October 21, 1772: A Bird Round the Neck Is Worth Two in the Bush

English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was one of the major literary voices in England at the end of the 18th century. He was born on October 21, 1772, and died on July 25, 1834. Along with his good The Ancient Marinerfriend William Wordsworth, he helped to pioneer the Romantic Age of English poetry.  He’s best known for Kubla Khan (In Xanadu did Kubla Khan /A stately pleasure-dome decree) written, according to Coleridge himself, in “a kind of a reverie” as a result of an opium dream, and Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a seafaring epic, sort of like Mutiny on the Bounty without the mutiny or Titanic without the glitz or the the sinking.

The poem begins at a wedding, where one of the guests, hoping to get into the open bar before it closes is distracted by an old salt “with long grey beard and glittering eye.” This, of course, is the titular ancient mariner – no surprise, since Coleridge identifies him as such in the very first line – who begins his tale:

‘The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared,

Merrily did we drop

Below the kirk, below the hill,

Below the lighthouse top.

The Sun came up upon the left,

Out of the sea came he!

And he shone bright, and on the right

Went down into the sea.

 

Even though the mariner has a nice way with words, the wedding guest is thirsty and he has spotted the bride leading other guests to the bar. But –

 

“The Wedding-Guest he beat his breast,

Yet he cannot choose but hear;

And thus spake on that ancient man,

The bright-eyed Mariner.

 

The mariner describes his journey which takes him into some rather nasty, cold (Vermont-like) weather:

 

“The ice was here, the ice was there,

The ice was all around:

It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,

Like noises in a swound!

 

We can only guess what a swound is – but it is a pretty nasty sounding thing and it does rhyme nicely.  Enter the albatross, seascape left:

 

“At length did cross an Albatross,

Through the fog it came;

As if it had been a Christian soul,

We hailed it in God’s name.

 

The albatross leads the ship and its crew to warmer waters, and a perfect spot for the mariner to conclude his tale as  the wedding guest suggests, nervously checking his watch. But the mariner drops a bomb instead:

 

“‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!

From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—

Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow

I shot the ALBATROSS.

 

Well, wouldn’t you know it, the fair breeze that had delivered them from the cold disappears, and they are becalmed, unable to move, and now it’s getting hot:

 

“Day after day, day after day,

We stuck, nor breath nor motion;

As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.

 

The crew members blame their plight entirely on the mariner. They hang the albatross around his neck and give him the cold shoulder. Eventually they spot a ship in the distance, and they watch for several verses in anticipation. As the vessel draws near, however, they discover that its passengers are Death (a skeleton) and the “Night-mare Life-in-Death” (a deathly-pale woman). These two are playing dice for the souls of the crew. Death wins the lives of the crew members and Life-in-Death the life of the Mariner. He will endure a fate worse than death as punishment for his killing of the albatross.

One by one, all of the crew members die, but the Mariner lives on:

“The many men, so beautiful!

And they all dead did lie:

And a thousand thousand slimy things

Lived on; and so did I.

 

Eventually, left alone with them, the mariner begins to appreciate the slimy things and even begins to pray for them.  And then the albatross falls from his neck. The bodies of the crew, possessed by good spirits, rise again and steer the ship back home, where it sinks again, leaving only the Mariner behind.

But his penance for shooting the albatross is not finished. He is forced to wander the earth annoying wedding guests with his story, a lesson for all those he meets:

 

“Farewell, farewell! but this I tell

To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!

He prayeth well, who loveth well

Both man and bird and beast.”

 

Unfortunately for the wedding guest, he has missed out on the open bar and his dinner (he ordered the chicken) is cold.

Advertisements

October 17, 1814: This Round’s on Me

An unfortunate incident involving beer – aged porter to be precise – occurred in London back in 1814.

The central London parish of St Giles was, as slums go, one of the slummiest.  Although it has since been rather gentrified with theaters, Covent Garden and the British Museum nearby, it was then mostly squalid housing where immigrants crowded into its ramshackle buildings, often more thanbeer one family to a room. Near one end of the parish stood the massive Meux and Company Horse Shoe Brewery, its giant vats filled with thousands of gallons of aging porter.

