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Football was a crime in England during the reign of Henry VIII.

The Nelson Evening Mail, Tuesday, October 2 1906

The moon is up for longer than the sun.

Your antivirus expires in 29 days.

The Dogmata Theologica of Petavius are a work of incredible labour and compass.

The steep limestone walls of a huge rock can make it look, from a distance, like a ship without sails.

Without yin, yang dies on the battlefield.

Eggs are probably not a type of fruit.

Oscar Wilde was pardoned for the crime of homosexuality in 2017.

The laws of Sri Lanka can be bought for Rs74,000.

Russians are the opposite of elephants.

Spitting is prohibited.

The American university is one of the few remaining places in the United States where reflection and study can take place in an almost utopian fashion.

The chief duty of man is service to man.

There’s always a few arseholes.


John Stow, author of the Survey of London, was rewarded by James I with a licence to beg.

The Nelson Evening Mail, Friday, August 17 1906

In Germany, young ladies have no sex.

‘Silver Billy’ Beldham was blond, and is said to have fathered 39 children.

Thom Yorke’s left eye is made of arse muscle.

The state of Nevada was very nearly called ‘Humboldt’ instead.

Strong fences make good eel traps.

A fairy can still win a wheelbarrow race.

There is no law against declaiming Chinese poetry.

There is no other word for ‘synonym’.

You are no longer safe online.

Edward Said never taught anything about the Middle East.

Xerxes’ plans all miscarried in ships of the sea.

Britain is on track to experience a cauliflower shortage.

People in rich countries can afford to be stupid.

Ducks and cover

Ducks, Newburyport
by Lucy Ellmann
Galley Beggar Press, £14.99, pp1020

Why, I asked some months back, in these pages, do the protagonists in American fiction these days seem so lost? What is it they’re all so het up about?

Well… everything. At least according to the narrator of Ducks, Newburyport.

Lucy Ellmann’s monster novel is a more or less non-stop narration of the thoughts of one Ohio housewife, a former college teacher who now bakes pies for money, attempts to keep her household shipshape, feels the pinch of post-bail-out America, is frustrated in the usual ways, and frets persistently about the physical, moral and emotional safety of her offspring (other people’s too) in those ostensibly United States.

Song lyrics, boarlets, clickbait headlines, bits of her children’s homework, first world problems, Schubert, shopping, getting cancer, the Amish, things she’s forgotten, assassinated presidents, FOOSH injuries, actors’ names, wordplays, her mother’s death, Revere Ware pots (me either), the life and works of Laura Ingalls Wilder, styptic sticks, lines from Shakespeare, fake-brick wallpaper, captions for YouTube videos, her husband’s fear of bridge-collapses, her own Mid-West gosh-darn-it lexicon, the plots of classic movies, ‘Indian’ burial mounds, lists of places/diseases/brandnames/pies (Umberto Eco would have very much approved)…

All human – at least, All-American – life is here. And death too, obvs. There are, in case you hadn’t heard, a lot of shootings.

At random, from page 52: ‘Miss America, misanthropy, missed opportunity’ … ‘willy-nilly, folkloric, the fact that a female police officer led a double life for nine years, Horror Movie Hotel’ … ‘the fact that it’s not just my outfits that bug Stace though, the fact that it’s everything I do, or don’t do, the fact that, boy, she keeps a beady eye on me…’

These ‘facts’, the hooks for her seemingly ever-expanding tapestry: ‘the fact that anyway I think you can overdo remembering stuff’, ‘the fact that everybody’s got a gun now’, ‘the fact that it begins to seem positively unAmerican to internalize things’, ‘the fact that Philip Glass can get a little bit repetitive’, ‘the fact that I think there’s maybe too much emphasis on facts these days, or maybe there are just too many facts’.

So by ‘everything’ I really do mean everything. Through all these facts, distracts, and (mis)rememberings (there is an iffy G&S line somewhere), our unnamed Everywoman becomes a living, breathing information overload, perhaps the most intensely real depiction of the life of the quotidian mind I’ve ever witnessed.

