August 14

A big day for battlefield fans.

1040 Macbeth’s forces slay King Duncan

William Shakespeare was not one for historical accuracy if altering the facts could make for a better plot. His 1606 thriller Macbeth portrayed Duncan’s death as a midnight murder at the hands of the thane of Cawdor and his wife, but, in reality ,the king of Scotland was killed in a punitive raid on Macbeth territory. Serves him right.

1385 Battle of Aljubarotta

This was the fight that secured Portuguese independence from Spanish kingdoms. Aided by French heavy cavalry, King John I of Castile invaded his neighbour in an attempt to incorporate the Portuguese realm into his own. He was met by a combined force of English longbow men and Portuguese infantry protected by ditches and the slope of a hill. The result was a bloody encounter that ended in a massacre of the invaders and the establishment of the Aziz dynasty.

1720 Defeat of the Villasur expedition

In the early 18th-century, penetration of the interior of North America by the French and the Spanish led to clashes as claims to territory overlapped. In 1720 the Spanish authorities in New Mexico sent a small force of cavalry and native Apache and Pueblo warriors into the Great Plains, where French priests and traders had been becoming active. At the confluence of the Loup and Platte Rivers in what is now Nebraska, the Spanish were ambushed by Otoe and Pawnee fighters who resented the intrusion. Very few survivors made it back to Santa Fe and the result of the battle was an end to Spanish interest in that area.


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From the man who brought you The Kindly Curmudgeon, God and The Simpsons, and Santa Claus: A Biography comes this collection of wit, wisdom, and whimsy, gleaned from the most interesting writers through the ages. Socrates? He’s here. Goethe? Got him. What about P.G. Wodehouse? Yes, there’s lots of that guy. Also Woody Allen, Spike Milligan, Dorothy Parker, and O. Henry. Eric Hoffer, Jordan Peterson, Mother Teresa, and Leon Trotsky.

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A shark could swim faster than me, but could probably run faster than a shark. So in a triathlon, it would all come down to who is the better cyclist.
Emma Manzini

If you have anything better to be doing when death overtakes you, get to work on that.

The church is near but the road is icy; the bar is far away but I’ll walk carefully.
Russian proverb

Wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience.
David Bentley Hart

This splendid bathroom book is now available on and, and even

August 9

1945 The destruction of Nagasaki

At 11:02 on the morning of August 9, 1945 an American B-29 bomber dropped an atomic weapon on the Japanese port of Nagasaki. That city was not the original target, but smoke and clouds over Kokura would have prevented an assessment of the damage that would have been inflicted by this experimental bomb, so the pilot diverted his plane to the secondary objective. The result was an explosion that obliterated the city centre, killed tens of thousands immediately, and doomed more tens of thousands to die later from burns or radiation sickness. The casualty list was overwhelmingly civilian, including Korean slave labour, as well as a small number of Allied prisoners of war. 

Ironically, Nagasaki was the most Christian city in Japan and the one, historically, most open to foreign influence. Throughout the more than 200 years of self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world, Nagasaki had been the only port at which European vessels were allowed to land. The area in which the secret Christian congregations had lived during those years was hardest hit by the bomb. The 19th-century Catholic cathedral (see above) was the largest in east Asia.

Debate continues over the necessity and morality of the atomic warfare waged against Japan, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that these horrific weapons saved millions of lives that would otherwise have been lost to a continued naval blockade, a Soviet-American invasion, or the continuation of firebombing. Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book The Bomber Mafia discusses the effect of the urban bombing strategy carried out by Curtis LeMay.

August 7

2007 Barry Bonds hits record-breaking home run

I am old enough to remember when athletes were publicly revered, when their personal peccadillos were largely overlooked by the media, and their pictures were featured more often on the sports pages than in police mug shots. There was one heavyweight boxing champion of the world and every schoolboy knew his name. Every fan knew who held the world mark for the mile run and the hundred-yard dash. We thrilled when Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute barrier and when Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, and John Walker duelled in track meets around the world.  Babe Ruth had long held the record for most home runs hit in a season and in a career and the toppling of these numbers by Roger Maris and Hank Aaron were the concern of every newspaper, radio station, and television channel. Then along came drugs and mega millions and everything went sour.

