Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Devon Villains - Mike Holgate

DEVON VILLAINS, ROGUES, RASCALS AND REPROBATES -                                          MIKE HOLGATE

I always thought Exmouth had a rather shady past what with its historic opium consumption and its local, nefarious characters but Torquay in comparison is like Gotham City and it's there where all the real super villains have always congregated. I've only discovered this by reading Devon Villains - Rogues, Rascals And Reprobates by Mike Holgate in which every other story regarding sunny Devon's darker side seems to centre around Torquay. There must be something in the water down there.

Holgate's book is a collection of true-life tales of murderers, smugglers, pirates, traitors, fraudsters, robbers and scandal from across the County of Devon. Regarding Torquay, not only is it the home-town of Dr Stephen Ward (the scapegoat of the Profumo Affair), Agatha Christie (the ace detective writer), Robert Hitchens (the helmsman at the wheel of the Titanic when it sank), and George Whitehead (the first convict to escape from Dartmoor Prison in a car) but also where Oscar Wilde stayed before he was famously accused of being a 'sodomite' and where Bruce Reynolds - the mastermind behind the Great Train Robbery of 1963 - had his hideout. The Penguin, the Riddler, the Joker, and even Two-Face have all apparently been spotted down there also, so I believe.
Much more than these particular tales, however, what I found to be of interest were the stories under the chapter headed 'Traitors'.

Firstly, there's Sir Walter Raleigh who was born in East Budleigh, which is situated just a few miles along the coast from Exmouth. Raleigh's an interesting character particularly when you take into account where he's from, which is basically a small, isolated village in Devon. To this day there's hardly anything in East Budleigh but at the same time it has all you might need as in a good pub, a community hall, a village school, and a tiny community shop - all surrounded by beautiful countryside.
I used to go there quite often and just explore the back lanes heading out to the fields and woods, and I can see why Raleigh loved it so. Apparently he always wanted to move back there and if you think about it, Raleigh could have chosen to live anywhere in the world, really; but East Budleigh for him was the most beautiful place.

Courtier, parliamentarian, businessman, soldier, seaman, coloniser, explorer, scientist, philosopher, historian and poet; Raleigh was one of the most celebrated men (with a Devon accent to boot) of the Elizabethan age before he became embroiled in political intrigue that brought about his execution - betrayed by Lord Lewis Stucley, otherwise known as the Judas of Devonshire.
After winning favour with Queen Elizabeth by naming the State of Virginia in North America after her, Raleigh was bestowed a Knighthood but soon fell foul of her by secretly marrying one of her maids without first seeking the queen's permission. For his impudence Raleigh was locked up in the Tower of London and on his release in a bid to regain favour he set sail on an expedition to South America to find the fabled city of gold known as El Dorado. His mission failed, of course, but only because El Dorado didn't exist. It was a fable.

With the death of Queen Elizabeth his enemies at court plotted against him and let it be known he was against the accession of King James (and apparently he was, according to records discovered just over 20 years or so ago) so once again he was thrown into the Tower of London. Always on a roll, during his captivity in the Tower he spent his spare time writing a little book modestly entitled The History Of The World. When finally released years later, Raleigh once again set out on an expedition to search for gold, this time to Guiana. Once again, however, he returned empty-handed.

It was after this that Lord Lewis Stucley (the Judas of Devonshire, lest we forget) was offered a reward by King Jame's courtiers if he could present some damning evidence against Raleigh that might lead to his execution. He succeeded in this and Raleigh was arrested and sentenced to death.
Facing his executioner on the scaffold, Raleigh declined a blindfold, allegedly stating: "Think you I fear the shadow of the axe, when I fear not the axe itself? Strike, man, strike!" Upon his death, Raleigh's severed head was delivered to his wife and legend has it that for the rest of her days she carried it with her in her handbag. 
And all this from a short bloke (if the supposedly life-size statue of Raleigh in East Budleigh is anything to go by) born in a nondescript little village in Devon.

I must one day write a screenplay of Raleigh's life and submit it to Mel Gibson for filming. Or maybe a Bollywood version could be made if Mel isn't interested? That might be interesting. Either way, I think it's where my fortune might lie.

The second character of interest to me in Mike Holgate's book is the Duke of Monmouth, he of the long, curly locks who led what became known as the Monmouth Rebellion, otherwise called the Pitchfork Rebellion. Duke, as I like to call him, mounted an ill-fated challenge to wrest the crown from James II following the death of King Charles in 1685.
Travelling over from Holland where he'd been living in self-imposed exile, Duke landed at Lyme Regis before crossing into East Devon where he began gathering hundreds of men around him from each town he would enter; swelling his ranks to an estimated 4000 peasants, farmers and artisans.
It must have been a sight to behold, this rag-bag army of malcontents, dissenters and usurpers armed with pitchforks, scythes and muskets; marching through Devon and the West Country on their way to Bristol. The plan being to take Bristol and then head on down to London to take the crown, though unfortunately they never got that far.

Pitched against an army of Militiamen from Exeter and the King's own army from London, Duke's rag-bag army were routed and vanquished at the Battle of Sedgemoor. Survivors of the battle and rebel supporters were then hunted down and brought before the unforgiving Judge Jefferies in trials that became known as the Bloody Assizes, where for simply having the temerity to plead innocence was enough to get men hung, drawn and quartered.
Duke himself was also captured and taken to Tower Hill where legend has it that it took seven horrifying swings of the axe upon his neck before being decapitated. Legend also had it, however, that it wasn't really Duke who was executed but an impersonator used to confuse the enemy in battle and that Duke was actually biding his time to return to the West Country and once again lead the common people to war against the monarchy.

