After a break of a few weeks, my 34th challenge (no.24 on the list) was duly completed last night when I went head to head with a fiery curry. Elaine had asked for suggestions as to where we should go, and the “winner” was Jamal’s, a small, friendly restaurant fairly close to Middlesbrough town centre.
We met the owner. His name was Jamal.
No need to wonder how the restaurant got its name then.
Jamal has been running the business for nineteen years. He told us that he would cook our food himself, and he nudged me in the direction of one of the specials, Chicken Kalia, which he would prepare to ensure that it met the challenge brief of being the hottest dish on the menu.
Perfect. No further thought required. (Elaine ordered Chicken Rogan Josh.)
Although it was relatively early, there were already a few other diners in the restaurant, some of whom turned round when our meals arrived and Elaine took the obligatory “fork on way to mouth” photo.
The Chicken Kalia was certainly tasty... and bloody hot. I was pleased with the former, and not in the least bit surprised by the latter.
Jamal came over to ask if we were enjoying our food - we were - and to explain that one of the ingredients in my dish was the naga chilli, one of the hottest varieties of chilli pepper. Chilli strength is calculated using something called the Scovill scale, named (in true restaurant style) after its creator Wilbur Scovill in 1912. Apparently the naga chilli has been measured at over one million on the Scovill scale, although as far as assessing the potency or otherwise of spicy food is concerned, I do have my own foolproof post-meal method...
I also read that the naga chilli is sometimes smeared onto fences, or somehow used as part of a smoke bomb to ward off wild elephants. I’m not entirely sure whether or not these ideas are effective in north eastern India, but the lack of elephants on Corporation Road suggests they work fine over here...
And that’s pretty much it for the latest task. If you’re ever in Middlesbrough and fancy a bite to eat in a restaurant which offers a friendly welcome, a pleasant atmosphere, lovely food... and absolutely no wild elephants, Jamal’s certainly fits the bill.
I’m sure we’ll pay a return visit at some point, but as far as the challenges go, the next stop for me is the boxing ring!
With most of the new university intake safely installed in their various halls of residence, it’s now time for the annual round of Fresher’s Fairs.
Through work, we’ve visited a number of local fairs to try and obtain enrolments from potential blood donors, although altruistic tendencies are usually no match for the lure of cheap drinks and half price pizza at this stage of a university career.
I vaguely remember the Fresher’s Week from my time at Newcastle Polytechnic. The vagueness is more due to the passage of time than alcohol consumption - but back in the day I was man enough to easily knock back three whole pints of Woodpecker in an average evening, and still blast enough asteroids into oblivion to secure an extra life. If the drink was going down particularly well, I’d attempt an extra half, along with a packet of Worcester Sauce Wheat Crunchies... I might have been tough, but I wasn’t stupid.
I think there were a few events held during the week in question, but the one I’d been particularly looking forward to was the appearance of The Teardrop Explodes (you’d probably recognise their 1980 top ten hit “Reward”). Sadly, the reality was considerably poorer than the expectation, as the band was in turmoil at the time (late 1982) and fulfilled tour commitments as a trio, without a guitarist, and heavily reliant on backing tracks. In addition, they didn’t play any of their better known songs – “Treason” and “Bouncing Babies” to name another two – and by the end of the show, I was so miserable that I ordered a second bag of Wheat Crunchies... Crispy Bacon... nice, but they didn’t half repeat.
It took me quite a while to properly settle in to student life, but away from the lecture theatres and language labs (I was learning French and Geordie), there were a couple of decent nearby watering holes where I could relax and hone my largely unimpressive drinking skills. Some of these pubs (and the campus student union) still exist... but I doubt I’d recognise their respective interiors... more from the passage of time etc etc.
The Newton Park had a side room called the “Orac Bar”, so-named after the computer in the popular sci-fi series “Blake’s 7”; there was a pub called the Lochside quite close to the campus, and another near Four Lane Ends metro station called The Black Bull. I seem to recall that this particular establishment offered table service courtesy of an old lady whose name escapes me, but who must have been pushing eighty.
