Nov 012018
 

On this date in 1512, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as painted by Michelangelo was exhibited to the public for the first time. We can get a small sense of the impact it had at the time from contemporary sources, but only a small sense. Now, of course, the ceiling is colossally famous, and there are hundreds of years of commentary (as well as soot and dirt) to delve through. Church officials can enter the chapel directly but plebs like me have to start at the ticket office and trek through what seems like miles and miles of hallways and apartments to get there, with galleries everywhere, stuffed with Raphaels, da Vincis, Giottos, Titians, Caravaggios, and on and on and on . . . The Sistine Chapel is at the very end, so that, first time through, you are in complete overload mode by the time you get there. I know the details of the painting very well from photographs I have studied, so when I go in person I am not really interested in examining minutiae. I go for the simple feeling of being in the presence of the actual work. Hard to explain. There are a few places in the world where when I stand there I have a feeling of being in the presence of something powerful. Standing where Darwin stood on Tierra del Fuego, standing outside the Cabildo in Buenos Aires, has the same effect on me.

I can’t give you a big lecture on the ceiling. You can read about that in any number of places. I’ll talk simply about architecture – real and illusory. The Sistine Chapel is 40.9 meters long and 14 meters wide. The ceiling rises to 13.4 meters above the main floor of the chapel. The vault is of quite a complex design and was not originally intended to have such elaborate decoration. Pier Matteo d’Amelia provided a plan for its decoration with the architectural elements picked out and the ceiling painted blue and dotted with gold stars, similar to that of the Arena Chapel decorated by Giotto at Padua.

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

The chapel walls have three horizontal tiers with six windows in the upper tier down each side. There were also two windows at each end, but these were closed up above the altar when Michelangelo’s Last Judgement was painted, obliterating two lunettes. Between the windows are large pendentives which support the vault. Between the pendentives are triangularly shaped arches or spandrels cut into the vault above each window. Above the height of the pendentives, the ceiling slopes gently without much deviation from the horizontal. This is the real architecture. Michelangelo elaborated it with illusionary architecture.

The first element in the scheme of painted architecture is a definition of the real architectural elements by accentuating the lines where spandrels and pendentives intersect with the curving vault. Michelangelo painted these as decorative courses that look like sculpted stone moldings. These have two repeating motifs, a formula common in Classical architecture. Here, one motif is the acorn, the symbol of the family of both Pope Sixtus IV, who built the chapel, and Pope Julius II, who commissioned Michelangelo’s work. The other motif is the scallop shell, one of the symbols of the Madonna, to whose assumption the chapel was dedicated in 1483. The crown of the wall then rises above the spandrels, to a strongly projecting painted cornice that runs right around the ceiling, separating the pictorial areas of the biblical scenes from the figures of Prophets, Sibyls, and Ancestors, who literally and figuratively support the narratives. Ten broad painted crossribs of travertine cross the ceiling and divide it into alternately wide and narrow pictorial spaces, a grid that gives all the figures their own defined places.

A great number of small figures are integrated with the painted architecture, their purpose apparently purely decorative. These include two faux marble putti below the cornice on each rib, each one a male and female pair; stone rams-heads are placed at the apex of each spandrel; copper-skinned nude figures in varying poses, hiding in the shadows, propped between the spandrels and the ribs like animated bookends; and more putti, both clothed and unclothed strike a variety of poses as they support the nameplates of the Prophets and Sibyls. Above the cornice and to either side of the smaller scenes are an array of round shields, or medaillons. They are framed by a total of twenty more figures, the so-called Ignudi, which are not part of the architecture but sit on inlaid plinths, their feet planted convincingly on the fictive cornice. Pictorially, the Ignudi appear to occupy a space between the narrative spaces and the space of the chapel itself.

It is well known that Michelangelo had virtually no interest in food except as fuel. In fact he was often so absorbed in his art that he skipped meals.

Fred Plotkin writes:

Michelangelo lived almost 89 years, so he must have done something right in terms of his nutrition. I think that he probably would not be called a gastronome. He liked pears…a lot. His standard gift was to send 33 pears to someone – 33 for the 33 years of the life of Christ. He also had a cheese cellar, and in that cellar he kept several types of sheep’s milk cheese, one of them called marzolino. Marzolino for the month of March. It was only made in March, and he particularly loved that cheese. He had a vineyard and he produced some wine—1503, I discovered, was a good vintage. He produced some olive oil, and he ate bread. And that really was about it. There was not much more. He lived on pears, cheese, oil, wine, and bread.

These are your marching orders: marzolino cheese with bread and olive oil, plus some pears. Would make a nice sandwich. Very effective if grilled. Use whole grain bread and fine olive oil.

Jun 032018
 

Today is World Bicycle Day, one of the newest celebratory days announced by the UN. It was approved just 2 months ago on April 12th, 2018. Generally speaking, I find the avalanche of UN “special” days along with similar celebratory days announced by separate nations to be a bit over the top, but I go along with some of them because they give me the chance to promote certain causes that I think are worthy. Well . . . I think the bicycle is eminently praiseworthy. As the UN resolution notes, it is a highly sustainable mode of transportation, and it is highly efficient also. I’ve been a bike rider for 53 years (with gaps) and have one now at 67 years old. My bike gets me around easily and quickly, costs next to nothing to operate, does not pollute, and keeps me fit. I’d say win-win-win-win. When I was a teen, before I was able to drive a car, I had a bike that gave me complete autonomy from my parents and from public transportation. Now, in retirement, I have the same experience (slightly modified). I don’t need a car, and I don’t have to rely on local buses, tuk-tuks, whatever, to get me around. Also win-win.

The draft resolution for the UN was prepared by a committee representing Belarus, Ecuador, Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Viet Nam, a broad enough band of countries around the world to show the universal appeal of the bicycle. Using the bicycle as a convenient (and cheap) way of getting around has definitely diminished over the course of my lifetime in both the developed and the developing world, but it still has its appeal. Rather ironically, in the 1970s, when I lived in Oxford in England, the huge majority of workers at the Morris Oxford plant in Cowley rode bicycles to work. I also remember a time when the roads in cities in coastal Holland were filled with bicycles, and the Dutch even had a system of free bike sharing, which has been emulated in many countries worldwide. Bicycle tourism was, and still is, a big deal. Just this past month, my hostel in Nepal was invaded by cyclists from Poland who were cycling in stages around the world, and when I got to Italy, the town where I was staying had a major bicycle rally on the day I arrived. Then there’s the Tour de France and its many imitators, attracting millions of spectators on the course and on television. The bicycle is a staple of modern life worldwide, yet it needs a bit of boosterism these days because in most places bikes are now in the (dwindling) minority of road users. This may have to do with the fact that people in the West nowadays would rather pay for transport that involves no physical effort (and then pay for gym membership to do their work outs – if they work out at all). But there must be other factors as well.

The common bicycle in use today was invented in the 1880s. Prior to that time, as shown in the gallery above, bicycles were typically driven by pedals on the front wheel. This setup caused a conflict between using the front wheel for both power and steering. The problem was solved by placing the pedals below the rider and linking them by chain to the back wheel, thus separating power and steering. John Kemp Starley produced the first successful “safety bicycle” (that is, rear wheel chain driven bicycle), the “Rover,” in 1885, which he never patented. It featured a steerable front wheel that had significant caster (rake of the front forks for ease of steering), equally sized wheels and a chain drive to the rear wheel.

The safety bicycle completely replaced the high-wheeler in North America and Western Europe by 1890 because it became usable as a mode of transportation, and not simply a toy or novelty item. Meanwhile, John Dunlop’s reinvention of the pneumatic bicycle tire in 1888 had made for a much smoother ride on paved streets. The previous types were quite smooth-riding, when used on the dirt roads common at the time. Safety bicycles had been much less comfortable than high-wheelers precisely because of the smaller wheel size, and frames were often buttressed with complicated bicycle suspension spring assemblies. The pneumatic tire made all of these obsolete, and frame designers found a diamond pattern to be the strongest and most efficient design.

