Thursday, June 30, 2005

Sawney Bean, the Caledonian Cannibal

The view from the entrance of 'Sawney Bean's Cave'. That's Ailsa Crag in the distance...

Yes, I'm back! Let the lyres of joy be heard across the land, let nymphs cavort on the greensward of happiness, let angels parp their trumpets of glee, let.. etc etc etc.

To celebrate my return, here is a longish post. It's a piece of mine that recently appeared in the Fortean Times (and yes I know that rehashing journalism isn't strictly 'blogging' but what the hell, it's MY journalism, and few people read the Fortean Times, despite its being the finest mag on the globe). Ciao!

The Legend of Sawney Bean

I am standing on a grey slate star, embedded in the pavement of Edinburgh's Royal Mile. Today, this spot looks like any other bit of Heritage Britain, only with extra shortcake. Five hundred years ago, if legends are to be believed, it was very different: this was the site where Britain's first and greatest mass murderer was imprisoned; a man so evil his entire family was burned alive, alongside the psychopathic paterfamilias.

This notorious fellow was Alexander 'Sawney' Bean. Gazing down at the sidewalk star, I think back to where I first encountered him.

I was ten years old, and thumbing through my Christmas present – a copy of the 1973 Guinness Book of Records. Amidst the entries on tallest men and swiftest surgeons, I found a chilling and tantalising snippet, claiming that Britain's worst ever serial killer was one 'Sawney Bean'. The Guinness Book's laconic prose told me little more than that, although it did mention that Sawney was a cannibal who lived in a cave.

A Scottish cannibal in a cave? To a 10-year-old boy, that's about as cool as it gets. My interest duly piqued, I spent a fair chunk of my teenage years researching this Sawney Bean character. I did this, first, by tracking down the 'contemporary' accounts of his doings. Eventually, I pieced together a standard version, which goes something like this:
"Sawney Bean was born in the county of East Lothian, near Edinburgh, before King James VI became James I of England. His parents were hedgers and ditchers and brought up their son to the same occupation. Sawney, being very prone to idleness, left his father and mother, and ran away into the desert part of the country, taking with him a woman as viciously inclined as himself. These two took up their habitation in a cave, by the seaside on the shore of the county of Galloway, where they lived upwards of 25 years without going into any city, town, or village."

The narrative goes on to describe how the Beans had "many children and grandchildren", and how they were taught to steal and murder. And worse.

"The family's terrible and bloody method was this. As soon as the Beans had robbed and slaughtered any man, woman or child, they used to carry off the carcass to the den, where, cutting it into quarters, they would pickle the mangled limbs and afterwards eat it, this being their only sustenance. And, notwithstanding, they were at last so numerous, they commonly had superfluity of this their abominable food; so that in the night time they frequently threw legs and arms of the unhappy wretches they had murdered into the sea, at a great distance from their bloody habitation. The limbs were often cast up by the tide in several parts of the country, to the astonishment and terror of all the beholders."

Unsurprisingly, such bestial atrocities caused an outcry. The local 'police' suspected and arrested many men – the wrong ones. Spies were also sent into the wilderness – many of whom never returned. Meanwhile, the Bean family grew larger, as did the number of their victims. Some versions of the story claim that over 1,000 people were eventually eaten by the Beans. The narrative goes on:

"How was it possible the Beans should not be detected? The place they inhabited was quite solitary and lonesome, and when the tide came up, the water went for nearly 200 yards into their subterranean habitation, which reached almost a mile underground, so that when people who had been sent armed to search had passed by the mouth of their cave, they had never taken any notice of it, not supposing that anything human would reside in such a place of perpetual horror and darkness."

But, finally, the Beans went too far. One evening, they attacked a man and his wife, who were making their way home from a local fair on the same horse. The man drew "sword and pistol" to save himself, then rode his horse upon the Beans to drive them away. At the same time, the poor woman fell from behind her husband, and was "instantly murdered before her husband's face, for the female cannibals cut the woman's throat and fell to sucking her blood as if it had been wine". This done, the Beans ripped open the woman's belly and pulled out all her entrails, while the husband looked on aghast. Then came the crucial blow for the Beans. As the family was devouring the woman, "twenty or thirty" fairgoers came down the road. In the face of so many witnesses, Sawney Bean and his clan were, for the first time, forced to withdraw – fleeing through the moors and woods to their cave.

"The man, who was the first that had ever fallen in the Beans' way and come off alive, told the whole company what had happened, and showed them the horrid spectacle of his wife's corpse, which the hungry murderers had dragged to some distance. The company, struck with stupefaction and amazement, took the man with them to Glasgow, and told the affair to the provost of that city, who immediately sent to the king. In about three or four days, his Majesty, with a body of about 400 men and dogs, set out for the place where this dismal tragedy was acted. The man who had been attacked was the guide."

For a long time, even the king couldn't find the Beans' hide-out. When he and his soldiers came to the cave, it seemed too bleak and inaccessible to be a 'home'. But then the dogs began barking, wildly. Something was up. The king sent for torches, and prepared to enter the cave. The narrative concludes:

"Now the whole body of soldiers went in, and they were all so shocked at what they beheld that they were almost ready to sink into the Earth. Human legs, arms, hands and feet were hung up in rows, like dried beef. A great many limbs, of men, women and children, lay in pickle, and a great mass of money, both gold and silver, and an infinite number of other things, which had been taken from those murdered, were also thrown together in heaps.

"Sawney's family was found at the back of the cave. After a struggle, they were seized and pinioned by His Majesty's order. The soldiers took what human flesh they found and buried it in the sands. Then the soldiers and the king returned to Edinburgh with their prisoners. All the country, as they passed along, flocked to see the cursed tribe.

"When the procession came to its journey's end, the wretches were all committed to the Edinburgh Tolbooth, whence they were the next day conducted under a strong guard to Leith, where they were all executed without any process. The men had their privy-members cut off and thrown into the fire; their hands and legs were severed from their bodies, by which amputations they bled to death in some hours. The wife, daughters and grandchildren, having been made spectators of this just punishment, were afterwards burnt to death in three several fires. They all in general died without the least signs of repentance, but continued, to the very last gasp of life cursing and venting the most dreadful imprecations upon all around, and upon all those who were instrumental in bringing them to such well merited punishments."

