June 30

1520, 1859, 2017


The treacherous death of Montezuma (which probably should be Motecuhzoma II Xocoyotzin), Ninth Emperor of the Aztecs of Tenochtitlán, who succeeded his uncle Ahuitzotl in 1502, and ruled a kingdom that stretched from New Mexico to Honduras and Nicaragua, worshipping many gods, but none more so than Huitzilopochtli (pronounced Weets-ee-loh-posht-li), fearing many gods, but none more so than Quetzalcoatl, the white, bearded Dionysus to H's Apollo, iconned in the form of an eagle and a snake - D.H. Lawrence's "Plumed Serpent".

Why "treacherous"? The arrival of Conquistador Hernan Cortes appeared to confirm many ancient oracles and prophecies about the coming of the gods in strange ships. Montezuma mistook him for a good man, and invited him to enter his capital city, Tenochtitlán, without so much as insisting that he leave his rifles at the gate.
"Adorned with feathers and paint, the Aztec warriors whirled, dancing and stamping, their song rising in an intoxicating crescendo to honour the gods. As the long lines of celebrants wound into the temple precinct, the great drum played constantly, uniting their steps and their voices. Suddenly, among the sounds of worship, the screams of battle were heard and the drummer was abruptly silenced as a Spanish soldier sliced off his arms. Trapping the unarmed Aztecs, the conquistadors slaughtered them mercilessly until, according to the Nahuatl (Aztec language) chronicles, “the blood of the warriors flowed like water”.

Not my purple prose - it comes from the "history extra" blog, and you can read the full details of the genocide there (I use the term "genocide", the blog calls it "an incredible achievement in military history"; and maybe those two really are the same thing.)

The Aztecs were not the only people to find themselves wiped out, or reduced to reservations, as superior white European Christian male liberated the primitive continent of America from its primordial state, and brought it to enlightenment and prosperity. A full list of all the native tribes of South America can be found by clicking here, of North America here; the site does not detail how many of these people are still left alive today, nor in what conditions they are living.

Neil Young's tribute to Montezuma can be enjoyed here.





1859

Many, many years ago I wrote a poem for one of my many heroes of the Immaculate Failure, those folk who set out on adventures and expeditions, usually both inward to the depths of themselves as well as outwards to some corner of the universe where none has ever gone before - my own sense of this is that you have to do both simultaneously to achieve either, but neither is actually achievable: hence Immaculate Failure. 

Scientists who go hunting for an explanation of the origins of the universe and stumble upon a possible cure for cancer by accident instead; golfers who hit eighteen birdies in a single round, but rue afterwards the two simple eagle putts they missed; women who do more than sex and housewifery in a male-dominated culture but still don't get paid equally; artists and composers who travel way beyond impersonation of their maestros, but still have nothing to say even in their own original voice; folk who run or walk or sail or fly into the uncharted regions, and get there second... everyone of them a failure of course, but what a failure, what a transcendence of the life of most-of-us, in which we live our triumphs entirely vicariously, usually with a beer and pizza in our broken-down sofa.

Charles Blondin (his real name was Jean-François Gravelet) was the subject of that particular poem, published in my collection "Coins" back in the 1990s, and then again in my Collected Poems, "Welcome To My World", in 2013, and reprinted below, though I would obviously prefer you to buy a copy and read all the poems. There is also an audio version, if you click here.

As happens to me very often, because I tend to be like those explorers who I so admire, I was rambling the Internet in search of something quite different that took place on June 30th of a different year, when there was Charles Blondin walking towards me once again, just as I would expect him, on a tightrope, with a man on his back, and probably, though you can't see it, a bullet from a rifle arranged several hundred yards away the reason why he isn't wearing a hat. It was June 30th 1859, and this the very first time he had undertaken the crossing that would make him famous for doing something so utterly and unequivocally pointless, and yet majestical: the crossing of the Niagara Falls in Canada, by tightrope.

Now I should point out that I have crossed Niagara Falls myself on many an occasion, though I did it by road the first time, on the Rainbow Bridge from the Canadian side to the US, and then back again, while amusing myself by blue-toothing the audio of my Blondin poem to my car radio as we drove through; several times after that (when you live in Toronto, as I did for four years, Niagara is where you take your overseas visitors) on foot across the wall at the summit, and literally inside the rocks, inside the waterfall, where tourists are encouraged to wear waterproofs at any time of year, though (as the pictures in the link will show you), the best time is in mid-winter, when it's minus 18 degrees Celsius, not counting the wind-chill, and the snow and icicles are everywhere. There is the boat too, "The Maid of the Mist" I think she was called, tame and boring once you've done the wall in winter, though "tame and boring" are relative terms. 


Relative to each other, that is, but especially relative to Blondin's achievement, which a man named Nik Wallenda repeated in June 2012, though in his case wearing a safety harness, which would not have impressed Blondin.

Richard Cavendish described Blondin's rather more spectacular spectacle in "History Today" (Volume 59 Issue 6 June 2009).

"Jean-François Gravelet was the most spectacular funambulist, or tightrope-walker, of his day or probably any other day. Born in 1824, he was the son of a veteran of the Grande Armée who was nicknamed 'Blondin' for his fair hair. The family lived at Hesdin in the Pas de Calais and when a circus came to town the little boy was so fascinated by the tightrope-walkers that he decided to be one himself and started practising immediately using his father's fishing-rod as a pole. His parents sent him for training as an acrobat at the celebrated École de Gymnase in Lyons. He made his first professional appearance as 'The Little Wonder' at the age of five and later adopted his father's nickname.

"Blondin's first crossing of the Niagara Falls, in 1859, was the most famous feat in a life packed with them, and like all the others was painstakingly prepared, organised and exploited for maximum publicity. He took care to enlist the support of the Niagara Falls Gazette which at first thought it was a hoax and then decided he was mad but went along anyway. Newspapers all over the country were soon interested. The rival Niagara Mail was sarcastic in its coverage and the New York Times said Blondin was a fool who ought to be arrested, but posters and handbills boosted the excitement. The railway companies laid on special trains and thousands of spectators assembled to watch.

"The tightrope was taken across the river in a rowing boat. More than three inches (7.5cm) thick, it sagged by some 60 feet (18m) in the middle, so it had a steep slope. The distance was a little over 1,000 feet (305m). Blondin offered to carry a volunteer over on his back but, unsurprisingly, no one stood forward. Bands on both banks played as he began his crossing at 5.15pm and took his time over what he privately considered an easy task. He stopped and lay down for a rest at one point and stood on one leg for a while. The crossing took him a little over 17 minutes. After a pause he went back across on the rope, much faster this time. He was cheered to the echo and the feat was reported all over America and in Europe.

"In several later crossings Blondin introduced variations. He carried his top-hatted manager across on his back, crossed blindfolded or on stilts or in a gorilla costume and pushing a wheelbarrow. One of the wonders of the age, he built himself Niagara House in the London suburb of Ealing in 1889 and died there of diabetes in 1897, days before his 73rd birthday. He lies buried in Kensal Green Cemetery. Neighbouring streets in Ealing, Blondin Avenue and Niagara Avenue, preserve his memory and there's a Blondin Street in Bow."






In Praise Of Tightrope Walkers

(for Charles Blondin)


Charles Blondin
I sing to you on your birthday
a song of praise
knowing full well that no one else
has even heard of you
Blondin? Blondin?
Isn’t he a pop star, a footballer?
Wasn’t he that fascist who?
No, just a moment, I saw him in that film.
Then he must have been a friend of Byron’s?
A Symbolist poet? A politician?

The truth is
he was none
but he was also all of these
for all of these walk tightropes
one way or the other
His real name was Jean-Francois Gravelet
though he styled himself Charles Blondin
and he was first presented to the public
aged five in Saint-Omer
as “The Little Wonder”

And what a wonder!
Circus tightropes anyone can do
with a little bit of training
a harness and a safety net
even the unharnessed headstands and the somersaults
that were his speciality

But Niagara Falls
on a rope stretched 160 feet above the surging water!
Blindfolded!
With a sack over his head!
Trundling a wheelbarrow!
With a man on his back!
On stilts!

One time, he got so carried away
by the need to entertain the thousands
who turned out to watch him crossing
that he stopped half-way
set up a portable grill
cooked and ate an omelette
then had a marksman with a shotgun
in a tugboat down below
fire a bull’s-eye through the hat
that he was wearing

Where are you now
heirs and followers of Blondin
little wonders of the high tightrope?
Where are the artist Blondins
the politician Blondins
the scientist Blondins
where are you when we need you?
Have you all retired as he did
to that park in Ealing
where the streams are forded
by neat bridges made of planks
precisely wide enough for wheelchairs
where the nearest thing to a tightrope
is on pulleys in the kiddies’ playground
supervised by trained child-minders
dug in with cement to health and safety guidelines,
and three-foot pile rugs to catch a fall
from what is anyway just six feet?





2017


Death of Simone Veil, today in 2017. And in my diary for that day: 

"Simone Jacob, if you look for her name on the wall of the deportees at the Holocaust memorial in Paris; 78651 if you look for her camp number in the registry. One of the truly great women of the modern age, and nothing, not a word, not a photo, not so much as a passing mention, on any of the UK news outlets."

There was, in fact, a piece in The Guardian, a week later. The New York Times obituarised her as "an Auschwitz survivor who as health minister of France championed the 1975 law that legalized abortion in that country", but it took the eventual posting by the Jewish Women's Archive before she got the obituary she deserved: "arguably the one person most responsible for advancing women's legal rights in France during the twentieth century and now into the twenty-first..." President of the European Parliament, member of France's constitutional court... you can read the rest for youself here.



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