Today (March 6) in London History – the Clown Prince of Days


And so we come to March 6th. What is it about March 6th? If I were into astrology – I’m not, I’m not even remotely interested in astrology – anyway, if I were into astrology I expect I’d put all the March 6th weirdness down to some bizarre astral conjunctions and alignments.

Anyway, the fact of the matter is I was going to lead this by saying, “this ‘cast – both bits – is completely flakey. I couldn’t resist it. So I’m eschewing far more important stories and anniversaries and plumping instead for some seriously flakey stuff – flakey stuff that you absolutely will not have encountered previously.

Well, as lead-ins go, that would have been fine and good. But it turns out that even the quote unquote “big” stories for March 6th are pretty flakey. If March 6th was one of a litter of puppies it’d be the runt with the pink polka dots and burglar’s mask eyes. Irresistible in other words.

But just to give you an idea of the March 6th harvest you get if you go to the orchards for this sort of thing, about the only March 6th London event that could be called “normal” is the passing, in London, in 1951, of the famous actor Ivor Novello.

And after that it’s a near-namesake – Ivar rather than Ivor – Conservative MPIvar Lawrence making the longest speech of the 20th century in the House of Commons. On March 6th, 1985 he spoke for 4 hours and 23 minutes on the subject of the fluoridation of drinking water. You can’t read that sentence and not be put in mind of that barking mad Brigadier General Jack T. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant black comedy Dr Strangelove. Four hours and 23 minutes on fluoridation. Mad as a box of frogs. 

That’s a politician who’s right in step with a military nutjob who keeps a machine gun in his golf bag and launches a nuclear strike on the Russians because he’s convinced they’re sprung fluoridation on America and fluoridation has contaminated his precious bodily fluids, thereby ruining his sexual performance. 

The other thing I want to know is who listened to Conservative MP Ivar Lawrence’s 4 hour and 23-minute rant on fluoridation – and did they have to be hospitalised afterward?

And that’s just for starters. We also had a Picasso stolen from a London art gallery on March 6th. That was in 1997. Naturally, the thief escaped in a taxi.

A year later the March 6th in London gave us the announcement that the Union Flag would be flown over Buckingham Palace when the monarch was not in residence, but would make way for the Royal Standard when she was there.

Dear me. Though I suppose that gets us someway back in from left field.

What’s more, March 6th has form in this game. You can go back hundreds of years and March 6th is going to leave your head spinning. By way of example, the most patriotic speech in Shakespeare John of Gaunt’s impassioned This England threnody. 

Described as the most stirring paean to England ever written, the speech is given, in London, by a dying man, John of Gaunt.

Here’s part of it.

“This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands,

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm,      this England,

This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings…

Couldn’t be more English. Couldn’t be more about England. And, as it happens, the man who gives the speech, was born on this day, March 6th, 1340. 

And here’s the weirdness, John of Gaunt – it’s in the name of course – was born, of a French mother, in Ghent, in today’s Belgium. 

250 years later – March 6, 1584 – our date is still right in character, hasn’t missed a beat. It’s still the court jester in the London calendar. A foreign visitor to London ventured out to do some London sightseeing and here are the sights he saw on March 6th. 

“I saw in London a woman only 28 breadths of a thumb high. She had very short legs, about a span in length; her steps were not longer than a cock’s…”

That was some visit to London. A week later Herr von Wedel “saw a young fellow with red and black spots on his head, resembling a pig.” In passing, he also noticed that the river was full of tame swans, who have nests and breed on small islands formed by the river. They exclusively used for the Queen’s table, and it is on pain of death forbidden to meddle with them.”

But let’s press on.

Today in London first. How about this for a text? Arrived an hour ago. “You’ve been in close contact with someone who has recently been isolating. Please order a test kit.” Who are these people? These scammers? One of the two centuries-old newspapers I look at for this series keeps a running weekly account of the number of paupers in London. It’s tens of thousands. Well, I’d like to know how many scammers there are in 2022. And of course where they are is no moment, as long as they’ve got access to Wifi. Must be millions of them.

And you can’t help but wonder what their success rate is? Is it one out of 10,000? One out of 50,000. One out of 100,000. Maybe it’s not such an uphill climb for them. P.T. Barnum said there’s a sucker born every minute. The United Nations estimates that about 385,000 babies are born every day. There are 1440 minutes in a day. That’s 1440 suckers every day. Well, in one sense all 385,000 of them are suckers, but you know what I mean. Anyway, you do the maths you get one sucker out of every 267 births. Purchase inspiration the ad men call it. 

