November 25

Amber pages

Lope de Vega, the other great Spanish writer of that epoch, born today in 1562

Andrew Carnegie, industrialist, which is really not that interesting; but the eponym of Carnegie Hall, which is; born today in 

Harley Granville-Barker, English playwright and critic, born today in 

Leonard Woolf, husband of Virginia, born today in 1880

Orion Nebula discovered, by one Nicholas Peiresc, today in 

Yukio Mishima, Japanese novelist, committed ritual suicide (see my Kyoto piece in "Travels in Familiar Lands", today in 1970 

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November 24

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Laurence Sterne, novelist and clergyman, born today in 
1713 - I presume he became a clergyman because he was the third son, but I need to check this: the first lives the life of Riley, because he will inherit; the second goes into the army; the third joins the church - is that how it was? The fourth, if there was one, marries Tselophachad's daughter.

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, born today in 

Scott Joplin, ragtime composer, born today in 

And today in 1963, a most bizarre incident, inexplicable even by conspiracy theory: the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby, 2 days after Oswald may or may not have assassinated JFK. Why was Ruby, a night-club owner, even there? How did he bring a gun in? The guy was about to be electric chaired anyway! Was it then a suicide-dive into the history books - his own death the inevitable consequence, given that he did it in front of dozens of witnesses, and TV cameras not two yards away (you can watch the whole thing, by clicking here), and inside a jailhouse, so no possibility of getting away? Or suicide because he knew he was dying of cancer, and if I have to go young, then I'm gonna take that son-of-a-bitch who killed Kennedy with me? Ironically he too evaded the electric chair; he died, from a pulmonary embolism connected to that lung cancer, on January 3rd 1967 (conspiracy theorists will tell you that he was deliberately injected with a cancer vaccine in order to prevent him adding new testimony at his re-trial)

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November 23


Day - I've lost count! - of the road-trip from Florida to California, which was actually from Miami to Lafayette in the East Bay, but the book is going to add the extensions, so that it starts at the south-eastern tip of America, at Key West, and ends where California was first beached, by Francis Drake, at Bodego Bay.

We are driving through Brownwood and Abilene and Sweetwater and Lubbock - Texas' state capital - following the ring road towards Fort Sumner, where I have to stop, even though it's the "wrong" Fort Sumner. The other one, in Charleston, South Carolina, I already wrote about in one of the pieces in "Travels In Familiar Lands", the spot where the American Civil War began; but this one is just over the border inside 
New Mexico, the place where Navajo and Mescalero Apache were interned from 1863 to 1868, the period of the Civil War, though that was probably just a pretext.

The place, also, where William Henry McCarty Jr died, on July 14th 1881, the date on which this account really belongs, except that page is already very full.

William Henry McCarty Jr? Am I supposed to have heard of him? 

You are, and have, but not under this name - outlaws, like writers (the two are not always all that different) take pseudonyms. He was born, today in 1859, in the Irish slums of New York City, and William Henry McCarty Jy was the name his parents gave him. A teenage thief, the member of a gang that franchised violence where others franchised sex, drugs and alcohol, sometimes aliasing as Henry Antrim, at others as William H. Bonney, he got involved in the Lincoln County War in Arizona, killed a disputed number of other killers, of which Sherriff Brady was the one that got him captured and sentenced to death. He killed two guards and escaped with a bounty on his back, and fled to where we are now, Fort Sumner in New Mexico.

The town - to digress for a moment - was named after the former New Mexico military governor Edwin Vose Sumner, but the federal government closed the fort in 1868, selling all its buildings to a prominent New Mexico landowner named Lucien Maxwell in 1870. Maxwell's son Pete became one of Henry-William's non-bandit friends, and it was in his house that Pat Garrett enabled the man he called Billy the Kid to knock on heaven's door. Both the Kid and Lucien Maxwell are buried in the old military cemetery in Fort Sumner, an irony which Dylan did not manage to get into his song. 

Today the knocking on heaven's door is mostly done by air balloons; Fort Sumner is the location for the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility, a NASA enterprise responsible for providing launch, tracking and control, airspace coordination, telemetry and command systems, and recovery services for unmanned high-altitude balloons. We drank Coke and ate pizza at the Billy the Kid Diner next to the Museum - a steal, at half the price.

Amber pages

"Far From the Madding Crowd" by Thomas Hardy published today in 1874

The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg separated from The Netherlands, today in 
1890... like me, I'll bet that you supposed that it was previously French, or maybe Swiss, not Dutch... this needs a map, because between the two is Belgium... apparently (I just looked it up), Belgium didn't have a separate existence until 1830, being "the Low Countries" before that, as opposed to the Nether Lands, or the Hoch (High) Lands, which of course is Holland... and no negative impact on The Netherlands, or anybody else, economically, socially, politically, militarily. Bodes well for Catalonia, Brittany, Euskada (the Basque lands), Wales, Scotland, Irish reunification...

