‘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 #21  A number of men have been jailed for selling the Brooklyn Bridge?

 

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We do like our bridges in Ireland. One of our very best and most popular Presidents, Mary McAleese, had bridges of the metaphorical kind, at the centre of her election campaign. A book of her selected speeches even contains the word in its title. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was all about building bridges between communities in Northern Ireland.

But once you get beyond metaphor and into the realm of engineering it’s a different matter. We have a few fine Calatrava’s, a bendy toll bridge that opens in the middle to allow ships up the Liffey, and an interesting span across the Boyne near the site of King Billy’s apparent triumph over someone called the anti-Christ [more about that encounter on our 12 July broadcast]. This just happens to have been named after … Mary McAleese. But, let’s be honest with ourselves, we don’t have nearly as many cool bridges as they have on the far side of the unbridgeable Atlantic Ocean.

In America it’s different. Everything is bigger. Even the rivers are wider. So, they need really impressive physical links between each bank,  with not a screed of metaphor in their superstructure. One of the earliest of what is described, in technical terms as ‘really big bridges’ is the Brooklyn Bridge, which opened today, one hundred and thirty-six years ago, in 1883. It is, in what is a genuine technical term, a hybrid cable-stayed suspension bridge, and it linked the New York boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, whether the posher inhabitants of the former wanted it or not.

Now, as bridges go my personal preference would be for the Golden Gate over the Brooklyn equivalent, but that merely masks a strident prejudice in favour of San Francisco over New York, one that, I acknowledge, would not be shared by very many fellow countrymen, or weekend shoppers and trippers, acquainted with both cities.

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No sooner was the bridge finished than one of its major purposes instantly became clear. It had, obviously, been built so that daredevils could show off, by jumping from it into the waters of the East river eighty-four metres below, and survive. For them, surface tension was just something you showed before you jumped, not the phenomenon that was going to kill you. The first to make this leap was a swimming instructor Robert Emmet Odlum, on 19 May 1885. Sadly, he was even less successful than his famous Irish namesake. He somehow managed to forget about the second bit, survival. He died from catastrophic internal injuries, including a ruptured spleen. He was followed a decade later by another Irish adventurer, James Duffy from County Cavan. Duffy recruited a small crowd to watch him jump. He may have been more successful than Odlum, we don’t know, because he was never seen again.

One of the enduring myths about this iconic hybrid cable-stayed suspension bridge is the notion of the out-of-town hick being conned into buying the Brooklyn Bridge from an able grifter. Legend has numerous gullibles falling for this scam. Some even attempted to erect toll booths on the Bridge after the cheque cleared.

Except it’s actually not a myth at all.

Doubtless, your hearts will swell with national pride when you discover that the two best exponents of this particular con were Irish Americans. First into the field was one William McCloundy, who also revelled in the alias I.O.U. O’Brien. He spent two and a half years in jail for selling the bridge to an unsuspecting tourist in 1901.

Even more successful was George C. Parker, son of two Irish immigrants, who was also known to use the name O’Brien as an alias. Parker also successfully sold Madison Square Garden, General Grant’s Tomb, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, wait for it, the Statue of Liberty. Though, I suppose if you can sell the Brooklyn Bridge you can flog just about anything.

Sadly for Parker, he spent the last eight years of his life in Sing Sing Prison, where using one of his more imaginative aliases, Warden Kennedy, would have been inadvisable. He died there in 1936. The familiar American phrase ‘and if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you’ could have been devised just for George Parker.

So, when it comes to the myth that people went to jail for selling the Brooklyn Bridge, it turns out that it wasn’t a myth at all. It’s true, and verifiably NOT fake history.

 

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Fake Histories #20  Did the concept of ‘separate but equal’ originate with the apartheid regime in South Africa?   

 

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If I was to say ‘Plessy v Ferguson’ to you, you might respond with something like ‘was that a tractor race?’ Well no, actually. It’s got something to do with race all right, but not tractors. Let me just mention for the moment that the Plessy in question was a young man named Homer Plessy, an unassuming French-speaking shoemaker from Louisiana, rather than an electronics conglomerate. Ferguson was John Howard Ferguson, a New Orleans judge, and not a manufacturer of agricultural goods. Now let’s park them both for the moment.

