Friday, 12 October 2012

Count No Account

Over the summer I read the much-praised biography of poet Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France.  To be honest, I find biographies heavy going, and this was no exception.  The true facts of most lives are dull: given a choice, "print the legend" is always my preference.  Thomas was clearly an unhappy man and, by modern lights, an irresponsible husband and parent; it is not particularly edifying or entertaining to read about his narcissistic self-tormenting.  Having followed his endless dithering about whether or not to enlist at the outbreak of WW1, it came as no surprise to learn that he found a sort of happiness within the disciplines of army life, once he had actually joined up.

More often than not, the true facts of "famous" lives have a series of narrow near misses with legend.  For example, I learned the extraordinary fact that both Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen were at the Artists Rifles' Hare Hall training camp, Gidea Park, in 1915, and that Thomas may well have instructed Owen in map-reading, but it seems neither realised or recognised that the other was also a poet.  So close!

I have always enjoyed the fact that the Artists Rifles existed.  As a military unit, it has a certain Terry Pratchett-esque improbability about it. But for a jaw-dropping fact, how about this: according to Hollis, among its grizzled veterans the Artists Rifles can boast Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne.  No kidding.  Can you even begin to imagine?  It gives a whole new dimension to Ernest Thesiger's alleged response, when asked how his military service in France during WW1 had been: "Oh, my dear!  The noise!  And the people!"

I was curious about this -- I really couldn't imagine Swinburne snapping to attention with a smart salute -- so did a little research.  I read that the Artists Rifles was one of several volunteer regiments set up around 1859, in the alarm following "the Orsini Affair".  This was not the first time I had seen a reference to Orsini, but had never bothered to follow it up before. You could spend your life following up such things (though there are worse ways of spending a life).  It turns out that in 1858/59 there was a genuine fear that France might invade Britain, following the attempted assassination of Napoleon III by one Felice Orsini, an Italian nationalist who, it seemed, had the backing of English radicals, and had thrown bombs at the Emperor more-or-less stamped "Made in Birmingham".  Curiously, Swinburne was "rusticated" as an undergraduate from Oxford University for publicly supporting Orsini's action.

All interesting enough, but it gets better. Sometimes historical fact and legendary truth successfully avoid that narrow near miss and collide head on, scattering bits of myth, legend and fact in all directions.  The Orsini Plot and its aftermath is one such mash-up.

For example, Orsini was sent on a secret mission to Hungary in 1854 by Mazzini (oh, look it up) but got arrested and imprisoned in Mantua.  He escaped by using a saw to cut through the bars on the cell window, then climbed out, 100 feet above ground, and slid down using a rope he had made of bedsheets. Passing himself off as a friendly peasant, he then managed to get past the Austrian guards.  Are you kidding me?  Is it possible Orsini was the inventor of the old "bedsheet rope" trope?  Swiftly followed by the old "fool the guards with a cheery wave" routine?  History does not record whether the saw was smuggled in to Orsini using a cake.

This is history as operetta, long-forgotten works with titles like "Zeppo and Floriana", set in a world that has now vanished and faded from consciousness -- 1848 and all that, Mazzini, Garibaldi, the Austrians and the French as Evil Empire -- and which only remains as forgotten names on pigeon-spattered statues in European city squares.  Believe it or not, Napoleon III was actually on his way to see Rossini's William Tell at the Paris Opera when Orsini's assassination attempt was made.

But there's more.  One of Orsini's accomplices was Count Carlo Camillo di Rudio, an aristocratic Italian nationalist and military man.  I could spin this tale out, but here's the thing in a nutshell:  after the assassination attempt, di Rudio was arrested and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on Devil's Island.  However, he escaped from Devil's Island and made his way, via British Guiana and London, to America, becoming Charles De Rudio on the way.  There he fought for the Union in the Civil War, becoming a 2nd Lieutenant in the 2nd US Colored Infantry. After the War he became an officer in the regular US Army, and was eventually appointed to the 7th Cavalry.  In 1876 he participated in and survived -- yes -- the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  Apparently, he was known to his fellow 7th Cavalry officers as "Count No Account" because of his habit of telling tall tales.

As they say, you couldn't make it up, could you?  Odd, isn't it, how -- in the course of a single man's life -- a Ruritanian operetta about Italian unification becomes a tense assassination drama, then an escape thriller, then a Civil War epic with a "buffalo soldiers" twist, finally followed by a minor part in Custer's Last Stand.  If nothing else, it means the use of the William Tell overture as the theme for the Lone Ranger finally makes perfect sense.

Why no-one has ever made a movie telling the story of di Rudio's extraordinary life is a mystery.  It would have to be called Count No-Account, of course.  Perhaps it just mixes up too many genres to pitch.   There is a English-language biography, however, though I suspect it is self-published:  Alien Horseman: an Italian Shavetail with Custer, by J.C. Ladenheim.

Somehow, I doubt anyone will ever to want to make a movie about Edward Thomas, though: a few good poems and a friendship with Robert Frost are no substitute for serial derring-do with bombs and knotted bedsheets, and close encounters with Custer and Crazy Horse.


Unknown said...

Surprised to find out that The Lone Ranger made it across the pond. It was my favorite TV show when I was just a kid. Now of course it's being made into a movie with Johnny Depp as Tonto! (groan) Another movie with Depp in ridiculous makeup. You know he really can act; he ought to do so more often.

Mike C. said...


God, yes, not to mention Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Cheyenne, Bonanza, Bronco Layne, High Chaparral, etc., etc. Imported Westerns were a staple of British TV until well into the early 70s, when Cops took over.

Odd, how dough-faced boys like Depp and DiCaprio have become leading actors... I quite liked Depp in Dead Man, but of course he was playing a dough-faced boy.


Anonymous said...

And they try to claim George Macdonald Fraser's Frashman books are made up ...

Don't knock Johnny Depp, he's a huge fan of folk and once presented the prizes at the BBC Radio 3 World Music Awards. That's cred enough for me.

Oh, and you forgot the Cisco Kid. And Hopalong Cassidy.

Martyn Cornell ('cos your Blogger set-up mwon't let me sign in under anything except my Wordpress id)

Dave Leeke said...

What about "Branded"? I can never forget the sabre being broken across the officer's knee and the stripes being ripped off of his shoulder.

"Dead Man" is great - Neil Young music, too! At least it had an attempt at being literary - his character's name was William Blake, let's not forget. Pointlessly, but at least there was some feeling that you needed to be vaguely intelligent to get it.


Mike C. said...


Of course, Flashman! Thanks, that's exactly the comparison I was groping for... Never mind, I'm not going to rewrite it now.

Ah, yes, Cisco, the gay caballero, with the emphasis on the caballero... Personally, I have always tried to follow Pancho's understated dress sense.


Mike C. said...


Yes, Branded, an unforgettable opening. Who knew swords were so easy to break? "F Troop" was an agreeably silly take on "Boots & Saddles", if you remember either of those.

Must watch "Dead Man" again sometime -- I remember the cannibal bandit quite vividly, definitely a cousin of the bad guy in Judge Roy Bean...