Category Archives: History

Skinny

It’s not often the Oxford English Dictionary fails to trace an etymology, but in this case, it does:

skinny
slang (orig. and chiefly U.S.). With the. Detailed and esp. confidential information about a person or topic, ‘the low-down’; (also more generally) news, gossip.

Though I suspect the Senate vote on the “skinny” Health Care Bill was more about:

orig. U.S. A cup of coffee or a coffee-based beverage made with skimmed or semi-skimmed milk

Meaning: thin, unsustainting, not nutricious, less than stimulating, more for appearance than any real benefit.

Now to Nate Silver on fivethirtyeight.com. The vote has just gone down on the defection of Senators Collins, McCain and Murkowski. We knew two of those would be hold-outs, but we were meant to be surprised by John McCain. As if he hadn’t signalled already …

This is usually the time when FiveThirtyEight would say “let’s not get too carried away …” but, well, this is one of those times when you should maybe get carried away? It’s not really a surprise that the bill failed. It always had a lot of problems, and Republicans didn’t come close to passing straight repeal or BCRA in the Senate in earlier votes. But that it failed in a way that will be so embarrassing to both McConnell and Trump is noteworthy and will have all sorts of implications for Republicans.

Enough already.

But there were a couple of “issues”.

Lisa Ann Muskowski has been around some time — she’s been the Senator for Alaska since 2002. Go to that official web-page and find that she has established clearly her “red lines”:

… many provisions of the ACA that have worked for Alaska that Senator Murkowski believes should be retained. Those provisions are:

  • Prohibitions on the discrimination for pre-existing conditions

  • No annual or lifetime limits

  • Coverage up to age 26

  • Continuation of coverage afforded under Medicaid Expansion

  • Maintaining access to Planned Parenthood facilities

This is a lady who has seen off the Alaskan Republicans previously: they tried to elbow her out in the 2010 Primary, so she went for a write-in campaign, and took out the ‘official’ GOP nominee (a Tea Party and Palin face)  by four clear points. The sheer bone-headedness of the Trump Administration is — yet again — on show trying to rough up the lady. Or, as Silver has it:

the Interior Department’s threats to screw over Alaska — presumably ordered by the White House

See it here:

Another indicator was the way some republican Senators kept their powder dry. Heller (Rep, Nevada) and Sasse (Rep. Nebraska) held their votes back until it was clear they could vote with their party leadership without disturbing the outcome. Ah, c’mon! Done it myself in London Borough politics: once you know the party has the votes, a pointless show of principle becomes easier. In this case, it works the other way: a show of partisan loyalty would be cheap compared to putting the boot into the higher-ups.

So here we are, relishing the aggravation caused Trump and McConnell. It looks as if the weirdo fringes have been consigned back into their boxes. McConnell is begging Democratic input (and — as things stand — it’s only too easy to watch the GOP leadership swivelling in the wind).

But the real Democrat goodies are still there for the taking. This session has not produced the repeal of ObamaCare, and there is no reason to believe much will change. Effectively, then, we are half-way to the mid-terms. There’s something in The West Wing about the short windows of political opportunity in the American system. If a decision doesn’t get actioned in the first six or eight months of a term, it runs up against the next electoral cycle. So: strike one to the Dems.

Then there are 49 GOP Senators and over two hundred members of the House who bear the mark-of-Cain on TrumpCare. Short of actually dumping on twenty million or more suddenly deprived of health-care (and resentful about it) that can’t be bad party politics.

But above all, here’s another aggrieved citizen — but this one with a soapbox:

“Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski is declaring it “Failure Friday” for President Trump, saying that if you want to know what failure looks like, “just take a look at the last 36 hours of the Trump presidency.”