Track and field was once the focus of global attention but the drug accusations that brought down Ben Johnson and which dogged the careers of Florence Henderson, Carl Lewis and that generation of American stars sent the sport into a decline from which t has not recovered. Who holds the world 1500 metre record? Who is the world record holder in the women’s high jump. I used to know.

What the late 80s did to track and field, the late 1990s and early 2000s did for baseball. Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, sporting wonderfully bulked-up torsos, all smashed the home run records that had stood for years. McGwire admitted to using steroids but denied that it had aided his batting; Sosa was caught with a corked bat; Bonds was caught up in legal problems involving use of steroids but never copped to employing them. On this day in 2007 Bonds broke the Sultan of Swat’s career total. The Commissioner of Baseball was not in attendance, perhaps subtly signalling that there was a shadow over the achievement, but Bonds was the recipient of congratulations by President Bush. 

No major league team was interested in signing Bonds after that season and neither he, McGwire, nor Sosa have been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The ball which Bonds hit to set the record is inthe Hall of Fame but if you examine the picture above, you will note that it is marked with a huge asterisk.


August 4

 Gratitude and nationalism

In 1848 when the crowned heads of Europe were shaken by a continent-wide series of revolutions, the Tsar of Russia sent troops to help the Austrian emperor put down rebels in Vienna. When the Austrian foreign minister was asked if this would produce feelings of good will between his country and Russia, the prime minister, Prince Felix Schwarzenberg, replied, “Austria will astound the world with the magnitude of its ingratitude.”

Gratitude is a rare sentiments among nations. As Lord Russell, a 19th-century British politician said, “Britain has no permanent friends, only eternal interests.

I was thinking of gratitude when examining this graph from 2020 which charted the results of a survey asking members of the British public which European countries they would be willing to aid in a financial crisis, and also asked Europeans if their country should help out a beleaguered Britain. It shows that the UK would assist any of its former EU partners but that most of Europe would turn their backs on Britain.

There are all kinds of conclusions one might draw. For example, the only four countries willing to help Britain have never been invaded by the British, but then again neither have hostile Finland, Hungary and Lithuania. Greeks might harbour resentment over British participation in their civil war in 1944-45, Spain might be sulking over Gibraltar, Germans might be remembering the firebombing of Dresden and Hamburg, and the French have never shown gratitude to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

The truth of that judgement about the French was borne out to me again this week on reading Canada Between Vichy and Free France, 1940-45 by Olivier Courteaux, the story of my country’s relations with the rival governments of France during the Second World War. Nationalists in Quebec were enamoured of Mussolini before the War and took a shine to the Pétainist Vichy regime after the collapse of France in 1940. Prime Minister Mackenzie King had to balance that (and Quebec’s opposition to Canadian participation in the war) with English Canada’s desire to fight the fascists and support the Free French. On several occasions King took the side of the notoriously prickly de Gaulle against British and American interests and at war’s end de Gaulle praised Canada for always being in his corner. The general famously showed his gratitude by trying to break up Canada and his 1967 Montreal speech in which he called for an in dependent Quebec.

August 1

1457 Death of a notable humanist

Lorenzo Valla was born in 1405. As a young man he showed signs of the two distinguishing features of his personality: intellectual brilliance and a talent for making enemies. By the age of 25 he was a professor of eloquence at the University of Pavia  where he wrote works praising the Epicurean philosophers for putting pleasure as the chief good in human life.  His attacks on judges and judicial thinking got him run out of Pavia and after a bit of wandering (common to humanists) he settled at the court of Alfonso of Aragon, King of Naples in 1433. His free-thinking ways got him into trouble there too. He denied that the Apostles’ Creed was written, line-by-line by the apostles, criticized the orthodoxy of St Augustine and mocked monasticism. Not surprisingly, he was hauled up on charges of heresy – only the intervention of Alfonso saved him.

