‘The White House’ – barely fiction!

Hardback copies now available. Send me an email (see ‘Contact’)’

Now available on Apple Books, Barnes and Noble,  Smashwords and on Kindle

Smashwords coupon code YU78H for a 33% price reduction until 21 May. 

U.S. President Tyrone Bentley Trout has a problem. His exclusive Irish golf course is falling victim to climate change and rising sea levels. He wants the Irish to build a wall, and he wants Ireland to pay for it. This is a tale of Russian interference, a tenacious Special Prosecutor, three ex-wives, a frustrated assassin, Ireland’s first female Taoiseach and a climactic golf match.

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myles dungan final copy

 

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 #74 A photograph of Edmund Hillary on top of the world was the first proof of the conquest of Everest in 1953?

Tenzing Norgay on Everest summit, 29 May 1953

As terse and dull despatches go, this one ticked both boxes with a big fat black marker. “Snow conditions bad. Advance base abandoned yesterday. Awaiting improvement. All well!” Except that it was not nearly as boring as it sounds. It was sent by a young London Times journalist named James Morris, from Nepal sixty-seven years ago today, and was an agreed code. What it told his editor back in London was that the Everest expedition had been successful and had managed to put two men, New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Tenzing Norgay, on top of the world. The news was released to coincide with the coronation of Princess Elizabeth as Queen of England on 2 June. I wonder whatever became of her.

            You might think that the mountain itself would be called after someone really important. It is, after all, the tallest thing on the planet. And you could argue that that was indeed the case, if you’re someone who sees the Surveyor General of India from 1830-1843 as a headline making celebrity. The local Tibetan and Nepalese names for the world’s highest peak, Chomulungma (Goddess Mother of the World) and Sagarmatha (Goddess of the Sky) are, lets face it, far more evocative and onomatopoeiac than Everest. In fact the Englishman after whom the mountain was named (by one of his awestruck surveyor successors), didn’t even pronounce it as Ev-er-est. He called himself George EEV-rest. Somehow I don’t think it’s going to catch on at this stage.  

            To return to the Hunt expedition, or to give it its proper name, the British Mount Everest Expedition, it would have been led by the experienced Himalayan climber, Eric Shipton, had he not expressed an aversion to large scale expeditions and an element of competition which he deemed abhorrent to a true mountaineer. The fact that a team of French and Swiss climbers were scheduled  to make their own attempts over the succeeding two years, and that the Brits wouldn’t get another go until 1956, meant that the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society opted instead for the organisational and military skills of Hunt, himself an accomplished climber, over the more genteel leadership qualities of Shipton. 

            Things didn’t get off to a great start when Tenzing Norgay was the only one of twenty Sherpa guides to be accommodated in the British consulate in Kathmandu before the journey to Everest began. The other nineteen Sherpas lined up in protest outside the consulate and made their feelings known by urinating on the walls of British sovereign territory. They don’t call it being pissed off for nothing. 

            History could also have been quite different if things had gone just a little better for two other climbers, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans on 26 May 1953. They were the first to make it to the south summit at 8750 metres but had to abandon their effort to reach the roof of the world itself, a frustrating one hundred vertical metres from the top, driven back by oxygen problems and sheer exhaustion. 

Hillary and Tenzing

            Three days later Hillary and Tenzing went all the way and, as the New Zealander put it elegantly and memorably to fellow climber George Lowe, ‘Well George, we knocked the bastard off.’ For years afterwards there was speculation as to which of the two men actually set foot on the summit first. As archetypal team players, both were reluctant to get involved in such pointless speculation before eventually acknowledging, for what it was worth, that Hillary was first to the summit a few seconds before Tenzing. 

            Incidentally, James Morris, the embedded Times reporter, who broke the story by sending a runner with the coded message to the village of Namche Bazar, changed his name in the 1970s. And that’s not all he changed. He became Jan Morris after undergoing gender reassignment surgery. Today, as one of the most celebrated travel writers in the world,  Jan Morris lives in north Wales and is still writing in her nineties. 

            But as to that photo of Edmund Hillary on the summit? I’m afraid it doesn’t exist. Hillary took a photo of Tenzing, and a number of other shots, but declined to have his own photograph taken when Tenzing offered. One wonders if there were moments between 29 May 1953 and the end of his life in January 2008, when he regretted that he hadn’t taken the ultimate selfie.  

FH #73 The women on the ‘contraceptive train’ returned from Belfast with birth control pills that were seized by customs officers?

