The Humble Herring

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I have to admit I was never a great fan of herring.  It’s those tiny pesky bones you get in small fish that annoyed me.  We had fresh herring regularly when I was a kid.  That was back in the days when eating fish on Friday was de-rigeur for Catholic families.

Herring was cheap.  So was Whiting, Mackerel and Cods Roe.  As a kid, at the elbow of my mother when she was shopping, you picked these things up.  So knowing it was cheap probably reduced its desirability in my young mind.

But more to the point, my mother would pan fry herrings or grill them and what made Friday special was deep fried fish and chips.  My favourite was deep fried smoked cod.

But herring was an engine of the Industrial Revolution, and in the time before we figured out canning it was one of the most important foods for armies.  So important that there was a Battle of the Herrings fought, on this day, in 1429.  During the Siege of Órleans a supply column was successfully defended from attack at the town of Rouvray to protect the vital supply of food to the English forces.

The English protector of the herrings was none other than Sir John Falstaff, made famous by the plays of Shakespeare.

Herrings were abundantly available in Northern Europe.  Until the modern era and the arrival of the Factory Trawler it seemed that they would never run short.  Herring stocks recover very quickly as they are a fast breeding fish.  The vast shoals were followed and harvested by great fleets of small fishing boats.  Fishermen derived their living from the abundance of this one fish.  Entire communities were engaged in the processing and preservation of the catch.

The fresh fish is still prized in Baltic countries where it is dipped in chopped onions and downed with a shot of aquavit or vodka.

But it is the fact that you can preserve the little oily fish easily that made them the staple of the working class populations.  First farm labourers, then soldiers and eventually poor industrial town populations relied heavily on this cheap and easily replenshed source of protein.

You can simply fillet them and salt them and store them in barrels.  That is probably what the English were defending at the battle of the herrings.  But you can also use a wide variety of other preservation techniques.  Pickling, fermenting and smoking of some variety turn into hundreds of local variants when you carry out some research.

So popular a fish it is of course celebrated in poem and song.  Here is the Clancy Brothers version of the highly popular “Shoals of Herring”

 

Shoals of Herring

First Gay Novelist?

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James Bayard Taylor was born Jan 11th 1825.  A poet, a writer, travel writer, diplomat and a most fantastically travelled man.  Many of his travels were made on foot.  He explored the White Nile, he reported on the Californian Gold Rush and he was at the opening of Japan with Perry’s fleet.  Mark Twain was envious of the quality of Taylors German when they travelled together to Prussia.

A highly successful writer in his own lifetime he has seen a rebirth of sorts.  His book “Joseph and his friend: a story of Pennsylvania” is by many considered to be the first American Gay Novel.

Storm Song; by James Bayard Taylor

The clouds are scudding across the moon;
a misty light is on the sea;
the wind in the shrouds has a wintry tune,
and the foam is flying free.

Brothers, a night of terror and gloom
speaks in the cloud and gathering roar;
thank God, He has given us broad sea-room,
a thousand miles from shore.

Down with the hatches on those who sleep!
The wild and whistling deck have we;
good watch, my brothers, to-night we’ll keep,
while the tempest is on the sea!

Though the rigging shriek in his terrible grip,
and the naked spars be snapped away,
lashed to the helm, we’ll drive our ship
in the teeth of the whelming spray!

Hark! how the surges o’erleap the deck!
Hark! how the pitiless tempest raves!
Ah, daylight will look upon many a wreck
drifting over the desert waves.

Yet, courage, brothers! we trust the wave,
with God above us, our guiding chart.
So, whether to harbor or ocean-grave,
be it still with a cheery heart!

Failing Gracefully

Drip Rifle at Bandiana 2007

The Drip Rifle

In modern computer programming we speak of a “graceful failure” or a “graceful exit”.  It refers to a piece of coding which recognises a failure in a routine and closes the routine down with an error log that signposts a data quality analyst where to look for the problem.

Back in December 1915 the allied forces faced a different kind of an exit challenge.  Winston Churchill’s idea of knocking the Ottoman Empire, the sick man of Europe, out of the war with a knockout punch failed.  After 11 months of move and counter-move the allies acknowledged that the Turks were equal to the task of defending their homeland.

It was a campaign that illustrated how one bad step can follow another bad step embedding you deeper and deeper into an entirely unintended situation.  The plan was to force a fleet up the Bosphorus to Istanbul and force the surrender of Turkey under the Big Guns of the combined British and French fleets.

The actions of a single Turkish mine laying ship blocked the entry of the fleet.  When the navy sent in minesweepers they were shelled by Turkish shore batteries.  So the Navy needed to send in ground troops to clean out the shore batteries.  The Turks opposed the landings and the Dardenelles campaign descended into a hellhole of trench warfare.  Up close and personal trench warfare, with only the narrowest strip of no-mans land between the front lines.

