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Friday, February 27, 2009

The North Pole - Nailed at Last!

As many of my friends will know I have had a great interest in polar exploration since my teenage years at Highgate. I built up quite a large collection of polar travel books over the years and learned about the heroic and sometimes not-so-heroic explorers of the Antarctic and Arctic. I was proud to be chosen at age 18 to take part in the 1961 expedition of the British Schools Exploration Society which took us above the Arctic Circle to Northern Norway and into Swedish Lapland. My appetite for knowledge dated from then and as this blog has recorded, I went on a glorious cruise with Noble Caledonia (link is to similar cruise) to Antarctica, the Falklands and South Georgia in the southern summer of 2005/6.
Yesterday, prompted by the arrival by post of the annual report of the Frederick A. Cook Society and then by coincidence in the evening I was viewing the comedian Billy Connolly’s documentary of his visit to the spectacular
Canadian High Arctic.
When I visited the
Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge UK some years ago I spoke to one of the curators and expressed an interest in Frederick A.Cook. The curator was of the opinion that the Cook controversy was not something likely to be gaining more support for Cook. Nevertheless I have maintained my interest and reading on the subject over the years. The latest Cook Society journal records new acceptance of Cook’s prior claim as “discoverer of the North Pole” on 21 April 1908. Most atlases and biographies show Robert Edwin Peary as claiming the discovery on 6 April 1909 almost a year later than Cook had claimed. Cook's journey home took much longer, so that the two explorers reached the news services almost simultaneously. Peary was beside himself with anger having staked all his reputation on being first to the “Big Nail” and managed to denounce Cook’s claim with the backing of the press. Much more eloquent writers than I, have chronicled the ensuing media battles and the subsequent majority opinion for Peary that prevailed throughout the remaining decades of the 20th Century.
Now it appears that Cook’s claim has been gaining support while Peary’s claim is suspect because inter alia, his recorded sledge mileages for his return to his ship were deemed impossible to have been achieved. See Wally Herbert’s Noose of Laurels London 1989.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Swearing on the Horns at Highgate

Shortly after, or even before I left senior school (many years ago!) I was introduced to the institution of the English Pub, several of which were within 1km of my home at Highgate in North London. One of these pubs, just around the corner from home and across North Hill towars Highgate village, is The Wrestlers Tavern. http://www.fancyapint.com/pubs/pub2166.html It was here in 1961 or thereabouts, when I was 18 years old, the then publican revived the ancient ceremony of Swearing on the Horns at Highgate. It is now a biannual event at the same pub.
Many people came, placed their hands on a dusty set of deer antlers, held aloft on a stick and gave an oath, a very silly but enjoyable oath that conferred several strange concessions to those, having sworn, might visit the streets of Highgate in future….
While some versions are quite long—one source depicts a ceremony with six stanzas,
the best known points are:
You must not eat brown bread while you can get white, except you like the brown the best.
You must not drink small beer while you can get strong, except you like the small the best.
You must not kiss the maid while you can kiss the mistress, except you like the maid the best, but sooner than lose a good chance you may kiss them both.
The exception clauses make it clear that the oath is not an oath at all; one may do as one pleases. Other parts of the oath include pledges to be kind to one's wife, to remember that the man is the head of his household, and to bring new initiates on one's next visit.

Swearing on the Horns and becoming Freemen of Highgate confers several privileges, though the privileges were subject to several conditions and often turned out to be no privilege at all. The immediate reward was to kiss the prettiest woman in the pub; if no pretty women were to be found, the new initiate had to settle for less. If a Freeman in need of a rest was in Highgate, he could kick a pig out of a ditch and take its place. But if there were three pigs in the ditch, he could only chase away the middle one and sleep between the other two. If a Freeman found himself penniless in Highgate, he could have free drinks for himself and his friends, but if any money was found on him (or if it was found he had given it to his friends to hold) he had to buy a round of drinks for the house.

Looking back over many years, I cannot now remember kissing any maids on that day, pretty or otherwise! I kept a photograph from the local newspaper of the day, but cannot now find it.

I am pleased to see that Swearing on the Horns is still a Highgate tradition after so many years, and who knows, one day I might visit The Wrestlers Tavern again and renwew old acquaintance or kick out a pig I may find there.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Photo of the Day!

California Sea Otters - anchored in Kelp