September 25

1808 The Death of a Classicist

Richard Porson was born on Christmas Day in 1759 to a working-class English family but his brilliance and remarkable memory attracted sponsors who paid for his education at Eton and Cambridge. He soon developed a reputation as a keen scholar of the classics, publishing editions of Aeschylus, Xenophon and Aristophanes. Porson lost his teaching position at Cambridge because he was not in holy orders but his supporters pooled together enough money to give him a comfortable annuity. In 1792 he became Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge, a position with few duties and less remuneration but in 1806 he was made librarian of the London Institution which came with a handsome salary.

Porson was an engaging conversationalist, though his excessive drinking and lack of personal hygiene were often remarked on. In 1808 he died of a stroke. Chambers has an anecdote to illustrate Porson’s unconventional behaviour:

The circumstances connected with Porson’s marriage are rather curious. He was very intimate with Mr. Perry, the editor of the Morning Chronicle, for whom his sister, Mrs. Lunan, a widow, kept house. One night the professor was seated in his favourite haunt, the Cider Cellars in Maiden Lane, smoking a pipe with a friend, when he suddenly turned to the latter and said: ‘Friend George, do you not think the widow Lunan an agreeable sort of personage, as times go?’ The party addressed replied that she might be so.

‘In that case,’ replied Porson, ‘you must meet me at St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields at eight o’clock to-morrow morning,’ and thereupon withdrew after having called for and paid his reckoning. His friend was somewhat puzzled, but knowing that Porson generally meant what he said, resolved to obey the summons, and accordingly next morning presented himself at the appointed hour at the church, where he found Porson, with Mrs. Lunan and a female friend, and a parson in full canonicals for the solemnisation of matrimony. The service was quickly got through, and thereupon the party quitted the sacred building, the bride and bridegroom going each different ways with their respective friends.

The oddity of the affair did not end here. Porson had proposed to Mrs. Lunan some time before, but had insisted on her keeping it a secret from her brother; and now that the ceremony was completed, seemed as determined as ever that nothing should be said of the marriage, having apparently also made no preparations for taking his bride home. His friend, who had acted as groomsman, then insisted that Mr. Perry should be informed of the occurrence; and Porson, after some opposition, consenting, the two walked together to the residence of the worthy editor, in Lancaster Court, where, after some explanation, an arrangement was effected, including the preparation of a wedding-dinner, and the securing of apartments for the newly-married couple.

After dinner, Porson, instead of remaining to enjoy the society of his bride, sallied forth to the house of a friend, and after remaining there till a late hour, proceeded to the Cider Cellars, where he sat till eight o’clock next morning! Not-withstanding what may well be called this most unprecedented treatment of a wife on her wedding-day, it is said that during the year and a half that the marriage subsisted, Porson acted the part of a kind and attentive husband, and had his wife lived, there is great reason to believe that she might have weaned him in time from his objectionable habits.

September 24

1893 Birth of blues legend

Lemon Henry “Blind Boy” Jefferson was born to a family of Texas sharecroppers. Visually impaired since birth, he became a street musician, playing gospel music and dance tunes, developing a unique vocal and guitar style. In the 1920s his talents were discovered and recording contracts made him a rich man. Hits like “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” and “Matchbox Blues” sold well and inspired later musicians such as the Beatles. Jefferson died in 1929 in mysterious circumstances, either in a blizzard, in a street robbery, or of a heart attack. He was indicted into the inaugural class of the Blues Hall of Fame.

Here Jefferson sings “Black Cat Moan”:

Let us also salute those other blues musicians with snappy nicknames: Lightning Hopkins, Blind Boy Grunt, Cripple Clarence Lofton, Muddy Waters, Peg Leg Sam, Washboard Sam, Backwards Sam Firk, Ironing Board Sam, Magic Sam, Watermelon Slim, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Howlin’ Wolf, Cow-Cow  Davenport, Taj Mahal, and the immortal Johnny “Big Moose” Walker.

September 23

The Battle of Plataea (cont’d)

Two tales from the 479 BC Battle of Plataea remain to be told.

The first concerns Aristodemus, a Spartan infantryman who had been part of the 300-hoplite force that guarded the pass at Thermopylae against the full force of the Persian invasion in 480 BC. He and a companion, Eurytus, had been stricken with an eye disease which nearly blinded them and been sent away from the fighting by King Leonidas. Eurytus, feeling guilty, turned back to join his unit and had perished when the Spartans and their allies were wiped out. Aristodemus, on his return to Sparta, was treated with contempt for not having done the same. Herodotus recounts that “no man would give him a light for his fire or speak to him; he was called Aristodemus the Coward.” The same treatment was meted out to another soldier, Pantites, who had been dispatched from Thermopylae with a message — he was so soundly abused that he committed suicide.

