Tuesday, 29 December 2020

"A Vile Country": Dr Johnson on Scotland and Scots

The writer Samuel Johnson, AKA Dr. Johnson (1709-1785), is best known today for his celebrated Dictionary of the English Language. First published in London in 1755, it is often called "Johnson's Dictionary." The dictionary was warmly received and proved highly influential in shaping the modern English language. (Image: Johnson in 1775, by Sir Joshua Reynolds)

Some of Johnson's definitions were witty. His definition of lexicographer poked fun at himself: "a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the significance of words."

Other definitions conveyed his prejudices. An example is monsieur: "a term of reproach for a Frenchman." Johnson, in common with many English folk at the time, had no love for the French, with whom they were often at war. 

The English were almost as contemptuous of the people of Scotland, with whom they had been united in 1707 into a new country, Great Britain. The Union was an uneasy one for many years. 

Several rebellions arose in Scotland seeking to restore the exiled Catholic Stuarts to the throne of both kingdoms, occupied since 1714 by the German Hanoverians, Georges I and II.

The last and most dangerous of these "Jacobite" Risings began in 1745. An army made up mainly of Highlanders led by Prince Charles Stuart ("Bonnie Prince Charlie") defeated a Hanoverian army at Prestonpans. 

The Jacobites quickly seized Edinburgh, and marched into England. They came within striking distance of London at Derby before turning back and facing final bloody defeat at Culloden Moor in April 1746. It was the last battle fought on British soil. (Image: Battle of Culloden, by David Morier, 1746)

The Highland army's incursion into central England had terrified and outraged many English people, including Johnson, himself a sentimental Jacobite. 

The English viewed the Highland Scots with their plaids and Gaelic language as uncouth, dirty, and savage. The romantic Highlander of the novels of Sir Walter Scott would not appear until decades later. The cartoon below, "Sawney in the Boghouse," gives an indication of how contemporary Englishmen viewed the barbaric Highlander. 

Johnson shared these views. Perhaps it is not surprising that he  used his dictionary to convey them. His definition of 
oats is classic: "a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland is used to support the people."

Here, Johnson was parroting the conventional English view of the Scots as an impoverished and oppressed people, who might, if given their way, reduce the English to the same level. That view had some merit: Scotland was poorer than England, and its political system was more authoritarian. 

Yet the idea that Scots could impose an authoritarian system on England was far fetched. Incidentally, many American colonists shared that view, which contributed to the drive for independence. 

The American cartoon below, from 1775, shows Scots Lord Bute and Lord Mansfield tyrannizing Americans. backed up by the Catholic Church (the monk) and the British army. 

It was a conspiracy theory worthy of QAnon. Bute had been out of politics for ten years by this point. Chief Justice Mansfield had no say over colonial policy, but he had declared slavery in England illegal in 1773, which made him a tyrant for American slaveholders. 

Johnson eventually softened his views on Scotland and its people, though he always enjoyed a dig at them. His circle of friends came to include some Scots he admired, including poet James Beattie. His best friend in his later years was Scots lawyer James Boswell, 9th Laird of Auchinleck. (Image: James Boswell, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1785)

In 1763, Boswell went to London, hoping to get a commission in a Guards regiment and enjoy the capital's culture (and women). He was quickly exposed to anti-Scottish sentiment. 

In his journal he recorded how he went to Covent Garden Theater one evening to see a comic opera. Just before the overture began, two Highland officers entered, the crowd began to chant, "No Scots! No Scots! Out with them!" 

Boswell was outraged. The officers had just returned from the successful siege of Havana. At that moment, he wrote, "I hated the English. I wished from my soul that the Union was broke and that we might give them another Battle of Bannockburn.... The rudeness of the English vulgar is terrible."

After this encounter, it may come as some surprise that Boswell sought out the acquaintance of two Englishmen men famed for their anti-Scottish prejudices: John Wilkes and Johnson. 

Except for their antipathy to Scots, the two can hardly have been more different. Wilkes was a libertine radical and demagogue. Johnson was straight-laced, pious, and socially conservative.  

Wilkes was "very civil" when they met. He even invited Boswell to call on him. Boswell's first meeting with Johnson was less auspicious: 

Johnson: I understand, Sir, that you are from Scotland.

Boswell: I am indeed, but I cannot help it.

Johnson: That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help. 

This was how one of the most famous friendships in British history began. Johnson and Boswell became boon companions, eating, drinking, and conversing together. 

"Bozzy" would later write a biography of his friend, The Life of  Samuel Johnson (1791). Many critics consider it the greatest biography ever written in English.

The pair spent many an evening in animated conversation with other members of Johnson's circle. The "Club" as it is sometimes known, was the idea of Johnson's friend, painter Joshua Reynolds. (Image: A Meeting of the The Club. Johnson is second from left, Reynolds is third, with ear trumpet.)


Its members included some the greatest minds of the day including actor David Garrick, orator Edmund Burke, and writers Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Sheridan. Scientist Joseph Bank and historian Edward Gibbon also attended meetings from time to time. Another Scot, Adam Smith, was a later member. Johnson never liked him because he contributed little to the conversation. 