To me, the marvel of the bicycle is its mechanical efficiency (which you know instinctively if you are a bike rider). From a mechanical standpoint, up to 99% of the energy delivered by the rider to the pedals is transmitted to the wheels (provided all the moving parts are clean and well lubricated), although the use of gearing mechanisms reduces this by 1-7% (clean, well-lubricated derailleurs), 4-12% (chain with 3-speed hubs), or 10-20% (shaft drive with 3-speed hubs). The higher efficiencies in each range are achieved at higher power levels and in direct drive (hub gears) or with large driven cogs (derailleurs). A human being traveling on a bicycle at 16–24 km/h (10–15 mph), using only the power required to walk, is the most energy-efficient means of human transport generally available. On firm, flat ground, a 70 kg (150 lb) person requires about 60 watts to walk at 5 km/h (3.1 mph), that is, normal walking pace. That same person on a bicycle, on the same ground, with the same power output, can travel at 15 km/h (9.3 mph) using an ordinary bicycle, so in these conditions the energy expenditure of cycling is one-third of walking.

I don’t do a lot of long bike rides in a day, but I do some. I spent several days biking around the Alps in Slovenia and Austria 2 years ago, and earlier this year I did a 45 km afternoon run in hot weather (100˚F/39˚C) around sites in northwestern Cambodia. Cycling is a good way to see a lot of countryside up close. Better by far than walking or taking a bus or car. Not only do you have a lot of freedom – being able to stop and look around when you want – but you are also very intimately connected to the environment (same as walking, but faster). For long bike rides, nutrition is important (not to mention proper hydration). I drink a lot, and I usually take some kind of a sandwich cut in small-ish units, so that I can eat little and often. Having a full belly is never a good idea on a long bike ride, but neither is having low energy.

Typically, I make a white bread baguette filled with what is good locally. White bread lacks the nutrients of whole-grain breads, but the simple carbs are broken down more easily by your body. True to form, I like to mix a lot of different ingredients into the filling; monotony is never a good thing. Put in some protein for muscle repair, and whatever else gets your fancy. My last one was ham, Roquefort, and fresh figs. I tend to stay away from ingredients, such as tomatoes, that will make the bread soggy on a long trip. Once you have made the sandwich, cut it into small pieces and wrap them separately.

Dec 262017
 

Today is the birthday (1891) of Henry Valentine Miller, a US writer who often lived in Paris, and known for breaking with existing literary forms, developing a new type of semi-autobiographical novel that blended character study, social criticism, philosophical reflection, explicit language, sex, surrealist free association, and mysticism. He was inspiration for the beat generation writers, among others. His most characteristic works are Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, Tropic of Capricorn and The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, which are based on his experiences in New York and Paris (all of which were banned in the United States until 1961). Miller went through much the same accusations of obscenity as D.H. Lawrence did in Britain over Lady Chatterley. Small minds simply cannot distinguish descriptions of (loving) sex and pornography. In fact, to many, sex is, by definition, obscene. This very notion is the true obscenity, and I suspect stems from lascivious minds. Miller also wrote travel memoirs and literary criticism, and painted watercolors.

Miller was born at his family’s home, 450 East 85th Street, in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, New York City. He was the son of Lutheran German parents, Louise Marie (Neiting) and tailor Heinrich Miller. As a child, he lived for nine years at 662 Driggs Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, known at that time (and referred to frequently in his works) as the Fourteenth Ward. In 1900, his family moved to 1063 Decatur Street in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. He attended the City College of New York for one semester only.

Miller married his first wife, Beatrice Sylvas Wickens, in 1917. They divorced in 1923. Together they had a daughter, Barbara, born in 1919. They lived in an apartment at 244 6th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn.[14] At the time, Miller was working at Western Union, where he worked from 1920-24. In March 1922, during a three-week vacation, he wrote his first novel, Clipped Wings. It has never been published, and only fragments remain, although parts of it were recycled in other works, such as Tropic of Capricorn. Clipped Wings was a study of twelve Western Union messengers, which Miller called “a long book and probably a very bad one.”

June

In 1923, while he was still married to Beatrice, but in the process of divorcing, Miller met and became enamored of a mysterious dance hall dancer who was born Juliet Edith Smerth but went by the stage name June Mansfield. She was 21 at the time. They began an affair, and were married on June 1, 1924. In 1924 Miller quit Western Union in order to dedicate himself completely to writing. Miller later describes this time – his struggles to become a writer, his sexual escapades, failures, friends, and philosophy – in his autobiographical trilogy The Rosy Crucifixion.

Miller wrote his second novel, Moloch: or, This Gentile World, in 1927–28, initially under the guise of a novel written by June. A rich older admirer of June, Roland Freedman, paid her to write a novel. She would show him pages of Miller’s work each week, pretending it was hers. The book went unpublished until 1992. Moloch is based on Miller’s first marriage, to Beatrice, and his years working as a personnel manager at the Western Union office in Lower Manhattan. A third novel written around this time, Crazy Cock, also went unpublished until after Miller’s death. Initially titled Lovely Lesbians, Crazy Cock (along with his later novel Nexus) told the story of June’s close relationship with the artist Marion, whom June had renamed Jean Kronski. Kronski lived with Miller and June from 1926 until 1927, when June and Kronski went to Paris together, leaving Miller behind, which upset him greatly. Miller suspected the pair of having a lesbian relationship. While in Paris, June and Kronski did not get along, and June returned to Miller several months later. Kronski committed suicide around 1930.

In 1928, Miller spent several months in Paris with June, a trip which was financed by Freedman. One day on a Paris street, Miller met another author, Robert W. Service, who recalled the story in his autobiography: “Soon we got into conversation which turned to books. For a stripling he spoke with some authority, turning into ridicule the pretentious scribes of the Latin Quarter and their freak magazine.” In 1930, Miller moved to Paris unaccompanied. Soon after, he began work on Tropic of Cancer, writing to a friend, “I start tomorrow on the Paris book: First person, uncensored, formless – fuck everything!” Although Miller had little or no money the first year in Paris, things began to change after meeting Anaïs Nin who, with Hugh Guiler, went on to pay his entire way through the 1930s including the rent for an apartment at 18 Villa Seurat. Nin became his lover and financed the first printing of Tropic of Cancer in 1934 with money from Otto Rank. She wrote extensively in her journals about her relationship with Miller and his wife June. A great deal of what we know about Miller’s personal life comes from Nin’s journals, and the two continued a (now famous and celebrated) relationship for many years. Late in 1934, June divorced Miller by proxy in Mexico City.

In 1931, Miller was employed by the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune as a proofreader, thanks to his friend Alfred Perlès who worked there. Miller took this opportunity to submit some of his own articles under Perlès’ name, since at that time only the editorial staff were permitted to publish in the paper. This period in Paris was highly creative for Miller, and during this time he also established a significant and influential network of authors circulating around the Villa Seurat. At that time a young British author, Lawrence Durrell, became a lifelong friend. Miller’s correspondence with Durrell was later published in two books. His first published book, Tropic of Cancer (1934), was published by Obelisk Press in Paris and banned in the United States on the grounds of obscenity. The dust jacket came wrapped with a warning: “Not to be imported into the United States or Great Britain.” He continued to write novels that were banned.  Along with Tropic of Cancer, his Black Spring (1936) and Tropic of Capricorn (1939) were smuggled into the US, building Miller an underground reputation. In 1939, New Directions published The Cosmological Eye, Miller’s first book to be published in the US. The collection contained short prose pieces, most of which originally appeared in Black Spring and Max and the White Phagocytes (1938).

In 1939 Durrell, who lived on Corfu, invited Miller to Greece. Miller described the visit in The Colossus of Maroussi (1941), which he considered his best book. One of the first acknowledgments of Henry Miller as a major modern writer was by George Orwell in his 1940 essay “Inside the Whale”, where he wrote:

Here in my opinion is the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past. Even if that is objected to as an overstatement, it will probably be admitted that Miller is a writer out of the ordinary, worth more than a single glance; and after all, he is a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive acceptor of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses.

