Monday, August 20, 2012

Lunedi Lunacy

Catherine Tate's Laureen always gives me a chuckle and no more so than when she's caught being less than cool:

August 20 - 1882: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture debuts in Moscow.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Eid Mubarak

For all my friends who have been observing Ramadan which ends today I give you this wish:

But this wish has no boundaries and I wish it for all my friends and loved ones.

16 August - 1812:  War of 1812: American General William Hull surrenders Fort Detroit without a fight to the British Army.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

This, That and the Other Thing

Google Doodles

We've all seen them - actually over a hundred million people see them every day - and they've reminded us of events, commemorations and celebrations. But what's or rather who's behind those zippy GOOGLE logos that are often enchanting, frequently amusing and on the odd occasion a bit puzzling? The BBC Magazine has an informative item on the team that creates these "doodles" that make browsing fun.

A right click on the everyday - some would say dull - Google Doodle will take you to the BBC posting.

Bon Appetit

And today's Google Doodle reminded us that Julia Child, that icon of the kitchen, was born 100 years ago today.  Back in the 1980s Saturday morning in our house meant A Small City Garden with Thalassa Cruso and The French Chief with Julia Child.  It was a dialect comedians dream - Cruso's stiff-jawed English-accented delivery as she flung plants and dirt around"making things grow" and Child's wheezy plummy tones as she flung food and pots around the kitchen.  But in both cases behind those slightly eccentric personas lurked a love and knowledge of their chosen fields that has yet to be equalled.

One of my favorite Cruso moments was when she discovered a slug in a pot.  'Ha! There's the little brute,'' she  exclaimed as she flicked the invading slug onto her worktable. Cautioning squeamish viewers to avert their eyes, she raised a flowerpot on high. The pot came crashing down, and the slug was no more. WGBH, which produced the program, was inundated with delighted mail from the "unsqeamish".

Child was equally known for her highly unconventional approach to cookery.  I still recall an episode where a hunk of roast beef - I believe it was - and Julia picked it up, wiped it off and looking at the camera, without a flicker of amusement, said: There are certain things your guests need never know about!  And the famous SNL skit with Dan Ackroyd was actually based on an episode in 1978 when Julia and Jacques Pepin were taping an appearance of Tomorrow with Tom Snyder.  About 10 minutes before taping began Julia sliced a chunk out of her finger.  Jacques wrapped the wound with a kitchen towel and Julia asked that nothing be mentioned about the incident on air.  But Snyder couldn't resist and it was brought up including a close up of her bound finger.

The first episode of The French Chef remains a classic - in a brief 28 minutes Julia Child shows us how to make Boeuf Bourguignon along with how to properly brown meat, braise onions and wash mushroom.   And as with anything she does it has a certain improvisational air that belies the artistry behind the facade.

I think I'm going to try this time tried recipe - there was a time when we all, at Julia's urging, served it for a "company" dinner.   Bon Appetit!

"Care Bear" of the Arts

And another 100th birthday was celebrated yesterday in Toronto and the celebrant was very much present.  I don't recall when I first saw Walter Carsen's name on the programme as the donor of a production or facility at the Shaw Festival or the National Ballet of Canada but I recall wondering where this generous sponsor had suddenly appeared from.  Apparently Mr Carsen, a self-made millionaire, had been giving anonymously for many years to various arts organizations but when the recession hit and funding began to dry up he decided to make his name public to encourage other wealthy people to “get off their rear ends” and give.  That sort of statement is characteristic of a man who's philanthropy has extended beyond the arts to include social programmes in his adopted country.

 Walter Carsen, who turned 100 on Tuesday, with Karen Kain, former Prima Ballerina
and now artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada.

Both the Toronto Star and the National Post tell the story of the man behind the philanthropy.  And last evening his friends in the Arts celebrate his birthday along with his son, the renowned opera and theatre director Robert Carsen, and daughter at the Centre he so generous gave to the National Ballet as its home base.  In a lovely touch those same friends set up an e-mail link so that people like myself could send birthday wishes to the man who has, through his gifts, given us so much pleasure.

To Walter Carsen, many thanks for what you have given to the arts and to this country that you love so much.  In Poland for birthdays we use to sing "Sto Lat" which translates as "May you live a hundred years".   You have done that sir, and have made us richer for your being with us this past hundred years.

