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.

This video doesn’t exist

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



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.


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?



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.