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. 

March 26

A story too sad not to be retold: 1997 Heaven’s Gate suicide cult discovered

One of the most persistent beliefs in history is the notion that our body is only the temporary form of our true self — the soul, or spirit, which lives on after the physical corpus dies. For many religions, the purpose of life is to escape one’s prison of flesh and bone and be reunited with the Universal One or be reanimated in a perfected body. The faithful of most of these religions are content to wait until one’s natural death for the parting of body and soul to take place, but there have been some sects who have encouraged suicide in order to hasten the process: thus the perfecti of medieval Catharism, or the techno-cultists of America’s Heaven’s Gate.

On March 26, 1997, the bodies of 39 members of the group were found by San Diego police in the mansion where they had lived and earned their livings as IT consultants. All had committed suicide; all were wearing new Nike runners with black shirts and sweat-pants; all had $5.75 in their pockets. All had taken phenobarbital medication mixed with apple sauce and washed down with vodka; all but two had plastic bags tied around their heads. Astonishingly, their suicides had taken place in waves, with three groups in turns dying over three days. The purpose of their deaths was to evacuate their bodies, freeing their spirits to be picked up by an alien spacecraft lurking behind the Hale-Boppe comet. They would then advance to a higher level of existence in bodies that were purer, sexless and vegetarian. All who remained behind on Earth were to die from an imminent planetary cleansing.

The chief loon behind this tragedy was Marshall Applewhite (1931-97), aka “Bo” or “Do”, former music teacher, wandering prophet, and voluntary eunuch. He had been able to recruit followers to his esoteric beliefs with promises of an end-times apocalypse that could be escaped only by those with the knowledge he imparted. His teachings were a mixture of Gnosticism, Biblical interpretation through a lens of UFOlogy, and sundry New Age touches. Like the medieval Cathars they shunned sex, with Applewhite and seven of his male disciples travelling to Mexico to be castrated.

The fate of their souls and the alien spacecraft are unknown; their bodies were cremated.

March 16

1906 Birth of Henny Youngman

Henry “Henny” Youngman was born to a family of Russian Jews in England but moved to New York as a child. Working with a jazzband called the Swanee Syncopaters, he began to tell jokes between numbers and developed a reputation as a comedian. Working in radio from the late 1930s he developed a style of rapid-fire one-liners with an occasional riff on the violin he always carried as a prop. He worked in nightclubs, on television, and in the movies – in fact, anywhere people would pay him. Only his death in 1998 ended his performing career. Here are some of Youngman’s innumerable jokes, amny at the expense of his wife Sadie, to whom he was actually devoted:

My wife said to me, ‘For our anniversary I want to go somewhere I’ve never been before.’ I said, ‘Try the kitchen!’

I take my wife everywhere, but she keeps finding her way back.

My wife will buy anything marked down. Last year she bought an escalator.

We always hold hands. If I let go, she shops.

My wife told me the car wasn’t running well. There was water in the carburetor. I asked where the car was, and she told me it was in the lake.

My wife and I went to a hotel where we got a waterbed. My wife called it the Dead Sea.

My wife is on a new diet. Coconuts and bananas. She hasn’t lost weight, but can she climb a tree.

Last night my wife said the weather outside was fit for neither man nor beast, so we both stayed home.

 I was so ugly when I was born, the doctor slapped my mother.

If you’re going to do something tonight that you’ll be sorry for tomorrow morning, sleep late.

I told the doctor I broke my leg in two places. He told me to quit going to those places.

My son complains about headaches. I tell him all the time: ‘When you get out of bed, it’s feet first!’

March 5



Stalin orders the Katyn Massacre

World War II began in Europe with the German invasion of Poland. This unprovoked attack was made possible by a secret pact between the Nazis and the USSR, an agreement which allowed the Soviets to annex the eastern part of Poland. This partition brought tens of thousands of Polish prisoners under the rule of Joseph Stalin who, at the urging of his secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria, determined to use the opportunity to exterminate Poland’s leadership class. On this date in 1940, six members of the Politburo (Stalin, Kaganovich, Molotov, Voroshilov, Mikoyan and Kalinin) signed an order condemning imprisoned “nationalists and counterrevolutionaries” — the captive officers and intelligentsia — to death.

