This blog has an eye out for the odd, poorly-fitting and weird,a little bit like Manley Hopkins’ poem Pied Beauty “all things counter, original, spare, strange”. So let’s see what the poorly-fitting have been up to recently. Well, Gavin Menzies has published another book, called 1434, which promises to be a worthy successor to his first hit, 1421. You’re a little puzzled? Let me elucidate. Gavin Menzies is a retired Royal Navy career officer, and a former commander of submarines. On a trip to China, he became acquainted with the voyages of the admiral Zheng He, in the Ming dynasty. The admiral commanded a fleet of what were described as enormous junk-type wooden ships, and made a number of exploratory and commercial cruises through the Malay Archipelago, to India and across the Indian Ocean to the east coast of Africa. This part is pretty much standard and generally accepted, apart from some hesitations on technical matters. Menzies asserts his studies convinced him that Admiral Zheng and his merry band continued their voyage and wound up in the New World, scooping Columbus and the others by a good half-century. You say you want more? Ok, Zheng He kept on going to their home ports in China, thereby circumnavigating the world many decades before Magellan’s voyage in 1519. Whew, indeed. Menzies got a lot of flack and a passel of bad reviews,which criticized the book for being long on assertion and short on proof. Now, our sailor is at it again, with a new book, 1434. In this one, he claims that Zheng He visited Italy, and that this visit from a more advanced civilization was what ignited the Renaissance. DaVinci’s drawings rely on material copied from Chinese sources. The western explorers such as Columbus, Magellan and Cook had charts derived from Chinese documents, and on like that. Menzies says that there is evidence, all over the place, but it just hasn’t been looked at in the proper way,namely as remnants of a visit by this immense fleet of Chinese ships. His critics say, no way. They claim Menzies has taken a very small ball of what might be evidence and run all over the place with it. Of course, nobody can claim such voyages were impossible for the Chinese, since European sailors did pretty much the same thing. It’s a great yarn, and if it helps people get interested in history, all to the good. On the other hand, some of it looks distressingly familiar: the Lone Investigator courageously taking on Establishment lackeys and dupes, the “strange but true” tale They Don’t Want You to Know. Maybe it’s just a little too much like Roswell. But, if we’re looking for the Unusual, Gavin Menzies and his work fit the bill just fine.
1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance’ by Gavin Menzies (HarperCollins) .
Here’s a link to the London Telegraph story on GM:
Moving on, we come to the realm of Giant Vegetables and the people who grow them. Yes, I admit, it is a leap. You may not have thought much about Giant Vegetables. I admit I hadn’t thought much about them. But there are people who think a lot about them and who engage, quite seriously, in annual competitions to grow the heaviest, largest, widest, longest or whatever superlative you care to assign to their various legumes, tubers and what not. There is a book about British enthusiasts, but I’m sure that you can find their trans-Atlantic cousins without too much difficulty. A couple of things stand out here: this seems to be a guy thing, and, nobody seems to be much concerned with how the products taste,or whether they can be used for anything. It seems that they taste awful and, once the competition is over, the only thing to do with them is turn them into animal feed or fertilizer. It sort of contradicts that Woody Allen movie, Sleeper, set 200 years in the future, in which Our Hero steals giant vegetables from some farming site and eats them with apparent relish. Of course, they’ve got 200 years to improve the product, but still, you have to wonder.
The Biggest Beetroot in the World: Giant Vegetables and the People Who Grow Them by Michael Leapman. Aurum, Â£14.99; 267pp. There is a nice, tongue-in-cheekish review in The London Times at:
The last entry in our little random walk among the odd has to do with the early days of forensic science, in fact, with the man who probably did more to introduce medical scientific evidence into criminal trials than anybody else: Sir Bernard Spilsbury. I remember when my father, a police officer, brought home from the library a book called The Scalpel of Scotland Yard: a life of Sir Bernard Spilsbury. I don’t recall much about it, apart from the title. Spilsbury was very effective as a witness for the Crown, since he was well-prepared, and seemed to be in control of all the arcane and highly technical details about blood, decomposition, estimating height, weight, gender, and all the other things that we have come to accept without a shudder from watching CSI, BONES, CROSSING JORDAN . In fact Sir Bernard may have been a little too good, excessively positive when the evidence was more than a little iffy. He was often guided by his sense of what had to be the case rather than by the actual evidence in hand, or been influenced by his very active prejudices. Now, the Scalpel’s papers have been purchased by the Wellcome Foundation and will no doubt be examined closely, to see if they shed any light on some of the more famous cases. Read more: