Have a drink with: Abdul Karim
The jewel in the Crown
Ask him about: Royal language lessons
The movie Victoria and Abdul portrays the relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, a young Indian man assigned to her service in the late 1880s. Karim, originally a clerk from Agra, India, came to Victoria’s service during her Golden Jubilee in 1887. He became a favorite friend and confidante, acting as the Queen’s Urdu language teacher and Indian secretary, much to the frustrated jealousy of the royal household.
Victoria had a complicated relationship with India: on the one hand, she was fascinated with and fetishized all things Indian – learning Urdu, bringing curries onto the regular dining rotation at the palace, and decorating an entire lavish chamber at her Osborne House with Indian arts and architecture (including a lavish portrait of Karim himself, alongside paintings of Indian craftspeople). On the other hand, the allure doesn’t change the fact that she was the ruler of a forcibly and uncomfortably subdued nation of people whose welfare wasn’t permitted to muddle the interior decorating. It’s hard to know for sure whether Abdul Karim was a proxy for Victoria’s general fascination with exotic India; a genuine friend who provided the added benefit of making her stiff-necked family crazy; a subservient target for the Queen’s romantic or maternal impulses; or something else entirely.
Nor is the movie the first time Western voices have been the ones to comment on Abdul Karim’s story, or his status as what writer Bilal Qureshi called “Manic Pixie Dream Brownie.” Karim was no stranger to news media at the time, and American papers particularly covered the fact of his employment with condescending, starchy amusement – like, look at the Queen learning the funny Eastern language! She has an Indian tutor! Just a few of the winning clippings:
Have a drink with: Dr. James Barry
Poodle enthusiast, dandy, ace physician
Ask them about: trans soldiers
On July 26, President Trump announced a ban on transgender military service, citing the unsubstantiated likelihood that trans soldiers would subject the military to increased medical costs and an unacceptable degree of “disruption.” LGBT rights groups have since filed suit.
For proof that military accomplishment and gender fluidity readily walk hand in hand, we can look to James Barry, a 19th century military surgeon in the British Army who, unbeknownst to nearly everyone in his life, had been born Margaret Ann Bulkeley.
Have a drink with: Thomas Nashe
It was the merry month of February…
Ask him about: Valentine’s Day plans
Though he lived in Elizabethan England, Thomas Nashe was not an unfamiliar figure to modern thinking: in his twenties, Nashe was out of college, short on funds and trying to make it as a writer in London. It was a tough time for a writer without independent wealth or consistent patronage – plague outbreaks made life dangerous and, as a practical matter, often closed the theaters that called on writers for material. And while young Thomas was very talented, let’s face it: when you’re a freelance writer, no matter how good you are sometimes you’ve just gotta pay the bills. Sometimes having to “prostitute my pen in hope of gain” means writing corporate sales copy, sometimes it means ghostwriting, and yes, sometimes it means reluctantly writing raunchy poems about sex toys. Welcome to the Elizabethan Cialis ad.
Have a drink of: Nice Cold 17th Century Beer
Less filling; tastes great.
Ask your friends: to buy you a round.
In 1662 Charles II gave his charter to the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (the “Royal Society,” for short). A hybrid of a gentleman’s club, an entrepreneurial incubator, a maker faire and a science journal, the Royal Society was prolifically dedicated to the idea – famously explained by Adam Savage – that the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down.
In their own justifiably proud words: “We published Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, and Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment demonstrating the electrical nature of lightning. We backed James Cook’s journey to Tahiti, reaching Australia and New Zealand, to track the Transit of Venus. We published the first report in English of inoculation against disease, approved Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, documented the eruption of Krakatoa and published Chadwick’s detection of the neutron that would lead to the unleashing of the atom.”
And let’s not forget: they made sure 17th century England could have cold beer in summertime.
Have a drink with: The Duke of Wellington Statue
“A gigantic triumph of bad taste over public opinion.”
Ask it about: Free beer.
In the 1830’s, the Napoleonic Wars were still fresh in memory and Britain was eager to redecorate. Since few things say classicism, patriotism and self-praise quite like a good monument, the idea arose to honor Arthur Wellesley (better known as the Duke of Wellington) with a grand commemorative statue.
Depicting the “Iron Duke” on his trusty horse Copenhagen as the pair might have appeared during the Battle of Waterloo, the bronze statue was commissioned of sculptor Matthew Cotes Wyatt to sit atop a sculptured arch in Hyde Park Corner. Wyatt planned a statue thirty feet high and weighing forty tons, making it the largest equestrian statue in Britain at the time.
He did not plan on all of Britain thinking he was the giant horse’s ass in the whole affair.
Have a drink with: Ian Fleming
Shaken, not stirred.
Ask him: hey, can we bring drinks into the library?
In 1963 a major exhibition of rare books and printed treasures called Printing and the Mind of Man went up at the Eleventh International Printing Machinery and Allied Trades Exhibition (IPEX) in London, displaying some four hundred historic books borrowed from dozens of libraries and private individuals and billing itself as “the most impressive collection of books ever gathered under one roof.” Among other treasures, visitors could see a broadsheet copy of the Declaration of Independence and a one-of-a-kind leaf from the Gutenberg Bible. The King’s College library at Cambridge was the leading exhibitor, with fifty-one items.
In second place, with forty-four: Ian Fleming.
Have a drink with: The Gordon Rioters
Angry Protestant mob, muse to Charles Dickens
Ask them about: Looting, pillaging, using the word “popery” without laughing. (Try it: popery popery popery.)
“If they touch my work that’s a part of so many laws, what becomes of the laws in general, what becomes of the religion, what becomes of the country!”
You wouldn’t be wrong to wonder if this quote came out of Indiana in recent weeks, or perhaps Arkansas, in the face of debate over whether founding concepts of religious liberty could in fact literally be discussed over pizza. But in fact the quote is from Charles Dickens’ neglected novel Barnaby Rudge, in which a panicky hangman frets over religious freedom laws in 18th century England.
Dickens took his story from the events of June 1780, in which Protestants gathered with Lord George Gordon to march on Parliament and there present a petition for the repeal of Catholic relief legislation. The crowds grew and surged as they moved, and a week of “No Popery” violence broke out in London, requiring some 12,000 troops to restore peace.