Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ho ho ho

My new book is out, has been in stores here for exactly a week now. Happily it is doing really well and the first review is expected on Friday and the head‘s up I have received says it will be good. I cannot say how much of a relief that is as I am always very skeptical of my work at the time of releasing a manuscript and cannot tell if it is good or garbage. When I get positive feedback from those involved in the editing process I usually find myself thinking that they have gone bananas. But thankfully this book is not going to be the one that tanks, the one that is somewhere in my future, hopefully distant one at that.

For publicity reasons I had to do a photo shoot for the publisher which involved Iceland‘s foremost stylist and he put me through a two hour make up session involving putty and a spray gun. The photos were really great thought and the cover, as well as the back of the book, looks very good. The cover and the back text are the only two things about my books that I can comment on without very negative prejudice in the early stages of their publications.

Christmas is reminding us of its coming, most people here have started decorating their homes and the ever darkening nights and shorter days are lit up by arrays of small white or multicolored bulbs in windows and trees. My home has nothing of the sort and we feel a bit like the Grinches as a result. The problem is not a lack of wanting to take part but relates to a snag that we can’t seem to get rid of. The thing is that our house must first undergo the last of the moving-back-in process, the part that involves the boxes that are the most abhorrent, containing the stuff you don’t know where to put. They are now taking up most of our living room, making me wonder if I should attempt to use pine branches to disguise them as square-ish looking Christmas trees. A cousin of mine had a better idea, told me to wrap them up in Christmas paper with big bows on top and pretend that Santa had been extra generous. A friend topped her idea by telling me to put them on fire and go have a glass of wine and a cigarette. No one has suggested that we get to work on emptying them.

But one way or the other we need to make space for a Christmas tree and since I am going to stick to my thousands of bulb method of lighting it up it had better be sooner than later. Last year’s holidays we were cramped up in our son’s apartment. It was shared with the same boxes that are now making life difficult and dozens of additional ones now empty, so a Christmas tree was out of the question. Unless we placed it on top of a man high stack of boxed up stuff there was simply no floor space. The year before however we had a big tree with about 4000 bulbs, making us having to gently ease it from the window that faces the sea so boats would not get stranded thinking it was a lighthouse. The plan is to do the same now, if we could just get rid of the darned boxes.

But guess what. I finally found my camera, lying on the bottom of the only box that I have so far managed to attack since coming back to earth after my writing hiatus. Soon I will thus be able to put up some of my own photos on the blog. As soon as I find the charger that is. I know where to find it so it is just a matter of time. It is in one of the stupid boxes in my living room.

Speaking of photos, the pretty ones I mentioned at the beginning of this erratic post have caused me a bit of a headache. They have been used in the ads my publisher is pounding out so most everyone I know has seen them. A number of old acquaintances have phoned my friends asking if I have been under the knife and an online newspaper commentator posted one of these photos alongside the staff photo on my company’s webpage (which is really, really bad - no lie or exaggeration, see photo to the side) noting that success and money can buy you many things, looks included. When I meet people I can see the disappointment in their eyes when affronted with the real me, sans putty and spray-paint. So now I not only have to be a good engineer and a good writer, I also have to look good. Drats.

So lesson learned: Never not look lifelike in publicity photos.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Going strong in Paris - Oscar Wilde at 157

