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Did you ever wonder how the people featured in social media memes got there?

The answer is: purely by chance.

Below are profiles of three people who have gone viral, one of whom you will instantly recognise.

Australian lady

On January 31, 2023, The Guardian featured an article about an Australian woman who went viral on TikTok — ‘”They filmed me without my consent”: the ugly side of #kindness videos’.

Moral of the story: do not allow yourself to be filmed or photographed by a random stranger.

Maree, the Australian, went shoe shopping one day on a winter’s day in June 2022 and, afterwards, relaxed with a cup of coffee in a Melbourne shopping centre (emphases mine):

A young man approached her holding a posy of flowers. He asked Maree to hold them for him as he put on his jacket. “I wish I’d trusted my instincts and said no,” she says. “It was all so quick.” Maree took the flowers – then the man walked away, wishing her “a lovely day”. She held them out after him, bemused.

Then Maree noticed two men operating a camera on a tripod, a few feet away. “I said: ‘Did you film that?’ and they denied it,” says Maree. “I even said to them: ‘Do you want these flowers? I don’t want them.’ They just looked stunned.”

Maree went home with her new shoes and the flowers. That evening, her partner received a text from a friend with teenage children: Maree was in a video going viral on TikTok. Not active on social media, Maree “didn’t think anything of it. I thought: ‘Who watches these TikToks anyway? Oh well.’ I didn’t even know what viral meant.” She paid the video no mind until she saw an article about the interaction in the Daily Mail.

The content creator stepped forward:

The man who had handed the flowers to Maree was Harrison Pawluk, a 22-year-old TikToker with a following of millions for his “random acts of kindness”. Among videos showing him offering hugs to strangers and paying for people’s groceries, Pawluk had posted the clip of Maree with the caption “I hope this made her day better”, with a red heart emoji and the hashtag “#wholesome”. In a little over a week, it had garnered 52m views and 10m likes. “I’m not crying, you are” was one representative comment.

Such “feelgood” content has long been a feature of the social web, dating back to the first days of BuzzFeed and Upworthy – but, since the switch to video, these stories of the kindness of strangers have taken on the form of stunts and social “experiments”. On TikTok, the hashtag #randomactsofkindness has 416m views, while #helpingothers has nearly 850m; although not exclusively stunts, #kindness, #wholesome and #positivity are well into the billions.

Maree is only in her 60s. She did not appreciate that Pawluk thought she was elderly and lonely. Can’t say I blame her:

Maree did not recognise herself as the “elderly woman” depicted – and she took umbrage with the assumption that Pawluk’s intrusion on her day had been welcome. “That was just cruel, I thought, to do that to a person – the whole ‘pathetic’ scenario … I am in my 60s, I have got grey hair, but it kind of upset my sense of how I’m perceived – I’d never really thought of myself as looking old,” she says.

She felt obliged to get her side of the story out to the city of Melbourne:

She had to act, for her own sense of self. In mid-July, she shared her experience on air with ABC Radio Melbourne’s Virginia Trioli, saying she felt “dehumanised” by the interaction with Pawluk. “He interrupted my quiet time, filmed and uploaded a video without my consent, turning it into something it wasn’t; and I feel like he is making quite a lot of money through it … I feel like clickbait.” Maree had come forward because she wanted to warn others, she said. “If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.”

Pawluk admits he does not always seek permission of the people he films beforehand because it might ruin the spontaneity of the moment:

Typically, Pawluk says, he asks people if they would be willing to appear in a video he is shooting for social media – “and if not, no worries, have a great day.” The “kindness” stunts, however, Pawluk films without seeking prior permission, so as to capture the desired “wholesome” reaction. Afterwards, he says, “I will try my best in situations like that to be: ‘I’ve just filmed this video, I was wondering if we could use something like this to inspire others.’” Most people agree, he says – although he will delete footage on request.

Although the notional idea behind these videos is to encourage a caring ‘pass it on’ gesture, the truth is that someone like Pawluk can make a reasonable income from them:

Such blandly “uplifting” content can reach huge audiences, allowing the most successful creators to claim big sums in brand partnerships and sponsorship deals.

Pawluk has more than 3 million followers, earning him a reported monthly income of between A$10,000 and A$15,000 (£5,500 and £8,300). He is studying for a double degree in design and business – but only to please his mum, he says over a video call from his bedroom in Melbourne. “Being a video creator is my ultimate purpose.”

Pawluk rightly got flak after Maree’s radio interview:

In the case of Maree, Pawluk says there was a “miscommunication” by his cameraman. He was surprised to hear, on the ABC, how Maree had felt about his video. “It definitely makes me want to make sure that, in the future, consent is given.” Pawluk denies having targeted Maree deliberately as an older woman. After her interview went viral, he was abused online, he says – mostly by older generations.

Good.

There is a larger ethical issue here: the power over one’s privacy. Someone called Anna Derrig is looking closely at these videos and says there are:

power dynamics at play – not least, who has the privilege of the final cut. Derrig has been researching consent and ethics in memoir and other life-writing for 10 years; she sees parallels between the misappropriation of people’s private stories in print and the “personal damage” increasingly being wrought online.

“It’s a form of theft,” she says. “The person who’s telling the story, the influencer in these cases, is the one in control of the narrative – when that’s on the internet, that’s out there for good.”

Seeking permission is not a magic bullet, says Derrig; what matters is “not just consent but informed consent”, meaning the subject understands all the risks and possible outcomes. In the case of online attention, these are hard to predict – and virtually impossible to control.

People should be aware that some of these videos involve set-ups that look real but are fake:

In the name of spreading kindness, some content creators even pose as homeless to shame passersby for not giving.

In November, an elderly couple were publicly chastised by an Australian TikToker for ignoring his request for help with opening a bottle of water while he was wearing a prop sling. “They didn’t even notice the sling,” says the couple’s daughter, Amal Awad. “They saw a very tall man walking towards them with a friend. My mum’s instincts kicked in and she kept walking, and frankly I don’t blame her.”

The premise of the video is stupid. Why wouldn’t the chap ask his friend to open his water bottle instead?

The couple’s daughter was unable to get the video taken down. Its creator was apparently enthralled by the number of views it was getting:

Many of the comments beneath the video were hateful and racist, Awad says. She asked the TikToker to take it down, but he refused, telling her that it was “still pushing” – meaning it was still getting views.

Awad wrote a column describing her family’s distress at being landed in a stranger’s “social experiment” and calling for society to reckon with what we risk losing in the race for likes. “It’s not harmless: every time we click on these videos, we’re enabling these content creators to not think bigger and better,” she tells me.

It is very difficult, if not impossible, to get these videos taken down:

There is little incentive for platforms to remove material on request or act in accordance with the standards expected of traditional publishers, says Persephone Bridgman Baker, a partner at the law firm Carter-Ruck, who specialises in media, privacy and reputation management.

The merits of any legal action could take into account the motive of the user; any financial gain; the size and nature of the audience reached; the reputational damage done to the subject; any reasonable expectation of privacy; and any public interest in publication. “And what is in the public interest is certainly not the same as what the public finds interesting,” adds Bridgman Baker. There is also the danger of “the Streisand effect”, she says: that, by trying to tackle compromising material, you risk it circulating more widely.

TikTok appears to be the platform that has the most videos of this sort — along with a lot of underage users:

The boundary between online and “IRL” (in real life) has been particularly permeable since the pandemic, while gen Z – for whom the distinction has always been less clear – is now the dominant force on social media. It is no coincidence that most clickbait casualties now come via TikTok, where very young people post without the oversight and etiquette of more established platforms. (TikTok declined to comment for this story.)

It is also worth remembering that TikTok is Chinese. Goodness knows what sort of data they are gathering from these videos.

Six months on, Maree is coming to terms with Pawluk’s video:

“I just think it’s pretty shabby, really. Maybe I’m old-fashioned … but a lot of people don’t seem to get that it’s about making money, not being kind.”

She is glad that she spoke out to challenge the attempt to “other” her. “I changed the narrative, and I had to do that … It was so ugly and misogynist and ageist. I don’t suppose those kids even thought about that – but even that’s disturbing,” she adds.

Maree worries about the erosion of the expectation of privacy: younger generations may not grasp the extent of what they are exposing themselves to, she suggests. “Now, the ordinary person in the street is fair game.”

However, it isn’t just young people taking snaps and filming others. Cher — yes, that Cher — also does it. Two of her subjects did not seem to mind, especially as one of them is also a content creator:

To some, the online spotlight may seem fortuitous. Syndie Germain and her boyfriend went viral in December 2021 not for being the recipients of an act of kindness as such, but for a kind-hearted post. A masked stranger had offered to take their photo while they were out to dinner and it turned out to be Cher, who shared the shot with her 4 million followers. “When we were coming out of movie I saw beautiful Couple,” the singer tweeted in her trademark chaotic style. “…. Had my mask on so they didn’t Know Who I was. MAYBE Just a crazy woman.. THAT ME.”

As a lifestyle-content creator herself, Germain is more comfortable than many sharing herself online. Even so, she found the attention overwhelming. She was glad when it passed; now her run-in with Cher is just a “fun fact about me”.

‘The worst person you know’ from Spain

Beware of old photos going viral online.

A 2014 photo of Josep Maria García went viral during lockdown in 2020.

Last year, The Guardian told the story of how García became ‘the worst person you know’:

Soon after the pandemic plunged Spain into confinement, Josep Maria García received a panicked call from his brother-in-law.

“He told me not to worry, but that I should google the phrase ‘the worst person you know’,” said García. “I put it in and there I was, everywhere. I scrolled down and it was my face, my face, my face. I thought what is going on?”

Paranoia washed over him as he scrambled to piece together what had happened. He had posed for the photo in 2014 as he accompanied his brother-in-law, a professional photographer, on a work trip to Barcelona. As his brother-in-law, who García asked not to be named, prepared for a photo session with an American writer, he asked García to stand in so that he could adjust for the light.

The photo of García, then 34, turned out well – so well that the pair decided to upload it to the Getty Images catalogue.

García vaguely recalled that in 2018 his brother had told him that the image had been used to illustrate an article for a US satirical magazine. At the time he had paid little heed; now as he sifted through the internet he realised he had unwittingly become a global meme. The picture had been used to illustrate a light-hearted piece about an obnoxious colleague who normally talks rubbish for once coming out with a killer observation about politics that no one can top.

Fortunately, at first, the language barrier prevented people from tracking down García. Then a journalist circulated his whereabouts, so his brother-in-law removed the original photo:

His day-to-day life rarely intersected with his online infamy, until a journalist dropped clues on how to find him in a series of social media posts. Messages came pouring in from across the English-speaking world, prompting his brother-in-law to remove the photo.

But it had already come to define García online. “I’ve read comments that say ‘he has the face of a Nazi supremacist’ or that ‘there is no empathy in my look’,” he said. He shrugged off the comments, adding with a laugh: “I’ve got a lot of photos with that look – that’s my look.”

Speaking to The Guardian in 2022, García spoke about his fame in Spain, which hasn’t been easy:

More than two years after stumbling upon the ubiquity of his meme, García – who described himself as reserved – has come to accept his singular status. “It’s not easy. It’s surprising how many millions of hits there are,” he said. “But it’s true that with the passing of time, you start to see it differently.”

For years he rebuffed interview requests, choosing to instead to stay out of the spotlight. But in recent months, as he mulls launching T-shirts that feature his meme, he has opened up to a handful of media. He has steadfastly refused to be photographed – “lest it go viral again”, he told one newspaper – hinting at the scars that continue to linger.

He brushed off suggestions that his meme may have been harder to accept than others. Instead he pointed to swirling debate online as to whether the photo depicts him as the worst person or whether he is captured looking at such a person.

Even so, the adverse association was hammered home during a recent appearance on Spanish TV, when he was greeted with the line: “You don’t have the face of a bad person.”

The TV hosts proceeded to playfully quiz him on whether he might be the worst person they knew, asking him what kind of commission he would charge if supplying face masks during the pandemic or if he would tidy up after throwing a party at a hotel. “Thank you for your sense of humour,” one host said as García proved himself a charming guest.

