Sunday, March 22, 2015

Birthday Greetings #48

Happy birthday to Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor.  Possibly one of the few successful acts of his father's gloom filled reign was to persuade the electors of the empire that his son would do better.  Maximilian did do better if only because he was coming off a low benchmark.

Opinion is divided on Maximilian.  Some people have seen him as a political genius whose manipulation of marriage politics set the House of Habsburg on the path to true greatness.  Other people regard him as an overambitious clot who failed in pretty much every important initiative in his life.  Strangely both sides can find a fair bit of evidence to support their assertions.  For the former, well his manipulation of marriage politics did set the House of Habsburg on the path to true greatness.  For the latter, well the fact that he couldn't even die in the city he wanted to because they pointblank refused to let him in until he paid the bill from his last visit doesn't leave an impression of spectacular competence.

The first thing Maximilian did was marry well.  This wasn't really his doing, it was arranged by his father Frederick III about whom virtually no one has a good word to say.  Despite this the deeply unimpressive Frederick managed to persuade the psychopathic Duke of Burgundy to let Maximilian marry his daughter.  This was important because a) the Duke of Burgundy had no male heirs, b) Burgundy was incredibly rich and c) it would really piss off the King of France.

Maximilian married Mary of Burgundy and when her father got himself killed in a particularly pointless bit of state sanctioned violence against the Swiss (with whom Maximilian would have his own troubles) Mary inherited the lot.  Which meant that their son would inherit both Burgundy and the traditional Habsburg domains plus have a decent shot at the imperial title as well.  The French didn't take this lying down of course, technically Burgundy was a vassal state of France (or at least bits of it were) and invaded the territory.  Further trouble came from the wealthy region of Flanders which was used to doing its own thing (the Dukes hadn't really minded as long as the tax revenues kept flowing) and they rose in revolt.  Maximilian more or less won (although he did have to hand over the Duchy of Burgundy but kept the County, Flanders and the Netherlands) and by the time Frederick died things were looking up.

The first order of business was to recapture those aforementioned traditional lands which Frederick had managed to lose to the Hungarians, this too was accomplished.  Other issues were less successful.  Maximilian attempted to reform the empire which was a worthy goal but one akin to sculpting gravy.  Everybody agreed that reform was necessary but nobody actually wanted an efficient well run empire that might, you know, tell them what to do.  Some oversight bodies were set up and noble aims stated and then everybody politely forgot about it.  Maximilian also attempted reform of his personal Austrian territories which was somewhat more successful, ie it failed but not as badly.

His wife Mary having died (although fortunately not before providing him with a son) Maximilian wound up married to a member of the Sforza family who ruled Milan.  This seemed like an excellent excuse to meddle in Italian politics.  There were wars, changes of side and aim but the final upshot was that Maximilian left a lot quicker than he arrived and with much fewer troops due to the fact that mercenaries have this uncomfortable insistence on being paid.  Eventually he was chased out by the Venetians which must have been embarrassing.  Adding to his embarrassment were the Swiss  When they weren't hiring their army out for the use of others they used it to beat the snot out of Maximilian's army and gain their independence from the empire.
While a large number of his projects wound up in tatters (generally for the twin reasons of not enough time and not enough money) Maximilian did have good luck with his marriage arrangements.  He married his son to the daughter of the rulers of Spain (an anachronistic term, there was no such thing as Spain at that time) who also had no son.  This wasn't really anything except a means of keeping the King of France on his toes but what it did mean was that a son of that marriage (and two were actually forthcoming) would inherit Austria, the Low Countries, the County of Burgundy and the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon.  Not a bad lot to be going on with.  The elder son inherited all of the above in time and got the imperial title as well but there was more.  Maximilian's second grandson, Ferdinand was betrothed to the daughter of the King of Hungary and Bohemia.  Maximilian's granddaughter was betrothed to the son of the King of Hungary and Bohemia.  What this meant was that one piece of dynastic exhaustion and the crowns of Bohemia and Hungary would fall into the Habsburg lap as well.  Said dynastic exhaustion happened and the population of Europe woke up one day to find that Habsburgs were suddenly ruling a lot of them.

