In 2012 I was in Vienna for a four day business conference.  Gustav Klimt was born there on July 14th 1862 so everywhere you went they were celebrating his 150th birthday.  Any building with even a fleeting association with Klimt was open to the public.

I could have seen the greatest assembled volume of the works of this Symbolist, and frankly erotic painter.  He was criticized in his lifetime for work considered pornographic.

But I had to work, so I saw all the ads but never got to attend any of the exhibitions.  Now that I look back I realise I should have taken a half day sick.  Food poisoning, or a quick stomach bug, very believable.  Carpe Diem, why didn’t I carpe the flipping diem?




Burning the Books


Diego de Landa was a Fransiscan Friar and Archbishop of Yucatán during the initial phase of conquest by Spain.  He appears to have been a scholarly man and did his best to document Mayan culture.  Sadly his original works were lost over time and what remains to us are fragments of copies pieced together.  He had royal scribes decipher the Maya script and tried to produce a Maya to Spanish translator by simple substitution of Maya Characters with Spanish letters.  Anyone who played with Google Translate for more than five minutes can see the flaws in this approach.

Unfortunately well over 90% of what we now know about the Maya comes from this priest.

In 1562 he learned that some of his Catholic Converts were continuing to observe Mayan practices, in particular Idol worship.  He also claimed to have uncovered evidence of ritual human sacrifice.  But this was in response to contemporary criticism of his subsequent actions which ran counter to Crown policy and Inquisition procedure.  His apologists were his own priests.

Bishop de Landa rounded up as many idols as he could find and held an act of faith – “Auto de fé” – the famous public expression of faith of the Spanish Inquisition.

Hundreds of Mayan nobles were tortured by the Spaniards by hoisting, also called La Corda or Strappado.  They were interrogated while suspended in a manner that causes the shoulders to dislocate.  The process is helped along by beating the victim, tying weights to their feet and by repeatedly raising and dropping them.  In this way the Maya were brought into the loving arms of Jesus.

On July 12th 1562 the Archbishop set fire to a pile of about 5,000 Maya idols.  He also then committed the greatest sin in the history of scholarship.  He burned every Maya holy book he could find.  He claimed to have burned 27 Mayan Codices on that day.  He then sent his priests out across the land to copy his example, and burn every Maya Codex they could find.

To give perspective on this act we now have three Mayan Codices and 10 pages of a fourth remaining today.  Nobody knows how many were destroyed.

This being a Sunday let’s say a Hail Mary for the eternal soul of Bishop Diego de Landa, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19)

Happy Birthday David Hockney

Blue Guitar

David Hockney, one of the most important British Artists and a leading light of Pop Art, was born on this day in 1937.

The still life above is a beautiful example of how he used photography.  Armed with nothing more sophisticated than a Polaroid Instamatic he converts a still life into a symphony of movement with his “Joiners”.  By taking multiple shots from slightly different angles he introduces a cubist three dimensional aspect to a two dimensional motif.

The guitar in the blue case, the bowl of fruit and the vase of flowers are nods to the long history of still life composition.

Initially he felt that “Photography is all right if you don’t mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralysed cyclops-for a split second.”

But after some experimentation with the medium he found how to harness photography to capture the essence of movement.


Bread Basket


Egypt was the most valuable province of Rome for two reasons.  The first is obvious, in a time when any food surplus was highly valued Egypt was the bread basket of the Mediterranean world, churning out a regular, highly dependable surplus of wheat.

Secondly it operated out of step with the Northern summer season.  The monsoons hit Ethiopia in the Summer causing the Nile flood, so the Egyptians were planting when the Italians and Greeks were harvesting.  This allowed the Empire to stagger the deployment of transport.  Ships that transported grain from Sicily and Africa in Autumn could switch to the Egyptian trade in Spring.

When Rome lost Italy, Sicily, North Africa, Sardinia and ruled from Constantinople Egypt gained in importance.

As a result the 6th of July was a black day for the Romans when, in 640 AD a small force of Arabs under the brilliant general Amr ibn al-As al-Sahmi routed the Byzantines at the battle of Heliopolis on the outskirts of Cairo.

The Romans had, after a lifetime of war by Emperor Heraclius, defeated their arch nemesis, the Sassanid Empire, in 622.  As the two punch-drunk empires reeled away from each other the newly unified Arabs exploded out of the Arabian Peninsula and overran the Sassanid lands; the ancient Persian Empire.

The Romans believed themselves safe for at least a generation as the Arabs assimilated the feuding elements of the Persian empire.  They met the Arabs properly for the first time at the battle of Yarmouk in Syria in a battle that lasted for six days.  Rome lost Syria, but that was not a complete disaster.  Rome could survive without troublesome Syria.

But Egypt was another matter.  The loss of Egypt was a near deathblow to the Roman Empire.  Ultimately the Byzantine Empire could only survive by re-organisation of the entire economy.  The grain dole that marked out the highs of Roman Civilization had to cease when Egypt was lost.  Roman dominance of Mare Nostrum, the Mediterranean Sea ended as the Arabs gained a coastline with well defended harbours.

The Arabs by contrast, were unleashed.  Their cavalry thundered across the North African Deserts to Morocco and Spain.  Where horses and camels galloped the ships followed.  The failings of the Byzantines at Heliopolis were felt by Christians across the entire Western World.


Mad Mann

Gérard Dicks Pellerin 

Canadian author Elizabeth Smart was introduced to the English poet George Barker by Lawrence Durrell at a writers colony in Big Sur in California.  After an affair Smart became pregnant and returned to Ottawa to have the baby.  The married Barker tried to visit her but her father, a prominent lawyer, notified the American authorities who arrested Barker under the Mann act in 1940.

The Mann act, passed on this day in 1910, is an interesting piece of nominative determinism.  Also called the “White-Slave Traffic Act” it was designed to prevent the for-commerce transportation of female prostitutes.  The act was famously misused by authorities it its lifetime.  Jack Johnson the black boxer was arrested twice and convicted under the act for travelling with a white woman.  She later became his wife.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Chuck Berry, Charles Manson and Charlie Chaplin were also arrested under the act.

When the act was employed to frustrate the affair of two writers it spawned novels by both Smart and Barker.  Smart wrote the poetry prose novel  “By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept”, published in 1945.  Barker published “The Dead Seagull” in 1950.  The couple went on to have 4 of Barker’s 15 children together.

In a bizarre coincidence another Elizabeth Smart, a Mormon from Salt Lake City,  was abducted by Brian David Mitchell and  his wife Wanda Ileen Barzee in 2002.  Smart escaped nine months later and Mitchell was charged and convicted under the Mann act.

To my Mother; by George Barker

Most near, most dear, most loved and most far,
under the window where I often found her
sitting as huge as Asia, seismic with laughter,
gin and chicken helpless in her Irish hand,
irresistible as Rabelais, but most tender for
the lame dogs and hurt birds that surround her –
She is a procession no one can follow after
but be like a little dog following a brass band.

She will not glance up at the bomber, or condescend
to drop her gin and scuttle to a cellar,
but lean on the mahogany table like a mountain
whom only faith can move, and so I send
O all my faith, and all my love to tell her
that she will move from mourning into morning.

Brian Wilson – Music Genius

Dennis Wilson

Dennis: The Surfer Dude

Today is the birthday of Brian Wilson:  The Musical Genius, born this day in 1942.  When you think of the Beach Boys you probably think of Surfers, the Muscle Car Culture, driving the main drag and running around town with the best girls.

That was Dennis.  The only real surfer of the group.  The guy who hung out with Charlie Manson, who punched him in the throat.  The cool good looking guy who was selected for the photo shoots to portray the California Sound.

Brian looked like this:

Brian Wilson

Kind of like the awkward brother that you don’t want at your party.

But it was Brian who single-handedly crafted the legendary album that is Pet Sounds.  At the time  Pet Sounds was so far ahead of its time that people struggled to know what to make of it.  The Beach Boys didn’t want to make it, but they relented and the album was released to moderate success in May 1966.  Wilson was inspired to create Pet Sounds by the Beatles Album:  Rubber Soul.  The Beatles had the artistic standing to take full creative control and they were experimenting with psychedelia, using instruments like the Sitar, organ, fuzz bass and vari-speed piano.

Brian Wilson shook the music industry to its core, re-imagining what was possible from a studio recording.  When you are so far ahead of your time it takes talent to recognize your genius.

Many people believe that the Beatles Sergeant Pepper album recorded in 1966 was a direct response to Pet Sounds.  The timing of Sergeant Peppers came about because according to the Beatles they were done with touring.  When they reviewed their competition and the music industry trends Pet Sounds was top of their list.

Wilson challenged what was possible and the Beatles took up the challenge.  The response continued one of the greatest and most creative eras in the history of popular music.

Posterity has proven that the Beatles were right.  Wilson is a genius and his Pet Sounds album sits comfortably at the top end of any “Top Albums” rating.  And who doesn’t love goats?

Pet Sounds





Peak Consumerism


If you ask Irish people when they think consumerism was most out of control they will generally refer to the Celtic Tiger years of the early noughties, peaking in the property bubble of 2007 and the subsequent crash.

For me that was simply a repeat of the 1980’s.  My symbols of peak consumerism are Nouvelle Cuisine and Beaujolais Nouveau.

Nouvelle Cuisine was developed in France in the post war years in response to shortages of certain ingredients, but also in a quest for lighter, fresher and more elegantly presented food.  Nouvelle Cuisine attained its height of ridiculousness in the 1980’s when it reached the executive dining rooms of major corporations.  C-suite executives of the day were comparing heart bypass operations and it was clear that the culture of steaks, chips and pints after work was unsustainable.

Enter the Nouvelle Cuisine extreme version:  a fantastically expensive plate of up to a dozen ingredients presented like a work of art, but gone in two bites.

Nouvelle cuisine

Then, to go one further, we had the excesses of the Beaujolais Nouveau races.  Beaujolais Nouveau is a fresh wine, something to be consumed in the year it is made.  One wine critic described it as something unfinished, decadent and a bit naughty, like eating cookie dough.

It is a red wine served fresh and chilled slightly.  It is the perfect foil to nouvelle cuisine, new wine for new money.  Each year the producers set a day to release the wine, in November, and the races begin.  At the peak you would see helicopters delivering wine to restaurants in London, Concorde jetting it across the Atlantic to New York,  and a plethora of sports cars and private aircraft bringing caches to clubs all over Ireland and the UK.

Beujolais Nouveau was, and remains, an excuse to flash the cash for a fleeting fad.  Good wines cost hundreds of Euro because time is money and time in the bottle is required to ripen a claret or a port.  Beaujolais Nouveau costs hundreds because … loadsa money!  If you have it flash it.  Loadsamoney became a stock comedy character in the Harry Enfield show in the 1980s.  A barrow-boy become stock trader with no class but lots of cash.

In November 1984 nine Irish men died in the Beaujolais Crash in Eastbourne en-route to France to collect their stash.  On board were four journalists, a wine merchant, a restaurant owner,  hotel owner, hotel manager and the pilot.  For me that was the day when consumerism went out of control.

The seer and the seen


Yesterday was Richard Avedon’s birthday.   A couple of years ago Sharon Stone posted this photo of Richard and Herself at a photoshoot.  I just love everything about the photograph and what it says about both of them.

Richard Avedon was a photographer.  He made his living by looking at people.  He became a famous photographer because he could look at people insight-fully, see deeply into their psyche, and capture this in his work.

He is dressed for comfort, for work.  He is looking critically at Sharon.  She knows he is looking at her and she is reveling in his attention, but he is looking into her.

Sharon Stone is an Actress, and her career was built upon people looking at her.  Frankly her fame was built on men looking at her as an object of desire, a sex symbol.  To be successful she needed to command the male gaze.

Her most famous role was in the 1992 erotic noir thriller directed by Paul Verhoeven; Basic Instinct.  In her most famous scene the knickerless Stone crosses her legs during a police interrogation to present the audience with a momentary flash of her vagina.  To this day the arguments about that scene, filmed almost 20 years ago, continue to rage.  Did Stone give permission to Verhoeven?  Does the shot really show the Vagina or is it a shadow.  A generation of teenage boys wore out their parents VCR trying to prove or disprove that question.

For an actress who relies upon the male gaze for her fame it was the perfect path to international notoriety.  Avedon was asked his opinion of Stone and said:

Everything she said was in the hope of being quoted … The name-dropping was very smart. My portrait of John Ford. Chess with Art Buchwald. They’re professional charm-workers  .  .  . She has no interest in anyone else . . . She’s interested in the effect she has on you. When she thinks she sees her reflection in your eye, and I respond, she’s satisfied and changes the subject.”   From John Lars’ essay ‘Hide-and-Seek on p.46-47 of Richard Avedon’s ‘Performance’.

In the photograph above Stone is dressed in a sheer, revealing, transparent negligee.  She is on display to be looked at, and would be disgusted if any straight man was not looking.  Her fame is derived from the fact that they cannot resist.

Years ago I was flicking through a cartoon book and came across a page with a keyhole shape cut out.  In the gap of the keyhole you could see the outline of a beautiful woman.  The title above the keyhole was :  A Keyhole for Voyeurs.

Then you flicked over the page and now, instead of the woman you saw a drawing of an eye.  The title above the keyhole now read:  A Keyhole for Exhibitionists.

That cartoon, like all great cartoons, was a great commentary on the human condition.  For every sleazy voyeur who goes about peeking through keyholes there is an exhibitionist who wants to be seen.  This photograph removes the physical barrier of the door and the keyhole and captures this insight beautifully.




A flute girl plays at a Symposium

Lysander sailed into Piraeus, the exiles returned, and the walls were pulled down among scenes of great enthusiasm and to the music of flute girls. It was thought that this day was the beginning of the freedom for Greece…. Xenophon from “Hellenica”.

So ended the great Pelopennesian War between Athens and Sparta and their various allies, on April 25th 404 BC.  And there Xenophon paints a very interesting picture.  The walls in question were the long walls which linked Athens to the port of Piraeus.  The power of Athens was the sea, and access to the sea.  Admiral Lysander wanted to break that power forever.

Tearing down those walls “with enthusiasm” is understandable.  Without the long walls Athens could be severed from the sea by a competent land army like the Spartans.

The presence of the flute girls adds a rich and complex symbolism to the event.

I have heard people refer to the flute girls, the aulêtrides as prostitutes.  To do so is simply wrong.  Their role in Greek Society is far more nuanced and complex.  Athens had a formalised and taxed system of prostitution, introduced by the great lawmaker Solon.

At the bottom of the Athenian sex worker industry were the brothel prostitutes.  Called pornai they were generally barbarian slaves, the property of pimps, working under tight control, with no rights.

Marginally above the pornai you had street prostitutes who were ostensibly self-employed but in reality probably operated like modern street hookers.  They had some right of refusal and more freedom than the brothel prostitutes.

At the very top of the sex worker industry were the hetairai who were the equivalent of Japanese Geisha, courtesans or “escorts”.  The hetairai had long term and often exclusive arrangements with wealthy men.  They were expected to be cultured and somewhat educated.  There are references to relationships where the intellectual companionship was more important than the sexual contract.

Between the high level and very expensive hetairai and the low level street and brothel pornai was the shadowy world of temple prostitution, flute and harp girls.

When looking at the sex industry from a modern western perspective it can be difficult to conceptualise the role of sexuality in Greek religion.  Temples of Dionysus, Demeter and Aphrodite had sex workers who participated in rites.  But while there is widespread lurid speculation about these rites there is very little actually documented about them.  Dionysian rites involved intentional drunkenness as a path to attaining catharsis, and may also, in the manner of drunken people everywhere, have involved consenting sexual activity.  Whether actual Dionysian temple prostitutes participated in such activities is unknown.

I suspect the situation in the temples of Demeter and Aphrodite were entirely different.  The eleusinian rites of the temple of Demeter lasted until Christianity attained supremacy in the Roman Empire.  Every senior Roman of note appears to have participated, but again the rites themselves are undocumented.  There is great speculation that they involved low level rites of drunkenness and sex, and the higher mysteries.  These higher mysteries may also have involved an ancient form of LSD derived from ergot, a mould that grows naturally on wheat.

Activities in these temples likely involved issues such as contraception, child birth and fertility.  The problem of male infertility is easily remedied by a visit from a fertile “deity”.  The economics of prostitution depends upon avoiding conception, or having knowledge of abortion practices.  To this day these are issues that society struggles with from an ethical perspective.

But back to the flute girls!  Solon’s laws included a structure for the management, appointment and control of fee structures for Flute and Lyre players.  These “entertainers” were assigned to attend symposiums.

Today a symposium is a conference, often with academic connotations.  In Ancient Greece the symposium was an event that took place after a banquet.  It could range from an intellectual debate to a debauched party.  Several writers refer to the importance of ejecting the flute girls from a symposium if you wanted a serious debate.  This gives the impression that the flute girls acted in the role of party facilitators.

When the girls played their instruments it called a halt to “serious” conversation and signalled a relaxation phase of the night.  The image of the girl above is taken from a Krater, a large urn that was used to mix the wine and water for a night of drinking.

The flute girls were paid to attend the symposium and play music.  This did not mean they were necessarily prostitutes, although many of them were.  They clearly had the right to pick and choose their situation, and negotiate any “extras”.  They probably bribed the city officials to be selected for the better quality of symposium with the wealthier clients.

In his play Wasps Aristophanes character Philoclean abducts a flute girl from a party and tries to persuade her to have sex.  This is not the act of someone who has power to simply take or pay for a prostitute.  High status flute girls probably had more in common with courtesans like actresses or performers such as Nell Gwyn, Lily Langtry, Mata Hari or Lola Montez.  The luckiest might attain hetairai status.

While the pornai are clearly used for sex, the flute girl brings a skill set to the table which makes her role and presence more nuanced.   In the image on the Krater above she is fully clothed and the men appear to be listening to the music, waving arms in time.   The music may have had an important set of roles.  As already alluded to it served a boundary function moving the night from sober debate into relaxation.  The music itself, if loud enough, may have precluded further debate.  Music is a pathway to abandonment and a road to catharsis, especially when combined with wine.

For the ancient Greeks the balance between logic and emotion might be shifted through the use of music.  Many ancient Greek writers questioned the place of music education in the classroom because the school should be devoted to the mind and not the heart.

So Lysander probably hired the flute and lyre players to attend the destruction of the long walls.  These days it is difficult to decode his motivations, but it was not simply the provision of base prostitution to his soldiers.  Pornoi would have sufficed for that.

Did he want to signal a boundary, to mark an end to the pain of decades of war and a move to a happier time of relaxation?  Were there specific religious rites attendant upon the destruction of the walls?  Did the music serve a role in the appeasement of the Gods?  Or was he trying to appease the Athenians with “bread and circuses”?

Pet Day

Turf Stacks in Connemara

Turf Stacks in Connemara by Paul Henry

Today is a pet day.  It’s an expression we use in Ireland to describe a day when the weather is unexpectedly good for the season.  Although it is only April 11th this Easter Saturday is balmy and warm, the sun is shining, no clouds in the sky, the birds are singing, there is no wind.  A real pet day it feels like being in a Paul Henry painting.  Appropriate as Paul was born on this day in 1876.

So what am I doing here on my computer, writing my blog?  Fool!  Carpe Diem.

The flower that smiles to-day
to-morrow dies;
all that we wish to stay
tempts and then flies.
What is this world’s delight?
Lightning that mocks the night,
brief even as bright.

Virtue, how frail it is!
Friendship how rare!
Love, how it sells poor bliss
for proud despair!
But we, though soon they fall,
survive their joy, and all
which ours we call.

Whilst skies are blue and bright,
whilst flowers are gay,
whilst eyes that change ere night
make glad the day;
whilst yet the calm hours creep,
dream thou—and from thy sleep
then wake to weep.

Percy Bysshe Shelley