Conkering Heroes

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One of the great delights of being a small boy growing up in a rural area in autumn was access to the plentiful supply of conkers. The hardy nuts from the horse-chestnut tree, encased in their knobbly green husk, looking like a piece of medieval weaponry, handily fell to the ground and were eagerly harvested by we boys, anxious to reconvene our games of conkers rudely interrupted the previous winter by the dearth of fresh supplies.

Having garnered our conkers, we released them from their cases and eagerly inspected their quality. Exercising a high degree of quality control we would select a handful to represent our cause in the forthcoming bouts. A hole from top to bottom was made in each conker and a boot lace threaded through and knotted at the bottom. These simple preparations completed, you were ready to challenge all-comers in the school playground.

Rules were simple. You took turns at hitting your opponent’s conker with your own and the winner was the one whose conker emerged unscathed from the contest. Assuming you were victorious your conker assumed the score of your opponent’s conker plus one. If both conkers were virgins, then the winner’s conker was a oner.

Of course, where there is fame to be won, it was not unknown for some boys to seek to gain an advantage by baking their conkers in an oven or pickling them in vinegar to harden their exterior. Anyone caught cheating was immediately sent to the conker version of Coventry.

The ancient sport of conkers has recently attracted the attentions of the ‘Elf and Safety brigade. Around this time of year you read of schools banning conkers for fear that the little darlings will injure their knuckles from a misplaced shot or fragments will get in their eyes. Some more tolerant schools require their little darlings to wear goggles – advantage, for once, to the junior spectacle wearers who normally are subjected to ridicule.

It warmed the cockles of my heart the other day to read a report of the 47th World Conkers Championships which were held at the Shuckburgh Arms in Southwick in Northamptonshire. Despite contestants from 15 countries the final was contested by two locals, Simon Cullum and Dave “the Pig” Bloomfield, with Cullum prevailing. To prevent cheating the conkers are assigned to the contestants by the organisers.

This quaint English competition was first held in 1965 in the village of Ashton near Oundle and involved a group of frustrated anglers whose fishing trip had fallen foul do f the weather. As they say, from little acorns, mighty oaks do grow.

Another fascinating insight into our quaint and marvellous land!

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All Art Is Erotic

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Facing The Modern; The Portrait in Vienna 1900 – National Gallery

I like to think that I am reasonably well-educated and that my general knowledge is on a par with most. So imagine my surprise when I entered the first room of the National Gallery’s latest exhibition to see that the first exhibit was the death mask of Ludwig van Beethoven who I thought died in 1827. Indeed, this is the first sign that the exhibition’s title doesn’t quite represent what is on display. It would be better entitled Viennese portraiture from 1867 with some other stuff to fill up the rooms.

What was significant about 1867 was that it was the year of the Austro-Hungarian compromise which saw the re-establishment of the sovereignty of the kingdom of Hungary and granted equality to all the citizens of the empire. This in turn led to a great migration to the capital, Vienna. These settlers, many of middle-class stock and Jewish, became known as the New Viennese and they used portraiture to declare their status and their sense of belonging, their aspirations and their fears.

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The exhibition starts with a retrospective, reconstructing a portrait exhibition held in 1905 in the Miethke gallery showing portraits of Viennese painted in the first half of the 19th century, representatives of Old Vienna. The following five rooms concentrate on the portraiture of the New Viennese and are organised around themes – the family, self-portraits of artists, representatives of the New Viennese, portraits as a declaration of love and portraits presaging the collapse of the empire which, of course, unravelled at the end of the First World War.

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The exhibits range across the whole spectrum of portraiture, from intensely realistic, almost photographic, works to almost abstract impressionistic representations. One of my favourites was Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Amelie Zuckerkandl, staring impassively out at the viewer like an overdressed doll, giving the impression that she already knew her fate – to be an inmate of a Nazi concentration camp in the early 1940s. The other stand-out work was Isidor Kaufman’s small but exquisitely painted picture of a beautiful young rabbi standing by an embroidered curtain hanging across a cupboard containing the Torah scrolls.

Normally portraits leave me cold but the variety of styles and artists together with the sweeping array of techniques made for an interesting and challenging experience.

