May 25

Towel Day

May 25th is observed around the world by fans of Douglas Adams, author of, inter alia, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Life, the Universe and Everything,  The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and So Long and Thanks for All the Fish. Devotees of the Adams cult carry a towel around with them all day, in honour of Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent, the original Towel Bearers. The eponymous Hitchhiker’s Guide tells its readers:

A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you — daft as a brush, but very very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have “lost.” What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Hence a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.” (Sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.)

May 24

1921 The opening of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial

On April 15, 1920, in Braintree, Massachusetts, the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company’s payroll was robbed and two men, a guard and the unarmed paymaster, were murdered. As the thieves fled the scene in a dark-blue Buick, they fired at the crowd of workers. Suspicion fell on a gang of Italian anarchists, who were questioned and followed. When police apprehended Italian-born Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a shoemaker and a fishmonger, they were found to be carrying anarchist literature, and pistols and ammunition which linked them to the shooting scene. They were charged with robbery and murder, which prompted their anarchist comrades to launch a series of bomb attacks including the famous blast on Wall Street that exploded killing 38 people and wounding 134.

The trial of Sacco and Vanzetti opened on May 24, 1921, eventually becoming a famous episode in American jurisprudence and an enduring part of left-wing mythology. The left presented the two as harmless cheese-eating immigrants persecuted by xenophobic bigots, while the right saw them as dangerous terrorists and a warning of the dangers of unrestricted immigration. What made this clash of ideologies worse was the5 incompetence and bias of the judge, Webster Thayer, who had already presided over a trial finding Vanzetti guilty of an earlier robbery. A jury found Sacco and Vanzetti guilty of robbery and murder in July 1921.

It was at this point that the American left rallied and used the undoubted flaws of the trial to raise money, publicize labour and anarchist causes, and demand a new trial. The usual crowd of celebrities, academics, and writers supported the cause, making it an international sensation. As appeals dragged on, another anarchist in 1925 took the blame for the Braintree crimes, absolving Sacco and Vanzetti, but again Judge Thayer denied the need for a new trial. However, by 1926 powerful voices, including future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, Albert Einstein and Dorothy Parker, were arguing that the original case had been a travesty of justice. The uproar was such that Massachusetts governor Alvan Fuller established an independent inquiry into the affair which, after two weeks of study and hearing witnesses, declined to overturn the original verdict. Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution on August 22, 1927 was to go ahead.

In prison, the condemned alternated between calls for violent revenge — “revenge, revenge in our names and the names of our living and dead” — and posing as innocents. Vanzetti was particularly touching, telling Sacco’s son in a letter “remember always these things; we are not criminals; they convicted us on a frame-up; they denied us a new trial; and if we will be executed after seven years, four months and seventeen days of unspeakable tortures and wrong, it is for what I have already told you; because we were for the poor and against the exploitation and oppression of the man by the man.”

Their execution prompted a wave of bombings across America and in Europe. Fifty years later Governor Dukakis of Massachusetts decreed that the pair been unfairly tried and convicted and that “any disgrace should be forever removed from their names”. Though the plight of Sacco and Vanzetti remains a legend of injustice on the left, the two were certainly guilty. Their defence lawyer told Upton Sinclair, author of a sympathetic novel, that he had provided the men with a fake alibi and that they served the cause better as martyrs than if they had been released. Anarchist sources admitted that Sacco was the shooter.

May 15

1525 Millennialist dreams are shattered at Frankenhausen

 The Protestant Reformation quickly brought to the fore a question that had been vexing Western Civilization since the time of the Greeks: is it ever legitimate to use violence to oppose tyranny?