In 1940, Miller returned to New York; after a year-long trip around the United States, which was to become material for The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, he moved to California in June 1942, initially living just outside Hollywood in Beverly Glen, before settling in Big Sur in 1944. While Miller was establishing his base in Big Sur, the Tropic books, then still banned in the USA, were still being published in France by the Obelisk Press and later the Olympia Press. There they were acquiring a slow and steady notoriety among both Europeans and the various enclaves of US ex-pats. As a result, the books were frequently smuggled into the States, where they proved to be a major influence on the new Beat Generation of American writers, most notably Jack Kerouac, the only Beat writer Miller truly cared for. By the time his banned books were published in the 1960s and he was becoming increasingly well-known, Miller was no longer interested in his image as an outlaw writer of “dirty” books, but he eventually gave up fighting the image.

In 1942, shortly before moving to California, Miller began writing Sexus, the first novel in The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, a fictionalized account documenting the six-year period of his life in Brooklyn falling in love with June and struggling to become a writer. Like several of his other works, the trilogy, completed in 1959, was initially banned in the United States, published only in France and Japan. In other works written during his time in California, Miller was widely critical of consumerism in the US, as reflected in Sunday After The War (1944) and The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945). His Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, published in 1957, is a collection of stories about his life and friends in Big Sur.

In 1944, Miller met and married his third wife, Janina Martha Lepska, a philosophy student who was 30 years his junior. They had two children: a son, Tony, and a daughter, Valentine. They divorced in 1952. The following year, he married artist Eve McClure, who was 37 years his junior. They divorced in 1960, and she died in 1966, likely as a result of alcoholism. In 1961, Miller arranged a reunion in New York with his ex-wife and main subject of The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, June. They hadn’t seen each other in nearly three decades. In a letter to Eve, he described his shock at June’s “terrible” appearance, as she had by then degenerated both physically and mentally.

In February 1963, Miller moved to 444 Ocampo Drive, Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, California, where he would spend the last 17 years of his life. In 1967, Miller married his fifth wife, Hoki Tokuda. After his move to Ocampo Drive, he held dinner parties for the artistic and literary figures of the time. His cook and caretaker was a young artist’s model named Twinka Thiebaud who later wrote a book about his evening chats. Thiebaud’s memories of Miller’s table talk were published in a rewritten and retitled book in 2011.

Only 200 copies of Miller’s 1972 chapbook On Turning Eighty were published by Capra Press, in collaboration with Yes! Press, it was the first volume of the “Yes! Capra” chapbook series and is 34 pages long. The book contains three essays on topics such as aging and living a meaningful life. In relation to reaching 80 years of age, Miller explains:

If at eighty you’re not a cripple or an invalid, if you have your health, if you still enjoy a good walk, a good meal (with all the trimmings), if you can sleep without first taking a pill, if birds and flowers, mountains and sea still inspire you, you are a most fortunate individual and you should get down on your knees morning and night and thank the good Lord for his savin’ and keepin’ power.

Miller died of circulatory complications at his home in Pacific Palisades on June 7, 1980.

Here’s some quotes, some from Miller’s novels and some personal. It’s hard to tell the difference anyway. I’ve interspersed a few of his watercolors.

Without a Coca-Cola life is unthinkable.

To be joyous is to be a madman in a world of sad ghosts.

I have found God, but he is insufficient.

There is no salvation in becoming adapted to a world which is crazy.

What holds the world together, as I have learned from bitter experience, is sexual intercourse.

The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.

I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.

Finding a recipe for Miller is no small matter. Miller himself, and others, mentioned repeatedly how much he loved eating. Here’s Miller:

‘Life,’ said Emerson, ‘consists in what a man is thinking all day.’  If that be so, then my life is nothing but a big intestine. I not only think about food all day, but I dream about it at night.

Nin wrote in her diary that Miller had two primal needs: sex and food. They were, indeed, famous for frequenting the cafes of Paris, and nowadays you can go on a tour of their most popular haunts – many decorated with their photos and other memorabilia. Miller was also legendary in giving dinner parties.

The biographer of Miller’s last years, Barbara Kraft wrote:

The house bore the face of the man. The walls were covered with his paintings, posters, memorabilia, photographs of friends and the famous framed lists. Lists of places he had been, list of places he hadn’t been, lists of all the women he never slept with — but no lists of those he had, lists of favorite foods, of favorite piano music — Ravel’s virtuosic Gaspard de la nuit comes to mind . . .

All good to know. But, what about the actual food in his list of favorites? Or what he ate when dining with Nin? Nothing. Not a word. I’ve gleaned her diaries, as well as Miller’s writings and come up empty – except for this:

Henry was eating red beans for lunch. Heavy red beans. When I met Betty Ryan at the Dôme I told her about the red beans and ordered Vichy. How we laughed!

It’s a start, I suppose, but not much of one. She might have been talking about a cassoulet or a hundred other ways of cooking beans. Why did they laugh? Anyway, you can go with a dish of red beans if you wish, but make it heavy. Here’s a recipe for croque Monsieur which has been a popular favorite in Parisian cafes for many years. If you are a good cook you don’t need a recipe, just the idea. Croque Monsieur is a grilled sandwich of Parisian ham and Gruyere cheese, smothered in a cheesy béchamel and baked. I expect Miller enjoyed it on occasion.

Croque Monsieur

Ingredients

2 tbsp unsalted butter, plus extra
2 tbsp flour
2 cups whole milk
½ cup grated Gruyere cheese, plus 8 slices
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
8 thick slices crusty bread
12 slices Parisian ham
Dijon mustard

Instructions

Melt the butter in a heavy skillet over medium heat, and whisk in the flour to make a blond roux. Add the milk slowly, stirring all the time. Bring to a simmer, whisking all the time until the sauce thickens. Add the grated cheeses and remove from the heat. Keep whisking until the cheeses are completely melted and the sauce is smooth.

Generously butter the bread slices on one side only. Put half the slices, buttered side down, in a heavy skillet. Layer each bread slice with 2 slices of Gruyere and 3 slices of ham, with the Gruyere on the outside. Spread the Dijon mustard on the unbuttered sides of the remaining bread slices, and put each on top of a sandwich, buttered side up.

Put the skillet over medium-high heat and cook the sandwiches until golden on each side. If the cheese melts well, flipping them with a spatula should be easy. I help the melting process along by covering the pan, or weighting down the sandwiches with a large plate.

Place the sandwiches in a baking dish and divide the béchamel evenly between them, spooning it generously over the top. Broil the sandwiches until the sauce is bubbling and golden.

Serve immediately. I like to serve this sandwich with buttered, steamed asparagus spears.

Serves 4

Nov 172017
 

Today is the birthday (1937) of Peter Cook who is widely regarded as the leading light of the British satire boom of the 1960s. Cook had an enormous influence on legendary British comedians who achieved worldwide prominence including his partner Dudley Moore and the Monty Python group (many of whom started on Cook’s shows). He was also a major player in the rise to fame of the likes of David Frost whose stage presence was actually modelled on Cook’s. I want to focus on Cook today because he was both brilliant and completely misunderstood in his personal life and ambitions.  On his death some critics chose to see Cook’s life as tragic, insofar as the brilliance of his youth did not translate into a lifetime of international fame and fortune as it did for so many people he got started in the business. However, Cook himself always maintained he had no ambitions at all for sustained success. He assessed happiness by his friendships and his enjoyment of life. Eric Idle and Stephen Fry said Cook had not wasted his talent but rather that the newspapers had tried to waste him. Some put his lack of fame and ambition down to alcoholism or bad luck or poor choices or whatever. It’s all nonsense. Cook lived the life he wanted and I admire him greatly for that.

In 2005 The Guardian called Cook “the father of modern satire” and he was ranked number one in the Comedians’ Comedian, a poll of over 300 comics, comedy writers, producers, and directors throughout the English-speaking world. He was the master of the dry, laconic, one-line comment that perfectly summed up the absurdity of his era and of life. A very small sample:

All in all, I’d rather have been a judge than a miner. And what’s more, being a miner, as soon as you are too old and tired and sick and stupid to do the job properly, you have to go. Well, the very opposite applies with judges.

What terrible sins I have working for me. I suppose it’s the wages.

