‘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.

 

 

 

FH#55 Is Presidential impeachment actually worse than the Salem Witch trials?

 

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Late last year a penitent Donald Trump wrote a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi taking full responsibility for his actions in the Ukraine scandal and admitting to a whole host of impeachable offences.

Now, if you’ll excuse me for a second or two we just need to switch the dial and journey back from that parallel universe. Because, of course, President Trump did precisely the opposite. The bit about the letter is true though, you may remember it. It was six pages long, only the numbers at the bottom of each page made much sense, and the President, who is, of course, an acknowledged expert in 17th century US history, observed that …

I have been denied the most fundamental rights under the constitution … more            due process was afforded to those accused in the Salem Witch trials.

Far be it from me to challenge the authority of a man who has obviously spent hours poring over dusty and obscure documents from the history of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, when he should have been reading his daily CIA briefing, but his controversial utterance does seem to invite some rigorous analysis. So, let’s examine the validity of the suggestion that the impeachment process is odious in comparison with the procedures employed in the prosecution for witchcraft of a large number of women, and a much smaller number of men, in the rural community of Salem village, Massachusetts, in 1692.

Perhaps we should start with the response of the current Mayor of Salem, Kim Driscoll, to the President’s thesis.

‘Oy vey…again. Learn some history’ she tweeted,  ‘Salem 1692 = absence of evidence + powerless, innocent victims were hanged or pressed to death. #Ukraniegate 2019 = ample evidence + admissions of wrongdoing + perpetrators are among the most powerful and privileged.’

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Straightaway we need to enter a caveat here. Because Kim Driscoll is a lazy ‘do-nothing’ Democrat, and is also the Mayor of Salem Town, not Salem village where, in 1692, the uproar actually took place. Back in the 17th century the two entities were deadly rivals, Salem town being much wealthier than the adjoining village of the same name. The patent lack of objectivity in the Mayor’s tweet, as well as her gender, suggests that Kim Driscoll may indeed be a witch herself.

The Salem witch trials were symptomatic of suspicion of one’s neighbour and the fear of outsiders, a phenomenon that, happily, has no place in President Trump’s America.  Were Arthur Miller alive today he would undoubtedly focus on the agony of Presidential impeachment rather than the Salem witch trials for his allegorical play about McCarthyism, The Crucible.

The Salem commotion arose when two young children began to have fits and accused a number of local women of bewitching them. The resulting witchcraft trials led to the hanging of nineteen women and the formal crushing to death of the single male victim, Giles Corey, husband of one of the alleged witches.  Much of the testimony at the trials was so-called ‘spectral evidence’ where the witnesses recounted incriminating dreams rather than offering factual accounts of their experiences. As the record of the House of Representatives will show, spectral evidence, though encouraged by the Republican minority, was not accepted during the impeachment process. Neither is it likely that President Trump will ever be pressed to death under a pile of stones (the fate of Giles Corey).

One other major point of contrast is that in 1711 a shamefaced Massachusetts legislature retrospectively exonerated the condemned witches and offered financial restitution to their families. Impeachment, however, is not subject to retroactive pardons (unless the President opts to pardon himself) and it is unlikely that Ivanka, Eric, Donald Jr. or any other Trump dependent will be getting a cheque in the past anytime soon from a chastened House of Representatives.

So, is the impeachment process actually worse than the Salem witch trials? Given that no one has ever been executed for high crimes and misdemeanours committed as US President, thus far at any rate, that’s probably fake news. Sorry, I obviously meant fake history.

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FH#51  Jesus Christ was born on December 25th?

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The timing couldn’t be better, at least in the northern hemisphere. Although we’ll have just had the shortest day of the year we will still be in the grip of the dark season with barely eight hours of daylight at Irish latitudes. Even the malign effects of global warming won’t mitigate the seasonally low temperatures. Could there be a better time to have a massive week long party (or more like two weeks if you don’t work in an essential industry, or retail)? Which is why it’s highly unlikely that the man after whom Christianity is named was actually born on the day also named after him.

While Jesus Christ was undoubtedly an historical figure who caused anxiety to the Romans towards the beginning of the first millennium, there were numerous compelling reasons for fixing his birthday at the end of December every year. None have anything to do with the timing of his actual birth.

So, where did Christians come by the date the 25th of December and decide to fix it as the birthdate of Christ? The answer is they didn’t, or at least not all of them.  Roman Catholics and Protestants celebrate Christmas at the end of December. But in places like Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, Belarus, Egypt and many other countries, Orthodox Christians still use the Julian calendar, and celebrate the feast day on 7 January. Only aficionados of the more recent Gregorian Calendar opt for 25 December. Which, of course means, that clever  Orthodox Christians who have migrated to Western Europe, get to celebrate twice as much as the rest of us over an extended Christmas period. If they’ve emigrated to the USA they get a third knees up, at Thanksgiving, in late November.

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Who chose the 25th December as Catholic Christmas in the first place, you might well ask? And the answer would be Pope Julius 1, bless his red socks. He called it the Feast of the Nativity and, when he named the day, he probably didn’t have in mind an orgy of high street and online selling. But then the American Pilgrim Fathers probably had no idea they would ultimately establish Black Friday when they began to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Christmas wasn’t an instant hit either. Julius named the day in the 4th century, AD obviously, but it didn’t catch on in Europe until 400 years later. Such was the determined rivalry from Thanksgiving that it didn’t become a national holiday in the USA until 1870. Odd that, from the nation that invented the image of the jolly, red cheeked, white-bearded Santa Claus, albeit via the pen of the German-born cartoonist Thomas Nast.

And what was it that possessed Julius to opt for 25th December as the Feast of the Nativity? Well, in the best mercantile traditions of Christmas it was to see off the competition. The teachings of Jesus Christ were slower to make inroads than you might think. There are those who would argue vehemently that his ideas are yet to catch on to this day. Back in the fourth century anno domini the good people of Europe still clung to many of their pagan beliefs and red letter days. So Pope Julius had a bright idea. They could hang on to their bleak midwinter festival, but he would rebrand it as nothing less than the birth day of Christ himself. Think of the Marathon bar becoming Snickers. Or was it the other way around?

Of course the English Puritans, twelve hundred years later, were wise to the Julian PR coup. They spotted that there was no reference to the date of Christ’s birth in the bible. They suspected that an earlier Roman Antichrist (they loved their demonic hyperbole those Puritans) had merely lifted a pagan festival, mistletoe, yule logs and all, and put a Christian gloss on it. So, in 1644 they outlawed Christmas. Three years later they did the same with Easter and Whit Sunday. American Puritans, anxious to assert the superiority of that quintessentially All-American feast day, Thanksgiving, did likewise.

However, even the Puritans were forced to bow the knee to retail. With the rise of Chambers of Commerce and the restoration of the Monarchy, Christmas was restored to its full glory just in time to be turned by the Victorians into the festival we know today, where monthly household food spending increases by 20% and alcohol purchases soar by 30%. That grating sound you hear is not Santa Claus coming down the chimney, it’s Oliver Cromwell and the American Pilgrim Fathers turning in their graves.

So, was Jesus Christ born on Christmas Day? Well, there’s always a one in three hundred and sixty five chance that he was, but, on balance, probably not.

 

Fake Histories #50  Santa Claus is an entirely fictional character?

 

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One of the purveyors of this particular blasphemy was none other than the wisecracking, avuncular, piano virtuoso Chico Marx himself. It happened in the manic Marx Brothers movie hit from 1935, A Night at the Opera. Chico is playing off his brother Groucho in one of the best comic scenes in this still hilarious movie. The two men are discussing a contract, the contents of which Chico doesn’t much like. Groucho is, quite literally, tearing strips off it, physically deleting its terms until the two are down to a tiny strip of paper. Chico inquires about this final residue of the original document. Groucho assures him, ‘It’s all right. That’s, in every contract. It’s what they call a sanity clause.
‘You can’t fool me.’Chico hits back. ‘There ain’t no Sanity Clause.’

And there you have it, at its most stark, the sinister allegation from a childlike vaudeville performer that Santa Claus is a figment of the childish imagination. The first thing to be said in refutation of this pernicious heresy is that Chico, as a Marxist, would have been a logical positivist, scorning religion and magic in the same way as he rejected market-led capitalism. To Chico, an acolyte of his namesake, Karl, religion was ‘pie in the sky when you die’ and Santa Claus was ‘a faux ho ho ho in the midwinter snow’.

Of course, with the collapse of European communism in 1989, Santa Claus had the last ‘ho ho ho’.

But who exactly is Santa Claus, other than an extremely generous inhabitant of the North Pole whose gig economy elves should have been unionised centuries ago?

Apparently, he’s a fourth century bishop who became St. Nicholas. Bishop Nicholas was a wealthy man who gave covert gifts to the poor. The secretive nature of his bounty derived from his reluctance to offend his fellow aristocrats, who merely exploited them. The origin of many Christmas practices seems to have come from a gift he bestowed on an impoverished householder with three daughters. The unfortunate man could not afford the dowries required to marry them off. So, Nicholas climbed up on the man’s roof and dropped a bag of gold down the chimney. This got stuck in a stocking that had been hung out to dry, et voila, we have the very first Christmas present. After his death St. Nicholas, in spiritual form, appears to have ramped up his operation to include children all over the world. At what point he requisitioned a sleigh and recruited his reindeer is still a fertile area of historical dispute. English nationalists, for example, claim that it was a leftover chariot from the warlike Queen Boudicca. Obviously with the whirling swords removed from its spokes.