All this was in the future though.  As he reached his end Maximilian must have felt like a failure.  His most recent wars had been disastrous, the Swiss had told the empire where to go, his reforms were patchy at best and he had just borrowed a million gulden from an Austrian banking family to bribe the imperial electors into appointing his grandson (his son had already died) as emperor.  Broke and depressed he died in the small town of Wels in 1519.  A few months later his grandson succeeded him as emperor Charles V and the Habsburgs cemented themselves in the centre of European politics until 1918.

Drip Drip Drip

Of course, camping begins with putting up the tents.  Tony swiftly put up his and Natali's tent with the methodical, cold blooded efficiency that makes him simultaneously both great and intensely annoying to go camping with.  As for me, well I did my best.  I got a fair way through my tent before I was required to ask for Natali's assistance which she provided along with lots of "humourous" jokes about my having erection difficulties.

Part (although by no means all) of my tent raising issues derived from an injured finger which after two weeks I am reluctantly accepting must be broken.  Thus my tent raising was punctuated by little whimpers of pain and frequent swearing.  This was irritating for me and must have been more so for my companions because as soon as the tents were up Tony grabbed my hand and taped the offending finger to its neighbour which I must admit is helping a lot.

Perhaps the most important element of camping, as it is on any holiday where they are present, is amusing the children.  The easiest way of amusing children is to attempt to kill them and not quite succeed.  Thus over the course of the weekend we tried to feed them to giant lizards, drown them in the ocean and bury them in mud. Jasmyn and Abigail found this delightful.  The other way to amuse children is to give them the opportunity to kill something else.  Which helps to explain why I spent much of the weekend on my hands and knees being bludgeoned with pillows by hysterically laughing four year olds.  This had the advantage of amusing Tony and Natali as well.

I cooked on Friday night and everybody was nice enough to say it was delicious and not actually spit the food out in my presence.  The gloomy weather ensured a near deserted camping group which was delightful.  Unfortunately Saturday turned into a day of unparalleled magnificence and we were awash with fellow campers by sundown.  Natali went running on Saturday morning so Tony took the kids to the shoreline and attempted bury them in mud while I recovered from a pillow induced concussion.  I joined them later using my lack of swimming gear as an excuse to avoid getting absolutely plastered in mud.  Jasmyn and Abigail were as happy as hippos which didn't stop them later invading the sanctity of my tent and hitting me with pillows all over again.

Spaghetti bolognese arrived on Saturday afternoon accompanied by Gemma a friend of Tony and Natali's.  Gemma was a little late and our pleasure at seeing her was prompted partly by concern for her well being but mainly because we hadn't brought any backup food in case she didn't arrive.  As the only person without ties or kin present I was pretty sure it would be me who got the short straw in any cannibalism lottery that might have taken place.

Sunday dawned bright and clear.  Tony and I looked at each other knowingly and we had the camp broken down in half an hour.  This enabled us to haul our stuff to the pier, catch the ferry back to Palm Beach and stuff everything in the car before the rain started falling.  After an early lunch we made a slightly damp procession home.  It occurs to me that we should try camping in drought affected areas.  We'd probably wind up saving a lot of farmers crops.

Milking the Camping Theme for its Very Last Drops

Once again I put aside collared shirts, suit and tie and slipped seamlessly into my alternate role as a rugged outdoorsman.  I'll just pause for a moment to let you digest that image and then a moment longer so you can have a good laugh.  Yes, once again I have eschewed the discomforts of home to go camping.

I have to admit I felt rather proud of myself, I have acquired a sleeping bag and an airmattress and I remembered to borrow a tent.  Surely no person in history has been better prepared for camping.  I had even sourced enough food to feed our little band of back to something rather like nature but better managed enthusiasts.  This sense of achievement lasted until my companions asked if I had a cup, or a plate or any cutlery at all.  At this point I crashed back to my usual "camping incompetent" status.