This woman is kissing Oscar Wilde's tomb in Père Lachaise cemetery.
But as of tomorrow, the one hundred and eleventh anniversary marking his death, Oscar's admirers will find it harder to get so close. "A kiss may ruin a human life," Oscar Wilde once wrote. It can also ruin the stonework of a tomb, judging by the extraordinary graffiti – kisses in lipstick left by admirers – that over years have defaced eroded the massive memorial to the Irish dramatist and wit.
Oscar died in Paris on November 30th, 1900, aged 46. The fleabag Left Bank hotel where he spent his last days showed his name on the register as Sebastian Melmoth, a name he'd assumed after his trial for homosexuality - then illegal - and imprisonment where upon his release took him to exile in France. At the end, ill, penniless and cadging Absinthe at the cafes some sparkles of wit emanated from the once celebrated novelist, and yes, poet who dazzled London society and once had several plays running concurrently on the London stage. His supposed last words uttered in his cheap hotel room were "Either this wallpaper goes or I do."
Oscar's original internment was a lot different. Merlin Holland, his only living grandson, explained that when Wilde died he was bankrupt and his friends could offer him only 'un enterrement de sixième classe' - a sixth-class burial - at Bagneux, outside the city. Over the following years his friend and literary executor, Robert Ross, managed – through the sale of Wilde's works, including De Profundis, his bitter letter of recrimination from prison to Lord Alfred Douglas - Bosie - his former lover – to annul Wilde's bankruptcy and purchase a burial plot "in perpetuity" at Père Lachaise.
The following year Helen Carew, one of Ross's friends who knew Oscar in his heyday, anonymously offered £2,000 to erect a monument by the young sculptor Jacob Epstein. The commission, a flying naked angel inspired by the British Museum's Assyrian figures, was finally unveiled in 1914, surviving intact until the early 1960s, when the angel was vandalised, its genitals hacked off and stolen.
But now one hundred and eleven years later his restored tomb will finally be unveiled, newly protected from his devotees.
For years visitors would confine themselves to leaving gently admiring billets doux dedicated to the creator of The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere's Fan. All that changed in the late 1990s, when somebody decided to leave a lipstick kiss on the tomb. Since then lipstick kisses and hearts have been joined by a rash of red graffiti containing expressions of love, such as: "Wilde child we remember you", "Keep looking at the stars" and "Real beauty ends where intellect begins". Surprisingly, perhaps, most are written by women.
Merlin Holland, Wilde's grandson, said the lipstick had become a "serious problem" because the grease sinks into the stone. "Every cleaning was causing a bit more stone to wear away," he said. "No amount of appeals to the public did any good at all. Kissing Oscar's tomb on the Paris tourist circuit has become a cult pastime, which is proving impossible to break. Even if one could catch someone in flagrante delicto – there is a €9,000 fine – most perpetrators are probably tourists, so they would be home before the French authorities could bring them to court. With the Paris authorities offering a fraction of the cost of preserving the memorial, the Irish have come to the rescue, paying for it through the office of public works in Dublin, which is responsible for a number of Irish monuments and buildings overseas. They have paid for a radical cleaning and "de-greasing" of the tomb, as well as a glass barrier which will surround it to prevent the kissers from causing further damage.
The unveiling of the monument tomorrow will be attended by representatives from the Irish and French departments of culture, as well as Rupert Everett, whose films include The Importance of Being Earnest.
Holland hopes that the barrier will deter loving vandals. Designed to be unobtrusive and aesthetic, it could only discourage rather than be preventative and he says: "Some determined kissers will no doubt try to find ways of kissing the upper extremities."
Now Oscar I wonder what you'd say 111 years later?
Cara - Tuesday
Another unquiet grave at Père Lachaise belongs to Jim Morrison, the singer, who died in 1971, has the distinction of being the most visited of the hundreds of artists in the cemetery. The original bust of Morrison was stolen and his tomb is constantly defaced by fans' graffiti.

Monday, November 28, 2011


Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon was Brazil’s most famous Amazon explorer – and one of the best friends the indigenous peoples ever had.

 Born of a poor family, orphaned at the age of two, he joined the army to get a higher education, earned a science degree and was given the task of stringing telegraph wires for the Corps of Engineers.

It was that assignment that set him on the path of greatness.

Some of the wires had to be strung through the hearts of Brazil’s vast rainforests, areas populated by tribes antagonistic to the inroads of modern civilization.

In his first contact with a hostile tribe, the Nambikuára, an arrow grazed his face and another lodged in his belt. His only response was to fire two shots in the air. One of his junior officers shouted that it would be a disgrace for the army not to set a corrective example.

Rondon’s reply was, “I represent the Army here and the Army did not come to wage war. The Nambikuára do not know that our mission is a peaceful one. If this was your land and someone came to rob it and, moreover, started to shoot you, wouldn’t you forget your manners?”

This seems quite normal to us today, but it was a revolutionary position to take at the time. In those days settlers in the region seemed bent on butchering every last Indian.

Rondon’s men lowered their weapons.
The Indians withdrew into the forest.
And what Rondon had said and done came to the attention of the government.

When his task of stringing almost 4000 miles of telegraph wire was done, he was put to work as an explorer, a pacifier and a mapmaker. And his work took him further and further into the unknown.

In May of 1909, Rondon undertook what was to be his longest expedition. He and his men set out from Tapirapuã, in Mato Grosso with the intention of cutting their way through the jungle, to the Madeira river, a major tributary of the Amazon.
By August, the party had eaten all of its supplies, and was subsisting on what they could hunt and gather from the forest.
It was December before they got back to civilization. By that time, they’d all been given up for dead, and Rondon was hailed as a hero for having brought his men through the ordeal without the loss of a single life.
It was on this expedition that he discovered the large river which he named the River of Doubt.
And to which, some four years later, he guided Theodore Roosevelt on the journey that almost killed them both. (See my post of last week)
Rondon’s most famous order to his men is one that all Brazilian schoolchildren know: “Die, if necessary, but do not kill.”

His achievements include the establishment of the Xingu Reservation, a place I’ll be telling you about in a future post, and the Indian Protection Service (SPI). In the latter, sixty-seven posts were established to provide means to help the tribes develop. Metal tools were provided, as well as remedies, hygienic products, salt for the preservation of food, and instruction in the spinning, weaving, and the sewing of cloth.

Rondon was credited, during his lifetime with the “pacification” of over a hundred tribes.
And the consequent salvation of tens of thousands of people who might otherwise have been slaughtered.

He ended his life as a Marechal, the highest rank in the Brazilian army.

And died at the age of 93.

He once remarked, “Hinterlands where civilized man never set foot are already included in public registers as if they belong to citizen A or B; sooner or later, according to where their personal interests lie, these land-owners will expel all the Indians who, by a monstrous reversal of facts, reason and morals, will be thought of and treated as if they were the intruders and thieves.”

In that he was prescient. The practice of encroaching on Indian land went on for many years after his death. It continues until this very day.

Rondonia, the Brazilian State that bears his name (in red on the map above) is about the size of Italy.
Three-fifths of it has been deforested in the course of the last forty years – and most of the indigenous people who previously lived in its rainforests have been displaced.

Rondon would not have been pleased.

Leighton - Monday 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Homes Are Where the Books Are

By the time I moved out of my parents' home, at the age of eighteen, I had lived in twenty-two houses.

And that wasn't all.  Those houses had been located  (in order) in Los Angeles, New York City, Los Angeles, Long Island, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.  Never the same part of Los Angeles twice.

I list the cities because they comprise an impressive pattern of coast-hopping, but to me, at the age of four, or seven, or eleven, or fourteen, it really didn't matter whether the new house was in a new state.  At those ages, a move of eight blocks, expecially if it involves a change of schools, is such a complete disjuncture that it might as well be reincarnation.

My parents liked to move.  Their three sons hated it.  Each time, we had to start over: new school, new friends, new enemies, new teachers, new neighborhood, new places to play in (and avoid) -- new everything.  The girl I had the crush on: gone.  The friend whom I thought I'd know forever: gone.  The teacher who told me I could be a writer: gone.

On the other hand, gone also were the witnesses to various humiliations that even now, many decades later, can make me writhe in self-loathing.  And gone was the audience for my most recent failed personality.  I could make up another one and try it on, with no one to look at me oddly.

And, in fact, I got better and better at passing for someone kids my age might like.  From being an arrogant third-grade brain who didn't bother to conceal his disdain for his less-quick classmates, from being the sardonic sixth-grader who protected himself from rejection by being proactively unpleasant to everyone in sight, I gradually developed into the tenth-grader who was actually (that loathsome word) popular enough to be a member of the good clubs, get elected Student Body Vice President, star in every single school play, and date the girls other guys wanted to date.

Sounds a little sociopathic in retrospect, but someone who played as badly with others as I did when I was little can benefit greatly from a total change of cast.

Where all this is really taking me, though, is to books.

When everything comfortable in my life was left behind, I read.  I read anything I could get my hands on, but the first books I owned personally were Oz books.  Beginning in third grade, once a month when I got my allowance, I would walk through the woods (remember woods?)  to a department store (remember department stores?) called Woodward and Lothrop's.  (This was during one of our longer tenures, in Washington, DC, where we lived in only three houses.)

I'd sort through the Oz books on the bottom shelf, looking for one by L. Frank Baum that I hadn't yet read and avoiding at all costs those by the dread Ruth Plumly Thompson.  I might go for one by Jack Snow, who worked really awful puns into his stories, but the original Oz -- Baum's Oz -- was the place for me.

And then, when I was eleven, I took down from my mother's shelves the thickest book on them and read, Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but . . .  A whole new chapter began in my life.  For three days, I lived with Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie, and that nattering twit, Ashley.

From that I moved to the novels of John O'Hara and John Cheever and James Gould Cozzens, the swashbucklers of Rafael Sabatini and Frank Yerby ("The sweet blue eyes of God," Alceste swore.)  My parents, if truth be told, probably liked possessing books, and being seen to possess books, more than they did reading them, so they hung on to them.  Many of the volumes on their shelves had been popular in the forties and fifties and (had I but known) had been swept beneath the carpet with the other dust rats of outmoded literary taste years before I read them.

Made no difference to me.  I devoured them.  By the time I was twelve, my literary playmates were all adults (except for Huck Finn), and then--drum roll--I read Raymond Chandler.  And there it was: the kind of fiction that expressed how I felt about the world -- that it was all questions, few answers, and occasionally treacherous.  But in which someone who was willing to go down those mean streets might be able to fix, temporarily at least, a tiny corner of it.  Pretty much everything I've done since, creatively, at least, was already present in me when I finished Farewell, My Lovely at the ripe old age of fourteen.  When I look back on it all, I can only wonder who I would have been if we hadn't moved so much.

Tim -- Sundays

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Karagiozis, Wolf Blitzer.

No, Karagiozis isn’t what you say in Greek when someone sneezes—or even in Turkish from which the word derives (“kara” meaning black and “gioz” meaning “eyes”).  And though Wolf Blitzer is a CNN US television news anchor, Karagiozis has nothing to do with that form of entertainment. 

Puppet maestro Eugenios Spatharis
Karagiozis is a shadow theater character so deeply embedded in Greek folklore that the very name for that form of two-dimensional theater in Greece is “Karagiozis,” and the improvising puppeteer bringing all the stories, music, singing, and staging together in shadows ingeniously played out upon a cloth screen separating the characters from the audience is the “Karagiozopaihtis” (Karagiozis player).

The origins of shadow theater may have been Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, or Persian, but it’s generally accepted that Karagiozis came to Greece during its centuries of Ottoman rule.   There he evolved into a teasing prankster who lifted audiences’ spirits and offered them hope through lusty satirical attacks on authority figures and life situations.  Ugly and hunchbacked, Karagiozis represented the common folk in collision with everyone and everything socially and politically unjust. 

He often pretended to be a man of all trades in order to find work, then sought silly but cunning solutions to the various difficult and strange situations he’d created for himself. 