Boswell recorded many of the exchanges at these meetings. On occasion, Johnson's prejudices against Scotland rose to the surface. A famous such occasion was when the group was discussing "noble prospects" or beautiful views. Johnson quipped, "the noblest prospect a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England."

Here, Johnson, joking or not, was reflecting a very real concern in England at the time. Many people complained that a plague of greedy, half-starved Scots was invading their country, snapping up plum jobs and rich heiresses. People often compared the Scots immigrants to a plague of locusts, as reflected in this cartoon of 1796, "A Flight of Scotchmen":

The poet Charles Churchill, a collaborator with Wilkes, wrote a pastoral in which he characterized Scotland as a land where half-starved spiders preyed on half-starved flies. 

The comparative poverty of Scotland was a subject Johnson often returned to in conversation. During a discussion on the danger of invasion in Scotland, he asked: "What enemy would invade Scotland, when there is nothing to be got?"

Warning an Irish friend against uniting in a union with England: "Do not make a union with us, Sir. We should unite with you only to rob you; we should have robbed the Scots if they had anything of which we could rob them."

Scotland, unlike England at the time, provided a basic primary education to most children in a system of parish schools. Johnson was not impressed: "Knowledge is divided up among Scots like bread in a besieged town, to every man a mouthful, to no man a bellyful." Learning in Scotland, he conceded was widely diffused, "but thinly spread." 

Boswell, irked by Johnson's refusal to concede the existence of highly educated Scots, mentioned Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of the Court of King's Bench. Johnson denied that Scotland derived "any credit from Mansfield, for he was educated in England. Much may be made of a Scotchman if he be caught young."

Asked by a Scot what he thought of Scotland, Johnson replied, "it is a very vile country, to be sure, Sir." Taken aback, the Scot retorted that God had made it. "Certainly, he did," Johnson agreed; "but we must always remember that he made it for Scotchmen, and comparisons are odious, Mr. S-------; and God made hell."

Arthur Lee of Virginia once remarked that he could not understand why some Scots had settled in a barren part of America. Johnson thought the answer obvious: "Why, Sir, all barrenness is comparative. The Scotch would not know it be barren."

Having Boswell as a close friend may have gradually softened Johnson's views on Scots if not Scotland. In 1773, Bozzy convinced Johnson to make a trip to Scotland, including a tour of the Hebrides, or Western Isles. 

Johnson complained about some things, notably the weather, rods, and some of the inns and food. But he praised much as well, especially Scottish hospitality: 

"At the tables where a stranger is received, neither plenty nor delicacy is wanting.... he that shall complain of his fare in the Hebrides, has improved his delicacy more than his manhood.... If an epicure cold remove by a wish, in quest of sensual gratifications, wherever he had supped he would breakfast in Scotland."

The Hebrides in particular impressed Johnson.. The pair visited Skye, Iona, Mull, and other islands. recorded feelings of awe on his visit to Iona, where Irish missionaries established the first Christian foothold in Scotland in the 6th century.

After returning to London, both men wrote accounts of their journey. Still in print and quite readable today, the books inspired many others to make similar trips. One could argue they (and Walter Scott) helped lay the foundations of later Scottish tourism. 

Johnson later told Boswell that the trip "was the pleasantest part of his life..." High praise indeed for a man who wrote that "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." Perhaps Bozzy made a difference after all.

Further Reading:

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (London, 1791)

____________, Boswell's London Journal, 1762-1763 (New Haven, 1950)

____________, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson(1785)

Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (London, 1755)

_____________, A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland (London, 1775)




Saturday, 26 December 2020

"The Atheist is Dying!"

In August 1776 a noted Scots philosopher lay dying of abdominal cancer in his home in Edinburgh. As news spread of his imminent demise, crowds gathered in the street outside his house, crying "The Atheist is dying! The Atheist is dying!" 

David Hume, for that was his name, was a genial, kindly man whose written works had made him many admirers and more enemies. One of the great philosophical skeptics, Hume had undermined many conventional beliefs, including the then popular "argument from design" used to prove God's existence. 

In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, he argued that it was just as likely that the world had been designed by many gods or none at all, by an incompetent god, an infant god, even an animal or vegetable god, as by the omnipotent deity of the Bible. There was no irrefutable evidence for any of these possibilities. (Image: David Hume, 1754, by Allan Ramsay)

In suggesting the possibility that the world and its lifeforms could have been the result of accident rather than intelligent design, Hume anticipated Darwin's principle of natural selection. 

Hume had aroused the ire of the Presbyterian clergy with his arguments against miracles, the afterlife, and the impossibility of proving the existence or nature of God. They had even considered bringing charges of infidelity against him. 

Many modern critics claim that Hume was an agnostic but contemporaries considered him an atheist, or at least anti-Christian. He argued all religion arose from fear, "from a dread of the unknown." He declared that polytheism had some advantages over monotheism from a societal point of view.

He was fond of relating that "the best theologian he had ever met was an old Edinburgh fishwife who, having recognized him as Hume the atheist, refused to pull him out of the bog into which he had fallen until he declared he was a Christian and repeated the Lord's Prayer." 

