On my birthday

On my birthdayAnother post, another meme, but this time the topic caught my eye because I thought it was a good opportunity to dust off and expand on my knowledge of history.

The aim is to focus on the day of the year on which you were born and to talk about various events and personalities associated with that day. Click on the picture to the left to view the original post that has, in the meantime, inspired a lot of other people to write about their birthdays (links to these can be found at the bottom of the original article – is your birthday there yet?).

Note: all bullet points in this post are copied, including hyperlinks, from the Wikipedia entry for May 19, though I’ve looked at a wider range of sources for my own input.

When is your birthday?

On 19th May.

Pick three people who share your birthday and share what you know about them.

Nancy Astor is best known as the first female MP to set foot in the House of Commons, in 1919. I say “set foot” deliberately as she wasn’t the first female MP to be elected: the previous year saw the election of Constance Markievicz, but as a Sinn Fein member who refused to take the obligatory oath of allegiance to the UK monarch she was not allowed to take her seat in the Commons – not much has changed there.

Nancy Astor, Viscountess Astor (source: Wikimedia)

Astor was active in the temperance movement and championed causes relating to (women’s) suffrage and education. Like most politicians, she was not without controversy – she was accused of jumping on the suffrage bandwaggon only after she had been elected, while her American birth and upper class credentials led to criticism that she was out of touch with ordinary people. Having said that, I suspect it would have been well-nigh impossible within the social structures of that time for an “ordinary” woman to have the wherewithal to enter high-level politics, though I am very happy to be corrected if this is an inaccurate view.

Astor was well known for her acerbic wit and sharp tongue. Her election slogan was “Vote for Lady Astor and your children will weigh more”. She is also quoted as saying, “I married beneath me – all women do”. My favourite Astor soundbyte, though, and one I’ve known since I was quite young, comes from an exchange with Winston Churchill:

Astor: If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea.

Churchill: If I were your husband, I’d drink it.

I don’t know as much about Malcolm X as I should, so it would be pretentious to try to give the impression of writing knowledgeably about him here, when probably most people reading this know a great deal more. What strikes me, though, after writing about Nancy Astor above is that here we have a political activist who also grew up in America, though half a century later than Lady Astor and in circumstances dictated by the cards having fallen very diferently. He was not cushioned by affluence in his political aspirations, but spurred into action by hardship and suffering experienced firsthand.

I can’t think of many comedians I’ve laughed at so much and for so long as Victoria Wood. Her TV shows and other projects were very present in my life throughout my teens and most of my twenties (after which I moved to Germany), and she specialises in the kind of razor-sharp observation applied to satirizing the mundane that has always made me laugh (and probably always will).

A 2005 Channel Four poll among those working in the comedy industry ranked her 27th among the top 50 comedy acts ever – she was the highest-ranked female comedian of all, beating some stiff competition from other favourites of mine, French & Saunders and Joyce Grenfell (though I have to say I’m disappointed – though not surprised – that there were no women in the higher echelons of the poll rankings). In the meantime she has won BAFTAs and other awards for her acting and comedy shows, and has been awarded both an OBE and a CBE by the Queen.

Here is one of my favourite Victoria Wood sketches. The show is completely stolen by the fabulous Julie Walters, but it’s an unforgettable exchange.

Is anyone listed as being born on the same day as you (ie the same year)? If so, what do you know about them?

Without looking these guys up, I have to confess I couldn’t tell you a thing about them – I feel I should know more about the first guy as the name rings a vague bell somewhere, but as I’m dreadful with names of producers and directors I have to draw a complete blank. The second guy no doubt thought he was giving himself a scary name of the “psychosis” variety, but I find myself wanting to read it as “psittacosis” – exactly why I have a better memory for obscure avian diseases than for (probably) mainstream movie producers is a mystery to me.

– Interlude while I do a bit of googling… –

Ah, it seems that Ross Katz’ main claim to fame is that he co-produced Lost in Translation, so that provides a link of sorts to stuff that I do (translation, rather than getting lost in it). Of course, the film is not ostensibly about translation in the classical sense – something that I can remember slightly disappointed me at the time I saw it – but it does deal with quite important issues of interlinguistic and intercultural problems in a much subtler way than the usual crashing slapstick such moments tend to give rise to in mainstream cinema. So hats off to Mr Katz for his role in that.

