Category Archives: History

Simple explanation of the Irish problem

With all the hassle over Brexit and the Irish border, I think it would be wise to bear in mind these two simple explanations of the British Isles, taken from 1066 and All That:

“The Scots (originally Irish, but by now Scotch) were at this time inhabiting Ireland, having driven the Irish (Picts) out of Scotland; while the Picts (originally Scots) were now Irish (living in brackets) and vice versa. It is essential to keep these distinctions clearly in mind (and verce visa).”

“Gladstone… spent his declining years trying to guess the answer to the Irish Question; unfortunately, whenever he was getting warm, the Irish secretly changed the Question.”

One explanation of the British Isles (there are many conflicting explanations). This one on MapPorn

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The death of an Italian archaeologist who knew so many 20th century secrets

Maurizio Tosi, highly-regarded archaeologist

My shoulder in 1991 - pulverised in two places

Uncovering the past: my shoulder was pulverised in two places

In 1995 I wrote the autobiography of comedian Malcolm Hardee.

‘Ghosted’ seems such a strange word to use.

In 1997/1998 I almost wrote the autobiography of someone else: an Italian archaeologist.

His opinion was that archaeology and biography were very similar: both involved uncovering the past from fragments and sometimes having to simply guess what had really happened. Sometimes, he suggested, it is even the same with autobiographies.

Yesterday morning, I woke up with a pain in my lower back and hips and upper legs. I was hit by a truck in 1991. One long-term effect it has had on me is that the bottom of my spine is slightly damaged. The bones occasionally go slightly ‘out of alignment. What usually happens is that I get a pain on one or other side of my hips and, as it mends, the pain moves round my waist and ends up at the bottom of the spine – where the real trouble lies – and then it goes away.

Initially, the problem is perceived to be somewhere it is not. Normally it takes about three nights of sleeping on the floor for the pain to go away.

This morning, at around 02.30am, I was lying on my bedroom floor unable to get to sleep because I could find no position to lie in that did not give me an awkward nerve-end-tingling pain.

For no particular reason at all – except that it came into my head – I decided to Google the phrase Maurizio Tosi death and this came up

The obituary of Maurizio Tosi which I Googled

The obituary of Maurizio Tosi which I stumbled on

MAURIZIO TOSI (1944-2017) 

February 26th, 2017 

“A leading figure in Italian archaeology and Co-Director of the Italy Oman international research program studying the beginnings of navigation and long-distance trade in the Indian Ocean died at the age of 72 yesterday in Ravenna, Italy. The cremation ceremony will take place at Ravenna on this next Monday at 3.30 pm. Friend and colleagues are organizing a commemoration in Ravenna on March 5th at 3 pm.”

I had not thought about him for years. Today is Wednesday. It would seem he died on Saturday with his funeral two days ago and I haven’t thought about him for years. Strange that I looked him up.

We were both fascinated by Shelley’s poem Ozymandias which ends:

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

I never wrote Maurizio Tosi’s autobiography.

I had met him by accident at Ashgabat airport when we were both leaving Turkmenistan in 1995.

In 1997, in London and in Rome, we discussed the background to his autobiography.

In 1998, I travelled to Italy again to chat to him in Rome, Sienna, Bologna, Ravenna, Milan and on the island of Pantelleria.

Eventually, the project fell through because he tried to financially screw a friend of mine. His attitude to honesty was as variable as the wind in the deserts he often professionally frequented. He was a highly troubled man but also highly intelligent. Or, at least, well-read.

A younger Maurizio Tosi in one of the deserts he frequented

A younger Maurizio Tosi in one of the deserts he frequented

There were nine drafts of the book, some in the first person; some in the third; some in a mixture of both.

The book’s title was to have been Traveller.

When we had first discussed the idea of the book, he had e-mailed me:

“In archaeology, in history and in politics, the mistake that’s often made is looking at effects, not at primary causes. If you want to know why something developed, you have to look back in time before it existed: at what caused it to exist and develop in the way it did. It is the same with people and the same with me.”

Since childhood, he told me, the mind inside his skull had always felt it was in a darkened cave, looking out – frightened – at a world it did not understand.

When I had first suggested the title Traveller for his autobiography, he had reacted in a characteristically OTT way.

“Yes! yes!” he had cried dramatically (in an e-mail). “Traveller! It has so much meaning! I travel through time. I travel through different lands. I travel to escape from reality. I travel because the day-to-day details of everyday life are a problem for me. They always have been. It is all the little things that drive me to distraction – bills, banks, mortgages, paperwork, bureaucracy. I can’t live alone, but I can’t stay faithful to any woman with whom I live. I want stability, but I get bored by it when I have it. Traveller is the ideal title! It is so symbolic!”

It was like listening to someone impersonate an Italian.