He has learned to lean on his sense of humour. “I find it quite funny, it’s a good article. It doesn’t disturb me or anything,” he said. “But that surprises people. There are some who ask me ‘are you seriously okay with all this?’”

The Hungarian everyone knows: ‘Hide the Pain Harold’

We’ve all seen the photo of the smiling, grey-haired man sitting with his laptop and a mug of coffee.

His image has spawned countless memes all over the world.

His is another story that happened by chance from an event that took place years ago.

In 2019, a retired Hungarian electrical engineer, András Arató, wrote about his online fame for The Guardian: ‘Experience: my face became a meme’:

Nine years ago, I did a reverse image search on a photograph of me and was shocked to discover it had become a meme. People online thought my smile, combined with the look in my eyes, seemed terribly sad. They were calling me “Hide the Pain Harold”.

The photo came from a shoot I’d done a year earlier, when I was still working as an electrical engineer. A professional photographer had got in touch after seeing my holiday photographs on Facebook. He said he was seeking someone like me to be in some stock images. Everyone is a little vain inside, myself included, so I was happy that he wanted me. He invited me to a photoshoot near my home in Budapest and we took shots in different locations and settings. Over the course of two years he took hundreds of pictures of me for photo libraries.

I thought the pictures would just be used by businesses and websites, but I wasn’t expecting the memes. People overlaid text on my pictures, talking about their wives leaving them, or saying their identity had been stolen and their bank account emptied. They used my image because it looked as if I was smiling through the pain.

Once the memes were out in the world, journalists began to contact me, and wanted to come to my home to interview me. My wife hated it: she thought it interfered in our private life and didn’t like the way I was portrayed. People thought I wasn’t a real person, that I was a Photoshop creation – someone even got in contact asking for proof that I existed.

The meme-making continued, so Arató created a Facebook fan page for himself:

I knew that it was impossible to stop people making memes, but it still annoyed me that Facebook pages, some with hundreds of thousands of followers, were using my photograph as their profile picture, and pretending to be me. Some kind of brand had been made out of me and I would have been a fool not to make use of it. So, in 2017, I created my own Facebook fan page and updated it with videos and stories from my travels.

It turned out to be the right move. Work has been pouring in for the pensioner ever since:

That started everything going. People noticed that I had taken ownership of the meme and got in contact to offer me work. I was given a role in a television commercial for a Hungarian car dealer. In one of the adverts, I travelled to Germany to buy a used car and it broke down halfway home; if I had bought the same car through their company, the brand claimed, it wouldn’t have happened. The fee for that commercial changed my wife’s mind about the meme.

Now my life has changed dramatically. People ask me to talk about my story, to demonstrate the power of memes. A football website flew me to England to make a video about Manchester City; I got to tour the ground and watch them play a Champions League game. The German mail-order giant Otto flew me out to make commercials for them. The Hungarian hard rock band Cloud 9+ have a song called Hide The Pain, with me in the video. I’m the face of Totum, the British discount card run by the National Union of Students – they got me to wear a bucket hat. I’ve even given a TED talk.

Last year, I took 20 flights from Budapest to destinations all over the world: Europe, Russia and, increasingly, South America. Last month, I travelled to Chile and Colombia for some TV appearances; that was the first time I felt like a real celebrity. Every time I walked down the street a crowd would gather, so they gave me bodyguards. I’ve never enjoyed a fame like that before; sometimes it was frightening.

We’re also using the meme for good. We want it to be more than just a sad smile. I am the face of a campaign for a mental health service in Hungary, similar to the Samaritans in the UK. I’m proud that something more has come out of the last 10 years than just an idiotic smile.

Oddly, I never found his smile sad. I just wondered where he was from, because he didn’t look like a North American or a Western European.

Arató doesn’t think he looks sad, either:

I’m 74 now. I spent 40 years as an engineer. I did a bit of public speaking then, at conferences and lectures, but that was very different from appearing on television talkshows and YouTube videos. As an engineer, it was really me. Now, it’s role play: I’m Hide the Pain Harold. But I’m not actually a sad guy – I think I’m rather a happy one.

So many years on and new Arató memes are showing up all the time.

I’m happy he’s capitalised on his fame and has seen the world.

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Epiphany Magi salesianity_blogspot_comJanuary 6 is the feast of the Epiphany.

I am most grateful to whoever tweeted the link to my 2014 post ‘Why the Epiphany is so important — a Lutheran perspective’ on Thursday, January 5, 2023. I received 743 Twitter referrals and the post had 852 views. As I write this in the late morning on Friday, I have had 175 Twitter referrals and the post has had 202 views. Many thanks — greatly appreciated!

The source for that post’s content comes from St Paul’s Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) in Kingsville, Maryland. Their explanation is a good précis of the revelation that occurred when the Magi arrived to visit the Christ Child, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The Magi were Gentiles, which is significant, because it foreshadowed that non-Jews would be welcomed into the Church.

These are the readings for January 6:

Epiphany — Old Testament reading — Isaiah 60:1-6 (2017)

Epiphany — Epistle — Ephesians 3:1-12 (2016)

Epiphany — Gospel — Matthew 2:1-12 (2016)

These posts offer further reflections on the importance of this feast day:

A Lutheran pastor reflects on the Epiphany

More Lutheran reflections on the Epiphany

A Lutheran perspective on the Magi

The Epiphany and the Bible

Jesuit astronomer discusses the Star of Bethlehem (2016)

What to remember about Epiphany (2016)

Some Christians mark their doorway with the initials of the Three Kings every year on this day:

Remembering the Epiphany in chalk

Then we come to traditions that are celebrated at this time of year.

These posts have to do with English celebrations, marking the end of the traditional 12-day Christmas period and signalling a return to work:

St Distaff’s Day — Distaff Day: January 7

Plough Monday – first Monday after Epiphany

The English tradition of Plough Monday (2016)

Plough Monday — the Monday after Epiphany (2017)

And, of course, there are sweet treats to eat, such as king cake, which is popular in New Orleans:

Epiphany and king cake — a history

This brings me to Spain, where Epiphany overshadows Christmas as the main gift giving day, a tradition that has carried through to Spanish-speaking countries in Latin and South America.

Cities, towns and villages hold their own Three Kings Parade, La Cabalgata de Reyes, which takes place on the evening of January 5.

El Rincón del Tandém, the Spanish School in Valencia, explains Spain’s Epiphany traditions, beginning with children’s letters to the Three Kings, the Magi (emphases mine):

As with Father Christmas, in many countries a letter is also written to ask the Three Wise Men for presents. It is common for children to write this letter at school on the last days of school and give it to their parents so that they can pass it on to the Three Wise Men.

Parents take their children’s letters to the Three Kings Parade so that they can pass them on to the kings or their pages:

This is another of the Spanish traditions related to Three Kings Day. It is a parade of floats in which the people on the floats throw sweets, candies and some toys to the children who come to see them. In addition to this, the Three Wise Men ride on the most sumptuous floats to remind the children to be good and go home early. Alongside the floats of the Three Wise Men are the pages, who collect the letters from the children who were late in sending them. If you live in Valencia, don’t miss the Three Kings Parade!

Camels often feature in the parades, at least in Spain, because these beasts of burden are what the Wise Men used.

It is, therefore, important to ensure that the camels receive food and water at home after the parade. The Wise Men could use a treat, too. Children also put out their shoes, receptacles for their presents:

Among the traditions, which vary from country to country, food is given to the camels and the Three Kings. In Spain they are given a plate with milk and nougat and in Latin America it is cut grass inside a shoebox. All this so that both the camels and the Three Wise Men can have a snack after a long night of handing out presents.

There is also a king cake for family and friends to enjoy, the Roscón de Reyes:

This is a round-shaped cake, filled with cream and covered with candied fruit. You are sure to see it in all bakeries and pastry shops. Inside it hides a figure of a wise man and a bean. According to the tradition of each town in Spain, whoever gets the Wise Man becomes king for a day and everyone must pay homage to him and do what he/she asks for. If you get the bean, then you have to pay for the roscón.

Spain Is Culture has more.

Some towns have special postmen who collect and deliver the children’s letters. Children:

can either give the letter to the Wise Men personally when they arrive “officially” on 5 January, or to the emissaries and royal postmen to be found in the centre of all Spanish towns a few days before. They will be asked if they have been good at school and at home, because naughty children get left coal instead of presents. Although, in truth, it is a “sweet” punishment because the coal is made of sugar.

Everyone enjoys the parade:

When the long-awaited day finally arrives, the whole family come out onto the street to receive the Wise Men. They arrive with a traditional parade, riding through the streets on their camels, loaded with presents and accompanied by royal pages who throw sweets and goodies to the children. One by one, the delightful floats pass by, decorated with bright colours and inspired in popular children’s characters. The little ones will love them. All the while, a band brings joy to the celebration with Christmas songs and carols. The spectacle of joy, light and colour, combined with the smiles of the children, make for a feeling of complete happiness.

There are parades celebrated all over Spain on this day. Each has its own particular style, depending on where you are. In Barcelona, for example, the Three Wise Men arrive by sea, while in the village of Alarilla, in Guadalajara, they are daring enough to arrive by hang-glider and paraglider. Or why not see the parade in Alcoi, Alicante, the oldest in Spain?

Yes, we’ll get to the parade in Alcoi in a moment.

When the parade ends:

children go to bed early but excited, to wait for Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar to come in through the window and leave presents in their shoes. First they should put water and bread on the windowsill for the camels to eat and drink while the Wise Men do their work.

EuroWeekly had a January 4 announcement for the 2023 parade in Palma, Mallorca, complete with a photo of the Three Kings on a balcony waving to the crowd:

The Three Kings is the main Christmas period celebration of the year in Spain and the celebrations in Mallorca are magnificent and most certainly a spectacle to enjoy if you are visiting at this time of year.

The Three Kings is a celebration of the arrival of Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior in Bethlehem to see baby Jesus, and is enjoyed all over Spain with a street parade, known in Spanish as a “Cabalgata de Reyes”, on the evening of January 5, with the first-ever parade that was recorded being in 1876 in Alicante.

Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar, aboard the period boat, Rafael Verdera, will disembark at around 6:00.PM at the Moll Vell. Once ashore, they will walk through the streets of the city accompanied by their floats and troupes.

Spanish Sabores has a first-hand account, complete with photos, from Lauren Aloise, who attended a Cabalgata de Reyes in 2012. The Kings and their pages throw wrapped hard candies from the floats:

La Cabalgata in El Puerto was probably one of the most fun parades I’ve ever been to. It wins the award for most dangerous too! The candy throwing was intense, and I was lucky to escape with only a few light bruises and my camera still intact …

Spaniards take this parade seriously. Everyone comes with big, empty plastic bags, hoping to fill them to the brim with candy. A few die-hard spectators bring an umbrella and turn it inside out– cheating if you ask me, but it seems to be effective. I heard teenage girls strategizing about how to catch the most candy, and Ale almost got knocked out when trying to retrieve a treat that had landed on the ground next to him. You’ll need to protect your face from the candies that the Kings throw at you at full speed, and I wouldn’t recommend bringing a very good camera (I had my old point and shoot thank goodness!) …

The candy they give away is kind of gross, and you have to fight to the death to catch it. I caught two by accident (they got lodged in my scarf) but I’m just not a lemon and orange hard candy kind of girl. That said, the challenge of catching the candy that comes your way (and not getting hit in the eye) is kind of fun. I was laughing the entire time!

Overall, I really enjoyed La Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos and if the weather is ever as nice as it was this year, I’d definitely consider going again. My advice: be alert, and protect your face and possessions. Remember, it’s just candy, and although it’s free it’s not worth fighting for. Have fun!

It’s a Spanish version of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, as floats also represent popular cartoon characters of the day, including those from Disney.

A 2019 post from Andalucia Tours and Discovery says:

This parade is very popular, because not only The Three Kings will be there, but also other characters, like Spongebob, Aladdin, and some other Disney figures. You also see a lot of dancers, musicians, and puppeteers. The Kings ride on camels or elaborate floats and throw goodies, usually candy or sweets, down to the children.