We don’t normally pay too much attention to forty-ninth anniversaries, but let’s make an exception for the heroes aboard the so-called ‘Contraceptive Train’. For the uninitiated, that’s not some obscure Victorian method of avoiding conception involving prayer and a steam engine. 

            It’s a real live event that took place on 22 May 1971 when a group of determined women foregathered at Connolly Station in Dublin, took the train to Belfast and went shopping. Once again, for the uninitiated, they weren’t in pursuit of bargains in stores whose names have long since passed on to that great Bankruptcy Court in the sky, they were shopping for contraceptives. Because, awful to relate, those latex products which are now openly displayed on pharmacy shelves and can be purchased in vending machines as if they were bubble gum—though please learn to tell the two apart—were once illegal in the Republic of Ireland. That’s ‘illegal’ as in ‘verboten’, as in ‘we’re going to hang you out to dry if we catch you with one’, as in‘ latex should only be employed in the rubber gloves Mum uses for washing up’. They had been illegal since the passage of the 1935 Criminal Law Amendment Act, a piece of progressive legislation passed to protect innocent women from the wiles of male lotharios who might seek to persuade them to engage in sexual congress in which the objective was male gratification, rather than childbirth. The most vulnerable women, were, of course, those who were married to said Lotharios, and were thus exposed to the dire prospect of not having at least a dozen children. 

            In the absence of the Devil’s rubbers those who wished to avoid conception could always resort to abstinence, or the top of a Guinness bottle. 

            The women, forty seven in all, were mostly members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement. They were preparing to defy convention, the law, and their Mammies by bringing back an array of contraceptive devices from the holiday home of Satan himself, Belfast.  To a 1960s feminist being on the contraceptive train was like being in the GPO in 1916 was to a Republican, or being at the first U2 gig in the Dandelion market is to a slacker. The idea was to purchase a plethora of prophylactics, present them to customs officials on their return to Dublin, and wait to be hauled before the beak.     

            The problem was that buying certain products turned out to be more difficult than they imagined. Condoms were readily available, as was contraceptive jelly, but the Golden Ticket was the acquisition of the infamous ‘pill’. Coming back from Belfast without the ‘pill’ would be like returning from Paris without one of those cheap metal facsimilies of the Eiffel Tower. 

            When one of the leading Irish feminists of her generation – and every generation since – Nell McCafferty, walked up to the counter of a chemist shop in Belfast and asked for the pill she was, in turn, politely requested to produce her prescription. As she had led a sheltered life since moving south she didn’t have one. Now what? There were probably a few medical practitioners among the travelling party but they weren’t carrying their prescription pads. Then someone had the bright idea of buying aspirin over the counter and removing the packaging. Would anyone in the Republic be able to tell the difference anyway? So, that was the fiendish contraceptive they presented at the barrier (no pun intended) at Connolly station. 

            So, the customs men might have thought they were confiscating ‘the dreaded pill’ but it was something far less morally repugnant. While the women on the contraceptive train intended to cause the Irish authorities a headache, they were also decent enough to provide a ready remedy.

            When they returned to Dublin their purchases were flaunted openly. I mean, if you’ve got it, flaunt it, right? Some of the women went so far as to risk arrest by blowing up condoms and trailing them in their wake.  However, it is just possible they were returning to family homes where they had children who liked to play with balloons.    

            Progressives cheered on while the offending women waltzed past customs officers too embarrassed to arrest them. Conservatives tut tutted and wondered what the world was coming to. 

            But what the customs officers succeeded in confiscating was not packets of cycle regulators but something far more Anidin.   

Covid Blues – Ken Browne

To celebrate the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning, of Lockdown this is an instrumental piece by the Kells-based artist and musician Ken Browne to which I’ve added some of the many memes that have managed to find their way onto my phone since lockdown began.

Ken is as talented an artist as he is a guitarist – check out his website http://www.kenbrowneart.com. He is accompanied on bass by his nine year old daughter Maja.

My own particular talent is dragging images and videos to iMovie.

Et voila – Covid Blues.

FH #72   The six wives of Henry VIII were executed because they were unable to give him a male heir?

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You can’t walk into a bookshop at the moment without risking a debilitating injury should a copy of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light fall on any of your soft tissue. The book, which numbers around a thousand pages, is a true Mantel-piece and almost as heavy. The book begins with an execution and there might be an upsurge in sales today because it’s a significant anniversary.

The fifteenth of May wasn’t a great day for Anne Boleyn, second wife of King Henry VIII. Not, admittedly, nearly as bad as the day of her execution, the anniversary of which falls early next week. Her trial for treason began today in 1536 in front of a special jury. An extra special jury really. That’s because it had probably reached its verdict on the fourteenth of May. There are times when jurors, like the chairs of committees of inquiry, know exactly what is required of them. Henry VIII urgently needed to become a widower so that he could carry on his policy of serial monogamy,  something which, owing to frequent practice, he was developing into a fine art.