Even as a child, this story induced in me a degree of scepticism. Could such an extraordinary narrative really be true – or was it made up? If the latter, why would anyone concoct such a gruesome account?

Flash forward 20 years. Here I am in Scotland, searching for the 'truth' about Sawney Bean.

Retiring to a Starbucks just down the Royal Mile, I take up a book. This is one of the most thorough investigations of the Sawney Bean story, by witchcraft expert Ronald Holmes. In his book, Holmes traces the legend back to its earliest publication in about 1700, when it appeared in a fold-it-yourself pamphlet (technically an early 'broadsheet'), printed in Carlisle.

As Holmes relates, the broadsheets of the day favoured gory or heroic stories, simply because these sold best. Unsurprisingly, the Bean story was a great and ongoing success: following the Carlisle publication, the tale of Sawney Bean was then printed in Hull, in Birmingham and then – very many times over – in London.

Thus the story was established in the popular imagination. And, as the centuries passed, the terrifying story of Sawney Bean the Scottish cannibal gained more currency, in fiction and film. Over the years, it has been turned into lurid novels (The Grey Man, by S R Crockett, 1896), and peculiar plays (Sawney Bean, by Robert Nye, 1969); it provided the plot for Wes Craven's 1973 The Hills Have Eyes, it is said to have inspired The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. So much for the genesis, dissemination, and ongoing appeal of the Bean narrative. Is there any evidence to back it all up? Well, as I stand on the ancient Royal Mile, site of the now-demolished Edinburgh Tollbooth and marked by that stone star, I have to admit that this location doesn't support the legend. During Sawney's supposed reign of terror, Edinburgh Tollbooth was in no fit state to house prisoners. Furthermore, as Holmes points out, the Glasgow provost, 50 miles from here, would be a very unlikely person to hear reports of criminals in distant Galloway.

The same problems, and more, attach to the supposed site of the bloodthirsty Bean executions. A quick drive from the prosperous heart of Edinburgh takes me to the place where Sawney was allegedly tortured and killed: Leith Docks. These days it is a busy entrepôt for Scandinavian ferries and sits alongside a shopping mall.

Were Sawney & Co. executed here? As with the rest of Sawney's story, there is a paucity of contemporary documentary evidence. What's more, there should be such records: throughout Scottish history, the various doings of the monarch were minutely recorded. From the comings and goings of ambassadors, to trials of traitors and brigands – all were grist to the archivist's mill. Yet in the entire royal records of Scotland there is not one mention of the sensational Sawney Bean arrest and execution. This absence is particularly stark in the case of James VI, as he was a paranoid man obsessed with demonology and witchcraft: he would have found a truly Satanic case like Sawney Bean's as satisfying as it was disturbing – yet he published nothing on the subject.

A definite blank then. Climbing into my car, I pensively head south out of Edinburgh, towards the wild Dumfries and Galloway region. Perhaps there I will find a little more evidence.

As I approach Sawneyland, the Edinburgh road crosses some bleak and forbidding high moors. It is easy to imagine travellers being waylaid here, even now, so imagine what it must have been like in the 17th century.

Or perhaps the 13th century. Or the ninth? One of the most curious aspects of the Sawney Bean story, in all its incarnations, is that the legend's details remain fairly constant - apart from the dating of the actual crimes. From broadsheet to broadsheet, the precise dating of Sawney Bean's reign of anthropophagic terror varies wildly: sometimes the atrocities occurred during the reign of James VI, or the reign of James I more than 150 years before. Other versions claim the Beans thrived "hundreds of years ago" - which could place the murders back in the days of Bruce, or even Macbeth.

Viewed in this light, it is arguable that the Bean story may have a basis of truth but the precise dating of events has become obscured over the years. Perhaps the dating of the murders was brought forward by the editors and writer of the broadsheets, so as to make the story appear more relevant to the readership (any Fleet Street journalist, like this writer, knows the process well). To add to the intrigue, we do know that cannibalism was not unknown in mediæval Scotland, and that Galloway was in mediæval times a very lawless place; perhaps nothing on the scale of the Bean legend took place, but every story grows and is embroidered over time.

Parking my car, I gaze over the bleak wooded Borderlands, and munch a pink saveloy. Then I take out the writings of another historian, the local historian R J Urquhart. But Urquhart is another sceptic. He points out that Sawney's parents, for instance, are referred to in most accounts as "hedgers and ditchers," and that these are very unlikely occupations for the Scotland of the 16th century, or, indeed, any previous one. The disappearance of "1,000 people" should also, as Urquhart says, be reflected in the private journals, diaries and letters of local inhabitants – no such reflections, from any period, have been found.

As I digest my lunch, I'm finally forced to accept that the legend seriously lacks credibility. But I'm still bothered by my earlier question: why, then, invent such a gruesome tale?

On this matter there appear to be two schools of thought. Ronald Holmes suggests that anti-Scottish feeling, at the time of the Union of the Crowns between England and Scotland, may have led to someone inventing the whole shebang as a way of putting down the Scots. But this idea, at least to my mind, is a bit feeble. For a start, the penny dreadfuls and broadsheets that tell of Sawney Bean are also full of hair-raising tales about highwaymen and pirates. Is the tale of Thaxted-born Dick Turpin an attack on Essex boys? Surely not. If the Sawney Bean story is to be read as deliberately anti-Scottish, how do we explain the equal emphasis on English criminals in the same publications? Wouldn't such an approach rather blunt the point?

The other main suggestion as to why the Sawney Bean story was invented, or at the very least 'sexed-up' from a real, but far less bloodthirsty, event, is a more universal and less historically specific one: that the story somehow satisfies a deep psychological hunger for such horrors. In this view, humans share a dark and morbid obsession with murder, cannibalism and sexualised torture, and therefore we keep on coming up with similar horror stories based on these themes – the ones that frighten and intrigue us the most. The Sawney Bean story is therefore, perhaps, just another inevitable and typical excrescence of our own diseased minds, a kind of psychospiritual acne expressed in the form of legend.

