‘The White House’ – a cautionary novel

myles dungan final copy

 

 

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 avoirdupoisof 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-têtewith 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 an 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 metalic 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 majeureafter 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 situin 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 am 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 re-located 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 MacDonald’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 Resolutedesk. 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 Unumscroll 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 tooth pick. 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 wall eyes.

‘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 THESupreme Court, you moron. MYSupreme Court. The cat sitting in your lap. 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 tooth pick. 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 ash tray.

Rothko knew instinctively that he was about to be fired. Angelo and Jalen beckoned. He wondered what the previous record was for the shortest tenure as Commerce Secretary.

‘I remember now’, said Trout. In his head Rothko was already composing his resignation letter. Abrupt or apologia? Terse and enigmatic, he decided. Mostly verbs.

‘It was the john,’ said Trout, thoroughly pleased with himself.

‘Eh … what was, sir?’

‘Where I hung that painting of yours. The reason I remember is that, bar a couple of random lines of beige, it was the colour of shit.’

With a flourish he extracted the sliver of chicken with the nail of his index finger, studied it for a moment, returned it to his mouth, and swallowed it.

As the last shard of Presidential nugget slipped down the Commander in Chief’s throat he turned his attention, once again, to the man he took to be an abstract expressionist.

‘Do you play golf?’ he asked.

 

 

 

FAKE HISTORIES#2 – 11.1.2019  ‘Harold of Wessex was killed by an arrow through the eye at the Battle of Hastings’

 

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Harold Godwinson doesn’t appear to have had much time for immigrants. To be fair to Harold the class of foreigners he didn’t like crossing his frontiers were not political refugees or fruit pickers, they were after his kingdom. Harold was an Anglo-Saxon. The inevitable merger of Angles and Saxons had taken place a few generations prior. It helped forestall hostile takeover attempts from restless Viking and French invaders. I don’t want to give away the ending too early but Harold was, as it turned out, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England. He was already Earl of Wessex when he was crowned King just under a millennium or so ago this week. The coronation took place in Westminster Abbey on the feast of the Epiphany. Just as I didn’t want to give away the ending I don’t want to mix metaphors, but the crown was a poisoned chalice. Harold was about to have a couple of epiphanies of his own.

He was a descendant of the infamous King Canute, or Cnut, to give him his proper name. Cnut was the English king who sat in a deckchair on the beach and commanded the waves to go away, and the tide to stay out. This bizarre behaviour has been culpably misunderstood ever since. Cnut was nobody’s fool – he didn’t imagine the moon was going to take the day off and neglect its gravitational duties. In fact he didn’t even know the moon was in control of proceedings. What he did know was that the waves would continue to flow inexorably, and that he would get his feet wet. He was actually attempting to demonstrate the limits of kingly power, rather than that he was an idiotic megalomaniac who thought he had power over the tides. Glad we could clear up that bit of fake history in passing!

Back to Harold. Now he should probably have taken his ancestor’s lesson in realpolitikto heart. That’s because he wasn’t in a position to learn from the mistakes of Napoleon and Hitler, of fighting a war on two fronts. It was 1066 and all that, and Hitler and Napoleon would not be around for hundreds of years.

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Instead Harold took on the Viking invaders of his kingdom, led by a rival claimant to his throne who, in an effort to sow confusion, was also called Harold. Harold Hardrada of Norway invaded England in September 1066. Harold Godwinson of  Wessex took his army north and defeated the Viking invaders at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. For the record Stamford Bridge was actually a village in  the East Riding of Yorkshire long before it became a football stadium in London dependent on the largesse of a Russian oligarch.

Having beaten the Vikings, Harold might have thought he could relax a little and start to enjoy his reign as King of England. No such luck. Another rival claimant to his throne emerged from the far side of the English Channel in Normandy. At least this one was called William, not Harold, thus making it easier to tell the two competing Kings apart. Harold was forced to march his army more than 240 miles south to the Sussex village of Hastings.

So, it’s 1066 and Harold is about to fight the Battle of Hastings. You probably know what’s coming next. The army of William of Normandy wins the battle and Harold is killed.