One particular vat which held over 135,000 gallons had seen better days. Like the shanties surrounding the brewery, it suffered from age, and on October 17 it succumbed, bursting and letting loose enough precious liquid to give all of St. Giles and then some a pretty good buzz, although the fury with which it was released made tippling difficult. Like giant shaken cans of beer, nearby vats ruptured and joined the game of dominoes.

Within minutes the brick structure that was the Meux and Company Horse Shoe Brewery was breached, and the deluge roared down Tottenham Court Road, flinging aside or burying in debris anyone or anything in its path.

Homes caved in. A busy pub crumbled, burying a buxom barmaid and her ogling patrons for several hours.  All in all, nine people were killed by drink that day. Those who didn’t lose their lives lost everything they owned to evil alcohol. Soon after the suds subsided, survivors rushed in to save what they could of the precious brew, collecting one or more for the road in pots and cans.

St. Giles smelled like the morning after a particular robust party for weeks. The brewery was later taken to court over the accident, but they pleaded an “Act of God,” and the judge and jury bought it, leaving them blameless. The brewery even received reparations from the government.  God, it would seem, has a soft spot for brewers.

I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer. ~ Abraham Lincoln

 

September 22, 1761: George, the Sequel

With the usual pomp and circumstance, the marriage and coronation of King George III of England and Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz took place on September 22, 1761. The couple were married on the day they met, but remained married for 50 years and 15 children.  George was a notable monarch for several reasons, the most familiar being the loss of the American colonies and his supposed madness. Although many people see a link between the two, it’s a stretch. He was also the longest reigning monarch at 60 years until the reign of his granddaughter Queen Victoria.

George didn’t really lose the American colonies any more than George Washington found them. But independence “happened on his watch” a phrase Americans in the future would delight in applying to practically anything gone wrong. Also on his watch, Great Britain defeated the French in the Seven Year’s War and once again many years later the French under Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.

In his later life, George III had recurrent, and eventually permanent, mental illness. Finally in 1810, a regency was established, and George III’s oldest son, George (coincidentally), ruled as Prince Regent. On III’s death, George Jr. succeeded his father as George IV.

The subject of George III’s mental illness was explored in the play The Madness of George III which inspired the movie The Madness of King George. The name change was supposedly for other reasons, but some maintain that it was because American audiences would think The Madness of George III was a sequel and wonder what happened to the first two movies.

O Mighty Caesar

“He is blessed with a kind of magic truth, the uncanny ability to project the core and humanity of the character he is playing. Beneath the surface humor there is a wry commentary on the conventions and hypocrisies of life.”  Sid Caesar was born on September 22, 1922. He lit up 50s television with his incomparable humor on Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour as well as many movies during his long career.

September 11, 1680: The Unfortunate Roger Crab

Seventeenth century England was not without its share of eccentrics, folks who were not the sharpest arrows in the quiver. Roger Crab may certainly be categorized as one of them, although his misfortune at having his skull split open while serving in the Parliamentary Army might provide some excuse for his eccentricity. The unfortunate Crab was sentenced to death after the incident (for having his skull in the wrong place at the wrong time?), but his sentence was later commuted and, upon his release, he became a haberdasher of hats

His wandering mind somehow happened upon the idea that it was sinful to eat any kind of animal food or to drink anything stronger than water. Determined to pursue a biblical way of life, Crab sold all his hats and other belongings, distributing the proceeds among the poor. He then took up residence in a makeshift hut, where he lived on a diet of bran, leaves and grass (the 16th century equivalent of a kale and edamame diet), and began to produce pamphlets on the wonders of diet.

“Instead of strong drinks and wines,” he wrote, “I give the old man (referring to his body) a cup of water; and instead of roast mutton and rabbit, and other dainty dishes, I give him broth thickened with bran, and pudding made with bran and turnip-leaves chopped together.”

mad-hatterJust as Crab persecuted his own body, others began to persecute him. He was cudgeled and put in the stocks. He was stripped and whipped. Four times he was arrested on suspicion of being a wizard. He bounced from prison to prison until his death on September 11, 1680.  Fortunately, our modern society treats its vegetarian eccentrics much more humanely.

