December 26

Amber pages

Thomas Gray, English poet, born today in 
1716; though given that the only poem of his that anybody knows was an elegy in a country churchyard, perhaps this should move to his death-date, which was July 30th 1771. Himself, as it happens, is buried in an extremely picturesque country churchyard, St. Giles in Stoke Poges, in Buckinghamshire.

Charles Babbage, developer of the first speedometer, born today in 
1791. Interesting that this is how we remember the man who virtually invented the computer (but see my Ada Lovelace piece on June 5)

Henry Valentine Miller, American novelist, born today in 
1891, somewhere between Cancer and Capricorn. How far does a person's name impact on the person they become? Many who hate their name so much they use the middle name instead, or just the initials, or take a pseudonym, or change it entirely by deedpoll. Miller simply ignored his middle name, perfectly content with Henry. But it must have affected him. It isn't something you want to tell a girlfriend, on a first or even on a second date, not because it sounds gay, but because it might sound presumptive... but on the other hand, given what HVM spent most of his books writing about...

Mao Tse-Tung, aka Mao Ze Dong, leader of the Chinese communist revolution, born today in 1893 - visit his birthplace with me, in my collection of travel-essays "Travels In Familiar Lands"

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December 24

Amber pages

A day that could very easily be left blank, given the births and deaths and incidents that have turned up in the many almanacs that I have scoured. Personal history requires... something personal, and preferably something positive; some connection, some interest.

So there is: Matthew Arnold, English poet and essayist, born today in 1822. Had it been his father, Thomas Arnold (born June 13 1795, died June 12 1842), I would be writing reams, about "Tom Brown's Schooldays"; about the connection between Arnold's Rugby and Clifton, where I spent fifteen years (Clifton's founder, John Percival, was an Arnold acolyte at Rugby); about Arnold House school in London, named for the Rugby Headmaster and source of many Jewish pupils during my Clifton years; about the ways in which human activity evolves, in this case soccer becoming rugby, which would later become american... but this is Matthew, the son. I could write about History as a major theme in Matthew Arnold's work, but the truth is, he got that from his father, who is remembered as a moralist but was more importantly a major contributor to the development of history as an essential subject in the school curriculum, and as a historian himself introduced both Niebuhr and Vico to his Oxford "Noetics" colleagues... maybe I should move this paragraph to June 13, and explore what is a key source of this Book of Days there...

And then there is the skeleton of a mastodon, discovered by Charles Willson Pealeunveiled today in 1801. But it was the discovery, not the unveiling, that was significant, and I cannot find that date anywhere; and anyway, it was by no means the first to be discovered...

My biggest problem, however, lies here. The almanacs all read identically: "December 24 1865: KKK formed (Pulaski, Tennessee)". Not even necessary to expand those initials in a parenthesis, because we all know what they stand for, and it isn't Kare, Koncern and Kompassion. Why am I even soiling these pages by naming the organisation? Why am I even thinking of writing about it? Why am I not just scrawling the letters through and writing words like "scum" and "human vermin" all over a photograph of their leadership, and then a gob of spit (is there a software program that does digital spit?). And what kind of a country is it that hasn't outlawed it years, decades, a century and a half ago?

   But alas, like the Nazis, and then their reincarnators the neo-Nazis, the KKK cannot just be overlooked, ignored, left unmentioned. There has to be something, even if it is only this refutation of them (it occurs to me that I learned that lesson through the historical work of men like Thomas and Matthew Arnold).

And talking of people who like to burn things in the human realm, today in 1948, the first solar heating system was set up, by Dr. 
M├íria Telkes, in Dover, Massachussetts. Burning for good, not for evil. Funny that it should have been a woman (have I noted previously that in both Hebrew and Arabic the words for Care, Concern and Compassion are all connected to the word for "womb" - racham, rachum - a most definitely female word?). Funny that I did manage to find something Positive, even out of all this Zero!

The illustration above shows Peale's mastodon, now museumed in Durmstadt, Germany. Note that the tusks form the letter K to absolute perfection. Note that there are only two, not three of them, which confirms that they can't count any better than they can spell. Note that the mastodon comes from a period of history, around 130,000 years ago, that coincides almost exactly with the first emergence of pre-historic human beings in their pre-intelligent state - so about the same stage of evolution as the KKK.

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December 22

Amber pages

Jean Racine, France's Shakespeare,
born today in 1639 

GER day in Romania, the overthrow of Ceausescu, 
today in 1989

Fyodor Dostoevsky was due to be executed, today in 
1849, but was pardoned at the last minute

One of the very few whose greatness is of such magnitude that I am posting both her birth date (November 22, 1819) and her death date, George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans), her work still sadly incomplete, today in 

And on the same day, another who merits that accolade, Samuel Beckett (born April 13, 1906) reached his endgame, ceased waiting for Godot, took his final breath, and came to the last of his happy days, today in 

Ma Rainey, Gertrude Pridgett, "Mother of the Blues," died today in 1939 - listen to her singing here.