As an aside, I usually scoffed the Wheat Crunchies relatively early when I was there, because I wasn’t sure just how much cider it took for a gap-toothed granny to become strangely appealing; and I didn’t (and still don’t) think it would be appropriate to find out.
Anyway, the Black Bull was also the scene of my most comprehensive alcoholic defeat - courtesy of several pint glasses filled with Dry Blackthorn cider. It was the night of the campus’ Christmas Party. I did have a “date” for the evening; we’re still in touch, and she’ll probably read this; so by the time the final blog is posted any trace of masculine bravado will be have been replaced by words that properly convey a shame that lingered long after the hangover had eased.
I consumed five pints that night, without one single Wheat Crunchie [check dictionary for alternative definitions of “hard”], but the fatal error was not the amount; no, it was the fact that I lagged so far behind the “proper” drinkers, that I was left with just five minutes to down my final three pints.
Which I duly did... and felt fine... until I ventured outside.
I was so ill. I don’t expect any sympathy, but at one point I had to shoo away a dog that wanted to cock its leg near a tree because my need to throw up all over the trunk was far greater. The walk back to the student union is completely missing from my memory, although I do recall ending up, rather embarrassingly, in the ladies toilets at some point during the festivities. For the record, it’s not something I do very often - although there was this time in Costa Coffee a few years ago – and the next thing I can remember is waking up on the floor of my bedroom, my green rug decorated with what I mistakenly hoped were bits of carrot.
It’s quite bizarre that I have never forgotten something I can barely remember, but I hope that all the new students (wherever they may be) enjoy their first term, and aren’t overwhelmed by the enticement of a seemingly endless choice of rainbow-coloured drinks that are now on offer. As with most things in life, I suppose you need to learn by experience, but if I was to give two any drinking advice to the thousands of fresh-faced arrivals, it would be these two words... and I think by now you know what they are: Wheat Crunchies.
I was really interested by a Facebook post made yesterday by Kevin Neighbour, a former Gateshead Thunder rugby league player – and later coach – of the highest distinction, who now resides on the other size of the globe.
With both Super League and the Australian NRL into the end-of-season play offs, with the Grand Final carrot dangling ever closer, Kev wondered about the mental recovery required when one massive game is followed just days later by the heightened pressure of another.
It’s safe to assume that anyone playing at that level already possesses the required technical ability and (notwithstanding the understandable effects of the sport) the physical strength and fitness to compete; but how does the mind refocus after eighty vital minutes of intensity to enable the body to produce its best maybe just days later, on an even bigger stage?
Let me state from the outset that I don’t know the answer; for the glaringly obvious reason that I could never have been described by the word “athlete” (let alone “elite”). I absolutely loved all the sport I played... the cricket, the badminton; I even quite enjoyed the running... well some of it, but I cannot talk from the experience of showcasing my albeit dubious talent at any kind of notable level.
That said, I noticed this statement on a poster left in response to Kev’s posting: “If you’re too frightened to lose, you don’t deserve to win”, and I found this fascinating from a personal perspective.
Please keep bearing in mind that I was only an amateur cricketer, but like the overwhelming majority of people that play any sport, you want to be the best you can. By definition, most of us will fall short of becoming instantly recognisable – and rich – from reaching the pinnacle of our chosen sport, but that should never distract from the enjoyment of competition, as well as the pride in achievement.
I was never afraid of losing. My fear was of failure. Personal failure. It wasn’t the worry of not producing my best on a given day, because I would always be trying my hardest; no, the fear was making a fool of myself in front of an audience. I suffered from the “yips”, or whatever you want to call it, on the cricket field, as well as the equivalent when facing a dart board.
I could bowl a cricket ball, and I could throw a dart... most of the time. But the first time I couldn’t control it (and it happened around the age of 18-19), then the prospect of it happening again was there, dominating my thoughts, detracting from my performance... my basic ability. The mind was in total control of the technical aspects of the game and whilst I would never draw any kind of comparison between the sports I enjoyed and the incredible physicality of rugby league, I would suggest that mental and physical attributes are far from being mutually exclusive.