In Seville, this tradition also starts at the 5th of January. The parade of that day will start at 16:15 at the University of Sevilla, The old Tobacco Factory. Then, the parade will end around 22:00 at the University again.

The parade of 2019 will be composed of 33 floats, seven musical groups, six hosts of Bedouins as well as a choir of bells.

Devour Tours also has a good overview of January 5 and 6, particularly the food. Their post is from 2022:

The Three Wise Men have been honored in various European countries since the Middle Ages. When the tradition of Santa Claus bringing gifts to children on Christmas Day became popular in some countries centuries ago, Spain followed suit, but used los reyes magos as the gift-bringers instead.

In recent years, some Spanish families have begun to embrace the Santa tradition as well. As a result, some children get gifts on both December 25 and January 6. However, Three Kings Day is easily the more important of the two, and the day when just about everyone in Spain will be in the gift-giving spirit

Throughout the holiday season, Spanish families enjoy multiple feasts that last for hours. Three Kings Day is no different. After opening the gifts from los reyes magos, it’s time to enjoy an elaborate lunch comprised of multiple courses and plenty of post-meal chatter, known as sobremesa.

A typical Three Kings Day lunch in Spain will likely start with some appetizers such as cheese and cured meats. The main course can vary depending on where you are in the country, but expect something hearty and filling, usually meat or seafood based. Just be sure to save room for dessert: the almighty roscón

The roscón de reyes is notoriously difficult to make at home and takes a long time. As a result, most people outsource theirs to the experts. Starting in the fall, bakeries throughout Spain see thousands of orders for roscones from locals eager to reserve theirs in time.

As for when to eat the roscón, that depends on who you ask. Some families dig into theirs as soon as they get home from the Three Kings Day parade on January 5. Others have it for breakfast on the morning of the 6th, and still others hold off until afternoon on Three Kings Day to have it for merienda, or the midday snack around 6 p.m.

Roscones can come in several different varieties, all of them delicious. Some are plain and come without any filling. Others contain fresh whipped cream, chocolate truffle cream, or even candied spaghetti squash (it’s better than it sounds!).

Now we get to the 2023 controversy in Alcoi, or Alcoy, in Valencia.

On January 3, The Times reported of an activist group’s objections to the portrayal of Balthazar by the locals:

The events, which mark the end of Christmas and the day when people exchange gifts for the festive season, still often feature people wearing blackface to represent Balthazar, the magus traditionally depicted as black in Christian lore.

In several towns, such as Igualada in Catalonia and Alcoy in Valencia, hundreds of Balthazar’s assistants or “pages”, also wear blackface.

Opposition has grown in recent years but the practice persists, sparking renewed calls for a ban. “It doesn’t matter what you think you’re trying to represent. It doesn’t matter that you think it makes kids happy. It doesn’t matter if it’s a tradition. If you paint yourself a colour that’s not yours, it’s racist,” Elvira Swartch Lorenzo said. She is a member of Afrofeminas, an anti-racism group that has campaigned against the tradition.

“The cabalgata contributes to normalising in the collective imagination the slave period as something harmless and without consequences,” she said. “The black faces that walk through the Spanish streets, our very presence, is a consequence of the slave and colonial past that is not studied in schools.”

Except that Balthazar was a very wealthy and highly learned man. He brought myrrh to the Christ Child, used in embalming and signifying His death to come.

The controversy began nationwide a few years ago and has involved more towns than Alcoi. Locals are appointed to portray Balthazar and his pages:

“It’s not a question of racism,” Eduard Creus, the spokesman for the private foundation that organises the parade, told La Vanguardia newspaper. He said several measures were being studied to respond to the criticism, including appointing a black person to play Baltazhar.

“Groups of people of African descent have approached the foundation offering to look for and hire pages, but ours are not theatrical performances,” he added. “Volunteering transmits the magic feeling of the occasion.”

In 2019, a Catalan television station refused to continue to broadcast Igualada’s parade, opting for another one that did not use blackface volunteers. The same year anti-racism groups reported that their campaign had led to a reduction to one in four parades using blackface Baltazhars. Last year a senior official from Spain’s equality ministry criticised Alicante city hall for featuring a blackface Baltazhar.

Activists also object to camels being used:

Afrofeminas has called for a boycott of Alcoy’s parade, which is the oldest in Spain dating to 1885, but its appeal appears to have fallen on deaf ears. However, a petition by an animal rights group demanding that camels not be used in the event attracted more than 77,000 signatures.

But that’s what camels are for. They are beasts of burden. They always have been.

I don’t know what to say, other than that the activists don’t know the story of the Magi, one of the most beautiful in the New Testament.

Matthew does not give us specifics about the Wise Men, Three Kings or Magi — whatever one prefers to call these brilliant men who followed a star for many months, probably a year or more, in order to find their final destination.

Wikipedia’s entry on Biblical Magi states that the origin of their names came from a 5th century document in the first instance:

The online version of Encyclopædia Britannica states: “According to Western church tradition, Balthasar is often represented as a king of Arabia or sometimes Ethiopia, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Gaspar as a king of India.”[23] These names apparently derive from a Greek manuscript probably composed in Alexandria around 500, which has been translated into Latin with the title Excerpta Latina Barbari.[19] Another Greek document from the 8th century, of presumed Irish origin and translated into Latin with the title Collectanea et Flores, continues the tradition of three kings and their names and gives additional details.[24][25]

Also:

In the Western Christian church, they have all been regarded as saints

It does seem as if activists, who probably know nothing about the Bible, are hell bent on destroying Christian traditions.

I cannot think of a better way of getting children interested in the New Testament than during the Christmas season, ending with Epiphany. The Nativity story is a beautiful, albeit humble, one and it shows that people from all nations are welcome in God’s kingdom through belief in His Son, Jesus Christ.

Anyone, especially men, who worked in London in the 1980s will tell you how wonderful business lunches were in that era.

They were long and languorous, fuelled with alcohol.

The 1990s put paid to all that, and lunch al desko with fizzy pop or coffee became the norm, which, sadly, still exists today.

Therefore, it is good to read that long 1980s style lunches are back, in England, at least.

That’s the only good thing that can be said about coronavirus.

According to food critic Kate Spicer, writing for The Sunday Times, the trend started during curfew mandates in Ibiza in 2020 (emphases mine):

Daylight decadence is back. As someone recently said to me: “It’s literally carpe diem.” It arguably all started in Ibiza. With clubs closed, hedonism was a sit-down affair, and lunch became the island’s big ticket.

When holidaying Britons returned from the Spanish resort and our restaurants reopened, lunch followed.

Restaurateurs in London are loving it:

Dan Keeling can tell you what a good lunch sounds like. The co-owner of the highly praised Noble Rot restaurants in London has his office above the dining room at the Lamb’s Conduit Street site. “There’s no maybe about it — people are relishing lunch,” he says. “I know when we’re having a good service because the rumble of laughter, the roar of conversation, the actual vibrations of convivial good living rise up through the floorboards. A service like that can go off on a Tuesday. I love it. I feel like a kid up there, listening to my parents having a party.”

“We’ve been scooping grown men giggling into taxis at 6pm all summer,’’ says Fitzdares’s CEO, William Woodhams. ‘‘What I see is people planning lunches weeks in advance — off the cuff is over, it’s all about a lunch as a main event. Reservations start with a table for two and snowball. With everyone half in the office, half WFH, people are not in London all the time. They’ll come in, plan a morning of, say, three meetings where they might have originally done eight in a day, and then devote the afternoon to lunch.”

This phenomenon is an urban one:

Keeling thinks the urban exodus during the pandemic has reminded people exactly why we love our big British cities: “It’s impossible to recreate that urban glamour and energy in the shires.”

How true!

Other big cities are benefiting, such as Manchester:

At Manchester’s Hawksmoor, the high-end steak and seafood restaurant, lunches are as busy as they have ever been since opening in 2015. Co-founder Will Beckett puts it down to people wanting “face time not FaceTime. It’s not about what’s new and centred round the ‘chef’s vision’. They want a restaurant that nails the food and atmosphere but puts customers at the centre of the meal, somewhere they’ll feel comfortable and loved.”

Not everything is rosy, however. Brexit and coronavirus resulted in Europeans moving back to the Continent. That said, we have six million who successfully applied to remain in the UK, so we should be able to get European hospitality workers, surely.

Still, for those restaurants that can open for lunch, the world is their oyster. One London restaurant co-owner described it as ‘Christmas every day’:

At Luca, the unimpeachable Italian in Farringdon, the co-owner Johnny Smith says they could book lunch sittings several times over. He describes the energy then as celebratory. It feels like Christmas every day. And when people come they have it all — the prelunch drink at the bar, all the courses.”

Good!

Here’s a glimpse of the 1980s lunch, as served at Langan’s, which is reopening on October 30:

At its epicentre was Langan’s Brasserie in Mayfair, then owned by Peter Langan and the actor Michael Caine. It was the destination for “languid, long, late and liquid business lunches”, as Richard Young, the photographer who documented its glory days, remembers. When the stars came out, he would often spot the same people sitting there at 8pm, rolling lunch over to dinner. One of the restaurant’s new owners, Graziano Arricale, says it won’t be having any express-menu business either when it reopens in October after recent refurbishment. “People see Langan’s as an escape from work,” he says. I don’t think the two-bottle business lunch will come back, but going out for friends is different. Our lunch crowd will be in for a long, celebratory two or three hours.”

Excellent!

Another fan of the 1980s lunch was the late Keith Waterhouse, who even wrote a book about it:

The writer and satirist Keith Waterhouse rose at dawn, worked until lunch and then spent the rest of the day over a meal he eulogised in The Theory and Practice of Lunch. The book, published in 1986, is worth digging out to remind our fretful, workaholic Pret generations what it’s like to breathe into the afternoon and take time over eating during the daylight hours. “Lunch at its lunchiest,” he wrote, “is the nearest it is possible to get to sheer bliss while remaining vertical.”

I could not agree more.

However, alcohol is not necessary for a good lunch:

… it doesn’t have to be drunken. Good company is its own high, says the model, make-up artist and sidesaddle stuntwoman Lady Martha Sitwell, who has mastered the sober long lunch. “If it’s a good crowd I’ll slam a few sugary drinks and a good atmosphere will pull you into the afternoon. It doesn’t have to be messy.” Not that she’s anti that. “It’s just pointless pretending you can work,” she says. “It’s straight to the sofa to rehydrate and brainless Friends reruns.”

Yes, it is one’s lunchmates who make the afternoon a memorable one.

That’s why my far better half and I are looking forward to another long, languid London lunch with friends next week. I can hardly wait.

January is a time for many people to cut back on an excess of Christmas food and drink.

In the UK, a popular way to attempt this for one month is through a vegan diet, hence Veganuary.

This year, despite the economic vagaries of coronavirus, meat consumption actually rose:

On March 4, 2021, FarmingUK reported that January sales of red meat and dairy was up compared with the same month last year. In fact, meat sales have risen throughout the pandemic (emphases mine below):

Latest Kantar data shows overall volume sales of red meat were up 15 percent and almost 12 percent for dairy, compared with January 2020.

Red meat and dairy retail sales have seen solid growth since Covid-19 restrictions began last March, with shoppers buying more through retail than pre-Covid.

Over the last quarter, growth across all red meat and dairy has been stronger than overall grocery growth at 10 percent.

Primary red meat volume has seen an 18% increase, with mince driving much of the growth within beef, along with burgers and steaks, but shoppers have also brought traditional roasting joints back to the table.

The seasonal lockdown has also led to more shoppers buying primary red meat, with increased household penetration at 83 percent, Kantar figures show …

Rebecca Miah, AHDB’s Strategy Director for beef and lamb, said the red meat and dairy sectors had an excellent start to the New Year.

“[They] reflect how highly valued red meat and dairy are to consumers,” she explained.

“While alternatives show growth from a small base, these are mostly complimentary additional purchases driven by interest and variety, rather than a move away from real meat and dairy consumption.”

That’s great news for our farmers.

