‘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 #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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Fake Histories #36   Jack the Ripper was a member of the royal family?

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Imagine you are a woman living in the poverty trap of the East End of London in the autumn of 1888. Queen Victoria is on the throne, Lord Salisbury is Prime Minister. But high politics are of little interest to you. Making ends meet is a more pertinent concern. That, and avoiding a serial killer, stalking the Whitechapel district, who is about to be given a name, Jack the Ripper. A week ago the body of the first of his five victims, Mary Anne Nicholls was found. Two days from now he will kill Annie Chapman. Then there will be two more, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes, at the end of this month, before a gap of almost six weeks to his final victim, Mary Jane Kelly.

If you do fall to the knife of Jack the Ripper there is an excellent chance you will go down in history as a prostitute, although there is no solid evidence that three of the Ripper’s five victims were ever involved in that line of work. So, although you will be immortalised by hundreds of ‘true-crime’ writers, each convinced they have identified your killer, there will be an implicit question in all of their writing. What were you doing wandering around the streets of Whitechapel late at night? As we are unable, definitively, to blame your killer for his crimes, it is almost as convenient to blame you for your own death.

Behind the Whitechapel murders of 1888, there was undoubtedly a form of lunacy, but the frenzy exhibited by Jack the Ripper has been almost matched by the craziness unleashed in thousands of ex post facto attempts to identify him. Never has a subject given rise to so much special pleading, dodgy theses, outright lies, and ingenious hoaxes.

Welcome to the Rippersphere!  Not an arena for the faint-hearted. Ripperology might sound like an intellectual discipline but it’s actually a blood sport, where, it would appear, you identify your Ripper in advance and get the facts to fit afterwards.  You then defend your position with as much venom as possible, a phenomenon greatly facilitated these days by the unidentifiable basement trolling of social media. The internet, as we know, was developed purely for the proliferation of cute cat videos, and to encourage the multiplication of even more outrageous Jack the Ripper narratives.

The Rippersphere is a realm where your choice of the guilty party might well depend on your politics. So that Boris Johnson’s Ripper would probably be one of the thousands of immigrants who populated the East End of London in the 1880s. While Jeremy Corbyn’s would be a deviant member of the privileged upper classes.

While there is every likelihood Corbyn would be spot on, there is one particular myth that has grown and festered over the years, that is not worthy of the gallons of printer’s ink that have been expended on it. A constant Ripperological theme has been the ‘Royal Conspiracy’ theory.  This holds that the Duke of Clarence, Albert Victor, was the killer. Known to his family as ‘Eddie’ he was the eldest grandson of Queen Victoria, and next in line to the throne after his father, Edward, Prince of Wales.

            This canard began to emerge as late as the 1970s when a Dr Thomas Stowell published an article in a magazine called The Criminologist implicating the Duke of Clarence without actually naming him. Stowell claimed that a royal family member he called simply ‘S’  had been driven insane from syphilis. He further claimed that the Royal family was aware of the killings, and interfered with the investigation of the crimes. ‘S’ was quickly identified as Clarence and the chase began.

The Duke of Clarence pre-deceased his father in an influenza epidemic in 1892, but Ripperologists who subscribe to the Royal Conspiracy theory have him dying of syphilis.

Even a cursory examination of Royal court records blows the entire ‘Clarence the Ripper’ theory out of the water. It can easily be established that Eddie was well away from London, in Yorkshire and Scotland, at the time of the first four murders. He was at his father’s birthday party on the night of the murder of Mary Kelly. All alibis which, of course, were ingeniously fabricated by Buckingham Palace, according to the more deluded Royal Conspiracy theorists.

So, did the Duke of Clarence go on a murderous rampage in the East End of London over a seventy day period in 1888 and brutally murder five women? No, he did not, that is fake history.

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Fake Histories #35 The All Ireland Football Final has always been played in Croke Park in September?

