‘The White House’ – a cautionary novel

The White House – Now available on Kindle 

myles dungan final copy

 

Now available in paperback and on Kindle.

 

 

 

Here’s a slightly longer preview. Strictly between ourselves. Don’t tell anyone. 

 

 

PROLOGUE

 

A future, of sorts, in a barely tangential universe…

 

The spaniel heard the limo approach and stopped licking his testicles. Fleetingly it occurred to him not to bother giving chase. After all only vassals pursued cars, and he was a feudal Lord. A High King. But the limo was sleek, interminable and enigmatic. Despite the intense cold, and his aristocratic lethargy, the chance to assert his mastery over a chrome and steel Titan was irresistible.

Agamemnon had a rigid modus operandi when it came to chasing cars. Some dogs bark and never leave the kerb. But where was the fun in that? Aggie had an appetite for physical and moral hazard. He really should have been shorting the euro on Wall Street, with his dealer on speed dial.

Agamemnon—his human was a history professor— had inherited his technique from his mother, Athena. Her style was an homage to her own mater, Aphrodite. Both had long since made the journey across the Styx, aged, obese and diabetic, but unmarked by a single car track. So why try and reinvent the hubcap?

As the limo swept past, its black windows impenetrable, splashing brackish water onto the hedgerows of his County Meath domain, Agamemnon sprang into action. He was the Hound of the Baskervilles. He was Cujo. He was Vishnu’s familiar, Death, destroyer of tyres. At least he would be if he ever caught one.

He set off after the vehicle with a surprising turn of speed for an animal who, with a certain physiological inevitability, was tending towards the avoirdupois of his ancestors. His neglected skills quickly reasserted themselves and his enthusiasm for the chase mounted. As the limo approached a pair of imposing gates it slowed down and, to his astonishment, he began to gain ground. Then it stopped altogether. He now held the monstrous beast in thrall. For Agamemnon, the prospect of imminent victory posed a dilemma. He had no idea what to do next. What do you do with an overpowered Leviathan whose body parts were composed entirely of aluminium, rubber, glass, tungsten and PVC?

As Agamemnon pondered his next move, the door opened on the front passenger’s side. A man with a crew cut and designer sunglasses emerged. He began talking aggressively to his sleeve.

‘Hey, dumbass. Why isn’t the gate open? Godammit, POTUS is a sitting duck here.’

Agamemnon became excited at the mention of ducks. Then a rasping voice came from the driver’s seat.

‘Stop with the POTUS, Schmidt. We’re not even supposed to be here.’

‘Sorry sir,’ said the sleeve-talker. He resumed the tête-a-tête with his clothing. ‘Repeat. Golden Eagle is a sitting duck here.’

Agamemnon was puzzled. How could an eagle be a duck, he wondered? He knew he was only a dog, but still, the proposition sounded absurd. Sleevetalker, who clearly had an interest in birds, now approached the entrance and began to press the buttons of a silver pad on the gate’s pillar. After punching the same four keys half a dozen times he reached into an inside pocket, took something out, and pointed it at the pad. He spread his feet a shoulder length apart, extended his arms, and secured his right wrist with his left hand. Then he had second thoughts. He abandoned his awkward stance, reached his left hand into another inside pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. He studied it for a moment, then tried some more buttons. There was an immediate response.  A bored voice issued from the metallic grille underneath the buttons.

‘Welcome to Beltra Country Club, how can I help you?’

‘You can open these goddamn gates and get POT … Golden Eagle out of harm’s way, numbnuts.’

Just then the rear window of the limo opened a few inches and a new voice, strident and high-pitched, intervened. To the superstitious dog, it sounded like the whine of the Banshee. An anxious Agamemnon began to whimper and look around for an escape route.  ‘What the merry fuck is going on here?’ rat-tat-tatted the Banshee. ‘Is this a negotiation?’

‘Did you hear that, asshole?’ Sleevetalker shouted at the pillar. There was a smooth whirring noise and the gates began to open. The engine of the car started up again. As it did so, Agamemnon feared that his quarry was about to elude him. Before Golden Eagle had time to disappear the black spaniel cocked his leg and urinated on the gleaming hubcap of the limo’s rear wheel.  Then the vehicle sped off down what looked to Aggie like an interesting driveway, one with lots of rabbit holes to either side and no obvious badger setts—badgers were trouble. Contented with his lot the little dog strutted back down the country road. He was returning home for another session with a copy of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.  It belonged to his history professor and, so far, hadn’t been missed. He had already chewed his way through a superior chapter on the gruesome reign of the guillotine and the depredations of Robespierre.

 

BOOK ONE – THE SEA

‘Cast thy bread upon the waters …’

Ecclesiastes 11:1

That smug patrician, Adrian Breakspear, had plenty to smirk about, thought President Trout. His face must be permanently fixed in one of his lop-sided leers. It was as if he had conjured the waters himself, like some tweedy Anglo-Irish Sea God. This thought, however fanciful, served to increase Trout’s agitation. He imagined Breakspear, a flop-haired Neptune, directing the acquiescent waves of the Irish sea, across the sands of Beltra beach, towards the fescue grass of the ‘White House’ green.

‘There must be some sort of blacklist I can put the bastard on?’ the President mused, staring vacantly out the window of the Oval Office at the bare branches of the crabapple trees in the Rose Garden. They were being pruned by a small army of well-muffled gardeners.

While he doodled on yet another unread daily CIA briefing, Trout couldn’t help feeling that, in spite of everything, Breakspear might ultimately have triumphed. The thought exasperated him. All the more so because the Breakspears, in all their horsey decrepitude, had oozed buttery condescension.  They liked to remind everybody that they were descended from the only English Pope. They had seized the Beltra lands by force majeure after their saintly ancestor sent his fellow countrymen to invade Ireland in 1169. In the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that the natives hadn’t taken kindly to the Breakspears. The disdain was entirely mutual and the twain rarely met. An inevitable consequence was centuries of spectacular in-breeding, exemplified by the ubiquity of the famous Breakspear unibrow. While their neighbours were impervious to the Breakspear pheromones, they had a stimulating effect within the extended family. Such a rate of consanguinity meant it was inevitable that a genetic glitch—someone like Adrian— would eventually lose the plot. In fact, he had managed to squander all four thousand acres of it.

