A pirate’s life for me, apparently

Yesterday I had all kinds of technical troubles with the post; today it is going to be an idle thought about piracy.

I don’t consider taking up a career in piracy, but it does seem to have a few things to recommend it. Notably, piracy seems to be one of those careers where you can secure lasting acclaim by honestly not being very good at it. In fact, of all the famous pirate captains in the world, only a few — Morgan and “Long Ben” Every most notably — managed to get away without getting hanged or having their stupid heads blown off.


All the really good pirate stories are in Captain Johnson’s General History of the Pyrates, which is usually attributed to Daniel Defoe on textual grounds. Textual grounds make my teeth itch, but what do I know?

Anyway, to return to it being OK to suck as a pirate, it’s true. Captain Kidd barely did any piracy at all, and was promptly caught and strung up. Calico Jack Rackham was stinking drunk when the law came for him and didn’t put up a fight at all. Bartholomew Roberts (whose real name was John Roberts — I have no idea why that is) stood on the deck of the Royal Fortune, apparently bravely defying the Royal Navy when they, as they do, gunned him down. At least Blackbeard put up a bit of a fight.

One of the things you notice when you do a little pirate reading is that pirate ships were basically beater cars. Pirates would run around the high seas playing Grand Theft Auto; grab a ship you like, sail it until it’s so fucked up by teredo worms it can barely float, ditch it. Shipyards and proper maintenance were high-cost investments that respectable merchants and navies could afford, but pirates didn’t really have the option.

Don’t get me wrong, I love me some pirates. And I am not alone. The golden age of piracy inspires all kinds of stuff, from stirring adventure novels to … to … whatever the hell this is.

You know, I love living in the internet age. Check out this sweet-ass online version of the 2nd edition of Johnson’s book. How cool is that?

A pirate’s life for me, apparently

Movie Monday: Becket (1964)


OK, here goes.

You know, one thing you hear a lot about is discussion of what’s called “rape culture,” which is to say the prevalence in the media of images that portray rape as natural or acceptable or not that big a deal or something that women secretly want or what have you. And I mean, I am aware of that concept and I am aware of it when it is pointed out to me, but it was not until I started doing these historical movie reviews that I realised … I mean, these are three randomly selected historical Hollywood epics that I’ve done over the last month (not counting The Madness of King George) and all I can say is …

Jesus H. God, what is it with these movies and the raping? 

So, anyway, this is the story of Henry II and Thomas Becket, and deals with how Becket went from being regular old Thomas to Saint Thomas, i.e. being hacked up with swords right there in Canterbury Cathedral. It is based on a play by Jean Anouilh. Now, Anouilh famously got his information from an old book he bought in a second-hand shop because he liked the cover. And I am 100% behind this type of thinking. But it helps to double-check your sources when you do something like that. Observe:


When I read that I clenched everything I had to clench. And, weirdly, there is a ton of this Saxon-Norman malarkey in the first third of the movie or so, and then it just disappears until the very end when it crops up again.

Anyway, we begin with a flash-forward to after Becket’s death, then back to where Henry and Thomas are getting their drank on and wenching together. Initially, this is portrayed as good-natured hijinks, which, you know, whatever. But it turns dark as fuck when Becket and Henry get into one of this awkward social situations we all know so well. You know how it is when you’re out riding with your homie and you run into some old guy’s hut where he lives with his daughter, so you decide to send your troops and take her into sex slavery, but then when you get home to talk to your prisoner-of-war/mistress she talks about how she loves you and then you freak out, and the king reminds you that you promised him a favour and so he asks if it’s OK to rape you mistress, and you say yes, so she kills herself?

Yeah, how often have we heard that story.

Anyway, to go back to the Saxon-Norman thing, obviously Thomas Becket was not a Saxon. His parents were called Gilbert and Matilda, which is hardly Eadwulf and Cyneburh, and they were from Norman families. So there’s that.


Hmm hmm hmm.

Now, the film chooses to portray the relationship between Henry and Thomas as all about love, and if you were to suggest that there was a homosexual subtext here, I would say that maybe you don’t quite grasp the concept of subtext.