Perhaps Mel (or "my good friend, Mel", as I perhaps should get used to calling him?) Gibson might be interested in a screenplay for this?

Mike Holgate's book is a decent enough introduction to these and other so-called villains, rogues, rascals and reprobates; and if at times it reads like a page on Wikipedia and if at times his featured character's connection to Devon is a bit tenuous then it can be forgiven. The point of what Holgate's written is to gather these tales under one book so that the reader can gain an overall view, and then follow up elsewhere on those found to be of most interest. That's what I did, anyway. 
And the more you dig, the more you discover, and the more you discover, the more you want to know. And the more you know, the more interesting the world becomes.
Or it should do.
John Serpico

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Street Art Exmouth Style (Part 12)


I sometimes identify with Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now when he makes his famous 'I love the smell of napalm' speech. There's chaos all around, his helicopters having just laid waste to a Vietnamese village. A bomb explodes behind him but he doesn't flinch. He looks to his men and says: "Some day this war's going to end." And he says it as though it's a prediction, contemplating it as though it will be a sad day when that day comes...

In a backstreet deep down in the depths of Exmouth - down in the belly of the beast - there are what can only be described as slum dwellings. Ruins, basically. They're going to be demolished and new town houses built in their place, and I can't help feeling that it will be a sad day when that day comes. I'm sure most people view these old buildings as eyesores and will be glad to see them knocked down but I see them as pieces of art, really. Representations of beauty ravaged.
The ghost signs and the graffiti that I once photographed and stuck up on this blog have already gone, so I'm glad I at least managed to capture them for posterity before being lost forever. And now these slum dwellings are due to go also. In their place, new, modern-day town houses are to be built and I'm sure they're going to be all very nice even if only Russian oligarchs might be able to afford them. I still can't help feeling it will be a sad day though.

The old order changeth, yielding place to new. We're at the end of an age.

Some day this war's going to end.

And in posting the above photographs, it enables me also to post one of my most favourite quotes. From Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti, who fought in the Spanish Civil War:
"We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth, there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing this minute."

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 21)


"The last night of the fair and the grease in the hair of a speedway operator is all a tremulous heart requires. A schoolgirl is denied, she said "How quickly would I die if I jumped from the top of the parachutes?"

"And I walk home alone but my faith in love is still devout."

Friday, 10 April 2015

Les Enfants Terribles - Jean Cocteau


I know he's not in the Best Sellers lists but does anybody read Jean Cocteau nowadays? And if not - why not? And indeed, if not - why should they?
I must admit I don't actually know that much about Jean Cocteau as a person, all I know is his work which perhaps is the way it should be? He was a poet, essentially, and he regarded all of his work as an extension of his poetry in different media be it in film, theatre, verse, criticism, or novel. I must also admit I didn't really understand what his novel Les Enfants Terribles was about until I was over half-way through it but so beautifully is it written that it didn't really matter.

So what is Les Enfants Terribles about? I might be wrong but it's about a brother and sister going from childhood to young adulthood in a private, perpetual state of near-hysteria. It's about the unbalanced and unsettling relationship between them as they suck other people into their 'game' causing lives to spin out of control yet be caught in an orbit of exact logic.
Their lives have been affected and are dictated by events not of their own making such as having had an unstable father who is now dead and an equally unstable mother who dies quite early on in the story. The brother and sister are subsequently left to their own devices to create their own world full of secrets, exaggerations and petulance. All children are capable of transporting themselves to another world of make-believe where if there are any rules at all then they are rules that only make sense to the child. The brother and sister live in such a world for rather than having left that world behind along with childish habits they've carried it on into their teenage and young adult years. Their obsessions, their squabbles, their antics, their spitefulness - all are of the stuff of children.
A hint as to what is to come is given soon after the main characters have been introduced when a friend spots some words printed in soap upon a mirror in the brother and sister's house declaring 'Suicide is a mortal sin'. There's no explanation for the words being written on the mirror and in fact they're taken as just another oddity to add to the general oddness of their lives.

A snowball with a rock hidden inside is thrown at the brother at the start of the story and it's this event that sets off a whole chain of events. The snowball has been thrown by a boy whom the brother obsesses over and he falls ill from being struck by it. Some years later a friend of his sister comes to live with them and the brother is struck by her resemblance to the snowball thrower. The brother comes to see that he's in love with her but having never really grown up he's unable to express such emotions particularly with the added problem of his sister's jealousy. After much manipulation by the sister everyone ends up in miserable states of affairs. The spectre of the snowball thrower enters their world again when he is encountered by a mutual friend and as a gift to the brother he passes on some poison to him. It's not stated but the poison may well be opium?

Reading Les Enfants Terribles is like looking into a smashed mirror and trying to see the face peering back. Details can be seen clearly in many of the shards but the whole is partially obscured due to the cracks. You know a face is there but it's hard to define.

Jean Cocteau was a famous imbiber of opium and if you know anything about opium (as we all do down here in Exmouth) then it helps to understand where the book is coming from. Not that you need to be a drug fiend or anything of the like to enjoy it. Les Enfants Terribles, I should declare, is a work of art and even though it was written in 1929 it hasn't aged in the slightest. It sits, in fact, in an almost eminent place of its own and towers over much more widely read and feted literature. Jean Cocteau isn't in the Best Sellers lists but he should be far better known than what he is.

And so too, come to think of it, should the Cocteau Twins....
John Serpico

Monday, 6 April 2015

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 20)


"Stranded! Yeah I'm on my own. Stranded! I'm so far from home. Stranded! You gotta leave me alone cos I'm stranded on my own. Stranded far from home. Well, all right...."