Martin Luther and his followers initially opposed the notion of violent resistance but it was cautiously endorsed by Swiss theologian Huldreich Zwingli. The next expressions on resistance in the mid-1520s were far more intemperate and violent, coming out of the millennialist tradition formerly represented by the Bohemian Taborites. Thomas Müntzer, once an admirer of Luther’s, turned his back on much the Wittenberg preacher taught, especially his non-violence. Müntzer had come into contact with radicals who sought the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit and who poured scorn on Luther’s biblicism; God, he said, still comes in dreams to His beloved, as he had to the prophets of old. He began to style himself “Destroyer of the Unbelievers” and to speak of the imminent end of the old era and the dawn of a new age of social justice. Müntzer preached to the Saxon princes in May 1524 and warned them that if they refused to use the sword against the godless it would be taken from them but his appeal to German princes to lead his crusade fell on deaf ears. Müntzer turned to the lower orders to be the new Elect, a covenanted people of God; he seems to have been the first in Reformation Europe to make political use of the concept of the covenant, a notion that will prove especially useful to later persecuted Protestants.

When the great German Peasant Rebellion broke out in 1524 he urged his poor followers on to violence and a liberating slaughter that would open the way to the new age of godliness and peace. “On! On! On!”, he told the peasant soldiers at Mülhausen, “Spare not. Pity not the godless when they cry. Remember the command of God to Moses to destroy utterly and show no mercy. The whole countryside is in commotion. Strike! Clang! Clang! On! On!”

The climax of the struggle came outside the town of Frankenhausen in May, 1525. An army of poorly-armed peasants flying their rainbow flag met deadly Landsknecht mercenaries hired by Hessian and Saxon nobles. The peasants, entrenched in a wagon fortress of the sort that had been so effectively used by the Hussites in the 15th century, were able to repel the first enemy sorties but the next day they broke under an artillery barrage and a cavalry charge. The rebels were cut down in their thousands, bringing their uprising to an end.

Thomas Müntzer had told the peasants that he would precede them and catch their enemies’ bullets in his sleeves but in fact he ran away and was hiding in bed when he was captured by the forces of the triumphant princes. He was executed shortly thereafter as bloody recriminations against the peasantry were taken across Germany.

May 14

2019 Death of Tardar Sauce

Let it not be said that we live in a frivolous era. One has only to compare the deep philosophical ponderings of Kim Kardashian to those of Marcus Aurelius, or the story-lines of Spiderman films with King Lear, or the lyrics of rap sensation Ski Mask the Slump God with those of Cole Porter to see that the 21st century is indeed a Golden Age of culture.

That is why so many wept when news of the death of Tardar Sauce reached the internet. Since her birth in 2012, Tardar, working under her stage name “Grumpy Cat”, had been amusing millions and her passing clearly subtracted from the sum of human felicity.

Born to a single-parent household — her mother was a calico cat; her father may have been a blue-and-white tabby – she came to the attention of the world as a result of a genetic malformation which gave her a look of perpetual dysphoria. Soon her portrait graced a myriad of computer screens and generated countless memes. Her owners were not slow in accumulating pelf by producing lines of Grumpy Cat licensed merch and featuring her in public appearances and commercials – she was named the Official Spokescat of Friskies. She achieved cinematic immortality by starring in 2014’s made-for-tv movie  Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever. A Madame Tussaud waxwork of the fabulous feline was commissioned.

Could an Oscar and a Nobel Prize be far behind? Sadly, those heights were not to be scaled. Stricken by a urinary tract infection, Tardar Sauce passed from this vale of tears on May 14, 2019. When shall we see her like again?

May 13

1940 Blood, toil, tears, and sweat

In the late spring of 1940 things were going very badly for the good guys. Poland, Holland, Belgium, and Norway had been overrun by Nazi armies and France was on the point of collapse. The British Parliament had just replaced Neville Chamberlain, who saw the danger of Hitler too late, with Winston Churchill, who had been warning about the fascist menace for years. Churchill hastily assembled a War Cabinet with the cooperation of the Opposition Labour and Liberal parties and rose to speak in the House of Commons, giving his first address as Prime Minister. His words may serve as a standard against which to measure the rhetorical abilities of our North American politicians in these squalid times.