Such a theory does stack up better than the anti-Scottish one. Consider the long life of the Sawney Bean narrative: the way it has sent chills down the spines of so many generations. It has never gone out of print, it has been repeatedly novelised and dramatised and it has actually gained in power with the advent of the horror film. All this makes it a great story – but still a story, a splendidly bloody myth.

Back in the car, I head for my final destination: the supposed cave of Sawney Bean. The road comes off the Ayrshire moors, and heads through the bleak ex-mining towns of the Galloway coast. And still I keep driving. Even though the modern tourist authorities point the curious traveller to "Sawney Bean's Cave", I'm having great trouble finding the site. And maybe this is no surprise. As Holmes and Urquhart both point out, a cave as complex and roomy as the putative Sawney Bean domicile sounds more like the kind of long cavern made by an underground stream. Geologically speaking, there are no such caves in this particular part of the Galloway shoreline.

Eventually, I give up looking, and go into the little seaside burgh of Ballantrae. I ask in the first pub I find. At my question, the merrily pregnant bar girl smiles at me and says: "Oh aye, Sawney's cave!" She directs me a mile back up the coastal road, to Bennane Head.

Parking the car at the top of the Head, I climb out, a little wearily. It's been a long drive. Outside, the rainy air is cold, the wind whipping off the sea. Slowly, I edge down the cliffside, to the alleged site of Sawney's lair. The going is treacherous and more than once I have to grab at the greasy heather. By the time I reach the red sand I am, frankly, knackered. And feeling a little strange. All around me the light is fading; the seagulls are crying. In the distance, the great stone hump of the seabird island, Ailsa Craig, glowers darkly.

At the entrance to the cave I find a kid's graffito of a penis, aerosole-painted across the cave entrance. The great hole itself is blocked by an enormous boulder. So I reach up to take a photo of the cave entrance, holding the camera blindly above the boulder. I take the snap. The flash goes off. All at once, a weird growling noise echoes from the cave. The noise grows louder, and my heart races, my knees buckle, and I stumble backwards, half-expecting to see a kilted Scottish psychopath, his stubbled maw red with fresh human blood, roaring at me from the blackness of the cavern..

Of course, it's just bats and seagulls, disturbed by my flash. This particular cave is empty of human habitation. But as I walk away, I realise that I can't say the same for those deeper, darker caves of the human unconscious.

 Posted by Hello

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Tarry Easty

OK, I'm off again. Trieste. On the Adriatic. Where James Joyce lived. And Winston Churchill, for a while. And now me!!!

I am going to try and blog, but don't throw firebombs at your laptop in disappointment if you see nowt new on this site for a week or two. Because I shall have quite a lot on my plate when I'm out there. First I am going to make a serious attempt to finish my memoirs (Millions of Women are Waiting to Meet You; Bloomsbury Books), second I have to write a travel piece on Trieste, third, on occasion I shall be talking to my fiancee. So you see I may not have much time for embarrassing and egeregious revelations, a la Toffeewomble.

Butya never know!

Ciao  Posted by Hello

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Larva Lamped

I just got back from South Korea. Interesting place. Ish. I shall blog about it in depth in good time (I'm off to Italy tomorrow, so it could be a while) but in the meantime, I thought I'd mention the food. As I may have commented before (and can now say is true) the Koreans eat all kinds of weird food - dog, grasshoppers, octopus eggs. So I thought, as I keep banging on about this, I'd have to try one of them. Just for you. So I went out and bought a tin of... silkworm larvae. That's right. Silkworm larvae, in vinegar and soy sauce. Here's what happened when I got the tin back to my hotel, and tucked in.... Posted by Hello

Here I am, with a silkworm pupa in my hand. What this photo doesn' express is the... smell... of this thing. Quite, quite disgusting.  Posted by Hello

Nearly there. Sort of. Oh God. Posted by Hello

That's him in the ashtray, the little blighter. I've eaten about a third of him; now for the rest. That's the Seoul skyline behind, by the way... Posted by Hello

The aftermath. Posted by Hello

Just in case you didn't believe me. 'Silkworm pupae'. See?! Posted by Hello

I look so unutterably pallid, old and crap in those photos, here's another one where I look slightly better. Slightly. Posted by Hello

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Massively Boring Post About A Stupid Travel Tip

OK, I'm off to South Korea now. Remarkably, I know even less about this place than I did about Quebec. So I have been doing a little research, i.e. looking at the width of the Lonely Planet guidebook on Korea. Not the actual guidebook, mind you, just the width of the spine.

I'd better explain. In my experience the relative width of the spine of a Lonely Planet guidebook is closely indicative of how interesting a country is - cause it shows how much information the Lonely Planet guide book editors have had to squeeze in. Furthermore, the width of the Lonely Planet guidebook can then be correlated with the population of a country, to give a kind of 'per capita interestingness'.

Look at it like this. The USA is a vast and diverse country, of great interest, so it has - naturally - a pretty damn thick Lonely Planet guidebook, to contain all that interesting info. But Ireland, with a population of about 3 million, has a guidebook only a little smaller, making Ireland a relatively more fascinating country than America.

By contrast, Poland's guidebook is thinner than a supermodel on sulphates, despite Poland's population of about 40m. And quite right too, cause there are only three interesting things in Poland (Auschwitz, the european bison, and an old whalebone in Krakow cathedral. Trust me, I've been there).

By the way, for my British readers, on this Thickness of Lonely Planet Guidebook Interestingness-ometer (TM), Britain is one of the most interesting countries in Europe on an absolute basis (comparable with France and Italy, ahead of Spain and Germany); moreover, the UK's per capita interestingness is probably up there in the global top ten, with Japan, Greece, etc. God Save the Queen!

And where does South Korea fit in? On analysis, it would appear to be really quite a dull place. Though the Koreans do eat dogs, larvae, grasshoppers, and live octopi.
 Posted by Hello

Friday, June 10, 2005

Most Conspicuous Public Use of Drugs

As I write, on a dulcet summer evening here in Fitzrovia, central London, there is a police car parked in the middle of my street. It's there, above, in the left centre. The police car has decanted three or four cops, who are now quizzing a homeless guy who 'lives' opposite me (i.e. he regularly sleeps in a cardboard box, in the entrance to the Law College). If you look closely at my brilliant mobile phone pic, you can see the rozzers interrogating the homeless dude.