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Anne Boleyn

Henry VIII, as even a visiting Martian probably knows, had six spouses. As it happens he’s only trotting after Richard Pryor and Jerry Lee Lewis, with seven each. Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Larry King and Lana Turner with eight, and the brand leader Zsa Zsa Gabor with nine. However, as far as we know, none of the aforementioned caused any of their cast-off spouses to be executed. If you have information to the contrary please phone 911.

However, there seems to be a notion abroad that Henry ordered the passing of all six of his wives because they were not able to provide him with a male heir. If that were actually the case he might well have stopped to consider that perhaps the problem did not lie with his spouses, but with the fact that he was shooting the next best things to blanks. But Kings, of course, don’t entertain such notions. They are not required to do so and no physician this side of the Hippocratic oath would be daft enough to suggest such a possibility to a monarch with a French executioner on speed dial.

But, the fact is that it’s not true anyway. First off, one of Henry’s six wives survived him. He died in 1547, she outlived him by a year, and by the way, is the most married English Queen, with four husbands of her own, three of whom pre-deceased her. In an Agatha Christie novel Poirot would have been all over Catherine Parr.

Secondly, Henry did actually produce a male heir. His son, Edward, was born to his third wife, Jane Seymour and acceded to the English throne on Henry’s death. The fact that he was young and sickly, died at the age of fifteen, and reigned for only six years, is neither here nor there. His half-sister Elizabeth, daughter of the unfortunate Anne Boleyn, more than made up for him. Good Queen Bess was way better than any English King and would have made a good Roman Emperor into the bargain. However, she might not have been such a good Dalai Lama.

The runners and riders in the King Henry VIII Challenge Cup—the challenge being not to cheese him off so much he had you beheaded—were as follows.

Catherine of Aragon, produced one female heir, Mary – divorced.

Ann Boleyn, produced one female heir, fooled around with anyone with a codpiece – decapitated

Jane Seymour (not to be confused with the person who portrayed Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) – produced male heir and paid for it with her life when she died shortly after childbirth.

Anne of Cleves, aka the ‘Fat Flanders Mare’. She failed to live up to Hans Holbein’s flattering portrait, lasted six months during which the marriage was not consummated. She was despatched to Chelsea with an annulment, was known thereafter as The King’s Beloved Sister, and had the last laugh when she outlived him and all his other Queens

Catherine Howard, failed to produce an heir and was also allegedly prone to a nicely turned doublet and hose. She was decapitated for having sex with her cousin.

Catherine Parr, reached the finishing post, as Queen, ahead of Henry, and therefore wins the Challenge Cup.

But is it any wonder why we are fascinated by the Tudors. Hilary Mantel will probably win three Booker Prizes without even having had to make anything up.

Bu,t as to whether Henry went through all his wives with an axe, come on people,         the man wasn’t a monster, he only beheaded two of them.

FH #71  Did London have a mayor named Dick Whittington and did he have a cat?

 

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By rights we should have found out today who is to be mayor of London for the next four years, but fate, a former incumbent, and epidemiology intervened to  dictate otherwise. Chances are, based on opinion polls, it would have been a shoo in for Sadiq Khan to be elected to a second term, just as was the case with his predecessor, one  Boris Johnston, the man who decided that London wasn’t going to have a mayoral election after all.

London Mayors tend to be very high profile individuals. This is the case even if Donald Trump likes them and doesn’t troll them mercilessly on Twitter. Johnson’s predecessor was Ken Livingstone who had a spot of bother back in 2018 when he suggested that Adolf Hitler was actually a bit of an old Zionist softie.

But the most famous London mayor of all, celebrated in annual pantos … oh yes he is … is, of course, Dick Whittington. Except that he’s been so mythologised in poems, plays and stories, that you begin to wonder, did he actually exist, or is he more like King Arthur than Boris Johnson. Furthermore, there’s the all-important follow-up question, if he did exist, and if he did become Mayor of London, did he have a cat?

Let’s sort out the first part of the question before proceeding to the issue of his famous pet, portrayed on many a pantomime stage by actors of whose careers it can truly be said ‘it’s behind you!’

The legend has it that Dick Whittington abandoned his home—somewhere in the north of England that voted for Brexit and recently elected its first Tory MP since the middle ages. He headed for London, armed only with his wits and his moggie, because he had heard the streets there were paved with gold. When he got to the southern metropolis, having given Slough a wide berth en route, he discovered his mistake. The streets were not paved with gold, in fact the streets were not even paved, furthermore, he was expected to pave them. Disillusioned, he headed for home but was detained by the ringing of the Bow Bells which somehow managed to communicate to him, campanologically, that he would one day become Mayor of London. So, he retraced his steps. Some years later, after encountering a number of stock pantomime characters who couldn’t even get parts as extras on Eastenders, he duly rose to the mayoralty of what was then the greatest city in the known world.

As it happens there was indeed a Richard Whittington who became Mayor of London, not twice, but four times in the 1400s. He was a wealthy merchant and a Member of Parliament who, on his death, bequeathed his fortune to a charitable trust which bears his name to this day. So far, so good. But what about Puss in Boots? Actually, as that’s the name of an entirely different feline pantomime hero we should probably just refer to the mayoral moggie as ‘cat’. The mythology has the animal being hugely instrumental in Whittington’s good fortune. Dick’s cat was to rat-catching what Lionel Messi is to turning opponents in the penalty area and scoring from six metres. Legend has it that Whittington made enough money from hiring out his moggie, to provide him with the basis of a large fortune. Bear in mind that it wasn’t that all that long since rats had been instrumental in spreading bubonic plague and halving the population of Europe. So a good ratter would have been in great demand.

Except that the real Richard Whittington – not plain ‘Dick’ but the more aristocratic ‘Richard’—was not a bumpkin from ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ country who came to London to become a Cockney shapeshifter. If he wanted money all he had to do was ask Dad, who was a fully paid-up member of the gentry. Richard’s arrival in London was dictated by the fact that he was not an eldest son, and so, would not inherit the family estate. He needed to make his fortune as a merchant, which he duly did. Given that he was well-to-do, he would have had no need for a resident cat to be hired out as an ace ratter, and there is no evidence that he ever served in the capacity of ‘human’ to a member of the feline race.

Having said that, when Sadiq Khan, Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone go to their eternal rewards will their obituaries note whether or not they ever owned a pussycat? Doubtful!

So, when it comes to the question of whether or not Sadiq Khan ever had a predecessor named Dick Whittington, the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’. But as to whether said Whittington was the proud manservant of a cat, that’s probably fake mews.

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Fake Histories #70  Did the 1916 Rising result in the introduction of GMT to Ireland?

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Right about now, one hundred and four years ago, dozens of people in the city of Dublin were concerned for their immediate future.  This was because they had been rounded up after the surrender of the Volunteers in the Easter Rising and were facing courts martial which could, and in a number of cases, actually did, lead to their executions.

A couple of years after the Rising, an irate Countess Markievicz, in a highly fractious letter, seemed to suggest that one of the consequences of the Rising was that a vindictive British government had taken away Ireland’s unique time zone and folded us in with Greenwich Mean Time as a punishment for being bolshy rebels.

Let’s do some unpacking here. It is true that in 1916 the British government introduced the Time (Ireland) Act. This abolished something called Dublin Mean Time, which had been in force since an earlier piece of legislation, the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act of 1880.  What the 1916 legislation meant was that a practice, whereby time in Dublin was twenty-five minutes behind GMT, was finally abolished. DMT was the local time at Dunsink Observatory. To be completely accurate Dublin was twenty-five minutes and twenty-one seconds behind London. But, with your permission, I will ignore the twenty-one seconds. Or, if you like, I can pause for exactly that amount of time just to keep things straight. Maybe not.

So, when British clocks went back by an hour for the winter of 1916, so that Tommies weren’t fighting the Battle of the Somme in the dark, Ireland only got an extra thirty-five minutes in the scratcher. Alignment with GMT became permanent and remains so to this day.

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The prominence of local time—i.e. the actual time at a specific location, rather than a centralised version of same—came about in the United Kingdom in 1858. At that time we were members of the august configuration of stroppy nations. On 25 November of that year the defendant in Curtis v March, due to be heard by a judge in Dorchester failed to show up for his hearing and lost his case. He appealed on the basis that he’d been told to be in court at 10.00 am and had turned up on time, according to the local time on the town clock, but not in line with GMT. He won his appeal and that ruling defined ‘time’ in the UK as local, until the 1880 legislation which standardised it in Britain and left us twenty-five minutes adrift.

However, there’s quite a bit of post hoc, ergo propter hoc about the Countess’s pronouncement. In other words ‘since event Y followed event X event Y must have been caused by event X’. Which is a bit like saying ‘I bought an ice cream and two minutes later there was an earthquake. Therefore, my purchase of a tub of Cherry Garcia  caused that seismic event.’  Was it really the ‘stab on the back’ of the Easter Rising that prompted an apoplectic and vengeful British government to steal our lovely time zone?