“And you are also a fellow traveller,” I said.

One key point in his life had been in 1967.

Le Monde 2013 - Maurizio Tosi, archaeologist and ex-spy Advisor to the Sultan of Oman, the Italian palaeoethnologist was also an intelligence officer of the Soviet bloc.

2013 Le Monde article on “Maurizio Tosi, the archaeologist & ex-spy”

He was in communist East Germany when the Cold War between the Soviets and the West was at its height. Most of the people he had worked with in his Soviet-backed Network had already been caught – they had ‘disappeared’ – some had been captured by the West, some had been disposed of by the East. He was the last one left of those he knew.

He told me he had been in West Berlin and had been asked to deliver an envelope to a town in East Germany. He knew the envelope contained microfilm, because he had made the same delivery before. He had no overnight visa for East Germany, so he had to get a train back to East Berlin by 11.00pm and return through the Friedrichstrasse security checkpoint into West Berlin before midnight, otherwise he was in trouble.

He told me: “East German Security was separate from the police. Everything was separate. Everything was chaotic. There were so many different agencies all working separately from each other – sometimes in competition with each other. I didn’t have full coverage. It wasn’t as if I was officially working for the East German secret service. I was working for the Network but the complete implications of that were uncertain. I knew my network was handled by part of a section of East Germany’s security system and was linked to the Soviet Union, but things had changed. Everything had changed that year.

Erich Apel

The East German politician Erich Apel ‘committed suicide’

“When the East German ‘Planning Minister’ Erich Apel ‘committed suicide’ in 1965… when Apel was made to die in 1965… it sent a signal to all marginal people like me. Apel had been one of the masterminds and controllers of our subversion operation and when it was said he ‘shot himself due to depression’ it was clear something was changing very fundamentally.

“Our entire project of undermining and fighting American power in the Third World – and ultimately in Europe – was falling apart. Ché Guevara had already – and very clearly – been abandoned in Bolivia.”

Maurizio Tosi had been part of a network run by the East Germans for the Soviet Union. He had been trained partly in Europe, partly in Cuba, partly in South America. His job as an archaeologist meant that he could legitimately be in ‘fringe’ areas – Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan. He was in Afghanistan when the Soviet tanks rolled in.

When we talked, it was mostly on tape.

“I dislike lies,” I warned him, early on.

“But ambiguity?” he had asked.

“Ah,” I replied slowly. “I’m fascinated by ambiguity. And by…..”

“Me too,” he had interrupted.

“…..and by amoral characters,” I had completed.

Maurizio Tosi in his office in 1998

Maurizio Tosi in his 1998 office was “fascinated by ambiguity”

During one of our chats he told me, as we sat in his book-lined room in Rome: “One of the most famous legends of Central Asia tells of a horseman. The horseman is the standard-bearer of the great Khan. As the Khan’s army are entering a city after a glorious victory, the standard-bearer sees a dark lady looking at him. The dark lady has fearsome eyes, as if she is looking right inside him. He becomes scared that this woman is a witch and she has put the Evil Eye on him, so he goes to the great Khan and tells him his fears and says he wants to go to another city.

Of course! says the great Khan. Give him the finest horse we have! Let him escape!

“So the standard-bearer takes the fastest horse in the Great Khan’s army, rides off across the desert and, in record time, arrives at the other city. Then he sees the dark lady standing by the city gates, waiting for him. She looks at him, smiles and says:

I was so worried. I knew I was due to meet you here today but, when I saw you in that other city so very far away, I was worried that you would not reach here in time for our appointment.

“And the standard-bearer realises that the dark lady with the eyes that look right inside him is Death. I always feel I am running like the standard bearer,  that there is never enough time and I know I will never complete what I should do.”

RIP Maurizio Tosi (1944-2017)

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600 French soldiers dressed in frocks

As I am out and about most of today, writing a blog might be a bit of a problem.

So here is something published today 200 years ago.

It was sent to me. Don’t even begin to ask why.

It refers to the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, held in Brussels shortly before the Battle of Waterloo.

This report was printed in the Bury and Norwich Post on 13th September 1815. That is Bury as in Bury St Edmunds.


The Duchess of Richmond's ball depicted by Henry O’Neil (1868)

The Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Henry O’Neil’s painting Before Waterloo (1868)

Bonaparte, it is said, had made a complete arrangement, previous to the battle of Waterloo, to entrap the British Staff by finesse. He had engaged the Ladies of Brussels to apply to the Duchess of Richmond to give a ball; her grace consented. On the evening of the day of the fete, he posted 600 men dressed in blue frocks, with arms underneath them, in an appropriate situation, where they remained unobserved.

