Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Our National Religion(s)

In last week’s post I mentioned that I would this time around write about the eruption in Heimaey which occurred in 1973. I hope no one will be disappointed if I postpone this for a week  and instead briefly tell you about the history of religion here in Iceland. This topic is chosen as my daughter will be confirmed on this coming Easter Monday – a ceremony in which 13-14 year olds formally approve of their christening which they undergo as babies, with basically no say about anything, least of all choice of religion. It is considered a rite of passing, once done you are “counted as a grown-up”. Whoever came up with that notion must have had extremely mature children. So a lot of my time these past few days has gone into the organising involved, in particular with regards to the party following the ceremony and to keep myself sane I remind myself regularly that it could be worse, me and my family could be members of the jungle tribe I read about in National Geographic decades ago, the one that stuffs sticks under the skin of a teenager stepping into adulthood, hooks the sticks onto ropes, attaches the ropes to branches high up in a tree and then watch the teenager throw themselves down to prove adulthood, the sticks ripping through the skin just before the crash landing. I would much rather prefer dealing with bakeries that announce your 60 person cake is ready a week ahead of time and invitations that come out of the printer sideways (missing the bit about when and where), than having to coax my daughter into freefall from a tree with sticks threaded into her chest. Humans are a crazy bunch when it comes to complicating life, when animals show bizarre behaviour there is at least always an underlying reason that makes great sense once explained.

Anyway, as I have probably mentioned in an earlier blog, on the whole Icelanders are not very religious, at least not at this point in history. Like many other nations we have slowly but surely moved away from religious doctrine with i.a. increased awareness of how the world and life came to be, not to mention nagging doubts about the sanity of an all powerful and endlessly kind God that seems to look the other way suspiciously often when the innocent and small are under attack. But despite not being actively religious, a large majority of the population is registered as being Lutheran which has been the national religion since 1550. We have gone through our fair share of religions, the Viking settlers brought belief in the Norse Gods with them when they arrived in 874 and were left to their own devices regarding this until the year 1000 when this religion was replaced with Christianity. This occurred through cumbersome and lengthy negations with missionaries, sent by the Norse and Danish kings that had recently become Christian and were worried about the souls of their heathen cousins up in the north. These negotiations took years and years and at one point a volcano erupted, funnelling red hot lava to an area where the missionaries had organised a meeting. Now this was taken as a sign that the Gods were none too pleased, however if you read my previous post, statistically this had to happen seeing that the missionaries were here for some time. But despite this and other shortfalls, the missionaries persisted and Iceland as a country became Catholic, at the same time losing its freedom of religion. Despite the way it might appear, those negotiating on behalf of Iceland were not completely worthless. They managed to eke in a certain amount of leniency clauses, permitting people to continue worshipping the Norse Gods in secret, allowing them to eat horses and to expose unwanted babies to the elements. Let’s make a deal – Viking style.

This discount from hardcore Catholicism was later expanded to allow Icelandic Catholic priests, bishops, monks and suchlike to have sex and father children - as long as they did not marry their women, as strange and illogical as this may sound. Somehow the children from these couplings were not considered illegitimate either which is even odder, considering the church’s take on others living in sin. I am told this leniency had either something to do with them being unable to achieve respect while flagging their celibacy in a rather masculine environment or it having been considered unreasonable to ask Icelanders to abstain from anything - but as I have never been able to nail this down anywhere in writing I cannot guess which, either or if both best explain why a succession of Popes allowed this to pass. As an example, when the last Catholic bishop in Iceland had his head chopped off because he was not willing to convert and become Lutheran, his very respectable sons were executed with him. Along the same line, this same bishop, Jón Arason, was the grandson of a man who was an abbot in a monastery – usually not the guys called dad, much less granddad.

So in 1550, with some ado peppered with head-chopping and pouring of molten lead down throats, we were forced to convert to becoming Lutheran, by decree of the Danish king that ran the show here at that time. He had taken this religion and was super enthusiastic about spreading the joy, something probably not fuelled in any way by him acquiring all of the lands and wealth belonging to the Catholic Church while at it. For the next centuries that followed, i.e. until 1857, being Catholic was illegal in Iceland, punishable by death or deportation, the latter of which was believed by some to be the harsher sentence. Finally, in 1874 Iceland got its own constitution which included a clause regarding freedom of worship. After 874 years of being forced to believe, we were as a people once again allowed to direct our religious needs into whatever direction suited the individual. Which for turned out to be due-Christian as over 90% of the population is now registered as such.

Regarding the rest, the largest non-Christian religious group is the Ásatrúarfélag – those believing in the old Norse Gods. At one point, their one time leader, a colourful poet who was frequently seen doing the rounds downtown met a tipsy couple rolling out of a bar, on their way to a one night stand. In a bout of great humour they asked him to marry them, which he did on the spot, underneath a lamppost. He then went home and registered the marriage, sent it off the day after to the national registry and being a religious leader he had thus entered this unfortunate couple into holy matrimony. They ended up having to go red faced through the courts to obtain a divorce, an Icelandic Vegas-ish adventure.

Finally, it would be great if there were a God up there and that all wrongs are righted at the end of the journey. Too bad he didn’t approve of Galileo when given the chance as this guy could have built him a telescope in heaven so that events down here could be follow more closely.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Monday, March 29, 2010

A Sunday in Paris

Spring has arrived and the Paris weekend brocante's begin to crop up. Today I'm feeling wistful and wishing I was in Paris. On a Sunday and heading to the local brocante (garage sale/flea market) near the corner of my friend's apartment. This flea market is one I've never been to and in my mind I'm chafing at the bit to go.
I imagine getting in the tiny lift from my friend Anne's fifth floor apartment, taking Zouzou her four year old with me and somehow fitting the stroller in. We make a game counting the lift numbers as we descend then voilà arrive on the ground floor.
Somehow I unwedge the stroller out, make sure Zouzou's wrapped up tight and we head out the hallway doors, to another hall then buzz the door and out into the March cold. I can see the clouds over the Montmartre cemetary, the leaves budding on the trees lining boulevard Saint Ouen, the people hurrying as they always do on Sundays.
..down to Cafe la Rotonde for the newspaper La Dimanche, then down the blocks past the optometrists, the bakery to buy her a pain au chocolat.

Now we've reached rue Ordener cordoned off for the Sunday flea market. If there's any flea market I should have gone to it's this one, in my 'hood' well my friend Anne's hood and where I usually stay.

There's something revealing at a brocante run by know the history, the past of these people you've passed in the street...or their relatives or how how they loved Crimson or Pink Floyd before they became bank managers.

Or their grandfather's old medals...

Wistfully Cara - Tuesday

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Cachaça - The Brazilian Tipple

Brazilians have been making it for over five centuries. Non-Brazilians often confuse it with rum. But it’s not rum. Cachaça (called cane spirit in South Africa, and, as far as I know, produced only in our two countries) is distilled from fermented sugar cane juice. Rum is made from molasses.
Cachaça emerges from the still as clear as water, and is often consumed without aging.
The really good stuff, though, is aged in wooden barrels, thereby acquiring a pale amber color and a smoothness that allows it to be sipped like fine brandy.
Brazil produces 1.5 billion liters (390 million gallons) of cachaça a year. There are a staggering number of brands.
And it’s so damned good that we drink almost all of it ourselves.
Mixed with a fruit juice, it’s called a batida. That also denotes a car crash.
And is what you’ll feel like you’ve been through should you overindulge.
Batidas come in as many varieties as there are fruits, everything from coconut to kiwi.
When it’s mixed with crushed limes and sugar we call it a caipirinha, Portuguese for “a little country girl”.
Now the good news for those of you who aren’t lucky enough to live here: the stuff is beginning to pop up in retail outlets in North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
If you manage to snag a bottle, here’s my wife’s sure-fire recipe for the world’s best caipirinha:
  1. Fill a glass with ice, pour in a healthy shot of cachaça and let it sit while you make the other preparations.
  2. Choose a lime with a very smooth skin. (They’re the ones with the most juice.) Wash it thoroughly and cut off the ends. (They tend to be bitter.)
  3. Slice it thin, put it into the bottom of a glass and add sugar to taste, usually two to four heaping teaspoons. (You can also used artificial sweetener.)
  4. Take something you can use as a pestle and macerate the sugar and the lime slices. (This releases the oil from the skin - essential to the taste.) The wooden instrument you see above is called a pilão and is especially made for the purpose. Every Brazilian household has at least one.
  5. Pour the chilled cachaça into the glass (holding back the ice) and stir with a spoon until the sugar is dissolved.
  6. Add the ice you need to fill the glass, stir again – and drink.

Leighton - Monday

Saturday, March 27, 2010

At a Loss For Words

powell autobiography

My favorite novel of the 20th century is probably Anthony Powell's twelve-volume marathon, A Dance to the Music of Time, written between 1951 and 1975. Supremely civilized, enormous in design, an unforgettable picture of a way of life (and a class) that were disappearing even when Powell was one of the "bright young people" who were so visible in the 1920s in London, the books that make up Dance are also very funny.

I first read them when I was in my early thirties, and the story (in the first three books) of the friendship of three boys thrown together in school and the gradual dissolution of those friendships as the world calls the young men in different directions, meant a great deal to me at the time. I'd never read anything that seemed to speak so directly to my own life. This was emphasized by the loss, in the book, of one boy -- the most brilliant one -- into a life of drink and another into sexual dissipation that ruins his relationships and irremediably coarsens his character. I had watched several friends hit the rocks by that time and had sailed pretty close to them myself.

The remaining books chronicle the irresistible rise of the boy the others had scorned, the implacable Widmerpool, who amasses power almost as revenge for being unloved and unliked, and who demonstrates a resilience to humiliation -- even sexual humiliation -- that's almost mythical in scope. I think Widmerpool may be the fictional creation I most admire.

I obviously also admire Powell himself, not least because, like Dickens, he published his story as he made it up, one volume at a time, and then lived with everything he'd written -- no going back, as most of us do, to fix the first half because something better has occurred to us. That requires real courage. It takes me half of a book just to figure out what I'm writing about.

I've just finished reading the four volumes of Powell's memoirs, cumulatively titled To Keep the Ball Rolling, and one of the things that most impresses me is the way he talks about the act of writing. Some of what he says is probably already familiar to anyone who's written a book -- for example: "When actually writing a novel one is conscious at times of an external agency taking over the job, something beyond the processes of thought, conscious planning, or invention." Most novelists, I think, know perfectly well that the book they wind up with won't be the one they set out to write. At least, mine never are.

anthony-powellLike most writers, I talk a lot about writing --about 90% of my own website is made up of advice to help people finish their novels. I talk about most of the things that go into the writing of a book, and I thought I'd touched (at least, in passing and to the best of my ability) on most of the important stuff until I read this in Book Four of the Memoirs: "In the army it is not uncommon for a soldier to keep certain items of his equipment in plain sight purely for the eye of the inspecting officer. These tend to be the things that are easy to care for. Small odd and ends that are a problem to clean or assemble, even though they may be used daily, are stowed away out of sight. This is rather like what writers usually hand out at interviews."

This caught me completely offguard. I realized that I talk on my site about plot and character and structure and setting and, and, and -- all the obvious stuff -- but that I never, and I mean never, talk about words. I think I say somewhere that I generally prefer language that's transparent, a window to see the action through, not something that calls attention to itself and to the writer at the expense of the story. But I work very damned hard to find the words I use to create that prose, and I never, ever discuss that. I think this is the first time I've ever even alluded to it.

The only reason I can think of is that the actual language I use in my books is the aspect of my writing about which I'm least secure. It's the hardest part of the process and the one over which I agonize most. (Except for the invariable plot crisis that always threatens the book and is usually resolved in the shower.) One of my problems as a writer is that I'm glib, and glibness has absolutely nothing to recommend it if you're trying to tell a story with any emotional weight. So, hmmmm. I'd love to hear from the other writers here (and those of you out there) about which aspect of writing you almost never discuss, and why you think that is.


Tim -- Sunday

Friday, March 26, 2010

Nicht cricket mein Fuhrer

You might have guessed from some of my blogs that I love sport. You might also have guessed from my books and blogs that I'm fond of history, too. So, when a story comes along that combines the too, you can imagine my excitement.

The Nazis hated cricket. Nothing strange there. So do half the world's population, including great swathes of the population of those countries who play what some consider to be the planet's most bewildering game. (Not me, I utterly adore it. There are two places I genuinely feel at peace - on a cricket field playing, or in the stands watching. One day I will bore you all about my teenage prowess and how I coulda been a contender.) However, what had always intrigued me, to the point where I purchased an out of print book for lots of money in order to find out, were the reasons why Hitler (that's him on the far right in the pic up top, taken during the First World War) and his pals hated cricket. The game had taken a foothold in Germany between the wars. Teams were springing up everywhere. Yet by the start of World War II there were only four teams in the whole country, all in Munich. The Nazis simply regarded the sport as un-Aryan, too British, and therefore in some way morally degenerate.