As I looked out into the night sky, across all those infinite stars, it made me realize how insignificant they are.

We believe this to be the work of thieves, and I’ll tell you why. The whole pattern is very reminiscent of past robberies where we have found thieves to be involved. The tell-tale loss of property — that’s one of the signs we look for.

Here’s a classic clip of Pete and Dud in a pub scene from Not Only . . . But Also. It’s such a period piece that you’ll never see the likes of it again. You can tell that Cook and Moore are not using a script, but are just working on a dialogue impromptu, based on a general idea they thought up. Cook also “corpses” in the sketch, that is, breaks character with a faint laugh when he is amused by his own banter. Nowadays such scenes would be consigned to blooper reels. In later life Cook readily admitted that one of his favorite things in the world was to sit and chat with friends.  It shows.

Cook was born at his parents’ house, “Shearbridge,” in Middle Warberry Road, Torquay, Devon. He was the only son and eldest of the three children of Alexander Edward “Alec” Cook (1906–1984), a colonial civil servant, and his wife Ethel Catherine Margaret, née Mayo (1908–1994). He was educated at Radley College and Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he studied French and German. As a student, Cook initially intended to become a career diplomat like his father, but in later life he claimed that he couldn’t because “Britain had run out of colonies.” Cook was a good student and was awarded an upper second in his final tripos. He could have achieved first class honors, but in his final year at Cambridge he was also running reviews in London’s West End. He always considered himself an amateur comedian, and would have sat the Foreign Office exam and joined the diplomatic service if he’d attained a first. Just as well. He did say in later life, though, “I’d still say yes if the governorship of Bermuda came up. I’ve always wanted to wear a plumed hat.”

At Pembroke Cook performed and wrote comedy sketches as a member of the Cambridge Footlights Club, and became president in 1960. Whilst still at university, Cook wrote for Kenneth Williams, providing several sketches for Williams’ hit West End comedy revue Pieces of Eight and much of the follow-up, One Over the Eight, before finding prominence in his own right in a four-man group satirical stage show, Beyond the Fringe, with Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore. Beyond the Fringe became a great success in London after being first performed at the Edinburgh Festival and included Cook impersonating the prime minister, Harold Macmillan. This was one of the first occasions satirical political mimicry had been attempted in live theater and it shocked audiences. During one performance, Macmillan was in the theater and Cook departed from his script and attacked him verbally.

In 1961, Cook opened The Establishment, a club at 18 Greek Street in Soho in London, presenting fellow comedians in a nightclub setting. Cook said it was a satirical venue modelled on “those wonderful Berlin cabarets … which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War.” As a members-only venue it was outside the censorship restrictions. Cook befriended and supported Australian comedian and actor Barry Humphries, who began his British solo career at the club. Dudley Moore’s jazz trio played in the basement of the club during the early 1960s.

In 1962, the BBC commissioned a pilot for a television series of satirical sketches based on the Establishment Club, but it was not immediately picked up and Cook went to New York City for a year to perform Beyond The Fringe on Broadway. When he returned, the pilot had been refashioned as That Was the Week That Was and had made a star of David Frost, something Cook resented. He complained that Frost’s success was based on copying Cook’s own stage persona and Cook dubbed him “the bubonic plagiarist.” Cook said that his only regret in life, according to Alan Bennett, had been saving Frost from drowning. This incident occurred in the summer of 1963, when the rivalry between the two men was at its height. Cook said he realized at the time that Frost’s potential drowning would have looked deliberate if he had not been rescued.

Around this time, Cook provided financial backing for the satirical magazine Private Eye, supporting it through difficult periods, particularly in libel trials. Cook invested his own money and solicited investment from his friends. For a time, the magazine was produced from the premises of the Establishment Club. Cook expanded television comedy with Eleanor Bron, John Bird and John Fortune. His first regular television spot was on Granada Television’s Braden Beat with Bernard Braden, where he featured his most enduring character: the static, dour and monotonal E. L. Wisty, whom Cook had conceived for Radley College’s Marionette Society.

Cook’s comedy partnership with Dudley Moore led to Not Only… But Also. This was originally intended by the BBC as a vehicle for Moore’s music. The working title was Not Only Dudley Moore, But Also His Guests. But Moore was unsure about going it alone, so he invited Cook along to guest in the pilot (along with Diahann Carroll and John Lennon). The studio audience loved their double act, in particular the first “Dagenham Dialogue,” “A Spot of the Usual Trouble,” and so Cook was invited to become a permanent fixture and the show became Not Only Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, But Also Their Guests, though it was only ever really referred to as Not Only… But Also. Cook played characters such as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling and the two men created their Pete and Dud alter egos for which old gits like me will always remember them. Other sketches included “Superthunderstingcar”, a parody of the Gerry Anderson marionette TV shows, and Cook’s pastiche of 1960s trendy arts documentaries – satirized in a parody segment on Greta Garbo.

When Cook learned a few years later that the videotapes of the series were to be wiped, a common practice at the time, he offered to buy the recordings from the BBC but was refused because of copyright issues. He suggested he could purchase new tapes so that the BBC would have no need to erase the originals, but this offer was also turned down. Of the original 22 programs, only eight still survive complete. With The Wrong Box (1966) and Bedazzled (1967) Cook and Moore began to act in films together. The underlying story of Bedazzled is credited to Cook and Moore and its screenplay to Cook. Bedazzled is a comic version of the Faust story, starring Cook as George Spigott (The Devil) who tempts Stanley Moon (Moore), a frustrated, short-order chef, with the promise of gaining his heart’s desire – the unattainable beauty and waitress at his cafe, Margaret Spencer (Eleanor Bron) – in exchange for his soul, but repeatedly tricks him. The film features cameo appearances by Barry Humphries as Envy and Raquel Welch as Lust. Moore composed the soundtrack music and co-wrote (with Cook) the songs performed in the film. His jazz trio backed Cook on the theme, a parodic anti-love song, which Cook delivered in a monotonous deadpan voice and included his familiar put-down, “you fill me with inertia.” The Brendan Fraser 2000 remake of Bedazzled is – mercifully – completely re-written, and is funny in its own way. But it pales in comparison with the original.

I won’t wear you out with reams of biographical stuff from the late 1960s until Cook’s death in 1995. You can look it up.  While you’re at it, find his old routines on YouTube. Cook died from a gastrointestinal hemorrhage on 9 January 1995, aged 57. He was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium and his ashes were buried in an unmarked plot behind St John-at-Hampstead, not far from his house in Perrins Walk. Dudley Moore attended Cook’s memorial service at John-at-Hampstead on 30 April 1995. He and Martin Lewis presented a two-night memorial for Cook at The Improv in Los Angeles, on 15 and 16 November 1995, to mark what would have been Cook’s 58th birthday.

Stephen Fry had this to say in memoriam because he was so disgusted with the mainstream obituaries treating Cook as a man with “undeveloped potential” and “unfulfilled promise” (and such):

Being British in this part of the century meant living in the country that had Peter Cook in it. There are wits and there are clowns in comedy, I suppose. Peter was a wit, it goes without saying, but he was funny in an almost supernatural way that has never been matched by anyone I’ve met or even heard about. It wasn’t to do with facial expression or epigrammatic wit, or cattiness or rant or anger or technique: he had funniness in the same way that beautiful people have beauty or dancers have line and grace. He had an ability to make people gasp and gasp and gasp for breath like landed fish.

Fry also said that Peter Cook was, “The funniest man who ever drew breath.”

There’s a certain ironic pleasure in finding a recipe to suit a man called Cook. In a newspaper interview he remarked, “Food is so simple. You go out, buy the best bit of fresh stuff and cook it. What could be simpler? But they will muck it up. My favourite food is asparagus.” I’m not sure you can take him seriously, but it’s a start. In that same interview is this:

He lit another cigarette, pushed his plate away, leaving untouched a side dish of spinach. I said huh, what about the spinach? “What are you, some sort of nanny? I always order spinach when I’m here. I hate spinach. I get my own back by leaving it.”

