Born Corrupt

Every American child learns about the turning point of the Revolutionary War. On this day in 1778 Baron von Steuben arrived in Valley Forge. He is the well dressed officer brandishing his sword at the raggedy line of volunteers in the famous painting by E.A.Abbey. The story goes along the lines that the Continental army was defeated and broken by the British. They moved to winter quarters in Valley Forge where they were drilled by von Steuben. The renewed and re-invigorated army emerged and went on to defeat the British and win Independence for the U.S.A.

What is less well known is von Steuben’s role as an administrator, in particular as a quartermaster general. What he found was a complete lack of documentation supporting a culture of widespread corruption, fraud, graft and war-profiteering. By implementing proper controls he was able to prevent the theft of thousands of muskets, which went on to participate in the work of killing redcoats.

He also implemented the camp management standards that became the norm for the US Army for decades to come. Proper planning of military camps is vital to eliminate or reduce the spread of disease and pests. Logical placement of latrine facilities means they do not foul drinking water or flood eating and sleeping areas. Placement of kitchens at the opposite end of the camp from latrines. Defined areas for slaughter and butchery and so on.

Von Steuben had very little English. His orders were translated nightly into French by his secretary, Du Ponceau. Washington’s secretary then translated the French to English for distribution to the troops.

The title of this post was chosen carefully. Nations like to paint their founding fathers as saintly figures, patriots who put their lives on the line for high ideals. Many Americans see the creation of their nation as a pure and idealistic departure from the old world. A clean fresh start, wiping the dirt of the old world off their shiny new capitalist shoes. So the role of von Steuben, an old world relic cleaning up a filthy military camp and a corrupt administration does not sit comfortably into the creation myth of America.

The founding fathers of the U.S.A. were wealthy aristocrats who wanted to preserve the class structures of the old world. They created the USA in the image of Britain, but replaced a Monarchy with a Presidency. When they declared that all men are created equal they chose to specifically exclude slaves. Implicitly they really meant that all white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males were created equal, but some are more equal than others. The USA was born as a corrupt model, full of old world errors and compromises. But a model with one fundamentally important difference – the means to change. The most important thing about the US Constitution is not the purity of the article itself, but the ability to amend it over time, to improve it, to make it better.

Like the camp and the men in Valley Forge the USA has the ability to make itself better. All it needs are leaders who value the common good over the interests of the 1%.

Cashiered Captains

Thomas Matthews was Vice-Admiral of the Red and Commander in Chief of the British Mediterranean Fleet when he lost the Battle of Toulon against a smaller Spanish & French fleet made up of smaller ships with fewer guns. He did the unthinkable as far as the Georgian British Navy was concerned, he lost to a weaker enemy.

In the war of the Austrian Succession the British had pinned the Spanish into Toulon and blockaded the port. Their victory in battle at sea was bad enough, but it allowed them to support their land forces in Italy. The battle was instrumental in bringing the French into the war and declaring against Britain and Hanover.

In Britain the most generous assessments described Toulon as a fiasco. Other opinions rated it from debacle to complete disaster. It became a political hot potato and courts martial followed for a dozen captains present at the battle. One escaped trial because he died during the procedures. Two were acquitted. Seven were Cashiered in one of the darkest episodes in the history of the Royal Navy.

Central to the loss of the battle was the poor planning and poorer communications from Matthews to his fleet. But as often in British Military affairs there was a personal power struggle behind the fiasco. Admiral Lestock, second in command and commanding the rear on the day of the battle had expected to be appointed Admiral of the Mediterranean Fleet. He was able to use the poor communications as an excuse for his reluctance to engage in the battle. He was able to use his political connections to secure the top job when Matthews was drummed out.

And now a lesser known fact for all you lovers of sea shanties. The signing of work songs was used by sailors to break the monotony and to help keep time when everyone had to pull together. But in the Royal Navy the singing of shanties was banned. The officers felt the noise made it difficult for the sailors, gunners and marines to hear orders. Navy ships were crowded spaces and noisy to boot. So any singing was restricted to rest times, at anchor or in port.

