‘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#61 Didn’t Julius Caesar make a grand job of the Leap Year?

 

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First off let me offer my most profound condolences to any ‘leaplings’ amongst you. To qualify you will have been born on 29th February. Many happy returns tomorrow and do enjoy your birthday party because your next one won’t be happening until 2024. It wouldn’t be quite so bad if you only aged one year in every four as well, but, of course, it doesn’t work like that does it? Does it?

Because the Earth is a highly uncooperative orb it doesn’t quite manage to make its way around the sun in 365 days. It takes an additional six hours or so. As a consequence, with the creation of the Julian calendar in Rome, during the reign of Julius Caesar, an extra day was added at the end of February to keep everything in line. As the shortest month it needed all the help it could get. Later Caesar was stabbed to death in retaliation by a gang of ‘leaplings’  who bitterly resented the absence of birthday cards for three years out of every four. Maybe! No one actually checked their birth certs but it’s odds on they were all born on 29 February and had a grudge against Old Julie.

The problem, however, with the Julian calendar, is that there was a sting in the tail. Because the Earth is a highly uncooperative orb and doesn’t quite manage to make its way around the sun in 365 days and six hours. It take a few seconds less than that. So, you lose about three days every four hundred years. This meant that, by the 16th century Caesar’s calendar was starting to get out of whack with the seasons. For example, the Spring Equinox, which should have been on 23 March, actually fell on the 11th March. That was when Pope Gregory took a hand, tossed out the Julian calendar and replaced it with his own, which accounted for the precise amount of time to takes the earth to revolve around the sun. To cater for those vital few rogue seconds, certain years, which were actually divisible by four, were to be designated as non-leap years. They had to be divisible by four hundred as well. So the first year that would have had a leap day in February, but didn’t, was 1700. The next one will be 2100. So, if you are born tomorrow, and live to be eighty-four, you won’t  have a birthday for the last seven years of your life. Bummer!

By the way, does anyone have any idea what the other three years in the cycle are called? Full marks if you said ‘common’ years.

Among those unfortunate enough to be born on 29 February are the actors Joss Ackland and Denis Farina – in the case of Richard Ramirez, born in El Paso, Texas on 29 February 1960 it’s the rest of humanity that was visited by misfortune. He went on to become the serial killer known as the Night Stalker who terrorised Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 1980s and murdered more than a dozen people. Born on the same day four years earlier was one of the most notorious female serial killers in legal history, Aileen Wournos. Is there something we need to know?

The good news for Spain, however, is that their current Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, won’t be distracted by having to throw elaborate annual birthday parties because he too is a leapling.

By the way, when it comes to the tradition that a woman can propose marriage to a man on a leap day—as if they aren’t allowed to do so on any of the other 1460 days in the cycle—there’s a sting in the tail. Apparently if the man refuses the proposal he must give the woman a sum of money, or buy her a dress. That is, let’s face it, something you could turn to your advantage tomorrow. Assuming you’re a woman and there’s a man of your acquaintance who really doesn’t like you. Just be careful. Men can be very fickle. He might say ‘yes’.

So, as to the starter question, did Julius Caesar make a grand job of the Leap Year? … decidedly not. If Pope Gregory hadn’t intervened and chopped out a few of them we’d soon be having Christmas in November.

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POPE GREGORY

FH#59  St. Valentine was beaten to death with clubs?

 

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Cue the mushy music, break out the chocolates, take a wee moment to smell that garland of  roses, and count those cards again, because, if you didn’t know that it’s St. Valentine’s day you’re either out of luck, or an incurable grouch.

We’ll get to the sad fate of the man after whom the day is named, a little later.

One thing you can say about St. Valentine—purveyor of love and affection, hero to cardmakers, choclatiers, intimate restaurants, the Post Office, and maternity hospitals around the middle of November—is that the various Churches in which he is revered, work the man very hard indeed. The afterlife doesn’t necessarily mean a restful retirement for holy men. Valentine is not just the patron saint of lovers you see. He doesn’t get any downtime after mid-February. In addition to his patronage of love, amour, amore, liebe, STDs and lovebites, he is also the patron saint of beekeepers. He is charged with their protection and with the sweetness of honey. Not only that but he is patron saint AGAINST epilepsy, fainting and the bubonic plague. He’s been doing quite well on the latter in recent years.

The man himself was a Christian martyr who met a sad and violent end around the year 270 AD in Rome, where his skull is still exhibited to this day. But, fear not, apparently a small vessel containing some of his blood—which has survived remarkably well after one thousand seven hundred and fifty odd years—is on display in the Carmelite Church in Whitefriar Street in Dublin. Hopefully it’s the blood of the correct Valentine, because apparently there are around a dozen saints and martyrs of that name who feature in regional Christian church lists. The most recent one was canonised in 1988. There is even a Pope Valentine, but he only lasted in office for forty days, in 827, so, wisely perhaps, no pontiff has assumed the name since the ninth century.

