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.

 

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

 

 

 

 

The Pen and the Sword

lesmis

The 6th of June has seen many great days and is, currently, best known for D Day because we still have among us some of the men who stormed the beaches of Normandy in 1944.

Back in 1832 the 6th of June saw the crushing of the rebels in Paris during the June Rebellion, or the Paris Uprising.  The events were part of a confused series of Republican actions opposing the re-establishment of the Monarchy.  Many such actions have decayed in our memories as the participants died off.  But this one was immortalised when Victor Hugo framed his novel Les Misérables around the events.

This great novel of France was something I was aware of on the periphery in my youth, but there was never reason to read it or pay any particular attention to it.  It served simply as a literary reference.

Then in 1980 a French Musical version appeared in Paris written by Claude-Michel Schönberg (music), Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel (French Lyrics).  By 1985 an English language version with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer reached London and has been on stage there ever since.  It is the longest running West End musical and the second longest running musical in the world.

In 2012 it went on release as a big budget movie version becoming a multi-million dollar success story.

Two years later a schools adapted version was staged in the Ursuline College Thurles in 2014.  My daughter was cast variously as a washerwoman, prostitute, and a rebel on the barricade with minor lines throughout the show.  That was the first time I saw it.

I would suggest that people today know more about the Paris Uprising of 1832 than they know about the Normandy Landings in 1944.  There is a challenge for a quizmaster!

Here is a parody from Key & Peele, in which everything is wrong!

Key & Peele – Les Mis

 

 

 

Αὐλητής

Aulos

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”?

Ye goode olde dayes.

Myles_Birket_Foster_-_The_Country_Inn

The Country Inn: Myles Birket Foster

Born on this day in 1859 AE Housman was too old to serve in Flanders Field but he was a poet ahead of his time.  The sentimentality of his poetry conjures up the nostalgia of a bucolic idyll of an England that never was.  His verse was the poetic equivalent of the chocolate box art of John Constable and Myles Birket Foster.  His nostalgia for a simpler and more wholesome life is reflected in JRR Tolkien’s image of the Shire from Lord of the Rings.  I like the lyric from the Kinks “Muswell Hilbillies” which says “Take me back to the black hills where I ain’t never been”.

World War One began with the Jingoistic and Triumphalist doggerel of music hall verse singing of the glories of adventure:  It’s a long way to Tipperary!

It then moved towards sacrificial verse like Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” and of Housman which said “This is what we are fighting for”.

Eventually it descended into the true war poets like Sassoon, Owen and McCrae who expressed the absolute futility of young lives thrown away.

 

A Shropshire Lad 53; by A.E. Housman

The lad came to the door at night,
when lovers crown their vows,
and whistled soft and out of sight
in shadow of the boughs.

‘I shall not vex you with my face
henceforth, my love, for aye;
so take me in your arms a space
before the east is grey.

‘When I from hence away am past
I shall not find a bride,
and you shall be the first and last
I ever lay beside.’

She heard and went and knew not why;
her heart to his she laid;
light was the air beneath the sky
but dark under the shade.

‘Oh do you breathe, lad, that your breast
seems not to rise and fall,
and here upon my bosom prest
there beats no heart at all?’

‘Oh loud, my girl, it once would knock,
you should have felt it then;
but since for you I stopped the clock
it never goes again.’

‘Oh lad, what is it, lad, that drips
wet from your neck on mine?
What is it falling on my lips,
my lad, that tastes of brine?’

‘Oh like enough ’tis blood, my dear,
for when the knife has slit
the throat across from ear to ear
’twill bleed because of it.’

Dear Mr. Vernon

Image result for the breakfast club

Molly Ringwald was born February 18th, 1968.  A member of the bratpack which churned out a raft of John Hughes movies in the 1980’s and probably best remembered as the Princess in the Breakfast Club.

 

The Essay from the end of the movie:

Dear Mr. Vernon,

we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole saturday in detention for whatever it is we did wrong, but we think you’re crazy for making us write an essay telling you who we think we are.

You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.

But what we found out, is that each one of us is a brain,

and an athlete,

and a basketcase,

a princess,

and a criminal.

Does that answer your question?

Sincerely yours,

The Breakfast Club.

 

Cue Simple Minds “Don’t you forget about me” as the Breakfast Club 5 ride into the sunset.

 

Happy Birthday Eleanor Farjeon

Image result for eleanor farjeon

Born this day in 1881 Farjeon is best known as a childrens writer.  She is also the author of the Hymn “Morning Has Broken” set to an old Gaelic air, which was made famous by Cat Stevens, in 1971, six years after Eleanor passed away.

But she saw the men march off to war more than once and this is a very adult poem I give you.  Eleanor was good friends with the poet Edward Thomas who died in 1917 at Arras, and remained a lifelong friend of his widow, Helen, publishing their correspondence in 1958.

 

Now that You Too Must Shortly Go; by Eleanor Farjeon

Now that you too must shortly go the way
which in these bloodshot years uncounted men
have gone in vanishing armies day by day,
and in their numbers will not come again:

I must not strain the moments of our meeting
striving for each look, each accent, not to miss,
or question of our parting and our greeting,
is this the last of all? is this—or this?

Last sight of all it may be with these eyes,
last touch, last hearing, since eyes, hands, and ears,
even serving love, are our mortalities,
and cling to what they own in mortal fears:—
But oh, let end what will, I hold you fast
by immortal love, which has no first or last.

The Humble Herring

Image result for herring

I have to admit I was never a great fan of herring.  It’s those tiny pesky bones you get in small fish that annoyed me.  We had fresh herring regularly when I was a kid.  That was back in the days when eating fish on Friday was de-rigeur for Catholic families.

Herring was cheap.  So was Whiting, Mackerel and Cods Roe.  As a kid, at the elbow of my mother when she was shopping, you picked these things up.  So knowing it was cheap probably reduced its desirability in my young mind.

But more to the point, my mother would pan fry herrings or grill them and what made Friday special was deep fried fish and chips.  My favourite was deep fried smoked cod.

But herring was an engine of the Industrial Revolution, and in the time before we figured out canning it was one of the most important foods for armies.  So important that there was a Battle of the Herrings fought, on this day, in 1429.  During the Siege of Órleans a supply column was successfully defended from attack at the town of Rouvray to protect the vital supply of food to the English forces.

The English protector of the herrings was none other than Sir John Falstaff, made famous by the plays of Shakespeare.

Herrings were abundantly available in Northern Europe.  Until the modern era and the arrival of the Factory Trawler it seemed that they would never run short.  Herring stocks recover very quickly as they are a fast breeding fish.  The vast shoals were followed and harvested by great fleets of small fishing boats.  Fishermen derived their living from the abundance of this one fish.  Entire communities were engaged in the processing and preservation of the catch.

The fresh fish is still prized in Baltic countries where it is dipped in chopped onions and downed with a shot of aquavit or vodka.

But it is the fact that you can preserve the little oily fish easily that made them the staple of the working class populations.  First farm labourers, then soldiers and eventually poor industrial town populations relied heavily on this cheap and easily replenshed source of protein.

You can simply fillet them and salt them and store them in barrels.  That is probably what the English were defending at the battle of the herrings.  But you can also use a wide variety of other preservation techniques.  Pickling, fermenting and smoking of some variety turn into hundreds of local variants when you carry out some research.

So popular a fish it is of course celebrated in poem and song.  Here is the Clancy Brothers version of the highly popular “Shoals of Herring”

 

Shoals of Herring

The strange death of Claude Vivier

Image result for claude vivier

Claude Vivier was 34 when his body was found in his Paris flat on March 12th 1983.   The Canadian born classical music composer was a student of Karlheinz Stockhausen.  His music was concerned with life, death and the afterlife.

When his body was found there was a manuscript on the table for a work titled “Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele?” – (Do you believe in the immortality of the soul?).

The work describes how he takes a journey on the Metro and notices a handsome young man (yes Vivier was openly gay), and he becomes attracted to him.  The music ends with the sung line “then he removed a dagger from his jacket and stabbed me through the heart“.

Vivier had been stabbed to death 5 days earlier by a homeless french gay prostitute; Pascal Dolzan.