Time Travel, without the Tardis



My father sang from morning to night, when not absorbed in finding the right combination for a five horse accumulator….opera, light opera, folk song, dubious ditties from the music halls and the army , songs of liberation, songs of despair…

Thanks to him I am probably the only person – apart from Mark Mills in Mayenne – to know the words and music to ‘The Hole in the Elephant’s Bottom’.

I grew up with his voice – a light tenor which did not quail at producing the Song of the Hebrew Slaves, nor Stenka Razin – though his lyrics were not those of the Red Army Choir.



To this day I cannot find a reproduction of the tune to which he sang ‘The Road and the Miles to Dundee’…nor can I reproduce it, having the voice of a honking seal…but his voice remains alive in my memory.

Why has this come back to me now?

Because with the limitations imposed by Leo’s state of health our world has closed down somewhat….no longer possible to get up one day and decide to take the bus to Nicaragua the next to look for vanished towns and petroglyphs….no more impulses to take a ‘plane and explore the old silver towns of Mexico….

We have become static…but only physically. Thanks to those who fed our minds when we were young we have plenty of material upon which to ruminate while sitting on the balcony looking out over the valley.

My father gave me music and an insatiable love of history, where picking up one thread will lead you to a whole stretch of fabric to explore.

I can still hear him declaiming Thomas Davis’ poem ‘Fontenoy’…

‘On Fontenoy, on Fontenoy, hark to that fierce huzza!
‘Revenge, remember Limerick! dash down the Sacsanach!’

Not great poetry, as he would have been the first to admit, but what threads to follow!

Fontenoy was a battle in the War of the Austrian Succession, fought in 1745 near the town of Tournai in Belgium…then known as the Austrian Netherlands.

The French forces were led by Marshal Saxe,  one of the many  illegitimate sons of Augustus the Strong of Saxony, who had taken service with the French…..you could have many an hour of exploration  just following the thread of foreigners who became distinguished in foreign service…

Here are two….or perhaps three….

Eugene of Savoy

eugeneof savoy

Rejected by Louis XIV he took service with Austria and in company with Marlborough his armies knocked the French for six in the War of the Spanish Succession. Threads from Eugene lead back to the court of Louis XIV and the case of  the the poisons which blew the French court apart with rumours of murder and black masses performed upon the body of Mme. de Montespan, the current mistress of the king. Other threads lead forward to the wars against the Ottoman Empire and the tangled history of its oppression in the Balkans which gives rise even now to the qualms of states which have historically been in the front line against the Ottomans when faced with a massive influx of mainly Muslim immigrants.

James Keith

james keith

Forced to flee Scotland by the failure of the Jacobite rebellion he took service in Russia and was  part of the conspiracy which put Catherine the Great on the throne but as the eye of that lascivious monarch turned on him thought it advisable to take service under Frederick the Great of Prussia whose attentions were reserved for his guards. An intriguing story from his time in the Russian service finds him meeting another exile in foreign service…the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire.

"These two personages met and carried on
their negotiations by means of interpreters.

“When all was concluded they rose to separate, but just before leaving,the grand vizier suddenly went to Marischal Keith and, taking him cordially by the hand, declared in the broadest Scotch (sic) dialect that it made him ’unco’ happy to meet a countryman in his exalted station.

“As might be expected, Keith stared with astonishment, and was eager for an explanation of the mystery.

” ‘Dinna be surprised,’ the grand vizier exclaimed, ’I’m o’ the same
country wi’ yoursell, mon! I mind weel seein’ you and your brother, when
boys, passin’ by to the school at Kirkcaldy; my father, sir, was bellman o’ Kirkcaldy.’

The Scots…they get everywhere…

But who fought at Fontenoy?

The English and the Dutch on one side, the French on the other, but with the French were the Irish Brigade,  successors to The Wild Geese,

Wave upon wave of Irishmen left their native land after the failure of rebellions against England…in the sixteenth century it was the Flight of the Earls where the men went mostly into the Spanish service…in the seventeenth the Wild Geese, the Jacobite army under Patrick Sarsfield who were forced to leave under the terms of the Treaty of Limerick following their defeat by William of Orange’s forces – , the King Billy of the Troubles in Ireland – and entered the service of France.