The dancing commenced, and the hour rapidly approached when the signal was to be given; and Bonaparte meant to enter at the head of the force already named. Providentially one of the Ladies became violently enamoured with the personal attractions of her partner, so much so that she could not resist the impulse to disclose to him the situation of himself and his gallant brethren. She took him aside, and communicated to him the plan. The Commander in Chief was directly appraised of his situation, and as promptly took the necessary steps to seize the enemy in ambuscade. The counterplot succeeded. – The credibility of this story may be suspected.


Indeed.

Alas I presume the blue frocks were frock coats.

But the image of 600 French soldiers about to attack in frocks still lingers. And it still begs the question: Where can you hide 600 French soldiers in frocks?

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Comic Del Strain on Americans, the EU and Nazis on the dark side of the Moon

This penguin is real and is not a spider

This penguin is real and is not a spider

I rarely remember my dreams but, this morning, I remember I dreamt I threw something on the floor and out of it came a brown spider. A big one.

“It’s too big,” I told someone,” to put a glass over it. And then I realised it really was too big – vertically – because it was white and black with orange-yellow feet or flippers, because it was a penguin. But it was not smooth and slimy as, I suspect, penguins actually are. Instead it seemed to have a slightly ruffled and wrinkled cotton skin as if it was made from cotton and was maybe one size too big for it.

That was in the early hours of this morning.

This afternoon, I had tea with Scots comic Del Strain at Soho Theatre. The very first thing he said to me, rather excitedly, was:

“I’ve got a new gun!”

“Is it legal?” I asked.

“Of course,” said Del. “It’s a new stage prop. I treated myself.”

“Most people who want to treat themselves,” I suggested, “might have a tea and fairy cake or something like that.”

“This is a sight to behold,” said Del. “It’s a Smith & Wesson but it’s too heavy to go down the back of my strides; I think I will have to buy a shoulder holster.”

“How can this possibly be legal?” I asked.

“I dunno,” said Del. “Ask the man in Newcastle who sold me it… It’s one of these old shops you go in and…”

“Is this genuinely legal?” I asked. “Can I mention it in my blog?”

Del Strain with his new Smith & Wesson

Del Strain at home with his new Smith & Wesson purchase

“YES!” insisted Del. “I’ve got a receipt and everything. This shop does everything: replicas, gas-fired guns. It’s legal. If I was in the foyer of Barclays Bank with a mask made out of a pair of someone’s old stockings, I would be in a lot of trouble.but, as I’m on stage…”

“How do you carry this around?” I asked.

“In my bag,” said Del. “The old gun I’ve got was enough to get you shot, believe you me, but this one would REALLY get you shot.”

“By whom?” I asked.

“Armed police, who are nervous and who seem to shoot poor black guys for just having a diary in their pocket. They’re getting a bit trigger-happy on this side of the pond too, John. But I bought it for a prop. See, rich people have got TESSAs and pensions and shit but, the way this country’s going, I’ve got this.”

”I think,” I said, “when John Wilkes Booth went to the theatre he may have claimed it was only a prop.”

“Well,” said Del, “maybe that bullet DID kill Lincoln – or maybe the people that were ready to send Andrew Johnson in to rape the South and kill all the Indians and steal the gold killed him. Who knows? History is a wonderful thing when it’s written by the victors.”

“But,” I asked, “surely politicians would not lie to us?”

“I don’t trust none of them,” said Del. “Brown, Blair, Cameron, Osborne – all playing the flute of Rothschild and the EU bankers. They’re never going to change nothing, because they’re all greedy madmen and they’re going to end up leading us all to the brink of destruction. They’re raping London; they’re ripping the soul out of it – all to build these ghettos in the sky where no-one can hear you scream. It’s ridiculous. They’re taking out the salt of the earth that made London what it was, because people can’t afford to live here no more.”

“Is Scotland going to be the People’s Paradise?” I asked.

“Yeah, well,” said Del, “I don’t know about that. It depends if we’ve got some undercover oil that we haven’t declared, which is what I hear.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yeah. Apparently the Yanks are in on it. The Norwegians. Just rubbing their hands in glee, waiting. So who knows?”

“Until Apple brings out an electric car,” I mused. “But, then, plastics need oil in the manufacturing process, don’t they?”

“Yeah,” said Del, “but it’s that synthetic oil that I think the Nazis started inventing in World War Two. When they couldn’t get any oil, they invented synthetics in drugs and oils and everything else.”

“When you live on the dark side of the Moon,” I said, “you can develop all these things. Have you seen Iron Sky?”

Iron Sky from the dark side

Iron Sky from the dark side of the Moon

“No. Is it about Nazis on the Moon? I don’t even think the Americans went to the Moon.”

“Surely,” I suggested, “the Russians would have known if the Americans did not get to the Moon and would have told everyone?”

“The Russians,” said Del, “are quoted as saying to the Americans: If you don’t tell people about the aliens, we are going to. The Russians are quoted as saying that Eisenhower met these people in 1947 and the American newspapers from the time are actually quite open about the fact of there being aliens.

