January 16

1936, 1547, 1325, 1743, 1938, 1957


Hunting down these dates and anniversaries can have several effects, most of them platitudinously banal: the ephemerality and transience of human life and incident... that sort of thing... 


Sometimes the sheer absurdity shines through - such as why would anyone want to record the installation of the first photo-finish cameras? Take a picture to see which actually made it first if there were two claimants - that I could understand. Or a record of their their first use possibly. But their installation!? At Hialeah race track, Florida, today in 1936 - now a name like Hialeah is well worth the recording (do they have an equivalent at Ascot when they wave their hats?), but does the fact really merit inclusion in the global almanacs?



Also today, in 1547, Ivan IV, the Terrible, initiated three hundred and fifty years of family-led tyranny by having himself crowned as the first Tsar of Moscow (or Czar, if you insist). I see the recording of that event as being like the keeping of statues of those we no longer revere - remembering Ivan and his successor Romanovs puts in context the Menschevik and Bolshevik revolutions of 1917; that however many they murdered, however brutal the regime, they took the Russian peasantry out of 100% illiteracy, innumeracy and serfdom, and moved them forward, well, about three hundred and fifty years. Like it or not, it was a kind of progress.



But this vindication doesn't work for Richard Savage, whose birth, or possibly his death, may or may not have been today; a man so unworthy of posterity that it is hard to imagine finding his name in the removed section of the suggestions book for the hall of fame, let alone his becoming one of the waxwork dummies, even in the outer vestibule of the outer lobby. He is, quite simply, the sort of person who does not merit a place in this Book of Days, and if I am including him, it is only because there has to be a benchmark of Negative in order for there to be a benchmark of Zero. And since I need a Yahoo to balance out the Houyhnhnms, how could I not include a man named Savage?
I have said that this may be the date of his birth, or possibly his death, or even neither, and that is because the various almanacs that I am using as supply-routes for The Book of Days do not always pack their mules and camels as fastidiously as they might. Regularly they disagree on dates, between almanacs, and even within almanacs. So Richard Savage, who may or may not have been the illegitimate child of the last Earl Rivers and the Countess of Macclesfield; I have both his birth and his death recorded as being on this date. 

The inaccuracy is most appropriate, in fact, because inaccuracy was one of his talents. Samuel Johnson's life of Savage, which is the only record that we have of him besides his own indifferent poetry, contains so many improbabilities and falsehoods it transforms his life into the picaresque and requires us to rethink our distinction between "real life" and "fiction". In 1727 (court records at least confirm this one) he killed a man in a tavern brawl, and only by a miracle escaped the gallows. That he was a man steeped in bitterness is demonstrated in his work - especially vitriolic against the Countess of Macclesfield, or mere Mrs Brett as she had by then become. That he was a wastrel can best be demonstrated through his spending of the fifty pounds given him by Queen Caroline, as a thank-you for a birthday ode, on a week of infantile debauchery. 

I have also made him my choice for the exemplar of the unworthy in this book, as a way of gently rebuking my good friend and former teaching colleague in Clifton, David Thompson, later a Headteacher at an International School in Chile, who some years ago published a literary walk around Bristol, but completely failed to pause at the old prison behind the Temple where, rejecting help offered by Alexander Pope, Richard Savage spent the last year of his life, engaoled for debt; and died there, probably not on this date, but definitely in the year 1743.


And then there are the dates that truly do stand out, deeper than platitude, genuinely eternal, some heroic, some sad. Today in 1325, for example, Petrarch’s beloved Laura de Neves was married, not alas to Petrarch, but, by a curious coincidence and paradox of love's extremities, to a man named Hugo who bore the family name de Sade. 




But it is the heroic that we are really seeking, and sometimes they are to be discovered in the non-historical, the generally unknown, the ones that have no immediate impact upon history, but which deserve to be recorded before any of the others: little moments of private sacrifice or nobility, of the kind of civilised human behaviour that proves we really can. 

Which is why today belongs to Benny Goodman, Jewish clarinetist and band-leader, who made social history by becoming the first white bandleader to include a black musician in his ensemble when he recruited pianist Teddy Wilson, and then added Lionel Hampton, another black jazz artist, on the vibraphones. According to Maclean's magazine, Goodman refused to play concert dates in the southern states, where audiences were segregated by race; and today, in 1938, refused to go on stage at Carnegie Hall because black members of his band were barred from performing.




And speaking of great musicians and great music venues (this colour, I believe, is known as Shankly Red):
1957. The Cavern Club opened in a warehouse cellar at 10 Mathew Street, Liverpool, founded, if that is what one does with music venues, by Alan Sytner, after visiting Le Caveau on Paris’ West Bank. Initially a jazz club, it turned to skiffle, then got sold and relaunched as a beat and blues club. The very first beat night featured Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, with Ringo Starr on drums. Cilla Black was the cloakroom attendant. Between 1961 and 1963 The Beatles performed 292 times. Amongst the other great bands to perform there were the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Kinks, Who, John Lee Hooker, and Reginald Dwight... Reginald who? Well that was the name he had then, and when I saw him doing warm-up piano for the main act at the Marquee Club in London, before he became Elton John.

The Cavern closed in March 1973; what stands there now calling itself The Cavern is on the other side of the road, built with the original bricks and facsimiled internally, but still a fake of 1984.



Amber pages


Robert Service, poet of the Yukon and the Gold Rush, born today in 1874




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