I hope that any of my friends and colleagues, or former colleagues, who are affected by the political reconstruction, will make allowance, all allowance, for any lack of ceremony with which it has been necessary to act. I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, “come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”

May 8

1942 The Cocos Islands Mutiny

During the Second World War, millions of troops from the Indian and African colonies of Great Britain served in the wars against the Axis powers. The reason that the contribution of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was so small can be found in this little-remembered mutiny.

The Cocos Islands are an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, half-way between Ceylon and  Australia. Following the outbreak of hostilities with Japan it was deemed to be an important communications link, garrisoned by units of the Ceylon Defence Force and the King’s African Rifles under two British officers. Among the Ceylonese artillerymen were a number dissatisfied with the colonial status of their homelands and who were willing to betray the Union Jack. One of these, Gratien Fernando, conceived a plan whereby he and his anti-imperialist comrades would turn their guns on their officers and any loyal soldiers while signalling to the Japanese that they would surrender the islands to them. (At this time many Asians looked to the Japanese to drive their European occupiers out of the continent. The Japanese were particularly successful in recruiting captured Indian soldiers and turning them into a puppet Indian National Army.)

On the night of May 8, 15 mutineers seized the heavy guns and began their rebellion. It was soon put down by their fellow countrymen in the Ceylonese Light Infantry, but not before one loyal soldier had been killed [his headstone is above]. Quick courts-martial condemned seven to death. At his trial, Fernando spoke of his motives: “I am not so much anti-British as anti-white. I do not have the least grudge against Captain Gardiner personally. would have done the same to any white man. I felt that if I succeeded [in the mutiny] I might do things that would revolutionise the war effort in the East. I wanted to try and get Japanese help. I am in sympathy with the Japanese war aims.” Fernando and two others were hanged in August, the only three Commonwealth soldiers executed for mutiny during World War II.

This outburst of Ceylonese nationalism alarmed the British who took steps to keep that colony, strategically vital and an important source of rubber, happy and well-garrisoned. No Ceylonese combat troops were ever employed by the British after the affair on Cocos Islands.

May 7

1824 Premiere of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony

The last, and perhaps greatest, of the symphonies of Ludwig Beethoven (1770-1827) is his Ninth, completed and debuted in Vienna in 1834. It was the first ever choral symphony, combining voice and instruments. Its reception by the 1,000 attendees was rapturous with many standing ovations and waving of handkerchiefs and hats so that the deaf composer could see the approval of the crowd. A critic proclaimed that “inexhaustible genius revealed a new world to us.”

The most memorable part of the symphony was the choral section, “Ode to Joy”, based on a poem by Friedrich Schiller. Its optimism and jubilation have inspired millions and it has become the European anthem.

Whoever has been lucky enough
to become a friend to a friend,
Whoever has found a beloved wife,
let him join our songs of praise!
Yes, and anyone who can call one soul
his own on this earth!
Any who cannot, let them slink away
from this gathering in tears!


Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss is for the whole world!
Brothers, above the canopy of stars
must dwell a loving father.

Do you bow down before Him, you millions?
Do you sense your Creator, O world?
Seek Him above the canopy of stars!
He must dwell beyond the stars.

Recently, Baltimore-based rapper and musician [interesting how those are two separate categories] Wordsmith created an original adaptation of “Ode to Joy” for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Wordsmith was hoping to encourage “gender equality, cultural acceptance, and living a purpose-driven life”. Here is his chorus:

Live and love with open mind let our cultures intertwine.
Dig deep down, show what you’re made of, set the tone, it’s time to shine.
We must fight for equal rights and share some common courtesy.
While pursuing all your dreams spread your joy from sea to sea.
We must fight for equal rights and share some common courtesy.
While pursuing all your dreams spread your joy from sea to sea.

