Monday, 17 April 2017

Born in a Forced Labour Camp

Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire? (Zechariah 3:2)

      I am writing this on Easter Day, an appropriate day, one might think, to reflect on the miraculous. Take Paul Israel Kraus, for instance. His first claim to fame is that he is the longest documented survivor of mesothelioma, a lung cancer caused by asbestos. His second is that he is probably the only Jewish Holocaust survivor in the Australian Lutheran Church, for he was born on 20 October 1944 in a Nazi Forced Labour Camp. But the real heroine of the story is his mother, Clara.

Friday, 31 March 2017

A Life Cut Short at 109

      Cobar, New South Wales: in 1870 three teenagers camped by a waterhole, where they collected some colourful rocks. When they showed them to a Cornish woman, she recognized them as copper, and the mining boom began. Later, one fellow picked up a rock to throw at a noisy possum, and noticed a fragment of gold the size of a postage stamp adhering to it. And for 31 years it was the last stamping ground of a remarkable character known as "Old Norman" Fersen, whose life was cut short by a tragic accident when he was just over 109 years of age. To tell the story, I can think of no better way than to copy verbatim the pamphlet produced by the city's Heritage Centre. In reading it, kindly remember that the old age pension had been introduced to the state only in 1900.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Quick Thinking in the Heat of Battle

     Robert Clive! He was one of the heroes we learnt about in primary school, the way Americans learnt about George Washington. At least, we did in my day. If the current generation has failed to do so, then they are to be pitied, for they have lost an essential part of their history and heritage. Sent over to India at the age of seventeen, most likely to get him out of his father's hair, it was hoped that, after five years of living on a miniscule wage, he would be allowed to indulge in private trade, and thus grow rich. But it didn't work out that way. After just a few years, he found himself in the crosswires of the French plan to destroy the British coastal trading posts. Without any military experience, he enlisted in the army, and soon became a man of destiny. This is one minor episode in his rise.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

The Black Pearls of Fatu Hiva

     It's not often that an apparently improbable account is confirmed by a unrelated story. Careful readers of this blog may have noticed that I am an avid collector of the old Wide World Magazine, in which ordinary people from all over the world described their own adventures. They were supposed to certify that they were "strictly original and true in every detail", and most of them, I believe, were. They don't normally have the clear-cut beginning, middle, and end of fiction. Nevertheless, there was no available method of confirmation, and fiction certainly had occasionally turned up dressed as fact. One of these which sounded too pat to be above suspicion was "The Black Pearls of Fatu-Hivu" by the baronet, Sir Graeme Sinclair-Lockhart in the January 1951 issue (February 1951 in the Australian and New Zealand versions.)

Friday, 6 January 2017

Voyage to the Edge of the World

     "No-one goes beyond the reef!" insisted Chief Tui in Disney's latest cartoon, Moana. Of course, as the story developed we were reminded that the people of the Pacific had no concern about the moana, or ocean. They colonised its countless islands by exploratory voyages extending hundreds, even thousands of miles. Nevertheless, it is a fact that the inhabitants of the Gilbert Islands, now known as Kiribati, once believed that if they sailed too far west, they would fall off the edge of the world.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

A Sherry for the Saviour

     Now that Christmas is coming up, we might take a glimpse at its celebration in India in the 1920s. One person who went there at the age of eight described his experiences in The Colonel's Son (1962) under the pseudonym of Nigel Eldridge. It turns out that the highlight of the pre-Christmas season was his being cast as the chief angel in the nativity play put on by the twenty-eight pupil Regimental School, written and produced by the music mistress, Miss Trouvel, and staged in the school gymnasium. I know this might sound extraordinary to some of my American readers, but I assure you that, in realms where the fatwas of SCOTUS do not run, such things are regarded as unexceptional - as, I am sure, they also were in the U.S. in those days. But let Mr Eldridge tell the story:

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Sex, Sorcery, and Swordfish

     The power of mind over matter can be quite spectacular, when the "matter" is the human body, and not always for the best. Take, for instance, a phantom pregnancy, when a woman wants a child so much that her body goes through all the features of pregnancy, except that no child has been conceived. The classic case was that of England's first queen regnant, the unfortunate Mary I ("Bloody Mary"). Married to the King of Spain at the age of 40, and desperate for an heir, she was apparently pregnant for eleven months, but nothing came of it. Even worse is "sorcery death" or voodoo death. Recorded in many parts of the world, the most dramatic is the phenomenon of "pointing the bone", also known as "singing to death" among the Australian Aborigines. When a person has a curse put upon him by a witchdoctor by having a bone pointed at him, he literally wills himself to die within a few days or a few weeks, unless the curse is removed.
    But what happens when both phenomena occur together?

