Blogging in Exile: Ewww Tuesday, Jan 4 2011 

7mate‘s middle-of-the-day, 1980s lineup includes Baywatch, right from the very beginning. I never noticed it before, but I can’t keep my eyes off Erika Eleniak. It’s the monobrow, you see. Everyone else sees a blonde Playboy model; I see Nick Giannopoulos in a one-piece bathing suit.

It’s one of those car-wreck things.

Blogging in Exile: The Razor in the Closet Sunday, Jan 2 2011 

My local library rocks, when it’s not full of backpackers sating their wifi needs. Not only did I pick up Cold Print and Inglourious Basterds, but also Larry Writer’s excellent Razor, a history of East Sydney’s razor gangs of the 1920s to 1940s. Not only is it a fascinating read, but it also poses a few awkward questions.

Australia never had Prohibition per se, but in 1916, around 5000 soldiers rioted, looted and drank outer-suburban Liverpool dry, before heading into the centre of Sydney to do the same. After three days of drunken mayhem, the state government instituted the Liquor Act, and a referendum later that year saddled New South Wales with what was known as the Six-o’clock Swill: until it was repealed in 1955, pubs were banned from serving alcohol after 6pm.

In the wake of this, the “sly grog” trade sprang up, serving often watered-down drinks after hours; Sydney’s sly-groggeries were somewhat analogous to America’s speakeasies. By the Depression, many Sydneysiders couldn’t afford to go the track, but would bet nonetheless, so the provision of sly grog went arm-in-arm with prostitution, illegal, off-track SP betting and cocaine traffic.

Family legend has it that my grandfather was distantly descended from English and Spanish gentry, and (aside from one black sheep) my grandmother from decent, but hard-working, Scots and Irish migrants. But genealogy shows that both came largely from convict stock, transported to Australia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

In the late 1920s to the early 1940s—records show, for much longer than I’d been led to believe—my grandfather was a talented boxer. He and my grandmother drove taxis in central Sydney. At other times, he worked as a bookmaker; family whispers suggest that my grandfather’s bookmaking may have taken place off-track. (A rumoured feud with the Waterhouse family, however, hints that he may occasionally have seen horse flesh.)

My grandfather was in the habit of concealing cash about his person—the bag with his bookmaking takings was mostly rolls of banknote-sized pieces of newspaper, rolled up with only a few small-denomination notes on top. Presumably, this was to foil standover men, protection racketeers who specialise in victimising small-time criminals. (Mark “Chopper” Read is a relatively modern example.)

My grandmother always kept a loaded rifle in the house. And she was tough, never having trouble from male taxi passengers in that relatively lawless era, and—family legends once again attest—holding her own a couple of decades later in an on-air run-in with Germaine Greer.

At one point, at least, they were wealthy enough to afford waterfront property at the western end of the harbour. But in the early 1940s, as war raged across the world, they settled down: my grandfather enlisted and became a mechanic at de Havilland‘s facility near Bankstown Airport, and my grandmother raised their daughters, renovated a series of houses and ran a fruit-and-vegetable shop. They moved out to Fairfield, then (as now) home to many of Sydney’s New Australians. Although they never discussed it, it seems that their fortunes had waned.

Blogging in Exile: The Traveller Who Wasn’t Monday, Dec 20 2010 

One final story from British Folktales, as originally told in The Detroit Free Press in 1889.

A young woman and her mother checked into a foreign hotel late one night after an arduous journey, both tremendously exhausted.

When the young woman awoke late in the next day, she opened the adjoining door to discover her mother’s room empty; in fact, all the furniture and wallpaper were different to the night before, and her mother was nowhere to be found. Upon asking the staff, they insisted that whilst the daughter had booked two rooms, she had arrived alone, and the daughter began to think that she may have gone mad.

She related the tale to her friends when she returned to England; one of these enquired with the police and Consul, and the truth came out: the mother had taken violently ill with cholera. Although a doctor had been called, the mother died, and in a fit of panic, the hotel owners carried out the body, burnt the furniture, repapered the walls and ordered the staff never to speak of what had transpired, for nobody would stay there again if it became known that they’d had a case of cholera in the hotel.

It’s a wonder that they never made this into an episode of Fawlty Towers.

