Category Archives: Notable Londoners

Queensbury rules

The Victorian era produced some real bastards, I think you’ll agree. However, many of them were simply ill-served by history – while we’d now consider them dreadful examples of humanity, they were perfectly acceptable by the standards of the society they lived in. The ninth Marquess of Queensbury (1844-1900) was not one of those people. No, by the standards of any era, the Marquess was an utter shit.

These days, he has two major claims to fame. Firstly, he invented the ‘Queensbury Rules’ of professional boxing. And secondly, it was Oscar Wilde’s libel suit against him that resulted in the writer’s trial and imprisonment, an important event the history of LGBT culture in Britain. It’s a strange pairing of claims to fame, but then, Queensbury was a strange man.

Queensbury, or John Sholto Douglas, to use his name, was defiantly nonconformist in his outlook. For one thing, he was a proud atheist before such beliefs were widely accepted. Unfortunately, he was the sort of atheist that tends to shame other atheists by being a bit too outspoken. He refused to sit in the House of Lords on the grounds that the oath of allegiance was Christian in nature. Well, that’s not entirely unreasonable. I mean, the oath is meaningless if you don’t believe in the thing you’re swearing on. He also got chucked out of a performance of Tennyson’s The Promise of May at the Globe Theatre because one of the characters was an atheist and also a villain, and Queensbury felt this demanded that he kick up a ruckus.

But I mean, the fact that he was an extremist doesn’t make him a bad person, right? I mean, every cause has its extremists, doesn’t it? Maybe he was just responding appropriately to the times and he’s a misunderstood pioneer? Well, maybe, but how about we look at one of his other obsessions, namely homosexuality?

Homophobia was not uncommon in the Victorian era. It was, after all, still illegal. Queensbury, however, took things a little further. He believed that homosexuality was literally contagious. You might have guessed that he wasn’t exactly flying the rainbow flag from his part in the Wilde trial, but there were certain other dimensions to his gay-bashing that are perhaps worthy of note.

To start with, we need to look at his relationship with his sons. Let’s just say that it was strained at best. One of his favourite taunts to use against them was to claim that he wasn’t their real father (maybe he wasn’t – his second marriage was annulled on grounds of non-consummation) and therefore they could expect to inherit nothing. It’s a historical irony, therefore, that his eldest son Francis was granted a seat in the House of Lords – the same one that Queensbury had refused to take an oath for. Rather than shrug his shoulders, Queensbury had a fall-out with Francis.

Francis had been backed by Lord Rosebery, whom Queensbury decided was “a snob queer.” Therefore, of course, his motivation was obviously to corrupt the lad with gayness. Queensbury decided that the remedy to this was to start stalking Rosebery, which he did all the way to Germany, where he threatened to give the Lord a damn good thrashing if he didn’t stay away from Francis. The Prince of Wales himself had to intervene, and Rosebery subsequently referred to Queensbury, not unreasonably, as “a pugilist of unsound mind.”

And this is where the Wilde business comes in. Like most conspiracy theorists, Queensbury wasn’t going to be put off by a lack of evidence or, indeed, logic. And when he found out that his youngest son, Alfred (or “Bosie” as he was nicknamed) was bonking one of the leading playwrights of the day, it was clear what had happened – Rosebery had set his homosexual sights on another member of the Douglas family.

Queensbury didn’t publicly pursue Rosebery this time, perhaps because batshit insane though he was, he knew when he was beaten. However, he infamously left a visiting card at the Albermarle club describing Wilde as a “posing somdomite.” You’d think an obsessive homophobe would learn to spell “Sodomite,” but I digress.

This being a fairly serious matter, Wilde sued for libel. Unfortunately, the problem with suing someone for libel is that there has to actually be an element of falsehood. What this meant was that by suing Queensbury, he was basically saying, “Prove I’m gay.” Which he was. Queensbury had plenty of testimony from London’s rent boy community to back this up – homosexuality seems to have been something that was fairly openly discussed provided you weren’t actually caught doing it. Anyway, having got lots of evidence that Wilde actually was as gay as a tangerine, he turned it into the police and Wilde was sent down.

Queensbury was undoubtedly the villain in this, and of course I’m not going to condone the laws against homosexuality. But why would Wilde have embarked on such a course against his self-appointed enemy? He wasn’t stupid – maybe arrogant, but even that shouldn’t have blinded him to the fact that it would put him in a perilous position. One popular interpretation has it that Bosie actually put him up to it. Maybe so – romantic feelings can make one do stupid things. And God knows Bosie had the motive to seek revenge against his old Dad.

The verdict against Wilde wasn’t universally popular, and though there were plenty of moral guardians who praised Queensbury for removing this menace to society, there were plenty of literary followers who cursed his name. Theatregoers, literati, Christians, Members of Parliament, his own family – it seemed that there was no one he didn’t annoy one way or another. The Marquess stipulated in his will that he wanted to be buried upright, and his request was granted at his death at the age of 55. Well, apparently. Rumour has it that the gravediggers, no fans of Queensbury, buried him head-first. And really who can blame them?

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The name’s Fleming. Ian Fleming.

I’ve recently been acquainting myself with one of the most iconic characters of the twentieth century, a secret agent by the name of James Bond.

Everyone knows James Bond. The tuxedo, the gun, the enigmatic smile, the Aston Martin DB5, vodka martinis shaken and not stirred, licence to kill, 007 (008 outside Central London), “the name’s Bond,” lots of fancy ladies and so forth. The character has basically become the very definition of spy fiction. Any fictional spy who’s appeared on screen since the 1960s will inevitably be compared to him. Heck, most action films that have come along since then owe something to the tropes established by the Bond movies.

But the Bond we all know and love is, let’s be honest, the Bond of the films.

Being a cultured sort, you’re no doubt aware that the Bond franchise started out with a series of novels by Ian Fleming, pictured right. Fleming was a spy himself during the Second World War, and in fact claimed that Casino Royale was inspired by an experience he himself had with a couple of undercover German agents at the gaming table (sadly, not the wicked-awesome bit from the film where Bond flips his car over seven times).

Fleming created Bond initially as a fairly dull character – the name was chosen to reflect this, and was taken from an American ornithologist. The ornithologist in question did see the funny side. Fleming built the character and his world up from his own experiences and those of friends and colleagues – for instance, it’s from Fleming that Bond gets the bon viveur tendencies for which he’s known. The first book, Casino Royale, was published in 1953.

The books were, initially, only a modest success, and Fleming planned to end the series after the fifth, From Russia with Love. This is actually incredibly obvious from the ending of the book, but I won’t say any more for fear of spoilers. However, this very same book was a roaring success, and is considered by many fans to be the best of the series. It was followed by seven more before Fleming’s death.

So how does Literary Bond compare to Movie Bond (s)? Well, it’s all rather interesting. Fleming himself rather liked Connery’s portrayal, to the extent of giving Bond a Scottish father in later books. However, the closest portrayal to the early books is probably that of Daniel Craig or Timothy Dalton.

Literary Bond, as Fleming envisioned him (the picture on the right was commissioned by the author), is something of a damaged individual. He is a man with definite mixed feelings about his calling in life. Not the sort of man who’d kill a henchman in cold blood and then produce a one-liner. There are several occasions when he becomes positively morbid – he accepts as inevitable the fact that he’s probably only got about a decade before being killed in the line of service, for instance. By the time of Doctor No, one of the weaker books in my opinion, M has decided that Bond is losing it as a result of all the crazy shit he’s been involved in recently. He’s an imperfect man whose cruel façade is built upon a very fallible, human foundation. As such, I actually find him a much more satisfying character than Connery or Moore’s impermeable action hero.

Interestingly in character terms, the Bond girls in the books are far more rounded characters than they are in the films. One, Gala Brand in Moonraker, is arguably more responsible for foiling the villain’s plan than Bond. And, most surprisingly of all, he doesn’t always get the girl.

The films vary in terms of how closely they stick to the books. Aside from updating the setting and padding the story out, Casino Royale is a fairly faithful adaptation. Moonraker, meanwhile, adopts the title and name of the villain and little else (so if you saw that film, don’t be put off the novel)

As I said earlier, the suave sophistication of the films is there – Fleming takes an almost pornographic delight in describing Bond’s food, drink and surroundings. Bear in mind that when the first books were published, Britain was still in the grip of rationing and far-flung holidays were just a dream for most people – this luxury was as much a part of the escapist fantasy as the machinations of Le Chiffre or Julius No.

One point against the books is that, in some regards, they are very much of their time. Particularly when it comes to things like imperialism and race. It’s always a bit embarrassing when Bond starts talking about race. Doctor No is particularly bad in this regard, and the whole thing frankly feels like a late installment in the Fu Manchu saga.

This aside, I can’t deny that they are very, very readable. I’ve ploughed through the individual novels at a rate of just under one a day because they are extremely compelling. Not great literature, you understand – I suspect that were it not for the films they’d have been forgotten by now – but something of a guilty pleasure nonetheless. And I think that when you have a character as iconic as Bond, you really ought to familiarise yourself with the source.

Moonraker was still a terrible film, though.

Further Reading

If you’re in the mood for further comparisons of films to their literary sources, my good chum Jess has recently started a blog doing just that for Disney. It’s right here. I’m looking forward to the surely-upcoming entry where she compares The Lion King to Kimba the White Lion (zing!).

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“A most infamous, vile scoundrel.”

I’ve written about some pretty dreadful people in this blog before, but I think the subject of today’s entry might well beat all. You see, most of the notorious figures I’ve written about have had some redeeming feature – usually in terms of the comedy value of their actions, or because to some extent they acted the way we all secretly wish we could. Colonel Charteris, however, seems to have been utterly irredeemable.

Francis Charteris was born in Edinburgh in 1675, inheriting much of his wealth from his family. This he augmented with his considerable skill at gambling, both honest and dishonest, as well as lending money at ruinous interest, bribery, blackmail, fraud and shares in the South Sea Company (being one of the few investors not to lose his shirt in that most unwise venture). To give some idea of his methods, he once managed to con £5,000 out of Child’s Bank simply by informing them that he was going to withdraw that amount, sending down a servant to collect it, subsequently denying all knowledge and kicking up a stink over the bank’s security until the poor chap in charge was forced to “reimburse” him. He bought his way up through the army to the rank of Colonel before his dodgy dealings were uncovered and he was kicked out, then he was allowed to re-enlist for reasons that are not entirely clear. 

He is perhaps best known for seduction. “Seduction” here being a very loose term, as many of the 300 women he claimed to have seduced were not as willing as he might have pretended. He was a great enthusiast for the ladies, claiming a fondness for those with “B-tt-cks as hard as Cheshire Cheeses, that could make a dint in a wooden chair” and would go to any lengths to get them

For instance, while staying at an inn in Lancaster, he took a fancy to one of the servant girls, promising her a shiny guinea in exchange for her favours (cough). The girl was initially reluctant, but gave in. The following morning, Charteris indignantly spoke to the landlord, claiming to have given the girl a guinea to change into silver and not had the money back. A search revealed that the girl did indeed have Charteris’ guinea, which was returned to him and the girl dismissed. This story did not work in Charteris’ favour when he was later standing for election to MP for Lancaster.

He found himself in a similar pickle in Scotland after raping a married woman at gunpoint. For this, he was charged, but able to avoid arrest by virtue of running away. This meant he was unable to visit his extensive estates north of the border, to which you or I might sarcastically remark, “Boo hoo.” However, Charteris was able to get around this by… asking the King for a pardon in 1721. It really was that easy.

The classy thing to do under the circumstances would surely be to lie low. However, “classy” was not exactly an adjective one could apply to Charteris, and as Fog’s Weekly Journal put it,

We hear a certain Scotch Colonel is charged with a Rape, a misfortune he has been very liable to, but for which he has obtained a Nolle Prosequi. It is reported now that he brags that he will obtain a Patent for ravishing whomever he pleases.

Note that it’s clear from this that Charteris’ reputation for rape was already well-established. It may have been at around this time that he began referring to himself as “the Rape-Master General of England.”

