The small matter of Napoleon, waste material, a great illustrator and lessons that were not learned
Not any night, Josephine
THE Emperor Napoleon is a much misunderstood guy. Okay, he liked a bit of a rumble, he may have kidnapped Pope Pius Vll, but he emancipated Jews, Protestants in Catholic countries and vice versa, scrapping laws that kept them in ghettos and denied them property rights. One British historian puts it that his ideas of meritocracy, equality before the law, religious tolerance and secular education were consolidated and codified by the wee man with his hat on sideways and copied throughout the world. He even founded the French national land register, Le Cadastre, which maps and gives details of every taxable property in France and is accessible online.
So that’s why I’m saving up to buy Adam Zamoyski’s new biography of, as he puts it, the man behind the myth. It is based on new and original sources. Apparently, Boney did not understand physical pleasure and was a terrible lover. Which is, no doubt, why he said, “Not tonight Josephine” (and wasn’t she lucky!). I have an alternative theory. You see, he had a terribly small penis, which may have been as a result of Frohlich’s Syndrome, or adiposogenital dystrophy, which causes growth retardation, and which probably made the exercise futile. The said appendage was cut off Bonaparte’s body post mortem and sold several times before ending up with a New York urologist whose family won’t allow it to be viewed or photographed, although it’s said to be withered and about the size of thumbnail. Feeling better, gentlemen?
THERE has been much contumely about ScotRail and the company’s trains dropping human waste on the tracks. Haven’t times changed? It used to happen from every train. And if you travel on the Carlisle to Settle line, as I did recently, you can while away the time counting passing sleepers through the gaping hole in the toilet bowl. In Roman times pee was collected in pots and sold to cloth manufacturers for stiffening and dyeing cotton. In the 18th century, English country gentlemen weed down the barrel of their shotguns to remove rust, perhaps sometimes with fatal consequences? Navy ships in the 19th century used a plank with holes at the front of the ship so that the waste dropped straight into the sea (and we complain about plastic pollution!), and as they were at the head of the boat the ships’ privvies, and still to this day, were known as heads.
Until the end of 1998, and the interfering EU, Glasgow used to drop the city sh**e – or sludge as they preferred to call it – off the southern tip of Bute several times a week. The boat that delivered it was called the Garroch Head, and off that eponymous tip of coast they did deliver. It used to be a great day out for pensioners who couldn’t let it pass (sorry!) and who would be inside eating a meal in the saloon while the deposit was made. I covered one of the last trips and I can vouchsafe it made a bit of a niff when the load went overboard.
Put Ralph in frame
RALPH Steadman is the best illustrator and social commentator of this century or any other, in my view. His gonzo work with the late Hunter S Thompson – fear and loathing just about anywhere – is what he’s best known for, but his own books, including the masterful Sigmund Freud, are wonderful. His fierce pen and inks, with splatters of blood and outrage, poke you not only in the eye but the frontal lobe. He’s also a lovely man. I first went to visit him about a quarter century ago at his characteristically outlandish home in Kent and, for reasons I can’t remember now, had to take my baby boy.
Ralph couldn’t have been more charming and engaging. Here are the two of them in front of Steadman’s take on The Last Supper. The artist is curiously under-appreciated here, which is possibly why his retrospective exhibition is opening this week in San Francisco, rather than the Tate. There are also never-seen-before letters between Steadman and Thompson on show too. Ralph is 82, so he won’t be around for ever, although his work will. Can some UK gallery please sign up to showing this please?
Fire and fury
IN the title of a midweek BBC2 programme, The Fires That Foretold Grenfell, you could have substituted Glasgow School of Art. Fortunately, there were no casualties in the Mack fire, but through an accident of timing, nothing whatever to do with safety precautions.
I revealed in June how the same type of flammable thermal insulation as Grenfell, PIR (polyisocyanurate), was used in lining the roof of the refurbished Mack. Although we won’t know for sure the cause of the fire until the final report is published, the roof went up in a fireball the likes of which experienced firefighters had never seen before. PIR is partly plastic, although there is no suggestion it was not approved for use. It is, however, much cheaper than totally inflammable, mineralbased products. Repeated requests to the trustees of the GSA, the constructors Kier and the architects Page Park about this being a cost decision have been blanked.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed his famous building, which opened completely in 1907, with ventilation ducts that accelerated the fire in 2014 that gutted the building, and no doubt did the same in the second one earlier this year. It’s not as if all involved weren’t warned. In 2008, when a £4 million refurbishment of the Mack was going ahead, an engineer’s report designated the building as high risk and recommended sprinklers be installed. They weren’t. So for six years, while students and staff occupied the Mack, there were no sprinklers.
Sprinklers did turn up just before the second fire but they weren’t operational. Now you might think someone would be held accountable but the trustees said nothing until some were hauled before the Holyrood Culture Committee last month.
THE judge’s copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which I wrote about last week, was expected to make around £15,000 at the Sotheby’s sale on Tuesday. In fact, it went to an anonymous bidder for almost four times that, £56,250. It was a record price for a Penguin paperback, and probably more than DH Lawrence earned in a lifetime of writing. He actually wrote three versions of Lady C, the published one being the third, and, to those who have read all three, the weakest. He was dying of tuberculosis as he wrote it and while his wife Frieda was having one of many open affairs with an Italian. Ever the practical one, after Lawrence died in 1930, Frieda took his ashes and mixed them in concrete to build a new fireplace. I guess she wasn’t up to making an obelisk or a tombstone.
Napoleon may have suffered from Frohlich’s Syndrome and, below, Ralph Steadman with Ron McKay’s son