Why are the peelers quizzing this innocent young derelict? Because he was openly smoking a crackpipe in the street.

Ah, London, you gotta love it.

Walking by this scene a couple of minutes ago, and pacing speedily to my flat so I could take a sneaky photo, got me wondering about public use of drugs.

In my time I've seen some pretty outrageous public consumption of narcotics. I once stayed in a flat in the red light district of Amsterdam, where these rich German junkies would drive up, score heroin from the prostitutes, and then chase the dragon quite openly, in their gleaming Mercedes, parked by the Oudekirk.

I've also seen two people smoking heroin and cocaine, in the porch of Bow Bells church, in Cheapside, in the City, on Millennium night. Nice for the tourists.*

And once I saw a bloke carefully weighing out his heroin with a scales, again this occured just a few hundred yards from me in London (believe it or not I live in a very desirable area, even if my flat is a hovel).

All these examples however, fail in comparison to something my friend Dorian saw last week. It is my belief that the scene witnessed by Dorian wins the Pulitzer Prize for outrgaeous public consumption of recreational substances.

Dorian was walking down one of the main streets in Cardiff, and this junkie was sitting on the pavement... with a little calor gas cooker (you know, the ones you use when camping).... and what was the junkie doing with his little cooker? Well, he was using it to heat up his heroin, prior to injection. This in full view of the entire city.

Frankly, I think that takes the biscuit. It's hard to imagine a more flippantly pubic consumption of Class As than actually setting up a small cottage industry, in the middle of a shopping district, wherewith to prepare your heroin.

Other toffeewomblers may know differently, of course. So: if anyone has witnessed, or heard of, an even more exhibitionistic abuse of narcotics, do please let me know. I'm thinking of setting up an award.

* Actually, the two people smoking heroin and cocaine, by Bow Bells, were me and my friend BW. But I think my point still obtains. Posted by Hello

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Montreal Rocks! Well, ish.

'Live in Montreal', our indie rock album cover.

I've been asked by a toffeewombler whether I enjoyed Montreal, where I very recently weekended.

And did I enjoy it? Well, kinda. I had some very nice food: foie gras and maple syrup canapes. Also I drank lots of champagne, and partied on down, and stayed in an uber-trendy hotel with baths the size of Wyoming. So, yeah, I guess I enjoyed it. In my resultant article I actually compared Montreal to an afternoon soap opera - a punchy, passionate, sentimental place full of ridiculous arguments and beautiful women.

And, yes, that's true - to a point. But like an afternoon soap opera Montreal is also fairly forgettable and ultimately insignificant. Sorry. Is that a bit harsh? I hope not, but if it is - fuck it. The French Canadians aren't known for pulling punches, are they? Ask Jerry Sadowitz!

Indeed, my most memorable souvenir of my trip to Montreal is this photo, rather like an idierock album cover, of the very funky journalists I travelled with, and a very capable (and beauteous) PR girl; we are standing on the Ile St Helene surveying the Montreal skyline. I'm the one behind the cellphone canera, natch.

Thanks for a fun trip, guys!

And now I am on my travels again - Seoul, in South Korea, followed by Trieste, then Croatia, and then Venice. Yes, it's a hard life, but I'm gonna keep blogging if poss.


 Posted by Hello

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

A Poet from Portugal

A church in Tavira, Portugal.

I'm off on my travels again, shortly. So I thought I should update you on where I've been recently. I know you're all busting a GUT to find out.

I spent six days in Tavira, Portugal. As I have said before I didn't do much there, apart from potter around town, lean over the sunny bridge and look at the fish, chat with the internet cafe owner in (my) appalling Spanish, and drink thick red Dao wine. Occasionally I did write a thousand words of my memoirs.

It was, in a word, bliss. I could get used to this itinerant writer's lifestlye, be like a latter-day Somerset Maugham or Graham Greene - only with more use of the word 'clusterfuck'.

That said, I did do one more thing in Tavira. As assiduous toffeewomblers may recall, while I was there I read the Book of Disquiet, a 'diary' by the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.

Who he?

Fernando Pessoa was the weirdest chap. He spent his whole life working in the insurance offices of 20s Lisbon. He never married; he had no kids; he was involved in no great political activity or cultural ferment. Yet, in his evenings and days off, he managed to revolutionise Portuguese poetry and indeed all modernist poetry, by inventing what he called 'heteronyms', four discrete identities, four noms de plume, four alternative personalities - in each of which he composed some wryly gorgeous lyrics.

How weird is that? Most poets would be happy writing great poetry in one style, one voice, under one name. Pessoa did it four times over.

The Book of Disquiet, his one great prose work, is also extremely lovely, in its meandering way. In fact the tenor of the book reminded me curiously of the green languorous river that just about flows through Tavira: clear, slow, wistful, yearning...

How to give you a flavour of the 'Book of Disquiet'? Difficult. Short passages taken out of context sound absurd and pompous, or downright screwy; but the overall effect, the rising carol of the whole thing, is moving and profound, in a bittersweet way.

Sod it. Here's a passage:

'All I've ever done is dream. That, and only that, has been the meaning of my existence. The only thing I've ever really cared about is my inner life. My greatest griefs faded to nothing the moment I opened the window onto my inner self and lost myself in watching.
I never tried to be anything other than a dreamer. I never paid any attention to people who told me to go out and live. I belonged always to whatever was far from me and to whatever I could never be. Anything that was not mine, however base, always seemed to be full of poetry. The only thing I ever loved was pure nothingness. I only ever desired what was beyond my imaginings. All I ever asked of life was that it should pass me by without my even noticing it. Of love I demanded that it never be anything more than a distant dream...'

No, I don't know what the hell it really means either. And the bits I do understand are, on analysis, either trite or vacuous. Yet the overall effect I find mesmerising - the rolling cadence, the wistful repetition, the monastic chanting of the words 'I' and 'never' and 'dream'. It's even better if you combine it with a nice glass of red Dao, as you watch the hot Algarve sun go down.

