Tuesday, June 29, 2004

30 June 2004

Georgi Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkoy and Viktor Patsayev. These three Russian cosmonauts were found dead in their spacecraft, Soyuz 11, when it landed back on Earth on 30 June 1971. Their bodies were unmarked and had no signs of injury. It is believed they died as a result of an oxygen supply failure.

Twenty four years later, in a fine display of the sensitivity to the world outside its borders for which America is so famous, Hollywood chose the same day for the release of the film, 'Apollo 13'. The Apollo 13 astronauts were brought back safely to earth after oxygen tank No 2 blew up 200,000 miles from Earth.

Houston, we've had a problem here . . .

29 June 2004

As if a double saints' feast day isn't enough in its own right, today's double involves the 'Princes of the Apostles', Peter and Paul. They don't come any higher than those two in the Christian saintly pantheon.

So what, for Pete's sake (see 19 June), are the two of them doing in the nursery rhyme, 'Two little dickybirds'?

Two little dicky birds,
Sitting on a wall;
One named Peter,
The other named Paul.
Fly away, Peter!
Fly away, Paul!
Come back, Peter!
Come back, Paul!

The answer seems to be that they're keeping out Jack and Jill, whose pagan origins offended 19th-century churchgoers and got them booted out of the rhyme, which originally (this version is from around 1765) went along the lines of:

There were two blackbirds,
Sat upon a hill,
The one nam'd Jack,
The other nam'd Gill;
Fly away Jack,
Fly away Gill,
Come again Jack,
Come again Gill.

There are lots of theories about who Jack and Jill were, many of them demonstrably wrong – which doesn't stop people repeating them. One such is the idea that the Jack and Jill of the nursery rhyme 'Jack and Jill went up the hill, to fetch a pale of water' are Louis XVI (who 'lost his crown') and his queen, Marie Antoinette (who 'came tumbling after'). Since the earliest known versions of the rhyme pre-date the beheadings of Louis and Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution, we can safely pour a pale of cold water over that one.

Lewis Spence, in his book 'Myth and Ritual', published in 1947, suggests that the rhyme is connected with an ancient pagan ritual because 'no one . . . climbs to the top of a hill for water unless that water has special significance'. And meanwhile, in a new book, 'Heavy Words Lightly Thrown', social historian Chris Roberts says it's all about two young people losing their virginity.

'Having successfully "lost his crown", it's Jack who runs off rapidly – probably to tell his mates what happened,' Chris Roberts told the Daily Telegraph earlier this year. The paper reports that, in a less well-known second verse, 'The sexual association of the rhyme becomes more blatant. Instead of his head, Jack has a different part of his anatomy patched up with vinegar and brown paper.'

29 June 2004

As if a double saints' feast day isn't enough in its own right, today's double involves the 'Princes of the Apostles', Peter and Paul. They don't come any higher than those two in the Christian saintly pantheon.

So what, for Pete's sake (see 19 June), are the two of them doing in the nursery rhyme, 'Two little dickybirds'?

Two little dicky birds,
Sitting on a wall;
One named Peter,
The other named Paul.
Fly away, Peter!
Fly away, Paul!
Come back, Peter!
Come back, Paul!

The answer seems to be that they're keeping out Jack and Jill, whose pagan origins offended 19th-century churchgoers and got them booted out of the rhyme, which originally (this version is from around 1765) went along the lines of:

There were two blackbirds,
Sat upon a hill,
The one nam'd Jack,
The other nam'd Gill;
Fly away Jack,
Fly away Gill,
Come again Jack,
Come again Gill.

There are lots of theories about who Jack and Jill were, many of them demonstrably wrong – which doesn't stop people repeating them. One such is the idea that the Jack and Jill of the nursery rhyme 'Jack and Jill went up the hill, to fetch a pale of water' are Louis XVI (who 'lost his crown') and his queen, Marie Antoinette (who 'came tumbling after'). Since the earliest known versions of the rhyme pre-date the beheadings of Louis and Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution, we can safely pour a pale of cold water over that one.

Lewis Spence, in his book 'Myth and Ritual', published in 1947, suggests that the rhyme is connected with an ancient pagan ritual because 'no one . . . climbs to the top of a hill for water unless that water has special significance'. And meanwhile, in a new book, 'Heavy Words Lightly Thrown', social historian Chris Roberts says it's all about two young people losing their virginity.

'Having successfully "lost his crown", it's Jack who runs off rapidly – probably to tell his mates what happened,' Chris Roberts told the Daily Telegraph earlier this year. The paper reports that, in a less well-known second verse, 'The sexual association of the rhyme becomes more blatant. Instead of his head, Jack has a different part of his anatomy patched up with vinegar and brown paper.'


Monday, June 28, 2004

28 June 2004

Happy birthday Henry Tudor, born on this day in 1491 and almost certainly the most rotund monarch in English (and possibly world) history by the time he died.

That's an accolade that's often claimed for George IV, who you'll find billed as 'England's fattest King' on various internet sites. George was certainly a bit of a lardy – the 'Prince of Whales', as Cruickshank dubbed him – and reached 23 stones in weight by the age of 57. But Henry VIII was probably several stones heavier again.

By the time of his death it was said that three of the biggest men in the kingdom could fit inside Henry's doublet. His last suit of armour, made for his final war with France, was designed to accommodate a waistline of 60 inches (and it expanded still further after that). Fat old Henry's coffin was so heavy that it broke the supports made for it when he was lying in state.

But enough of this sizeist commentary. What we really need on someone's birthday is a good old singsong. And what better for Henry of the many wives than Harry Champion's old music hall ditty, revived in the Sixties by Herman's Hermits, of all people, 'I'm Henery the Eighth'.

Harry Champion, incidentally, was also the author of those classic music hall compositions, 'Any Old Iron' and 'Boiled Beef and Carrots', as well as the lesser known 'A Little Bit of Cucumber'. We'll save those for another time. This one's for Henery:

You don't know who you're looking at, now have a look me!
I'm a bit of a nob, I am, belong to royal-tee.
I'll tell you how it came about; I married Widow Burch,
And I was King of England when I toddled out of church.
Outside the people started shouting 'Hip hooray!'
Said I, 'Get down upon your knees, it's Coronation Day!'