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The three-year GAA trial which sees the All Ireland finals pulled back by three weeks each has its champions and its detractors. They will all get their opportunity soon enough to debate the efficacy of the experiment and, after 2020, we may see things returning to the normality to which we’ve all become accustomed.

But it was not ever thus! Tradition, by definition, takes a while to become established—except on social media when fifteen minutes or so does it nicely—and so it was with the All Ireland schedule.

The Gaelic Athletic Association has been around since 1884 and after a decidedly rocky start in life became a stable fixture in the 1890s and started to move towards national treasure status thereafter. The part it played in the achievement of Irish nationhood is unchallenged, and its subsequent role in entertaining and exasperating the people of Ireland is equally incontestable. If you doubt me, just wander into any public space during an Irish summer and eavesdrop on the conversations. If you don’t hear the Dublin football team being slagged off outside of the Pale then you need your hearing tested.

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The first fixture described as the All Ireland Football final was played three years after the formation of the GAA at a meeting in Thurles attended by seven men. Quite an oak has grown from that little acorn. The match was staged on 29 April 1887 in the iconic confines of … Beech Hill in Clonskeagh on the fringes of Donnybrook. It was contested between Commercials of Limerick and Young Irelands of Louth, both winners of their respective county championships. There were forty-two players involved as each had had twenty-one players. Think of the teams and the benches of today all on the pitch at the same time. It must often have resembled the only recently abandoned Donnybrook Fair, whose own ‘robust exchanges’ had caused it to be brought to an end. For the record Commercials won, making Limerick the first-ever All Ireland FOOTBALL champions. Now there’s an interesting and unusual sentence. Though, in fairness to the Treaty County they won it again in 1896. Since then they’ve been a tad better at the old hurling!

Over the next five years of the football championship, it was decided at a variety of Dublin venues, including Phoenix Park in 1893. No one, however, seemed to care that much, with crowds never topping five thousand. Until that is, it returned, in 1895, for the 1894 final—don’t ask, it got a bit out of kilter in 1890—to the home of the GAA, Thurles, Co. Tipperary. There ten thousand people saw Dublin take their third title, beating Cork—well, sort of. The game was a replay after a drawn match in Dublin and it never actually ended. Some of the Dublin players were attacked by Cork supporters and the match was abandoned. The GAA awarded the trophy to Dublin, although, as Cork were leading at the time, inhabitants of the Rebel County still claim that one to this day.

The following year the final moved to a location on a Dublin thoroughfare known as Jones’ Road. You may be familiar with it! However, the so-called City and Suburban Racecourse was not yet exclusive to the GAA. Bohemians soccer club played their home games there in the 1890s, and in 1901 it hosted the Irish Football Association final between Belfast’s Cliftonville (still with us today) and Freebooters F.C. from Sandymount in Dublin, who have sadly migrated to that great changing room in the sky. The football final kept moving around until the ‘venue that would be Croke Park’ became exclusive GAA territory in 1908.

Even after that, there was one celebrated break in a tradition that now goes back over a century. This came in 1947 when the All Ireland final wasn’t even played in Ireland. It moved to the Polo Grounds in New York for the encounter between Cavan and Kerry. Cavan had become the first Ulster team to win the All Ireland in 1933. In a four-point win over Kerry, they became the first Ulster team to win two All Irelands. Nobody outside Kerry had much sympathy for the vanquished Munstermen. They already had sixteen titles to their credit and Bomber Liston wouldn’t even be born for another ten years.

Incidentally, the first September All Ireland final wasn’t played until 1902, and the September date didn’t become fixed until the late 1920s.

So, the notion that the All Ireland football final has always been played in the vicinity of Jones’s Road in September, is way off the mark.

 

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FH#34   ‘Stockholm syndrome’ is the mutual attachment of hostage and kidnapper in an abduction?