“You don’t know what to believe, because these people propagate and manipulate history so much that it’s like archaeologists putting dirt through a sieve to find what is real, because there’s just so much rubbish out there. All I know is that these people have been running the show since the Battle of Waterloo.”

Iron Sky,” I explained, “starts from the supposition that, In 1945, some Nazis escaped to the dark side of the Moon and Now they’re back!

“There is a swastika up there on the Moon,” Del told me. “Someone took a picture of it and there is a swastika on the Moon. No shit. The guy who was in charge of all the Nazi’s specialist weapons, his body was never found. He disappeared. The bell that they had – which was a little mini flying saucer – was taken to America. They were on it. The Nazis had been building these superstructures in South America. Some people say that it wasn’t even Hitler that died – that he lived out his days there.”

“Can I quote all this?” I asked.

“If you want,” said Del. “Some people say that. I am not saying it is a fact, but what I’m saying is, considering some of the shit these people have pulled – the deaths of Martin Luther King, John F Kennedy, Bob Marley… Bob Marley gets cancer through playing football but no football player has ever had that injury? Come on! When people get too vocal, when people listen to them, you become a danger and who knows? Who knows if it was his body? I hope it was his body. I think they dug him up in he 1990s and said it definitively was.”

“Who?” I asked.

Del Strain with his hand on his heart today

Del Strain showing his sincerity at Soho Theatre earlier today

“Hitler,” laughed Del. “Not Bob Marley. I’m not definitively saying that. I’m only surmising. But Hitler still has living relatives in America. They changed their name.”

“I suppose they would,” I said.

“The CIA,” Del continued, “took them all over there as well as the 90 Nazi scientists who were the ones who invented the Moon landings and Apollo 11 and all that. If you look at The Odessa File, that was based on a true story. Within four or five years, they all slipped right back into their old roles running the courts, the police system, running everything.”

“In Germany?” I asked

“In Germany, yes. I see the EU flag as a swastika. I see it as a sign of oppression. They are doing now with a pen and economics and banks what they used to do with Panzer tanks and MP40s. It’s still the same terror. It’s still the same control. It’s still the same dictating.

“You cannot make Barnsley like Barcelona at 4.00am on a Saturday night. Barnsley will never be Barcelona because, in Barcelona, they’re sitting and talking about Gaudi and architecture and philosophy and drinking Stella Artois. In Barnsley, they’re fucking each other over skips, eating kebabs, drunk that much that they’re lying on the fucking road. That is Britain. You can’t change that. It is everything that made this country strong.

“You go from Lancashire to Yorkshire to Scouse – 28 miles and we’ve got our own slang, our own foods, our own people. That is everything that made Britain Britain. We are an island nation. We need that. But they want us all to be a bland little revenue gerbil, just spinning on the wheel for some feed and some water.”

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Top farter Mr Methane is related to the Queen of England (& possibly Scotland)

Mr Methane: his patriotic music

Mr Methane issued a ‘ring tone’ to celebrate Diamond Jubilee

My chum Mr Methane is the world’s only professionally performing flatulist.

He farts for a living.

And a very good living it is.

His sister recently decided to look into the family history.

“Yes,” Mr Methane told me, “Margaret decided to do our dad’s mum’s side of the family first, because we didn’t know a lot about them.”

“Our dad’s mum was a Hulley but, in olden times, they also spelled it Hooley. We had a great granddad in Sutton, near Macclesfield, called Jasper Hulley and he had 19 children.”

“Bloody hell,” I said.

“Yes,” said Mr Methane, “he really got going. He had two wives – I think because he wore the first one out. Going back through Jasper’s family, we ended up in among the Brindleys.

“Margaret said: Ooh! We’ve got Brindleys in the family!”

“You can,” I told Mr Methane, “get tablets for that.” He ignored me.

James Brindley with his Barton Aqueduct in the background (by Francis Parsons, 1770)

James Brindley with his Barton Aqueduct in the background (by Francis Parsons, 1770)

“She only follows the direct bloodline,” he continued. “The ones who did the deed which means we exist.

“I said to her: I wonder if we’re any relation to James BrindleyI knew he had served his apprenticeship at a place called Gurnett near Sutton. The Brindley Society say James was one of the thinkers and doers that made the Industrial Revolution kick-in.”

“Is that because of the canals?” I asked.

“Well, he was a millwright. He came from Wormhill in the Peak District. He understood water power and he also got himself abreast of steam power, so he was working on the first factories and he was big friends with Josiah Wedgwood of Stoke – the pottery man – and the Duke of Bridgewater in Manchester.”

“As in the Bridgewater Canal?” I asked.