"No one does it like you, Thomas."

“No one does it like you, Thomas.”

So the whole rape-suicide thing is part and parcel of how this film treats women, which is not that they’re sexy sex objects that exist only to get raped into love (like in The Conqueror), but just that they’re basically meaningless props whose sole function is to provide plot points for the lives and struggles of men. It is only fair of me to say that this is an improvement on the last couple. It’s just still a little discouraging.

Other than that, hmm. OK, this film is pretty good, and it deviates from the history in details but gets the outline more or less right (like, in reality the process of Becket and the king falling out was much longer and more complicated, or in the movie Henry II and Eleanor have four children, whereas in reality they had like nine). The only thing that is just flat bullshit is, you know, the whole tormented relationship between Henry and Becket, which is the thing the whole film is about.

Like I said, this movie was adapted from a play, and there are some very play-like elements about it. For instance, there are little groups of three to four guys that hang out in most of the scenes: Henry has four drunken barons, Louis VII has like three supercilious French noblemen, there are three scheming cardinals, and the previous archbishop of Canterbury is accompanied by these three charmers:



Weirdly, the French have supercilious English accents, the better to convey their effete snobbery, but the Italians, represented by the Pope and his henchlings, have full-on you-like-a-to-meet-my-cousin-Guiiiiido comedy Italian accents.

It's-a me, Cardinal Mario!

Eeeeey! It’s-a me, Cardinal Mario!

What else? I mean, it’s a well-made movie. O’Toole in particular is playing the role he would go on to play so well in 1968′s The Lion in Winter. So these dudes have their hyper-intense unrequited love story and they just act the absolute fuck out of it. And there’s lots of great location stuff, big spectacular shots like you only get in a proper old Hollywood epic. So that’s nice.

So, yeah. This is a pretty good movie, but boy does it not give two shits about the female characters in it, which considering one of them is Eleanor of Goddamn Aquitaine is coming it pretty high.

Movie Monday: Becket (1964)

All the verisimilitude of an actual hoax

Tuesdays are a good day. I teach a class in the morning, and it is hard work. When I get done I feel relieved and kind of righteous, that pleasant sensation of having done something relatively difficult relatively well. On the way out of the building, there’s a little charity book stall, and I often find something I want to read there, or at least something I want to read enough to spend 50p on it. 

Last week’s acquisition was this: 



It also has a modern edition, which I gather is slightly different. 

Now, I love this type of thing. Everyday records by whoever from whatever period are completely fascinating to me — the little details, the turns of phrase. I love all that stuff. At great length it can get tiresome (see Bird, Isabella) but for a little dip-into-it 50p job like this? Perfect. 

Except it’s a hoax. 

Or at least, it certainly appears to be. And I have to admit that when I opened it up I was like “hey, this Herefordshire dialect is very different from the 18th-century English I’m used to reading.” But then, it might have been, mightn’t it? 

Now, I have to admit that there is no direct evidence to prove it is a hoax. But there’s also no direct evidence that it’s anything else — no one but the person who “transcribed” it ever saw the original, for instance. 

There are several things that are interesting about this thing. First off, the back of the edition I have gives absolutely no impression that there’s anything controversial about it. It just shows the beginning of the text: 

Anne Hughes

her boke

in wiche I write what I doe

Plus the usual blurbs and what have you. But once you get into the introduction, that’s another story. The whole thing is an exercise in trying to claim that this thing might maaaybe be authentic, using the most alarmingly bogus argument ever, i.e. that the author, Jeanne Preston, couldn’t possibly have had the skill to fake something like this. I’m talking the full-on Cottingley Fairies argument. If that’s your go-to argument, you’re in bad trouble. 

