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Monday, 8th December 2008

s a youngster I was pretty lucky, nobody told me I was dimwitted. So when I went to school I was instantly at an advantage. There was a minor hiccup when I was discovered to be left-handed and the teacher of the day thought this was rather a poor show and strapped the pencil into my right hand. Once this problem was overcome, by a change of school, things improved. Indeed by the time I was eleven I was something of a genius; late developers are always the best. By now I had discovered every clever person was left-handed and the fact nobody could read my writing was also a true sign of greatness.

Now many gifted people have a certain direction, some are brilliant at maths, I was useless. Some were fantastic at music, I was tone deaf. Others could draw, not me. The fact I had moved from Birmingham to Norfolk also rendered my entire vocabulary useless overnight. I could well have been multi-lingual but as nobody could understand a single word the brummy said it was fairly academic. I was good at being moody, difficult and hyperactive. So there I was moody, difficult to control, writing practically eligible, unintelligible and useless at maths (couldn't spell either). Now if that is not a profile of an intellectual giant I do not know what is.

Nowadays a parlour maid as ignorant as Queen Victoria was when she came to the throne would be classed as mentally defective.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) Irish dramatist and critic.

Some of the more observant might have suggested I had some catching-up to do, but as nobody had in the past I was considered so clever the educational system just was not capable of keeping me occupied. By then I was almost unstoppable as an intellectual force (farce?), probably capable of solving the meaning of life by this stage. Indeed there was every possibility I had, if only my writing could be deciphered. It now looked like I was writing with a broken spider leg dipped in lemon juice.

Fortunately by the time I was to be defrocked as a fraud, economics had appeared on the horizon. Now this was a subject I was genuinely good at. The fact I went through my entire economics career hardly knowing more than the Phillips curve seemed not to worry anyone.

It was only when I got into the 'real' world that cracks began to show in my intellectual capabilities. You know the sort of thing, couldn't add-up, writing illegible, short attention span and the Phillips curve seemed to have only the vaguest use in reality. However I was saved again, it seemed a lot of really clever people could only live in academia. Not wishing to do that the only other option was to run any business I was going to work in.

Now there is no stopping my ego especially as I am no longer capable of reading my own writing at times. It gives me the opportunity to claim I am ambidextrous. In fact so talented am I there is a possibility I can write with my feet as well as I can with my hands.

It should be noted the Phillips curve collapsed in the 1970's and despite endless attempts at repairing it, there seems no real proof that it will ever work again in anything other than the most general manner.

I shall leave others to draw the obvious parallels and move swiftly on to the whole purpose this edifice of ego has been constructed.


Godfrey Phillips, Famous Minors. This brings a cultural difference between 1936 and now. Constructing a set of famous minors today would be a very different proposition. Sixty years of 'dumbing down', the phrase itself is pretty grim (and was brought into common parlance because of an episode of The Simpsons at which point I rest my case by saying I love that program), has meant fame is but a fleeting thing. Last weeks news makes you famous but eventually some child comes along that managed to blow a larger bubble of gum than you and robbed of all televisual fame you fall back into chewing obscurity.

Guess who this is?

On a house in Brooke Street (No 39) London there is one of those plaques screwed to the wall. You know the sort of thing, hidden in plain view, designed to bring attention to some individual it only goes to prove just how lonely existence on this planet really is. I will get on with this before Churchill's Black Dog bites my miserable backside.

So what does the plaque say, 'In a house on this site Thomas Chatterton died 24th August 1770.' Will that certainly lifted the gloom, even the original house fails to stand. I cannot even be sure the sign is there anymore, it has been quite a few years.

So who was Thomas Chatterton and what did he do?

Well, he lived in an attic and avoided starving to death by killing himself three months shy of his 18th birthday.

Obviously he had to do a bit more than that to have a plaque even in Britain, obsessed with noble failure as we are.

Well he did.

Born in 1752 in Bristol he was born into a family of school teachers. At least he would have been if his father had lived long enough to see him. Educated at Colstons Bluecoat school in Bristol he was something of a melancholy lad , liking nothing more than staying up in an attic room busying himself with dusty old papers culled from St Mary Redcliffe Church.

All this time was not wasted by 12 he had mastered the spelling and writing style of the 13th and 14th century and was writing poetry in the antique style.

Writing in such a variety of styles he was capable of passing them off as the efforts of a dozen writers. Perhaps it was his shy nature which meant he was not able to come forward and say the writing was his own creation. Focusing on a character called, 'Rowley', his favourite two novels, 'The Rowley Romance' and 'The Rowley Poems' are now housed in the British Museum.

With the opening of a new Bristol bridge in 1768 our hero wrote another piece, claiming to be an account of the opening of the old bridge in 1248. This also is in the British Museum.

At the age of 17 he moved to the glittering capital of England. It was here that he suffered much for his art and on the anniversary of massacre of St Bartholomew he poisoned himself with arsenic.

So there you have it, a plaque in London, a monument to him in Bristol and a cigarette card dedicated to him, what more can a failed writer ask for.

There's more:

A chap called, Cloudesley Shovel (now that is a name you could be proud of) appears on card 37. This could well be the most 'famous' of the cards because of its illustration. Young Shovel is not included because of his name alone you see. Born in the later half of the 17th century he became a famous minor when at the age of 18 he swam between two battleships with an important message. Rising to a position of command he was knighted before being killed when his ship struck a rock. His body was washed ashore and he is buried in Westminster Abbey.

