Wilder Than A Peach Orchard Boar

05 08 nevesToday I want to tell you about Ralph Neves, a jockey who died and came back to life again on this day in 1936. Neves had a quick temper and a reckless attitude that earned him the nickname Portuguese Pepperpot. He was one of the most fined Jockeys on the West Coast. One trainer said of him “He was a very good rider, but he was wilder than a peach orchard boar.” which is lovely. As the above title could equally apply to my friend and ex-jockey Bob Slayer, I’m going to dedicate this post to him.

On this day Ralph Neves was riding at the Bay Meadows racetrack in San Mateo, California when four horses fell in front of him. His horse, who was called ‘Flannikins’, stopped suddenly then tripped, threw him onto the track and then fell on top of him. Neves was lifted onto a pick-up truck, as there were no ambulances on the course in those days, and taken to the first aid room. What happened next has been retold and embellished so many times, it’s hard to get to the truth of it, so here are all the versions I’ve found, because they’re all excellent.

In the first aid room he was examined by a doctor and pronounced dead. An announcement was made over the tannoy and the stunned crowd were requested to observe a moment of silence. In a last ditch attempt to revive him, the doctor injected adrenaline directly into his heart. Like a scene form ‘Pulp Fiction’, Neves suddenly revived. He demanded to ride the the rest of his races for that day. The stewards would not to let him and insisted that he spend the night in a nearby hospital under observation. They managed to keep him overnight, but the next morning he exited the hospital via a window in his hospital gown and hailed a cab back to the racetrack.

In another account he was revived in the local mortuary and ran screaming into the street, complete with toe tag, to hail a cab straight away. Or perhaps he went to a nearby snooker hall and ran round a couple of times and then hailed a cab. Neves himself insisted that he sat up and walked out of the first aid room and headed across the grandstand towards the jockeys’ room, wearing nothing but his trousers and one boot. When the crowd realized that the shirtless, bloodied, toe-tagged man who was staggering across the grandstand area was the jockey who had been declared dead about a half hour earlier, the crowd and the race officials rushed towards him. Shock turned to celebration. “At one point,” Neves later recalled, “I think everyone on the damn track was chasing me.” He arrived at the jockeys room to find his colleagues had started a collection for his widow.

So there it is. Neves was certainly declared dead and then revived. I don’t know which, if any, of these stories is the true account, but they’re all good. When I told this story to my jockey friend, he was not at all surprised. I was rather sad to learn from him that jockeys seem to fair almost as badly as race horses. Still, he’s not a jockey any more. He’s a comedian with an enormous bus. I couldn’t find a picture of Neves I could use, so here is my drawing of Bob and his Blundabus instead…

05 08 blundabus

Drink to the Future

800px-Sileno_(Museo_del_Louvre)Well, today has been difficult. I have spent most of the day researching a person only to find that Wikipedia had lied to me about a date. Never mind, I didn’t really like him anyway. But, by happy chance I’ve also spent part of the day talking with a friend about a character from Greek Myth called Silenus. He was much more fun, so I’m going to tell you about him instead.

Silenus was the foster father, companion and tutor of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. His origins seem to be very old indeed. He has no mother but Gaia, the earth herself, and sprung fully-formed out of the ground. He’s a sort of man of the forest, who is sometimes described as having the ears, tail and perhaps legs of a horse. You can often see him in paintings of Dionysus and his companions. The one thing you need to know about Silenus, is that he is always drunk. So drunk that he can’t really walk very well. He will be the one sitting on a donkey, falling off a donkey, being supported on a donkey by some satyrs or generally being held up by someone.

02 19 silenus di cosimoRemarkably, he is also very wise. When intoxicated, which as I mentioned is all the time, he possesses special knowledge and the power of prophecy. His favourite things are wine, music and sleep. If you can catch him sleeping and surround him with flowers or chains, he would be under your spell and he might sing for you, tell you a story or foretell your future. That is probably how he came to be at the court of King Midas. Either Midas tempted him with a fountain full of wine, so that he drank it and went to sleep, or some shepherds found him, put a crown of flowers on him and brought him to the king.