James Boswell, who later wrote the acclaimed Life of Dr. Johnson, visited Hume a few weeks before his death. The much younger Boswell recorded an account of their exchange. (Image: James Boswell, 1765, by George Willison)

"I found him alone, in a reclining posture in his drawing room. He was lean, ghastly, and of an earthy appearance. He was quite different from the plump figure which he used to present. He seemed to be placid, even cheerful. He said he was just approaching to his end." (Image: David Hume, 1766, by Allan Ramsay)

Boswell, a conventional Christian with a robust libido, hoped to get Hume to confess his faith. Hume replied that he had long ago rejected belief in any religion, and that "the morality of every religion was bad." He went on to say that "when he heard that a man was religious, he concluded that he was a rascal, though he had known some instances of very good men who were religious."

Boswell asked Hume if he persisted in rejecting belief in an afterlife, with death staring him in the face. Hume answered, "it was a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist forever." Boswell left him "with impressions that disturbed me for some time." 

Hume died in his home on St Andrews Square, New Town, on August 25, 1776. He was buried at his request in a tomb on nearby Calton Hill. He wished it to be inscribed with only his name and dates. 

The tomb, designed by his friend the architect Robert Adam, sits next to a statue of Abraham Lincoln, memorializing the sacrifices of Scottish soldiers who fought for the Union in the American Civil War.


Atheist or not, Hume is today a celebrated figure in Scotland and globally. Since 1995, a statue of Hume in classical garb has resided on the Royal Mile, across from St. Giles Cathedral. I suspect he would have appreciated the irony of that. 

It has become a custom for visitors to rub his big toe on the right foot for good luck, which is why the original bronze shows through. That is also ironical, because Hume of course rejected belief in luck as ignorant superstition. I touched the toe myself, however, just in case.

Image: Edinburgh High Street, with the Hume Statue and St. Giles.

Further Reading: Charles Weiss and Frederick Pottle, eds., Boswell in Extremes, 1776-1778 (London, 1970)

Saturday, 28 November 2020

You are What you Eat

In 1747, the French physician and philosophe Julien Offray de la Mettrie published a book entitled Man: A Machine  (L'Homme Machine). It is little known today, but in it La Mettrie proposed an idea we are very familiar with nearly 300 years later: You are what you eat. He argued human beings (and all living things) were machines, fueled by the digestion of food: 

"The human body is a machine which winds its own springs. It is the living image of perpetual movement. Nourishment keeps up the movement which fever excites. Without food, the soul pines away, goes mad, and dies exhausted ... But nourish the body, pour into its veins life-giving juices and strong liquors, and then the soul grows strong ... What power there is in a meal! Joy revives in a sad heart, and infects the souls of comrades." (Image: La Mettrie)

La Mettrie was a philosophical materialist. He held that everything in the universe was made up of matter. Spirit was a figment of overheated imaginations. Spirit did not exist, which meant no angels, no demons, no ghosts. The soul was merely the animating principle arising from matter, and animals as well as people had souls. 

La Mettrie conceded that God "might" exist but it didn't matter because He did not interfere in the world. Today, most people would call La Mettrie an atheist, and he did used that term to describe his position. He was also a hedonist. He argued that happiness was the sole purpose of life. People should indulge in pleasurable activities as much as possible, including eating fine food, drinking, and sex.

Atheism was a rare stance in even in the Enlightenment, but it had a long history. The Roman poet Lucretius espoused materialism. Some of La Mettrie's fellow philosophes advanced atheistic arguments, notably Baron d'Holbach and David Hume. (pictured below). But most of the philosophes, atheist or not, denounced La Mettrie's claim that hedonism should be the main goal of human life.

Other philosophes, called deists, also rejected La Mettries's atheism. They argued that God definitely existed and had created a good world, but then left it to operate according to His benevolent natural laws. Deists and atheists alike fell afoul of religious and secular authorities. Deists were often denounced as atheists for rejecting key Christian doctrines. 

Like other philosophes, La Mettrie had to move about for his safety. He fled France to the more tolerant Netherlands. After the publication of Man: A Machine, things got too hot for him there. He found refuge in Prussia at the Court of Frederick the Great. Voltaire, perhaps the best known of the philosophes, also fled there in 1750.  (Images: Frederick and Voltaire)

But let's get back to eating. La Mettrie argued that the food one ate determined one's personality, disposition, intelligence, and behavior. Diet explained why some people were more savage than others: 

"Red meat makes animals fierce, and it would have the same effect on man. This is so true that the English who eat meat red and bloody, and not as well done as ours, seem to share more or less in the savagery due to this kind of food...."

As another example of how food effects behavior, La Mettrie related the story of a Swiss judge who "when he fasted, was a most upright and even a most indulgent judge, but woe to the unfortunate man whom he found on the culprit's bench after he had had a large dinner! He was capable of sending the innocent like the guilty to the gallows." 

Diet could even affect the intelligence of whole nations. "One nation is of heavy and stupid wit, and another quick, light, and penetrating. Whence comes this difference, if not in part from the difference in foods....? 

La Mettrie was well versed in the science of his day, but his argument about food was hardly scientific. His evidence was anecdotal and stereotypical. Yet no one today would deny that diet can have enormous effects on mental and physical health. Medical and dietary science has linked poor diet to all kinds of illnesses and dangerous conditions. 

La Mettrie's death was utterly ironic. He died in 1751 of a gastric disorder, followed by a fever and delerium. Some versions say he ate a huge amount of a pheasant and truffle pate pie at one meal to show off how much he could consume. Others claim that the food that had gone bad. 