That is all I knew. The wonderfully named 'Gentlemen of Worcestershire' toured Germany in 1937 and I've always thought the story of the tour, English gents illicitly playing the noble game against like-minded cricket lovers, to a backdrop of governmental disapproval, stomping jackboots and the gathering storm of war, had tremendous dramatic possibilities. My research is ongoing, but the reasons and story behinds Hitler's distaste for the game were unravelled somewhat this week.

British journalist John Simpson has compiled a history of new reporting in the 20th century. While delving in the archives, he came across a fascinating article written in 1930 by Oliver Locker-Lampson, a British right-wing MP and Nazi sympathiser. It was about the Adolf Hitler he knew, written to coincide with his rise to power. It turns out, during the First World War, that Hitler was a closet cricket fan and thought it might be an ideal preparation for war. He wanted to know more so he approached some English PoWs who were in the same military hospital.

“He had come to them one day and asked whether he might watch an eleven of cricket at play so as to become initiated into the mysteries of our national game,” Mr Locker-Lampson wrote. “They welcomed him, of course, and wrote out the rules for him in the best British sport-loving spirit.”

Hitler then returned with his own team and challenged the British to a “friendly match”. Immediately after the end of the match, Hitler declared the game “insufficiently violent” for German Fascists. Had he played a team of Australians, it could be argued he might have formed a different opinion.

Other than its gentility, the Fuhrer had several other issues: first, with how long it took to play the game (and he wasn't the first to raise that objection, nor will he be the last.) Secondly, he felt it unmanly that batsmen wore pads to protect their legs, from which I can only deduce that he was never hit in the shin by a cricket ball from a fast bowler, because he would have been a signed-up, card-carrying believer in necessity of wearing pads if he had. It bloody hurts, and unlike, say, baseball, a good batsman has to get his foot as near the ball as possible to play the most efficient shots, which is hard to do with a fractured fibula.

“He had conned over (sic) the laws of cricket, which he considered good enough no doubt for pleasure-loving English people,” wrote Mr Locker-Lampson. “But he proposed entirely altering them for the serious-minded Teuton.”

The serious-minded Teuton never got chance to fully experience Hitler's take on cricket, because a few years later it was considered verboten to even play it. History does not record who won the game Hitler played in, but one can only assume his team lost and like all bullies he responded by taking his bat home. I reckon either that or he got a Golden Duck, which means he was bowled out first ball. Which sheds new light on the meaning of the old music hall ditty about Hitler only having one ball...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Life Imitating Art?

I hesitated to use as large and impressive a word as Art in the heading of this posting, especially after some of the comments directed by certain reviewers at mystery novels. Still, it seems an appropriate title for this little story.

The authors at work in Botswana.

Most people from overseas who visit Botswana to enjoy the wildlife and the environment do so with restricted time and don’t have the resources to organise their own trip. They all have a wonderful time, but may leave feeling that it is hard to get away from other vehicles, other tourists, other hotels. They may not get more than a taste of the wonderful wildness of the country.

A couple of years ago Stanley and I spent several weeks in the north of Botswana. It was partly research for our novel – The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu - and part pure enjoyment. In fact we had an amazing amount of both at once. We were looking for the right location to place the tented tourist camp we had named Jackalberry Camp, which we had invented as the main setting of the novel. We wanted it somewhere along the Chobe River which forms the border between Botswana and the tongue of Namibia – the Caprivi strip – which separates Botswana from Zambia. We went with friends who run trips for small groups on an a la carte basis. It was the end of the dry season, and the game was concentrated along the river producing incredible viewing. Anytime we stopped we could see an elephant if we looked hard enough - often we could see more than a hundred. We watched a herd of buffalo that was so large that the first had disappeared below the horizon before the last ones had crossed the road.

Distant view of the Chobe floodplain from the village of Kachikau.

The first evening we camped at a pool on the verge of the Chobe River. We were the only people there, and pelicans, ibises, egrets and herons crowded the shallow water, which turned rose as the sun set. The small camp had been tastefully set up while we were game driving. My sort of camping! Once it was dark, fireflies entertained us while we ate dinner. The only sounds were those of the African night bush: the wail of the jackals, the whooping of hyenas, a distant roar of a lion seeking his pride. But the setting wasn’t quite right for our book. No reeds, and in the national park no permanent camp would be allowed.

The view from Peter and Solome's home.

The Chobe National Park area to the west of Kasane is quite well known and the eastern part is heavily patrolled by game vehicles from the army of hotels along the river in the town. On the other hand, the Linyanti – a tributary of the Chobe to the west - is very remote, and it took several days to get there along roads at times no better than four wheel drive tracks. Our friends – Peter Comley and Salome Meyer – had read the draft of the first part of our book and felt that our camp would fit there. When we arrived we were amazed by how close it was to what we had described. The spot where we stopped was a reeded paradise of elephants, hippos, crocodiles, and water birds. There were no tents there, but they were easy to imagine. We unpacked our lunch, unfolded camping chairs, and imagined the characters of the novel around us, moving in the shade of a grove of tall Jackalberry trees spreading overhead.

"Jackalberry Camp"

Michael - Thursday

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Volcano time!

Approximately every four or five years Iceland experiences a volcanic eruption. The country is situated on the Mid- Atlantic ridge, the joint between the Eurasian tectonic plate and its North American counterpart. This particular plate boundary is of the divergent type, meaning that the two opposing plates are moving apart, creating new crust when magma from the earth‘s mantle escapes upward through the voids created. The plates drift to the west and east respectively, as shown in the accompanying drawing. This movement adds about 2-3 cm to the country’s width annually so slowly but surely we are coming to your neighbourhood. Locations of some of the larger active volcanoes within Iceland are depicted as red triangles, and as can be seen these line up along the plates’ boundary.

As it is almost impossible to describe the majesty of a volcanic eruption I am going to show you some photos of the most recent such occurrences, the first from the Krafla eruptions of 1980 (here beside) and 1984 (here below). Krafla is a crater row formation (caldera) in the north of the country which erupted 5 times between 1975 and 1984 but has been passive since. Considering that Krafla had lain dormant since 1729 when it began this active stage in 1975, we probably won’t be hearing from her again anytime soon.

The next photos are from Hekla – the reigning volcano queen which has erupted every ten years since 1970 (1970, 1980, 1981, 1991 and 2000). As seen from this series anything could happen in this year 2011, i.e. if the repose period has not changed. Before this, Hekla erupted every 50 years and is classified as one of the most historically active volcanoes of the world. Hekla eruptions are explosive, soaring plumes stretch to the heavens and this is followed by lava fountains and extensive lava flows. It is shaped the way a kid would draw a volcano (stratovolcano) but is in fact more as it is also a crater row. Some Hekla eruptions have caused great damage, the eruptions of 1510, 1694 and 1766 in particular. The photo here below is the oldest photograph taken of a Hekla eruption and dates from 1947. The photo below that and the one to the left are both from the eruption in 2000.

If Hekla bears the volcano queen crown you can be sure that her friend Katla is not Miss Congeniality. Katla is hidden underneath a glacial icecap but this does not stop her from adversely affecting her surrounds when the mood strikes her. Katla’s repose period is 50 years and is now overdue although since settlement this period cannot be considered reliable as is known to vary from 7 years to 80. The last confirmed eruption occurred in 1918 (see photo beside paragraph) so it has been 93 years since Katla has blown her top and every single geologist here is certain an eruption is imminent and that we can expect some attention grabbing shortly.

Now the newsworthy titbit I intended to let you in on is that as of this past weekend we now have a full-blown eruption on our hands – in Fimmvörðuháls in south Iceland. The eruption is of the type we call a tourist eruption – something for the eye, close enough to Reykjavík for a day trip, but far enough away from urban areas to be semi-safe. At the moment it is closed off for the public but this will probably change in a matter of days and organised trips to the areas scheduled. If so I am sure to be on one as soon as I can get my hands on a ticket although there is no rush as the eruption is believed to continue for weeks or months.

This particular eruption is beautiful to behold, a curtain of red and orange lava fountains that are so surreal that they almost seem organised by a Las Vegas hotel designer. The flowing lava pours off a cliff into a canyon 200 m below – the highest “lavafall” in the world. The photos I have added do not do video clips shown on the news justice, and further to this neither does video do the in-situ experience justice. The trembling ground accompanying an eruption, the incredible noise, the heat and the smell of sulphur add depth possibly attainable in a 1980-s movie theatre equipped with shaking chairs and only if the footage were directed by John Waters using his Smell-o-Vision concept. As this is unlikely to happen I am going to insert a clip from youtube showing the eruption although the one I would have wanted to show you has not reached the site yet, unfortunately. This one is taken pretty early so the lava flow has not begun to any extent, nor has the accumulation of ash and pumice now surrounding the crater row. Hopefully I will have managed to find the clip from today's news in some usable format and set it up for next week.

In my next post I am going to tell you about the Heimaey eruption of 1973 which deserves its own seperate discussion. It is the premise of my third Thora novel (Ashes to Dust) and having done a lot of background work in preparation I know the event quire well, not to mention the various stories the people who lived through the catastrophe. Unlike Katla, Hekla, Laki and Krafla - Eldfell in Heimaey erupted in the outskirts of an inhabited town.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Simone joins the Academie Francaise

This was the headline on Friday in France,

Auschwitz survivor a national treasure - Stateswoman becomes sixth female in 375 years to join 'immortals'

Wearing a green uniform designed by Karl Lagerfeld, of Chanel,
and a sword engraved with her Auschwitz tattoo number, Simone Veil, 82, was enthroned as one of the French immortals yesterday in the Academie Francaise.

A survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, mother of three children, former health minister, abortion pioneer, first president of the directly elected European Parliament and much-loved French elder stateswoman became the sixth woman in 375 years to join the ranks of the exalted.

Three French presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy, Jacques Chirac and Valéry Giscard d'Estaing were present for her induction ceremony in the gold-domed building beside the Seine where the academy defends the French language and compiles (very slowly) the definitive French dictionary. The 20th-century edition, the ninth, has been under discussion for an hour or so each Thursday since 1935. The academy has reached the letter "P".

Ms Veil was 16 when – as Simone Jacob – she was arrested by French police on a Nice street in March 1944 for having false papers and sent to Auschwitz. She, unlike her father, brother and mother, survived the war, and became a judge, prison reformer and, from 1974, the health minister who legalised abortion in France.

From 1979 to 1981, she was the president of the first directly elected European parliament.

In her inaugural speech, Ms Veil said: "Since you invited me to join you, the memory of my mother has not left me ... two thirds of a century after her death in the hell of Bergen-Belsen a few days before the liberation of the camp."

Ms Veil's autobiography, A Life. A Memoir, spent many weeks at the top of the French bestsellers' list in 2007. She wrote, amongst other things, of the "Kafkaesque incoherence" of Auschwitz: the obsessive neatness of the Germans amidst mass slaughter; the occasional, unexplained kindness of some Nazis.

Although most members of the Académie Française are literary figures, there has always been a sprinkling of political, religious and military members. The 40 academy seats are numbered, like the shirts of a football team squad. Ms Veil was elected last year to seat No 13, which was previously occupied by the former centre-right prime minister, Pierre Messmer, who died in 2007. Previous occupants of the seat have included the 17th-century playwright, Jean Racine.

By tradition, all academicians wear a green, braided uniform and cocked hat and carry a ceremonial sword. Ms Veil's uniform was designed for her by Karl Lagerfeld of Chanel. Her sword was, at her insistence, engraved with the Auschwitz camp number, 78651, which is still tattooed on her wrist.

President Sarkozy was reported at first to have decided to boycott the ceremony. Ms Veil – one of his political allies – had criticised his decision to appoint a man, rather than another woman, to replace her on France's constitutional watchdog, the Conseil Constitutionnel. The Elysée Palace announced yesterday that he would attend after all.

Of course, being France there was a protest. At the building entrance on the Seine, a small group of anti-abortionists protested in an orderly fashion. And the police in equally orderly fashion kept them behind a cordon and away from the new immortal.

Vive la Simone,
Cara - Tuesday

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Who Invented the Airplane?

Ask any Brazilian, and you'll be told that this guy did. Alberto Santos-Dumont.was the sixth of eight children, born to a wealthy coffee planter in the state of São Paulo. And, although there is still debate as to whether the Wright Brothers or Santos Dumont should be credited with designing the first heavier-than-air craft, all the experts agree that Alberto designed, built, and flew the first practical dirigibles.  In so doing, became the first person to demonstrate that controlled and routine flight was possible.  And what a routine his was!
In those days, before air traffic control, Santos Dumont used to putter around Paris in his contraptions, gliding along the boulevards at rooftop level and mooring them to convenient hitching posts while he dined, or enjoyed coffee on a terrace, or attended polo matches in the Bois de Boulogne.

On October 19, 1901 a flight he made around the Eiffel Tower emerged in a photograph. That image catapulted him into international prominence.  Young men of fashion began adopting his high collars and the singed Panama hats of which he was so fond. 

Caricatures of him began appearing in magazines throughout the world.

On one occasion he allowed an American lady, Aida de Acosta, to fly his Airship Number Nine while he pedaled along below, on a bicycle, calling out instructions. That was in 1904, six months before the Wright Brothers first powered flight at Kitty Hawk. Aida’s exploit, a round-trip flight between a polo match at Bagatelle and Neuilly St. James lasted one-and-a-half hours. She later recalled that Santos-Dumont enthusiastically called her “la première aero-chauffeuse du monde!" ("the first woman aero-driver in the world!").
Her parents were less ecstatic. In fact, they were downright appalled. Aida was only twenty at the time, and they were certain no man would consider marrying a woman who’d done any such thing. They did everything they could to hush it up.

In 1904, during a dinner at Maxim's Restaurant, Santos Dumont complained to his friend Louis Cartier about the difficulty of checking his pocket watch while in flight. He needed, he said, an alternative that would allow him to keep both hands on the controls.
Cartier’s solution was a watch with a leather band, and a small buckle, to be worn on the wrist.  Cartier later expanded the line, still produces it, and you can buy a simple one for as little as seven or eight thousand dollars. It’s still called the Santos Dumont.

But was Alberto Santos Dumont really the man who invented the airplane? Well, that comes down to how you define an airplane.  If you define it as “a powered heavier-than-air machine taking off from an ordinary airstrip with a non-detachable landing gear and under its own power” then he undoubtedly was.

The Wright Brothers flew their early contraption farther, longer, and sooner. But the Flyer, as they called it, had to be launched with a catapult.

Santos Dumont’s 14 Bis, didn’t require one. And his was the first aircraft that fulfilled all of the above specifications. In 1918, (some sources report 1916) Santos Dumont returned to Brazil where he remained for the rest of his life.

In July of 1932, a constitutional revolution broke out and the federal government moved to surpress it. Santos Dumont was reputed to have seen a flight of bombers flying over his home in the seaside resort of Guarujá.

Driven into despair about the destructive use to which aviation was being put, and feeling guilty about his role as a pioneer of flight, he committed suicide by hanging himself.

He never married.

But, at the time of his death, a framed photo of Aida was found on his desk – beside a vase of flowers.

Leighton - Monday

Saturday, March 20, 2010

That Old Black Magic

3427576335_234ba4dba0_bThe red shirts are back.

Crowds of anti-government demonstrators, estimated at 100,000, gathered in the streets of Bangkok last week to protest what they see as the government's repeated dismissal of popularly elected prime ministers and their replacement with a member of the ruling elite.

This all started when Thaksin Shinawatra (the first name is pronounced, with some poetic justice, toxin) bought the prime minister's office by the simple expedient of paying millions of poor people to vote for him. He announced a national program that included lots of initiatives aimed at improving the lives of the Kingdom's poorest, and settled in for a long, comfy reign.

But then he made the mistake of leaving the country. He was waiting to meet with then-U.S. President George W. Bush (talk about contagious karma) when he learned that tanks were rolling through the Bangkok night, and he was out of a job.

netankThaksin was the richest man in Thailand, but not a member of the elite club that has ruled the country for centuries. Once in office, he wielded power like an autocrat -- like, I suppose, an executive. But then he made an unforgivable blunder: he sold his firm, one of the biggest in Thailand, to a Malaysian company -- thus injuring national pride -- and, having made billions in the deal. he took advantage of a massive tax loophole to avoid paying a penny in tax to the country he was heading. The elite held a coup, and it was bye-bye Thaksin.