All this stands for nothing in the strange world of cigarette cards where he is famous for being depicted leaping off the side of the battleship in a very modern pair of swimming trunks. It is more likely he went overboard sans 1930's swimming trunks but it would not be the sort of thing you needed to greet you upon opening a packet of cigarettes. So to save the blushes of the smoking public they put him in a pair of trunks. He later became infamous as an adult.

Sticking with the naval theme for a moment. Jack Cornwall V.C gets a mention. As a young lad he was seriously wounded in the Battle of Jutland but refused to leave his gun. It was for this he attained his VC. This card links trade cards with cigarette cards in an unusual way. Jack Cornwall was an employ of Brooke Bond the issuers of many a set of cards. He was not the only person to die in that day and for a more detailed examination of how the battle can be traced in cigarette cards, head here

Horatio Nelson embarked on his first sea voyage when only twelve. Despite various bits of him detaching themselves during battle he became the greatest of Britain's Naval heroes. Napoleon also appears on the card, afterall without Boney what would Nelson have done? He was doing a fine job of conquering the world until he broke his teeth on Britain.


Alexander the Great gets a much deserved card as well. He was another who found the world rather too small for any other empire but his own. At the age of 20 he took the reigns from his murdered father and began to conquer the known world. Born 356BC he died at the age of 33 in Babylon of Malarial fever. He fought some fierce battles against spectacular odds. Reputedly his army of 47,000 drove back the might of half a million men which had been assembled by Darius, the Persian King. This chaps life is the sort of thing mere mortals can 'waste' their lives on examining today.

Charles V of Burgundy was a different sort of fellow. King of Spain, Germany and Emperor of Rome he felt the continual expansion of his empire was required to secure peace. Unfortunately some of the nations he felt needed a bit more peace were not impressed to discover they were at war.. Eventually he got fed up with the whole business, abdicated and joined a monastery.

A good number of the cards in the set relate to Royalty and all this means. Indeed the first card is of Lambert Simnel, the young chap who was championed as the rightful heir to the English throne. He was claimed to be the young Prince Edward, one of the Princes in the Tower. He was crowned King Edward VI in Dublin, 1487. All ended in farce, when Henry VII got wind of the plot and scuppers it by parading the real Prince Edward for one day before popping him back in the tower. Lambert was made a servant of the court as a reward, which was a better fate than the real Prince Edward given Lambert lived into his late 50's. I remember he enlivened an hour of my life in a history lesson so really there is no cloud without a silver lining, he gets to amuse me, and have a cigarette card dedicated to him.

Edward V and his brother get on the card for not getting to the throne despite being rightful heirs. Richard, Duke of Gloucester gets the blame for having them murdered and bricked up in the tower, although nowadays the issue of him murdering the two of them is a little less black and white than it was back then.

William Duke of Normandy did actually manage to attain the throne of France whilst only eight, he added the kingdom of England to his list of achievements in 1066, claiming the throne had been promised to him by his cousin, Edward the Confessor. At least by 1066 he had reached the respectable age of 39. Less said about that the better I think.

Brushing William the Conqueror under the carpet we leap forward in history to Edward, the Black Prince, he was capable of dishing out a beating to the French and really that is good enough reason to be on a British set of cigarette cards. The French have their own sense of history and that is up to them. Henry V wasn't to shabby in bashing the French and Shakespeare gave him a few good lines.

Mary Queen of Scots also gets a card. She rather enlivens any history lesson. Eventually though she was beheaded for trying to plot against the mighty Elizabeth the First once too often.

I suppose you can't be much more famous than royalty and by the fact the court was full of mischief, youngsters were highly likely to attain the throne. Such was the idea of Lady Jane Grey, or at least, such was the idea of powerful landowners that wanted to divert the ascension from Tudor to Dudley, Lady Jane Dudley just happened to fit the bill. Queen for nine days, in 1553 at the age of 16, she was soon popped in the tower and her head removed from her body, a year after the Wyatt rebellion in 1554. Decapitation was something of an occupational hazard for those that came second best in the royalty stakes.

From less than successful monarchy business to more than successful, Queen Victoria also makes an appearance for rightfully gaining the throne at the age of 18. She reigned till 1901, a period of 64 years which is a long time in anyones book.


Royalty is all well and good, you can tell just how good by how many Royal families exist about the world with any degree of power. Joseph Pilsudski was rather keen to be away with the Tsars but was caught plotting against them and punished accordingly. Something of an man before his time and just see what you get for that.

And finally did you know St Patrick was kidnapped from his native England by a bunch of Irishmen. He entered a monastery after escaping and upon his return to Ireland set up the Christian church there.

William Pitt the Younger get his own card as does Sir Issac Newton pillars of the modern world if you will.

William Pitt the Younger was elected as Prime Minister at the age of 24 years 205 days, which remains a record to this day, and the way things are going, probably for a long time to come. You would really have to go some to become corrupt enough to attain the highest positions of Government by the age of 24 now.

Issac Newton was just one of those people that the gene pool will throw up every so often, a mind so sharp it is difficult to imagine what his life must have been like.

So there you have it, some of the cards which make up a 50 card set of great interest and ingenuity.