Christophe Pelletier, a Canadian who studies food trends, says that increased meat and dairy consumption has also been observed in other countries:

Pelletier retweeted this thread about a University of Kansas study showing that Americans preferred beef to veggie burgers:

On March 3, the university posted an article on the subject, ‘Study: consumers favor ground beef over plant-based alternatives’.

An excerpt follows:

Ground beef – offered with 10%, 20% and 30% fat — was strongly preferred for taste and flavor over plant-based alternatives, and less than one-third of the respondents said they would buy the plant-based alternatives in the store or retail settings, according to K-State meat scientist Travis O’Quinn.

“The results are pretty stark,” O’Quinn said. “Our three ground beef products were highly desired by consumers. We didn’t witness many differences among the three fat levels we offered, but when we compared those to the ground beef alternatives, every one of the alternatives had a tendency to fall out (of favorability with consumers).”

Consumers rated the plant-based alternatives as “extremely dry,” according to O’Quinn, and rated those products “very low” for flavor. In one test, only 18% of the consumers said they would be willing to buy the plant-based ground beef alternative.

O’Quinn said the researchers tested ground beef alternatives designed for retail and food service use, and another consisting of a traditional soy protein base.

It’s great to read that consumers are voting with their pocketbooks in favour of meat.

For too long now, we have been bombarded with anti-meat propaganda such as this:

The truth is that many people’s health has improved because they eat meat:

Perhaps that is why we are being ‘nudged’ away from it: less money for Big Pharma’s coffers.

Instead, we are told that meat harms our health and is responsible for pandemics:

The World Economic Forum (WEF) that meets at Davos every year insists we switch to a plant-based diet. One wonders if the bigwigs at the WEF have a plant-based diet?

The WEF works closely with the UN on food issues.

Smaller farmers are pushed out of the picture in favour of multinationals:

Yet, production of fruit and vegetables is not always kind to the environment. What about avocado production that is harming wildlife in Africa? The tweet about growing avocados is tongue-in-cheek but the effect on elephants and other native species is real:

What about this plastic monstrosity for fruit and veg in Spain? Immigrants from North Africa make up the bulk of the workers:

The Netherlands can do the same more sustainably:

There are better ways of growing crops and rearing meat. They are being implemented right now.

Here is an integrated farm of wheat and cattle. The cattle fertilise the wheat naturally. Some of the grain harvest is for them. The rest is used for consumer foods:

Smaller growers in the US and in France have been adopting this method, too.

I have seen two documentaries over the past couple of years on farming that uses an ecosystem.

One was with an American cheese maker who grows his own crops to feed the cows but also has other farm animals to keep the soil in balance.

Last week, I saw another, featuring a Frenchman who grows vegetables. He, too, has a variety of farm animals, including cows, which achieve the same objective.

And, yes, there are perfectly natural ways to reduce methane from cattle — grass grazing or a seaweed supplement:

Conclusion: the future of agriculture is hardly as bleak as we are told. Farmers are thinking out of the box — and very successfully.

The future of meat is positive — and is here to stay.

As we approach 2021, a growing number of Europeans are sceptical about our governments’ respective responses to coronavirus.

My guess is that people are becoming suspicious about the loss of their civil liberties, which was only supposed to last for two to three weeks, yet continues to this day — nine months on.

There is no end in sight as we face the possibility of another sharp, nationwide lockdown early in the New Year.

France

This was a major topic of discussion on RMC’s Les Grandes Gueules today.

Vaccinations have reached saturation point in France, even though the programme has barely started. Perhaps the government was too slow in obtaining more doses at the outset:

Regardless, in France, as well as everywhere else, even the vaccinated will need to continue to wear masks — possibly even after their second BioNtech/Pfizer jab:

Of course, mass vaccination is the only way that a nation’s economy can once again flourish. Recall that for most age groups — up to the 70+ cohort — the average death rate is around 0.05%:

In the meantime, the question arose over whether future lockdowns should be national or regional. (We’ve tried both recently in England and Wales. It doesn’t seem to make much difference.) This educator says that we can’t stay locked down for the next ten years — ‘I’m horrified. We’re in a world of madness”:

The lawyer on the panel disagreed, saying that we need lockdowns until we get the all clear. Someone responded to the tweet casting doubt on government statistics, saying that lies are a way of dramatising the situation — Project Fear:

Listeners rang in to say that they were sceptical about lockdowns and mandatory vaccines. The lockdowns don’t seem to work and there aren’t enough data yet to show that the vaccines are reliable and safe, especially if they operate like the flu vaccine, meaning that one is still susceptible to getting coronavirus, albeit a milder form of it.

Spain

The Spanish government is considering whether to develop a list of residents who do not take the vaccine then circulate those names to other countries to restrict their movements.

British talk show host Maajid Nawaz of LBC warned that this is a very dangerous step for a nation to take. He said that, years ago, he was a prisoner of conscience in Egypt and found out how far the state can go in controlling one’s life. The response to his video is quite telling:

Someone else replying said that Spain would not be able to circulate the list because of personal privacy laws under the Europe-wide GDPR regulations. Hmm, I wonder:

England

Maajid Nawaz had another excellent commentary on the futility of lockdowns. He said that only one person in the UK has put together a cost benefit analysis for public consumption and that only the Times has published it. Apparently, 500,000 lives are adversely affected among the general population and they are not COVID-19 ‘cases’ or inpatients. He added that Government ministers have a lot of data they refuse to reveal to the public. I would go further and say they are not even revealing it to MPs. Matt Hancock lets nothing out in Parliament, only more fear-mongering messages, then expects MPs to approve more restrictions:

Simon Dolan, a businessman who has sued the Government over lockdown, points out that lockdown relies on asymptomatic transmission being true. However, yet another study shows that there is no truth behind asymptomatic transmission:

The latest study, which the JAMA published, focusses on household transmission:

On lockdown, Simon Dolan posits:

Yes, most probably.

But what about the lorry drivers stranded at Dover because Emmanuel Macron didn’t want them coming into Calais unless they were tested? Only a tiny number tested positive:

It’s no wonder people are sceptical.

In closing, I have been waiting for an ecological impact assessment on masks. Here it is:

Does anyone else find it odd that, given the alarm over coronavirus, no country has any HAZMAT bins for used masks? Shouldn’t worn masks be considered hazardous waste?

It makes one wonder …

More to come.

This week, the UK government’s scientific advisers and Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that new, stricter coronavirus measures would come into effect on Thursday, September 24.

On Monday morning, Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance presented their latest figures, which looked as if they must have come (once again) from Prof Neil Ferguson, they are that exaggerated. You can see the graph further down in my post:

This is utter madness, reminiscent of the WMD days when Tony Blair told us that a WMD could reach our shores within 45 minutes:

Their presentation, given against a No. 10 backdrop, had the purpose of preparing the public for Boris Johnson’s announcements on Tuesday. They took no questions.

They showed graphs of where Spain and France are, with an uptick in ‘cases’. Again, that means positive test results, most of which do not require hospitalisation.

Strangely enough, the Rule of Six only came in on Monday. Let’s let it bed in for a few days, fellas, before taking more measures. They’re doing exactly what they did in March, though. On March 16, new measures came in. On March 23, we had lockdown.

The Rule of Six is a Belgian tactic that SAGE thought would work in England. As such, they recommended it to the Government.

Perhaps this is the reason the two scientists did not mention Belgium once in their presentation:

I am glad someone will be tracking the progress of the projections over the next few weeks:

On Tuesday, Boris addressed Parliament and gave a short address that evening, televised to the nation.

In short:

– Pubs and restaurants must close by 10 p.m.

– They must offer table service only.

– All retail workers in hospitality settings must wear masks, along with customers, unless they are eating or drinking.

– Fines for breaking the Rule of Six or not wearing a face covering will result in an initial fine of £200, up from £100, for a first offence.

– Indoor five-a-side football matches have been banned.

– Wedding attendance has been reduced from 30 to 15; funeral attendance remains capped at 30.

– Police are allowed to call the military to fulfil office duties and/or to guard protected sites, leaving the police more capacity to fight crime.

– The plan to return a limited number of fans to sports stadia on October 1 is now postponed indefinitely.

The Daily Mail has a comprehensive article, including Boris’s transcript, on the scathing reactions from police and business owners, particularly publicans. Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber said that this could sound the death knell for commercial theatre.

The Telegraph‘s Matt has this take on Army assistance:

The chances of that happening are very low:

The sad thing is that only five per cent of COVID-19 infections occur in a hospitality environment!

The Government and SAGE know this — yet they pressed on with restrictions!

The Daily Mail reported (emphases mine):

Public Health England data reveals that of the 729 outbreaks in the week to September 13only five per cent occurred in food outlets such as restaurants and pubs – 45 per cent were in care homes, 21 per cent in schools and 18 per cent in places of work.

Wetherspoons founder Tim Martin said: ‘The curfew doesn’t even stand up to five minutes consideration by an intelligent person because if you look at the stats… there are relatively few transfers of infections in pubs.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade body UK Hospitality, urged the Government to heed its own statistics because the curfew could take a sledgehammer to the industry which is already ‘on its knees’.

She said this morning: ‘People will think it’s not that significant, but it really will have a big economic impact on jobs, not just on pubs, but also for cafes and restaurants.’   

Martin Wolstencroft, head of Arch Inspirations, which runs 17 bars and restaurants in Leeds, Manchester, York and Newcastle, said the curfew will not make it viable to open some of his venues.

Ironically, August was the month of discount lunches in Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s successful initiative, Eat Out to Help Out, which the hospitality industry welcomed.

The Government’s new restrictions will largely destroy any uplift participating restaurants received from it.

What on earth is going on?

Toby Young, who was at Oxford with Boris, says that something has changed — and not for the better. Note that Prince Charles approves of military intervention for climate change. Scary:

It’s entirely possible that these ruinous measures have no basis in scientific fact, devastating people’s livelihoods and families:

Conservative backbench MPs sounded off.

On Tuesday, Sir Desmond Swayne, who has commented both in and outside the House of Commons, tweeted:

His blog post states, in part:

Flu kills all year round – In the last weeks of July it killed 1000 of us (where Covid-19 killed only 200)- but it is seasonal: it certainly kills a lot more of us in the winter. Equally, we should stop talking about another wave of Covid-19 and instead, like flu, start expecting its annual season.

Having peaked in April Covid-19 abated over the summer. Inevitably it will get worse in winter. It may also be worse this winter than might otherwise have been the case. This is because we carried on with a number of restrictions on normal social life during the summer, reducing our ability to acquire and share herd immunity and wasting the opportunity provided by the weakest period for the virus.

My contention remains, as I have said many times over the last months, that our over-reaction to the disease has done much more lasting economic damage, and, counter-intuitively, even more damage to our health than the disease itself.

The current strategy merely kicks the can down the road. If the measures work and reduce the spread, the virus will simply reappear later.

Of course, we could be lucky and get a vaccine or a cure, or even ‘moon-shot’ daily tests to enable us to return to normality, but none of these are certain.

One day there may be a virus that threatens our whole way of life – but this isn’t it, even if we are behaving as if it were.

Sir Desmond retweeted a neurologist’s comment on the outrageous graph of projected ‘cases’ this autumn — in reality, positive tests:

Today, Sir Desmond gave an interview to the BBC about the continuing and questionable restrictions on civil liberties:

Richard Drax rightly predicted economic disaster, ruining the lives of millions:

Lucy Allan also spoke out on Twitter.

She tweeted Monday’s graph from SAGE:

She rightly opposes putting everyone on restrictions when we should be protecting those most at risk:

She retweeted an open letter from Profs Sikora, Heneghan and several other leaders in British medicine:

She also called for the precise definition of a ‘case’:

That’s probably why Whitty and Vallance didn’t take questions.

Sir Edward Leigh also had a lot to say on this week’s announcements:

He is rightly concerned about the blind faith we place in authority and the gradual erosion of civil liberties:

I couldn’t agree more:

At least 1,000 people die in the UK every day.

Below are the causes of death per day in September.

Note where COVID-19 is: second from the bottom, dwarfed by heart disease and cancer.

