"Comedy always works best when it is mean-spirited" - John Cleese

Author John Corby also writes as "Bulldogge" for the British Canadian newspaper.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Who Hung the Monkey?

One of the most bizarre British legends comes from the north east of England. It is a tale of fear, misunderstanding and, for the people of Hartlepool, perhaps their only claim to fame - or shame - depending on how you interpret the story.

During the Napoleonic wars a French ship foundered just off the coast of England near Hartlepool. The citizens of England were naturally very apprehensive about the possibility of a French invasion and watched the shipwreck very intently. A sole survivor was washed ashore; not a French sailor, but the ship's mascot - a monkey. The ship's crew had proudly dressed their mascot in a sailor's uniform.

The local townsfolk seized the monkey and taking it for a French spy, sentenced the unfortunate creature to summary execution by hanging. To this day, people from Hartlepool are often greeted with the derisory greeting: "who hung the monkey?".

Critics of the legend believe it to be untrue. Since Hartlepool is a seaport, they argue, the residents would have met many foreign sailors - including Frenchmen - and would know the difference between a Frenchman and a monkey.

I believe the story may be true but the explanation is less derogatory to the people of Hartlepool than the traditional interpretation. The Napoleonic wars had resulted in mass recruitment to the armies of Great Britain. Many thousands of British soldiers had fallen in European battles in the quest to curb Napoleon's ambition for conquest. Hatred for the French would have been at a level comparable to the hatred for Nazi Germany during the Second World War.

It is quite plausible that the people of Hartlepool knew exactly what they had found on the beach that fateful day and hanged the monkey as a symbol of all the resentment and hatred for the enemy.

So, if you are from Hartlepool, hold your head up high when somebody grins and asks you "who hung the monkey", then tell them why.

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