15 august - 1040: King Duncan I is killed in battle against his first cousin and rival Macbeth. The latter succeeds him as King of Scotland.
1057: King Macbeth is killed at the Battle of Lumphanan by the forces of Máel Coluim mac Donnchada.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Reading Romanovs

Or more specifically reading histories of three of the Romanovs as set out by Robert Massie.  I tend to do when heading to a new place of major interest I go on a reading marathon so for the St Petersburg visit I turned to one of the more unorthodox historical writers, Robert K. Massie.  Massie's style is a trifle baroque and loaded - some have thought overloaded - with details of recorded events, historical documents and often intriguingly gossipy tidbits that make his subjects come alive.

Though the Catherine Palace was named after Peter the Great's second wife  the stamp of Catherine II is all over it.  This beautifully dressed mannequin in one of the palace rooms is clothed to resemble the Empress as she appears in the painting that dominates the room - the one difference is that the entire ensemble is made of paper!

I sometimes do things a bit backward and it was the case of putting several Imperial carts before a few Regal horses when reading about the Romanov clan. I started with Massie's most recent book devoted to the Empress Catherine II - or Kate the Great as she was known in private circles. And Massie lets us in on her private circles more than most writers; he reveals the complex character of the Princess from a minor German family who became both famous and infamous in her time and on down to ours.  He dispels many of the myths surrounding her, particularly the stories of her voracious sex drive - stories that may well have been the result of her less than amiable relationship with her son Peter as well as her break with many of the philosophies of the Enlightenment that she had espoused in the initial years of her reign.  One story that is total discredited is the famous Potemkin villages myth - now acknowledged as an attempt to malign her favourite (and possibly her husband) Grigory Potemkin.  Massie sub-titles his book Portrait of a Woman and he gives us exactly that: a complex provocative and captivating woman who still fascinates 300 years after her death.

Dominating the centre of St Petersburg The Bronze Horseman is Catherine the Great's
homage to her predecessor Peter. A triumph of bronze casting it is a marvellously subtle
piece of propaganda meant to establish her legitimacy as a Romanov.  French sculptor
Etienne Maurice Falconet showed the Tsar as a Roman Emperor - the Great Reformer
fearlessly leading Russia forward.  
This contemporary statue of Peter the Great in the Peter and Paul Fortress
is by the Russian sculptor Mikhail Shemiakin and has caused much
controversy in the past decade. Shemiakin expressed the desire to show
the "alter ego" of a great reformer who was also a cruel and ruthless man.

Massie's earlier work - in both the writing and the ruler viewed - is the story of the equally complex Peter the Great.  Peter was a man and ruler who, perhaps more than anyone of his time, revealed the struggle between the old and the new.  Curious, enlightened, progressive, loyal to his friends and deeply in love with his second wife Catherine, he was also cruel, unbending and confirmed in the belief of the autocracy of the Tsar.  Peter, as revealed by Massie, was a man both fascinating and dangerous to be around. The chapter on the arrest, imprisonment, torture and beating to death of Alexei, his son by his first unloved wife, is particularly chilling and we are spared none of the dreaful details of the fillicide of the gentle Tsarevich.  Though a long haul at over 900 pages Massie's style and eye for  unusual details make it highly readible and again he is true to his sub-title - we are told the story of the life of  Pyotr Alexeyevich Romanov but also fo the World around him.

As with the stories of the two people most associated with St Petersburg when it came to reading Massie's two books on the last of the Romanov Tsars and his family I did things the wrong way around and frankly wish I hadn't.  The Romanovs - the Final Chapter outlines the horrible deaths of Nicholas, Alexandra, their five children and faithful attendants.  Equally as horribly it tells of the in-fighting by both relations and historical anthropologists over what remained of their bodies after shooting, bayonetting, kicking, sulfuric acid, fire and burial in swampy land.  The pure cold-hearted nature of so much of it is almost as stomach turning as their assasination itself.  The in-fighting continued until just recently when the remains of Nicholas, Alexandria, three of the Grand Duchesses, Doctor Botkin and three retainers were finally laid to rest in 1979 in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in the fortress of that name in St Petersburg.  A recent discovery and DNA testing has confirmed the finding of the remains of Tsarvich Alexi and his sister Maria.  There are plans to have them interred with their family in the traditional burial place of the Romanovs within the next year.  In the meantime the entire family has been deemed saints and "passion bearers" by the Orthodox church both inside and outside Russia - though their canonization was hotly debated by many theologians who perhaps with a less than Christ-like forgiveness railed against Nicholas for the fall of the monarchy and the church.  Nevertheless most churches in Russia now have an icon written to depict the family as Saints of the church.  And many of the churches outside Russia have followed suit - the most beautiful I saw was at the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallin.  Though I would have very much liked to have a photograph of it, cameras were forbidden in the Cathedral and there were no postcards available as the icon was a recent one.