Twenty-five years ago this week Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa. While the architects of apartheid didn’t just turn in their graves, they crawled out and demanded to be relocated. Today is also the anniversary of a pivotal, and unanimous, 1954 US Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. This ruled that racial segregation in public educational facilities was unconstitutional. The case centred on young Linda Brown an African-American girl who had been refused admission to an elementary school in Topeka, Kansas, because of her race.

Bear with me. All these events are related.

Back in 1994 Mandela and the African National Congress had finally triumphed over an iniquitous system introduced in 1948 to maintain minority white rule. Apartheid, which translates from Afrikaans as ‘separateness’ but really means ‘segregation’, was supposed to be a form of administration that allowed for the separate development of the races in South Africa. In fact, it merely institutionalised racial discrimination. Most of its supporters were fairly upfront about a regime that, for example, banned mix race marriages in 1949, and went one better the following year by forbidding sexual relations across racial lines. But there were a few of the fluffier supporters of apartheid who liked to claim that even though the races were kept apart this didn’t mean that they were not cherished equally. Picture someone watching a child being devoured by a grizzly bear going ‘nice teddy!’

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But did this spurious notion of ‘separate but equal’ originate in South Africa?

This brings us back to Plessy v Ferguson. You’ll remember Homer Plessy, our Cajun shoemaker from the top of this item. Homer was something called an ‘octoroon’ – this means, in American parlance, that he was one-eighth black. In other words, one of his great grandparents was African American. In Irish terms, an octoroon is probably somebody who would be one-eighth Viking.

This meant that although he could ‘pass’—another one of those subtly coded American words—he was not legally permitted to travel in the ‘whites only’ carriage of a New Orleans rail car. So, he bought a ticket and did just that. He also arranged to be ‘discovered’ in this vile act and have himself arrested. This was done to challenge the legislation, the Louisiana Separate Car Act of 1890.

And that’s where John Howard Ferguson comes in. He was the judge who fined Homer Plessy twenty-five dollars and whose name was then attached to the case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1896, in what is seen as one of the worst decisions ever by a US Supreme Court–though we have high hopes that the current bench will steal that title—Plessy was told that the penalty imposed on him did not violate the fourteenth amendment, which provides for equal treatment under the law for African Americans. Homer Plessy was, in effect, told by seven of the eight justices, that segregated facilities were perfectly all right in the USA, that he was ‘separate but equal’, and that he couldn’t have his twenty-five dollars back. To this day Plessy v Ferguson has never formally been overruled.

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Which brings us back to the sixty-fifth anniversary today of the judgement in the case of Brown v Board of Education, and the desire of eleven-year-old Linda Carol Brown to go to an elementary school close to her home. The school authorities told her she couldn’t because she was black. The Supreme Court, led by Earl Warren, told the city of Topeka Kansas that she could because she was a human being. That decision, and many more like it from the liberal US Supreme Courts of the sixties and seventies, have nullified the impact of the Homer Plessy’s twenty-five dollar fine and everything that flowed from it.

So, in answer to the question did the notion of ‘separate but equal’ originate in apartheid, South Africa. No, it didn’t, the US Supreme Court got there in 1896, way ahead of Henrik Verwoerd. So, that’s fake history.

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Some nice people expressing their delight at the result of Brown v Board of Education

Fake Histories #19  –  Rudolf Hess was sent to Britain by Adolf Hitler in 1941 to negotiate peace with the UK?

 

 

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There is a very famous scatological verse, sung to the melody of the ‘Colonel Bogey March’ which refers to the testicular deficiencies of various leaders of Nazi Germany in World War Two. Hitler, or so the song informs us, only had one of the required pair, Goering’s were of inadequate dimensions, which was also the case with Himmler, and poor old Goebbels was entirely lacking in male reproductive organs of any kind. Obviously, the song itself is far less ponderous than my synopsis.

Missing, however, from this lineup, was the man who entered WW2 as Hitler’s deputy Führer, Rudolf Hess. His absence has nothing to with the fact that, as his surname is monosyllabic, it doesn’t scan very well in an obscene song. It has more to do with a bizarre flight he undertook on 10 May 1941. That was when he decided he’d like nothing better than a day trip to Scotland. We can all understand his yearning I’m sure. Scotland, is, after all a beautiful country, inhabited by some of the most sensible and enlightened people on the planet. But the date of his proposed trip made it extremely unwise. There was a war on, he was German, and he was flying a military plane into enemy territory.