Ben Backstay

Ben Backstay was our boatswain,
a very merry boy,
for no one half so merrily
could pipe all hands ahoy,
and when unto his summons
we did not well attend,
no lad than he more merrily,
could handle the rope’s end.

Chorus: Sing chip chow, cherry chow,
fol di riddle ido.

While sailing once, our captain,
who was a jolly dog,
served out to all the company,
a double share of grog.
Ben Backstay he got tipsy,
all to his heart’s content,
and he being half seas over,
why overboard he went.

A shark was on the starboard bow,
sharks don’t on manners stand,
but grapple all they come near,
just like your sharks on land.
We heaved Ben out some tackling
of saving him some hopes,
but the shark had bit his head off,
so he couldn’t see the ropes.

Without his head his ghost appeared
all on the briny lake;
he piped all hands ahoy and cried:
“Lads, warning by me take;
by drinking grog I lost my life,
so, lest my fate you meet,
why, never mix your liquors, lads,
but always take them neat.”


Live fast – die young

Dynamism of a Cyclist by Umberto Boccioni

Futurism was born on this day in 1909 with the publication in the French Newspaper; Le Figaro, of the Manifesto of Futurism by the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. The movement was a rejection of the past for greater attention to beauty in contemporary art and politics: art for art’s sake. It was a celebration of speed, machinery, violence, youth and industry. Marinetti fought in WW1 and saw the war as the ultimate expression of Futurism, an industrial scale meat grinder in which modern machinery chewed up the remnants of decrepit imperialism.

Mainstream Futurism was predominantly an Italian movement, with some spillover into Russia. It’s enduring influence has been in the world of Science Fiction, Manga and Animé. Ridley Scott borrowed heavily from Italian Futuristic architect Antonio Sant’Elia in developing the world view for Blade Runner. Any fan of Golden Age Sci-fi will see the parallels between futuristic art and the fantastic cover art of novels and magazines of the ’20s and ’30s.

Another voyage

Which is the greater joy for a sailor – arriving in port, or leaving? At sea we long for a dockside bar, a roomy shower, a promenade to stretch the legs and a meal that does not taste of diesel. On land we look outwards breathing air that reeks of petrol and rubber, impatient with the solidity, craving the purity of wind wave, water and salt. I’m sipping on my pastis with ice, cubes clinking in the glass, drinking life to the lees. It’s almost time. I’m Ulysses once more, ‘t is not too late to seek a newer world. Time to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.

Casting Off; by David Joshua Sharp

No fanfare but the small sound
of the sea in his ears, waves
lisping onto the sand, the wind
upon his eyes – he is casting off
his boat to uncertain shores.

And the sun is stopped still,
a memory now fixed forever
against a pale and weary blue
of sky (like the broad stroke
of pen ink across foolscap –
his note that said good-bye).

There, the city he is leaving:
the steets he had often walked
and a café where once he wrote
his name upon the filthy wall
that its letters might attract
notice, perhaps a short reply.

Four years is too long a time,
he thinks; and he makes a smile
that none may see and casts off
his boat onto the ancient sea
that it may take his life away.

The Citadel

This photograph from the Guardian (Antonis Nikolopoulos/AP) got my mind thinking about the way public spaces reflect the stories that people tell about themselves. Here the Acropolis stands above the city of Athens. But instead of a massive fortress the citadel of the Greek Capital houses temples and a museum. Look to the bottom left of the photo and what do you see? The theatre of Athens.

A Citadel is the defensive heart of a city. The name is a diminutive of the word for city, meaning “little city”. The traditional citadel is a fortress within a city. Given that most towns were walled for defense this means it was a fortress within a fortress. The last and strongest defensive point. If your walls were breached by the enemy you retired to your citadel and made your last stand.

When the Achaemenid Persians under Xerxes invaded Greece the 300 Spartans fought them at Thermopylae. The Persians steamrolled their way into Attica and in 480BC they attacked Athens. Many Athenians withdrew to their citadel on the Acropolis but the Persians defeated them and razed the city. The original temples on the Acropolis were destroyed.

Before the Persians arrived a delegation was sent from Athens to the Oracle at Delphi for advice. The Oracle, it its usual vague terms, advised they retreat behind their “wooden walls”. The Athenians took this to refer to their true strength, their navy. They took to their ships and defeated the Persian navy at the battle of Salamis. Without the navy to support them the Persians withdrew.

The Athenians under Themistocles rebuilt the citadel. They used the masonry from the original temples to reinforce the walls, and these sections can be seen to this day. Eventually the temples were rebuilt including the Parthenon. The failure of the stone citadel to save the inhabitants had a deep impact on the Athenian people. They realized that no walls can defend against every enemy. Instead of crowning the Acropolis with a massive fortress they constructed the long walls, protecting their access to the sea.

The Acropolis became a repository of what it meant to be Athenian. It became the religious and cultural centre of the City. Athens became a city defined by art and philosophy instead of martial might. When you raise the walls of your citadel what are you striving to protect? What in your culture is worth defending? Alexander the Great (the Emathian Conqueror) spared the house of the poet Pindar when he took Thebes. Euripides is said to have saved Athens from further destruction by the Spartans who were soothed to clemency by the verses of Electra. To misquote the Godfather “Leave the gun – take the poetry”.

When the assault was intended to the city (Sonnet 8): by John Milton

Captain or Colonel, or Knight in Arms,
whose chance on these defenceless doors may sieze,
if ever deed of honour did thee please,
guard them, and him within protect from harms,
he can requite thee, for he knows the charms
that call Fame on such gentle acts as these,
and he can spread thy Name o’re Lands and Seas,
whatever clime the Sun’s bright circle warms.
Lift not thy spear against the Muses’ Bower,
the great Emathian Conqueror bid spare
the house of Pindarus, when Temple and Tower
went to the ground: and the repeated air
of sad Electra’s Poet had the power
to save th’ Athenian Walls from ruin bare.

Merv over baby

On this day in 748 AD the Abbasids took the city of Merv in Khorasan, Persia, thus consolidating their overthrow of the Umayyad Caliphate. The elevation of the Persians over the Arabs marked the end of the Arab empire and the beginning of a more inclusive pan-Muslim empire which eventually became the Ottoman Empire.

Merv is interesting to me because of my Economic Model for the existence of cities. My theory is that cities exist, in the long term, because they have certain strategic advantages. Chicago exists in America because it was on the vital portage between the Mississippi-Missouri watershed and the Great Lakes watershed. Although we don’t transport goods from Canada to Louisiana by canoe and barge any more the City still commands a highly strategic position.

By contrast the city of Hattusa, capital of the Hittite Empire, was not on any economic trade route. It was a remote mountain fastness brought to greatness by the conquests of the Hittites. Easy to defend. But once Hittite power waned it had no economic justification. The city was lost to time until it was rediscovered in 1834.

Merv has always had economic justification. The city sat on an important oasis. It lies on a strategic point on the Silk roads where the Northern route to Bukhara and Samarkand splits from the Southern route to Bactria. It was also a key destination for the less defined paths of the “Fur Roads” which brought furs and amber from the Russian taiga to the Silk Roads. It was a great city in 300 BC when Alexander the Great made it part of his empire. When the Abbasids took Merv a thousand years later it was one of the Supercities of its day. It had a population of half a million. So what happened?

Merv appears to have been a victim of bad timing. When the Mongol Horde rode from the East in 1221 the city threw open its gates in the hope of mercy. They received none. The Mongols razed the city and slaughtered or enslaved the inhabitants. For 100 years it remained an empty shell. It was sporadically re-occupied under Timur in the 14th Century and by Uzbeks in 1505 who were expelled by the Safavid dynasty. As all this was happening the Portuguese were exploring the coasts of Africa and plotting their route to the Spice Islands of the Indies. The river of wealth flowing down the Silk Roads slowed to a trickle. The riches on which Merv was built moved instead by the sea routes.

In the 19th Century Merv found itself briefly on the front lines of “The Great Game”. The Russians expanded their empire southwards and gobbled up the land in 1884. Today it lies abandoned in the country of Turkmenistan. It is one of very few strategically located cities that never recovered from being sacked.