I'm Henery the Eighth I am!
Henery the Eighth I am, I am!
I got married to the widow next door,
She's been married seven times before.
Everyone was an Henery,
She wouldn't have a Willie or a Sam.
I'm her eighth old man named Henery,
I'm Henery the Eighth I am!

I left the Duke of Cumberland, a pub up in the town,
Soon with one or two moochers I was holding up the Crown.
I sat upon the bucket that the carmen think their own;
Surrounded by my subjects, I was sitting on the throne.
Out came the potman, saying, 'Go on, home to bed!'
Said I, 'Now say another word and off'll go your head!'


Now at the Waxwork Exhibition not so long ago,
I was sitting among the kings, I made a lovely show.
To good old Queen Elizabeth, I shouted 'Wotcher Liz!'
While people poked my ribs and said, 'I wonder who this is!'
One said , 'It's Charley Peace!' and then I got the spike.
I shouted, 'Show your ignorance!' as waxy as you like.



Sunday, June 27, 2004

27 June 2004

Make of this what you will (and the Doubting Thomas in me certainly wants to put his hands in the wounds), but Christian Heinrich Heinecken, aka 'the child of Lubeck', did enough in 1724 to convince the king of Denmark of his purported genius. Heinecken, who'd become a tourist attraction in his home town, was reputedly the child prodigy to surpass all child prodigies. I'll leave it to Chambers' Book of Days (published in 1869) to take up his story:

'Christian Heinecken, one of the most remarkable beings recorded in the history of mankind, was born of respectable parentage, at Lubeck, in 1721 [actually 1720]. If he had come into the world during the dim and distant ages of antiquity, we might have set down the whole story as a myth, and thus dismissed it as unworthy of consideration. But the comparatively late period of his birth, and the unimpeachable character of the numerous witnesses that testify to his extraordinary precocity, leave us no alternative from belief and wonder.

'He spoke, we are told, and spoke sensibly too, within a few hours after his birth; when ten months old, he could converse on most subjects; when a year old he was perfect in the Old Testament, and in another short month he mastered the New. When two and a half years old, he could answer any question in ancient or modern history or geography. He next acquired Latin and French, both of which he spoke with great facility at the Court of Denmark, to which he was taken in his fourth year. His feeble constitution prevented him from being weaned until he was five years old, when He died in consequence of this necessary change of diet.

'Some German savans, and one Frenchman, have written learned disquisitions in the attempt to explain on natural principles this wonderful precocity; but the result of their lucubrations has only been to prove that it is utterly inexplicable.'

Young Christian died on 27 June 1725 – which is possibly the only part of this story that we can be sure has not been exaggerated.


Saturday, June 26, 2004

26 June 2004

'This is a day on which we pay our respects to those who have endured the unimaginable. This is an occasion for the world to speak up against the unspeakable. It is long overdue that a day be dedicated to remembering and supporting the many victims and survivors of torture around the world.'

So spoke UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the launch of the United Nations Day in Support of Victims of Torture on 26 June 1998. Six years later, according to the UN, more than 100 countries use torture, with little sign of it diminishing.

The date of 26 June was not chosen at random. This was the day, 59 years ago, that the United Nations Charter was signed in San Francisco; and it was the day, 17 years ago, that the Convention against Torture came into force.

It's also the feast day of Saint Pelagius, the patron saint of torture victims. Born in 912, he was left by his uncle as a hostage with the Moors of Cordoba. At the age of 13, when no one had come forward to pay his ransom, the Cordoban ruler offered to set him free if he became a Muslim. Pelagius refused and was tortured to death.

Pelagius the torture victim is not to be confused with his more famous namesake, who was denounced for the so-called 'Pelagian heresy'. This basically said that men weren't born evil and had control over their own eternal destiny – a message that the Christian church was determined to repress, including by the use of torture where necessary.


Friday, June 25, 2004

25 June 2004

Can anyone tell me who, what or where is St Jansday and why he, she or it was forbidden on this day in 1606? No? There must be someone, somewhere, who knows.

Okay, can anyone tell me what is the 'Great Dertelheyt' and why the Alkmaarse clergy asked it, also on this day in 1606? No offers? But again, I bet someone, somewhere, could come up with the answer.

Finally, then, can anyone tell me why the referee disallowed England's winning goal against Portugal in last night's European Championship quarter final? Some things in life must forever remain a mystery.

And the omens were so good as well . . . .


Thursday, June 24, 2004

24 June 2004

'So sacred was St. John's Day deemed that two rival armies, meeting face to face on 23 June, by common accord put off the battle until the morrow of the feast.' This, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, was the Battle of Fontenay in 841.

Then, according to the Annals of Fulda, with the armies having paused for St John's Day, 'On the twenty-fifth of June a great battle was fought between them, and the blood shed on both sides was so great that the present age remembers no such carnage among the Frankish people before.'

St John's Day, on 24 June, is not much marked these days outside Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and parts of Scandinavia, where the midsummer solstice is celebrated on this day. Yet it used to be one of four great Christian festivals that supplanted the old pagan celebrations of the summer and winter solstices and the spring and autumn equinoxes. The Catholic Encyclopedia says 'the whole liturgy of the day, repeatedly enriched by the additions of several popes, was in suggestiveness and beauty on a part with the liturgy of Christmas'.

There's no chance of England and Portugal deferring their football battle today in deference to St John. (That's St John the Baptist, by the way, to avoid any possible confusion with the 366 other Saint Johns listed in the Catholic Community Forum saints index.) So what are the omens for the England football team on this most special of saints' days?

They are, as you might have guessed by now, good. Very good. As long as England don't emulate St John too closely – and no one (Wayne Rooney take note) loses their head.