The first time I bowled a ball into orbit, I was mortified. When I was still at school, I’d practice for hours on my own in the nets, bowling at a ten pence piece placed on a perfect length just outside the off stump. The implication is that I could hit it every now and again, but I can’t remember the clink of leather on coin happening all that often, but hopefully you get the picture that I was reasonably proficient at getting the ball to land reasonably close to where I wanted more often than not.
How far the batsman then hit it was another matter altogether!
The effect when things went wrong was probably worse than was outwardly apparent. It didn’t matter if I was playing in front of one person, or over a thousand, the thought that I might do something that would make me look stupid often became overwhelming.
But in 1994, during what was my debut for the full Durham Senior League XI, I made a complete hash of a caught and bowled. It was a skier, but not a difficult chance, yet I didn’t even get a hand to the ball... which hit me very hard indeed, full on the chest. For a moment, I was totally embarrassed, but all of a sudden, that feeling was replaced by one of anger. I was furious with myself not just for dropping the catch, but the manner in which I’d dropped it, but in an instant, any negative thoughts were brushed aside by a wave of determination and resolve I hadn’t experienced very often, if at all.
The next delivery clean bowled the batsman.
Somehow I’d had the strength to channel all the emotion into a positive outcome. It felt fantastic, but in hindsight, it demonstrated the difference between the decent and the outstanding. That ability to either produce our best, or even raise performance to even higher levels demands the fulfilment of all the technical and physical criteria, but can only happen when the mind can be directed to an extent where positive thought can result in positive performance. I had experienced it, but I wasn’t strong enough to control it...
As another example, over the past few days, whilst throwing a few darts in the garage, I’ve completed legs of 501 in eleven and twelve darts. Admittedly a small oasis in the middle of a desert of darting filth, but reasonable nonetheless. If I could throw in public like I can in my garage, I wouldn’t be the next Phil Taylor, but I’d be an average pub or league player, however although I’ve spend a lot of time this year challenging my perceived weaknesses, I’m still not able to fully shrug off the possibility of failure.
And to a degree that’s the difference. There will be plenty of people who can hit 180, make a century break at snooker, serve an ace on a tennis court, or chip in from off the green on a golf course. But the best players can do it under pressure... when people are watching... when championships (and money) are at stake...
Elevate those principles to the sporting elite and the rugby league field and you have a situation where the play offs consistently pair closely matched squads in terms of physical strength and ability. Games will be decided by a moment’s brilliance, or a glaring error... the influence of an individual in a sport where the team is theoretically everything...
I suppose you can never completely rule out the influence of “Lady Luck”, but would it be reasonable to suggest that the players who can make the game-changing plays are not just the most gifted, or those blessed with the best vision, but those with the strength of character to successfully throw the miracle pass (irrespective of possible consequences) rather than wait for someone else to make the crucial intervention?
And taking it one step further, do the best athletes have powers of recovery that allow them to exert control over both extreme physical and mental fatigue, and still produce moments of inspiration when those players who can’t are probably already sitting at home looking ahead to next season?
It must be possible to educate and train the mind, much as you can improve fitness levels, but I do believe that as with latent talent, certain people are blessed with a strength of character or resolve that will enable them to overcome obstacles that the majority couldn’t – or wouldn’t even attempt to – negotiate?
Whatever the case, it’s fascinating stuff, and something that makes top level sport so consistently compelling.
Today marks the 96th anniversary of the death of Russian Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, four days after he had been shot whilst attending an opera in what is now the Ukranian capital city, Kiev.
Stolypin came from a well-to-do background. Although he was actually born in Germany (in April 1862), his father was a successful Russian landowner and his mother was the daughter of a Russian General.
Raised in Lithuania, Stolypin studied in St Petersburg, before embarking on a provincial political career around 1903. Stolypin’s hard-line treatment of dissenters and revolutionaries came to the attention of Tsar Nicholas II, who duly appointed him as Minister of the Interior in 1906 – just months after the Tsar has unveiled his “October Manifesto” (effectively a forced relaxation of autocracy) in response to various outbreaks of civil unrest.
