‘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 #11  15 March –  St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland?

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Two days from now we will all quietly celebrate the life and work of a self-sacrificing Christian man who brought comfort and the word of God to thousands of Irish people one and a half millennia ago.

Like hell we will.

Instead, we will eat, drink, parade, turn the Chicago River green, get thousands of normally staid tourists blind drunk before selling them their family tree, and stand four rows back with small children on our shoulders trying to catch a glimpse of a parade. Welcome to St. Patrick’s Festival time. Like a modern Irish wedding what used to take a day now takes three times as long, as we remember the man who brought Christianity to Ireland.

Or did he?

We don’t know a lot about him, other than his autobiographical Confessions. We think he might have come from Wales but we’re not really sure. He could have come from another part of Roman Britain, or even from continental Europe. At least we can be pretty sure he didn’t come from anywhere west of us, despite the enthusiasm with which New York celebrates his feast day.

St. Patrick is supposed to have arrived in Ireland in 432. While he may well have converted a number of prominent and humble Irish folks to Christianity he was not working on a greenfield site. There was already in existence, for example, the Catholic diocese of Ossory, whose first bishop, St. Ciaran, died thirty years before Patrick even got here.

In fact not only was Patrick sent to minister to Irish Christians who had already been converted—as opposed to converting an entirely pagan Ireland— but he didn’t even get here first. It appears that at least a year before Patrick arrived he was preceded by a missionary bishop named Palladius, sent in 431 as, according to a contemporary document, the ‘first bishop to the Irish believing in Christ’. That’s the Irish believing in Christ, not the bishop – there would not have been much point in sending him had he been a pagan or an atheist. Palladius was despatched to Scotland and Ireland by Pope Celestine the First. Back in the Fifth Century Popes obviously did not necessarily have to have bloke’s names.

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It appears that Palladius may well have done most of his work in Leinster and Munster, while Patrick thrived in Ulster and Connacht. The potential confusion led at least one scholar, T.F.O’Rahilly, to propose the ‘Two Patricks’ theory – suggesting that somehow the work of Palladius had been conflated with that of Patrick and there were, technically, two Patricks, not one.  Back in the day if you wanted to get a history degree you had to learn it off by heart.

The very name ‘Patrick’ adds weight to this theory. It’s common in Ireland now but the original version would have been the Latin ‘Patricius’. Back in the fifth century, the word Patricius denoted someone of aristocratic birth, or a ‘patrician’. It was actually used as a prefix, a title or an honorific. Today the equivalent would be ‘Lord’ Snooty or ‘Sir’ Political Contribution. So is it conceivable that our patron saint’s name wasn’t Patrick at all, but merely the posh preliminary for his actual name?

Just in case you’re wondering, neither Patrick had anything to do with banishing the snakes from Ireland. That’s because there never were any snakes in Ireland, at least not since the last Ice Age, and back then there would have been no one around to do a serpent census. The Irish have never shared this island with reptiles, other than a drunken conga line in Coppers on New Year’s Eve. So, St. Patrick’s supposed feat would be like banishing penguins from the snowy wastes … of northern Canada.

One more thing. The seventeenth of March is not his birthday either! Not that we would have a hope in hell of being able to work that one out. Saint’s feast days are assigned to mark the day they commence the noble art of pushing up daisies. It’s actually his death day.

So, did our beloved patron saint, whom we will over-celebrate in two days time, bring Christianity to Ireland. I’m afraid not. It was already here. That’s fake history.

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Fake Histories #10 – The Spanish flu of 1918-19 is so-called because it originated in Spain?

 

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To put it in perspective. Anything up to ten times the numbers who died in World War 1 would succumb to influenza in 1918 and 1919. More people died of flu in one year than had been killed by the infamous Black Death from 1347 – 1351. And it was a highly democratic, equal opportunities, virus. It did not just plague the very old and the very young. The death rate among 15-34-year-olds worldwide, during the fleeting visit of the H1N1 virus, was ten times the normal rate. Spanish flu couldn’t be faulted for originality either – it was entirely new. Its very novelty meant that no one had time to build up immunity.

While the arrival of the armistice on 11 November 1918 was a welcome reprieve for millions of soldiers who didn’t have to risk life and limb any more, it may have had the opposite effect on the civilian population. The very celebrations that marked Armistice Day all across Europe offered a rare and wonderful opportunity for the bug to increase and multiply among the cheering crowds. Then the return from the front a century ago of millions of demobbed soldiers brought on another wave of the disease.