Some scholars believe Crab was the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter.

 

You can’t possibly ask me to go without having some dinner. It’s absurd. I never go without my dinner. No one ever does, except vegetarians and people like that. — Oscar Wilde

September 9, 1754: Et Tu, Fletcher?

When little Billy Bligh, born on September 9, 1754, joined the British Royal Navy at the tcirca 1817: English naval officer and victim of the celebrated mutiny on the bounty William Bligh (1754 - 1817) is cast adrift. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)ender age of seven, he certainly never thought he’d grow up to haul breadfruit around the world. At sixteen, he became an able seaman, then a year later a midshipman. And in 1787, Bligh became Captain of the Bounty.

The Royal Society was offering special prizes to those who would travel to Tahiti, pick up a bunch of breadfruit trees and haul them back to the Caribbean as a source of cheap high-energy food for slaves. It sounded simple enough on paper, but getting there was far from half the fun. First, there was Cape Horn. The Bounty tried to get round it for a month before giving up and taking a longer route. Then Bligh and his crew had to sit around in the tropical sunshine for five months waiting for the little breadfruit babies to get big enough to travel. And when finally they set off for the Caribbean, didn’t Fletcher Christian and his cohorts, having grown fond of the Tahitian ambiance, up and mutiny.

Bligh and his loyalists were loaded into a launch with nary a breadfruit tree and set adrift. Amazingly, they survived and sailed over 4,000 miles to Timor, from where they returned to England. And two years later Bligh headed another expedition and this time successfully carried a load of trees to the Caribbean. However, the slaves refused to eat the breadfruit, wanting no part of a fruit that tasted like day-old bread.

The Ballad of Breadfruit

Once upon a time, according to Hawaiian legend, Kū , the war god, for reasons known only to Kū, decided to live secretly among the common folk and pass himself off as a mortal. He posed as a farmer and even went so far as to marry and have a family. Kū and his family lived quite happily, but being a war god Kū wasn’t such a hot farmer, and famine struck (as famine will). When everybody got pretty darn hungry,

Ku posing as a farmer

Kū realized it was time to shed his disguise and do some god thing. One would think his action would involve a battle of some kind, his being the god of war and all. Instead he disappeared into the ground right before his astonished family’s eyes. They were quite distressed by this, so they stood around where he had last been seen and cried day and night, thus watering the ground until a tiny green sprout emerged. The tiny sprout grew into a magnificent tree heavy with fruits that looked like big ugly green footballs. After tossing one around for a bit, they wondered if they might eat it since they were starving. They tried it, and it tasted awful. But they ate it anyway, saving themselves from starvation, and always remembering that this tree was their beloved Kū, finally providing for his family.

 

cspeak3

Sept 5, 1786: Watch it with that Thing, You’ll Poke Someone’s Eye Out

Jonas Hanway who died on September 5, 1786, was well-know in several British spheres — a vice president of the Foundling Hospital, founder of Magdalen Hospital, revolutionizing London birth registration and in charge of “victuallizing” the Navy. On the other hand, he was also known for tirades against tipping and tea-drinking and his support for the concept of solitary confinement.

But what he is most remembered for is bringing the umbrella to Britain. Now the umbrella had been around for a long time. It was invented in China back in the 11th century B.C. It was popular in Greece and Egypt as a sunshade. It was also used in Rome, but when the empire declined and fell, so did use of the umbrella. It was finally reintroduced in the 15th century, and by the 17th century had become quite popular among sophisticated women in France and even some British women. But a man?

Hanway is credited with being the first male Londoner to carry an umbrella, much to the chagrin of hackney coachmen who thought it their proprietary right to protect Londoners from rainfall. For years, they jeered at him with vigor as being a feminine sissy and even worse, a French sissy. But by the time of his death, umbrellas were commonplace throughout London.

