And then there were 196 …

coverNations, that is. The latest, South Sudan, is not even a month old, having officially been ‘born’ on 9 July 2011.

It is undeniably trivial, but, as a librarian, one of my first thoughts was of the atlases that now need updating.

I have always liked maps – an interest no doubt fostered by the year I spent at intermediate school sitting facing a wall-size map of Africa. While the teacher droned on, I’d listen with half an ear, while my mind would take off on flights of fancy, flitting from the mosques of mysterious Timbuktu to the markets of Zanzibar.

I’d follow the path of the Nile from its source at the centre of the continent, near that tantalising line that signalled the Equator, past the pyramids in Cairo to Damietta and Rosetta where the mighty river fans out to meet the Mediterranean Sea. And I’d wonder at the bravery of those first explorers who, prior to the opening of the Suez Canal, ventured to circumnavigate Africa to reach the fabulous Spice Islands.

It’s difficult to fathom the many ways in which Africa and the world have changed in the twenty or so years since I sat daydreaming in front of that map. And I’m not thinking only in terms of political changes of borders and placenames. As we have recently been reminded, the earth is constantly transforming itself: mountains rise, sea levels fluctate high and low, and rocks crumble. 

Casey, the almost man

Image from our collection

At first glance, this is just another pleasant scene of historical interest, at the A&P Show in 1910. You can look at the clothes and the expressions of the people; you can marvel at the beards and hats – you can even wonder what people were looking at on the left.

Then, if you’re like me, you look to the back of the picture and see the sign for Casey, the almost man. What the? A genuine sideshow?  Diving into Papers Past, I find that The Grey River Argus described Casey in 1911 as ‘the wonder of the age’. Were they overdoing it? Possibly; but Casey’s talents were more highly evolved than ‘almost-man’ suggests.

He played the mouth organ and the piano, swung his right like a prize fighter, and even toasted the audience’s health. As a finale, the Argus reported, he shook hands with spectators in a way that ‘makes one think he belongs to some Masonic lodge or secret society‘.

The paper’s review concludes with the line that audience members left freely expressing the opinion that:

never before in the history of Greymouth has such a marvellous and interesting entertainment been placed before the West Coast public.

Whew. High praise. Read more about Casey, the almost man, in Papers Past. And ponder this: What would today’s equivalent be?