Much less complex, to read let alone to explain, "Life" magazine hit the newsstands, today in 1936 

And today in 1948, the Zoom lens was patented by somebody named F.G. Back.

November 21

Amber pages

First manned balloon flight, Jean de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes, today in 1783 - I wonder if they were familiar with Leonardo's drawings 

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November 20

1877, or possibly 1878

The first recording of human speech was not made today in 1877, but I am unable to find a definite date on which to post it: 
different websites, all asking to be taken scientifically and intellectually seriously, give different dates for the event, anywhere from August 15th here to December 6th here; and even the following year, 1878, without a specific day, here.

However it was today that Edison announced that he had invented the phonograph, quite by chance in fact, while trying to invent something completely different, which he never managed.

I designed a little machine using a cylinder provided with grooves around the surface. Over this was to be placed tinfoil, which easily received and recorded the movements of the diaphragm ... Kruesi (the machinist), when he had nearly finished it, asked what it was for.
I told him I was going to record talking, and then have the machine talk back. He thought it absurd. However, it was finished, the foil was put on; I then shouted [text removed for editorial purposes]... I adjusted the reproducer, and the machine reproduced it perfectly.
I was never so taken aback in my life. Everybody was astonished. I was always afraid of things that worked the first time.

The tale is disingenuous - but most things about Edison were. The recording actually starts with a 23-second cornet solo of an unidentified song - which means he either played it himself, or someone else was there who could - followed by the recital of... I'll come back to that in just a moment. First, 
the fact that it turns out not even to have been him, his voice, but that of a political writer by the name of Thomas Mason, who Edison had called in to get some publicity for his invention. At what point does "disingenuous" become "fiction", and "fiction" become "downright lies"?

There are, as very subtly insinuated above (that's an Edisonian way of saying it!), huge questions over Edison, who, as we have already seen 
(July 24), was something of a thief when it came to scientific patents.

But now for what may well be the saddest piece of information in this entire blog - maybe even in human history. Here you have one of the great inventions, the ability to record human speech, a parallel achievement to Daguerre and the pioneers of photography. Daguerre's first picture was of the moon (see January 2). But that intellectual genius Edison, what did he choose? The opening lines of the Book of John might have been a good option: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Or some great piece of poetry, Hamlet perhaps, saying "What a piece of work is Man" (Act 2 Scene 2), or make a joke using Anthony's eulogy in Julius Caesar (Act 3, Scene 2): "Friends, fellow Americans, sharers of planet Earth, lend me your ears, for I have found the means to record the human voice, and you are the pioneers embarking with me on this new-found continent...". But no. All Edison could come up with was... "Mary Had A Little Lamb". Don't you just want to add a swear-word between Little and Lamb?

As to "what a piece of work is Man", you need to read the whole thing to realise how sarcastic Shakespeare is being (probably Hamlet too, but definitely Shakespeare):

                            What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
                            how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
                            express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
                            in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
                            world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
                            what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
                            me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling
                            you seem to say so.

Hyperbole, over-statement... is this then the source of that great American descriptor for those humans who really do not deserve even the sort of ironic praise that Anthony bestowed on Caesar: "a piece of work". I only wonder this because today is not only Edison's, but also the one in 1945 on which a somewhat greater calumny was finally addressed, the start of the Nuremburg trials.

Amber pages

Thomas Chatterton, poet and forger, born today in 1752

Alistair Cooke, TV commentator, 1908

Nadine Gordimer, authoress, born today in 1923

And today in 1820 the whaler Essex of Nantucket was sunk by a sperm whale; eight mariners survived, though none, as far as I am aware, was named Ishmael

Oh, and Generalissimo Fransisco Franco died, today in 1975. GER!

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November 19

Amber pages

The Gettysburg Address, delivered, today in 1863

The first Arab leader ever to do so, Anwar Sadat, set foot in Israel, today in 1977 - but see October 6

And today in 1978, the Jonestown Massacre, a date in an almanac about which I confess to knowing nothing - though of course I could easily look it up, and eventually I probably will. But because I do not know it, it can not be a part of my personal history, and so I may well look it up, but I will not research it, and 
I will not write about it, not in this Book of Days anyway. 

Which paragraph, defining the term "passer-by" to perfection, provides a perfect illustration of what is called a syllogism (a false deduction or conclusion etc based on logic and achieved through the use of ratiocination...) and an even more perfect illustration of why the human world remains as barbarically uncivilised now as it was when we still lived in caves.

And speaking of hypocricy, disingenuousness, and insincerity; I said I would not write about it, and yet, self-evidently, I have just done so.

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July 19

Sir John Brydges, Lieutenant of the Tower leading Jane to the scaffold

Lady Jane Grey, "queen for a day", though actually it was nine days, and they never got around to crowning her, so "acting queen for nine days", which isn't anything like so mnemonical. 