Vespa Violence

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One of the blessings that the onset of Autumn brings is that we no longer have to deal with the menace that the wasp presents. I hate the creatures with a vengeance and am particularly nervous when one comes into my vicinity. This vespaphobia makes me think twice about dining al fresco because as soon as I lay the food out, down comes a wasp and I spend the next half hour flapping my arms around trying to drive away the pesky insect.

This inconvenience, as tedious as it may be at the time, pales into insignificance in comparison with the trials and tribulations of the poor inhabitants of the northern Chinese province of Shanxi.  Over the past few months the citizens of Angkang, Hanzhong and Shangluo have been subjected to attacks by giant hornets. According to reports, the hornets have killed 42 people and left over 1,600 injured. The neurotoxin in their 6 millimetre stingers can lead to anaphylactic shock and renal failure. In some cases the stings are said to dissolve human tissue.

The more the human quarry ran, the more the hornets seem to want to chase them. One victim reported being chased over 200 metres. The culprit, the Asian giant hornet or Vespa mandarinia, is said to be as large as a man’s thumb and is the largest in the world. They have a reputation as a relentless hunter stalking their prey, normally honeybees, in co-ordinated attacks.

The increased prevalence of attacks on humans has been attributed to the unnaturally warm and dry weather the region is experiencing, allowing more hornets than normal to survive the winter. Another reason is human encroachment on the hornets’ natural breeding grounds.

As part of the fight-back, officials have destroyed as many as 4,500 nests – each nest can host as many as 1,000 of the critters. The attacks on the nests are carried out at night as the hornets do not fly around in the dark. This policy seems to be working because attacks have reduced from around 80 a day to just a handful.

Let’s hope these pests stay in China. There is at least one positive from this unfortunate saga. If I am asked to describe the size of my thumb, I now have a new point of reference.

What A Way To Go – Part Fourteen

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I like to think of myself as a charitable sort of cove but it is difficult to find much sympathy for a convicted felon, particularly one who has been convicted of a brutal murder. However, I experienced a scintilla of sympathy when I came across the fate of William Kemmler.

Kemmler was born in Philadelphia and after dropping out of school at the age of ten to work in his father’s butcher shop, became a peddler after the death of his parents and earned enough to own a horse and cart. Unfortunately, he drank heavily, becoming an infamous drunkard in the neighbourhood. One of his escapades after imbibing too much of Sir John Strawberry was to attempt to jump an eight foot fence with his horse and cart, Inevitably, it led to disaster, causing him to lose both the horse and his cart.

On March 29th 1889 Kemmler murdered his common-law wife, Matilda Zeigler, with a hatchet and was sentenced to death by electrocution at New York’s Auburn Prison. What was unusual about Kemmler’s sentence was that he was going to be the first person to be executed by this new-fangled killing machine.       

On 6th August 1890, the day appointed for his execution, Kemmler was woken up at 5 am, dressed himself in a suit, tie and white shirt and had the top of his head shaved. After breakfast and prayers, he was led to the execution room at 6.38 am to find 17 witnesses in attendance. He is reported to have looked at the chair and said to his audience, “Gentlemen, I wish you all good luck. I believe I am going to a good place, and I am ready to go”. He then sat down on the chair but was ordered to stand up again so that a second hole could be cut into his suit to allow another electric lead to be attached to him. Sitting down again, he was strapped to the chair, had his face covered and a metal restraint was put on his bare head. Kemmler is then reported to have said, “Take it easy and do it properly, I’m in no hurry”.  The warden, Charles Durston responded by wishing him farewell and ordered the switch to be thrown.

The generator, which had been trialed on a horse, was supposed to pass 1,000 volts into the unfortunate, inducing a cardiac arrest and a swift lapse into unconsciousness. After 17 seconds he was pronounced dead and the current was switched off.

Unfortunately, several of the witnesses noticed that Kemmler was still breathing and on further examination two of the medics in attendance confirmed that he had indeed survived the ordeal.

The current was switched on again and this time 2,000 volts were passed through the felon’s body, causing blood vessels under the skin to rupture and bleed. An awful odour started to permeate this chamber of horrors as the hair around the electrode on his head and the skin around the second electrode started to singe.

