Saturday, 11 January 2020

The salutary tale of Ed Punch

Despite his impeccably middle-class background, Edwin was always fascinated by organized crime and the activities of gangster leaders. This led to his hanging around in the bars and clubs of Soho, hoping to be noticed by the Kray twins and their associates, who at this time were enjoying the heyday of their power in the district. This made him feel superior to his less adventurous friends.
   For a long time he was simply ignored, but one evening a thief who was being pursued by the police thrust a piece of jewellery into his hand with the words, “Hold that for me, mate!” Quite probably he had mistaken Edwin for someone else in the gloom. The police arrived shortly afterwards and questioned everyone on the premises, but Edwin, with his respectable appearance and accent, was allowed to leave without being searched.
   He felt immensely proud of his coolness under pressure. A few days later he was approached by two threatening-looking men in dark suits who hustled him into a car and demanded that he handed over the stolen item to them. For a wild moment he considered answering them with snarling defiance, but common sense prevailed. Managing to show no trace of the gnawing fear he felt inside, Edwin answered them respectfully and politely, complied with their wishes without protest, and indicated that he was willing to undertake any similar work in the future. Feeling, probably correctly, that his real name of Edwin Prosserly, was nowhere near hard enough for a would-be gangster, he told them that he was called Ed Punch. His self-regard increased greatly in consequence.
   Before long he was approached again. Edwin sensed that he was being tested, with increasingly important tasks. He was asked to dispose of a pistol, which he duly chucked into the Thames near Windsor early one Sunday morning. Was it, he wondered with a thrill of vicarious danger, a murder weapon? For this task he was rewarded with a considerable amount of money in old banknotes. He decided to devote himself to this new, exciting and potentially lucrative life; and he dropped out of college.
   He rented a flat in Old Compton Street, where shortly afterwards he was required to play host to Tony, a young man he had never met before. Edwin felt very uneasy in Tony’s presence, and took great care not to annoy him, for the young man showed every sign of being a psychopath. He was most relieved when after a couple of weeks Tony disappeared and was not seen again.
    Other tasks followed over subsequent months. He drove getaway cars and later disposed of them, he kept account-books for semi-literate criminals, and occasionally vacated his flat when it was required for other purposes by persons unknown. He was well paid for his work, but the tension was beginning to take its toll. He could sense that, although the mobsters occasionally found him useful, he wasn’t really one of them and never would be: he was just a middle-class kid who thought it was cool to hang around with gangsters, and that they might cast him off or betray him at any moment, without a second thought. And did he really want to spend the rest of his life in company with men like Tony?
     Then one day the police conducted a swoop and arrested the entire gang. They were all interrogated separately, on a charge of involvement in a murder. It should surprise no-one that Edwin was the first to crack and turn Queen’s Evidence in return for immunity from prosecution.

    He is believed to be living in South Africa under an assumed name.  It is safe to assume that he never admits to ever having been called Ed Punch.  .

Monday, 16 December 2019

Roman Names: an introductory note

A Roman aristocrat of the 1st century B.C.; the "classical" period most studied as history, and whose version of Latin we are taught at school, would normally have three names. Prominent examples are Caius Julius Caesar, his assassin Marcus Junius Brutus, and the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla.
   The first of these was the personal name, and would probably only be used when a boy was spoken to by his mother, or when as an adult was addressed in a fully formal manner.
   The second was the name of the tribe, or clan. Roman politics for many generations was dominated by a handful of great aristocratic clans, of which the Julii, Cornelii and Junii are examples.
   The third is known as the "cognomen". It was often a kind of nickname, perhaps dating from centuries earlier, in a form of latin that had become archaic, to distinguish between the different branches of the great clans. A cognomen would be inherited, and as a result some became quite comical. Thus "Caesar" meant "hairy", whereas Julius Caesar was bald. The cognomen of Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus meant "bronze-beard", whereas all Roman aristocrats of the classical period were cleanshaven. The famous orator and writer Marcus Tullius Cicero (who was not an aristocrat, but came from an obscure family of provincial gentry) bore a cognomen that literally meant "chickpea", probably indicating a prominent pimple or wart on the face! 
   An extra name, known as an agnomen, might also be awarded for some great military feat. At the end of the 3rd cetury B.C. the great general Publius Cornelius Scipio was awarded the agnomen of Africanus after his defeat of Hannibal at the battle of Zama.

