September 29

1902 Death of William Topaz McGonagall

Lovers of excruciatingly bad poetry have long honoured the shade of Irish-born Scottish poet William McGonagall, a compulsive weaver turned rhymester who to his dying day fancied himself among the greatest of his calling.

And, indeed, poetry was a calling. In 1877 when McGonagall was unemployed and in his 50s he had a vision: I seemed to feel as it were a strange kind of feeling stealing over me, and remained so for about five minutes. A flame, as Lord Byron has said, seemed to kindle up my entire frame, along with a strong desire to write poetry; and I felt so happy, so happy, that I was inclined to dance, then I began to pace backwards and forwards in the room, trying to shake off all thought of writing poetry; but the more I tried, the more strong the sensation became. It was so strong, I imagined that a pen was in my right hand, and a voice crying, “Write! Write!

For the next 25 years McGonagall proclaimed his creations on street-corners, in pubs, and in a circus where he was content, for fifteen shillings a night, to be pelted with refuse while he recited.  He died penniless and was buried in an unmarked Edinburgh grave but his memory lives on as long as poems like the one appended below, “The Death and Burial of Lord Tennyson”, are still treasured. His works are in print and, for their soporific qualities, make splendid bed-time reading.

Alas! England now mourns for her poet that's gone-
The late and the good Lord Tennyson.
I hope his soul has fled to heaven above,
Where there is everlasting joy and love.

He was a man that didn't care for company,
Because company interfered with his study,
And confused the bright ideas in his brain,
And for that reason from company he liked to abstain.

He has written some fine pieces of poetry in his time,
Especially the May Queen, which is really sublime;
Also the gallant charge of the Light Brigade-
A most heroic poem, and beautifully made.

He believed in the Bible, also in Shakspeare,
Which he advised young men to read without any fear;
And by following the advice of both works therein,
They would seldom or never commit any sin.

Lord Tennyson's works are full of the scenery of his boyhood,
And during his life all his actions were good;
And Lincolnshire was closely associated with his history,
And he has done what Wordsworth did for the Lake Country.

His remains now rest in Westminster Abbey,
And his funeral was very impressive to see;
It was a very touching sight, I must confess,
Every class, from the Queen, paying a tribute to the poet's greatness.

The pall-bearers on the right of the coffin were Mr W. E. H. Lecky,
And Professor Butler, Master of Trinity, and the Earl of Rosebery;
And on the left were Mr J. A. Froude and the Marquis of Salisbury,
Also Lord Selborne, which was an imposing sight to see.


September 28

The birthdays of screen sirens

1919 Doris Singleton

Singleton was a vocalist and radio star before getting the role she is best remembered for, playing Lucille Ball’s nemesis Carolyn Appleby on Love Lucy. 

1934 Brigitte Bardot

It is difficult to believe that Mademoiselle Bardot, who is still the epitome of the French “sex kitten”, was born the same year as Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down and the Dionne quintuplets dazzled the media. Bardot made 47 films before retiring in 1973 and becoming, first, an animal rights activist and then a critic of Muslim immigration.

1952 Sylvia Kristel

The Dutch model achieved soft-porn film immortality by starring in 1974’s Emmanuelle, Emmanuelle 2, Emmanuelle 3, Emmanuelle 4, Emmanuelle 7, Private Lessons, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. She did not have a happy life, was addicted to cocaine, and died of throat cancer in 2021.

1967 Mira Sorvino

Academy Awards for supporting actors and actresses go to the strangest people — Walter Brennan won three of the. Mira Sorvino was tabbed for the prize in 1995 for her role as a prostitute in Woody Allen’s The Mighty Aphrodite. She has also been honoured by entomologists: an excretion of the sunburst diving beetle has been named  “mirasorvone”.

September 27

Saints Damian and Cosmas

Damian and Cosmas,  according to legend, were two third-century Syrian brothers (perhaps twins) who trained as physicians before their conversion to Christianity. They were known for their generosity and refusal to accept payment for their medical aid. In one particularly miraculous bit of healing, they grafted the leg of a dead black Ethiopian on to the body of a white patient who had lost his limb to cancer. They were arrested during one of Diocletian’s persecutions and martyred.

Their legend spread widely very quickly with churches dedicated to them as early as the fourth century. The relics of Damian and Cosmas were removed from Syria to Constantinople by the emperor Justinian in the 500s and he ordered an elaborate tomb built for them in gratitude for a healing produced by their intercession. Their bones seem to have divided and multiplied, as a number of churches claim their twin skulls. Pilgrims may visit these heads in Madrid, Munich, and Venice.

They are the patron saints of surgeons, physicians, twins, dentists, barbers, pharmacists, veterinarians, orphanages, day-care centres, and confectioners. They are protectors of children and may be invoked by those suffering from hernias and the plague.