We were returning to the Basin, that ghastly setting of ferocious stingrays and wallaby attacks from which we barely escaped with our lives the last time we set foot there.  There had been casualties along the way.  Jason had actually booked himself in for surgery to avoid having to come with us and Idette backed off on the rather implausible grounds that she had to look after him.  Both of them were almost indecently eager that we take their four year old daughter with us however.  Thus our band of nature worriers was reduced to Tony, Natali, their four year old daughter Jasmyn, someone else's four year old daughter Abigail and me.

For reasons best known to himself Tony decided that the best place for us all to rendezvous was the Temple of Mammon on George Street (number 580) a location which turned out to be extremely inconvenient for all of us.  Nevertheless we did eventually gather ourselves together and manipulate our bodies around the luggage in the car and headed north through the Friday afternoon sunshine.  The Friday afternoon sunshine was a bit difficult to notice through all the Friday afternoon clouds and rain but we persevered.

The prevailing conversation on our journey was about how on our arrival we were all going to have to turn around and come back what with it raining and all.  Since the rain was mostly of a consistency of fine mist this should give you some idea as to how legitimate any of our claims are to be "rugged outdoorsmen" although Tony and Natali are veritable Bear Grylls but comparison with me.  Just while we're on the subject does anybody else think that Bear Grylls sounds like a rather exotic restaurant?

Fortunately (or annoyingly dependent on your point of view) the rain stopped on our arrival in Palm Beach allowing us to haul our equipment (or luggage as one calls it if one isn't going camping) to the ferry undrenched.  For Natali and myself this consisted of putting on a pack and slinging a bag over one shoulder.  Tony was so festooned with equipment that he resembled nothing so much as a walking pile of luggage.  Since luggage doesn't normally move on it was own its safe to assume he was inside it somewhere.

Groaning, staggering and sweating we collapsed onto the ferry for the journey across Pitt Water.  On our arrival the ferry disgorged about a dozen people and approximately eighteen hundred tonnes of camping equipment.  It was noticeably higher in the water as it made the return trip leaving us on a hostile shore, well pier.  Gazing from the pier we could see a positive ocean of wallabies and giant lizards underneath which was the camping ground.  A brief but vicious struggle ensued before we could drive of enough pushy marsupials and stubborn reptiles to grab the opportunity to pitch our tents on their shit.

Now the camping weekend could begin.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Shamrocks and Saltires and Other Stereotypes

Today is St Patrick's Day.  I realised this when I noticed that the slobbering drunks hanging around outside the pub were wearing more green than usual.  Today celebrates St Patrick an early Christian saint, a teacher a preacher and a man of god.  So naturally we celebrate his life by dressing in green and drinking til we puke.

St Patrick's Day is celebrated the world over by millions of people whose main reason for doing so is that somewhere in their family's past was an individual who had the means and the opportunity to get the hell out of Ireland.  I don't mean to criticise Ireland, I've been there.  It's perfectly nice.  They probably celebrate St Patrick's Day there too although I don't really see the point.  After all when you wake up the next day and clutch your aching head, you're still in Ireland.

For those who don't know why St Patrick is justly (if wildly inappropriately)celebrated everywhere a hint of Irish blood can be found here is a brief recap of his major achievements.  He kicked all the snakes out of Ireland.  This is what everybody knows about St Patrick and in keeping with most other things that  "everybody knows" it's total crap.  The entire snake eviction episode is what the church calls an allegory and what you or I would call a bare faced lie.  The sort of people who believe St Patrick kicked the snakes out of Ireland are the sort of people who believe that England's patron saint took down seventy feet of armour plated fire breathing reptile with little more than a sword and lance.  The truth of the matter is that St Patrick didn't evict the snakes and St George had a minigun.  It is far more likely that the snakes in Ireland simply took the first opportunity to emigrate to America where there were job opportunities posing for revolutionary flags.