   Things were confused by adoptions and consequent changes of name. The most famous came about when Caesar, who had no son to succeed him, named as his heir his sister's son, called Gaius Octavius. This young man changed his name, first to Octavianus, and then to Gaius Julius Caesar; and in 27 B.C. the Senate granted him the agnomen of Augustus. He is usually called the first Roman Emperor (1), though in fact he neither he nor his immediate successors ever acknowledged any such title.
   Augstus had no son, and his grandsons all died young, so for his military campaigns he relied upon his two stepsons, who came from the great aristocratic Claudii clan. They were the brothers Tiberius Claudius Nero Drusus (2) and Gaius Claudius Nero Drusus. After the death of Gaius, his son, another Gaius Claudius Nero Drusus, won significant victories on the Rhine frontier, and was granted the agnomen of Germanicus. His son acompanied the armies as a child, dressed in a miniature military uniform that caused the soldiers to give him the nickname Caligula ("Little boots") (3). The younger  brother of Germanicus, another Tiberius Claudius Nero Drusus (4), sent the legions to conquer Britain in 43 A.D., and was given the agnomen of Britannicus. He himself adopted as his heir his stepson, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (5), who duly changed his name to that of his stepfather.  

   Daughters would merely have a feminine version of their father's clan-name: thus Caesar's daughter was called Julia, Cicero's daughter was called Tullia, and so forth.

This proliferation of very similar names creates problems for historians, who therefore tend to settle on a single name for convenience. Thus Gnaeus Pompeius Maximus (the agnomen meaning "Greatest") is generally known as Pompey, and the five men indicated above by numerals are the first five Emperors, now known under the names of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. 

Sunday, 1 December 2019

150 Years Ago!

Report on an election of November 1869, from the "Shrewsbury Chronicle":-

"The proceedings of the day were devoid of much of the drunkenness and disorderly conduct which has, too frequently, been witnessed on such occasions. The cause of this undoubtedly was that the successful candidates put themselves forward otherwise than by the old system of bribery and "open" public houses. Another reason was that the polling places were not, as formerly, held at public houses, a mode of conducting an election which could not but tend to bad results"

In November 1794 the same newspaper published a report that "No intelligence whatever has now been received from the British Army since Tuesday." This never fails to raise a smile nowadays. It did of course mean "no information", though in fact the Flanders campaign, which it refers to, was exceptionally badly planned and executed, and convinced the future Duke of Wellington, who was present, of the need to take military matters much more seriously.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Where is this?

Where are these cities? (They are all in mainland Europe)












The correct answers are to be found amongst the following:-
Amsterdam - Antwerp - Athens - Arles - Avignon - Barcelona - Berlin - Bologna - Bratislava - Bruges - Bucharest - Copenhagen - Dubrovnik - Florence - Frankfurt - Geneva - Istambul - Krakow - Lisbon - Lyon - Madrid - Moscow - Palermo - Paris - Prague - Riga - Rome - Seville - St. Petersburg - Sofia - Tbilisi - Valetta - Venice - Vienna - Warsaw - Zagreb.

Monday, 21 October 2019

Considerations on Art

These sections ask a number of questions about art and aesthetics, most of which are unanswerable in any way that would be universally accepted! I use the word "Art"in its broadest possible sense, to include music (about which I know very little), poetry, etc.

1     1.Are there any absolute standards to determine what is “good” art? (or music, literature, etc) If so, how are these determined, and by whom? Is it, ultimately, anything more than a matter of fashion? It cannot be denied that standards of judgement appear to change radically over time, as each generation seeks to overturn the standards and norms of its predecessor.     Similarly, is “beauty” merely a matter of individual taste: or perhaps something that is learnt, and passed on through the prevailing culture? In past centuries in the West, it was considered that the Hellenistic tradition of what was beautiful was the only universally valid one, and anything that deviated from it could be considered “not beautiful”; but this would hardly be acceptable nowadays (why not?). If I say some work of art is “good”, am I ultimately saying anything deeper than “I like it”?

