Friday, July 26, 2013

Happy Birthday, Mick Jagger & George Bernard Shaw

It's Mick Jagger's birthday---the Stones account has produced a video of him on stage through the years---and @BritishMuseum just reminded me it is also the birthday of George Bernard Shaw.  How poetic. 

The Irishman who wrote a lot about "marriage and the hypocrisies of monogamy"—and the Englishman who seems to agree on those two points, who is a Shavian man flecked with the attributes of the Superman, fleeing and embracing the LIFE FORCE (usually in supermodels), with an appetite that propelled him to superstardom—were born on the same day.

Mick Jagger is now 71 years old, and as we see, a remarkable life force in his own right. 

And some thoughts on Shaw and seeing Man and Superman at the Irish Rep.

"If men will not be faithful to their home and their duties, they must be made to be. I daresay you all want to marry lovely incarnations of music and painting and poetry. Well, you can't have them, because they don't exist. If flesh and blood is not good enough for you you must go without: that's all. 

Women have to put up with flesh-and-blood husbands---and little enough of that too, sometimes; and you will have to put up with flesh-and-blood wives. [The Devil looks dubious. The Statue makes a wry face.] I see you don't like that, any of you; but it's true, for all that; so if you don't like it you can lump it."

Ana, Don Juan in Hell, Man and Superman

I swear that last line was uttered by Joanie Cunningham on Happy Days.

But no, it's from George Bernard Shaw (1856 to 1950), a Victorian socialist and literary force of nature who does not have a broad cultural reach these days, even though his ideas and language are so very contemporary, even in our 21st century. He was the Irishman who emigrated to London for good at 20, following his mother after his parents divorced, and as an ex-pat wrote novels (which didn't do very well), music and literary criticism, political tracts, and 63 plays, 11 or so of which are absolute masterpieces of the stage. He died at 94, having witnessed Queen Victoria, World Wars 1 & 2, the very beginnings of rock 'n' roll, and clearly, having inspired Garry Marshall.

I learned about Shaw in high school, thanks to a used book my father picked up for me: Ellen Terry & Bernard Shaw: A Correspondence. I was very sensitive then that there were no famous L.N.s, an idea my dad wanted to disabuse me of (although the fact that he had to reach back to a prominent British stage actress to do it wasn't lost on me).

That's the thing about Shaw: his is the world of the Fabian Society, the founding of the London School of Economics, the likes of Terry Ellen, Henry Irving, Mrs. Patrick Campbell. It's a world not that well known today. His countrymen Oscar Wilde perhaps fares a little better, with revivals of his most Ernest pieces, keeping the drawing room comedy somewhat in the contemporary consciousness. And we've had some similar sparks with Stoppard's 1993 Arcadia wrapped in Chaos theory and Ayckbourn 's 1973 Norman Conquests. Each "rom coms for eggheads" as Terry Teachout said of the new revival of Man and Superman at the Irish Repertory Theatre that I saw last weekend. If I can inspire anyone, it would be to go see this excellent night of the theater.

So, We've All Seen Pygmalion

Shaw's best known play is Pygmalion (1912) because Lerner & Loewe set it to music, keeping whole chunks of original dialogue to bring us My Fair Lady.

GBS has several themes he comes back to again and again: the absurdity of the English class system and its rules; the struggles between men and women; the necessary independence of women (an early feminist), a horror of hypocrisy and religion; "free thinkers." What makes him a master playwright is that he does not sacrifice entertainment for his soap box. He verbal wit is thrilling, and he is able to use it in service to "the big ideas." It's actually very subversive to put across such challenging ideas in such a pleasing and funny way.

I have seen 4 of Shaw's plays, and they were all exquisite moments in the theater, perhaps because his writing demands the very best from actors.