So, with the snake episode consigned to the dustbin of hagiography what's the big deal with St Patrick?  Well he was impressive enough in his own right and frankly he's probably a little bit embarrassed to have gone down in history as nothing more than a reptile wrangler.  St Patrick (or Patricius as he was probably known) was born in Roman Britain during the dying days of the empire.  Although his father was a Christian priest Patrick wasn't particularly devout until he was kidnapped by Irish slave raiders who took him to Ireland and forced him to herd sheep.  There he found God, possibly under a sheep. 

Escaping from slavery he undertook a religious education and became a monk.  With his monkihood freshly upon him he returned to Ireland and proceeded to convert the population, who at that time were still following less socially acceptable religious practices, to Christianity.  He didn't actually convert the entire island but he made a good start and paved the way for those who would follow.  It wasn't all smooth sailing, he was beaten up and threatened with death but eventually he learnt not to preach just as the pubs were closing.

Of course if you're of a nasty historical bent you can point out that there had been Christian missionaries to Ireland before Patrick and that a great deal of the supposed details of his life can't be substantiated.  One could make the same claim about pretty much anyone who was born in those days but unless we accept that the human race pretty much materialised out of thin air on the day birth certificates were invented half remember whispers and commonly agreed folk history has to do until we invent time travel.

Just on that last point I can't help thinking that if we ever do invent time travel the very first thing that will happen is that the inventor will be beaten to death by a gang of desperately anxious historians.

But back to St Patrick, although he may not have been the first he was, and is, definitely the best remembered.  Can anyone except a Catholic theologian remember who St Palladius was?  Thought not.  So Patrick has his reputation and the fact that he has the reputation is pretty much proof that he earned it.  Nobody remembers nobodies.

For those who are non religious or violently opposed to religion you can still celebrate St Patrick's Day if you just remember that the 17th of March actually marks the date of his death.  Have a pint of Guinness and dance on his grave.

Monday, March 9, 2015

A Companion's Farewell

Something slightly different.  I'm a huge Doctor Who fan both the original series with its cardboard sets and frequently dreadful acting and the much slicker and occasionally better new series although whoever came up with the idea of shooting a golden arrow into a spaceship in order to refuel it should never be allowed near a writing implement again.  One thing which is touched on somewhat in the new series is what happens to the loved ones of the Doctor's various companions.  This got me thinking, companions come and go but what would happen if one didn't?  So I wrote the following with apologies to any of you who were expecting something funny and thanks to Robert Louis Stevenson for the ending.


Two women were finishing a late lunch in the single teashop the little village possessed.  The first woman was in her middle forties but looked ten years older, grief and loss had worn at her features draining them of life.  Her clothing was inexpensive but respectable.  Her companion was nearing seventy but by contrast looked twenty years younger, fit and vigorous with it.  Steel grey hair was pulled back from a strong set of features, her clothing was unorthodox; shirt, trousers and boots all showing signs of hard wear.  Her face was set in an expression of sympathy as the first woman finished her tale.

"So there you have it," said the first woman simply, "I lost my husband in the war, as did so many other women, but then shortly afterwards I lost my brother and my dear daughter as well.  His house burned down, they found his," her voice shook, "remains but there was nothing left of my daughter."  She gave a watery smile, "For some months I hoped that somehow she had escaped."  A sigh, a determined attempt to pull herself together, "but as the years went by...well you have to accept it don't you?"

"Let me tell you a story," said the older woman sipping at her tea.  "It isn't an easy one to believe, it has spacecraft and time travel and creatures from other worlds."
"Really? I'm not sure that..."
"It's just a story," said the older woman then, apparently going off on a tangent, "What year is it?"
The first woman blinked, "It is 1951," then, gently mocking, "it has been since January."
"Of course," said the second woman, "forgive me, one gets absent minded at my age.  Well my story begins in 1945 just a month or so after the end of the war.  A young girl, barely eighteen travelled into the country to visit her uncle.  Unknown to her, the simple act of doing so placed her in dreadful danger.  Her uncle's old house was occupied by strangers, strangers she later learned had murdered him and taken over his home.  In all innocence she approached the house and there these strangers almost killed her.  They shot at her with weapons the like of which she had never seen.  If it had not been for the intervention of another stranger she, and my story, would have died there.  But she didn't die, this stranger saved her life and rescued her from the others who pursued them both." A sip of tea.  "When they were safe the stranger told her that the people in her uncle's house were aliens, criminals from another world who had come to this place to steal something hidden long ago.  She didn't believe him of course, this young girl.  She was not, after all, a fool but the fact that dangerous strangers had taken possession of her uncle's house was obviously true and this man for all his wild tales had saved her life and was determined to defeat them.

