Denis Papin, 1647-1712: Letting Off Some Steam

The  steam boat, that was Robert Fulton’s baby, right?  Good old 19th century American know-how.  No? Not him?

Okay, James Watt, then.  Just the sort of thing a clever Scottish engineer would come up with.

The French beat them both to the punch.  Denis Pepin built the first steam driven paddle boat – in 1704.

The fellow wasn’t even a mechanic.  Not by training at least,  His university degree was in medicine, and even at an advanced point in his non-medical career he was referred to as le medecin Papin. Continue reading

José Cipriano Castro Ruiz, 1858–1924: Don’t Cry For Me, Venezuela

I see in the papers that the protests in Greece and Spain and Argentina over foreign debts are getting uglier by the day, with much fretting over protests and riots and how are we to get through these times?

Impossible to know for sure, of course, but the past gives us a few cautionary tales of what to avoid.   Consider the case of Venezuela and Cipriano Castro.

Castro was a rural middle class boy who made good in 19th century Venezuela, hitching his wagon to the winning revolutionary side in various internal difficulties.  Enough to say that by age 43 he had seized the presidency, he set himself up as a kind of Central American Medici (without the art) – beating back various revolts and killing political opponents and living the high life as only a dictator can. Continue reading

Geoffrey Willans, 1911-1958: As Any Ful Kno

If you know Lennon, you’re going to know McCartney, and if you don’t know Morecambe,  it’s pretty much a given you won’t know Wise.  There are precious few joint operations where, despite equal status on the playbill, one partner is a household name and the other an obscurity,  especially when the work itself remains vital.

Willans falls into that category.  The name alone draws a blank even from people who know and love his work.  Understandable, if tragic.

For one thing, he died relatively young.  For another, his partner was then young Ronald Searle; Searle who illustrated Willan’s greatest creation, Nigel Molesworth, the Curse of St. Custards. Continue reading

François Vatel, 1631-1671: Something Fishy

America comes late to the Age of the Celebrity Chef (no Escoffiers for us) , and of course we have to commercialize the hell out of it (are we honestly to believe that Celebrity Chef Brand pots and pans are qualitatively better than others?) because at the end of the day,  we do tend to measure accomplishment in hard revenue.

Well, television celeb chefs do, at any rate. And however dedicated and passionate as they may be,  I can’t think of any of them  who takes the job as seriously as Vatel did.

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Prince Felix Felixovich Yusupov, 1887- 1967: “any resemblance to living persons….”

Famous for the assassination of Rasputin, which he may or may not have actually had a hand in.

On a lighter note, he was also responsible for the familiar disclaimer on books and movies, this is a work of fiction, any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidence.

It all had to to with the 1932 MGM rather ahistorical production, Rasputin and the Empress, in which a “fictional” Prince Chegodieff is credited with killing the Mad Monk after the fellow had hypnotized and raped Chegodieff’s wife, the Princess Natasha.

Yusupov had no problem with being thought the killer of old Creepy-Drawers, but the bit about the rape was, to his mind, libelous.  The British courts agreed and MGM settled for £25,000, the removal of some crucial footage in the first reel,  and the disclaimer at the start of the film.

But wait, there’s more.   Turned out that there was a real Prince  Chegodiev,  who also sued on grounds of libel.  And also won.

Not easy, the movie making business.

(For footnote minded people like me, the question remaining is, is Chegodiev the Prince Alex Chegodiev mentioned here, or his son Paul, or someone else entirely? If one of the above, it clearly did nothing to turn other family members off of the film industry. )

Dr. James Grainger, 1721-1767; “Come, Muse, Let’s Sing of Rats”

Grainger comes up as candidate for worst English poet of all time in the anthologies, and  the title line is cited as an opening so unintentionally droll as to have brought down the house  when he first declaimed it in public.

Good joke.  It was not the opening of an epic poem, but rather part of longer poem, and misquoted besides:

“Now, Muse, let us sing of rats.”

Okay, so who is the fellow and what’s up with the rats?  I mean to say – rats? Continue reading

Richard Burton 1925-1984: Timor Mortis Conturbat Me

The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Chris Williams, Yale University Press.

One of the great pleasures of Melvyn Bragg’s biography of Richard Burton is the liberal sprinkling from the man’s diaries.  Bragg’s book passed between my wife and me for some weeks when it came out, the funnier selections read aloud, and we regretted mightily that the rest of Burton’s own prose was out of reach.

Good news came last year when it was announced that the whole of it would be given to the Swansea University with a view to eventual publication.

Better news now that about a quarter of the whole has been published.  This was the stuff we’d been waiting for.*

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Zeuxis and Parrhasius, 5th Century BC: One-up-manship

There was disagreement in fifth century Greece over who was the best painter of the day.  It came down to Zeuxis and Parrhasius. A contest was proposed to settle the matter.

Zeuxis proceeded to paint a wall with a  still life of some grapes that proved so realistic that birds were seen to come down and peck at them.

Tough act to follow and Parrhasius was willing to concede victory.  For the record, he reluctantly asked his rival to pull back the curtain on his own poor efforts.  Zeuxis began to do so, only to find that the curtain was itself just painted on the wall.

He immediately acknowledged Parrhasius the better painter.


Sir Thomas Urquhart, 1611-1660: A Man of Parts

Urquhart is best known as the first translator into English of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, a work completed by Peter Anthony Motteux.

It is perhaps something of his nature to be attracted to his work.

The family is old, and was well stocked with real estate, which Thomas’ father spent a good deal of effort in squandering.  It came to such a cross that Thomas and his brother in frustration locked the old fellow up à la Mrs. Rochester, albeit only for a few days.  Afterwards father sued, but got nowhere with it, and family amity was eventually restored.   But nothing improved the finances of the estate, concerning which creditors hounded once the old man died. Continue reading

Wallis Warfield Simpson 1896 -1986; Love, Actually, After A Fashion

That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, Anne Sebba, St. Martin’s Press

Wallis Warfield Simpson is a figure of fascination to generations of women and young girls.  Her story is so romantic-on its face- that most of us cannot resist yet another biography. However, there is another view of Wallis that inverts the whole fairy tale and turns it into a tale of grotesques, hobbling along a doomed path tethered together for a lifetime, something designed to torment the damned in one of Dante’s lower circles of hell.  Biographers see the same picture, some one way up, and some topsy turvy, and in Ms. Sebba’s case it is the upside down version that fills her book with intimations of deformities, neurosis, and disease. Continue reading