There were nearly twice as many suicides than deaths from the Chi-vi:

https://image.vuukle.com/21414c90-8f1a-445b-989f-74a955755b28-d1e24630-3f46-4d99-920d-a243660a26ea

Steve Baker is also concerned about the restrictions bypassing Parliament:

Wow. Sir Graham Brady could pit a load of Tory rebels against the government. Good show:

The article from The Critic says:

Unless Matt Hancock finds a workable accommodation with Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbench MPs, the government faces the prospect of defeat next Wednesday when the Coronavirus Act 2020 comes up for its six-monthly renewal in the House of Commons.

The scale of backbench unhappiness is such that according to Steve Baker, who is working alongside Sir Graham, “the magic number was exceeded with 24 hours” of his beginning to canvas support for an insurrection among fellow Conservative MPs. Victory would require Labour and SNP MPs to seize on the opportunity to inflict a humiliating defeat on the government by voting with the Tory rebels. Indications increasingly suggest that this could happen. An increasingly dispirited Whips Office, which feels ignored and disrespected by Downing Street, is especially concerned at the sight of the former ERG “Spartans” leader, Baker, at Westminster furiously tapping away on his phone – a colliery canary of trouble ahead.

The government is equally concerned that the rebellion is being led by Sir Graham Brady, whose role as chairman of the 1992 Committee makes him the most authoritative channel of backbench opinion. In a sign of how seriously Downing Street management is taking the senior shop steward’s challenge, on Monday evening the prime minister privately went to see the 1922’s executive committee.

The primary complaint is that the government is using powers granted to it under the 1984 Public Health Act and 2020 Coronavirus Act to enact previously unconscionable measures without any prior debate in the Commons. Brady has condemned ministers who “have got into the habit of ruling by decree.”

MPs were prepared to cede considerable authority to the government in March in a period of acute crisis when there appeared to be only weeks if not days to “flatten the sombrero” to save the NHS from being overwhelmed. But Boris Johnson’s admission in his statement to Parliament today that the latest curtailments (which include further restrictions on hospitality opening hours and the number of people who can congregate at weddings, funerals and other public, private and sporting functions), would likely last at least six months has alerted MPs to the reality that government by decree may last until a vaccine is approved. If, indeed, a vaccine is approved. This is a war that will not be over by Christmas.

Far from persuading potential rebel MPs that a new crisis is looming, the performance of the government’s chief medical and scientific officers, Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, at their press conference yesterday has heightened consternation that the government is over-reliant on advice predicated upon worst case scenarios that is trumping competing economic and civil liberty considerations.

The likelihood of executive mission creep was foreseen back in March by David Davis and Steve Baker who pushed the government into adopting an amendment reducing from two years to six months the period in which the powers of the Coronavirus Act must be renewed by parliament. That renewal debate will now take place next Wednesday.

I remember that debate from March and also wondered if the Government were as good as their word.

Whilst they are unlikely to call for a wholesale repeal of the Coronavirus Act, Sir Graham Brady could call for a scrutiny clause appended to the Act so that every new statutory instrument connected to the legislation would have to go through Parliament first. To date, many of them have not. Therefore:

Rebels are pinning their hopes on this prospect. They may find a friend in the The Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who has already made clear his intense irritation with Matt Hancock’s disregard for informing parliament first of major legal changes like the “rule of six” and for the government’s brusque imposition of restrictions in his own Chorley constituency

The appeal of such a mechanism is obvious to Tory backbenchers concerned that laws are being made without scrutiny and are difficult to repeal. But there is no in-principle reason why Opposition parties need object to such a parliamentary safeguard either. Hence the likelihood of a rebellion having the numbers to succeed next Wednesday.

I can hardly wait.

Iain Duncan Smith is also airing his views. Note what he says and compare it to the death graph above:

Brexit better be more than BRINO, otherwise that prediction about the Conservatives could come true.

Former Brexit Party MEP and owner of England’s greatest smoked salmon business, Forman’s, said:

How true.

Unfortunately, at today’s PMQs, Boris said that restrictions will continue until a vaccine is found! Dangerous.

During July, there were several British news items I did not have time to cover.

Without further ado, here they are …

St Swithin’s Day

July 15 was St Swithin’s Day, traditionally thought to successfully predict the weather for the next 40 days.

It was cool and cloudy.

So it is two weeks later.

The Mirror tried to debunk centuries of tradition that day by saying temps would reach 29° C that weekend. They never did, at least in the UK. We had a maximum of 24°.

Since then, it’s been cool, cloudy and rainy — with a few hours of sunshine here and there.

The Mirror was wrong. As my late grandmother-in-law always said: ‘The old ways are the best’.

This isn’t the first year I’ve tracked the weather following St Swithin’s Day.

Trust what happens on July 15 in the UK. That’s the weather for the next six weeks.

Admittedly, we might get the odd, sunny, warm day, such as today — but, that might be a rarity during the month ahead.

Friday, July 17

This was the day when temps reached a maximum of 24°.

More importantly, Princess Beatrice was married at Windsor. Her father, Prince Andrew, stayed out of the photos.

The wedding was small, in keeping with coronavirus guidelines:

Another wonderful event took place that day at Windsor. Captain Tom Moore, 100, received a socially-distanced knighthood from the Queen:

Captain Sir Tom Moore raised tens of millions of £££ for the NHS during the height of the pandemic by walking around his garden 100 times on a zimmer frame (walker). I am sure that was not easy for him, yet he persevered.

Afterward, the Second World War veteran said:

It’s been an absolutely outstanding day and you could never have believed I was never going to get such an honour as I have today. I really believed never ever would I be so privileged I could be so close to the Queen and speak to her, and that really was something absolutely outstanding.

Fantastic! May God continue to bless him abundantly.

Boris’s first anniversary as PM

Thursday, July 23 marked Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s first anniversary.

This delightful video shows clips of him promoting the 2010 Olympics when he was Mayor of London:

Although it’s been a miserable year, he has achieved the impossible, as Guido Fawkes reminds us:

  • Defeated Corbyn
  • Delivered Brexit
  • Won an 80 seat Conservative Party majority

Boris listed many more achievements over the past year. He could not even list them all in two minutes:

But there was no time to rest, as Boris was busy planning for the best and the worst in the months ahead:

Conservatives are still happy with his performance:

Writing for UnHerd, Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at the University of Kent, analysed Boris’s appeal among his supporters (emphases mine):

To find a similar degree of constant and tribal support for the Conservative brand, you have to go all the way back to the spring of 1987 when Margaret Thatcher began a similar period of total dominance in the polls that lasted for around two years. Though even that is a little misleading — Thatcher might have had a lot going on, but she never had to grapple with a global pandemic and the shutdown of the entire economy …

why have Johnson’s voters stayed so loyal?

The first thing to remember is how Boris Johnson achieved power. He pushed through what David Cameron had little interest in and Theresa May never really understood — the “realignment” of British politics. By organising around Brexit, which was itself an expression of a deeper fault line, Johnson was able to consolidate the Leave vote.

By doing so, he was able to anchor his party far more securely in a cross-class coalition of traditional “true blue” Tories and instinctively socially conservative blue-collar workers. By doing so, Johnson injected a greater degree of tribalism into his electorate and, by extension, a greater degree of “cultural polarisation” into the country. In a country where six in every ten constituencies broke for Brexit, this strategy makes sense. You might not like it but, electorally, strategically, it makes complete sense.

It also brings us to a point that many of his critics have failed to grasp. What unites Boris Johnson’s voters is not so much their economic experience, as their values. They prioritise the nation and the national community. They prefer stability over change. And they favour continuity over disruption and discontinuity. This is why they cherish Britain’s history, heritage and collective memory and are more sensitive to attempts to deconstruct them. And while they acknowledge that this history is complex, they believe that, on the whole, it was positive and that Britain has been a force for good in the world. In short, they believe in their country. They are proud of it. And they are proud of their fellow citizens …

Johnson is offering a positive and forward-looking creed that is more interested in national renewal and salvation than decline and repudiation. He is proud of the country and its people. And until his opponents figure this out and change track, then I suspect that many of those voters will continue to stand behind him while keeping their distance from his critics.

Boris’s war on fat

Boris has been on a diet since recovering from coronavirus. So far, he has lost a stone (14 pounds):

Now he wants all of us to lose weight — five pounds each — and save the NHS an estimated £100m. Hmm.

Guido Fawkes reported (emphases in the original):

Boris promises his health push will “not in an excessively bossy or nannying way, I hope” persuade Britons to lose a few pounds. Which is a curious line given the now-almost imminent, nonsensical ban on pre-watershed ‘junk food’ ads…

Agreed.

Last summer, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan banned what he termed ‘junk food’ adverts across the capital. Last June, when Wimbledon was in full swing, Guido reported:

London’s blanket ban on ‘junk food’ advertising is not only ineffective, inconsistent and impractical, it’s going to cost a fortune too! Estimated at a whopping £35 million, it will deprive dilapidated public services of desperately needed investment. Who’s decided that chicken burgers are not junk food but olive oil is? And no mince pies allowed at Xmas? No strawberries and cream for Wimbledon?

The simple truth is ad bans don’t work – there’s no proof they reduce childhood obesity. However, there is clear evidence that wide-ranging, collaborative and positive approaches are an effective solution. In Amsterdam, childhood obesity rates fell by 12% between 2012-15, through investment in positive lifestyle and education campaigns.

Telling people what they can do is much more effective than hectoring them about what they can’t. Evidence-based solutions are more effective than political ones.

One year later, Boris thinks this is a great idea for television:

British artist David Hockney, who opposed the UK’s smoking ban in 2007, was less than impressed:

I said to my far better half on Monday that they will probably target all the good foods, e.g. butter and meat.

The next day, I drank my morning coffee while waking up to this:

I love hummus! It’s good for you, too.

Guido posted an extensive list of what falls under the category of junk food, based on UK government guidelines.

In addition to hummus and raisins we find butter (as I predicted), more than half of all meats (mm-hmm, also as predicted), margarine, pesto, tomato soup, nearly all cheese, most yoghurts and, strangely, the driest, blandest thing on the planet: cream crackers, which have no cream in them, by the way. Hell is a cream cracker.

Something’s gone very wrong with this Conservative government. Most of us thought Boris was a libertarian.

Whatever the case, there must be a better way than another ban:

Maybe Boris is still frightened from his serious illness. I suspect it took him a long time to recuperate, judging from his appearance in the weeks that followed.

Cat contracts coronavirus

On Monday, July 27, Reuters reported:

The British environment ministry said “all available evidence” suggested the cat had contracted the coronavirus from its owners, who had both tested positive for COVID-19.

Both the cat and the humans made a full recovery and there was no transmission to any other animals or people in the household, the ministry said without identifying the individuals involved.

“This is the first case of a domestic cat testing positive for COVID-19 in the UK but should not be a cause for alarm,” said Yvonne Doyle, medical director at Public Health England.

“The investigation into this case suggests that the infection was spread from humans to animal, and not the other way round,” Doyle added.

The government said the infection was confirmed in lab tests on Wednesday, adding there was no evidence that cats could transmit the virus to humans.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said cats are the most susceptible animal species to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and are able to transmit it to other cats.

Delays in getting stranded Britons home explained

When the pandemic broke, the Foreign Office pulled out all the stops to get stranded Britons back to the UK.

Arranging flights for some tourists overseas took longer than for others because hundreds were in remote places of the world.

Now it emerges there were other factors involved:

NHS relaxes self-isolation for patients entering hospital for treatment

Not so long ago, the NHS wanted all patients attending hospital for treatment or operations to self-isolate for 14 days beforehand.

Thankfully, as of Tuesday, July 28, that is no longer the case. The Daily Mail reported:

Updated guidance says strict social distancing and hand washing is enough to cut the risk of patients taking the virus into hospitals in England.

NHS patients will only need to self-isolate for a few days after taking a test in the run-up to them entering hospital, health bosses now say.  

Surgeons hope the relaxation of rules will help them to tackle the huge waiting lists that have built up during the Covid-19 crisis.

But they called for all patients to be given tests for the coronavirus before and after their operation to keep a lid on any potential outbreak.  