As is the case with other magical beings—the Tooth Fairy is a perfect example— there have been doubts expressed by professional grinches and curmudgeons, normally between the ages of ten and fourteen, about the existence of Father Christmas. Scathing references are often made to his physical appearance and his advanced age, and consequential doubts are expressed as to his ability to descend from roofs given his own considerable circumference as compared to the dimensions of most modern chimneys.

However, the one inescapable and irrefutable fact that gives the lie to any assertion that Santa Claus is a myth, is, of course, the millions of mysterious presents to which children all over the world wake up on Christmas day. If you need hard and fast proof that Santa Claus exists you can find it under the Christmas tree in the early morning of 25 December—usually very early indeed. It is impossible to counter such a massive volume of evidence of the existence of this jolly rotund figure with the white beard and the distinctive red and white uniform.

So, in answer to the peevish myth that Santa Claus does not exist, don’t be either fooled or alarmed, it’s fake history.

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FH#49  The Anglo-Irish Treaty involved the swearing of allegiance to the British monarch?

 

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There were nine names on the piece of paper. One of the men who appended his signature observed that ‘I may have signed my political death warrant’. Another responded lugubriously, ‘I may have signed my actual death warrant.’ It turned out he was right.

In Ireland we don’t have an ‘Independence Day’ as such. Easter Monday, the day on which the 1916 Proclamation was read by Patrick Pearse, outside the GPO, changes date every year. The actual date, 24 April, hardly even merits a mention, so pervasive is the Easter Week mythology.

But if we had an actual Independence Day, like 4 July in the USA or 14 July, Bastille Day, in France, then it might well be today, the 6 December. Because on this day, in 1921,  five Irishmen, Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins, Robert Barton, Eamon Duggan and George Gavan Duffy, signed the Treaty that ended the Anglo-Irish war and led, a few weeks later, to an independent Irish Free State. It may not have been independent enough for some, but it was recognised as such by the colonial power that had legislatively encompassed Ireland since 1801.

None of the five Irishmen who added their signatures to those of Lloyd George, Austen Chamberlain, F.E.Smith and Winston Churchill, were exactly overjoyed at what they had just done. The ‘death warrant’ remark had been made by Smith, by then trading as Lord Birkenhead. The prescient response was, famously, made by Michael Collins, who would indeed be dead within eight months.

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Conspicuous by its absence was the signature of one Eamon de Valera. The President of the fledgling Irish Republic had travelled to London in July 1921 to negotiate a truce with the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, but had given responsibility for negotiating the Treaty itself to Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins. The move has been debated for the better part of a century, and we still have no definitive answer to the question, ‘why did de Valera stay in Dublin?’. Was it because he knew, after his talks with the wily Welsh Prime Minister, that the negotiation of a Republic was off the table?

Would he, as head of the delegation, have compromised himself on the issue of partition, as did Arthur Griffith, when he privately agreed to a Boundary Commission? Would he have caved in to Lloyd George’s threat of total war, as did Michael Collins, a man better placed than most to evaluate the capacity of the IRA to continue the struggle against even greater odds than before?

It’s the question for which the phrase ‘what if …?’ might have been invented.

But what, precisely, did the Irish delegation agree to? As far as doctrinaire republicans, like Cathal Brugha and Austin Stack, were concerned, they had settled for a deal that was barely a whisker removed from the Home Rule solution emphatically rejected by the Irish electorate in December 1918.

But if you wanted to be Jesuitical about it, and you were a Gaeilgóir, you could argue the opposite. While, in the English language, the Treaty brought into being the Irish Free State, rather than the Irish Republic, sufficiently cherished by many of the members of Sinn Fein and the old IRA to go back to war in 1922, in Irish it brought Saorstát na hÉireann into existence. In Dáil proceedings during the War of Independence the word ‘saorstát’ had been used to mean ‘republic’.

Then there was the issue of the infamous ‘oath of allegiance’ to the King. This was repugnant to many of those who believed they had fought the British Empire to a standstill in pursuit of the ideal of complete separation from the English Crown. Now they would have to swear an oath to the King.

Or would they?

Treaties are all about semantics, and while one may dismiss the ‘republic’ and ‘saorstát’ issue as special pleading (and certainly it was not advanced as a triumphant coup by the plenipotentiaries) Collins secured a concession that he possibly believed would appeal to Dev’s inner Jesuit.

What exactly were Irish public representatives required to swear? Well, the wording was as follows … ‘I do solemnly swear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the Irish Free State as by law established and that I will be faithful to H.M. King George V, his heirs and successors by law …’  If you decided you didn’t want to go to war with your brother over a form of words then, perhaps, you might stretch a point and accept that you were being required to demonstrate mere fidelity to the British monarch rather than to swear allegiance.

In the January debate on the Treaty sixty-four Sinn Fein TDs decided they were prepared to accept that form of words, fifty-seven were not. But, technically, the plenipotentiaries had ensured that future TDs would swear ‘allegiance’ to the Irish Free State and would pledge to be faithful to the British Crown.  It was a nice point, but it wasn’t enough to avoid a Civil War.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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