In April, 1940, 22,000 Poles were taken from their prison camps and dispatched to killing zones where they were shot and secretly buried. About half of the Polish officer class were killed — an admiral, two generals, 24 colonels, 79 lieutenant colonels, 258 majors, 654 captains, 17 naval captains, 85 privates, 3,420 non-coms, 7 chaplains (including the Chief Rabbi of the Polish Army), and 200 pilots, but also government officials, landowners, university professors, physicians, lawyers, engineers, teachers, writers and journalists. The purpose was to eliminate anyone who might be a leader in a future Poland.

After June 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and the USSR began to think of creating an anti-German army out of its remaining Polish prisoners, questions began to be asked about the fate of the missing officers. The Soviets were able to dodge awkward questions until early 1943 when the occupying German army was alerted to mass graves containing the corpses of thousands of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest. Sensing a propaganda coup, the Nazis brought in a team of neutral experts to examine the bodies and determine the date of their execution. Despite their findings that the men had been killed at a time when the Soviets were in control of the area, the USSR continued to blame the Germans.  Shamefully, it was in the interests of Allied cooperation with the Soviets to agree to go along with the lie during the war. 

When I was a grad student in London in the 1970s, I went on a march to the Soviet Embassy, which had objected to a Katyn memorial being erected with the date 1940 inscribed on it. Communists were still insisting that the Germans had carried out the massacre in 1941 during their occupation of  the western USSR. Only after the fall of the Soviet Union did Russia acknowledge that the atrocity had been carried out by the Soviet secret police.

An excellent fictional account of the 1943 discovery is Philip Kerr’s A Man Without Breath.


February 22

The Great White Way has seen its spectacular successes over the years. We are still humming the tunes from Broadway musicals such as Showboat, Camelot, The Music Man, Annie, and Phantom of the Opera. (On request, I believe I could produce creditable renditions of most of the songs from Finian’s Rainbow.) Comedies such as The Producers or Barefoot in the Park and dramas such as Death of a Salesman, Come From Away and Amadeus are the stuff of legends.

Legendary too are the great flops – shows that were badly-cast, ill-conceived, overly-ambitious, or just too expensive to stage. Rockabye Hamlet, for example; a 1976 attempt to put the Prince of Denmark to music with lines such as this piece of advice from Polonius to Laertes: “Good son, you return to France/Keep your divinity inside your pants.” It lasted 7 performances, which is two more than Carrie: the Musical managed to stage in 1988. Apparently there was less of an audience for pig’s blood showers than the producers anticipated.

Fancy a dramatic investigation of the Shroud of Turin? Into the Light was turned off after six performances in 1986. The Broadway version of the Odyssey, entitled (wait for it) Home Sweet Homer, starring Yul Brynner closed after a single show – the producers had wanted to avoid putting it on altogether but Brynner’s contract stipulated that at least on performance was required. Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark might have continued had not the production cost $75 million before opening and requiring $1,000,000 a week to keep the lights on.

But when Broadway mavens gather around the campfire and tell chilling stories about truly desperately bad shows, talk always turns to The Moose Murders, a “mystery farce” which opened (and closed) on this day in 1983. Trapped by a storm in a wilderness lodge, the characters play a murder mystery game. Killings, flaccid slapstick, failed gags, incest, and a kick in the groin to a man in a moose costume made for a deathly silence from the audience and a closing after the first night. Movie and radio legend Eve Arden was to star but withdrew when it became obvious she could no longer memorize lines. (She did send a gracious note to the cast.)

Critics were not kind. It has been called “the golden standard of awfulness against which all theatre is judged.” The New York Times writer Frank Rich said it was “the worst play I’ve ever seen on a Broadway stage”. In fact, in a magazine’s list of Great Disasters of the Twentieth Century the play ranked Number Five (just behind New Coke). The play’s author Arthur Bicknell did manage to make a bit of money from it by penning  Moose Murdered, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love my Broadway Bomb.

February 18

1900 The Battle of Paardeberg Drift begins

This engagement, fought during the Second Anglo-Boer War, was the first time that men in Canadian uniform, fighting in a Canadian unit, made war overseas. Troops from The Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry under William Otter (who had taken part in putting down the Northwest Rebellion in western Canada in 1885) helped pin down some 4,000 Boers. Advancing by night towards the enemy lines, quietly digging trenches on high ground 65 yards from the Boer lines, they forced the enemy kommando to surrender.