I find that having read The Final Chapter has coloured my reading of Massie's first popular history - Nicholas and Alexandra.  When it was  published in 1967 the author was accused of being both a romanticist of and apologist for a weak monarch and his wife; the movie adaptation in 1971 did little to dispell that image. Of course most people picking up the book would have some knowledge of the deaths of the Tsar and his family but having read the full horror has, for me at least, put a slant on things that allows me to give Nicholas and Alexandra, and Massie, some benefit of the doubt.  Born of personal experience Massie writes with  authority on the trials of parents of a hemophiliac - his son Bob Massie, the American priest, politician and social activist was born with severe classic hemophilia.  Does it colour his view of the Tsar and his wife - it could not be otherwise but it also gives their story a more human edge.  They hid the Tsarvich's condition from the world and you have to wonder how it could have been handled differently - do you tell the people that their future Tsar has a disabilitating and ultimately (at the time) fatal disease?  Along comes a man (Rasputin) who through some power seems to stop the horrible suffering of a child and brings some peace of mind to sleepless nights - do you accept him, warts and all, for the good he can do you and your beloved child or reject him?  All interesting questions which Massie posses and has left at least this reader wondering.  

The Last of the Romanovs - Nicholas and Alexandra (centre) surrounded by their children the Tsarvich Alexis and left to right, Anastasia, Olga, Tatyana and Maria.

In his 1999 introduction to the reissue of Nicholas and Alexandra Massie writes:
Today, at the beginning of a new century, discussion fades away over the institution of autocracy and the political mistakes of the last Tsar, while horror and compassion remain fresh over the manner in which Nicholas and his family were killed.  During the months before they died, this husband, wife and five children behaved with exceptional courage and dignity.  In the end, this is what has redeemed them in national and historical memory.
Robert K. Massie
Nicholas and Alexandra
Ballyntane Books - September 1999

The Last of the Romanovs have finally found rest with their ancestors in the Catherine Chapel of the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul at the Peter and Paul Fortress.  Buried along with them are Alouzy Tropp, the Tzar's valet; Eugene Botkin, the royal physician; Ivan Kharitonov, a cook; Anna Demidova, a lady-in-waiting who stayed with the family and were assassinated with them. The chapel has been left unfinished awaiting the internment of the Tsarvich Alexis and his sister Maria the last two family members to be identified.  Buried along with

14 August - 1888: An audio recording of Arthur Sullivan's "The Lost Chord", one of the first recordings of music ever made, is played during a press conference introducing Thomas Edison's phonograph in London, England.

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Monday, August 13, 2012

Lunedi Lunacy

To celebrate the close of the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee here's a little something in G Major by the Mini Horn section!

Many thanks to my old friend Charlie who sent me this.

13 August - 1521: Tenochtitlán (present day Mexico City) falls to conquistador Hernán Cortés.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Lunedi Lunacy

Yes I know it Friday but this one is just too good to pass up. And in honour of my niece's visit.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Celebrate with A Biscuit

Last weekend at a pool party to celebrated the Diamond Jubilee - we dined on Tilley Tutt's famous Royal Burgers and Regal Dogs - I was reminded of one of the ways these events were commemorated in younger and simpler days.  Purveyors of fine biscuits (and sometimes cakes and teas) would have tins designed to entice you to display not only your good taste in tea time treats but your loyalty to Queen (King), Commonwealth and Dominion.

Gray Dunn was a Scottish biscuit maker with a factory in Glasgow and were known for their commemorative biscuit tins.  I haven't been able to find out much more about them - other than they don't appear to exist any longer.  It would appear that their goods wereimported into Canada and this particular tin geared to the local market for the Royal Tour of 1959.
A Royal visit, birth or wedding would bring forth a special edition of their standard pressed tin containers adorned with patriotic symbols,  flying flags, royal portraits and even photos copied from the newspapers.  I recall my mother having several of these tins from various Royal occasions the prize being a Coronation Tea Caddie which stood proudly on the top of our old Norge Frigidaire holding not a trace of tea leaf but acting as a catch-all for rubber bands, string and spools of thread.  It disappeared in the move from the house to her apartment - I wish I knew where it was now.

