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June 1st

On this day in 1568 Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, who was the third Duke of Alba, a general and a governor of the Spanish Netherlands, got all killy and oversaw the beheading of 22 noblemen. If you’re worried that maybe he had to sit around for ages as each noble got up to the executioner to have his head chopped off, don’t. The beheadings were done simultaneously, so it was all over and done with in a jiffy!

Come and have a go if you think you are hard enough

For some reason, the people of the Low Countries weren’t overly keen on Fernando. Maybe it was because he thought that they were all the spawn of the devil for their Protestantism, or maybe they envied him his fancy armour and his psychopathic eyes. Who can possibly say! Fernando had been a general in the army of Charles V and upon his abdication, Philip II of Spain. To say he was a bit vicious would be on a par with saying that David Cameron is a bit of a posh twat. Fernando was well scary. Philip II reined him in a bit, but then decided that he’d be a good bloke to send into the Netherlands to start getting a bit scary on many a protestant arse. Fernando was well up for it.

To be fair, Alba wasn’t just going to the Netherlands to kill people. He was also there as governor to make them pay really high taxes to the Spanish king. Lots of people, protestant and catholic, were a little miffed by the tax thing and got themselves a little organised and a little rebellious. A lot of the rebellion was in Brussels– and yes I know that Brussels isn’t in the Netherlands, which is why I’ve also mentioned the Low Countries, which included Belgium, Luxembourg and even a bit of France and a bit of Germany – so Alba and his troops set off there where he set up a council and declared loads of people guilty of treason and rebellion without going to the trouble of trying them. They weren’t all protestant either. By this stage he was basically pissed off with anyone who wasn’t singing off his hymn sheet (the song on his hymn sheet was “Do what I say or die MoFos. Amen”). Thus it was that on June 1st the first batch of noblemen were entered into a  new sport of synchronised decapitation, funnily enough an event that has yet to be accepted into the Olympics. A few days later

2 ugly blokes and 2 fit birds semi-naked and loving mass-decapitation

some more were beheaded. Then it all get totally out of order, there were battles, there were whole towns sacked and every inhabitant murdered. It was not very nice at all.

By 1573, Alba was asking the king to let him come home to Spain, because he was getting a bit too old for all the murdering, so home he went and after a few hiccups got to be Viceroy of Portugal before dying at the very grand old age of 75. His death certificate notes that he died of boredom because he was too old for all of the killing. Shame.

Although the Dutch and Belgians really hated him, he wasn’t viewed in the same way throughout Europe. Strange to say he was very popular in Sweden where they secretly admired the cut of his jib.  This fact remained pretty much hidden until 1975 when Abba released their single Fernando, which was all about how great Alba was. Ironically enough, it reached the number one spot in both Belgium and the Netherlands and despite being one of their shitter songs, is Abba’s best-selling single.

Today’s birthday was an easy choice for me, because on this day in 1926 Marilyn Monroe was born.

This Beaton portrait was Marilyn's favourite photo of herself

I am aware that I could talk about her all the live long day and not even be slightly tired of her, but I recognise that not everyone shares my enthusiasm, so I’ll go carefully with this and try not to be too long-winded (no laughing at the back!). Most of you know the famous facts of her life and death, so, er, I’ll try to come up with things you might not know. Let’s see. Her first husband, Jim Dougherty, had worked alongside Robert Mitchum at a defense plant, before joining the marines. He’d shown Mitchum photos of his wife, then known as Norma Jean, in a bikini. Mitchum thought she was lovely, but that it was a bit off of Jim to be showing rude photos of her to his mates. Monroe and Mitchum went on to work with each other in River of No Return. They got on well despite clashes with their director, Otto Preminger, Mitchum’s heavy drinking and Monroe’s difficulties.

Marilyn’s politics were very much to the left of centre and also very important to her. She hated cruelty, inequality and unfair treatment. When she got more power, she was sometimes able to do something to help. Most famously was the assistance she gave to Ella Fitzgerald. Monroe had got into her music while living briefly in New York – which is where she had the happiest time of her life – and hugely admired her talent. On returning to LA she discovered that her favourite nightclub, the Mocambo, would not allow

Marilyn in NYC, beautiful without make up

Fitzgerald to headline there, or perform there in any way, because she was black. Monroe had it out with the owner and ended up by saying that if he would hire Ella, she, Marilyn, would be in the front row every night. He did and she, late for everything, unreliable, Marilyn was there every night. Ella and Marilyn became friends and cared a lot about each other. Marilyn did many little things like this for those who were being treated badly, for workers, for orphans, for abandoned animals. She was a good person with a big and generous heart.

Norma Jean, the little girl who was never told she was pretty

She was well-read, but didn’t consider herself an intellectual. She was funny and charming. She was never truly happy, but, as she said herself, she could be gay. She was constantly trying to escape from the darkness of her past, the abuse, the abandonment, the feeling of being unloved and worthless. She never really managed and prescription drugs and dodgy psychoanalysis eventually did for her. I first saw a poster of her when I was ten years old and fell in love immediately. I’ve been in love with her ever since. I’ll

Smiling and beautiful

leave the last words to her:

“I used to think as I looked out on the Hollywood night. There must be thousands of girls sitting alone like me, dreaming of becoming a movie star. But I’m not going to worry about them. I’m dreaming the hardest.”