Average life expectancy in the USA suddenly plummeted by twelve years – more US WW1 soldiers died of influenza than died in battle. This was despite the efforts of their commander, General Pershing, to inflict as many casualties as possible on his own troops and probably kill his way to the Presidency.  There were no anti-flu vaccines back in those days. The first such vaccine wasn’t marketed until the 1940s, just in time for the sequel to the Great War – the Even Greater War of 1939-45

Aggravating the problem was the fact that the world was yet to breed or design medical practitioners who were completely immune to the diseases they were called upon to treat. The flu bug delighted in infecting doctors and nurses just as much as it did soldiers and dockers

A childish rhyme emerged from the pandemic – children would merrily skip to the words …

 

I had a little bird

Its name was Enza

I opened the window

And in-flu-enza

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The first recorded case of Spanish flu occurred this week just over a century ago. Obviously, with a name like Spanish flu it was first documented in Madrid, or maybe Malaga, or perhaps even Barcelona–with the authorities resolutely refusing to call it Catalan flu. Actually, it was none of the above. The first case of Spanish flu was noted in Fort Riley, Kansas. That’s not Kansas in Andalucia, that’s the Kansas that Dorothy so badly wanted to get back to in The Wizard of Oz,  the one in the United States of America. So why, you might well wonder, did the Kansan doctors decide to designate this particular strain of influenza as ‘Spanish’? Was the first patient of Hispanic origin? Did the medical staff share the apparent aversion of the 45thPresident of the United States for ‘bad hombres’ who spoke the dominant language of Central and South America? Again, the answer is ‘none of the above’. They didn’t actually call it Spanish flu at all. In the beginning, nobody did.

That designation is a function of the war that was being fought over much of western Europe at the time. The military authorities in both sets of trenches—not that the actual authorities themselves spent much time in the line of fire—kept a tight rein on information coming from the front. It was distributed with all the largesse and generosity of a White House press conference today, insofar as such things still exist. Not telling the truth was deemed good for morale. This meant no one had a clue that thousands of troops, packed into trenches and susceptible to every cough and splutter, were dying of the disease.

Spain, however, was sensibly neutral and unlimited information was coming out of the Iberian peninsula. Spanish newspapers were even allowed to report the grave illness from the disease of their own King, Alfonso XIII.  This gave the impression that influenza had originated amongst the unfortunate Spaniards and, like some dedicated anti-Hispanic virus, was killing them alone. As the medical staff in Fort Riley, Kansas and thousands of other military and civilian hospitals worldwide could attest, such was not the case.

So, was the virulent Spanish flu, first detected this week in 1918, so-called because it originated in Spain? Not a bit of it. That’s fake history.

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Fake Histories #9 – 1 March 2019 The flag of St. David of Wales is green and white with a red dragon?

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Happy St. David’s day, or as the Welsh might put it themselves, dydd gwyl Dewi hapus [deedth goo-eel …] It’s a day when thousands of small Welsh girls are asking their mothers, ‘Do I really have to wear this funny hat?’ and ‘Why can’t I just be cool, like Cerys Matthews?’

Today is the day that Welsh people celebrate the birth of their native saint, just as we Irish will celebrate our own St. Patrick in a couple of weeks. Except, of course, that St. Patrick was probably also a Welshman, kidnapped by marauding Irish gangsters in the early fifth century. Happily, the generous Welsh are content to let us pretend he was Irish and don’t seem overly concerned that he exiled the snakes here while leaving them to their own devices in Wales. If he had that Harry Potter-like power he could at least have banished them across Offa’s dyke to England.

The reason the Welsh are so laid back about St.Patrick is that they have St. David, who died on 1 March 589, hence the feast day. St. David’s day is, of course, indelibly associated with the daffodil. However, given the pace of climate change and the growth of daffodils in December, the Welsh now have the option of moving his feast day to the 1 January and sharing Hogmanay with the Scots.

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St.David, or Dewi in Welsh,  established up to twelve monasteries across Wales in the sixth century and was canonised in 1120 at a time when the Welsh were trying to resist the incursions of the Normans. Half a century later they had given up the ghost on that one and it was the Irish who were trying to beat back the forces of the Norman/Welsh adventurer, Strongbow, Earl of Pembroke. Call it sweet revenge for kidnapping St.Patrick.