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December 21

Amber pages

Anthony Powell, novelist, began dancing to the music of time, today in 

Heinrich Boll, German novelist, born today in 1917

The first Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts, today in 1620

Phileas Fogg travelled rather further and considerably faster, completing his trip around the world in slightly less than 80 days, today in 1872, if you were reading it in serial form at the time, not until today in 1873, if you waited for the book to come out. And what about Passepartout, his valet - another name for my Sherpa Tenzing list (see July 24)

While today, in 1991, in fact not fiction though sometimes fact is harder to believe than fiction, today, in 1991, the leaders of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine signed the protocol to an agreement that made the formation of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) official. Four days later Mikhail Gorbachev resigned, and that was it for the Soviet Union: over, done, disbanded

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December 19

Amber pages

Ettore Schmitz (a.k.a. Italo Svevo), novelist, born today in 1861. Svevo was one of James Joyce's first students, when he arrived as a would-be private English teacher in Trieste, and Svevo would later donate both his wife's name (Livia), and her magnificent "plura belle" hair to ALP, the female heroine of Joyce's "Finnegans Wake"; and Joyce in return would donate copy after copy of Svevo's "La coscienza di Zeno" (sometimes translated as "Confessions of Zeno", sometimes as "Zeno's Conscience") to anyone interested in great literature. More on their teacher-pupil, writer-writer friendship here. Read William Weaver's translation of the book without needing to tip (that's a Joyce-joke), here

Jean Genet, French dramatist, born today in 1910

Alois Alzheimer, German psychiatrist, died today in 1915, still compos mentis by all accounts; and if I have chosen to honour him at the time of his death, it is only because, in most cases, it is at that end of life that his name most frequently gets mentioned.

And today, Grrr, in 1984 - how could she? - Britain - no, not Britain, England, and not even all of England - agreed to "return" Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty by 1997. Return? The word, Your Non-Majesty, is "surrender", and the two that should follow are "you" and then "traitor"... No, don't get me started about Margaret Thatcher or I shall be doing GER day and thinking about that statue in the Guildhall...

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December 18

Amber pages

Joseph Grimaldi, the "greatest clown in history", born today in 1778. The title-claim should be regarded as a conscious act of self-publicity rather than a factual statement (though who knows, maybe it is also a factual statement). At least three recent American Presidents could also be awarded this title, and Ned Alleyn, the John Cleese, or was he the Charlie Chaplin, the Grock, the Oleg Popov, the Karan d'Ash, the whoever it was that starred in those wonderful comedies by Aristophanes, of his day ("discovery is the key to quality education", as I wrote on the previous page; so I am leaving you to "discover" all of these names that mean nothing to you for yourself)

Joseph Thompson, discoverer of the electron, born today in 1856

Saki (H. H. Munro), British short story writer, born today in 1870. Several of my English teaching colleagues at Clifton taught Saki, and regarded him as the greatest short-story writer England had produced. I sometimes wondered if this was just an act of sycophancy to our Headmaster, who bore the same last name, spelled the same way, but apparently the threesome had been teaching him for years before Hugh arrived.

Paul Klee, Swiss modernist painter, born today in 1879 (I have looked for the title of the painting on the right, but can't find it anywhere; do you think, from the above, that it might be "Portrait of Grimaldi"?)

Edwin Howard Armstrong, inventor of FM radio, born today in 1890

Christopher Fry, the man Margaret Thatcher's scriptwriter was cleverly mis-quoting when she insisted that "the Lady's not for turning", born today in 1907

Willy Brandt, West German chancellor, born today in 1913

And the end of an extraordinary epoch, the death, today in 1737, of the Italian violin maker Antonio Stradivari

December 17

1862, 1900, 1995, 

General Ulysses S. Grant issued "General Orders No 11", today in 1862, expelling and deporting all Jews from his command. 

While President Lincoln was in Washington, polishing the last clauses of the "Emancipation Proclamation", due for public delivery just two weeks later, on New Year's day 1863, one of his senior generals was launching a minor pogrom in Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi.

Shocked, and terrified, the Jews under his command fought back, going over Grant's head, directly to the President:

And Lincoln hesitated - not even a moment. Three days after the "Emancipation Proclamation", Grant received the following:

And that was it. Done. Intelligent life prevailed over crass and ignorant stupidity. Grant learned too. Later, when he became the 19th President, one of his first appointments was the head of B'nei Brith, Simon Wolf, as Recorder of Deeds, the man in charge of all public records. A very public statement, that appointment. Followed by several more, as Wolf, in his other capacity as a member of the President's team of personal advisers, put forward Jewish name after Jewish name for key positions. And on June 9th, 1876, Grant became the first American President to attend the dedication of a synagogue, Washington DC's Adas Israel - and in doing so defined the moment at which Judaism became an officially co-equal religion in the United States. Redemption and Transformation.