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April 26th

On this day in 1977 Studio 54 opened its doors to (some of) the public for the first time and for the next three years was the place to be seen in New York City, although it was probably for the best if you were not seen by the police if you were  snarfing cocaine and having a bit of sex in the balconies.

Yes, you can see that man's winky

The building where the nightclub was located is at 254 West 54th Street, which is partly where it got its name. But prior to becoming a big old discotheque, the building had been a theatre – Puccini’s La Boheme played there in 1977 – and then one of CBS’s radio and then TV studios. Under CBS it was called Studio 52 – because it was CBS’s 52nd studio – so when Rubell and Schrager and their other partners bought the building, they decided to use the “studio” and add 54 for its location.

Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager had previously owned a disco out in Queens called the Enchanted Garden, which is nicely ironic when one thinks of how snooty they were about the bridge and tunnel crowd at Studio 54. The bridge and tunnel crowd were and are the New Yorkers from the outer boroughs who travel into Manhattan. Manhattanites can be awfully snobby, but frankly Manhattan is so lush, that one can pretty much understand why. Anyway! The Queens disco had been quite successful and a PR woman by the name of Carmen D’Alessio had even had a couple of parties out there. She liked Steve and Ian’s style so she suggested that they buy the building and open the best club in the world ever. They agreed and that, laydeez and gennelmens, is how the club got to be. How it got to be the success it was, is mostly down to Carmen D’Alessio  who was a shit-hot PR woman and event planner. She got Bianca Jagger to ride a white horse into the club on her 30th birthday and she arranged the opening night guest list, and oh my, what a list it was. Mick and Bianca Jagger, Janice Dickenson (when she was a smokin’ hot model and not the overly-plasticised mentalist she is today), Mikhail Baryshnikov, Debbie Harry, Liza Minnelli, Martha Graham, Jerry Hall, Brooke Shields, Salvador Dali and newlyweds Donald and Ivana Trump among many, many others. Rumour has it that Warren Beatty, Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Henry Winkler and Frank Sinatra were turned away at the door because the doorman thought they weren’t hot enough for the club. Chances are that’s some sort of urban rumour started by  Carmen D’A who knew that the public would eat up the idea of a club so exclusive that some of the biggest stars in the world weren’t good enough to get in. The door charge to get in was $8 and the club held 700 patrons so that amounted to $5,600 a night in cover charges, plus all the booze and shit. Rubell boasted that they made $7 million in their first year.

The club started big and continued big. It also lived most of its short life surrounded by scandals great and small. Within a month of

A montage of wasted slebs and the great unwashed

opening it had been closed down due to its lack of a proper liquor license. They re-opened immediately selling  juice and soda pop until their license came through. After Rubell’s boast of how much money they’d made in a year the club was raided and he and Schrager were arrested for skimming $2.5 million. There was a second raid in 1979 and the pair got arch-bastard and evil fuck Roy Cohn to defend them. On January 18, 1980 they were sentenced to three and a half years for tax evasion and later that year the club was sold. Rubell and Schrager went on to open more clubs and go into hotels as well. Schrager is still doing just that and is a very successful multi-millionaire. Rubell contracted AIDS and died in 1989.

The club only had three years of being at the apex of decadence, but its fame has lived on. In many ways it’s hard to know why. It wasn’t musically innovative; it played disco which was the thing at the time, but it didn’t introduce any new music or new acts. It wasn’t anything special, but the buzz around it was so wild that it was the place everyone wanted to get into and very few did. It was, I guess, the Woodstock of Disco, but with better clothes and coke rather than dope. These days the club is a theatre and most of its patrons are either dead or really boring. Or both. Thus is the merry-go-round of life. We all get a chance to sparkle for a few brief moments and whether we do or we don’t, there’s always a cardigan and slippers waiting in the wings.

Today was the birthday of Douglas Sirk.

His name may mean nothing to you, but if it does, you know that he was the director of such lush and beautifully shot films as All that Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life, among others. If these mean nothing to you, you may have seen Todd

A still from All That Heaven Allows. Totally stylish and totally OTT

Haynes’ Far From Heaven, which is a total homage to Sirk.  Or maybe you’ve fallen in love with Pedro Almodovar, who cites Sirk as one of his influences and my, can you see it.

Sirk’s films were commercially very popular in the 1950s, but the critics had no time for him, mostly because the films were very woman-centred and about heightened feelings and passion and that sort of thing. But there was far more to them than those short-sighted twats could see at the time. In the 70s a reappraisal of Sirk began and finally – and thankfully before  his death – his talent was finally appreciated by critics as well as the public.

I’m not going to add much more. Sirk was a magical film-maker and the best way to get your head around that is to watch some of his films and let the lushness wash over you like a Technicolor ocean of baroque passion. Do it. You’ll love it.

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April 14th

On this day in 1881 some heavy shit was going down in El Paso, Texas. Mosey on down with me pardners and I’ll tell y’all about it.