But the question is, was he killed by an enterprising archer who fired an arrow into his eye. This is how the famous Bayeux tapestry depicts his demise. A Norman account of the battle suggests that Harold was surrounded by four of their knights, was killed, and had his body dismembered. The fact that one of the four knights was supposed to be Duke William of Normandy himself suggests that this is a piece of  ex post factopropaganda designed to make Norman Bill look like a regicidal superman. Other contemporary accounts suggest that Harold was killed by an arrow to the head, but that it did not enter via his eye socket. The ‘arrow in the eye’ narrative emerges a couple of decades after the battle and was just too good for the embroiderers of the Bayeux Tapestry to ignore.

When you think of the Tapestry the image that immediately comes to mind, after Halley’s comet, is that of an Anglo Saxon knight with an arrow in the head under the legend ‘Harold Rex interfectus est’, or ‘King Harold is killed’, in the vernacular. The problem is that there are at least four knights in the vicinity, so there is no guarantee that the one with the arrow in his head is actually Harold. But, on the balance of probability, that must be the case. The Tapestry would have been created around the time thatversion of Harold’s death was gaining currency. But that doesn’t mean it’s accurate.

So, was Harold of Wessex killed by an archer who managed to pierce his eye with an arrow? A Scottish verdict would be wise in this case, not proven. It may, or may not, be fake history.

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INTRODUCING – FAKE HISTORIES – Weekly on Drivetime – FAKE HISTORIES#1 – January is named after the Roman God Janus.

FAKE HISTORIES#1 – January is named after the Roman God Janus.

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What can you say about January? Why bother saying anything? Everyone in the Northern Hemisphere loathes it. Christmas and Hogmanay are over and there is no getting around the fact that Spring isn’t coming any time soon. It’s the longest month of the year. Granted, it officially shares that status with six other months, but if you live north of the equator everyone agrees it’s the draggiest, darkest, wettest, coldest, most pointless thirty-one days of the year. The Saxons used to call it ‘wolf month’ – which is a bit hard on wolves.

Maybe it’s time for a concerted Jexit campaign to get rid of it, and jump straight from December 31st to the first of February. The main argument against is that there’s no one to negotiate with. Furthermore the Australians might retaliate by campaigning for a Jexit of their own – and we Nordies certainly don’t want to get rid of July.

But where did January get its name? The assumption is that it’s called after the Roman God Janus, God of beginnings, gates, transitions, mornings, time, duality, doorways, passages and endings. So, a Godlike being with a packed portfolio of responsibilities—a bit like Britain’s Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, except that he doesn’t change every few months.

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Given that Janus is always represented as two-faced, you might think that he deserves to have something unpleasant, like January, named after him. But he actually doesn’t. The Romans did not give him ownership of the entire month,  just New Year’s Day. That’s probably why he is always depicted as having two heads, facing in opposite directions. After New Year’s Eve festivities that’s how many of us feel when we wake up on the first of January.

Poor Janus has always had a bad press. This is inevitable if you are, quite literally, ‘two faced’. Posh politicians, like Boris Johnston or Jacob Rees Mogg, who did Latin at school and like to remind us how erudite they are, will often refer to colleagues of whom they disapprove, as ‘Janus-like’, instead of just calling them ‘two faced’ or ‘double dealing’ like the rest of us. It all reflects very badly on poor Janus. Nowadays a good PR campaign would point out that his double-facedness allows him to look backwards as well as forwards, at a time when we seem doomed to repeat the negative elements of our history because of an ignorance of our past. A well briefed Sarah Huckabee Sanders might also point out that in the Hindu religion there are gods with twice as many faces as Janus, so he’s not really that bad after all.

By the way, you might like to bear in mind that on 9 January every year the Romans used to sacrifice a ram to Janus – so perhaps, unless you are vegan or vegetarian, think about mutton or lamb for dinner that day. If you don’t eat meat or dairy you could just sacrifice a carrot or a woolly jumper.