As regards the wrestler, I now know that his actual name is the much more mellifluous (and to me, less sick-parrot-sounding) Dionicio Castellanos Torres. I have to say, though, that I can’t really bring myself to work up a knowledge of wrestling, prodigious though Señor Torres’ career seems to have been, so I will refrain from saying any more about him. What did catch my eye, though, was a brief sentence towards the end of the Wikipedia article on him: “Torres appeared in the independent documentary, 101 Reasons Not To Become A Professional Wrestler.” Oh.

List three people who died on your birthday and tell us what you know about them. 

  • 804Alcuin, English monk and scholar (b. c.735)

I studied Medieval Studies in Leeds many moons ago (though not so long ago that it was modern history at that time), and there was no escaping local lad Alcuin of York. In fact, however, though he started his illustrious career at the cathedral school in York, Alcuin spent much of his life rather further afield in continental Europe, where he was appointed as a scholar and teacher at Charlemagne’s court in Aachen. He is acknowledged as one of the key figures in the Carolingian Renaissance and led efforts to set up a standard curriculum to be followed at the Carolingian schools. The basis of this curriculum was the artes liberales divided into the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy); these subject areas remained an important educational basis well into the Renaissance period (and indeed the term “liberal arts” still exists today, albeit in a somewhat different form).

OK, this is going to be much more about reactions than historical facts. My first real encounter with Charles Ives was incredibly nerve-wracking. I was twenty, in my last year with the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, and had finally reached the coveted – and veeeery exposed – position of principal flute. One of the pieces on our ambitious programme for our two-week stint of rehearsals and concerts was Ives’ Three Places in New England. It’s a comforting, tidy, unpretentious, homely (in the American sense) title that made me think of picturesque wooden houses and the placid autumnal glow of the New England fall. However, the first rehearsal was dominated by chaotic cacophony, me (and others) missing important solos due to miscounting, and an overall feel that was more akin to not knowing where one was in Old England on a Saturday night at throwing-out time.

For people like me who were far more used to the regular time signatures and broad melodic expanses that characterize the mainstream of Classical and Romantic music in a broad sense, Ives was a nightmare of cross-rhythms, syncopation, apparently random entries cued by silence, and some of the most controlled, exposed technique I’ve ever had to use. I don’t think I slept much the first week.

In any case, it was a steep learning curve, but so very worth it in the end. Out of the initial cacophony rose an intricately woven tapestry of the most amazing combination of snatches of sound – two competing marching bands playing at once, passages that you just had to associate with water, or fog, hard textures, soft textures, layer upon layer of sound, folksong against avant-garde atonal clustering, sudden caesura alongside gently metamorphosing motifs.

I think it’s one of the most amazing pieces I’ve ever heard, let alone had the privilege of playing. Do, do, please give it a listen if you have never come across it.

I was rather sad to discover that in fact two of my favourite poets died on my birthday. John Betjeman , English poet and Poet Laureate died on this day in 1984, and I could easily have written a few lines about him. However, Ogden Nash has the slight edge as he died on the very day I was born (why does that send an odd shiver down my spine?), and I came to his poetry earlier, at about the age of six. I can remember being fascinated by a poem of his that we had up on the wall at school. I know I’d recognize it if I saw it again, but unfortunately my attempts to find it have proved unsuccessful so far.

However, there is much more of value to be discovered in the anthologies of this master of humorous rhyme and wordplay, so I’ve just picked out a few lines and stanzes from here and there that particularly caught my eye and made me smile.

Nash has a refreshingly irreverent take on love poetry, for example:

A girl whose cheeks are covered with paint
Has an advantage with me over one whose ain’t.

- “Biological Reflection”

Some of what he says sounds silly but makes a very serious point:

Consider the auk;
Becoming extinct because he forgot how to fly, and could only walk.
Consider man, who may well become extinct
Because he forgot how to walk and learned how to fly before he thinked.

- “A Caution To Everybody”

Beneath this slab
John Brown is stowed.
He watched the ads
And not the road.

- “Lather As You Go”

Nash was also a master of the ultra-short poem. I particularly like “Further Reflections on Parsley”, where the poem text is shorter than the title:

Parsley
Is gharsley.

I wanted to pick just one longer poem to include in its entirety, and I think it has to be “Peekabo, I Almost See You”. It combines the best of Nash’s quirks with some pretty universal sentiments that I hear from my glasses-wearing friends and relatives on a regular basis:

Middle-aged life is merry, and I love to
lead it,
But there comes a day when your eyes
are all right but your arm isn’t long
enough
to hold the telephone book where you can read it,
And your friends get jocular, so you go
to the oculist,
And of all your friends he is the joculist,
So over his facetiousness let us skim,
Only noting that he has been waiting for you ever since
you said Good evening to his grandfather clock under
the impression that it was him,
And you look at his chart and it says SHRDLU QWERTYOP,
and you say Well, why SHRDNTLU QWERTYOP? and he
says one set of glasses won’t do.
You need two.
One for reading Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason and
Keats’s “Endymion” with,
And the other for walking around without saying Hello
to strange wymion with.
So you spend your time taking off your seeing glasses to put
on your reading glasses, and then remembering that your
reading glasses are upstairs or in the car,
And then you can’t find your seeing glasses again because
without them on you can’t see where they are.
Enough of such mishaps, they would try the patience of an
ox,
I prefer to forget both pairs of glasses and pass my declining
years saluting strange women and grandfather clocks.

List three notable events that took place on your birthday.

A tapestry in the Flemish style of Catherine of Aragon and her husband Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales (source: Wikimedia)

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the royal family and the nobility always had an easier time of things in long past ages, while the poor struggled and starved. Occasionally you get a stark reminder, though, of the particular pressures the high-born were placed under. Catherine and Arthur were betrothed as small children, so there would not have been much scope for imagining a different existence in either of their lives; their being “married by proxy” at a young age was on the surface of it designed to strengthen the Tudor claim to the English throne, but it also ensured that the parties were under a stronger contractual obligation to one another.

It is interesting to note that Catherine and Arthur managed to correspond with each other by letter, in Latin, until late in 1501, when they were deemed old enough to actually meet and marry “in person”. When they did come face to face, however, they found communication quite difficult as they had very different pronunciations of Latin. Nor was there much of a happy ending in any other sense – just a few months after their marriage both fell seriously ill, and Catherine recovered only to find herself a widow.

At this point, Arthur’s father, Henry VII, could have been obliged to return Catherine’s dowry to her father. In the end, though, it was agreed that she would marry Arthur’s younger brother, Henry, Duke of York. There followed an interim of several years – Henry was too young to marry, and the idea of a union with Spain through marriage became less attractive to the King. Catherine’s future was uncertain and she was virtually kept prisoner during this time. However, when Henry senior died and his son ascended the throne, one of the first things Henry VIII did was to finally marry Catherine. The rest of this ultimately ill-fated union is well documented elsewhere.

Anne Boleyn was Catherine’s maid of honour and ultimately her “successor” as Queen, though it is certainly well known that there was an overlap between the two relationships. While Henry managed to have his marriage to Catherine annulled, this did not actually come through until a few months after he had married Anne. It was the refusal of the Pope to annul this marriage that triggered Henry’s desire to break with Rome and foreshadowed the beginnings of the Church of England. Both Catherine and Anne were important figures in English history, not least because they bore female heirs who went on to rule the country in their own right. However, both failed to produce a (surviving) male heir, and this was their ultimate downfall.

Annulment was not Henry’s weapon of choice for getting rid of his second wife after her presence came to be an obstruction to his further plans; instead, he had Anne and a group of others investigated on charges amounting to adultery, high treason and incest. She was found guilty – on unconvincing evidence, from the viewpoint of modern scholars – and was beheaded just one day after Henry announced his betrothal to his third wife, Jane Seymour. All the evidence indicates that Henry sent for her executioner, a swordsman from France, before she even went on trial.

I’m neither a republican nor a passionate royalist/monarchist, but the Commonwealth period was certainly an important caesura in English and British history. Following on from a period during which the monarch had become simply too powerful and too easily able to interfere in political life, the eventual execution of King Charles I paved the way for a period of radical political change that saw the (temporary) abolition of the monarchy, the House of Lords and the Church of England. The country was controlled by the House of Commons and the army.

Oliver Cromwell became the new “ruler” (Lord Protector of the Commonwealth) in 1653, and he imposed military rule and ran the country with as much power as the monarch had previously held. Puritan values were imposed by law, and while most of us might applaud the abolition of “cruel” sports such as bear-baiting and cock-fighting, restrictions also affected ale-houses, theatres, and the celebration of Christmas and Easter was also suppressed. There was much political experimentation without any stable form of government or institutions emerging.