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Filed under health, History, The West Wing, underclass, United States, US Elections, US politics

The old order changeth …

And slowly answered Malcolm, in the large:
‘The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And Pod fulfils itself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

There are a couple of mini-Pods around the house, including the little one that’s no bigger than a USB socket. I normally have at least four devices here on the desk — a fifth, the 60MB 4th generation, was carted to London to transfer a large .mpeg and is still down there. The 8oGB 5th generation is in a box, needing a battery transplant. So that currently leaves two iPads from the second and current generations. Oh, and these specimens:

Have to admit affection for that second generation 20GB. And it’s only 15 years young.

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Blessed Saint Margaret

This week, for family reasons, to King’s Lynn, and what was Saint Margaret’s and is now dignified as Lynn Minster.

Lynn deserves greater notice that it gets. Much of the town-core has many fine buildings, all the way back to the medieval period. Of the baker’s dozen of Grade 1 listed buildings in the town, the 15th century Hanseatic Warehouse would be a treasure anywhere. The late-17th century Customs House, and its position on the old harbour, has to qualify as gem-like: Nikolaus Pevsner was bowled over by ‘one of the most perfect buildings ever built’. From Tuesday Market (now, inevitably, a parking area, and the Minster, one walk through High Street and Nelson Street: Nelson Street (renamed sometime — presumably c.1805 — for the Norfolk Hero, but originally Lath Street) can be little more than 150 yards in length, but contains two dozen listed buildings.

Why has Lynn been so fortunate to preserve so much of its history?

First, I suppose, because the Luftwaffe (who were the chief instigator of post-War British architectural horrors) had far too many better targets. Second, because — after its brief span as a Hanseatic port — the town became a by-water. The clue is in the wikipedia entry:

The town centre is dominated by budget shops reflecting the spending power of much of the population.

The corollary of that is the #Brexit vote: across the district, over ⅔ voted Leave.

St Margaret of Antioch

A remarkable number of English churches (a list is here) are dedicated to one or other of the Saints Margaret, but the unhistorical virgin of Antioch gets most billing.

Which raises an obvious question.

My assumptions were the confusion with Marina of the Orthodox Church, also, from the Latin, the sea.

Then Margaret, for being an impious young lady, was sent to mind sheep. Which gives the wool-trade connection.

But then, I belong to a generation which had yet to develop feminist studies. So I have to go with the mood: her cult grew after the first millennium because invoking her was a charm against the dangers of child-birth.

The cult of Margaret of Antioch appears, too, in the town arms. Legend has it that Margaret was devoured by a dragon, but, when she produced her crucifix, the dragon’s belly split apart, and she stepped out unharmed. For this miracle, she was — so the story goes — beheaded.

Which side are you on?

Back in the Minister, high above where the rood screen should be, is a royal arms. They are those of Charles II. And thereby hangs another tale.

The two Members of Parliament for Lynn were Thomas Toll and John Percival, both puritans. We can presume thereby a strong faction of the goodly burgers of the town sided against Charles I. By the nature of business, the parliamentarians were based in the urban trading and commercial classes. Added to which, there would have been considerable import of subversive protestant materials and tracts  — the illicit pornography of the time — from the Low Counties. The Norfolk countryside, however, was more royalist — as one might expect among the unenlightened land-owning gentry. The royalists had their supporters, too, in the population of Lynn. The result was, to put it mildly, civil commotion, with the royalists coming out on top. The royalist leader was Sir Hamon L’Estrange, who emerged from his feudal base at Hunstanton as “governor” of King’s Lynn.

During the summer of 1643, the parliamentarians had mopped up Lincolnshire and were ready to move on Lynn, by now the only royalist hold-out across East Anglia. Put on alert, royalist Lynn strengthened the defences. The Earl of Manchester rolled up with his besiegers, secured the roads and bridges into Lynn, and began occasional bombardments from across the river. On 3rd September one cannonball made a direct hit on the west window of St Margarets. Another ball was turned up in Nelson Street, and now features (as right) over the entrance of Hampton Court.

