Mongol Vegetable Chopping

The Mongols created the world’s second largest empire. Their cavalry were a fearsome sight as they headed westwards to invade Russia and Eastern Europe. What most impressed the peasants around Kazan was the soldiers’ dexterity on horseback both with bows and arrows and with swords.

One day a peasant discovered a discarded Mongol sword and quickly found out how sharp it was. Once he stopped the bleeding his practical streak emerged and he realized that he could cut most of the vegetables from his garden very easily with the sharp blade. Only the larger potatoes were still difficult to cut, however, the peasant then had a brainwave – if he were sitting on a horse then he would be able to swing a lot harder and with more force and cut the potato in two.

He borrowed his neighbour’s carthorse and sure enough the extra height allowed the sword to cut through the largest potatoes with relative ease – the only problem now was ensuring that the sword didn’t become embedded in the table. As is the way of these things, the neighbour saw the peasant’s technique for cutting the vegetables and thought he could improve upon it. Thus, a competition was born that has lasted until the modern day.

The first contest in 1263 was held amongst the citizens of Kazan. In turn, each contestant had to ride up to the table on their own horse and slice ten beetroot and ten potatoes in half making sure that their steed was always moving forwards. The results of the first few contests have been lost but the winner in 1273 was Alexis Yashin who not only sliced all the vegetables in half but did so the most accurately according to the Slicing Judges.

The contest was made more difficult in 1309 when a second table of vegetables was introduced – 20 beetroots and 20 potatoes now had to be sliced. In 1458, carrots and courgettes were added in a second contest where the winner was the person who cut the carrots and courgettes into the most separate pieces. In 1684, cucumbers and tomatoes were added in a third contest where not only did the vegetables have to be cut from top to bottom but also lengthwise too. These extra contests still required the cutter to be riding a horse.

In 1923, the judges decided that a precision element should be introduced into the contest so peas and red beans were added. Again riding a horse the contestants had to split the ten peas and ten red beans into two separate pieces with their swords.

By now the Kazan contest was known throughout the world and was popular with chefs who were keen to gain extra publicity for their food preparation exploits. One particular three-star Michelin restaurant chef holds the record for cutting a courgette into 45 separate pieces while riding a horse. Unfortunately, he was disqualified because he used his own brand of kitchen knife and not the Mongol sword as stipulated in the rules.

Manton Rempville – Part 1

Barnes and Knowles drove their individual vehicles back to Goat Parva and parked outside The Cottage, the residence of Adelaide Hills and her retriever Bingo.

“Well here we go again, sir,” said Barnes as he knocked on the door and heard the mad barking of Bingo inside.

“Bingo is in fine voice today, oh how I have missed those desperate notes of happiness from our favourite retriever,” replied Knowles, “give me a cat any second of the day.”

“And how is Gemma?”

“I’ve bought her a male friend from the animal shelter in Madeley. His name is Freddie and he knows who’s boss in our house. He tried to pick a fight with Gemma on his second day in residence and he won’t be doing that again. She has a mean straight right and it scratched his nose quite badly. He was so upset; he hides behind me whenever he can…oh here she is.”

Adelaide Hills opened the door and smiled at the two officers.

“Sergeant Barnes and Inspector Knowles, what a pleasant surprise, I rather thought we’d never meet like this again, but how wrong I was.”

“Well, we thought the same thing, but Bingo has a nose for a dead body, ” grinned Barnes.

“You won’t be having me followed on my morning walks will you, Inspector Knowles?”

“Not yet, Adelaide, not yet. Could we come in it’s a bit cold out here?”

“Of course, where are my manners – Bingo stop there and allow these two gentlemen to pass by.”

Bingo withdrew slightly, but eyed the shoes of the two policemen with great suspicion.

Knowles and Barnes sat on Adelaide Hills’s settee in her living room and declined her offer of a cup of tea.

Barnes began: “Adelaide, you and Bingo were walking this morning near Manton Rempville when something quite familiar happened.”

“Yes, Sergeant, Bingo started barking when we walking through the monastery grounds and straining at his leash and I followed him into the refectory where we saw that man who had been stabbed with the sword.”

