CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: How did we get up a creek – and without a paddle?

CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: How did we get up a creek – and without a paddle?

July 17, 2020

CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews last night’s TV: So just how did we get up that creek — and without a paddle?

Abandoned Engineering


The Hunt For Cleopatra’s Tomb


The surest way to make me happily waste a morning is to dredge up a bit of old-fashioned slang and make an outrageous claim about its origin.

Historian Dominic Selwood did just that in Abandoned Engineering (Yesterday). The phrase ‘up the creek without a paddle,’ he said, was coined for dying sailors, on their way by boat to the grim wards of the Royal Hospital Haslar, near Portsmouth, which opened in the 1750s and closed in 2009.

Riddled with scurvy, or missing a limb to a cannonball, they lay feverish in the bottom of the dinghy while their mates rowed them up the Haslar creek to the entrance. The patients, of course, were too sick to paddle themselves — and, once inside, they could never escape.

The Royal Hospital Haslar, near Portsmouth, opened in the 1750s and closed in 2009

The Haslar was as secure as any maximum security prison, since so many sailors in Nelson’s day were unwilling victims of the press gangs — kidnapped and forced to serve at sea. For most there was only one way out: in a box. More than 20,000 bodies are believed to be buried in the hospital grounds.

But could that really be the source of the phrase ‘up the creek’? Out come the reference books. The academic Eric Partridge, who acquired his immense vocabulary of fruity swearwords in the Australian Infantry during World War I, agrees it’s a Royal Navy saying: ‘Up the well-known creek with a broken paddle.’

According to a Minnesota professor named John Clark, it dates from the American Civil War and the Salt River Creek in Kentucky, where the Union army had the most heavily defended fort in all the states. Other books suggest it is gay slang that started in the turn-of-the-century music halls.

Schedule filler of the night:

The paint-and-powder beauty contest hosted by Stacey Dooley, Glow Up: Britain’s Next Make-Up Star (BBC2), has been available on iPlayer for more than four months. Hear that noise? It’s the sound of a barrel being scraped.

Only the sailors from the era when Britannia ruled the waves, know for sure — and they’re not telling. The pick-and-mix style of Abandoned Engineering is packed with these asides, details that get the mind working.

Why is the Mediterranean island of Sazan, off the coast of Albania, scattered with children’s gas masks? The country’s Communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, allowed the Soviet navy to use it as a nuclear submarine port in the Seventies, and built an underground town with hospitals and schools for the workforce and their families.

But that doesn’t explain the gas masks. One theory, suggested adventurer Rob Bell, was that the mad Marxist tested chemical weapons here, perhaps 50 miles from the holiday isle of Corfu. There’s an unnerving thought.

More unexpected history was unearthed on The Hunt For Cleopatra’s Tomb (C5). Steering away from the usual Valley of the Kings, Dominican archaeologist Kathleen Martinez started digging on the outskirts of Alexandria, on Egypt’s northern coast. To her frustration, Dr M is permitted to excavate at the ruined palace of Taposiris Magna for only eight weeks a year.

On her last expedition, she discovered a tomb that had lain unopened for 2,000 years, since the time of Queen Cleopatra, last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt. There was no time to investigate — so the team had to cover it up and pray no one else disturbed the crypt till they could return.

The cameras captured Kathleen’s excitement as she finally saw inside the tomb. ‘Oh my gosh,’ she yelled, ‘there are two mummies!’

Despite the gold leaf that wrapped their remains, neither of them was Carry On Cleo herself. But one appeared to be the body of a High Priestess, lending strength to the fascinating theory that the queen who was Julius Caesar’s lover could be interred nearby.

We’ll have to wait at least another year to find out.

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