But belief in the book isn’t confined to the person writing the intro, who could be argued to have some incentive to believe in it. There’s a whole website devoted to vindicating the Anne Hughes diary, despite the strong reasons for skepticism. Even they don’t think the whole thing’s authentic; they think that Preston transcribed a real document but added her own interpolations, including stuff she invented and stuff that she copied out of other texts (notably the recipes). And there’s a lot more special pleading — so, like, for instance, the dates don’t line up with the year the book is supposed to be for — so maybe it’s for a different year but was mislabeled! There are errors? Well, Jeanne Preston had really bad handwriting! You get the idea. So why, given that they admit Preston falsified the text at least a bit, do they think there’s a real thing in there? 

Many people, foremost among them the Anne Hughes Research Team, believe there is the ‘voice’ of a real person speaking through the pages of this book. It sounds more clearly in the opening sections than it does in other places, but there is a ‘voice’.

There is a voice. 

That’s what we want, after all — to hear the voice of some long-dead person speaking to us (in ways that mostly confirm our prejudices about the period but have just enough surprising material to make us feel the confusion of authenticity, I would say if I were feeling cynical). And I think we’re willing to overlook a lot to hear that individual’s voice. 

Because of course we fall for that “voice” a lot in real life. The people who trick us all have that same voice. He sounded so genuine … 

but if I thought there was a voice, I would be reluctant to give it up too. 

All the verisimilitude of an actual hoax

Today’s post is mostly a link that I think you will enjoy. I have spoken in the past about how fascinating I find people in the past’s view of the past. There is also, of course, the question of how people in the past saw the future. The answer in many cases is apparently “dumbly”. 


Yeah, the coming war in the Pacific is going to be won by America’s dirigible fleet, all right. (Although that actually wasn’t as loony as it sounds given the limitations in long-range scouting at the time this article was written, I guess.)

Anyway, this image (it’s larger in the original) is from the excellent Modern Mechanix blog. It has hundreds — hell, thousands, I don’t know — of articles and ads from old Modern Mechanics, from the turn of the century up into the 80s but mostly concentrated in the golden age of kitsch, unlikely futurism, lazy consumerism, technological gee-whizzery and unexamined racism. It is amazing


Behold, the head of a traitor

In late 1995 I came to Cambridge from California to go through the interview process. Because I wasn’t sure what department I’d be applying to, I interviewed with both History and SPS (that’s Social and Political Sciences to you foreigners and/or young people). 

The SPS interviews didn’t go too well, but I had an excellent conversation with my history interviewer. We spent a lot of time talking about commemoration and how the US has a very funny attitude about commemorating the Civil War. Like, right near Washington there’s Fort J.E.B. Stuart — that is, a US military base named for an officer who betrayed the army he was supposed to be in and the country he was supposed to serve. 

Now, the plain fact is that, by the standards of most conflicts, Stuart was a traitor who rebelled against his government and lost. The logical thing to do, at least in terms of the past conflict, would have been to stand him up against a wall and so on. But that is not really how these things work — the fact is that even in a case where there are unequivocal bad guys, we have a more ambivalent relationship to them. And when the facts on the ground are more ambiguous, things get even more murky. 

I am off to Ely on Friday, and as you may recall in Ely they are big on Cromwell. We like us some Cromwell here in Cambridge, too — we have the ghost of his severed head, don’t you know? (In the process of finding that link I have discovered that Cromwell’s ghost haunts like four different places. Busy guy.)

Now, Cambridge has the severed head of Cromwell — and none of the rest of him — because after the Restoration, Charles II had him dug up, dismembered, and displayed. I have never understood the logic of that act. “Here’s what happens to people that fuck with the Stuarts: they die of old age, in their beds, wealthy and powerful, surrounded by their toadies and flatterers … hang on …”. 

But I guess the same was true of others. it didn’t wholly take. If you go by the Houses of Parliament today, you will not fail to notice the statue of Oliver Cromwell. 


I always feel like that statue should be closer to the sovereign’s entrance, you know? “I’ve got my eye on you, china,” it would say. But so yeah — Cromwell, the great champion of the people. Or, y’know, military dictator.

Behold, the head of a traitor

The king is a thing of nothing

So I have these students, and to these students I am assigning a paper where they write about a specific person from the period we are studying — they get to choose who. This is relatively easy because there is quite a lot of biography from the period we’re studying, and the actions of individuals loom large in our textbook. 