For five days, Silenus entertained the king and his court with stories. He told them about a vast continent, far beyond the known world that was peopled by happy and long lived giants, who, by the way, enjoyed an excellent legal system. Once, ten million of them had sailed to our lands but they thought it wasn’t very nice, so they went back again. He told them of a giant whirlpool that no traveller may pass and of two streams nearby. There were fruit trees on the banks of the streams. By one stream, the fruit made people weep and pine away, but eat the fruit on the bank of the other and your youth would be renewed. In fact, you would start living your life backwards, getting younger and younger, until you finally disappeared. Silenus wasn’t keen to tell Midas his fortune though. After being plagued about it for quite some time he said: “… why do you compel me to tell you those things of which it is better you should remain ignorant? For he lives with the least worry who knows not his misfortune…” he went on to say he thought it was better for humans not to be born at all. Actually, we all know what was going to happen to Midas. When Dionysus caught up with his friend, he was so grateful to the king for looking after Silenus, that he offered Midas any gift he would like. Midas chose the gold thing. It did not go well.

Euripides, a playwright from the fifth century BC, wrote a play called ‘Cyclops’ which is a sort of burlesque on Homer’s Odyssey. When Odysseus arrives on the island of the Cyclops, Silenus and his satyrs are already there, captives of the giant. The story is basically the same but a lot more chaotic. There is a bit where the Cyclops is so drunk that he takes Silenus off to his cave because he thinks he is a beautiful young boy. Silenus also claimed that he helped out at a battle between the gods and a race of giants who lived on the earth long ago. He slew the giant Enceladus and frightened the rest of the giants away with his braying donkey. Cyclops is the only surviving Greek play that is neither a comedy or a tragedy, but a satyr. As far as I can tell it’s almost exactly like a tragedy, except with a bunch of hairy satyrs in the chorus making it silly and rude.

The Good Life

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESNow that the Christmas season is over, everyone is thinking about getting back to normal again. Perhaps some are regretting the overindulgence. Perhaps some are thinking of giving something up. I think New Year is, with so many grim days ahead and so long to wait until spring, a terrible time to try to deny yourself the things you enjoy. That’s why I want to tell you today about the Epicureans.

Today, the word Epicurean mostly means someone who enjoys fine food and drink. But there’s actually a lot more to them than that. Epicureans are the followers of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who lived between 341 and 270 BC.01 03 friends Epicurus did not put any faith in the gods, nor did he believe that there was a life beyond death. For him, the only life was this one. We should live it well and in good company. He believed that pleasure was the most important thing in life. The way to attain pleasure was to live modestly and gain knowledge about the workings of the world and learn what it is that makes us truly happy. We should stop believing in an afterlife and fearing the gods; avoid politics and people who are annoying; surround ourselves with trustworthy and affectionate friends; and, most importantly, be an affectionate, virtuous person worthy of trust. This would lead to a state of tranquillity called ataraxia and a life free from fear and from pain. Sounds good doesn’t it?

I have written a lot in the last month about shadowy figures watching over people to see if they were bad or good. For Epicurus and his followers there was no Saint Nicholas, no Krampus, no Icelandic trolls watching over them. Nor did they need to worry about upsetting the gods, because they weren’t watching either. It is people who do bad things and people who are upset by that. It wasn’t that they didn’t believe in the gods, it’s just that they couldn’t really see any evidence of them intervening in human lives. There were four possible reasons for this: The gods either wanted to eliminate bad things and could not, or could but did not want to, or neither wished to nor could, or both wanted to and could. If they wanted to and could not, then they were weak – and this doesn’t sound very godlike. If they could but did not want to, then they were spiteful – which is equally foreign to a god’s nature. If they neither wanted to nor could, they were both weak and spiteful, and therefore not gods. If they wanted to and could, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then did bad things come from? Or why did they not eliminate them?

The Epicureans answer to this was that the gods would not and could not intervene, not because they were malevolent but because they were living in the blissful state of ataraxia. 01 03 food in good companyThe gods did not create the universe, nor did they punish or bless anyone but they were supremely happy, a condition all humans should strive for in their lifetimes. Therefore Epicurus encourages us all to pursue pleasure. Not to overindulge as this causes us suffering. Pleasures of the mind are more important than those of the body so, far from being people who wanted the best of everything, the Epicureans believed that what you ate was less important than who you ate with. Nor did they believe in breaking the law. Because the fear of being found out and the shame and pain associated with punishment takes away pleasure. Laws and punishments, for them, were to protect people from harm and leave everyone free to pursue the goal of happiness. So laws that did not contribute to human happiness were not just.

