In 1973, at the Cricketers Arms pub in Wisborough Green, West Sussex, Irishman Jim Gavin was bemoaning the high cost of motorsports when he noticed that each of his friends had a lawnmower in his garden shed. He proposed a race in a local field and 80 competitors turned up.
That was the start of the British Lawn Mower Racing Association, “the cheapest motorsport in the U.K.” — the guiding principles are no sponsorship, no commercialism, no cash prizes, and no modifying of engines. (The mower blades are removed for safety.) The racing season runs from May through October, with a world championship, a British Grand Prix, an endurance championship, and a 12-hour endurance race, and all profits go to charity.
For the past 26 years, Bertie’s Inn in Reading, Pa., has held a belt sander race (below) in which entrants ride hand-held belt sanders along a 40-foot-long plywood track. All entry fees and concession sales are donated to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Each competitor keeps one hand on the sander’s front knob and the other on the rear power switch while an assistant runs behind, paying out an extension cord. Women tend to excel, apparently because they can balance better than men. “You can’t lean back or lean forward,” Donna Knight, who won her heat in 2013, told the Reading Eagle.
Anne Thomas, who owns the inn with her husband, Peter, said, “We must be crazy, but everybody loves it and has a great time, and we raise a lot of money for charity. We tried to quit one time, and nobody would let us.”
When blues singer Sally Osman filed for divorce from ventriloquist Herbert Dexter in 1934, she named his dummy, Charlie, as a co-respondent.
When she and Dexter had married two years earlier, she agreed that Dexter could take the puppet along on their honeymoon, as he had often complimented her through Charlie’s voice. But when they developed a new stage act, the dummy began to interrupt her songs with cruel ad libs and rob her of applause by making rude wisecracks. She asked Dexter to change the act so that she could sing without interruption, but he refused.
In I Can See Your Lips Moving, Valentine Vox writes, “She also accused the duo of physical cruelty, telling the court how she constantly received on-stage blows from the mechanical figure, which left her with severe bruises. One night in particular, Charlie had hit her so hard between the shoulder blades that he knocked the wind out of her.”
Osman further testified that Dexter would take the dummy everywhere they went and spent more time talking to it than to her. “I got to hate Charlie so deeply that homicidal thoughts began to haunt my mind,” she said. “Sometimes when I had Charlie alone and helpless, I fear that I would have thrown him out of the window, had I been able to unlock the coffin-like trunk in which he was kept.”
Dexter never contested the case, and Osman got her divorce. When the judge asked why she hadn’t requested alimony, she said, “I wouldn’t be able to collect it anyway; he spends all his money on Charlie.”
Vaudeville ventriloquist Harry Lester made his reputation with feats of vocal dexterity — he would walk among the audience while his dummy whistled a tune, or place telephone calls to heaven and hell, altering his voice to simulate a remote character on the line. Most famously he could drink water and smoke while his dummies talked.
In 1925, during a performance at the Balaban and Katz Theatre in Chicago, Lester’s drinking feat was unexpectedly modified when straight whisky replaced the usual coloured water in his decanter. The orchestra had switched drinks as a joke, trying to catch him off guard. When Lester innocently drank the liquid, not a muscle moved in his face, but the figure exploded into a storm of coughing. This piece of showmanship was so much appreciated by the orchestra that they rose from their seats and applauded; the audience, sensing something unusual, joined in.
(From Valentine Vox, I Can See Your Lips Moving, 1981.)
My teenage children are mad about rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t mind, but between them they have socks, pullovers and slacks which are fluorescent, and I am worried in case these are harmful to their health. Surely things that are luminous in the dark are usually radioactive, which, I take it, could be dangerous.
You’ll be relieved to know that these clothes, so popular with teenagers (particularly the rock ‘n’ rollers), have been tested for radioactivity, and there is none. So there should be no danger at all, except to anyone who is sensitive to the kinds of colours they select!
When J.M. Barrie organized his friends into an amateur cricket team in 1887, his selections weren’t based on literary eminence — “With regard to the married men, it was because I liked their wives, with regard to the single men, it was for the oddity of their personal appearance.” But the team managed to include some of the most celebrated British writers of the day, including Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells, A.A. Milne, G.K. Chesterton, Jerome K. Jerome, P.G. Wodehouse, E.V. Lucas, and E.W. Hornung.
It wasn’t until they assembled for their first game that the Allahakberries (Barrie thought Allahu Akbar meant “Heaven help us”) realized the extent of their ignorance — geologist Joseph Thomson arrived wearing pajamas rather than cricket whites, and an argument arose over which side of the bat to use in hitting the ball.
Generally Barrie found that the more distinguished a writer was, “the worse they played.” (The exception was Doyle, whom Barrie described as “A grand bowler. Knows a batsman’s weakness by the colour of the mud on his shoes.”) Eventually he wrote a book of advice for the team, in which he asked them not practice before matches, since it would only give their opponents confidence, and advised “Should you hit the ball, run at once. Do not stop to cheer.”
Sadly, the war ended the team’s career. Barrie wrote in his diary, “The Last Cricket Match. One or two days before war declared — my anxiety and premonition — boys gaily playing cricket at Auch, seen from my window. I know they’re to suffer. I see them dropping out one by one, fewer and fewer.” He was right — in fact, one of the casualties was George Llewelyn Davies, who had helped to inspire Peter Pan.
In 2007 Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were ranked 1 and 2 among the world’s men’s singles tennis players. But they excelled on different surfaces: Federer had not lost a match in five years on grass courts, and Nadal had been undefeated on clay for three. And neither player had defeated the other on his favored surface. So they held an exhibition match on a special court that was half grass, half clay.