Monday, 31 October 2016

The Adventures of a Curio Collector

     Every now and then one comes across people whose adventurous lives one can only envy. Thus, in my university days, when I imagined I had a future as a wildlife zoologist, I read George Schaller's account of his studies on mountain gorillas deep in the African jungle, even before Dian Fossey went in and did the same. Then I followed him as he studied lions in the Serengeti (I still have that book), tigers in India, snow leopards in the Himalayas, and pandas in China, among many others. The lucky devil! Again, to someone who spent the holidays of his bachelor days travelling the world, a major source of envy was Robert Ripley who, once his cartoon, Ripley's Believe It or Not! got started, never took a holiday, but travelled the world into far more exotic locations than a tourist like me could hope to enter, collecting items weirder and more wonderful than anything on the tourist trail.
    But recently, I came across yet another source of envy: Frank Burnett (1852 - 1930), whose 1,200 Pacific Island artifacts was donated to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and became the founding collection of the UCB Museum of Anthropology.  And I can't think of a better way to introduce him than to quote verbatim from this 1920 article by Francis J. Dickie.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Tombstone for a Trout

   I think this photo speaks for itself. I took it, believe it or not, from the Boy's Own Paper of June 1920.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

The White King of the Kikuyu

     With 22% of the population, the Kikuyu are the dominant and most progressive tribe in Kenya, and they provided its first president, Jomo Kenyatta. The reason is not hard to discern: living in the vicinity of Nairobi, they experienced the strongest effects of British civilisation. But it wasn't always so. Up to the end of the nineteenth century they dwelt ensconced in fortified villages, every clan being at war with every other. Not even a rooster was allowed in the village, lest its crowing alert enemies to the village's location. The breeding stock was hidden in coops out in the bush. Outsiders kept clear of their territory, for they would be marked for death. The first thing a passing caravan would know of the danger lurking in the undergrowth would be the twang of a bowstring, and a poisoned arrow striking down a laggard. Or else they would blunder into a poisoned skewer set into the underbrush at stomach level. All this came to an end when an intrepid white man arrived to trade, and unexpectedly became the white king of a savage tribe.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Burning Buddha's Tooth

     When one of the Pandyan kings, an invader and Hindu fanatic, ordered the destruction of the Buddha's tooth, the holy relic rebounded from the hammer blow in a ball of light. That, at least, was the event depicted in this modern painting in the inner sanctum of the Temple of the Tooth, Kandy, in central Sri Lanka. This was the last photograph I was able to take in the temple, because immediately afterwards the battery in my camera failed. Well, I had my revenge on the Tooth. Shortly afterwards, I told my companions its dirty little secret.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

JFK's Big Brother: the Big Shot and the Big Gun

     When John F. Kennedy was elected President, there was soon a lot of publicity about his World War II service commanding torpedo boats, but what about his big brother, Joseph Kennedy Jr.? He was the one who was meant to be President. When he came into the world in 1915, his grandfather announced to the press that he would be the first Catholic President, and his whole life was plotted towards that purpose. Then his country went to war. Joe and Jack both joined the navy, Jack in the Pacific arena, and Joe on the other side of the Atlantic as a naval aviator, performing more than fifty missions in anti-submarine patrols. At last, he volunteered for Operation Aphrodite.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Husbands On the Menu

     In sub-Saharan Africa husbands are dispensable. That might seem a strange thing to say, considering that many African women are downtrodden, are all expected to get married, and often have limited say in who they marry, while divorce entails returning the bride price. Nevertheless, one has to consider the economic situation. Times are changing, of course, with new technology and urbanisation, but traditional African agriculture was (and in many cases still is) hoe-based, and most of it is performed by women. (A similar situation exists in Melanesia.) Indeed, the fact that a man need not be a significant breadwinner to his wife or children is one of the main enabler of polygyny - 20% to 50% in some cases. I have a book published in 1952 entitled, The Fon and His 100 Wives, in which the author, Rebecca Reyher interviewed the king ("fon") of Bikom in the Cameroons, along with many of his wives. The interesting thing was that his harem, unlike those of a sultan or rajah, did not live in idleness in a gilded cage; they worked in the fields much like village women, their children accompanying them, or dragging themselves up. Perhaps this economic pattern may explain the grotesque events which took place in the same period in what was then the Belgian Congo.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