Manchester had the water supply to the town diverted, but Lynn held out on the hope of relief from Newcastle’s royalists across the Wash. Manchester issued his ultimatum on 15th September, ordering the defenders to remove women and children. After three weeks defying the siege, Lynn surrendered, and at day-break on 16th September 1643 the parliamentarians occupied the town.

Come 1660, the church-wardens of St Margaret’s. Mathias Welles and Thomas Thetford (making sure their names were prominent), rushed to make amends. Hence the royal arms high on the chancel arch. Jollier lions and unicorns are hard to find:

 

 

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Going critical

The world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reaction took place in the west stands, Old Stagg Field, of the University of Chicago on 2nd December 1942. Which means that I was born in the atomic age. Just about.

I blanch at Enrico Fermi’s confidence in his own expertise, that one of the most (ahem!) explosive experiments in all science was undertaken alongside East 55th Street.

Coitus interruptus

Translate that to national economics, and today an experiment of comparable magnitude is happening next to Westminster Bridge. The (erstwhile) “Great Repeal Bill”, then down-rated to mere “Repeal Bill”, has now slithered into the light of parliamentary day as the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

The Mayo Clinic reckons the withdrawal method of “contraception” has, in practice, a failure rate of 22%.

It’s hard, ain’t it hard?

Of course, today is only the First Reading, so little more than a nod-and-a-wink.

The real event will be the Second reading; and there we can expect the Labour Opposition to lay amendments, and vote against any substantive motion. With a nominal majority of a bare dozen (and that’s only achieved with the mercenary aid of the DUP), the work of the government whips will be severely taxing. This is where the business of minority government becomes progressively more onerous. All the Opposition has to do is keep the powder dry, and a cohort floating in and around the Commons chamber, and every single Tory (and paid DUPper) has to available for instant voting service.

The nearest to living through the dying months of the Callaghan Government is James Graham’s drama This House. I saw that in its original at the Cottesloe Theatre, so that must have been in the late autumn of 2012. Philip Glenister (yes, DCI Gene Hunt of Life on Mars) humanised the (more-brutish-in-real-life) Labour Whip, Bob Mellish. The best rôle was Charles Edwards as the Tory Whip (and later Speaker of the Commons) Jack Weatherill. The play was revived in the West End over the past winter. Next tour it will be on tour around the provincial theatres. It’s not just a good (arguably, great) play: it is supremely relevant to our present political predicament.

For anyone with socialist/anarchic tendencies (like myself), the progress of the Brexit legislation is going to somewhere between fascinating and a-laugh-a-minute. There are few things more delightful than watching the natural enemy impaled on a cross of his (or, in this case, her) own construction. As the BBC web-site summarises:

MPs must “work together” on Brexit, the minister in charge of the UK’s EU exit has said, as he published a bill to convert EU law into British law.

The legislation, known as the repeal bill, will ensure the same rules apply in the UK after Brexit, while giving UK parliaments the power to change them.

Brexit Secretary David Davis said he will “work with anyone” to make it a success, but he faces opposition.

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron told the government: “This will be hell.”

Labour vowed to vote against the legislation unless there were significant changes to the details previously set out, while the SNP said there needed to be “clarity” over which powers repatriated from the EU should go to the devolved nations.

The Conservatives are relying on Democratic Unionist Party support to win key votes after losing their Commons majority in the general election.

BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg said there could be “parliamentary guerrilla warfare” on the bill.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “For opposition parties and for Remainer Tories there is a sense today of ‘here we go’. This is government critics’ first big chance, bit by bit in Parliament, to try to put their version of Brexit, not Theresa May’s, on to the statute book”.

Formally known as the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, the draft legislation is a key plank of the government’s Brexit strategy.

