Tag: England

Day 998: Crossing Abbey Road

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This Friday marks the 45th anniversary of what I believe to be the greatest album of all time.

Before you flick lint in my beer or pelt me with wads of Big League Chew for not designating this title to Pink Floyd’s Piper At The Gates of Dawn or Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Too-Rye-Ay, allow me to point out that there are many albums that are flawless – sometimes in spite of a number of actual flaws. Nary a wayward note blemishes Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key of Life, and Paul Simon’s Graceland is among the few utterly perfect slabs of 1980’s vinyl. For me, “the greatest” combines not only artistic and technical brilliance, but the subjective distinction of having served as the soundtrack to many of the most fantastic moments of my life. Your results may (and probably do) vary.

The story of Abbey Road is one of pure, primal mirth, flecked with auburn specks of encroaching melancholy. It is the last glorious and romantic trip to Maui for an otherwise doomed marriage. It marks the greatest rock band in history (an assertion I’ll stand by as wholly factual) producing one final brushstroke upon their legacy before heading their separate ways.

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This is not a happy group.

In January of 1969, the Beatles were moving in four different directions, and had been for over a year. Their plan was to return to the studio, record a back-to-their-roots album, perform their first concert since the summer of 1966 (the Pyramids in Egypt were a proposed locale, as was a barge adrift in the Atlantic), and film it all for posterity. This attempt to reconnect resulted in a cavalcade of arguments, the grandiose concert reduced to a noon-hour gig on the roof, and the temporary quitting of George Harrison. Read more…

Day 981: The Double-Agent of Staffordshire

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Every so often while sifting through the corrugated rubble of history, one lands upon a figure who is a trifle harder to figure out than the rest. Whatever may have spirited his soul this way or that gets lost in the grey ink of facts and dates, leaving (for those of us who care) a certain freedom for speculation.

Was Gilbert Gifford an English hero? Was he a traitor? A coward? His actions directly led to one of British history’s most infamous executions, but the footsteps that led him there may have been driven by precisely the opposite intent. Such is the riddle that four centuries of dust and distortion have thrown across his legacy.

I’d like to paint Gilbert with passionate swirls – not moved by an allegiance to politic or royal hullabaloo, but by the colors of his faith. Not his faith in Catholic dogma, though undoubtedly that old rhythm spent a considerable amount of time tip-tapping upon the inside of his skull. I’m talking about his faith in flesh, in love, and in the non-negotiable immediate.

In short, Gilbert danced to his own boogie.

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The 16th century was a sketchy time to be religious in Europe. If you were Catholic, you kept your mouth shut around Protestants and vice-versa. Gilbert Gifford was born to a recusant Catholic landowner in Staffordshire. This label of ‘recusancy’ was given to those who continued to wear their Catholic jerseys long past the time when the Church of England (Anglicanism as we know it today) was chosen to be the home team. It took a certain amount of guts on the part of John Gifford, and to some extent that chutzpah was carried on by his son. Read more…

Day 975: All Hail Norton I, Emperor Of These United States Of America

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For all her achievements and triumphs, America just hasn’t been the same since the good ol’ days when the Emperor ran the show.

It was a brief sliver of eccentric history (or ‘eccentristory’ – I’m copyrighting that title) that should never be forgotten. And for some who live in San Francisco, where Emperor Norton breathed the free air of his glorious domain, it’s a cause worth championing. If nothing else, he was a testament to the spirit of the San Franciscan penchant for enfolding the quirky and unrepentantly goofy into the city’s lore. This wouldn’t have happened in Omaha.

Consider this an education on the potential of the politic of passion, a reimagining of a man’s place in the society that – to his mind – has clipped the wings of his security and left him abandoned in the ether. One cannot be defeated if one is the champion of one’s own self-proclaimed might. Kudos to Emperor Norton for making up his own rules, and Super-Kudos to San Francisco for buying in.

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No one knows for certain the details of his origin story, but we do know that Joshua Abraham Norton came to us from somewhere in England via South Africa in 1849 after receiving a hefty bequest of $40,000 from his late father’s estate. He parlayed that money into a successful dance around the real estate market, building his fortune up to a cool quarter-million within a few short years. But Mr. Norton was always on the lookout for the next big opportunity. In this case, it drifted beneath his nose in the form of a news release from China. Read more…

Day 974: Punishing The Politicos – Worst Politicians Part 2

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Every few years – or sometimes sooner than that – those of us in democratic countries who feel compelled to do so will cast our vote in hopes that it might help to steer our nation from the cesspool in which it is presently mired toward a newer, less feces-laden cesspool. Sometimes we succeed. Also, there are times when we watch the news and wonder how anyone with an IQ greater than a puddle of artificial creamer might have voted for the current putz.

A few months ago I compiled a list of what experts have deemed to be the most egregious smudges upon the office of the Presidency of the United States. I met with no dissent in the comments section, perhaps because everyone agreed with the options presented, or maybe because those crappy presidents have also often evolved to become the most obscure and forgotten presidents.

Despite the fact that much of my reading audience is in America, I’m nevertheless going to present a deeper exploration of the obscure today. There have been garbage leaders all over the western world. Just for fun, let’s see who splatters the bottom of the list in some of the Commonwealth nations.

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Sir William “Squinty” McMahon took over the top seat in Australia in 1971, an ugly win which oozed from a period of party infighting and disgruntled squabbling. Right away, McMahon’s opponent on the Labor Side was a well-spoken war hero named Gough Whitlam. Every time the two of them traded barbs it was McMahon who skulked away, shamefully coming up short on wit and rhetoric. Read more…

Day 973: Richard III’s Weird Goodbye

University Of Leicester Makes Announcement Following Discovery Of Human Remains Which Are Possibly King Richard III

A depressingly small amount of great historical tales end up in a parking lot. In the case of Richard III, King of England and the final monarch of the Plantagenet dynasty, that’s exactly where the conclusion was written. A public parking lot – probably the kind of place where young lovers searched for a way across home plate, where despondent laid-off businessmen wept in their Saabs before going home to their families, and where illicit exchanges of cash for drugs no doubt peppered the veil of darkness.

It’s an unlikely closing chapter for a king who spent his final day in a gruesome battle for control of the throne in what would be the blood-splattered climax of the War of the Roses. But deceased winners get sent to the unknown in a flourish of pageantry; the dead on the other side get swept beneath the planetary carpet and forgotten about. And the guy who was in charge of the losing side? It’s fair game for that poor schlub.

The fate of Richard III endured the typical kaleidoscope of historical record, branching out in luminous tales of colorful desecration and mesmerizing hyperbole. But the truth? The real truth? Grab a shovel, move that Miata out of the way and let’s do some digging.

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Back in the days before leaders conscripted the poor to fight their battles, Richard III wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. The War of the Roses had been raging for four decades, with the House of Lancaster yearning to snag the crown away from the House of York. Richard was new to the throne, having acted as Lord Protector for his 12-year-old nephew, Edward V until 1483 when it was decided that Edward was just not up to kinging. There was skepticism about Richard: why did Edward and his younger brother disappear suddenly? Why did Richard’s wife die under mysterious circumstances? Was Richard involved? Read more…

Day 970: How One Woman’s Bad Advice Helped To Crumble An Empire

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A modicum of historical investigation, along with a smidge of fact-manipulation in order to build a semi-credible opening sentence has revealed a morsel of data heretofore unknown to me: the Roman Empire – the most mighty and triumphant political juggernaut of the early A.D.’s – was tipped over to a partial crumble, all because some guy listened to his mother.

That may seem like an exaggeration. A slight inflation of documented truth or the set-up for a bit of shtick. But history will back me up on this. By 476, the Roman Empire in the west had been sneezed into debris. It kept up appearances out east for another millennium, but the west had shuffled on to the Middle Ages, where the nightlife was more vibrant, despite the clothes being far less stylish.

History recalls the events of 235 AD as the start of the Crisis of the Third Century. Rome became a land with no leader, and with no one able to pick up a phone and coordinate their collective shit, the Europe-spanning Empire fell into troubled confusion. And the wheels were all set into motion by one guy’s mother, who passed on what could be viewed as some of the crappiest historic advice ever given.

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The story begins with Mark Antony, that kook from all those wacky Shakespeare movies. When he was smited by Octavian in 31 BC, the table was set for what’s known as the Pax Romana – a 200 year period of unprecedented peace. The Roman Empire inflated to the Atlantic, deep into the Middle East, and south into Africa, all with relatively little military flexing. Then along came Emperor Alexander Severus. Read more…

Day 968: The Wayward Wanderings Of Thomas Culpeper’s Foolish Dink

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When one is granted access to the inner circle of England’s royal family, allowed to mingle with the most upper of crusts and graced with the juiciest insider knowledge of the most important goings-on in the British Empire, rule number one would have to be: DON’T BANG THE QUEEN. You can miss a bow, accidentally utter a commoner’s curse-word or even blast a foul note on your five-foot-long horn whilst heralding the king’s grand entrance, but seriously… DON’T BANG THE QUEEN.

This sage piece of what should be unspoken advice never slithered past the cranium of Thomas Culpeper. Here was a man with more political power than practically anyone else in the nation, yet he couldn’t keep it in his pantaloons in the presence of Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard.

What could possess a man to lay his life on the line in this way? He could have conceivably scored with any single woman in court – hell, even the other married women would have been less of a personal gamble – but it was Catherine who turned his proverbial crank. Perhaps it was a glinty-eyed lust for women in power (a fetish that would have been tricky to satisfy in those backward days). Maybe he was a masochist. Or it could be that Catherine was just that beautiful.