Wednesday, June 23, 2004

23 June 2004

A return to Christian saints today and my thanks to Chris Walker of the Other Place for this little tale about Saint Ethelreda, whose feast day is today. Ethelreda, a seventh-century queen of Northumbria, is also known as Saint Audrey; and, sadly for the Audreys of this world, our love of rhyming alliteration means that 'tawdry' tends to get linked with Audrey in much the same way that 'dreary' gets combined with Deirdre.

What I didn't know until Chris pointed it out was that the word 'tawdry' is actually a derivation of Audrey. This is because, in the Middle Ages, a festival called Saint Audrey's Fair was held on her feast day at Ely, Cambridgeshire. The shoddiness of the merchandise sold there, especially the neckerchiefs, gave us 'tawdry', from 'tawdry lace', a corruption of 'St Audrey's lace'.

Audrey, or Ethelreda, died in 679 of a throat tumour. She took this as divine retribution for all the fancy necklaces she liked to wear as a young woman. If she was right, there are some hip hop artists around today who are going to have some mighty sore throats as punishment for their sins.


Monday, June 21, 2004

21 June 2004

Welcome to summer. I am posting this at the time of the summer solstice – the point at which the sun is furthest from the celestial equator. This year the solstice occurs at 00.57 GMT, which gives me a little under four hours to decide where to go for the sunrise (at 04.45 GMT), get there and look out for the odd hint of sunshine behind the clouds.

Then it's back to London to put in a day's work and an hour of five-a-side football, followed by an impossible choice between Christy Moore at the Forum and the England game – the omens for which are good, very good, by the way.

These include the fact that today is the anniversary of the Brazilian dream team victory over Italy in the 1970 World Cup final. What greater inspiration can a footballer want on the longest day of the year?


Sunday, June 20, 2004

20 June 2004

Father's Day -- in the UK, US, Canada and parts of Asia anyway. Surprisingly, it seems not to have been started by greetings card manufacturers but by a woman named Sonora Louise Smart Dodd, who thought of the idea while listening to a Mother's Day sermon in 1909. (Mother's Day was a year old at the time, according to Hallmark Cards, who should know about these things.)

Sonora's dad, a farmer and American Civil War veteran, brought up six children on his own after his wife died in childbirth. Sonora became the driving force behind the first Father's Day celebration in Spokane, Washington, on 19 June 1910. Although US presidents including Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge backed the idea, it wasn't until recently – with a little help from the greetings card manufacturers – that it really turned it into a well-observed event. And even now there are countries such as Spain and Belgium who believe it's better honoured on 19 March, St Joseph's Day, on the grounds that Joseph was Jesus's father.

Of course, if Joseph was Jesus's proper father, on the grounds that he actually brought him up, that makes God an absent father – and one who didn't even bother to pay maintenance. What sort of role model for fathers is that, we might ask?

As far as I know, there is no such thing as an Absent Father's Day, which means that the greetings card people are missing at least one money-making trick. It's surprising that they haven't picked up on this one yet because there's already:

· A Grandparents Day (12 September this year in the US – which is where it matters counts because that's where they sell most cards);
· A Siblings Day (10 April – sorry sis, missed that one);
· A Sisters Day (4 August) for the feminist kind of sister;
· A Sisters Day (5 August) for the other kind of sister;
· A Cousins Day (24 July);
· A Second Cousins Twice Removed Sleepover Day (when do you fancy?);
· A Husbands Day (not to be confused with Patrick Husbands Day, a celebration for the best-known athlete in Barbados, held on 3 January);
· A Wife Appreciation Day (18 September);
· A Mistress Appreciation Day (the date of which is kept secret);
· A Cruel Mistress On Your Knees Slave Day (overnight stays extra);
· A Mother-in-Law Day (24 October); and even
· A Father and Daughter Take A Walk Together Day (7 July) – presumably for fathers and daughters who normally drive everywhere.


Saturday, June 19, 2004

19 June 2004

'The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free . . .'

Today is Juneteenth, or African-American Emancipation Day, a celebration of the day in 1865 that the Emancipation Proclamation was read out on the docks of Galveston, Texas, by Union general Gordon Granger. News of the proclamation had taken more than two years to reach the slaves of Texas, but once it did the word spread quickly – and so did the celebrations.

Today is also the anniversary of the death, in 1937, of J M Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan. Peter, of course, is the patron saint of Lost Boys, or men who refuse to grow up – which keeps him rather busy.

He shares his name with at least 74 Saint Peters, according to the Catholic Community Forum patron saints index. This sounds like a lot, until you discover that there are no fewer than 367 Saint Johns in the index, not to mention 358 Saint Juans. That's getting on for two Johns a day, every day of the year.

Peter's the big one among saints, though. The 'rock' on which Jesus built his church, the original Peter is reckoned to be about as close to God as you can get without calling on God himself.

This is why he's generally regarded as the Peter referred to in the phrase 'For Pete's sake!' The second or third commandment (depending on your faith) prohibits followers of the bible from 'taking the name of the Lord thy God in vain'. So instead we get lots of 'minced curses', as they are known – euphemisms that avoid referring to God, or Jesus, directly.

'For Pete's sake', then, is a softer, supposedly non-blasphemous version of 'For God's sake' or 'For Christ's sake'. Other minced curses include crikey, cripes, gee, jeez, jeepers creepers (all to do with Jesus or Christ or both); gosh, golly, goodness, good grief, great scott (all avoiding the word God); darn, doggone (for damn); zounds (Christ's wounds); gadzooks (God's hooks, or nails); struth (God's truth) and many more.

Now, for the love of Mike, any more questions?


Friday, June 18, 2004

18 June 2004

The date of 18 June marks one of the most important events in British military history. Not the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, which took place on this day in 1815, but rather the introduction of trousers for the British infantry soldier, which occurred eight years later in 1823.

Until then, British soldiers had been obliged to go war in a fancy dress parade of uniforms that included purple, blue, green and red breeches, thigh-length white stockings, leggings or gaiters, tight green pantaloons, hessian boots and purple garters.

The announcement that a more sensible form of battle dress would be permitted in future came by way of what is known as a Horse Guards order from the king: 'His Majesty has been pleased to approve of the discontinuance of breeches, leggings, and shoes, as part of the clothing of the infantry soldiers; and of blue grey cloth trousers and half-boots being substituted.'

In theory, the new trousers were to be provided and paid for by the army. In practice, however, there was a fiddle whereby parliament granted a certain sum to cover these costs but turned a blind eye when the colonels in charge of clothing their regiments pocketed a large chunk of the money for themselves.

The Horse Guards order introducing trousers even compensated these 'clothing colonels' for the fact that they wouldn't make as much money under the new system. It did this by making soldiers pay for their own waistcoats; formerly, these were supposed to have been paid for by their regiments.

It wasn't until ill-equipped soldiers being sent to fight in the Crimean War resulted in a public scandal that soldiers finally got a full uniform provided for them. But they still didn't have enough body armour to go round in Iraq.


Thursday, June 17, 2004

Just received from the Ministry of Transport.

In order to assist other motorists and road users in identifying potentially dangerous drivers, it's now compulsory for anyone with lower than average driving ability to display a warning flag.

The flag (comprising of a red cross on a white background) will be attached to the top of at least one door of their vehicle. For drivers of exceptionally low ability, additional flags are required.

17 June 2004

So, after that little local difficulty in Lisbon on 13 June, what are the numerological omens for England's game with Switzerland today? They are, as you might have guessed, good, very good . . . .

· England's youngest-ever player, Wayne Rooney, was just 17 years old (and 111 days) when he made his debut against Australia in February 2003. So what if England lost.

· England's youngest-ever goalscorer, Wayne Rooney, was just 17 years old (and 317 days) when he got his first goal, against Macedonia in September 2003. England won that one.

· England beat the Old Enemy, Germany, 1-0 in the European Championship on 17 June 2000. So what if they lost the other group games and went out of the competition.

· Seventeen of the 26 cantons in Switzerland are monolingual in German, and England won 5-1 in Germany in the World Cup as well as beating them 1-0 the last time they met in the European Championship.

· Four per cent of people in Switzerland speak Italian and the number 17 is unlucky in Italy. (This may or may not be due to the fact that 17 is written XVII in Latin, which has the same letters as VIXI, which means 'I lived', which suggests 'I'm dead'.)

· There are 17 different repeating mathematical patterns possible in two dimensions. All 17 can be found in the Alhambra palace in Spain, drawings by Escher and England manager Sven Goran Eriksson's game plan.

· Finally, on this day in 1579, Sir Francis Drake claimed California for England. The referee turned down his appeal and America has subsequently been cursed with a wholly inferior version of the beautiful game.


Wednesday, June 16, 2004

16 June 2004

Guru Arjan Dev, the first Sikh martyr, represents the extraordinary capacity of some human beings to endure the most terrible of tortures rather than betray their deeply-held beliefs. The Guru, the fifth of ten in the Sikh religion, produced the Guru Granth Sahib, the main religious text of the Sikhs. He decreed that, unlike the Hindu holy scriptures, it could be read by anyone, regardless of their beliefs, caste or sex.

When, in 1606, the new Muslim emperor Jahangir ordered the Guru to remove Islamic and Hindu references from the book, he refused – a refusal that earned him five full days of brutal torture.

He was placed in a large vessel of water, which was heated from below and brought to the boil. He had burning hot sand poured over his head and body. He was forced to sit on a red hot iron plate. Finally, his bare body covered with blisters but his spirit unbroken, he was led to the river Ravi, where he walked into the cold waters and was swept away by the fast-flowing stream.

The Guru is best known among non-Sikhs as the man who organised the building of the Harmandir Sahib, or Golden Temple, in Amritsar. His followers wanted it to be the tallest building in the town, but Arjan Dev persuaded them of the virtue of humility. He had entrances built on all four sides. 'My faith is for the people of all castes and all creeds, from whichever direction they come and to whichever direction they bow,' he explained.

It was a message that was evidently intolerable to the dissolute Jahangir. The anniversary of Jahangir's barbarity is observed today by Sikhs throughout the world.


Tuesday, June 15, 2004

15 June 2004

Some people are just born unlucky. Take Saint Vitus, for example, the patron saint of ravers. His feast day on 15 June got 16th-century Germans dancing in the aisles in front of his statues in the belief that they would have a year's good health as a consequence. The dancing was so frenzied at times that it became confused with chorea, a nervous disorder that causes involuntary muscle spasms and jerking movements. Several centuries later, 'St Vitus's Dance', as chorea became known, was confused with real dancing by millions of clubbers high on repetitive beats and 'E'. In the worst cases, sufferers have been known to continue 'dancing' for several years after the music is turned off.

St Vitus's bad luck started with his dad. He had his son, together with his tutor and nurse, arrested and scourged (a particularly nasty Roman punishment, which involves having your flesh ripped apart with barbed flails) as a result of them converting to Christianity. Rescued by angels, Vitus and his companions fled to Rome, where he cured the emperor's son of an evil spirit.

Far from being rewarded for this fine deed, however, Vitus was accused of sorcery, tortured and thrown to the lions. The lions left him and his tutor and nurse alone, so the Romans threw them in a vat of boiling oil instead, which seems a bit mean in the circumstances. A rooster was chucked into the oil alongside him. There is no truth in the rumour that this was done by an irate England fan, who wanted to get back at the French by boiling their national symbol.

If St Vitus doesn't do it for you, how about joining the Danes and celebrating their 0-0 draw with Italy on this, King Valdemar's Day. It's the anniversary of the occasion in 1219, when the Danish flag is supposed to have descended from heaven to bring victory to King Valdemar.

Incidentally, Denmark was the team that the British National Party urged its followers to support during the last World Cup, on the grounds that all their players were white. Which leads me on to another anniversary that should be marked in some way today. For it's 30 years since maths student Kevin Gately was killed during an anti-National Front protest in London. The first person to die in a demonstration in Britain for more than half a century, he was killed by a blow to the head – almost certainly by a police truncheon.


Monday, June 14, 2004

14 June 2004

On this day in 1970, defending champions England let slip a two-goal lead over West Germany in the World Cup quarter finals to lose 3-2 after extra time. So 2-1 to France is an improvement, yes?

If the flags of St George flutter a little less proudly today, I can reveal the reason why. The French have more saints on their side than the English.

Lining up for England, as well as St George, are Augustine, Cuthbert, Gregory the Great, Michael the Archangel (him again), Our Lady of Mount Carmel at Aylesford and Our Lady of Walsingham, whose feast day was reinstated by the Pope in 2000. That's seven saints in all.

On the French side, there's Joan of Arc, Anne, Denis, Martin of Tours, Remigius and Therese of Liseux. Six in all. But there's also a whole team of Virgin Marys: Notre Dame of Paris, Notre Dame of Chartres, Our Lady of LaSallette, Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Pontmain, Our Lady of the Assumption and Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal.

St Denis, incidentally, is possibly the original headless ghost. The first bishop of Paris, he was beheaded around 258 AD and reports soon appeared of him being seen carrying his severed head in his hands. He's the patron saint for headaches as a result, so the English might want to borrow him from the French for today.


Sunday, June 13, 2004

13 June

Well, the number 13 has to be unlucky for someone today, so what are the numerological omens for the England football team ahead of the game with France? They're good, very good. Just consider these:

· England's biggest-ever win was 13-0 (against Ireland in 1882)
· The most goals scored by England player in a season was 13 (Jimmy Greaves, 1960-61)
· The fastest-ever goal by England at Wembley was scored on the 13th (Bryan Robson against Yugoslavia, in 1989 – so what if it was December?)
· The biggest-ever crowd to watch England play away was on the 13th (160,000 at Rio, in May – that's almost June – 1959)
· Alan Hanson was born on 13 June. (Yes, I know he's Scottish, but he'll be commentating on the game. Not live, admittedly, because it's not on the BBC, but he'll be doing the highlights. Probably.)
· England played their first and only game against Bohemia on 13 June 1908 and won 4-0. What better omen could there be than that?

Not convinced? At least the omens are good for a friendly tournament. England and Portugal signed the world's oldest treaty of alliance on this day in 1373 – and it's never been broken.

We'll gloss over the fact that the 'English disease' of football hooliganism also produced its first international ban on this day in 1975, when Leeds United were banned from Europe for four years as a result of their fans' behaviour in Paris following their European Cup Final defeat by Bayern Munich.


Saturday, June 12, 2004

12 June 2004

You might have missed this, what with the local election results and Ronald Reagan's funeral hogging the headlines, but today is George Bush's 80th birthday. Not George W Bush, the 43rd president of the United States and architect of the Second Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, of course, but George H W Bush, the 41st president of the United States and architect of the First Gulf War against Saddam Hussein. Pity the poor kids who are going to have to learn to tell the difference for their future history exams.

Pity also the poor kids of Nadia Jergis Mohammed and her husband, Abdul Kader Faris. They named their baby son after George W soon after he prematurely declared the Second Gulf War 'mission accomplished', and said that if they had another son they planned to name him after Tony Blair. Baby Bush's full name is George Bush Abdul Kader Faris Abid El-Hussein. What's the betting that those first two names have been quietly set aside during the course of the past year?

With Ronald Reagan finally laid to rest after a week of hagiographic slavering, I hesitate to mention the old actor again. But today marks two anniversaries in his presidential career that are worth a mention. On 12 June 1982, the biggest-ever political gathering in New York saw three quarters of a million people assemble in Central Park for a concert in support of nuclear disarmament. Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen and James Taylor were among the performers.

And on the same day five years later, Reagan did his 'Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!' act in Berlin, which has been replayed in an apparently endless loop for much of the past week. Recalling John F Kennedy's 'Ich bin ein Berliner' speech 24 years previously, Reagan also declared, less famously: 'Like so many presidents before me, I come here today because wherever I go, whatever I do: Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin.' ('I still have a suitcase in Berlin.') It's a reference to a Marlene Dietrich song, in case you were wondering.

And finally, a story that is attributed to the former US ambassador to India, Frank Wisner. During Wisner's time in India in the 1990s, an Indian is said to have told the US embassy that he wanted a visa in time for Ronald Reagan's funeral. The applicant was advised that Reagan was still very much alive, to which he replied: I'm aware of that, but I would rather wait there than here.'


Friday, June 11, 2004

11 June 2004

You'd think, with a name like Tochumra, that there wouldn't be much chance of being mistaken for someone else. If you also happen to be a virgin and a saint to boot, that ought to more or less guarantee your uniqueness.

Alas, then, for Saint Tochumra of the now defunct Tochumracht parish in the now defunct diocese of Kilfenora, who is better known these days as St Tochumra of Tuam. For she has the misfortune of sharing both her name and her saintly, virgin status with St Tochumra of Kilmore. To make matters even more confusing, both women have their feast day on 11 June – which must make this the ecclesiatical equivalent of turning up in heaven wearing identical frocks, shoes, hair-dos and knickers.

Chambers Book of Days (1869) doesn't even try to distinguish between the two. It lists them dismissively as: 'St. Tochumra, Virgin, of Ireland.' And then: 'Another Tochumra, Virgin.' I hope it's not too cheap a shot to say that neither Tochumras, nor saints, nor virgins are commonplace enough to be so lightly disregarded today.

Meanwhile, a footnote to yesterday's saintly feasting comes courtesy of Chris Walker of the Other Place. St Getulius, whose day it was, is mentioned for one reason only: how he died. 'Clubbed to death,' it is written. That must have been one hell of a night out.

Oh yes, I almost forgot. Guess who invokes the Virgin Tochumra in the diocese of Kilmore? Women in labour, of course.


Thursday, June 10, 2004

10 June 2004

Two drunks are arguing fiercely when a third comes staggering down the road towards them.

'Hey Jimmy, can ye settle an argument for us?' says one of those arguing. 'That light up there in the sky – is it the moon or the sun?'

The third drunk looks up at the sky and then back at the two drunks in front of him. 'How the hell should I know?' he says after some deliberation. 'I don't come from round here!'