The court took 19 days and $1.63 million to create. Before the match, Federer said:
We are both looking forward to this absolutely new event. The idea really appeals to me, as we both dominate one of the surfaces. Rafa holds the record of 72 victories in series on clay, and I have not been defeated on grass since 48 matches. It’ll be fun to find out what it’s like to play on a court with mixed surfaces! And it ought to be interesting to see who chooses the better tactic. People have been talking about this event for quite a while. Now it’s coming up pretty soon already, and I like the fact that the stadium — which is very nice, by the way — is located on Majorca, Rafa’s home. He has been to Basel, after all, and now I’ve got the opportunity to play at his place for once.
Nadal won 7–5, 4–6, 7–6(12–10). “It has been a nice experience,” he told the BBC, “although before the match I thought it would be a disaster because I felt it would be very difficult for me to adapt to the court. I have had a good time and that is important.”
Human-scale chess has been played for centuries — the Italian town of Marostica has staged a game every two years since 1923, and the photo above shows actual soldiers (and cannon!) in a game in St. Petersburg in 1924.
In 2003 Sharilyn Neidhardt organized a game on a board represented by 64 city blocks on the Lower East Side of New York. Two expert players played the game on an ordinary board at the ABC No Rio gallery, in the middle of the street grid. Each time one of them made a move, the corresponding piece received a call or a text message (“go to f7”) and had to travel to the corresponding square, on foot or by bike or roller skate. If you were captured you became an ordinary person again.
Players were recruited online; each had to have a working cell phone, “be excruciatingly on time,” and be willing to spend about three hours awaiting orders. Neidhardt warned newcomers: center pawns can expect to be captured early, bishops and knights will cover a lot of territory, and kings will have a low-key opening and a busy endgame.
How can an umpire be sure a runner has reached first base? In 1875 inventor John O’Neill suggested fitting it with a bell to “indicate clearly and positively, without chance of error, the exact moment when the base is touched by the runner.”
The trouble is that the “enunciating base” will also sound when the first baseman steps on it. Ten years later William Williams suggested an electric bell, which could be heard more clearly by a single umpire behind home plate, but it faced the same objection. Both were forgotten.
IBM nanophysicists have made a stop-motion movie using individual atoms — carbon monoxide molecules arranged on a copper substrate and then magnified 100 million times using a scanning tunneling microscope. The molecules remain stationary because they form a bond with the substrate at this extremely low temperature (-268.15° C); each CO molecule stands “on end” so that only one atom is visible.
The result, “A Boy and His Atom,” holds the Guinness world record for the world’s smallest stop-motion film.
New York playwright Augustin Daly was walking home one night in 1867, ruminating about a play he had begun to write, when he stubbed his toe on a misplaced flagstone. “I was near my door,” he said, “and I rushed into the house, threw myself into a chair, grasping my injured foot with both hands, for the pain was great, and exclaiming, over and over again, ‘I’ve got it! I’ve got it! And it beats hot-irons all to pieces!’ I wasn’t even thinking of the hurt. I had the thought of having my hero tied on a railroad track and rescued by his sweetheart, just in the nick of time, before the swift passage of an express train across a dark stage.”
Here it is, the first appearance of that memorable device, from Daly’s play Under the Gaslight. Laura is locked inside a station when Byke, “a villain,” catches Snorkey, a messenger:
Snorkey: Byke, what are you going to do?
Byke: Put you to bed. (Lays him across the railroad tracks.)
Snorkey: Byke, you don’t mean to — My God, you are a villain!
Byke (fastening him to the rails): I’m going to put you to bed. You won’t toss much. In less than ten minutes you’ll be sound asleep. There, how do you like it? You’ll get down to the Branch before me, will you? You dog me and play the eavesdropper, eh! Now do it, if you can. When you hear the thunder under your head and see the lights dancing in your eyes, and feel the iron wheel a foot from your neck, remember Byke. (Exit L.)
Laura: O, Heavens! he will be murdered before my eyes! How can I aid him?
Snorkey: Who’s that?
Laura: It is I. Do you not know my voice?
Snorkey: That I do, but I almost thought I was dead and it was an angel’s. Where are you?
Laura: In the station.
Snorkey: I can’t see you, but I can hear you. Listen to me, miss, for I’ve only got a few minutes to live.
Laura (shaking door): And I cannot aid you.
Snorkey: Never mind me, miss; I might as well die now, and here, as at any other time. I’m not afraid. I’ve seen death in almost every shape, and none of them scare me; but, for the sake of those you love, I would live. Do you hear me?
Laura: Yes! Yes!
Snorkey: They are on the way to your cottage — Byke and Judas — to rob and murder.
Laura (in agony): O, I must get out! (Shakes window-bars). What shall I do?
Snorkey: Can’t you burst the door?
Laura: It is locked fast.
Snorkey: Is there nothing in there? No hammer? no crowbar?
Laura: Nothing. (Faint steam whistle heard in distance.) Oh, Heavens! The train! (Paralysed for an instant.) The axe!!
Snorkey: Cut the woodwork! Don’t mind the lock, cut round it. How my neck tingles! (A blow at door is heard.) Courage! (Another.) Courage! (The steam whistle heard again — nearer, and rumble of train on track — another blow.) That’s a true woman. Courage! (Noise of locomotive heard, with whistle. A last blow — the door swings open, mutilated, the lock hanging — and Laura appears, axe in hand.)
Snorkey: Here — quick! (She runs and unfastens him. The locomotive lights glare on scene). Victory! Saved! Hooray! (Laura leans exhausted against switch). And these are the women who ain’t to have a vote!
(As Laura takes his head from the track, the train of cars rushes past with roar and whistle from L. to R.)
(From Gordon Snell, The Book of Theatre Quotes, 1982.)