And scams are, after all, ads – one out of 267, that’s maybe not so bad. 

Nothing like the 100 percent success rate London scammers were enjoying with the latest dodge in 1871.

Here’s the tale I came across in a March 1871 London newspaper.

“The last new begging dodge is to sidle up to a passenger and ask for relief on the ground of having just been discharged from the Smallpox Hospital. The trick succeeds; it is dangerous to have one’s clothes contaminated by a person rubbing close, and refusing to be sent away penniless, and a hastily thrown copper is the quickest talisman for dispatching an unpleasant supplicant.”

But let’s get on to my Today in London History find. And sure enough it’s whacky March 6th through and through. 

It’s – wait for it – a wireless – that is to say, radio – international spelling bee. 

The headline reads: England’s Victory in the Second Transatlantic Spelling Bee. 

Story opens: The second wireless “spelling bee” of England versus the United States was conducted by the BBC and the National Broadcasting Company of America [NBC in other words] on March 6th. This time England won, 37-27.

My goodness. Thrill-a-minute stuff. A spelling bee. On air. The innocence of it. Another world. 

I had no idea. And I was – I am – completely charmed by this tiny bit of the past, the innocent past.  Had to find out a bit more. Did the necessary digging. Came across this piece on page 7 of the January 28th, 1938 Daily Telegraph. Big headline: Transatlantic Spelling Bee.

Mr Derek McCulloch, organiser of the Children’s hour in London, arranged an inter-regional spelling bee a short time ago, and next day the BBC had 1500 letters. In America the radio spelling bee is a craze – State competes with State, College with College, and University with University. Tomorrow afternoon the first Transatlantic Spelling Bee will take place between Harvard College and Oxford University. The Oxford eight – in a London studio – will be led by Prince Obolensky, the Rugby Blue and international and includes two women. Harvard’s eight, in New York, has as No. 1 Arthur Racine, who specialises in modern languages, swimming and tennis, and two Radcliffe College women are in the team. 

Well, it’s clear from the Illustrated London News story that the Americans were in the Winner’s Circle that first time.

Four final thoughts. 

  1. What’d they do about words like honour, spelled honour over here but honor over there?
  2. Those broadcasts will have been live. So no tapes. And had there been tapes they would have been wiped long ago. What I wouldn’t give to be able to hear one of those Transatlantic Spelling Bee battles.
  3. Who was Prince Obolensky? Pretty well known, actually. You can look him up. He was born in Petrograd. Ancient, titled, White Russian family. They fled the Bolshevik Revolution. Came here. He went to Brasenose. Star rugger. Won four international caps. His international debut, against New Zealand at Twickenham, is remembered as Obolensky’s match for his two tries in a 13-0 victory. It was England’s first-ever win over New Zealand and its last until 1973.  His second try, when he ran at an angle from his position on the ring wing to score near the opposite corner, was called by his teammate Peter Cranmer “the most talked-about of my generation. The cricketer and cricket and rugby journalist Edward Humphrey Dalrymple Sewell said, “for a right-wing to touch down several yards wide of the left-hand post was just one of those things that were not done.”

And as if that’s not enough, he could spell. Oh yes, he prepared for matches by consuming a dozen oysters. He was in the RAF Volunteer Reserve. He was called up when war broke out in 1939. He died when his plane crashed in Suffolk on March 29, 1940. He was the first England rugby international to die in the Second World War.

And that brings me to my fourth reflection – just this. The innocence and poignance of those 1938 Transatlantic radio spelling bees. Poignant because of what was in the near future for all of them – any knowledge of which they were of course blissfully innocent – World War II. That rough beast slouching toward them, toward the world, toward September 2nd, 1939 to be born.

A spelling bee – and then hard on its heels the apocalypse, the most destructive conflict in human history. 

I dwelt on March 6th being more than a little bit weird – marching to its own tune. But to end, let’s adjust the balance a little bit. March 6th is the European Day of the Righteous. It commemorates those who have stood up against crimes against humanity and totalitarianism with their own moral responsibility.

Well, you’ll get my drift.

Good night from London. See you tomorrow. 

One response to “Today (March 6) in London History – the Clown Prince of Days”

  1. Charles Piper says:

    I enjoyed the ‘Strangelove’ reference. Again, a fun jaunt.

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