Monday, January 19, 2015

Lunedi Lunacy

Offered without comment:

January 19 - 1915: Georges Claude patents the neon discharge tube for use in advertising.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Mercoledi Musicale

Grimaldi as clown in the pantomine Harlequin &
Frair Bacon at Covent Garden in December 1820
as captured by Issac Robert Cruickshank.
Museum of the City of London
Last week I wrote about the great clown and namesake of every clown in the world: Joseph "Joey" Grimaldi. His story is a fascinating if sad one of a child performer who grew to become a major star of his era but ended, if not forgotten, certainly neglected.  It's recorded that at his final benefit on 27 June 1828 he aroused himself from his sick bed - he was in constant pain from injuries incurred during a childhood and later life of performing his famous tricks - and entertained an audience of 2000 who had waited for hours to gain entrance to Drury Lane.  He lived another nine years - the last few alone (his wife and son had both died), in penury and prone to alcoholism.

But if his life was an example of the sad clown, on stage he was a remarkable entertainer who could quell even the toughest audience - and audiences of the time were tough!  And nothing pleased his audience more than when he stood centre stage and told the tale of the little old lady who sold her codlins (baked apples) in the streets of London. 

Hot Codlins - a watercolour from 1827 by
Charles Cooper Henderson.
Museum of the City of London
Peddlers plied their wares on the streets of every major European city.   Though shops abounded the streets of London were filled with the cries of men, women and children hawking food stuffs of every kind - produce, game, meat, cooked food, sweet snacks and there were even nutmeg grinders.  Milkmaids would sell you milk right from the cow that they lead into the square by your house; should you be lactose intolerant (yes they knew what it was) there was asses' milk readily available with the beast trotted up to your door step.   Vegetables, herbs and fruit were carried through the streets in baskets balanced on the heads of the sellers. And Grimaldi's little old lady would have transported her brazier and codlings much after the fashion of the woman in the drawing at the left. Indeed many of Grimaldi's audience may well have bought one of her apples, hot, hot, hot to have as a snack during the performance or as a missal for a less than appreciated artiste.

When Grimaldi sang his little ditty the only thing the audience ever threw was the last word of each verse.  Here's the only version I could find of the original sung by, appropriately, The Grimaldi Band.

January 14 - 1933: The controversial "Bodyline" cricket tactics used by Douglas Jardine's England peak when Australian captain Bill Woodfull is hit over the heart.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Lunedi Lunacy

After a week off - work, winter and indolence - from posting I thought I'd start Monday off with a lesson in astronomy.

Thanks to Wendy - who was following the directions: second star to the right, and straight on till morning.

January 12 - 1808:  John Rennie's scheme to defend St Mary's Church, Reculver, founded in 669, from coastal erosion was abandoned in favour of demolition, despite the church being an exemplar of Anglo-Saxon architecture and sculpture.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

A Winter's Tale 2015

After a mild Christmas it has turned cold, the snows have arrived, the streets are icy and the winds bitter: all reminding me that it is winter.  And reminding me that the chill of a dark windy night and the chill of a fright will make you draw closer to a fire on a cold winter's eve. 
Now I remember those old women's words,
Who in my wealth wud tell me winter's tales,
And speake of spirits and ghosts that glide by night

Barabas - Act II
The Jew of Malta - 1589
Christopher Marlowe
The tradition of a winter's tale is older than Marlowe's Barabas: it's known that bards, elders, seanchaithe and, as the Jew of Malta tells us, old women spoke of spirits and ghosts gliding in the night since the first marking of the winter solstice.  Continuing the custom writers from Victorian times to our own have delighted in chilling and thrilling us with ghosts stories to be told in the dark hours of Christmastide.

Based on a watercolour by John Masey Wright this engraving from 1814 records an unusual Christmas
Frolic. A young lad has set the company at a Christmastide diner affright with his mannequin ghost. 
Perhaps someone was tell a tale of spirits and ghosts gliding in the night when the apparition appeared?
Charles Dickens is perhaps the most well-known or oft-read of those who wrote Christmas Ghost stories though he was far from being the only author of the era to pen winter's tales. Arthur Conan Doyle, Edith Nesbitt, Elizabeth Gaskell, Rudyard Kipling and H. G. Wells all wrote ghost stories that were put in the shadows, as it were, by their more famous works.  The Turn of the Screw,  Henry James' most famous ghost story begins with the telling of tales around the fire on Christmas Eve.