“Exactly,” said Mr Methane. “He built the Bridgwater Canal and that changed everything, because suddenly the Duke of Bridgewater could transport lots of his coal much cheaper than he could by packhorses. It completely changed the economics of moving stuff around.

Mr Methane’s modest, mild-mannered alter ego Paul Oldfield

Mr Methane’s modest, mild-mannered alter ego Paul Oldfield

“And Josiah Wedgwood wanted his factories not just to be making pottery but also delivering it all over the country. He wanted his raw materials in and his goods out. So the new canals were a transport revolution. In the end, my sister found out that James Brindley is our great-great-great-great-great uncle.

“So we were quite happy in the knowledge that we were linked to this guy who helped launch the 18th century’s equivalent of the space age.

“But then my sister said: I’ll go into the Bowmans now. They were related to us and they were a noble family who had their own crest. They were very early in the Quaker movement and got locked up. Some of them stood up in church at Alstonefield, Derbyshire, and renounced the Church of England and they were put in prison, because Quakerism was a bit naughty.

Mr Methane prepares to fart a dart from his bottom

Mr Methane prepares to fart a dart from his bottom in the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show at Edinburgh Fringe

“Then, through the Bowmans, we ended up in the Beresfords who are a proper noble family from Fenny Bentley in Derbyshire. They’ve go a family tomb there. One of my relations is Thomas Beresford. He was called Sir Beresford of Beresford.

“He had about 16 sons and the tomb doesn’t have his effigy, because the tomb was made much later and they didn’t know what he looked like. So the sculptor made a shroud and, on the tomb, he’s in a shroud that looks not unlike a sack tied at one end. It’s a bit like a magician’s act, I suppose. It’s a shame about Keith Harris, isn’t it?”

“Eh?” I asked, startled.

“He died, you know,” said Mr Methane.

“The ventriloquist?” I asked, surprised. “I know. Is he related?”

“No, no,” said Mr Methane. “I was just thinking about magicians’ acts and Keith Harris came into me head. Apparently Orville (his ventriloquist’s doll) has taken the death terribly. He just lies there, saying nothing…

The Beresford Bear

The Beresford Bear

“Anyway… Thomas Beresford… He was a proper nobleman and it says on the Beresford family tomb that the Beresfords were from Beresford Dale. Their crest has a bear on it and there’s a Beresford Society.

“Margaret rang up the genealogist there and went through it all with him and he said: Yeah, you’re in the family.

“Sir Thomas Beresford is like my 13th granddad. As a nobleman, he had to raise an army of at least ten men and go fight with the king whenever he was asked, so he fought at Agincourt… Well, they’re not sure if it was Thomas Beresford himself or his father.

“And that was quite exciting, until we found out his mother was Lady Elizabeth Bassett and the Bassetts of Blore and the Beresfords for years just fought and nicked each other’s sheep. Blore is the next parish down from Beresford Dale and Fenny Bentley.

“Then, when you get into the Bassett (earlier called Basset) family, it just goes mad. You just end up related to every noble person around. They went all over the place from Cambridge to Wales to Cornwall. The Queen is descended from one of the Sir William Bassetts – there were loads of them.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, The queen Mother

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother

“There’s a family strand that goes through the Cavendishes, then the Bowes-Lyons – the Queen Mother was a Bowes-Lyon – to the present Queen. She’s probably like a 1,017th cousin of mine or something but the Queen and us are definitely in there in among the Bassetts.”

“And your sister Margaret is still researching?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” said Mr Methane, “Following what the Bassett Society and The Beresford Society have done, we’ve got back to Thurston de Basset, who was Grand Falconer to William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. That’s where we’ve ended up.

“And apparently two Bassetts were among the King’s counsellors at the signing of the Magna Carta. I see a whole American market here. I think I might just give up farting or build a theme round it that includes the family history. I think I might have found my route into after-dinner speaking.

“So I think I have to go up-market now. Not just common-or-garden farting but noble farting. I mean, Thurston de Basset, Grand Falconer to William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings – They were firing arrows at King Harold in 1066 and I’m still farting darts out of my bottom at balloons on stage all these years later. It must be in the genes.”

M Methane, distant claimant to the throne of England

Mr Methane, distant claimant to the throne of England, displays the bottomless pit of his patriotism

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Comedian Al Murray has a chat about his Pub Landlord character, TV satire and mentally sub-normal medieval fools

Guns ’n’ Moses were the new schlock ’n’ roll

Guns ’n’ Moses (from left) Mike Cosgrave, Al Murray, Dave Cohen and Jim Tavaré

In yesterday’s blog, Al Murray talked about his interest in history, Britishness and World Wars.

“You were also a drummer in the group Guns ’n’ Moses with Dave Cohen and Jim Tavaré,” I said when I met him last week. “But you’re not a frustrated drummer and a frustrated historian. You must be rolling in dosh. So you’re not thinking I should have taken a different career path?”