The Book of Disquiet is also full of intriguing stories and allusions. Here's one:

'There's a story they tell of Sigismund, King of Rome, who, having made a grammatical error in a public speech, said to the person who pointed this out to him: 'I am King of Rome and therefore above grammar. And history tells that he was known thereafter as Sigismund Supragrammaticam.'

OK, maybe I was really drunk when I read that one,

There's a poignant little coda to my Pessoa rhapsody. The great poet himself died alone and utterly unknown. Hardly anyone was aware of his gifts, he was totally anonymous, to many he was just that quiet guy in Accounts who never got laid. His career was about as unsuccessful as it gets.

And you know what? The plane I flew home on was called the 'Fernando Pessoa'.

 Posted by Hello

Monday, June 06, 2005

A Town Called Toast

An aerial shot of the small town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. Note the weird absence of houses. And people. And cars. And town. What on earth happened here? Read on to find out....

As regular toffeewomblers will know, I was in Las Vegas towards the end of last year, with my bro. While I was there, I did all the usual things - gamble pitifully small amounts, eat huge buffet breakfasts, stare at the fake Eiffel Tower, wonder about the 'three whores for $99' adverts pasted on every taxicab.

But I also heard a very curious story. Happened like this: one night my brother and I were in the Harley Davidson bar (on the Strip, you can't miss it, there's a huge Electraglide hoisted over the entrance). While we were in there drinking our Buds, a rather giddy woman in her mid forties started chatting to me. My brother later told me she was coming on to me, but he may have been saying that just to make me depressed. Anyway, even if she was chatting me up, I was less interested in the contents of her ample pants than in what she was saying. This good if rather pissed woman was a lady firefighter from Pennsylvania. She was keen to tell me about a small town in her home state, where an underground fire had been burning for forty years. The fire was so bad, she said, it had closed the town down.

Could this be true? Sounded a bit far fetched. So, being an investigative journalist, and somewhat bored, I endeavoured to find out. Here's what I discovered....

A Town Called Toast - the weirdest little city in America

From the hills above, the little Pennsylvania town looks like any other settlement in the Appalachian valleys. Lots of telegraph poles, the usual grid of leafy streets. But as you drive closer, things get a bit weird. For a start there’s the sulphur smell. Then there’s the emptiness: most of the houses seem to have vanished. Finally you notice the drifts of sinister grey smoke.

Welcome to Centralia. Fifty years ago this mining town was just like a dozen others in the great coalfields of Pennsylvania USA - hard working, hard drinking, full of life.Then something terrible happened. Since that moment, Centralia’s population of 1300 has dwindled; now just seven people are left. As cynical locals say: here, everyone really does know your name.

The terrible event that led to Centralia’s demise seemed innocuous at first. In November 1961 a resident on the outskirts of town decided to burn some trash in a dump. Unfortunately, the dim-witted suburbanite didn’t realise - or didn’t care - that his dump was in an old open-cast coal mine. The mine concealed tunnels cut into the coal seams: the entrance to one tunnel was set on fire by the flaming trash.

At such an early stage the blaze could have been extinguished with just a few buckets of sand. But no one bothered. And so, over the following days and weeks, the coalfire spread, moving slowly down the tunnel, burning into thicker seams of anthracite. Black smoke was now billowing into the wintry air.

Belatedly, the authorities became concerned. But dealing with the fire now required a real effort, and hundreds of dollars. Crucial weeks passed as the bigwigs of the town bickered about their financial responsibilies. Should the fire department handle this? Or was it up to the mining companies? Some optimists claimed that the whole problem was exaggerated, anyway: they reckoned that the fire, lacking oxygen, would burn itself out. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Coal is an extraordinarily combustible substance. In warm airy circumstances coal can burst into flame spontaneously. In situations where there is little oxygen, coal burns more slowly, once alight. But it will keep burning until the fuel runs out: there is a coal seam in New South Wales, Australia that has been on fire for 5000 years.

Underground coal fires are also enormously dangerous. They burn at 12,000 degrees C, close to the temperature of the sun. This kind of compressed heat emits explosive gases, so the fires can suddenly accelerate, and burst onto the surface. The fumes and acidity that accompany these blazes can kill off whole forests, and everything that lives therein.

It was facts like these that finally began to impinge on the Centralia city council. Through the summer of 1962, six months after the fire kicked off, several attempts were made to stifle the tunnel blaze. Holes were drilled. Slurry was pumped. But each time the fire seemed to outpace the workmen; the exposure to oxygen actually increased the voracity of the inferno. At one point a frustrated firemen thought to hell with it, and drilled right into the heart of the fire, instead of ahead of it. This created a kind of mini volcano, with heat and flames streaking three hundred feet into the open air. And all the time the fire gulped down the oxygen. And grew.

Six months later the council tried again, and dug a trench. This didn’t work. Three years later the council got more money and tried pumping still more slurry. This didn’t work either. Over the following years various combinations of trenches, slurry, bore-holes, excavations and generalised jiggery pokery were all flung at the ravenous and maturing fire. None had any effect.

Through the seventies things went a bit quiet. Yes the fire was still expanding underground, but it seemed to be having no effect on town life. As a result, locals started to get blase. Provided the fire was undisturbed, they decided, the town would be OK.

This period of denial ended emphatically in November 1979, when shop-owner David Lamb noticed that he couldn’t light his basement furnace. The reason was that the fire just below his foundations had stolen his oxygen. No one suspected this - at first. But a few days later, down the road, Joseph was Coddington leaning against the walls of his basement when he felt a sharp stinging pain. The reason was that the basement walls were hot. Red hot: 180 degrees.

It was now 1980, and things were sure hotting up in Centralia, PA. That winter, snow melted as soon as it hit the ground - an unusual sight in the lofty Appalachians. Then the snow and rain turned to steam on the heated road surfaces, this steam floated off like fog, which caused several car accidents. Meanwhile, back at his house Joseph Coddington's dad John passed out in his sleep, and was rushed into hospital. The doctors pumped air into his lungs, the air that was missing from his home. The following week David Lamb’s daughter was also hospitalised from oxygen deprivation.