Note therein: government critics’ first big chance, bit by bit in Parliament, to try to put their version of Brexit, not Theresa May’s, on to the statute book. This is why Theresa May was induced to go for that General Election, which was supposed to bring in a phalanx of Tory Brexiteers, all grateful to the all-powerful Theresa May for giving them their seat. This is why the Labour Opposition (who, where it counted, exploited the Remain tendency) feel the political wind behind them. This is why the SNP and Lib Dems feel they have a chance to regain lost ground. This is why, for all the Corbyn bounce and froth, the combined Opposition may not — yet — want to bring the whole thing crashing down. Better to watch, wait, and relish the Tories in a terminal agony.

The Tory press

What allowed Fermi’s reactor to “go critical” was withdrawing the control-rods:

A simple design for a control rod was developed, which could be made on the spot: cadmium sheet nailed to a flat wooden strip … The [thirteen-foot] strips had to be inserted and removed by hand. Except when the reactivity of the pile was being measured, they were kept inside the pile and locked using a simple hasp and padlock …

(Herbert Anderson, a research student at Columbia, under John R Dunning, who became Fermi’s assistant at Chicago, quoted by Richard Rhodes, pages 433-4)

The extent to which the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill goes critical, and toxic for the Tories, depends on how the public prints moderate the reaction. The analogy of those cadmium strips is how the “papers of record” record it. Since the UK press is heavily dominated by foreign and Brexiteering owners, I have little faith the delivery will be as honest (and inflammatory) as it should be.

Take, for an example, Iain Martin in today’s The Times.

His main thrust is:

Negotiating Brexit terms with a nascent superstate will require leadership that Theresa May is not equipped to provide

Out of the traps, one recognises a frothing Brexiteer by the travesty of the EU as a nascent superstate. It isn’t. It is a working model of 27 proud and separate nations who have chosen to subsume some aspects of sovereignty in a common enterprise. Martin even goes so far as to nominate the next Tory Prime Minister:

Of the available candidates the Brexit secretary David Davis looks to me the best choice and Boris seems done for. But the chancellor Philip Hammond could emerge, or a compromise candidate such as the home secretary Amber Rudd or Priti Patel, the international development secretary.

We can see we have wandered further into Cloud-Cuckoo-Land when Priti Patel (few come harder rightist) can be suggested as a compromise candidate.

Go forth, or fourth, and stupify

In the middle of Martin’s musings comes this:

Right now, Britain does not have any leadership: it must find it soon or lose badly.

Partly this is because voting to leave a superstate in the making is, it turns out, much easier than actually leaving. The hard Brexiteers had given too little thought to how it would be done, certainly. The softer Brexiteers (me included) cannot agree on what a compromise looks like. And gleeful ultra-Remainers want to try the experiment of telling the voters that last year’s referendum doesn’t count.

Martin elides any distinction between the Tory Party and the wider nation. If Theresa May is not up to the job, the whole national enterprise is rudderless, without leadership. Not so, unless we have truly evolved into an “imperial presidency”. The power in the land should be the collective will of the Commons. If there isn’t a dominating political majority, the various views represented in the Commons have to be sifted until a consensus (actually, no more than a general will of over 320-0r-so MPs) is arrived at.

But Martin’s worst bit of journalistic legerdemain is to assert there are only three possible viewpoints: hard Brexiteers, softer Brexiteers and gleeful ultra-Remainers. The 48% (or, as recent polling suggests, now nearer the mid-50s %) are all gleeful and, like the Irriducibili football hooligans of Lazio, ultras? Catch herself’ on, Iain!

Outside the foetid world of Tory tabloids, one general opinion is closer to a fourth category: soft Remainers.

These are the folk who, regretfully, accept what came out of the 23rd June 2016 referendum,

  • whether or not it was fairly run (the electorate was appropriately pruned),
  • whether or not we voters were told truths, half-truths, or diabolical lies,
  • whether or not a 48.1/51.9 split is final and decisive’
  • whether or not it multiple subsequent interpretations anyhow approximate to what was argued beforehand.