On Fontenoy all was lost for the French…the English were advancing solidly despite the hail of fire….when at last the Irish Brigade were thrown in, advancing with the bayonet to the cry of

‘Cuimhnigidh ar Liumneac!  Remember Limerick!

They turned the day. The English, who had been steady under terrible losses and who were in sight of victory, had had enough…they did not break and run, but they retreated, leaving Marshal Saxe the victor of Fontenoy…and the French masters of the campaign in  the cockpit of Europe.

Not least because the British were called home to deal with the ’45…Bonnie Prince Charlie’s invasion of England…..

And what do these threads have in common?

People displaced from their homes by war and politics, doing what they can to keep body and soul together.

And in today’s world, from Syrian refugees to African child soldiers, we don’t seem to have learned very much.

We two might be obliged to be stay at homes these days, but the threads of history can still allow us to travel in time and give us a context to today’s world and its problems.

All while drinking tea  – or something stronger – on the balcony.






49 thoughts on “Time Travel, without the Tardis”

  1. We’ve learned nothing at all is my half-baked conclusion or rather those we elect to lead us have not. I would like to think that individually a few of us would do things differently if suddenly transported to a place where we were allowed to make a difference. Isn’t music and singing wonderful? And poems and sayings and readings – even when we are stopped in our tracks we are surrounded by little lighters to the touch papers which ignite our wealth of learning … that is the great legacy we inherit if fortunate and that is the legacy that we can pass on. I loved this, songs and all!

    1. Our leaders have learned what it takes to keep people down long term…methods change, the aim doesn’t.

      Look how Madrid is mishandling the Catalonia situation….too busy maintaining the strong man image – how Franco of them – to do the sensible thing and give a referendum by consent. Now those who do not want independence will be pressured, or will not go out to vote…
      There will be violence and it will be put down…
      Very stupid and very destructive….but they can do it so they will.

      How right you are about the wealth of learning we have at our disposal….I worry about those deposits of civilisation as people are increasingly force fed by those who control the media. The Dark Ages had the monasteries…what do we have as repositories of culture?

      I do enjoy that song…as one who prides herself as being one of those able to organise a piss up in a brewery.

      1. I find myself more and more prone to refusing to watch or read the news. I despair of so many situations (Spain included) and I mostly despair that people believe what they are being fed when in fact it is, as you rightly say, a means of control. I love the comparison to the monasteries of the Dark Ages. I will be stealing that. I have no doubt you are well able to make good use of the facilities in a Brewery to effect a piss-up, no doubt whatsoever!

          1. If you ever feel so moved I’d be happy to assist with the whelks …. so long as I had poetic carte blanche on what construes a whelk 😉

  2. It’s a pity your spirit of adventure has to take a back seat now, but at least the spirit of wonder will still be alive as you plough your way through books.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx.

  3. It is a shame as traveling with Leo is always an experience!

    Holidaying in Luxor and, eschewing the coach tours, he organised a trip to see the Valley of the Kings with one of the town caleche drivers….it took all day but we met the driver’s family, saw his uncle’s vineyard, were cheered by the sentries on the bridge over the Nile and could spend as long as we liked at the tombs….An unforgettable day.

    On my own I travel to see my mother…or the so and so bank…but sadly lack the fun of being with someone with whom to share both the superb and the absurd.

    Still, I have my books…and I can dream.

  4. Being confined somewhat myself just now I understand how it can irk.
    However the history is amazing, none of this I knew let alone the Scots Vizier! What a find!
    The internet and books can take us out of ourselves at any time, only paying debts brings us back.
    What a good post.

    1. I thought you might enjoy the bellman of Kirkcaldy!

      I am sorry that you too are hors de combat….it’s no fun, is it! Luckily we have our own minds with which to amuse ourselves…and, of course, books. I find the internet useful for quick checks…but for real interest, give me a book!

  5. Absolutely the same here once upon a time. How I miss those journeys of the mind, the books on the table, the eager searches for the next link in the chain, the triumphant hoot when the poem, the reference,the name of battle, major or minor player in the drama were discovered.

    Make the most every moment,as I’m sure you are doing. Such memories you will have to treasure , dear Helen

    Love Ursula

    1. It is what I dread….the lack of that hoot of triumph when the quarry is run to ground.
      Shall I want to hunt again, I wonder, without that stimulus.

      Every moment is, indeed, treasured….it has to be.