When Spartan troops encountered the Persians again at Plataea the following year, Aristodemus was determined to wipe out his shame. He fought with suicidal frenzy and died. After the battle Herodotus said there was discussion about who had fought most bravely:

According to my judgment, he that bore himself by far the best was Aristodemus, who had been reviled and dishonoured for being the only man of the three hundred that came alive from Thermopylae;​ and the next after him in valour were Posidonius and Philocyon and Amompharetus. Nevertheless when there was talk, and question who had borne himself  most bravely, those Spartans that were there judged that Aristodemus had achieved great feats because by reason of the reproach under which he lay he plainly wished to die, and so pressed forward in frenzy from his post, whereas Posidonius had borne himself well with no desire to die, and must in so far be held the better man. This they may have said of mere jealousy; but all the aforesaid who were slain in that fight received honour, save only Aristodemus; he, because he desired death by reason of the reproach afore-mentioned, received none.

The second story concerns this pillar which is erected in the heart of the Old City in Istanbul:

After their victory, the Greeks gathered metal from the spoils from the battle — swords, spear-heads, shields, chariot-fittings, etc. – and ordered a bronze column to made of three twisting serpents. This was erected at Delphi where it held a gold sacrificial cauldron, as a tribute to the gods. There it stood for over 700 years until the emperor Constantine had it removed in 324 to adorn the chariot race stadium in his new capital of Constantinople. The snake heads disappeared over time (though part of one can be seen in the nearby archaeological museum) but visitors in the 21st century can gaze upon the column and see relics of the climactic battle of the Persian wars 2500 years.

September 21

St Matthew’s Day

And as Jesus passed forth from thence, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him. And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, ‘Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?’ But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, ‘They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.’

Matthew seems to have been a publican, one of the hated class of tax-farmers collaborating with the Roman occupation regime, yet another of the acts of social inversion in the story of Jesus. The New Testament names him as one of the Twelve and a witness of the Ascension. Legend has him preaching to various nations, Israel, Persia and Ethiopia and tales abound of his martyrdom. He is the patron saint of accountants, bankers, bookkeepers, security guards, and stockbrokers. 

The Gospel which bears his name was attributed to him for a long time but that attribution has been challenged in more recent days and is now doubted by most scholars.

In the illustration above Caravaggio depicts the moment that Jesus summons the unwitting tax collector to be one of his disciples, setting the scene in Renaissance Italy. 

September 19

1356 The Battle of Poitiers

The Hundred Years War was one of the nastiest and most unnecessary conflicts in European history, waged on the flimsiest of pretexts and conducted, by the English at least, as a money-spinning proposition. It pitted a small and not-terribly-prosperous country against the richest and largest nation on the continent but England did surprisingly well for so long because of French disunity and, at critical moments, the superiority of dismounted bowman against heavy feudal cavalry.

One such moment occurred on this date in 1356 when an English army, led by Edward, “the Black Prince, heir to the throne, blundered into a much larger French force when returning from a raid. The result was the Battle of Poitiers and disaster for France.

The disparity in the size of the armies made Prince Edward look for a negotiated way out. The English offered to restore all the towns and castles which they had taken in the course of this campaign, to give up, unransomed, all their prisoners, and to bind themselves by oath to refrain for seven years from bearing arms against the king of France. But King Jean II, confident of victory, insisted on the Black Prince and a hundred of his best knights surrendering themselves as prisoners, a proposition which Edward and his army indignantly rejected.

When battle was joined the English longbow men repulsed charges by French knights, sending them into disarray and causing a large body of other cavalry to retreat without having seen action. Edward then charged with his own armoured horsemen and achieved victory by capturing Jean and one of his sons.

Jean was taken back to comfortable captivity in the Tower of London while an extortionate ransom was being negotiated. In the meantime France fell into chaos, peasant rebellions, and noble disunity from it took decades to recover.

September 17

1743 Birth of the Marquis de Condorcet 

A rather flamboyant account by a nineteenth-century English writer of the fall of Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis of Condorcet, French philosopher and mathematician:

Condorcet was born in Picardy in 1743. Early in life he distinguished himself as a mathematician, and his labours in the development of the differential and integral calculus, will preserve his name in the history of science. Associating with Voltaire, Helvetius, and D’Alembert, he became a sharer in their opinions, and a social reformer with an almost fanatical abhorrence of the present and the past, and with an invincible assurance in a glorious destiny for humanity in the future. The outbreak of the revolution was to him as the dawn of this new era when old wrongs should pass away and justice and goodness should rule the world. He wrote for the revolutionary newspapers, and was an indefatigable member of the Jacobin club, but he was less effective with his tongue than his pen. A cold and impassive exterior, a stoical Roman countenance, imperfectly expressed the fiery energy of his heart, and caused D’Alembert to describe him as ‘a volcano covered with snow.’