And that’s cool, you know. I think the kids like it that way. It’s easy to talk about people. Someone once asked me why I prefer history to science and my answer was that, in the end, it is about humans, who I find more relatable than like cosmic concepts or whatever. Your mileage may vary. 

There is, therefore, something we like about monarchies, dictatorships, and so on. They give a country a personality, something it’s otherwise hard to argue it has. We like looking at the development of, say, the English Reformation and knowing that the personal preferences and desires of just one guy played an important role in it. 

Nothing wrong with that! I sometimes work through lessons or concepts in my head by imagining that I am talking to some of the people I have studied, explaining things to them, partly in their roles as people who know nothing, but also partly because … I just like them, even when I don’t. 

So yeah. It’s fun to imagine the type of world where the personalities of single individuals play a large role in determining the fate of nations. But sometimes — and I am breaking a general rule I have not to talk about modern stuff on this, blog — it is not so fun to live in such a place. Past few weeks, case in point. 

Tomorrow I may go back to talking about books. 

The king is a thing of nothing

The Inconspicuous Fate of Mr Glibberie and the Conspicuous Fate of Dean Mahomed

You may recall Mr Glibberie, vicar of Halstead, castigated by some 16th-century Puritans as “a verie ridiculous preacher.” I mentioned him in an earlier Invective Through the Ages post. At the time, I wondered if there were any other information out there on poor Mr Glibberie. I’m sure — I hope — that buried in some archive somewhere there is more mention of poor old Glibberie, but I’m sorry to say that on Google there is only his identification as “verie ridiculous”. He’s even in Elton’s The Tudor Constitution, the poor pitiful bastard. There’s your afterlife, Glibberie. 430 years later, that’s your two words: “verie ridiculous.” Still, that’s two words more than most of us. They could have been “notorious murderer,” I guess, but even then murderers have some dignity. 

Are you familiar with the case of Dean Mahomed? He opened the first curry house in England, the Hindoostanee Coffee House, which is definitely a thing. We all have a lot to thank him for. I mean, I’m sure that if it hadn’t been him, it would have been somebody else, but it’s pleasant to think of this Bengali immigrant running a curry house in London in 1810. Here he is around then, looking the picture of Georgian prosperity. 



The restaurant folded, sadly, but the seed, I like to think, was sown. There’s a plaque on the site now. 

Dean Mahomed is famous not only for introducing both curry and shampooing (although he used the term to mean head massage) to Britain but also for being the first Indian author to write a book in English. Anybody will tell you that. What they won’t tell you is that it’s incredibly dull

Think about it! Here’s this guy, Sake Dean Mahomed, and from his youth in Bengal he joins the army as a servant and then goes to all sorts of places — to Ireland, to Britain — at a time when that was pretty rare. He pioneers one of Britain’s best-loved culinary delights, he’s clearly a hell of a guy, and what kind of book does he write? 

In a few months after our arrival, the Nabob Aspa-doulah, in consequence of a difference with the Fouzdars Maboub and Cossi-bussant, arising from their non-compliance to pay the usual annual tribute, due for some time, collected his troops together, in order to march against them, having first dispatched an express to General Stibber, who commanded our army, acquainting him of his intended expedition, and requesting his immediate assistance. 

Now, I like a long sentence as much as the next guy, but really. And there’s exciting stuff happening — travels to new places, plots, poisonings, storms, wars, I don’t know — but the whole thing is just a bit … it’s 19th-century and not in that fun overstuffed way. 

Whatever. These two thoughts have nothing to do with each other, but the two books are close to one another on my shelf. Dean Mahomed was a cool dude and it is good that we are now more aware of his contribution to our culture. Mr Glibberie was probably a shithead, but you never know. Puritans didn’t like all sorts of people. 

I will try to have something a little more contentful tomorrow, or at the very least on Thursday. 

The Inconspicuous Fate of Mr Glibberie and the Conspicuous Fate of Dean Mahomed