|Ma Shipton was the acknowledged ugliest woman in Britain. What took her from the obscure cave in Yorkshire to scaring the pants off Henry Vlll in London?|
Old Mother Shipton was the sort of far-sighted harpy you need at your side when you are trying to start a profitable hobby. Or any other money making gambit come to that. My first knowledge of the old girl came just after I arrived in England. I was having a short break in the west country and literally stumbled across what appeared to be a small, overgrown gravestone in a wood. ‘Here lies Old Mother Shipton’ was inscribed on it. Which was a little peculiar because she was born and lived in a place called Dropping Well near Knaresborough in Yorkshire. It is said that she at one time visited the court of Henry Vll to hand out some grim warning about some of his cronies but to the best of recorded knowledge that was the only time she ventured out of Yorkshire. Apparently she finally snuffed it in a cave close by her place of birth.
Her real name was Ursula Southiel. It is said that she was so ugly that when she married a handsome young builder, Tobias Shipton, around 1505 it was taken as proof that she was a witch. Nobody who wasn’t bewitched would married the aesthetically challenged woman it was claimed. She even had a baby son. It seems that this unfortunate off-spring was attributed to the Devil as he favoured his mother rather than her husband. Then Tobias kicked the bucket and Old Mother Shipton was on the back foot. She took up residence in a nearby cave and, presumably figuring that if she was going to end up on the bonfire anyway she might as well go the whole hog, started to make ominous predictions. Like giving the end of the world a definite date. 1881! This didn’t cause a lot of problem while she was alive and predicting but when the turn of the 18th century came along her warning was remembered and caused widespread panic. She is also crediting with foretelling the suppression of the monasteries and the execution of Mary, Queens of Scots. She made a prediction a day for most of her life and referred to flying machines and carts without horses. Dragon’s tails blazing across the sky, flooding, earthquakes – you name it . Which was by no means unique. Over in St Remy in Provence Nostradamus was doing the same sort of act. Man flying and riding in horseless carriages was small beer to him. His long suit was sooth-saying at long range . He told about Princess Di’s unhappy demise, the tragedy of 9/11, Kennedy’s date with destiny in Dallas and the rise and fall of Hitler.
Of course looking back at what has been predicted usually makes the predictor look a right Charlie although some thinkers do have a knack of getting some things right. H.G. Wells for instance. He more or less got WW 2 right. Datewise at least. He also saw it as a chance for the RAF to do its stuff. Then he blew it a bit by going on to say that the Aviators would become demigods and save the world from itself. HG also prophesied the world would end, not with a whimper but with a bang. A nuclear bang! The one invention that virtually wrong footed all the predictions of the future made before the nineteen sixties was the computer. Basically it had been around in some form or another for thousands of years.
The Chinese were able to do complicated arithmetic using the the Abacus, a system of beads of differing value, 5,000 years go. Charles Babbage is now regarded as the father of modern computers around 1885 although for many years his work was overlooked while other inventors built barn sized machines capable of little more than addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Not exactly a giant leap forward formankind since the Abacus reigned supreme in the field. The idea of being able to refine a computer to the size of a large pantechnicon seemed just a dream of the science fiction variety until the invention of the transistor in 1948. Suddenly you could fit a computer into a suitcase. As the transistor became the micro chip the computer shrank to a handy pocket size. Still limited in capacity but it had opened what was virtually a Stargate and gave birth to the modern computer. The capabilities of the computer and its off-spring the Internet has transformed the world. For the moment. The world has been transformed before and then gone on to newer and greater inventions. When fire was first tamed the cavemen probably crowded around and warmed the tender parts of their bodies while ugg-ing on about how the world couldn’t get any better. Then the wheel cropped up and that became the talking point of the moment. Writing was a major transformation and underwrote everything that came after its invention. Not much happened in the world until James Watt successfully harnessed the power of steam in the middle of the eighteenth century and single handedly goosed the Industrial Age into being.