 

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It’s an odd coincidence. On 23 August 2006 an eighteen-year-old Austrian woman, Natascha Kampusch, freed herself from eight years of often brutal captivity.  On the same date, in Sweden in 1973 a convict on parole, Jan Erik Olsson, made a botched attempt to rob one of the biggest banks in Stockholm.

How are these events connected? By something called ‘Stockholm syndrome’.

Olsson’s failed bank robbery of the Kreditbanken on Norrmalmstorg Square led to a six-day stand-off during which he held four employees (three women and a man), hostage. One of his first demands to besieging police was for the release from prison of his friend Clark Olofsson, who was brought to the bank and became Olsson’s accomplice. Hostage negotiation was in its infancy in the 1970s and the Swedish police often behaved in a fashion that would hardly be in keeping with best practice today. For example, Olsson was allowed to phone the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, threaten to kill the hostages, and even grabbed one of the three women in a headlock causing her to scream as the Prime Minister listened on.

The following day one of the hostages called up Palme and demanded that he allow them and their two abductors to go free. The four hostages, constantly threatened with being killed, were subjected to mental and physical ill-treatment. Arguably the worst torture was the fact the Olsson walked around the bank vault in which they were all imprisoned, singing the same song, Roberta Flack’s Killing me Softly, an ominous choice of tune. On 28 August, after six days, the authorities got fed up and used tear gas to end the crisis.

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So far, so relatively mundane. A bank robbery goes wrong, unfortunate bank officials are taken hostage, after a few initial missteps the police effect a rescue without loss of life. But it was the aftermath that was the astonishing part.

When Olsson and Olofsson were put on trial their four hostages didn’t exactly help the prosecution case by refusing to testify against their captors. Not only that, they actually began to raise money to assist the defence cases of Olsson and Olofsson. Despite their lack of co-operation, Olsson was jailed for ten years while Olofsson was released after an appeal.

A distinguished Swedish criminologist and psychiatrist, Nils Bejerot, gave a name to this unexpected development. He dubbed the empathy that had built up among the kidnapped for their kidnappers as ‘Norrmalmstorg syndrome’. The description stuck in Sweden itself, but not outside Scandinavia. Instead, internationally, the phenomenon has become known as ‘Stockholm syndrome.’

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Fast forward to Vienna in March 1998. A ten-year-old girl, Natascha Kampusch goes missing. After a while, the search for Natascha ends, memories of her kidnapping begin to fade. It is generally assumed that she has been murdered. Her memory is kept alive only by her family, friends and neighbours. But she is still alive, imprisoned in the basement of a house, located about half an hour from Vienna, by her abductor, Wolfgang Priklopil. There she is held for eight years, subjected to regular abuse, as well as acts of kindness and contrition, until she manages to escape. Knowing that he is about to be arrested her abductor kills himself.

After such a traumatic experience you might think that Natascha Kampusch would want nothing further to do with the house in which she had been imprisoned for much of her childhood and adolescence. However, she is now the owner of the house, albeit the tiny basement in which she was incarcerated has been filled in.

Not that purchasing Priklopil’s house makes Kampusch a Patty Hearst, who famously, became an integral part of the illegal activities of the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974 after they had kidnapped her to extract a ransom from her wealthy family. Her defence lawyer, F. Lee Bailey, who later defended O.J.Simpson, was not allowed to use Stockholm syndrome as a defence in court.

But ‘Stockholm syndrome’ is a one-way street. It denotes a degree of sympathy or empathy of the kidnapped for their kidnappers. Its reverse is often called ‘Lima syndrome’, a phrase coined by a Peruvian psychiatrist Mariano Querol who was himself abducted for more than a fortnight. It is also applied to the 1996 mass hostage-taking at the Japanese Embassy in Lima. There many of the dozens of those taken were quickly released and the abductors appointed to kill the remaining hostages were unable to do so.

So, the phenomenon first identified in Sweden in 1973 and dubbed ‘Stockholm syndrome’ does not denote a mutual affection between hostages and abductors.  It’s meant to denote a largely one-sided relationship only.