So what was he up to? The answer, in general terms, was that he wanted to take Britain out of the war. Now he wasn’t crazy enough to believe that he would achieve this with a courageous kamikaze attack on some bewildered grouse on an estate in the northern highlands. He was on a diplomatic mission.

Hess, who had been more or less elbowed out of any real position of authority in the Nazi hierarchy, was nonetheless aware of the impending German invasion of Russia. Fearing a war on two fronts he came up with the brilliant idea of removing one of the fronts by dropping in on his old buddy, the Scottish laird Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, Duke of Hamilton. Doug was a Caledonian aristocrat who clearly scorned variety when it came to names. Hess seemed to have got it into his head that all he had to do was sit down with Dougie over half a dram and a haggis and plucky Britain would roll over and sign a peace deal with Germany.

His destination was the ancestral home of the Dukes of Hamilton, Dungavel House. Today it’s an immigration removal centre, which is quite appropriate really as Hess has always been one of the most celebrated illegal immigrants in British history. It’s run by one of those American private prison outfits, which is equally appropriate as he spent more than four decades in an institution also partly run by Americans, Spandau Prison in Berlin.

You can probably guess what happened. He parachuted onto the scented Scottish heather, was picked up immediately and tossed in prison for the remainder of the war. In 1945 he was tried at Nuremberg and, unlike many of his even viler associates got a life sentence and ended up in Spandau with six more of the nicer Nazis.

As to whether he had the imprimatur of Führer Adolf for his madcap flight, well what do you think? Hitler might have been insane, but he wasn’t stupid. At the Nazi cabinet meeting on 11 May, he must have sensed something was odd and inquired,  ‘where’s Rudy?’

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Spandau prison might today have its own Visitor’s Centre, Starbuck’s franchise, and a darling little gift shop. Instead, it was demolished in 1987 after Hess’s suicide at the age of 93. This was to avoid it becoming a Nazi shrine. Wasn’t that a clairvoyant move now?

If I can make a massive digression for just a moment. You might be familiar with the music of the British 80s rock group Spandau Ballet and wonder where they got their name. And yes, it is derived from the prison. However, the classical dance in question is a reference to the frequent hangings that took place in the jail before it became downmarket accommodation for misbehaving Fascists.  If there is a better example of, quite literally,  gallows humour I would love to hear about it.

But, to come back to the question of Rudolf Hess’s solo flight to Scotland. Was it made with the knowledge and approval of Adolf Hitler, as some people claim? No, it was all his own really bad idea. So, it’s fake history.

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Fake Histories #18   George Lucas mapped out all the Star Wars movies in advance of the original film in 1977?

 

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May the Fourth be with you. That’s ‘Fourth’ as in the day after ‘Third’, just in case you thought I had developed a lithp. Tomorrow is Star Wars Day, so-called because the first Star Wars film was released on 4 May 1977.

Well no, actually! The first Star Wars film, now known as Star Wars: A New Hope, and which is, chronologically the fourth Star Wars film, was actually released on 25 May 1977. But, let’s face it, ‘May the twenty-fifth be with you’ doesn’t sound as catchy. So when and why was tomorrow singled out for such a thoroughly overwhelming honour? Is it the birthday of the genius behind the franchise, George Lucas? Is it the anniversary of the destruction of the Death Star? Is it the day Jar Jar Binks was given his P45? Is it Armistice Day in the Clone War? When do you want me to stop with the spurious suggestions? Because, naturally, it’s none of the above.

The date was chosen, organically, by Star Wars fans themselves, as their annual holy day of obligation and the Lucasfilm empire did not strike back. Instead, the makers of the franchise embraced and encouraged it. It’s actually a pun, ‘May the fourth … be with you’. Geddit? Now, with the Disney organisation in charge of the Millennium Falcon, May the Fourth will probably become to the Star Wars franchise what the equally spurious ‘Black Friday’ is to online retailers.

