Leda

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The latest addition to my family, my grand-niece Leda.

My first concern is that she not get too friendly with Swans.  Last time that happened a pretty little girl was born, and married Menelaus the Mycenean King of Sparta.  Helen of Sparta is not how we remember her, for Paris, son of Priam, stole her away to his home city.  And so we remember her as the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Illium.

Illium was the ancient name for the city of Troy, so Helen of Troy was daugher of Leda.  But who was the father of this child with the dreadful fate?  It was Zeus himself, who raped Leda, in the guise of a male swan.

And the brother of Menelaus?  The dread Agamemnon King of Mycenae itself, ruler of all the Achaeans as the Greeks called themselves in those days.  From this followed ten years of war.  Ajax and Achilles, Hector and Aeneas, wily Odysseus and his Trojan Horse.  Death and destruction as the Gods themselves engaged in the battle of the great Homeric Epic.

Calling a daughter Leda can come to no good I say.  But I am Cassandra and they shall not listen.

Leda and the Swan; by W.B. Yeats

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
by the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
the feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
but feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
the broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
so mastered by the brute blood of the air,
did she put on his knowledge with his power
before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

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Topless towers burnt down

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Was this the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium? asked Christopher Marlowe in Dr Faustus.

Ilium, the city of Troy, canvas of heroes.  On the fields of Troy Homer introduced us to Ajax, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Priam, Hector, Paris and a cast of thousands.  Achilles the almost invincible and his lover Patroclus.  Cassandra who saw the future but was cursed never to be believed.  The wily Odysseus, AKA Ulysses and his 20 year journey home.  The seeds planted in Troy have germinated and multiplied to inspire a wealth of literature from ancient to modern times.

The Julii Caesares, who gave us Caesar and Augustus, claimed descent from the hero Aeneas who fled from burning Troy with his bride, a daughter of Priam.  Virgil made a career of that tale in the court of the First Emperor of Rome.

It was ostensibly on this day, April 24th in the year 1184 BC that Troy was sacked and burned by the Greeks.  For many that was as far as the myth went.  Then Heinrich Schliemann, a German Businessman, decided that there was no smoke without fire.  So he read Homer as a travel guide instead of as a legend.  He followed the clues and lo and behold he found the ancient city.  Burned, exactly as described.

He bedecked his wife in the jewelry he found there and put her on display for high society to see.  Then he followed more clues and found the tomb of Agamemnon at Mycenae.  A new form of archaeology was born and led to many discoveries all over the world.  Today the science has evolved to the point where Satellite images from earth orbit are being used to search for ancient sites.

 

No Second Troy; by William Butler Yeats

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
with misery, or that she would of late
have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
or hurled the little streets upon the great,
had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
that nobleness made simple as a fire,
with beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
that is not natural in an age like this,
being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?

Sprite

Lutine Bell in Lloyd's of London

Lutine Bell in Lloyd’s of London

The french word “lutin” is translated as “imp” in English.  The feminine form is usually translated as a “sprite”. In truth the realm of the faery world is poorly understood by humans and it is difficult to nail down exactly what a sprite is.  Sprites can be fairies, imps, pixies, elves, dryads and so on.

To my mind the correct translation of Lutine should be Nymph, a nubile female spirit who is associated with water.  There were nymphs associated with lakes, pools and rivers, but also nymphs of the sea.  The most famous of these were the Nereids and in particular Thetis, who married Peleus and gave birth to Achilles.

The name Lutine was given to a frigate of the Royal French Navy.  Originally called the “St Jean” she was berthed at Toulon during the siege that made the reputation of Napoleon.  The British under Admiral Hood took the ship and renamed her the HMS Lutine.

In Oct 1799 the Lutine was carrying gold bullion to Germany when she went aground on a sandbank in the West Frisian Islands.  She sank with total loss of crew and cargo with only one survivor from a crew and passengers numbering over 240.  Also lost was the shipment of gold.  Despite many attempts only a fraction of the bullion has been recovered.

Some timbers from the ship were salvaged and made into a chair for the Chairman at Lloyd’s who bore the insurance.  Also salvaged was the Lutine bell, which hangs in Lloyd’s to this day, where it marks especially important occasions.

Originally the Lutine Bell was rung to mark the fate of an overdue vessel to the trading community, so that everyone would get the information at the same time.  It rang once for a loss and twice for a safe return.  The bell now has a crack and the practice of ringing for returned ships has ceased.

During the second world war the German propagandist Lord Haw Haw quipped that the Lutine bell never stopped ringing during the war of the Atlantic.  In actual fact it rang only once during the war, when the Royal Navy sank the Bismarck

No man is an island,
entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
for I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
for whom the bell tolls,
it tolls for thee.

……………………John Donne

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Mind Bending

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I enjoy writers who challenge the way we see the world, and give us a new way to perceive our reality.

A lot of people say they would like to be taller, but it turns out they only want to be a tiny bit taller.  Play “would your rather” and ask if you would you rather be 3 feet taller, or 3 feet smaller!  That is revealing.

Gene Wolfe challenges firmly held conceptions brilliantly in his “Book of the New Sun” series.  He describes dawn in terms of the horizon slipping below the arc of the sun, rather than the sun rising over the horizon.  Throughout his work he challenges the way we look at the world.  He even manages to engender our sympathy for the “Guild of Torturers” as they carry out their work on the condemned.

It is interesting how we celebrate our lives in the time from birth to present.  Funny how sinister it sounds when you point out to a person on their birthday that they are one year closer to the grave.

Time is relative to what you do with it.  A school clock moves only five minutes in every twenty whereas party time clocks always seem to register half an hour in only ten minutes.  The famous choice of Achilles is a prime example of this:  a long and dull life or one that is short, exciting and leaves a reputation that endures forever?  When people ask me if I find my commute to be long I turn it around.  Commuting is just like life, it is not how long you spend on the train that counts, it is how enjoyable you find that time, how productively you use it, whether you engage with others or create barriers to communications.  Me?  I love the train.

Another interesting choice faced Tithonus.  He was granted enteral life by Zeus on the request of his lover Eos, the titan of the dawn (Aurora to the Romans).  But she forgot to ask for eternal youth.  Eventually, when crippled and bent, she could no longer look upon him and had him sealed away.  In some tellings of the tale he was transformed into a Cicada, and spends eternity chirping, asking for death.

Trafalgamorians from Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut are a race for whom time does not exist.  There is no past, no future and no concept of causality.  Everything happens in the moment, and we can move forwards and backwards in time at will and visit any moment of existence at any time.  If you can move backwards in time, how can your ‘past’ actions influence your ‘future’?  That is a powerful concept for a novel.

It is also a theme that was explored by Heinlein in “Stranger in a Strange Land”.  He explains how human speech is too bounded in concepts of time and place for his “Stranger” who is more comfortable with biblical style prose such as “is now and will be for all time to come”.

Seafarer; by Archibald MacLeish

And learn O voyager to walk

The roll of earth, the pitch and fall

That swings across these trees those stars:

That swings the sunlight up the wall.

And learn upon these narrow beds

To sleep in spite of sea, in spite

Of sound the rushing planet makes:

And learn to sleep against this ground.

Eris; discord and strife

Peleus, one of the Argonauts, is one of the more interesting characters in Greek mythology.  After his adventures with Heracales and the Amazons and Jason and the Golden Fleece he settled down to marry Antigone.  After a hunting accident he was purified of the killing of King Eurytion (his father in law) by another Argonaut, Acastus.

The wife of Acastus, Astydamia fell in love with Peleus, but he scorned her.  In retribution she sent a messenger to Antigone telling her that her husband was marrying another, and Antigone hanged herself.

She also told her husband that Peleus had tried to rape her (not a nice lady).  Acastus took Peleus hunting and stole his sword so that he would be killed by the Centaurs.  But Peleus got his sword back, sacked the city that had tried to kill him, chopped up Astydamia in to little pieces, and marched his army between the bits.

Peleus then went on to marry Thetis the sea nymph and a shape changer.  Peleus had to sneak up on her when she was asleep and bind her tight.  She changed into flame, a lioness, water and a serpent, but he clung on tightly.  At last she settled down and agreed to marry him.  The child of Peleus and Thetis was Achilles.

But we are here today because of their wedding.  Lots of Gods and Goddesses were invited to the wedding, in particular Aphrodite, Athena and Hera.  Eris, the goddess of strife and discord, was not invited, because she was always causing trouble!  She was very upset and in response she tossed the “Apple of Discord” into the middle of the celebration.

The golden apple from the Garden of the Hesperides was inscribed “for the fairest one”.  So the ladies started fighting over who should get it.  The job of awarding the apple was given to the hapless Paris of Troy.

Hera bribed him with power, the Kingship of Europe and Asia.  Athene bribed him with wisdom.  Aphrodite won the bet by offering him the most beautiful mortal woman in the world, Helen, wife of Menelaus of Sparta.  The result was the Trojan War.

So it all came down to not inviting Eris to the wedding!  On January 5th in 2005 the Palomar Observatory discovered a new planet that they named “Eris”.  True to her name she sowed discord amongst the astronomical community.  Larger than Pluto she was originally posited as the 10th planet.  Then the rules were changed in 2006 and the designation of “Dwarf Planet” was introduced.  Pluto lost status as a planet and was demoted to join with Eris, Ceres, Haumea and Makemake.

Epic; by Patrick Kavanagh

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.

Scuttled

Pocket Battleship Admiral Graf Spee

Pocket Battleship Admiral Graf Spee

On Dec 17th 1939 the first naval engagement of world war 2 ended with the scuttling of the Admiral Graf Spee after the Battle of the River Plate.  This was a triumph of British Diplomacy and deception.

The diplomats put constant pressure on the Uruguayan government to force the German Heavy Cruiser to leave the port of Montevideo where she wished to remain to effect repairs.  At the same time the British mounted a campaign of deception to convince Captain Langsdorff that the British had a fleet waiting in the estuary to destroy his ship.  He knew that the Argentinians would give him a better welcome if he could cross the Plate to Buenos Aires.

The British had a squadron en route to the Plate, but they were days away.  They had cargo vessels make smoke across the skyline to fool the Germans into believing that a large squadron was waiting for them. Langsdorff fell for the ruse and scuttled his ship.

A decent and honourable man, Hans Langsdorff adhered to the terms of the Hague Conventions and in the course of his commerce raiding campaign he killed none of the sailors on the ships he sank.  After he sank his own ship he secured the safety of his own men before committing suicide, lying on the battle flag of his command.  Symbolically he went down with his ship.

Some naval analysts criticize Langsdorff for squandering his advantage in the Battle of the Plate.  His 11 inch guns were more than a match for the 8 inch guns of the Exeter and the 6 inch guns of the Ajax and Achilles.  A more aggressive captain might have gone toe to toe with the British squadron and could have sunk all three ships.  Langsdorff clearly saw his role as a raider of commerce.  In this capacity it made sense to avoid engagements with battleships.

I think his strategy was to “run away and fight another day”.  A battle cruiser at large on the open ocean is far more potent than a single victory in battle.  While free the Graf Spee tied down 9 British forces which were assigned to hunt her down.

In the Battle of the River Plate a chance shot from the Exeter damaged the Graf Spee’s fuel cleaning system.  It was unlikely that she would be able to operate effectively without significant repairs, and due to British pressure these repairs were never going to be made in Uruguay.  His primary concern was clearly for his men and by scuttling the vessel he succeeded in getting them safely to Argentina.

O Captain! my Captain; by Walt Whitman

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

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O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up–for you the flag is flung–for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths–for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

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My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

Choices

In our lives we face many choices.  Some we get right, some we get wrong.  What defines us is how we deal with the negative outcomes.  Do I play victim, or do I accept responsibility for my choice, embrace it and move on?

There are many types of choices.  Some of them we claim are not a choice at all.  This is especially useful if you want to play victim in your life.  “I had no real choice” is a great excuse.

Hobsons Choice

Thomas Hobson (1544-1631)was the operator of a livery stable in Cambridge, England. When asked for a horse to hire, Hobson would bring the customer a single option, the next horse in his rotation. The customer’s “choice” was then essentially “to take it or leave it,” in other words no choice at all.  Or was it?  Hobson’s Choice is still a choice.  In “The Godfather” Hobsons Choice is represented by the statment “The Don made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”

Achilles Choice

In Homer’s Iliad, the Greek hero Achilles tells the embassy that wants him to return to the battle against the Trojans that he has been given an important choice in his life.

“My mother, the goddess Thetis of the silver feet, has told me that
a dual-fate carries me until the day of my death.
If I remain here and wage war against the city of Troy,
I will never survive to go home, but my fame will be immortal.
Yet if I leave here to return to my dear homeland,
I shall have no noble fame, but my life will be long
and the end of death will not reach me quickly.” (Iliad 9.410-416)

Achilles choice is a great dinner party ice breaker.  Which would you choose, a long, content but unremarkable life, or to go out in a blaze of glory and be remembered forever?

Sophie’s Choice

Another choice we face might be termed as “the lesser of two evils”.  In the Odyssey the hero must choose to travel nearer Scylla or Charybdis, each a potential killer.  In the movie “Sophie’s Choice” the heroine must choose to keep either her son or her daughter as she enters Auschwitz camp.  Failure to choose results in both being taken away.  So she chooses, and let’s face it, it is not a choice that you can NOT regret.  We often call such a situation being “between a rock and a hard place” or being “between the devil and the deep blue sea.”

The latter, I believe is from sailing lore.  The “devil” is the longest seam on a wooden ship.  If it needed to be caulked when underway the caulker was suspended in a very difficult position!

Mortons Fork

A specious piece of reasoning where contradictory arguments lead to the same (unpleasant) conclusion. It is said to originate with the collecting of taxes by John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury in the late 15th century.  He visited lords with his entourage, and they could either plead poverty, and entertain him modestly, or they could try to win him over with their generosity and hospitality.  He held that a man living modestly must be saving money and could therefore afford taxes, whereas if he was living extravagantly then he was obviously rich and could still afford them.  We might also call this choice “being on the horns of a dilemma.”

Lawyers often try to impale a witness or defendant on a Mortons Fork.  My favourite is a question phrased such as “Stop evading the question, answer the court with a Yes or a NO, do you still beat your wife?”

So we face some difficult choices in life, and ultimately the real choice we face is how to deal with the aftermath.  Do you moan and wail or do you shrug your shoulders, brush off the dirt and get back on the horse?

One Art; by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant to travel.
None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.