Remembering those who served

Lest we forgetIt’s at this time of the year, as we approach Remembrance Day, that I think most about my family, especially those who have died. I wish I had known when I was younger what I know today, so I could have asked them more about their lives, and about their service in the military, about their wars.

I have read a lot about those wars, about the military and political history of the last century; it’s a topic I never tire of reading about. I wish I could have learned more from my own family about what it was like, then. No amount of reading – and I do a lot – can really give me more than a glimpse of how it must have been for them.

I am of the generation whose grandparents served in the First World War, and whose parents served in the Second. Both grandfathers were veterans, both parents were veterans. None of them talked much about it, at least not to me. It wasn’t something they wanted to relive and I was too young to know about it. Over the years I pieced together a fragmentary view of them in those years, but it’s only a gloss. A century of shadows. Some faded photographs, brief conversations towards the ends of their lives.

I am the oldest son, so my thoughts go most to my father and grandfathers because like them I would have served in similar roles, had I been alive then. And that makes me wonder more, about being in their shoes. How would I have reacted in similar situations? Would I have volunteered? Waited to be called up? Would I have survived in the trenches, in the air raids, in the desert? Under fire? I’ll never know. I am thankful that they served to protect my peace, my prosperity and my democracy so I never had to find out. 

But I wonder, too, about my grandmothers, both young , married women in 1914. How did they react when war was declared, knowing their husbands of only a few years would be going to war, possibly never to return? How did they feel knowing their plans for life and family were abruptly interrupted? My father was born in January, 1914. How did my English mother feel, knowing she’d struggle to raise a young child alone, while his father went to fight in foreign lands? How did they carry on during those dark years?

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It’s Not a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life
I’m convinced many Americans – Donald Trump among them – think Frank Capra’s famous film, It’s a Wonderful Life, was a documentary, not entertainment. It has all the elements of Trumpist utopia: a white, Christian, unquestionably patriotic, male-dominated, patriarchal culture where the bad guy gets away with stealing from others, and making himself rich at everyone else’s expense. No one stops him and everyone still lives happily ever after.*

Married women in the film are mostly housewives; those women who work are secretaries and clerks while men are the bosses. There is little traffic: no hopped-up cars, no street racing, no motorcycles or biker gangs. Streets are broad and tree-lined; no apartments or highrises. The pretty downtown would be a heritage district today, frozen in time against modernization and change.

You don’t see teenagers loitering around coffee shops obsessed with their cell phones. Younger kids have jobs and even run businesses. There are no unions. Everyone dresses modestly, clothed from neck to ankle to wrist. Children appear in families without the messy, distracting business of sex (although there is a suggestive kiss in the film). There isn’t even a honeymoon for the newly married couple.

People of colour appear in it only as polite servants, employees or entertainers. From my count only five black people are in the film: the family servant, a couple in the high school dance scene (possibly the same couple who appear on the street in the background of a scene where George and Violet flirt), a delivery person who appears only in the final scene and a piano player in a honky tonk a la Fats Waller. Only Nora, the black servant, has any lines. The rest are mere background.

No Mexicans, Asians, Indians or other ethnicities. No Thai food restaurants or Chinese or Indian, no fast food drive-throughs. The downtown has no graffiti, no litter, no stray dogs or homeless people. You can drink and drive without consequences since the police are aw-shucks-just-folk torn from the set of Andy Griffiths’ Mayberry. There are no drugs, no drunks, no social housing. No strip clubs.

And of course it is watched over by a jovial, benevolent god who appoints a happy, somewhat feckless angel to make sure things go right.** George Bailey, secular at the start, learns to pray by the end. Every time you hear a bell, an angel gets its wings. No place in Bedford Falls for the unbeliever. Or the Jew. Or the Muslim. George prays, muttering his own version of Oh, Father, why hast Thou forsaken me? And he gets results. God is always on hand to absolve the faithful of their folly, just as long as they ask nicely. You don’t even need to believe, just make a show of doing so.

