Things I learned this month: May 2018

The Execution of Admiral Byng, 14 March 1757, from the website

Literally a small list of things I first learned about this month.

Admiral Byng

Over the years, a few times I’ve come across the expression pour encourager les autres. I understand it to be a French phrase that literally translates as “to encourage the others.” I first read it in relation to the cases of Jenkins, Geraghty and Rolt, and more infamously, Bentley & Craig. The suggestion was that there’d been a post-war crime wave in Britain and that Jenkins and Geraghty, and then Derek Bentley, were hanged as an example to deter other criminals.

Still, I’d come across it in other places and there seemed to be a particular relish for using the French phrase. And I didn’t understand it until I learned about Admiral Byng.

So who was he? Byng was a member of the British navy. In 1756 he was the commander of a group of ten ships and was told to relieve the British garrison at Menorca, which was being besieged by French forces. Byng wasn’t given sufficient time or resources to prepare for the action.

Having engaged the French, he broke off the action when he judged that the situation was hopeless. It was probably the right decision.

The navy thought differently and decided to make an example of him. He was court-martialled for failing to uphold the 12th Article of War, was found guilty, and was sentenced to death. William Pitt the Elder appealed to George II for clemency. The king refused and Byng was executed on 14 March 1757.

The affair caused quite a stir and Voltaire wrote a satire in which a character mentions that the British were in the habit of shooting an admiral every now and then pour encourager les autres. Hence the phrase.


This is a religion from southern India, which holds that the god Shiva is the universal god. It bears some resemblance to Hinduism and an outsider might consider it to be a variant of the same. However Lingayats consider it to be a different religion and according to Wikipedia it rejects the caste system and the ideas of reincarnation and karma.

Lassa fever

A west African disease, first identified in Nigeria in 1969. It seems to kill about 1% of the people who get it, but about 25% of people who get the disease become deaf, at least for a time. There is no vaccine and it can be hard to diagnose because it shares symptoms with ebola, malaria, yellow fever and typhoid.

The Melancholy Roman

The Man From Eaglehawk

Image result for mulga bill's bicycle
This images is taken from the website

On Monday I was standing on a platform of Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station when to my astonishment, a V/Line train with the destination “Eaglehawk” slowly passed through another platform.

I should explain the reason for my reaction. Like generations of people who grew up in Australia, as a child I was exposed to Banjo Patterson’s poem Mulga Bill’s Bicycle. It’s probably his 3rd-most famous work after Waltzing Matilda and The Man From Snowy River, and the opening line is:

‘Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that caught the cycling craze

Until I saw the train it never occurred to me that Eaglehawk was an actual place. According to Wikipedia it’s a suburb of greater Bendigo.

Naturally, I looked up the poem on my phone. Apart from the opening line I only had the vaguest memory of how it went but soon reminded myself that it tells of how Mulga Bill bought a bicycle to replace his horse. He soon loses control while riding downhill and ends up in the local creek. His declaration afterwards makes up the final lines of the poem, concluding “A horse’s back is good enough henceforth for Mulga Bill.”

I can see why kids are introduced to the poem: it’s fun. But my mental image had been of Mulga Bill riding a penny farthing and I soon read online that that could not be the case at all. The safety bicycle had surpassed the penny farthing in popularity by 1896, when the poem was written.

I really should have realised that. The Sherlock Holmes short stories were often accompanied by illustrations by Sidney Paget and I remember that “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” shows a perfectly ordinary bicycle. That story was published seven years after the poem and in a completely different part of the world but it still gives an indication of how things were. I should add that “safety bicycle” was the early term for the type of bike we’re familiar with today. The word “safety” has long since been dropped.

So what explains my mis-perception? It’s simple. A lot of the children’s books that include Mulga Bill’s Bicycle show a penny farthing on the cover. The image at the top of this post is an example.

But an obvious question is, why did Patterson write the poem in the first place? Here again, a bit of research gives us a clue. It turns out that there was a bicycle boom in the 1890s, possibly as a direct consequence of the improvements in bike technology. My guess is that the poem was written as a response to the boom and represents Patterson’s views on the subject: why have a bicycle when there are perfectly good horses to ride?