How Houdini Controlled the Rain

     Of course, we have all heard about Houdini, the great escape artist. A sideline to his story is what happened after his mother died. Distraught and grief-stricken, he sought the aid of mediums in order to contact her. By his own account, he wanted to believe. But it was a mistake for any medium to let a top class professional magician into the séance. Immediately, he saw that everything was not as it seemed. Behind the raps, the levitations, the slate-writing, the ectoplasm, and so forth lay the most blatant fraud. It was amazing how simple were many of the stage tricks involved. Thus began his crusade against Spiritualistic trickery. And most amazing of all was the desperate will to believe by their dupes. Many people, including his friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle insisted that he himself must be a medium, performing his work by with the aid of the spirits, despite his constant avowals that they were merely tricks.
     The upshot was his book, A Magician Among the Spirits (which can be read or downloaded here), appropriately dedicated to his mother. And on pages 245-6 he describes his own amusing adventure.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Bad Beef for the Baron

    Well, not exactly a baron, but what other English word is there to translate the Japanese  daimyō? They were the feudal lords of Japan, and even the small island of Hirado, 20 miles long by 5 wide, off the southeast coast of Kyūshū, had one. Shigenobu had been daimyō until 1589, after which he had been officially deposed in favour of his grandson, but it was the old man himself who really held the reins of power. However, Captain Saris of the English ship, the Clove persisted in recording his name as "King Foyne" because, for some reason, he was unable to pronounce Shigenobu. In any case, the Dutch had set up a "factory", or trading post, on the island in 1609, and now the English were going to try their hand. When they arrived on 10 June 1613 they were in terrible shape.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Of Eskimos and Ants

     How do Eskimo firefighters entertain themselves during down time? Eskimo firefighters? You must be kidding! How many fires do you get in the land of snow? Well, the igloos I saw in Greenland were made of timber, (igloo simply means "house", of whatever material) but I agree there were not enough to justify a regular fire brigade. However, it was a different matter in Idaho in 1967. But there are no Eskimos in Idaho, I hear you exclaim. Well, let me explain.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

The Farce of the Tombstone Rangers

     Bloody and brutal was the conflict between the Apaches and the white settlers, but there was one episode of a farce. It occurred in 1883, when General Crook was organizing an expedition into Mexico against Geronimo.
     While Crook was organizing the expedition a party of barroom Indian fighters who called themselves the "Tombstone Rangers" and who were well fortified with bottled spirits, patriotically set out for San Carlos to massacre all the reservation Apaches. Before they reached the southern edge of the reservation, however, they ran out of both whiskey and courage. They continued on their way with diminished enthusiasm until they saw an old Apache man out gathering mescal. Fortunately for them he was unarmed; fortunately for him, when they shot at him they missed. He fled north while the Tombstone Rangers dashed in the opposite direction, having completed one of the least bloody "massacres" of the Apache wars. The organization, Bourke noted, "expired of thirst".
Reference: Donald E. Worcester, The Apaches, Eagles of the Southwest, University of Oklahoma Press, p  267 of the 1992 edition.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Custer: Defender of the Indians

     A certain ironic justice has ensured that when the Red Indians achieved a major victory in the defense of their homes, the opposing general's humiliation would be compounded by having the defeat named after him. Thus, their greatest victory, which left 632 white soldiers and up to 200 female camp followers dead, and mostly scalpless, on the ground, is known as St Clair's Defeat. If it is any consolation to General St Clair - who escaped alive and unharmed, but with eight bullet wounds in his hat and clothing - his débacle has been largely forgotten by his compatriots.
     Not so lucky was George Armstrong Custer. Not only was his own body included among the 258 dead near the Little Bighorn River, but his action has remained forever famous as Custer's Last Stand. In a way, this is a pity, for it has overshadowed all the other aspects of his life.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Great Havana Clean-Up

     Cuba has had the bad luck to have suffered from oppressive governments for most of its history (it still does), but at least there were times when something positive was done - like when the U.S. was in charge. As you are no doubt aware, the Spanish-American War began with the U.S. intervening on Cuba's behalf during its war of independence. The result was that the country got its independence, but only after being taken care of by Uncle Sam from January 1899 to May 1902. And when Major William Black arrived as head of the U.S. Army Engineer Corps, he must have felt the same way Hercules did when presented with the Augean stables.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

P.O.W.s on Parole

     They don't fight wars the way they used to. I was surprised to discover, for example, that during the War of 1812 American prisoners were released by the British authorities with letters of parole. Essentially, they were let go when they signed a promise not to take up arms against His Majesty again. This they were able to do because, for the most part, they were militia who had signed up for six months' service, and were free to resign after that.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Daniel Boone on Religion

     Now that the festival of our Saviour's birth is coming up, it might be appropriate to hear a few words from that famous American theologian, Daniel Boone. It comes from a letter he once wrote to a sister-in-law, and which was quoted in chapter 19 of Daniel Boone, Master of the Wilderness by John Bakeless (1939).
     Relating to our family and how we Live in this World and what Chance we Shall have in the next we know Not for my part I am as ignurant as a Child all the Relegan I have to Love and feer god beleve in Jeses Christ Dow all the good to my Neighbour and my Self as I Can and Do as Little harm as I Can help and trust in gods marcy for the Rest and I Beleve god neve made a man of prisepel to be Lost and I flater my Self Deer Sister that you are well on your way in Cristianity.
    To which one can only say, "Amen".

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The Texas Armadillo Dealers

[T]he orange armadillo, so called from its resemblance to that fruit when curled, ran stiffly like a mechanical toy between thickets. Sasha picked one up and was amazed at its construction. It had the face of a pig, the tail of a rattlesnake, the claws of a gryphon and the walk of a woodlouse. [Tiger-Man, by Julian Duguid, 1932]

Thursday, 22 October 2015

A Lion as Watchdog

    Every night, through the darkened halls and corridors of a stately old English home, there prowls a fully-grown African lion - on the lookout for burglars.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Bruce and the Fascists

     I cannot escape adventure. If I touch a bath-heater, it blows up. If I go swimming, I am carried away by the tide. If I go to a restaurant which has had a blameless reputation for 100 years, someone chooses that day to shoot himself at the tables. If I go on a yacht, it sinks. If there is a street fight, it is timed to suit my convenience. If there is a fire, I am never more than a hundred yards away. I am a sensational newspaper reporter who has missed his vocation.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Alimentary Quirks in Old South America

     Fritz Up de Graff was a New Yorker who went to South America in late 1894, and ended up spending seven adventurous years there. The result was a book, Head-Hunters of the Amazon, seven years of exploration and adventure, originally published in 1921, but now reprinted in paperback form. As one of the all time great travel books, it contains so many quirky vignettes that I shall have to reread it at some later date in order to allow them all to sink into my consciousness. But here are just a few.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Hobo Racket in Michigan

     It's amazing what you can find in a church jumble sale! My mother came back with an ancient publication entitled, The Autobiography of a Super Tramp by W. H. Davies, the first paperback reprint of what was claimed to be a classic. It certainly possessed a foreword by George Bernard Shaw in the original 1907 edition, and had been reprinted in both1920 and 1923 at least, so it had some claim to fame.
    The author was a Welshman who sailed to America and almost at once fell in with a crowd who introduced him to life on the bum. I regret to report that Mr Davies and his comrades were social parasites: work-shy loafers sponging off the misplaced kindness and generosity of Americans. They had all the soft touches down pat: first a free breakfast from Mrs Jones, then a free lunch from Mrs Brown, followed by a relaxing afternoon before hiking to Mrs White's for a free dinner. The genuine down-and-outers - the involuntary homeless and unemployed - didn't appear on his horizon. No doubt they were busy scrounging for work between meals.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The Room That Makes Men Mad

     Society's memory is short, I am sure, unless it is constantly refreshed. Etched in my personal memory, for instance, is the incredible suddenness with which the Soviet Union, with hardly a shot being fired, was swept into the dustbin of history. But that was a quarter of a century ago. I have to accept that an entire generation has grown up, finished their education, and started both a family and a career without ever being aware of such momentous events. So one would hardly expect them to remember those landmarks along the way which loomed so large to those of us who lived through them. Like the short-lived Hungarian Revolution of 1956. It was quickly put down by Soviet tanks, but not before hundreds of political prisoners were released. The most famous was Cardinal Mindszenty, who sought refuge in the United States' embassy until 1971. A much more minor character was Lajos Ruff, who managed to join 200,000 other refugees in the free West, where he described his experiences in a book first published in Paris in 1958, and then in English under the title, The Brain-Washing Machine. It is hard to believe I had it in my possession for 44 years before reading it.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Napoleon, His Girlfriend, and the Little Red Man

     Now that the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo is coming up, it might be time to ask: how much do we know about the real Napoleon? The French right now are ambivalent about him. The fact that he was a national hero who gave them a string of glorious victories does not hide the fact that he trampled underfoot what liberty they had and drove them into ultimately disastrous wars, which cost them at least a million dead, possibly two million - as well as an equal number from other nations. Yet a glamour surrounds him which eludes other despots and warmongers.
     I have already told the story of how he was forced to retreat from a horde of hungry rabbits. Now I am pleased to expose a serious of personal quirks which I found in Frank McLynn's excellent 1998 tome, Napoleon, a biography.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Never Have Sex With a Steamroller

     Don't worry, folks. This is not some prurient tale of perversion, of which - heaven only knows! - there is more than enough on the internet. It is an account of a man who did a very silly thing, and found himself in a very embarrassing situation, which he was probably never allowed to live down.
     It happened in New Guinea in 1955, and the story was related by Tom Cole, who had arrived in the territory a few years before and started up a thriving crocodile shooting business. Mr Cole used to keep a diary, and he has recorded the names, occupations, and actions of all the white people involved in the farce, so I am prepared to accept as true his account of "the man who [had sex with] a steamroller."

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Out of the Jaws of a Lion

     What would you do if you were a teenager, and your baby brother was taken by a lion? It happened to fourteen-year-old Tristram Kay just five days before Christmas, 1961. He had been living just outside of Bulawayo during the last golden years of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, with his parents, his younger brother, and two lions. Older sister Leslie had left home. As far as I can establish, his brother must have been about eight years old. Despite not being specific about when he was born, his mother she did record the circumstances of his conception.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Single Combat: Man vs Leopard

     In the novels, Tarzan was forever fighting lions, his modus operandi being to jump onto the back of the animal, hold on like grim death, and stab it with his father's hunting knife, all the time uttering snarls not easily distinguishable from that of the cat. Killing a leopard in a similar manner was much rarer, but there were at least two men who killed leopards in single combat - one in a manner not unlike Tarzan's, the other in an even more amazing fashion. Both characters were prominent enough to warrant a Wikipedia biography, but these particular exploits are worthy of being related in detail.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Adventures of Prince Philip

     A battered paperback version of a book published in 1960 once turned up in my parents' house. It was entitled, Prince Philip and what made it more interesting was that the author was his admiring cousin, H.M. Queen Alexandra of Yugoslavia. Thus, we find that everyone we know by a royal title appears under a family name. One has to remember that Uncle Georgie was the King of Greece, Uncle Bertie the King of England, Uncle Dickie Lord Louis Mountbatten and, of course, Lilibet was our future Queen Elizabeth.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Strange Story of Antechinus

 Or Why It Doesn't Always Pay to be Too Macho
    A few decades ago, when my mother was still alive, we both happened to take a short stroll through the rainforest at Mount Glorious, west of Brisbane, when suddenly we noticed an animal like a big mouse come scurrying up the trunk of a tree. Gazing at its pointed, foxy, most un-mouselike face, I suddenly exclaimed, "Good heavens! It's an antechinus! We are lucky to see such a thing during the daytime." A short time later, the penny dropped. We had been incredibly lucky, for we had arrived during the only two weeks of the year when it would have been active by day: the mating season. It had only been while I was at university that the remarkable life cycle of these mysterious creatures had begun to be unraveled - in fact, not far from where we had seen it.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Yes, Virginia, a Bible Really Did Stop a Bullet.