When the rough and bloody business of the revolution came on, he was unable, either from timidity or gentle breeding, to hold his own against the desperadoes who rose uppermost. During the violent struggle between the Girondist and Mountain party, he took a decided part with neither, provoking Madame Roland to write of him, ‘the genius of Condorcet is equal to the comprehension of the greatest truths, but he has no other characteristic besides fear. It may be said of his understanding combined with his person, that he is a fine spirit absorbed in cotton. Thus, after having deduced a principle or demonstrated a fact in the Assembly, he would give a vote decidedly opposite, overawed by the thunder of the tribunes, armed with insults and lavish of menaces. Such men should be employed to write, but never permitted to act.’ This mingling of courage with gentleness and irresolution caused him, says Carlyle, ‘to be styled, in irreverent language, mouton enrage’—peaceablest of creatures bitten rabid.’

Robespierre, in July 1793, issued a decree of accusation against Condorcet. At the entreaty of his wife he hid himself in an attic in an obscure quarter of Paris, and there remained for eight months without once venturing abroad. He relieved the weariness of his confinement by writing a treatise on his favourite idea, The Perfectibility of the Human Race; and had he been able to endure restraint for a few months longer, he would have been saved; but he grew anxious for the safety of the good woman who risked her life in giving him shelter, and the first verdure of the trees of the Luxembourg, of which he had a glimpse from his window, brought on an over-powering desire for fresh air and exercise. He escaped into the streets, passed the barriers, and wandered among thickets and stone-quarries in the outskirts of Paris. Wounded with a fall, and half-dead with hunger and fatigue, he entered. a cabaret in the village of Clamart, and asked for an omelet. ‘How many eggs will you have in it?’ inquired the waiter. ‘A dozen,’ replied the starving philosopher, ignorant of the proper dimensions of a working man’s breakfast. The extraordinary omelet excited suspicion. Some present requested to know his trade. He said, a carpenter, but his delicate hands belied him. He was searched, and a Latin Horace and an elegant pocket-book furnished unquestionable evidence that he was a skulking aristocrat. He was forthwith arrested, and marched off to prison at Bourg-la-Reine. On the way, he fainted with exhaustion, and was set on a peasant’s horse. Flung into a damp cell, he was found dead on the floor next morning, 24th March 1794. He had saved his neck from the guillotine by a dose of poison he always carried about with him in case of such an emergency.

Condorcet’s works have been collected and published in twenty-one volumes. The Marquise de Condorcet long survived her husband. She was one of the most beautiful and accomplished women of her day, and distinguished herself by an elegant and correct translation into French of Adam Smith’s Theory of the Moral Sentiments.

September 16

1919 The birth of a hierarchiologist

Laurence J. Peter (1919-90) was a Canadian educator known best for his studies on bureaucratic incompetence. Born in Vancouver, Peter worked as a teacher in British Columbia before receiving his doctorate in education and moving to the United States. While at the University of Southern California, he published (with Raymond Hull) his groundbreaking The Peter Principle which seems to explain so much about what we experience at the hands of institutions. Briefly stated: “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence … In time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties … Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.”

Peter’s book spawned much critical thinking in businesses and organizations. The truth of his observations have long been recognized but solutions for the problem he discerned have not been notably successful. Other of his maxims include:

Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.

The noblest of all dogs is the hot-dog; it feeds the hand that bites it.

The only valid rule about the proper length of a statement is that it achieve its purpose effectively.

The most ineffective workers are systematically moved to where they can do the least damage: management.

Super competence is more objectionable than incompetence .. [it] disrupts and therefore violates the first commandment of hierarchical life: the hierarchy must be preserved.

September 15

1940 Climax of the Battle of Britain

The attempt by the Luftwaffe to destroy the Royal Air Force in order to win air superiority over the English Channel and pave the way for the invasion code-named Operation Sea Lion reached its peak in mid-September, 1940.

On September 15, the Germans launched a massive series of raids on London using 500-bombers, hoping to draw the RAF into a decisive combat with their 620 accompanying fighters. The plan was not a success; the disappointing results and high casualties would persuade the Germans to shift from targeting the RAF to night-time attacks on cities.

The above graphic has some interesting data. The contribution by the British Dominions to the supply of fighter pilots was significant but so was the role played by European exiles such as the Czechs and Poles. But why was the Belgian contingent so much higher than the French (who scarcely outnumbered American pilots whose country was not even at war)? Why were there so many New Zealanders in the air over London compared to Australians? Where was the RAAF at that time?

September 15 is still celebrated as Battle of Britain Day in the U.K.