The change in advice was made because the virus is circulating at much lower levels than it was during the peak of the crisis in March and April.

Lewis Hamilton opines on a COVID-19 vaccine

Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton had to walk back a video and post he made on social media regarding a COVID-19 vaccine:

On Monday, July 27, The Guardian reported:

Hamilton has since deleted the video and published a statement saying he hadn’t seen the comment attached to the clip, but wanted to show there is “uncertainty around side effects” of vaccines.

“I’ve noticed some comments on my earlier post about the coronavirus vaccine, and want to clarify my thoughts on it, as I understand why they might have been misinterpreted,” he said.

“Firstly I hadn’t actually seen the comment attached so that is totally my fault and I have a lot of respect for the charity work Bill Gates does.

“I also want to be clear that I am not against a vaccine and no doubt it will be important in the fight against coronavirus, and I’m hopeful for its development to save lives.

“However after watching the video, I felt it showed that there is still a lot of uncertainty about the side effects most importantly and how it is going to be funded. I may not always get my posting right. I’m only human but I’m learning as we go.”

I agree with the highlighted bit 100%.

Holidays abroad

Whether it’s a good idea or not right now, Britons want to enjoy a summer holiday in Europe.

Some made their reservations early in the year, before the pandemic arrived. Understandably, they want to get what they paid for.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and his family managed to arrive in Spain hours before the UK declared a quarantine for British travellers returning from that country. Shapps flew back to the UK on Wednesday, July 29:

He is returning early to get through a 10-day quarantine and, in the meantime, from home, to ‘handle this situation’. The Foreign Office has advised against all non-essential travel to Spain.

Presumably, Europeans are travelling all across the continent.

The result is that coronavirus cases are rising again:

On July 28, RMC’s Les Grandes Gueules (The Big Mouths) interviewed Dr Robert Sebbag, a specialist in infections who works at La Pitié Salpêtrière hospital in Paris. He said that, although the COVID-19 ward is seeing a small uptick in hospitalisations, no one is on a ventilator and most cases are ‘mild’ compared to what they were only a few months ago. If I understood correctly, the hospital has 24 patients in that particular ward. He said that the uptick in non-hospitalised cases points to those that can be treated safely whilst self-isolating at home.

Dr Sebbag wasn’t too concerned and said that it was the normal progression of the cycle of a virus. The question remains, he said, whether or how COVID-19 will mutate.

For now, we will have to find ways of learning to live with the virus. Dr Sebbag does not see that herd immunity will become widespread. He estimates that only 6% to 10% of the French are immune.

Lockdown in the north west of England

As of Thursday, June 30, a lockdown is now in place in parts of the north west of England.

Matt Hancock should have announced it via a formal press conference. Instead, he did so via a pooled television interview, leaving it to Boris to do a coronavirus briefing from Downing Street on Friday to further explain the new measures.

Because of this new lockdown and rises in cases elsewhere, the proposed measures for reopening more facilities and close-contact beauty services are on hold for the foreseeable future.

Masks must now be worn in nearly all enclosed public spaces, not only in shops, but also in museums and houses of worship.

Boris also encouraged Britons to enjoy a staycation in the UK rather than abroad.

Brexit

Meanwhile, in Brexit news, the international trade secretary, Liz Truss, announced that she would like to get haggis with meat into the US as part of a trade deal:

Earlier this year, exports of Macsween’s vegetarian haggis — branded as Scottish Veggie Crumble — were allowed into the US just in time for Burns Night on January 25. That was the first time in 49 years that any type of Scottish haggis was allowed in America.

And that concludes my roundup of the second half of July 2020.

Roll on August, come what may.

Food Republic — an eclectic site for people who enjoy dining — interviewed the British restaurant critic A A Gill in May 2015.

Gill is someone one either respects or loathes in equal measure.

I quite enjoy his reviews, especially his acerbic wit.

Absence of French classics

He told Food Republic something with which I can deeply empathise (emphases mine):

I sometimes just take stock and think, what is it that I’m missing? Because I eat everything, and I eat everywhere. And what is it that I haven’t had for a bit, that I’m missing. And the thing that I miss most now is classic French restaurant food. Bourgeois food, haute cuisine. And nobody’s making it in France, or very few people …

I really miss the French food that most of those of my generation who grew up loving food and being interested in food — that was where we started. And it’s very difficult to find … now.

Hear, hear.

Gill is around my age. When we were growing up, the big middle class family restaurant experience was eating classic French food. It didn’t happen often, at least in my family, and was reserved for once-in-a-lifetime occasions. Dad saved up and Mum chose the restaurant.

I don’t recall the ‘heavy sauces’ that so many complain about. I doubt if those people ever set foot in a French restaurant. That’s just another cliché spouted by those who know no better.

Gill is right to say that few restaurants in France feature elegant classics of Escoffier’s era.

French food has gone global. They even have food trucks now. Recently, they had national — wait for it — burger week! Whatever next?

World’s ‘best’ restaurants?

What compounds the problem, especially for French classics, are notional global best restaurant designations.

The most recent appeared on June 1, 2015: The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards. The Telegraph reported:

The avant-garde Spanish restaurant El Celler de Can Roca has won back the World’s Best Restaurant crown.

The restaurant in Girona is owned by three brothers – Joan, Josep and Jordi – and is famed for cutting-edge, playful dishes that still pay homage to classic Catalan cooking.

Hmm. I’ve eaten Catalan cooking in Barcelona. Classic Catalan cuisine is succulent roast kid, suckling pig and beautifully grilled prawns.

Have a look at the photograph accompanying The Telegraph article. It’s clearly some sort of molecular cuisine.

A gushing review in the paper from October 2014 proves it — and has accompanying photographs:

After more than a dozen courses, and almost as many glasses of wine, my tasting notes had become somewhat perfunctory. “Pig – delicious” was all I could manage for what was perhaps my favourite dish; “all the prawn” was the enigmatic description of another; while some had vanished from the record books altogether. With pork disguised as fish, ceviche hidden beneath the frozen face of tiger, and puddings that pulsate, it’s easy to get lost in the moment at a place like El Celler de Can Roca.

There’s more. After pre-prandials and amuse-bouches:

An “autumn vegetable stock” came next, cooked with the sort of precision you expect from the disciples of molecular gastronomy (“80 degrees for three hours”). It was crystal clear, with an unusual, almost gelatinous consistency, and bursting with 10 or more individually distinguishable flavours.

To follow was perhaps the most eye-catching dish – Leche de Tigre, a lobster ceviche topped with a disc of frozen lime branded with the image of a growling tiger. It, like many of the dishes, pushed the boundaries in terms of texture, but – thankfully – was less quirky when it came to flavour, with the sharpness of a classic ceviche.

The photo of Leche de Tigre — Tiger’s Milk — makes it look positively revolting. See for yourself. I would be unable to eat that. It is evident that some sort of chemical has to go in it in order to produce a semi-coagulated result.

And there are other similar restaurants on this world’s best list.

French food then takes a hit. The French media ask, ‘Why is our food so bad?’

But that’s not the question nor the conclusion to draw.

Classic French food is excellent. As A A Gill says, we see too little of it.

The problem is that most award-winning restaurants are those that favour molecular cuisine — or, if you prefer, molecular gastronomy.

All the rage

I spoke with someone a few weeks ago who makes a living by charting culinary trends for restaurants and cafés.

He told me, ‘That’s what people want.’ I countered that we are persuaded to think we want it. It isn’t our choice.

The media message is, ‘If you want to be hip and cool, you’ll seek molecular gastronomy.’

People pay hundreds of dollars/pounds/euros for a multi-course tasting menu. After that, I’d be in search of a McDonald’s, and I haven’t had one of those for, erm, 20 years.

For me — and countless others — restaurant food should offer a) a recognisable, goodly portion of protein, b) a satisfying yet creative sauce and c) easily identifiable vegetables.

Remember the interests behind the push for molecular cuisine: big business, always big business. There are companies which make the necessary chemicals for this type of dining experience. They can branch out from commercially processed food to top restaurants. The result is that consumers see chemicals as good, interesting and elegant.

A further result is that we will be able to buy them for use at home. We’ll also have accompanying cookbooks to match.

This means more money for the manufacturers of said chemicals and additives. Ker-ching!

Bucking the trend

French food critic Périco Légasse, who also writes for the newsweekly Marianne, had something to say about the 2014 World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards.

After the list appeared, he said that the Danish winner Noma — also known for molecular cuisine — was responsible for 63 diners becoming ill from badly-done ‘chemical combinations’.

He also accused sponsors Nestlé and San Pellegrino of an ‘anti-French campaign’:

There is a political will to denigrate French cuisine.

Couldn’t agree more.

In another article, this one for Marianne, he reported on what Olivier Roellinger, chef of the three-Michelin Cancale, and equally esteemed Joël Robuchon of Fleury-Michon thought.

Roellinger said:

Molecular cuisine is a lure for people who don’t really know that much about food to begin with. It’s really [like] selling wind. And who’s financing this lobbying? A syndicate of industrial flavouring companies … It’s absolutely abominable.

Robuchon, even though he admires Spain’s award-winning Ferran Adria, went further:

Additives aren’t good. I’ve done everything to avoid using them at Fleury-Michon. In today’s molecular cuisine we find additives which aren’t even allowed in industrial food processing. I am 200% against molecular cuisine, for the good reason that I work with health and industrial services encouraging the elimination of acidifiers, colourings and additives, some of which have secondary effects.

In 2010, the Italian government banned the use of certain chemical additives and liquid nitrogen in molecular cuisine. The current status is unknown as the 2010 law was only in force for one year. It is unclear whether a new law has replaced it.

Cook and Food Network presenter Alton Brown, an American, had this to say in 2011 (emphases in the original):

Every generation develops tools. And the tools are a wonderful way to explore the possibilities of the world and of creation. I use some emulisifiers. Yes, there’s xantham gum in my kitchen. Why? Because I’m tired of shaking up a salad dressing. You know, it’s practical things. Is it really cool to be able to make corn flakes out of peanut butter? Sure, it’s a great trick. But it’s a novelty, by and large.

My worry about molecular gastronomy, especially with young cooks, is that they will try use it replace knowing how to cook. Food. Show me you can cook a chicken breast, properly. Show me you can cook a carrot, properly. Now do it a hundred times in row. Then we can play around with white powders.

It’s an interesting skill set, it’s an interesting bunch of tools. You can’t live on it. It’s not food.

He later clarified his position:

Just to set record straight: molecular gastronomy is not bad…but without sound, basic culinary technique, it is useless.

Natural or harmful?

To be fair, a number of additives with odd sounding names are perfectly natural — some come from seaweed — and have been used in mass-produced food for years.

Science Fare has a lengthy list with explanations of each popular molecular gastronomy ingredient.

India’s Mid-day has an interesting interview from May 2015 with chef and food stylist Michael Swamy who explains that just because something is natural does not automatically mean it is healthful to eat.

It all rather depends. Swamy discussed the freshwater basa fish, a new trendy yet inexpensive protein in India. He warned:

The fish is highly toxic and has a high amount of lead.

Swamy had this to say about molecular gastronomy (emphases mine):

One meal is equivalent to your one year’s quota of toxins as you only consume chemicals. The other day, someone told me that they had something called a bubble kulfi, which had dry ice. Everyone knows that dry ice is very poisonous but it is still added to cocktails and so on.

Swamy is correct. Laboratory assistants who work with liquid nitrogen — dry ice — in a clinical or scientific context wear gloves when handling the tanks. It can burn.

In 2012, Time magazine reported on a young Englishwoman who had to have her stomach removed after drinking a cocktail with dry ice. The then-teen suffered the horrendous consequences:

after drinking a Jagermeister cocktail made with liquid nitrogen at a bar in northern England.

The article goes on to explain the uses of liquid nitrogen in a medical setting — freezing warts, removing cancerous cells — as well as in a culinary one — ice-cream making.

The issue is knowing how to handle it for human consumption:

The main point is that liquid nitrogen must be fully evaporated from the meal or drink before serving, said Peter Barham of the University of Bristol’s School of Physics. It can safely be used in food or drink preparation, but it should not be ingested.

