to your mates. Or maybe not, in this case …


At-ruh-bil-ee-uhs: Adjective: gloomy; morose; melancholy; morbid; (Rare) irritable; bad-tempered; splenetic.

Related forms: atrabiliousness or atrabiliar, noun; atrabiliary, adjective, atrabilarian, noun (a person much given to melancholy; a hypochondriac – the first case would be someone like John Donne who, when he wasn’t writing soppy poetry, went mooning around with what we Northerners would refer to as “a face on him like a slapped backside”; whereas the second is more your Hans Christian Andersen, who was one of those constantly convinced that they’re coming down with something or other of a fatal nature, until things got to the stage where he would visit his doctor and describe his symptoms, only to have the good physician look up wearily from his notes and say, “Come now, Mr Andersen, you’ve been telling us fairy tales, haven’t you?”)

Rum sort of word all round, atrabilious, and rather akin to a number of others, such as pulchritude, where the term itself gives no real indication of what the utterer may actually be getting at, apart from the fact that, if he – or, heaven forbid, she even – has casually tossed it into the conversation, then you can be absolutely certain that what you are dealing with here is a regular know-it-all wiseacre of the first water, of the type whose braggadocio fanfaronade we all of us deplore. Pulchritude, by-the-bye, and as you probably already know, means physical beauty – from pulcher, by all accounts – but it’s not as if we’re likely to roam around the place expressing opinions along the lines of, “that young lady exudes an unmistakeably pulchritudinous quality,” are we, lads? Not unless we happen to fancy the idea of our cheek burning redly aglow with the imprint of the flat of her hand, we’re not. Like atrabilious, pulchritude is one for laying down and avoiding altogether.

With atrabilious, however, at least the -bilious part provides us with some sort of clue as to what’s going on, seeing we’re all familiar enough with that word and, almost certainly, have even experienced the feeling a time or two, that queasiness during which there is an almost irresistible urge to evacuate the contents of one’s stomach, generally on occasions such as when the Prime Minister gets to his feet at Conference and, having dabbed an onion copiously to his eyes, blubs piteously about how much he suffered in the sad case of his own ill-fated son before going on to announce to all poverty-stricken parents everywhere, “Now it’s your turn.” And even managing to throw in the phrase “hardworking families” whilst he’s at it. In other words, wanting to throw up. That’s what we understand by bilious. Isn’t it? In actual fact, the biliousness in this case contains more than a smidgen of peevishness or downright bad temper so, given that it’s a direct Latin translation of the Greek word melancholy – the Greeks invented it, it seems, and nostalgia – the suggestion would be that whenever the Ancient Greeks got a bit down-in-the-dumps they’d sit around on clifftops staring wistfully out to sea and thinking back to the good old days, whereas your Roman in the same situation would be far more likely to go round slamming all the doors before stomping off to crucify someone or other in the hope of cheering themselves up.

Alas, though, such an image would be mere chimera – as the Greeks might say – for, while the Greek melancholy, from melas meaning black plus khole meaning bile, and the Latin atrabilious both amount to the same thing – black bile – the latter is of seventeenth century coinage and has nothing to do with the poor old Romans at all, who probably got to feeling just as morose and forlorn as anyone else when it came down to it. Still, nothing that a spot of scourging or crucifixion couldn’t sort out in next to no time, we’ll be bound. Perhaps we shouldn’t constantly harp on about the Romans and their methods of punishment and execution, seeing they gave us lots of other things besides, some of them highly cultural. Where would we be without the aqueduct, for instance? Which, by lucky good hap, also chances to be just about the right height for lobbing a Christian off in an emergency situation, if push came to shove. Which it probably would in such circumstances. Back with atrabilious though, it’s one of only a very few words of ours that take the atra root for black, another being atrocious – basically black-hearted – though the atra itself is rooted in a similar term, ater, meaning fire, this being because at the time when they were busy thinking up words for stuff, anything anywhere within smoking distance of the hearth would end up black with soot, chimneys only putting in an appearance around the Twelfth Century. Atrium is another one, for precisely the same reason, this originally being what the Romans would call an open hall, which usually came complete with central fire. And accompanied by suitably all-over smutted walls. So, the next time you’re being shown round some premises or other that has got far too big for its boots and the guide giving you the waffle all about it just happens to mention with affected insouciance almost as an aside that, “this, as you can perceive, is the atrium,” be standing by with the swift riposte of, “not very black, though, is it?” That should dampen his bonfire in a post-micturitional fashion and no mistake. Might even make the blighter a tad atrabilious too.

Whilst our main concern on this occasion is with gloom and misery – and, after six years of unrelenting Conservative misrule, who can blame us? – we must just spare time for a quick word on nostalgia. As it goes, the Ancient Greeks didn’t really invent the concept after all – well, be fair, back then there wasn’t very much in the Good Old Days line for them to be wistfully hankering after, mainly because there wasn’t very much actual History either at that stage to go peering into. Unless you count the Stone Age, of course, and nobody’s got fond enough reminiscences of that to want to make a return to those days, and even the Tories only want to take us as far back as the early Victorian era. In fact, the term nostalgia was coined only in 1668 – allegedly, which makes it just after the Plague and the Great Fire – by Johannes Hofer, a medical student, so the story goes, which he used to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. Now, we know what you must be thinking on seeing the term “Swiss mercenaries” – that it surely belongs in the category of those implausible others, such as “Living Marxism” or “Socialist Worker” or “the cheque’s in the post,” and even “tax applied for” – but there really were such things and, it seems, the Swiss soldiers did have something of an iffy time of it back then.

We should explain that the word nostalgia is a Greek construction, made up of algos, pain or distress – used here to signify an actual illness, as in neuralgia and otalgia (earache) – and nostos, homecoming, nest being similarly rooted, and making the whole mean violent homesickness, which the Swiss were particularly prone to, it seems. Mind you, they did like to indulge in the singing of the Kuhreihen, a melody played on a horn by Alpine herdsman as they were driving cattle, but which made the soldiers long for home so much that they would desert their posts or even pine to death, so it had to be put a stop to, on pain of severest punishment. With the help of Rousseau, the whole Swiss suffering notion made it into Romantic literature, which led to enthusiasm for Switzerland in general and a significant bucking-up of their tourist industry.

Now, someone who really was a firm believer in the whole black bile business was the Greek physician, Hippocrates (c. 460 – c. 370 BC), who was also pretty big when it came to the ancient medical concept of the Four Humours – the word meant something altogether different in those times and, rather like Ant & Dec today, had absolutely nothing to do with wit or laughter – the idea being that if a person had an excess or deficiency of any one of these humours, it would lead to sickness. The four were: black bile, yellow bile – they were keen on their bile, the old Greeks – phlegm (that meant something different too) and blood, these being closely associated with the Four Elements (earth, air, fire and water) and leading to the theory of the Four Temperaments, in which personality types were largely down to having overdone it with one or other of the humours. These types being: melancholic (miserygut full of woe); choleric (bad-tempered, pushy and loutish); phlegmatic (calm, thoughtful and patient); and sanguine (hopeful and carefree). And it’d be a fair bet right now to suggest that what you just did then was to try to work out which one you are, didn’t you? And then pooh-poohed the whole thing as ancient old claptrap. For the record, the word temperament comes from the Latin, temperare, to mix and, in an ideal personality, say Donald Trump for instance, the humours will be exactly balanced: he hates all foreigners, no matter where they come from, and you can’t get more even-handed than that, eh Mr President?

Hippocrates, of course, is known for his Oath. Not that he was forever cussing like a trooper if he happened to hit his thumb with a hammer, but for the one that doctors swear even now, even if they have changed the words a bit since then. He is also known as the Father of Medicine, though his name – actually Hippocrates II, seeing yet again the dad had the same one – comes from hippos, horse, and kratos, power (as in democracy), giving him the wonderfully souped-up appellation of “Horse Power.” He was radical enough to decide that medicine and religion were actually separate disciplines, and rather cocked a snook at the idea that diseases were punishments handed down by the gods, believing instead that they were caused by environmental factors such as life-style and diet, a notion we still cling to today, despite having been told clearly and in no uncertain terms that all the ills of the world are caused by the Mexicans not having been walled into their own country. His work – Hippocrates, not the Comb-Over Cretin – On the Physician, recommended that physicians always be well-kempt, honest, calm, understanding and serious. And that he (they didn’t have shes in those days) should pay careful attention to all aspects of his practice: lighting, personnel, instruments, techniques, and even positioning of the patient and the precise length fingernails should be kept at. Oddly enough, and as you’ve probably spotted, nothing there at all about Must Work Weekends, but that’s Jeremy Hunt for you: he might know far less than a boiled potato about medicine but, let’s face it, he Always Knows Best. Hippocrates also went in for taking note of patients’ symptoms and even introduced the taking of the pulse, though he used it to find out whether or not that patient was lying. Just for the record – once again – the Hippocratic Oath does not contain, as popular misconception will have it, the phrase Primum non nocere (First do no harm), though it’s one that the Secretary of State for Health might want to mull over whilst he’s not doing all that much this weekend. ­

Acting rather like the Secretary of State for Health on a hospital visit ourselves now, we’re going to start whizzing rapidly through it, the difference here being that, in our case, most of us will be at least making a half-decent pretence at any kind of interest and not just thinking about what parts we’re going to savagely cut back on, just as soon as ever we get out of the stench of anaesthetic and sick people. We’re now going to take a quick look at some of the other terms and phrases associated with feeling down-in-the-dumps. Which, according to our beloved Prime Minister in his latest piece of sparkling dispatch box banter (designed solely to avoid an awkward question about his mother), is where Jeremy Corbyn gets most of his suits from. Inevitably, it was left up to the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition to point out that the quality of any suit and its so-called “decency” is of no import whatsoever if all that’s inside it is over-rehearsed vacuous platitudes exuding from a mean-spirited mound of privileged lard.

Let’s start with forlorn. Which was actually going to be this time’s Word, seeing it’s a rather poetic one that has been sadly neglected and could do with making a comeback – so, please, do your bit to make that happen. Alas, however, it turns out that, much like the LibDems, there’s not all that much behind it in the end. Naturally enough, the Greeks are at the back of it, with their luein, to release, which we changed in slow stages to forloren, disgraced or depraved, the for- meaning completely and the loren lost, giving it more the sense of far too bad to bother with. That was back in the Twelfth Century but, by about 1580, it had come to mean the more familiar wretched or miserable – rather like your average LibDem, in fact. More often than not, it gets coupled with hope to make forlorn hope, though it seems that this is a mashed-up translation from the Dutch, verloren hoop, the hoop referring to a troop or band but literally meaning heap, giving the phrase the unnerving sense of suicide mission, at which, once again, LibDem springs readily to mind …

Then there’s sombre – dismal or melancholy – which comes from Latin this time: sub, under, plus umbra, shadow, so anything sombre is under a shadow or in the gloom. Rather like someone who happens to be wearing a sombrero, which comes from the same root, though it originally stood for and umbrella or parasol. Also from the same root, we get umbrage, which generally has two bedfellows whenever we come across it, one being take, the other great – no half measures where your umbrage is concerned but always “he took great umbrage” at the remark, which also generally implies that some flouncing off will not be far away. Back in the Fifteenth Century, umbrage had no displeasure associated with it and a fellow taking umbrage was merely parking himself comfortably under the nearest leafy tree. By the 1600s – the period of the Powder Treason, the Plague, the Great Fire and the Civil War – they found themselves in rather more need of a term for feeling a bit cheesed, though one that also implied this was some other blighter’s fault so that you could, indeed, flounce off and yet still maintain the moral high ground nonetheless.

And we’d best include “Feeling Blue,” while we’re at it. Why should we? Feel blue, that is, rather than mauve or grey or even green? Well, there’re more theories than you can point a stick at being bandied about on this one – incidentally, the phrase bandied about comes from the French, bander, which originally had the sense of to band together as in gang up against, then became exchanging blows and finally softened down into a term for knocking a tennis ball back and forth. Bandy was also an Irish precursor to hockey, which used a curved stick of the same name, hence bandy-legged – so, getting to the bottom of feeling blue will be much like playing Call My Bluff, where it’s up to you to spot which are bluffs and which the truth. If any. Blue meaning sad was used as far back as the late 1300s and some folk postulate that this was because blue related to rain – if such were the case, why aren’t all umbrellas blue? – the Greeks (them again) believing that Zeus would make it rain when he was sad. Or crying. The blues – plural, low spirits – was first recorded in 1741 and had something to do with a blue demon known to be on the baleful side. Mind you, Chaucer got in much earlier during his Complaint of Mars, in which his was the first recorded usage of blue to mean sad, which some – do feel free to pooh-pooh whenever the urge strikes – believe may have been reinforced by the notion that anxiety produces a livid skin colour. Most fanciful of all, and yet all the more credible for that, is the one about it being a tradition on board ship that, if she lost her captain or any officer during the voyage, they would fly blue flags and paint a blue band along the entire length of the hull. We should cocoa …