“Did Bingo take anything?”

“No, he was on a tight leash, and I have learnt my lesson. I phoned you from the scene of the crime and waited until your local constable arrived from Norton-juxta-Wychwood and then went home. Bingo didn’t pick up anything from the scene and didn’t take any clothing.”

“Things are improving – now did you see anyone in the area of the monastery, Adelaide?”

“I did Sergeant, there were three young men horsing around as they walked through the trees away from me towards Manton Rempville Hall and also a youngish couple sitting on a fence by the monastery car park having an animated discussion. There were no vehicles in the car park, so I presume they’d walked there too. I also heard an older couple arguing about some money related subject, wills etc when I was walking back here after the constable had arrived.”

“And how old were the young men and the youngish couple would you say?”

“The young men were around 20 and the youngish couple were slightly older, say around 25, but no older than that.”

“When you say the young men were horsing around – what were they doing?”

“They were fooling around, pretending they had swords and fighting each other.”

“That’s a very strange coincidence, isn’t it?”

“I suppose so, Inspector, but could their horse-play and the murderer’s modus operandi be connected, do you think?”

“We’ll be heading to the big hall later on today, so we’ll find out who you saw and why they were acting in that manner.”

“Well I hope I have been of help, Inspector, and do call again if you need to ask any more questions.”

“We will certainly do that, Adelaide, thank you.”

As the two policemen left, Bingo looked rather sad. Neither of the two men had patted him on the head as they passed him. He must have done something wrong again.

Extract from The Manton Rempville Murders – Read a 5-star review 

The Anti-Pope Games, Avignon

The Western Schism in the Roman Catholic Church began in 1378, when the French cardinals believed the election of Pope Urban VI was invalid. They elected Clement VII as an anti-pope and he took up residence in Avignon in France. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X on 3rd January 1521, in the bull  Decet Romanum Pontificem. In Avignon, with its proud history of housing people who were opposed to the Papacy, Martin Luther was viewed as a hero and in his honour the Anti-Pope Games were founded, with the first events taking place on January 3rd, 1523.

The Games have taken place in most years when warfare has permitted. The events have changed somewhat over the years and now comprise the following sports.

The Papal Bullfighting Contest has taken place since 1523 and is the oldest sport featured at the Games. The bullfighters, dressed in a monk’s outfit similar to that of Martin Luther, have to place a copy of The Ninety-Five Theses, written by Luther, over each of the horns of the bull and also knock off the Papal Tiara, a jewelled three-tiered crown used at papal coronations from 1305 through 1963, that is fixed to the head of the bull.  The person who performs these tasks in the quickest time wins the prize of a set of steak knives that are embedded in a wooden block shaped like a Papal Mitre. This is a toned-down version of the original first prize, which was a blood-coloured Papal Mitre stabbed through with a dagger.

The Basque bullfighter Martin Sanchez Llorente won more Papal Bullfight Contests (23) than anyone else with his time of 16 seconds in 1862 still a record. Fighters have been gored by the Papal Bull, but no one has been killed.

The next oldest race is the Greyhound Race that dates from 1621. Here the artificial hare is chased around three laps of the track by greyhounds dressed in monk’s costumes. The hare wears a papal crown and carries a Papal Staff. Again this is a toned-down version of the original where a real hare, wearing a mitre, was hunted to death by greyhounds. Nowadays, the winning greyhound and owner receive a kennel for the dog that is modelled on the Pope’s Palace at Avignon. A greyhound named Luther has won the race the most times with seven wins in the period 1898 – 1905.

Dating from 1645 the oldest athletics event is the papal shot-put where contestants have to land their throws in a papal mitre that is placed 15 metres and 17 centimetres from the rim of the shot-putt circle. Each contestant is allowed six attempts at this accuracy contest and the winner is the person who lands their putt in the hat the most times. Hugo Benjamin Draxler won the event 13 times between 1794 and 1831. Draxler has been an important figure in the Games as he also lobbied the organizers to introduce a spear throwing contest where the aim and the rules were literally the same as those of the shot-put contest. After the success of the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris both a discus and a hammer contest were introduced in 1925 with the Papal Mitre situated 60 metres and 68 centimetres from the throwing circle. No one has ever won the Discus event and the Hammer event has been won just once in 1958 by the Soviet Anatoli Timofftichuk.