Well, for a start the 1916 Rising was done and dusted by the  beginning of May. The abolition of Dublin Mean Time, which added almost half an hour to the seven hundred and fifty years of British colonial oppression, did not take place until 1 October. While revenge is a dish best served cold, it’s more likely to be consumed when it hasn’t completely gone off.

Having said that, there was some serious opposition to the alignment of Dublin and London in the same time zone. It was opposed in the House of Commons by some Irish nationalist MPs. A letter writer to the Irish Independent in August 1916 observed that, ‘the question is whether we should give up this mark of our national identity to suit the convenience of shipping companies and a few travellers.’

Post Brexit, there is the enormous potential for confusion on the island of Ireland if the UK—along with rejecting the European Court of Justice and pulling out of the Eurovision Song Contest because they’re never going to win it again anyway—should also assert their new-found independence by abandoning summer and winter time. So, it is worth remembering that we have a powerful weapon in our armoury to offer in retaliation. We can threaten them with the restoration of Dublin Mean Time. Then we can make things even more confusing by adding back the twenty-one seconds as well.

But as to whether the loss of DMT one hundred and four years ago was a punishment for the 1916 Rising?   That’s FHT, fake history time.

Fake Histories #69  Was Oscar Wilde brought down by the man who codified the rules of boxing?

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Oscar Wilde spent much of this week in 1895 trying, and failing, to stay out of jail.

The famous aesthete and dramatist once said, via one of his characters, that ‘there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.’ While it might have been judicious in Chapter 1 of The Picture of Dorian Grey, by April 1895 the epigram had a hollow ring, as its author was being spoken about widely, for all the wrong reasons.

In the same volume he had written that, ‘destiny does not send us heralds. She is too wise or too cruel for that.’ That certainly proved to be the case for Wilde, whose life unravelled rapidly and unexpectedly after the Marquis of Queensberry, the father of his petulant and reckless lover Lord Alfred Douglas—aka Bosie—left a calling card at Wilde’s London club addressed to ‘Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite’. Queensberry, best known for having (supposedly) codified the rules of boxing, was removing his gloves in so doing. Because sodomy was a criminal offence, he was leaving himself open to a suit for criminal libel and a two-year jail sentence.

The note was the culmination of a series of confrontations between the Marquess, his son and the celebrated playwright. Most of Wilde’s friends urged him to let the matter lie and ignore the provocation. Bosie advised otherwise. He encouraged his lover to sue his father. Wilde decided to ignore wiser counsels and indulge the younger Douglas in an ongoing vendetta with his truculent parent. It would prove to be his undoing.

Queensberry played by his own rules in assembling his case against Wilde. These included the hiring of private detectives to delve into the playwright’s private life and the hiring of the distinguished barrister Edward Carson—like Wilde a Dubliner and a former Trinity College student,—to defend the Marquess against the defamation charge.

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The cross-examination of Wilde was a Carsonian tour de force. He was pummelled, poked, prodded and provoked. Carson allowed Wilde to hang himself., with the witness coming across as arrogant and flippant in response to serious and potentially damaging questions.   Carson extracted an admission from the plaintiff that Wilde had lied about his age on oath, and a denial that he had kissed a particular servant boy. Wilde’s refutation did not help his cause one jot. He denied the allegation because, he declaimed glibly, ‘he was a particularly plain boy – unfortunately ugly.’

The defence case did not have to proceed any further than Carson’s opening statement, in which he revealed that Queensberry’s detectives had located a number of young men who were prepared to testify to having had sex with Wilde. The playwright dropped the prosecution, Queensberry was acquitted, Wilde was left to bear his antagonist’s costs, and went bankrupt.

On 26 April 1895, Wilde’s own prosecution for gross indecency under the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, began. It arose directly from the Queensberry case and would end with a conviction, and a sentence of two years hard labour.  As Wilde put it himself in Dorian Grey, ‘behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic.’

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But as to that other question, was Wilde brought down by the man who devised the rules of boxing? You might think so, given that they are called the Queensberry rules. But, in fact, they were devised by a Welsh sportsman named John Graham Chambers—an accomplished oarsman who had rowed alongside Matthew Webb when that swimmer made the first crossing of the Channel in 1875. Chambers, persuaded Queensberry to lend his name to the new regulations in order to hasten their acceptance. The Marquis did none of the donkey work himself – so although he floored Wilde with a haymaker, that’s fake history.