On this day in 1935, after lasting a whole day without touching a drop of alcohol, two men took the first of 12 steps for an alcoholic and a giant leap for mankind – and founded Alcoholics Anonymous. Thanks to Robert Smith (aka 'Doctor Bob') and his friend William G Wilson, millions of former boozers have been able to console themselves with the knowledge that no matter how bad their drink problem is, there's always someone else with one that's worse.

Meanwhile, it's interesting to note that the principle of anonymity, on which AA is based, works so well that not even its founders managed to keep their names secret.


Wednesday, June 09, 2004

9 June 2004

Ronald Reagan, what to say? It's 20 years since he 'came home' to Ireland on a visit in June 1984. John Maguire wrote a song (sung best by Christy Moore) to mark the occasion and now seems as good a time as any to revive it.

I remember the show 21 years ago,
When John Kennedy paid us a visit.
Now the world's rearranged – not improved, only changed –
But our heart's in the same place – or is it?

Hey Ronnie Reagan, I'm black and I'm pagan,
I'm gay and I'm left and I'm free.
I'm a non-fundamentalist environmentalist,
Please don't bother me.

You're so cool playing poker with death as the joker,
You've nerve, but you don't reassure us.
With those paranoid vistas of mad Sandinistas,
Are you really defending Honduras?
You'll be wearing the green down at Ballyporeen,
The town of the little potato.
Put your arms around Garret and dangle your carrot,
But you'll never get me to join NATO.


Do you share my impression the world's in recession,
There's rather too much unemployment?
Still with Pershing and Cruise we'll have nothing to lose,
But millions in missile deployment.
We can dig shelter holes when we've bartered our souls,
For security then we can shovel.
While the myth of our dreams turns to nightmares, it seems,
From the White House straight back to the hovel.


Since the Irish dimension has won your attention,
I ask myself just what's your game.
Do your eyes share the tears of our last 15 years,
Or is that just a vote-catcher's gleam?
Your dollars may beckon, but I think we should reckon,
The cost of accepting your gold.
If we join your alliance, what price our defiance,
What's left if our freedom is sold?


Jim Fox sung the auld song at a gig in Worcester on Sunday following the news of Reagan's demise. He says, 'It went down a storm, so much so that I had to repeat it as an encore at the end of the night with an extra verse added on to the end:

Well now that you've gone, there's no more to this song,
So our attention must go back to Bush.
With Blair as his puppet, the world's ruled by a muppet,
It's time that we gave them the push.'


Tuesday, June 08, 2004

8 June 2004

What do Nero, Thomas Paine, Edward the 'Black Prince' and Mohammed have in common? The answer is that they all died on this day – in Mohammed's case at Medina in 632. He was buried where he died, aged 63, and 13 centuries later a certain Mohammed bin Laden got the contract to build a new mosque over his tomb.

Time magazine reported on Mr Ben Laden (its spelling) in its issue of 7 June 1963:

'BUSINESS: Personal File
He can neither read nor write – but neither, points out Saudi Arabia's Mohammed ben Laden, could the Prophet Mohammed. The Middle East's biggest builder, hard-driving Ben Laden last week mobilized his construction teams to begin a 600-mile road across the desert and mountains from Mecca to Saudi Arabia's capital, Riyadh. Since setting up his company in 1938 (he learned construction techniques as an Aramco [Arabian-American Oil Company] laborer), Ben Laden, 49, has completed $500 million in projects, including jetports in Jidda and Medina, a handful of palaces, and miles of superhighways. His greatest thrill was building a new mosque over Mohammed's tomb at Medina. Says Ben Laden: 'To me there are only two things in life – work and Islam.'


Monday, June 07, 2004

Bee-latedly (how could you get through the day without such wit), I should point out that it's good luck if a bee flies into your house, so don't hurt him. And it's bad, bad luck to sell bees for money (swaps are okay).

7 June 2004

On 7 June 1827, according to an account in the Carlisle Patriot, a fierce battle took place between two swarms of bees at the village of Cargo, in Cumberland. This was evidently a significant event in 19th-century Britain because 42 years later it was still being reported in some detail in Chambers' Book of Days:

'A day or two earlier, one of these communities had swarmed in the usual way, and been safely hived. On the day of battle, a swarm of bees from some neighbouring hive was seen to be flying over the garden in which the first-mentioned hive was situated. They instantly darted down upon the hive, and completely covered it; in a little time they began to enter the hive, and poured into it in such numbers that it soon became completely filled. Then commenced a terrible struggle. A loud humming noise was heard, and presently both armies of combatants rushed forth; the besiegers and the besieged did not light within the beleaguered city, but in the open air. The battle raged with such fury, that the ground beneath was soon covered with the wounded and slain; the wounded crawled about painfully, unable to rise and rejoin their fellow-warriors. Not until one party was vanquished and driven away, did the sanguinary battle end. The victors then resumed possession of the hive. The local narrative does not furnish the means for deciding the question; but it seems most probable that there were some rights of property in the case, and that the interlopers were ejected.'

It's not recorded which swarm had God on its side, but the bees (if they were Christians) had at least three patron saints to choose from. There's Ambrogio, or Ambrose, of Milan, the 'honey-tongued doctor'; Bernard 'the mellifluous' of Clairvaux; and Modomnock, the former beekeeper and student of St David, who was followed by a swarm of bees went he sailed back to his homeland in Ireland. Any beekeepers in the vicinity could have chosen between their Modomnock and the other patron saint of their profession, Saint Valentine, of Valentine's Day fame.

Valentine's Day was introduced by the Christian church to provide a sanitised version of former sex and fertility celebrations in mid-February. So there may be some connection between Valentine's patronage of beekeepers and the apparently surefire test of a woman's virginity – which requires her to walk unstung through a swarm of bees.

Bees are also said to have a strong affinity with their keepers and are believed never to prosper if their households are unhappy. In country lore, they must be kept informed any deaths (and often births and marriages) in the family or they are likely to desert the hive. In some places this still extends to draping black crepe around any hives during a period of mourning.