Heartbreak House (1919, first performed in 1920): I saw this in London at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 1983 when my brother came to visit me. The cast: Diana Rigg, Rex Harrison, Rosemary Harris, Paxton Whitehead, Frank Middlemass, and Simon Ward. Just looking at the playbill still makes me skip a breath.

From Wiki: Heartbreak House is not often performed due to its complex structure, however it is argued that the genius of the play cannot be fully appreciated without seeing it in performance. Its subject-matter is the ignorance and indifference exhibited by the upper and upper-middle classes to the First World War and its consequences.

Arms and the Man: (1894). In 1985 John Malkovich directed a revival production at New York City's Circle in the Square Theatre starring Kevin Kline as Bluntschli, Glenne Headly as Raina and Raúl Juliá as Sergius.

Taking its title from the first line of the Aeneid, Arma Virumque Cano, it's a polemic on the futility of war, but the characters are so funny you are dazzled, and when its Kevin and Raul, well, the words sweep you off your feet.

Mrs. Warren's Profession: The play about prostitution where the word is never mentioned. Performed at the Irish Repertory 2006.

Man and Superman
A drawing-room comedy that goes to Spain, then Hell and Back again, finds John Tanner, a rich political-philosopher, his ward, Ann Whitefield, who has set her sights on him, which makes him flee for his life, and their small world of friends and family. Shaw had been asked to write something about the historic/literary Don Juan, and he alit on the Mozart opera with its Donna Ana, the charming Devil, and the Statue of the Commendatore, who drags him down to hell, all within a drawing-room comedy.

Heaven and Hell are much bantered about in Superman. As written, the scene, a dream sequence no less, is an hour and half long, with very long monologues from the Devil with GBS's view that H & H are simply a matter of sensibility and temperament. (You can read the entire act here.) The people in Hell find Heaven boring, and could move up if they so wanted. Of course the ghosts of Wagner and Nietzche waft into the scene to, which is a little blah, blah, blah to me, but still the twists and turns in the dialogue are so entertaining that I don't mind the philosophical musings (which is a G-rated word for it).

The other big theme is that of the Life Force, which George sees as animating women to trap men into marriage. He believes it has never been the man who seeks the woman, beyond the most base and basic seduction. It may be noted that Shaw married a fellow Fabian who so fervently did not want to bear children that the marriage was never consummated, and Shaw had a series of affairs with other married women. Free thinking indeed.

[Updated from 2012.]

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Moonlanding Day: Witnessing that Small & GIant Step. Thanks Dad.

On July 20, 1969, at 8:00 p.m. I had to go to bed, just like any other night.

But at 10:30 p.m., my father woke my brother and me up. It’s one of the kindest things he ever did for us, making sure that since we were on the planet, we would see this event to top all events live, not just in replay.

I was in a dead sleep when he came to wake me. I remember getting up, completely groggy, and being freezing. We got downstairs, and I was so cold my dad got a blanket to wrap me in. My mom had wine glasses filled with Tom Collins soda for us. The images on the little black and white tv were shadowy, but defined.

I don’t remember us talking much. but it didn’t matter. The family was together, waaay past my bedtime, joining the world in watching a man broadcasting images from the surface of the moon. It’s the kind of first-person experience for which there is no substitution.

I had watched all the lead-up to coverage the whole day, some of which I actually remember. I know it was the first time I saw the Melies Brothers, A Trip to the Moon. 

I don't think I ever fully woke up at 10:30pm. I probably stayed up until midnight and then went back to bed. But I cherish those moments of first witness like no other because it was a celebration of one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments. Most other “where were you” moments are of death and destruction.

Fly Me to the Moon
Ever since Leto gave birth to Apollo and Artemis, the Sun and the Moon have filled our thoughts and helped to inform our longings. When I see the moon rise in my living room window, I marvel at its mutability: sometimes appearing low and large in the sky, sometimes red and small.

Shelley wrote a winsome poem about the orb, so quietly powerful that it sets the tides and rules the cycles of women:

Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?

And Van Heusen and Burke wrote a lovely song “Moonlight Becomes You,” that Crosby owned.

“If I say I love you
I want you to know
It’s not just because there’s moonlight
Although, moonlight becomes you so.”

The issues surrounding NASA and the space program are serious ones. But on each anniversary, it’s enough to honor the vision, and accomplishment, of the first humans to visit the Sea of Tranquility.

Friday, July 19, 2013

They'll Always Be an England: Poet of the Most Famous Cricket Poem Is Also a Jack the Ripper Suspect

 “More than any other sport, cricket is a lesson in civility.” “I cannot be the first to wonder if what we see when we see men in white take to a cricket field, is men imagining an environment of justice.” 

                                                                       Joseph O'Neill, Netherland

My twitter feed is alive with the sound of cricket tweets from both England and Australia supporters.

I enjoy reading all #Ashes tweets, although I remain amongst the baffled by the sport. I enjoyed all the descriptions of Lord Peter's prowess on the field in Murder Must Advertise, and the Inspector Morse episode "Deceived by Flight" (Morse: People are dying out there. Even cricket needs to come to a stop") but I've never gotten the whole picture of what's going on.

Yet, as the test matches have now moved to the hallowed Lord's, (July 18 to 22), I know this is the time to cast a kind thought on Francis Thompson, the late-nineteenth century English ascetic who wrote the most famous poem about cricket; wrote one of the most fevered and thoughtful essays on Shelley; and is on the standard list of Jack the Ripper suspects.  That is one crazy Albion trifecta.

The Hound of Heaven Leads us to Lord's
I first came across Thompson in an anthology of Catholic poets for his most famous poem of all, the “Hound of Heaven,” a compelling mystic vision of a soul running from the grace of God.

I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

Francis Thompson was born in Lancashire in 1859 to parents who were Catholic converts, no light matter in England. He studied for the priesthood as a young man, but was rejected by the seminary director. His father was a doctor, and Francis went to medical school for six years in Manchester. He failed the medical examinations three times (more about that later) because he didn’t have enough interest in the science classes.

His mother gave him De Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater when he was 18, and his desire for creative release lead him to laudanum until he was a full-blown addict. He moved to London in the hopes of becoming a writer, but he was a tortured soul who couldn’t navigate daily life and he spent years living on the streets. Through the fog he managed to submit some poems to Merrie England, edited by husband and wife Wilfred and Alice Meynell. Wilfred was deeply impressed and published several. Thompson thus came under the care of this couple, who did what they could to help him.

Shortly before his death in 1907, Wiki tells us that Thompson was invited to watch Lancashire play Middlesex at Lord’s. He became so nostalgic for the days of the great cricketers Hornby and Barlow that he stayed home and wrote the poem “At Lord’s”--considered the sport's most famous verse--rather than attend the match.

It’s fascinating that a man who himself is repeatedly described as “unbalanced” would have such a passion for cricket, whose very essence is order and justice, as O'Neill described. The contrast gets even more odd when we learn that some people think he is an infamous serial killer.

But first, the first stanza of the great  “At Lord’s”, which has given rise to several book titles on the sport of cricket.

It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
Though my own red roses there may blow;
It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,
Though the red roses crest the caps, I know.
For the field is full of shades as I near a shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host
As the run stealers flicker to and fro,
To and fro:
O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago !

Overwrought, Yes, but Jack the Ripper?
In 1999, Richard Patterson proposed the theory that Francis Thompson is Jack the Ripper:

"Francis Thompson had a violent childhood, doomed medical school training, and a continual fascination with death. Thompson’s life and verse reflect his downward drug induced spiral into vagrancy. In 1888 Thompson was suicidal, and in possession of a dissecting scalpel. He was living near the murder scene in the West India docks, and he had been homeless man for three years. During the murders, he was seeking out a prostitute for whom he had a fancy. Upon meeting Thompson she vanished and he became delirious all during the very time of the Whitechapel murders."

Patterson also has an elaborate theory that the murders were committed on certain Catholic saints feast days, and that there is a religious connection that hasn’t been looked at before. (He doesn’t seem to know that you can find a Catholic saint’s day on nearly all 365 days of the year, so that’s not much of an argument.)

He has other “evidence,” including Thompson joking in a letter that he needs to start shaving with a razor rather than the scalpel he usually uses, and there is some handwriting similarities between he and the Ripper. Overall Patterson is not very persuasive, but it is an odd fate for a poet to end up on the Ripper suspect list  at all.

"The Saddest Records"
Thompson tried to commit suicide as a young man. Supposedly Chatterton came to him in a vision and convinced him not to. Well, of course he did, Chatterton being the strange 18th century talented misfit prodigy who was a poetry forger--writing poems and passing them off as medieval in origin--before taking his own life at 17.

Thompson died at 48 from tuberculosis. Here's a passage from his essay on Shelley, where he empathizes with the difficult life of poets:

Why indeed (one is tempted to ask in concluding) should it be that the poets who have written for us the poetry richest in skiey grain, most free from admixture with the duller things of earth--the Shelleys, the Coleridges, the Keats--are the very poets whose lives are among the saddest records in literature?

You had a tough time too, Francis.

An Addendum In a Lighter Vein:

The Anglican Psalm Chant for the Rules of cricket (via Di Pereira)

(Photo above from The Guardian, Tony Jenkins. The Queen greets players at first day at Lord's)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Justin Timberlake & Andrew Niccol's Homage to Bond, Just "In Time"

I'm usually two years behind most first-run movies, and so I just saw Andrew Niccol's 2011 In Time, starring Justin Timberlake & Amanda Seyfried, pretty much, on time.

The philosophical premise of "time" as an absolute commodity is interesting, but for me, not the point. The film is a delightful pop culture bauble, written by someone who demonstrates a true fan's knowledge and love of echoes and quotes that resonate with inside references to pop culture movies and TV.

I'm not talking about the similarity of the premise to Logan's Run and more than a bunch of other sci fi stories, which many people have pointed out. I mean other elements of the film that have been overlooked.

The Homage to Quantum of Solace
The most endearing is the homage to Quantum of Solace (2008). (Not so surprising, since Betsy Sharkey in the LA Times wrote, "In Time was supposed to turn Timberlake into a superhero . . . ")

•Timberlake's character's last name is "Salas" which is the American phonetic pronounciation of "solace." I thought he was saying "solace" until I saw the character name in IMDB.

•At the Greenwhich party, Timberlake gets to say "Salas. Will Salas." at the poker table.

•The silver Astin Martin-like car.

•Fleeing the Greenwich party with true Bonded choreography.

•The visual quote of Daniel Craig and Olga Kurylenko in evening dress walking through the desert to escape the bad guys (which is itself an Antonioni visual), mirrored by Timberlake's tuxedo and Seyfried's black dress. The kids are running, where the adults are walking, but age has its privileges.  I also love the detail that Amanda never takes off those enormous heels, whereas Olga is carrying hers.

Beyond the Bond homage there is:

•The panoply of TV established actors: Thirteen (House), Pete Campbell (Mad Men), Neal Caffrey (White Collar), and Leonard Hofstadtler (The Big Bang Theory).

•Salas has the line, "I'd say 'Your money or your life' but your money is your life."

OMG. Who quotes Jack Benny now, ever? It didn't even make IMDB's quotes list for the film, but it's a line that had resonance for most of the second half of the last century. Wiki has the history of the line.

•The whole, "Is she my wife, my mother, my daughter?" from Pete Campbell echoes Chinatown 

Mr. Niccols, the New Zealand native who brought us The Truman Story in a another decade, wrote the script as well as directed. I like how he thinks.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

National Days, a Mystery Song, & Gordon Sinclair

Many people aren't in the mood for a "rah-rah" American post this morning, following the Zimmerman verdict. I like what Ta-Nehisi Coates has to say a lot. Though our legal system is flawed,  it is still one of the great ones in the world.

I know today is what the English speaking countries call Bastille Day, commemorating the famous storming thereof in 1789. Wiki says the French don't refer to the fortress at all. For them it is La Fete Nationale, or Le quatorze juillet, and they are celebrating the whole idea of the birth of the Republic.

But I missed Canada Day, July 1, celebrating the anniversary of 1867 when the British American colonies  Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Province of Canada became the country Canada within the British Empire. And Canada Day would have been the perfect time for this post, except I didn't yet have the knowledge I needed yet. Hence segueing from the French.

As an aside, I'd like to say "hi" and "thank you" to the many Canadian readers of this blog. I'm looking at you, Moncton, NB; Vancouver, BC; Montreal, Saint-Eustache, Chateauguay, Quebec; and Ottawa & Toronto, Ontario.

Memories of a National Embarrassment and a Song
The Guardian started publishing its series of revelations about the NSA spying in June 6, and the scandal unfolded throughout the month, with Edward Snowden being charged by U.S. federal prosecutors with espionage and theft of government property on June 14.

The revelation of this spying is another in a long line of disappointments in our government. My mind harkened back to Watergate, which I experienced as a child. I was not a budding news junkie, but I knew something bad for the country had happened.

And that memory was tied to a dim but nagging memory of a novelty patriotic song. Not really a song, more like speaking a song with some music. I thought it had something to do with the energy crisis, and my impression was it was a counterbalance to the badness of Watergate.

One line that stuck with me was something like, "do we hide our scandals? No, we put them on the front page for all to see." And I vaguely remembered "America the Beautiful" playing at the end.

So I started asking friends and family of a certain age with, prompting them with my little shards of factoids, and


It was the strangest thing that nobody, even people with big knowledge of popular music, had even the vaguest notion of this song.

Could I have made it up? It seemed so real.

Mystery Solved: "The Americans"
So I started googling: 1970s, patriotic song, watergate, and all permutations.

Got lots of hits, but none of them were it: "Proud to be an American." Dickie Goodman parody songs. John Wayne speaking different songs.

Then I asked my brother, and he found it.

It was a record of an actual Canadian broadcast by a commentator named Gordon Sinclair. (Born in Toronto in 1900, there is lots of information at the site for the Gordon Sinclair Foundation, which gives yearly journalism awards.)

On June 5, 1973, on his usual CFRB radio show, he lambasted "the world" for not appreciating "The Americans," which is what the commentary came to be known as, and for not offering help whenever they were in crisis.

For him, it was just one show of thousands, but it took on a life of its own.  It was as though one of Any Roony's 60 Minutes segments went seriously viral.

There are various versions about just how it happened. One is that Sinclair had read in the paper that morning that the American Red Cross was bankrupt, and he was disgusted that no country was stepping in to help, and so his diatribe.

Anchor Bryon MacGregor then read a transcript of the show on CKLW in Ontario (also reaching Detroit), and U.S. News & World Reports published a full transcript.

Demand for a copy of the speech was so high a Canadian record label released it with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" as soundtrack, and an American label with "America the Beautiful."

From Wiki:  "The Americans (A Canadian's Opinion)" went to #24 on the Billboard Hot 100, making the 73-year-old Sinclair the 2nd-oldest living person ever to have a Billboard U.S."

All the ones on YouTube are the Canadian version, so I still haven't actually heard the song as I did in the 1970s. It ran on AM radio in its heyday, which is why I heard it so many times.

The line about Watergate that I remembered is

You talk about scandals and the Americans put theirs right in the store window for everyone to look at.

When the Americans get out of this bind ... 

They will come out of this thing with their flag high.

It was odd and eerie to hear that strong, distinctive voice again on the YouTube uploads. I have no emotional connection to the piece or to Sinclair, but I had such a clear idea of it in my head, with no resonance from any one I asked, and then it was found. I had not understood the song as a kid, and clearly didn't get that it was a Canadian talking about US. There's lots more complexity behind the politics of what he's talking about (what were we really doing in Nicaragua?), but you can appreciate some of the big picture he's talking about.

Sinclair later remarked he was tired of the phenomenon of this one piece, and regretted the errors that were in it, but said he stood behind the perspective. He died in 1984.

Here is a transcript and the Canadian version of the record.

"The Americans: A Canadian's Opinion" 

The United States dollar took another pounding on German, French and British exchanges this morning, hitting the lowest point ever known in West Germany.

It has declined there by 41% since 1971 and this Canadian thinks it is time to speak up for the Americans as the most generous and possibly the least-appreciated people in all the earth.

As long as sixty years ago, when I first started to read newspapers), I read of floods on the Yellow River and the Yangtse. Who rushed in with men and money to help?

The Americans did.

They have helped control floods on the Nile, the Amazon, the Ganges and the Niger. Today, the rich bottom land of the Misssissippi is under water and no foreign land has sent a dollar to help.

Germany, Japan and, to a lesser extent, Britain and Italy, were lifted out of the debris of war by the Americans who poured in billions of dollars and forgave other billions in debts. None of those countries is today paying even the interest on its remaining debts to the United States.

When the franc was in danger of collapsing in 1956, it was the Americans who propped it up and their reward was to be insulted and swindled on the streets of Paris. I was there. I saw it.

When distant cities are hit by earthquakes, it is the United States that hurries into help... Managua Nicaragua is one of the most recent examples. So far this spring, 59 American communities have been flattened by tornadoes. Nobody has helped. The Marshall Plan .. the Truman Policy .. all pumped billions upon billions of dollars into discouraged countries. Now, newspapers in those countries are writing about the decadent war-mongering Americans. I'd like to see one of those countries that is gloating over the erosion of the United States dollar build its own airplanes. Come on... let's hear it!

Does any other country in the world have a plane to equal the Boeing Jumbo Jet, the Lockheed Tristar or the Douglas 107? If so, why don't they fly them? Why do all international lines except Russia fly American planes?

Why does no other land on earth even consider putting a man or women on the moon? You talk about Japanese technocracy and you get radios. You talk about German technocracy and you get automobiles. You talk about American technocracy and you find men on the moon, not once, but several times ... and safely home again.

You talk about scandals and the Americans put theirs right in the store window for everyone to look at.  Even the draft dodgers are not pursued and hounded. They are here on our streets, most of them ... unless they are breaking Canadian laws..are getting American dollars from Ma and Pa at home to spend here.

When the Americans get out of this bind ... as they will... who could blame them if they said 'the hell with the rest of the world'. Let someone else buy the Israel bonds, Let someone else build or repair foreign dams or design foreign buildings that won't shake apart in earthquakes.

When the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central went broke, nobody loaned them an old caboose. Both are still broke. I can name to you 5,000 times when the Americans raced to the help of other people in trouble. Can you name me even one time when someone else raced to the Americans in trouble?

I don't think there was outside help even during the San Francisco earthquake. Our neighbours have faced it alone and I am one Canadian who is damned tired of hearing them kicked around.

They will come out of this thing with their flag high. And when they do, they are entitled to thumb their nose at the lands that are gloating over their present troubles. I hope Canada is not one of these. But there are many smug, self-righteous Canadians.

And finally, the American Red Cross was told at its 48th Annual meeting in New Orleans this morning that it was broke. This year's disasters .. with the year less than half-over… has taken it all and nobody...but nobody... has helped.

* * *

Wiki said that it was brought back after 9/11, but I never heard it then, which is surprising, being one of the few people of my generation who had remembered it at all.