It wasn’t that they believed virtue was a good thing in itself, only that it served as a means to gain happiness. Therefore, one does nice things, not because it is noble or because the gods want you to, but because it cultivates friendship, which leads to a pleasant life for us. Putting ourselves first, as long as we cause no harm along the way, is a good thing to do. If we choose things that make us happy, we will meet other like-minded people and be even happier.

01 03 blundabus

So, if you were thinking of giving up everything you like and taking on a new and punishing regime, it’s worth remembering the Epicureans thought physical pleasures should be moderated not censored, indulged and not feared. We only pass this way once and we should make the most of it. If you are going to give something up, make it something you hate, not something you enjoy.

I Bet You

07 10 robert chambersToday I have been referring to Chambers Book of Days, which is a massive two volume work written by Robert Chambers and published in 1864. It takes each day of the year, in chronological order, mentions notable births, deaths and saints days and includes several longer articles on events connected with that day. So, as you might imagine, I like him a lot.

There are two basic problems related to researching this blog. Firstly, I am sometimes presented with a long list of completely awful things that happened on a certain day. This is dispiriting, and on those days Robert has often presented me with some forgotten individual or event which has escaped the wikipedia day lists. The second problem is called ‘falling down a wikipedia hole’ when I become so distracted by following links that have nothing to do with the original story but are none the less fascinating. Robert didn’t have the internet, but something similar seems to happen to him occasionally. Just as he seems to be near finishing recording the days events, he will find a topic that sends him off at a complete tangent.

Today’s entry is a good example. He has a small story about a man called Foster Powell who, on November 29th 1773, set off to walk from London to York and back again. It took him three days to walk there, and three days to walk back. He did this for a bet and won a hundred guineas for his effort. This leads Chambers to take a look at other mad bets in history and gives me the opportunity to share a few of them.

11 29 sir walter raleighSir Walter Raleigh once won a wager against Queen Elizabeth I about the weight of smoke contained in a pound of tobacco, they weighed out the tobacco, set fire to it and then weighed the ashes. By subtracting the weight of the ashes from the original pound they assumed they had calculated the weight of the smoke. Then there was a gentleman named Corbet, about whom we know nothing except for the fact he made a bet that his leg was the handsomest in the whole kingdom. Apparently he won and, in 1864 at least, his family still had a picture showing how the legs of the various claimants were measured.

In 1806 in York two men called Thomas Hodgson and Samuel Whitehead bet each other five shillings which of them could dress the most weird. Hodgson chose to fasten bank notes of varying denominations all over his coat and waistcoat and a row of five guinea notes and a netted purse of gold on his hat. On his back he had attached a sign saying ‘John Bull’ Whitehead appeared dressed half as a white woman and half as a black man. On one side he wore a silk stocking and slipper and had painted one half of his face. On the other he wore half a gaudy, long tailed, linen coat, half a pair of leather breeches, a boot and spur. I think the judges made the wrong decision because they awarded the wager to Hodgson. Maybe they were distracted by the showy display of wealth. Then there was the unnamed man who laid a wager that he could stand all day on London Bridge with a tray of sovereigns fresh from the royal mint, offering them for sale at a penny each, and that he would be unable to sell them. He won, he wasn’t able to shift a single one.

11 29 john james heideggerThere was the case of John James Heidegger, Master of Revels to George II. He was not a good looking man, but took this fact with good humour. He bet his friend, the Earl of Chesterfield, that he could not produce an uglier person than himself in the whole of London. A search was made and the earl presented a very old lady from the neighbourhood of St Giles who was, at first sight, as poorly blessed by good looks as himself. But then Heidegger asked if he might put on the lady’s bonnet, and everyone had to agree that he had won his bet.

One last example from Robert Chambers exuberant list is a man who bet his friend that he dared go into the crypt at Westminster Abbey at midnight. To prove he had been there, he would stick a fork in one of the coffins. He accomplished this, but as he turned to leave he felt something pull at him. He was so scared that he fainted. After a while, his friend came to look for him, found him on the floor and revived him. It turned out that as he tried to walk away, the fork had caught on the hem of his cloak.

I can’t really leave the subject of historical bets without mentioning someone else who is similarly fascinated by these odd wagers. In fact, he’s made a couple of series for the BBC about them. Tim FitzHigham has also unwittingly provided me with a couple of colourful characters for this blog. So, this might not make much sense, but here he is with my friend Bob recreating a bet to find out whether a man can run faster than a racehorse.