Belated Movie Monday: Mary of Scotland (1936)

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People like to romanticise the weirdest figures, and perhaps none weirder than 16th-century Scottish (and briefly French) monarch Mary, Queen of Scots. Case in point: this 1936 film adaptation of a 1933 play. I knew this bad boy was going to be trouble when, 30 seconds in, the overture stole a couple of lines from Loch Lomond. Hang on. I’m not going to be able to take all this tartanry without a little help from our friends north of the border.

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Right. Let’s get to work.

Directed by John Ford, yet! Is this gonna be a searching tale of the violent passions that tear men apart?

The opening crawl describing the struggle between Mary and Elizabeth is like a medley of Scottish and English songs, including the aforementioned Loch Lomond and The British Grenadiers. That’s kind of clever but weird.

Full-on theatrical Elizabethan production; dudes in ruffs with halberds, ladies with big puffy shoulders. Elizabeth striding around barking at people. Mary has sailed from France for Scotland, an impeccably English Elizabethan tells us, and Queenie and co. are perturbed. I will say that stuff is happening like a minute into this film, which you cannot say for all the movies I watch.

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Mary barks sulkily at people. Proper Englishmen are proper. “I should feyl in my dyooty to your mejesty if I did not state fects.” They do a lot of exposition for those in the audience who don’t know the background: because Mary is the product of a legitimate marriage and Elizabeth isn’t (to European eyes), Mary is seen as a threat to Elizabeth’s throne. Elizabeth, whose accent is super American compared to her advisors, sends some salty sea dogs to attack Mary’s ship, but, you know, with the black flag, so all deniable like.

Loch Lomond plays again as Mary climbs out of the boat, the salty sea dogs having apparently been unsuccessful. Mary is also American, and is clearly being set up as the goody-goody, largely by dint of Kate Hepburn gazing luminously at things. We cut to Holyrood where Loch Bloody Lomond is playing again. The locals have half-assed hoot awa’ accents, except for about half of them, who are also American.

At least there’s a lot of great pageantry in this movie; it’s definitely John Ford working for RKO, not one of these tuppeny-ha’penny Italian jobs.

Katharine Hepburn is now smiling luminously at people. She continues rocking the mid-Atlantic accent. She meets with some lords, or possibly lairds:

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I think we’re supposed to prefer Mary to Elizabeth because of how well she e-nun-ci-ates. Her secretary is John Carradine! There is a lot of vapouring about unwavering loyalty and John Knox. The dispute between Protestants and Catholics in Scotland is seen as being between (good) Catholic Highlanders and (bad) Protestand lowlanders (I guess?) with the issue being religious liberty. “I’ll defend to the death your right to worship as you please!” some guy shouts, which I’m not sure is quite historically accurate. The lords are browbeating Mary into marrying Darnley. Haggis McKiltington continues to support the queen, addressing her as Lassie. Mary gives the various lords a tongue-lashing for being bitches.

“I’m going to live my own life; do as I say!” Mary says, glaring at the assembled cravens. Ah, here’s the Hollywood text. Again, it’s Katharine Hepburn, so it’s some high-quality glaring, but eesh. Believing in yourself: the only thing Hollywood can think of since 1936.

A delegation of singing Scottish yokels turn up, singing a stirring song about free Scotland which seems to be to the tune of Loch Lomond for parts of it. Perhaps I have been misreading this? Jesus Hell, there is a long solo with harp accompaniment. Kate gazes nobly at it. Basically, gazing is to this movie what marching is to Hannibal.

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The musical interlude goes on for (I didn’t count, but I’m pretty sure) one million years.

John Knox shows up to castigate everyone for drinkin’ and so on, and accusing Mary of being a repressive Catholic like her mother. He has a big old floppy fake beard. John Carradine is looking at things but hasn’t said a word yet. John Knox is a pretty convincing loony.

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Some soldiers turn up to drown Knox out with bagpipes. Mary tries to convince Knox that she’s all for freedom of religion, but he isn’t. Knox is Moroni Olsen, the guy who played the mirror in Snow White. Huh!