The second oldest event is the Team Pope-Carrying Race. The original ceremonial throne was mainly used to carry popes to and from papal ceremonies in the Basilica of St. John Lateran and St. Peter’s Basilica. At the Anti-Pope Games though this has become a cross-country race for five people – one person dresses as The Pope and is carried by the other four through the streets of Avignon and around the countryside for a distance of 10 miles. At no point must the Pope’s mitre fall off or the team will be penalized 95 seconds of time. This is not as easy as it sounds because at various points on the course 10 citizens of Avignon are allowed to throw bread at the throne in an attempt to knock off the Pope’s hat. The Pope is only allowed to defend himself against the bread using his crozier. If the Pope uses other means to repel the bread, such as a tennis racket or baseball bat, then his team are penalized a further 95 seconds and must run the gauntlet of the bread-throwing Avignon citizens once again.

HASTE – Mary Celeste

I was asked to attend a sailing ship in the North Atlantic, where it was believed some illicit alcohol was being carried. On November 7, 1872, the 282-ton brigantine Mary Celeste had set sail from New York on its way to Genoa. On board were the ship’s captain, Benjamin S. Briggs, his wife, Sarah, and their 2-year-old daughter, Sophia, along with eight crewmembers

My bosses were concerned that Sophia might come to some harm if the crew started sampling the booze on board. I landed on the ship and sought out the captain.

“Do I have the pleasure of addressing Mr. Benjamin Briggs, captain of the Mary Celeste?”

“You do, sir, and who might you be?”

“My name is Brian Snape and I am from the Health and Safety Time Executive.”

“Health and Safety – never heard of it; I’ve never had much time for unions myself, but I suppose they’re a necessary evil.”

“We ensure that accidents don’t happen by pointing out to people how they can improve their working environment. Such as here for example on board this ship, there is a lot of illicit alcohol aboard and I have been asked to remove it before some harm comes to your child Sophia.”

“How do know my daughter’s name and just how did you get on board my vessel?”

“It is my job, so please show me where this alcohol is kept and I can do something about it.”

“The alcohol is for sale in Genoa, a private transaction for the crew to make more money from their crossing.”

“They have already started drinking the alcohol, so I am not sure how much of it will be left to sell in Genoa or anywhere else for that matter. I am worried that your family’s life is in danger.”

“They are drinking just a few bottles of rum – there’s nothing wrong with that. Sailors will be sailors. It will be one long party all the way to the Mediterranean.”

“Aren’t you worried things might get out of hand especially if they get used to drinking on a daily basis – what happens if they take a fancy to your wife and child?”

“That won’t happen.”

“No it won’t, because I am going to throw the alcohol over the side – into the drink as it were – and save yourselves from a larger problem. If you don’t allow this, I will issue you with a ticket of violation – L21A-LSW2.”

“Alright, I wasn’t aware that we were breaking the law of the seas, so go ahead. Oh, what’s that I hear?”

I headed into the forward galley to seize the first few boxes of alcohol and saw a line of people shouting loudly coming up the steps from below. At the front was the captain’s wife holding her young daughter in one hand and an open bottle of rum in the other.

When they all reached the deck, they formed a conga line and started to dance around the ship. I took the chance to go into the hold and remove the remaining boxes of hooch. I threw them over the side as the conga line moved around the deck. The captain joined and the whole crew was cavorting this way and that.

Eventually the crewman at the front of the line took a slightly wrong turn and headed over the side, closely followed by all the members of the crew, leaving me alone on board. I did what I could, I lowered the yawl and rowed around for a while, but all the people had disappeared from view.

I had tied the yawl to the boat and so I could haul myself back to the Mary Celeste and return to base to make my report.