And then they held another election, and the people voted for one of Thaksin's allies. The elite kicked him out, too, and held a third election, and once again a Thaksin associate was elected. This hapless individual became the only leader of state in history to be deposed for making an omelet on television. He accepted some paltry sum to make his special (apparently, really tasty) omelet, and the power elite invoked a law that prevents Thai prime ministers from making any money other than their salaries. It's a mystery to everyone how most Thai prime minsters manage to retire so richly.

Thaksin was kicked out in 2006, and there were riots as people wearing red shirts and supposedly representing the poor, poured into Bangkok and took to the streets. Soon they were opposed by crowds in yellow shirts -- yellow being the color associated with the day on which the much-revered king of Thailand was born. Things simmered down after a while, and a guy named Abhisit, a member in good standing of the ruling elite, became prime minister.

But then Thaksin started agitating again, this time from neighboring Cambodia, and the red shirts reappeared. This time they turned to a new tactic: black magic.

drawing blood

Blood was drawn from red shirts and sympathizers, and demonstrators splashed buckets of the stuff around the prime minister's office while a priest chanted spells. This isn't the first time Thaksin and his followers have turned to the dark arts; Thaksin himself is reputed to have participated in magical rituals intended to keep him in power until he died. And his ally, Cambodian strong man Hun Sen, offered a helping hand by cursing Abhisit, the current prime minister, in rather sweeping terms: "Let magic objects break your neck, may you be shot, be hit by a car, may you be shocked by electricity or shot by misfired guns."

But the yellow shirts have their own magicians; they've staged several rituals aimed at overcoming Thaksin and his supernatural allies.

Much Thai magic, I'm happy to say, is gentler in nature. For example, the spirit house.

ThaiSpiritHouse-WebThese beautiful little structures are intended to offer a home to any spirits that might be displaced by the building of a house or office structure, and miniature offerings of water and rice (and sometimes wine and whiskey) are made regularly. Here, as in so many other ways, the contrast is apparent between the basic nature of the Thai people and that of many of those who rule them.

Tim -- Sunday

Friday, March 19, 2010

Sport of Kings

I've had to use the schedule feature for this blog because as you read this (if you read it on Friday that is) I'll be watching horse racing. I could take a laptop with me and post from the track, but there's no guarantee that I won't end up lumping it on a nag in the last race to make up for all my previous losses and end up coming back without my Mac.

I'll be at at the Cheltenham Festival for Gold Cup day. Cheltenham ranks low in the list of illustrious horse race meetings in the UK, below the Derby and Royal Ascot, partly because the Queen doesn't grace us with her presence. Her Maj loves the gee-gees but she rarely graces Cheltenham (though her mum the late departed Queen Mum has a race named in her honor, the Champion Hurdle, and she approved heartily of the festival's bibulous nature). In her stead, given it usually takes place over St Patrick's Day, are thousands of Irish men and women, as well as a number of Irish horses and trainers. This blog is international in flavour, which means we will all be aware that wherever the Irish gather in numbers there will a party and much drinking. It is that which gives Cheltenham part of its unique flavour, as well as its bucolic setting, all rolling green hills, and the fact that the racing cognoscenti consider it to be 'their' festival, unlike Aintree, the home of the Grand National, which has a bigger profile in the public mind because everyone, from Grandmothers to toddlers, traditionally lays a bet on a horse, usually by picking the ones with the name they like most or the the jockey with the nicest colours (which come to think of it, pretty much sums up my system ...)

I'm not a big gambler at all. I save my money for other vices. But I do love the thrill of handing over some money, watching the race having made that investment and leaving things up to fate. I'm lucky, because when the race is over, I walk away and don't think of laying a bet until the next time I step on a to a racecourse, whereas others aren't quite as fortunate. Most of all I love the hustle and bustle of the racecourse - the shouts of joy and despair, the tic-tac men at the track side who offer their own odds and have their own sign language, the way the high-rollers and aristocracy in their suits and chauffeur driven cars mix cheek by jowl with seedy guys in sheepskins coats, cigarette permanently wedged in their lips at that angle that signals serious familiarity with the workings of bookmakers, and amateur punters like me. I also love the expectant hush between races as people summon sinew, pray to whichever god, or simply close their eyes and stick on a pin on a list of names in search of a winner in the next race.

When I get back tomorrow evening I'll update with a few photos and some recollections. If the Guinness hasn't made me blind.


Dan - Friday