     I seem to be writing a lot about war these days. Of course, we have all heard the story about the soldier whose life was saved when the Bible in his breast pocket stopped a bullet. But it's just an urban legend, isn't it? Besides, it has been effectively debunked by the Mythbusters, hasn't it?
     Well, not quite. Yes, it is an urban legend, in that nobody can tell you when, where, or to whom it happened. But folklorists do recognize such a thing as "ostension", when real life accidentally mimics an urban legend. As for the Mythbusters, all they proved was that no book is strong enough to stop a bullet fired directly at it from the distance of a normal rifle range. It ignores what really happens on the battlefield, with bullets and shrapnel spraying and ricocheting left, right, and centre, losing momentum with each ricochet. In fact, military rounds are designed to ricochet. So you should not be surprised that the Australian Bible Society does possess a Bible - or, to be more precise, a New Testament with Psalms - which did stop a bullet.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Itching Powder for the U-Boats

     When American forces were busy liberating the south of France, imagine their surprise when, along a road, instead of German reinforcements, up marched a British officer in full Highland dress, including kilt. Major Havard Gunn had been parachuted in some weeks before dressed in his Seaforth uniform, with his kilt coming down with a subsidiary parachute. From there he joined the French Maquis, or irregular resistance fighters, and no hint of a British officer wearing a kilt behind enemy lines ever reached the ears of the Germans.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Love in the Ruins of Warsaw

     "Most of us had some sort of psychological problem at the time. I used to suffer blackouts. Both of my brothers were in the Resistance. I remember walking along a street in Warsaw when a van drove up with blood leaking from it. Some stranger hustled me away into a side street. I was only fifteen."
     That story was told to me just over forty years ago by a Polish lady whose daughter I was dating. You don't know how lucky you are. By the end of the war, 85% of the city had been destroyed. Bloody were those days, and unholy their secrets.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

The God Who Talks to Earthworms

     The Aetas [eye-tas] of the Philippine island of Luzon are negritos: one of those strange group of black pygmies, pockets of whose populations dot the fringes of southern Asia, remnants of a very early human migration from Africa, hunter-gatherers pushed into the rainforest by later, agricultural peoples. Psychologist Kilton Stewart visited them in the 1930s, accompanied by a half-Aeta interpreter. He discovered that, although not strictly speaking monotheists, they did worship a Supreme God, in this case with the name of Tolandian.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Fresh Fish in the Desert

     These days, of course, you can probably get anything in Alice Springs although, since it is almost exactly in the centre of Australia, you are likely to pay a lot more than on the coast. Sixty years ago, however, things were a little different. If, for example, you wanted to eat fresh fish, you would need to have it flown in from Adelaide protected by ice packs. It would also mean exchanging one load of protein for another, for it would cost you an arm and a leg. But one man found a way around it. His name was Charles H. Chapman, who started the Granites gold rush in the Tanami Desert in 1932, eventually controlled the entire Goldfield until he retired in 1954. Prior to that, he set up his retirement headquarters not far from Alice Springs. I shall now quote from a contemporary article.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The Lost Soldiers of Stalingrad

     The greatest battle in history was certainly the Battle of Stalingrad, fought at the city of that name on the Volga between August 1942 and February 1943, and which became the turning point on the Eastern Front. The fundamental details can be summarised briefly. The German 6th Army under Field Marshall Paulus forced its way across the river into the city, fighting street by exhausting street and house by exhausting house. Eventually, the Soviet forces counterattacked, hemmed in the Germans and their allies and, when the river froze, surrounded them. The Germans now found themselves ground between a relentless enemy and a relentless winter, while their Commander-in-Chief, Hitler refused any permission to withdraw, for all his life he had triumphed by the principle that anything can be achieved if you set your mind to it. Finally, Field Marshall Paulus surrendered in order to save what remained of his troops. It was a vain hope, for most of them perished in captivity.
     According to Heinz Schröter, the official German historian, 220,000 German and allied troops perished, and 123,000, including 24 generals, capitulated, of which only 5,000 came home alive. The Soviet casualties were similarly horrendous, and the civilian deaths numbered in the five figures. There were four million stories in the Battle of Stalingrad. This is just one of them.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Git Them Bastards Out of the Daffodils!