The Waterboarding Duck

Evolution has been kind to the duck family. Ducks are viewed as benign creatures, who wouldn’t say boo to a goose. However, don’t be fooled by the ducks that have survived through to the modern day. A few centuries ago a particular branch of the duck family, called the waterboarding ducks, were found in parts of Leicestershire and Rutland where they terrorised the local wildfowl populations.

Ducks such as teal and the mallard are called dabbling ducks, which means they tip up in shallow water, putting their beaks and heads under the water and look for things to eat. The waterboarding ducks were dabbling ducks of a different kind and behaved in two different ways. If another duck was already in the dabbling position, the waterboarding duck would ambush the dabbling duck and try and drown it by forcing its backside under the water. The dabbling duck would come to the surface, but would be disoriented and the waterboarding duck would then steal whatever food was in its beak.

The other tactic used by the waterboarding duck was to force other ducks to dabble by grabbing their throat and forcing their head under water. The duck would by nature try and feed and then once it had caught something, again the waterboarding duck would steal its food.

The behaviour of the waterboarding ducks alienated them from other waterfowl, who would always fly away, perhaps not surprisingly, when the waterboarding ducks came near. This behaviour led to many waterboarding ducks starving to death as they had lost their innate ability to find food for themselves.

The Hopping Race in Trevelez

Trevelez is a beautiful village in the Sierra Nevada mountains just to the south-east of Granada. This village is situated around 1,500 metres above sea level, making it the highest in Spain. Some of the streets in the village are narrow and others are extremely steep, which is why Trevelez hosts a unique hopping event that tests people’s leg strength and balance to the limit.

On the last weekend in August hoppers from all over the world flock to Trevelez where they take part in the Trevelez Hopping Extravaganza or the THE as it’s known in the English-speaking world.

The first event is the hopping marathon from Lanjaron to Trevelez, which takes place on Friday. Competitors can hop using either leg, but they must come to a halt before changing legs and they must draw the attention of the Switching Judge to this change before proceeding. This is to stop people from skipping along the road. Crafty contestants switch legs at the water stations along the course. Contestants are also not allowed to tie both legs together and hop using both feet at the same time; this rule was introduced in 1934 when a hopper, Ferran Alberts, tripped over the kerb, hurtled down a steep embankment and broke both limbs when he caught his legs in an olive tree.

The record for the course is 4 hours 45 minutes by Lanjaron native Fernando Villa in 1969, one of the five times that he won the event during his career. Fernando switched legs every two miles and also held his other leg for the first two minutes after each change in order to stretch the leg and prevent cramping. The ladies record is 5 hours 14 minutes by Angela Steuben from South Africa, set in 1998; she trained for the race by hopping up and down Table Mountain three times a day for three months.

Even though it’s a marathon race, the Lanjaron – Trevelez is not the hardest race of the weekend. The blue ribbon event takes place on Saturday and it’s called the Backwards Hop race, where competitors hop around Trevelez five times in reverse. In this contest only one leg can be used for the entire race; to ensure this rule is strictly enforced the other leg is tied. Competitors can use wing mirrors attached to their shoulders to help guide themselves around the course; they must not be guided by a coach and can’t attach guide dogs to their bodies.

The steepest part of the course is at the southernmost edge of Trevelez where one 400-metre road connects the lower town with the upper town; this is the part of the course where the race is won and lost because most people have difficulty walking down this road in a forwards direction in dry weather. In fact most competitors spend more time on this section of the course than on the rest of the course altogether. Grooves are cut into the surface of the road to make gripping the surface slightly easier but even then it’s horrendously difficult. Most injuries are caused when people overbalance on the later laps due to exhaustion. Even the strongest hoppers can spend ten minutes negotiating this road.

The rest of the circuit is through narrow streets, past bakeries, shops, and cafes – the downhill section is fairly gentle and allows racers to gather their strength before the uphill.  The person who has won this race most often is Benjamin Ortega from nearby Juviles with eight victories between 1948 and 1963; he trained for the race by hopping backwards up Alcazaba the third highest peak in the Sierra Nevada three times in succession. His advice for hopping backwards up the steep hill during the race was to take small hops and always keep the back straight so as to avoid overbalancing.

Extract from the book: Sports the Olympics Forgot