December 24, 2012

Within the vale of Annandale...

…a Scotsman searching for a little bit of home.

Set down in what was once a rugged landscape, Pasadena, California’s Church of the Angels is a little bit of home.  At Christmas, children’s faces light the way and angels come out of the woodwork.

At other times of the year the small Episcopalian Church of the Angels is a favorite spot for weddings, but on Christmas Eve even brides take a back seat to angels and children.  During the afternoon service the tiniest parish members, as solemn as the Magi, place toys under the Christmas tree for children at neighboring Hillside Home.  Then as if tutored by winged guides, they settle down to hear the story of the Christmas angels. 

The church has belonged to the angels ever since it was built in 1889, modeled after Holmbury St. Mary’s in Surrey, England.  It was the intensely personal vision of Frances Campbell-Johnston, who constructed the church in memory of her Scots husband on their California ranch.

So remote was the spot she chose, high above the twisting Arroyo Seco Canyon, that the rough roads seemed likely to discourage worshippers.  But Mrs. Campbell-Johnston, a woman of extraordinay resolve, was not to be dissuaded by mere earthly inconvenience.  She rounded up members herself and arrived daily to watch the stones for the 44-foot tower hoisted into place.  And in an inspired move, she had the building positioned facing west, contrary to tradition, so that the light of the setting sun would blaze through the stained glass window depicting the Angel of the Resurrection, above.

Since that day long ago, the city of Pasadena has grown up around the meadow where sheep once grazed and wild, pink chick-peas once blossomed.  But the church has always remained faithful to the cherubim.  The angels are part of the fabric of the building itself echoed in the shapes of the stonework and choir stalls as well as in the Gothic tracery of the windows.  Among the more striking representations is St. Michael the Archangel, who was carved from a 400-year-old oak tree and who supports the lectern.

Go and see if you can find angels in the architecture of the building.  I promise you before long you will discover them, especially on Christmas Eve.

December 18, 2012

So this is...


Signing off for a bit to enjoy some time off and celebrate. 
I wish you a wonderful holiday season, 
whether religious or secular, 
filled with laughter, friendship and the littlest bit of sparkle. 

December 15, 2012

Present Time.

It would seem to me that there are three categories of present givers: those who like giving presents to others, those who appreciate receiving, and those (not few in number) who prefer giving presents to themselves.

Incidentally, "presents" is so much a better sounding word than "gifts." And of course for the purposes of this post I am trying to think of famous instances of presents.

What about the pearl that Cleopatra dissolved in wine at the banquet with Antony?  There would not be much point in her melting down a present she had given to herself. Whatever its history, it is curious indeed that this same pearl was till lately, and may in fact still be, in possession of an English "noble family." If you are willing to believe it, that is to say.

An English speaking instance and as typical as the immortal words "Dr. Livingstone, I presume ?" -whoever but him could it possibly have been ?- I have transcribed and it reads as follows.  "August 26, 1878. Again this dear and blessed anniversary returns. When I came down to breakfast I gave Beatrice a mounted enamelled photograph of our dear mausoleum, and a silver belt of Montenegrin workmanship. After breakfast I gave my faithful Brown an oxidised silver biscuit-box and some onyx studs. He was greatly pleased with the former, and the tears came to his eyes, and he said 'it is too much.' God knows it is not too much for one so devoted and faithful."

This is that great letter writer Queen Victoria-one of the best in the English language-on the birthday of her beloved Prince Consort.  She was, also, Empress of India as well as the personification of half a century of history, alike in its dullnesses and in its greatness.

But I am thinking now that there is another category that of unwanted or unnecessary presents. "So and so, or so and so, will go on sending"; I am certain we all have had expe­rience of this.  Bloggers, and I like to remind myself I am one, are sent messages. What a nuisance it can be. For long months I was deluged with missives with a missionary basis, or, rather, bias. And once, out of a clear sky, I was asked to proceed immediately to a museum, at my own expense of course, and lecture to them how the medieval game of spillikins was played. They had been told, the message explained, that I was the only person who knew about this. Had I gone, which I didn't, it would have come under yet another heading, that of unwilling present giving.

Probably among the biggest present-givers was the Empress Catherine the Great and Louis XV. The brothers Orlov; Zoritch, in his hussar uniform of scarlet and silver, ablaze with diamond orders; Lanskoi; the brother Zubovi; and of course, Potemkin, all of them her erstwhile favourites, received in money alone from the hands of Catherine some 90,000,000 rubles, the equivalent of £15,000,000 in mid- Victorian England. The Empress Catherine was no giver of enamelled biscuit tins! If, on the other hand, the monastery of the Troitsa, outside Moscow, was the possessor of 106,000 serfs and their families, mostly derived from royal presents, but particularly from the Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, the motive at least was different. It was not love but repentance, and dread of the world to come.

Louis XV gave away tapestries and sets of Sevres porcelain, and we may be sure passed the order and thought no more about it.  Any more than Augustus the Strong whose presents were not Sevres but Meissen. In those days it was ambassadors and not only mistresses who were given dinner services. The full luxury of presentgiving was possible until 1914 from the Saint Petersburg workshop of Faberge.

And even in one's own family-where more so, indeed?-there are, and have been eccentrics. I had a great-uncle who gave pink champagne.  Why the champagne rose, I do not know; but my mother, just married and eighteen years old, was loaded - with pink champagne.

Ordinary mortals have to be content with presents from a shop. I remember Guerlain and the way they used to tie up parcels in pink paper; and trifles like their Extrait de potpourri de plantes marines!  This makes me think of other places where it is or was a delight to buy something.  

There is the Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella in Florence, founded in the time of the Medici Grand Dukes, where you can buy soap scented with orrisroot from the Florentine blue or grey iris, and many things besides.

And then I remember the New York shop of Caswell-Massey. Their mere catalogue was a delight to read, and they seemed to import things from all over the world. There, in reckless mood, I bought deliciously smelling soaps, and enjoyed it as much as looking in jewellers' windows in Place Vendome and Rue de la Paix.

But the town of towns for shopping is Kyoto, the old capital of Japan. In the paper fan shops one would like to buy up everything in sight, while the Kabukiya doll shop, and I am no infantilist, is something transcendental and extraordinary. There are, as well, the Thai silk shops in Bangkok; and I am told another marvellous silk shop in Benares.

There was Hadji Bekir, where they sold Turkish delight in Istanbul.

And there was the Juvenile and Theatrical warehouse in Hoxton, run by Mr. Pollock, a retired clown, where one bought "penny plain and tuppenny coloured" prints of actors of the time of Grimaldi and Edmund Kean. What a wonderful place that was!

And I end in thinking of the most exciting present I love to receive (and we could give easily to each other) and I do not hesitate, each other.

After a year of so many ghastly horrors, in which, I am sure, many of our friends and contemporaries were touched, let us have more present giving instead of...

December 13, 2012

At six leagues an hour the loudest noise you can hear is…

…the jingling of bells.

Don't you ever wish, when your car gets bogged down in the mud, or slithers across the surface of the snow, that you could simply put down a pair of skids and swish away?

In past centuries, when the snow made mountain passes impassable to ordinary carriages, everyone piled out of the cumbersome and useless wheeled coach and onto the sledge, to continue the journey over the Simplon or the St. Bernard Pass.

But sledging was not always the jingle-bells, oh-what-fun-it-is-to-ride-in-a-one-horse-open-sleigh affair of cosy mythology.

That blanket that kept your knees warm in the temperate climes of wintry Austria would be a laughable effort at protection against the hideous, probing cold of a Russian freeze-up. 

Sledging overland from Moscow to the Caucasus was, moreover, a very long and time-consuming business.  In Tolstoy's The Cossacks, the hero, Olenin, comfortably settles into his sledge, wrapped in furs protected from the cold.

As they pass out of Moscow his thoughts run on the friends he is leaving behind, his misspent youth, love. Then, as the staging posts he has been through begin to multiply, he starts to calculate the distance he has yet to travel, methods of paying off his debts. And then, days later, he passes the time in thinking of the places where he will stop to drink tea, where he will change sledges. Finally, his mind begins to dwell on the prospects afforded by the Caucasian women, among whom he is about to begin life. He hardly notices his surroundings until, in the warmth of southern Russia; he abandons his sledge for a Cossack cart.  Olenin's serf had to wait outside his master's Moscow club until the small hours of the morning before they could set off on their important journey.

