I love reading weird but useless
facts, useless until the right story comes along. A recent example is the
Saharan silver ant that can run 108 times its body length in a second or, in
human terms, Usain Bolt reaching speeds of 470 mph. Apparently it gallops.
Another useless fact. You want more? As it approaches its top speed, none of
its legs are touching the ground but are flicking back and forth 40 times a
second. It is their way of dealing with the Saharan sun and temperatures of 60
degrees centigrade. This is when lizards, their natural predator, are comatose
in shade allowing the ant to emerge and scavenge what’s left to find. Speed
rather than shade is their only protection. One imagines if their legs touched
the ground overlong, they’d sizzle and crisp.
Evolution is a wonderful thing,
which brings me round to the Zos Wine Saver at £49 a pop and cylinders (they
come in packs of two, each one reusable 15 times—another useless fact unless
you see this as a commercial) at £14.99.
They can, apparently keep wine fresh for up to eight weeks? Grief, you
could buy a case of wine for the price of a Zos Wine Saver + cartridges.
And who, in God’s name, is going to
keep a bottle of wine for eight weeks anyway? What parsimonious, miserable soul would do
such a thing? The hospitable Temperance man or woman might feel obliged to keep
a bottle of wine for the occasional guest, Okay, I get it. But they’d be a damn
sight better off giving it away afterwards rather than dabbling in vino-cryonics.
The grateful guest will remember them. The Zos Wine Saver will not.
Unlike the Saharan silver ant, we keep wine a week, sometimes a
tad longer. In such cases a piece of twirled up kitchen paper is more than
sufficient. But here is a beautiful illustration of two parallel worlds. The Saharan silver ant has little interest in keeping wine fresh for eight weeks, but the miserable
sods who owned such a thing wouldn’t last long in the Saharan sun.
I am very seducible, which,
unfortunately, is not the same as being seductive. The Gasman called (not the
Postman) and seduced us into buy ‘Hive’, which allows you to control temperature
and lights without leaving your chair. The smartphone is truly smart. Worse,
Echo. Dot’s Alexa came with the deal, and she is even more seductive. So, you
get the drift then, you understand where I’m coming from when I confess I find
the Wetherspoons app another irresistible temptation.
No more queuing and jostling at the
bar, pretending politeness to those around you while all the time calculating
who’s justifiably next, and at the same time maintaining a gimlet stare on the
barman or woman.No, instead of all that
you sit and tap an instruction on your phone and your drink or food
mysteriously appears at your table. You anticipate when you might next want a
drink and tap again. It’s like having your mouth attached to a beer tap, your
wallet to a Hoover. At least you think twice having to fight your way back to
I was thinking of this whilst staring at the ceiling of the Kings Head
in Monmouth—a Wetherspoons pub, and wondered what past generations would have
thought of such luxury - or perhaps witchcraft.
What would Charles 1st
have thought when he popped in from Raglan Castle in 1645, or indeed the ardent
Royalist Mayor of Monmouth in 1675 when he commissioned the ceiling and the
various royalist portraits that dominate one of the snugs. Who needs servants
when you have a smartphone or indeed the Wetherspoon App?
Pictures of Charles II and Charles I
And for those without smartphones, plenty of books
One wonders what Oliver Cromwell
would have done with a smartphone, for while Charles drank in the King’s Head in
1645, his nemesis, Cromwell, drank in the Queen’s Head just over the road during roughly the same period. In fact Cromwell stayed there several times during the Civil
War and made good use of his time by destroying Monmouth Castle.
The Queens HeadI
The Kings Head in Agincourt Square
It's hard to believe that in 1835
there were 15 pubs and inns in Agincourt Square. As the rhyme once went: A gin court here, a gin court
there, no wonder they call it A gin Court Square. Poetry has moved on since then; perhaps an C18th Rap.
For generations The King’s Head was
a major coaching inn, which gives me the excuse of incorporating this photo of a
nearby lane. Who wouldn’t want some hot punch after this? And what wondrous witchcraft would the
Wetherspoon app appear to the tired and weary traveller.
Monmouth, with or without the Wetherspoon app and enjoy good beer in both
pubs. The Queens Head has no app but it does have several ghosts, some ‘secret’
rooms, and you can stand on the spot where a reckless cavalier was shot dead
when trying to assassinate Cromwell. No pictures unfortunately.
I think the camera has been a great
leveller. A case in point is the interwar years, the thirties especially. Whereas in earlier centuries anyone with money could accord great artists to
immortalise them on canvas, the 1930’s saw kings and princes, politicians and
minor nobility recorded by amateurs on camera.
They make for a great and evocative record, but it’s the working classes
that really shine in this medium. The aristocracy come across as slightly
sinister, wooden puppets with their grave expressions, plus fours and tweeds—the
women especially, many of them dour and looking like elderly men in drag.
The cover has a childlike
simplicity. It hides, though, a myriad of sins. The book is awash with vintage
photographs of the great and the good, pictures that force the eye to
linger—especially with the waspish comments that accompany them, which is partly the value of the book.
How many of us have cardboard boxes
filled with old black and whites of long dead relatives about whom we know
nothing? Will Cross breathes life into these pictures. In some cases, unless
you have a strong stomach, you almost wish he hadn’t.
In its heyday, the interwar years,
the country house weekend was a ritual of frivolity and class privilege in a
grey and socially deprived world. Looking back it brings to mind the butterfly as
winter approaches—in this case world war, death duties and a working class with
expanding horizons. By examining the notorious parties of Tredegar House, Will
Cross has focused on a small but fascinating niche in local history.
Evan and Blue Boy in house party costume
the death of Courtney Morgan,
Evan leapt from his father’s oppressive shadow into a world
of sunshine and
excess, and in doing so helped bankrupt an ancient and vastly wealthy estate.
His house parties were legendary, attracting Russian princesses, Greek royalty,
and . . . H G Wells, lecherous and unashamedly parasitic. Guests mingled
amongst rent boys and spies—which makes for wonderful gossip—and there is
plenty of that in the book.
What gives this slim volume its
heft is the meticulous research gleaned from what records there are of actual
guests, their names and significance and, most importantly, when they attended.
It’s a historical record, meaningless to many, but fascinating to the
Amongst the names that crop up were
two I found of particular interest: Evan Morgan’s factotum, Captain Henry
(Harry) Ware, and the Marchesa Luisa Casati.
Captain Harry Ware
If I were to rewrite The GiftI’d incorporate Captain Ware
as the satanic familiar acceding to his master’s lubricious desires—for a
price. Ware was Evan Morgan’s procurer-in-chief, haunting docksides and pubs
for rent-boys that his master went through like tissues Evan Morgan’s infatuations
were brutally brief, usually ending with cash or a present and a warning to disappear—or
else. And with Captain Ware the warning was real. Several disappeared never to
be seen again.
Harry Ware and Evan Morgan negotiating terms with a spiv
the Marchesa Luisa Casati. (Neither dour or dowdy)
The Marchesa brought much more joy
to the world—unless you shared Evan Morgan’s proclivities. She gate-crashed
several of his house parties, and as one prone to ‘parading with a pair of
leashed cheetahs and wearing live snakes as jewellery,’ she invariably made her presence known.. Not for the prudish perhaps, one contemporary referring to her
as ‘that international monument of depravity.’
Rent boys or an ‘international
monument of depravity’ A choice I’ve yet to encounter and perhaps never will—certainly not in Tredegar House, currently owned by the National Trust.