Herrings, indeed!

THERE is nothing more reprehensible than to undermine a person's faith. True, if he believes that cocaine would make him happy, it is worth disillusioning him, but in the normal run of things, when a man's beliefs harm no one, it is cruel to cast doubts upon them. I am therefore thoroughly surprised that my old friend Arthur Marshall, the kindest of men, should have chosen to reveal in an article for the London Sunday Telegraph that Nell Gwyn was not selling oranges when she caught King Charles II's roving eye, but herrings. From what source he culled this information I know not, but he stated this reputed fact (along with some other less disturbing ones such as that Bette Davis's mother liked to be called Fred) with authority, thereby rocking the foundations of history.

It seems that nothing is sacred. For some years now it has been the fashion to pull down the great, to insist on our heroes and heroines having feet of clay. Apparently, insidious doubts about the authenticity of our national legends is to be the order of the day, and a creeping mistrust allowed to worm its way into our heritage.

Skepticism is very infectious and I fear that Arthur's ludicrous suggestion that Nell was a fishwife may be followed by equally preposterous suppositions. Already I am beginning to wonder if Sir Walter Raleigh really laid his cloak across a puddle for Queen Elizabeth to tread on.

Considering the normal English puddle, it would have been of small use and her royal foot would have been no drier than before he made this famous gesture. Yes. One wonders. For neither the Queen nor Sir Walter was a fool and surely she would have cried, ``No, Walter! Stop! It's a nice piece of velvet - a pity to spoil it - and anyway if you give me a hand, I'm sure I can jump!''

So now doubts loom in every direction and one awaits the advent of some other disloyal scrivener who will say that King Alfred could not have burnt the cakes as cake mixes had not yet been invented; or that Flora Macdonald was a man; or that Charles II could not possibly have climbed into an oak tree to hide from his pursuers as he had two wooden legs; or that as a matter of fact Queen Victoria was amused by absolutely everything; or that Grace Darling did not row out in a hurricane to rescue ship-wrecked mariners off the coast of Northumberland as she happened to be in Perth at the time, visiting an aunt.

The late Henry Ford said ``history is bunk'' and heaven knows these past three decades have brought debunking to a fine art, no tale of derring-do, no noble sentiment, no act of self-sacrifice being allowed to appear on the scene unchallenged, but if possible torn down and rolled in the mud.

Nowadays nobody is above suspicion, and I am dismayed to find my old friend adding to the general cynicism by circulating such a palpable lie about Nell Gwyn. Herrings, indeed!

Whence did he get that silly idea? Everybody knows the girl worked in Covent Garden and Covent Garden was a fruit and vegetable market. Had she been strolling through Billingsgate, which is a fish market, then there might be some justification for this arrant nonsense, but anyone of the meanest intelligence can see this is a wheeze to denigrate history even further.

No. Nell Gwyn was pouting and pretty, with a sort of mobcap on her curls, and wearing a cloth skirt and a velvet bodice over a very d'ecollet'e blouse, and carrying a basket of oranges on her hip. This is final. This is history.

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