In all it took eight minutes to complete the execution and some of the witnesses reported that the spectacle was so awful that it was worse than a hanging. George Westinghouse, whose AC system the electric chair used, commented that they would have been better off using an axe.

Despite this inauspicious beginning, the electric chair became the method of choice for executing felons in the States.          

 

Waiting For My Train

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Sad news that the Velvet Underground’s lead singer and guitarist, Lou Reed, has died after a battle with a liver-related disease. Reed added the raw power and grunge factor to the more avant-garde doodlings and noodlings of John Cale and Nico to make a formidable and ground-breaking sound.

Reed’s subject matter often focused on the seamier side of life – transsexual lust in Walk On The Wild Side and drug use in Waiting for my Man and Heroin – reminding us that rock and roll wasn’t just about boy meets girl.

The celestial gods marked Reed’s passing by sending strong gales across southern England overnight. Such is the risk averse society we live in that our train companies gave up the ghost and weren’t able to offer any semblance of a service this morning.

God knows, our daily commute is tedious enough that it could do with the frisson of excitement that not knowing whether you would be derailed, hit by a falling tree or shunted into a siding for a few hours could generate. But, hey, far better to charge premium fares and not offer a service.

So I along with thousands of others are marooned at home. What a Perfect Day!

Following Pausanias – Part Two

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The beautiful Greek island of Lefkas, which TOWT and I visited in late September, is associated with a number of myths, foremost of which is that it was the site of Sappho’s suicide leap.

Sappho was famous throughout antiquity for the quality of her poetry, although, tragically, very little of it has survived. Born on the island of Lesbos, which is close to the Turkish coast and as far away as you can get from Lefkas, Sappho was a member of the ruling aristocracy. However, a violent coup led by Pittacus led to the overthrow of the ruling clans and Sappho and her fellow poet, Alcaeus, were forced into exile, ending up in Syracuse in Sicily.

Legend has it though that the poetess, devastated that her beau, the sailor Phaon, would not return her favours, went to Cape Lefkata, famed for its steep white rocks, and flung herself from the clifftops into the ocean. She either started a trend or was following one because it was at the same cape that Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and sex, was said to have ended her life when she discovered that her favourite, Adonis, had died. It also became a famous suicide spot for Romans who had had enough of it all.

Lefkas has also been associated with the homeland of Odysseus, Ithaca. Whilst there is an island in Greece called Ithaca, Homer in the Odyssey describes Odysseus’ homeland as being somewhere that can be reached by foot. Those who support the cause of Lefkas point out that the island was originally part of the mainland and after the channel was built by the Corinthians was linked to the mainland by a floating bridge. If Homer’s description is literal, then Lefkas may well be the site of Odysseus’ homeland. The German archaeologist, Wilhelm Dorpfeld, went one further by suggesting that the hero’s palace was positioned on the west of the island near to the little town of Nidri where we stayed.

The hotel we stayed in, the Palm Trees, an unprepossessing place but blessed with a marvellous view of the bay and the islands of Madouri, Skopios and Meganissi, had an interesting history. The famous Greek poet, Aristotelis Valaoritis, was born in Lefkas in 1824 and as well as writing patriotic poetry became the political representative for the area in the Athenian parliament after the Ionian islands had been reunited with the rest of Greece. Valaoritis had a summer house on the island of Madouri, which could be seen from the grounds of our hotel.

One of the ancestors of the current hotel owners worked for Valaoritis on the island. When the poet died they were given a parcel of land on the Nidri side of the bay overlooking Madouri. Over time, as the tourism industry discovered Lefkas in the 1960s the site was developed into a hotel, capitalising on its amazing location and the generosity of the Valaoritis family. A truly heart-warming story.

 

Story Of The Week (2)

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The countryside is really like the Wild West , as this story from Norway shows.

A hunter took aim at a moose which was standing minding its own business near a cabin in the Hvaler district of Norway, some 74 miles south of Oslo. A pensioner in his seventies was attending to his own private business on the toilet in the cabin.

You guessed what happened next. The hunter missed the moose, the bullet hit the cabin, pierced the wooden wall and struck the pensioner in the stomach.

The injuries the unfortunate pensioner sustained are not life-threatening and, I’m pleased to report, the moose escaped unharmed. The hunter had his collar felt by the old bill.