Fredric March turns up as the Earl of Bothwell, with a cod Scottish accent, acting all smoove at Mary. He quiets the bickering lords.

Elizabeth is back in Sneerington Castle, hanging out with Leicester, who has a wicked cape. Her various toadies and flatterers butter her up. Her accent is all over the place. Elizabeth is unhappy with how Lord Randolph talks up Mary, and appoints “cold fish” Throckmorton to be her ambassador. In case the movie hasn’t made it clear enough:

ELIZABETH I IS KIND OF A BITCH.

Elizabeth goes off about how terrible it is “to be born illegitimate,” which I really, really doubt is the attitude she took.

Meanwhile, back in Scotland, Carradine is going off about how Mary’s destiny is in Europe. He has a big list of proposals, but Mary makes fun of them all for snoring, having big ears, etc. He busts out his excitable-Italian bit. In the end, she decides to marry Darnley, but then Bothwell turns up at the head of a column of troops with pipers and it’s time for another romantic interlude. She gazes for a bit. I swear to God.

Darnley turns up and is a preening popinjay with an earring and tights and so on, a prissy character compared to manly manly Bothwell. There’s some good badinage.

DARNLEY (to Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting): Ah, the four pretty wenches!

LADY-IN-WAITING: Five, now that you’re here.

Bothwell dries his nutsack in front of the fire, or possibly his sporran, but it looks really inappropriate.

Mary prates on at Throckmorton, in a scene enlivened only by the fact that Katharine Hepburn’s bitchface is fantastic. Feeling threatened, she angrily decides to marry Darnley because of his almost-as-good claim to the English throne.

Bothwell goes all manly-man on Mary, but she rejects him because she has to marry Darnley for reasons of state.

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This movie has 76 minutes left to go and, what, like 20 years to cover? She married Darnley in 1565 and she died in 1587, so …

Anyhow, Bothwell storms out. Darnley is ushered in and proves to be an insufferable little git. This image is actually pretty closely based on contemporary paintings of Henry Stuart, which show him as exactly the kind of dandified prettyboy Elizabethan nobleman tended to look like. But Bothwell didn’t exactly look like the Heilans he-man he appears as in the film:

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Darnley turns up to a council meeting drunk and acting like a d-bag. I have no idea what his accent is. He overacts being drunk like whoah. These long boring scenes do allow me to discover that Florence Eldridge (Elizabeth) and Fredric March (Boswell) were married. Rizzio (John Carradine) sings a song while playing a lute or something. I think even if you didn’t know the history, you’d know he was about to get murdered up something fierce. He promptly gets stabbed by a gang of Darnley’s allies.

This is all very confused and doesn’t follow the sequence of events very well, completely omitting the fact that the rebel lords were initially opposed to Darnley because he was also a Catholic. But then the whole story is very confusing and involves a lot of twists and turns, more TV series than feature film. Bothwell’s guys turn up and start clanging swords to more interminable piping.

Meanwhile, back in England, I’m 1300 words into this waking nightmare and seemingly no closer to the end. Wait, I mean Elizabeth is swanning around with Lord Randolph when Throckmorton shows up with the news. Elizabeth is upset. Back in Scotland, we skip forward a wee bit: James VI is a little baby. Bothwell gives him a claymore as abirthday present. Darnley is still a bitchy drunk.

Darnley is acting paranoid, but he’s right to do so: he gets sploded in his own house. Knoxy tries to hang it on Bothwell. Mary and Bothwell moon around a castle looking longingly at each other.

Huntly is portrayed as a loyal follower of Mary’s, when he actually led a rebellion against her got crushed; Mary allied with leading Protestants to take him out even though they were both Catholics.

Mary gives a long monologue about her childhood in France. Oh, I spoke too soon. Huntly is unhappy. “The lords” are marching on Edinburgh, with Knoxy in tow. Mary stands up to them. I amot even sure what’s happening any more, but Fredric March and Katharine Hepburn are standing very close to each other again.