I'm almost convinced that this is how James must
have looked as students and colleagues gathered
around his fireside to hear his Christmas ghost story.
In the first half of the twentieth century the acknowledged masters of the genre were E. F. Benson and M. R. James.   Benson is best known today for his marvelous Mapp and Lucia books but at the time was high regarded for his atmospheric, oblique, and at times humorous or satirical ghost stories.

James was an academic and served terms as Provost at both King's College and Eton and was a renowned medieval scholar - a knowledge that he used in his stories.  Many of his stories were told in his rooms at King's and Eton as gatherings around his fireside were popular with students and colleagues alike particularly at Christmastide.  He has been recognized as the premiere writer of ghost stories of the time and as possibly the "the best ghost-story writer England has ever produced".   Mystery writer Ruth Randall was an ardent admirer and confessed, "There are some authors one wished one had never read in order to have the joy of reading them for the first time. For me, M. R. James is one of these."

I can only voice a poor second to Randall's observation, having only discovered James last year and that by way of one of the films in the BBC's  A Ghost Story for Christmas series.   Of the twelve films in this sadly irregular series nine have been based on stories by James.  After last year's atmospheric and chilling (I looked at it again this week and actually jumped at one point) The Stalls of Barchester  which was the first (1971) in the series this year's tale for a winter night is the most recent (2013) another James story:  The Tractate Middoth.

All of James's stories may be found at Project Gutenburg - they are a great read at Christmas or any other time of the year for that matter.   Gutenburg also has links to audio recordings of most of the tales: they are after all meant to be read aloud by the fireside with a candle illuminating the reader and lengthening the shadows in the room as a cold wind whistles through the barren trees.

January 4 - 1958: Sputnik 1 falls to Earth from orbit.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

A Sweep Is As Lucky, As Lucky Can Be

One afternoon in 1999 I found myself on a rooftop on Ulica Fabryczna in Warsaw nervously wondering if I should really follow my translator Robert, our photographer Andrew and the Chimney Sweep we were interviewing out onto the slanting terra cotta tiles.  Common sense prevailed and I stood on a rickety ladder with my head popping out of the trap door feeding Robert questions as he and the Sweep clambered around the chimney pots and Andrew snapped away.  The whole purpose of the exercise was an photo essay for the newspaper I worked for on the chimney sweeps who were still very actively employed in Warsaw.

My last question to the Sweep would strike most North Americans as odd but I had to ask:  May I touch your sleeve? The Sweep smiled and nodded.  I touched his sleeve, made a wish and if tradition was to be believed luck was now on my side and my wish would be fulfilled.

The idea that chimney sweeps are the agents of good fortune is an old believe in Poland, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Croatia.  The sweeps still wear the traditional black coat with silvery buttons, black trousers, and top hat and the superstition holds that it is good luck to touch them, wiping a fingertip across their sooty sleeves, or, if only seeing them from a distance, to touch a button on your person and make a wish.  There is one suggestion that the ritual when you see a chimney sweep is to grab another person's button and wait until you see someone wearing glasses, than make a wish.  Sounds like a modernization and just a little too complicated .

For the past 15 years our little straw Sweep has been at the foot of our tree or perched on the buffet or
 mantel.  Every New Year's Eve we touch his sleeve and make a wish for good luck in the coming year.
In Germany and Austria meeting a chimney sweep on New Year's Day meant good luck for the year.  As an encounter could not be guaranteed it became a tradition to give family and friends cards figured with little sweeps and to attach miniatures to gifts of flowers or sweets at New Years as a symbol of good luck for the coming year.  These bringers of good fortune often distributed four leaf clovers and in some instances the deadly red and white Amanita muscaria mushroom.   Again this can be puzzling to a North American - sure the four-leaf clover we understand but a toxic mushroom????  In German the red and white spotted fungus is known as der glückspilz (lucky mushroom) and has long been deemed fortuitous in Central and Eastern Europe, where there are remnants of respect for its ancient use as a shamanic hallucinogen.  They have long been a symbol of Christmas and colourful blown-glass mushrooms are found adorning Christmas trees throughout Germany and Austria (hmm an idea for next year's ornament?)

Our little Austrian lead Sweep may have forgotten his four leaf clover but a little bird
has one to assist him in making the New Year one of good fortune and good luck.
And hidden down in the grass is another symbol: a tiny glückspilz (lucky mushroom).
In our household we have our straw Polish chimney sweep with his sooty black uniform and silver buttons to be touched in the first minutes of the New Year.  We also have a small painted Austrian sweep with a four-leaf clover, a tiny magic mushrooms hides in the grass and he wear a scarf of red dotted with white.  All the talismans needed for good luck in the coming year.

January 1 - 1600: Scotland begins its numbered year on January 1 instead of March 25.