Is it significant, one wonders,  that, apparently, there are no churches dedicated to St. Valentine in buttoned-down England, while there are dozens in his name in amorous Italy? Which brings to mind the title of that long-running 1970s farce No Sex Please We’re British. It ran in the West End for sixteen years. One of the Italian churches named after him was situated in the 1960 Rome Olympic village, though, by all accounts, the presence of St. Valentine is not essential for lustful carry-on in Olympic villages.

The problem with Valentine and all the saccharine of the day associated with his name, is that he was a Christian martyr. There is no getting away from the fact, as you sip your first prosecco of the night and dive into the Quality Street, that poor Valentine, to whom you owe tonight’s date with your outrageously handsome or beautiful escort, came to a very bad end indeed.

As regards the poor man’s demise, there is some clubbing involved, but not of the type that you might hope to be indulging in later tonight if that romantic dinner goes well. As with most of the early saints and martyrs, the precise details of his passing are disputed. But the consensus seems to be that he fell foul of the Roman Emperor Claudius, not the I Claudius of the Robert Graves books, who was a good egg, but Claudius the Second, who was more of a hard-boiled type. Valentine, or Valentinus to give him his Roman name, was accused of marrying Christian couples, hence his designation as patron saint of lovers. But Claudius the Second was a tad unsentimental about Christian nuptials. In fact he didn’t approve of Christians of any stripe. Aiding and abetting Christianity was a capital offence in third century Rome.

Claudius ordered that Valentine should be beaten to death with clubs—not the sort of end that we would associate with such a mushily romantic figure. The good news is that the beating failed to kill him. The bad news is that he was then beheaded, which did. Spare a thought for his dreadful end as the maitre d’ escorts you to your table tonight. Actually … maybe save your reflections until tomorrow. Contemplating beatings and beheadings as you order the starter might spoil your appetite, or ruin that all-important frisson as you gaze rapturously into the eyes of your dinner date.

But as to the ultimate fate of St. Valentine, patron saint of lovers and beekeepers, was he beaten to death with clubs? No, he was decapitated, so that’s fake history. Do enjoy your evening.

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FH #58  Did the first lynching take place in Galway in 1493?

 

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As Galway has been Ireland’s Capital of Culture for decades it’s only fitting that it becomes Europe’s official capital of Culture for 2020 this week. One wonders though if the year-long celebration will encompass the enduring myth (or even history) of a former mayor of the city James Lynch Fitzstephen, who, according to local legend, in 1493, invoking his magisterial powers, condemned his own son to death for the murder of a Spanish visitor who was a rival for the affections of a local woman. Legend has it that when no one could be found to execute his son Fitzstephen performed the sorry task himself by hanging the young lad from a window in Market Street.

It may be history, it may simply be legend but one thing is certain, it has given rise to an enduring parallel mythology that credits James Lynch Fitzstephen with inadvertently originating the term ‘lynching’, as in an extra-judicial hanging. The Fitzstephen story doesn’t even have to be true for the alleged incident to have become the basis of the coinage of that ugliest of words. Neither does it really matter that the execution of the young Fitzstephen was not an illegal act—he had actually been condemned to death— nor that, logically, if the word followed the deed we should be talking about the unfortunate victims of ‘Fitzstephening’ rather than ‘lynching’.

However, we need to visit the more natural habitat of this barbaric practice, the American South, to establish whether a late fifteenth century Mayor of Galway’s name has been gruesomely immortalised or not.

The word itself may well have had a relatively benign genesis. American sources claim that it comes, not from fifteenth century Galway, but from the American revolution of the late eighteenth century. It appears that a Virginia Quaker named Charles Lynch took it upon himself during the US War of Independence, to incarcerate loyalist supporters of British rule without the proper authority. When the British abandoned their unruly colony, Lynch sought retrospective legal jurisdiction just in case he was sued by any of his former prisoners. The resulting legislation became known as ‘Lynch’s Law’, which morphed into ‘Lynch Law’ and gradually began to mean the assumption of extra-judicial authority.

It became a verb in the aftermath of the American Civil War as white southerners fought to reassert some of their authority over millions of freed slaves who now, perish the thought, even had the right to vote.

One of the great heroes of nineteenth century American journalism, Ida B. Wells, born into slavery herself in 1862, just before emancipation, became editor of a newspaper called Free Speech and Headlight in 1889. That same year a friend of hers, who had set up a business competing with white-owned concerns in Memphis, Tennessee was lynched by a white mob. That set Ida Wells on the journey for which she is most celebrated, documenting the incidences and the rationale behind the evil practice of lynching in the post-Civil War South

She exposed the lie that most black men were lynched for sexual assaults on white women – instead she found that most black men were targeted for challenging southern white supremacy in the economic or political field. Lynching, far from being a response to inter-racial rape, was a form of social control. The worst example of the practice was the so-called Great Hanging of Gainesville, Texas in October 1862 where forty-one black men were hanged by a white mob. Ida Wells published her findings in Southern Horror: Lynch Law in all its Phases in 1892. In the book she was unequivocal in her advocacy of self-defensive measures

‘A Winchester rifle,’ she wrote, ‘should have a place of honour in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. ‘

After the book appeared the offices of her newspaper were torched and she was forced to flee to New York which hadn’t lynched too many African-Americans since the 1863 Draft Riots.

In 1915 the epic silent movie, Birth of a Nation, highlighted the gruesome practice, except that the director, D.W. Griffith, seemed to think it was a good idea.  Between 1880 and 1951 independent research has recorded almost five thousand lynchings in the USA. Most took place in the states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Texas and Louisiana and around 70% of the victims were African-American men and women.

So, when it comes to the dispute over where the word lynching comes from, fifteenth century Galway, or revolutionary America … does it really matter?

 

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FH #57  Did Brexit mark the first major split in the British Conservative party since its formation? 

 

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Robert Peel

It all came to an end on 31 January, after a huge split in the Tory party and might never have happened had it not been for Ireland. And, as most you have probably guessed by now I’m not talking about Brexit because we all love our little bit of misdirection on radio and besides Brexit will not be coming to an end anytime soon.

 

I’m talking about the final resolution of one of the previous apocalyptic convulsions in British politics, the repeal of the Corn Laws. It was also bubbling under for a couple of decades and then took three years of close combat to resolve. While a negotiated Brexit might never have happened without the intervention of Leo Varadkar, the Repeal of the Corn Laws probably owe their passage to a rather more doleful event in Irish history, the Great Famine.

 

The Corn Laws were, not to put too fine a point on it, a mechanism devised by the British landowning classes—represented by the Conservative party—to preserve their money and privileges. Nowadays this is achieved in Eton, Harrow, Oxford, Cambridge and the City of London. The Corn Laws ensured that imported grain, mostly from the USA, was subjected to tariffs that allowed the aristocracy to continue to obtain ridiculously high prices for their home grown grain. This made bread, the staple diet of the working class, far more expensive than should have been the case in nineteenth century Britain. Had cheaper imported American grain been used in the making of flour, bread would have been more plentiful and less expensive.

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As the industrial revolution of the early nineteenth century began to take hold in Britain representatives of the new entrepreneurial class—represented by the Whig party—began to flex their political muscles and resist artificially high corn prices. Change required the repeal of a raft of legislation known, collectively, as the Corn Laws. Opponents of this tariff regime adopted the singularly unimaginative name of the Anti Corn Law League, rather than something flashier like Buy Alien Corn Cheap or BACC for short.

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MISTER Richard Cobden

When it comes to figuring out who stood with the ordinary Joe it might help to look at the names of two of those involved on either side of the argument. One of the main protagonists of the Anti Corn Law League was Mister Richard Cobden – the leading light of their opponents, the Central Agricultural Protection Society (or CAPS for short, the aristos were better at branding) was the Duke of Richmond. He may well have been a perfectly lovely man, and he was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, but he was still a Duke. Dukes tended to have a rather different perspective on life, and things like bread, than plain Misters or Mistresses. Dukes, for example, could afford cake.

 

So where did Ireland come into all of this?

 

Well, with the Conservatives in power in the 1840s, under Robert Peel – dubbed Orange Peel by Daniel O’Connell on account of his unionism – there wasn’t a locust’s chance in a desert of the Corn Laws being repealed. Until the potato blight in 1845 led to changed priorities for Prime Minister Peel. Faced with famine in Ireland he recommended that the Corn Laws be swept away and cheap grain be imported from America to feed the starving Irish. Just in case the House of Commons said ‘No’ he went ahead and bought some anyway on the quiet.

Ranged against him was a sizeable proportion of his own party. Peel persisted and, with the help of the opposition Whigs, forced through legislation which would lead to the final elimination of the Corn Laws one hundred and seventy one years ago today. One wonders did Theresa May ever think about Robert Peel, and the assistance he received from the main opposition party in the House of Commons in the passage of his controversial legislation.

There then followed an election campaign contested against the background of the slogan ‘Let’s get the Corn Laws done’ – actually that’s a bit of a porkie. It didn’t happen like that at all. Abandoned by a majority of the members of his party Peel was booted out of office and was replaced by a Whig administration that managed to make about as big a mess of the Irish famine as it was possible to do without actually hanging half the population. The supporters of Peel, one of whom was a young Tory MP by the name of William Gladstone, joined forces with the Whigs to form the Liberal party in 1859.

 

Interestingly, when the Tories came back to power under Benjamin Disraeli they did not restore the Corn Laws. The Prime Minister proclaimed that the matter was settled and that it was now time to move on, so, no second referendum, as it were.

 

If you think that Brexit was the first major convulsion of the Tory party since its foundation, then you’ve probably never heard of the massive split provoked by the Corn Laws. That’s fake history.

 

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Tory ERG members seeking a fair deal on trade with the EU from Michel Barnier and Phil Hogan. I think.

 

FH #56 Did Queen Victoria lead a cloistered and sheltered life?

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Had she been spared, Queen Victoria would have been two hundred and one years old last Wednesday. Which, despite her actual longevity, is probably a bit of a stretch to contemplate. But as England gets its fondest wish on 31 January and seems set for a wholehearted return to the era named after her, it’s probably worth taking a closer look and asking did Old Queen Vic really lead a cloistered and sheltered life in which piano legs were covered for fear that they would become a gateway drug to unbridled admiration of the female appendage of the same name.

Let’s start with her title. Because, you see, her official name wasn’t Victoria at all. She was named Alexandrina after her godfather, Tsar Alexander I of Russia. Had she not preferred her second name, Victoria, we might be talking today about wildfires in the Australian state of Alexandrina, or the retail outlet Alexandrina’s Secret. She would probably have disapproved heartily of the latter as there is no evidence that she had a penchant for sexy lingerie.

When she was born, the odds against her becoming monarch at the time she did were prohibitive. She was fifth in line to the throne behind her father and three uncles. She had about as much chance of becoming Queen as Barbara Windsor, after whom the Royal family is now named. But, one by one the prior claimants succumbed. If you were a conspiracy theorist you might even start to think … but let’s not go there.

She was the first reigning monarch to occupy Buckingham Palace. Royal histories record her as ‘adding a new wing’ to the establishment, which suggests that she might also have been the first reigning monarch to engage in manual labour. Probably best not to take the accounts literally though.

As regards the cloistered existence bit, she was certainly kept away from the hoi polloi when she was a young princess, she was even made to share a bedroom with her mother until she became Queen, so no chance of interaction on social media, the dominant form of the day being something called ‘the letter’ which appears to have involved actual writing, with no abbreviations.  Ha, LOL!

However, she was exposed to one of the most common pursuits of many of the crowned heads of Europe at the time, surviving attempted assassination. At least six people, all men, tried to kill her in a variety of ways, mostly by taking pot shots at her. She was only wounded once, in 1850, when an enterprising assassin struck her with an iron-tipped cane.

A mad Scottish poet, Roderick MacLean, plotted to kill her eight times before he finally made his own failed attempt. Apparently his resentment was because she had been a tad caustic about some poetry he sent her. The episode prompted the infamous Scottish versifier, William McGonagall—the world’s worst poet —to pen one of his own deplorable rhymes.

Maclean must be a madman,
Which is obvious to be seen,
Or else he wouldn’t have tried to shoot
Our most beloved Queen.

And that’s more than enough about Scottish poets.

Victoria’s latter years were spent as a virtual recluse in Balmoral in the Scottish highlands after the death of her beloved husband Prince Albert, for whom a well-known piercing was named, but only long after his death when he could no longer seek an injunction. Her diary suggests that she thoroughly enjoyed their wedding night. In it she wrote …

‘I never, never spent such an evening!! My dearest dearest dear Albert … his         excessive love & affection gave me feelings of heavenly love & happiness I never could have hoped to have felt before!’

Indeed!

Many years after the death of Albert, Victoria may or may not have had an affair with her personal attendant, John Brown. There are even allegations that she secretly married him. Victorian gossips took to calling her ‘Mrs. Brown’, so Brendan O’Carroll didn’t get there first. When she died she was buried with a lock of John Brown’s hair, his photograph, his mother’s wedding ring, and a number of his letters. As he had predeceased her he didn’t join her in the coffin himself.

Half a dozen assassination attempts, a passionate marriage and an alleged affair later in life suggest that, despite her restrictive childhood and her self-imposed reclusiveness in widowhood, the notion of a cloistered Victorian existence for Britain’s second longest reigning monarch, is fake history.

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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.