When the Allies decided to evacuate lance corporal W.C. Scurry presented them with a piece of genius.  Scurry had arrived in Gallipoli only one month prior with the Australian Imperial Force.  He rigged up a delayed firing system using two mess tins and a bit of string.

The top tin was filled with water, the bottom empty and suspended from the top one.  A hole was pierced in the top tin and the water dripped slowly out, falling into the bottom tin.  When the bottom tin became heavy enough to pull the top tin down both tins fell and pulled the trigger string, firing the rifle.

By using different size tins, different hole positions, different size holes and different amounts of water it was possible to set up multiple different timings.

On the 20th of December, 2015, as the Newfoundland rear guard of the evacuating forces silently departed from the trenches they triggered the mechanisms on dozens of these rigs.  As long as the rifles kept firing the Turks believed the allies were still there.  The evacuation of 80,000 men was achieved with only a half dozen casualties.

Gallipoli was an unqualified failure, but one with a graceful exit.

 

 

After Court Martial; by Francis Ledwidge

My mind is not my mind, therefore
I take no heed of what men say,
I lived ten thousand years before
God cursed the town of Nineveh.

The Present is a dream I see
of horror and loud sufferings,
at dawn a bird will waken me
unto my place among the kings.

And though men called me a vile name,
and all my dream companions gone,
’tis I the soldier bears the shame,
not I the king of Babylon.

Serendipity II

1287 – St. Lucia’s flood: The Zuiderzee sea wall in the ...

When is a disaster not a disaster?  When you are on the silver lining side of the cloud!

Back in 1287 Amsterdam was a backwater fishing village on the wrong end of the large freshwater lake called the Zuiderzee.  The prosperous towns in the Netherlands lay on the river Vlie where the lake discharged into the North Sea.  Out there they could trade with the Germans, the Danes, the English, the French, the Norwegians and the Swedes.

On the night of St Lucia Day a North Sea depression set up a storm surge on top of a high tide.  On the 14th of December 1287 the sea smashed through the dunes and the boulder clay, obliterating the river Vlie and the towns on its banks.  The sea then surged into the lake and converted it to a salt water lagoon.  Some 50,000 to 80,000 Dutch and Germans died in the floods.

Backwater Amsterdam woke up to find itself positioned perfectly on a huge natural harbour with access to the North Sea.  By 1303 the village on the Amstel river had become a City.  It is today the most populous City in the Netherlands.

The Flying Dutchman (First Verse); by John Boyle O’Reilly

Long time ago, from Amsterdam a vessel sailed away,
as fair a ship as ever flung aside the laughing spray.
Upon the shore were tearful eyes, and scarfs were in the air,
as to her, o’er the Zuyder Zee, went fond adieu and prayer;
and brave hearts, yearning shoreward from the outwardgoing ship,
felt lingering kisses clinging still to tear-wet cheek and lip.
She steered for some far eastern clime, and, as she skimmed the seas,
each taper mast was bending like a rod before the breeze.

Away on a Pelican, home on a Hind.

Golden Hinde (replica), ship of Sir Francis Drake ...

After an abortive November departure for the Pacific Sir Francis Drake left Plymouth aboard  the Pelican on December 13th, 1577.  He was to return three years later on the same ship, now renamed “The Golden Hind” sailing into history as the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.

He carried a drum emblazoned with his coat of arms on the circumnavigation and on his other adventures as Captain, Privateer, Pirate, Explorer and Admiral of Queen Elizabeth’s fleet.  Legend holds that he sent the drum home to his family seat and asked that it be held there against the day England was again in danger.  In which case the drum should be beaten to summon past heroes to the defence of the realm.  A replica of the drum is on display at Buckland Abbey in Devon.

 

Drake’s Drum; by Sir Henry Newbolt

Drake he’s in his hammock an’ a thousand miles away,
(Capten, art tha sleepin’ there below?)
slung atween the round shot in Nombre Dios Bay,
an’ dreamin’ arl the time O’ Plymouth Hoe.
Yarnder lumes the Island, yarnder lie the ships,
wi’ sailor lads a-dancing’ heel-an’-toe,
an’ the shore-lights flashin’, an’ the night-tide dashin’,
he sees et arl so plainly as he saw et long ago.

Drake he was a Devon man, an’ ruled the Devon seas,
(Capten, art tha’ sleepin’ there below?)
roving’ tho’ his death fell, he went wi’ heart at ease,
a’ dreamin’ arl the time o’ Plymouth Hoe.
“Take my drum to England, hang et by the shore,
strike et when your powder’s runnin’ low;
if the Dons sight Devon, I’ll quit the port o’ Heaven,
an’ drum them up the Channel as we drumm’d them long ago.”