Back in the mid-70s, it didn’t look as if Star Wars would become the first film ever to make over $300m at the Box Office. It almost didn’t get made. Despite the commercial success of Lucas with American Graffiti, the script was turned down by every major studio except Twentieth Century Fox. When he showed a rough cut to some of his movie-making buddies it didn’t go down well. Brian de Palma described it as the worst movie he’d ever seen – he hadn’t made Mission to Mars at that point in his own career. The only one of Lucas’s mates who predicted a bright future was Steven Spielberg.

As a director, Lucas does not appear to have been very communicative with his actors. His instruction on re-takes was either ‘faster’ or ‘more intense’. Rumour has it that when he lost his voice on the shoot his assistant printed those words on two boards which Lucas used in lieu of vocal commands. He also second-guessed himself on the name of one of his central characters. When shooting began [spoiler alert] Princess Leia’s younger bro and Darth Vader’s little boy was called Luke Starkiller.

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There is an assumption, which probably began on the planet Tatooine, that when George Lucas got the idea for writing a film about ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’ that he did a J.K.Rowling and sketched out in advance the basic plots for all nine movies. Rowling, you will recall, had a grand plan for the future of the inhabitants of Hogwarts when she set out to write Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Now, when George Lucas conceived the notion of the Star Wars series he was not an impecunious and unknown British writer dependent on an Edinburgh café for light and heat. He was already a successful Hollywood director with one cult, and one mainstream movie hit to his credit. Neither do the dissimilarities end there. Unlike Rowling, he did not sketch out the plots of the movies in detail. While he DID envisage that Star Wars would be part of a series he did not outline in detail the fate of the characters, or even basic plot lines before he wrote the first film in the franchise. Initially, he appears to have been unsure whether that would run to nine or twelve films. On a scrap of paper on which he scribbled down a tentative plot for the first movie, it appears as number six in the putative series, not number four.

So, did George Lucas have it all figured out before he even began shooting the first Star Wars? That he did not. That’s fake history.

 

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PETER ‘CHEWBACCA’ MAYHEW  1944-2019  (RIP)

 

Fake Histories #17  John Wilkes Booth, who killed Abraham Lincoln, was a lone assassin?

 

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Today is the one hundred and fifty-fourth anniversary of the death of John Wilkes Booth. You may have heard of him, in the way that you might also be aware of Lee Harvey Oswald and have no clue whatever who Leon Czolgosz and Charles Guiteau were.

The problem is that if you want to be remembered as an assassin you have to kill someone whose fame will endure!

Booth, was the actor who, infamously, murdered President Abraham Lincoln on Good Friday, 14 April 1865, in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.. Lee Harvey Oswald may have been the assassin who killed John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963, or a patsy framed for the murder to protect those responsible. As he himself was shot dead we aren’t in a position to ask him which is the truth.

The reason why you’ve never heard of Czolgosz and Guiteau is that they killed American Presidents few people, including most Americans, can probably even name. Although the claims of Czolgosz to immortality are undoubtedly hampered by the fact that no one, other than fluent Polish speakers, can pronounce his name properly. For the record, Guiteau assassinated President James A Garfield in 1881 and Czolgosz accounted for President William McKinley in 1901.

Czolgosz and Guiteau were lone killers. Czolgosz was an anarchist who didn’t like politicians, while Guiteau wanted a government job and didn’t get it. Lee Harvey Oswald was either a lone killer, completely innocent or at the heart of a conspiracy. And I have no intention of delving any further into that one. That way lies madness. Though I would recommend reading the account of Anthony Summers if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Let’s get back to John Wilkes Booth. He was a member of a prominent theatrical family from Maryland. Which made him, technically a southerner, but only just. Maryland was actually a slave state that remained loyal to the Union in the American Civil War. Booth was an enthusiastic supporter of the Confederate cause. Before the war began he had, with immense satisfaction, attended the hanging of the great abolitionist John Brown, after his capture at Harper’s Ferry.

He did not stick around to see Brown’s body ‘a-mouldering in the grave’, in the words of the famous song. This was because he had an acting career to pursue. His love of the Confederacy did not, apparently, extend as far as joining up to fight for the cause. Throughout the Civil War, he continued to perform onstage, mainly in Shakespearean roles. Most of his performances took place in states loyal to the Union. In 1863 he was arrested in St. Louis after being overheard proclaiming that ‘he wished the President and the whole damn government would go to hell’. The great Confederate supporter then signed a pledge of loyalty to the Union, in order to be allowed to pursue his acting career.