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A cup of mao jian

Mao Jian teaThe tea bag is an example of remarkable serendipity; an unexpected, simple invention that changed the world. But it was entirely unintended.

Tea, from the camelia sinenis tree, is the most popular beverage in the world after water, and the most popular hot beverage period. Before the tea bag appeared, barely over a century ago, all tea was sold loose. Today more than 90% is sold in bags (if you include tisanes, or herbal “teas” that figure is about 70%*). For what is arguably the most popular drink in the world, that’s quite a change in a few decades.

At the turn of the 20th century, New York tea and coffee merchant Thomas Sullivan was shipping samples of his product to customers in small silk bags. He expected them to pour the loose tea out before brewing it. But customers didn’t know that and instead plunked the bag into the pot with the tea inside. They quickly found it easier and more convenient than messing about with measuring and cleaning. Sullivan saw the opportunity, and worked on perfecting the design. By 1908 he was selling his bags.

A century before social media accelerated ideas and products, tea bags went viral.** Other American companies started selling hand-sewn fabric tea bags around the same time as Sullivan. In 1930 Salada brought out the first heat-sealed, paper fibre tea bags. The design – a thin flat pouch either round or square – didn’t change much until the 1980s when the pyramidal design was invented in Japan (although not widely used, the design is gaining popularity for whole-leaf teas through companies like Tea Pigs).

teabagWhile big in the USA, it wasn’t until the 1950s when the tea bag took off in Britain, in the post-war, post-rationing bloom of convenience and newness. In 1953, Tetley was the first British tea company to offer bags and the rest quickly followed. Even in the 1960s, tea bags represented only 3% of all tea sales. But by 2007 that was at 96%!

(The Brits have many tea habits that are well described here and you should read George Orwell’s essay on tea here)

Tea bags meant convenience: tea became easier to buy, store, and to shelve. Speciality store sales gave way to supermarkets. The image of tea as an elite drink was eroded by the democratic nature of the easy-to-use tea bag. ***

What changed in the tea world was not just the packaging. The bag changed the way consumers saw, evaluated and purchased tea – by brand as opposed to actual product. This meant marketing became an overriding factor in sales.

Tea leaf readers went out of business. Who reads tea bags? The whole art of tasseography has pretty much vanished. (okay losing some cons and carnies isn’t a great loss to society, but we also lost a useful literary trope and cliché…)

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Neanderthals: a love story

Squat, hairy, broad shoulders, a big nose, beetle-browed with a low forehead. As Blind Willie McTell wrote in his classic song, Statesboro Blues, “I know ain’t good lookin’, but I swear I’m some sweet woman’s angel child.” That line might have been written for early Neanderthal cousins. First described as dim-witted and brutish, our more recent assessment of them is far less critical, especially of their tool-making and culture.

But even the most complimentary of modern descriptions still make them out to be rather lumpish, heavyset characters. Barrel-chested. Robust, we call them today. Big brains, though, and better eyesight than we have. Nice personalities, too, I bet.

And it seems some of our own ancestors loved them for it. You never know what makes the heart strings sing, after all.

Humans and Neanderthals had sex. But was it for love? That’s the title of a recent article on Vox by Brian Resnick. It addresses the complexities behind human-Neanderthal coupling.

And couple they did. The results of which are bound within us, wrapped into our DNA even now: between one and four percent of our genetic strands are from Neanderthal sources.* And they had about 97% of their DNA in common with ours. Who’s your daddy now?

(That Neanderthal DNA is most likely responsible for our plucky immune system, by the way…)

Resnick asks, And asks, “Could a human and a Neanderthal fall in love?” And I reply, “Why not?”
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Reading The Histories

Greek hoplitesI hadn’t always wanted to read Herodotus. He has a mixed reputation among historians, often cited as an unreliable source, gossip monger or simply as a fantasist. Sure, he’s the “father of history” as Cicero called him (or at least of historical writing) and penned the earliest surviving work of non-fiction, but he often doesn’t get the respect that, say, Thucydides gets for his efforts (dry as they might be at times). Herodotus has even been called the ‘father of lies‘ by some modern historians.