Still the authorities remained inert. But then in 1981 a small boy called Todd Doboski spotted clouds of smoke rising from his grandmother’s yard. Todd was too young to appreciate the danger: he went to peer at the smoke. As he did a huge great cavern suddenly yawned in front of him: the earth had finally collapsed into the fires beneath. Todd nearly fell into these hellish red flames, but he managed to clutch at a tree root, and held on for dear life until his cousin came to the rescue. Two months later the terrorised boy was still under sedation.

This near fatality demanded, at last, some action. But what? Unable to quell the actual flames, the authorities dumped tons of earth in the holes, and installed gas detectors in the houses. Incredibly, however, many on the council still refused to admit that the whole problem was the hundred acre coal fire merrily burning beneath the town. The powers-that-be knew that if they did admit that the fire was to blame, Centralia was doomed.

It was doomed anyway. Trees and flowers were dying, because they had been poisoned by the toxic air. Over in the local graveyard, enormous yellow flames were spotted shooting up between the gravestones, a sight so spooky it allegedly drove a fireman mad. People began moving, gratefully, into temporary accommodation.

Centralia was by this stage a big media story. TV journalists were spotted frying eggs on the broiling hot sidewalks. In this media limelight, there was a near civil war between different sides: some Centralians wanted to admit defeat and get the government to rehouse them, others still claimed that the fire would go out by itself, as it would be ‘halted by the water table’.

In the middle of the argument was the Federal government. It decided to have one last look at putting out the fire. After two months of expert examination, the conclusion was that it would cost billions to extinguish the flames (in stark contrast to the $172 initial estimate back in 1962). This was impossibly expensive. The same experts also concluded that the fire was still growing, and likely to keep growing, for at least another hundred years. State geologist Steve Jones said he could not rule out ‘the entire consumption of Centralia by fire’.

Centralia’s fate was sealed. Over the following two decades everyone slowly moved away, tempted by government grants. Some locals shifted up the road to Ashland PA, others went to a trailer park in a swamp, others quit the state altogether.

As they went, the wreckers moved in. The Victorian terraced houses were knocked down, row by row, occasionally leaving just one, thin, still-inhabited house, standing in a field of cinders. Around the town, heat-buckled roads were permanently closed off, or rerouted. Maps were changed to reflect Centralia’s tragic fate. In the centre of the little town itself, the forest was taking over. Poppies sprouted from the steps of City Hall, bears were spotted snuffling around the town’s derelict library. Centralia was officially dead.

Or... nearly dead. Despite the smoke that drifted from the verges, despite the red hot glow to the ground at night, despite the ever present danger from gas and heat, a few dozen diehards decided to remain. Mainly they were the elderly and the immobile. Given their age and infirmity lots of these people have since expired - naturally - over the years. Which means that just seven people remain in Centralia to this day.

This tiny population is, of course, expanded by sightseers, scientists and firefighters, and sometimes by ex Centralians on nostalgia trips. All of them have their opinions on the most bizarre place in America. Sally Furadi has been a firewoman all her life, she remembers the days in the mid 80s when Centralia really burned. 'The flames were blue, shooting out of the ground. The cliffsides were 1200 degrees. The whole place glowed at night. Man alive. Course it's still dangerous now. You wouldn't wanna live here.'

Her pessimistic opinion doesn't cut much ice with Eileen Lamb, an ex resident of the town. 'I miss the place bad. People here were so close, if you sneezed at St Ignatius's they'd say God bless you at Duffy's.' She twirls a stick in the ashy dust.

'You know where we're sitting? Right where Muldowney's bar was..' She shakes her head. 'But I guess that's why we can't move back, even if they let us, even if the fire has subsided. The town has gone.'

This consensus that Centralia is a dead town is certainly not shared by the actual residents. Joe Moyer is a retired miner who has appointed himself policeman. His duties don't amount to much: occasionally he wanders around to check on his dwindling flock. The other day he spotted that Bernie Darrah, a local old biddy given to sitting in her front window, had been dead for a few days. Her demise reduced the population of Centralia by about 15%. Nonetheless Joe Moyer has hopes for the town. 'Best place in the Anthracite, this was. We had a god-damn grand time of it here. And we could do again. The coal fire will finaly stop, one day soon, and then people will come back.'

Like the rest of the remaining Centralians, Moyer has a twinkling sense of humour, perhaps essential when your hometown is essentially a pizza oven. As he wanders past a half melted doll, asleep on a hot patch of pavement, Moyer laughs: ‘Centralia is the only place you can get buried and cremated for free.’ Then he looks at the weed-strewn empty lot, in front of the battered office still serving as City Hall. 'And you know, that fire has dramatically improved the parking situation’.

As he walks on, he bumps into Lamar Mervine, the 86 year old who serves as the town's astute but slightly doddery mayor. Together the two of them survey the smoky wilderness: the racoon-haunted supermarkets, the signs saying Dangerous Gases, the occasional burnt and blackened tree stump. 'In a way,' says Mervine. 'We're a bit like those guys who lived in monasteries, when the Roman Empire fell. We keep things going for the time the place is reborn. They may have wiped us off the maps, but they can't wipe away our memories, or take away our determination.'

But then he falls as silent as his city. Perhaps, as he does, he is remembering a bit of local legend.

The legend goes like this. One hundred years ago a band of rebel Irish miners beat up a priest in Centralia. The priest was so enraged he vowed to take his revenge in the only way he knew. And so, when he had recovered from his injuries, the priest climbed into his pulpit and uttered a terrible curse on the town. The curse was that, one day, Centralia should burn in hell for ever.  Posted by Hello

One egg or two? Posted by Hello

A welcoming sign at the edge of town. Posted by Hello

Not the kind of road you want to drive down after a few beers. Posted by Hello

Centralia, yesterday. Almost pretty, really. Posted by Hello

Saturday, June 04, 2005

The Last Cries of London

Looks like me, age 6, after discovering that my sister had broken my toy crane. In fact, this gallant lad is continuing a noble tradition once celebrated by Mozart. Read on for more FASCINATING stuff like that..