Sunday, June 06, 2004

6 June 2004

It's a little-noted fact that the D-Day landings took place on the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Young Men's Christian Association, or YMCA, at 72 St Paul’s Churchyard, London. The Y's contribution to the war effort included its 'tea trucks', which served hot tea and biscuits to the troops, and its 'khaki college' libraries. It also organised entertainment, talent nights, discussion groups and poetry and essay contests.

YMCA staff invented both volleyball and basketball, but the Y wasn't always interested in physical health and recreation. It initially rejected proposals to provide public baths and gyms, and didn't decide to do so until 1866. Who knows what the Village People might have found to sing about if wasn't for that fateful decision.

Raise your voices, then, for the YMCA . . .

Young man, there's no need to feel down.
I said, young man, pick yourself off the ground.
I said, young man, 'cause you're in a new town
There's no need to be unhappy.

Young man, there's a place you can go.
I said, young man, when you're short on your dough.
You can stay there, and I'm sure you will find
Many ways to have a good time.

It's fun to stay at the YMCA.
It's fun to stay at the YMCA.

They have everything for you men to enjoy,
You can hang out with all the boys ...

It's fun to stay at the YMCA.
It's fun to stay at the YMCA.

You can get yourself cleaned, you can have a good meal,
You can do whatever you feel ...

Young man, are you listening to me?
I said, young man, what do you want to be?
I said, young man, you can make real your dreams.
But you got to know this one thing!

No man does it all by himself.
I said, young man, put your pride on the shelf,
And just go there, to the YMCA
I'm sure they can help you today.

It's fun to stay at the YMCA.
It's fun to stay at the YMCA.

They have everything for you men to enjoy,
You can hang out with all the boys ...
It's fun to stay at the YMCA.
It's fun to stay at the YMCA.

You can get yourself cleaned, you can have a good meal,
You can do whatever you feel ...

Young man, I was once in your shoes.
I said, I was down and out with the blues.
I felt no man cared if I were alive.
I felt the whole world was so tight ...

That's when someone came up to me,
And said, young man, take a walk up the street.
There's a place there called the YMCA
They can start you back on your way.

It's fun to stay at the YMCA.
It's fun to stay at the YMCA.

They have everything for you men to enjoy,
You can hang out with all the boys ...

YMCA ... you'll find it at the YMCA.

Young man, young man, there's no need to feel down.
Young man, young man, get yourself off the ground.

YMCA ... you'll find it at the YMCA.

Young man, young man, there's no need to feel down.
Young man, young man, get yourself off the ground.

YMCA ... just go to the YMCA.

Young man, young man, are you listening to me?
Young man, young man, what do you wanna be?


Friday, June 04, 2004

5 June 2004

It's the 30th World Environment Day today, and what's the Environment Agency doing? Playing games.

World Environment Day was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1972 to mark the opening of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. The conference declared that it was 'launching a new liberation movement to free men from the threat of their thraldom to environmental perils of their own making. The movement could succeed only if there was a new commitment to liberation from the destructive forces of mass poverty, racial prejudice, economic injustice, and the technologies of modern warfare. Mankind's whole work and dedication must be towards the ideal of a peaceful, habitable and just planet.' Someone tell George Bush.

This is also the feast day of St Boniface, who left Wessex to convert the Germans to Christianity and got cut to pieces for his troubles. He's the patron saint of Germans, brewers and tailors, which must be worth something - especially if you rip your trousers while drunk in Berlin, as Chris W points out in the Other Place.

Chris also relates the tale about when Boniface encountered a tribe in Saxony worshipping a Norse deity in the form of a huge oak tree. Boniface walked up to the tree, removed his shirt, took up an axe, and without a word hacked down the six-feet wide wooden god. Then he stood on the trunk and asked: 'How stands your mighty god? My God is stronger than he.'

England football fans have been doing something similar ever since.

4 June 2004

Today is my dad's birthday, which is sufficient reason to make it a day of note for me.

For those who want more, this is also the day on which the Tiananmen Square massacre took place; the suffragette, Emily Davison, threw herself in front of the King's horse at the Derby; John Profumo resigned; Charles I was taken prisoner by the Parliamentary army – and Winston Churchill made his most famous speech.

The sound of Churchill's nasal oratory – 'We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields, and in the streets; we shall never surrender' – is ingrained on our collective memory of the second world war. Yet the curious thing about it is that fewer than a thousand people actually heard him make that speech.

It's true that there are recordings of Churchill speaking those evocative words, but they were made years later when the war was over. The speech itself, only his fourth as Prime Minister, was made in the House of Commons. It wasn't recorded. All the British public heard of it was the newsreader reading extracts on that evening's radio news.


Thursday, June 03, 2004

Chris W, of the Other Place, informs me that on this day in 1953 Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchee Bridge, an incident recalled in the 1967 hit song 'Ode to Billy Joe' by Bobbie Gentry:

It was the third of June
Another sleepy, dusty, delta day
I was out choppin' cotton
And my brother was bailin' hay
And at dinner time we stopped
And walked back to the house to eat
And Mama hollered at the door
"Y'all remember to wipe your feet."
Then she said
"I got some news this mornin' from Choctaw Ridge
"Today Billy Joe McAllister
"Jumped off the Tallahatchee Bridge."
Papa said to Mama as he passed around the black-eyed peas
"Well, Billy Joe never had a lick o' sense,
"Pass the biscuits, please.
"There's five more acres in the lower forty
"I've got to plow."
And Mama said it was a shame about Billy Joe anyhow
Seems like nothin' ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge
And now Billy Joe McAllister's
Jumped off the Tallahatchee Bridge

Brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billy Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show
And wasn't I talkin' to him after church last Sunday night
I'll have another piece of apple pie
You know, it don't seem right
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge
And now you tell me Billy Joe's
Jumped off the Tallahatchee Bridge

Mama said to me, "Child what's happened to your appetite?
"I been cookin' all mornin'
"And you haven't touched single bite.
"That nice young preacher Brother Taylor dropped by today
"Said he'd be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh by the way
"He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you
"Up on Choctaw Ridge
"And she and Billy Joe was throwin' somethin'
"Off the Tallahatchee Bridge."