    When Norman Workman collapsed at home, his doctor told him his blood has been poisoned by the chemicals in the dye factory where he worked. Of course, these days this would be the beginning of a massive lawsuit, but as far as I can establish this was just after the end of World War II, and nobody thought like that in those days. Instead, he and his wife, Gladys decided to move from California to the Umpqua Valley of Oregon which, like most out-of-the-way places, was just crawling with "characters", and newcomers lived on sufferance.
     What to do for a living? Norman was over 50, his wife aged 46. On impulse he went out and spent $3,000 - which was a terrible lot of money in those days, and practically everything they owned - on three tons of daffodils. Then, because he knew absolutely nothing about farming, he put an ad in the paper for a manager. Obviously, he didn't deserve to succeed, but we don't always get what we deserve, and the business thrived. All of this is a background to the following anecdote, as told by Gladys:

Sunday, 2 November 2014

The Burning Ground of Siberia

     On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers. Who could resist buying a book with that title? No even my wife, who is a slow and perfunctory reader. It turns out the original edition was published in 1892, the year after the events described, and the year the author, Kate Marsden became the first woman elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society. She presents as an upper crust English spinster with a strong Christian vocation to help the needy. As a girl of 19 she served as a nurse in 1878 in the Russo-Turkish War, where she first witnessed the ravages of leprosy. When she heard of a mythical herb used to treat leprosy which grew only in the Yakutia, she was determined to find it, and in late 1890, armed with referrals from Queen Victoria and the Empress of Russia, she set out on a 3,000 km journey into the heart of Siberia in order to locate the plant, to report on the condition of the lepers, and to otherwise lend assistance to them.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Bride of Salik

     Once upon a time in the land of Serbia there lived a man named Salik, who had a very jealous nature. And because of this, he had remained a bachelor until the age of 43, although he was both attractive and prosperous. Now, as some of you may know, in these countries marriage is not the individualistic thing it is with us. You are supposed to get married for the sake of the family and the property. Salik knew this, but whenever the subject was raised by his friends, he would reply, "Oh no! It would never work. I have a very jealous nature. Any woman attractive to me would be attractive to other men. It would only cause dissension in the family and contention is the community."
     However, after about twenty years of nagging, he eventually gave it. He went out, and after a few months, found the ideal wife: a hunchbacked dwarf with warts all over her face - and a limp.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Damned Bats and the River of Blood

     Every now and then we come across some rather curious beliefs from what we would regard as "backward" parts of the world. Because they involve what would normally be regarded as the supernatural, they are often lumped into the category of religion. However, since they don't involve any sort of worship, it is best to treat them as quaint stories created to explain unusual circumstances by people who don't follow our un-supernatural outlook on the world.
     Take, for example, this account by the adventurer, F.A. Mitchell-Hedges, who spent the years 1919 to 1921 in Central America, especially Honduras.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

The Old Man of the Blackfeet

     The religion of the American Indians was/is a mosaic of gods, nature spirits, and visions, but in the background is the figure, sometimes remote, sometimes overarching, of the High God, the Creator. Contrary to what you may have read, the Great Spirit was not a creation of Christian missionaries, although their teachings may have had an influence on modern Indian spirituality. Among the Blackfeet, as among the Crees, Arapahos, and Gros Ventres, he was Napi, the Old Man.
     But unlike the distant Great Spirit of the eastern tribes, and the complex, multi-faceted Great Mystery of the Sioux, the Old Man was a familiar, grandfatherly figure, even given to practical jokes, who departed after his work was completed.
     After creating the earth and the animals, the Old Man constructed his wife, the Old Woman out of mud, and together they designed the human race. Of course, said the Old Man, he intended to have the first say in everything. That was all right, agreed his wife, provided she have second say.
     Old Man said, "Let the people have eyes and mouths in their faces, and let them be straight up and down." But the Old Woman added. "Yes, let them have eyes and mouths; but they shall be set crosswise in their faces."
     Old Man said, "Let the people have ten fingers on each hand." "No," declared Old Woman, "ten fingers will be in the way. Let them have four fingers and a thumb on each." So the people were made.
     I like this story, for it reminds us that the relationship between men and women is much the same all over the world. I might also add that, as the man of the house, I always have the last word in everything. And usually that last word is, "Yes, dear."