Brolliology is of course the study of umbrellas. Of course. Does anyone actually know a brolliologist? What inspires someone to become one? What are their conventions like? We will study the umbrella a little further on September 7, the date of another noted umbrella in history.

Animals House

houseRThe Beatles had already roiled the American music scene by the fall of 1964, but the British invasion had many skirmishes to go. Another assault came in the form of the Animals who, on September 5, 1964 grabbed the top spot on the U.S. pop charts with their bluesy hit about a New Orleans whore house. No bubble gum here.

“We were looking for a song that would grab people’s attention,” said Eric Burdon. “House of the Rising Sun” got people’s attention big time. The song originated many years before the Animals recording. Alan Lomax recorded an early rendition in the ’30s. Bob Dylan and various folk artists had also recorded versions.

The song is supposedly about a house on St. Louis Street in the French Quarter, said to be the original House of the Rising Sun brothel, run by a Madam named Marianne LeSoleil Levant between 1862 and 1874. The early version is a lament by one of the working girls:

There is a house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun.
It’s been the ruin of many a poor girl and me, O God, for one.
If I had listened what Mama said, I’d be at home today.
Being so young and foolish, poor boy, let a rambler lead me astray.
Go tell my baby sister never do like I have done
To shun that house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun.

 

Dave-Barry1-

August 30, 1794: Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

In the late 1800s, many of the unfortunates who found themselves in English prisons were there as a result of debts they could not pay. Benjamin Pope had a different story; he found his way to prison for a debt he could easily have paid. Pope was a tanner and quite successful in his trade, enough so that he gave up tanning and became a money-lender and mortgagee. He proved successful at this endeavor as well, earning the nickname “Plum Pope.”

     Alas, his good fortune began to desert him, in no small part because of his greed. His grasping ways scroogein the lending of money led him afoul of the usury laws, and he was frequently brought before the court. In one particularly blatant case, he was fined £10,000.

Instead of paying the fine, he stole away to France with all his property. There, he complained bitterly to anyone who would listen about the unfairness of the English laws. The French naturally commiserated. Nevertheless, he eventually returned to England, but still refused to pay the fine. He went to prison instead. At one point, he could have secured his release by paying just £1000 of the £10,000 fine. Not Plum Pope.

     While in prison, he carried on his avocation as a money lender, albeit on a more limited and cautious scale. While always a penny-pincher, he became more so and more eccentric about it. He would drink beer with anyone who would give it to him, but would never buy it. He would not eat meat unless it was given to him. He chewed his gum twice. When he died on August 30, 1794, after 12 years in prison, he still owed the debt that had sent him there, even though he left behind more than enough to pay it.

Any man who would walk five miles through the snow, barefoot, just to return a library book so he could save three cents — that’s my kind of guy. — Jack Benny

August 29, 1769: Wicked Witch of the Whist

In 1769 London, a gentleman died at the ripe old age of 97. Although little is known about the gentleman himself, his name has traveled down through the years and is more familiar to us today Bridge-Playersthan to those who might have rubbed elbows with the man back in the eighteenth century. His name was Edmond Hoyle, and although he was a barrister by trade, he is now known for law only as it applies to games of chance. And he is much more recognized by his nickname ‘According to.”

     Hoyle laid down the law for the game of Whist in a widely circulated treatise on the subject. He also had a great deal to say about backgammon, quadrille, piquet, and chess. He was, we might surmise, one of those wet blankets who must rain on card-game parades (to jumble metaphors, about which Hoyle had nothing to say) with their whining “but the rules say” or “according to Hoyle.”