It seems we’re going to have to miss out many a suitable contender herein, including lugubrious, which is just a posh – or pompous – way of saying excessively mournful, and which started life as leug, to break or cause pain, so the Romans (for whom pretty much all they did caused breakages and pain) used it in the form of lugere, to mourn. They may have inflicted pain aplenty but at least they were lugubrious about it afterwards. Anyhow, we’re going to leave the last word to dudgeon, which really means two words then, seeing this is another that never turns up alone. You never hear of someone leaving in plain old dudgeon, or of being a tad dudgeoned, only ever of being in high dudgeon. The odd thing is that nobody knows where the deuce the word came from, though Shakespeare somehow managed to shoehorn it into Macbeth: “I see thee still, And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood.” At one time, dudgeon was the name of a wood, possibly box, that was used when turning handles for knives and daggers, so it may refer to someone’s gander being so up that he resorts to raising his dagger – if so, why isn’t the phrase “leaving with high daggers”? – but there’s not one shred of evidence for this. All we do know is that the Bard used it in Macbeth, which was originally going to be a comedy, as you can tell from the absurdly risible pantomime witches gathered around their cauldron – yeah, yeah, Will – going on about hubble bubble and all that rot. And then there’s all those unconvincing trees that suddenly develop the ability to walk about, though without ever being spotted by the main actor, leaving the audience to help him out with shouts of “They’re behind you!” Macbeth would’ve been a real side-splitter, had Shakey not come across the word dudgeon and realised that here was the chance to slip in more gratuitous violence and bloodshed than your average Michael Winner film. What we can’t understand, though, is why he didn’t cut all that slapstick nonsense out later on, in that case?

Another word then never turns up alone is knoll. As in grassy knoll. Of which there’s only ever been one in All Recorded History …

[All opinions expressed herein remain solely those of the author]


John Donne as a Young Man: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Crucifixion: Antonello da Messina [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Flagellation of Christ (1880) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905): [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Great Fire of London: Lieve Verschuier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Alphorn Festival: By Cristo Vlahos (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Hippocrates, engraving by Peter Paul Rubens, 1638: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jeremy Hunt: By Culture, Media and Sport Office [OGL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Jeremy Corbyn: By YouTube/exadverso [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Sombreros: By No machine-readable author provided. Patrick.denizet~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Macbeth and the Witches: Théodore Chassériau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 26 February 2016

Giants of Academia & the Arts

… but, then again, nobody is perfect

Alexander Selkirk (1676 – 13 December 1721)

Perhaps not the most familiar of names to be turning up in these columns, though this is mainly because, when it comes to Academia & the Arts, our man was more your muse or model, rather than an actual Movers and Shakers (a term coined, entirely by-the-bye, in 1874 by Arthur O'Shaughnessy in his poem Ode). Mind you, what Selkirk did do certainly had plenty of – shall we say? – originality about it and the work of art he inspired is so ubiquitous and enduringly popular, even now, that there is not the remotest possibility that this will be your first encounter with it. Let it thus remain anonymous until unfolding events herein reveal its true identity. When you think you know what it is, just shout out but, have a care, it’s the complete title that we’re looking for here.

Our man was born in Fife, the son of a tanner-cum-shoemaker and, by all accounts, was much given to surly and quarrelsome behaviour in his youth – a typical adolescent, you might say – which eventually led to his being summoned to appear before the Kirk Session in August 1693 for what is enigmatically described as his “indecent conduct in church”. What form this heinous piece of devilry might actually have taken has had an impenetrable veil drawn over it, so we can but speculate, though surely it can’t’ve been anywhere near as despicable as the one committed by our own Edward VIII (he’s the Abdicator, if you recall), who scandalised society and all sense of decency when unashamedly appearing – in public, if you please – not wearing a hat. What an unmitigated blackguard, to be sure! Though it does tend to put that business of marrying the gold-digging American divorcee into the shade somewhat. Meanwhile, our Alex decided that, rather than being hauled in front of the Presbyterian beak, the wisest of action would be to head off to sea until the whole thing blew over. Which is what he did. Anything to avoid confinement and the risk of a lengthy stretch of solitary …