The St Lawrence Seaway, allowing clear passage from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes, was proposed in the 1890s but met with resistance from the U.S. Congress and Provincial governments in several instances.  It was only when Canada threatened to go it alone that concerns over American Sovereignty led to the forming of the joint project in 1954.  It was finally opened in June of 1959.

One of last week's guests brought Gateau La Reine Elizabeth* (story and recipe here) but rather than simply wrapping the tasty morsels of this quintessentially Canadian and terribly regal cake in saran wrap she conveyed it in two paper-doily lined tins. The larger of the two commemorated the Silver Jubilee in 1977 but the one that caught my fancy was issued to celebrate a very important Canadian event - the day in June of 1959 when Queen Elizabeth and Dwight D Eisenhower declared the St Lawrence Seaway well and truly open by sailing from St Lambert, Quebec to the Eisenhower Lock in Massena, New York on the Royal Yacht Britannia. 

The Royal Tour in 1959 was a coast to coast event and the Queen and Prince Philip visited every province and territory.  There were additional stops in Chicago and Washington on a visit to the United States as "Queen of Canada".  It is rumoured that Queen Elizabeth, then in the first few months of her pregnancy with her third child, was suffering from bad bouts of morning sickness - but she still managed to carry out all her duties with her normal grace.  When the pregnancy was revealed upon her return to England,  Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was roundly criticized for setting up such a gruelling schedule.  Though there were many things that Dief the Chief could be held accountable for to do him justice he had suggested cutting the Tour short but the Queen refused his offer outright.

The Seaway was both a source of pride and a major bone of contention for many Canadians.  It was much needed as a means of opening the Great Lakes to sea going vessels and as a source of hydro electricity for both Ontario and Up-State New York but much reviled as an environmental and cultural evil.  As early as the 1890s the need for a system of locks and canals to avoid the rapids of the St Lawrence were proposed but sovereignty issues, pressure from the governments of Quebec and Ontario and lobby groups for the railways and ports in the US kept things on the hob for over 75 years.  It was not until 1954, when an uneasy agreement was reached and a joint venture agreed upon,  that work started on the largest system (4000 kms - 2,500 miles) of locks, canals and channels in the world.

While many supported the creation of the Seaway other groups expressed concern over the impact of ocean going vessels on the ecosystem of the Great Lakes - a concern that given the introduction of zebra mussels has some validity - but for a small group the building of the Seaway had a more immediate, personal and heartbreaking impact.  The Canadian government expropriated land along the Ontario waterfront and  6500 people were relocated from their small villages, farms and family homesteads to allow the creation of Lake Lawrence and a deeper channel for the seaway.  Ten communities disappeared under water while buildings in the towns of Morrisburg and Iroquois were relocated and the land inundated by the waters from the dam.  The Lost Villages have been the subject of documentaries, books and to this day bitter controversy - but as one old timer was quoted as saying, in those days if the government said move you moved, there were no protest groups to hold things up.

But on that day in 1959 what was being celebrated was our Queen, our National pride in a major accomplishment and our relations with our big neighbour to the South.  And what the good people at Grey Dunn gave us was a memento of that achievement and that visit - and some very tasty tea time treats to celebrate them with.

*There are many urban legends surrounding this popular Canadian pastry but the one that is most oft repeated links it with Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, and the World War II.  The Queen was very popular in Canada and a rallying point for much of the war effort - if the Queen can roll bandages during an air raid surely you in the safety of your home can do no less?  The cake was named after her and recipes where sold for 15 cents a copy as a fund raiser.  It soon began appearing in cook books and in "ladies" magazines - both French and English - during the 1940s.  It reappeared in 1953 just in time for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and has remained a favourite in town and country since then.

07 August - 1679: The brigantine Le Griffon, commissioned by René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, is towed to the south-eastern end of the Niagara River, to become the first ship to sail the upper Great Lakes of North America.
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Monday, August 06, 2012

Lunedi Lunacy

I don't normally find the "Candid Camera" format all that funny but this one disproves - though I already knew it - that Germans have no sense of humour.

Just wish I knew what those two ladies at the end were saying.

Thanks to my friend Carole for this one.

06 August - 1926: Gertrude Ederle becomes the first woman to swim across the English Channel.