A new parliament (Duma) was elected, but radical demands saw it just as quickly dissolved by the Tsar, who immediately named Stolypin as his Prime Minister.
Stolypin wanted to remove the troublesome peasant class by offering loans to enable peasants to set up as independent farmers, in the hope that commercial success would lead to the kind of prosperity that would strengthen allegiance to the government.
Despite being a strong reformer, Stolypin also continued his tough stance against repressives, with approximately 3,000 executions taking place between 1906 and 1911. The phrase “Stolypin’s necktie” was coined by a member of the Duma to represent the hangman’s noose; in fairness, the Prime Minister took it well, and promptly challenge the person concerned to a duel!
A second Duma blocked many of Stolypin’s proposed reformed, so once again the parliament was dissolved, the voting system was changed, and lo and behold, a third, tsarist Duma was elected.
However, Stolypin’s incessant pressure for reform seems to have eventually had an effect on the Tsar, and, during 1911, it looked increasingly likely that the Prime Minister might be relieved of his political duties. Whether or not that was actually the case will never be known, as Stolypin made that fateful visit to the Kiev Opera House.
There had been warning of a possible assassination attempt on the Prime Minister, but Stolypin not only went ahead with his trip to Kiev, but also refused to wear a bullet-proof vest – because it smelt! Reportedly, there had already been ten attempts on his life, but it was to prove “eleventh time lucky” for the revolutionaries, as at the end of the second act of a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tale of Tsar Saltan the 24 year-old anarchist Dmitry Bogrov (below) fired two shots at Stolypin; the first hitting him in the arm, the second... ultimately fatally... in the chest.
Bogrov fled, but was soon captured. Seemingly uncovered as an agent for the Okhrana (the Tsar’s secret police) and amid rumours of an ordered killing, the assassin was swiftly hanged.
Despite remaining conscious, Stolypin’s condition deteriorated over the days that followed. He passed away on 18th September, a controversial man whose actions divided popular opinion, but nearly a century later, Stolypin is now perceived by many as one of Russia’s greatest ever statesmen, and the man who could – had circumstances been different – have steered Russia away from civil war.
Last weekend, our regular Saturday morning trip for coffee and cake took us to Starbucks - for the first time in ages.
I’d been treated to a hot chocolate during the week by the girls from work, who had stopped off at a branch of this particular establishment for calming purposes, after aborting a planned trip to Middlesbrough following the unexpected, unwanted and (as I understand it) fairly dramatic appearance of several large spiders in the work’s car.
Still... every cloud and all that; the hot chocolate was lovely, and I quite fancied another.
We joined a short queue and Elaine ordered herself a cappuccino, and a hot chocolate for me (no cream... got my figure to consider). We then showed admirable restraint in ignoring everything even remotely cakey and choosing a couple of bread-related items for our mid-morning treat.
Elaine spotted that the comfy window seats had been vacated and she shot (spelling double checked) across the floor and bagged the two chairs. Suffice to say I was impressed by her vision and acceleration... all because she wanted to have a good nosey at what was going on outside (she’d call it “watching the world go by).
Unusually, Elaine was asked to give her name to the assistant when she placed her order. As well as that, she’d had to answer that most difficult of questions: “Do you want our Guatemalan coffee in your cappuccino?”
According to the company’s website, this particular blend is: “Elegant and refined with layers of unfolding flavour - notes of lemon, chocolate and soft spice”. I’m pretty confident that the assistant hadn’t got a clue where Guatemala actually was, but Elaine simply nodded because the alternative came from Sumatra and apparently tasted shit.
I stood patiently waiting for our drinks. This bloke duly plonked a mug down on the table and said: “Cappuccino for Elaine!” I went to pick it up, and the lad looked at me: “Are you Elaine?”
Well obviously bloody not, but as her husband I thought I’d be allowed to carry the drinks over to our table. Is that okay with you? The people next to me thought it was funny, so I smiled as well... you can’t beat that Guatemalan sense of humour...
I carefully took the drinks over to my darling wife, whose attention was fully focussed on some sort of protest outside the branch of Santander over the road. As I bent down to place the cups on the table, the relative calm was shattered as a voice shouted: “Emma’s paninis!”