I love asparagus too, so this is not hard. I had an asparagus patch in my garden for 20 years and loved harvesting great handfuls and cooking it simply: steamed and served with butter or hollandaise sauce. If you grow it at home you can be sure to cut only the tender parts of the stalks, but commercial growers harvest the stalks below ground level and you end up with a lot of useless woody ends. If you buy your asparagus, bend the stems before cooking them. They will naturally snap at the point that divides the edible tender tops from the woody bottoms.

I agree with Cook’s general point – “buy the best bit of fresh stuff and cook it” – but I don’t know what he means by mucking it up. Does he mean cooking it badly, or making too complex a dish? Maybe it’s a bit of both. Asparagus is dead easy to cook badly. Drowning it in water and boiling it for too long will do it. Light steaming for 5 to 10 minutes is all it takes. If you burden asparagus with too many other ingredients you can also lose its subtle flavor. It does not need herbs or spices, and will get lost if you use them.  Butter and eggs are fine partners, though. I’m fond of asparagus omelets, for example. Lightly steam the asparagus first, make an omelet and then add the asparagus as a filling when serving.

My favorite sandwich, without question, is grilled ham and asparagus. Butter two slices of good white bread.  Make a sandwich, with the butter on the outside, with a layer of ham and a layer of steamed asparagus stalks. Cook the sandwich in a hot, dry skillet browning both sides evenly.

Oct 312017
 

Today is generally taken to be the birthday (1795) of John Keats, one of the great English Romantic poets. There’s a little confusion about the actual day because his family celebrated his birthday on the 29th but the baptismal register records his date of birth as the 31st, and this is generally accepted as the correct date. I will too. Keats holds a very special place for me because my form master made me learn To Autumn by heart when I was 11 so that I could stand and recite it on command when special visitors, such as school inspectors, visited the classroom. My voice had not yet broken, so I had a clear treble with a strong English accent. I was also quite content to show off. My teacher, Mr Summerton, who was a complete pig, not only made me recite the poem endlessly, he also made a tape recording of me – very special for 1962. I remember marveling at hearing the sound of my own voice for the first time. I’ll give the pig credit for that, and for a lifetime’s pleasure with the ode. Just last year I had the immense satisfaction of spending many hours exploring the poem with my students. I think they understood its power by the time I was done with my rhapsodic lectures – who knows?

I’ll explore a little bit of Keats’s biography, but you’ll have to do most of that for yourself if you are interested. Then I’ll rhapsodize a bit more about his words before my recipe of the day. Keats was born in Moorgate in London. He was the eldest of four surviving children; his younger siblings were George (1797–1841), Thomas (1799–1818), and Frances Mary “Fanny” (1803–1889) who eventually married Spanish author Valentín Llanos Gutiérrez. His father first worked as a hostler at the stables attached to the Swan and Hoop Inn, an establishment he later managed, and where the growing family lived for some years. Keats believed that he was born at the inn, but there is no evidence to support his belief. The Globe pub now occupies the site. He was baptised at St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate, and sent to a local dame school as a child.

His parents were unable to afford Eton or Harrow, so in the summer of 1803, he was sent to board at John Clarke’s school in Enfield, close to his grandparents’ house. The small school had a liberal outlook and a progressive curriculum more modern than the larger, more prestigious schools. In the family atmosphere at Clarke’s, Keats developed an interest in classics and history, which would stay with him throughout his short life. The headmaster’s son, Charles Cowden Clarke, also became an important mentor and friend, introducing Keats to Renaissance literature, including Tasso, Spenser, and Chapman’s translations. The young Keats was described by his friend Edward Holmes as a volatile character, “always in extremes”, given to indolence and fighting. However, at 13 he began focusing his energy on reading and study, winning his first academic prize in midsummer 1809.

In April 1804, when Keats was 8, his father died from a skull fracture, suffered when he fell from his horse while returning from a visit to Keats and his brother George at school. Thomas Keats died intestate. Frances remarried two months later, but left her new husband soon afterwards, and the four children went to live with their grandmother, Alice Jennings, in the village of Edmonton. In March 1810, when Keats was 14, his mother died of tuberculosis, leaving the children in the custody of their grandmother. She appointed two guardians, Richard Abbey and John Sandell, to take care of them. That autumn, Keats left Clarke’s school to apprentice with Thomas Hammond, a surgeon and apothecary who was a neighbor and the doctor of the Jennings family. Keats lodged in the attic above the surgery at 7 Church Street until 1813. Cowden Clarke, who remained a close friend of Keats, described this period as “the most placid time in Keats’s life.”

From 1814, Keats had two bequests, held in trust for him until his 21st birthday: £800 willed by his grandfather John Jennings (about £50,000 in today’s money) and a portion of his mother’s legacy, £8000 (about £500,000 today), to be equally divided between her living children. It seems he was not told of either, since he never applied for any of the money. Historically, blame has often been laid on Abbey as legal guardian, but he may also have been unaware. William Walton, solicitor for Keats’s mother and grandmother, definitely did know and had a duty of care to relay the information to Keats. It seems he did not. The money would have made a critical difference to Keats’s expectations. Money was always a great concern and difficulty for him, as he struggled to stay out of debt and make his way in the world independently.

Having finished his apprenticeship with Hammond, Keats registered as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital (now part of King’s College London) and began studying there in October 1815. Within a month of starting, he was accepted as a dresser at the hospital, assisting surgeons during operations, the equivalent of a junior house surgeon today. It was a significant promotion, that marked a distinct aptitude for medicine; it brought greater responsibility and a heavier workload. Keats’s long and expensive medical training with Hammond and at Guy’s Hospital led his family to assume he would pursue a lifelong career in medicine, assuring financial security, and it seems that at this point Keats had a genuine desire to become a doctor. He lodged near the hospital, at 28 St Thomas’s Street in Southwark, with other medical students, including Henry Stephens who became a famous inventor and ink magnate. He did eventually complete his training. In 1816, Keats received his apothecary’s licence, which made him eligible to practise as an apothecary, physician, and surgeon, but before the end of the year he announced to his guardian that he was resolved to be a poet, not a surgeon.

 

You can worry about the struggles he had with money, career, ambitions, and poetry on your own if you want. I’ll just focus on 1819, his annus mirabilis, sometimes called the year of 6 odes, which was to cement his reputation as a poet, although not substantially until after his death in 1821. He died thinking that his poetry would soon be forgotten, even though he had achieved some fame, his critics were decidedly mixed in their opinions of his work during his lifetime.  Keats wrote the first five odes, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, “Ode on Indolence”, “Ode on Melancholy”, “Ode to a Nightingale”, and “Ode to Psyche” in quick succession during the spring at his home, Wentworth Place near Hampstead Heath, and he composed “To Autumn” in September after an autumnal evening walk near Winchester. The first five are considered now to have a kind of thematic unity, and contain some immortally memorable lines:

“Beauty is truth—truth beauty / that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know” (Grecian Urn)

“To Autumn” shifts the emphasis of the first five from spring to autumn and, hence, from budding life to death. Keats perhaps knew he was dying (he died one year later), and the poem speaks to the need not to dwell on the sorrows of the end of life. Look at the lines that begin the 3rd stanza:

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–

Endings are as splendid as beginnings. What did I know about this stuff when I learnt the poem at age 10? Absolutely nothing. But last year when I tried to teach the poem to Italian students the images resonated much more with me. At 66 I am in the autumn of my life and it is a very satisfying time for me. I love the autumn of the year the best of all seasons, and I love the autumn of my life. Everything planted in the spring is ripe and ready to harvest. Here’s the full poem:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

The consciously archaic and arcane vocabulary was a bit much for my Italian students, and, I confess, is a bit much for me as well. Do you know how long it takes to explain what “thatch-eves” are to non-native speakers? That’s all right for me, but the “thy’s” and “thou’s” grate a little. At least I got to explain that English used to have an informal second person singular.

Before his doctor insisted on a Spartan diet, Keats was quite the glutton. Here’s an excerpt he wrote to Mrs Wylie, his brother’s mother-in-law, from Inverness on August 6th 1818, when he was on a walking tour of Scotland:

I have got wet through, day after day—eaten oat-cake, and drank Whisky—walked up to my knees in Bog—got a sore throat—gone to see Icolmkill and Staffa; met with wholesome food just here and there as it happened—went up Ben Nevis, and—N.B., came down again. Sometimes when I am rather tired I lean rather languishingly on a rock, and long for some famous Beauty to get down from her Palfrey in passing, approach me, with—her saddle-bags, and give me—a dozen or two capital roastbeef Sandwiches.

This is one of the earliest references to sandwiches in English, and possibly the first to roast beef sandwiches (one word “roastbeef” is correct for the time). Thinking in terms of 12 or 24 at one go boggles the mind. Thinking about roast beef sandwiches is making me hungry as I type. I used to eat roast beef sandwiches with English mustard when I was a boy – following my father’s lead – but when I was at Oxford I was having a pub lunch one day, asked for a roast beef sandwich, and the landlord said, “mustard or horseradish?” I’d never heard of eating beef with horseradish, and told him so. He opined that everyone of good taste ate horseradish on roast beef sandwiches, so I agreed to try, and the rest is history. As far as I am concerned roast beef and horseradish are the Castor and Pollux of the sandwich world.

English sandwiches tend to be a bit slender, certainly in comparison with their New York deli counterparts.  First roast beef sandwich I had in a deli on the upper West Side had more beef on it than my family ever had between the 5 of us for Sunday dinner. Somewhere in between the two extremes is more my speed these days. I like to roast the beef quite rare, but well caramelized on the outside, refrigerate what’s left from dinner, and slice it thin the next day. Pile the beef on freshly baked bread slathered with prepared horseradish and have at it. I don’t like extras such as lettuce, tomatoes, or cucumber. Bread, beef and horseradish is superb on its own. I like a nice hearty, crusty bread, but a crusty roll will do at a pinch.

Nov 132016
 

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I would have thought that the name World Kindness Day is self explanatory. It’s actually St Brice’s Day as well, but I think this is just a coincidence. It would be nice if there were no need for a special day for people to be kind on. This site lists the member nations of the World Kindness Movement which seeks – vainly I imagine – to promote kindness in the world: http://www.theworldkindnessmovement.org/member-nations/  The impression I get is that the “member nations” are not really governments who have signed on to pledge being kind in the world, but, rather, organizations within various nations who are dedicated to spreading kindness. This endeavor is, in my estimation, the foundation of Christianity, which appears to have been forgotten by the bulk of people who claim to be followers of Christ.

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So . . . before I go on to talk about St Brice’s Day and its associated activities let me exhort you to go out of your way today to be more than usually kind to people around you – not just friends, but strangers as well. Jesus told us to love our enemies. That’s probably pushing it for most people. Being kind to strangers is at least a step in the right direction. It beats the rudeness and selfishness I see daily. Let someone ahead of you in line, give up your seat to someone on the bus or subway, hold the door for someone with a big package . . . you know the drill. You don’t have to spend a fortune, or even spend anything at all. The point of the day is to shift your consciousness from one of looking inward to one of looking outward.

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I’m assuming Brice of Tours, whose celebration is today, was a kind man. Not much is known about him. Brice (Bricius) – c. 370 – 444 –  was the 4th bishop of Tours, succeeding his mentor, Martin of Tours, in 397. According to legend, Brice was an orphan. He was rescued by the bishop Martin and raised in the monastery at Marmoutiers. He later became Martin’s pupil, although the ambitious and volatile Brice was rather the opposite of his master in temperament.

As Bishop of Tours, Brice performed his duties, but was also said to succumb to worldly pleasures. After a nun in his household gave birth to a child that was rumored to be his, he performed a ritual by carrying hot coal in his coat to the grave of Martin, showing his unburned coat as proof of his innocence. The people of Tours, however, did not believe him and forced him to leave Tours. He could return only after he had travelled to Rome and had been absolved of all his sins by the Pope.

After seven years of exile in Rome, Brice returned to Tours when the administrator he had left in his absence died. Apparently he was a changed man. Upon returning, he served with such humility that on his death he was venerated as a saint. His memorial day is noted for two things: the St Brice’s Day massacre in England, and the running of the bulls in Stamford in Lincolnshire.

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The St. Brice’s Day massacre was the killing of Danes in the Kingdom of England, ordered by King Æthelred the Unready on 13 November 1002. It’s not possible to ascertain now the extent to which this order was carried out. Æthelred the Unready, or Æthelred II (Old English: Æþelræd),was king of the English from 978 to 1013, and again from 1014 to 1016. His modern sobriquet, Unready, is a misreading of the Old English unræd (meaning bad-counseled), a twist on his name ” Æþelræd”, meaning “noble-counseled”. It should not be interpreted as “unprepared”, but rather “ill-advised”.

From 991 onwards, Æthelred paid tribute, or Danegeld, to the Danish king. England had been ravaged by Danish raids every year from 997 to 1001, and in 1002 the king was told that the Danish men in England “would faithlessly take his life, and then all his councillors, and possess his kingdom afterwards”. In response, he “ordered slain all the Danish men who were in England”.

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There was certainly significant loss of life but the extent of the slaughter is unclear. Among those thought to have been killed is Gunhilde, who may have been the sister of King Sweyn I of Denmark. Her husband Pallig Tokesen, the Danish Ealdorman of Devonshire, may also have died in the massacre although, according to a different version, he was killed while defecting to join raiders ravaging the south coast.

The massacre in Oxford was justified by Æthelred in a royal charter of 1004 explaining the need to rebuild St Frideswide’s Church (now Christ Church Cathedral):

For it is fully agreed that to all dwelling in this country it will be well known that, since a decree was sent out by me with the counsel of my leading men and magnates, to the effect that all the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination, and thus this decree was to be put into effect even as far as death, those Danes who dwelt in the afore-mentioned town, striving to escape death, entered this sanctuary of Christ, having broken by force the doors and bolts, and resolved to make refuge and defence for themselves therein against the people of the town and the suburbs; but when all the people in pursuit strove, forced by necessity, to drive them out, and could not, they set fire to the planks and burnt, as it seems, this church with its ornaments and its books. Afterwards, with God’s aid, it was renewed by me.

The skeletons of 34 to 38 young men, all aged 16 to 25, were found during an excavation at St John’s College, Oxford in 2008. Chemical analysis carried out in 2012 by Oxford University researchers suggests that the remains are Viking; older scars on the bones provide evidence that they were professional warriors. It is thought that they were stabbed repeatedly and then brutally slaughtered. Charring on the bones is consistent with historical records of the church burning.

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It seems unlikely that Æthelred directed his edict towards all Danes in England, including the inhabitants of the Danelaw, because the latter were numerous and well armed. More likely it was confined to frontier towns such as Oxford, and larger towns with small Danish communities, such as Bristol, Gloucester, and London. In response to the massacre King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark invaded England in 1003. Æthelred fled to Normandy in 1013 and was replaced by Sweyn. He returned as king, however, after Sweyn’s death in 1014.

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The Stamford Bull Run was a bull-running and bull-baiting festival held on St Brice’s Day in the town of Stamford in Lincolnshire, supposedly for almost 700 years, until it was abandoned in 1837. According to local tradition (with zero primary evidence), the custom dates to the time of King John (1199 – 1216) when William de Warenne, 5th Earl of Surrey, standing on the battlements of the castle, saw two bulls fighting in the meadow beneath. Some butchers came to part the combatants and one of the bulls ran into the town, causing a great uproar. The earl, mounting his horse, rode after the animal, and enjoyed the sport so much, that he gave the meadow in which the fight began to the butchers of Stamford on condition that they provide a bull, to be run in the town every 13 November, for ever after. Typical invented story. There are solid references to the custom in the 17th century continuing into the 19th century. That’s about par for the course for calendar customs that are purportedly “ancient.” The town of Stamford acquired common rights in the grassy flood plain next to the River Welland, which until the last century was known as Bull-meadow, and today just as The Meadows.

The event was officially opened by the ringing of St Mary’s Church bells at 10.45 am, announcing the closing and boarding of shops and the barricading of the street with carts and wagons. By 11 am crowds had gathered and the bull was released, baited by the cheering of the crowd. It was then chased through the main street and down into the Welland River, where it was caught, killed and butchered. Its meat was sometimes sold to the poor supported as a charity by donations.

Local archivists in the 17th century described how the bull was chased and tormented for the day before being driven to the Bull-meadow and slaughtered. “Its flesh [was] sold at a low rate to the people, who finished the day’s amusement with a supper of bull-beef.” Given that the custom occurred around St Martin’s Day (11 Nov.) when Martlemas beef was a customary celebratory dish around England, I’d surmise a connexion somewhere.

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The event was a time of general drunken disorder and was abandoned in the 19th century after a campaign by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the intervention of special constables, the military and police brought in from outside put a stop to it – although it took several years. Some Stamford residents defended their ancient custom as a “traditional, manly, English sport; inspiring courage, agility and presence of mind under danger.” Its defenders argued that it was less cruel and dangerous than fox hunting, and one local newspaper asked “Who or what is this London Society that, usurping the place of constituted authorities, presumes to interfere with our ancient amusement?”

The last bull run was in 1839. The last known witness of the bull running was James Fuller Scholes who spoke of it in a newspaper interview in 1928 before his 94th birthday:

I am the only Stamford man living who can remember the bull-running in the streets of the town. I can remember my mother showing me the bull and the horses and men and dogs that chased it. She kept the St Peter’s Street – the building that was formerly the Chequers Inn at that time and she showed me the bull-running sport from a bedroom window. I was only four years old then, but I can clearly remember it all. The end of St Peter’s Street (where it was joined by Rutland Terrace) was blocked by two farm wagons, and I saw the bull come to the end of the street and return again. My mother told me not to put my head out of the window – apparently because she was afraid I should drop into the street.

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Nowadays Stamford has a quasi-revival of the bull run as part of its Georgian Festival in September. They construct a bull in effigy which they parade through the streets (participants dressed in Georgian costume), and set light to it with fireworks in the meadow in the evening.

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You could reprise spiced beef from my Martin of Tours post, if you like. That seems fitting. Or you could try pork haslet. Pork haslet is an old traditional Lincolnshire dish that is certainly also suitable for today. Lincolnshire pork sausages, as well as haslet, are noted for their prominence of sage. Haslet is a classic meatloaf that is usually served sliced cold as a sandwich filling along with hot English mustard, or with sliced tomatoes and green onions. The latter usage is one of the memorable tastes of my childhood.

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©Lincolnshire Haslet

Ingredients

1 lb/450 gm  pork shoulder
1 onion, peeled and quartered
5 oz/150 gm  breadcrumbs
sage leaves
salt and pepper
melted pork lard

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C.

Run the pork, onion, and sage leaves (to taste) twice through the coarse blade of a grinder (or pulse in a food processor). Add the breadcrumbs and salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, and mix well. Grease a loaf tin well with pork lard and fill it with the pork mix.

Place the loaf tin in a larger pan of water so that the water comes about halfway up the side of the loaf tin, and bake in the oven for 90 minutes.

Cool the loaf tin on a wire rack until it is cool enough to handle, but still warm to the touch. Unmold the haslet on to a plate and let cool completely.

Slice thickly and serve with mustard, or use as a sandwich filling with tomatoes and green onions. Wholewheat bread is a must.

In honor of World Kindness Day it would be a nice gesture to make haslet, or anything for that matter, and give some away to a stranger.

May 092015
 

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Today is the birthday (1860) of Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1st Baronet, OM, Scottish author and dramatist, the child of a family of small-town weavers, and best remembered today as the creator of Peter Pan. Barrie was born in Kirriemuir, Angus, to a conservative Calvinist family. His father, David Barrie, was a modestly successful weaver. His mother, Margaret Ogilvy, had assumed her deceased mother’s household responsibilities at the age of eight. Barrie was the ninth child of ten (two of whom died before he was born), all of whom were schooled in at least the three Rs, in preparation for possible professional careers. His siblings were; Alexander (1842 – 16 July 1914), Mary Ann (1845–1918), Jane (14 March 1847 – 31 August 1895), Elizabeth (12 March 1849 – 1 April 1851), Agnes (23 Dec 1850–1851), David Ogilvy (30 January 1853 – 29 January 1867), Sarah (3 June 1855 – 1 November 1913), Isabella (4 January 1858 – 1902) and Margaret (9 July 1863 – 1936). He was a small child (he grew to only 5 ft 3 ½ in. ), and drew attention to himself with storytelling. When he was 6 years old, Barrie’s next-older brother David (his mother’s favourite) died two days before his 14th birthday in an ice-skating accident. This left his mother devastated, and Barrie tried to fill David’s place in his mother’s attentions, even wearing David’s clothes and whistling in the manner that he did. One time Barrie entered her room, and heard her say “Is that you?” “I thought it was the dead boy she was speaking to”, wrote Barrie in his biographical account of his mother, Margaret Ogilvy (1896), “and I said in a little lonely voice, ‘No, it’s no’ him, it’s just me.'” Barrie’s mother found comfort in the fact that her dead son would remain a boy forever, never to grow up and leave her. Eventually Barrie and his mother entertained each other with stories of her brief childhood and books such as Robinson Crusoe, and The Pilgrim’s Progress.

At the age of 8, Barrie was sent to The Glasgow Academy, in the care of his eldest siblings Alexander and Mary Ann, who taught at the school. When he was 10 he returned home and continued his education at the Forfar Academy. At 14, he left home for Dumfries Academy, again under the watch of Alexander and Mary Ann. He became a voracious reader, and was fond of Penny Dreadfuls, and the works of Robert Michael Ballantyne and James Fenimore Cooper. At Dumfries he and his friends spent time in the garden of Moat Brae house, playing pirates “in a sort of Odyssey that was long afterwards to become the play of Peter Pan”. They formed a drama club, producing his first play Bandelero the Bandit, which provoked a minor controversy following a scathing moral denunciation from a clergyman on the school’s governing board.

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Barrie wished to follow a career as an author, but was dissuaded by his family who wanted him to have a profession such as the ministry. With advice from Alec, he was able to work out a compromise: he was to attend a university, but would study literature. He enrolled at the University of Edinburgh, where he wrote drama reviews for the Edinburgh Evening Courant. He graduated and obtained an M.A. on 21 April 1882.

He worked for a year and a half as a staff journalist on the Nottingham Journal following a job advertisement found by his sister in The Scotsman, then returned to Kirriemuir, using his mother’s stories about the town (which he renamed “Thrums”) for a piece submitted to the newspaper St. James’s Gazette in London. The editor ‘liked that Scotch thing’, so Barrie wrote a series of them, which served as the basis for his first novels: Auld Licht Idylls (1888), A Window in Thrums (1890), and The Little Minister (1891). The stories depicted the “Auld Lichts”, a strict religious sect that his grandfather had once belonged to. Literary criticism of these early works has been unfavorable, tending to disparage them as sentimental and nostalgic depictions of a parochial Scotland far from the realities of the industrialized nineteenth century, but they were popular enough to establish Barrie as a successful writer. After the success of the “Auld Lichts”, he printed Better Dead (1888) privately and at his own expense, and it failed to sell. His two “Tommy” novels, Sentimental Tommy (1896) and Tommy and Grizel (1900), were about a boy and young man who clings to childish fantasy, with an unhappy ending.

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Meanwhile, Barrie’s attention turned increasingly to works for the theater, beginning with a biography of Richard Savage and written by both himself and H.B. Marriott Watson (performed only once, and critically panned). He immediately followed this with Ibsen’s Ghost (or Toole Up-to-Date) (1891), a parody of Henrik Ibsen’s dramas Hedda Gabler and Ghosts The production of the play at Toole’s Theatre in London was seen by William Archer, the translator of Ibsen’s works into English, who enjoyed the humor of the play and recommended it to others.