Life on board suited him and he did well so, by 1703, it was high time to take the next step in career progression. By engaging in a spot of buccaneering, which was all the rage just then – the word, incidentally, comes from the French, boucanier, meaning to smoke meat, as it was first used for hunters of wild oxen in the Caribbean, who would then enjoy a nice barbie of what they’d bagged, barbecue also evolving from the same root – though our jolly jack tars gave the whole enterprise a veneer of respectability by calling themselves privateers. (Which means they were in the pay of the government. And therefore not terrorists). Anyhow, on September 11 that year, he set sail with an expedition to the South Sea led by William Dampier, though their actual avowed intention was not so much your exploration as one of finding enemy ships, attacking them and then nicking their cargoes. Not just pillaging per se, you understand, but all for Queen and Country (Anne being monarch then), as the War of the Spanish Succession between England and France was just getting into top gear at this point, the French having decided they wanted their man on the Spanish throne and we most definitely didn’t. So the easiest way to settle the dispute was by having a war. One that would last thirteen years. As the voyage got underway, Dampier was captain of St George, and Selkirk serving on Cinque Ports, her companion ship, as sailing master under Captain Thomas Stradling.

William Dampier should be more famous than he actually is, being the first Englishman to explore parts of what is today Australia and the first to circumnavigate the world three times, all of which led him to being described as “one of the most important British explorers of the period between Sir Walter Raleigh and James Cook.” He’s certainly one of the most forgotten. The truth, however, is that he was every bit as thuggish as Selkirk himself and, not unsurprisingly, he had a penchant for upsetting folk – when there was no enemy around to be giving a bloody nose to, our sailors generally fell back on the old standby of bickering amongst themselves – eventually culminating in Dampier’s court martial for cruelty, for which he was fined his entire wages for the whole trip. This particular voyage didn’t get off to the best of starts, seeing they’d left it too late for going via the Cape of Good Hope and had to go round by Cape Horn instead, more than a touch choppy itself at that season, eventually getting to the Juan Fernández Islands (off Chile), where they put in for supplies. As luck would have it, a French merchantman came sailing on by, so they decided they’d have a pop at her and fill the holds that way. As luck would also have it – all bad, it seems – she was heavily armed and doggedly manned so, after seven hours of desperate fighting, our lads came away completely emptyhanded. And a bit cheesed off. 

Still, plenty more fish in the sea. Or, better still, slow little Spanish ships laden down with tempting loot that would make easy pickings for a scurrilous band of vicious cut-throats like our lot happened to be and, indeed, they came across no end of them. Though, for some reason, Dampier let them all go after having only taken a fraction of their cargoes, the reason being that he thought they “would be a hindrance to his greater designs.” Which turned out to be the possibility of a highly lucrative raid on Santa María (Panama), a town supposedly awash with vast stockpiles of gold that it was simply itching to be relieved of and Dampier the very fellow to help them out on that score. Alas, however, the best laid plans of mice and mariners … Mind you, the plans weren’t really all that well laid, as it turns out, and the mice would’ve probably made an altogether better fist of it in the end. Besides which, the way this voyage had been progressing, they surely must’ve suspected that it wasn’t exactly going to be plain sailing. Actually, the sailing part all went off rather tickety-boo – it was once they got ashore that matters took a decided turn for the worse when they discovered that the townsfolk weren’t about to meekly surrender and hand over all their bullion to an ill-disciplined rabble, but were about to give them a darn good spanking before sending them on their way with not even so much as a groat to show for their efforts. They were cheesed off about that one too. 

Captain Dampier was turning out to be appositely named – apart from the Captain bit, of course – being a complete wet blanket and a third rate damp squib. Needless to say, at this point some highly uncharitable opinions were expressed amongst the crews, all of which led to an acrimonious parting of the ways, with Dampier heading off in one direction and Stradling, along with Selkirk, taking a different one altogether. By now, it was September 1704 and, after a year at sea, during which time they had been mercilessly pummelled by elements and enemies alike, the Cinque Ports had developed more leaks than your average government department. High time to put into port for some downtime and to replenish. Which is precisely what they did next. As luck would have it – and, given the state of theirs, which couldn’t’ve been any worse if they’d spent the entire voyage shooting down every last passing albatross, something was bound to go horribly wrong for all concerned – an uninhabited island lying a good four hundred miles off Chile and known as Más a Tierra (to the Spanish, anyhow, who could be sarky blighters when they wanted to be, seeing it means Closer to Land – closer than what, precisely?) happened to beckon to them with open arms at that fateful moment. 