The Last Cries of London?

If you loiter, on any weekday evening, at the Villers Street entrance to Embankment Tube, in the West End of old London Town, there is a very good chance you will here an oldish man, apparently in terminal pain, bellowing something that sounds like ‘Eeeeaaaaandaaaaarrggggggggh! Eeeaaandaaarrrrrgggghhhhh! Eeeeaaaaandaaaarrrggggh!’

The noise is, of course, the telltale cry of the Evening Standard seller. All Londoners know this, which is why when they hear it they don’t rush for the paramedics, but nod, and frown, and search for 40p.

But should Londoners be so blasé about this noise? Perhaps not. It is arguable that Londoners should be excited about this peculiar yell, because it seems to represent the very last example of a tradition for which London has been known for centuries: the famous Cries of London.

The history of the Cries of London is the history of London commerce itself. Although we cannot be sure, it seems likely that London’s individual hawkers of food, drink, and small goods were already shouting their wares in Roman times. Whenever the idea was precisely established, it certainly proved tenacious: twelve hundred year later, the cries of the street-vendors were flourishing along London’s medieval markets and thoroughfares. The London Lickpenny, an anonymous poem of 1390, lists several of these calls: ‘Straberry ripe!’, ‘Paris thred’, ‘Ryshes grene!’, ‘Cherryes in the ryse!’

Must have been quite a racket. And it was to get worse. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the cries turned still more colourful and clamorous, as a kind of auditory arms race developed between the vendors. Some of the vendors relied on loud repetition to attract attention: ‘Had-had-had-had haddock!’ Other hawkers cleverly developed more poetic ditties: ‘Pretty Maids, Pretty Pins, Pretty Women!’, ‘Diddle Diddle Dumplens Ho!’

By this time many of the criers had begun to foresake careful enunciation. They relied instead on the distinctive pitch and carolling of their cry to get themselves noticed. And so over time, and with much repetition, the cries altered beyond recognition. Through the centuries the ‘Salted Hake!’ of the dried fish seller became ‘Poor Jake’, then ‘Poor Jack’, finally ‘Poor John’. But the cry still worked: if you were standing in, say, Red Lion Square in the 18th century and you heard someone crying ‘Poor John’ over by Holborn, you knew, by the distinctive maudlin lilt of the noise, just where to go and buy your salted cod.

Another cry that famously evolved was that of the chimney-sweeps. In a few decades, ‘sweep! sweep!’ become ‘weep! weep!’ This poignant phrase in turn inspired young William Blake, who must have heard it many times as he grew up in sooty Soho. As a result Blake wrote the poem The Chimney Sweeper: ‘When my mother died I was very young, And my father sold me while yet my tongue, Could scarcely cry 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!’...’

Blake was not the only artist to have been thus inspired. The clattering commercial polyphony of London’s streets was such that almost any visitor of a sensitive disposition was impressed. As Samuel Johnson said: ‘The attention of a newcomer is generally struck by the multiplicity of the cries that stun him’. Among these newcomers were many painters, who attempted to get the remarkable sights and sounds down on paper. These drawings, prints and engravings are now collectively known as The London Cries and have since become globally popular and celebrated.

Composers were likewise inspired, even great composers like Mozart. When the infant Austrian prodigy was wowing Georgian London with his precocious compositions Handel is said to have remarked of Mozart’s music: ‘hints of the very best songs have several of them been owing to the sounds in his ears of cries in the streets’. Closer to our own time, another composer inspired by the Cries was Lionel Bart, in his musical Oliver! The young Oliver’s joyous aria: ‘Who Will Buy....’ begins with a splendid fugue of London Cries: ‘Who will buy my sweet red roses?’

When did the Cries die out? It’s a moot point, but the advent of the noisy motorcar in the last century must have been a factor. And rising prosperity has gradually made the arduous job of street-selling less appealing. Certainly, by the end of the Second World War any remaining criers were largely to be found in the quieter suburbs: e.g. the rag and bone men (‘any old iron?’). And now even they have gone, along with their brethren. For all that Peter Ackroyd, in his magnificent London: The Biography makes the claim that one may still hear ‘the bell of the muffin man’ on the streets of London, this is, surely, wishful thinking. A thorough search of early twenty-first century London apparently produces just the one true crier: the Evening Standard seller.

Moreover, even they seem to be going. There used to be a very noisy Standard-seller on Goodge Street, but he disappeared in the last couple of years. Ditto across London. This makes the few left all the more precious. So, the next time you are by Embankment Station, at the bottom of Villiers Street, cock an ear. You are privileged to be witnessing the final flourish of an ancient and very famous tradition.

‘Eeaaaandddaaaaaarrrrh! Eeeeaaanddaaarggggh! Eaannddaaaarrrgghhhh!!!’

 Posted by Hello

A nosegay for your sweetheart, good sir? Any mi-ilk today mistress, any mi-ilk today? But my pies! Buy my pies! Will you have my sweet red roses? Clove water stomach water! Clove water stomach water! Hokey pokey turnip, made of Swedish hard ice? etc etc ad nauseam Posted by Hello

Friday, June 03, 2005

A Big Thankyou to the Dutch

Cheers, Holland. 62% Nee! Fanfuckingtastic.

Er, a more fulsome blogpost anon. Posted by Hello

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Brothels of Old Paris

A prostitute in a Parisian brothel of the 30s. With a furtive punter...

The Brothels of Gay Paree

Paris has a problem with sex - at least of the commercial variety. Take a stroll down the rue St Denis, or through the Bois de Vincennes, and the evidence is unmissable: there are whores everywhere: standing on streetcorners, lying in the backs of vans, working out of dingy bedsits. Many of these whores are drug-addicts, or HIV+, a disturbing minority are sex slaves from Eastern Europe.

It’s a sad tale that could be repeated in any big modern city. What makes the situation in Paris unique is that the French used to handle commercial sex quite differently. Until their abolition in 1946, the French enjoyed legalised brothels, known as the maisons closes (the ‘closed houses’). Such was opulence of some of these houses they became a proud symbol of French taste, civility, and good sense. Now some French people (a majority, according to a recent poll) want the maison closes re-established; in direct contrast to the Chirac government’s hardline anti-whoring policy. The whole debate is expected to hot up in 2006.

