Rock and Roll

Every so often a Scottish farmer turns up a knobbly stone ball the size of an orange. No one knows precisely who made them or why: Were they weights for fishing nets? Die-like oracles? Flung weapons? Balls used in games? Some are quite elaborately carved, and they have as many as 160 knobs.

Whatever they were, they were immensely popular among Bronze Age Scots — more than 400 have been found to date in northeastern Scotland, most in Aberdeenshire.

Costa Ricans made stone balls with somewhat larger ambitions, and Romans made enigmatic dodecahedrons. Which of our own artifacts will baffle future civilizations?

Bears Repeating

While lecturing at Oxford, geologist William Buckland kept a bear named Tiglath Pileser. (Buckland was a lunatic.) In 1847 he dressed “Tig” in a cap and gown and took him to the annual meeting of the British Association and to a garden party at the Botanic Gardens. “The bear sucked all our hands and was very caressing,” remembered Charles Lyell. Eventually banished from Christ Church, Tig retired to Islip, where he terrorized the local sweetshop owner until he was sent to the Zoological Gardens.

Byron kept a bear in his chambers at Cambridge — because, he said, Trinity rules forbade dogs. “I had a great hatred of college rules, and contempt for academical honors.” It’s said he conducted it there in a stagecoach (as “Lord Byron and Mr. Bruin”) to sit for a fellowship.

“There was, by the by, rather a witty satire founded on my bear,” Byron later remembered. “A friend of Shelley’s made an ourang-outang (Oran Hanton, Esq.) the hero of a novel (‘Melincourt’), had him created a baronet, and returned for the borough of One Vote.”

All’s Fair

When his second wife died in November 1628, Sir Edward Dering set his sights on a rich London widow. We know this because for some reason he kept a minute journal of his tactics:

Nov. 20. I adventured, was denied. Sent up a letter, which was returned, after she had read it.

Nov. 21. I inveigled G. Newman with 20s.

Nov. 24. I did re-engage him, 20s. I did also oil the cash-keeper, 20s.

Nov. 26. I gave Edmund Aspull [the cash-keeper] another 20s. I was there, but denied sight.

Nov. 27. I sent a second letter, which was kept. I set Sir John Skeffington upon Matthew Cradock [the widow’s cousin]. The cash-keeper supped with me.

Nov. 28. I went to Mr. Cradock, but found him cold.

Nov. 29. I was at the Old Jewry Church and saw her, both forenoon and afternoon.

Dec. 1. I sent a third letter, which was likewise kept.

Jan. 9. George Newman says she hath two suits of silver plate, one in the country and the other here, and that she hath beds of 100l. the bed!

This went on for five months, with the widow hesitating and Sir Edward plying connections with gifts, wine, and money. In the spring she chose another suitor. Edward did marry again — but he neglected to destroy the journal.


During a party on July 9, 1993, lawyer Garry Hoy threw himself at a window on the 24th floor of the Toronto-Dominion Centre, to prove that it was unbreakable.

It wasn’t.

Black Sheep

In 1894, Walter Rothschild drove three zebras to Buckingham Palace to prove they could be tamed.

His family’s banking pedigree meant little to him — he’d wanted to be a zoologist, he said, since age 7.


Dion McGregor never made it big as a songwriter, but he gained fame for another talent — his roommate discovered that McGregor spoke at full conversational volume while dreaming:

  • “Welcome to Midget City. Uh hmmmm … from the ground up we built it. Yes, from the ground up, ummm hmmmm. Well, we have 173 — a hundred — no — 174, 174 buildings … uh hmmmm. We have our own police system. See that little cop over there? One of our midgets.”
  • “Well, I like … it’s 6 feet deep and about 8 feet long. Yes, well … yes … you can drown the neighbor children in it … if they’re noisy you just lure them in. We have a dumbwaiter that comes up from the garden … you just pop them in that dumbwaiter … drag them right up … and pop them in the water … drown them … throw them down into the still. Hah-hah-hah-hah-hah … of, of course, I’m kidding. Heh-heh-heh-heh!”
  • “Well certainly you have to bring a — you have to bring a gift; it’s a birthday party, stupid! Well naturally. What do you think? You can’t go to a birthday party without bringing a gift. Honestly, for a child of 3, you can be so dense. Naturally … yes of course … I don’t care … you bring a gift of your own choosing.”

The two released a recording of these dreams and a companion book in 1964. “You may not believe this,” McGregor wrote, “but I’m one of those people who really values his privacy.”


In Hitler Moves East, former SS officer Paul Carell records a bizarre scene from the bitterly cold winter of 1941 on the eastern front. At Ozarovo a rearguard of the German 3rd Rifle Regiment came across a group of Russian troops standing motionless in waist-deep snow. On investigating, they found that the Soviets, horses and men, had frozen to death where they stood:

Over on one side was a soldier, leaning against the flank of his horse. Next to him a wounded man in the saddle, one leg in a splint, his eyes wide open under iced-up eyebrows, his right hand still gripping the dishevelled mane of his mount. The second lieutenant and the sergeant slumped forward in their saddles, their clenched fists still gripping their reins. Wedged in between two horses were three soldiers: evidently they had tried to keep warm against the animals’ bodies. The horses themselves were like the horses on the plinths of equestrian statues — heads held high, eyes closed, their skin covered with ice, their tails whipped by the wind, but frozen into immobility.

Lance Corporal Tietz couldn’t take photos because “the view-finder froze over with his tears” and the shutter refused to work. “The god of war was holding his hand over the infernal picture,” Carell writes. “It was not to become a memento for others.”