“No,” said Al. “I remember on a school report a very long time ago they called me a dilettante and I had to ask my dad what it meant. He said It means someone who dabbles in different things and doesn’t really specialise and I remember thinking That sounds brilliant! That sounds like a good job option.

“Polymath might sound better,” I suggested. “You’re in an ideal position now. I imagine you don’t desperately need to work.”

“Yes and no,” replied Al. “I really love doing the stand-up side. This is the 20th year I’ve been doing the Pub Landlord character. Each time I sit down to write a new show, which is what I’m doing right now, I always realise there’s a whole load of things I could do with it which I haven’t explored yet. The character is the same but, if you watch the shows, they’re all very different from each other, with different textures.”

“With Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part,” I said, “I thought maybe he was a role model for people who agreed with his bigoted views. I never believed he would change people’s views.”

“The problem is,” said Al, “if you go too far along that road, you start to argue against irony. The opposite of irony is everything being taken literally. If you’re going to be literal about everything, you’re gonna have to have figurative paintings; you can’t have Impressionism… The thing that’s happening in stand-up comedy at the moment is you’re supposed to be sincere. Why?”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because it’s prescriptive,” said Al, “and art suffers when you get prescriptive. On stage, I don’t talk about me – ever – because I’m not interested and I’m not interested in anyone else being interested. I’d rather talk about the world or ideas. If people really do agree with what the Pub Landlord says then they’re mental, so there’s nothing I can do about them. And isn’t it like a cosmic prank? If people think he’s real, that’s fucking hilarious. I think our job as comics is to be pranksters. We’re not supposed to agree. We’re supposed to cause confusion.”

ITV publicity shot for Multiple Personality Disorder

ITV publicity for Al Murray’s Multiple Personality  Disorder

“In 2009,” I said, “you did do an ITV show Multiple Personality Disorder in which you played lots of different characters and I genuinely thought the range of characters was wonderful and…”

“ITV didn’t think that!” laughed Al. “Dealing with TV people! The guy who had been championing me went elsewhere, so we ended up with someone new as commissioner. I loved making that programme. The fun was doing different things and seeing if they’d work. But, for stand-up, the Pub Landlord is… I’ve got him… When people say Why don’t you do something else? I say Alright, I’ll do that when Jack Dee does his ‘I’m Not Grumpy Any More’ show or Harry Hill does observational comedy or Michael McIntyre talks about American foreign policy.”

“So,” I said, “your two big interests are, let’s say, history and comedy. And they come together in this book you’re writing about fools.”

Will Sommers, fool to the Tudor monarchs

Will Sommers, a fool to the Tudors

“Well, I’m trying to write it,” said Al. “I’m trying to draw the stuff together and see if I can make it cohere. I found out about Henry VIII’s fool Will Sommers. He survived as a fool through Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and through to Elizabeth I. He survived all four reigns in court.

“The traditional reading of that period is it’s a roller coaster politically and religiously. So how did he survive? The answer is either he wasn’t saying anything dangerous at all OR that having him there saying awkward things at the right moment was SO important you could not get rid of him. The Tudor fools were the last of the classic old-fashioned fools.”

“You mean men with funny hats?” I asked.

“No,” said Al. “There’s fools and there’s jesters. Jesters are people pretending to be fools. Fools were – although it’s unpalatable for us – essentially people with behavioural and learning difficulties. In the medieval theology of the time, if that was your intellectual capacity, you were regarded as ‘innocent before God’ because you couldn’t understand theology. So you had a Get Out of Jail card. Literally.”

You’re an idiot, so we won’t burn you at the stake,” I said.

“Exactly,” agreed Al. “So you could say what you liked. Most of the fools were called ‘naturals’ and they fitted this mental category. Then, separately, you had jesters – ‘artificials’ – who were pretending to be like that and they’re the people who get in the shit because everyone knows they’re pretending – so, when they say the terrible thing that shouldn’t be said, the assumption is You knew what you were saying so you’re for the chop.

“A lot of what we think fools were comes at us through art and stage plays. So we think fools were like the fool in King Lear, but that’s Shakespeare’s dramatisation of what their function was. In fact, you had these people essentially gigging up and down the country and there was a circuit. If you were a man of status, you would have your own fool saying stupid things or juggling or farting. Farting was very big in the 12th century.”

Al Murray writing in Soho last week

Al Murray writing new ideas in Soho last week

“And there was a circuit?” I asked.

“And a career structure,” added Al. “This was an era when mentally ill people were not locked away. That didn’t happen until the 18th century. Before that, you had ‘village idiots’ and everyone knew who they were and what their problems were and they had a role. And they were innocent before God.