My name is Dallas and I'm about to kill you dead.

Now the first thing you should know about this part of the world in the latter part of them there nineteenth century years is that it was one helluva fighty ole place. In this very year the Southern Pacific, the Texas and Pacific and Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railways arrived in the town and the population grew to 10,000. Doesn’t sound like that much by today’s big city standards, but it was pretty much a boom town at the time. The boom was great for the economy, but a real bugger for the crime statistics, and that, my friends, is where we come in. You see, in the middle of this fightiness, there was a gunfight. It was epic. It was awesome. It was The Four Dead in Five Seconds Gunfight. Sure, you’re all more familiar with the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, but let me tell you something, those shooters took about 30 seconds to kill three people. I call that, well, frankly, disappointing. So let’s forget about the O.K. Corral and learn all about a real gunfight! Yeehaw!

Here’s what happened leading up to that fateful day. One of the big crime problems was cattle rustling and Johnny Hale, a rancher just outside the city, was a noted cattle rustler. He’d been stealing cattle from some Mexicans and two vaqueros (that’s a Mexican cowboy) named Sanchez and Juarique had been up to El Paso looking for thirty head of cattle he’d stolen off them. But, they’d been gone some time, and their friends and neighbours had set up a posse to come looking for them. Now, this was 1881, and even back then there was a deal of racism aimed at Texas’s Mexican neighbours. Mexicans were not allowed to carry firearms within the city limits. This is not what caused the problem though. The mayor, when he heard why the posse was there, was pretty sympathetic and allowed them to keep their guns and hunt out that low down dog, Hale. A constable called Gus Krempkau rode out with them to the ranch and lo and behold, they found the corpses of Sanchez and Juarique close to the ranch.

Turns out that Hale and some of his cattle rustling brethren were worried that the two Mexicans would find the cattle and come back with more men to dispense justice. So, two of them, Fredericks and Pervey, killed them stone dead. The whole sorry affair was taken to court where it was decided that Pervey and Fredericks would stand trial for murder. Krempkau, who spoke Spanish, was on hand to translate for the Mexicans. When the court adjourned everyone headed out for dinner and beer and that should have been the end of it. But, of course, there was more to come.

Hale had turned up with a friend of his, George Campbell, who had been the town marshal of El Paso (he lost the job because he was a drunk and a dick). They were not happy, but retired

The street where it all went down

to a local tavern to drink and drink and drink a little more. Across the road from the tavern, the newly appointed town marshal, Dallas Stoudenmire, was eating some dinner. He’d been in the court room too and knew all that had gone down. All was quiet until Gus Krempkau arrived at the tavern. Hale and Campbell were pretty much the worse for wear by this time and Campbell started trash-talking Krempkau for being a Mexican lover and talking their goddamned greasy language. He probably said worse. If Deadwood has taught us anything it’s that people in frontier towns and places like that swore like utter fucking bastards back in the day. In the midst of the trash-talking, Johnny Hale – who was so pissed he could barely see straight – got hold of one of Campbell’s pistols shouted “I got you covered, George!” and shot Krempkau. And now the stopwatch starts. Krempkau reeled back and collapsed against a wooden joist, he pulled out his own gun. Dallas Stoudenmire had heard the shot and he ran from the diner with his pistols drawn. He started shooting as he ran and gunned down an innocent bystander, a young chap named Ochoa; this did not slow him down, not even a little bit. Hale saw that his ass was on the line and managed to jump behind an adobe pillar, but Stoudenmire was too quick for him. Hale, popped his head around the pillar and Stoudenmire shot him right between the eyes. Campbell screamed at Stoudenmire to keep out of it, Krempkau, on the verge of losing consciousness shot Campbell twice. One bullet hit him in the wrist, breaking  his hand, the other got him in the foot. He screamed again and Stoudenmire whirled toward him and shot him, hitting him square in the stomach. He carried on walking toward Campbell who was now writhing in agony. Stoudenmire stood over him. Campbell’s last words were “You big bastard! You’ve murdered me!” And indeed he had.

It was all over. Krempkau, Ochoa, Hale and Campbell all lay dead. Now, call me picky, but I think that all of this may have taken a tiny bit longer than five seconds. Indeed some bystanders said afterwards that they thought it was closer to ten seconds. I guess four dead in ten seconds just don’t have that same ole murderous ring to it. Either way, there were still more dead than they managed at the O.K. Corral and in much less time, but for some reason it’s always been overshadowed by them thar Earps and that thar Doc Holliday. I dunno, I guess that maybe the guys from Tombstone had better P.R. agents or something.  But Dallas and Gus have me now and I’m bigging up those shooty men for fearlessly waving their guns around and killing each other for no damn good reason at all. Respec’ y’all!

For Today’s birthday we’re sticking with the law, but going for a less-shooty kind of law man. Today it’s Frank Serpico’s birthday. If you thought he was just a character in a film, played by Al Pacino, shame on you!

Serpico at the time of the Knapp Commission

Frank Serpico was a simple NYPD police officer. He worked as a patrol man, in finger printing and then got assigned to plainclothes where things got a little, sticky. Serpico was pretty disgusted by the widespread corruption he encountered and as a result of him trying to avoid it and refusing to be a part of it his career there was short-lived.  However, he didn’t just walk way from it. He spent the next years trying to bring the corruption to the attention of his superiors. Funnily enough they didn’t seem that interested. He was stymied by red tape and bureaucracy and seemed to be getting nowhere until he hooked up with another officer, David Durk, who felt the same way that he did. Now he head someone on his side, but as time passed  they were still being ignored. Finally after years of trying to go about things the right way, Frank went to the press. In 1970 he contributed to a New York Times story on corruption in the NYPD. This forced the mayor of NYC to do something and the Knapp Commission was appointed to investigate police corruption.

In 1971, Serpico was with other officers on a drug raid, when it became clear that his peers were not happy with him. The story of how he got shot in the face is long and convoluted, but at its heart lies the indisputable evidence that while the officers on the raid with him may not have deliberately sent him to be executed, they certainly did not give him back up, support him, or call in his injury when he was shot. Without the assistance of an Hispanic man in the building being raided, Serpico may have died. As it was he was left deaf in one ear and in constant pain from gunshot fragments left in his brain.  Later that year he testified to the Knapp Commission, becoming the first NYPD officer in its history to have the courage to publicly confront corruption in the force.

He retired in 1972 and after spending a decade living in Europe he returned to live in upstate NY. He lectures at universities and

Frank Serpico as he is now

police academies, helps out officers in similar positions to his own and campaigns against corruption and the weakening of civil liberties. Frank Serpico is an ordinary man who refused to stand by and see dishonesty cow honesty into silence.  When Al Pacino met him in 1973 to talk to him in preparation for playing him, he (Pacino) asked why he had done what he did, with all its concomitant risks. Frank replied, “Well, Al, I don’t know. I guess I would have to say it would be because … if I didn’t, who would I be when I listened to a piece of music?”

I doubt this blog is your cup of tea (or even coffee), Mr Serpico, but if you happen across it, I want you to know that I think you are a genuine hero, a good and fine man who refused to stay quiet. We need more people like you and it makes me happy to tell people a little more about you. Happy birthday, sir, and I hope you have many, many more.

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April 7th

This day in history is a most auspicious one, so it pained me to look through the annals and find events that bored me or stuff about fucktards (hello Savonarola) who we’d already covered and quite frankly had enough of.  Anyway, given that nothing can quite compare to an event that happened at 4am in the Royal Free Hospital in Liverpool Road in 1965, I did uncover something that appears to be completely fictitious, but is too wonderful to consign to the dustbin of made-up history.

And then she hit me right here on the nose!

All around the web, it is stated that on this day in 1926, Mussolini’s Irish wife broke his nose. There is no further detail, because, well Mussolini never had an Irish wife. The terrible bald fucker had two wives, both of them Italian, one discarded and all records of their marriage destroyed because he wanted to pretend he’d never been married to her. The second stuck with him until the end. Neither, as far as history shows us, broke his nose. Perhaps the history of WWII might have played out a bit differently if one or both of them had, preferably on a regular basis.

Of course, I am not advocating mindless violence, but given the circumstances I’m sure they could have found a way to break his nose mindfully. It’s a shame that this story is so clearly a fake, because I can picture it all in my head. Benito at the table complaining that his stupid Irish wife hasn’t cooked the spaghetti properly and all she knows her way around is potatoes and cabbage like a stupid bog-trotting peasant. And up she gets. Small in stature but a mighty

Cover your nose, Benny, the bitch is back!

warrior all the same. Her eyes are green and sending out sparks of anger. Benito is too self-satisfied and stupid to sense the danger. Her hair is loose and a symphony of red and gold and orange and copper and rich sweet-smelling ginger. It seems alive as she moves closer toward her target. He still goads her, he holds up his spaghetti in his fork and mocks her like the pompous wee shite he is. And then she is in front of him, finally he feels a little fear. She is still, but her hair still seems to be moving, her eyes still spark and her nostrils flare. He is silent as she stares him straight in the eye. He gulps. And then it comes. Her fist moves as if in slow-motion but he can’t move away from it. He is rooted to the spot as though his wife has become Medusa and he is turned to stone. And. And. And. BAM! Right in the fucking conk. “Shitehawk” she throws over her shoulder as she walks away. His blood mingles with the tomato sauce and he cries quietly with the pain.

Ah, Maureen McMussolini, where were you when we needed you!

Today is and was the birthday of many a great and grand person. And Russell Crowe. Russell Crowe is one year older than me and I am glad he exists because when I am feeling like a haggard old crone, I look at him and say “thank fuck I look better on it than he does.” The truth is, I look about a million times better than the big fighty git who gets all precious when people say “Oh Russell, why did you do an Irish accent for Robin Hood?” Well, Russell, I’ve seen some of that film and you did do an Irish accent, you great fat lummox. I’ve only seen some of it because I was on a plane and it was so shit I fell asleep. Here’s the thing, on the way out, I’d watched Sex and the City 2, which is one of the worst films ever and an abomination to womankind, but I did not fall asleep. That’s how shit Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood was. He stands as a reminder that however great a day April 7th is, some right shitters were born on this day too (see also David Frost).