Having stocked up, Selkirk, first and foremost the sailor, thought it might be a wise idea if they took this chance to undertake some much-needed repairs, having grave concerns about the apparent seaworthiness – or lack of it – of their vessel and its continuing ability to carry them across the ocean rather than straight to the bottom of it, so he said as much to his Captain. Alas, however, Stradling was more your committed armed robber, so his chief concern was with giving the gold-laden Spanish and French further opportunities to help those less fortunate than themselves (ie Stradling and his brigands) by parting with their cash. Thoroughly alarmed now, Selkirk expressed himself somewhat more forcefully this time, saying that he would rather be left behind than take to sea again in such a jalopy as the Cinque Ports had now become.

Have you ever, in the heat of the moment, allowed the red mist to get the better of you, from behind which you suddenly hear yourself blurting out a volley of particularly ill-chosen words, only to find yourself thinking, the very second they’re irrevocably uttered, something very much along the lines of, “I really wish I hadn’t said that now”? Just such sentiments must have passed through our man’s mind, first when Stradling readily granted his request, then when they dumped his gear on the beach, and all the while he was watching his erstwhile ship become a dot on the horizon and finally disappear. He couldn’t even console himself with the thought that he now knew exactly how Robinson Crusoe must’ve felt, because that hadn’t actually been written yet, though he might well have derived some sardonic amusement had he known that the Cinque Ports did indeed go down not long later, all hands who didn’t drown ending up being rescued by the unforgiving Spanish and treated to some harsh imprisonment for their trouble.

At first, Selkirk remained close to the shoreline, constantly scanning the ocean for any sign of possible rescue, feeling thoroughly miserable and desperately alone. Mind you, he didn’t want for company very long. Just as he was resolving himself to his situation and – quite possibly – as the very thought was entering his head that, “You know what, there’s something to be said for the serenity of solitude after all, being master of all one surveys, the peace and tranquillity of island life, that the only thing that could spoil it now would be if that massive great crash (or rookery) of sea lions out there decided to come ashore and hold a cacophonous mating party right here on the beach” – he found himself inundated with sea lions in a particularly frisky mood. So he made a swiftish dash for the inland, which was no bad thing, as it turned out, because there he found tribes of feral goats waiting to provide meat for the barbie, a drop of milk and a new outfit for when it turned nippy. There were also cabbages and turnips growing wild, plus pepper berries to spice up the old goat-and-cabbage stew a tad. The downside – there had to be one, didn’t there? – was that, whenever he got his head down for the night, colonies of peckish rats would come swarming all over him to give him a good nibbling. Mind you, on the upside, there also happened to be clowders of feral cats hanging about the place, so he got matey with them and, bingo, rat problem sorted. Plus, he was also getting to know most of the collective terms for the wildlife hereabouts – the big pity being that there were no schnauzers in the vicinity, otherwise he might’ve had a stench on his hands also. Though, for a supposedly uninhabited island, it was starting to get mighty crowded …

Finally, at long last, some good news when two ships could be seen approaching his little island fastness. Accompanied rapidly, and as always, by some bad news when these turned out to be Spanish and, therefore, packed to the gunwales with Spaniards who, understandably enough, were none-too-keen on Scottish privateers who’d spent their former careers robbing the very eyes out of ‘em and then leaving them for dead. The situation called for some subterfuge. So he hid in a tree. Which turned out to be enough to fool the Spanish all ends up and so they sailed away again, defeated. By a tree. Though they’d known someone was in residence as they’d come across his two huts, property that made him the biggest real estate owner for hundreds of miles around. One was used for cooking and the other for sleeping at night and reading his Bible by day or singing psalms. Seems our man had turned religious now and had found peace of mind. 