And “soft Remainers” are going to be the crucial mass of MPs and their noble Lordships who will be the equivalent of those cadmium rods, and determine the final shape of  the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

One practical example

What happened at Stagg Field has had consequences over the intervening three-quarters of a century (Grief! Am I that old?). It led to:

  • Hiroshima, and Nagasaki;
  • deterrence theory, and MAD;
  • some 500 nuclear power plants across thirty countries around the world;
  • Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl;
  • the production of 11 or 12% of global electricity supplies;
  • nuclear and isotopic medicines and advances.

One thing that has been universally agreed is that nuclear power should be controlled and regulated internationally. After various failures (the Baruch Plan, UNAEC, attempts at non-proliferation treaties), for sixty years we have had the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Not perfect, not wholly world-wide, but it largely works.

Gone critical

Across Europe and 29 nations we have Euratom. Originally Euratom was somewhat aside from the Coal and Steel Community, but was pursued as a discrete operation and source of energy. For convenience, Euratom was folded into the 1965 Merger Treaty of the EEC. Even after Maastricht in 1993, Euratom remained a separate entity, not under direct EU control. There is, logically, no reason why the UK should not remain as associated as Switzerland — except the bone-headedness of one, Theresa May, as the thrall of the Tory head-bangers. The objection by these types is the European Court of Justice’s

rare and arcane judgments on nuclear matters… Rules on nuclear energy are not politically sensitive and were not an issue in the referendum campaign. The government does not need to take such a rigid position on the ECJ in this domain.

(The Times, second leader, 12th July 2017.)

In recent days, all and sundry have recognised that the UK needs supplies of isotopes (for which we have no production facilities) through Euratom (which also gives access to 71% of world uranium production).

Then there is the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station. It will be owned and un by EDF Energy. That is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Électricité de France. Which, some may think, raises intriguing questions of Euratom oversight.

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Another place with “too much history”

Yesterday to Durham and The Big Meeting (133rd iteration).

The Lady in my Life and myself are there, dead in front of the microphones, and about four rows back. The last time I went was mid-1960s, and the main speaker was Harold Wilson. There were still coal-mines working then. Durham’s very last was Monkwearmouth, where the last shift was worked on 10th December 1993. The site, today, is the Stadium of Light, Sunderland’s home ground.

In 1937 George Orwell was factually stating the importance of coal:

Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal, directly or indirectly. For all the arts of peace coal is needed; if war breaks out it is needed all the more. In time of revolution the miner must go on working or the revolution must stop, for revolution as much as reaction needs coal. Whatever may be happening on the surface, the hacking and shovelling have got to continue without a pause, or at any rate without pausing for more than a few weeks at the most. In order that Hitler may march the goose-step, that the Pope may denounce Bolshevism, that the cricket crowds may assemble at Lords, that the poets may scratch one another’s backs, coal has got to be forthcoming. But on the whole we are not aware of it; we all know that we ‘must have coal’, but we seldom or never remember what coal-getting involves. Here am I sitting writing in front of my comfortable coal fire. It is April but I still need a fire. Once a fortnight the coal cart drives up to the door and men in leather jerkins carry the coal indoors in stout sacks smelling of tar and shoot it clanking into the coal-hole under the stairs. It is only very rarely, when I make a definite mental-effort, that I connect this coal with that far-off labour in the mines. It is just ‘coal’ — something that I have got to have; black stuff that arrives mysteriously from nowhere in particular, like manna except that you have to pay for it. You could quite easily drive a car right across the north of England and never once remember that hundreds of feet below the road you are on the miners are hacking at the coal. Yet in a sense it is the miners who are driving your car forward. Their lamp-lit world down there is as necessary to the daylight world above as the root is to the flower.

It is not long since conditions in the mines were worse than they are now. There are still living a few very old women who in their youth have worked underground, with the harness round their waists, and a chain that passed between their legs, crawling on all fours and dragging tubs of coal. They used to go on doing this even when they were pregnant. And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal.