I kind of drifted off for a bit. I guess Moray and Knox are hijacking the government. They’re forcing Mary to abdicate in favour of James, with Moray as regent. Bothwell is off to Denmark. Mary skips out. She hides with some common folk and has a cute conversation with a little boy. 25 minutes to go in this movie — oh, and like 18 years. Elizabeth sends Throckmorton to kidnap rescue Mary.

Mary realises belatedly that she’s a prisoner and goes around Hepburn-scorning at people. This movie does look pretty, although they don’t much care about anachronisms. Bothwell is going mad in jail with the kind of insanity that makes you overact a bunch. Then he up and dies. There is a big storm for some reason.

Mary is tried by some kind of English court, we apparently having jumped forward nearly 20 years. Mary denies that she planned to assassinate Elizabeth along with Babbington (which she probably did). But the whole thing is set up to make the Babbington plot seem like a stitch-up.

The court sentences Mary to death. She gazes at them.

Finally we get a big confrontation between the two queens. There is some acting going on up in this piece. Mary gloats that James will eventually rule England: “still, still, I win!” Yeah, and a real charmer he was.

Five minutes to go and I’m rooting for the axeman here. Katharine Hepburn gazes nobly up to heaven. Damn, that woman could look at stuff. The bit where they march her to the scaffold is really well-done, actually, with the camera in the position of the executioner for a bit. And it’s over, and just when you were remembering that John Ford could make movies and Katharine Hepburn’s teeth could act, that damn song comes on again.

Seriously, why is Mary this romantic figure? I don’t get it. I don’t get why she rather than anyone else has gone into history as a tragic whatever. Is it just that she got executed and that’s rare? It is a mystery. Like this film.

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Belated Movie Monday: Mary of Scotland (1936)

The lazy greatest-hits album

I have a busy day today, but I have been thinking on a subject lately — namely, why do certain posts keep turning up over and over again in my stats? Some of my posts pop up, get read, then disappear again, while others keep getting hit a few times a day. What’s the difference? Why do some posts have this long tail? I thought I’d go over them and think it over.

The first and most obvious is The Weight of History in Warhammer 40,000, which looks at the way in which this game uses history to create a certain aesthetic and how that aesthetic has changed over the years. I know why this one is popular: it got noticed by a couple of 40K blogs and went from there to the Warhammer 40,000 subreddit. This is by far the most popular thing I’ve ever written, and it’s basically because I wrote it about a popular subject.

Similarly, the Archaeological Themes in Skyrim series seems to occasionally be picked up by Skyrim fans on Tumblr or similar.

But the other popular ones are a little less obvious.

Ancient History, Conspiracy Theory and Hip-Hop is a weird one. In it, I mention that a Google search provides very little information about one of Vinnie Paz’s conspiracy theory references — in fact, it mostly just produces baffled Jedi Mind Tricks fans wondering what on earth Paz means. My suspicion is that this post is now relatively high on the search results for that same topic — so if you Google Paz’s line, you get me pointing out that there isn’t much information if you Google Paz’s line.

Viking Hats Through the Ages has been super-popular for some reason. Not sure I get this one.

Movie Monday: The Viking (1928) has been the most popular of my Movie Monday posts. I think, again, that this is because there has been relatively little written about this film compared to some of the other ones I’ve reviewed. Although most movie Monday reviews do have a pretty good trickle of views months into their lives. Which I suppose means that “Sign of the Pagan review” is a search term for someone. 

I think the conclusion I can draw from this is that if I want to have a post be popular, I need to write either about something very, very popular or something very, very obscure.

Not that I care! I only benefit from this blog, other than in ego terms, if someone decides to download my ebook after reading it (more formats coming soon once I remember to remember to do it). I’m just curious about what makes a post long-term popular. Rest assured that if I were aiming for a mass market I would have … done something completely different.

The lazy greatest-hits album

Archaeological Themes in FarCry 3 (no, really)

Why do they even make guns that aren’t light machine guns?