And while ‘neurotic’ might be overstating it, this is a woman who is worrying 24/7, across the entire imaginable gamut (she worries about that too), rising to quite alarming levels of morbidity, especially – and you can rather see this coming – with regards to violence against women, mothers and/or children in every corner of the faunal kingdom. Intermingled with her own glacial release of biographic data (what one might otherwise be calling ‘narrative’), there appear sporadic scenes from the unfolding story of a mountain lioness and her cubs – which come to bear.

In all, in its assessment of the Big Contemporary American Themes of violence, headline news and environmentalism, what Ducks… amounts to is one great trauma diagnosis for the entire country: ‘the fact that people are always saying this isn’t “who we are as a nation,” but, well, it kind of is.’ The book was published, with mordant wit, on July 4th.

Unless you too are a nervous, baking-enthusiast Ohio housewife it’s fair to say your sympathy will wax and wane a little as the book goes on; but Ellmann’s Joycean achievement is to drag you along, complicitly, in her endurance marathon of anxiety and trivia – not least, of course, because you’ve no idea what might or might not turn out to be trivia (‘ducks, Newburyport’).

It’s a colossal feat. And if you didn’t exactly see it cluttering the Beach Reads lists this summer – it may yet be more read about than read – it’s now been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (announced next month), and frankly that’s no less than it deserves.

For The Spectator


‘Bad in life, good in the book’

A Q&A with writer and artist Dan Richards.

For Geographical

Hit and miss

Chastise: The Dambusters Story 1943
By Max Hastings
William Collins £25

By 1943, after nearly four years of war ‘ameliorated [only] by a thin gruel of successes,’ Britain and her western allies had little to boast in terms of their offensive victories; the lion’s share of the burden was very clearly being shouldered by the Soviet Union; and even the notably (not to say uniquely) busy Royal Air Force had not grabbed headlines since the Battle of Britain, three years previously.

Then, on the night of the 16th/17th May, the RAF launched a surprise attack on half a dozen dams in north-west Germany, the (secretly) avowed intent of which was to unleash billions of cubic feet of water and land a single, knock-out blow to the Ruhr industries, thereby crippling the Nazi war machine and proving – as the jargon goes – ‘decisive’.

The attack was most surprising because it was basically impossible. Indeed, the Germans had identified the threat before the war (and likewise eyed up British dams), but dismissed such operations as unworkable. The Möhne valley was so quiet that German troops were sent there for recuperation.

By night, meanwhile, Britain’s Bomber Command could currently identify no target smaller than a city, so even at the conceptual stage the technical demands of breaching a dam were assessed by the RAF as ‘highly problematic’. Big enough bombs – ‘bouncing’ or otherwise – did not exist, nor did the planes to carry them. Said bombs (depth charges, codename: ‘Upkeep’) would also have to be dropped from extraordinarily low levels (100 times lower than usual, in fact, at heights that would usually see pilots court-martialled) and in bright moonlight.

The ‘madman’ Sir Arthur Harris, head of Bomber Command, was – not alone and not unreasonably – flatly against this as a hopelessly speculative waste of unaffordable resources. But the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, signed off on Operation Chastise as ‘a good gamble’. Only a single squadron of bombers was authorised, however: what Max Hastings calls ‘a niche operation’, indicative of British ‘gesture strategy’.

The recruitment of 617 Squadron began just weeks before the dams were set to reach their fullest, and though several of the crews were quite experienced, many others were extremely raw or had not flown before as working teams. Their Avro Lancaster bombers needed to fly almost at ground level over the lethal terrains of occupied Europe, which meant that mishaps of any kind would almost certainly entail the deaths of everyone on board. The new planes were strained by the technological requirements of the operation, and full of jury-rigged modifications. The frantic training schedule did not go well, and by the time the operation was launched most crews had not flown planes with even full-scale dummy Upkeeps. Whatever Portal said, the odds on Chastise making a decisive impact were frankly miserable.