"Defeat them he did, with some small assistance from the girl and as she looked fully on their enemy she saw that what the stranger had said was true.  Whoever these people they were not human; their appearance, their clothing and their weapons all were truly alien and what had begun as fear changed to horror but gradually drowning out the horror and the loss of her uncle was fascination.  Until that moment the stars had been nothing but a decoration of the night sky now she wondered what else was out there.  Then the stranger piled miracle on miracle.  He was a traveller he claimed, wandering not just through space but through time itself and he invited her to join him.  All of time and all of space would be at her fingertips just waiting to be seen.  Still only half believing she accepted his offer and discovered that everything he claimed was true and more.

"She walked across the Earth millions of years before the first human and roamed its wastes in the unimaginable future after the last of humanity had left.  This girl whose furthest journey was a school trip to the continent stepped onto worlds unknown to mankind and walked under alien skies.  She saw wonders beyond description and horrors beyond imagining.  Unearthly beauty and terrible cruelty, the universe in all its glory.  As he had done when he met her the stranger fought the evil and the cruelty and she learned to fight beside him.  At first little more than a tourist clinging to her companion's coattails she learned quickly.  She discovered skills and talents she didn't realise she possessed.  She led a revolt against a cruel overlord on one world and tended to the dying in a plague zone on another.  She negotiated a peace treaty between two mighty powers neither of whom had heard of Earth but either of whom could have reduced it to dust.  She swam with talking fish, danced with creatures made of stone, she learned, she loved and always moved on with the time travelling stranger to see the next wonder, to fight the next evil.

"And in that time she changed, she changed so completely and irrevocably that there was almost nothing left of the eighteen year old girl who had stepped so willingly into the time machine so long ago.  Of all the people in the universe, even her own, she resembled none so much as the man she travelled with; alien even to all the others she met.  She thought of her home sometimes, her family but she did not worry.  Wasn't she travelling in a time machine?  She could return to the moment she left and none would be the wiser, certainly none would need to worry.  But she had forgotten that while people may travel through time, time must travel through people.  She aged slowly in the time machine but age she did and as wonder followed wonder so year followed year until decades had passed and she had barely noticed their passage.  When, finally she noticed it was too late.  She was too old, decades too old, to return to that time and pretend nothing had happened.  Of the eighteen year old girl almost nothing was left.  In its place was a stranger; a wise, knowledgeable, caring, infuriating, brilliant stranger.  Just like the man she travelled with.  When she struggled to recall something of the person she was she realised that one thing and one thing alone of that eighteen year old girl remained.  Perhaps worst of all she didn't regret the loss.  She will continue to roam until one day her bones lie on a distant world kissed by a wind that never blows on Earth."

The old woman stopped and finished her tea before drawing a piece of paper from her breast pocket.  The younger woman stared at her, sadness changed to fury.
"How dare you," she spat.  "I told you of my loss, my heartbreak and you weave this ridiculous story around it.  Does it amuse you, to invent fancies built on other people's misery?"  She took a deep breath, gathered the remnants of her dignity about her.  "I shall leave now," she struggled to rise but the older woman was already on her feet.
"Stay and finish your tea, I shall leave you in peace."  She placed the piece of paper on the other woman's plate and fished a handful of coins from her pocket, not all were minted in England, not all were minted on Earth but enough were to pay for the tea.  She left without another word with a long easy stride belonging to a woman decades her junior.

Dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief the first woman noticed the piece of paper and picked it up.  On it were written three words;

"Please forgive me" in her daughter's handwriting.