Myself, I like a woman with weird, complicated headgear.

Myself, I like a woman with weird, complicated headgear.

Thomas Culpeper was the second son of three. His older brother was also named Thomas, so clearly their parents suffered from a horrific drought of imagination. Thomas (and also, presumably, Thomas) never had to scrape his way into high society; the family was of noble stock and the boys were quick to land jobs as advisors (or courtiers) of various noble-folk around the country. He got along famously with Henry VIII, and wormed his way into the royal inner circle in his early 20’s. Read more…

Day 962: Moriarty, Unmasked

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What can be said of a criminal mastermind? I’d always been deterred from a life of misdeeds by my utter conviction that I’d be lousy at it, and that the inevitable consequences of such a career are either prison, demise by the hand of the swarthy hero, or if one is lucky, a paranoid, skittish retirement. With my luck, I’d be foiled by some cartoonish gaggle of meddling kids and their talking stoner-dog.

Some of history’s most capable crooks have piqued my interest throughout this project, more out of my fascination at the tenacious longevity and the sometimes-cinematic flair with which they’d plied their trade. While I don’t aspire to join their ranks, I do envy how they have crafted their own good fortune.

The key here is that the criminals about whom I’ve written are famous – or at minimum, famous enough to warrant at least a brief Wikipedia page. But shouldn’t the truly successful master-crooks still be anonymous to us, even after the final curtain of death has ushered them off the mortal stage? Perhaps. But I believe a case can be made for the exquisite professionalism and enduring evil genius of those bad guys whose names nonetheless appear in print – even those who have risen to become legends. Take, for instance, the near-perfect vocational aptitude of the 19th-century criminal genius, Adam Worth.

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Adam turned to a life of crime as soon as he’d been kicked off the grid. Raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Adam ran away from home at ten, then at seventeen he lied about his age so he could join the Union Army to fight in the Civil War. After getting wounded at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Adam learned he’d been listed as Killed In Action by accident. He took advantage of his premature death and disappeared.

He found easy work as a bounty jumper; he’d be paid off by citizens to sign up for the army in their name, then after he’d collected his army paycheck he’d flit back to the shadows. Adam pulled this off several times, never getting caught, though he did attract some attention. Local law enforcement was in no position to help out the armed forces, but a new type of heroic protagonist had emerged on the scene in the form of Allan Pinkerton and the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Pinkerton’s was the first private investigation firm in American history, and they were happy to chase after Adam Worth and the other bounty jumping scum who were profiting from military desertion.

Curiously, Pinkerton PI went for the exact opposite of Magnum PI's swarthy mustache.

Curiously, Pinkerton PI went for the exact opposite of Magnum PI’s swarthy mustache.

The war ended, and Adam settled into the pickpocket business in New York. He was an entrepreneur, however, soon acquiring his own gang of pickpockets, and working his way up to little robberies and heists. Well-known criminal fence Marm Mandelbaum took Adam under her wing, helping him plan more elaborate capers. At Mendelbaum’s request, Adam helped to tunnel under the soil outside the White Plains jail in order to liberate safecracker Charley Bullard. Charley and Adam became close friends and partners in their nefarious deeds. Read more…

Day 946: The Unfillable Stomach Of Charles Domary

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Thankfully for us disciples of feckless fact and impractical information, the human body does not always cater to the limits of logic and science. We can always gawk upon the fortunate – or unfortunate – whose innards form their own rules, leaving their mark in the lore once mined by Ripley and Guinness and Barnum and other protectors of the peculiar. Immersing myself as I have in a mandated one thousand topics across the spectrum of mind-piquing knowledge, I was bound to run across a few of these folks.

Last December I wrote about Tarrare, an eighteenth-century Frenchman who ate his weight in food every day, and made his living on the proto-freak-show circuit, devouring live beasts before gaggles of open-jawed onlookers. The clinical term is polyphagia: an insatiable appetite, or a hunger that can’t be conquered. In Tarrare’s case, one can also account for a critical depravation of good taste, as anyone who eats a live snake before an audience is clearly disgusting as well as edacious.

Right around the time experts were prodding Tarrare with a stick, trying to figure out what made his insides work this way (and perhaps waiting to see if he’d eat the stick), another polyphagious man was making medical headlines. Charles Domery sold his patriotic soul and devoured everything he could find. He was a truly voracious eating machine.

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Charles Domery was born in Benche, Poland (sorry – I couldn’t find a better picture of the place) around 1778. He was one of nine brothers, all of whom – according to Charles – shared the same unquashable appetite. Having lived through feeding one male teenager, I cannot fathom what sort of pre-industrial job the Domery patriarch must have held to afford to feed nine with such an appetite. But if the dinner table was a battleground in Charles’ youth, it showed no ill reflection upon his temperament. Those who knew him said he was a good egg. Read more…