Cromwell died in 1658, and after that there was no one obvious to carry on as a convincing ruler. Few of those active in politics had real parliamentary or legal experience, and things began to crumble. Ultimately royalists were re-admitted to Parliament, and slowly the tide turned once more in favour of the monarchy. Charles II, as he would become, was summoned back to England from Holland and the monarchy was restored in 1660. Importantly, Charles agreed to continue the policy of religious toleration introduced during the Commonwealth as well as to share power with Parliament and not attempt to be an absolutist ruler as his father had done. And while the path might not always have been smooth, all of these points have continued to define the reigns of those who have followed him.

Tell us about a holiday that falls on your birthday.

St Dunstan (909 – 19 May 988) had an illustrious scholastic and ecclesiastical career, serving as the Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, the Bishop of both Worcester and London, and ultimately as the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was canonised in 1029 and his feast day has been celebrated ever since. I could go into the reasons for his canonisation, but there are a number of miscellaneous aspects of his life and legacy that I’m going to pick out here, just because I happened to find them rather (more) interesting.

Dunstan seems to have had a range of talents and is known to have been a scribe, an illustrator / illuminator, silversmith and musician. He is the patron saint of both silversmiths and goldsmiths, and one fascinating fact that I discovered in this connection is that hallmark years for silver and gold run not from 1 January to 31 December, but from 19 May to 18 May the next (calendar) year.

Dunstan and the Devil, by George Cruikshank (source: Wikimedia)

As is the case with many saints, there are tales of encounters between Dunstan and the Devil. In one of these he is said to have nailed a horseshoe to the Devil’s hoof, causing him – unsurprisingly – much pain. The Devil protested but Dunstan stood his ground, only agreeing to remove the offending item once the Devil had promised never to enter a place that had a horseshoe attached to its lintel. It is widely believed that this is the origin of the lucky horseshoe superstition.

Finally, please tag some lovely people to carry on this meme, then link back to this post so they can find the badge and link up their post once published.

A couple of people have already asked to be tagged: they are my lovely photography friend Chis (better known online as Squonk) and my school friend Nicola, who has a fairly new blog. I’d also love to read my brother Matt‘s take on his birthday (which is coming up soon, plus maybe he’d like to be nudged into blogging again!). No obligation on any of you to continue the meme, but for anyone who feels browbeaten into inspired to do so, it would be great if you’d leave a comment with a link here so that I and other interested readers can follow it up.

3 Comments

Filed under History, Memes & blogging challenges, Up close and personal

3 responses to “On my birthday

  1. squonky

    Gracious me, that’s some act to follow! I will do my best at some point over the next few days and let you know when I’ve published my own attempt.

    I’m not going to comment on each and every item, but I would like to pick out a few “highlights”.

    I can share with you an enjoyment for the wit of Nancy Astor, having heard her feature in many an episode of “Quote, Unquote” on BBC Radio 4. I’ve always admired the ability of people such as Astor, Wilde and Austen to land such devastating blows in such a polite and well mannered fashion. Timing is the thing, how often have I thought of the perfect riposte – but not until the following day?

    I think I am possibly rather more of a republican than you. However, I do find it hard to come up with a workable alternative to the monarchy. I don’t have much time for politicians of any persuasion these days and the idea of having a President Thatcher or President Blair (for example) sends shudders down my spine. But at least we’d be able to vote them out :^) My home town of Leicester was recently in the media spotlight as Her Majesty started her “Jubilee Tour” here a couple of weeks ago. My wife was accosted by BBC Radio Leicester reporters the day before wanting to know if she had any message to pass on to the Queen. When they very shortly afterwards deduced my wife’s republican views they hurried away as fast as they could. I fear the Monarchy will continue to drag on whilst institutions such as the BBC refuse to report the “inconvenient truth” that there really is quite a large minority of the population of the UK who are at the least “not interested”. I experienced a similar incident myself when I was about 13 years old. Leicester Mercury reporters took my photo, asked me what I thought about an impending royal visit and decided they didn’t really like my answer so printed the complete opposite to what I’d said. I suppose it wouldn’t “look good” for the city to have too many free thinking individuals floating around. Argh – sorry, ranting :^)

    Actually, how about Victoria Wood or Julie Walters for president? I’m pretty sure neither of them would be interested – much to their credit!

    That’s quite an education regarding 19th May and a very varied and interesting selection of people and events. I know quite often in the past I’ve looked up somebody’s birthday on Wikipedia and posted a few choice examples as a “Happy Birthday” message on Facebook for them. I think I’m going to enjoy putting my own version of this together, although I doubt it will be as well informed and interesting as yours. Thank you!

  2. Pingback: On My Birthday « SquonkyBlog II

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s