The industrial age was supposed to usher in a Utopian life when the burden of work would be lifted from the shoulders of the working man and performed by machines. Predictions that Robots would soon be doing everything that man shunned were rife. In many ways the steam engine devalued the labourer. Before steam a labourer could usually find work of some sort even if he had to become an itinerant to do so. The giant steam engines which were used in factories demanded slaves and the burden fell on the poorer members of society. But in the long run , the long, long run, the steam engine and its successor as a man made work horse, the Internal Combustion Engine, was bent to the will of the operators until, in the present day, there is hardly a job that isn’t in some way mechanised. So when the seers of the future tossed their hat into the ring what they had to say was based on the belief that mechanical devices represented the future. H.G. Wells and others scifi writers at the turn of the century were predicting that life-like Robots would be taking the stress out of toil within a few years. Of course the thought that these mechanical men could have a brain was restricted to some sort of mechanical device. With the micro-chip the idea of a self aware android and the terrifying consequences of un-human thought was once again high on the agenda.
And where would we be if John Logie Baird hadn’t put his seal on television? He may not have been the first in the field but his metaphorical kick launched 400,000,000 TV sets around the world. But for every half right prediction there were hundreds that didn’t make it. End of the world scenarios, from the extinction of the human race to the chain reaction of the nuclear bomb that would burn up the atmosphere and leave earth a scorched cinder spinning endlessly through space, were rife. Even in the sixties there were plenty of people backing the idea that man would never, ever, get to the moon. And there are still those who don’t believe it. It was all a hoax orchestrated by NASA to account for the billions of dollars they had wasted before coming to the conclusion that space exploration is a restricted option. A successfully foretold device was the video phone. Dick Tracy was using one fifty years ago.Another innovation that has roots in the fictional past is the Tunnel connecting England with France. This has been suggested on several occasions and a start was made on it when Napoleon Bonaparte was larding it on the continent. Flying goes back to the ancients Greeks when the idea of wings on shoes or strapped on the back were all the rage.. By the beginning of the twentieth century the exploits of the Wright Brothers had shown that while flight was possible if was going to be a balancing act that could only be serviced by mechanical means. That didn’t necessarily scotch the ambitions of the believers in some sort of ornithological device strapped to the body. Not even the scientifically proved case that a man wasn’t inherently strong enough to flap wings capable of bearing his weight has been enough to alter the mind set of the enthusiasts. They point to the humble bumble bee. Theoretically, they claim, its wings are not big enough to support its body in flight. The nearest man has got to self propulsion is peddling a bike with wings across the English Channel. Mechanically the idea of strapping on a propulsion unit like a back pack and zooming off to the office is possible. But not probable in the near future. James Bond managed to do it. And he also had a car that at the touch of a button turn into a car with submarine capabilities. But the odds of this mode of transport ever becoming common are fairly long.
With Britney Spears hitting the headlines recently with the instant marriage and divorce we may be moving into a new era. A time when babies arrive that easily as well. Forget the messy business of contraception, the stricture of the gestation period and the birth itself. just nip down to the local super market, pop a coin in the slot and – instant babies. Death rays have been around for a long time. Flash Gordon’s cardboard space ship was always being hit by them. Dick Barton had a nasty moment or two up the Blackpool Tower when a dastardly German was doing his bit to establish a master race. Now you get a surprise if a film shot about events further in the future than next week don’t have at least one. If I had to stick my neck out for something that is a story standard for the present about the future I would put my chips on Teleportation. The old ‘Beam me up Scottie’ scenario. The egg-heads say that it will not be possible. The human body is too complex to be able to survive being atomised, sent through space on a carrier wave and reassembled successfully at the far end. A hundred years ago nobody would believe that you could send a moving picture out into the ether and capture it on a screen in the corner of everyone’s living room all over the world. Planes that could fly non-stop across the Atlantic with 400 passengers aboard couldn’t even be conceived. And the idea of the internet – even H.G Wells didn’t think of that.
I sometimes wonder what Old Mother Shipton would think of it all.
Model Mart February 2004