Only someone as hapless as a Breakspear, however, Trout pondered with quiet satisfaction, could have fallen foul of pirates in the 21stcentury. Adrian had wagered the entire County Meath estate on a precarious Lloyds syndicate, being spectacularly mismanaged by some of his chinless old Etonian schoolmates. In 2010 the consortium took one punt too many on the insurance of cargo ships sailing off the Horn of Africa. The Breakspears, who had survived the Black Death, Cromwell, the Land League, a plethora of IRAs, and a substantial shareholding in Anglo Irish Bank, finally succumbed to Somali buccaneers with speedy motor boats, garish headbands, and a persuasive arsenal.

Then, from the west, a white knight had galloped to the rescue. Tyrone Trout was a humble New York billionaire hedge fund manager. He had amassed his wealth by failing to lose the entire fortune bequeathed him by his father, and by avoiding tax like most avoid stepping in dog shit. The Fall of the House of Breakspear had coincided with an epidemic of status anxiety on Wall Street. Clifton Cathcart III had begun the stampede of bankers and traders anxious to avoid the social stigma associated with the failure to acquire some heavily encumbered Irish real estate. Warren Buffet’s tide had gone out, and Ireland’s bankers had been caught swimming in the altogether. Wall Street’s Finest were snapping up Irish properties like crocodiles. If the degenerate Cathcart was buying Irish, then so was Tyrone Bentley Trout. The acquisition of the Beltra demesne (‘fabulous sea views, ripe for development’ – Real Estate Alliance) became a sacred mission.

Trout successfully gazumped an attempted purchase by the Irish state, when he offered the Breakspears twice what the Office of Public Works couldn’t afford anyway. This minor coup had added the all-important hint of lemon juice to his mayonnaise. The word ‘public’ offended him, and he had promised his billionaire father on the latter’s death bed that he would never flinch in the fight against briefcase socialism. What clinched his triumph was the ‘sweetheart’ deal he dangled before the Breakspears. The family could remain in situ in Beltra House, while their knight errant doffed his armour and constructed two championship golf courses in the demesne land around them.

Breakspear and Trout had sealed the transaction with a gentlemanly handshake. Unhappily for Breakspear, however,  he neglected to count his fingers after pressing the flesh. Had Trout been a man of his word he would have been a mere hedge fund millionaire.

The official photographer who recorded the happy event had difficulty framing his shot. The Anglo-Norman Breakspear was tall and slender, yet to manifest the famous family stoop. The cross-bred Trout was squat. His father and mother had been squat, his younger brother was squatter still. Trout was also a sixty-something, cantankerous, florid alpha male who liked to tell photographers—and most other service providers—how to do their jobs. Trout’s priority was a favourable camera angle, this was essential to avoid drawing unnecessary public attention to the jaw-dropping wig whose very existence he consistently denied.

At first, the deal had worked unexpectedly well for the Breakspears. The discovery of a thriving colony of protected whorl snails on their former estate delayed the start of course construction. After a congenial visit to New York, however, the incumbent Taoiseach, Austin Purcell, had come to see things from the billionaire’s point of view. His considered judgment was that having a ‘signature’ Trout leisure development in Ireland was well worth the inconvenience of flouting the European Union Habitats Directive—at a cost to the state of €20,000 a day.  There were unpalatable, and unprovable rumours that Purcell had been well recompensed for his own inconvenience.

Having now accounted for the wildlife, Trout had built his two Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses—Beltra (Links) and Beltra (Park)—while the Breakspears slumbered. But as soon as the designer’s helicopter had taken to the air at the end of the exhibition match marking the opening of the two courses, the Breakspears had been unceremoniously shunted out. A couple of ostentatious suits of armour were imported for the lobby and their Beltra mansion became a ‘Blue Book’ country house hotel, specialising in upmarket weddings.

After their humiliating eviction, there was one final, despairing throw of the dice from the Breakspears. A shadowy organisation calling itself the New Irish Land League emerged from the snooker room of the Merrion Street Club to fight the eviction. In response, Trout International hired half a dozen sinewy members of the Drogheda Mixed Martial Arts club to act as their champions. Facing a dialogue with six ‘wannabe’ Conor McGregors, the New Irish Land League had discretely ‘called stumps’ and had never been heard of again.

Then, just a few weeks after the disaster of the Presidential victory, came more bad news from Ireland. Nature had chosen to demonstrate its abhorrence of a vacuum, and its support for climate change science, by sending a tempest against his property. The ‘signature’ seventeenth hole of Beltra (Links) had been in the eye of the storm. This was Nicklaus’s personal favourite. He had named it the ‘White House’ in honour of Trout’s maverick run for the Presidency. After an impressive winter storm, all that remained of his verdant ‘White House’ was a partially submerged flagstick. Even this had quickly been claimed by an enterprising souvenir hunter in a kayak.  Defying the wishes of the Secret Service, Trout, in the midst of the presidential transition, had gone to have a look for himself. What he saw on his clandestine mission dismayed him. Having started life as a classic dogleg left—with three fairway bunkers in the shape of a shamrock—the ‘White House’ was now an expensive water hazard.

Trout recalled to mind a lesson that his father had once taught him after ‘Junior’ had crashed one of ‘Senior’s’ Mercs. Someone would pay for the damage, and it was not going to be Daddy.