There is, however, a hugely ironic afterlife to this tale. Grant expelled the Jews, not out of anti-Semitism per se, but because a number of those under his command had turned out to be swindlers, conmen and racketeers. When Grant finished his term as President, he went into business as an investment banker with a young man named Ferdinand Ward, at 28 already labelled "the Napoleon of Wall Street". Grant and Ward made millions - until it became apparent that Ward was a swindler, a conman and a racketeer, the Bernie Madoff of his epoch. Grant was left bankrupt. And no, Ward was not Jewish. His father, the Reverend Ferdinand De Wilton Ward, and his mother, Jane Shaw, had been Christian missionaries in India.

Ah for some intelligent life, somewhere in the cosmos! Today in 1900, a prize was offered in France, worth 100,000 francs, for proven communication with any extraterrestrial beings. Given that, of the billions of species that have at any time inhabited this planet, let alone any other, only one has developed the sort of communications the prize-donors intended, the chances of there being another such being, anywhere, and of our being able to communicate with them, even if they proved against all odds to exist, must be infinitely remote. 

I like to imagine that someone does find life-forms on another planet, somewhere beyond alpha centauri, in some point of space whose atmospheric conditions mirror ours, on which similar accidents of evolution have taken place, causing to emerge a highly sophisticated genus which, like us, is capable of intergalactic travel and exploration. This person makes primaeval contact, takes photographs, even records their grunts and grimaces, but is turned down for the prize by the French academy because he cannot prove that real communication has taken place, and this, not because the extraterrestrials speak their own language, and it is incomprehensible, but because they have learned only one of Earth-Man's languages, and it is the wrong one, perhaps English, perhaps Russian, perhaps Arabic, perhaps Chinese; but not French.

(Addendum: when the prize was offered, Martians were excluded, on the grounds that this would be too easy!)

Five years before I learned about the fatuous absurdity of this unwinnable prize, I read a newspaper article on a similar theme, and responded by writing a poem, later published in my collection "Coins", and later still in "Welcome To My World". It seems to me appropriate to re-print it here:

9th July 1995

                            I note that the first World Conference
                            of people in contact with Extra-Terrestrials
                            has been convened in Costa Rica

                            First, may I raise objection to my personal exclusion
                            I have tried repeatedly to talk to extra-terrestrial beings
                            and do not see why I should be disbarred
                            simply on the grounds that I have failed
                            where you claim to have succeeded

                            In my absence may I nonetheless request
                            that those of you who are in touch with ETs
                            pass on the following vital piece of information

                            that we are very keen to make friends with them
                            but only if they accept democracy
                            the absolute sanctity of Christian marriage
                            American goods guns films and pop music
                            a total ban on abortion and gay marriage
                            join the fight against pollution
                            allow us to mine their oil and other minerals
                            and boycott the State of Israel

                            Please can you also make it clear
                            to avoid any embarrassing misunderstanding
                            of these complex scientific and philosophical determiners
                            that we on Earth are an intelligent life-form
                            which is not by any means the same thing
                            as an intelligent species

And if, indeed, there is intelligent life out there in the cosmos, how splendid to have something that we ourselves could aspire to imitating, though I suspect that we should send our spaceships with a large warning banner attached at the front: "Beware. Humans approaching. You are about to become an endangered species". 

Amber pages

Ford Madox Ford (Ford Hermann Hueffer), English novelist, born today in 1873

Willard Frank Libby, the man who invented "carbon dating", born today in 1908 (the jokes about the validity of this date are too obvious even for my low standards)

Lazarus died for the second time, today in 63 CE - that may actually be my favouritest historical record, ever (and so cool that it comes right after Libby)

[An] Aztec calendar discovered, today in 1790 (as I have stated many times, this process of "discovery", which is the key element of quality education, needs to be stated more clearly. Today, in 1790, somebody who had never seen one, who may not even have known that one existed, or thought to wonder if perhaps it might, that person, today in 1790, discovered what had been a  commonplace and everyday item among the Aztecs for centuries, their calendar

Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first airplane flight, today in 1903 (more on this in my novel "A Journey In Time"

December 15

Amber pages

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, French designer of the Eiffel Tower and co-designer of the American Statue of Liberty Enlightening The World - click here for the latter part of that descriptor - born today in 1832 (see footnote)

Dr. Ludwik L. Zamenhof, the Polish inventor of Esperanto, born today in 1859 (see also August 14 and July 26)

John Henry Hammond, recording company executive, born today in 1910 - the man who discovered... most of the serious talent in 20th century American music: Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Dylan. Interesting background too: son of a megamillionaire, upper east side New York, corporations executive family, but spent most of his youth in Harlem. I shall enjoy writing this.