Reference: John C. Ewers (1958), The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains, University of Oklahoma Press, pp 3-4, quoting Alexander Henry and David Thompson (1897), New Light of the Early History of the Greater Northwest, II, 528.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Love on the Run from the Japanese

     In early 1942 fourteen British and Australian servicemen made a break from Japanese-held Singapore. Only four of them survived to cross the strait to Sumatra. Then began a long and hazardous flight down the length of the island in order to link up with other Allied forces. By the time they reached the very south end of Sumatra, only three were left. They were Charles McCormack, R.G. Donaldson, and Chris Skinner, the last one of which was described as:
small, dark, profane and possessed of boundless energy and humour. An inveterate grumbler, he had a one-track mind and only one topic of conversation: women.
     In short, he was the last person you would expect to react as he did in the native village which sheltered them. It completely and utterly sidetracked the whole adventure. It was something no writer would think to introduce into any of those old wartime escape movies which were once so popular. He and the chief's daughter, Li-Tong fell for each other straight away, despite the fact that their stay was very short, and that neither of them spoke more than a few words of the other's language.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Napoleon's Rabbit Retreat and Other Trivia

What's more likely: being killed by lightning or by an asteroid? Absurd as it may seem, death by asteroid is almost twice as likely.
     That's a quote from The Noticeably Stouter QI Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson (Faber & Faber, 2009). For those not in the know, QI is a British television comedy panel game, from which this book is a spin-off. It is a vast compendium of fascinating, but useless information - and thus grist to my mill, and this blog.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Not Fit To Be a High-Class Train Robber

     As everybody knows, the American west in the nineteenth century was by no means a peaceful place. The Colt .45 was its defining symbol. Many people lived - and all too often died - by it. But they did accept a certain Code. One rule was that you didn't shoot women. Another was that you didn't shoot unarmed men, and for that reason, many men really did go unarmed. And that brings us to a  nasty character called  Red Buck Waightman.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Rounding Them Up R.A.F. Style

     Here's an interesting story from the First World War, when air warfare was in its infancy. It is actually the first reference to strafing I have come across:
. . . . .

     All manner of adventures fell to the lot of our flying men, but on one occasion two officers, while on a counter attack, had an experience rare for the ubiquitous R.A.F.
     The airmen were flying fairly low. Soon they became aware that they were being fired upon from a near-by trench and sunken wood. Down dived the pilot, to promptly discover a party of Germans there, nicely sheltered. At once he returned their fire with his fixed gun, killing one and wounding three. By subsequent counting, it was ascertained that the Huns totalled sixty-five in number. Seemingly panic-stricken by this aeroplane attack, they ceased firing. And immediately a white handkerchief popped up in token of surrender.
     No British infantry were near, so what were the captors to do?
     The pilot came down to within fifty feet of the ground, and he ordered the Germans to come out of the trench. Up they tumbled quite joyously, so long as he stopped firing. Rounding up the good-sized party, the British pilot headed them off in the direction of our own lines. Flying not very far above their heads, and circling round and round to make sure that none escaped, the pilot and observer carefully conducted the batch across No Man's Land, and handed them over to the nearest party of British troops. Then those airmen flew back again, in order to "get on with it!"

Reference: Raymond Raife (1919). 'More Heroes of the Air Service' Boy's Own Annual, vol. 42, pp 179 - 183 at page 181

Saturday, 17 May 2014

10,000 Cups for the Indians

       As you are probably aware, the largest producers of commercial rubber are Malaysia and Indonesia, and they accounted for an even greater proportion during the Second World War. But the natural home of rubber is South America. So when the Japanese swept down and gobbled up southeast Asia into their empire, it wasn't long before the U.S. sent a team of experts to Ecuador to set up rubber production in the trans-Andean jungles of that country. But what most people don't know is that, although most commercial rubber comes from Hevea brasiliensis, which is generally known as "the" rubber tree, what they now had to investigate was a secondary source, the castila or Panamá rubber tree, Castila elastica. And thereby hangs a tale.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

His Hair Stood on End

     We've all heard the expression, "his hair stood on end", but has it ever happened to you? Has it ever happened to anyone you know? In our safe, civilized environment few of us ever get scared enough to put it to the test. However, we may have been scared enough to get "goosebumps", which is a minor version of the phenomenon, for every one of our hairs possesses a little muscle which allows it to be erected. Let me quote a story by Michael Andrews, from his 1976 book, The Life That Lives on Man, p 15 of the 1978 Arrow edition.