Friday, June 27, 2014

Keep on your toes!

Recently I purchased the most adorable pair of Summer flats. I couldn't resist them as I noticed a pair of ballet pointe style slippers on the department store display. All pink, with box toes and crossed ankle straps. Awww...reminding me of my days in the ballet studio. I love ballet, and the pointe shoe is the ultimate goal of all ballerinas. And so, even though I swore I was only window-shopping that day, I left the store with shopping bag in hand.

I looked up the history of the pointe shoe and found the following:
Women began dancing ballet in 1681, with the founding of the Academie Royale de Danse during King Louis XIV' reign. The shoes had heels at that time, but by the 18th Century, Marie Camargo of the Paris Opera Ballet wore the first flats, allowing her to perform leaps that would have been impossible in the shoes of the day. Her shoes were secured with ribbons at the ankles, and they incorporated pleats under the toes to be able to execute turns and extend the feet more fully.  In 1795, Charles Didelot invented the shoe that allowed dancers to STAND on their toes before leaping up. These light and airy leaps helped achieve a more ethereal look. Audiences loved it! Choreographers looked for more and more opportunities for their dancers to fly!

The true pointe shoe developed in later years through the 19th Century, with ballerina Marie Taglioni dancing La Sylphide en pointe, and the rest is history. Taglioni's grave is an homage to the dance with ballerinas leaving toe shoes at the site. It's the mecca of ballet dance.
Today, the pointe shoe sole is constructed of a single piece of leather attached to the shoe with special glue, and stitched along the edges for reinforcement. The toe box is a hard, enclosed area that holds the dancer's toes, with the front end of the box flattened so the dancer can balance and spin on a little flat surface. Often, dancers score the bottom of the shoe with a knife (if they are not scored already) to provide traction, and less slippage.

Of course, there is a tremendous price to pay for all that flight! Most dancers have damaged feet. It's very hard to continue to put pressure and weight on such a small area without eventual, detrimental effect. But, nonetheless, if you ask a ballerina to "be careful, don't spend so much time en pointe, take care of your feet", you might as well be talking to the wall. The dance is a magnificent obsession! 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Rolling down the River!

The River Thames has an interesting story. Named in Middle English "Temese", the word comes from the Celtic meaning "dark", "darkness", "dark grey". The longest river in England, it is 215 miles long, beginning in Glocestershire about 40 miles north and west of London, and flows through the Thames Valley, on through London in a west to east direction,  and eventually leading out the Thames Estuary. At this point, large ships make their way from the ocean and Channel between France and England all the way to London.
The Thames provided the major route from City of London (the original walled roman encampment) to Westminster during the 16th and 17th Centuries. At that time, the exclusive guild of watermen ferried Londoners back and forth to landings along the way. In 1715, Thomas Doggett was so grateful to the watermen for assisting him after a fall into the river, that he offered a rowing wager, a race between London Bridge and Cadogan Pier in Chelsea. Doggett was a famous Irish stage actor, well known by the ferry men for carting him up and down the river to various theatres, like taxi drivers of today, and to his home in Chelsea. 
The race he founded, still raced to this day, is called the Doggett's Coat and Badge, the oldest rowing race in the world. Up to six watermen compete for the honor, in a 4 miles / 5 furlong race passing under eleven bridges en route. The winning prize is the traditional watermen's orange coat with a silver badge added to the sleeve, which displays the white horse of the House of Hanover and Brunswich, along with the word "Liberty". The race always takes place at the beginning of August.
When Doggett died, in 1721, he left specific instructions for the race to continue until 1730, but by 1769 the Fishmonger's Company established further rules to ensure a fair competition. And so, the holding of the race continued to this day!

By the way, by the 18th century, the Thames was one of the world's busiest water highways, with London becoming a huge mercantile center, the biggest of the British Empire. All the traffic on the river began creating a problem for navigation upstream. Locks were created to help solve the problem. And another problem was the freezing of the river, especially at low tide, which was improved by 1825 with bridges like the famed London Bridge, spanning the river with fewer piers, allowing the river to flow more freely during the Winter months.

Friday, June 20, 2014

And, they're off!!