Emma’s paninis? What, they shout out when the food’s ready as well?!
Oh God no... Elaine ordered two ham and cheese baps...
Back to Marks & Spencer for Victoria sponge this weekend methinks.
Sitting down and watching a pretty random movie for no real reason (and actually staying awake throughout) is a fairly rare event, so I thought I would go one stage further and write a review... of sorts.
The film was an hour and seventeen minutes of 1953 American sci-fi: Invaders from Mars.
Nobody of any real note amongst the cast, although the actress who (in what was her final film appearance) played Dr Pat Blake was called Helena Carter (below), but if you search for pictures Google tends to assume you meant to include “Bonham” in between.
The premise of the movie is that people are dragged underground through a sandpit, only to emerge later with a tell-tale scar on the back of the neck, and a total change in personality. The “invaders” have arrived in a flying saucer, which was spotted by young David Maclean (played by Jimmy Hunt, who would reappear as the police chief in the apparently dire 1986 remake). Jimmy’s father goes to investigate... disappears into the sand... and isn’t in the best of moods when he eventually returns home.
David soon realises something is wrong, and rushes to tell the Police Chief who... yes you’ve guessed it... has the tell-tale scar on his neck. Luckily, Dr Blake (Helena without the Bonham) and astronomer Stuart Kelston (Arthur Franz) believe David’s story, and persuade the military to investigate.
Basically, what has happened is that a Martian intelligence (a head under a bowl) is controlling slave creatures (with clearly obvious zips in their costumes) by mental power, and slightly unnerving eye movements.
The humans are implanted with crystals that force them to try and sabotage a nearby atomic rocket, but if they are caught, the crystals cause a brain haemorrhage and a fairly swift farewell.
Explosives are eventually placed in the alien ship and, after a lengthy fleeing sequence during which David’s face is seen in close-up whilst significant moments from the story are superimposed (some backwards), an explosion causes the Martian craft to explode and everyone lives happily ever after...
Or do they?!
For after the explosion, David suddenly finds himself back in bed. A thunderstorm causes him to run through to his parents room (as he had at the start of the film), they assure him everything is fine (as they had etc etc); but when David goes back to his bedroom and looks out of the window, he sees the very same flying saucer coming into land.
The music lends a creepy tension to the ending, as the viewer is left to ponder whether David’s original dream was a premonition, or if he is somehow trapped in a recurring nightmare that will be played out over and over again...
It was an unexpectedly thought-provoking conclusion to a film that was certainly watchable, but many of the positive aspects were negated by a string of mistakes or irritations.
One of the worst (in my opinion) was the inclusion of the same shot of an underground explosion on at least four occasions (condoms being used to create a bubble effect on the tunnel walls); likewise the same mutant slave gets shot a couple of times, only to recover and clamber to his feet in identical fashion. Some shots were clearly reversed, as during a car chase involving David’s father George (Leif Erikson), he gets into the car as a passenger, then suddenly appears in the left-hand seat – the driver’s seat - only minus the steering wheel. The sandpit closing was simply the opening played in reverse; when the mutants picked up and threw some of the characters, their respective doubles were clearly considerably smaller in stature, and while I’m on a roll, there was way too much of stock military footage to pad out the film.
But the unforgiveable mistake occurs near the end of the action, when the soldiers’ escape from a tunnel is blocked by rocks. The order is given to start digging... and a spade suddenly appears. No one had one when they descended into the tunnel... so where exactly...?
Or maybe I’m being slightly unkind. This film was released over sixty years ago after all, and elements were probably pretty scary to the audience of the time. So after virtually no deliberation, I will give the first 75 minutes an average 6/10 and the final two minutes 8/10.
If you were interested in UFOs, creatures from outer space and the like, then the small town of Flatwoods was very much the place to be on the evening of September 12, 1952.
Flatwoods is situated in Braxton County (that doesn’t really help, does it?), in West Virginia... fair enough, it’s somewhere in America, and on that particular September night sixty-two years ago, reports were received of a “fiery object” (initially assumed to be an aeroplane) seen crashing somewhere near the Elk River.