Edna O'Brien, Irish author, born today in 1930. Philip Roth idolised her.

The American Bill of Rights, now regarded by many as the American Bill of Narcissistic Self-Entitlements, became effective, today in 1791. "Effective" is a complicated term.

Sitting Bull, Tatanka Iyotake, shot, today in 1890 - by one of his own people too, Tacankpe Luta, "Red Tomahawk" in English. The full tale, to save me the trouble, is told here. Dozens of gorgeous Sioux shields and signatures, an alternative History of Art waiting for someone to write it, here

I would never have included the next item, despite my love of good quality ice cream, rum&raisin by preference, otherwise mango, or vanilla if it's real cream. But how can I ignore this prime candidate for the prize for "the world's least significant historical event that someone actually went to the trouble of recording", ever? Today in 1903, Italo Marchiony took out a patent for ... wait for it... trumpet alarum in C Major (I wish there were a Y major and then I could do this as a cartoon)... the ice cream cone 

I would never have included the next one either, had it not been for the coincidence of dates, because frankly I find his music formulaic, manufactured, superficial, dull. But today, in 1944, Alton Glenn Miller disappeared over the English Channel, remains of the airplane never found. Not one of John Hammond's discoveries. But maybe the story of the two of them sums up why 
not, for them and so many others. Hammond once wrote a very negative review of the Miller band (he said pretty much what I have said at the start of this paragraph), to which Miller responded: "Why do you judge me as a musician, John? All I'm interested in is making money." He probably wasn't being sarcastic either.

Footnote to item 1. Amongst the duties taken on by everyparent, though not stated in any official parenting manual or legal code, is the requirement to embarrass one's children by doing things that no one else's parent would ever do, such as lying on your back, on the dirty concrete, at the feet of the Eiffel Tower, your digital camera pressed to your eye and the scars in your back from a recent operation audibly groaning, to take the photo that adorns the summit of this page. Sorry, kids, but it was worth it. (I have a similar one of the London Gherkin, which I absolutely had to take, to show it growing like a pickled cucumber, in what, fifty years previously, had been the back garden of my Uncle Max's clinic - the Max whose name I bear - in Leadenhall Street.)

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December 14

Amber pages

Tycho Brahe, Danish astronomer and mathematician, one of the key figures in the development of both the European Enlightenment and the European Moustache, born today in 1546

Captain Roald Amundsen became the first person who could prove and verify that he had reached the precise point that it is now agreed we should call the South Pole (please don't tell Robert Scott or Lawrence Oates, or Ernest Shackleton for that matter)

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December 13

Amber pages

Heinrich Heine, German poet, born today in 1797 - see my piece about him in "Private Collection" by clicking here

Sir Francis Drake, English pirate and racketeer, embarked on a three year attempt to circumnavigate the globe (he got the knighthood when he returned from it, the Queen coming to his boat in Deptford, and staying for dinner), today in 1577; but I have written about him elsewhere (in "A Journey in Time", in "Tourism-Writing", i
n "The Plausible Tragedy of Roderigo Lopes", and therefore shall not follow in his wake here

New Zealand was first discovered by a European (I feel the need, once again, to add that qualifying statement), the Dutch navigator 
Abel Tasman wo also gave his name to one of the islands off the south coast of Australia, today in 1642

Anna Mary Robertson Moses, "Grandma" Moses, "primitive painter?" (I feel the need to add that question mark), died today in 
1961. The Lowry of the Americas might be a fairer epithet, though there were times when she must have thought she was imitating Brueghel.

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December 12

Amber pages

Impossible not to have days whose memorials are just, well, let's admit it, better than those of other days. The first four of these fit into that category for today's date. But the fifth - how could you beat that? Tiger Woods having a golf masterclass from Jack Nicklaus? That dinner at Matisse's house when Picasso and Braques saw African masks for the first time? Maybe. There must be others of the same order, but this will probably take the 19 cent biscuit.

Gustave Flaubert, French novelist, born today in 

Edvard Munch, Norwegian painter, born today in 

Kenya declared independence, today in 1963; and if I have included this one in this Book of Days, but left out many of the others, it is because the British leaving Kenya really was the symbolic beginning of the end of colonialism on that continent, even though it wasn't actually the first (click
here for a full list of dates for the start of Africa's "Long Walk to Freedom")

John Osborne, English playwright ("Look Back in Anger"), born today in 

But then this:

Today in 1792, Ludwig van Beethoven paid the equivalent of Haydn $.19 for his first music lesson (I would love to know what that would have been in the original? both the currency and the equivalent value). 

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