Eighty years on, 21st April 2017, Britain went a day without coal, while the lights stayed on.

There have been no active coal-mines, and no coal-miners in the County Palatine this quarter-century. But the Durham Miners’ Gala, the Big Meetin’, goes on, and this year was bigger and brassier than ever.

Durham has too much history for its own good. That’s an expression I have seen applied to Ireland, to the island of Cyprus and to Naples in recent times. It has degrees of truth in every case. In Durham, though, the history is close enough to touch:

… the miners who died in the many pit disasters of the Durham coalfields.

They number thousands, including 164 at Seaham in 1880 and 168 at Stanley in 1909, and are commemorated by a memorial in Durham Cathedral, a spectacular Romanesque landmark that this autumn celebrates the 25th anniversary of its designation as a Unesco World Heritage Site, along with the rest of the historic city. Next to the memorial to the victims of pit disasters is a book of remembrance that the Dean of the Cathedral, the Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, was at pains to point out to me. “Here’s one 15 years of age,” he said. “J E Scott. Died at Shotton [in 1953]. This is a really poignant place.”

The Dean talked of “the big meeting”, the annual miners’ gala in July when the former mining communities pour through the city behind their colliery banners and wind their way up to the cathedral for the miners’ service. “It’s a kind of echo of the Middle Ages when people would flock into this place and believe they were part of something bigger than they were,” said the Dean.

Any rail journey takes one past acres of rough scrub that not too long ago were coal-tips. Railway yards and sidings stretch far, far further than any conceivable modern need. Few villages lack what once was (and may still be marked as) the Miners’ Welfare hall. In the streets and pubs one brushes past ageing faces and limbs, marked with the blue of coal-dust tattooed under the skin.

Scott and Scot

Yesterday, then, to Durham’s Racecourse. The site stretches past the Wear river-bank, and to its other side the massive ridge (as above):

Well yet I love thy mix’d and massive piles,
Half church of God, half castle ’gainst the Scot …

For sixty-odd years that tag has come to my mind, and mouth, every time I have seen an image or the reality of Durham’s great, looming cathedral. I somehow knew it was Walter Scott. That may be because anything so romantic had to derive from the same source that gave us swash-and-buckle, the Errol Flynn version of Robin Hood and even Tony Curtis’s fictional “Yonda lies the castle of my fodder“. Precisely locating the reference isn’t quite that easy. To save others the sweat, it is found in Canto Third of Harold the Dauntless of 1817.

For contemporary tastes, Scott’s romantic world contains too much “hied me home” or

Wrinkled his brows grew, and hoary his hair

That’s unfair in this case, because the 1817 poem is prefaced by a more-cynical Scott. He deplores O tempora! O mores, as Cicero did Against Catiline: —

Ennui! — or, as our mothers call’d thee, Spleen!
To thee we owe full many a rare device;
Thine is the sheaf of painted cards, I ween,
The rolling billiard-ball, the rattling dice,
The turning-lathe for framing gimcrack nice;
The amateur’s blotch’d pallet thou mayst claim,
Retort, and air-pump, threatening frogs and mice,
(Murders disguised by philosophic name,)
And much of trifling grave, and much of buxom game.

At the moment, the imposing central tower of the Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham has scaffolding all round, and wears a square white cook’s bonnet.

The proceedings

When we finally came to the speechifying, even that have to be after a brass-band rendering of “The Miner’s Hymn”, Gresford:

The story behind that is told here:

Written by a former miner, Robert Saint, to commemorate the Gresford pit disaster in 1934 it has been played at mining events ever since; most notably at the famous Durham Miners’ Gala.

What is too easily forgotten is that, in the days of working pits, the attendees at the Gala would have held silence to that every year and recalled the death-toll.