     But Whist was his long suit. This venerable game provides ample material on which to pontificate, and pontificate Hoyle did. A forerunner of Bridge, Whist is all about taking tricks. Who takes them, and when and how and why gives the game a wide variety of flavors from which to choose. There’s Knockout Whist, a game in which a player who wins no trick is eliminated, sent to stand in a corner; Solo Whist, a game where individuals can bid to win 5, 9 or 13 tricks or to lose every trick; Kleurenwiezen, an elaborate Belgian version of the game, filled with Gallic mischief; Minnesota Whist, played to win tricks or to lose tricks (talk about flexibility); Romanian Whist, a game in which players try to predict the exact number of tricks they will take; German Whist for two very aggressive players who take tricks from Poland without prior warning; Bid Whist in which players bid to determine trump and one player is a dummy who sits out the hand; and Danish Whist, in which the dummy brings pastries to the other players.  But England lays claim to most of the true Whist players. It is easy to imagine a group of eighteenth century British aristocrats at their club. “Shall we have a go at a spot of Whist?” “Capital idea.” “Jolly.” “According to Hoyle . . .”

 

One of the world’s most popular entertainments is a deck of cards, which contains thirteen each of four suits, highlighted by kings, queens and jacks, who are possibly the queen’s younger, more attractive boyfriends. — Lemony Snicket

August 24, 1850: Meet Me at the Fair

London’s Bartholomew Fair, a wild celebration on the eponymous saint’s anniversary, died not with bartha bang but a whimper after enduring for more than seven centuries, Although originally established for legitimate business purposes, the fair had become all eating, drinking and amusement (for shame!) and a bit of a public nuisance with rowdiness and mischief.

Serious pursuits, uplifting exhibits, and dramatic entertainments had given way to shows and exhibits catering to the lowest common denominator of British fair-goers tastes – conjurers, wild beasts, monsters, learned pigs, dwarfs, giants. A prodigious monster with one head and two distinct bodies, a woman with three breasts, a child with three legs. A mermaid with a monkey’s head and the tail of a fish. Puppet shows, pantomimes, and coarse melodramas. A pig-faced lady and a potato that looked like King Henry VIII.

Eventually the fair grew less curiouser and curiouser, and on August 24, 1850, when the mayor went as usual to proclaim the opening of the fair, he found nothing to make it worth the trouble. No mayor went after that, and in 1855 the fair rolled over and expired.

I went to the animal fair,

The Birds and the Beasts were there.
The big baboon, by the light of the moon,
Was combing his auburn hair.
The monkey, he got drunk,
And sat on the elephant’s trunk.
The elephant sneezed and fell on his knees,
And what became of the monk, the monk?
The monk, the monk, the monk.

— Minstrel Song

August 10, 1749: More Powerful Than . . .

Thomas Topham, born in London about 1710, was brought up in the trade of carpentry and eventually found himself as the landlord of a small pub, the Red Lion Inn. Though he was by no tophammeans remarkable in size, he was endowed with extraordinary muscular powers and was able to entertain the patrons by performing various feats of strength. Crowds began to gather at the inn, not to drink but to see him perform.  To entertain the crowds, he might break a broomstick by striking it against his bare arm or lift a horse and toss it over a fence or roll up a pewter plate weighing seven pounds as another man would roll up a sheet of paper. In addition to his freakish strength, Topham could also sing in a basso profundo voice said to be so deep and resonant that it was scarcely human.

     Strong as he was, he had basically a gentle nature. Sure, he might wrap an iron pipe around the neck of a man who irked him, but all in all he was a good-natured soul.

Naturally, the fame of this amazing strong man spread throughout England, and he became known as the Modern Samson.  He continued to wow bigger and bigger crowds – lifting 200-pound weights on his little finger or a six foot long oak table with his teeth, smashing a coconut by striking it against his ear, bending a one-inch thick iron bar around his bare arm with one blow.

     Alas, great fortune was not to continue for our Modern Samson. Like his biblical namesake, he was done in by the wiles of his very own Delilah. On August 10, 1749, his world came crashing down like that ancient temple when he discovered his wife’s infidelity.   After stabbing her to death, he used the knife on himself; dying from his wounds shortly thereafter.

She stood there laughing
I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more
My, my, my Delilah
Why, why, why Delilah
So before they come to break down the door
Forgive me, Delilah, I just couldn’t take any more.

— Delilah, as sung by Tom Jones