Quite clearly, there has to be a happy ending to all this – or a rescue, anyhow – otherwise nobody would have heard of him and his story, and the book could never have been written. (Yes, it’s a book). This came on 2 February 1709, when the privateering ships the Duke and Duchess hove into view and, having learned from the previous Spanish debacle, Selkirk climbed up his look-out tree to make sure they really were British this time and, finally convinced and utterly overjoyed, he lit a fire on the beach to attract their attention. Which did the trick. In came a landing party. At last, after four years and four months, his luck had finally changed. Nothing could go wrong this time. Unless – no, Fate could never be so cruel, could she? – unless the Duke happened to be being piloted by that utter cad and bounder of the first water (and every water, it would seem, including Selkirk’s own little patch of private ocean), his old adversary and erstwhile Captain, William Dampier. Which it was. Would you Adam & Eve it? In the end, Selkirk had to be persuaded to come aboard. 

You’d think that, after all his tribulations and having found God, he’d give life on the ocean waves and the privateering lark the old heave-ho, but not a bit of it. It was God that got the elbow and our man was soon indulging in his former anti-social habits. He led a boat crew up the Guayas River (Ecuador) to where a murder (if that’s the correct collective term) of wealthy Spanish ladies had fled in an attempt to secrete their jewels. Alas, they weren’t much cop when it came to hiding booty and our man found it easily enough, and still warm, whilst rifling through their clothing. Next up, he helped to capture the treasure galleon, the Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación y Desengaño, which, by all accounts, means something like Our Lady of the Incarnation and Disappointment. Quite what she had to be so disappointed about remains a mystery – Selkirk should’ve known, what with all his Bible-bashing – but, whatever, not being able to get their laughing gear around that mouthful, and with wonderfully sardonic irony, they renamed her Batchelor. Following a jaunt around the Cape of Good Hope, he completed his around-the-world voyage and arrived back in England on 1 October 1711. He had been away for over eight years. Our poacher would eventually turn gamekeeper and, whilst he was engaged in anti-piracy patrols off the west coast of Africa, he succumbed to yellow fever and died, aged about forty seven, on 13 December 1721 – it would have to be the thirteenth with his luck wouldn’t it? He was buried at sea.

Now, hands up all those who’ve guessed that it was Robinson Crusoe we were talking about herein? Well, it’s a big fat raspberry for you lot, we fear. We wanted the full title, if you recall. So, did anyone have down The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe at all? Still no awarding yourself a Jammy Dodger for that one either, we regret to say. What we were really after was (and get a load of this little lot):

The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who Lived Eight and Twenty Years all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; having been cast on shore by Shipwreck, where-in all the Men perished but Himself. With An Account how he was at last strangely deliver’d by Pyrates.

Which was first published on 25 April 1719, only a decade after the rescue and while Selkirk was still alive and robbing. It was a clearly recognisable portrait, with Defoe’s (his name was actually Foe and he only bunged the De in to make himself sound more aristocratic – he also spent three days in the pillory, though that was for something else) with Defoe’s eponymous hero still kitted out in the goatskin togs, even though his island was based on Tobago, which would’ve made them a touch on the warm side for beachwear in such a tropical climate, and he also somehow manages to spot penguins and seals there, meaning he must’ve had remarkable eyesight, seeing they never get any closer than the Galapagos. Still, not altogether a bad little literary effort when you think about it and how it’s lasted so well. Even William Cowper decided to get in on the act and have his own bash at the story – he might not’ve been so hot at spelling Cooper but he was a dabhand when it came to the knocking out poetry caper. In fact, it was he, in his The Solitude Of Alexander Selkirk (no lights under bushels with that title) who gave us the immortal line (which opens it), “I am monarch of all I survey.” A fine and noble sentiment indeed, though not much consolation if all that you do survey happens to be nothing but a vast rabble of sex-crazed sea lions, is it?


Edward VIII: By National Media Museum from UK [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Privateer (Kent battling Confiance): Ambroise-Louis Garneray [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

William Dampier: Thomas Murray [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Buccaneer: Howard Pyle [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Albatross (engraving for Rime of the Ancient Mariner): Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Alexander Selkirk Statue: By SylviaStanley (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Sea Lions: By Brocken Inaglory (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Selkirk Reading His Bible: By Anon. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Being taken aboard the Duke: By Robert C. Leslie [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Robinson Crusoe (Book Cover): By Unknown Gilberton Artist (Gilberton) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Defoe in the Pillory: By James Charles Armytage (died 1902) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons