Happy Birthday Robert Herrick

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You know him best for his poem “To the virigins; to make much of time” (Gather ye rosebuds while ye may) which is classed as a Carpe Diem poem (seize the day – live now – grab fun while you still can).

Born on this day August 24th, 1591 in Cheapside, London he lived through the turmoil of the English Civil War.  A royalist and a prolific poet he fell on hard times under the Commonwealth, as did most artists.

He was smart enough to pen verses to celebrate the birth of the royal children and found favour with the Crown following the restoration.  Upon petition he was granted the Vicarage and living of Dean Prior.

 

Delight in Disorder; by Robert Herrick

A sweet disorder in the dress
kindles in clothes a wantonness;
a lawn about the shoulders thrown
into a fine distraction;
an erring lace, which here and there
enthrals the crimson stomacher;
a cuff neglectful, and thereby
ribands to flow confusedly;
a winning wave, deserving note,
in the tempestuous petticoat;
a careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me, than when art
is too precise in every part.

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Henri Cartier-Bresson

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Serving as a photographic counterpoint to classic impressionist masterpieces such as Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe by Manet and Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte by Seurat this photograph is entitled Sunday on the banks of the Marne.

Henri Cartier-Bresson captures two French couples lunching on the riverbank overlooking a boat and what looks like a fising pontoon.  Middle aged, overweight, eating well, drinking wine, unglamorous but oh so very French at the same time.

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To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.
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In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little, human detail can become a Leitmotiv.
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Born August 22nd 1908 Cartier-Bresson was a pioneer of 35mm photographer and a master of candid and street photography.  He was heavily influenced by Surrealism and the idea of using the subconscious to dictate the flow of art.  His early forays into art were as a painter and he gradually moved towards photography.
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Cartier-Bresson struggled to find his métier until he saw the photograph of Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika by Martin Munkácsi and his eyes were opened.
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I suddenly understood that photography can fix eternity in a moment.
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Photography is not like painting Cartier-Bresson said in an interview in 1957. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative.  Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.

Right to Bare Arms

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On this day, August 18th, 1920 Tennessee became the last of the 36 states required to ratify the 19th Amendment to the American Constitution, giving Women the Right to Vote.

The constitution was ratified in 1788 and it only took 132 years for Americans to give women a vote.  Of course a vote and equality are very different things.  The unratified equal rights amendment sought to have men and women treated equally under the law.  Initially proposed in 1923 it has never been ratified.  It almost got over the line in the 1970’s when a conservative womens group hamstrung the amendment to protect their alimony and avoid military service.  So to this day men and women in the USA are not equal.

Slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment in 1965 during the U.S. Civil War.  The Civil Rights Act in 1964, 100 years later, was passed to attempt to right some of the wrongs in US society such as the Jim Crow laws, segregation and discrimination.

School shootings are nothing new in the USA.  They have been happening since the 1840’s but a whole new type of school shooting incident kicked off in 1979.  Irish punk band The Boomtown Rats were in a US radio station when the news came in that 16 year old Brenda Spencer shot and killed the principal and janitor and wounded 8 children and a police officer in Cleveland Elementary San Diego.  A reporter managed to make contact with Brenda and asked her why she did it.  Her response was “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.”

Bob Geldof and Johnnie Fingers wrote the song “I don’t like Mondays” and every teenager in Ireland and the UK became aware of the phenomenon of the school shooting.

There have been mass shootings since then in many countries including the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, France etc.  In EVERY SINGLE CASE the event led to a change in the laws.  Pardon me, not every single case.  The Cleveland Elementary shooting did not lead to a change in the US laws.

These days a school shooting where only 2 people die would not get 5 minutes air time in the USA.  There were 28 recorded school shooting events up to May 7th of 2019.

In terms of absolute records the Beslan school massacre where 334 died will hopefully never be bested.  But that was a terrorist attack rather than a school shooting.  Top of the death poll in the USA remains the Bath school disaster of 1927 when a Michigan school board treasurer firebombed his farm and the school in an act of revenge because he was not elected as township clerk.

In the modern era of nihilistic mass murder the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook shootings lead the posse.

If you look at the list of School Massacres by Death Toll on wikipedia you could make the case that USA is only an “also ran” in the tables.  The key difference with the USA is the reaction against any change to the 2nd Amendment rights.  States can, do and have made changes to gun licencing laws in the USA.  Indeed many opponents of the gun lobby make the case that it is states that SHOULD make the changes.  There is a strong lobby in the USA for states rights and to limit the power of the federal government.

This should be nothing unusual to Europeans who are members of the European Union.  Nation states in the EU are very protective of their unique voices within the union.  Here in Irealand we become very worked up when voices in France and Germany suggest that our corporate taxes are too low.

It took 132 years for American women to get a vote.  It took 100 years from the Civil War for Black Americans to secure meaningful laws, and that has not yet translated into equality of opportunity.  Change is slow, painfully slow.  But change does come.  The USA will never give up the right to bear arms, but without doubt change will come about to limit who can bear arms, how many arms and what type of arms.  I expect that when people read this blog post in 100 years they will say “any day now”.

PS if you did read this my sincere apologies.  It is a very badly written rambling flow.

Yarmouk

 

Heraclius was a Byzantine emperor who rose to greatness and then had the sad misfortune to live too long.  He took power in Constantinople in 610 AD when the Byzantine empire was on its knees and under siege by the Sassanid Empire of Persia.

He reformed and rebuilt the army and campaigned successfully against the Persians.  Then he triumphed at the Battle of Nineveh in 627 AD and the Persians withdrew from all their Byzantine conquests.  To add to his legend Heraclius recovered the Christian Cross from the Persians and returned it to Jerusalem.  Some Western Christians even called him “the First Crusader”.

The Persian Empire served as the cork which held the Arabic tribes contained in the Arabian Peninsula.  With the collapse of power in Persia, and the newfound impetus of the Arabs united by Muhammad under the banner of Islam, the game in the middle east changed completely.

As the Arab armies exploded out of the peninsula into Persian lands they began to threaten Byzantine Syria.  Heraclius responded by sending a huge army to the Levant to smash the desert peoples, who they knew of old as raiders and rustlers.

As the massive Byzantine army approached the smaller Arabic forces withdrew to the plains around the Yarmouk River the largest tributary of the Jordan and a natural barrier between Syria and Arabia.

On August 15th 636 AD the Byzantines met the armies of the Rashidun Caliphate and began a series of battles.  In what might be called the “First Six-Day War” the muslim forces did not simply defeat the Byzantines.  They decisively shattered the Byzantine forces and drove them out of Syria, Palestine and Lebanon entirely.

The Battles of Yarmouk are a textbook example of an inferior force decisively defeating a superior force through better generalship.  The hero of the hour was the Arab General Khalid ibn al-Walīd, a companion of Muhammad and a man almost unknown in the west.

Heraclius lived until 641, long enough to see all the lands he regained from the Sassanids lost to the Arabs.  In Arabic and Islamic telling Heraclius was viewed as a wise and learned king who recognised that Islam was the true faith.  He tried to convert his people to Islam but they resisted and he failed.  As a result he was defeated in battle.

 

Ireland’s Battle of Saratoga

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In the USA the Battles of Saratoga were a vital step for the American cause.  An army of mostly irregular colonists took on the professional British Army and defeated them.  They did this through a combination of British arrogance, knowledge of the terrain and superior marksmanship.  The US frontiersmen with their Kentucky rifles, using natural cover, were more than a match for the British regulars with their smoothbore brown bess muskets.

In Ireland in 1598 the Ulster Irish led by Hugh O’Neill and Hugh O’Donnell won a similar victory at the Battle of the Yellow Ford.  The Elizabethan British Army of occupation built a fort on the Blackwater in Armagh to threaten Ulster.  The Ulster forces quickly placed it under siege.

The British led a relief force under Sir Henry Bagenal, an experienced commander of veteran troops.  The British were heavily armed and armoured.  They had better cavalry than the Irish and carried a heavy arquebus or musket, which required a supporting pole to steady it for firing.  The Musketeers supported by pikemen in the tradition of the day.

The Irish were actually better armed.  O’Neill was famous for the tricks he used to circumvent restrictions on his ability to recruit and arm his men.  He was permitted a personal bodyguard of only 600 men.  So he rotated them every 6 months and trained them relentlessly to build an army of over 5,000.  He imported lead to waterproof the roof of his castle, and turned it into shot.  Most importantly he sourced the very latest and lightest arquebuses, called Claviers (a corruption of the word Caliber – because they were of standard bore)

Using terrain features and pre-constructed ditches and banks the Irish harried the British from cover very much as the Americans would do hundreds of years later.  When the British came within sight of the Blackwater fort the defenders cheered and tossed their caps in the air in celebration.  The British infantry moved strongly forward over the Yellow Ford.

Then the Irish struck at the rear of their formations, smashing the British from behind.  The leading regiments were forced to retreat to protect themselves and the retreat turned into a desperate defence.  In the panic that ensued a British Infantryman ran to refill his powder horn from a barrel of gunpowder.   He was holding a lit match in his hand and set off the powder in a massive explosion.

The British were harassed all the way back to the River Callan, and there someone on the British side had made a smart decision to position some artillery pieces in a fallback position.  They were able to hold the Irish and prevent a complete slaughter.

Of 4,000 British Soldiers only 2,000 made it back to the garrison of Armagh.  After some negotionation they were permitted to return south only by leaving behind all their arms and ammunition.

It would be nice to say that the outcome of Yellow Ford was similar to the outcome of Saratoga, but it was not to be.  The Americans had the French to support their revolutionary war.  The Irish had the Spanish, who landed in Kinsale, the furthest possible point away from the Ulster strongholds of O’Neill and O’Donnell.

At the Battle of Kinsale the Irish & Spanish forces were defeated by the British and the result was the “Flight of the Earls” when O’Neill and O’Donnell departed Ireland with their retinue for exile in Spain.  Their departure opened Ulster for Plantation by protestants loyal to the British Crown, a move that is reflected in the politics of the Island of Ireland to this day.

Yellow Ford was fought this day, August 14th 1598.

Sonnet 46; by William Shakespeare

Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war
how to divide the conquest of thy sight;
Mine eye my heart thy picture’s sight would bar,
my heart mine eye the freedom of that right.
My heart doth plead that thou in him dost lie
a closet never pierced with crystal eyes.
But the defendant doth that plea deny
and says in him thy fair appearance lies.

To ‘cide this title is impanneled
a quest of thoughts, all tenants to the heart,
and by their verdict is determined
the clear eye’s moiety and the dear heart’s part:
As thus; mine eye’s due is thy outward part,
and my heart’s right thy inward love of heart.

They have no lot in our labour.

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Each year on remembrance Sunday all over England, and throughout the former British Colonies, services are held for the fallen.  People sport the poppy they bought to support military families in times of need.  They recite the words of a dirge written in 1914 by Laurency Binyon, who was born on this day in 1869.

The words people always remember are the line “They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old”.  You can understand the power of this line for those who saw their colleagues die on the field of battle.  Each year they return for the service and each year another one of their old mates has passed away, and they lurch towards the grave under the weight of age and infirmity.

It is a sentiment captured in “The Green Fields of France” lyrics:

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind,
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined,
And though you died back in 1916,
To that loyal heart you’re forever nineteen

Today though I am moved by another line in this poem : they have no lot in our labour of the day-time.  Some people might read this line as meaning “Lucky them to have escaped the drudgery of the working round – they got off.”

Not me.

I read this line through the Marxist lens that we are what we do.

If we have chosen the position in life in which we can most of all work for mankind, no burdens can bow us down, because they are sacrifices for the benefit of all; then we shall experience no petty, limited, selfish joy, but our happiness will belong to millions, our deeds will live on quietly but perpetually at work, and over our ashes will be shed the hot tears of noble people.”  Marx, Reflections of a Young Man (1835)

At the core of Marxism is the tenet that we should own our labour.  Capitalism is a system designed to wrest resources from the weak and accumulating them for the strong.  Capitalists steal your productivity for their enrichment.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the field of battle.  The rich men of the world use their power to bend politics to their will.  When this results in war it is the small, the weak, the uneducated who are sent to the front lines.  The small man has nothing to gain from war and everything to lose.  By risking his life in battle he risks all the coming years of his working life, all the output of that work, all the benefit for his spouse, his children, his grandchildren.  They have no lot in our labour of the day-time.  War is the sharp end of the capitalist system.

 

For the Fallen; by Laurence Binyon

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
there is music in the midst of desolation
and a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
they fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old:
age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
we will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
they sit no more at familiar tables of home;
they have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
they sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
to the innermost heart of their own land they are known
as the stars are known to the Night;

as the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
as the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
to the end, to the end, they remain.