On An Old Man’s Conversations

George really was a man who enjoyed simple things, but he was no simpleton, he. Some of his friends called him “Farmer George” because he liked to dabble in agriculture (even though he lived in the city, mostly) and because of his liking for things like food, family, and laughter. All in all, a good man who married a good woman and had a bunch of kids.

15 to be exact–9 of them sons. The last two boys were born to George when he was an older man. It was these last two sons that George talked to more than the other children that he and his wife had. You see, George had some health issues as he aged as many of us do. He became bedridden, and the younger children around him were all he saw as the older ones were grown and gone by that time. So, George amused himself by talking to the two younger boys, Freddie, the 9th son, and Eight–yes, George named his 8th son Eight–for hours on end.

The boys never complained about their father’s long talks with them. Oh, he would ask them questions often, and he would listen intently to their answers, but most of the time in his bed-ridden state, George would simply talk…and talk…and talk. And while young boys being that patient with an elderly father seems unusual, you’ll see why the never grew bored with or tired of their father’s attention.

And it’s not that George ignored the rest of his family. Unusually for his day, George doted on almost all his children. The oldest and namesake, well, he was different than his dad. George, Jr., wasn’t fond of the simple things like his dad was. Those two men never really “bonded” as is the phrase today, but what inheritance the older George left when he died went almost all to George, Jr. No, the older George would carry his younger children around on his shoulders, he’d toss them in the air, he’d play games and always–always–remember their birthdays and special events in their lives.

So, for the years preceding his death in 1820, Old Farmer George talked to his two youngest sons about life, death, God, toys, travel, the stars, and even shared secrets with them that no one else knew.

Sadly, the boys never heard what their father said to them.

That’s because both of them had died several years before. Eight–whose name was actually Octavius–died in 1783 at age 4. And Freddie–Alfred–had died at age 2 in 1782.

You see, in his madness, King George III of Great Britain and Ireland, talked long hours to the precious sons he had loved and lost.

On an Air Raid

Everyone knows about the German bombing of London during the war. We see something similar on the news in 2022 with the Russian air attacks on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. However destructive and terrorizing the Kyiv attacks are–and they are–the bombings of London were a shock for a world not used to attacks on the civilian population during the war.

You see, it was the German mentality that war was not only waged by the military, but that it was also fought and supported materially by the civilian population. The chances of German success on the battlefield, the theory went, would be greatly increased if the population that supplied the opposing army would be itself harmed and its ability to supply that army stopped.

Thus, on September 8th, in the war’s second year, the British capital city was first attacked by the air. Massive damage resulted. Twenty-two civilians were killed, and six of them were children. The Germans were promptly labeled “baby killers” by the British public. Besides the blackout orders and bomb shelters that were put in place, anti-aircraft batteries were moved from other places to London to provide improved protection against future attacks by the German air force. Searchlights crisscrossed the night skies above the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace.

The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) also fought bravely to combat the attackers. As the bombings of London increased, the pilots of the RFC took to the air to defend the population. Lt. William Robinson became an instant minor celebrity in Britain for being the first RFC pilot to shoot down a German aircraft during the raids. It seems he was the first to discover the tactic of flying much higher than the German raiders and then attacking them from above. The Germans, much more interested in the placement and release of their deadly cargoes as well as the deadly anti-aircraft fire from below, didn’t expect attacks from above. The tactic changed the course of the air war above London.

By the war’s end, almost 3,000 Londoners had either been killed or seriously wounded by the bombings. What the Germans didn’t kill was the fighting spirit of the British people. In fact, the bombings may have galvanized English public opinion to fight the war to a successful conclusion at any cost. Some of the citizenry felt a sense of pride that they, too, had been under fire during the war. But London would suffer much worse two decades later. In fact, almost ten times worse.

Yes, the German bombings of London in World War I–first by zeppelin, then by large bombers–as terrible as they were, paled in comparison to the London Blitz that would take the lives of 20,000 Londoners in World War II.

On a Working Woman

You probably know that the title of this tale is a somewhat sexist euphemism for a prostitute. The person in this story was indeed someone who sold sex for money. Her name was Mary Ann Nichols, but she went by the name Polly. Polly Walker was born in Victorian London as the second of three kids to a working class family, and her prospects for life were not good from the start as you can imagine.

At age 18, Polly managed to find a husband, a man named William Nichols. She would eventually have five children with William. He made enough money to support the family (but only barely) as a printer’s machinist and repairman. However, Polly drank. Her drinking brought even more hardship to the family since money that should have gone to the rent and food went instead to her addiction.

Finally, William was done; he had enough. He took the children and left Polly. That’s when Polly first started to sell her body for money to buy liquor. She stayed for a time with her father, but her drinking and their arguments led him to kick her out of his house. Then, for a time, Polly found work in a household of teetotalers, religious folk, and she saw that job as a way to straighten her life out. She wrote a letter to her dad and told him that she had turned over a new leaf in life. Her future looked better.

Unfortunately, the lure of alcohol proved too much for poor Polly to fight. She stole money and clothes from the family and left them. For a time, she slept on benches and public squares in her area of London. Finally, she found lodging with a woman in a single room, sharing the woman’s bed for 4 pence a night.

The evening of August 30, 1888, Polly had spent in a pub called The Frying Pan. She left shortly after midnight and staggered back to her lodging. The woman demanded payment for the night, but Polly had spent it already back at the pub. She walked out about 1:30am and said she’d have no trouble getting the money; she’d be right back.