In Naples he also wrote “De elegantia linguae latinae”, which first placed the study of Latin on a scientific basis. The Humanists who preceded him had formed their Latin style rather empirically, and consequently had admitted many constructions peculiar to popular Latin – errors which Valla pointed out. Though Valla had refrained from personalities, all the literary writers considered his work a provocation, and hurled invectives against the author. This controversy is one of the most unpleasant pages in the history of the Italian Renaissance. The fiercest aggressor was Poggio Bracciolini, who did not confine himself to pointing out errors of style in Valla’s works, but accused him of the most degrading vices. Valla’s no less acidic answers are collected in his “Invectivarum libri sex”. Poggio’s invectives created a bad impression at Rome; as Valla still hoped to obtain a position in the Curia, he wrote an “Apologia ad Eugenio IV”, excusing himself for his faults and promising amendment.

Alfonso’s quarrels with the papacy of Eugenius IV provided a safe atmosphere in which to write the piece for which he is best known today — the “Declamazione contro la donazione di Costantino”. In it he demonstrated by humanist scholarship that the famous “Donation of Constantine” which purported to be a 4th-century grant of western Europe to the papacy by the emperor Constantine the Great was a forgery. Though it attacked an invaluable papal political tool, Valla’s work found favour with a new pope (who was himself a humanist) and he was employed until his death by the papacy. Astonishingly, Valla is buried inside papal territory in the church of St John in Lateran, the Cathedral for Rome, sometimes called the mother of all churches – founded by Constantine during the time of Pope Sylvester.



July 30

1718 The death of William Penns

William Penn, born in London in 1644, was the son of a prominent English admiral. He became a convert to Quakerism, a sect which in the 17th century was infamous for its threats to conventional society and theology. Chambers’ Book of Days gives an account of his life and accomplishments.

His father had bequeathed him a claim on the government of £16,000 for arrears of pay and cash advanced to the navy. Penn very well knew that such a sum was irrecoverable from Charles II; he had long dreamed of founding a colony where peace and righteousness might dwell together; and he decided to compound his debt for a tract of country in North America. The block of land he selected lay to the north of the Catholic province of Maryland, owned by Lord Baltimore; its length was nearly 300 miles, its width about 160, and its area little less than the whole of England. Objections were raised; but Charles was only too glad to get rid of a debt on such easy terms. At the council, where the charter was granted, Penn stood in the royal presence, it is said, with his hat on. The king thereupon took off his; at which Penn observed, ‘Friend Charles, why dost thou not keep on thy hat?’ to which his majesty replied, laughing: ‘It is the custom of this place for only one person to remain covered at a time.’ The name which Penn had fixed on for his province was New Wales; but Secretary Blathwayte, a Welshman, objected to have the Quaker-country called after his land. He then proposed Sylvania, and to this the king added Penn, in honour of the admiral.

The fine country thus secured became the resort of large numbers of Quakers, who, to their desire for the free profession of their faith, united a spirit of enterprise; and very quickly Pennsylvania rose to high importance among the American plantations. Its political constitution was drawn up by Penn, aided by Algernon Sidney, on extreme democratic principles. Perfect toleration to all sects was accorded. ‘Whoever is right,’ Penn used to say, ‘the persecutor must be wrong.’ The world thought him a visionary; but his resolution to treat the Indians as friends, and not as vermin to be extirpated, seemed that of a madman. So far as he could prevent, no instrument of war was allowed to appear in Pennsylvania. He met the Indians, spoke kindly to them, promised to pay a fair price for whatever land he and his friends might occupy, and assured them of his good-will. If offences should unhappily arise, a jury of six Indians and six Englishmen should decide upon them.

The Indians met Penn in his own spirit. No oaths, no seals, no official mummeries were used; the treaty was ratified on both sides with a yea, yea—the only one, says Voltaire, “that the world has known, never sworn to, and never broken.” A strong evidence of Penn’s sagacity is the fact, that not one drop of Quaker blood was ever shed by an Indian; and forty years elapsed from the date of the treaty, ere a red man was slain by a white in Pennsylvania. The murder was an atrocious one, but the Indians themselves prayed that the murderer’s life might be spared. It was spared; but he died in a very short time, and they then said, the Great Spirit had avenged their brother.