The truth about the naming of the month of January—which, by the way, didn’t even exist in the original, ten month Roman calendar— is that it is named after the Latin word for door, ianua, because January is the door to the rest of the year – a cold, dark, clammy door with a handle you might stick to, if the Jet Stream  is pointing in the wrong direction. Not to confuse things even further but the Roman God given responsibility for watching out for January was actually Juno. Typical of the Romans to give a really thankless job to a woman.

So, in response to the question ‘Is January named after the Roman God Janus?’, the answer is no. It’s fake history.

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On This Day – 7 December 1817 Birth of Justice William Keogh

 

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There is probably no such word as ‘effigised’ but in Ireland there really should be. Then when it came to ‘the burning of an improvised model of a reviled political figure which is constructed in order to be damaged or destroyed as a protest’ – the dictionary definition of this popular pastime— we could say that they had been ‘effigised’. Think of how useful it would be in Northern Ireland when the umpteenth effigy of Robert Lundy is burned by Apprentice Boys who are neither apprentices nor really have any legitimate claim to the title ‘boys’.

Aside from Lundy, who was actually a Scottish Protestant who seemed peculiarly anxious to hand over the city of Derry to the forces of the Catholic King James in 1689, who is the most effigised figure in modern Irish history? Someone you’ve probably never heard of and who hasn’t been burned in effigy for more than a hundred years now, William Keogh. But in his day he suffered many a roasting.

Keogh, who in the course of a relatively short life left hardly a principle unbetrayed, was born in Galway in 1817. His mother was a ffrench, from one of those Anglo-Irish families who added a superfluous ‘f’ to the beginning of their names, presumably to avoid being mistaken for a garlic-eating, beret wearing, consonant-dropping inhabitant of the country immediately to the south-east of England on the far side of the Channel.

Keogh was a gifted youth who, despite studying science at Trinity College, went on to make a small fortune as a barrister, becoming a Queen’s Counsel at the age of thirty-two.  In caricatures of the man he looks a little like John Redmond but is remembered even less fondly than the leader of the Irish Parliamentary party in the early 1900s. He was, by all accounts, witty, cultured, a highly impressive speaker and excellent company. He was also self-serving, irascible, insensitive and prone to making unpopular decisions in his own political life and later from the Bench.

In 1847 he became MP for Athlone and campaigned against legislation that would have made it illegal for anyone other than a Church of Ireland bishop to hold an ecclesiastical title. He, and his fellow Catholic Irish MPs of the period, became known, as a result of their campaign, as ‘The Pope’s Brass Band’. Keogh also sided with the Tenant League, which fought for the rights of Irish tenant farmers in the 1850s. So far, so popular. Where did it all go wrong?

Keogh’s problems—at least in terms of his legacy—began when he agreed, in 1852, to be bound by a pledge taken by forty Irish MPs not to accept political office but instead to exploit the possibility of holding the balance of power in the House of Commons. However, Keogh, and the equally reviled John Sadleir, quickly jumped ship and accepted plum jobs in the administration of Lord Abrdeen. Keogh became Solicitor General for Ireland, and later Attorney General. He must have wondered, at times, was it worth it. His name, and that of Sadleir, became a by-word for political treachery.

It only got worse when he became a judge in 1855. He was one of the grumpiest justices who ever sat on the Irish bench. His spectacular quarrels with barristers became legendary. The savage sentences imposed on the rather hapless Fenian prisoners who came before him in 1865 added to his lustre as ‘one of the monsters of mankind’, to quote a description of him on the memorial in Tipperary to two brothers he sent to the gallows for murdering a land agent.

In 1872 in a judgment unseating the victorious candidate in the Galway constituency election he formally handed in his tuba and resigned his membership of the Pope’s Brass band when he lacerated the Roman Catholic clergy and hierarchy from the bench for their interference in the campaign, in a legal decision that took nine hours to read. That was when the effigising began in earnest. He certainly hasn’t been burnt as often as Lundy but he probably holds the Irish record for most effigising in his own lifetime.