It was, at best, partly successful.

There were immediate repercussions from the lack of navigational technology, inexperience, and other issues, once they reached the Dutch coast. Only one plane in the Sorpe wave even made it to the target. Many pilots and crews were simply not up to the intimidating task: eight planes out of 19 went down, and 56 out of 133 pilots and aircrew died.

Two dams, the Möhne and the Eder, were breached, unleashing a biblical horror for which (of course) the Germans coined a new word (‘Möhnekatastrophe’); but almost all the approximately 1,400 victims were civilians and more than half of them were POWs – our allies. There was significant infrastructure damage, knock-on effects on gas and coal production, and diversion of resources. But this did not curtail ‘a quarter’ of the Reich’s industry, Barnes Wallis’s promised ‘disaster of the first magnitude,’ and the dams were repaired within a few months (a process with which, astoundingly, the RAF did not attempt to interfere). The secret weapon of the bouncing bomb, once used, could not be used again, either inland or – as had been the Navy’s fervent hope – at sea.

But the aircrews – men barely out of school who ‘still thought it the best joke in the world to pull off a man’s trousers after dinner’ – were heroic in a more than usually tough, physical sense, exemplified and led by the hard-driving, amply-decorated 24-year-old bombing veteran Wing Commander Guy Gibson (to say nothing of his dog). There were also the heroic feats of engineering (and politicking) by Barnes Wallis, the ‘white-haired evangelist’, and his team.

And so Chastise was fundamentally – if not unimportantly – a propaganda victory. It represented an ‘amazing example of team-work and co-operation’, and was billed as ‘a turning of the tide’ to the advantage of the Allied powers. In Hastings’ estimation it inflicted a ‘trauma’ on Germany, and demonstrated to Germans that their homeland was not invulnerable. It was, he notes, also ‘unmentioned in Allied warlords’ private diaries.’

Hastings is a ‘big picture’ narrative historian, who tackles head-on the not inconsiderable task of making a compelling narrative out of a time-honoured national myth. In all, Chastise is a calm but forthright reappraisal, not prepared to swallow the triumphalist (and ‘victimless’) impressions of, e.g, the 1955 film version, nor to have any truck with flimsy modern notions of winning ‘a war of national survival’ without the taking of lives.

And not just German lives, of course. One of the last remaining Dambusters died only this year; but it was a sad, blunt statistical inevitability that, for all their heroism, the vast majority of Chastise men, including Gibson, did not live long enough to see VE Day.

For The Oldie

The future starts… in Brighton

Review of John Higgs’ The Future Starts Here: Adventures in the Twenty-First Century.

For Geographical


Though fair-haired people are not so strong as those with dark hair, they usually live longer.

The Nelson Evening Mail, Wednesday, July 15 1908

The comedian Joe Pasquale (born Joseph Ellis Pasquale) has not died.

The US government spends more per head on their dysfunctional healthcare system than the UK spends per person on the NHS.

There is not much colour in Lincolnshire.

There is a cricket team called the British Guiana Boers. They play in Boston, Massachusetts.

Mandarin and Arabic are different.

People who eat dark chocolate are less likely to be depressed than those who don’t.

Owls are the second-least intelligent birds in the world.

76.5% of Sri Lankans believe that members of their parliament have unexplained wealth.

You don’t have to spend the night alone.

Leeds Castle have late-availability wedding offers from just £7950.

The English-language folk song ‘Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea’ has a Roud index number of 1359.

Anthony McGowan has been named the Adidas High School Wrestler of the Week.

Batman gifs are the height of orientalism.


Leather trunks were used in Rome as early as the time of Caesar.

The Nelson Evening Mail, Friday, September 28 1906

Tilda Swinton has been elected leader of the Liberal Democrats.

The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour began outside a kebab shop in Kent.

The complete works of James Joyce are available for £0.75.