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Fake Histories #33  Is Elvis still taking care of business?

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Depending on when you were born, Elvis Presley—who died forty-two years ago today—was the King of Rock and Roll and a practising demi-God, or a morbidly obese Las Vegas cabaret singer who didn’t even write his own songs. It largely depends on whether you were born in the forties—in which case he was a genius—or the fifties—in which case you were more of a Beatles type anyway.

Falling squarely into the latter category I was one of those people who was puzzled at the mawkish outpouring of grief when Elvis died on 16 August 1977 and those spangly white costumes, which latterly had almost been painted on to his frame, were no more. Personally, I was more affected by the death of the great Groucho Marx the same week.

As is the case with most icons there are many myths surrounding the life, times and music of Elvis Presley. Among these is the notion that Presley and Oprah Winfrey are related. Which occasionally morphs into the narrative that Oprah’s ancestors were once slaves on the Presley estate. This, however, is hard to reconcile with the idea of Elvis being descended from an impoverished line of Mississippi sharecroppers who were forced to shoot, skin and eat squirrels to stay alive. Plantation owners were more of the ‘mint julep on the porch’ variety.

Then there is the rumour that Elvis had a pet chimpanzee named Scatter who died of alcoholic poisoning. Well, this one definitely has at least an element of truth about it. Elvis had a lot of pets, and one of them was a chimpanzee named Scatter who often dressed, like his owner, in Hawaiian shirts. Whether or not he was spoon-fed liquor and died as a result, however, remains merely a nasty rumour.

But, of course, the abiding myth that surrounds Elvis is that he is still ‘taking care of business’, holed up somewhere with that other great immortal Jim Morrison. Neither man, thousands of people fervently hold as an act of blind faith,  ever left the building.

Apparently, the King’s Graceland mansion included a secret tunnel dating back to the days of the Underground Railroad, when slaves were smuggled out of the South to freedom in the North. Elvis is supposed to have abandoned his career by means of this nineteenth-century convenience, rather than actually having died of a heart attack on his own twentieth-century convenience. He is then alleged to have purchased a ticket to Buenos Aires in the name of John Burrows the day after his faked death. Why is this significant, you ask? And I will tell you, as breathlessly as possible. The man who bought the ticket looked very Elvish and the alias ‘John Burrows’ was often used by Presley’s management team when booking hotel rooms for him anonymously.

Presleyean conspiracy theorists also point to the misspelling of his middle name on his gravestone as a clear indication of an intention to simulate his own demise. Now when you look at this gravestone it clearly reads ‘Elvis Aaron Presley’, the spelling being all present and correct. Except, apparently, Elvis’s middle name on his birth certificate was spelt ‘A-R-O-N’ as opposed to the more conventional ‘A-A-R-O-N.’ Which monumental typo, obviously demonstrates a clear intent to leave a wax dummy in your open coffin and do a bunk for Argentina where your savings would immediately have been eroded by rampant inflation.

The wax dummy theory, by the way, is lent credence by the weight of the coffin, which clocked in at nine hundred pounds. This was, supposedly, because it housed an air conditioning unit to prevent the wax from melting in the August Tennessee heat. Clearly, it had nothing to do with the fact that Elvis himself weighed almost nine hundred pounds at the time of his death.

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Between 1977 and 1981 six of his new releases became top ten singles. This prompted people unfamiliar with the concept of ‘recording’ or ‘archive’ to assume that he was still active in the music business. He was also said to have appeared as an extra in the film Home Alone thirteen years after his faked death. Sightings of him are now more frequent than those of the much older and more credible Loch Ness monster. You can expect him to turn up soon doing tours of Graceland, and for the first miracles to be cited in his name.

So, is Elvis still alive somewhere, possibly working as a vaquero on the Argentinian Pampas, at the grand old age of eighty-four? Well, we should probably assume that he was dead when an autopsy was performed on his body and, tentatively and regrettably, accept this as fake history.