Billie as a lovely wee girl

But, let’s move on to the sublime, the beautiful, the troubled, the big old skag head with a voice that could tickle your spine in a way that felt slightly obscene: Billie Holiday. She was born 50 years before I happened down onto the earth and had left it before  I  joined it.

Her life was never easy from the start. Born Eleanora Fagan, her thirteen year old mother was thrown out of her parents’ home for being pregnant. Young Billie was looked after by relatives while her mother worked on the trains. She was troubled, played truant and was in a Catholic reform school for this before the age of 10. She was then released into her mother’s custody to live and work in a restaurant she had bought. At the age of 11, Billie was raped and sent back to the reform school to be kept safe while they waited for the trail to come to court.

And then it all went  a bit more downhill. You all know that she and her mother then lived in brothels, that that’s where Billie started to sing and also to turn tricks as an under age prostitute at $5 a time.  And she learned to drink, to take drugs, to favour men who would beat her and hurt her over men who would love the beautiful soul she was. She went to prison, she came out, she took more drugs and she sang, oh how she sang. Even toward the end when she had all but destroyed her voice with drug and alcohol abuse she still sang and it was more beautiful in its ruin than most people can  hope for in their own version of perfection.

Lady sings the Blues

She died in 1959 and her death was described on sleeve notes by the NY Times journalist, Gilbert Millstein, who had been a narrator at her 1956 Carnegie Hall concerts:

Billie Holiday died in the Metropolitan Hospital, New York, on Friday, July 17, 1959, in the bed in which she had been arrested for illegal possession of narcotics a little more than a month before, as she lay mortally ill; in the room from which a police guard had been removed – by court order – only a few hours before her death, which, like her life, was disorderly and pitiful. She had been strikingly beautiful, but she was wasted physically to a small, grotesque caricature of herself. The worms of every kind of excess – drugs were only one – had eaten her … The likelihood exists that among the last thoughts of this cynical, sentimental, profane, generous and greatly talented woman of 44 was the belief that she was to be arraigned the following morning. She would have been, eventually, although possibly not that quickly. In any case, she removed herself finally from the jurisdiction of any court here below.

She was no lady, but she was Lady Day. Happy birthday my birthday twin. You know how much I’ve always loved you and thrilled to share your birthday, and I’d like you to know that I always will. We’ll both just forget about that cunt, Crowe. He ain’t our sort of peoples.

Oh and she loved dogs too!

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April 4th

On this day in 1933 a helium-filled rigid dirigible called the Akron crashed into the sea and got irretrievably broken.

 

The Akron flying over Manhattan. It might have been a dodgy way to fly, but it did look pretty cool. When it was working

The Akron had first cast off – this being what big balloons did – in November 1931 and was a “ship” in the US Navy. It logged a lot of flying hours without incident, but in February it had its first mishap, when it came out of its hangar on a bit of a windy day and the tail of it got caught in the wind and made the nose of it crash into the ground, causing a bit of damage and breaking bits of it that had to be fixed. No one was killed. It got fixed and was back in the air at the end of April. Things went smoothly enough until May 8th. This time around the airship had flown to Camp Kearny in San Diego and there were a few problems with getting it moored. It was a hot day, the  helium had expanded and due to the long flight it was low on fuel making it pretty light. The men handling the mooring ropes were having huge problems keeping it down. Most let go, but four held on. The first of these was carried fifteen feet into the air before he let go, suffering a broken arm when he fell. The other three were carried far  higher. Two of them fell to their deaths at 200 ft, the third, Bud Cowart, managed to hold on. He tied the rope around himself, flying as high as 2000 ft before he was dragged into the accident prone balloon an hour later.

 

Then we get to August 1932 and you’ve guessed it; another accident. This one was on the same level of lethality as the first. The balloon got a bit broken, had to be fixed, but no one was killed.  It then managed nearly nine months of not getting broken or killing anyone before it all went totally tits up on April 4th 1933 in a balloon destroying accident that really could have been avoided.

Helium balloons should not go up when the weather is a bit dodgy, so sending the balloon up when there were thunderstorms in the area was, to put it technically, crazy stupid.  Things still could have worked out okay, but a bit of miscommunication on the bridge led the airship flying straight into a storm, rather than around it. This led to the ship dropping a terrifying 1000 ft in seconds. Then the second bad decision was made, although it probably seemed like a good idea at the time. They dumped all their “full speed ahead” ballast to help right the balloon. It did not. The nose went  up at a rate of mentalosity, the tail stayed down. All sorts of equipment got broken in the chaos of the balloon going pure mental and then the whole thing came crashing down into the water. This time the accident was almost completely fatal. Of the 76 people on board only three survived and of course the ship was finally fuckered after trying so hard to get broken three times previously.

The death toll was higher than on the Hindenburg four years later, but as no one was filming the Akron or saying “Oh the humanity” on the radio, the disaster isn’t as famous. Both incidents (or the plethora of incidents if you like) do prove that flying around in balloons filled with either helium or hydrogen is probably not the best idea in the world and it’s probably best that we don’t do it these days.

