Sunday, 19 November 2017

Egypt's Cannibal Year

     Famine! You don't hear about it any more in industrial societies, but in pre-industrial periods its grim spectre was always lurking in the background. Thus, May is a balmy month in Europe, but in the middle ages it was also often the hungry month for poor peasants, as the harvest of the previous year ran out before the new one was available. Thus, it required only a poor harvest, a hard winter, or the depredations of an army for those living on the edge to be pushed over. In really bad years, most of the population would be affected, and mass starvation ensured. Ironically, at such times a plentiful supply of meat was available, but a heavy taboo lay upon it: the bodies of the dead. Initially, no doubt, the taboo was broken when starving individuals sliced off a steak from the body of someone who had already succumbed to starvation. Since no-one was actually harmed, it is difficult to hold it blameworthy. However, later the temptation would arise to deliberately hasten the death. But what happened in Egypt in 1201 was truly horrible.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Hunting Squirrels with Snogg and Squail

     Until recently, it never occurred to me that Englishmen ate squirrels. Heck! They weigh only a half or three quarters of a pound [220 to 330 grams] - including tail, ears, and claws. Nevertheless, I was able to find recipes for them on the internet, and up until at least the beginning of the last century, it used to be a custom for Commoners to hunt them with snogg and squail in the New Forest in order to obtain squirrel pie for Christmas.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The Girl I Met Without a Face

     I've just seen just seen the trailer for the family movie, Wonder, based on the children's book of that name, about a boy with facial disfigurement due to a birth defect. Well, thirty-five years ago I met someone just like that.
     It was 1982, and I was about to embark on a 6½ month journey through North and South America commencing, ironically enough, with a bus journey southwards from my home city of Brisbane. On such trips my custom was to chat to whomever fate had placed in the seat next to me, for travellers tend to have interesting life stories to relate. This time I found myself next to a young lady who was nothing to look at on the outside. She wore a pair of thick glasses, her face was misshapen, and her nose was just a shapeless lump, but shyness and diffidence did not come with the features. I shan't repeat her name, although she probably wouldn't mind, but she informed me that she was almost nineteen, and was returning home after receiving her twenty-first operation to repair her face.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

The Slaves of Savage Senegal

    Of course, slavery existed in black Africa long before the white man arrived. Across the western grasslands and into the dense tropical forest stretched a row of barbaric ie non-literate kingdoms with complex systems of government and distinct social classes, even castes, of which the slaves were the lowest. In fact, this was the initial impetus for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Due to conflict with Muslim raiders, slavery had never completely disappeared in southwestern Europe. The result was that, when their explorers moved southwards down the African coast, the natives came out to offer them various items for trade, including prisoners of war. It was only when the plantation system developed in the New World that the true horrors of the slave trade developed, for these early slaves ended up in Portugal and Spain living a far better standard of living than they could have experienced in Africa. That is, of course, assuming they were merely enslaved and not killed. Once, when John Hawkins went on a slaving expedition, he was dismayed when his African associates decided to eat the captives rather than sell them.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean

     Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean (2009) by Edward Kritzler: when you see a book with this title going cheap in a collection of remainded books, how could you possibly resist buying it? Of course, the title was chosen to piggyback on the popularity of a certain movie. As it turned out, the few Jewish pirates mentioned did their dirty work in the Mediterranean, while few of  the Jews of the Caribbean were actually pirates; they were just up to their necks in the business. But it least it cast light on a little known chapter of history: to quote the subtitle of the book: "How a generation of swashbuckling Jews carved out an empire in the New World in their quest for treasure, religious freedom and revenge."

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Swinging a Dead Cat

     Now doubt many of you will have enjoyed the James Herriot stories about a Yorkshire vet in the 1930s and 1940s, and the television series it spawned. Alf Wight was the author's real name, and he lived in Thirsk, not the fictitious town on Darrowby. Nevertheless, the Royal Mail used to religiously deliver fan mail to him addressed simply, "James Heriot, Darrowby." In one case, a letter was received addressed simply to "James Herriot, It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet" (the title of his second book), to which some wag had added: "It shouldn't happen to a postman, either."
     One thing you must understand is that, when he first started writing, he never expected to be world famous. He saw his books, not as mémoires, but as novels: collections of short stories about a fictitious vet called James Herriot, who just happened to have a lot in common with Alf Wight, and who was married to someone unlike his real wife, but possibly modeled on his first girlfriend. As for the stories themselves, they were fiction based on fact, inspired by his own experiences and those of other vets, plus anecdotes which did the rounds of the profession, and which the members considered believable. But some true (?) stories were just too bizarre to be included. Take, for example, this tale recounted by his biographer.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Holy Suicide

     The word "Juggernaut" entered the English language to describe something huge and inexorable, implacably crushing down anything in its path. Originally, it was inspired by the custom of devotees of Jagannâth ("Lord of the World") of throwing themselves under his great temple car when the latter was taken in procession through Orissa (now Odisha) in northeastern India. Nowadays, you will read (for example, here) that the story is a myth, inspired by accidents when devotees fell under the wheels due to the press of the crowd. This is quite untrue.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

How a Drunken Sailor Captured a Fort

     The British Empire, it is said, was won in a moment of absent mindedness. Certainly, it wasn't planned. On the coasts of India, for instance, the European powers were permitted to establish trading posts, to the mutual benefit of both sides. In 1690 a doctor of the English East India Company saved the life of a daughter of the Mogul Emperor, as a reward for which the Company was allowed to set up shop at Calcutta. Alas! The oppressions of the fanatical Emperor Aurangzeb against his Hindu subjects meant that the Empire quickly began to tear itself apart with multiple rebellions and invasions. By 1756 Bengal was in the hands of an upstart ruler who wanted the Company out. The result was a battle notable for the extreme courage of the British soldiers and the extreme cowardice of their leaders, and which ended in the notorious Black Hole of Calcutta. It was clear to the Company that if they were to have any future in India they were going to have to fight. And their numbers were pitifully small against those pitted against them.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

You DON'T Know What You're Standing in Line For?

     A writer who had lived many years in Hong Kong claimed that Asians in general, and Chinese in particular, do not queue. They will push up to the counter; they will take you taxi if you're not quick enough. Queuing, she said, is for affluent societies whose citizens know that there will always be enough merchandise, taxis, or tickets to go around. She obviously hadn't lived in Mao's China, where acute shortages, combined with strict rationing, produced the same sort of interminable human lines for which the old Soviet Union was notorious. There is nothing like manmade disasters, such as wars or Communism, to make people stand in line.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Born in a Forced Labour Camp

Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire? (Zechariah 3:2)

      I am writing this on Easter Day, an appropriate day, one might think, to reflect on the miraculous. Take Paul Israel Kraus, for instance. His first claim to fame is that he is the longest documented survivor of mesothelioma, a lung cancer caused by asbestos. His second is that he is probably the only Jewish Holocaust survivor in the Australian Lutheran Church, for he was born on 20 October 1944 in a Nazi Forced Labour Camp. But the real heroine of the story is his mother, Clara.

Friday, 31 March 2017

A Life Cut Short at 109

      Cobar, New South Wales: in 1870 three teenagers camped by a waterhole, where they collected some colourful rocks. When they showed them to a Cornish woman, she recognized them as copper, and the mining boom began. Later, one fellow picked up a rock to throw at a noisy possum, and noticed a fragment of gold the size of a postage stamp adhering to it. And for 31 years it was the last stamping ground of a remarkable character known as "Old Norman" Fersen, whose life was cut short by a tragic accident when he was just over 109 years of age. To tell the story, I can think of no better way than to copy verbatim the pamphlet produced by the city's Heritage Centre. In reading it, kindly remember that the old age pension had been introduced to the state only in 1900.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Quick Thinking in the Heat of Battle

     Robert Clive! He was one of the heroes we learnt about in primary school, the way Americans learnt about George Washington. At least, we did in my day. If the current generation has failed to do so, then they are to be pitied, for they have lost an essential part of their history and heritage. Sent over to India at the age of seventeen, most likely to get him out of his father's hair, it was hoped that, after five years of living on a miniscule wage, he would be allowed to indulge in private trade, and thus grow rich. But it didn't work out that way. After just a few years, he found himself in the crosswires of the French plan to destroy the British coastal trading posts. Without any military experience, he enlisted in the army, and soon became a man of destiny. This is one minor episode in his rise.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

The Black Pearls of Fatu Hiva

     It's not often that an apparently improbable account is confirmed by a unrelated story. Careful readers of this blog may have noticed that I am an avid collector of the old Wide World Magazine, in which ordinary people from all over the world described their own adventures. They were supposed to certify that they were "strictly original and true in every detail", and most of them, I believe, were. They don't normally have the clear-cut beginning, middle, and end of fiction. Nevertheless, there was no available method of confirmation, and fiction certainly had occasionally turned up dressed as fact. One of these which sounded too pat to be above suspicion was "The Black Pearls of Fatu-Hivu" by the baronet, Sir Graeme Sinclair-Lockhart in the January 1951 issue (February 1951 in the Australian and New Zealand versions.)

Friday, 6 January 2017

Voyage to the Edge of the World

     "No-one goes beyond the reef!" insisted Chief Tui in Disney's latest cartoon, Moana. Of course, as the story developed we were reminded that the people of the Pacific had no concern about the moana, or ocean. They colonised its countless islands by exploratory voyages extending hundreds, even thousands of miles. Nevertheless, it is a fact that the inhabitants of the Gilbert Islands, now known as Kiribati, once believed that if they sailed too far west, they would fall off the edge of the world.