Steve Donoghue noted:

Herodotus’s widely acknowledged vulnerability has always been his affection for thomata, the amazing marvel-stories that fill his account and are so scorned by Thucydides.

Yet, you cannot dismiss him lightly. Twenty-five hundred later, his voice still rings out: The Histories is an entertaining, sprawling masterpiece that is referred to and remarked on even today. As Edward Gibbon – the author of the great Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wrote,

Herodotus sometimes writes for children, and sometimes for philosophers.

I had downloaded Dan Carlin’s lengthy, three-part podcast series on the Persian Empire and its wars with Greece (King of Kings at Hard Core History; great, rambling stuff by the way) for a drive to and from Windsor, last month. I found his enthusiasm for Herodotus was contagious. I decided to buy a copy to see for myself. But which one?

Here’s the problem: translation. Which one(s) to choose of the dozen or more available? I say ones because I am often as likely to buy more than one translation of any work simply to compare them. And yes, I did buy two versions of The Histories (see below).

Almost everything I read written prior to about 1550 is a translation. Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Egyptian, Aramaic, Hebrew, Sumerian, Chinese… languages which I don’t speak. Which means I have to depend on the accuracy and style of the translator. And these past few years, I’ve been reading a lot more material from the classical era (i.e. Greek and Roman). So translation is a very important topic for me.

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Wolf Hall reviewed

Thomas CromwellI have just finished watching the six-part BBC series, Wolf Hall, based on the two novels by Hilary Mantel. I am also about halfway through my reading of the first of the two, Wolf Hall (with Bring up the Bodies waiting in the bedside pile).

The series conflates the two novels into six one-hour episodes. Given the length of the novels (Wolf Hall is 650 pages itself), compacting them and retaining clarity, plot and drama is quite a feat.

Normally, I would argue for the written word over the adaptation. Any adaptation. As good as they may be, it is rare that a film or TV production can match the richness of any book. But in this instance, I find myself siding with the BBC’s version when recommending a choice to others. It is beautiful, well-crafted production, and visually stunning. But in truth, the two are synergistic.

(digression: the exacting approach of the BBC to history, to production, to costume and sets puts to shame the risible, American TV series, The Tudors).

For me, the period of the Tudors is the most intriguing, exciting, entertaining period of English history. In part it’s because the Renaissance bursts upon European consciousness and radically changes everything – politics, art, philosophy, literature, music, technology et al. And on its heels comes the Protestant Reformation, which rocks the very foundation of everything it touches. Everything was in flux.

It’s also in part because the Tudors themselves are larger-than-life characters in a giant, swirling drama that reaches into the nations and courts across Europe.

Unlike earlier periods, the Tudor era is remarkably well documented – the first period to benefit from the new printing technology that swept the continent. We know much more about the daily lives of the time than we do about previous eras. So it helps make the characters live in our imagination. Plus it is the era of Shakespeare, albeit a generation later than this series portrays.

And then there’s the story itself. Or rather, the many stories – plots and subplots, twists and turns – that arise. Henry VII’s rise from Bosworth to end the War of the Roses, Henry VIII’s unexpected ascension to the throne, and his marital adventures. Elizabeth I and her reign against all odds. Mary. Edward. Five monarchs in all. It’s just such rich stuff, compressed into a mere 120 years. You can’t fail to be drawn in.

Who among us doesn’t know at least the outline of the story of Henry VIII’s wives? Or the defeat of the Spanish Armada under Elizabeth? Mary Queen of Scots? The beheading of Anne?

Little wonder I continue to read and watch stories about them. They are endlessly entertaining.

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