Friday 27 June 2014

Potemkin to potatoes

Maybe I'll start a new series about "chemists who are famous for something else".  The obvious choices are Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister; Александр Порфирьевич Бородин, Alexandr Borodin, romantic composer; Primo Levi, survivor and author; Chaim Weizmann, First President of Israel. Sometimes there is a rather close connexion between chemist and celebrity: Weizmann's research into military munitions was directly instrumental in the foundation of Israel and his billet as Head of State. Primo Levi's best book Periodic Table would not, could not, have been written without his chemical training. But there is no very well articulated argument that Thatcher's chemical training helped her to the pinnacle of the political pole. And Borodin's daytime job as a professor of chemistry didn't, in any way that I've heard about, inform his music: he wrote an opera about Prince Igor and the defense of Ukraine, not Élie Metchnikoff and Buttermilk.

Ukraine? Who mentioned Ukraine?  Isn't that going to set Bob the Cat in Ireland really among the pigeons of Kiev and Lviv/Lvov/Lemberg. Ivan Beshov was the son of a judge who was born just outside Odessa in the Crimea. He was trained as a chemist but that was not exciting enough for a young chap and in 1902 he enlisted as a sailor (see R as an escapee from the von Trapp family) in the Black Sea fleet of the Russian navy. After some trials and tribulations including a court martial for Leftist leanings, young Ivan found himself assigned to the Battleship Potemkin Князь Потёмкин Таврический in 1905 where he worked as a machinist in the engine room. There was a war on in the East; Japan had just (27 May 1905) given the Russians a terrible drubbing at the Battle of Tsushima Цусимское сражение to emerge as a world power. It was a blow to Russian prestige and particularly to morale in the Imperial Russian Navy.

Exactly a month after this disaster, the commissariat sent out some maggoty meat (L as re-created in the film) from shore and, rather than condemning this and sending it back, the ships cooks were ordered to cook it up for the crew's dinner. Any sailor's job a hundred years ago was hard, the pay was appalling, the conditions often brutal and the discipline was ferocious because The Man hadn't been able to think of a better way to make sailors obey orders instantly. The only solace was that the food, if unexciting or even unappetising, was plentiful. But that day on 27th June 1905, the infested gloop was too much and the crew refused to eat it.  A martinet of a First Lieutenant called out and armed the Marines and threatened to shoot anyone who refused the sustenance that His Imperial Majesty Николай Александрович Романов had provided.  Then he did shoot someone and all hell broke loose.  The crew mutinied, killed several of the officers and dumped them over the side and then didn't quite know what to do next so they returned to base at Odessa where a General Strike had been called and was in the process of being repressed. This allowed Sergei Eisenstein Сергей Михайлович Эйзенштейн to imagine the iconic Pram on the Odessa Steps scene in his film of the events. A case could be made that this is the most cited scene in the film-buff's archives.  But you can make you own mind up after you've watched the whole film and ask if it is really any better than Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  After a series of rebuffs in Crimea, the mutineers cruised off to Romania where they scuttled the ship, surrendered to the authorities and obtained political asylum. Meanwhile Machinist Ivan Beshov obtained false papers and legged it to Turkey, sailing round the world before the mast on several different ships until he washed up on the beach in Dublin in 1913.  He found his feet there, changed his name to John Beshoff but not his orthodox religion even after he married a lovely catholic girl from County Tipperary.  They opened a chipper in the centre of Dublin that quickly acquired the reputation of producing the best haddock Melanogrammus aeglefinus and chips Solanum tuberosum in the country.  Their sons and grandsons expanded the business, so that there are now a handful of outlets where you can buy their inimitable battered Dublin Bay Prawns Nephrops norvegicus, as they call scampi in Ireland.  Actually everyone calls it scampi now because it sounds tastier than something that has to fight for breath with the sewage outfall that debouches into the bay.

Иван Бeшов/John Bеshoff had the rare distinction of out-drinking Taoiseach Charles J Haughey and died at the age of 104 in 1987 having achieved the rarer distinction of being the last survivor of the Potemkin Mutiny and indeed of the Russo-Japanese war.

1 comment:

  1. someone asked me recently if the Russianside comes from sailors of the Potemkin, washing up in Cheekpoint. I, of course, immediately referred them to the blob!