Anti-Nazi paperclips, 3,000 time zones in Chicago and outlandish remarks by the King of Tonga: CHARLES SPENCER reveals just some of the curiosities unearthed for his deliciously offbeat hit podcast
It’s amazing how often events from our distant past pop back into our minds. While working as a foreign reporter for an American TV network in the late 1980s, I was in Tonga, an isolated cluster of Polynesian islands that straddles the international date line. I remember looking out of my hotel window and realising that to my left it was Tuesday, and to my right it was Wednesday.
While there, I interviewed the Tongan king, George Tupou IV. Beforehand, a courtier asked me not to refer to his majesty’s 33 stone physique.
I reassured him that it would never cross my mind to be so rude. But, early on in our interview, the monarch chose to touch on his size. ‘I’m on a diet,’ he confided, with a bashful smile.
‘Really?’ I replied, feigning astonishment. ‘Yes. My doctor says I can only eat two yams a day.’ I looked appalled. ‘But,’ the king continued, ‘my doctor doesn’t know that a yam can be six feet long!’
We laughed uproariously.
I interviewed the Tongan king, George Tupou IV. Beforehand, a courtier asked me not to refer to his majesty’s 33 stone physique
While working as a foreign reporter for an American TV network in the late 1980s, I was in Tonga, an isolated cluster of Polynesian islands that straddles the international date line
The king’s sense of the absurd was no surprise to me. I had heard that, while visiting Britain for the wedding of Prince Charles to Diana in 1981, he attended a dinner where two other guests argued at length about which of their Scottish families was the more aristocratic.
Tiring of their snobbish duel, the king of Tonga coughed, and interjected in his soft tones: ‘I, too, have some Scottish blood…’
His fellow guests looked incredulously at this king from such a faraway land. Then he continued, deadpan: ‘Grandfather ate a missionary.’
These are among memories I have included in a new podcast called The Rabbit Hole Detectives which I’m co-hosting with the Reverend Richard Coles and Dr Cat Jarman. We make an eclectic trio: Richard was an 1980s pop star before becoming a vicar, a Strictly hoofer, a radio presenter and a best-selling author and hugely amusing polymath. Cat is a presenter of the TV show Digging For Britain, and author of the bestselling book River Kings, an epic story of the Viking age. Over the past year or two, she has been helping me unearth an ancient Roman villa at my family home of Althorp.
Chatting animatedly with friends on The Rabbit Hole Detectives is preferable to the demands of normal work. It allows me to indulge weekly in one of my vices: endlessly delving into facts, while constantly getting diverted while I do. Apart from looking after my family’s 500-year-old home, Althorp, my main career is writing history books. My last effort, The White Ship, was about the 12th Century King Henry I.
While researching his reign, I could not help disappearing down countless rabbit holes. What, I wondered, did medieval people – most of whom had no idea of how to swim – think of the sea? (They were terrified of it, believing terrible monsters – including sea elephants and sea goats – lurked beneath the waves.)
Or, what was the real Macbeth actually like? (The true king of Scotland was, it turns out, about as far removed from Shakespeare’s hen-pecked neurotic as it is possible to be – ushering in laws to protect widows and children, and having the wherewithal to mount a pilgrimage to Rome, where he impressed onlookers with his generosity to the poor.)
We’ve recorded eight podcast episodes so far and the format is that each of us sets one of the others a vaguely historical topic, and we then present our findings. We (sort of) stick to the theme set, while merrily diving off down myriad rabbit holes in the ensuing conversations. We all delight in what comes to light and reviewers have said that it is like eavesdropping on a dinner party.
How times changed for a furious Scotsman
My first subject was time zones. This slicing up of the 360 degrees of the globe into 24 15-degree pieces came about because train timetables needed to be regularised, so passengers knew where they needed or could expect to be, when planning their journeys.
The man who invented time zones – after being furious at having missed a train – was Sandford Fleming, who was born in 1827 in Kirkcaldy in Fife and worked as an engineer in Canada.
Before standardisation, there were 3,000 different time zones just in and around Chicago. Often, it would be the town’s jeweller who set the time but as there might be many jewellers in one town, each acted independently.
Today, 79 countries change their clocks twice a year. Two US states, Arizona and Hawaii, refuse to conform and don’t change. There are 11 time zones in Russia, and an Assam Tea time zone in India, which was set up by the British Empire, for tea-pickers to go by.
Though China is almost the breadth of the US (which has four main time zones), Chairman Mao (pictured right) set just one time zone to suit his administration, however impractical it was for most Chinese people.
The sparrow massacre that caused a famine
Chairman Mao also decreed that four ‘pests’ which he particularly hated – rats, mosquitoes, flies and sparrows – should be eliminated. He had the sparrows poisoned, trapped and shot. He also had their eggs broken.