Barham and another scientist told the BBC:

Professor Barham adds that just as no-one would drink boiling water or oil, or pour it over themselves, no-one should ingest liquid nitrogen

Science writer and fellow at the Royal Society of Chemistry John Emsley says if more than a “trivial” amount of liquid nitrogen is swallowed, the result can be horrendous. “If you drank more than a few drops of liquid nitrogen, certainly a teaspoon, it would freeze, and become solid and brittle like glass. Imagine if that happened in the alimentary canal or the stomach.

The liquid also quickly picks up heat, boils and becomes a gas, which could cause damage such as perforations or cause a stomach to burst,” he says.

Conclusion

Imagine.

A large number of molecular gastronomy fans are probably people who enjoy working out at the gym and regular detoxes.

Little do they know what they are ingesting and what the long term effects of those substances are.

What struck me were the following points:

– Joel Robuchon saying that some of these ingredients aren’t even legal in industrial food production;

– Michael Swamy’s warning that one of these dinners can give you a year’s worth of toxins in just one evening;

– The possibly fatal dangers of liquid nitrogen in the hands of someone who does not understand what he is doing when preparing a new kind of cocktail.

Caveat emptor! Consumer be warned!

Mary Poppins is a staple of British televsion programming at Christmas.

I remember seeing the film shortly after it was first released. As with so many Disney films (e.g. Fantasia) it was way too long and, frankly, somewhat boring. I fell asleep through part of it as I had done when going to several of his other productions.

Disney’s treatment of PL Travers’s Mary Poppins is far from her novel. According to English television presenter Victoria Coren Mitchell — daughter of the late Alan Coren who wrote for Punch and wife of comic actor David Mitchell — this children’s story is punctuated by episodes of uncertainty and fear. She has written about it in the latest edition of the Radio Times (30 November – 6 December 2013, pp. 20-22).

For centuries, children’s stories — oral and written — have introduced peril, myth, morality and loss to young people. Through them, we become acquainted with good and evil as well as what we can expect from life itself — endless uncertainty in a fallen world.

On this point, PL Travers’s book does not disappoint, Mitchell says. She read it as a child.

Also in this week’s Radio Times is an interview with actor Tom Hanks (pp. 24-27), who stars with Emma Thompson in Saving Mr Banks, the story of Travers and Walt Disney bringing Mary Poppins to celluloid.

What follows are aspects of the film as well the lives of Travers and Disney which are less well known. Saving Mr Banks explores some of them, although I have not seen the film.

As far as Mary Poppins is concerned, Travers objected to Disney’s sugarcoating the film by making the nanny a cheery, happy character.

PL Travers

Helen Lyndon Goff was born in 1899 to a bank employee and niece of a Premier of Queensland, Boyd Dunlop Morehead. Travers Robert Goff — originally from Deptford (London, England)  moved his family from Maryborough to Allora — another town in that Australian state — in 1905. He died of influenza in 1907. His widow, Margaret, and three daughters moved to neighbouring New South Wales. Helen attended boarding school in Sydney during the years of the Great War.

Helen was known by family and friends as Lyndon. She wrote stories for her sisters as well as poetry. She also became interested in acting and toured with a Shakespeare company as Pamela Lyndon Travers. The troupe ended up in England in 1924, where Travers settled and became a writer. She and a friend Madge Burnand eventually moved to Sussex, where Travers began writing Mary Poppins in 1933.

Once in England, she made connections in the literary world. Her first publisher was the inspiration for Peter Pan, JM Barrie’s adopted son Peter Llewellyn Davies. She also visited Ireland and made friends with writers such as WB Yeats and a number of poets. They introduced her to mythology. An American publisher acquainted with that circle, Jane Heap, got Travers interested in Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way, a good works-based ‘universal brotherhood’ combining various religious traditions with gnosticism and mysticism.

Travers never married and is said to have had romantic relationships with both men and women.

At the age of 40, on one of her trips to Ireland, she visited the home of Joseph Hone, the first biographer of WB Yeats. He and his wife Vera had seven grandchildren living with them. Two of them were twin baby boys — Anthony and Camillus. Taking an astrologer’s advice, she adopted Camillus.

At the age of 17, it appears that Anthony discovered his twin was living in London. He went to Travers’s house there. Camillus tried to cope with this surprise discovery but, four years later, was in Stafford Prison, serving a six-month sentence for drink driving. He died in London in 2011.

Travers was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1977. She also earned royalties from Disney’s film Mary Poppins.

Travers died in London in 1996. Her ashes were scattered in the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin in Twickenham (west London). (This should not be construed necessarily as a conversion to Christianity; it is traditional for authors and actors — regardless of belief — to have a funeral and/or ‘resting place’ at Anglican churches.)

It is interesting that, during the Second World War, Travers worked in Manhattan for the British Ministry of Information. It was at that time that Roy Disney — Walt’s brother — contacted her about adapting the Mary Poppins books for film. After the war ended, she spent two summers travelling the American Southwest studying Indian tribes. She was also Writer-in-Residence at Radcliffe, Harvard and Smith before returning to England.

Walt Disney

There are two versions of Walt Disney‘s origins.

The official one is that he was born in 1901 in the Kelvyn Grove (now Hermosa) area on the Northwest Side of Chicago.

His ancestor Robert d’Isigny was thought to have gone to England with William the Conqueror in 1066. (It is probable that he was from Normandy or La Manche. There are two towns in northwestern France which carry the name: Isigny-sur-Mer and Isigny-le-Buat.) The anglicised version of the name is Disney. Robert’s descendants were thought to have settled in Norton Disney, Lincolnshire. Walt’s branch later moved to Ireland before sailing to Ontario. In the 19th century, they relocated to Ellis, Kansas, where they bought a farm.

Disney’s father Elias was a gold prospector in California before returning to the farm. With the advance of the railroads, he worked for the Union Pacific, a principal railway company until the late 20th century when a number of mergers put paid to most of them.

It was during his time on the Union Pacific that Elias fell in love with Walt’s mother Flora (née Call). They married on New Year’s Day 1888 in Acron, Florida, 40 miles from Walt Disney World.

Elias Disney and his family moved back and forth between Chicago and Missouri at the turn of the century. Elias’s brother, Robert, lived in Chicago and helped them financially. In 1906, when Walt was four, Elias and his family moved to Marceline, Missouri, where another brother Roy had a farm. In 1911, they moved to Kansas City, where one of Walt’s classmates Walter Pfeiffer introduced him to cinema and vaudeville. Walt and Walter became firm friends, the former clearly intrigued by the Pfeiffer family’s entertainment interests and the arts in general. Walt took courses at the Kansas City Art Institute.

In 1917, Elias bought shares in a Chicago jelly company O-Zell and moved the family back to Illinois. Once back in Chicago — then an exciting city of commerce and culture, remaining so until the 1980s — young Walt continued supplementing his state school education with courses at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the world’s best museums in its category.

As this was during the Great War, it is not surprising that Walt was absorbed not only by events in Europe but also America’s place in the world. He and a friend decided to join the Red Cross. However, Walt was initially refused because he lacked a birth certificate. I’ve highlighted that, because we’ll return to it below. Suffice it to say that it was not unusual for births to have gone unregistered. Women often gave birth at home with the help of midwives and it wasn’t until after that war that hospitals became a more mainstream, albeit not yet universal, place for an expectant mother to deliver a child. The state was also not as encroaching then as it is now, therefore, other records (e.g. school and work) could help to reasonably verify a person’s age.

Walt never did finish high school. However, he and his friend did drive ambulances for the Red Cross in France, after the Armistice in 1918.

Once he returned to the United States, he was certain about pursuing a career in illustrating. He moved back to Kansas City to work for an art studio and the rest is history.

The unofficial story of Walt’s early life is quite different — and contentious. I read it in Le Monde in 2001 and was shocked.

The Guardian also carried the story — nearly 12 years ago to the day now. Citations and references below are from the article.

Two American authors — Marc Eliot (celebrity biographer) and Christopher Jones (son of a Disney press agent) — were unearthing evidence which they claimed (separately) to prove that Walt Disney was actually born in Mojacar, Spain. He was purported to be the son of two local lovers, Walt’s putative mother eventually emigrating to the United States where she offered her son up for adoption and the Disneys supposedly taking the boy in as their own.

Indeed, Mojacar — a village of 5,000 people in Andalucia along the southeast coast — claims Disney as a son. However, their Wikipedia entry does not include this bit of information.

This story dates back to 1940, thanks to an article which appeared in a Spanish movie magazine Primer Plano.

Marc Eliot picked up on this article and the Mojacar connection in his 1993 biography Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince. The author claims that the entertainment company mogul was an FBI informer under J Edgar Hoover. The Disney family

hired William Webster, FBI director under George Bush Sr, to refute that and other claims about his role as a prized FBI informer.

If true — and it is difficult to find any follow-up online — Walt’s interest in his birth came about in 1917 when he asked his mother Flora for his birth certificate in order to apply as a Red Cross volunteer in Europe for the war effort. Flora signed an affadavit swearing that he was born in Chicago:

The fact that it concerned him seems to have been confirmed by Hoover himself. In a declassified FBI document, Hoover pledged to help Disney. “I am indeed pleased that we can be of service to you in affording you a means of absolute identity through your lifetime,” he wrote.

Eliot alleged that Flora signed a second affadavit in 1934 concerning Walt’s birth. This was two years before she died.

Eliot received over 600 pages of documentation from the FBI in 1992 relating to Walt Disney.

Recall that Walt’s brother Roy met PL Travers when the latter was in New York working for the British Ministry of Information during the Second World War.

The Mojacar connection started, according to the townspeople, in 1940 when, at the end of the Spanish Civil War, two Americans arrived. They were smartly dressed and, naturally, had suitcases.

Their arrival took the residents by surprise. Mojacar had fallen on hard times after the closure of local copper and iron mines. The village must have appeared primitive to the two visitors. There were no basic conveniences of the 20th century, including electricity. Women collected water from wells which they carried home on their heads. The people’s faith, whilst notionally Catholic, was syncretic, recalling Moorish (Muslim) occupation centuries before. The women wore veils which they held between their teeth when they were busy with their hands.

The Americans asked to see the village priest, the Revd Federico Acosta. Acosta’s nephew was visiting at the time from Madrid where, you will be interested to know, Snow White had just made its premiere.  The nephew, Jose Acosta — a journalist and lawyer — was 71 in 2001. He remembered the encounter between his uncle and the Americans as follows (emphases mine):

“He told us that some gentlemen from the US had come to find the birth certificate of one Jose Guirao. They were shown the page in the register. Later, when he looked again, the page had been ripped out,” he recalls.

He told me they had come not to find Jose Guirao’s birth certificate, but to destroy it,” says Acosta.

Jacinto Alarcon also saw the Americans in town. He later became Mojacar’s mayor. Although he died before 2001, author Christopher Jones was able to speak with him in his final years. Jacinto’s son Juan said at the time of the Millennium:

Jones has a taped interview with him in which he tells the story, agreeing on the basic facts with Acosta. “Virtually everybody is convinced he was born here. Only the Americans don’t want to admit it,” explains Jacinto’s son Juan, who now owns Mojacar’s tobacconists.

Even today, Mojacar families know the story of little Jose Guirao. It is not quite straightforward, as two men are involved. A poor young woman Isabel Zamora is acknowledged as the mother. A similarly poor man’s name appears on Jose’s birth certificate; we know only that his surname is Guirao and that he worked as a miner. However, people surmise that the child’s real father was the local physician, Gines Carrillo. Because he was a doctor, Carrillo was one of the few men parents allowed their daughters to see unaccompanied.

Mojacar residents viewed Carrillo benignly. Not only was he a doctor who lived in a magnificent villa — Torreon, by name. He was also profoundly interested in the arts and aesthetics. He added a Venetian-style theatre to the town and held rehearsals for plays at Torreon.  The town’s children learned how to play musical instruments at his estate. Residents could also admire his collection of exotic birds.