Telling lies #16: Eugenics

Scientific discrimination is one of the most dangerous lies of all time. It includes discrimination on grounds of gender, race, ethnicity etc. It is often insidious, living beneath the surface, polluting the facts in a seemingly rational and scientific way.

The poster boy for scientific led racism is Francis Galton. A genius in many ways Galton pioneered some amazing work in the world of statistics. We have him to thank for correlation and regression to the mean, weather forecasting, finger printing and many other innovations. Had he only remained in the fields of maths and stats. But he is most famous for his studies into heredity. His book “Heredity Genius” was published in 1869. He was the man who coined the phrase “nature vs nurture”. Have no doubt he was on the side of nature and heredity.

Galton lived in the era of English exceptionalism, sitting on the top of an empire over which the sun never set. From that position is was easy to slide into the trap of making the scientific findings fit the success of his race. He coined the term “Eugenics” in 1883. Once you come to eugenics you are heading down the path to genocide:  “There exists a sentiment, for the most part quite unreasonable, against the gradual extinction of an inferior race.” If you accept gradual extinction, why not hasten the process along?

As a member of “an inferior race” I grew up as a white, English speaking, educated person who was constantly aware that the English saw the Irish as a lesser race. The Victorian stereotypes of the stupid, violent, drunken, feckless Catholic spawning a raft of children they are unable to support is pervasive. Overtly ask any Englishman today and he will flatly deny holding any such views. But scratch the surface and it lies beneath. English exceptionalism underpins the entire UK education curriculum.

It was the Nazis under Hitler who brought Galton’s theories to the public mind in the most stark terms, with the Holocaust. But have no doubt his influence extends into some of the most caring and evolved societies (in their own view) in the world. The USA was an active and overt supporter of eugenics for decades. If you ever participated in a beauty pageant or “bonnie baby” contest you were engaged in an activity designed to select the best and most fit genes. In Sweden enforced sterilization programs were still running up to 1976 on eugenic grounds. In India today who is more likely to be sterilized? A Brahmin man or a Dalit woman? In China the Uighurs claim that a widespread program of sterilization is on going today. China for the Han Chinese.

A Work Of Artifice; by Marge Piercy

The bonsai tree
in the attractive pot
could have grown eighty feet tall
on the side of a mountain
till split by lightning.
But a gardener
carefully pruned it.
It is nine inches high.
Every day as he
whittles back the branches
the gardener croons,
it is your nature
to be small and cozy,
domestic and weak;
how lucky, little tree,
to have a pot to grow in.
With living creatures
one must begin very early
to dwarf their growth:
the bound feet,
the crippled brain,
the hair in curlers,
the hands you
love to touch.

Bucket List #8

The galvanized mop bucket on wheels with integrated wringer. This was the Rolls Royce of mop buckets available on board the B&I line MV Leinster car ferry.

It was the Summer of 1981 when I worked as a steward crossing the Irish Sea between Rosslare and Pembroke Dock. I remember the year exactly because of the Royal Wedding of Charles and Di. I bought the “Not the 9 O’Clock News Guide to the Royal Wedding”. It was hilarious. Someone on board borrowed it from me. Someone borrowed it from him and so on and do forth and I lost it somewhere in the bowels of the staff cabins.

Summer jobs are things we tend to remember very fondly. They are new, exciting, you get money. They are often roles where you have a lot of young staff. There is plenty of sexual tension. With a ferry job you are away from home, free of parental control. Freedom was a lot of the excitement.

The bucket is significant here because it was a key bottleneck to freedom. When the ship arrived in port your final task before departure was to mop an assigned section of deck. There was a limited supply of mops and buckets, so the competition for them was intense. People would hide the buckets around the ship in preparation for finishing up, especially at the end of the week when you were leaving for home. But also either side when you hit port. When you only have 2 hours shore time you can’t afford to wait an hour to get a mop.

We didn’t call it mopping. The term was “sujee”. You need to sujee lower deck 4 from bulkhead x to bulkhead y. We used a detergent for cleaning called SUJ88 if memory serves me well, and this is where the term sujee came from.

There was an art to sujee’ing a floor. The ship was very old with deeply embedded dirt. You did not want to disturb that dirt or it would streak your deck. What you needed to pass muster was an even shiny patina. This was achieved by running the clean mop gently across the surface from side to side and allowing it to dry evenly. No hard scrubbing.