      Look after yourself in that different world.



  6. Now, now Ms. Devries…thanks to the wonders of Youtube, a whole new generation can enjoy the scintillating tones and tender lyrics of The Hole in the Elephant’s Bottom:

    And whilst I remember Limerick, sadly the limericks I remember all have a rather naughty aspect if not downright obscene. You know, the good ones!

    Nonetheless, I know whereof you speak and the wistful feelings of living with few and minor physical limitations. But the value of memories cannot be overstated. The peace of reminiscence is a treasure. The value of a shared small smile recalling great adventures remembered is beyond calculation. And if a nice alcoholic beverage accompanies these events, well, all the better.

    Loved the post; as usual, I learned a lot and now must deploy my Google-fu to follow up.

    1. The tune is not the same…nor the words.
      Where is ‘If Franco should make an attack’ for example…….but I might have guessed that you would chase down any reference made!

      I doubt that you have any trouble remembering limericks…of the juicier variety, like the young lady of Exeter, or the sexually confused gentleman of Khartoum….

      You are quite right. We can recall in tranquillity the stand off at a Turkish airport where the police were called, the kindness of many strangers and the sheer joy of seeing the sun come up over Karnak – having illicitly introduced ourselves into the temple.

      Enjoy your research!

        1. Your wish is my command.
          We had taken a package trip to Luxor…we had to take last minute trips given the state of Leo’s health…if he was on an up we took a trip going as soon as possible.
          We were lucky with this one. The hotel overlooked the Luxor temple and the staff were super.
          But :Leo wanted to see the sun rise over Karnak so we set off before dawn,walking through the town to the alley of ram headed sphinxes which was the original way of approaching the temple. Those figures in the pre dawn light were quite surreal.
          On arrival we found a jobsworth manning the entrance.
          No,we could not enter…the staff did not begin work for an hour!
          Was he not staff?
          Yes he was, but he could not take money.
          What money?
          The entrance fee!
          Yes, yes, we understood. But we wanted to see the sun rise over Karnak…we will never have another chance…
          Yes, yes, he understood our love for his culture…but he could not take our money….
          So we retired a little along the perimeter wall where, inevitably, we heard that sound redolent of Egypt…psst!
          I can help you.
          Can you get us past the jobsworth?
          No, no need.
          You climb into the ditch and I will help you up the wall.
          It was a scramble, but our helper was very strong and we emerged, dusty and dirty, in the circuit of the temple.
          Our helper beamed.
          Now you can see the sun rise over Karnak!
          Could we offer you a small token of our appreciation?
          No…but I run the tea stall…

          We saw the sun rise over Karnak and it was a wonderful experience, not one I find easy to describe, so moving was it, then explored the complex, finally, in duty bound, returning to the tea stall where we found the jobsworth taking his ease.
          Both he and our helper beamed upon us….
          So you saw the sun rise over Karnak after all!

          We did, sir, and found it a moving experience. One we will never forget.
          He beamed.

          We drank tea together and then Leo asked where he should pay the entrance fee, given that the staff were now on duty.

          Tea stall owner and jobsworth shook their heads.

          No,no…you pay nothing…the staff were not available to accept money….and if you were willing to get up before dawn to see this temple at sunrise and crawl through the ditch and up the wall to do so then you deserve a free visit!

          More tea all round…and all was settled.

          1. Drat, I fat fingered my reply and it posted prematurely. Anyway, I was going to add that I envy you the Karnak experience and smile thinking of you on the deck at the finca, recounting the adventure whilst quaffing a glass of wine.

  7. My parents didn’t sing or pass on any musical inheritance which made me determined to do the opposite with my daughter. I hope the songs we sang together throughout her childhood stay with her.

  8. I saw this on facebook yesterday. It brought back such found memories of “my singing father.” He was from a very poor English family and to entertain themselves they sang. Our family was known to break out in song in the most inopportune situations. He used to sing a song that had the words “Georgie White, every night, used to come around to see his bunch of delight…” I know the rest of the song but can’t find it anywhere on line. Loved this walk down our singing memory lane, happily stirred on by yours. Never mind any political comments. Happy day.

    1. Georgie White never crossed my path…but i am looking for one my mother’s mother used to sing with the chorus
      ‘pull down the blind, don’t be unkind
      someone’s a looking dear, pull down the blind.’
      So many songs come back to me…if they ever went away….so I am so glad it brought back memories for you.

  9. This is exactly why we we are trying to travel as much as we can, while we can, but you seem to be doing a good job of travelling without the tardis 🙂 You can go to all sorts of weird and wonderful places and let imagination run wild. I am lucky to have travelled well throughout Africa and thanks to my Mum I have a fabulous record from her diaries and photos. Since being married to Nigel I have had the pleasure of seeing parts of Asia, Australia, America and a few other places. Hopefully there will be a few more before we feel we can not travel anymore.
    Love your memories and I wish our slow connection was up to playing YouTube but…….
    You threw me a bit with Wild Geese, good job you gave a link that I could follow to check it out. For me ‘The Wild Geese’ is a 1978 novel by Rhodesian author Daniel Carney. Brilliant film as well. I knew Danny and sadly he died very young from cancer. I loved all his books and stupidly I gave them away when we moved from South Africa.
    Have a good day both of you, day dreaming where you are going next 🙂 Take care Diane

    1. I have seen the film…very exciting… but did not know that it was based on a book. I wonder if I can download it from Amazon? How super that you knew the author.
      I cannot part with books…a lot came with us and the rest are in the house in Spain….I always feel that I will want them again.
      Leo has traveled much more than I have done…but we have had so much fun exploring together too, so plenty of good memories and stories.

  10. When I read many of your posts such as the above I’m struck by how unrewarding travel is without knowledge. To have no understanding of an area’s history and its culture beyond what one gets from a cursory 45-minute bus tour or carriage ride effectively means your visiting exotic locales to simply go shopping and be a glutton. And to be uneducated about other areas of the world negates the impact of so many great works of literature. Reading Tolstoy without some basic grasp of Russia, Dickens without knowledge of 19th century London, Twain without a minimum comprehension of the Western US 140 years ago is like a blind man venturing into a strip club and wondering what all the fuss is.

    1. I do like that analogy!
      But how right you are about knowing nothing of the context of your travels…or the context of works of literature.
      And how the blazes can you begin to understand the politics without the history!
      A great deal is down to the failure of education to encourage curiosity, at the very least….the places your coach takes you have a life of their own which will remain unknown to you if you just use them as background for your holiday snaps.

      1. Um… yes and no.
        I have reached a stage where I realise that the superficial appearance of many things I take the trouble to see is what makes not just my heart swell but my mind wander into new and exciting places. My father (who could not sing for toffee) wrote ‘Discovering’ books for schoolchildren – on castles and houses and abbeys. Thus my childhood was spent in cathedrals, churches, castles and other buildings hearing about the architecture, the contents, the history. I still feel a twinge of guilt now that I have realised I prefer a romantic ruin with no commentary to a grand house brimming with antiques and art and tapestries… As for Tolstoy – I will never forget my first reading of War and Peace or Anna Karenina and yet knew nothing of the history of Russia. Isn’t that the art of great literature, to take us places without any introduction?

        1. No shame in preferring a ruin to a monument to greed….and I agree that you can read great literature on its own…but how much more you gain when you read it in the context of its society!
          With luck, though, that book is the door which opens on a society as yet unknown, ready to be explored.

      2. What’s the point of taking a “selfie” at an important historical site if one doesn’t understand the importance of the site? I was reminded of this a couple of years ago at Arlington National Cemetery, when hordes of younger folks were taking turns snapping photos of themselves in front of Robert Kennedy’s gravestone, mugging for the camera the whole time. It hardly seemed like the place for a cheery look-at-me photo.

  11. Forced passivity can be frustrating, but it sounds like you’re both taking it in your stride. Hurrah for books, memory and the internet.