This was not the first time his tendency to let his Old Chap Downstairs rule over him would get him into trouble, nor would it be the last. On several occasions he found himself having to fork out considerable sums of money to avoid prosecution. Most of these stories are far too depressing to recount, so I’ll instead recount the tale of the one who got away. It seems that there was a young lady looking for employment as a servant near Charteris’ Leicestershire residence, Hornby Lodge. Charteris took a fancy to her, hired her and at once set about having his way with her at gunpoint. The young lady pretended to acquiesce to his demands, and the horny bastard dropped trou and prepared himself for the act. So excited was he at the prospect of getting in there that he made the mistake of putting the gun down. The young lady seized the firearm and forced him to let her out unmolested. I hope she didn’t give him time to put his pants back on.

Less amusing was the case of Anne Bond. Such was Charteris’ reputation in 1729, when Bond was hired to work at his Hanover Square residence, that she wasn’t actually told who her employer was – it was claimed that he was a Mr Harvey. However, she soon figured out his true identity, not least because of his persistence in offering her money for sex. She requested to leave, whereupon Charteris had her up. A month later, he called for the “Lancashire bitch” and raped her. He then had her horsewhipped, stripped and robbed to silence her. Nevertheless, when she was allowed out, she told a friend and Charteris again found himself under arrest. He was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Charteris being Charteris, however, this was not the end of the story. By means of some £15,000 worth of bribery, a campaign was set up for his release. The most surprising voice among the pro-Charteris campaigners was Bond herself, almost certainly thanks to an £800 payment. Rumour at the time had it that she was planning to use the money to finance a pub called ‘The Colonel Charteris’ Head.’ In 1730, the ageing rake was released from Newgate.

Thereafter, Charteris fell ill and died in February 1732 in Edinburgh. One theory has it that this was the result of sickness contracted in prison. His funeral was not exactly one of pomp and ceremony, as an angry mob tried to seize the coffin and threw dead animals and offal into the grave.

Charteris was perhaps the most hated man of his era. The poor hated him for his crimes and ability to avoid punishment, and the rich hated him for being a crass upstart with no honour or conscience. The title of this entry was given to Charteris by Jonathan Swift. The playwright John Gay sarcastically wrote to Swift during the Bond trial, “Does not Charteris’ misfortune grieve you? For this great man is liable to save his life and lose some of his money. A very hard case!” William Hogarth portrayed him (right) in ‘The Harlot’s Progress,’ leering out of a doorway, having a covert wank. While he was far from the worst figure in history, it’s hard to think of one less personally likeable.

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Fairies, schizophrenia and other distractions

The other day I found myself at a loose end and so, as I’d been meaning to do for quite some time, I went with Hurricane Jack to the Richard Dadd exhibition at Orleans House in Twickenham, which as it happened was in its final week.

Richard Dadd is primarily famous for two things – fairy paintings and being insane. Outsider art, particularly that produced by the mentally ill, holds a strange fascination for me. I suppose it’s because art, perhaps more effectively than any other form of expression, offers a view into the mind. Art is heavily reliant on emotion and imagination, and as such is an ideal gauge of the mind. I’m not the first one to suggest this, of course, and art therapy is these days a popular form of psychiatric treatment.

In the 19th century, of course, there was no such thing as art therapy. Hell, there was hardly anything you’d even call therapy in the modern sense. However, during Richard Dadd’s periods in Bedlam and Broadmoor, he produced a number of works of art that are these days regarded as classics of outsider art – although given that he was an established and respected mainstream painter, it’s debatable whether you could really call him an “outsider artist.”

Come Unto These Yellow Sands, 1842

I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. Dadd was born in 1817 and, from a young age, was considered a highly talented artist. A number of his works were put on show at the Royal Academy and he received several commissions from wealthy patrons. Unfortunately, he also exhibited a number of unusual personality traits which were amplified during a trip to the Middle East. He became violent and deluded, hearing voices and developing the belief that he was descended from Osiris and obliged to fight the Devil. The Devil, he believed, was capable of taking human form, and one of the forms he took was that of Dadd’s own father. Therefore, on 28th August 1843, he murdered his father and fled to France. He was arrested and put in Bedlam. Among his personal effects were a number of sketches of friends and family members with their throats cut and a list of people who he felt had to die. The general consensus now seems to be that he was afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia.