The cardinal sin on board was to walk across a freshly sujee’d deck. That was a hanging offense. If you came across a wet section you needed to detour above or below to get around it.

There is a joke going round at the moment along these lines: A policeman reports to his captain that a woman has killed her husband for walking on her freshly mopped floor. The captain asks if the policeman has arrested the woman and he replies “not yet”. When the captain asks why the policeman responds “because the floor is still wet”.

That would not be a joke on board an Irish Ferry.

The Ferry: by Katia Kapovich

I’m jotting down these lines,
having borrowed a pen from a waitress
in this roadside restaurant. Three rusty pines
prop up the sky in the windows.
My soup gets cold, which implies

I’ll eat it cold. Soon I too
will leave a tip on the table, merge
into the beehive of travelers
and board one of the ferries,
where there’s always a line to the loo
and no one knows where the captain is.

Slightly seasick, I keep on writing
of the wind-rose and lobster traps,
seagulls, if any—and there always are.
Check the air and you’ll see them
above straw hats and caps.
The sun at noon glides like a monstrous star-

fish through clouds. Others drink iced tea,
training binoculars on a tugboat.
When I finish this letter, I’ll take a gulp
from the flask you gave me for the road
in days when I was too young to care about
those on the pier who waved goodbye.

I miss them now: cousins in linen dresses,
my mother, you, boys in light summer shirts.
Life is too long. The compass needle dances.
Everything passes by. The ferry passes
by ragged yellow shores.

Bucket List #7

Continuing my Bucket List series here is the entry level sandcastle manufacturing bucket and spade kit. A must have for all children on a beach holiday. It is here you learn the beginnings of sandcastle making. You may branch off into fields like advanced sand castle construction, sand sculpting, general building trades or IT Project Management, but wherever you go the basic skills will serve you well.

My first 9 years of summer holidays were in Kilkee, in West Clare, Ireland. Moore Bay is a good example of a horseshoe beach with fine construction grade sand. Damp enough to bind but not so wet as to stick in the bucket. It was there I perfected the skills I was able to pass down to my own progeny.

Central to the success of Clancy family sandcastle building is the poem. It has no name and it has no known author. But the sandcastle poem is a sure guarantee* of success. It bears all the marks of a magic spell. It involves a prescribed set of movements, a chant and a reveal.

After you pack your bucket with sand you must pat the sand down in the bucket. Refill if any subsidence occurs. Once the sand is filled firmly to the rim you upend the bucket on the beach. Then, gripping your spade firmly by the handle, you tap the base of the bucket with the bottom of your spade to the meter of the chant.

Pie, pie come out

and I’ll give you a bottle of stout,

but if you don’t come out,

I’ll give you such a clout.

With that you can place your spade down, grip the bucket firmly and lift upwards. Magic!

*Warning: The guarantee of success of the sandcastle poem is subject to specified grades, sizes and moisture content of the sand involved. It applies only to basic truncated conical profile buckets which have been professionally calibrated and does not cover complex castle shaped buckets with fancy crenellations. Terms and conditions apply. Past success is no predictor of future performance.

The floating island

In 1942 after Japanese naval victories in the Java Sea and the Sunda Strait the ships of the Royal Netherlands Navy were ordered to retreat south from Indonesia to Australia. The RNN Abraham Crijnssen found itself isolated and alone in Surabaya in Eastern Java.

A minesweeper, the ship was slow and lightly armed and armoured. She hadn’t a hope of survival in a fight with an offensive Japanese vessel. So the crew improvised.

They cut foliage from the jungle and disguised the ship as an island. In technical terms the strategies they used are camouflage (looking like an island) and nocturnality (moving only at night). They painted the ship to look like rocks and plants to any pilot from above and used the foliage to blur and obscure the natural lines of the ship.

Moving slowly and only at night, each day she moored near a suitable jungle backdrop and disappeared into the background. In this way she inched her way slowly out of Dutch waters and successfully escaped to Australia.

Today you can visit the plucky little minesweeper which has been preserved in the Netherlands as a museum ship.