As you may know from my previous posts about archaeological themes in Skyrim (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4), I am always pleasantly surprised when archaeology stuff turns up in video games. I tend to play games years after they come out — I only acquired an Xbox 360 late in its lifecycle (I think around the time the Xbone came out, in fact) and so I’m always finding things that everyone else already knows about. The good thing about it is that playing games that are one generation obsolete is very economical (beyond that and rarity starts to become an issue). 

Anyway, a long while ago, a friend of the blog (who, in fact, is the same person who gave me the 360) pointed out that there’s some good medieval China stuff in FarCry 3, but since I hadn’t played it at the time, I went “interesting!” and then completely forgot about it. Now I’ve started playing the game, and I’m reaching the point where it starts to turn up. I think it’s very interesting, in fact. 

So in FarCry 3 you play schlub Jason Brody, who learns to survive in the jungle, find the warrior within, and so on, when his friends are captured by pirates. It’s your usual coming-of-age-by-jumping-off-a-roof-and-stabbing-a-guy story. And, this being a video game, you never meet anyone who doesn’t have some weird errand they want done in order to give you the dingus you need to get to the next stabjumping opportunity. One of these guys is a mercenary named Buck, who’s looking for some artefact or other and sends you to infiltrate a boat where some baddie is keeping some information that will lead you to the next yadda yadda. 

So I infiltrate (ed: does “infiltrate” mean “bombard with rockets, then board and finish off the scattered survivors with a hail of machine gun fire”? Check this) the boat only to find out that it is full of Chinese artefacts (like the ones above and below): 

There are also some lion(?) statues. 

And throughout the game, it becomes clear that the island was once visited by the (very real) exploration fleet of 15th-century Chinese admiral Zheng He. That is a canny choice — I think most people probably know that Zheng He existed, thanks to Gavin Menzies and his … excitable … interpretation of the story, but most people, myself included, don’t actually know much about him. And it transpires that there is a shipwreck from Zheng He’s fleet around here somewhere, although if you can get to it I haven’t yet; I had a couple of weeks off the game lately due to obsessively watching Justified being busy.

Now, I don’t know what 15th-century Chinese sailors are doing with 3rd-century BC terracotta warriors, but let that pass for a moment. What’s interesting is the way that Zheng He’s fleet is portrayed both as kind of a good thing for the island and a bad thing at the same time. The Chinese built these amazing monuments, like Citra’s temple.

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But they did it by conquering and enslaving the island people. You can see the same story happening with the island’s WWII ruins — the Japanese occupied the island in the same way as the Chinese (there’s a complicated backstory to both, actually, which you can discover or ignore as you please). And, of course, these parallel the story of the pirates who currently dominate the island and who need to be jumped on and stabbed. These means that the story’s central tension — do you stay behind to help the islanders fight for their freedom or save your friends and return to a home you may no longer recognise — has a little extra weight behind it. 

I am not the only one to have written about this, either: check out this post on “The historical architecture of the Rook Islands archipelago” at H Does Heritage. 

 

Archaeological Themes in FarCry 3 (no, really)

Invective Through the Ages: The Age of Nelson

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently read Terry Coleman’s biography of Nelson, and was impressed both by the quality of the toadying and the quality of the abuse. There are two kinds of verbal attacks in this book. For starters, you’ve got your elegant Georgian bitchiness. Here’s Nelson himself: 

I beg leave to assure you sir with all respect, that should anyone so far forget himself as not to pay me that attention my situation as senior captain demands, that I shall take proper notice of it. 

Or here’s Lord Hood, telling the future William IV in no uncertain terms to go fuck himself: 

But how was it possible, sir, as you are pleased to suggest, that I should consult your royal highness in the business? 

Other abuse is a little more direct. Here’s Lord St Vincent, in later years, on Nelson: 

Animal courage was the sole merit of Lord Nelson, his private character most disgraceful, in every sense of the word.

