Curiositwitty New Flashes!

Friday, 15 May 2009

Show 2. Rooms 61-63: The Steering Commitee

Words by Emma-Lee Moss

Tim FitzHigham

There is some confusion as to whether or not Tim Fitzhigham was born in a lunatic asylum. “It might have become one after I was born,” he says, cryptically. But there is no question as to whether or not he belongs in one. The Queen has called him the maddest man in her kingdom, Thomas Crapper have designed a toilet in his honour with the words ‘mad in britain’ printed on the basin, he has crossed the channel in a bathtub, and undertaken perhaps the second most Quixotic adventure in history by living as Don Quixote in a cave in La Mancha, so the answer is no. Tim Fitzhigham doesn’t belong in an asylum. He lives out his adventures. What’s crazy about that? In fact, we say he deserves a prize, and many others have agreed. In addition to being a Freeman of the City of London, Tim holds one of the highest rankings in the British Navy, is a Most Puissant Knight de Santa Maria on the West Indian Island of Redondo, and has been appointed Pittancer of Selby Town.

Tim the Freeman

Tim was appointed Freeman of the City of London, after he broke the 383 year-old World Record by paddling an 85% paper boat 160 miles down the River Thames to raise money for Comic Relief.

He says of the title, “You get given something like a little driver’s licence, but it’s a bit older. You also sign a book that’s been signed by all the Freemen before you, so it really is quite a daunting thing. The book is as you’d think it would be, it’s a big book, there’s been a lot of Freemen in the last 700 years, and you open this thing and you see Isaac Newton, Winston Churchill, Me. It’s quite a weird experience.”

Perks of the job include the right to drive sheep across London Bridge, the right to drive geese down Cheapside, and the right to wear a sword in the city of London, of which Tim says, “it’s brilliant, cause not only can the police not arrest you, but if you draw your sword, they have to follow you, because clearly you’re defending London from attack.”


Tim: “You have to pull out your birth certificate when you become a Freeman, and I gave them mine and the registrar said, ‘were you born in Norfolk in the late 70’s? and I said yes, and he said, ‘nah, this is not a birth certificate’, and I said, ‘what do you mean?’ and he said, ‘the registrar went mad, and had to be removed, this isn’t a birth certificate, it’s an envelope. And it was.”

If this applies to you, you might want to pop down to the local council and see what you can do about becoming an official person.

Other roles

As Pittancer of Selby, Tim has various Medieval rights and privileges, such as the use of a 1,000 year old office, and the right to distribute money on a Maundy Thursday. With great power, though, comes great responsibility, and he is also bound to various Pittance-ing duties. Once a year, he has to provide the priest of Selby with one pound, a sum of money that he describes as ‘very significant’ in times gone by. He also has to inspect the Abby drains, and, every Maundy Thursday, he must provide eggs and cheese to any Benedictine monk that he finds wandering , and his third duty is to give a pittance of eggs and cheese to any stray Benedictine monks who are found wandering the Abby. This is a concern to him, he says, lest ‘a coach trip of Bendictine Monks happen to break down in Selby on Maundy Thursday.’

You can hear about Tim’s roles as Commodore of Sudbury and Knight of the Kingdom of Redondo on the show.

Crossing the Channel

After he broke the World Record, Tim crossed the Channel in a boat made almost entirely of an old English bathtub, arriving at Tower Bridge after a 130-mile row. After this Thomas Crapper and Co released the ‘The Fitzhigham’, a commemorative toilet with a drawing of Tim rowing in a bath-tub inside it.

As a result of this journey, Tim was asked to meet the Queen. During the meeting, a question was raised as to whether or not he could repeat the journey in a shower. Tim answered that he couldn’t because he wouldn’t know what colour curtains to choose, to which the Queen replied, “I think blue, don’t you?”

Gavin Pretor-Pinney

Gavin Pretor-Pinney is another man who follows through his dreams. Co-founder of the Idler magazine, he has also taken a lifelong affection for clouds and turned it into an occupation. He is the founder and head of the Cloud Appreciation Society, the publisher of ‘A pig with Six Legs and Other Clouds’, and recently the author of a best-selling book. ‘The Cloudspotter’s Guide’ is stuffed full of facts about clouds and gives each genera of clouds character. For example strato-cumulus is "always in transition" and therefore "not unlike the pop singer Cher at the height of her costume-changing stage routines". It also comes with a handy cloud-spotting chart for your own sky-gazing adventures.

He has a ritual he calls "Contemplating the Heavens Below": lying on your back, dropping your head down, and surveying an inverted sky as if it were a landscape.
He tries to fight blue-sky thinking wherever he finds it. “It is criminal that these travel companies try and persuade us that we can only be happy when we fly somewhere it is a blue sky every day. There is a beauty in the everyday and we would be wise to appreciate it.”

The Idler

The Idler was founded “to return dignity to the art of loafing, to make idling into something to aspire towards rather than reject.”