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Barrie also wrote Jane Annie, a failed comic opera, for Richard D’Oyly Carte (1893), which he begged his friend Arthur Conan Doyle to revise and finish for him. In 1901 and 1902 he had back-to-back successes: Quality Street, about a responsible ‘old maid’ who poses as her own flirtatious niece to win the attention of a former suitor returned from the war; and The Admirable Crichton, a critically acclaimed social commentary with elaborate staging, about an aristocratic household shipwrecked on a desert island, in which the butler naturally rises to leadership over his lord and ladies for the duration of their time away from civilization. As a boy the movie version of this play was a favorite.

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Peter Pan first appeared in his novel The Little White Bird, published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton in 1902, and serialized in the U.S. in the same year in Scribner’s Magazine. Barrie’s more famous and enduring work, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, had its first stage performance on 27 December 1904. This play introduced audiences to the name Wendy, which was inspired by a young girl, Margaret Henley, who called Barrie ‘Friendy’; she could not pronounce her Rs very well and so it came out as ‘Fwendy’. It has been performed innumerable times since then, and was developed by Barrie into the 1911 novel Peter and Wendy. It has since been adapted into feature films, musicals, and more. The Bloomsbury scenes show the societal constraints of late Victorian and Edwardian middle-class domestic reality, contrasted with Neverland, a world where morality is ambivalent. George Bernard Shaws described the play as “ostensibly a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people.”

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Barrie had a long string of successes on the stage after Peter Pan, many of which discuss social concerns. The Twelve Pound Look concerns a wife divorcing a peer and gaining an independent income. Other plays, such as Mary Rose and a subplot in Dear Brutus, revisit the idea of the ageless child. Later plays included What Every Woman Knows (1908). His final play was The Boy David (1936), which dramatized the Biblical story of King Saul and the young David. Like the role of Peter Pan, that of David was played by a woman, Elisabeth Bergner, for whom Barrie wrote the play.

Barrie became acquainted with actress Mary Ansell in 1891 when he asked his friend Jerome K. Jerome for a pretty actress to play a role in his play Walker, London. The two became friends, and she helped his family to care for him when he fell very ill in 1893 and 1894. They married in Kirriemuir on 9 July 1894, shortly after Barrie recovered, and Mary retired from the stage; but the relationship was reportedly unconsummated, and the couple had no children. The marriage was a small ceremony in his parents’ home, in the Scottish tradition. In 1900 Mary found Black Lake Cottage, at Farnham, Surrey, which became the couple’s hideaway where Barrie could entertain his cricketing friends and the Llewelyn Davieses (below). Beginning in mid 1908, Mary had an affair with Gilbert Cannan (an associate of Barrie’s in his anti-censorship activities), including a visit together to Black Lake Cottage, known only to the house staff. When Barrie learned of the affair in July 1909, he demanded that she end it, but she refused. To avoid the scandal of divorce, he offered a legal separation if she would agree not to see Cannan any more, but she still refused. Barrie sued for divorce on the grounds of infidelity, which was granted in October 1909. A few of Barrie’s friends, knowing how painful the divorce was for him, wanted to avoid bad press. They wrote to newspaper editors asking them not to publish the story (only three papers did).

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The Llewelyn Davies family played an important part in Barrie’s literary and personal life, consisting of Arthur (1863–1907), Sylvia (1866–1910) (daughter of George du Maurier), and their five sons: George (1893–1915), John (Jack) (1894–1959), Peter (1897–1960), Michael (1900–1921), and Nicholas (Nico) (1903–1980). Barrie became acquainted with the family in 1897, meeting George and Jack (and baby Peter) with their nurse (nanny) Mary Hodgson in London’s Kensington Gardens. He lived nearby and often walked his Saint Bernard dog Porthos in the park. He entertained the boys regularly with his ability to wiggle his ears and eyebrows, and with his stories. He did not meet Sylvia until a chance encounter at a dinner party in December. She told Barrie that Peter had been named after the title character in her father’s play, Peter Ibbetson. Barrie became a regular visitor at the Davies household and a common companion to the woman and her boys, despite the fact that both he and she were married to other people. In 1901, he invited the Davies family to Black Lake Cottage, where he produced an album of captioned photographs of the boys acting out a pirate adventure, entitled The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island. Barrie had two copies made, one of which he gave to Arthur, who misplaced it on a train. The only surviving copy is held at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.

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The character of Peter Pan was invented to entertain George and Jack. Barrie would say, to amuse them, that their little brother Peter could fly. He claimed that babies were birds before they were born; parents put bars on nursery windows to keep the little ones from flying away. This grew into a tale of a baby boy who did fly away. Arthur Llewelyn Davies died in 1907, and “Uncle Jim” became even more involved with the Davies family, providing financial support to them. (His income from Peter Pan and other works was easily adequate to provide for their living expenses and education.) Following Sylvia’s death in 1910, Barrie claimed that they had recently been engaged to be married. Her will indicated nothing to that effect, but specified her wish for “J. M. B.” to be trustee and guardian to the boys, along with her mother Emma, her brother Guy du Maurier, and Arthur’s brother Compton. It expressed her confidence in Barrie as the boys’ caretaker and her wish for “the boys to treat him (& their uncles) with absolute confidence & straightforwardness & to talk to him about everything.” When copying the will informally for Sylvia’s family a few months later, Barrie inserted himself elsewhere: Sylvia had written that she would like Mary Hodgson, the boys’ nurse, to continue taking care of them, and for “Jenny” (referring to Hodgson’s sister) to come and help her; Barrie instead wrote “Jimmy” (Sylvia’s nickname for him). Barrie and Hodgson did not get along well, but served together as surrogate parents until the boys were grown.

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Barrie suffered bereavements with the boys, losing the two to whom he was closest in their early twenties. George was killed in action in 1915, in World War I. Michael, with whom Barrie corresponded daily while at boarding school and university, drowned in 1921, with his friend and possible lover, Rupert Buxton, at a known danger spot at Sandford Lock near Oxford, one month short of his 21st birthday. Some years after Barrie’s death, Peter compiled his Morgue from family letters and papers, interpolated with his own informed comments on his family and their relationship with Barrie. Peter committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train shortly after completing the work.

Barrie died of pneumonia on 19 June 1937 and was buried at Kirriemuir next to his parents and two of his siblings. He left the bulk of his estate (excluding the Peter Pan works, which he had previously given to Great Ormond Street Hospital) to his secretary Cynthia Asquith. His birthplace at 4 Brechin Road is maintained as a museum by the National Trust for Scotland.

Here is an excerpt about food from Peter Pan and Wendy:

I suppose it was all especially entrancing to Wendy, because those rampagious boys of hers gave her so much to do. Really there were whole weeks when, except perhaps with a stocking in the evening, she was never above ground. The cooking, I can tell you, kept her nose to the pot, and even if there was nothing in it, even if there was no pot, she had to keep watching that it came aboil just the same. You never exactly knew whether there would be a real meal or just a make-believe, it all depended upon Peter’s whim: he could eat, really eat, if it was part of a game, but he could not stodge [cram down the food] just to feel stodgy [stuffed with food], which is what most children like better than anything else; the next best thing being to talk about it. Make-believe was so real to him that during a meal of it you could see him getting rounder.

I can’t imagine that the Lost Boys were stodging on things that were “good for them.” I’m thinking more in terms of pies and cakes, but maybe Wendy had some influence. She was cast by Barrie as a surrogate mother for them (which they liked), but which comes across as rather sexist these days. In any case I’m going to give a good and stodgy recipe.

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Peter Pan® Is a well known peanut butter company, so peanut butter seems like a fitting starting point. I’ll admit right up front that I have a hard time with peanut butter. My mother made me nothing but peanut butter sandwiches to take to school for lunch when I was in primary school, and after that I developed a strong aversion. 45 years later I found I could tolerate it in small doses once in a while in things where it was not the main ingredient.

Here’s Peter Pan®’s recipe page which includes sweet and savory dishes for you to leaf through.

http://www.peterpanpb.com/peanut-butter-recipes/index.jsp

Here’s an old standby that kids love along with the classic PB&J (which my son still stodges down at age 23).

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Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwich

Toast two pieces of dark bread. Slather both pieces with peanut butter and then cover one side with thickly sliced bananas. Top with other slice, dust with powdered sugar and a little cinnamon, and slice in two diagonally.