Welsh people like to celebrate St. David’s Day by eating traditional food, dressing up in national costume (which includes those distinctive hats I was talking about) and beating England in the Six Nations championship. Of course, they are not unique in that respect. Everyone likes beating England in the Six Nations. But no one sings quite like the Welsh as they do so. Even St. David himself, who has, after all, been dead for one and a half millennia, sits up and takes notice when a Welsh rugby crowd launches into the stirring and haunting Hen Wlad Fy Nadau [Hane wlad vee nadhai] or Land of My Fathers which somehow always manages to eclipse God Save the Queen even at Twickenham.

The English haven’t always enjoyed Welsh celebrations of St. David’s Day. Back in the days of the celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys he recorded how Welsh celebrations in London would give rise to caustic English reactions, which often led to the lynching—thankfully in effigy only—of life-sized Welsh characters. A century later the English also liked to bake cute little gingerbread confectionery figures of a Welshman sitting astride a goat. These became known as ‘taffies’, which is why today Welsh people appreciate being called ‘Taffy’ by an Englishman about as much as an Irish person just longs to be called ‘Paddy’.

One thing the Welsh have so far not managed to achieve is to turn St. David’s Day into a national holiday, even though, in 2000, the Welsh Assembly voted unanimously for this to happen. Apparently Tony Blair wasn’t keen on the idea, obviously, it was insufficiently Third Way-ish, and couldn’t be farmed out to the private sector.

Now when it comes to the Welsh flag there is an assumption that the distinctive banner of a red dragon on a green and white background, is the symbol of St. David himself. But that flag has nothing whatever to do with the Welsh national saint and doesn’t include any of his iconographies. He has that in common with his fellow countryman Patrick, whose traditional colour is St. Patrick’s blue, which doesn’t feature in the Irish flag. St. David’s symbol is a dramatic golden cross on a black background. The Welsh flag is actually, and ironically, the emblem of a line of British kings and queens, albeit one that originated in Wales, the Tudors. In  1485 one of the members of that house, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, defeated King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, under the banner of the red dragon, and became Henry VII of England and Wales.

In much the same way as the Irish green, white and gold tricolour superseded the more traditional golden harp on a green background, the Tudor flag became the acknowledged emblem of Wales ahead of St. David’s golden cross on a black background.

So, is the rampant red dragon the flag of the patron saint of Wales? I’m afraid not. That’s fake history.

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FAKE HISTORIES#8 – 22.2.19 The Oscar statuette has a commercial value of only $1?

 

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Next Monday night in Los Angeles the filmmaking community will gather for its annual orgy of mutual backslapping and backstabbing, known as the Academy Awards. The orchestra will drown out speeches that stray beyond forty-five seconds in length. The TV audience will get bored and go to bed half-way through. And there will be tears, boy will there be tears! Some of them will be shed onstage as Oscars are accepted with becoming humility or unseemly gloating. Others will be blinked back by the four rejected candidates in the major categories.

But it’s probably fair to say, given the sums of money lavished on Hollywood stars, that there probably won’t be too many of the successful nominees looking at their statuettes and thinking, ‘I wonder how much I can get for this on eBay?’. That’s because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences long ago devised a mechanism to ensure that every second pawn shop in downtown LA wasn’t selling Academy Award statuettes hocked by winners in the ‘best supporting’ categories, who then succumbed to the infamous Oscar Curse, and couldn’t get any more work. It may well be because of their ‘buy back’ policy that a persistent myth has arisen. This suggests that the statuette itself is worth only $1!

Should you find yourself in need of a bit of spare cash, or maybe the golden statuette clashes with your new curtains, you can’t just sell it on the open market. For all Oscars won after 1950 you first have to offer the statuette back to the Academy for a single dollar. It serves to discourage a brisk trade in Oscar as a collectable. So, in that sense at least certain statuettes could be said to be only worth one dollar.

But the cut-off date of 1950 means that there actually is a brisk trade in Oscar as a collectable. In 1999 the late Michael Jackson paid more than one and a half million dollars for the Gone With the Wind Best Picture Oscar from 1939. Vivien Leigh’s Best Actress statuette from the same film fetched half a million dollars.

And that doesn’t even take into consideration the intrinsic value of the post-1950 statuettes in terms of raw materials and labour. They weigh around four kilos each, are 24 carat gold-plated, over copper and nickel silver, and are reckoned to cost around $400 each to produce. They are just over 34 cms tall and their official name is the Academy Award of Merit.