He believed that killing the species would increase the harvests for his people because each sparrow eats about two kilos of corn a month. In the face of the birds’ annihilation, the Polish embassy in Beijing became something of a sparrow sanctuary.
Chairman Mao also decreed that four ‘pests’ which he particularly hated – rats, mosquitoes, flies and sparrows – should be eliminated
But the Chinese beat their drums outside the embassy walls, and the birds flew round till they dropped from the sky, dead from exhaustion. Their bodies were gathered up by the shovelful.
Mao’s victory against the sparrow, though, was both short-lived and short-sighted.
He was soon punished by Nature for his cruel meddling with the proper order of things. With insects no longer being picked off by the sparrows, there was the Great Famine of 1959 to 1961, with crops completely ravaged by caterpillars, leading to the deaths of 55 million Chinese people.
Why medieval crows loved heads on sticks
As a Norwegian, Dr Jarman brings a Scandinavian slant to our discussions. She told us that London Bridge Is Falling Down was the first nursery rhyme she learnt in English. The Norwegian equivalent features a (possibly Viking) warrior being condemned to agonising death, in a bubbling black cauldron.
Cat talks of how London Bridge has a more concrete place in history. In 1014, the Norwegian king Olaf Haraldsson set grappling irons on the timber bridge of the time and pulled it down. The toppling was celebrated by the Icelandic poet Ottar the Black, who wrote: ‘Yet you broke the bridge of London, stout-hearted warrior; You succeeded in conquering land.’
For years, the bridge was a trading mecca, with stocks, a cage for offenders and a lady apple-seller whose produce people bought to throw at the prisoners. Until the 17th Century, London Bridge was used to display decapitated heads on sticks – a fate that befell Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor Thomas More and Oliver Cromwell. First, victims’ heads were boiled, and then ravens and crows pecked away at the flesh. A good hanging was a much better way to go.
With decapitations, you would be in the most unbelievable agony for about five seconds after your head was cut off, as you’d still have sensations going around your head.
The role of stationery in Hitler’s downfall
Not all our Rabbit Hole Detective chats involve blood and guts action. Cat has also spoken about how a fellow Norwegian claimed the paperclip, a most practical of inventions, as their own.
Johan Vaaler’s 1899 design patent described ‘spring material, such as a piece of wire, that is bent to a rectangular, triangular, or otherwise shaped hoop, the end parts of which wire piece form members or tongues lying side by side in contrary directions’.
During the Second World War, paperclips were worn as a symbol of resistance against the Nazis after another piece of sartorial defiance, red top hats, were considered too conspicuous. Schoolchildren in America collected paperclips to represent everyone who died in the Holocaust, and Operation Paperclip was a huge initiative between 1945 and 1959 to get the best brains out of Nazi Germany, with about 1,300 brought to America.
One of the most famous recruits was Wernher von Braun, who was the technical director of the V2 rocket that devastated much of Britain, and who went on to design the Saturn V Nasa mission.
Richard goes astray on dogs and dahlias
Meanwhile, the Reverend Richard has educated us on the origins and distinctive charms of his favourite dog breed, the dachshund, and one of the flowers he loves, the dahlia.
You never can guess where our topics will lead us. When referring to the fur coat as one of the ‘things you don’t see any more’, Richard fell down a rabbit hole by adding to that list white dog poo – a common sight in his youth, but rarely seen now. Apparently, white dog poo came about when canine diets were rich in beef and bone meal. It was an excess of calcium that gave the dog’s mess its whiteness.
The family still getting £150 a year for saving Charles II
A street in Stalybridge near Manchester is home to the pub with the longest name in England, the Old 13th Cheshire Astley Volunteer Rifleman Corps Inn, while the one next door has the shortest, the Q inn. The most popular pub name is the Red Lion, then the Rose and Crown, the Royal Oak, Hope and Anchor, Three Horseshoes and the Queen’s Head.
The Red Lion is from the heraldic shield of James VI of Scotland who succeeded Elizabeth I in 1603, and he was keen to put his stamp on important buildings across England to show that the Scots had taken England by storm. There are some gruesome pub names, such as the Bucket of Blood in Hayle, Cornwall, so named after a pail was lowered down the pub’s well to get some water but came up with the blood of a murder victim lying at the bottom.
I have a particular interest in the Royal Oak because of its connection to Charles II who, after his father’s execution, went on the run and hid in an oak tree in a forest in Boscobel, Shropshire. When the Stuarts eventually reclaimed the throne, those who had helped the King were financially rewarded.
A few years ago, I met a yeoman in Shropshire whose family were still receiving £150 a year for saving Charles II’s life. He was miffed that the amount hadn’t been index-linked! I had some knowledge of some of these subjects beforehand, but diving down our Rabbit Hole podcasts has brought them alive for me – and, hopefully, for listeners, too.
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