A friend’s grandfather who was born in southern Russia, once had to journey with his mother from the town of Ordzhonikidze to visit his sister, living in Ismail, about twenty miles distant, as she was about to give birth to a child. He and his mother were to leave their home town at nine in the morning. At 9.30 they were sitting, freezing, on the open sledge, waiting for the driver. Fifteen minutes later, he had still not arrived. His great-grandmother dispatched her little son over the road to see what had become of the driver. At 10.15, still freezing, only now feeling a little stiff in the joints as the cold inexorably found its way under the blankets and inside their clothes, he returned to say that the driver had gone to bed appallingly drunk the night before, that he had been sleeping, dead to the world, but that he would certainly be over now within the next five minutes.

At twelve o'clock, the sledge set off for Ismail. Bells were jingling-that much at least can be said; but no one was smiling. Other sledges were passed, travelling in the opposite direction, and the drivers exchanged friendly abuse. The vodka was passed round, and passed round again. Most of the passengers dropped off to sleep in the cold. That is the best way to cover long distances they say.

At length, after it had been dark for some time, a light was seen lying straight ahead. Passengers began to wake up and look forward to arriving in Ismail, where there would be a warm welcome and steaming borscht. It was after nine at night when the sledge eventually drew to a halt in the middle of the town. For those staying at the inn there was a long wait, as the luggage was unloaded and then as each person, swathed in furs, entered the inn to take off his coat and wraps. Meanwhile, only six hours late, the family was able to rush to the side of the sister, now delivered of a baby, unaided.    

In Lapland sledging was even harder-one drove one's own sledge, a narrow affair, only two feet wide, and pulled by a reindeer that often had a mind of its own. A well-schooled reindeer needed practically no driving at all: he knew the way better than his master. A young reindeer with an inexperienced driver, though, was a recipe for instant catastrophe; pull too hard on the reins and the beast would bolt to the other side of the plain for fear you wanted to make the sledge crash onto his hind legs. The best way to stop him would be to pull him sharply round and turn the sledge over. Halliday Sutherland, in his book Lapland Journey, describes how this happened to him the first time he took the reins of a reindeer. The guide, in the leading sledge, caught hold of Sutherland's reins, and both sledges overturned. The author says he was about to apologize when he noticed the guides pipe had not even fallen out of his mouth. Again, as in Russia, the best way to combat the cold was to fall asleep, letting the reindeer do the work.

Yet another method of taking a nap in a sledge was that of the sinister Klamm in Kafka's The Castle. It was a spacious, enclosed sledge, whose floor was strewn with furs and rugs. There was a desk for working at . . . but ordinary mortals were permitted to glimpse no more than that.

But if it is the effete one is looking for, the France of Marie-Antoinette with her rustic nymphs-and-shepherds yearning saw the apotheosis of the sledge as a thing of maximum beauty and minimum utility. She, and the wives of Louis XIV and XV, had sledges built for their winter amusement that are miracles of deft fantasy.

They owe more to the spirit of Hans Christian Andersen than to the needs of expecting sisters in Ismail. You'd be a fool to go to sleep in one of these, even if the temperature was at absolute zero. Any poacher in the royal parks, seeing these fire-spitting dragons, eagles and princesses seated in giant oyster shells looming up out of the snowy mists, must have thought himself amply rewarded for his temerity. Or perhaps thoughts of Nordic ancestors, to whom a sledge was not a toy, made him blow ruefully on his numb fingertips, reflecting on the sheer luxury of aristocratic folly.

This was no longer travel, it had become a Diaghilev ballet, a gigantic, fairy-tale extravaganza on snow, with the most elegant sets the craftsmen of eighteenth-century France could devise. These sledges never overturned-or, if they did, there were no pipes to stick in their passengers' mouths-and their horses never felt the tug of an inexperienced driver's hand. It was either apotheosis or total decadence.