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In 1864, with the Confederate cause faltering, Booth became involved in a plot to kidnap President Lincoln. Among his associates was one Michael O’Laughlen, a childhood friend from Baltimore. The plot came to nothing but was revived after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s army in April 1865. This time, however, the object was an assassination. When Booth heard that Lincoln was to attend a performance in Ford’s theatre, to which he had ready access, he arranged an escape route and secured a .41 calibre Deringer pistol. That night, at around 10.00 pm, he stole into the President’s box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. He then jumped from the box onto the stage, apparently shouted the Latin phrase ‘Sic Semper Tyrannis’ (‘Thus always to tyrants’) and fled. His escape was assisted by other members of the conspiracy, but he got no further than eastern Virginia before being tracked down. The barn in which he was holed up was surrounded by Union troops and when Booth refused to surrender it was set alight. When Booth emerged he was shot by a Union soldier. Upon searching his body a diary was found. The entry for the day of Lincoln’s assassination read, ‘Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment.’

Subsequently, eight others were tried for their part in the conspiracy by a Military Tribunal, these included Michael O’Laughlen. Four were hanged, O’Laughlen was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Which contradicts the assumption that Booth, like other American Presidential assassins, was a lone killer. That’s fake history.

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FAKE HISTORIES #16   Eamon de Valera escaped execution in 1916 because he was an American citizen?

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Given that one of the highest ranking survivors of the 1916 Rising went on to dominate Irish politics for almost three decades, surely one of the great imponderables of Irish history must be, ‘What if Patrick Pearse had been granted his wish, and he alone was executed after the surrender of the Volunteers?’ How would the avowed Marxist, James  Connolly have fared in the Ireland of the 1920s, assuming he recovered from his wounds? What roles would Sean MacDermott and Thomas Clarke have played in the Anglo-Irish war? We would certainly have got some excellent poetry from Joseph Plunkett and Thomas McDonagh.

But only one of the pivotal military leaders managed to survive, Eamon de Valera, and if his subsequent political career is anything to go by, the 1920s and 30s would have been even more interesting with the input of other surviving signatories.

So much for ‘What if?’ you might say, and you’d probably be right. Except that there is a huge counterfactual element—as historians put it—to de Valera’s own narrative. As in, ‘what if’ he hadn’t been born in New York and the British military authorities were reluctant to execute him for fear of antagonising the US administration.

So, let’s clear up a few things about de Valera and his involvement in 1916. First, there’s the assumption that he was the highest ranking survivor. He wasn’t. He was actually outranked by an extraordinary 20-year-old Volunteer named Seán McLaughlin who was promoted to commandant-general around the time of the evacuation of the GPO.

Dev was in command of the Third Battalion of the Volunteers based in Boland’s Mills. A small unit, formally under his command, was responsible for causing the most serious damage to the British Army during the rebellion, when they inflicted over two hundred casualties, mainly on the Sherwood Foresters, at Mount Street Bridge. De Valera, however, played no active part in that famous engagement.

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After the surrender, De Valera and his unit were taken to the RDS where they were held prisoner. This was probably a crucial element in his survival. Had he, like most of the other leaders of the Rising, been brought to Richmond Barracks and quickly court-martialled, history could have been very different. But, he was not a signatory to the Proclamation and was only belatedly court-martialled, so he had to wait his turn to be executed or to have his death sentence commuted by the military governor, General Sir John Maxwell.

The first dozen firing squad victims fell quickly, within four days of each other. Then there was a pause, during which a hugely adverse reaction set in, not just in Dublin but in London. With the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, on his way to Dublin—with the clear intention of ending the executions—the priority for the military authorities was to dispose of the final two signatories of the Proclamation, Sean MacDermott and James Connolly before a wavering Asquith could step in and save them.

A Dublin barrister, William Wylie, who had been involved on the legal side in the Courts-Martial, was actually approached by General Maxwell and asked about de Valera. Maxwell wanted to know was he someone who might give trouble in the future. Wylie, by now thoroughly disillusioned with the entire process, might well have saved de Valera’s life when he responded in the negative. Had he not done so there might well have been a third victim of the firing squad on 12 May 1916. De Valera, of course, went on to prove Wylie spectacularly wrong. He managed to cause the British authorities quite a bit of bother, right up to and beyond, the Economic War of the 1930s, and the fateful decision to establish Ireland’s neutrality during World War Two.

