All Aboard the Centenary Bus!

It feels as though these last couple of weeks has come full circle for me. On Wednesday evening, I went to the Royal Albert Hall to see Prom 36: Vaughan Williams and Alwyn.

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Absolutely brilliant. I booked a ticket only a week before and only because of the recent centenary events (yes, I’m afraid this is another piece on WWI from me – as if you couldn’t get enough stuff on the subject at the moment as it is. You should by now know I’m a little obsessed. Don’t ask me why – someone once said I have a fascination with morbid things.)

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At the moment, I feel like every time I turn on the TV or go to read The Guardian, there’s a new article or programme about the centenary waiting for me, just me, to discover it; it’s like the twelve days of Christmas.

My centenary adventure begins: I went to the Imperial War Museum a couple of weeks ago. I tried to rouse the troops – “It’s had a £4 million refurb, don’t you know?… It really is the best museum… Of course – there’s LOADS of good-looking men there, mostly dead ones in old photos, but you get what you can where you can find it…”.

I also was honest. I said, “I’ll probably look at EVERYTHING.” Thought that would sort the women from the children, and they’d say, “So will we! We’ll power through with you – we’re that interested.”

But they said, “No.” Apart from two friends, and yes, I have more than two.

What can I say? The others missed out. They missed out.

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The WWI gallery housed some of the most spine-tingling artistic pieces I’ve seen, and the World War 1 exhibition, which we queued for, has been modernised really well – with projections and interactive elements aplenty (screw you, Natural Boring History Museum), though I was sorry to see that the Blitz experience had disappeared. Oh well.

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We powered through the various exhibits – the WWII tank known as Willie Pusher, the traumatising Holocaust exhibition, and even the toilets that glare with so much red lighting, I expected poles and dancers to rise out of the floor.

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What dismays me a little now, which I discovered when reading an article yesterday, is that the Chinese voluntary services who fought amongst Britain’s allies, have been literally painted out of history. And though exhibitions and various TV programmes are making their efforts to remember the often forgotten African and Indian soldiers, there’s no acknowledgement of the Chinese – not even at the Imperial War Museum. Only now are they getting their first official memorial.

Another stop on the tour de centenary was the British Library. I mooched along there to pass the time on a Friday evening and, you know, suck up some more black and white shizzle. But I was so amazed at the WWI exhibition they had. Not only did they have original posters from the day, but also actual original handwritten poems and letters – from the likes of Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sasson and Wilfred Owen. Just amazing! This was everything I’d studied at school. It said not to take pictures, so I did. Apologies for light reflections.

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Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier – original manuscript

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Letter to Rupert Brooke from a friend offering to darn his socks

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Siegfried Sassoon’s accompanying letter to his anti-war declaration…

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…Siegfried Sassoon’s anti-war declaration – for which he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital for hysteria

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Letter from Isaac Rosenberg, referencing his poem In the Trenches

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Poem Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Own – original manuscript with annotations by Siegfried Sassoon

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Vaughan Williams – original manuscript

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WWI letter of condolence

Could hardly sit still the rest of the evening.

Which brings me to my final stop on the magical WWI bus. I’d decided to watch WWI Remembered from Westminster Abbey on Monday the 4th. I thought even I might get bored, but I tell you what – I was enthralled. I guess I should have expected there’d be readings by actors and soldiers of letters, poems and books from 1914, considering the Great War fuelled so much great art and literature – much of which I studied during my A-Levels. A decent balance between men and women’s work as well, as sadly too often, women’s voices are not heard or cared for in this genre, or simply snarled at. And I loved one of the speeches, which I believe was by Hew Strachan, professor at Oxford University, in which he spoke of how we should be wary of hindsight, as it’s all too easy to patronise the past and the decisions made during the war.

But there’s one area of culture I’ve never studied, and that’s classical music – especially the pieces that were performed on this night – the likes of Elgar and Thomas Tallis. So when I heard those opening notes of the organ played by Daniel Cook, and by the violinist Jennifer Pike playing A Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams, I caught my breath.

So emotionally fitting with the ideology of 1914, having been written in that year before Vaughan Williams lied about his age and joined the army.

This piece, based on the poem of the same name by George Meredith, effectively shows how the composer lost his innocence simply because his pieces following that war to end all wars were much more disturbing, and were his dedications to his lost companions, such as the composer George Butterworth.

And it turns out I’m not the only who feels this way about The Lark Ascending, as it was voted the nation’s favourite piece of classical music in Classic FM‘s poll – which made me feel a little bit clueless as I never really knew this piece before now. Still, I listened to this song obsessively the other week and couldn’t seem to listen to anything other than classical music. So I decided to go and see something at the Proms, and thought I wonder... And my heart skipped a beat, because I found that The Lark Ascending was playing at the Proms!

