June 9

Amber pages

Anyone who has read this blog this far will know that I struggle when I come upon the word "great" attached to the name of any person, and that my inclination is to go searching among the detail to find out what it was that they did to merit such an epithet. More often than not, alas, it turns out to be military might, autocratic despotism, and conquest. 

Russia has two monarchs who carry the sobriquet, of whom Catherine can be found, still waiting to be vindicated (though from what I have read thus far, she will be), on May 2. And then there is Peter, who biography.com introduces as follows:

Born in Moscow, Russia on June 9, 1672, Peter the Great was a Russian czar in the late 17th century who is best known for his extensive reforms in an attempt to establish Russia as a great nation. He created a strong navy, reorganized his army according to Western standards, secularized schools, administered greater control over the reactionary Orthodox Church, and introduced new administrative and territorial divisions of the country.

All of which suggests that he too may yet be vindicated - and the statue of him, by the old Royal Shipyard on Dreadnought Walk between reenwich and Deptford Green, certainly suggests that he wasn't one of your spoiled-brat royals who had valets to touch the dirt of reality on their behalf. But the cannons are pointing over Mudchute Farm to Canary Wharf. And the lights are still on amber.

Greatness, anyway, is a relative term, with a fairly broad scale. The realm in which a person achieves that greatness may itself be greater of lesser, and the achievement may be entirely accidental, or retrospective, or ephemeral. And, like beauty and ugliness, like wandering lashes and stray dust particles, greatness is in the eye of the beholder.

So, for example, George Stephenson, the developer of the steam locomotive, born today in 1781. He didn't actually invent steam, and there were multiple mechanical uses of it before he built his engine, and he was far from alone in conducting the research... but still, an invention that transformed the world (equally for the worse as for the better).

So, for example, Carl Nielsen, the Danish composer, born today in 
1865, the heir of Sibelius, some would say, 
the greatest from Denmark maybe, highly Mahlerian, strong influence of Wagner too... but "open your ears and you're influenced", as Bob Dylan said, rather than list his many hundreds, some great, some not so.

So, for example, Les Paul, musician and "inventor", born today in 
1915 (some listings say 1916, others 1923). What made him great? I have put the word "inventor" in speech marks because, no, it wasn't the cancer-cure machine nor the ozone-layer cleaner, and it wasn't the computerised drip system for growing crops in deserts. Nor did he even get there first - Leo Fender beat him, by just the width of a guitar string. An electric guitar string. But if you have ever played a Fender, as I have, and if you have ever played a Les Paul Gibson, as I have, you will have no difficulty whatsoever epitheting him as Les the Great.

So there are also Cole Porter, born today in 1892, and Jackie Mason (Yacov Moshe Maza), born today in 1934 (or it might have been 1930), who no doubt merit inclusion, who no doubt were very great in their fields, but they don't make it to my list, because this is personal history, and I just don't like the sort of music Cole Porter wrote, and I never found Jackie Mason terribly funny. Sorry.

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