It was the first significant British victory of the war, despite the blundering of British officers such as General Kitchener who insisted on frontal attacks on entrenched Boer positions — always a recipe for disaster. Hundreds of men on both sides, including 31 Canadians, died at Paardeberg.

February 14

St Valentine’s Day

A grumpy nineteenth-century critic of the English Valentine’s Day said that it was “now almost everywhere a much degenerated festival, the only observance of any note consisting merely of the sending of jocular anonymous letters to parties whom one wishes to quiz, and this confined very much to the humbler classes.”

An eighteenth-century English Valentine custom was described thusly:

On the eve of St. Valentine’s Day the young folks in England and Scotland, by a very ancient custom, celebrate a little festival. An equal number of maids and bachelors get together: each writes their true or some feigned name upon separate billets, which they roll up, and draw by way of lots, the maids taking the men’s billets, and the men the maids’: so that each of the young men lights upon a girl that he calls his valentine, and each of the girls upon a young man whom she calls hers. By this means each has two valentines: but the man sticks faster to the valentine that has fallen to him than to the valentine to whom he is fallen. Fortune having thus divided the company into so many couples, the valentines give balls and treats to their mistresses, wear their billets several days upon their bosoms or sleeves, and this little sport often ends in love.

In the 1750s an English magazine article described this girlish fortune-telling practice:

Last Friday was Valentine’s Day, and the night before, I got five bay-leaves, and pinned four of them to the four corners of my pillow, and the fifth to the middle: and then, if I dreamt of my sweetheart, Betty said we should be married before the year was out. But to make it more sure, I boiled an egg hard, and took out the yolk, and filled it with salt: and when I went to bed, ate it, shell and all, without speaking or drinking after it. We also wrote our lovers’ names upon bits of paper, and rolled them up in clay, and put them into water; and the first that rose up was to be our valentine. Would you think it?—Mr. Blossom was my man. I lay a-bed and shut my eyes all the morning, till he came to our house: for I would not have seen another man before him for all the world

Since Chaucer’s day it has been imagined that February 14 was linked to the love life of birds. John Donne made this connection in a poem celebrating the wedding of England’s Princess Elizabeth to Frederick, the Elector Palatine (aka “the Winter King”) which took place on Valentine’s Day 1615.

Hail, Bishop Valentine! whose day this is:
All the air is thy diocese,
And all the chirping choristers
And other birds are thy parishioners:
Thou marryest every year
The lyric lark and the grave whispering dove:
The sparrow that neglects his life for love,
The household bird with the red stomacher:
Thou mak’st the blackbird speed as soon
As cloth the goldfinch or the halcyon–
This day more cheerfully than ever shine,
This day which might inflame thyself, old Valentine!

January 29

1845 “The Raven” is first published under author’s name

One of the English language’s most famous poems appeared on this date, its author Edgar Allen Poe having sold it for $9.00 to a New York magazine. The poem’s clever use of internal rhyme, its supernatural vibes, and mournful tone have made it a favourite for reciters of verse ever since. As a child I learned it from listening to a 16 ⅔ rpm disk with a reading by Lorne Greene, Canada’s famous “Voice of Doom”.

The poem has been recorded by voices great and negligible, from James Earl Jones, to Basil Rathbone, to William Shatner. The most striking version is that produced by The Simpsons, available on YouTube.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
    While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
            Only this and nothing more.”
    Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
    Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
    From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
            Nameless here for evermore.
    And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
    So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
    “’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
            This it is and nothing more.”
    Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
    But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
    And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
            Darkness there and nothing more.
    Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
    But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
    And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—
            Merely this and nothing more.
    Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
    “Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
      Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
            ’Tis the wind and nothing more!”
    Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
    Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
    But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
            Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
    Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
    For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
    Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
            With such name as “Nevermore.”
    But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
    Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
    Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
            Then the bird said “Nevermore.”
    Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
    Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
    Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
            Of ‘Never—nevermore’.”
    But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
    Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
    Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
            Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”
    This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
    This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
    On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
            She shall press, ah, nevermore!
    Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
    “Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
    Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
    “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
    Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
    On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
    “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
    Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
    It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
    “Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
    Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
    Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
    And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
    And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
    And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
            Shall be lifted—nevermore!