So, what were the maisons closes? And can they really be a remedy for modern urban ills?

The legalised brothels first arose in the 1830s. At that time Paris probably had about two hundred bordellos, scattered around town. As industrialisation brought prosperity, and prosperity brought ‘respectability’, the city authorities came under pressure to close down the cat-houses. Instead the government opted to police them.

The first laws for the maintenance of the houses are a telling balance between propriety and blunt common sense. It was forbidden to establish a bordello on a principal boulevard. Nor could you open one within a hundred metres of a church, or school. The houses had to be discreet, with no signs or open windows; only women were allowed to run brothels (i.e. no pimping); moreover, these women had to be ex-prostitutes. Most crucially of all, every working girl in the house was inspected at fortnightly intervals, by a doctor, for venereal disease.

The system worked. Indeed it worked so well people started making serious profits; these profits attracted further investment. Consequently in 1878 the first really big, opulent brothel opened its discreet polished doors: Le Chabanais.

The proprietress was one Madame Kelly, an Irish-born member of the high-class Jockey Club. Among her backers were various well-known French businessmen. These people anonymously injected enough francs into the Chabanais to make it a model of its kind - and a byword for luxury. Le Chabanais might have been a sober French townhouse on the outside; inside it was all velvet, ormolu, and tiger-skin. The so-called Selection Salon, where the semi-naked whores would lounge around in lingerie for the delectation of the newly-arrived punter, was notably plush.

Not surprisingly, Le Chabanais was expensive; only the rich or royal could afford its pleasures. Amongst these was the future King Edward VII of England, alias ‘Bertie’. Bertie loved Le Chabanais, and came back time after time to sample the exotic Hindu Chamber, and the infamous champagne bath. Such was Prince Bertie’s loyalty the owners of Le Chabanais had a ‘fellatio seat’ specially made for the future king. The seat was designed to make oral sex between two or three people as comfortable as possible; it still exists today, and looks decidedly sinister.

The princely imprimatur was all that Le Chabanais had needed for final approval. A trip to one of the houses now became an integral part of the Paris experience for any visiting celebrity or dignitary. Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, King Leopold of the Belgians, Humphrey Bogart, they all took pleasure at the top bordellos, either at Le Chabanais, or Le Sphinx, or Chez Suzy, or The One Two Two.

The One Two Two, which flourished in the 1930s and 1940s, was noted for its fabulous decor, which out-kitsched even Le Chabanais. The Selection Salon of ‘The One’ was a flower grotto, surrounded by marble pedestals on which the whores posed, bare-breasted. Upstairs were rooms decked out to resemble cabins on ocean liners, igloos in the Arctic, even compartments on the Orient Express where you could commingle with a fascinating stranger (these rooms came complete with ticket collector, primed to slide open the wagon-lit door at just the right titillating moment).

Downstairs in The One there was also a kitchen, with naked serving wenches, and something resembling a torture garden, with chains, handcuffs, and scourges. Perversity was, of course, endemic in the maisons. According to one madam, at various times fully a third of the brothels’ clients were men known as ‘juicers’ (delicate readers please skip the next sentence). These were men who liked to wait outside a whore’s room until the first punter had done his deed, then the ‘juicer’ would rush in and suck out the other man’s sperm.

Other men had even kinkier tastes, all catered for. The great novelist Marcel Proust was a frequenter of the homosexual houses (there were maisons for lesbians, and couples, as well). Proust’s favourite thing was to spy through a specially-drilled hole on other love-making men - not so odd, perhaps. Yet it has also been claimed that he liked to watch rats being stuck with pins. Either way he certainly had an unusual relationship with the brothels: he donated all his dead parents’ furniture to one gay bordello.

Along with Proust, many other artists were drawn to the maisons. Picasso, Hemingway, Degas, Giacometti, all found solace and inspiration behind the shuttered windows. The most assiduous artistic habitue was probably Toulouse-Lautrec. For a while he practically lived in one bordello - on the rue d’Amboise. There he was known to the girls as Teapot Toulouse because of his short stature and maximal endowment. Toulouse-Lautrec also painted a dozen beautiful murals for Le Chabanais, now sadly gone.

The sexual Belle Epoque could not last. The beginning of the end came with the Second World War, when, instead of closing down the brothels the Germans preserved and frequented them, even publishing a guide for the use of officers. In time German soldiers with sten guns were posted outside Le Chabanais; Herman Goring was a regular visitor; towards the end of the Battle of Britain, blonde and doomy German airmen would come to The One, sharing their official amphetamines with the girls in a last careless frenzy.

Such activities were ‘horizontal collaboration’, in the eyes of many angry French people. Right after The Liberation a violent backlash began; the situation worsened when Madame de Gaulle, wife of the new president, revealed her personal animus against the houses. The inevitable end came on April 13th 1946, with the proclamation of the Marthe Ricard law, officially closing down the bordellos. In a few weeks the interiors were broken up; the girls dispersed; the champagne tubs smashed.

What became of the properties? Their fates are poignant and telling. The One Two Two, on 122 rue de Provence, is now a dreary office complex. Le Chabanais on 7 rue de Chabanais has been turned into apartments. The Sphinx in Montparnasse is another block of flats; others are private houses, restaurants, hotels, flower shops.

Just about the only interior to have survived is that of the Aux Belles Poules (‘the beautiful chicks’), at 32 rue Blondel, in the 2nd arrondisement. Here you will find a room of elegantly erotic mosaics, and sentimentally carnal ceramics. As it is one of the few interiors of the tolerated brothels to have survived in situ it has had a preservation order slapped on it.

Parisians who see, on a daily basis, the drug-addicted Albanian girls of rue St Denis can be forgiven for thinking that what the maisons closes need is not preservation, but renovation.  Posted by Hello

Tiles in 'aux belles poules', one of the few preserved Parisian brothel interiors. Posted by Hello

The entrance to Le Chabanais. Now a boring apartment block. Posted by Hello

King Edward's bizarre love-seat. Still trying to work out how he used it.  Posted by Hello