“In the Domesday Book, there’s a fool who was probably one of Edward The Confessor’s fools who has retired out to the Welsh Marches who has a big estate – so he’s really rich. But he’s been removed or exiled because he’s a previous king’s jester and we need a new one for the Normans.”

“Do you think fools were mentally sub-normal,” I asked, “or might they have been autistic, where there’s a mixture of high intelligence and social awkwardness?”

“That whole spectrum,” said Al. “Different people with different problems. I think we would now be incredibly uncomfortable about laughing at them. You only have to look at the response to Ricky Gervais’ TV show Derek where he’s pretending to be someone who would have had a role as a fool… The response to that is super-uncomfortable for a lot of people.

“Fools were very important, because they spoke the truth. There are examples of them giving the king bad news because no-one else dared. The fool had a licence to speak truth to the powerful.”

“Nowadays,” I said, “I suppose we have satirists.”

“Well,” said Al, “there’s this preposterous idea that people in the 1960s invented satire. They did it on TV and what was unusual about them was they were people who could have been in the Establishment taking the piss out of the Establishment. The Goon Show was a satire of Britain in the 1950s, but Spike Milligan was blue collar, so he doesn’t get that elevation as a great satirist because he’s not from the Establishment. He had not rejected something in becoming a satirist.”

“Is he a satirist or a surrealist?” I asked.

“Well,” said Al. “The Goon Show had the absurdities of National Service, was about rationing, was about Class. It’s all in there, but Spike Milligan dressed it up as something else. The 1960s satire boom, though, was… It’s a bit like me… My grandfather (Sir Ralph Murray) was a diplomat, my dad worked in management at British Rail, so he was a sort of civil servant and that’s where I was heading – or a lawyer or something. To do comedy was a bit of a departure.”

“You’ve got no showbiz background?”

The Navy Lark with (on left) Stephen Murray

The Navy Lark with (on left) Stephen Murray

“My great uncle Stephen Murray was an actor. I never knew him. He was in The Navy Lark on radio when his serious actor career mis-fired a little. But that was always like Your great uncle Stephen’s an actor… Phoah! That’s really weird!”

“I remember Stephen Murray always played authority figures,” I said.

“Which is what his brother was,” said Al. “His brother was an ambassador.”

(Al did not mention to me that he is a great-great-great-great-great-grandson of John Murray, 3rd Duke of Atholl nor that his great-great-great-grandfather was author William Makepeace Thackeray.)

“Most satire,” I suggested, “is sort of elitist, whereas what you’re doing with the Pub Landlord is populist. Are you sneaking in under the radar?”

“Maybe,” said Al. “Whenever there’s a round-up of what’s going on in satire, I always think: Why am I not on this list?

“Maybe,” I suggested, “because you are appealing to Joe Public in general and not exclusively to Guardian readers?”

“Maybe,” said Al. “It always makes me laugh. I think Oh, come on! At least give me a mention! Or at least print ‘some people say it is but it isn’t’ .

… CONTINUED HERE

 

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Filed under Comedy, History, Mental health, Mental illness

Fanny & Stella: “I had wanted to write a book which was completely gay”

Last night, I had a gay old time with Chaps in Dresses.

Perhaps I am old-fashioned at heart. Like many others, I lament the change in meaning of the word ‘gay’.

But, last night, the highly esteemed Sohemian Society hosted an evening billed as Chaps in Dresses.

The evening started with the recitation of a limerick from famed Victorian porno publication The Pearl, circa 1879-1880.

There was an old person of Sark,
Who buggered a pig in the dark;
The swine, in surprise,
Murmured “God blast your eyes,
Do you take me for Boulton or Park?”

Fanny and Stella bookLast night’s Chaps in Dresses was a talk by writer Neil McKenna nimbly plugging his new book Fanny & Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England about Boulton and Park.

The Sohemian Society meeting took place in an upstairs room at the King & Queen pub in Foley Street in what I think estate agents now call North Soho. It was a stone’s throw – or as Neil McKenna put it – “a strong ejaculation away” from 19 Cleveland Street, the site of a famous Victorian male brothel.

Fanny & Stella is a merry tale of Victorian men who liked to dress as women – Fanny and Stella were actually Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton who, according to the book’s publicity, had their “extraordinary lives as wives and daughters, actresses and whores revealed to an incredulous public” at a show trial in Westminster Hall “with a cast of peers, politicians and prostitutes, drag queens, doctors and detectives” in a “Victorian peepshow, exposing the startling underbelly of nineteenth century London.”

But I was equally interested in Neil McKenna’s tale of the problems he had getting the book published. He gave a health warning before his talk:

“When I did a talk in Kirkcudbright in Scotland,” he explained, “in a hall where the average age was about 82, they provided not one but two defibrillators. We got through without mishap but then, a couple of weeks ago at Gay’s The Word, we were doing very well when suddenly a lesbian fainted and had to be carried out. Then I did a talk at Waterstone’s Gower Street and I was just getting into my stride when a woman rather ostentatiously walked out.