My first teaching job was in a boys’ grammar school in the County Durham. Male teachers in an all-male (with one brave exception) staff-room constitute a cynical lot. So, morning break, 21st October 1966, was eerily quiet. The news was coming through of the Aberfan disaster and the immolation of Pantglas Primary school. By no coincidence, Alan Plater’s Close the Coalhouse Door (originally intended as a BBC radio play) went on stage in April 1968:

A few years back I was at the packed Richmond Theatre for Sam West’s revival (lightly trimmed by Lee Hall). The same evocative, eye-pricking power was there. All the way from Thomas Hepburn and Peter Lee.

It’s the same tradition as Abide With Me before the Cup Final. It’s very much the mood of “those no longer with us”. But for industrial workers, especially in the heaviest industries, it’s also “those taken from us because of managerial mistakes and incompetence”.

This year the Miner’s Hymn had added plangency:

Not just an Elf

There is a message here; and it’s the box that most of the speakers at the Big Meeting ticked.

Disasters like Gresford in 1934, Aberfan in 1966 and the Grenfell Tower this year are “accidents-waiting-to-happen”. They derive from decisions taken, or studiously ignored, by bureaucratic processes beyond the control of us ordinary folk. What we have to protect us, to some extent, are Health and Safety Regulations. That is, of course, if they are policed and enforced.

Even then there are arrogant twazzles who mock them:

“We could, if we wanted, accept emissions standards from India, America, and Europe. There’d be no contradiction with that,” Mr Rees-Mogg said.

“We could say, if it’s good enough in India, it’s good enough for here. There’s nothing to stop that.

“We could take it a very long way. American emission standards are fine – probably in some cases higher. 

“I accept that we’re not going to allow dangerous toys to come in from China, we don’t want to see those kind of risks. But there’s a very long way you can go.”

The MP’s comments came in the context of a discussion about trade deals with other countries following Brexit.

Said twazzle now fancies himself to chair the highly-important Treasury select committee, and stamp Asian labour practices, and US water standards on post-Brexit Britain.

Too much history? Or not enough yet?

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Monkey business

… and so, from man’s inhumanity to man, I mused on the curious story of the Hartlepool monkey. If only to escape from the more immediate topics of recent days (as in the re-phrasing of the traditional Chinese curse, “Mrs May, you live in exciting times”).

Legend has it that, during the Napoleonic Wars, a French ship was caught in a storm and wrecked off the Tees estuary. A monkey, dressed in a mock military uniform, was washed ashore. The locals (allegedly “fishermen”, but as likely shore-watchers or — crudely — wreckers) had never seen a Frenchman, held an impromptu court, declared the monkey a French spy, and hanged the creature from a convenient ship’s mast.

In my more-athletic, less-gouty youth, when we played one of the Hartlepool rugby teams, we referred to them derisively as “monkey-hangers”. Like all the best insults, it was adopted by the insulted: H’Angus the Monkey (as right) became the mascot of the soccer team — and Stuart Drummond, the occupant of the money-costume, was elected as the town’s mayor in 2002. It was H’Angus/Drummond’s other intrusion into the public consciousness: he had twice been escorted from the pitch for simulating sex with a blow-up doll.

All this appears on wikipedia, but the legend of the Hartlepool monkey has too many loose-ends (no dark humour intended) to be left there.

Ned Corvan was a mid-19th century music-hall artist and impresario in the North-East. He produced a series of song-books before his early death from TB. One of his songs was The Fishermen Hung the Monkey, O!  This is adduced as the first public outing of the legend. There are doubts about Corvan’s claim to originality, though.

Nominal confusions

Corvan learned his trade as an entertainer with Billy Purvis’s Victoria Theatre. Purvis was born near Penicuik, just south of Edinburgh, and migrated to Newcastle — so the east coast of Scotland may be a significant connection. Then there is the earlier Blind Willie Purvis.