September 14

1950 Birth of a disgraced prosecutor

In 2006 American tabloids broadcast the story of a horrific sex crime committed by three white students, members of the Duke University lacrosse team. Black psychology student and part-time stripper Crystal Mangum claimed that at a drunken house party thrown by team members, where she had been hired to perform, she had been raped. The racial angle and class differences between the accuser and the accused made this story raw meat for sensationalist reporting and too good for ethnic activists and an ambitious district attorney to miss.

Michael Byron “Mike” Nifong was born in Wilmington, North Carolina and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina. He avoided serving in Vietnam by claiming conscientious objector status. He rose in the legal profession to be appointed acting district attorney for Durham County in 2005 and, in the next year, ran for election to the post full-time. It was during this election campaign (which he won) that he became a zealous and publicity-minded leader of the case against the three accused students, giving dozens of interviews proclaiming their guilt, alleging a racial  motive, and calling them “hooligans”.

Even before his election, Nifong could see the wheels falling off his case. Crystal Mangum gave wildly varying testimony, no DNA evidence could be adduced, and no witnesses backed the accuser’s story. At least one alibi was rock solid, the photo array shown to Mangum contained only pictures of Duke lacrosse players, and the other stripper at the party denied that any  assault could have taken place. Moreover, defence lawyers claimed that Nifong and the head of the DNA lab had agreed to hold back exculpatory evidence. On December 22, Nifong dropped the rape charges but kept the kidnapping and sexual offence cases open. Six days later the North Carolina Bar filed ethics complaints against Nifong, and piled more accusations of violations of legal norms in January. He was called a “rogue prosecutor”.

The accused students were pronounced innocent and won large legal settlements from their university; Nifong was forced to resign, serve a brief term in jail, was disbarred, and lost multi-million dollar civil suits for his misconduct. Crystal Mangum was later convicted of murder. Other casualties of Mangum and Nifong’s actions included the Duke lacrosse coach who was fired and the reputation of 88 Duke faculty members who had published an ad shortly after the arrests criticizing their university for fostering an atmosphere of racist sexual violence that resulted in the assault of Ms Mangum. One beneficiary of Nifong’s missteps in 2006 was Darryl Howard, a convicted murderer who had been prosecuted by Nifong and was able to argue for his release based on similar withholding of DNA evidence.



September 13

1759 The Fate of New France is Sealed

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham occupies an interesting spot in the historical memory of Canadians. One might think that this decisive British victory which led to the virtual end of French rule in North America – absolutist, feudal, and Catholic – and prepared the way for a religiously-plural democracy would be celebrated as a national founding event: the equivalent of the Battle of Yorktown or the Fall of the Bastille. To think that is to underestimate the Canadian propensity for guilt, self-abnegation, and ambiguity.

The Seven Years War was the world’s first global conflict, fought in Europe, the Americas, and Asia, one of those dynastic tiffs that were so common in the 17th and 18th centuries. Those struggles in a minor theatre of operations in the western hemisphere was known (to Americans at least) as the French and Indian War.

For over a century the armies of New France and their native allies had made war on the British colonies and their native allies to the south. The key to defeating New France lay in taking the two main fortresses of Quebec City and Louisbourg on Cape Breton. Louisbourg fell after a scandalously poor defence in 1758 and in 1759 a British army under James Wolfe sailed up the St Lawrence River to lay siege to Quebec. Wolfe conceived of a risky plan whereby a small force would climb a steep and lightly defended path up the cliffs to secure an easier landing spot farther upstream for the entire army.

This worked and the Marquis de Montcalm, the French general, awoke to find an enemy outside the city walls on the Plains of Abraham. He foolishly chose to march out and confront the British forthwith, trusting to his 2 to 1 superiority in numbers. In the ensuing fight both generals were mortally wounded and the French were forced back into Quebec. Montcalm’s successor decided his position was untenable and withdrew leaving the British in command of the city. A French attempt to retake Quebec in 1760 failed.

The 1763 Treaty of Paris ended most of the world-wide fighting and in the negotiations the French were given the choice of retaining Canada or keeping one of their Caribbean sugar islands. Louis XV chose Guadeloupe over (as Voltaire put it) a few acres of snow.

English Canadians were once allowed to sing proudly of this conquest:

In days of yore, from Britain’s shore,
Wolfe, the dauntless hero, came
And planted firm Britannia’s flag
On Canada’s fair domain.
Here may it wave, our boast, our pride
And, joined in love together,
The thistle, shamrock, rose entwine
The Maple Leaf forever!

But a plan to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the battle was met with threats of violence by French-speaking Quebecers and the event was cancelled as smacking too much of triumphalism. The motto of Quebec is “Je me souviens” which seems to translate as “I resent”.