Carrillo also constructed a beach house in Mojacar. Although his descendants had it razed, it bore similarities to Disney’s castle which features so prominently in the title sequence of his television programme and at his parks. Carrillo’s was:

a fantasy creation of his own, topped with towers. Its eccentric aspect adds extra weight, in villagers’ minds, to the idea that this man must have spawned Walt Disney.

In 2001, Torreon was a private guest house. The lady who owns it, Charo Lopez, told The Guardian:

Disney certainly wasn’t born in this house. But this is where he was conceived,” she states. “This is like the existence of God. Either you believe he was born in Mojacar, or you don’t.”

Carrillo had a son, Diego, who is also a doctor. He told The Guardian that he did not wish to give an interview. He says that Carrillo would have gone along with the story as a good joke. He added:

If you think my father and Walt Disney look alike, you should see pictures of my uncle. He looks even more like Disney – and he did like the ladies.

One of the uncle’s grandsons — Diego’s nephew, also a physician — told the paper:

“Mojacar was a boring place then. My grandfather died when I was young but he was a lecher, a ‘ viejo verde ‘, in his old age and interested in the occult. The whole thing was cooked up by Jacinto [the aforementioned mayor] and him when those journalists arrived from the film magazine.”

Other variations of the Mojacar connection exist. One says that Walt Disney personally wrote the parish priest in 1925 asking for his birth certificate — that of Jose Guirao Zamora — when he was preparing to marry Lillian Bounds, his wife of 41 years. Another story says that Isabel Zamora worked for the Disney family and had an affair with Walt’s father Elias. Yet another has two Franciscans requesting the birth certificate in the 1950s.

The surviving Carrillos told The Guardian that they would be happy to take DNA tests to prove the veracity or otherwise of the Mojacar connection. However, it appears that the Disney family — perhaps rightly, under the circumstances — preferred to put this story behind them. The Guardian article does acknowledge that much of Mojacar’s younger generation thinks it is either gossip and doesn’t really care.

As for the other popular criticisms of Disney — anti-Semitism and insensitivity because of his father’s treatment of him — I have a few comments.

First, there were anti-American forces at work in the entertainment world at the time. This is why the McCarthy investigations were so criticised by far-left elements and why McCarthy continues to be vilified. Disney is long gone, although, unfortunately, lefty media types are still with us. He refused unionisation in his company, no doubt because he could see socialist or communist infiltration at work. His wasn’t the only animation or film studio in town. Dissatisfied animators and other employees sought employment elsewhere.

Second, I surmise that what the Left interprets as pure anti-Semitism was probably anti-Communism. It is a coincidence that these organisers for unionisation happened to be Jewish — and secular Jews at that. If Walt Disney were really so inclined, it seems highly unlikely that he would have befriended Walter Pfeiffer as a boy, especially as he spent more time at the Pfeiffer house than at home.

Third, Disney critics say he was hard-hearted and that this is because his father Elias beat him. Well, the reality is that nearly every child was beaten then by parents, teachers or nannies; that’s just they were brought up at the turn of the century. I also find it interesting that they mention that Elias was an ‘Evangelical’, as if, in and of itself, that were necessarily a bad thing. That’s every bit as bad as anti-Semitism. I’m also not clear how they arrive at this as being a certainty. If the Mojacar story has any veracity, Isabel Zamora might well have chosen a Catholic adoption agency in the United States, meaning that one or both of the Disney parents would probably have been Catholic. Catholic agencies then dealt with Catholics, not with all-comers.

Fourth, men of Disney’s generation were not touchy-feely postmodern types. You can read biographies of Fabians, Communists and other leftists of the period to find that they, too, were emotionally distant. However, because the Left control most of the media messages, you’ll be less likely to readily discover such facts.

In closing, Walt Disney was no better or no worse than many other men. He ran, with his brother Roy, a globally successful company. He was a husband and father of two daughters.

He brought a lot of people much happiness. Nearly every Westerner today remembers seeing their first Disney production, whether a cartoon or film. Millions have also visited Disneyland and Walt Disney World as well as his park outside of Paris.

Perhaps that is all that remains to be said.

If you missed yesterday’s post on the 16th century Huguenot settlement in present-day South Carolina, it’s worthwhile reading before continuing with their story in Florida.

As the Florida story opens, keep in mind that the Huguenots arrived there in 1562 before sailing for what is now the Sea Islands in Port Royal Sound in South Carolina. Jean Ribault and his men did not settle in Florida, although they did explore some of the St John’s River — what he had called the May River — and coastal features whilst sailing northward.

By 1564, Ribault was lying low in England, seeking refuge as a Huguenot. Meanwhile, in his home country, King Charles IX wished to send another ship to Florida. He called on René Goulaine de Laudonnière to lead the expedition.

It is possible he chose Laudonnière because he had been second in command in Charlesfort under Jean Ribault. Therefore, he already knew the region. As Ribault was in England, Laudonnière was the next best choice. In addition to colonisation, part of the objective of the trip was also to give Huguenots safe haven.

Laudonnière was a nobleman and member of the Huguenot merchant class. It is unclear where he was born and raised. Some say it was near the town of Laudonnière, the family seat of the Goulaine family, near the busy port of Nantes. Other historians claim he came from further south in Poitou, near the port of Sables d’Olonne.

Charles IX gave Laudonnière 50,000 crowns, three ships and 300 Huguenot colonists. Laudonnière set sail from Le Havre on April 22, 1564. He and his men arrived at the mouth of the May (St John’s) River on June 22 that year.

Laudonnière first renewed his acquaintance with the Saturiwa Indians — a branch of the larger Timucua tribe. As I said yesterday:

It’s important to remember that here, as well as in Brazil and on St Kitts, the French treated the Indians with kindness.

That remained largely true in Florida, until later, when the Indians were angry that the French had demanded too many provisions from them. The settlers also met with an unknown tribe, and tensions quickly appeared.

Fort Caroline, 1564

After befriending the Indians, Laudonnière and his crew then sailed north to what is now Jacksonville, Florida. There they established the colony of Fort Caroline, named for Charles IX.

Life in the new colony was arduous. The Frenchmen went hungry. Some of the men staged a mutiny and destroyed one of the ships. Laudonnière was able to subdue the rebellion by executing the ringleaders.

Interestingly, amongst all he had to do in Florida, Laudonnière had not forgotten an important detail from Charlesfort up north. That was the rescue of the young man Guillermo Rouffi. Laudonnière had found out that Rouffi never sailed back to France with the last of the Charlesfort settlers and decided to bring him back to the new colony in Florida.

In January 1565, Laudonnière sent a ship to Port Royal Sound to search for Rouffi. However, no one knew that Rouffi left the settlement with the invading Spanish six months earlier. One wonders what happened to him.

Meanwhile, Laudonnière and his colonists had expected Jean Ribault to return to France and then Florida, stocked with supplies. However, France’s involvement in wars at home and abroad prevented him from sailing at the appointed time. He did not arrive until August 28, 1565.

During the intervening months, Laudonnière was ready to abandon Fort Caroline. In addition to the aforementioned mutiny, other of his men became pirates and attacked Spanish ships in the Caribbean. On the mainland, another Timucua tribe, the Utina, clashed with the French.

When Ribault arrived, he assumed governorship of Fort Caroline. Laudonnière was unhappy with this arrangement and arranged to return to France. Ribault’s 800 settlers, which included women and children, rebuilt and repaired the fort’s dilapidated buildings.

Spanish attack, 1565

Just weeks later, a Spanish expedition led by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés arrived at the behest of Philip II to drive out the French, just as they had further north in Port Royal Sound in 1564. Spain believed they held claim to the lands their explorer Juan Ponce de León — he of the fountain of youth — had discovered in 1513.

Ribault was aware of the Spanish presence and sailed with most of Fort Caroline’s soldiers to Saint Augustine on September 10, 1565. They encountered a strong tropical storm.

On the morning of September 20, Menéndez and his men attacked Fort Caroline. Despite the same raging tropical storm that Ribault encountered, they managed to capture the settlement. One hundred thirty-two Frenchmen died; another 45 escaped. Around 50 women and children were held hostage. Menéndez quickly renamed the colony Fort San Mateo and set out looking for the escapees.

Ribault’s and Laudonniere’s whereabouts

Meanwhile, Ribault and his men were washed ashore near what is now Daytona Beach. The storm had destroyed their ships and many of the men had drowned. The survivors began walking the coastline and soon fell into Spanish hands at Matanzas Inlet. In accordance with Philip II’s edict, all Huguenots who refused to recant their ‘heresy’ were to be executed. The Spanish took them behind a sand dune and killed them using swords. Ribault — a Huguenot — was among those who met their death. The Catholics and a group of musicians on Ribault’s ships were allowed to live.

You might be wondering what happened to Laudonnière, as he was left at Fort Caroline when Ribault set sail for St Augustine. Laudonnière was among the escapees during the Spanish attack.  He managed to make his way to the mouth of the May (St John’s) River, where Ribault’s son had anchored three ships.

From there, Laudonnière and Ribault’s son set sail for Europe, however, Laudonnière arrived alone — in Wales. From Wales, it is thought that he travelled overland via Bristol and London to the coast, where he was able to cross the Channel and arrive in Paris around December 1565.

Once back in France, Laudonnière maintained a low profile, although he did write his memoir of Florida, L’histoire notable de la Floride, contenant les trois voyages faits en icelles par des capitaines et pilotes français (‘The notable history of Florida, containing the three voyages made by French captains and pilots’), published in 1586, 12 years after his death in 1574.

What happened to the Huguenots at Fort Caroline

Menéndez killed most of the settlers at Fort Caroline and hanged their bodies from trees. By way of explanation, he erected an inscription which read:

Not as Frenchmen but as Lutherans.

Calling Protestants ‘Lutherans’ — regardless of their religious preference — was still widespread practice at the time on the part of Catholics.

When this news reached France, both Catholics and Huguenots were outraged. The French court complained to the Spanish court. Spain responded by granting Menendez and his men honours and recognition.

Avenging the massacre at Fort Caroline

One French Catholic who was so outraged that he decided to take action against the Spanish was Dominique de Gourgue.

Gourgue came from a prominent family near Bordeaux. He served in several conflicts and had been captured by the Spaniards in 1557.  He also travelled to Brazil and the West Indies, although it is unclear whether he was among the Huguenot expeditions there. In any event, once he left his military service and expeditions behind, the Guise family — leaders of the Catholic League — employed him against the Huguenots.

Regardless, Gourgue’s dislike of the Spanish outweighed any animosity he had towards Huguenots.

He sold everything he had and even enlisted the financial help of his brother Antoine to purchase three small ships. He recruited men on the premise that, together, they would sail to Cuba.

This they did. Once they arrived in Cuba, Gourgue revealed his primary intent: to sail to San Mateo (formerly Fort Caroline) and avenge the deaths of their fellow countrymen. He met with no objection.

In 1568, the tiny fleet arrived near San Mateo. Gourgue was quick to first make friends with and enlist the help of the Timacuan tribes the French knew earlier: the Saturiwa and the Tacatacuru.

Gourgue and his men — including the Indians — then attacked San Mateo. They killed the Spanish colonists and — just as Menéndez had with the Huguenots — hanged their bodies from trees with a similar style of inscription:

Not as Spaniards but as murderers.

Upon his return to La Rochelle in 1568, Gourgue met with a mixed reaction. The governor of Bordeaux, his home city, gave him a warm welcome. However, the French court, worried about reprisals from Spain, distanced itself from Gourgue.

He went to live in obscurity and poverty in the northern city of Rouen, until the French court decided to employ him in 1572 by giving him command of a ship. Ironically, he went on to command the largest vessel against the Huguenots at the Siege of La Rochelle.

Later in 1592, the Portuguese claimant to that country’s throne, Don Antonio de Crato, enlisted Gourgue’s help by putting him in charge of that country’s fleet against Philip II of Spain. Whilst on the way to Portugal, Gourgue died. Dom de Crato died in Paris three years later, unable to ever become king of Portugal, a position Philip II continued to hold.

End of the 2013 series on the Huguenots

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