Another contributory factor to the myth that they are only worth a dollar might have come from the World War 2 period. From 1942 to 1945 they had other uses for metal in the USA, so the Oscar statuettes were made from gold-painted plaster. After the war recipients of Academy Awards during those three years were invited to redeem their plaster saints for the real thing. One winner was particularly grateful for that indulgence. The Irish character actor, Barry Fitzgerald won the 1944 Best Supporting Actor gong for his portrayal of a grumpy Irish priest in the Bing Crosby vehicle, Going My Way. Fitzgerald, like the star of the film, was a keen golf fan and managed to shatter his ersatz Oscar taking an indoor practice swing.

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The Academy always has a few spare statuettes handy on the night of the awards ceremony, just in case of a tie. It has happened on a number of occasions over the years that two candidates have received exactly the same number of votes. In fact, in times gone by, if there was only a single vote between the top two nominees, the generous academy would deem the result a tie and give each of them an Oscar.

As to the name ‘Oscar’ itself – in keeping with the prevailing mythology, it does actually appear to have come from the Academy’s librarian Margaret Herrick, who said, when she first saw the statuette, designed by Dubliner Cedric Gibbons, ‘It looks just like my Uncle Oscar’. So at least that famous story is not a myth. The Academy itself gave up the ghost and started officially calling the statuette after Uncle Oscar in 1939.

But, is the Oscar statuette only worth a dollar? No, it isn’t. That’s fake history.

 

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Cedric Gibbons with Oscar

 

Fake Histories #7 – 15.2.2019  Duchess Anastasia, daughter of Tsar Nicholas, survived the assassination of the Romanovs?

 

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Thirty-five years ago, this week, a woman named Anna Anderson died in Charlottesville, Virginia, aged eighty-seven. She was cremated and her ashes were carried across the Atlantic and buried in the grounds of a Benedictine Monastery in Bavaria.

But her name wasn’t really Anna Anderson. She was originally Franziska Schanzkowska, a Polish factory worker born in East Prussia in 1896, and she was probably the best-known imposter of the twentieth century. Anna Anderson, aka Franziska Schanzkowska claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, daughter of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Contrary to reports coming out of the Soviet Union in July 1918 she had, or at least so she claimed, not been murdered along with the other members of her family by a Bolshevik firing squad.

Anderson had first come to public attention in 1920 when she was stopped from throwing herself off a bridge in Berlin. She was admitted to a German psychiatric hospital as Fraülein Unbekannt (‘Miss Unknown’). It was another inmate who first claimed that the unidentified woman was a daughter of the Tsar. From 1922 onwards the legend of Anastasia seemed to grow, aided by emigré Russians whose cause would have been greatly assisted by a surviving member of the Romanov dynasty.

Anna’s own cause received a boost when Tatiana Melnik, the daughter of the Romanov private physician, Dr. Eugene Botkin, positively identified her as Anastasia in 1926. Melnik, whose father had been gunned down along with the Russian Royal family, had met Anastasia when the Duchess was sixteen years old. Melnik then took Anna under her wing, filling in what she described as ‘gaps’ in Anna’s memory by coaching her in many of the domestic details of the Romanov’s lives. All perfectly above board, course.

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Surviving relatives of the Tsar, however, were more difficult to convince. Prince Felix Yusopov, for example, the man responsible for the murder of the so-called ‘Mad  Monk’, Grigori Rasputin (no relation to Vladimir Rasputin) and the Tsar’s nephew by marriage, described Anna as ‘an adventuress, a sick hysteric and a frightful playactress’. The late Tsar’s family had her claims thoroughly investigated and were able to identify her as Schanzkowska in 1927.

However, Anna had many Russian emigré supporters in the USA. These included the composer Sergei Rachmaninov. When she travelled to New York in 1928 Rachmaninov booked her into a New York hotel under the pseudonym ‘Anderson’ and she adopted it from that time onwards. Anna became the fulcrum of a Russian emigré civil conflict with the warring sides either championing her cause or dismissing her claims as fantasy.