As he was dying, priests allegedly gathered in his room, hoping to get him to confess his faith in God. At one point, he cried out "Christ!" in his agony. The reverend fathers advanced eagerly towards his bed. Alas, he disappointed them. "It was just a manner of speaking," he said, smiling. 

Frederick the Great gave the eulogy at La Mettrie's funeral. He called him "a good devil and medic but a very bad author."  

The holiday season is upon us. Be careful what you eat. 

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

The Peoples' Charter: A Program to Save American Democracy

If it wasn't crystal clear before January 6, it should be now. To save American democracy it will not be enough to reverse the damage Trump and his enablers have done. That is necessary but not sufficient. If the USA merely restores the status quo ante-Trump, it will face more anti-democratic governments in future. 

If a few thousand votes had gone the other way in several states, Trump would have won the election, even though Biden got almost 7 million more votes. How is this possible? Because democracy in the US is not firmly rooted, and never has been.

The Trump regime did not start its assault on democracy and sanity from square one. It built on anti-democratic policies and machinations dating back decades or more. Many of them exist at the state rather than federal level. A root and branch strategy is needed to eliminate these dangers. 

Many people will say the changes I suggest are impossible. And it will be a huge struggle to achieve any one of them. But many people said that all men, and later all women, could never get the vote. Many people said slavery could never be eliminated. Britain was the greatest slave trading nation in history, but after massive grass roots campaigns, Parliament abolished the trade in 1807 and slavery itself in British colonies in 1833.

The Chartist Movement in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s took its name from "The People's Charter." Its goal was to establish a working democracy. The rulers of the day and many ordinary folk dismissed Chartism as utopian. But of its six demands ("The Peoples' Charter"), all but one is now law. That one was a demand for annual Parliamentary elections. Few people would support that idea now. Moreover, this was accomplished without a revolution, and only minor violence. (Image: photo of Chartist Demonstration, London, 1848)

The Chartists did not include women in their vision of democracy, but was rectified in 1918 and 1928.

I have drawn up my own People's Charter for the USA

  • 1.       Abolish the Electoral College, the gift that has empowered American reactionaries since slavery times. Replace it with the National Popular Vote. 

  • 2.       End gerrymandering by creating an independent, non-partisan commission to draw up boundaries of congressional constituencies. This is done in the UK and other countries.

  • 3.       Overturn the Citizens United decision to reduce corruption from big money in elections. Nothing like this exists in other democracies.
  • 4.       Prohibit political ads. They are virtually useless as information, generally misleading if not untrue, and damned annoying. 

  • 5.       Introduce proportional representation or ranked voting to end the stranglehold of the two-party system. Some people will argue that this would make efficient government impossible. Well, what have we got now? 

  • 6.      The Senate must be made more representative than it is. It gives the smaller states collectively far more power than the largest. That California with 40 million people and Wyoming with only half a million have the same number of senators is both absurd and thoroughly undemocratic.

  • 7.       Require by law enough polling stations to end long lines and hours of waiting to vote. Voting is an obligation. It should not be a torture or a danger. Voter suppression of all kinds must be eliminated. 

  • 8.      Fund public education adequately and fairly. College and university education should be free or cheap, as it was when I went to college and university in the late 60s and early 70s. Why are we shortchanging our children and dumbing down our voters?

  • 9.      Establish a national, affordable health care plan that covers everyone. The present for profit system is a disgrace and a laughing stock around the world. Health insurance must be separated from employment. Covid has underlined the cruelty and absurdity of this tradition, which turns many workers into virtual serfs.

  • 10.       Require the payment of a living (not minimum) wage for all adult workers. This should vary according to local living costs. It costs a lot more to live in California than North Dakota.

  • 11.     Reduce the period between the election of the president and the inauguration to two weeks at most. This would have minimized Trump's ability to create havoc. In the UK and many countries a new government generally takes over immediately after the election. This can be done because the parties have already selected the members of the cabinet and other ministers. Proceeding this way also gives voters a sense of what they are going to get. Whether they pay attention is another matter.

Sunday, 8 November 2020

Hilarious British Place Names

Any one who has travelled around Britain will have laughed at many of the place names. Here is a small sample of the island's odd and sometimes smutty geographic names.

England and Wales

Sandy Balls 

Beer Head


Shag Rock (2, in Cornwall)

Happy Bottom, Flash Bottom, Scratchy Bottom, King's Bottom (and many more "Bottoms")

Steeple Bumpstead



Beaver Close


Black Bush

Goon Gumpas

Great and Little Snoring

North Piddle

Chorlton Cum



Hardon Road

Middle and Nether Wallop




Tickle Cock Bridge

Cock Play (several)

Great Cockup

Dirt Pot



Cockshutt cum Petton

Pant y Drain



Horny Old

Booby Dingle

Lord Hereford's Knob

Titty Ho





East Breast

Maidens Paps

Shaggie Burn

Bottom Burn

Cock Burn




Cock of Arran


Buttock Point


Dick Institute


Dick Court

The Bastard



Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Remember, Remember the Fifth of November: Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot

Remember, remember, the Fifth of November,

Gunpowder Treason and Plot. 

I know of no reason why Gunpowder Treason

Should ever be forgot. 

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent 

To blow up King and Parliament.

Three-score barrels of powder below

To prove Old England's overthrow;

By God's Providence he was catch'd

With a dark lantern and burning match.

And what should we do with him? Burn him!

[Below: The Discovery of the Gunpowder Plotters, Henry Perronet Briggs, 1823]

The nursery rhyme above, or variants of it, has been part of British culture since the 17th century, as has the custom of Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night. On November 5, effigies of "The Guy" are burned in bonfires all over the UK. 

The idea of burning "The Guy" in effigy is reflected in the rhyme's last line: "And what should we do with him? Burn him!" On the night the actual plot was foiled, the government  ordered the lighting of bonfires to celebrate the King's (James I's) deliverance. It's not clear when or why burning the Guy first became a part of the celebration. At first, revelers burned effigies of the Pope. 

Burning "The Guy" eventually became a tradition in later years, though it's not clear why Fawkes was singled out. He was the explosives expert, but only one of fourteen conspirators led by Robert Catesby. They were all Roman Catholics whose goal was to destroy the Protestant ruling elite with one blow and restore Catholicism in Britain. 

[Below: A contemporary Dutch image of some of the Gunpowder Plotters. Fawkes is third from the right. He is named here as "Guido" Fawkes, the name he took when fighting for the Spanish.]

[Below, George Cruikshank's illustration of Fawkes from Harrison Ainsworth's novel, Guy Fawkes, 1840.]

In case you are wondering, the real Guy Fawkes was not burned to death. He and several co-conspirators were hanged, then cut down and drawn (disembowelled) while still alive, and finally quartered. This was the traditional punishment for treason, then an act against the King. Fawkes managed to avoid the worst part. He threw himself off the scaffold, breaking his neck. He was dead when they cut off his privates, removed his guts, and chopped his body in pieces. 

The reason for this horrific proceeding, other than sheer sadism, was to teach a political lesson. Various body parts were hung up about the kingdom to warn people with similar ideas of their possible fate. The other plotters were killed resisting arrest. 

In 1606, Parliament passed an act making November 5 a day of thanksgiving. The celebrations often led to attacks on Catholics. This was true in British America  as well into the 19th century. But with the influx of Catholic immigrants in the 19th century, Halloween gradually replaced Bonfire Night as an autumn celebration. 

In the UK the act establishing a day of thanks giving was repealed in 1859 out of concern for Catholic sensibilities. But by then the lighting of bonfires on November 5 had become a firmly embedded tradition in most British communities. 

Anti-Catholic feelings remained part of the tradition for some decades, but gradually Bonfire Night became more focused on general fun and a bit of mischief. During the late 19th century that effigies of the Guy generally replaced ones of the Pope on the bonfires. But Lewes, Sussex continues to burn an effigy of Pope Paul V, who was pope in 1605. 

[Below: Guy Fawkes Night at Windsor Castle, 1776]

In many communities, children made The Guy, who was then processed to the place of "execution." The children would cry out "Penny for the Guy!" I recall doing it myself in Scotland as a child. 

[Below: Procession of a Guy, 1864].

[Below: Children with their Guy, Chirk, Wrexham, Wales, 1954]

Today Bonfire Night is a purely secular social event accompanied by fireworks and enjoyed by people of all religions and none. Few observers are likely to know the religious and political origins of the tradition.  

In a strange turn of events, many people now view Fawkes as a counter-culture hero for attacking the Establishment. Protestors often wear Guy Fawkes masks. Those who romanticize Fawkes should be aware that had the 36 barrels (2500 tons) of gunpowder under Parliament been detonated it would have destroyed everything up to 500 meters from the center of the explosion. 

This year, 2020, things will not be normal (surprise!) Many, perhaps most, communities will not be holding Bonfire Night events due to Covid-19. Better luck next year, Guy! 


Thursday, 15 October 2020

Trumpelstiltskin: A Grim Fairy Tale

Once upon a time there was a poor stockbroker named Jack Hammer. He was poor because he was a terrible predictor of stock futures. Verging on bankruptcy, he decided to employ his most valuable asset: his beautiful and intelligent daughter. 

One day at a brokers' meeting, he bragged to everyone that his daughter’s investment predictions were amazingly accurate.
Most of the brokers laughed and ignored him, given his record of stock predictions. But one man there did not: the Chairman of the Brokers’ Association. He came over and grabbed Hammer by the lapels of his jacket. 

“I would like to put your daughter's ability to the test. Bring her to my mansion tomorrow." He winked. "I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to such a nice girl.”

Hammer hurried home, cursing himself. His daughter was smart and had marvellous boobs, but knew nothing about predicting stock futures. 

She was horrified at his news. “This is insane! What am I going to do?" she asked, polishing her nails. "I don't know anything about this stuff.” 

Her father tried to calm her. “Just do your best. The worst thing the Chairman will do is fire you. He loves firing people.” Hammer feared something worse but decided to keep that to himself.

When the girl arrived at the Chairman’s gilded mansion, a servant led her to a room. It contained a bed and a desk. Behind the desk sat the leering Chairman, a porky man with a weird orange cast to his face, as if he had washed it in Cheetos. He sported a very long red tie.

He pointed to a pile of papers on the desk. “Rank these 10 stock prospectuses from first to worst. You have until tomorrow morning. If you get it right, I'll keep you on. If you get it wrong, you'll be fired.” 

Relieved, the girl replied, “I know. My Dad told me that.” The Chairman laughed. “I guess he didn’t tell you that here fired means fried, barbecued.”

He went out and locked her in the room. She looked around the room. Another door led to a bathroom featuring a golden toilet. Returning to the desk, she picked up the first prospectus. It was written in a language only brokers and investment lawyers would understand, the better to fleece the sheeple. 

She threw it down and began to cry. Just then, the door opened, and a little man entered. He looked like a Keebler Elf, but much less cute and far more chubby. In fact, he looked like a Mini-Me of the Chairman, from his strange orange glow to his tiny hands. The small man doffed his red cap, and bowed. “Good evening, young lady. Why do you weep so?”

She stifled a sob, pointing to the pile of reports. “I’ve got to rank these prospectuses from worst to first, or the Chairman will roast me. And I don’t know anything about stocks.” 

“No worries, my dear. I can help you. I know more than anybody about everything. But what will you give me if I succeed in saving you from the Chairman’s barbecue?”

“I will let you kiss me,” the girl said with modest reluctance. The little man looked downcast. “Only first base? OK, it’s a start.” He went over to the pile of prospectuses and began looking through them. Within minutes he had arranged them in what he said was the correct order. He bowed and grinned. “I’ll be back for my reward tomorrow,” he said, and left.

The next morning at the crack of dawn, as the girl slept, the Chairman entered the room. He grabbed up the prospectuses wordlessly and left. About half an hour later, he returned, and woke the girl. He had a glint in his eye. “My dear, you’re a genius at this. An astonishing performance.”

“Can I go home now?” the girl asked. “Home? Not yet, my pretty. I have another test for you.” He led her into another room, filled with piles of prospectuses.  “Rank these in the correct order by morning. Only 100. Piece of cake for you, I bet.”

The Chairman left. The girl began to cry, and cry, and cry. Her tears had almost soaked the prospectuses when she felt a tug on her sleeve. The little man in the red cap dried her tears and kissed her. 

“Now, my precious, would you like some help with this task?”  She nodded. “What will be my reward?” “Second base,” she said, drying her tears. The little man finished the task in no time at all and left.

The next morning the result was the same. The Chairman praised her brilliance, but said he had another test for her. “A mere 1000 this time, my precious.” That night the little man came again, and collected his reward. The girl begged for his help and promised him third base.

All went well again, but as you can guess, the greedy Chairman insisted on another test: 10,000 prospectuses. If she succeeded, he said, he would make her his wife. 

“But you’re already married,” she said. He laughed. “No problemo, my dear. You can be my mistress until I get rid of her -- a few million for a divorce settlement will do the job. You know how these immigrant women are. And I'll deduct the pay-out from my taxes.”

Before the girl could reply, the Chairman left. She began to cry again, a veritable flood. The little man soon appeared and collected his third base reward. "I'll help you one last time," he said, "but only in return for a home run." The girl hesitated. After all, she valued her honour. She began to cry again. 

The little man stamped his foot impatiently. He took some pity on her. “OK, he said, I’ll do this task for you. After that you’ll have three chances to guess my name. If you fail, you must reward me with a home run.” The girl hesitated, thought about roasting on the Chairman’s grill, and agreed.

When the Chairman checked the girl’s results the next morning, he repeated his usual praise. “I’m off to file the divorce papers now," he said, and pecked her on the cheek. 

That night the little man returned as promised. He put his tiny hands on his rather broad hips. “Well, what is my name?” The girl went through every name she could think of, from Aaron to Zachariah. “Not my name,” the little man said each time, and left.

The next day the girl begged the Chairman’s permission to go out shopping, for lingerie. “Of course, my sweet, but you must come back, or I’ll roast your father." She headed straight for a local bookshop to get a book of names. You know, the kind prospective parents get.

While she was perusing one of these books, a handsome young clerk sauntered up and asked if he could help her. She could tell immediately that he was the empathetic type, because the next thing he said was, “I have a degree in the humanities.” 

She explained her difficulty. His face clouded in outrage. “Don’t worry. I have a cunning plan,” he said. He explained it to the girl, who smiled and nodded. When the little man returned that night, she read out every name in the book. “Not my name” he said to each and left.

The third night, the little man appeared again, wearing a triumphant, lusty grin. “This is your last chance. What’s my name?” The girl replied, “Barrington?” The little man laughed. “Not my name.” The girl smiled. “Well, how about Trumpelstiltskin?” 

The little man's orange face turned red with anger. He stomped up and down. “You cheated, you harlot. How did you find out? The devil must have told you, or Nancy Pelosi.” At this point, a closet door opened with a loud creak.

The handsome young man stepped into the room, holding a gun. “I’ve been on to you for some time, you disgusting piece of slime. I may work at the bookstore, but that’s a clever disguise. I’m actually Dick Spacy, a private dick. I was hired by some of your previous victims. When this young lady told me her story, I knew I had you. One of my assistants followed you yesterday. He heard you singing that silly song about baking and brewing, and rejoicing that no one knew your name. But you made a fatal mistake. You foolishly revealed your name at the end of the song. By the way, that song won’t make the Top 40.”

While the young man expounded on his brilliance, he failed to notice that Trumpelstiltskin had moved closer to the young girl. With a lightning movement, Mr. T grabbed her left arm and pulled her in front of him, so that her posterior faced the young man. An astute move. It left Dick staring helplessly at that dazzling part of her anatomy. But the little fellow forgot about her other arm. The girl raised it above his head. It was holding a hammer. With amazing force, she brought it down on his skull. It cracked open like a poorly made knockoff Faberge egg. He dropped into a pool of blood.

As Dick and the girl checked to see that Trumpelstiltskin was down for good, the room door opened, revealing the portly frame of the Chairman. He looked at the body on the floor. “Villains! You have killed the second greatest genius in human history! Next to me, of course.”

“But he was using you to get his way with this girl,” Dick said.  

“Balderdash! We were working together on this caper. We arranged this whole thing. I didn’t give a junk bond about her predictive skill, which was non-existent. I was after something else." He pointed to the corpse. "So was he. Poor fellow. He should’ve stuck to call girls."

“And you dare call us villains!” Dick said. He stepped forward to grab the Chairman by the throat. But he slipped on the blood on the floor and stumbled to his knees. The Chairman grabbed a poker from the fireplace and raised it to hit Dick. As he did so, a hammer whistled through the air, followed by a loud crack. The Chairman fell forward, noiselessly, landing on Mr. T.

Dick got up, fixed his hair, and hugged the girl. “Mission accomplished. I saved you from these villains, as I promised.” He pointed toward the bed. “Now it’s time for my reward.” As he moved toward the bed, the hammer came up and down again. Dick crumpled and fell to the floor.

The girl surveyed the bloody scene with more satisfaction than the circumstances called for. She turned towards the audience.* “I know you’ve been dying to know my name. I'm not called Armanda Hammer for nothing."    

*NB. I forgot to mention that this was a play. 



Tuesday, 6 October 2020

My New-Found Love of Nature

"In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks." John Muir

As long as I can remember, I have been interested in the natural world. I always loved wandering about in the woods, hills, meadows, marshes. In my youth. years in the Scouts, vacations in northern Wisconsin, walks through the Forest Preserves of Chicago, all nurtured that feeling. 

When I went off to university, I decided to pursue a major in biology. My aim was vague: working in wildlife or forest management. Ultimately, it didn't matter. I ended up majoring in history. Eventually, I got a PhD and ended up a history professor. 

Over the years, new environments fascinated me: Appalachia, the Southern Lowcountry, Maine, the American West, Canada's Boundary Waters, Alaskan glaciers. Travels in Europe and Turkey reinforced my interests. (Below: Grouse and Salmon on Spawning Trek, Alaska)

But perhaps nothing in my life has made me appreciate nature more than two recent events: The climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic. These have awakened me as never before to the ways in which humans are endangering all living things on this planet. Both are related to human interactions with the natural environment. 

The pollution of the air and water, the destruction of natural habitats, the consumption of exotic wildlife: all these and more contribute to the present crises and the rapid extinction of animal and plant species. We are losing things that can never be replaced and reducing the biodiversity that is part of healthy ecosystems.  (Sea otters, near Seward. Alaska)

The coronavirus pandemic and the economic downturn it has in some ways distracted attention from these environmental crises. People say we have to focus on the immediate health and economic dangers. 

But Covid-19 has also heightened awareness of the inter-relationship of our health and that of the earth. Most obviously, because the virus may have begun to infect people in the vicinity of a wet market in Wuhan, China, where live wild animals are sold for human consumption. 

This scenario is by no means established, but the pandemic has highlighted the potential dangers of wet markets to health and biodiversity. Some animals sold in such markets, such as the pangolin, are endangered, although it is illegal to trade in them. Another, bats, are considered the most likely original source of the virus. The 2002 SARS outbreak originated in horseshoe bats and spread to civets. In that case wet markets were also implicated.

The pandemic has also focused attention on habitat destruction as a source of disease. As animal habitats shrink with deforestation and the draining of wetlands, they move into areas with dense human populations. And as human populations grow, they too move, encroaching on animal habitats. (Image: Urban fox, Carshalton, London)

One effect of these movements is that humans come into increasing contact with animals who could infect them with dangerous microbes. The reverse is also true. Humans could transmit deadly diseases to the animals.

The pandemic has also helped focus attention on the environmental crisis, by forcing many of us to self-isolate. For several weeks in the spring, I hardly went outside. Like many of us, I spent a lot of time watching TV. I watched a lot of nature programs, which often focused on the environmental and extinction crises. Thank you in particular to Sir David Attenborough and his crew.

When I began to venture outside, I headed into nature. I'm fortunate to live next to an ecology center and close to several parks and nature trails. I had enjoyed walking in these places before, but I now approached them with a new appreciation. 

I walked more slowly, stopping and observing more. I remembered a saying of John Muir: "I don't like the word [hike] or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains - not hike!"'

I saw things I'd never seen before. I learned the names of birds, insects, trees, flowers, and shrubs I never knew before. I began to see beauty I had ignored or acknowledged only in passing before. Most importantly, I realized what losing all this would mean, not only aesthetically, but for our very survival. (Image: Hedge Spider, Wandle Trail; Wildflower, Banstead Woods, Chipstead, Surrey)

When will we go back to normal? people ask. For our sake as well as that of nature, we must never go back to "normal." That is the road to perdition. (Fawn, Richmond Park, Southwest London)




Monday, 31 August 2020

The Peasants Strike Back

The people had had enough. Endless war, a deadly pandemic, and stagnant wages had pushed them to the edge of revolt. The actions of a selfish oligarchy took them over it. I could be writing about America in 2020, but the events in question took place in 14th century England.

England had been at war with France almost continuously since King Edward III laid claim to the French throne in the 1330s. Historians call the conflict the Hundred Years War, though no one called it that at the time, obviously. The fighting had favoured the English in the early going. They won several major victories, notably at Crecy in 1346 and at Poitiers ten years later. In a treaty of 1360 they gained control of large parts of France. In the 1370s, however, the war resumed and the French won back what they had lost and more. (Image: Battle of Crecy, 1346. Chronicles of Jean Froissart)

In 1376 England's greatest warrior Edward, the Black Prince, died of a lingering disease.. He was also heir to the English throne. His father Edward III died the following year. The crown passed to his son, ten year old Richard II. During the next few years, actual power was in the hands of councils dominated by overmighty nobles, including Richard's uncles. (Image: Richard II, portrait in Westminster Abbey, 1390s)

In order to pay for the French war, the government raised taxes. It introduced a new tax, a regressive poll tax. Attempts to collect the tax in May 1381 triggered a massive popular uprising. The causes of the revolt go far beyond hatred of the particular tax, however. Unrest and tension had been growing for decades. At its heart was the response of the ruling classes to the effects of the plague pandemic later known as the Black Death.

The plague arrived in England in 1348, having made its way along trade routes from the Far East. By 1349 it had killed between 40 and 60 per cent of the population. Plague returned in 1361, killing off another 20 per cent or so. One effect of this massive mortality was a severe shortage of labour. Peasants and other workers saw an opportunity to improve their condition. They demanded higher wages and an end to serfdom and other injustices.

The landed classes, the lords and gentry who dominated Parliament, responded with the Statute of Labourers (1351). That act essentially froze wages at their pre-plague levels. Although not entirely successful, it worked well enough to arouse widespread anger at the government and the aristocrats that controlled it. The sense of injustice contributed to the popularity of egalitarian ideologies.

The revolt broke out in Essex on May 30 with an attack on tax collectors. It spread quickly to Kent and much of the Southeast. The rebels, who included artisans and local officials, burned court records and emptied the jails. Thousands of Kentish rebels marched on nearby London, led by Wat Tyler and a radical priest, John Ball, whom the rebels had released from prison.

At Blackheath, near London, Ball famously exhorted the rebels to fight for equality. "When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?" he asked. "From the beginning all men were by nature created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of evil men ... now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may ... cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty." (Image: John Ball encouraging the rebels; Wat Tyler is in red at front left. Chronicles of Jean Froissart)

On June 13, sympathetic citizens admitted them into the capital. Together, they destroyed the Savoy Palace, residence of the king's hated uncle John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. They attacked the jails, burned buildings, and killed a number of government officials, including the Lord Chancellor and Lord High Treasurer. Richard II fled to the safety of the Tower of London.

On the 14th, Richard met the rebels representatives at Mile End and granted most of their demands, including the abolition of serfdom. On the following day he met them again. On this occasion, a melee that broke out, and the king's party killed Wat Tyler. (Image: The Death of Wat Tyler, Chronicles of Jean Froissart)

In the confusion that followed, Richard managed to calm the rebels and assure them he was on their side. "I am your captain, follow me," he is alleged to have said, and led them away from the scene. Meanwhile, the Lord Mayor of London rallied a militia and confronted the rebel forces. Richard urged them to disperse to their homes, which most did.

The rebellion continued in other places but the king's supporters suppressed it during the next few weeks and months. Richard rescinded his promises for change, including the abolition of serfdom. Most of the rebel leaders were hunted down and executed, along with about 1500 others.

The Great Revolt, or Peasants' Revolt, as it is more conventionally known, failed to win the rebels' immediate demands. Yet, the fright it gave to the ruling orders did help bring change. The poll tax was abandoned. Nothing like it was imposed again until the time of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. It also aroused mass outrage and was replaced in 1993 by the Council Tax.

Subsequent Parliaments were reluctant to raise taxes, making it difficult for the government to pay for campaigns in France. Serfdom was not abolished but gradually died out over the next few decades, as labour services were commuted into money rents.

Wages also rose, despite the Statute of Labourers. Economic laws proved stronger than the laws of Parliament. Between 1350 and 1450 wages nearly doubled. The 15th century has sometimes been called the Golden Age of the English Peasant. Unfortunately, these gains were lost by population growth in the 16th century.

The Peasants' Revolt has continued to fascinate historians, writers, artists, and musicians into our own times. In 1888, the artist, writer, and designer William Morris published a novel about the Great Revolt A Dream of John Ball. The work centres on Ball and his egalitarian ideology. Below is one of Morris's illustrations for the novel.