He also called out Nelson’s family: 

… the infamous conduct of her late husband’s brother, sisters, and their husbands, all of them vile reptiles … 

But, surprise surprise, the winner of the nastiest is Emma Hamilton again, who called Lady Nelson

a very wicked, bad, artful woman … a wicked, false, malicious wretch

and said of her: 

The apoticarys widow, the Creole with her Heart Black as Her feind like looking face … she loved her poor dirty Escalopes if she had love, and the 2 dirty negatives made that dirty affirmative that is a disgrace to the Human Speciaes

All that stuff about being dirty and black is Emma trying to suggest that because Frances was from the Caribbean she had some black ancestry. And Escalopes is how Emma spells Asclepius, referring to Frances’s former husband, who was a doctor. 

Invective Through the Ages: The Age of Nelson

Profiles in Toadying: the Age of Nelson!

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So I have just finished reading Terry Coleman’s biography of Horatio Nelson, and it has got me thinking that it is time to revive some of this blog’s old features. I have always been fascinated with toadies and flatterers, those invaluable creatures who attach themselves to anyone who simultaneously has a bit of power and a lack of common sense (a description that seems to apply perfectly to Nelson, who appears to have been 100% dipshit and/or scumbag except for when it came to winning naval battles, which, in fairness, is what you’re really looking for in an admiral).

Partly the appearance of toadying is the result of varying cultural norms — what would appear to a Byzantine reader as a scathing indictment reads to the modern eye as revoltingly unctuous, for instance. So it could just be that the norms in speech and writing of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were particularly flattering by the standards of the modern day. But Nelson’s contemporaries certainly regarded his appetite for flattery as unseemly and ridiculous, so I’ve decided to forge ahead with today’s Age of Nelson special edition of Profiles in Toadying!

Our special flatterer for this week is Horatio Nelson himself, who never passed up the opportunity to polish his own medals when speaking or writing to someone. Here he is shit-talking the governor of the Leeward Islands:

I have the honour, sir, of being as old as the prime minister of England, and think myself as capable of commanding one of his majesty’s ships as that minister is of governing the state.

Here he is writing to the future Duke of Clarence, his wenching buddy and … is there such a thing as an anti-patron? A fatuous titled dipshit that gets in the way of you being successful?

I am interested only that your royal highness should be the greatest and best man this country ever produced … Nothing is wanting to make you the darling of the English nation … .

And here he is blowing himself in the third person, the insufferable toad:

“I defy any insinuations against my honour. Nelson is as far above doing a scandalous or mean action as the heavens are above the earth.”

– this in response to a complaint about his victualling practices, from a serial adulterer who never ceased intriguing to get cushy government jobs for his relatives.

col_gag_58_largeAnd here’s John Jarvis, 1st Earl St Vincent, uncharacteristically tongue-bathing Lady Hamilton.

 

I feel myself highly honoured and flattered by your ladyship’s charming letter … I am bound by my oath of chivalry to protect all who are persecuted and distressed … I am happy … to have a knight of superior prowess in my train, who … will soon make his appearance …”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But no one, no one, toadied to Nelson like his mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton.

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Here she is, writing about Nelson (while trashing his wife, Frances):

When He came home maimed lame and covered in Glory She put in derision his Honnerable woudns … because He had seen a more lovely a more virtuous woman … who had her heart and senses open to his Glory to His greatness and His virtues. If he had lived with this daemon this blaster of His fame and reputation He must have fallen under it and His Country would have lost their greatest ornament – No, let him live yet to gain more victory and to be blessed with his idolising Emma.

She once described him as:

the Victor of the Nile, the Conqueror of Copenhagen, the Terror and Stop of the Northern Confederacy, St Vincent’s prop & the Hero of the 14 of Febry, the restorer of the King of Naples, the preserver of Rome, the avenger of Kings, the Guardian angell of England & the man of men who in this war as been in one hundred & 24 battles & come off loved with glory honner virtue & modesty the pride of his country & friend.

Lord Minto describes her:

She goes on cramming Nelson with trowelfuls of flattery, which he goes on taking as quietly as a child does pap. The love she makes to him is not only ridiculous but disgusting; not only the rooms but the whole house, staircase and all, are covered with nothing but pictures of him and her, of all sizes and sorts, and representations of his naval actions, coats of arms, pieces of plate in his honour, the flagstaff of L’Orient, &c — an excess of vanity which counteracts its own purpose. If it was Lady H’s house there might be a pretence for it; to make his own a mere looking glass to view himself all day is bad taste.