Her father was Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Suffolk, 3rd Marquess of Dorset; whence her last name. But she was really Lady Jane Dudley, because they also married her off young for political reasons, and because Dudley wanted his son Guildford to be king! The poor girl was only sixteen when she found herself at the centre of the Catholic-Protestant feud in the wake of King Edward VI's death, and some people were prepared to do anything to prevent a Catholic, and even more than that a woman of any faith, from becoming the next monarch. Edward had felt the same, which is why he named Jane as his successor. But Mary wasn't having any of it, and today in 1533 Jane was deposed in a coup d'état that set Mary on the throne.

Apparently none of this was Jane's idea, and she had the good grace to feint when it was suggested to her; presumably, intelligent young woman that she was (she had studied 
Latin, Greek and Hebrew and was fluent in French and Italian), she recognised the absurdity and futility of her father's plot, and previsioned the axe that would chop her head off less than nine months later.

Sir John Dudley, 
the man who orchestrated most of this, was the Earl of Northumberland, the father of Jane's husband Guuildford, and also of Robert Dudley, later the Earl of Leicester who was Shakespeare's acting patron, and whose best friend in childhood, most of which he spent imprisoned in the Tower under Mary, was Elizabeth Tudor - I wonder if Bess' memory of Lady Jane Grey was in her head when it came to snuffing out Mary Queen of Scots later on?

Jane's execution took place on February 12th 1554, on Tower Green, the nineteen year old Guildford having had his head removed on Tower Hill a few moments earlier; the pair are buried in unmarked graves at 
St Peter Ad Vincula Royal Chapel, on the north side of the Tower.

In London's Guildhall you can see Delaroche's study for his study of that execution; the final version is in the National Gallery and I can't tell any difference between the two... the study is at the top of the page, the final version below.

Amber pages

Edgar Degas, French painter, born today in 

Valdimir Mayakovsky, Russian composer, born today in 1893

1485, construction of the Kremlin started

1692, five Massachusetts women executed for witchcraft - Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible" retells their story

1870, Franco-Prussian war began

1969, John Fairfax finished rowing across the Atlantic ocean on the same day that Teddy Kennedy reached the pinnacle of his own wave in that same ocean, drowning Mary Jo Kopechne in its waters off Chappaquiddick Island.

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November 16

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W.C. (William Christopher) Handy, the "Father of the Blues", born today in 1873 - another Joni Mitchell incipit: "W.C. Handy, I'm rich, and I'm fey, but I'm not familiar with your heyday..." - click here to hear it 

Paul Hindemith, composer and teacher, born today in 1895

Chinua Achebe, Nigerian writer, born today in 1930

And today in 2348 BCE, Noah's flood ended. We know, because Noah kept a diary, on papyrus, in Babylonian cuneiform, and you can actually read it, right here:

"Thursday November 16 -2348 BCE. Lions kept me up all night, non-stop roaring; going to have to move the gorillas to a different cage if they go on taunting them like this. Very pretty rainbow in the sky this lunchtime; you could almost see where the pot of gold might be. Still no sign of that bloody dove though; I hope the raven didn't mistake him for food and... no, wait a minute. I can see him now. And is that an olive branch in his mouth? Thank the gods, this ridiculous ordeal is over. Someone tell me, please, how we are supposed to start again when everybody here's a blood-relation, and no one on this entire boat has the slightest memory how to light a fire?"

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November 15

Amber pages

Sir William Herschel, Discoverer of the planet Uranus, born today in 1738

Georgia O'Keeffe, artist, born today in 
1887, at Sun Prairie, Wisconsin

Daniel Barenboim, musician,  conductor and spouse of Jaqueline du Pre (click
here), born today in 

The first recorded reference to tobacco was made, today in 1492, though whether it was by the Spanish explorer Cristóbal Colón or the Genoese explorer Cristoforo Colombo is open to as much debate as you can manage, preferably without too coughing and spitting, and No Smoking in the chamber thank you very much

First papal visit to West Germany in 200 years, today in 1980. Yes, but did it achieve anything? 

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November 14


The first blood transfusion was carried out, today in 1666. 

Was it though? Was it really? 

William Harvey described the circulation and properties of blood in 1628, but what he was describing had been known for centuries. 

The Greek Erasistratus was convinced that he knew it, but was unable to provide proof. 

Then there was Ala-al-din abu Al-Hassan Ali ibn Abi-Hazm al-Qarshi al-Dimashq, who is usually known as ibn al-Nafis because the amount of oxygen that needs to circulate through the blood in order to say his full name is more than most of us can manage without a transfusion. 