The Fairy Feller's Masterstroke, 1855-64

During his period in Bedlam he produced his most famous works, including the intricate fairy painting, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke. This is commonly regarded as his masterpiece, inspiring a song by Queen and the Terry Pratchett novel The Wee Free Men. The intense detail in this and his other fairy paintings tends to be seen as a sign of an obsessive mind (although you might also argue that it’s a sign of someone with a lot of time and very little to do, but then, I’m not an art critic or therapist).

The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke wasn’t in the exhibition, nor were any of Dadd’s other fairy paintings. Actually, the exhibition seemed almost apologetic about this fact. I think this was unnecessary – it’s very often the case with artists, particularly notorious ones, that a particular work or type of work they did has been allowed to eclipse other, equally worthy works.

Sketch to Illustrate the Passions: Agony – Raving Madness

So what we have in this exhibition is, basically, The Rest. A selection of Dadd’s art from before his arrest and throughout his time at Bedlam and Broadmoor. Quite a lot of it is, I’ll be honest, rather pretty. If you didn’t know its origins, you wouldn’t be able to tell it was the work of a schizophrenic. I rather liked his stained glass work. However, there were a number of works seemingly produced as a deliberate expression of his mental state – the evocative “Passions” series stood out for me, which features allegorical figures representing various negative qualities. Some of these appear to have been painted from life, including a couple of representations of the architecture of Bedlam.

 
I wouldn’t have described the exhibition as what I was expecting from a Richard Dadd show, and that actually doesn’t bother me at all. I came away with what I felt was a fuller understanding of a very complex artist. Frankly, the chap deserves better than to be known simply as a mad artist.
 
Oh hey, look at this
Izzi has a new blog devoted to art. Take a look at it, do.

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Less passion, less protein

As a former big fat guy, I’m always mildly curious about interesting dietary concepts. Most of them are utter balderdash, of course (although if you want to lose weight, the one that worked for me was something I like to call “eating less”). Nevertheless, for curiosity and humour value you can’t beat the opinions of an uneducated self-appointed nutritional expert.

Picture unrelated.

And that brings me on to Mr Stanley Green.

There are plenty of crazy people shouting things down Oxford Street (including one who informed me, very emphatically, that God hates petrol), but North London boy Stanley Green was more notorious than all of them. He was a chap who had some interesting beliefs developed during his time in the Navy relating to “passion” (i.e. lust and aggression) – namely, he felt that there was too much of it in the world. He came to the conclusion that this was caused by an excess of protein in the modern diet.

Therefore, he took to the streets with a sandwich board that would make him an icon. Actually, there were several sandwich boards over the years, but all contained a variant of the basic slogan:

LESS LUST,

BY LESS

PROTEIN

MEAT FISH

BIRD: EGG

CHEESE: PEAS

(INC. LENTILS)

BEANS: NUTS.

AND SITTING.

PROTEIN WISDOM

I’d question how sitting is supposed to increase one’s levels of protein, although I suppose it could increase lust depending on where you’re sitting and on whom.

Green also sold a home-printed pamphlet entitled EIGHT PASSION PROTEINS WITH CARE – I’ve noticed that while you can’t fault your average crank for enthusiasm, written English does appear to be one of their weaker areas. If you’d like to read Mr Green’s full dissertation, it’s reproduced here. Green also tried his hand at longer works on the subject of passion, both fiction and non-fiction, neither of which have been published. Well, you know what they say – sex sells, so by extension anything that argues against it is probably not going to set the publishing world on fire.

Green began his crusade on the streets of Harrow in 1968 before taking on the tougher audiences of Oxford Street and Leicester Square. Although by all accounts he wasn’t as obnoxious as some of the street preachers out there, he doesn’t seem to have been universally well received. Frankly, a man with a sandwich board sounds a lot more agreeable than a woman screaming at me about how I “fornicate and take heroin” (chance’d be a fine thing). Nevertheless, a number of people took issue with his campaign, not least of whom were women who objected to being told that they “couldn’t deceive [their] groom that [they] are a virgin on [their] wedding night,” which suggests a lack of anatomical knowledge on Mr Green’s part. In later years, Green took to wearing overalls to protect himself from the spittle of those who disagreed with him. He was also arrested twice for obstruction, which struck him as immensely unjust.