         2. Is everyone’s aesthetic judgement equally valid; or should it be accepted that some people have better cultural “taste” than the rest of us? If so, how, and why? Alternatively, is aesthetic value anything more than just popularity? Is there any way of proving that Shakespeare is “better” than some TV soap opera? Or is this just cultural snobbery? (Cynical assessment: “good art” means “admired by those who consider they have good taste”)
     3. What is “art” anyway? Can it be defined? If so, can some things be written off as “not art”? Is anything that is created by man “art”? A tree, for instance, may be considered “beautiful”, but it is not “art” because it has not been created (except possibly by God); but an exact painting of the same tree can be classed as “art” (and what about a photograph of it?). Can all human activities; e.g. a piece of skilled artisan work, or even a pleasing sporting performance; be classified as at least potentially “art”?

       4. Should the personality of the artist in any way affect the evaluation of his art? In other words, does it matter if a great artist is a wicked man? Many people see the two as incompatible, and accordingly try to either devalue the art or excuse the wickedness (the “intentional fallacy”) Example: Wagner's antisemitism

          5. Is there such a thing as “immoral art”? e.g. can a novel be disgusting, but well-written: can a movie be blatant propaganda, but brilliantly conceived and directed? Should these considerations affect our evaluation? (They often do!)

       6. What about fakes and forgeries? In these cases, are we really more concerned with the signature than the artwork? This will undoubtedly determine the price of the work in question, rather than any aesthetic considerations: but why should it? Is it a question of mere snobbery? (“I own a genuine Picasso!”)

.        7. How do we assess the “meaning” of any work of art? Does it matter if any “meaning” we give to it is actually quite different from what the artist intended? (the “affective fallacy”)

        Final point! It seems clear that from a very early point in human evolution, our remote ancestors felt a need to be creative: to paint pictures and play music; and presumably also to sing, dance and tell each other stories. Why? Probably this urge fulfils some biological/evolutionary purpose? Some birds and other animals behave in a similar way; apparently for the purpose of attracting mates. Does human creativity ultimately have its roots in something similar? Or, since we are a species that tends to live in herds, does it serve the purpose of fostering and reinforcing a sense of group-identity?

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Wales: A few days in Gower

Gower (not the Gower, we were informed) is a peninsula beyond Swansea on the south coast of Wales.

We stayed at Parc-le Breos, a country house hotel with enormous lawns, where housemartins zoomed around a few feet above the ground.

Just a mile away was a neolithic burial site, where the bones of at least 40 individuals have been excavated.

From the hotel it was less than half an hour's walk down to Three Cliffs Bay on the south coast.

A few miles to the west we found Oxwich Bay.

At the western end of the peninsula is a rock formation known as "Worm's Head" (a worm meaning a dragon), with the broad beach of Rhossili Bay alongside.

Gower is a maze of footpaths, with many banks of wildflowers. Alongside the main road out of Swansea, beds of wildflowers are ingeniously placed in the wide grass lawns.

We visited two castles. Weobley castle, on the north coast, looking across the estuary to Llanelli, is more of a fortified manor-house than a serious castle. It was mostly the work of the de la Bere family in the 14th century 

In the late 15th century it was the home of Rhys ap Thomas, who in 1485 came out in support of Henry Tudor when he landed in Wales in his successful campaign to overthrow King Richard III. Rhys was rewarded by being made a Knight of the Garter. The family's rise to prominence was to be shortlived, for in 1531 his grandson, Rhys ap Gruffudd, was executed for treason and Weobley reverted to the Crown.

Oxwich castle, in the south-west of the peninsula, is in fact an Elizabethan mansion,whose defences are purely for show. It was built by Sir Rice Mansel and his son Edward, but had been abandoned by their descendants by the 1630s and fell into decay. 

Swansea (or Abertawe, to give it its Welsh name) has always been the principal town of the region. It was given its charter in the mid-12th century, and today in Swansea old and new sit side by side. 
Swansea castle was rebuilt and altered on many occasions; for although Gower came under Norman rule just a few decades after the Conquest, it was attacked and sometimes overrun by Welsh rebels right through to the 15th century.

We spent the only wet day of our visit in the National Waterfront Museum, which was largely devoted to the industrial history of the area, and was most interesting. This picture is a model of Richard Trevithick's steam locomotive. 

In conclusion, we enjoyed our stay to Gower,and would recommend it to other visitors.