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Fake Histories #32   Beachboy Dennis Wilson barely escaped being murdered by the Manson gang in 1969?

 

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According to the writer Joan Didion the 1960s may have ended fifty years ago today. Technically she was out by four months and twenty-two days, but Didion was writing about a shocking event that banished the optimism, playfulness, and naivety of that decade. Because it was half a century ago today that a promising young actor named Sharon Tate, wife of film director, Roman Polanski, was murdered in Los Angeles. She wasn’t the only victim, four others were slaughtered along with her, as was her unborn son.

They were the victims of a  demented cult or a devious group of psychopathic killers covering up a crime committed by one of their members, that’s depending on which account you read. They were, or so the California courts were told, under the guidance and tutelage of a quasi-Messianic figure named Charles Manson, a petty criminal released from prison in March 1967. A number of personal and second-hand accounts have been written about the rampage of Manson’s acolytes—including the best-selling ‘true crime’ novel of all time, Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, who was one of the team that prosecuted Manson in 1970. Their accounts are contradictory and in the case of cult members trying to impress parole boards with the level of their penitence, utterly unreliable.

Ironically, Manson was not present at Tate crime scene, much of the murderous work was carried out by two of the memoirists, Susan Atkins and Charles ‘Tex’ Watson. In addition to the five so-called ‘Tate’ murders, the Manson gang went on to kill a Los Angeles couple, Leno and Rosemary La Bianca and were also found guilty of two more killings, a body count of nine over a period of three weeks.

And it didn’t all end in 1970 when many of the members of the cult were jailed for life, or handed hefty prison terms. Another member of the group, Lynette Fromme, nicknamed ‘Squeaky’, who avoided jail in 1970, made a name for herself in 1975 when she attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford with a .45 semi-automatic pistol. Twelve years later she broke out of prison and, apparently, went in search of Manson who, she had heard, had been diagnosed with testicular cancer. She was recaptured within two days and was released in 2009 after thirty-four years in jail. Manson died in prison in 2017 after being incarcerated for forty-eight years.

But amid the horror of their crimes one, often overlooked, episode in the preamble to the murders was the relationship between the so-called Manson ‘family’ and the mercurial Dennis Wilson, drummer, and co-founder of the Beach Boys. Wilson had picked up two female members of the family hitchhiking, brought them to his home, and left for a recording session. When he returned it was to find Manson, and a number of his followers, ensconced in his house. Instead of calling the police Wilson befriended Manson, who saw himself as a budding rock star. Wilson was sufficiently impressed with Manson’s songwriting abilities to record him in his brother Brian’s studio. Wilson even persuaded the Beach Boys to cover one of Manson’s songs—originally entitled ‘Cease to Exist’ – this was changed to the more innocuous ‘Never Learn Not to Love’—as a B-side. When Manson was not credited on the record the relationship turned sour. Manson is said to have threatened to kill Denis Wilson and was beaten up by Wilson as a result.

But to allege that Wilson might have been a specific target for the murderous activities of the Manson gang is something of a stretch. It presupposes a level of organisation, and homicidal mentoring on the part of Manson himself, that doesn’t appear to exist outside of the myth-making of Vincent Bugliosi’s best-selling Helter Skelter. While Manson, and many of his acolytes, were undoubtedly evil, they were not evil geniuses. Neither did they necessarily kill at the behest of Manson himself. Their atrocities, far from being commanded by a charismatic guru figure, may have been ‘copy-cat’ murders designed to convince LA Police that they had arrested another ‘family’ member, Robert Beausoleil, in error, for the killing of a drug dealer.

Wilson certainly forked out a lot of money to the Manson ‘family’—much of to treat the STDs of the famously promiscuous cult members—he even walked out of his own house and left Manson in situ when their relationship turned nasty. But there is no evidence that Manson had any plans to do away with Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson. That’s fake history.

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