Drake he’s in his hammock till the great Armadas come,
(Capten, art tha sleepin’ there below?)
slung atween the round shot, listenin’ for the drum,
an’ dreamin arl the time o’ Plymouth Hoe.
Call him on the deep sea, call him up the Sound,
call him when ye sail to meet the foe;
where the old trade’s plyin’ an’ the old flag flyin’
they shall find him ware an’ wakin’, as they found him long ago!

The White Terror

Guernica

The White Terror was the murder, killing & assassination of left wing forces during and after the Spanish Civil War by the Nationalists of the right under their Caudillo General Francisco Franco Bahamonde.  It is estimated that between 100,000 and 200,000 republican supporters were killed by assassination and in concentration camps during the Civil War and in the decade after the war.

A “Red Terror” of assassinations of Nationalist supporters was instigated on the Republican side.  The reds managed about 50,000 which is below half of the most conservative White Terror number.  In addition the “Red Terror” involved insider assassinations as the Communists eliminated competiton from Anarchists, Democrats and Union Leaders who did not fancy the creation of a Stalinist Spain.

Commonly remembered simply as Franco, the Dictator of Spain was born on this day, Dec 4th, 1892.  A career military man he came from a Naval family in El Ferrol but elected to join the army.  Serving in the Rif wars in Morocco he rose rapidly in the ranks and at age 33 was the youngest General in Europe.

He led the Spanish troops who brutally suppressed the Anarchist mine workers strike in Asturias, an event which polarised left and right and may have led to the civil war.

When the Civil War commenced with a military coup by a group of generals Franco was the junior of the junta.  He famously negotiated with Hitler to have the Luftwaffe airlift his Army of Africa to the Spanish Mainland.  All his rivals met with “unfortunate accidents” leaving Franco as Caudillo – the Spanish version of Il Duce or Der Führer.  From October 1936 to November 1975 he was dictator of a repressive conservative Catholic Spain.  He was buried on his death with full honors in the mausoleum at the Valley of the Fallen (Valle de los Caídos) the only person interred there who did not die in the civil war.

After a long and drawn out legal process to prevent the veneration of his dictatorship his remains were removed from the mausoleum in October of this year.

Aprende un llanto que limpie el tierra, aprende un llanto que me limpie de tierra.

 

Gacela De La Muerte Oscura; Federico García Lorca

Quiero dormir el sueño de las manzanas,
alejarme del tumulto de los cementerios.
Quiero dormir el sueño de aquel niño
que quería cortarse el corazón en alta mar.

No quiero que me repitan
que los muertos no pierden la sangre;
que la boca podrida sigue pidiendo agua.

No quiero enterarme
de los martirios que da la hierba,
ni de la luna con boca de serpiente
que trabaja antes del amanecer.

Quiero dormir un rato,
un rato, un minuto, un siglo;
pero que todos sepan que no he muerto;
que hay un establo de oro en mis labios;
que soy el pequeño amigo del viento Oeste;
que soy la sombra inmensa de mis lágrimas.

Cúbreme por la aurora con un velo,
porque me arrojará puñados de hormigas,
y moja con agua dura mis zapatos
para que resbale la pinza de su alacrán.

Porque quiero dormir el sueño de las manzanas
para aprender un llanto que me limpie de tierra;
porque quiero vivir con aquel niño oscuro
que quería cortarse el corazón en alta mar.

Bunga Bunga

The Dreadnought Hoax was a very embarrasing prank played on the Royal Navy in 1910 by  the Bloombury Set.  Led by the Irish Born prankster; Horace de Vere Cole, born in Ballincollig, Co. Cork.

Cole reprised an earlier prank, where he led a delegation of the Royal Family of Zanibar on a tour of Cambridge in 1905, greatly upsetting the Mayor who hosted a reception for them.

For the Dreadnought they pretended to be the Abyssinian Royals, with Virginia Wolfe sporting a beard and blackface as one of the delegates (far left in photo).  Today we look a the photo above and marvel that they pulled it off with such poor disguises and obvious stage makeup, but the world was a smaller place in those days.

The visit was a diplomatic farce in any case.  The Royal Navy had no Abyssinian flag on board so they flew the flag of Zanzibar and played the Zanzibar national anthem.

As the delegation wandered about the Royal Navy ship they called out “Bunga-bunga” to marvel at the various wonders.  The phrase was taken up by the press and used as a catch all for the embarassment of the royal navy.

A hit song in the music halls that year was:

When I went on board a Dreadnought ship
I looked like a costermonger;
They said I was an Abyssinian prince
‘Cos I shouted ‘Bunga Bunga!