Depending which report you read, some or all of the following were soon at the scene: four boys from Flatwoods school who had been playing (American) football, a local resident called Kathleen May and her two sons, and/or a teenage National Guardsman named Gene Lemon – and his dog.
It seems certain that Mrs May and the youngsters did reach the crash site, where they were “greeted” by a glowing, hissing object, that was estimated to be about ten feet in diameter, although it was roughly one hundred yards away. Mrs May later commented that there was a pungent metallic smell in the air, which burned their eyes and noses. She also reported seeing a frightened dog (possibly Gene Lemon’s) running away from the mysterious object... probably doing a decent impression of Scooby Doo in the process.
As darkness descended, the area was suddenly illuminated by two bright lights, approximately a foot apart. Apparently one of the boys had a torch, which he pointed at the lights (after switching it on, I presume). The onlookers then found themselves staring at what was described as a ten feet tall creature, with a bright red face, green clothing which hung in folds from the waist down, and a head which resembled the ace of spades.
As if that wasn’t creepy enough, the apparition then began to float towards them, and the group immediately turned and fled. News of the creature soon spread and by the time the Sheriff arrived, so had a number of other locals – and a reporter called Lee Stewart. During interviews, Stewart stated that some of the witnesses were genuinely frightened by what they’d seen; the strong and unusual smell was also in evidence, and the following morning, traces of “skid marks” were discovered – and I for one am not surprised in the slightest.
Gene Lemon’s description of the monster was reptilian, with stubby arms and claw-like fingers. Lemon also mentioned the powerful smell, and claimed that he suffered from sickness and convulsions during the night – and that his dog had become unwell... so much so that it actually died.
Several theories have subsequently been put forward. The bright light was a meteor (that had also been spotted over other neighbouring states); the nauseous smell came from a particular type of grass that grew in the area, the glowing eyes and hanging wings simply belonged to an owl perched up a tree, and the rest was nothing more than the combined product of frightened and overactive minds... minds that increased the size of the owl ten-fold, and then gave it the ability to float and hiss...
Even the skid marks could be explained; they were left by a pick-up truck, driven to the scene by a youngster eager to see what was causing the commotion.
Oh, those skid marks. I thought... actually it doesn’t matter...
So there you have it: the Flatwoods Monster. An alien encounter, or just a bit of a hoot? Like most of these things, the believers will believe, and the sceptics will... er... scepticate... but until conclusively proven or acceptably debunked, the events of September 12, 1952 will remain a mystery...
The future Empress Elisabeth of Austria was born on Christmas Eve in 1837. Known throughout her life as “Sisi”, she enjoyed a privileged, but relatively carefree childhood - her mother Ludovika was the daughter of a Bavarian king, but did not marry into a Royal family.
Ludovika was a dutiful mother to Sisi and her seven siblings, and her attempts to improve her children’s prospects looked to have paid off when her daughter Helene (pictured left with her younger sister) was chosen as a suitable bride for the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph - whose mother Sophie was also Ludovika’s sister.
However the best laid plans and all that... Franz Joseph fell in love with fifteen year-old Sisi at first sight (even though she had only travelled to accompany her mother and sister). Their engagement was announced the following day, and the couple married in Vienna in April 1854.
The new Empress was unusually tall for the time (she stood 5’8”) and was a beautiful young woman. Popular with her people, Sisi struggled to cope with the constant presence of her overbearing mother-in-law (who effectively ruled through her son during the early years of his reign), as well as the discipline and high expectations of a royal life. One duty that was fulfilled however, was that of providing an heir to the empire - Crown Prince Rudolf was born in 1858, with Sisi already having given birth to two daughters: Sophie and Gisela.
Seemingly, Elisabeth rarely posed for pictures with her children, but here she is with Rudolf and Gisela.
Her children were taken into the care of her mother-in-law and the relationship between the pair deteriorated quickly as a result. For his part, Franz Joseph spent a lot of time away from his family and, although he was kind-natured, he was paradoxically both a reserved man and an arrogant womaniser.
By 1860, rumours of her husband’s affairs surfaced and feeling both betrayed and unwell (due to a mystery illness that was passed off as tuberculosis, but was more likely to have been sexually transmitted), Sisi left Vienna and travelled widely over the years that followed.
Sisi had a strong affection for Hungary – partly because her mother-in-law didn’t! – and when a political crisis in Austria resulted in the formation of a joint monarchy with Hungary in 1866, Elisabeth played a major part in supporting the arrangement which ultimately led to her husband being crowned King of Hungary in 1867.
But Sisi was admired far more for her beauty than any political prowess. Although she was tall, she weighed less than eight stone, and her heel length hair needed hours of care every day. To preserve her looks and figure, Sisi dieted and exercised regularly – and, more often than not, excessively. She was an accomplished horse-rider and it was claimed that she (somewhat ambitiously) wanted to be not only the most beautiful monarch in the world, but also the best rider amongst the aristocracy... her rival apparently being the French Empress Eugénie.
Her appearance, and undeniably privileged life hid a great deal of sadness however. Her daughter Sophie died aged just two years old. A decade later, her brother-in-law Emperor Maximillian of Mexico was assassinated, and his wife went insane; and then one of her closest friends, King Ludwig II of Bavaria mysteriously drowned after also suffering from mental illness. But it was the murder-suicide of her (at the time estranged) son Rudolf and his mistress Mary Vetsera in 1889 that had the greatest emotional impact on the Empress.
The misfortune continued when her sister Sophie was killed in a fire at a charity bazaar in 1897, and Sisi’s anguish and increasing loneliness manifested itself through her poetry, in which she revealed her innermost thoughts and feelings.
I wander lonely in this world
Delight and life long time averted
No confidant to share my inner self
A matching soul never revealed
Tragically destiny was to intervene one final time when Sisi was stabbed and mortally wounded by a French-born anarchist Luigi Lucheni in Geneva on this day in 1898. Lucheni’s misguided ambition was to kill a member of what he saw as the elite and oppressive upper class. His intended target was Phillippe, Duke of Orleans, but when his itinerary was changed at the last minute, Lucheni turned his attention to the other royal who happened to be in Geneva: “I struck the first crowned head that crossed my way,” were his reported words during interrogation. “I don’t care. I wanted to make an example, and I succeeded.”
The public adored their Empress, and consequently Sisi always travelled with very few bodyguards. In fact, on the day in question, Elisabeth was about to board a ship, accompanied only by her lady-in-waiting (this is purported to be the last photograph taken the day before her death). It was then that the fates eventually collided, and Lucheni took his opportunity to plunge a needle file into Sisi’s chest...
The assailant ran off, and Elisabeth went aboard the vessel, genuinely believing she was unhurt. The truth was that her corset had temporarily contained the bleeding, and it was only when it was removed that the full extent of her injury became obvious. The weapon had pierced the sixty year-old’s heart... and from that moment, her demise was inevitable.
Elisabeth had almost everything anyone could have wanted from life – except the two things that her elevated position and wealth could never buy: love and happiness. A desperately sad story... and perhaps a salutary lesson to those (like me) hoping for that lottery win...
On this day in 1970, the leader of the Formula 1 championship, Jochen Rindt, was killed when his car crashed during qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix in Monza.
The German-born driver, who represented Austria during his racing career, was well clear of his championship rivals at the time of the tragedy; so far ahead in fact that his points total would not be overhauled, and Rindt became the first – and to this date only – posthumous Formula 1 champion.
Rindt was a fearless competitor and a flamboyant character, who had turned to motor sport after suffering a number of broken bones on the ski slopes. He had moved to Austria to be raised by his grandparents after his own parents had perished during a Second World War bombing raid, and grew up to be a straight-talking young man whose attitude was often perceived as arrogant by those who didn’t know him. His determination to succeed was displayed in a racing style that seemed to result in victory or a crash, but Rindt was only too well aware of the dangers of motor racing, as his hero and one-time mentor Wolfgang von Trips perished in an accident in 1961... ironically also at Monza.