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On Wednesday night, I wrung my hands, sweating, throughout the entire 15 minutes and felt like a lark myself, like I do every time I hear it. And I could hear sniffing around me, and it was played so softly at times, that I could almost not hear it – and you can’t hear it on the Radio 3 recording for this reason, but when I was there, I could feel it – feel the waves on my goosebumps. Static and ecstatic. I’m due to hear it again in November when my friend, a professional violinist, will be playing it at a remembrance event.

I should probably invite along the two old ladies who sat next to me at the Proms; they slept through the whole, bloody thing.

The Female Louis Armstrong: Tiny Davis

It’s the Eurovision Song Contest this Saturday (which I hope you’re all going to watch) and so in good taste, I’m going to do a post about something that definitely is NOT related to Eurovision. Meet Ernestine “Tiny” Davis, not the murderer electrocuted on death row, but the very cool singer/ jazz trumpet player.

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I first came across her in a documentary called Tiny & Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women from 1988. It was an extra on a DVD documentary called Before Stonewall about the American gay community before the Stonewall riots that took place on June 28 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, Greenwich Village.

Here is a shortened version of the docu:

Tiny Davis played the trumpet most famously in the band The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, during the 1940s. They were quite an individual group of women, mainly because they “abandoned” their children and husbands to tour and play – something which was highly frowned upon in those days. They were the first integrated all women’s band that existed in the USA and started out when members of the Piney Woods Country Life School for poor and African American children, the majority of which were orphans, got together to play swing and jazz. Here they are in full swing (my favourite is Jump Children):

Tiny joined the Sweethearts when Jessie Stone took over as composer in 1941, and sought out more professional musicians to play alongside the less experienced members. The band itself was not only multi-talented, but multi-racial, an important thing in segregated America. When they toured the country, they practically lived on the tour bus – practised, studied, slept there – mainly because they couldn’t stay in hotels due to the segregation policy. In the documentary, Tiny speaks about the fact that even though some of the women in the Sweethearts were in heterosexual relationships – married with children – they would still get together with the other female musicians when on tour. She herself was in a relationship with Ruby Lucas, a fellow Hell Divers band member – the band that Tiny formed after the Sweethearts. They were adopted as heroes of the gay rights movement, and during the 1950s they ran a bar in Chicago called Tiny and Ruby’s Gay Spot. They even have a song on their Hot Licks album called Diggin’ Dykes.

Tiny was highly talented, but being a woman, she was rarely taken seriously. Strangely, World War II helped a lot of female musicians, especially the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, into the spotlight simply because male musicians were away at war. Of course, this meant that when the war finished, the Sweethearts had fewer gigs, and is one of the main reasons they disbanded by 1949. Tiny was such a brilliant musician, she was considered the female Louis Armstrong. In fact, he even tried to hire her away from the Sweethearts, but she turned him down, and when asked why later, she said, “I loved them gals too much.” Following the Sweethearts, Tiny went on to other musical projects. She died in 1994 at the age of 87.

A final quote of hers from the book Queer America:

“I don’t like to hear that ‘plays like a girl’ or ‘plays like a sissy’. I had more chops than most men… So no, we never got the credit we deserved. But women have a hard time in anything. There’s nothing you can do. Just keep on keeping on.”

Well said, Tiny.

See jezebel.org for more information on this documentary – or buy it here!

International Women’s Day: Sarah Waters

“Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster? If you have, you will remember it…”

It was these words that I thought of as I ate my first oyster at the Whitstable Oyster Festival back in July 2012. I’m not actually sure it was a native Whitstable oyster after all, but it tasted very nice. Not sure why it took me so long to try my first raw oyster (having grown up in this Kentish coastal town), but I’ll definitely be having more.

These words are the opening phrase of Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters, probably my favourite book in the world.

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I first read it a few years ago, on recommendation of my sister. Of course I was aware of the TV adaptation, which was famous for its saucy lesbian sex scenes – as most people found out when they watched it with their parents.

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But in fact, the most intriguing aspect for me was this old portrayal of Whitstable – where I’d been born and raised – and the tale of a young woman moving to London in search of adventure, as so many of us from that town have done (though many have now moved back). And it’s so much more than that, because of its Victorian setting. It’s a sense of adventure as well for those of us born today, because of the attention to detail Waters describes in this Victorian world.

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Sarah Waters is probably the most strongest writer I’ve ever read, and an outright feminist and lesbian as well. I attended a talk where she spoke about her work and met her afterwards; what was so inspiring about her for me, is that she studied in Canterbury and lived in Whitstable, she writes historical fiction, and she writes it well – so well, that she has effectively re-created this part of the lesbian and gay fiction genre.

Hampton Court Palace in Pictures

The other weekend I took a trip with my partner and housemate to Hampton Court Palace, which is just down the road from where I live. Here are my pictures and thoughts on the day. I’m not going to call it an online tour: that might put you off reading. Having read a number of books and seen programmes on the Tudors and the history of this period since the last time I visited a few years ago, I spent most of the time informing my companions about the history of the place. I’m sure they enjoyed listening as much as I enjoyed talking. I’m sure they did. In fact, sometimes they enjoyed what I said so much I had to say it again.

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The first thing you tend to notice about the Palace is its colossal number of chimneys. Chimneys were a sign of wealth in the old, old days. Chimneys = fires = wood for burning = a wealthy houseowner who could either afford a lot of wood or had a vast amount of land to grow and fell trees for firewood. The design of the chimneys derives from the original design back when the palace belonged to Thomas Wolsey, before it became Henry VIII’s. Thomas Wolsey is more widely known as Cardinal Wolsey – Henry VIII’s advisor whom he held close to him. That is until Wolsey failed to secure Henry’s divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon, and was arrested. He died before Henry had a chance to kill him.

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Anyway, the above picture shows the area outside the main entrance. I said to my housemates I reckoned there was once water here, like some sort of moat, as you can see the change in the brickwork colour. Sure enough, during last week, I saw an old news story from the 4th January, literally the day before I went to visit, reporting that this moat had been flooded for the first time in ten years – which would explain the green tinge of the brickwork.

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Felt like a right historian, I did.

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The Tudor kitchens. You can still have parties and weddings here. The Tudor diet consisted of 75% meat.

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Notice the “GR” meaning George Rex, denoting that the mailbox was cast during the time of George (VI?).

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The Great Hall – England’s last great medieval hall, decorated with tapestries featuring The Story of Abraham. Tapestries were a prominent wall decoration in medieval times. Wolsey had more than 600 tapestries himself, and would have the tapestries displayed in his rooms changed every week.

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Henry VIII was a great sportsman in his youth. He was great at jousting, games such as real tennis, and of course, hunting, which is why most of the London parks contain freely roaming deer.

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This, of course, is Henry VIII. Not the most famous of portraits, which involves him wearing a massive cloak and, er, codpiece to emphasize his manliness, yet near enough the same. His wide stance also suggests a tough guy, as well as his curved calves, which many of his contemporaries praised, as strong, muscular calves were beheld as an element of beauty on a man in those days. Why the massive codpiece? Despite having had six wives, many of their offspring died, and only one male heir survived him. Yet not for long – Edward VI died at 15 years old. The codpiece is more or less Henry saying, “I am capable of having a strong male heir – honest!”

It is widely suggested that the many babies Henry fathered died at such young ages, or were stillborn, because he had syphilis. He had other syphilitic symptoms – an ulcerated knee, and his extremely unpredictable behaviour as he aged. Yet, in no written documents does it say that he had syphilis, and medics in those days were very familiar with the illness and its symptoms. Instead, his behaviour and apparent tyranny may be attributed to a head injury following a jousting accident in 1536, that left him out cold for two hours. In the same accident, an old wound on his knee was reopened, leading him to suffer immense pain from it for the rest of his life, as ulcers repeatedly appeared on it. It is said that you could tell when Henry was coming towards the room you were in, as you could actually smell the wound. This knee, combined with possible gout and diabetes would also explain his obesity.

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Heading into the other part of Hampton Court Palace – the world of William III and Mary II.

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In William and Mary’s private bedroom, they had a remote locking system; using a pulley, they were able to lock the doors without leaving the comfort of their own bed – note the wire attached to the top of the lock. Almost like the modern day app system Wemo which allows you to do things like switch off your lamp remotely from your phone. Kind of reminds me of that awful old-school film about the computer called Electric Dreams

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It’s crazy how many beds and closets the king had – the closet having developed from a small room for the king to retreat to, to a much larger room or rooms. Interesting to note, when we were walking round, a visitor asked an attendant where Henry VIII’s bedroom was. He obviously hadn’t been paying attention. She said they didn’t exist anymore as William had effectively rebuilt over some of Henry’s old rooms including his bedroom, which is why some of the palace is completely red brick with floral carvings … and the other parts look like this:

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For William, I guess he liked the palace, yet wanted something more fashionable for the times. Which is why Hampton Court Palace, the home of two halves, is such a fascinating place to visit.

My 2012 in Pictures

My 2012 in pictures:

Early months…

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Churchill-Bedroom Map-Room-phone

100th Anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic – and my greatest blog post of the year:

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Trolleybus Anniversary

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Ferris Wheel

View over Business Park from Ferris Wheel

Queen’s Jubilee – my father lighting the beacon at Whitstable

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My first oyster at the Whitstable Oyster Festival

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Whitstable Harbour Oyster Festival

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The Olympics 2012

Olympic Flame Relay

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Summer days

Camden Market

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 Holiday in Portugal

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Larry Graham in concert

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Felix Baumgartner’s Stratos Jump – I was obsessed with this event – read here

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Bonfire Night

Bonfire Night

Talk with Olympic and Paralympic athletes at work

Olympic and Paralympic Talk

The Thomas Hardy tree

Thomas Hardy Tree

Secret Cinema – The Shawshank Redemption

Secret Cinema November

Christmas 2012

Christmas Tree

A death in the family

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Christmas party at the Tower of London

Tower of London Christmas Party

Christmas Day on the beach

Christmas Day on Beach