Says Gavin, “there’s a quite a struggle to achieve an idle life. it’s a noble struggle to find the time to relax, especially now more than ever, and there is a philosophy to the magazine. I’ts not really about doing nothing. The philosophy is that the best ideas, the most creative thoughts, come to you when you’re not straining. We’ve all had times when somethings been on our mind, and we can’t think of an answer, and we think oh forget it, and go to sleep, and we wake up in the morning and somehow it’s been resolved. And that only happens when your mind is idling. I think there’s a really important aspect of our week that we forget about, and that is the time that we are doing nothing, and the Idler is championing that.”
Gavin sees himself as one in a long tradition of Idlers, following in the footsteps of Samuel Johnson, who wrote several essays under the title, and Jerome K Jerome, who did the same.
Gavin would advise Tim to be a little more idle.

“Going across the Channel is not up our street at all,” he says, “it seems like an awful lot of effort. But I do like the way you’re doing it your way.”

“Yes, because most people get the ferry,” says Sean.

Simon Singh

Simon Singh comes from a family who were farmers for generations in Punjab, India. In 1938, his grandfather left his village of Thakarki and settled in Somerset. At the age of nine he had decided that he wanted to be a nuclear physicist, while his elder brother Tom would go on to found "New Look". He studied particle physics at Imperial College, London, Cambridge University and at CERN, Geneva - where he smashed particles into each other looking for quarks. He also spent a couple of months teaching at Doon School in Dehra Dun, one of the best schools in India.

Around 1990, he made the decision to move into science journalism. He says,
"I could see that there were people around me who were on a different planet when it came to understanding and researching physics, and it would be they who would go on to make their names as pioneers. As for me, it was time to change career. I had always enjoyed talking about and explaining science, so I took the decision to move towards a career in journalism"
Since then he has fronted a Bafta-winning television programme and written some truly excellent books, including “Trick or Treatment? Alternative medicine on trial’, ‘the Code Book’, which promised a £10,000 prize for the first person to solve a set of 10 encoded messages (a group of Swedish jugglers, since you ask), and The Big Bang, a history of the key events in mankind’s discovery of cosmology.

Despite all this, he still cites himself as only having ‘the faintest clue’ about science and mathematics, a claim that while fitting in with Lao Tse’s ‘The wise man knows that he knows nothing’, also brings to mind those high-achievers at school who go on about how they’re about to fail the exam, only to come out of them with all A’s and a place at Oxbridge.


“Every great scientific idea starts out as being a blasphemy,” says Simon, “you end up with people with extraordinary ideas that go against the grain, whether they’re Einstein and relativity, or Kant and infinity, all battling against everybody else, and there’s a high level of insanity, especially amongst mathematicians, who get driven
insane by going into this deeply abstract world.”

Charles Babbage

As we learned in the show, Simon once wrote a scientifically accurate version of Katie Melua’s ‘9 million bicycles’, which she gamely recorded.

His inspiration for this was Charles Babbage, the famous statistician and computer pioneer, who saw a poem by Tennyson which read ‘every moment dies a man, and every moment one is born.’ Babbage wrote to Tennyson saying, essentially, that if this were true, the population of the world would be at a standstill, and suggesting that he change the words of the poem to read ‘every moment dies a man, every moment one and 1/16th was born’

Says Simon, “He went on to say that 1.0842 was the actual answer but for poetic licence 1 and 1/16th was fine.”

Charles Babbage was later to go completely bonkers and went round Hackney working out the statistical probability of a house having a broken window, but before this, he built the first mechanical proto-computer, and brought out a law, which is still existence, banning organ grinders from playing on the streets of London, because he found them distracting.

The lyrics to that Katie Melua song in full…
We are 13.7 billion light-years from
the edge of the observable universe/
That's a good estimate with
well-defined error bars,
Scientists say it's true, but
acknowledge that it may be refined,
And with the available information, I predict that I will always be
with you

listen to the reworked version here:

(you can read the original article by Simon in the Guardian here:

Enigma Machines

Simon is deeply interested in codes, and owns one of the original Enigma machines from WWII, used by the Germans for all encryptions.

“For much of the second world war Churchill knew exactly where the supply lines of the Germans were, what their strategies were and all that, thanks to a group of mathematicians and engineers and scientists at Bletchley Park. When the War ended, all these people went back to their lives and got no credit at all for the part they played. People wonder why this secrecy kept for so long, over thirty years. And the reason was that after the war, the allies swept across Europe and brought all these Enigma machines back to Britain, and rang up all sorts of countries saying ‘look we’ve got these enigma machines, the Germans swear by them, why don’t you use them,’ knowing full well that they could crack them in an instant.’

With a PC today, Simon thinks we could break an Enigma code in a couple of hours or a few days. However, today’s codes are effectively unbreakable. He could send you an email using a simple free encryption, and all the computers in the world would not be able to crack it.

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