After eighteen months in New York Anderson began to display once more some of the self-destructive behaviour for which she had been noted in Germany. This included wandering naked around rooftops. A New York Supreme Court judge, Peter Schmuck (I kid you not) signed an order committing her to a sanatorium. In 1932 she was allowed to return to Germany where she lived until 1968. Then in 1984 she returned to the USA where she married a fellow eccentric, a Virginia history professor and genealogist, Jack Manahan. He, thereafter, described himself as ‘Grand-Duke in waiting’. As she grew older Anna’s mental health problems continued and she was often institutionalised. On one occasion Manahan kidnapped her from a hospital and the couple evaded capture by driving around the state of Virginia for three days, subsisting on purchases from convenience stores, thus proving that such a thing is physiologically possible.

Anna Anderson’s claims were disputed, litigated, scorned and buttressed but they were finally laid to rest in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, by which stage Anna had been dead for seven years. A common grave near Yekaterinburg in Russia was identified as the final resting place of nine members of the Romanov family and their entourage. In 1992 samples were taken from fragments of the teeth and bones of the nine skeletons. These were checked against the DNA of Prince Philip, maternal grandson of Tsarina Alexandra’s sister. The DNA test proved that one of the bodies was that of the Grand Duchess Anastasia.

This finally gave the lie to any notion that Anastasia had somehow managed to survive assassination by the newly installed Bolshevik regime. That was fake history.

 

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Fake Histories #6 – 8.2.19  Thousands of ordinary Dutch people lost their fortunes buying tulips in one of the first speculative bubbles in history

 

 

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If the definition of a financial ‘bubble’ is when asset prices of a commodity, real or virtual, are at variance with its intrinsic value, then the Dutch tulip mania of 1637 was one of those huge bubbles blown from a machine in a funfair into which you could fit a small child. It was towards the end of the first week of February 1637 that everything finally went ‘pop’ in the world’s first, and last, horticultural bubble.

The tulip, which had originated in warmer climes, arrived in the Netherlands towards the end of the sixteenth century. It didn’t take long for a thriving market in tulip bulbs to develop. And it didn’t take much longer for that market to completely lose the run of itself. It developed into a primitive ‘futures’ exchange where actual bulbs were not being traded, but the promise of bulbs to come.

Over a few febrile months in the winter of 1636-37 bulbs which didn’t even exist were reportedly changing hands, at escalating prices, up to ten times a day.

The Scottish journalist, Charles Mackay, in 1841 wrote a popular account of what he hailed as a speculative mania. It was called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Some of his rhetoric may sound uncomfortably familiar to an Irish audience. A Drumm-beat perhaps.

‘Many individuals grew suddenly rich. A golden bait hung temptingly out       before the people, and, one after the other, they rushed to the tulip   marts, like flies around a honey-pot. Every one imagined that the passion for tulips would last for ever, and that the wealthy from every part of the world would send to Holland, and pay whatever prices were asked for them.’

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It just kept getting better and better, until it didn’t. The reckoning came when, after weeks of rising prices someone woke up one morning in early February 1637 and decided it was all getting rather silly. Instead of paying even more money for some overpriced flowers that bloom for about week in April or May,  they went and bought a painting from a young artist named Rembrandt.  Ironically the graph of virtual tulip bulb prices resembles one of those hats you often see Dutch men wearing in portraits by the painter. It goes straight upwards, flattens out for a bit, and then plunges down the other side.

One man who went to town on the debacle was another Dutch artist, Jan Brueghel the Younger—and, yes, you’d be right in thinking his Dad was Jan Brueghel the Elder. Brueghel, in his 1640 painting, named A Satire of Tulip Mania, depicts the purchasers of the flowers as monkeys wearing aristocratic clothes. One of the primates is depicted as urinating on the previously precious plants. Another is being carted off in a coffin. It makes its point very vividly, while, at the same time being rather unfair to monkeys.

Mackay refers to one transaction which, he claimed, highlighted the insanity of this short period of manic speculation. A single bulb changed hands for a basket of goods, worth 2500 florins—that’s almost €30,000 today. The products bartered included four oxen, eight pigs, twelve sheep, four tons of beer, two tons of butter and a thousand pounds of cheese. However, modern economists now dispute Mackay’s research and insist that the manic buying and selling of tulip bulbs was restricted to a tiny group of wealthy speculators.  So, it would appear that not everybody partied back in 1637.

The tulip mania, far from dragging into penury any significant proportion of the Dutch population, appears to have been confined to a few extremely wealthy individuals who assumed they had the Midas touch. As with that tiny handful of bankers who actually lost out in the financial crash of 2008, while you might try manfully to summon up a scintilla of sympathy for the demented tulip buyers, it’s actually not worth it. It’s painfully hard to feel sorry for people with loads of money who lose it all trying to make even vaster loads of money.