His encyclopaedia. "al-Shamil fi al-Tibb", written in Cairo in the middle years of the 13th century, includes a description of pulmonary circulation that was so thorough it became standard in treatment of all connected medical conditions, from heart attack to sword-wound, in every Bimaristan in the Arab-Moslem world thenceforward, and travelled through the Jewish world into Europe, where it was regarded as heretical, and therefore proscribed, rather than prescribed. It took until Harvey for that "o" to become an "e", but the claim that Harvey "discovered" it goes alongside Columbus' discovery of the Americas and yours of these facts as "etymological". To "dis-cover" something is to take its lid off; in this case the lid had been hermetically sealed by Papal Bull, but what was in there was definitely already in there.

And, to add one more sad note to what was ultimately a piece of racism (denial inferiorises; being the discoverer superiorises), most of the transfusions carried out by Harvey did more harm than good, because he may have "discovered" the circulation of the blood, but alas he had not yet discovered (though both ibn Senna and Maimonides had written about it at great length, five hundred years earlier) that other fundamental necessity of medicine: hygiene.

The first (recorded) successful blood transfusion was carried out by Richard Lower in England in 1665, but this doesn't really count either, as his patients were dogs, not people

Much more on all these Arab and Jewish scientists and scholars in my novel "The Persian Fire", due for publication very soon

Amber pages

Claude Monet, French Impressionist painter, born today in 1840 - the illustration is one of many paintings he made in Etretat, on the Normandy coast just north of Le Havre; for why that was my inevitable choice, see October 6. Monet was one of the painters "discovered" by Paul Durand-Ruel, for which see February 5

Jawaharlal Nehru, Indian statesman, born today in 

Aaron Copland, composer, born today in 

1851 :"Moby Dick" published, one of the truly giant works of world literature - a Behemoth, a Leviathan (how was it received? To read why "It Repels The Reader", click here)

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November 12

Amber pages

Auguste Rodin, sculptor, born today in 1840 - and perhaps I'll tell the story of the struggle to make that remarkable statue of Balzac, which Zola commissioned when he was President of the Société des Gens des Lettres...

Roland Barthes, critic and semiotician, born today in 
1915. Did he ever write on Rodin?

Neil Young, completely helpless, as of today in 
1945 (his debut with CS&N is ambered for ambering on July 25, though whether a piece about the crazy horse will end up here or there is still to be determined) 

Voyager 1 made its closest approach to Saturn, today in 

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November 11

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Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky, Russian author, born today in 1821

Carlos Fuentes, Mexican novelist, born today in 1928

Daniel Ortega Saavedra, former Nicaraguan president, born today in 1945

Cosmic Rays named, and reported, today in 1925. In fact they had been known since 1912, ever since Victor Hess took a flight in an air balloon and noticed that the electroscope he had taken with him was discharging more rapidly as he ascended, an oddity that he attributed to a source of radiation entering the atmosphere from above. He assumed, and won the Nobel Prize for Physics for demonstrating it, that the source was electro-magnetic, which is why they were called "rays", but it has since been argued that the rays are themselves electrically charged, and the speed impacted by Earth's magnetic field.

Remembrance Sunday in Europe, also known as Armistice Day. World War I ended, today in 1918

Nat Turner executed, today in 1831 - see October 2

Anoracksia Nervosa gone crazy (like, by definition, it isn't craziness anyway!); a man named John Pearson has written the unofficial and unauthorised biography of... yes, that fantasy of fiction and fiction of fantasy James Bond, giving him today as his birthday, in 1920. Now I do not wish to be accused of enjoying the same condition, but I have checked, and in "Casino Royale" he bought a car in 1933, when he would have been just thirteen; and there are several references in other books to his having been "an experienced gambler" before the Second World War. In "Moonraker", which is set in the early 1950s, he is said to be in his middle thirties, so that works for Pearson's date, but in "You Only Live Twice" he was born in the Year of the Rat, which would have been either 1912/13 (validating his car licence and his gambling) or 1924/25 (too late for "Moonraker"). Have I really just wasted six minutes and eighteen seconds of my life researching and writing this?

November 9

Amber pages

Ivan Turgenev, Russian author, born today in 1818

Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell's "other student", born today in 1928 (click here for November 17 to understand that moniker better)

Carl Sagan, astronomer and biologist, born today in 1934

The first issue of "Rolling Stone" published, today in 1967, with John Lennon as a soldier on the cover - how deliciously subversive!

And two events that it gives me great delight to juxtappose, because the second confirms the end, the failure, of the first; and the end, the failure, of the other great catastrophe that Europe inflicted on itself, the 20th Century. Quite simply, no need for commentary:

Today in 1938, Kristallnacht

Tonight, on the stroke of midnight, in 
1989, the authorities in Berlin gave permission to open the gates and end the epoch of the Berlin Wall

(which is why my piece about it can be found tomorrow, on November 10, the day when the Charlies crossed the Checkpoint in huge numbers, and the serious demolition took place)

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