 

Today is the birthday of Dave Hill, Slade guitarist and er, well these days he’s a Jehovah’s Witness and does a bit of teaching.

I found this quote about him, which pretty much sums Dave up. Stuart Maconie said of him: “he usually wore a jumpsuit made of the

Women fancied him in the 70s. Probably

foil that you baste your turkeys in and platforms of oil-rig-derrick height. All of this though paled in comparison with his coiffure, a sort of demented tonsure with a great scooping fringe. He looked like a glam rock version of a medieval monk”.

 

Slade were huge in the early to mid-seventies, but even when the nation was in the grip of glam-rock-fever, we all knew that Dave was  rum-looking cove.  But I’ve mainly decided to mark his birthday so we can all watch a nice documentary of Slade in their heyday, where we get to see what a paternal figure Dave was, how he looked after Noddy, who was a bit naughty, Don who was a bit thick and Jim who looked unfeasibly like Paul Whitehouse.

Happy birthday, Dave. You’re 65 today so you can stop working at the school, get your bus pass and do all those OAP things like queue up in post offices and get a discount on your blue rinse.

 

Real Slade Documentary! Rare Footage! Maybe!


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March 26th

On this day in 1804 the president of those United States of America, Thomas Jefferson was presented with a mammoth loaf of bread. And lo, he and a whole bunch of others did eat it. You’re probably wondering why he was presented with a mammoth loaf of bread, well wonder (loaf) no longer, I shall tell you the story of the bread, some cheese and a bunch of fossils. Sit back and at least try to enjoy.

 

As they finish the last mammoth punch bowl, they dread the mammoth hangovers to come

A few years previously, in 1801 to be precise, the skellington of a woolly mammoth had been found in New York.  Mr Jefferson was well into a bit of the old science and – as a member of the American Philosophical Society – happily helped them raise funds to complete the archaeological project started when they found the furry elephant. All well and good you might think, but the president’s opponents, the Federalists, thought he was a daft old bugger and the money being spent on the project was a frivolous waste. Why it was any of their business – it wasn’t public money – is anyone’s guess, but they wanted to ridicule their president and soon had their chance. In 1802, a group of Baptist women from Massachusetts sent Jefferson a 1,200lb lump of cheese to thank him for his  support of religious tolerance. The cheese, they said, represented the reality of his claim that one day the US would outstrip all of Europe when it came to agricultural production.

 

How did the Federalists use this to mock their president? They christened the cheese, “The Mammoth Cheese”. Oh my sides, what wit, what eloquence, what a silly bunch of fuckers. Even better, the Federalists were aghast to find that instead of making the American public laugh at the president they all loved this use of “mammoth” and took to it like a baby to the teat. Butchers started labelling their bigger joints “mammoth” and grocers sold mammoth pumpkins and loaves of bread. Suck on that you unimaginative phalange of fuckers!

The cheese was lasting and lasting and lasting and so it was that on March 26th 1804 there was a mammoth luncheon party, sponsored by the Senate to raise funds for a naval war in the Barbary states. A navy baker wheeled in the mammoth loaf, with the remainder of the mammoth cheese, along with a mammoth side of beef and lashings of mammoth bottles of wine and champagne. Jefferson approached the loaf, took out his own pocketknife, cut the first slice of bread and the party began. It started out as quite a sedate affair as befitted a public fund-raising party, but the lashings of alcohol soon took their toll and according to some who attended it rapidly descended into a drunken, ribald affair, which makes a huge (or should that be mammoth) change from today’s state affairs.

And so, dear readers, that is the tail in all its mammothry. A little dull, to be perfectly honest, but a nice piece of trivia to drop into the next dinner party you attend. Especially if you wish to send your fellow diners into a post-prandial coma.

Today was the birthday of a man born 100 years ago in 1911. He went on to be America’s finest playwright and was known as Tennessee Williams.

Williams was born in Columbus, Missouri and when he was eight the family moved to St Louis. He had an older sister, Rose and a younger brother. His mother was a total southern belle type and his father was pretty much an alcoholic travelling shoe salesman

Nudie Tennessee

(Ted Bundy!). Williams was close to his sister and their maid Ozzie, he feared his father and found his mother’s hysteria and neuroticism difficult to deal with. In later years, Rose was institutionalised because she had schizophrenia, but still remained an important part of Tennessee’s life. In fact his whole dysfunctional family turn up in his plays, along with him, time and time again. Rose is the disabled sister in The Glass Menagerie, his mother is almost certainly Blanche DuBois, he is Brick and his father is Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Elia Kazan said of Williams that “Everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life.”

 

This was unfortunate for him. He was beset by depression throughout his life and a dependence on alcohol, barbiturates and amphetamines. The more successful he became, the more he doubted his ability to produce work worth reading or performing. His doubts became a self-fulfilling prophecy and after the sixties he never produced anything close to the brilliance of his previous output. But the genius he gave us before that was so rich, so varied, so lush and wondrous that the only tragedy is his own doubt, not the falling off of new and beautiful gems to set before us.