Blogging in Exile: Bacon’s Brazen Head Sunday, Dec 19 2010 

Roger Bacon is one of the most intriguing characters in English occult history, easily up there with John Dee and the much later Aleister Crowley. Tales of the late 13th-Century Franciscan friar’s sorcerous abilities abound, but one of the most famous (and bizarre) revolves around his Brazen Head (which, incidentally, receives a brief mentioned in the Call of Cthulhu scenario The Auction):

For reflecting how often England had been invaded by Saxon and Dane and Norwegian, [Bacon] laboured with a project for surrounding the whole island with a wall of brass, and to the intent that he might compass this, he first devised a head of brass which should speak. And when he could not for all his art arrive at this he invited another great scholar, Friar Bungay by name, to aid him therein; and they both together by great study made a head of brass, yet wist not how to give it motion and speech. And at last they called to their succour a spirit, who directed them, but gave them the warning that, when the head began to speak, if they heard it not ere it had finished, all their labour would be lost.

So they did as the spirit had enjoined them, and were right weary; and bidding [Bacon’s manservant] Miles to wake them when the head spake, they feel asleep.

Now Miles, because his master threatened him if he should not make them aware when the Head spake, took his tabor and pipe, and sang ballads to keep him from nodding […]

Presently, the Head spake, saying TIME IS! But Miles went on playing and singing, for the words seemed to him to import nought. Twice and thrice the Head said, TIME IS! But Miles was loath to wake his master and Friar Bungay a trifle. […]

At the end of half an hour, the Head spake once more, and delivered these two words, TIME WAS! And Miles make sport of them as he had before. Then another half hour passed, and Head uttered this sentence, TIME HAS PASSED! And fell down amid flames of fire and terrible noise, whereat the friars awoke, and found the room full of smoke.

“Did not the head speak?” asked Bacon.

“Yea, sir,” replied his man, “but it spake to no purpose. I’d teach a parrot to talk better in half the time.”

“Out on thee, villain!” cried his master. “Thou hast undone us both. Hadst thou roused us, all England would have been walled about with brass, and we had won everlasting renown. What did it say?”

“Very few words,” answered Miles, “and I have heard wiser. It said, TIME IS!”

“Hadst thou called us then, we had been made forever.”

“Then in half an hour it said, TIME WAS!”

“And thou didst not wake us then!” interposed Bungay.

“Alack, sir,” answered Miles. “I was expecting him to begin some long tale, and then I would have awakened you; but anon he cried, TIME IS PASSED! and made such an uproar withal that he woke you himself.”

Friar Bacon was greatly incensed at what his his servant had done, and would have beaten and maybe slain him; but Friar Bungay pleaded for the fellow, and his master said, “Well, his punishment shall be, that he shall be struck dumb for a month.”

So it was that England was not girded round with a brazen wall, as had nearly come to pass.

This rendition is from Hazlitt’s National Tales and Legends, via British Folk Tales; sadly, the tale ends there.

But according to Lore of the Land, a disagreement at Oxford University in 1334 led to a group of scholars and students migrating to Stamford in Lincolnshire to set up a rival campus; although they soon returned to Oxford, up until 1827, every MA candidate at the latter institution had to take an oath never to study or lecture at Stamford.

Whilst in Stamford, the dissident faculty fashioned the Brazen Head into a doorknocker, which adorned the door of Brasennose Hall; when Oxford’s Brasenose College purchased the Hall in 1889, they returned the doorknocker to Oxford, and it now sits on the College’s door.

Blogging in Exile: Ye Remarkable Tale of One Near Encountre of ye 3rd Kynde Saturday, Dec 18 2010 

Early 13th-century chronicler Gervase of Tilbury was perhaps the first Englishman to document a close encounter of the third kind. Fairy abductions had been a staple of folklore for centuries previously, but this tale is unique as it features an unidentified flying object:

On a certain feast-day in Great Britain, when the congregation came pouring out of church, they saw to their surprise an anchor let down from above the clouds, attached to a rope. The anchor caught in a tombstone; and though those above shook the cable repeatedly, they could not disengage it. Then the people heard voices above the clouds discussing apparently the propriety of sending someone to release the flukes of the anchor, and shortly after they saw a sailor swarming down the cable.

Before he could release the anchor he was laid hold of; he gasped and collapsed, as though drowning in the heavy air about the earth. After waiting about an hour, those in the aerial vessel cut the rope, and it fell down. The anchor was hammered out into the hinges and straps of the church door, where, according to Gervase they were to be seen in his day. Unfortunately, he does not tell us the name of the place where they are to be seen.

(From Sabine Baring-Gould’s A Book of Folk-Tales, as quoted in Katharine Briggs’ British Folk Tales.)

As fascinating as the anchor’s remains may be from a metallurgical standpoint, sadly, the account makes no mention of the sailor’s fate, save that (presumably) his fellows marooned him here on Earth.

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