‘Twirly’ is an adjective meaning to be excited not only sexually, but also emotionally.

World Tiger Day is celebrated on the 29th of July.

Some cats eyes have been removed in Devon.

Danish Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard would put coffee on his sugar (and not the other way around).

King George III of England built a secret palace at Kew.

George Best airport has been voted the best airport in Ireland, for the 13th year running.

There have been changes to YouTube’s terms of service.

In 2016 the citizens of India planted 50m trees in a single day. That record has now been claimed by Ethiopia, with 350m.

Three people have been shot dead at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California.

With Tampax you can do everything… but feel nothing.


The maximum suicide age is between 65 and 75.

The Nelson Evening Mail, Thursday, August 9 1906

Forest Green Cricket Club accepts no liability for damage to vehicles parked on the green whilst a game is in progress.

There are pros and cons to time-travelling while black.

Pope Gregory declared the rooster the most suitable emblem of Christianity.

Not a single person was killed in the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

People who watch Fox News know less about international affairs than people who do not watch any news at all.

There is a music-genre known as ‘turbo-folk’.

You never need to use your own vaginal yeast to make bread.

Raymond Joseph Teller taught high school Latin for six years.

Artists in North Korea are employed by the state.

The Duchess of Sutherland is commemorated on a Partick urinal.

Noisy, hungry frogs sadden farmers’ lives.

The Ashmolean Museum is 336 years old.

There is too much stuff.

Black samurai

Yasuke: The True Story of an African Samurai
by Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard
£20 (hardback)

In late July 1579, an enormous, well-dressed and well-armed African bodyguard stepped off a boat into the southern Japanese port of Kochinotsu.

Yasuke – perhaps from ‘Isaac’ in Amharic – had (probably) been abducted as a child by neighbouring Nilotic tribesmen, sold into slavery, and, by 23ish, already travelled (and fought) through northeast Africa, Arabia, and round the long coasts of both India and China.

His employer was the ‘most important Catholic in all of Asia’, Alessandro Valignano, papal ‘Visitor to the Indies’, here to impress the One True Faith upon the Japanese, and build on unsure Catholic footholds in the country.

But Yasuke promptly stole the show. He needed two beds, wore three men’s clothes sewn into one, and couldn’t fit through basic doors. His was a very noticeably muscular Christianity – and his blackness, far from hindering, had potentially divine connotations among the Japanese.

In the next three years he learned their ‘outlandish’ language, was given away (or sold?) to a mercurial warlord, nearly died thanks to an enthusiastic, festive mob, found himself exalted to the status of samurai, served at the forefront of ‘The Age of The Country at War’ – and then abruptly disappeared from the historical record.

The number of direct and unambiguous references to Yasuke in that record, though, is tiny, and beyond the ninjas, monks and ruthless warlords, typhoons, cliff-falls and disease that make up this undeniably rollicking historical yarn (both films and graphic novels have been fashioned out of it), much of this book is, of necessity, about the Jesuits and/or the Japanese internal conflicts of the 16th century.

The co-authorship of a Tokyo-based academic (Lockley) and a ‘historical adventure non-fiction’ writer (Girard) is not without its problems, either. The narrative leans lustily towards the Game of Thrones end of the spectrum, and the boisterous prose is well stocked with unverifiable adjectives, use of the word ‘likely’, and glimpses of Yasuke’s thought-process which surely cannot be substantiated. The extensive research is amply evidenced, but the delivery (there are no footnotes or attributions, per se) leaves the reader unclear as to which threads are the solid historical warp and weft and which are the more speculative embroidery. The chronology can be quite evasive. And there are sporadic and slightly effortful references to latter-day race/gender/slavery issues, which aren’t really in keeping with the adventure-story tone.

All of this, however, opens plenty of interesting windows into seafaring, high-caste homosexuality, palace architecture, and more – and the considerable endnotes and bibliography will be a trove for anyone who might prefer the sterner, rather more scholarly approach.

For Geographical