September 26

1983, The world is saved.

From The Spectator: In the early morning of September 26 1983, Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Union’s Air Defense Force was on duty, monitoring his country’s satellite system, when the siren sounded. His computer indicated that the US had just launched five nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, and protocol required him to notify superiors immediately. Soviet strategy was to ‘launch on warning’, and many in Moscow believed Ronald Reagan was planning a first strike. But Petrov had a gut feeling this was a false alarm. Five missiles seemed too few, and the system itself was new. He did not inform superiors and within a few minutes it became clear that he had been right. Much of the world could have been destroyed within an hour if Petrov had followed protocol.

He says he was the only officer in his team who had received a civilian education. “My colleagues were all professional soldiers, they were taught to give and obey orders.” So, he believes, if somebody else had been on shift, the alarm would have been raised.

A few days later Mr Petrov received an official reprimand for what happened that night. Not for what he did, but for mistakes in the logbook.

He kept silent for 10 years. “I thought it was shameful for the Soviet army that our system failed in this way.” But, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the story did get into the press. Mr Petrov received several international awards.

He does not think of himself as a hero. “That was my job”, he said. “But they were lucky it was me on shift that night.”

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 22

479 BC Battle of Plataea

The second great Persian incursion into Greece in 480 had seen the invaders victorious on land at Thermopylae and defeated at sea at Salamis. Emperor Xerxes had returned to Asia but left a large army under Mardonius which he expected to complete the conquest of Hellas the following year. 

Mardonius had been instrumental in putting down rebellions by Greek cities in Ionia but had not been chosen in 490 BC to be part of the first doomed Persian expedition which was defeated by the Athenians at Marathon. He was said to have been the driving force at the court of Xerxes in convincing the emperor to undertake another assault on the Greek mainland.

In the early part of 479 BC, Mardonius invested great effort in trying to pry Athens away from its coalition with the other cities who still defied Persia – Greeks were notoriously unstable in their alliances – but was unsuccessful. Consequently, he moved south into Attica, occupied Athens, and burnt it to the ground. This prompted the Athenian exiles to demand that Sparta and its allies act. They argued that it was the Athenian navy which had protected the Peloponnesus in 480 BC and if they didn’t get the military support they needed they would agree to Persian terms.

The Spartans responded and under Pausanias they led a multi-city force of hoplites and archers north against the Persians. Mardonius was reluctant to fight in the hilly terrain around Athens and so withdrew to the Boeotian plain where his cavalry could perform better.

On September 22 the two armies clashed outside Plataea. The troops of Mardonius were more numerous, including in their forces fighters from all across their empire as far away as India as well as Greeks from cities who had “medized” (bowed the knee to Persia). The Greeks on the other hand were more heavily armoured and in this mismatch they prevailed, killing the Persian general, routing his army, taking massive amounts of booty.

This battle and a near-simultaneous victory over Persian naval units at Mycale meant the end of the Persian threat to mainland Greece and the beginning of a new phase in the war.

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 20

1793 Death of a mutineer

Clark Gable. Marlon Brando. Mel Gibson. Hollywood heart-throbs have thrice portrayed the English seaman who led a rebellion aboard His Majesty’s Ship Bounty in 1789.

Fletcher Christian was born in 1764 to a middling English family which fell into debt forcing him to take to a life in the navy. Despite his late start to his career at sea he proved to be a capable sailor and rose to the rank of master’s mate, a junior officer. Several times he served under Lieutenant William Bligh who asked him in 1787 to join the crew of Bounty on a mission to transport a thousand breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies where they would be grown to serve as food for the slave labour on plantations.

Unfortunately, the Bounty’s sailors found life on Tahiti with its tropical breezes, laidback lifestyle, and sexually complaisant women to be more attractive that the lash, hard labour, and salt beef that the navy offered. After five months of relative bliss they resented being called back to their duties, particularly resenting Bligh’s methods of discipline. On April 28, 1789 Fletcher Christian led a mutiny which captured Bligh and forced him and 18 loyalists into an open ship’s boat before sailing away.

Christian’s hope was to find an island where he and his men could hide from the Royal Navy. His revisit to Tahiti lost him half his men who preferred to remain there but he recruited (or, rather, kidnapped) a  number of male and female Tahitians to join him in founding a colony — somewhere. He chose remote Pitcairn Island where he landed on January 23, 1790. After stripping Bounty of any useful items, Christian ordered the ship to be burnt to the waterline, making escape impossible.

Though Pitcairn was a tropical paradise, the behaviour of the mutineers was bestial. With a few years all of the sailors except one, and all of the Tahitian men had died, most of them murdered. Christian was cut down by a group of Tahitians while tending his garden. His descendants survive on the island to this day.