    I love the Karnak story. I went there too with my parents and brother when I was doing my year out in Cairo. On one day, the guide said the we were to eat in a local restaurant for lunch. My mother and I decided to take some filled rolls from the copious breakfast buffet, a wise decision because we were the only ones in the group not to go down with the runs. 🙂

    1. On our first evening we went to a restaurant recommended in the guide books…only to be served a pigeon so dried out as to have been mistaken for something mummified long ago….and Leo promptly had the runs on the grand scale. As we Scots give nothing away, i was spared. We asked for a remedy in a pharmacy…Leo took the tablets and stayed right as rain for the rest of the trip. We took a supply ..back with us to guard against the effects of eating in French restaurants…
      After that we looked to see where normal people ate and found a kashouri house round the corner from the hotel…absolutely super food, dirt cheap and nice people running the place. Relying on the pills we drank sugar cane water from the cane being pressed on a cart on the street and ate street food of all sorts with nary a problem!
      I will never forget the quality of Egyptian bread! Only Turkish ran it close…
      Luxor was fascinating…it was low water in the tourist trade so a gentleman who did felucca trips agreed to show me how to sail one….we were invited to a race meeting for Arab horses – unfortunately on the day we had to depart – met a most interesting man running the hotel gift shop who was a professor of languages in his day job who gave us a run down on the current state of Egypt and our best souvenir was a huge brass bolt for a door in a house we were renovating. Top quality work and not expensive. If only we had brought a supply of mobile ‘phones – known locally as ‘handies’ – we could have made a fortune as they were in high demand!

  12. So Well written Helen, I do so much enjoy reading your texts. Sometimes I must look things up but with my best friend Internet it is so easy and the funny thing is one item leads to another. Every day I am getting smarter 😄. I can imagine you miss your books . I can’t imagine my life and my house without books. I need the feeling, the smell, the touch, the presence in my house. You both are lucky that the presence of each other is such a joy and that you have such rich memories to share.

    1. I smuggle a few back from Spain each time…but now I have begun to buy books in Catalan – which are not the easiest to cope with, but I want to learn enough to get by in order to learn more about the culture. – so the number of books in Spain gets no less!
      The presence of each other being a joy can run thin at times…you do not want to be present while there is a full scale dispute over the whereabouts of the knife sharpener….

  13. I was hoping you would be writing something soon! And such a fascinating post, Helen. What a rich and colourful childhood you must have had. I am sorry your wings are clipped for now, but what a blessing it seems the internet has turned out to be for all its faults. Video clips of songs part-remembered, visions of places you may not yet have been but still, one day might be possible. And the reassuring comfort of strangers and new friendships made via blogging. Isn’t that great? I was unable to walk much without a lot of discomfort for a few years and wouldn’t go to Africa with Larry because I knew I would hamper his expeditions. I felt like I might as well die. But for the last 3 years I’ve been making the most of a new joint and a new vigour – and that new realisation that I love nature’s riches more than the built environment. To my shame I did a degree in history but am utterly ignorant about it. I love your stories, I wish someone like you had taught me history! I will listen to the songs next – how lovely to have song in the house. As I said above, my father was tone deaf though we all loved music and listened to records together when I was very young. My mother sang a little … when I couldn’t sleep as a child though, she would sing me one particular hymn – ‘there is a green hill far way […] where Jesus Christ was crucified he died to save us all ‘ – not really the best images for bedtime for a little girl!

    1. Not one’s lullaby of choice, that is for sure!
      My mother told me that when she was a child she was severely punished for singing ‘Jesus wants me for a submarine’ instead of a sunbeam……
      You are right, there are many compensations in a more static life…but I could wish for a new lease of it as you discovered after your op….we have never been to Madrid together to see where Leo stayed when he was a student, for example, where he was in the Prado all day and carousing with the son of Franco’s chief of police all night.
      Still, what cannot be tholed must be endured!

      1. I know. Especially when adventures are like pressure valves. I am sorry. But I do find the more I think about the world, the more I see in what is close to hand than what is far away. But I guess having the choice is the critical factor.
        All that said, you two seem to have had a densely packed life of amazing experiences. In fact I may have to stop reading your posts as they make me feel so dull!
        I like Jesus wants me for a submarine. Not sure why he would, but it would be interesting to see how the Vatican would handle it if true 😉

        1. There is plenty to enjoy close at hand….but, as you say, having the choice is critical!
          Now there is a question for the Congregation of the Faith! How many cardinals would we have dancing on pin heads while deciding whether or not you could go nuclear…all in the best interests of the Church, of course…

  14. My father never sang, but he was fond of reciting limericks and verses.
    As you say, people are still displaced from their homes by war and politics. The politicians and generals seem incapable of settling their differences by peaceful means rather than brutal wars that wreck the lives of ordinary people, most of whom probably couldn’t care less about the issues the war-mongerers are fighting over.

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