Every era has popular topics of debate and controversy. Mulga Bill’s Bicycle probably captures one of the topics of its era.

Still, Patterson clearly couldn’t see the future. Over 100 years later horses have long since vanished from our streets but bicycles are still around. Patterson would probably be amazed if he knew that.

The Melancholy Roman

Revealing moments

Ted Kennedy. Image from

There’s an old saying that character is what you are like when no one’s watching. That’s probably true but it’s not a useful definition. It’s better to describe character as what you’re like when things go wrong.

The name Mary Jo Kopechne is probably not that well known today. It probably wasn’t even well known in the past, but if I tell you that she was 28 years old and was born in 1940 it should give you an idea of the era I’m talking about. She didn’t live to be 29.

I should also say that when I was younger, once or twice in news coverage of American politics I heard the term “Chappaquiddick.” The sound of the word was unusual, clearly Native American, and caught my ear. It was obviously shorthand for a scandal. If you don’t understand the reference I’ll come back to it in a minute. It shall suffice for the moment to say that it links back to the name I mentioned in the last paragraph, Mary Jo Kopechne.

Let me shift a gear. Embedded below is a YouTube video. In it, a girl named Natalie Gilbert tries to sing the American national anthem at a basketball game. Partway through she forgets the words and stops, not knowing what to do. The head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, Maurice “Mo” Cheeks, comes to her aid and they finish the song together.

For the record I love this video. It’s a good tonic when you want cheering up.

But perhaps you are wondering what this has to do with Chappaquiddick and Mary Jo Kopechne? Let me explain.

The Kennedy family was and is legendary in American politics. The eldest Kennedy boy was killed in World War II. The next one was JFK and I don’t have to explain what happened to him. His marginally less famous brother, Robert Kennedy, was leading the campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1968 when he too was assassinated. That left the remaining brother, Ted Kennedy, to carry the family hopes.

On the night of 18 July 1969, Ted Kennedy, then a 37 year old and already a United States senator, was driving back from a party on Chappaquiddick Island. Kopechne was the only other person in his car. She had been one of a small team of women who’d worked together on Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign and she and Ted Kennedy had been to a party for that same, small team.

In the dark, Kennedy made a mistake and accidentally drove off a bridge. His car fell into water and became submerged.

There is no suggestion that this was anything other than a mistake. The area was ill-lit and the bridge had no guardrails.

Kennedy was able to escape and swam to safety. Kopechne, on the other hand, was trapped in the car.

According to Kennedy, he repeatedly dived down to try to free her but was unable to do so.

And here’s the critical detail: having failed to rescue Kopechne from the car, Kennedy did not report the accident for 10 hours.

In slightly more detail, rather than go to the nearest house to try to summon help, he walked back to the party. He told two friends what had happened. They returned with him to the scene and all three tried to swim down to effect a rescue. None were able to.

Kennedy’s friends both insisted that the authorities should be alerted. Kennedy assured them that he himself would ensure this happened. They took him at his word. In fact Kennedy only reported the accident the next morning when he learned that the car had already been discovered and Kopechne’s lifeless body removed from it.

There have been books, documentaries, at least one movie, and lots of press articles that have covered the case, but the crucial detail concerns the fate of Kopechne – who it should be remembered, was a real human being and not just a name in a news report. You see, it is possible that she was caught in an air pocket in the submerged car and might have lived for several hours. In other words, after Kennedy had promised his friends that he would alert authorities, it’s possible that she could have been rescued had he done so.

Alternatively she may have already drowned. We don’t know for sure and never will.

If we return our attention to the story of Mo Cheeks and Natalie Gilbert, one reason for the video’s popularity is that we get to see what Cheeks is really like, and we like what we see.

By contrast, at Chappaquiddick we saw what Ted Kennedy was really like, and we don’t. It destroyed his presidential prospects for all time. His character had been revealed.

You may argue that that was unfair. Ted Kennedy went on to become an influential senator and if you share his political beliefs, you would probably say that he was a great force for good. He was proof that some people have second lives.

But still… that 10 hour delay…

Whatever his legacy, we still don’t like the character he showed at Chappaquiddick.

The Melancholy Roman