A friend of hers saw her a few minutes later, and Polly related the story to her. “I’ve made my money several times today,” she supposedly said to the friend, “and there’s no reason why I can’t make it again.” She staggered down the street, looking for someone to pay her enough to go back to her bed.

Sadly, Polly never made it home.

Very early the next morning, two men found Polly lying on a sidewalk, drunk and passed out, they supposed at first. The two men had a discussion about whether or not to prop her up against the wall of a nearby building, but they decided to leave her be. A policeman on patrol came up and, in the early pre-dawn gloaming, held his lantern close to Polly’s face to see her condition. It was then that he policeman discovered that Polly Nichols was not drunk, but she was lying dead in a pool of her own blood.

You see, it later came to be understood that the man Polly Nichols met later that late August morning was none other than Jack the Ripper.

On an Uncouth Tourist

Americans have a reputation of being some of the most uncouth and self-centered travelers anywhere in the world but particularly in Europe. Perhaps it’s the American educational system that fails to properly prepare people by not providing them a broader view of the world. Maybe it’s that Americans are so self-centered that, if it doesn’t concern us, we simply tend to not care about it. For whatever reason, the reputation of many Americans who travel overseas is not a good one. In fact, you may sometimes hear the phrase “Ugly American” to describe someone from the United States who is unaware or unconcerned with another culture, language, or customs while traveling.

Case in point, a man in his 70s from the United States who visited France. What made this particular tourist noteworthy was that he had some money. He also had some education, so that excuse for his uncouth behavior in Europe doesn’t hold up. What is beyond dispute is that his actions shocked the people he encountered on his trip. For example, in a nation like France that is known for its haute couture, this American eschewed all sartorial convention and chose clothes of a much poorer person. This mystified the French he encountered.

And the wanton behavior! His wealth and business position in the States had caused a rift between him and his wife, and, while they never divorced, they lived separate lives for some time. She had recently died before he left for his France trip, and the man felt that he had the license to enjoy the company of some high-class French prostitutes. So, he did. In fact, he moved one of them into the apartment he rented in a Paris suburb. What made this behavior unseemly, even for the normally licentious French, was that the woman was more than 40 years his junior. And she was by no means not the only one he shared his bed with.

While these antics may seem eccentric in the case of the clothing or harmless in the case of the sexual exploits, it’s what we know of the man’s behavior in London that may be the most shocking of all his European escapades.

We might not have known about this most disturbing side of the man, but, luckily, the house the wealthy older American rented in London was renovated in the 1990s. It was then that the bones were discovered. A worker in the house’s basement unearthed a human thigh bone, and he called the police. Soon, hundreds of human bones were unearthed from the basement. And they could all be traced to the time when the American rented the house.

Was the American a murderer? Why would there be bones buried in the basement?

To this day, we don’t know for sure exactly what Benjamin Franklin had to do with it.

On The Knowledge

This blog says it is about, in part, learning and knowing. That brings us to the City of London. London is home to over 8 million people, and Charing Cross sits in the heart of the city. Six large streets intersect at that site. Over 25,000 streets are laid out within a 6 mile radius of that spot. Theaters, restaurants, government buildings, embassies, and most major tourist attractions are found in this area.
It’s been said that someone could eat at a different restaurant for breakfast, lunch, and supper for 20 years and never eat at the same restaurant twice in the city of London. Many of these restaurants are in that same central, downtown area.
Finding your way through this byzantine maze of spiderweb streets and alleys requires almost superhuman knowledge and memory. You may wonder how long it would take to learn how to maneuver from one place to another in this densely packed urban landscape.
Fortunately, we have an answer to that: 34 months.
Taxis have been in London for about 500 years. It’s been said that the first taxis were the used carriages of the wealthy Londoners. Eventually, the legal right to drive a taxi in London became standardized in the early 19th century. It was then that it became a requirement for taxi drivers to have a basic knowledge of the city and how to get about it.
Today, this knowledge is called, well, The Knowledge. If you want to drive a black London taxi cab, you must possess it. And it requires more than simply learning the tens of thousands of streets in the city.
London cab drivers must learn the streets and how to get through the city, certainly, but that is only the beginning of The Knowledge. In addition, taxi drivers must know the attractions, the hospitals, the businesses that are in the buildings, all those restaurants at which you could eat a different meal for all those years, and drivers must be able to tell passengers every location of every theater in London’s West End—in order in which they sit on the street.
This incredible feat of memory must be done within a process that averages 34 months in length in order to qualify to be a cab driver. Using a map, relying on phones or consulting navigation devices or even asking for information over the radio is something a possessor of The Knowledge would simply never do. Traffic issues ahead on this route? A London cab driver should be able to instantly switch to one of the other 319 standard routes through central London by tapping into The Knowledge.
Neophytes training in The Knowledge begin by learning routes on a motor scooter. As they train, teachers and examiners quiz them on crossroads, roundabouts, and what is on either side of them as they whiz along the London streets. And the system seems to work well. Researchers have found that the area of the brain used for memory and navigation, the hippocampus, is altered in cab drivers because of this training.
So, when you hop into your next Uber or Lyft in London, know that you’re depriving yourself of one of the greatest collections of information on the city that you could ever have: A London cab driver.