As time went on Keogh’s behaviour became more erratic. He was described as ‘eccentric’ a term used to cover wealthy and prominent citizens who are actually stark raving mad. Things came to a head the month before his death in 1878 when he attacked his valet with a razor – one of the old-fashioned ones, not the modern safety type. Jeeves would have resigned on the spot and left Bertie Wooster to his own devices. At least Keogh didn’t end up like Sadleir, who committed suicide after the collapse of his Tipperary Bank in 1856.

So bad was Keogh’s reputation that well into the twentieth century, when offered a seat on the Supreme Court by Eamon de Valera, the former Taoiseach, John A. Costello politely declined, citing as his reason a fervent desire not to stand comparison with the place-seeking Justice Keogh.

William Keogh, barrister, politician and popular effigy was born two hundred and one years ago, on this day.

 

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On This Day – 30 November  1667 Birth of Jonathan Swift

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His humour was decidedly ‘Swiftian’ – which is fair enough really because he was Jonathan Swift. He is one of those rarities in the literary world who has a writing style or an entire genre named after them – think ‘Kafkaesque’ and ‘Orwellian’. Then there is that other validation. The one that drives Irish people mad. That’s when he’s described as an ‘English’ or ‘Anglo-Irish’ writer. Swift was born in Dublin, died in Dublin, was educated in Ireland and spent most of his life here. Yes, he spent some years living in England, but his main connection with that entity was his wonderfully satiric use of their language, often employed to tear strips off them.

By 1700 Swift, a clergyman who catered for the dozen or so parishioners of the Church of Ireland parish of Laracor in Co. Meath, had plenty of time on his hands to indulge in his hobbies of writing and gardening. His interest in the latter resulted in no tangible legacy, but his abilities as a satirist got him into just the right amount of trouble. Let’s face it if you are writing satire and no one is offended then you can’t be very good. When he was appointed to the Deanery of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1713—one of the few meaningful positions to which his enemies in England could not prevent his accession—Swift devoted his pen to a number of Irish causes. He used a variety of pseudonyms to write a series of political pamphlets, satirical essays and allegorical tales, the most famous of the latter being Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts by Lemuel Gulliver, better known to us as Gulliver’s Travels. Most of what happens in Gulliver’s Travelsrefers to political controversies of Swift’s day. The version read to children bears little or no resemblance to the Swiftian original. This includes a scathing reference to the politics of the day when Gulliver discovers that in the land of Lilliput the main difference between the two dominant political factions is controversy over which end of their breakfast boiled eggs to lop off. The dispute had already resulted in eleven thousand executions.

Swift’s most ‘Irish’ philippic is undoubtedly his A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland Being a Burden on their Parents or Country and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick—it wouldn’t go down well as a title today. In A Modest Proposalhe suggests that the Irish poor could make ends meet by raising their children as livestock and selling them to the rich, to be eaten as a delicacy. With anyone else it would be blatantly satirical, but with a misanthrope like Swift there is always a 1% chance that he meant it to be taken literally.

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Esther Johnson

A lot of prurient curiosity surrounds Swift’s relationships with two women. The first was Esther Johnston. Swift had met her in England when she was eight, and he was her twenty-one year old tutor. He called her ‘Stella’ and in 1702, by which time she was twenty years of age, he brought her to Ireland. There were rumours that the two were lovers, even that they had secretly married. Certainly, Swift appears to have been extremely zealous in warding off Stella’s suitors. The second woman in question he also met in England, and her name too was Esther. Swift seems to have had a weakness for women of that name. She was Esther Vanhomrigh, daughter of a Dutch merchant family with property in Ireland and England. He gave her the nickname Vanessa. He corresponded frequently with both. Some of the letters to Johnston were published as Journal to Stella, while Vanhomrigh was the inspiration for the poem Cadenus and Vanessa– Cadenus being an anagram of the Latin word ‘decanus’ which means Dean. Need I say more? The poem popularised the, previously unknown, name Vanessa, something for which the Redgrave and Paradis families must be eternally grateful. When Swift returned to Ireland in 1714 Vanhomrigh followed him, living in the family home of Celbridge Abbey. Before she died, at the age of thirty-five in 1723, she and Swift had fallen out. There were, apparently, too many Esthers in the relationship. Five years later ‘Stella’ herself died, with Swift at her bedside.

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Esther Vanhomrigh

The later years of Swift’s life were a constant struggle with mental illness. His father had died of venereal disease, and, although Swift never knew the man, one can surmise that congenital syphilis was the sole parental gift bestowed by Jonathan Swift senior on his son. Swift died in 1745 at the age of seventy-seven. Most of his fortune-a sum of £12,000—was left for the endowment of a hospital in Dublin for the mentally ill. St. Patrick’s, founded in 1757, is with us today.

Near Swift’s burial site in St. Patrick’s Cathedral is his epitaph, inscribed in Latin, and composed by the Dean himself. The most famous translation was provided by W.B.Yeats – it goes …

 

Swift has sailed into his rest;

Savage indignation there

Cannot lacerate his breast.

Imitate him if you dare,

World-besotted traveller; he

Served human liberty.

 

Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patricks Cathedral, satirist, poet, essayist and troublemaker, was born three hundred and fifty-one years ago, on this day.

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On This Day – 16.11.1939 – The Birth of Luke Kelly

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Nobody has ever possessed, or will ever be blessed with, a voice like Luke Kelly’s. He may not have been a choir boy, but he was a one-man choir. He may not have been perfect, but he had perfect diction, and perfect pitch. He was a Dubliner, in the broad and narrow sense of the word. He was born in Ireland’s capital city and he was one of the leading lights of the legendary folk group named after that city. If you’re too young to remember him, think of him as a sort of Christy Moore, but with a banjo, and more hair

Kelly’s date of birth is disputed, his birth certificate apparently claims he was born on 16 December. His mother always insisted that was a mistake and the family celebrated his birthday on 16 November. He came from a working-class background and it was his father, also called Luke, who gave him an early love of music. Kelly was largely self-taught, though he left schools at the age of thirteen he was a voracious reader. He emigrated to England in the late 1950s, lost at least one job when he demanded higher wages, and developed the socialist principles that he never abandoned during his short life. His political convictions helped to inform much of the Dubliner’s repertoire and he was also a vocal supporter of the Irish Traveller Movement and a variety of left-wing causes.

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He returned to Ireland in the 1960s an accomplished banjo player, albeit an imitator of the styles of Pete Seeger and Tommy Makem. Although the 60s are noted for the inexorable rise of rock and roll, the folk music scene was also expanding and Kelly decided to try his luck with the ‘ballad boom’. Centered around venues like the Abbey Tavern in Howth and O’Donoghues Pub in Merrion Row, singers and musicians like Ronnie Drew, the Fureys, and Andy Irvine were beginning to shine, and to thrive. The Dubliners began life as The Ronnie Drew Ballad Group—legend has it that for one gig they were even billed as the Ronnie Drew Ballet Group—but they became the Dubliners after the inclusion of Ciaran Bourke and Barney McKenna, and later John Sheahan. The group appears to owe its name to the fact that Kelly was, at the time, reading James Joyce’s famous volume of short stories. Would musical history have been very different had he been reading Jane Austen? We shall never know.

When you have heard Kelly singing certain songs you just couldn’t be bothered ever listening to anyone else singing them again. Even a Scottish song like Peggy Gordon, included in his repertoire in deference to his Scottish grandmother, can hardly be improved on after getting the Kelly treatment. The same goes for the great American socialist anthem, Joe Hill, which Kelly rendered with the utter conviction of a former member of the Young Communist League. I defy anyone to nominate a better version of Raglan Road than Kelly’s (though Glen Hansard comes close). When Patrick Kavanagh heard Kelly sing he urged him to put the poem to music—an old Irish folk song called The Dawning of the Day— and to record it. Thankfully Kelly didn’t just ignore the normally irascible poet.

In his relatively brief career he, and his fellow Dubliners, did it all, Top of the Pops, the Ed Sullivan Show, world tours, getting Seven Drunken Nightsbanned by the BBC, Kelly himself even played Herod in a Dublin production of Jesus Christ Superstar. When Phil Coulter briefly became the Dubliners’ manager his collaboration with Kelly produced two of their most memorable songs, The Town I Loved So Well and Scorn Not His Simplicity.