A year has come and gone since heard the news 'bout Billy Joe
Brother married Becky Thompson
They bought a store in Tupelo
There was a virus goin' round
Papa caught it and he died last spring
And now Mama doesn't seem to want to do too much of anything
And me I spend a lot of time picking flowers
Up on Choctaw Ridge
And drop them into the muddy water
Off the Tallahatchee Bridge

Well, what was all that about then? Bobbie Gentry's original version was nine minutes long and had a lot more detail apparently. I'm not sure if it cast any more light on what actually happened on the Tallahatchee Bridge than the abbreviated version, however.

Bob Dylan did a piss-take, 'Clothes Line Saga' (from The Basement Tapes, 1975):

After a while we took in the clothes
Nobody said very much
Just some old wild shirts and a couple pairs of pants
Which nobody really wanted to touch
Mama come in and picked up a book
An' Papa asked her what it was
Someone else asked, "What do you care?"
Papa said, "Well, just because?"
Then they started to take back their clothes
Hang'em on the line
It was January the thirtieth
And everybody was feelin' fine.

The next day, everybody got up
Seein' if the clothes were dry
The dogs were barking, a neighbor passed
Mama, of cource, she said, "Hi"
"Have you heard the news?" he said with a grin
"The Vice President's gone mad"
"Where?" "Downtown." "When?" "Last night"
"Hmm, say, that's too bad"
"Well, there's nothing we can do about it," said the neighbor
"It's just something we're gonna have to forget"
"Yes, I guess so" said Ma
Then she asked me if the clothes was still wet.

I reached up, touched my shirt
And the neighbor said, "Are those clothes yours?"
I said, "Some of them, not all of them"
He said, "Ya always help out around here with the chores ?"
I said, "Sometime, not all the time"
Then my neighbor he blew his nose
Just as papa yelled outside
"Mama wants you to come back in the house and bring them clothes"
Well, I just do what I'm told so I did it, of course
I went back in the house and Mama met me
And then I shut all the doors.

3 June 2004

Full moon tonight, so let's hear it for some of the goddesses of the moon: Diana of the Romans; Artemis and Selene of the Greeks; Coyolxauhqui of the Aztecs, sister of the sun god Huitzilopochtli; China's Heng-O, mother of the 12 moons and 10 suns; Ix Chel of the Maya; and Mawu of Benin.

Mawu, in case you've not come across her before, is the supreme deity of the Fon of Dahomey people. She's the goddess of the night, coolness, motherhood and joy, and is seen as an old woman. Her partner, Lisa, who is also her twin, is the god of the day, heat and strength. Their son, Gu, is a smith, who helped them to create the universe. An eclipse occurs when they make love.

There's also a serpent in this creation myth, named Da, who existed even before Mawu and Lisa. Da is the spirit of life itself, whose coils wrap around creation, binding it together. Not even St George could kill this dragon.


Wednesday, June 02, 2004

2 June 2004

Today I recommend a touch of therapeutic tickling to mark St Elmo's day. I can't deliver the saint himself as he was disembowelled 1,701 years ago. So you'll have to make do with Elmo from Sesame Street – or an online version of him anyway. You'll find him here, waiting for a bit of click and giggle:

Tickle Elmo

The saintly Elmo is also known as Erasmus. And Eramo; and Erarmo; and Ermo; and Herasmus; and Rasimus; and Rasmus; and Telmo . . . why settle for one or two names when ten will do? He's the patron saint of abdominal pains, stomach diseases, intestinal disorders, childbirth, women in labour and various other things to do with the fact that he hasd his innards cut out. More famously, he's also the patron saint of sailors and storms at sea, in which the appearance of 'St Elmo's Fire' used to be seen as a sign of his presence – and protection.

As well as being the title of a 1985 film featuring Demi Moore, St Elmo's Fire is a form of atmospheric 'glow discharge' that develops during stormy weather. It's caused by an electrical charge building up between the ground and storm clouds, and it's often seen as a spooky blue glow around the tops of tall buildings, church steeples or boat's masts, which act as conductors. Natural neon, in effect, it's caused by the same process as fluorescent lighting.


Tuesday, June 01, 2004

1 June 2004

It's 1 June 1985 and St Michael's mob, aka the police, go hippy bashing in a beanfield.

A convoy of around 140 vehicles, heading towards Stonehenge for a banned midsummer gathering, was 'ambushed' by about 500 police officers, who went on a four-hour rampage, according to eye-witnesses. The police systematically smashed the windows of vehicles, forced out their occupants, beat people over the head with truncheons, dragged them off by their hair and then took sledgehammers to the travellers' homes. Film captured mothers and young babies being terrorised, while people were savagely beaten.

Most of the violence took place in a farmer's field, as a result of which the occasion became known as the 'Battle of the Beanfield'. The Earl of Cardigan, secretary of the Marlborough Conservative Association and not a natural critic of the police, was a witness to the events and appalled by what he saw. He spoke of seeing a baby lifted out of its cot: 'It was covered in glass from head to foot.'

In an emotional commentary as the violence unfolded, ITN reporter Kim Sabido said: 'What we – the ITN camera crew and myself as a reporter – have seen in the last 30 minuters here in this field has been some of the most brutal police treatment of people that I've witnessed in my entire career as a journalist. The number of people who have been hit by policemen, who have been clubbed whilst holding babies in their arms in coaches around this field, is yet to be counted . . . There must surely be an enquiry after what has happened today.'

There wasn't an enquiry, but 21 people did sue the police for wrongful arrest, false imprisonment and damage to property. They won their case at Winchester crown court in February 1991. One of the police sergeants involved in violence was also convicted for assault.

Fifteen years after the Battle of the Beanfield, English Heritage finally lifted its ban on admission to Stonehenge for the summer solstice. Despite dire predictions of the likely consequences, the monument is still there, Wiltshire has not fallen to the druids and the sun still rises in the east.


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