So, did the Dutch tulip bubble of 1637 explode in the faces of a  highly leveraged nation resulting in hard times for the people of the Netherlands? No, it just caught out the undeserving rich. So, it’s fake history.

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FAKE HISTORIES#5 – Was Saint Brigid a canonised saint of the Roman Catholic Church?

 

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Hopefully by now you will already have woven your traditional St. Brigid’s cross so that nothing I have to say on the subject of the eponymous holy woman will stay your hand as you twist the strands into their intricate pattern, and clip off the ends so that the extremities are neat and flush.

Because you may not like what you are about to hear.

Tradition has it that Brigid was born in Faughart, Co. Louth in the year 451, two decades after the advent of Christianity in Ireland. Her mother is said to have been a Scottish slave baptised by St. Patrick, so Brigid herself was born into slavery.  She is recorded as having founded a number of monasteries, most notably in Kildare, or Cill Dara, the ‘Church of the Oak’. Among the Lilywhites she is known as Brigid of Kildare. While abbess of that monastery she founded a school of art which produced the Book of Kildare. This beautifully illustrated volume managed to draw the praise of the infamous Hibernophobe Gerald of Wales, making it the only thing about Ireland Gerald ever saw that he actually liked. Tradition has it that she died in Kildare in 525 at the grand old age of seventy-two.

Brigid is informally recognised as a saint in no less than three Christian religions, Roman Catholicism, the Anglican communion, and Eastern Orthodox Catholicism. But the devil is in the word ‘informally’ because in 1969 she, along with dozens of other virtuous early Christians, had her name expunged from the list of saints by the Vatican. The Vatican doesn’t just remove things, it ‘expunges’ them. It was a bit like a drastic cabinet reshuffle with lots of patron saints losing their portfolios.

Among those deprived of their haloes in this cull was Saint Christopher, patron saint of travellers and, worst of all, Saint Nicholas, the man who later became Santa Claus. So, while good old Father Christmas can still climb up and down chimneys, and bring presents to millions of children, as far as the Vatican is concerned he can’t perform miracles. Brigid was handed her P45 because there were serious doubts as to whether she ever existed. So, was she real, does she have anything to do with the weaving of reed crosses on 1 February – and please keep this to yourself—was she actually a pagan goddess?

As Brigid was one of ninety-three saints removed from the universal calendar in 1969 she also had her feast day officially revoked. So, technically, 1 February is no longer St. Brigid’s Day.  There is still a saint called Bridget, but she’s Bridget of Sweden. She seems to have three different feast days, one in July and two in October. Meanwhile our unfortunate Brigid has none.

The suspicion is that she was stripped of her status just because she shared a name with a pagan goddess.

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The eminent Irish historian Daithí O’hÓgáin thinks the woman we now know as Brigid might well have been chief druid at the pagan temple to the goddess of the same name, and that she was responsible for turning the temple into a Christian monastery. Her Christian feast day, also happens to be the date of the pagan feast day of Imbolc. Imbolc is up there with Bealtaine, Lúnasa and Samhain as one of the four great pagan seasonal festivals.  Because it was equidistant between the winter solstice and the spring equinox Imbolc celebrated the beginning of spring. Which, in an Irish context is, you would have to say, the perpetual triumph of optimism over experience. Can any Irish person put their hand on their heart and recall a single St. Brigid’s Day that felt even remotely spring-like?

The Christian Brigid had a heavy portfolio of responsibilities– in alphabetical order these included babies, blacksmiths, boatmen, brewers, cattle, chicken farmers, children in trouble, dairymaids, fugitives, infants, Ireland, Leinster, midwives, nuns, poets, the poor, poultry farmers, printing presses, sailors, scholars and travellers. The pagan Goddess Brigid had it easy by comparison, she was in charge of fertility, which, let’s face it, can’t have been a major problem in pre-Christian Ireland.

The Christian Brigid had two miraculous talents which must have made her very popular indeed and will have convinced a lot of pagans that Christianity wasn’t so bad after all. She could control the rain and the wind-always a good trick on the rainy, windy, periphery of Europe and, with even more mass appeal, she could turn water into wine.

But is she a canonised saint? Sadly, not since 1969. It’s fake history.