Life is too short to unscramble which, but one or other Purvis had a song from Aberdeenshire, which is a clear analogue of the The Fishermen Hung the Monkey, O! —

Eence a ship sailed round the coast
And a’ the men in her was lost,
Burrin’ a monkey up a post —
So the Boddamers hanged the monkey-O

Pauline Cordiner’s blog credibly claims the Hartlepool monkey story was transplanted from Boddam, near Peterhead. And makes the connections.

Powder-monkeys

All the attempts to “explain” the story I find questionable. One sinister “explanation” (and there’s more here than meets the eye) is that ship’s boys were the “powder-monkeys”, and it was one of them who was the victim. And, we may see, for good reason.

Even this far, we already have pegs on which to hang any number of hats, and any odd theory. Bella Bathurst (page 262 in my paperback copy) makes a calculation:

… it is not Cornwall or the Pentland Firth which has the dubious honour of the highest number of shipwrecks per mile of coast. It is Durham, a tiny county with a tiny sliver of coastline, with 43.8 losses per mile. Further south, Norfolk has 25.6 and Suffolk 25, both of which make south Cornwall’s twenty wrecks per mile seem almost modest.

A law with unintended consequences

Add in the basis of “salvage”.

What immediately follows is from Bella Bathurst, but I see remarkable, even uncanny coincidences with Donald G. Shomette’s Shipwrecks, Sea Raiders, and Maritime Disasters Along the Delmarva Coast (see especially page 125).

In 1236 Henry III of England decreed that an owner of wrecked goods could claim them, within three months of a wreck. However, the same rule added that, as long as any man or beast escaped alive, the ship was not truly a wreck. This was repeated by Edward I’s First Statute of Westminster. The intent of the law, presumably as proposed by ship-owners, was to prevent the seizure and destruction of vessels that could be re-floated. The paradoxical result was to create a motive for murder. As long as the odd survivor was around, wreckers could not claim their expected dues. That Bella Bathurst  book (page 11) has:

The ‘man or beast’ ruling persisted for many centuries in different forms, and it was not until 1771 that it was finally and explicitly repealed. Even then, its effects lingered on in the common lore of the land. In more remote parts of the country, nineteenth- and even early-twentieth-century  wreckers were supposedly drowning their victims according to the old rule.

A local link

I was very young, probably still at junior school, when I came across a tattered book about East Anglia and its curiosities. It included a bit of doggerel:

Cromer crabs,
Runton dabs.
Beeston babies, 
Sheringham ladies,
Weybourne witches, 
Salthouse ditches, 
and the Blakeney people
stand on the steeple,
and crack hazelnuts
with a five-farthing beetle. 
Blakeney bulldogs, 
Morston dodmen, 
Binham bulls,
Stiffkey trolls.
And Wells bite-fingers.

From east-to-west, that’s a recital of the North Norfolk coast.

Even in the earlier period, before those small harbours silted up, there were no havens for larger vessels between Lynn on the Wash and Yarmouth at the mouth of the Yare. And certainly none one might wish to tackle in a pounding nor’easter.

So, two explanations there:

  • a “beetle” is Old English bíetel, an implement for beating: the kind of thing still used for levelling paving stones. Or used as a weapon — as John Lydgate (a Suffolk man, from … err … Lidgate) noted in The Pylgremage of the Sowle:

Somme were brayned with betels and somme beten with staues.

  • If a ship-wrecked corpse needed rings removed, the people of Wells are here alleged to resort to amputation by mouth. As one native-born, I’d demonstrate.

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On the money day

Back in 344 BC, the Kalendae Iuniae, the Romans dedicated the temple of Juno Moneta on the Capitoline Hill. The site is now occupied by the neat (from the exterior)  basilica church of Santa Maria in Arceli.

She was Juno “the warner” because of the legend — or even a verifiable story, since it had happened just forty years earlier  — of the sacred geese giving the alert of the attack by the Gauls.

During the third century BC, Rome started issuing coins. The mint was set up in the temple of Juno Moneta. So, from that came the terms for “mint” and “money”.

 

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