Happy Birthday Sir Philip Sidney

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Scholar, Knight, Diplomat, Traveller, Linguist, Poet, Politician, Advisor to Queen Elizabeth, Master of Ordnance, Soldier; shot in the leg in the battle of Zutphen in the Netherlands during the 80 years war against Spain.  An avid proponent of the Protestant cause.  He died aged only 31 from gangrene.  Born November 30th, 1554.  A true renaissance man.


The Bargain; by Sir Philip Sidney

My true love hath my heart, and I have his,
by just exchange one for another given:
I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss,
there never was a better bargain driven:
My true love hath my heart, and I have his.

His heart in me keeps him and me in one,
my heart in him his thoughts and senses guides:
He loves my heart, for once it was his own,
I cherish his because in me it bides:
My true love hath my heart, and I have his.

Gives me the Shivers!

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The man who invented superheroes was born on this day, November 29th, 1920.

And no – it wasn’t Stan Lee.  It was Joe Shivers.

Joseph Shivers was working for DuPont in the 1950’s when he and his team perfected the design of Fibre K.  The fabric was trademarked as Lycra in Britain, Ireland and many former English colonies.  The elastic nature of the product is reflected in the variants of the name Elastane used in many non-English speaking countries.

In the USA they stressed the expandable nature of the fabric with an anagram of Expands:  Spandex.

Without Lycra/ Spandex would we have Superheroes today?

Another outcome of Shivers invention is the modern middle aged male Cyclist:

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And don’t get me started on shapewear:

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The process of nixtamalization is one of my favourite cooking stories from history.  It is a sophisticated process involving empirical chemistry to convert maize from useless bulk into a nutritional food.

The nixtamalization process was vital to the early Mesoamerican diet.  Unprocessed maize is deficient in vitamin B3; niacin. A population that depends on untreated maize as a staple food risks malnourishment and is more likely to develop deficiency diseases such as pellagra, niacin deficiency, or kwashiorkor, the absence of certain amino acids that maize is deficient in.

To unlock the niacin you must cook the maize in a solution containing lime, and ideally calcium.   This can be done by adding lye (wood fire ash) to the kernels during boiling or by the addition of lime as a slaked rock.

Nextamalli is a Nahuatl (Aztec) word for the processed grain – also called Hominy which comes from the Algonquin word uskatahomen.

The spread of maize cultivation in the Americas was accompanied by the adoption of the nixtamalization process.

How this process developed may be understood by looking at cooking in Ancient Ireland, despite the fact that the Irish did not need the process.  If you look at the cooking arrangement in the photo above you will see what is called a Fulacht Fiadh.  In bronze age Ireland people did not have good cooking pots.  If you are really careful it is possible to boil a stew in a bark container or an anmial skin, but it’s not easy.

The Irish used a cooking pit.  The pit was lined with timber to prevent the sides from collapsing into a muddy hole.  It was filled with water.  Then a fire was built in the hearth and limestone rocks were placed on the fire.  When they heated up the “cooks” used large wooden paddles to lift  or roll the hot rocks and place them in the pit, which caused the water to boil and the meal to cook.

Using the same process in South America the locals found that the combination of slaked lime stone, and the wood ash from the fire had a magical effect on the maize.  It converted maize from a vegetable into a staple food that gave almost everything you needed to live.  Add a few beans, potato, tomato, chile and you have a feast.

When Europeans discovered maize in the new world, and saw how it formed a staple food, they brought it home and used it as a food in their colonies, especially in Africa and India.  But they didn’t know about nixtamalization and famine soon followed.  To this day pellagra remains a problem in some parts of the world where the grain spread without the process.  South Africa, Egypt and Southern India still see problems.

The British attempted to feed the Irish with maize during the potato famine.  Robert Peel imported Indian Corn from America and had it distributed at cost price.  Most people could not afford it and those that could were appalled by the garish yellow rock hard grain that was unfit to make bread.  They labelled it “Peel’s Brimstone” and many thought it was a plot to poison them.  They had no idea how to cook the food.  Those who persisted and boiled it down to a tasteless porridge were not feeding themselves in any case, because they had no niacin.


Call it out

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Late November and we have hit a relentless spell of misery, dark cold rainy weather.  It is at times like this that the blues can creep in.  People who suffer from depression struggle to get the mental gears engaged.

One thing I have learned over the years is that it is important to engage with your emotion even if the emotion is negative.  When you call out your emotion you can confront it, if you are the confronting type, or you can embrace it if you are not the confrontational type.

When you have the blues its time to listen to the blues.  At least for me.

So here is BB King with an ode to the love of his life:

Lucille; by Donal Clancy

BB holds Her in his arms

when the rain falls cold and wet

he pulls all the right strings

when he sees her fret

one arm around her body

his fingers stroke her neck

& when she sings to BB

he’s ensnared in her net.

The blues are gone,

the blues are gone.

Now that’s what I call a polka!

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The 2017 Jack Black film “The Polka King” tells the (mostly) true story of Jan Lewan.  It opens the lid on one of Amercia’s greatest dirty little secrets;  the popularity of Polka.

In the 1987 film “Good Morning Vietnam” accordian led Polka music is the preference of Second Lieutenant Steven Hauk who acts as a comedic straight man to Robin Williams portrayal of Adrian Cronauer.  It’s a battle of James Brown vs Slavko Avsenik.

Today is the birthday of Slavko Avsenik, born Nov 26th 1929.  The music might be the butt of Rock & Roll jokes, but try arguing with the success of this Slovene Cultural Icon.

12 million record sales, 31 gold, two diamond and a platinum record.  Composer of 1,000 numbers.  In 1961 he headlined in front of a crowd of 80,000 in Berlin.

Translated into English lyrics his music became the hits of the “Cleveland-Style” and his compositions have been recorded by all the giants; Johnny Pecon, Hank Haller, Fred Ziwich, Fred Kuhar, the Fairport Ensemble, Al Markic, Roger Bright, Al Tercek, and Cilka Dolgan.

He wrote “the most played instrumental song in the world” called variously Trumpet Echoes, or Na Golici or Trompeten-Echo.

OK, my tongue hurts I’ve been biting it so hard.  I rate Polka music as being way less cool than country music and I don’t rate country music.  But hey, all those crowds of prosperous germanic looking people really dig this stuff, and who am I to argue with success?


Happy Birthday Isaac Rosenberg


Isaac Rosenberg – Self Portrait – 1915

Born in Britain to a family of immigrant Lithuanian Jews, 25th November 1890.  In East London he gravitated towards the arts and was taken under the wing by Laurence Binyon and Edward Marsh.

He permanently suffered from bad health, bronchitis in particular, and emigrated to South Africa for the better air and warmer climate.  At the outbreak of WW1 he returned to Britain to do his duty and “get the trouble over” despite being anti-war.

Because of his small size, an outcome of poor health, he was assigned to a “Bantam” battalion which was a unit for men under the normal height.

He served for the entire war, despite bad health, until his death in action in 1918, producing some of the best poetry of the war.

As a side note the Tory Government of the UK today would not allow Rosenbergs family into the country if they have their way.  Priti Patel, herself a daughter of immigrants, wants to close the door.  England had no better servant than Isaac Rosenberg.


Break Of Day In The Trenches; by Isaac Rosenberg

The darkness crumbles away
it is the same old druid Time as ever,
only a live thing leaps my hand,
a queer sardonic rat,
as I pull the parapet’s poppy
to stick behind my ear.

Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
your cosmopolitan sympathies,
now you have touched this English hand
you will do the same to a German
soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
to cross the sleeping green between.

It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
less chanced than you for life,
bonds to the whims of murder,
sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
the torn fields of France.

What do you see in our eyes
at the shrieking iron and flame
hurled through still heavens?
What quaver -what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
drop, and are ever dropping;
but mine in my ear is safe,
just a little white with the dust.

Missing Treasure

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November 24th, 1971, the man known in the media as D.B. Cooper booked a ticket from Portland Oregon to Seattle Washington.

He told the air hostess he had a bomb (showing her cylinders wired in this briefcase) and demanded that the flight be met in Seattle with €200,000, four parachutes and a refuelling truck.  That money is worth about €1.3 million in todays terms.

When the demands were met he allowed the passengers and cabin crew to depart in Seattle and told the Pilot to fly to Mexico.  He told them to fly as slowly as possible without stalling the aircraft and to leave the undercarriage deployed.  The rear exit door was left open for the flight.

Cooper parachuted from the aircraft somewhere between Seattle and Nevada.

Despite a massive manhunt he was never found.  In 1980 a young boy camping with his family found three stacks of 20 dollar bills that came from the ransom.  The stash amounted to €5,800.

The case remains the only unsolved act of air piracy in commercial aviation history.  Arr me hearties.  X marks the spot!

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The literal is rarely true

Blue guitar

Ceci n’est pas une guitare bleue

P.K. Page born Nov 23rd 1916, Dorset in England but grew up and spent all her life in Canada.  First Alberta, then Manitoba, then New Brunswick, Montreal, Ottowa and ending up in Victoria, British Columbia, so you could say she represented a pan-Canadian voice.

In our “post-truth” society this poem seems fitting.  Her glosa form poem is based on “The man with the blue guitar” by Wallace Stevens, the first canto of which goes:

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, ‘You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.’

The man replied, ‘Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.’

And they said then, ‘But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.’

The Wallace Stevens poem is based on the Picasso painting which appears below Page’s poem.  As you can see it features a blue man playing a brown guitar.  Hence the reference to René Magritte and the Treachery of Image.


The Blue Guitar; Patricia Kathleen Page

I do my best to tell it true
a thing exceeding hard to do
or tell it slant as Emily
advises in her poetry,
and, colour blind, how can I know
if green is blue or cinnabar.
Find me a colour chart that I
can check against a summer sky.
My eye is on a distant star.
They said, ‘You have a blue guitar.’

‘I have,’ the man replied, ‘it’s true.
The instrument I strum is blue
I strum my joy, I strum my pain
I strum the sun, I strum the rain.
But tell me, what is that to you?
You see things as you think they are.
Remove the mote within your ear
then talk to me of what you hear.’
They said, ‘Go smoke a blue cigar!
You do not play things as they are.’

‘Things as they are? Above? Below?
In hell or heaven? Fast or slow…?’
They silenced him. ‘It’s not about
philosophy, so cut it out.
We want the truth and not what you
are playing on the blue guitar.
So start again and play it straight
don’t improvise, prevaricate.
Just play things as they really are.’
The man replied, ‘Things as they are

are not the same as things that were
or will be in another year.
The literal is rarely true
for truth is old and truth is new
and faceted — a metaphor
for something higher than we are.
I play the truth of Everyman
I play the truth as best I can.
The things I play are better far
when changed upon the blue guitar.’

MAn with blue guitar

The Old Guitarist; Pablo Picasso


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Charles De Gaulle, born Nov 22nd 1890.

A career soldier nicknamed the Big Asparagus by his classmates because he was so tall.  A veteran of two world wars he was frustrated at the British describing them as too slow.  Undoubtedly brave he was wounded a number of times and at Verdun in WW1 he was bayonetted in the leg whilst reeling from a shell blast and was captured by the Germans, the only member of his unit to survive.  He spent the latter half of the war as a prisoner despite 5 attempts to escape.

He rose into the world of politics by WW2 and as leader of the Free French he was sentenced as a criminal by the Vichy French Government.  He held a difficult position in London.  The French offices were filled with British spies, the phones were tapped.  When his aircraft was sabotaged and he almost died the British blamed the Germans.  De Gaulle blamed the British.

When the European Community was founded in 1957 the UK elected to go their own way.  They joined the EFTA instead.  As the 1950’s progressed and the Continental Europeans experienced economic expansion the British regretted their mistake.  They applied to join in 1963.

Famously and very publicly De Gaulle said “Non!”

It was a field day for cartoonists!

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Bloody Sunday 1920



Auxilliaries having a laugh in 1920’s Ireland

If any single day can sum up a war the events of Bloody Sunday in Dublin, 99 years ago today, do just that.

Early in the morning the Irish leaders of the War of Independence; Michael Collins and Cathal Brugha, despatched IRA squads to assassinate a list of 35 British Intelligence Officers and informers.

There were mistakes made, and many failures, but when the smoke settled 14 men were killed and six were wounded, one mortally.  Two of the killings were mistakes, what the military today terms “collateral damage”.  One IRA volunteer was captured, but later escaped.  Another was injured; shot in the hand.

The work of the morning was highly effective in dismantling the British Intelligence operation.  Many of the surviving intelligence agents holed up in Dublin Castle and were unable to carry out further work for fear of their lives.  The list of targets clearly demonstrated that the secrecy of the agents had been compromised.

The retaliation by the British was a complete and utter Public Relations disaster.   Dublin and Tipperary were playing a football match in Croke Park that afternoon.  The British forces thought that it would be a good idea to drive into a football stadium and announce by megaphone that all men were to be searched.

One and a half years previously the British under General Dyer slaughtered over 400 civilians in Amritsar in the Punjab, India.  In that context it is inconcievable to believe that British Authorities thought it might be a good idea to send armed men into a football stadium.  But they did.

They never got to announce their intention to the crowd.  A column of British soldiers approached from Clonliffe road to the North.  A mixed column of Black and Tans, regular RIC and led by Auxiliaries approached from the Canal end to the South.  The Black & Tans started shooting as soon as they entered the ground.

The result was predictable.  A mad scramble to safety by the crowd and loss of all control of both the crowd and of the Crown forces.  The combined troops and police fired 114 rounds of rifle ammunition, 50 rounds of machine gun ammunition from an armoured car stationed outside the ground and the revolver ammunition was not documented.  The machine gunner at least had wits enough to fire in the air over the heads of the crowd.

Seven were shot to death, one of whom was the Tipperary Goal Keeper; Michael Hogan.  Five more were mortally wounded and died later.  Two more were trampled to death.  Dozens more were shot, wounded and survived and many more were wounded in the scramble to safety.

None of the security forces was killed or wounded in the action.

Later that night three men who were being detained in Dublin Castle as suspects in planning the assassinations were shot to death, supposedly while trying to escape.

Bloody Sunday removed any final sympathy for the Crown position that might have lingered in even the most West British parts of leafy south county Dublin.  The behaviour of the Black & Tans was recognised as the actions of rabid dogs, unordered, and “exceeding the demands of the situation”.

The finding of the British military courts of enquiry were suppressed, and some of the senior British Officers on the ground resigned their commissions in protest at Government’s tacit support of the actions of both Military and Police forces on the day.

That was the day Britain lost Ireland.