“We must also spare a thought for poor Virginia Blackburn, a reviewer for the Sunday Express who read my book and said she was no prude but felt she had to skip over some passages – which begs the question What sort of ‘passages’?”

Neil McKenna believes that, until very recently, gay history has been largely written by heterosexuals who “have an agenda” but, to an extent, things have slightly improved. For example, this month is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans-Gender History Month – a title which, Neil McKenna admits, is “a little bit of a mouthful”.

“Gay history, as generally told,” Neil said last night, “is a history of criminality, repression and punishment but, actually, gay history is also the history of people who fall in love, people who go out and have sex with each other, people who create a sub-culture and who form an identity. And that’s really what I wanted to write about, although the story in the book is framed within the context of a criminal trial.”

Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park were arrested in drag outside the Strand Theatre in 1870 and put on trial in 1871.

“My publishers, Faber, were a little ‘challenged’ by the content of the book when I first delivered the manuscript,” Neil admitted last night. “They went a bit green and then a bit white and then they went a bit blue and, more or less, said This is not at all what we were expecting. I said Well, you’ve met me. What were you expecting? Hardly Patience Strong.

“So they were all a bit tense and we had quite a few tense weeks of discussions and chit-chats. My agent sort-of abandoned me and said: You’re on your own. But it was all resolved because Stephen Page, the CEO of Faber, read the book and announced that he liked it. So suddenly everyone liked it, which was rather useful.

“Instead of having a book they were rather sceptical about – I think largely because it’s an in-your-face book – they got behind it and I think it’s quite new and quite exciting for Faber to publish a rip-roaringly gay, unmediated, utterly-butterly book about gay men, drag, bottoms, fucking and cock-sucking.

“I had wanted to write a book which was going to be completely gay. I was fed up with writing stuff that had to be seen through a prism of heterosexuality. I just thought I’m going to go for it. I’m going to write a book that is totally and completely gay. I’m going to call Fanny and Stella ‘she’ because that was what they called themselves… and that was a little bit of a sticking point again at various stages of the publication process. I much preferred to call them ‘she’ and that was a battle I won.

“I wrote the book because I’d finished my book on Oscar Wilde and I was looking for another subject. I had mentioned Fanny and Stella in the Oscar Wilde book and I wondered if there was any mileage in them.

“I discovered there was a full trial transcript in the National Archive, put together with maybe 30 or 40 depositions and maybe 30 or 40 letters. It’s remarkable, because most Victorian trials don’t survive. Sometimes there’s a shorthand account of a trial or part of a trial but, usually, we’ve only got fragments. I think that’s because the Public Record Office was bombed in the War and lots of stuff was destroyed. But also lots of stuff was never kept. It was never considered important to keep. So I’m very grateful to the the succession of people at the National Archive who thought this was – maybe – important to keep.

“That was my first step… and then I found curious things like a ledger of Treasury payments to some of the witnesses in the trial and to some of the policemen in the trial. It was strange, because normally the Treasury shouldn’t be paying witnesses, even in 1870. So why were there payments to some of the witnesses? That started little alarm bells going off in my head. And, as I probed and probed, I discovered that there was… well, Fanny and Stella were accused of conspiracy to induce and incite men to have sodomitic sex with them.

“But there was also a parallel conspiracy… the police, probably the Home Secretary, certainly the Attorney General and perhaps Sir Richard Mayne, the Chief of the Metropolitan Police had all conspired to create a show trial, to make an example of two young cross-dressers.

“I discovered Fanny and Stella had been followed for a year. They had been under surveillance for a year. In the MePo files – the Metropolitan Police files – in the National Archive, there are also surveillance reports not of Fanny and Stella but of various other people who were considered a threat to the State. So we know in the late 1860s, 1870s, Britain was becoming a little bit of a police state, because lots of people were being surveilled.

“But why were Fanny and Stella such a threat? What was the problem with two very silly young men? They’re not intellectuals, they love to dress up, they love to perform, they love the theatre and when they weren’t in the theatre, they were on the streets selling their bottoms to raise a bit of cash to buy frocks so they could perform. They were very silly boys. They were not a threat. They were not terrorists. They were not Fenians. So why bother?

“The death penalty for buggery was only abolished in 1862, eight years before the arrest of Fanny and Stella. I think it has something to do with sexual identity.”

But, even so, why the big hoo-hah, the conspiracy and the trial in Westminster Hall? And why did the jury find them innocent after deliberating for only 53 minutes?

“You’ll have to read my book,” Neil McKenna said last night.

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Filed under Books, Gay, History, Police, Publishing, Sex, Victorian