This week is the running of Ascot horse races, one of the major events of England's social calendar. Located in Ascot, Berkshire, it is the most famous English thoroughbred racecourse, hosting nine of the UK's 32 annual Group 1 races. The course is about six miles from Windsor Castle.
Ascot stages twenty-six days of racing each year, with eighteen flat meets between May and October. It also features the jump racing events in the winter, but the Royal Meets are held in June, the major draw, with the highlight event known as the The Gold Cup! The most prestigious race is the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes held in July.
The racecourse was founded by Queen Anne in 1711, with the first race called "Her Majesty's Plate", with a purse of 100 guineas. It was held on August 11, 1711, with seven horses in the race. The race had three separate four mile heats! In 1813 Parliament passed an act to insure the racecourse grounds would remain for that purpose. A new grandstand costing about £10,000 was erected in 1839 for the 'glitterati". Even today, Elizabeth II not only makes her appearance in a horse-drawn carriage, but she does have her own horses in the race. She is the consummate horsewoman, who wins and loses gracefully, whose interest in the welfare of her horses and the sport is legend.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Remembering the Fallen

This week is the 199th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Fought June 18, 1815, a defining moment in British history, so important that British men and women even wore rings to commemorate the occasion.

Called the Waterloo ring, it carries the name of the battle, a profile of the Duke of Wellington, surrounded by blue enamel ribbon, and a single garnet. They are an example of mourning jewelry that was popular at the time. I guess today we might consider the steel bracelets that carry the names of wounded or dead from the Afganistan conflict.
The rings were made closer to the death of the Duke, linking his political, patriotic and wartime valor. As Admiral Horatio Nelson is Britian's greatest Naval commander; the Duke of Wellington represents their greatest General of the armed forces. His nickname was the Iron Duke. People wore the rings to remember their fallen family members and friends, along with the Duke. A double tribute.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Beautiful Ugly

I recently read an article from the BBC News on Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock), and how he is so attractive BECAUSE he is not beautiful, especially as we know beauty or attractiveness these days. Based on today's standards of the matinee idol, he is downright weird looking. And therein, is he appeal. He is compelling, unusual. Granted, he has the blue eyes (and the British accent does not hurt), but he looks nothing like what Hollywood has praised in leading men. Think Paul Newman, Brad Pitt, Chris Pine (chronologically). Benedict has eyes set wide apart, a rather gaunt, pale appearance. No tanned, buffed guy here. The article states that "in a bleached-blonde, botox-browed Hollywood, he (Benedict) is the antithesis of everything we're supposed to find attractive".
The article goes on to describe what the French call "jolie laide", which directly translated means "beautiful ugly". In Edgar Allen Poe's Ligeia, one of the characters says that there is no exquisite beauty...without some strangeness in the proportion."

18th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant draws a distinction between things that are evidently beautiful, because we can see that beauty, and things that are "sublime"! He notes that the sublime demands an intellectual response.

Kant was a German philosopher, born in April 1724, and living until February 1804, a central figure in modern philosophy.  He argued that reason is the source of morality. In his essay "Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?", he defines it as shaped by the Latin motto, "Sapere Aude", or "Dare to be Wise!"

In 1764, he wrote "Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime", his contribution to aesthetic theory, which is further investigated in his 1790 "Critique of Judgment". He discusses the logical status of the "judgment of taste", an esteem for an object for itself, a disinterested pleasure, and an understanding of beauty from the standpoint of common sense.  He makes distinction between an object of art as having material value subject to the conventions of society. Pretty heavy stuff for the 1700's.

And so, I think we should look for the sublime, and forget the beautiful. At least what we consider the beautiful in this 21st Century, because it is marred by the conventional, the recognizable, of "trendiness", of the easy to acquire. "Celeb-beauty" lays everything out on the table; there is no mystery. The trend lately is to reveal everything...dresses that leave absolutely nothing, or nearly nothing, to the imagination. It's rather boring. It is the not knowing that holds our interest, and that is sublime.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

All in!

As a bit of a tribute to D-Day, I purchased Band of Brothers, the 2001 HBO mini-series. I have a thing about WWII, and this series is certainly one of the most exceptional in terms of historical accuracy, the horror, the grit, the ugliness, and yet the beauty of war. Certainly not a beauty easily perceived, but when men band together to accomplish the nearly-impossible, not for themselves but for the good of others, yes, I think there is beauty there. Ok, I'll admit it...I'm a bit of a romantic, and further....there's something about a man in uniform (haha). 