It will be thought that Penn made a capital bargain, in the purchase of Pennsylvania for £16,000; but in his lifetime, he drew little but trouble from his investment. The settlers withheld his dues, disobeyed his orders, and invaded his rights; and he was kept in constant disquiet by intrigues for the nullification of his charter. Distracted by these cares, he left his English property to the care of a steward, who plundered him mercilessly; and his later years were saddened with severe pecuniary distress. He was twice married, and in both cases to admirable women. His eldest son, a promising youth, he lost just as he verged on manhood; and a second son, by riotous living, brought himself to an early grave, trying Penn’s fatherly heart with many sorrows. Multiplied afflictions did not, however, sour his noble nature, nor weaken his settled faith in truth and goodness.

Penn’s intimacy with James II exposed him, in his own day, to much suspicion, which yet survives. It ought to be remembered, that Admiral Penn and James were friends; that the admiral, at death, consigned his son William to his guardianship; and that between James and his ward there sprung up feelings apparently amounting to affection. While James was king, Penn sometimes visited him daily, and persuaded him to acts of clemency, otherwise unattainable. Penn scorned as a Quaker, James hated as a Catholic, could sympathise as brothers in adversity. Penn, by nature, was kindly, and abounding in that charity which thinketh no evil; and taking the worst view of James’s character, it is in nowise surprising that Penn should have been the victim of his duplicity. It is well known that rogues could do little mischief, if it were not so easy to make good men their tools.

There was very little of that asceticism about Penn which is thought to belong to—at least early —Quakerism. The furniture of his houses was equal in ornament and comfort to that of any gentleman of his time. His table abounded in every real luxury. He was fond of fine horses, and had a passion for boating. The ladies of his household dressed like gentlewomen—wore caps and buckles, silk gowns and golden ornaments. Penn had no less than four wigs in America, all purchased the same year, at a cost of nearly £20. To innocent dances and country fairs he not only made no objection, but patronised them with his own and his family’s presence.

William Penn, after a lingering illness of three or four years, in which his mind suffered, but not painfully, died at Ruscombe on the 30th July 1718, and was buried at the secluded village of Jordans, in Buckinghamshire. No stone marks the spot, although many a pilgrim visits the grave.

July 28

1794 Execution of the Angel of Death

The Thermidorian Reaction which claimed the life of Maximilien Robespierre on this day in 1794 also ended the earthly existence of someone equally repellent, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just.

Saint-Just, born in1767, came from the rural minor nobility and led an aimless life as a youth, dabbling in legal studies and poetry, but the outbreak of Revolution in 1789 gave him a cause to live passionately for. From his home town he corresponded with politicians such as Robespierre and Camille Desmoulin and in 1791 he was elected as the youngest member of the national assembly. There he forgot his earlier ideas of a constitutional monarchy and a distaste for violence, aligning himself with the radical Jacobin Club.

In November 1792 he called for the execution of Louis XVI; “I see no middle ground: this man must reign or die! He oppressed a free nation; he declared himself its enemy; he abused the laws: he must die to assure the repose of the people.” Having helped send the king to the guillotine, Saint-Just then took aim at moderate politicians, He supported the deaths of members of the Girondin faction and was behind the infamous “Law of Suspects” which removed many legal protections for an accused and ushered in the Terror. One was deemed guilty if thought to be insufficiently enthusiastic for the Revolution.

Saint-Just won a shining revolution as a représentant en mission, (the equivalent of a Soviet commissar), to bolster the morale and effectiveness of troops at the front. Shooting some officers perked up military performance considerably and Saint-Just returned to Paris in early 1794 where he was elected head of the National Convention. He turned the apparatus of the Terror on the Hébertists for being too radical and on Georges Danton and his followers for being too moderate.

Here are a few of Saint-Just’s more sanguinary pronouncements:

 “The vessel of the Revolution can arrive in port only on a sea reddened with torrents of blood.”

“A nation generates itself only upon heaps of corpses”

“Those who make revolutions by halves do nothing but dig their own tombs.”

“You have to punish not only the traitors, but even those who are indifferent; you have to punish whoever is passive in the republic, and who does nothing for it.”

By the summer of 1794 many French politicians felt that, unless checked, Robespierre, Saint-Just and the Committee of Public Safety, might also endanger them. Thus they engineered a coup and saved their own nests by sending Saint-Just and twenty-one of their erstwhile leaders to the axe.