Tennessee (born Tom, he took Tennessee – the home state of his grandfather – as his professional name) was rarely a happy man, but he was a man full of talent and warmth. He loved and cared for those he was close to, he gave of himself and he gave a lot; plays, screenplays, novels and short stories are there for all of us to enjoy. If you’ve never seen any of his work, you’re missing out and must make amends immediately! Happy birthday Tennessee Williams. I discovered you in my teens and have adored you ever since. You were way better than that Arthur Miller and that is a stone cold fact!

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March 25th

On this day in 1911 a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. 146 garment workers died either in the blaze or when they tried to jump from the building. It remains the biggest industrial disaster in NYC and the fourth largest in the whole of the United States. It happened because of graft, corruption and a heinous lack of concern for the safety of the women who worked there. This is what led up to it and what happened on that day.

 

One of the Centennial Memorials

The factory occupied the top three floors of the Asch Building (now the Brown Building) on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in Greenwich Village. It was owned by Issac Harris and Max Blanck. The factory was known to be unsafe; there were four elevators to the factory floors, but only one worked. For the workers to get to it they had to file along a long narrow corridor. There were two staircases, but one led to a locked door (to prevent theft) and one led to a door that could only be opened from outside.  The fire escape was narrow and unsafe and it would have taken the workers hours to escape if using it. The factory was also very much a sweatshop. The women there worked long hours for low pay and were packed in tight. Most of them were recent immigrants and few of them spoke English. The safety violations were well-known as were the dangers inherent in garment factories,  but city officials were happy to accept bribes and overlook them. Harris and Blanck, the factory owners, were known to be anti-worker and had played a strong role in strike-breaking in the previous year.

 

On Saturday 25th March 1911, there were 600 workers in the factory along with the owners and their children who were visiting/slumming it. The fire broke out toward the end of the working day at about 4.40pm. What caused the fire is not really known. It started in a rag bin that hadn’t been emptied in months. It may have been a match, an improperly extinguished cigarette, or a spark from a faulty machine. Once the fire started it caught very quickly. The manager tried to put it out using a fire hose, but the hose had

Death

rotted and the valve was rusted shut. There was panic and the women tried to escape. Many ran to the lift which could only take 12 passengers at a time. It made four ascents and descents before the heat and flames led it to break down. 36 workers plunged to their death in the elevator shaft as they desperately tried to escape the flames. More ran to the stairwell, only to find the locked door when they got to the bottom of the stairs; many of these were burned alive. Some went to the fire escape, which buckled under their weight and these fell 100ft to their death on the streets below. It got even worse. Women started jumping from the windows to escape the fire, many fell on fire hoses, delaying the attempts to extinguish the blaze. When the fireman put up their ladders they only reached to the seventh floor and the fire was on the eighth floor. In order to catch the falling women nets were opened to catch them. These broke under the weight of more than one woman jumping into them at a time.

 

It was all over within 20 minutes. 36 people dead in the elevator shaft, 58 dead from jumping or falling, with two who died of their injuries later. The rest of the dead were either burned alive or suffocated by the smoke.  Louis Waldman who would later become a socialist assemblyman for New York State, witnessed the scene and wrote about it many years later:

A few blocks away, the Asch Building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street was ablaze. When we arrived at the scene, the police had thrown up a cordon around the area and the firemen were helplessly fighting the blaze. The eighth, ninth, and tenth stories of the building were now an enormous roaring cornice of flames.

Word had spread through the East Side, by some magic of terror, that the plant of the Triangle Waist Company was on fire and that several hundred workers were trapped. Horrified and helpless, the crowds — I among them — looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.

The emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines.

In the aftermath of this obscenely avoidable tragedy the factory owners were indited for manslaughter. Unsurprisingly they were acquitted. Civil suits were brought against them and they ended up paying out $75 per deceased victim to their surviving family.  This was nothing to them as they had been paid $60,000 by their insurance company or roughly $400 per victim.  Two years later Blanck was arrested for once again blocking a factory door during working hours. He was fined $20.

Some good came of it. The NY State Legislature set up the NY State Factory Investigating Committee.  They NYC Fire Chief identified 200 other factories in New York where a comparable disaster was likely and in 1915 New York’s labour laws were modernised on the back of a report including the investigation into the fire. NY at this time was the most progressive state in the US with regard labour laws.

This year is the centennial of the event and it has been remembered by a gathering of labour activists, historians and artists. The really sad thing is that despite the many good safety checks put in place as a result of this horrific event, a century later it is still possible for employers to escape any real censure for the death of employees  due to a failure to have proper safety procedures in place. Workers have rights, but their employers rights seem to trump theirs. Hopefully we will never again see a day as dark as this one was, but there are still individual cases, in the UK at least, of workers dying for no good reason and no one being held responsible.

 

Today is the birthday of Elton John who has done a lot of great work for charity, blah, blah, blah, irritating git-featured, baldy-bollocked wanker who gets right on my tits.