With his fussy little moustache, his cap and of course his placard, Green became something of a London icon over the 25 years of his preaching. Although his campaign wasn’t exactly what you might call an overwhelming success, he was pretty well-known about the town. Fashion designer Wayne Hemingway even featured Green, complete with sandwich board, in one of his catwalk shows. The Primark knock-off has yet to appear.

In his personal life, unlike most Oxford Street preachers, Green appears to have been agnostic, which does rather raise the question of what he had against lust. As you might imagine, he kept his diet simple and boring. He remained single and lived alone, dying in 1993.

In recognition of Green’s pop culture status, his writings and placard have been preserved for the nation in the Museum of London, and have been put on display. Alas, with the demise of the sandwich board as of a 2008 law introduced by Westminster Council, we shall not see his like again. That’s what the Internet is for.

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Fortissimo

A friend of mine recently introduced me to the strange world of Forteana, suggesting that it was the sort of thing that would probably appeal to me. She was right in this belief – in fact, I’d come across the work of Mr Charles Fort before. I’d often passed the house in Bloomsbury where he lived in the 1920s while studying at the British Library (it’s on Marchmont Street, marked with a silver plaque, if you’re interested). I’d looked into the work of this fellow, and discovered that, unconsciously, I was already familiar with it.

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by weirdness – ghosts, alien abductions, monsters in lakes, the lot. Believed in most of it, too. It was only when I got a bit older, developed the ability to think critically and learnt the difference between “true” and “things you really want to be true” that I developed that healthy level of scepticism that has prevented me from, e.g., giving heinous amounts of money to a homeopath every time I get the sniffles.

Charles H Fort is legendary in the circles that take an interest in strange phenomena – in fact, he more-or-less invented the concept of paranormal studies (or Forteana, as such studies are often called in tribute to the man). It may come as little surprise to sceptics among you to learn that he was not a scientist himself – in fact, he was a writer by profession. As anyone who’s read Dianetics can tell you, few things are more irritating than a writer who acts like he has scientific expertise without any actual academic study.

However, he did read widely. From a young age he took a great deal of interest in science. Like Yr. Humble Chronicler, he would appear to have been a science groupie rather than an actual scientist. He was born in New York in 1874 and, from a fairly young age, showed an independent streak (which I think is a polite way of saying “obstinate little bugger”).

His interest in science, combined with his rebellious tendencies,logically led him to take an interest in anomalies that science couldn’t explain. Anything weird and paranormal seems to have entered this field of interest, from spontaneous human combustion to rains of fish to UFOs. The only thing uniting his collection of oddities was the fact that science did not have a definitive explanation for them.

This, disciples of Fort are keen to emphasise, was the point of his work – that science does not have all the answers, and we shouldn’t mindlessly accept the opinion of the scientific establishment. This, I think, is a very fair point. After all, some of the greatest scientific discoveries in history have come from going against what is generally accepted as truth. It used to be accepted that the sun revolved around the earth and that ants have eight legs, but now we know better. Similarly, what we now consider to be a scientific truth may tomorrow be equally discredited.

Unfortunately, it’s here that Fort’s lack of a scientific background makes itself evident. The trouble is that, for all his impish mischief, Fort’s assembly of strange phenomena doesn’t really say anything to the scientific establishment that the scientific establishment doesn’t already know. No legitimate scientist would claim to have absolutely all the answers. Even theories that are pretty well established are constantly being refined and modified as new evidence comes in – consider the effect that the discovery of DNA had on studies of evolution, for instance.

In fact, I’d argue that a lot of the time, it’s the Forteans themselves who more closely fulfil the stereotype of the stubborn and short-sighted student of science. There is a tendency among believers in paranormal phenomena to say “If not X then Y,”  e.g. “If those lights in the sky are not any of these things, they must be alien spacecraft!” That is to say, they have no evidence specifically for their conclusions and don’t admit to the possibility that there may be yet another explanation that hasn’t been considered. This, to me, is just as narrow-minded as outright denying the existence of flying saucers, sea serpents, the Duck Beast of Wincanton &c, &c.

One wonders how seriously Fort himself intended his theories to be taken. His sources were often very dubious, he seems to have simply taken every record of weirdness at face value with no discrimination between scientific studies and anecdotal evidence. Some of his followers view him as a genius shining a light on the falsehoods of the scientific establishment, others view him as a Swiftian satirist out to troll everyone. Perhaps the final word on the matter should come from the man himself.

My own notion is that it is very unsportsmanlike to ever mention fraud. Accept everything. Then explain it your own way.

Make of that what you will.

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Carnivaliant Efforts

On Sunday, I enjoyed a day that was a testament to the wondrous power of impulsively saying “yes” to things. God, what an appalling intro. I’ll try again.

Basically, last weekend I was feeling a little run down. Having come back from the Edinburgh Festival, getting back into the swing of everyday life was hard. I tend to feel a bit low after the end of a show, no doubt a psychiatrist could tell us more, and Edinburgh was such a surreal and crazy experience that it was doubly hard to accept the prospect of free evenings. Therefore, I’d been partying as hard as possible. Pimpstick Jr. had a boozy gathering at the Princess Louise in Holborn at which I got roundly hammered (and discovered that it is literally quicker to walk from Holborn to Waterloo than to get the Tube, but that’s another story). Tiny Emma came around on Saturday for a night of wine and Dark City (Emma is into films that “mess with reality,” and Dark City is a shining example of the genre). And then I got a text from Izzi inviting me along to Notting Hill Carnival the following day. I’d never been to the Carnival before, and I had nothing else to do, and Izzi’s company is never less than scintillating, and so I said yes. Tiny Emma, who does not frequent the Internet, thought this was incredibly short-term planning.

Sadly, when the day dawned, I was not in perhaps the best shape for the event.  Bloated, hungover and poor, Sunday morning was not my friend. Izzi and I met up, and she – who lives in the Western Zone of the city – explained how it goes. She also took the photos for this entry, by the way.

The Carnival has been running since 1959, and since then has grown to be one of London’s greatest excuses to let its collective hair down. Initially started in response to racial tensions in the area, it is now a celebration of Caribbean culture in the city and, indeed, of the city’s multi-culturalism in general. I did not steal any of that from a press release. This year, it enjoyed over a million attendants, of whom Izzi and Yr. Humble Chronicler were two.

Initially, I have to admit I was cynical (read: grumpy and hungover) – on the way from Notting Hill Gate, I was struck by the number of boarded-up shops and houses, and the number of makeshift stalls charging exorbitant amounts for food and beer (beer especially). But we got further in, and helped by a rum-filled coconut and the appearance of sunshine, I started to mellow out.

By the time we got to the parade route, I was definitely in the mood to party most hearty. Now I see what Polly Thomas meant in her essay, ‘Growing Up With Carnival’ (published in Miranda Davies and Sarah Anderson’s Inside Notting Hill):

“I’ve never been able to understand those joyless souls who don’t love Carnival, who refuse to get impossibly excited about the prospect of sharing their streets with some two million revellers intent on sticking two fingers up to the norm for a couple of days and letting it all hang out in public.”

Indeed so.

We strode along the route for some way towards Ladbroke Grove, enjoying the wind-baiting costumes and awesome Caribbean music, although that ‘Trini and Tobago’ song got a bit tedious the eighteenth time. An awful lot of people, us included, wound up smeared in chocolate (yes, it was definitely chocolate). Even the odd shower of rain could not dampen the mood, although I have to say the presence of baton-carrying police was slightly sinister. Izzi and I opined that the event would be improved if they started breakdancing.

Lunch consisted of curry goat, plantain and rice and beans, because why the hell not? Izzi was most pleased to bump into Mr Levi Roots, a saucy fellow indeed, hey nonny. Food was followed by booze and, of course, more dancing. In fact, so merry were we that we decided to continue partying in Bayswater after the parade had ended. At this point my memory grows hazy and fragmented, but for some reason my pupils have gone white and Bibles combust at my touch.

My last memory of the night was an amateurish attempt to sell me cocaine in Stockwell.

All in all, as Portobello Road degenerates into a row of chain stores, it’s good to be reminded that Notting Hill still retains some individuality. I think I’ll have to go again next year.

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Filed under 20th Century, Booze, Current events, London, Music, Notable Londoners, Notting Hill, tourism