May 5

1260 Kublai Khan becomes Mongol Emperor

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree,/ Where Alph, the sacred river, ran/ Through caverns measureless to man/ Down to a sunless sea. Thus did Samuel Coleridge, in one of the greatest drug-induced poems of the 19th century, describe the summer palace of Kublai Khan, Mongol emperor and founder of the Yuan dynasty that ruled China for for the next century.

Kublai was the grandson of the Mongol leader Genghis Khan, born in 1215. Though Mongol military genius would create an empire that stretched from the Black Sea to the Pacific and encompass a fifth of the land on the planet, its primitive political structure created civil war and fracture every time a ruler died. After a period of strife with rival princes, Kublai achieved pre-eminence in 1260 as Great Khan and set out to add to his empire by conquering China. He defeated the forces of the Song dynasty and made China, sophisticated, populous and rich, his centre of operations — this vexed the western Mongols who complained that Kublai was becoming sinified and forgetting the good old Mongol ways. Rebellions by ambitious Mongol princes were quashed and the leaders were smothered to death in heavy carpets (to avoid the taboo of shedding royal blood).

As a Mongol leader, Kublai was hooked on ever-more conquest; he succeeded in subduing Korea and Burma but his attempts to invade Vietnam, Java, and Japan ended in disaster. His reign in China saw the strengthening of the state, the repair of infrastructure damaged in war, progress in military technology and science, and contact with Europe. He used Muslims, Christians (including the Venetian Polo family) and other minorities in his civil service but he tended to persecute Daoists and forbade some Muslim and Jewish ritual practices.

Kublai died, gouty and obese, in 1294 but the founder of a unified China with its capital at Beijing.

Sluggards Beware

Sluggard-wakers and dog-whippers

On the 17th April 1725 , John Rudge bequeathed to the parish of Trysull, in Staffordshire, twenty shillings a year, that a poor man might be employed to go about the church during sermons and keep the people awake; also to keep dogs out of church. A bequest by Richard Dovey, of Farmcote, dated in 1659, had in view the payment of eight shillings annually to a poor man, for the performance of the same duties in the church of Claverley, Shropshire. In the parishes of Chislet, Kent, and Peterchurch, Herefordshire, there are similar provisions for the exclusion of dogs from church, and at Wolverhampton there is one of five shillings for keeping boys quiet in time of service.

Pictured above is a sluggard-waker and his pole with which he prodded the drowsy parishioners.

March 27

1625 Accession of Charles I

There are good kings and bad kings. And then there are disastrous kings, ones who provoke discord in their own country, engender civil war, lose their heads, and bring down an entire monarchy with them. Such a one was Charles Stuart (1600-49), the first of that name to rule Scotland, Ireland, and England.

Charles was born a Scottish prince, a younger son with no great prospects, child of  James VI of Scotland and Anne of Denmark. In 1603, the Queen of England, Elizabeth I, died without issue, and James succeeded her on the throne of that much richer country to the south. It was expected that his heir would be his oldest son, Henry (b. 1594) who was popular and trained for the job, but the young man died of typhoid in 1612, leaving shy, stammering Charles as the future ruler of three kingdoms.

Charles’s father was not the best man from whom to learn the arts of ruling. James constantly quarrelled with his political class, showed little interest in military affairs, and allowed policy to be guided by a number of homosexual lovers. From him, Charles seems to have imbibed a contempt for Parliament, and a stubborn streak that would prove fatal. Parliament, always fearful of a return of Catholic influence, demanded that the prince be given a safely Protestant bride but Charles, aided by the Duke of Buckingham, James’s paramour, unwisely courted the daughter of the King of Spain and received a humiliating rebuff. Stung by this personal insult, Charles demanded that his father declare war on Spain.

When James died in early 1625, the new king unwisely chose another Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria of France. It was the first of a series of mistakes that would lead Charles to the block, his queen and her sons to exile, and England to a republic.

It must be said that there are fans of Charles, including a loyal reader of this blog, who would remind us that Charles is viewed as a martyr and a saint by the Church of England.