 

 

Edward Rothko, United States Commerce Secretary, was a trim, elegant, vigorous looking athlete of early middle age. The former merchant banker was a grizzled, non-smoking, Marlboro’ Man, squeezed into the sharpest of Armani suits. In his previous life, for which he was beginning to yearn already, he had haunted the gym of the New York Athletic Club. His daily 6.00 a.m. workout—always accompanied by two competing personal trainers—was the chisel that had chipped out the angles and shallow recesses of his attenuated face. He liked to think of his body as a temple, though, in truth, it was little more than a modest synagogue.  He encouraged both Angelo and Jalen to call him ‘The Beast of the Bourse’ hoping that the nickname would reach the executive washrooms of Wall Street. So far, it hadn’t caught on, and now that he had relocated to DC he would have to start from scratch.

The Presidential Transition Team had plucked him from Price Waterhouse Cooper and deposited him in a swimming pool-sized office on 1401 Constitution Avenue, a few blocks from the White House. Rothko had sat beside a Stanford academic at Trout’s inauguration. She chatted about the charms of eugenics, the elegance of the Bell curve, and her loathing for John Maynard Keynes (‘I’m told he was a compulsive onanist!’), while Rothko shivered in the dry freezing air and wondered what an onanist was. So far he had spent the first three days of his tenure doing little more than conducting job interviews with beetle-browed economists far to the right of the late Milton Friedman while nursing his attendant migraine, and sneaking a nostalgic look at the Hang Seng Index on Bloomberg TV. His tightening hamstrings reminded him of how much he missed Angelo and Jalen.

Today he had been peremptorily summoned to the White House. He had been greeted on his arrival at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue by the carnivorous Buchanan. Trout’s sentinel handed him a (temporary) laminated White House pass.

‘The first of many, I’m sure,’ said the Chief of Staff jovially, in the manner of one of Pavlov’s dogs who has heard a bell ring. The man made Rothko nervous, and it wasn’t just the infamous black eye patch either. The cadaverous Buchanan always looked as if he hadn’t eaten for weeks, and was sizing you up as a potential snack. He had, thought Rothko, the balls of Satan, and the charms of a funnel web spider.

‘Any idea what this is about?’ Rothko inquired, trying not to sound too diffident. He was, after all, tenth in line of succession to the Oval office. He’d looked it up on Wikipedia before agreeing to take the job.

‘It must be about you, I suppose. Just be yourself,’ replied Buchanan unhelpfully. ‘And an occasional display of fawning deference wouldn’t go amiss.’

The laconic Chief of Staff had then ushered Rothko into the Oval office without offering any further enlightenment.  As he entered the room the Commerce Secretary detected a musky but vaguely familiar odour. Trout was finishing off what looked like a helping of chicken nuggets. Rothko hadn’t seen a chicken nugget face to face since finishing a teenage internship in a Brooklyn McDonald’s at the insistence of his autocratic father. He immediately understood why the White House Chef had already handed in his notice.

Rothko was motioned by the Falstaffian Trout, his mouth brimming with capon, towards the opposite side of the huge Oval Office Resolute desk. The proffered seat looked extraordinarily like an electric chair with truncated legs. When the Secretary sat, his head barely appeared above the top of the oaken writing table. He was looking almost directly into a carving of a bald eagle with an E Pluribus Unum scroll billowing from its beak.

Without swallowing the remnants of his lunch the President had dived right in,  berating his Secretary of Commerce for obscure sins of omission. Rothko did his best to be sycophantic but lacked any bearings. Worse still he became fatally distracted by a sliver of white chicken lodged between the President’s yellowing upper incisors. He studied it attentively as the rant continued, wondering when it would dislodge. Should he say something? What if the President’s next meeting involved lots of hand-holding and congenial grins?  Deflected from the message by the medium, he missed the thrust of the President’s diatribe. He gathered that vital American commercial interests in Ireland were at stake, but then became confused by militaristic references to ‘flags’ and ‘bunkers’. His bewilderment had accumulated just enough octane to fuel an interruption when the President curtailed his tirade to swallow a mouthful of something dark and bubbly from a red aluminium can. It had no effect on the sliver of chicken, which still clung to greatness.

‘I’m sorry Mr. President but I wasn’t aware that we had bases in the Republic of Ireland,’ the Secretary ventured. His speech was so rapid that he feared his sudden lack of diffidence might be construed as insubordination. His dental preoccupation also meant that he had no inkling what a military crisis in the North Atlantic had to do with the Commerce Department.

Trout grunted, opened a drawer and produced a toothpick. A tsunami of relief washed over the Commerce Secretary. He was off the orthodontic hook.

‘Who said anything about military bases?’ hissed Trout ‘ We’re discussing an endangered American facility on Irish soil – soil, I might add, which is eroding at an alarming rate and is rearranging the boundaries of a US overseas dependency.’

‘Eh … overseas dependency Mr. President?’

‘Yeh! Like Guam … or Hawaii. US sovereign territory is shrinking by the day and the Commerce Department is doing nothing about it.’

Just then Rothko felt a sharp pain in the meaty part of his right thigh. He jerked upwards. He’d been correct about the chair, he thought. There must be a button under the desk. How many more volts did Trout have at his disposal? The first jolt had only been a warning. Then, looking down, he spied what appeared to be a matted blob of orange marmalade perched on his lap. It had flamboyant whiskers and two malevolent walleyes.

‘Aww,’ murmured Trout affectionately, ‘I see you’ve made friends with Supreme Court.’

‘The Supreme Court, sir?’ Rothko was, by now, so far out to sea that he might have been a minor character in a Patrick O’Brian novel.

‘Not THE Supreme Court, you moron. MY Supreme Court. The cat sitting in your lap. A magnificent specimen, don’t you think?’ purred Trout.

Rothko couldn’t have agreed less, barring the probability that Supreme Court’s magnificence could be measured in litres of pure evil.  While Rothko eyed the cat warily, and surreptitiously rubbed his smarting thigh, the President had returned to the matter in hand.

‘You’re my Commerce Secretary, right? Rubenstein … or something like that.’

‘Rothko, sir.’

The President looked at him with sudden interest.

‘Rothko … didn’t my wife—not this one … Number Two … the one with the weird accent—buy some piece of crap painting from you, for my kitchen?’

‘I think you’re mistaken Mr Pres—’

‘You’re right. Maybe it’s the one in the john. Lots of straight lines and boxes.’

‘I think you’ll find …’

‘Doesn’t matter. Moved on already. So you ARE my Commerce secretary …?’

‘Absolutely, sir. However, might I suggest, Mr President, that this may not be within my bailiwick?’ He considered making a joke about waging a trade war but thought better of it. He had already heard rumours about how policy was being made in the Oval Office.

Trout speared a post-it note on his desk with the toothpick. He began to twirl it between thumb and index finger as if it was a square yellow cocktail umbrella.

‘Your … bailiwick?’ he inquired, menacingly. Too late, Rothko remembered that Trout had no grasp of multisyllabic English. He spoke what he called ‘American’, and carved short cuts through language like a Deliveroo cyclist.  Rothko took a deep breath and tried again. ‘My province.’ And again. ‘My sphere of responsibility.’ A slight upward movement of Trout’s jowls indicated that he had finally understood. Rothko wondered whether it was the ‘province’ or the ‘sphere’ that had captured the heights.

‘So, who do I need to talk to that can put the shits up the Irish?’ asked the President, stabbing the air with the toothpick, which, to the Secretary’s dismay, had yet to be applied to the purpose for which it was designed.

‘Probably the Secretary of State, Mr President.’

‘State? That scrawny motherfucker. Maybe I should just go straight to the Joint Chiefs of Staff?’

‘That might be a shade provocative, don’t you think, Mr President? I don’t believe Ireland has much of a standing army worth talking about.’

Trout laid the toothpick on the table and opened a second drawer. From this to Rothko’s surprise, he produced a packet of cigarettes and proceeded to light one. Instinctively the Commerce Secretary’s eyes sought out the nearest smoke alarm. Trout intercepted the glance and smirked.

‘They’re all gone. Sprinklers too. Obama got rid of them. Sly bastard.’

Rothko smiled wanly. That explained the strange but oddly familiar aroma, he thought.

‘OK, we’re done here,’ barked Trout. ‘You can go now. Put down Supreme Court and send in Buchanan. Chop chop!’

As Rothko gingerly extracted himself from underneath the ginger tom and beat a welcome retreat, the President suddenly changed his mind and called him back. With a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, Rothko returned to the huge oaken desk, by now denuded of everything other than a phone, a hideously mutilated post-it note, and a leaf of discarded iceberg lettuce from the President’s chicken nuggets that had been pressed into service as an ashtray.

Rothko knew instinctively that he was about to be fired. Angelo and Jalen beckoned. He wondered what the previous record was for the shortest tenure as Commerce Secretary.

‘I remember now’, said Trout. In his head, Rothko was already composing his resignation letter. Abrupt or apologia? Terse and enigmatic, he decided. Mostly verbs.

‘It was the john,’ said Trout, thoroughly pleased with himself.

‘Eh … what was, sir?’

‘Where I hung that painting of yours. The reason I remember is that bar a couple of random lines of beige, it was the colour of shit.’

With a flourish, he extracted the sliver of chicken with the nail of his index finger, studied it for a moment, returned it to his mouth, and swallowed it.

As the last shard of Presidential nugget slipped down the Commander in Chief’s throat he turned his attention, once again, to the man he took to be an abstract expressionist.

‘Do you play golf?’ he asked.

 

 

 

Fake Histories #46     Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ was the first ‘non-fiction novel’ to win the Pulitzer Prize

 

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‘I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.’

That was the chilling testimony of executed murderer Perry Smith, who, along with his accomplice, Richard Hancock, was responsible for the homicide of four people on 15 November, 1959. Although the crime was infamous when it was committed sixty years ago, we would probably have forgotten it by today were it not for that fact that the brutal killing of the Cutler family of Holcomb, Kansas was recorded in the modern classic In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

The basic facts of the case are as simple as they are distressing. Smith and Hancock had just been released from Kansas State Penitentiary. They been tipped off by a fellow inmate that the remote Cutler farm housed a safe which contained large amounts of cash. In the early hours of the morning of 15 November 1959 they broke into the farmhouse, failed to locate the safe—because it didn’t exist—murdered Herb and Bonnie Cutler and their teenage children Nancy and Kenyon. Herb Cutler had his throat cut, as Smith described, the others were shot in the head. Smith and Hancock got away with a total of $50. Fingered by the very Kansas prison inmate who had identified the Cutlers as easy targets, Smith and Hancock were arrested and tried in March 1960. Both pleaded temporary insanity, both were pronounced sane. Their jury took less than an hour to find the two men guilty. After five years on ‘Death Row’ they were hanged in April 1965.

Enter Capote. There is a difference of opinion—one of many when it comes to In Cold Blood—over why, precisely, Truman Capote travelled to Kansas in 1960 to cover the story. He claimed he was prompted by an account of the killings in the New York Times and that he undertook research for the book on his own initiative. Another version suggests he was simply assigned to the story by the New Yorker magazine, where the book was first serialised in four parts in 1965. One thing is certain, Capote did not travel to Kansas alone. He took a young female friend with him, Nelle Lee, figuring she might be able to help when it came to extracting information from the people of Holcomb. As it happened she was working on a book of her own at the time, unconnected to the Clutter family murders.

Capote set about interviewing locals in Holcomb and, when Smith and Hancock were awaiting execution, manged to secure access to both of them as well. He assembled more than eight thousand pages of notes. It took him five years to hammer out what he described as his ‘immaculately factual’ novel, In Cold Blood. The book first appeared in 1966 after the publication the previous year of the four New Yorker articles. It was immediately hailed as a ground-breaking masterpiece. It still ranks as the second highest-selling ‘true crime’ book in history (after Vincent Bugliosi’s account of the Charles Manson murders Helter Skelter). It has never been out of print in five decades.

But, as to its ‘immaculately factual’ pretensions? Not so, according to numerous sources, unless Capote redefined the meaning of the word ‘factual’ just as he pushed out the boundaries of non-fiction writing. His version of events has been challenged frequently, often by some of the central participants, who are included in the novel. There is, for example, evidence to suggest that Capote may have been too quick to take Richard Hancock at his word in an eagerness to highlight the utter senselessness of the killings. Contemporary investigators were of the opinion, but were unable to prove, that Hancock and Smith had been hired to murder Herb Cutler. It was a banal and squalid ‘hit’ rather than an inexplicably brutal slaying. Not so great for psychodrama.

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However, despite the prodigious commercial and artistic success of In Cold Blood it did not earn Capote a Pulitzer Prize in 1966, much to the surprise of the literati and to his own personal chagrin. So, that’s fake history. There was, however, one Pulitzer prize associated with the research trip for the novel. You remember Capote’s friend Nelle Lee? She’s probably better known by her middle name, Harper. While Capote was trying to make sense of his notes she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961 for her first novel. It’s called To Kill a Mockingbird. It hasn’t been out of print for six decades!

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Fake Histories #44  The GAA was founded at a large and well-attended public meeting in Thurles in 1884?

 

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Today is the Gaelic Athletic Association’s birthday. The organisation has reached the grand old age of one hundred and thirty-five, boasts around half a million members worldwide and has probably done more for rural Ireland than electricity. In addition to the obvious sports of football (men’s and women’s), hurling, camogie and handball the organisation also administers a rather less visible pastime … any guesses?

Well done to whoever said ‘rounders’, which, some day, someone will definitively establish is a) Irish in its origins – we certainly set the first official rules  b) the grandparent of modern baseball.

It’s astonishing to think that, at one point, the entire membership of the GAA could fit in the billiard room of a family hotel! You can still see the hotel any time you walk down the main street of Thurles, County Tipperary. The Hayes Hotel is, understandably, very proud of its seminal association with organised Gaelic games. However, it’s hardly likely that, back in 1884 the Hayes family would have had any idea the inconvenience caused to their regular billiard players, when an odd bunch of people hired the room for the night, would be well worth it.

Of course the games themselves long predated the establishment of an organisation to administer them. Hurling, as anyone in Tipperary will tell you proudly, existed in their county, before the first Kilkennyman climbed down from the trees and learned to walk on two legs. In Kilkenny, where they have only recently become aware of the existence of the ancient sport of Gaelic football, they will inform you that ‘the sport played with the larger ball’ (which is how they refer to it) is an unsuccessful adaptation of faction fighting. They will also insist that no one from Tipperary knows what they’re talking about.

Raise the subject with a Kerryman and he’ll tap his nose,  whisper the word ‘Sam’, and smiling enigmatically. The official Cork GAA website reckons the Thurles meeting was really only a scoping exercise and that the real inauguration was in Cork on 27 December! A Meathman will direct you to the GAA’s own website where you will be informed that ‘the earliest records of a recognised precursor to modern Gaelic football date from a game in County Meath in 1670, in which catching and kicking the ball were permitted.’ Eat your hearts out Dubs!

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It was the Clare man, Michael Cusack, himself a huge cricket fan apparently, who decided that our ancient sports (including rounders) needed to have their rules properly codified. It was no accident that they chose 1 November to establish the new Gaelic Athletic Association for the Preservation and Cultivation of National Pastimes—thankfully they dropped the bit after ‘Association’. The date had a mythological significance as the ancient feast of Samhain, positioned half way between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. Cusack may also have had a vague notion that the date would mark the beginning of the off-season. I wonder how that one worked out?

Right from its birth the GAA was much more than a mere sporting organisation. It was its close affiliation to extreme nationalist politics that almost caused its undoing. Back in the nineteenth century Irish Republican Brotherhood never managed to find a cultural association it didn’t want to infiltrate. Such was its overt influence within the GAA that the organisation began to haemorrhage members, and almost foundered. But you would have to say that it’s recovered pretty well since then.

Back to the contents of that billiard room on 1 November 1884. It’s a bit like the GPO during Easter week 1916, no one is absolutely sure who exactly was there. Definitely among those present were the seven acknowledged founder members of the GAA. These included Cusack, Maurice Davin—who presided over proceedings—two journalists, John Wyse Power from Waterford and Belfastman John McKay, a local politician J.K.Bracken (ironically, he was the father of Churchill’s ‘bestie’ Brendan Bracken), local solicitor Joseph O’Ryan and, mirabile dictu, a district inspector of the excessively unpopular Royal Irish Constabulary, Thomas St. George McCarthy, clearly included because they desperately needed someone from Kerry. Later, Cusack acknowledged that a Nenagh man, Frank Moloney, also wielded a billiard cue on that fateful night, though he tends to be overlooked. Local newspaper reports also mention six other men, mostly from Thurles, as being among those present.

You might assume that an organisation of the stature of the Gaelic Athletic Association was established at a really well-attended public meeting in Thurles in 1884, which, for the record, started at 3.00 p.m. But no, that’s fake history. The fact is, back then, they all fitted around a billiard table. But look at them now! Happy birthday to the GAA.

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FH#42  Did Al Capone kill three men personally with a baseball bat, as depicted in the film The Untouchables?

 

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Today is the anniversary of the conviction, in 1931, of the notorious Chicago gangster Alphonse ‘Scarface’ Capone. He was famous for aphorisms like, ‘you can get much further with a kind word, and a gun, than you can with a kind word alone’. He was probably also responsible for the deaths of more than thirty fellow human beings. Did he go down for murder? Was he sentenced to a stretch in Federal prison for racketeering? Did he even end up in Alcatraz Prison on San Francisco bay for bootlegging? None of the above. Famously he went to jail for tax evasion. Al Capone was, in the eyes of the law, a white collar criminal.

‘I am like any other man. All I do is supply a demand’ he once said. And this simple businessman, with the ethics of Wall Street banker and the sensibilities of a shark with a taste for Bondi Beach surfers, took advantage of America’s Prohibition legislation of the 1920s to make a huge fortune for himself and others.

In 1925 at the tender age of twenty-six Capone took over illegal breweries on Chicago’s south side, and a liquor distribution operation that stretched as far as the Canadian border. Capone, whose mantra was ‘I just give people what they want’, became something of a folk hero in an era where millions of drinkers were happy to encourage the flouting of an utterly senseless law. He encouraged and clearly enjoyed the attention of the media, including the new medium of radio. Basing himself in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, where he controlled local politics, Capone quickly became a national celebrity. His only rival was an Irish-American gang led by a lesser hoodlum named Bugs Moran, which dominated organised crime on the north side of the city.

While local and Federal prosecutors took an interest in Capone, he also managed to bribe countless public officials and policemen. He made things difficult for investigators by never registering any property in his own name. This was despite the fact that he owned a mansion in Miami where he spent more and more time in the late 1920s. He also never opened a bank account, though I suppose that probably looked quite clever after the Wall Street Crash.

Capone’s hold on the Chicago criminal underworld was abetted by the accession to the office of mayor of ‘Big’ Bill Thompson, a man who never saw a bribe he didn’t like. Capone allegedly bankrolled Big Bills 1927 campaign to the tune of $250,000 – a huge sum of money back then.

Capone’s most notorious ‘hit’ came on 14 February 1929, the so-called St Valentine’s Day massacre!

Bugs Moran’s HQ was a warehouse and garage at 2122 North Clark Street. On the morning of 14 February a group of policemen showed up to raid the premises. Except that they weren’t cops, they were Capone’s gunmen. They lined up the seven occupants of the warehouse (one of whom was not even a member of Moran’s gang) and opened fire, killing all seven in the most horrendous crime of the Prohibition era.

            The killings quickly shattered any aura of romance or begrudging tolerance of Capone’s activities, after photographs of the slain mobsters were published in local and national papers. Scarface, so-called because of an old knife wound, had overreached himself.  Law enforcement in Chicago and Florida now began to harass Capone and threaten his operation

His ultimate downfall, however, was due to a 1927 Supreme Court ruling that illegal earnings were subject to income tax just like all legitimate earnings – evidence was adduced, in a 1931 Federal trial, of Capone’s massive spending, and in October of that year he was convicted of tax evasion, sentenced to eleven years in jail, fined $50,000 and found liable for the payment of more than $200,000 in back taxes and interest.  He served the first part of his sentence in a Federal prison in Atlanta, where he was also officially diagnosed with syphilis and gonorrhoea

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He was later transferred to Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, the high security Federal prison, becoming, after the Birdman, Robert Stroud, the facility’s most famous inmate.  When he was released in 1939, already in the advanced stages of syphilis, he headed for Florida where he died in his mansion in 1947.

Capone is believed to have been involved in the deaths of thirty-three men between 1923 and 1930, including the seven Valentine’s Day Massacre victims. Despite suggestions, in the Brian de Palma film, The Untouchables, that he personally beat three men to death with a baseball bat, it is unlikely that he actually killed any of the thirty-three himself. That’s fake history.

 

 

Fake Histories #40  Katharine O’Shea was a British spy whose job was to destroy Parnell?

 

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Next Sunday is the hundred and twenty eighth anniversary of the death of the so-called ‘Uncrowned King of Ireland’ Charles Stewart Parnell. The honorary title is ironic as the man who conferred it on him in 1880, Timothy Healy MP, played a huge part in consigning Parnell to an early grave at the age of forty-five on 6 October 1891.

The waspish Healy had long since fallen out with his aloof and arrogant party leader before he got his opportunity to bring his animosity out in the open. This was handed to him, neatly tied up with silk ribbons, by Parnell himself, after the Irish party leader’s citation as co-respondent in the divorce of William and Katharine O’Shea.

This allowed Healy to give full reign to his vitriol in the pivotal five day meeting in Committee Room Fifteen at Westminster where Parnell’s continued leadership of the Irish Parliamentary party was being debated by its MPs in December 1890. At one point in that marathon internecine squabble Parnell squarely addressed the issue at stake by demanding pointedly ‘Who is the master of the party?’. To which Healy responded ‘Aye, but who is the mistress of the party?’ Legend has it that Parnell had to be physically restrained from assaulting his tormentor.

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In the months that followed the inevitable split in the ranks of the party, at every opportunity, Healy would refer to Katharine O’Shea—even after she and Parnell married—as ‘Kitty’ O’Shea. It’s the name by which many people know her today. But back in late Victorian Britain and Ireland the word ‘Kitty’ had an entirely different connotation. It was one of the many nicknames for a prostitute, and fed into the prurience of the political opponents of Parnell in the months before his death.

Such was the devastation the entire affair caused to Parnell’s political career, and the damage it did to any hopes of Home Rule for another generation, that many contemporaries of the nationalist leader, both supporters and opponents, wondered, and openly claimed, that Katharine O’Shea and her pompous, self-aggrandising, cuckolded husband, William, had been agents of the British, expressly charged with the task of destroying the threat posed by the biggest Irish nuisance to the British establishment since Daniel O’Connell. The entire affair, so the allegation went, had been whistled up by the Tory establishment to discredit and disrupt the forces of Irish constitutional nationalism.

It has to said, if this were true, then the O’Sheas were very good at their jobs. Double Oh Seven himself would have been proud to be numbered among their successors. Bringing Parnell down was a masterstroke, but killing him off was the coup de grace. There are no comebacks from the grave.

There is no doubt that both the O’Shea’s were well connected. Husband and wife, at different times, would have had dealings with the British Prime Minister William E. Gladstone. But the circumstances of the downfall of the Irish leader who, by 1890, was a staunch ally of the Liberal Prime Minister, were almost as much of an embarrassment to Gladstone as they were to the Irish party. That’s why it has to be a diabolical Tory plot.

The problem with that scenario is, when Parnell and Katharine met, and embarked on their ten-year affair, the Tories had just been tossed out of office. They didn’t get a whiff of power for another five years and thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle of Parnell baiting Gladstone and the Liberals for most of their period in opposition. Until they got back into government, in 1886, five years after the affair began, they would have had no interest whatever in shaming of humiliating Parnell by exposing his relationship with a married woman.

Which leaves us with the Victorian ‘deep state’, the shadowy institution that lives forever, irrespective of who is in power. It’s tempting to believe anything of an establishment that, because of its many mansions, and competing agents provocateurs,  succeeded, in 1887, in exposing a plot against the life of Queen Victoria which its own agents had concocted in the first place. But there’s not a shred of evidence for this proposition. In addition to which anyone even vaguely familiar with William O’Shea is always astonished that he was able to put on his own boots every morning. A former military type, he was always at least one brigade short of a division.

And anyone familiar with the relationship between Parnell and Katharine O’Shea would never accept that it was based on a treacherous deception.

So, even though one is prone to believe William O’Shea capable of almost anything, is it possible that he and his wife were British spies given the onerous chore of destroying Charles Stewart Parnell? Not a hope. That’s fake history.

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Fake Histories #39  Were all Model T Ford’s black, as dictated by Henry Ford?

 

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September 27 is a red letter day for transport. Two significant events took place, eighty-three years apart, that revolutionised and democratised the way we get around. In 1825 George Stephenson’s Locomotion Number One became the first steam engine to carry passengers on a public line, the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Within a decade, such was the pace of technological progress, it was obsolete. In the interim, however, it had killed one of its drivers when the boiler exploded in 1828.

The second transportive event, which took place on this date, happened in 1908. That was the appearance of the first ever Model T Ford, which emerged shiny and new from the Piquette motor plant in Detroit, Michigan. It was revolutionary for a number of reasons. Prior to the introduction of the Model T, cars were items beyond the merely luxurious. They were handcrafted, expensive to purchase and costly to maintain. At a stroke Ford’s new brand swept all of that away. The Model T was produced on an assembly line, in far greater numbers than any of its competitors, and was relatively cheap and low maintenance for its time. In his 1922 autobiography My Life and Work, Henry Ford outlined his vision for the Model T. He wrote …

‘ I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one …’

One of the things Ford wanted, for example, was that men who worked on the assembly lines of the Model T could actually afford to buy one themselves. To realise this objective it greatly helped that they were paid a decent wage at a time when industrial unrest was rife and America’s ‘robber baron’ industrialists were often reliant on the National Guard to break strikes.

In its first year of production a modest ten thousand, six hundred and sixty Model T’s were sold. Sales figures doubled the following year and had really taken off by 1917 when almost three quarters of a million units were sold worldwide. The model’s best year was 1923, when Ford shifted around two million of them. Some of those would have been manufactured in the company’s plant in Cork which opened in 1917 to make tractors, but began producing cars in 1921.

But were all fifteen million of them exactly the same colour? Did Henry Ford actually say, ‘You can have any colour you like, as long as it’s black’. The answer to the first question is, ‘no’. As regards the latter question, indeed he did. Once again you need look no further than his autobiography for confirmation. This is how he describes the moment.

‘In 1909 I announced one morning, without any previous warning, that in the future         we were going to build only one model, that the model was going to be the “Model    T,” and that the chassis would be exactly the same for all cars, and I remarked  “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.” I cannot say that any one agreed with me. The selling people could not of course see the advantages that a single model would bring about in production.   More than that, they did not particularly care.’

 Now even though his name was Henry Ford, despite the fact that he was the undisputed boss, and notwithstanding that his name was attached to the car, he didn’t get his monochrome desire until 1914. Before that date not only did his company produce Model T’s that were grey, green, blue and red, the colour black was not even available. The first black Model T came off the assembly line in 1914 and thereafter, until the final year of production,  you could, genuinely, have any colour you wanted, as long as it was black.

By the time production ceased in 1927 a total of fifteen million Model T Ford’s had been manufactured and purchased. The Model T then, graciously, gave way to the Model A, which was available in a variety of shades, to which Henry Ford doubtless turned a colour blind eye

So, while Henry Ford did issue the instruction that all his Model T’s should be monochrome black, that didn’t happen until the seventh year of production. It’s fake history.

 

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Fake Histories #38  Did William Webb Ellis originate the game of rugby?

 

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It’s unlikely the pioneers of the game of rugby in the mid 19thcentury would ever have envisaged such a thing as a ‘World Cup of Rugby’. Still less that it should be taking place in Japan, a place still shrouded in mystery when the game got off the ground.

But, how, precisely, did that happen. The ‘origin myth’ of rugby football is that a young Warwickshire boy who was attending the famous British public school of Rugby picked up the ball and ran with it during a school match in 1823 and, thus, originated the game which is now called after the school. If the story is not true then there should probably be some questions asked on 2 November when the Rugby World Cup trophy is presented, because it’s called after him!

William Webb Ellis, born in 1806, was indeed a seventeen-year-old student at Rugby College in 1823. He had the misfortune to miss the great headmaster of the college, Thomas Arnold, by a few years. He was also well removed from Rugby in the 1830s during the fictional era of Tom Brown’s Schooldays and thus missed the pleasure of being bullied by Flashman. While at Rugby Ellis was known as an excellent cricketer—he would later play for Oxford.  A plaque erected in his name in Rugby school reads as follows.

‘This stone commemorates the exploit of William Webb Ellis, who with a fine        disregard for the rules of football as played in his time first took the ball in his arms and ran with it thus originating the distinctive feature of the rugby game. A.D. 1823.’

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Or so the legend goes anyway!