 

Her Royal Highness, The Queen of Soul

It is also the birthday of Sarah Jessica Parker who men like to abuse by being all “She looks like a horse” and “I don’t even want to have sex with her so why is she famous”. The ripostes to these remarks are “Yeah, ‘cos you’re so handsome. Not!” and “It’s not all about your cock. Fuckhead.”  That said, she did make the utterly execrable Sex and the City 2 which is totally without redeeming qualities and deserved the scathing (“you’re not going to get a rant about this”) review from Mark Kermode. (If you haven’t heard this, do click, it starts out slow and works up into such a wonderfully coherent stream of vitriol, that it brings joy to the heart).

 

However, today is also the birthday of the wonderful, the incomparable, the recently slimmed down, beautifully voiced Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. She was born poor in 1942, she began her recording career with Columbia in 1961 and in 1966 she went with Atlantic and became the enormous success that she still is today.  It’s not possible to listen to her recording of King and Goffin’s (You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman without feeling shivers of pure joy dancing up and down your spine.  She is a wonder, she is a joy, she has won 18 Grammy awards. She is Aretha Louise Franklin. Happy birthday, your majesty, your renewed health is wonderful news for all of us, you are a fine and wonderful woman!

 

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February 28th

On this day in 1849 the SS California arrived in San Francisco. It had left New York 4 months and 22 days earlier and was the first steamboat service from the east coast of the US to the west coast.

The SS California

The steamboat was a postal packet as well as a passenger service, so on its arrival, lots of people got letters from friends and relatives with up-to-the minute information about their doings and any births, deaths and marriages that might have happened. Of course it sounds like a terrifically lengthy time to be travelling on a steamboat, but the Panama canal hadn’t been constructed at this point, so the ship had so sail all the way down to the tip of  South America, round Cape Horn and then sail and paddle its way up to San Francisco. This was in the days before luxury ocean travel, so there was not much in the way of entertainment on board. Luckily most passengers were used to living slow and dull lives, so they brought along sedate distractions to amuse themselves along the way. Quoits were played on the deck, books were read in cabins and some of the faster passengers amused themselves with Sudoku and looking up rude words on the Urban Dictionary site.

Not all the passengers who arrived at San Francisco had been on board since New York. A large number of men boarded in Panama where they had headed en masse to catch the boat and get to San Francisco for the gold rush. They were only on board for the last 40 days of the trip, but they ruffled quite a few feathers. To put it bluntly, they were rather uncouth and the more well-to-do passengers were a little scared of them. For a time quoits became a thing of the past because the gold rushers spent a lot of time on deck and the posh were scared of catching uncouthness off them. There were a dozen women on board, who worried that they might be taken advantage of by the ruffian influx. Chief among the worriers was a Mrs Clara

Mrs Vanderlied favoured the clothing of an earlier generation

Vanderlied. She was a large and stately widow with a face that looked like the blueprint for the gargoyles of European Gothic cathedrals and as such it was more likely that the prospectors would look to each other’s bottoms for sexual release than worry her, but she complained to the captain that they had been giving her the glad eye. As a result of this silly woman’s imagination, the new passengers were forced to spend most of their time in their dormitory style cabins. Posh games resumed and the ’49ers, rather than hold a grudge against the aesthetically challenged Mrs Vanderlied, sought the company of the wilder passengers and set up Sudoku tournaments with them.

On reaching San Francisco, the 49ers made their way to the Californian gold deposits, the mail was delivered and other passengers went about their new lives on the west coast. Mrs Vanderlied’s fate is a little lost in the mists of time, but it is thought that she lived to a great age and became the inspiration for Picasso’s cubist portraiture.

The SS California stayed in service until 1895 when it unfortunately came a cropper off the coast of Peru.

Today was the birthday of Robin Cook, who died at the age of only 59 in 2005. For much of his political career, and especially in government, Cook was seen as a figure of fun by many. His physical appearance, he was quite small, he had a not instantly attractive face and he was – oh sin of sins – ginger, was the root of this piss-taking.

He wasn't the prettiest of men

In government, he served as Foreign Secretary from 1997-2001. After the general election he was moved away from the Foreign Office to become Leader of the House. While this was still a cabinet position, there is no doubting that he was demoted. Tony Blair was worried that Cook was too pro-European and would push for membership of the Euro. Cook remained in government until 2003 when he resigned over the issue of the forthcoming Iraq war.  His speech, which was broadcast live on British TV, was the only speech ever in the history of parliament (at that time) to receive a standing ovation. It was impassioned but contained no recriminations, just his own belief that the war was wrong, that there should be a vote on it and that the British public should be listened to. As Shakespeare didn’t quite say, nothing in his political life became him like the leaving of it.

In an age when we know that just about everything politicians have to say to us is cant or spin, Cook’s speech was a rare moment of hearing a politician speak and feeling nothing but respect for him. From that moment on, to anyone with even a shred of decency, Cook ceased being a joke and became a man to be admired.

All were agreed that he would almost certainly have re-entered government under Gordon Brown, but on a walking holiday in 2005 he suffered a massive heart attack and died. British politics is the poorer for his absence. We wish him a happy birthday and leave the final words to his epitaph, chosen by his wife and sons: “I may not have succeeded in halting the war, but I did secure the right of parliament to decide on war.” It wasn’t enough, but not through want of trying.

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