So yeah — Nelson was a monumental egotist, and when he met Lady Hamilton he got an A+ tier toady attached directly to him, amplifying the roaring pain in the ass he already was.

But Nelson and his people could be bitchy too. Tune in next time for an Age of Nelson edition of Invective Through the Ages!

 

Profiles in Toadying: the Age of Nelson!

Further dispatches from alternate Paris: Everyday relics

One of my favourite parts of my recent trip to Budapest was visiting the Szent Istvan (Saint Stephen) cathedral. It has all the usual things you want from a cathedral: mighty domes, art, towers, chapels, all that stuff.  

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It also has, no fooling, a light-up coin-operated reliquary holding the right hand of Saint Stephen, the king who converted Hungary to Christianity. 

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There are times when I really admire my ancestral faith’s love of showmanship.

But what I actually wanted to write about was the cathedral treasury museum. If you are ever in Budapest, you should definitely check it out — you have to pay to get in, but it costs something like HUF 400 (slightly over £1), so it’s pretty affordable. It might even be less. 

The cathedral treasury houses a lot of stuff about the history of the cathedral — the uniforms of the hand’s ceremonial guard, liturgical vestments, architects’ models, all that kind of thing. But fo me the most interesting part of it was the display dedicated to József Mindszenty. Mindszenty was Archbishop of Esztergom and a cardinal, a central figure in Catholic opposition to first Fascist and then Communist rule in Hungary. He was locked up by the government in 1949, got out during the 1956 revolution, sought political asylum in the US, and spent the next 15 years of his life in the American Embassy in Budapest. 

The Hungarian Catholic church, you will be surprised to hear, takes a pretty straightforward view of Mindszenty: he was a shining example of Catholic piety and he should be a saint. And the museum is unsubtle about it. Check out this sculpture of Mindszenty: 

I see what you did there.
I see what you did there.

Crucified on a hammer-and-sickle and a swastika, no less. 

The display cases include mementoes of Mindszenty’s career, tied up with actual red tape and labelled with for-real wax seals, in preparation for the day he gets canonised. 

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Swanky, huh? 

But more interesting to me were the ordinary articles found in Mindszenty’s quarters at the time of his death. These are on the other side of the display, and unfortunately the photo I took isn’t as good. 

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Nonetheless, I think you can see how ordinary the objects are — a bundle of ballpoint pens (a Hungarian invention!), some shirts, some books, cufflinks, all wrapped up ready to be relics. It’s an interesting view of the process of making history — the transformation of everyday objects into things that are both objects of religious inspiration and historical displays at the same time. 

Further dispatches from alternate Paris: Everyday relics

Vintage bicycles (lazy photo post)

On Monday, the Tour de France went past my house, blocking all the roads in Cambridge so that I had the day off work. So that was pretty cool. I went out of the house to get some grub, and while I did I ran across an awesome display of vintage bicycles, complete with cyclists 

This chap was riding around Trumpington High Street on his vintage bicycle.
This chap was riding around Trumpington High Street on his vintage bicycle.

I believe they were associated with the March Veteran & Vintage Cycle Club, which is part of the National Association of Veteran Cycle Clubs

It was pretty cool to see these pieces of history being ridden and explained by people who cared about them, especially right near my house. 

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Technically, this is a velocipede.
Technically, this is a velocipede.

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Also known as a "boneshaker."
Also known as a “boneshaker.”

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I really admire people who do this kind of living history stuff in general, and it makes me very happy to see that they got an opportunity to share these fascinating machines with people. (There aren’t many people around in the photos, but that’s only because I was there before the event technically started.)

This bicycle is 120 years old and cost over $200 in 1894. It is the only one of its kind known to exist.  Victorian baller checklist: complete.
This bicycle is 120 years old and cost over $200 in 1894. It is the only one of its kind known to exist.
Victorian baller checklist: complete.
Vintage bicycles (lazy photo post)