The problem is finding any supporting evidence for the claim. Nobody ever mentioned it during the lifetime of Webb Ellis, and he himself never shouted about it from the rooftops. Although, as he went on to become a respected clergyman of the Church of England, that might not be altogether surprising.  A former curator of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham is even on record as asserting that ‘Webb Ellis is like the King Arthur of rugby. He is very important but as soon as you start to analyse the facts behind it, there is really very little or no evidence to support the story.’

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The only source for the Webb Ellis narrative is straight out of the school of  ‘dúirt bean liom go ndúirt bean lei’. A local Warwickshire man, and past pupil of Rugby, one Matthew Bloxam, wrote to the College magazine in 1876 and recounted the story of how Webb Ellis’s infraction—he did cheat after all—had blossomed into a new sport with its own set of rules first laid down in Rugby school. While there is no doubt about the latter element of the story, Bloxam himself had not actually seen Webb’s legendary run. Someone had told him about it, possibly his brother John who was a contemporary of Ellis! The other problem is that he claimed the event had taken place in 1824, at which point Ellis was at Oxford. Four years later Bloxam revised this to 1823.

An investigation into the claim by the Old Rugbean Society in 1895 led to the questioning of a number of Old Rugbeians, including Thomas Hughes, the author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. He told the inquisitors that in his time at the college in the 1830s ‘a jury of Rugby boys of that day would almost certainly have found a verdict of ‘justifiable homicide’ if a boy had been killed in running with the ball.’

A more likely candidate, according to Hughes, was a boy called Jem Mackie. Mackie had popularised try scoring at the college in the late 1830s and his innovation had been formalised in an 1841 rule book. Problem was Mackie had been expelled from the school for being a bad boy. Is that why Ellis, by then a respectable clergyman, got the nod when the foundation myth was being created? Perhaps, on the 2 November, the newly crowned World Cup champions should be presented with the Jem Mackie Trophy?

Ironically Rugby school has firm credentials when it comes to the origins of another muscular pastime. One of the founders of the game of Australian Rules football, Thomas Wentworth Wills, was a student at Rugby from the age of fourteen.

But did eminent past pupil William Webb Ellis make the crucial, and illegal, run that spawned the game of rugby, possibly not, and definitely susceptible to the Scottish verdict, of ‘not proven’.

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Fake Histories #37   Is there really anything to fear from Friday the thirteenth?

 

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Despite its exalted position as a prime number, indivisible by any number other than itself, thirteen suffers from a very bad press and must get really depressed when it looks back at twelve. Because twelve has it all. Historically it denotes completeness. How many listeners ever did thirteen times tables? No one! You always stopped at twelve by twelve equals one hundred and forty-four. There are twelve months in the year. Twelve hours on the clock. Twelve tribes of Israel. Twelve astrological signs of the zodiac. Twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. Thirteen just never gets a luck in.

Except when it comes to the bad stuff!

Thirteen is so unpopular that many American cities do not have a Thirteenth Street or a Thirteenth Avenue. How many high-rise buildings have you been in without a  thirteenth floor? Hospitals, where ill-luck is a really bad idea, often avoid labelling rooms with the number. You may also have flown through an airport with no Gate thirteen. Even the so-called  ‘bakers dozen’, thirteen loaves, came about only because of the risk that the sale of twelve underweight loaves to a customer might lead to the loss of a baker’s ear or a hand as a punishment ‑ they did that kind of thing back in the mists of time. So a medieval Pat the Baker would toss in a thirteenth, just to be sure of keeping all his appendages.

Now put thirteen together with a Friday, and you have Bonny and Clyde, Torquemada and the Inquisition, and Bros. Lethal combinations all.

Do you by any chance suffer from friggatriskaidekaphobia? You might think not, but if I tell you that Frigga was the Norse goddess of Friday, and that triskaidekaphobia denotes a fear of the number thirteen, perhaps you might be willing to acknowledge that you share, apparently, with twenty million fearful Americans, an aversion to Friday the thirteenth.

Christianity seems to be very much at fault here. Friday is considered to be unlucky because Christ was crucified on that day. Thirteen is ill-starred because that was the number for dinner when Christ sat down with his twelve apostles for the Last Supper. But if that is the case why does the ancient Babylonian code of Hammurabi, dating from 1772 BC not have any law number thirteen? Is it possible that thirteen was already problematic long before Jesus broke bread with his dozen closest disciples?

To demonstrate their utter fearlessness a number of prominent Americans got together in the 1880s and formed The Thirteen Club, promising to root out superstition while tempting fate by sitting down thirteen to a table for their annual dinners. They even walked under ladders to prove how silly that old chestnut was. Members included five US Presidents, among them William McKinley. You might have heard of William McKinley, he was assassinated! However, in the interests of full disclosure it should be pointed out that Theodore Roosevelt was also a member of The Thirteen Club. As he became President when McKinley was shot, it would appear that sitting down thirteen to a table didn’t do him any harm.

Just as well for retailers that the spurious American import, Black Friday, falls at the end of the month of November because according to something called the North Carolina Stress Management Centre and Phobia Institute more than $800m is lost each year due to shoppers staying home on Friday the thirteenth.

In 1993 the august British Medical Journal decided to test the superstition in a research piece entitled ‘Is Friday the thirteenth bad for your health’. They looked at a range of traffic accident statistics over a period of years on two different dates, Friday the sixth and Friday the thirteenth. While they found that more drivers stayed at home on the latter date, they discovered that the former was a safer day on which to travel. Their conclusion was that ‘Friday the thirteenth is unlucky for some. The risk of hospital admission as a result of a transport accident may be increased by as much as fifty-two percent. Staying at home is recommended.’

Oh, and by the way, it appears that if you break a mirror that old ‘seven years of bad luck’ thing is only applicable if you do so on Friday the thirteenth. If you want to experiment you still have a few hours left, but maybe don’t check the makeup until after midnight, just in case.

So, is there anything to fear from Friday the thirteenth? Not at all, relax. What can possibly go wrong just because the thirteenth day of the month falls on a Friday? Is it ok if I uncross my fingers now?

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