Anyway, the title of the series is taken from the famous St. Cripin's Day speech from Shakespeare's Henry V, Act IV, Scene iii.

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered -
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers:
For he today that sheds his blood with me
shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition. 
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Well, here's a bit of interesting 18th Century "band of brothers" information:
Rear Admiral Horatio nelson of the British Royal Navy used the phrase at the Battle of the Nile, in 1789. Actually, he applied the term many times, referring to his captains and men under his command. The battle was fought in Aboukir Bay on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt, the climax of the naval campaign against Napoleon at the time. A decisive victory for the British, Nelson wrote afterwards to his commanding officer Lord St. Vincent, referring to Admiral Alexander Ball:
"His activity and zeal are eminently conspicuous even amongst the Band of Brothers - each, as I may have occasion to mention them, must call froth my gratitude and admiration."

In January 1799, to Admiral Earl How, "I had the happiness to command a Band of Brothers."

And again, after the Battle of Trafalgar, 1805, he writes, " Yet, if I know my own thoughts, it is not for myself, or on my own account chiefly, that I feel the sting and the disappointment! And no! it is for my brave officers; for my noble-minded friends and comrades. Such a gallant set of fellows! Such a band of brothers! My heart swells at the thought of them!"

Nelson had the admiration of his men because, though he was their commander, he had great respect for them all. He wanted their input, and in whatever the engagement, he made sure they were a team, they went all in together. He might have been their band leader, but they definitely were an integral part of the band.



Monday, June 9, 2014

Attention to Details

I am almost finished reading Moby Dick. A long book, but worth the read. I came upon Chapter 110 the other evening, entitled "Decanter". It begins with principal character Ishmael telling the story of the first major English whaling family to sponsor voyages in 1775. Of course he says that Americans were whaling at least 50 years before that. Anyway, the family was Samuel Enderbys and Sons, and he mentions their ship the "Amelia", being the first to round Cape Horn and hunt in the South Seas. Then he mentions another of their ships, the "Syren", commanded by a Nantucketer, first to go into the waters near Japan for the same purpose.  Enderby's company, the Southern Fishery, was registered in London and in Boston.

And here, I stopped, thinking for a moment about the film Master and Commander, when Capt. Aubrey disguises his ship the "Surprise" into a whaler in order to confuse the French frigate headed their way. Ah-ha! I thought. 
The scene depicts the Surprise crew painting out the letters S U R P R I S E on the stern, in favor of the name S Y R E N!
Mr. Patrick O'Brian, author of the M&C series, probably read Moby Dick as well as researched English naval history, including not only military vessels, but whalers! All great story tellers do their research, even to the smallest details.
The Syren sailed on 1819 in August, commanded by Capt. Frederick Coffin, of Nantucket, MA. The ship returned from Japan on April 22, 1822 with a cargo of 346 tons of sperm oil!

By the way, in O'Brian's "Far Side of the World", the voyage of the Amelia is interjected into the story. This is why I have loved reading O'Brian. He maneuvers his characters among real events. It help to flesh out real history in a way that is provocative and exciting, rather than the dry accounts we used to get in history class.  

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Pivotal Moment

D-Day! Wow, seventy years have passed. I've been in my WWII mode, looking at various excellent programs and books about the war, watching Band of Brothers, based on Stephen Ambrose best-selling book. It's a beautiful story, a true account of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, the "Screaming Eagles" as they were known, of the United States Army. At the time, the air corps was part of the US army.
The 6th of June, 1944, was a pivotal moment in world history. Got me to thinking about a pivotal moment in the American Revolution. At least one is the Battle of Saratoga, with General Gates of the Continental Army forcing the surrender of British General John Burgoyne and his army. Not only a huge victory for the Continental Army, but it convinced the French that the Americans could win the war! It is then that the French started sending supplies and monies to America. Were it not for this help, perhaps the War of Independence would have had a very different outcome.
Even then, the various countries around the world did not live in a vacuum. The allied victory on the beaches of Normandy was the turning point, and gave the Germans a heads-up. We would be taken very seriously that day forward; the Battle of Saratoga, only 167 years before (September 19, 1777), gave Britian a head-up. The Revolutionaries meant business. And, the rest is history!