Few have expressed the mistaken anthropology of the Enlightenment as well as did Saint-Just in a speech to the National Convention in April, 1793:

Man was born for peace and liberty, and became miserable and cruel only through the action of insidious and oppressive laws. And I believe therefore that if man be given laws which harmonize with the dictates of nature and of his heart he will cease to be unhappy and corrupt.

This notion, that humanity is born good and requires only a bit of social tinkering to be made happy and free, is at the heart of every -ism of the last two centuries and leads from the taking of the Bastille to the gulags, Auschwitz, the Cultural Revolution, and Critical Race Theory.

July 24

1983 The Pine Tar Controversy

Baseball is a game with many rules, some written, some unspoken. One of those rules (Rule 1.10c) deals with the use of adhesive permissible on the handle of a bat. A grip-enhancer, such as pine tar, cannot be applied farther than 18 inches from the bottom of the bat. Any malefactor found to be using such an implement was (according to the regulations in effect in 1983) to be deemed out and ejected from the contest.

On July 24, 1983, the New York Yankees were playing the Kansas City Royals at Yankee Stadium. In the top of the ninth inning, the Bronx Bombers were leading 4-3 with two out, one on, and famed stopper Goose Gossage and his bizarre moustache on the mound. Up strode George Brett, a prodigiously gifted hitter and tobacco chewer. The two future Hall of Famers performed the ritual glare before Brett fouled off the first pitch and then smote the second into the right field stands for a two-run home run and a 5–4 lead. 

Enter now the Yankee skipper Billy Martin – like fabled Odysseus, a man of many wiles. He drew the attention of the umpires to Brett’s bat and the officials determined that the pine tar extended a fatal 6″ too high. Brett was ruled out, his home run was cancelled, and the Yankees declared the winner.

Upon hearing this decision, Brett launched himself from the dugout and begged to differ so vigorously that he had to be physically restrained from raising his objections on umpire Tim McClelland’s person. Great was the snickering of the Yankees and deep was the woe of the Royals as the players exited the field. Yet our tale is not ended.

The Royals appealed the decision to American League president Lee McPhail. In a ruling as arbitrary as any made by a medieval pope, MacPhail decided that the penalties prescribed by 1.10c were null and void — the extensive use of pine tar was an aesthetic violation (it would mark the ball) and not one that gave an unfair competitive advantage. The game was to be resumed from the point of Brett’s home run. The Yankees protested with law suits, injunctions were issued, but the courts ruled that the rescheduled contest should be held on August 18.

Martin’s shrewdness was again in evidence. Before the first pitch was thrown, the ball was tossed to first base on the theory that Brett had not tagged the bag on July 24. The umpire ruled him safe. The ball was then thrown to second base on the theory that U.L. Washington, the base runner on when Brett hit his homer, had not not touched there. Again the ruling was safe — though neither call was given by an umpire who had been officiating in the original game. Martin, with the good sportsmanship that marked his entire career, naturally protested, but the pin-striped helmsman was stunned when the umpire crew chief pulled out a notarized affidavit, signed by all four umpires from July 24, vowing that Brett had touched every base. 

The Royals went on to win the game 5-4 with the Yankees declaring that they were playing under protest. The bat is now in the Hall of Fame and the penalties of the pine tar rule have been changed.

July 23

1888 Birth of Raymond Chandler

The English language owes much to American wordsmith Raymond Chandler who elevated the private eye into a cultural icon. Chandler was born in Nebraska to Maurice Chandler, an alcoholic father who soon abandoned his family, and Florence Dart, a devoted mother who had young Raymond educated at ritzy Dulwich College in England.

He served with a Canadian regiment during World War I but had difficulty finding his way in peacetime. Chandler had problems with alcohol, mommy issues, and holding a steady job. It was not until he was in his 40s that Chandler found his true métier, writing hard-boiled detective novels, a genre which he raised from pulp fiction to literary art. Gems like The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, and The Long Goodbye were turned into films. [By all means revel in the cinematic delights of the first two mentioned, graced by Dick Powell and Humphrey Bogart — but, at all costs, avoid Robert Altman’s unforgivable 1973 desecration of the latter.]

Here are some great Chandler lines:

Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.
It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.
Dead men are heavier than broken hearts. 
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.
And his definition of the sort of hero the genre required, outlined in “The Simple Art of Murder”: Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.