So, de Valera’s survival was more to do with timing than with his American citizenship. If the British had been worried about that sort of thing they would not have executed Thomas Clarke either. He had become an American citizen in 1883.

Did de Valera escape execution in 1916 because he was born in New York? No, he didn’t. That’s fake history.

Fake Histories #15   12.4.2019 The Icelandic Eyjafjallakökull eruption of 2010 was the most disruptive volcanic event in modern history?

 

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Who can forget that week in April 2010 when a mountain in Iceland closed the airspace of 20 countries and left millions of travellers stranded.

Eyjafjallakökull   [eye-ah-flatla-yokill] hereinafter referred to, for obvious reasons, as the Icelandic volcano, or Eye-ah for short, blew its top and spewed tonnes of volcanic ash into the atmosphere.

The jet stream obligingly moved location until it was directly over the mountain so that the powerful volcano could just mainline straight into the planetary wind system of the northern hemisphere. The jet stream at the time also happened to be pointing in just the right direction for maximum havoc. It might have been facing north-west, towards Greenland? But no, it was contentedly pointing south-east, straight for mainland Europe. Nothing without feathers could fly for a week.

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Among those inconvenienced was actor and comedian John Cleese who forked out around €4000 for one of the longest taxi rides in history. When his flight from Norway was cancelled he got a cab driver to take him from Oslo to Brussels, passing through six countries en route. Thus Cleese proved himself just as capable of doing a silly drive as a silly walk. Then there was the international rugby match between Switzerland and Lithuania that had to be cancelled as well. Which was quite astonishing really as, prior to that, nobody even knew that Switzerland and Lithuania had the vaguest notion what the game of rugby was about.

The crisis came to an end, in part at least, when a thoroughly fed up Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways and a former Aer Lingus pilot, decided the authorities were being over-zealous in grounding flights, so he went up in a BA 747 which flew into the remnants of the cloud to prove that it could be done without causing death and destruction. In doing so Walsh went some way towards atoning for the debacle of the opening Heathrow’s Terminal Five two years earlier.

But was that mid-Atlantic volcanic event the most disruptive in modern history? If you were one of the 20 million air passengers whose flights were dumped you would be tempted to think so. But spare a thought for the victims of the Mount Tambora eruption of 1815. The Icelandic volcano with the uncomfortably long name killed no one, although it ruined lots of sun holidays and business trips. The Tambora event directly killed 10,000 and was indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands more all across the planet.

Tambora was a volcanic mountain on the island of Sumbawa in what is now Indonesia. It had been dormant for several centuries before it erupted in April 1815, with such force that the noise could be heard on Sumatra, more than 2000 kilometres away. The explosion was four times the magnitude of the famous Krakatoa eruption seven decades later. The ash that was hurled into the atmosphere was carried across the entire globe and the strange yellow skies of the summer of 1815 were recorded in England by the great British landscape artist J.M.W.Turner.

But it didn’t stop there. With the particles of ash remaining in the atmosphere, summer of the following year simply never materialised. In the northern hemisphere, average temperatures fell by half a degree Celsius. 1816 became the infamous ‘Year Without a Summer’. Snow fell in June, frost was reported in August. In Hungary brown snow fell, in Italy it was red. Europe was especially badly afflicted as it was attempting to recover from the effects of the Napoleonic Wars. Almost 100,000 are believed to have died as an indirect result of the consequential disruption of crops. Many of those were in Ireland, where the plummeting summer temperatures resulted in one of the many famines of the 19thcentury as the wheat, oats and potato harvests all failed.

So cold was the weather in the summer of 1816 that a small group of English travellers in Switzerland spent most of their walking holiday indoors. They devised a method of staving off boredom by writing ghost stories. One of the tourists was a certain Mary Shelley. Her story went on to achieve some notoriety as Frankenstein.

So, was the eruption of Eyjafjallakökull [eye-ah-flatla-yokill] the most disruptive volcanic event in modern history? Not by a lava flow. That’s fake history.

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