Karagiozis persisted even after Greece’s successful War of Independence (1821-1832), but the stories changed to reflect a newly independent Greek society.  They became comedies inspired by daily life, traditional folklore and fairy tales, and heroic themes emerging from Greece’s overthrow of Ottoman rule.

Karagiozis theater particularly flourished from 1915 until 1950, a time of major tribulations for Greece—two world wars, civil war, and rampant social unrest—providing continuous inspiration for a poor, uncompromising protagonist trying in vain to change his fate and protest against social injustice.

The vigorously moving characters, beatings of the innocent, unsatisfied greed, and strange and ragged clothing seminal to Karagiozis theater, all took place amid the continuous babbling, cunning word games, and numerous linguistic mistakes giving that form of entertainment a special place in the hearts of Greeks.

For some unfathomable reason, last Tuesday night, as I watched Wolf Blitzer moderate the eight Republican Presidential candidates debating foreign affairs, I kept thinking of Karagiozis.  So, I did a little research to see what could possibly be tugging away at my subconscious.  And at this point let me acknowledge a special thanks to the website of Turkish-Hellenic Union Solutions (THUS) from which I’ve borrowed freely.

I admit I smiled when I read that in a Karagiozis performance there are eight primary characters (pun intended) but I saw no parallels between those ancient Karagiozis characters and the eight candidates on CNN’s stage Tuesday night.  There was, though, a thought that passed through my mind: Since all Karagiozis characters spoke through the voice of a single puppeteer who had other characters waiting in the wings to jump in should the mood or need strike him, I wondered whether Grover Norquist was a fan of shadow theater?

Whatever, perhaps you’ll see something I missed in the curriculum vitae of those eight characters.  For better or for verse, here they are:

Karagiozis:  Always impoverished but full of life, he lived with his family in a pitiful shack in a large town, across from the Ottoman Pasha’s enormous palace.  He had no profession but was always willing to get involved with anything, even though he always failed, got into trouble and ended up beaten and returning to his shack as hungry as when he’d left.  Because Karagiozis was always out of work, he engaged in minor thefts but instead of hiding them told everyone, and in so doing justified the petty crimes as his only means of supporting his family.

Hatziabatis:  He was Karagiozis’ friend and always dressed in traditional Ottoman clothing.  Sometimes he was portrayed as honest, other times as a cunning thief.

Sir Dionysios:  A fallen aristocrat prone to a western way of life, he tried to act genteel and always wore a top hat. 

Barba Yiorgos:  He was Karagiozis’ uncle, a mountain man of primitive ways but a gentle soul with true feelings, who came down to town from his village to get his nephew out of inevitable difficult situations.

The Pasha:  He represented power and wealth as the highest Ottoman Turkish official.  Portrayed as just and kind to his subjects, in truth they were his victims. The Pasha rarely showed himself to the crowd, but his voice was heard giving orders.

Veliggekas:  The pasha's right hand man.  He was a Turk-Albanian police officer who did not speak the language (Greek) of the people he was charged with controlling by his master. 

Morfonios:  Very greedy and with a high opinion of himself, he bragged about his physical appearance that was far from handsome.  He lived in a world of delusions and was one of the play’s silliest characters. 

Stavrakas:  This character pretended to be brave and courageous but Karagiozis knew Stavrakas was actually a coward.  Karagiozis would beat Stavrakas and in so doing often turned Stavrakas into a crowd favorite because he forced Stavrakas into jokes and trickery in efforts to hide cowardliness and avoid the beatings.

As I said, no parallels. 

There was, though, another sort of theatrical insight I gained from the debate.  At one point I said to the (staunchly Republican) friend watching with me, “Don’t you think they all look as if they’re lined up behind their podiums waiting to be auditioned?”

My friend replied, “Yes, and Wolf Blitzer looks like he can’t wait for the producer to send in the next eight.”

I don’t think Karagiozis could have ended a performance on a better line.


Friday, November 25, 2011

...and the bestselling author will kick their arse

J.K Rowling. Pic from The Telegraph

Consider this a post scriptum, addendum (pick your favourite Latin term) to Tim's excellent post last Sunday, none of which I had any difficulty agreeing with.

This week I and thousands, millions of others have been held spellbound by the goings on at the Leveson Inquiry, set up to investigate the behaviour of the press in light of the recent phone hacking scandal (about which I've blogged here and here and, oh, here...yes, it's a bit of a hobby horse). A series of people whose lives have been ruined or disfigured by the intrusions of the press gave evidence about their experiences, and the cumulative effect was immensely sobering and startling, and we're only at the beginning.

Steve Coogan. Pic from BBC.

Yes, there were A-list celebs. Hugh Grant, Sienna Miller, Steve Coogan, all of whom gave impassioned accounts of the multitude of indignities inflicted upon them by press and paparazzi. I'm always riled by the argument that says these people are famous and therefore they're fair game. Coogan, for example, has never courted the media. But even if he did would that legitimise journalists ringing up his elderly relatives pretending to be a council official doing a survey? Or, in the case of Hugh Grant, besieging the house and terrifying the family of the mother of his child? Of course not.

Gerry and Kate McCann. Pic from The Guardian.
But the most powerful evidence didn't come from actors and actresses. It came from those placed unexpectedly in the crushing grip of the media. Like the quiet dignity of the McCanns, whose daughter Madeleine was abducted while the family were on holiday in Portugal in 2007. In two hours of evidence they gave a litany of offences which they had suffered at the hands of the press, not least the endless innuendo about their role in Maddy's disappearance. Kate McCann kept a private diary of the period following her daughter's abduction, in which she recorded her most secret thoughts and fears. It was seized by the the Portuguese police and, lo and behold, turned up in the News of the World. Even more disgusting was the revelation that, after the couple had agreed to give an interview to a magazine, the editor of the NOTW rang to berate them for not speaking to his newspaper, when, apparently, they had done so much to help them find their daughter. Browbeaten, and scared of any backlash - newspapers operate under an almost medieval system of revenge, whereby those that cross them become their next victims - the McCanns relented and gave the NOTW they interview they didn't deserve.

Mary Ellen Field. Pic from The Guardian.

Then there was the Kafkaesque story of Mary-Ellen Field, of the sort that makes fiction writers want to give up because nothing they could write could hope to match its simple horror. She was an assistant to the model Elle Macpherson. Stories about her which could only have come from private phone calls  and messages started to appear in the tabloids. Of course we now know their phones were hacked. But Macpherson suspected (and the the one recurring theme of many of the people who have so far spoken is paranoia - the horrible, gnawing fear that the people you love and trust are betraying you to the press) that the stories were being fed to the press by Field. She blamed this on the fact that Field was an alcoholic. Except she wasn't an alcoholic at all. Macpherson staged an 'intervention' and told Field to go to a clinic in the US to treat her non-existent addiction. Fearful of losing her job, and persuaded it was some kind of health spa, Field went, only for it to turn out it was the kind of brutal place where real addicts are stripped of their ego in order to face their problems. It took ten days for the staff to realise Field wasn't an addict. She returned home but Macpherson sacked her anyway.

Yesterday, JK Rowling took the stand. In a sense, hers was the creepiest evidence of all because it detailed the efforts made by photographers - yet another heartening development this week was how focus has been brought on the aggressive and brutal behaviour by those wielding cameras as well as pens - to take pictures of her children, including some of one of her daughters in a swimsuit on a beach on holiday. Another journalist managed to slip a note into her five-year-old's schoolbag. I don't care how famous you may be, or what you're famous for, your children didn't ask to be in the public eye and the desire to photograph and use them to sell a newspaper or magazine is revolting. Rowling left no one in doubt about her anger that because of her fame, her children were fair game.

For those of us who have maintained for a long time that the British tabloid and mid-market press has been mired in degeneracy the inquiry so has been ample vindication, and there are many, many more revelations to come. However, there is a But....and this is the only thing I'm uneasy about. Yes, everyone is repulsed at some of the behaviour outlined in the inquiry. Yes, Something Needs To Be Done. But it is the insatiable desire of the public to know these things - their rumours that the McCanns killed their own child, or desire to know what JK Rowling's kids look like, or who's the mother of Hugh Grant's child, or the state of Elle Macpherson's marriage - that encouraged the jackals of the press to act so abominably. Sadly I doubt any Sun or Daily Mail readers will be brought before Leveson to account for why they buy this crap. Actually, I'd quite like to see that...

Leveson: Why do you buy this crap?

Sun Reader: Er, the sports section is good.

Leveson: Nothing to do with the sordid gossip and naked breasts then? (Turns to next witness) And you, middle-class mother of three from the home counties, why do you buy this crap?

Daily Mail reader: Er, the health and beauty section offers some good tips. My husbands says the sports sections good, too.

Leveson: Nothing to do with sniggering about how fat Charlotte Church's thighs have got, or how falling house prices will give you cancer then?

The fact is we can change our media culture. The Press Complaints Commission can be scrapped and replaced with an independent body with the ability to demand prominent apologies and fine punitively. It can be made law that journalists have to give the subjects the right to comment on stories about them before they go to print. It can be made easier to obtain an injunction preventing a story being printed rather than more difficult. Regulation can be brought in forcing newspapers to use only pictures taking by licensed paparazzi (who lose that licence if they break some form of code). Small courts can be set up to allow those maltreated by the press to seek and obtain damages or redress without having to spend thousands of pounds. Then, hopefully, an improved press will create an improved culture, and being served less prurient tittle-tattle will give people less of an appetite for it.

Oh yeah, and pigs might fly.

Or rather, the pigs will end up setting websites where people will be able to look at all the flabby thighs and sordid gossip they want.

Which leads to the next question. Will Leveson tackle the Internet? Where proven lies and distortions, forbidden pictures all have a life long after the newspaper apology has been printed or the offending photograph withdrawn.


Dan - Friday

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Murder is Everywhen

I was intrigued this week to see a newspaper headline poster announcing: ‘120,000 year old crime mystery’.  While the police have a lot of dormant cases here (and everywhere else, I expect), this seemed to be excessive.  Once home I hastily searched the internet for the crime (it’s too retro to actually buy a copy of the newspaper) but came up with nothing.  It was at my university that I discovered the real story.

Fossil skull showing healed fracture (from the paper)

The University of the Witwatersrand has a first rate hominid research unit.  Most of the work revolves around the Australopithecus hominids discovered in an area not far from Johannesburg.  (A recent important find was described in )

But interest isn’t exclusive to southern African hominids, and Prof. Lynne Schepartz from the School of Anatomical Sciences has been involved in a ‘forensic’ investigation of the 120,000 year old ‘crime’ which took place in what is now Maba in China.   What they discovered was a hominid skull exhibiting a healed fracture.  (So it was attempted murder at best.)  The nature of the fracture suggested that the skull’s owner had been kyboshed with a blunt object leaving him with a severe head injury which nevertheless healed.  The interesting issue is whether this was an accident or deliberate.  From careful CT scan analysis and comparison with modern cranial injuries, the scientists decided that it was likely that the person had been attacked.  The article appeared this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

Detail from CT scan (from the paper)
Why is that interesting?  After all, most animal species fight over territory, mating, or even if in a bad mood. Usually animals don’t kill each other, but it certainly happens.  I suppose if we think of murder as the result of fighting outside the accepted cultural norms, then it becomes more of a human thing, although there will be examples from other species also.  The main difference here from animal attacks is that a weapon was used and that supposes at least some degree of premeditation.

Caveman by Tayyar Ozkan
So what was the cause of the dispute?  Of course there's no way of telling 120,000 years on, but probably it was pretty much the same as one of the reasons we have today.  Jealousy, greed, anger, madness.  Maybe this wasn’t an isolated attack, maybe it was a group battle.  Then, of course, it falls into the culturally acceptable category, mores the pity.

In any case the victim was lucky to survive.  And that is one of the most interesting aspects of the study.  It's likely that the victim would not have lived unless he received support and care from his group over a period of some time.  He may have suffered amnesia, and certainly he was in no shape to go hunting.  So the violence cloud has a silver lining.

But if this was premeditated interpersonal violence as the authors suggest, then it goes back a long way in our family tree.  Personal violence isn't any sort of phase we’re going through.  If murder-mystery writers go out of business, it will be because no one is reading their books and not because murder is a thing of the past.  Murder really is everywhen.

Michael - Thursday

Monday, November 21, 2011

hospital in Paris

This upside map shows the quarries and underground tunnels under St. Anne's pysch hospital drawn by a neurosurgeon during World War II

A little view below in the tunnels where the hospital staff sheltered from bombing raids and hid Jewish people

This nurse was denounced by a staff member

rushing out and will post more next week!

Cara _ Tuesday

Theodore Roosevelt And The River Of Doubt

In 1912, after his unsuccessful bid for a third-term in the White House, Theodore Roosevelt was in search of adventure.

Father John Augustine Zahm, a friend, suggested they find it together in an expedition to the Amazon Rainforest. Roosevelt agreed – and arranged financial support from the American Museum of Natural History.

Kermit, Theodore’s son, didn’t want to participate, having recently become engaged.
But he finally acquiesced to his mother’s wishes to accompany the expedition and protect his father.

Upon their arrival in Brazil, it was suggested they join-up with Candido Rondon, the famous Brazilian explorer. (More about him next week.) Rondon had recently discovered the headwaters of a river he called the Río da Dúvida (The River of Doubt) so-named because no one had ever mapped its course.
And he was anxious to do so.

Here’s a photo of the initial party. Seated left to right are Father Zahm, Rondon, Kermit, the American naturalist George Cherrie, the expedition’s physician, Doctor Miller, four Brazilians and Roosevelt. They set out on the ninth of December, 1913, reached their objective on the 27th of February and set out in dugout canoes to explore the river.

By that time, malaria had infected almost everyone in their party, leaving them all in a constant state of sickness. The food ran out, forcing them to live on starvation diets. The Cinta Larga Indians stalked them constantly, and could have wiped them out at any moment. Some had festering wounds. All had high fevers. 

The river was fraught with rapids, and the heavy dugout canoes were often lost, stopping them for days at a time, while they built new ones. Of the 19 men who set out, only 16 returned. One died from drowning in the rapids, one was murdered and one (the murderer) was left in the jungle where he presumably perished.

Roosevelt suffered a minor leg wound when he jumped into the river to try to prevent a canoe being lost.
The wound festered, and he developea fever. Kermit and the expedition’s doctor, had to treat him day and night. He became delirious and would keep on reciting, again and again, the first stanza of Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

In his rare moments of lucidity, Roosevelt insisted that the expedition continue without him because his condition had become a threat to the survival of the others. But they did not. And, although he never entirely recovered from his ordeal, he was able to return to the United States.

Where he lived on for another five years.

They don’t make Presidents like him anymore.

If you have time for it, here’s a link to the only motion picture in existence of the Roosevelt/Rondon expedition:

It’s about fifteen minutes in length, with the trek downriver beginning at about two-and-a-half minutes in. The titles in quotes are Roosevelt’s words, extracted from Through the Brazilian Wilderness a book he later wrote about his adventure.

The Dyott expedition referred to in the titles, and from which some of the footage is taken, took place in 1927. You can read about George Dyott and his exploits here:

They don’t make explorers like Dyott either.

The river, now called the Rio Roosevelt, winds for about 400 miles (640 km) until it joins the Aripuanã, which then flows into the Madeira, thence into the Amazon.

Leighton – Monday