His life was tragically cut short by a series of illnesses, to which he greatly contributed by consuming copious amounts of alcohol. In that respect he didn’t differ from his fellow band members, but somehow the raucous lifestyle didn’t have quite as adverse an effect on the constitutions of the other Dubliners as it seemed to do on Kelly.

Luke Kelly was born seventy-nine years ago, on this day.

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On This Day- 9 November 1875 Art collector Hugh Lane is born in Cork.

 

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On 12 April 1956 two Dublin students, Paul Hogan and Bill Fogarty, walked into the Tate Gallery in London and stole an old master, Jour d’Êté (Summer’s Day) by the impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. The fact that Hogan arranged to have himself photographed with the painting as he walked out of the Tate suggested this was no ordinary theft. It was not undertaken for profit, neither was it a student prank. Hogan and Fogarty were incensed at the very presence of the Morisot and thirty-eight other paintings in London. As far as they were concerned the entire collection of priceless impressionist pictures should be in a gallery in Dublin, because that was what their owner had ordained in his will, more than forty years before.

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The owner was the collector and dealer Hugh Percy Lane. Born in Cork in 1875 he was the nephew of the playwright and joint founder of the Abbey Theatre, Lady Gregory. He originally worked in art restoration before starting to buy and sell paintings himself. He soon had his own commercial art gallery in Dublin, opened in 1908. The following year he was knighted for his servcies to art at the tender age of thirty-three. Through frequent visits to Aunty Augusta’s home in Coole, he also became acquainted with most of the leaders of the so-called ‘Irish Renaissance’. These included the poet W.B.Yeats, who made a veiled reference to Lane in his poem, ‘The Fisherman’ in the line ‘great art beaten down’ – a reference to the long dispute over the building of a home for the connoisseur’s collection.

Lane was like one of those people who bought shares in Apple … in 1977. He developed a taste for impressionists—not of the Oliver Callan type. These were artists whose work had originally been compared to wallpaper, to the detriment of their paintings. Land had rapidly acquired a personal collection which included works by Degas, Manet and Renoir. Just as no one knew that the dream of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak would turn into a multi-billion dollar corporation within two decades, the impressionists in the early 1900s were still something of an acquired taste, one which might quickly give way to the ‘next big thing’, causing artists like Renoir and Monet be completely forgotten, and leaving Lane with a few dozen mediocre canvasses albeit with really nice frames. But that’s not how it turned out.

Lane wanted to leave his collection to the city of Dublin, but the reluctance of the City Fathers to spend any money on a building to house his increasingly valuable paintings, caused him to change his mind. Instead he decided that London was more deserving and the whole lot was bequeathed to the National Gallery there. At some point, however, he appears to have changed his mind again. He drew up a codicil to his will which meant that, in the event of his death, the collection would, after all, be left to Dublin. He then set off, in 1915, on a long sea journey without having the codicil witnessed.

Lane returned to the county of his birth in May 1915, but only as one of the twelve hundred fatalities on board the ill-fated RMS Lusitania, torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale by a German U-Boat. On his death the National Gallery in London claimed his pictures. When the codicil came to light they chose to ignore the obvious implication of the document, on the basis that, as Lane had not had the codicil witnessed, it was invalid. Possession was nine tenths of the law, and they had both possession and the law on their side.

And that is how the matter stood until the intervention of Paul Hogan and Bill Fogarty. The two novice, but highly efficient, art thieves held on to their Morisot for four days before getting some friends to hand it in to the Irish Embassy. They had achieved their objective by drawing attention to the injustice of the entire collection residing in London, contrary to the expressed (but unwitnessed) desire of their owner. Three years later a compromise arrangement was reached between London and Dublin, which allowed the collection to be split. This arrangement was changed in 1993 and the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery in Dublin now has permanent possession of thirty-one of the thirty-nine paintings.

Hugh Lane—‘Bequest’ is not actually part of his name—was born one hundred and forty-three years ago, on this day.

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