He drove for Lotus alongside Graham Hill during 1969, but Rindt sustained concussion and a broken jaw following a crash during the Spanish Grand Prix. The following year started well for the Austrian, but the deaths of Bruce McLaren and Piers Courage, along with the arrival of a baby daughter (with his wife Nina, a Finnish model who he had married in 1967) had apparently left Rindt pondering end-of-season retirement.
But Jochen Rindt did not live long enough to make that decision, as his car veered off the track at the Parrabolica corner, and collided with barriers, very close to where von Trips had lost his life nine years earlier.
The accident was attributed to “mechanical failure” (officially of the rear suspension), but Rindt was prevented from driving the Lotus 49 model he favoured for the circuit, and moreover the controversial Lotus founder Colin Chapman decided that the car’s wings should be removed to allow for increased straight line speed – yet it was on one of the fastest parts of the circuit that the car inexplicably swerved and crashed.
Rindt was not wearing a crotch strap as part of his seat belts, and having lost control of the car, he slid forward in the cockpit and apparently badly damaged (maybe even severed) a foot; but it was the action of “submarining” that caused the straps of the seat buckle to cut Rindt’s throat and cause the injuries that ended his life.
It was reportedly left to the reigning champion, and Rindt’s close friend Jackie Stewart to break the news to Nina, and the third of the photographs at the top of the page shows Rindt’s widow receiving the Champion Challenge trophy from the Scottish driver; a poignant moment, and forty-four years later a reminder of a career that promised so much, but ended so abruptly in the pursuit of the dream of being the best...
Jochen Rindt 1942-1970
This day in 1923 marked the inaugural flight of America’s first naval rigid airship, the USS Shenandoah. The word is apparently derived from the Iroquian for “deer” (although some have suggested it also means “daughter of the stars”), but the vessel was actually named after Shenandoah Valley in West Virginia, home of the Secretary of the Navy, Edwin Denby, whose wife “christened” the airship on 10th September 1923.
The craft was designed for reconnaissance work, similar to that carried out by German airships during the First World War. It was also thought that following pre-commissioning trials, the Shenandoah would be able to carry out long-range, and low speed flights, gain important weather data, and possibly even undertake a trip to the Arctic.
Probably the most significant change to previous airships was that the Shenandoah used helium rather than the much more volatile hydrogen. However, one main problem was that helium was not readily available at the time and with a volume in excess of two million cubic feet, it required a significant proportion of the world’s reserves to get the vessel airborne.
In January 1924, the upper tail fin covering tore during a gale, whilst the craft was moored to its mast. That caused the vessel to roll, ripping it away from its mooring and ultimately puncturing both gas bags. The Arctic expedition was cancelled whilst repairs were completed, but when the Shenandoah returned to service, concerns remain about the possible effects of extremes of weather on a craft that was basically lighter than air.
On 2nd September, almost two years to the day after it made its first flight, the Shenandoah left her base in New Jersey for a voyage (her 57th) that would be both a publicity trip, and an opportunity to test a new mooring mast in Michigan. Early on the morning of 3rd September however, whilst flying over Ohio, the crew lost control of the airship during violent storms; a sudden updraft forced the craft to a height beyond the pressure limits of the helium gas bags, resulting in the eventual fracture of the overstressed hull.
The commander (Zachary Lansdowne) was killed, as were several other men in the cable-suspended control cabin. Miraculously though, twenty-nine survived, having been in one of three sections of the craft that descended like a free balloon. Sadly, some of those survivors would later perish with USS Akron (courtesy of another weather-related incident), but at the time the loss of the Shenandoah was arguably America’s most significant aviation disaster.
Thousands of people came to the crash site, where the wreckage was looted. An official enquiry subsequently resulted in improvements to airship design and construction, and it also revealed that Lansdowne, who lived in Ohio, had argued against the flight because of the prevalence of turbulent weather patterns in the area; but the voyage was only postponed, not cancelled, because the powers that be were intent on showing off their technology...
And, in fairness, it would be hard to argue that the last flight of the USS Shenandoah did not make the headlines... sadly it was for all the wrong reasons.