But, whether a Christmas morning flight of fantasy or necessity drive you, next time the snow lies deep around the garage, harness the reindeer, the dogs, the pony, or the prancing white stallion to your sledge, it will be pleasant to reflect to yourself that the loudest noise you will be able to hear is ... the jingle of the bells.  Thoughts about polluting won't have to bother you at all.

December 08, 2012

a journey through the living room

I wish I could write.  I ought to be able to, because there has been such a succession of characters moving across the screen of my life.  But it is useless for me to attempt to do more with these characters than to tell about them as I saw them and to show what they meant to me.

What do you think of when someone says Switzerland? Cheese? Chocolate? Bankers perhaps? Chances are a  Rittmeister* wouldn’t be very high on your list. Anybody who looked for the odd or the exotic in life would have been thoroughly satisfied with the Rittmeister. 

He was a master of horses by profession and an artist by preference, and a rather remarkable fellow in every way.  To look at him, you would believe that he had stepped out of the past, like during the intermission of a play, and had just neglected to remove his make-up and change his costume.

The end to his military career came as sudden as the drop of the blade on the guillotine.  End of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, end of emperor, end of country.

Switzerland had been home during my early school years, high above Lake Geneva and I became acquainted with the Rittmeister, and his horse Charodey, on one of my morning rides. We chatted and instantly liked one another (granddad had been of the same ilk, different emperor).  I was invited to afternoon tea. 

When I arrived the table was set and everything was ready for tea.  The Rittmeister had his own way to serve tea.  No dainty little teacups with saucers and sugar bowls.  He filled the tea glass directly from his silver samovar and drank.  Not as we did, he put a sugar cube between his teeth and drank the hot tea from the glass.  And I followed suit and enjoyed it.  He said; “One has to be completely awake in the present to enjoy the tea.”

After we had finished he ask; “Now, Solnishka what would you like to do? “Let us take a journey through your living room (Reise durchs Wohnzimmer)”, I answered.

And we did, once a week, for four years.  For a wayfarer he had been.  Destiny had made him experienced in both travel and life and the rooms in his house reflected this.  There were exquisite furnishings, walls of books, and excellent paintings; both artists and places unknown to us, for the countries had vanished after WW I.  Towns that were everywhere and nowhere and a population of astonishing diversity.   The Rittmeister lived in a twilight world suspended between the formalities of the old nineteenth-century order that had shaped his early youth and the innovations and uncertainties of the 20th century. The haunted atmosphere of this world was beautifully displayed in these rooms.  I would much later encounter the sentiments again in the writings of Gregor v. Rezzori. 

The Rittmeister died in my senior year.  Nobody left to call me Solnishka.  But with time I learned to see myself through his eyes and realized that once loved, always loved.

Whenever I find myself in the “neighborhood” I visit his grave.  When I came at Christmas I found horse tracks in the snow leading me to it...

*Rittmeister (in the German language literally [Horse] riding master or Cavalry master).

December 04, 2012

“How'd you do? Oh, won't you try a sweet, candy meat good to eat.”

“Do not worry, I'll protect you
 Heroes never do expect you
To defend yourself.
With that awful fear I'll fill them.
With my soldiers I will kill them.
Lay them back on the shelf.”

Of all ballets, the one that nobody seems to take seriously is The Nutcracker. For many people, it's not even a ballet so much as a seasonal tic of the middle class-the thing that Mom takes the kids to in December, like the Christmas windows. And while some versions of The Nutcracker may deserve such treatment, all of them seem to get it.

The Russian original, of 1892, was kicked around by the critics. As for Balanchine's splendid version for the New York City Ballet, the dance critic Edwin Denby quoted a friend's saying, "I could see it every day, it's so deliciously boring." What makes it boring, according to this view, is the banality of its sentiments: that suffocatingly cozy household in act 1 and those damned candy dances in act 2. Then, too, the ballet is weak dramatically, what with no events occurring in the second half. As a dance work, it also has its problems, above all the meagerness of the ballerina role.

The Nutcracker must nevertheless be doing something right, for in spite of these flaws, it is unquestionably the most popular ballet in history, to the point where, for many troupes, it essentially finances the rest of the repertory. The ballet is performed by more than 200 companies in the United States, and in the average case, those four or five weeks of Nutcrackers at the end of the year supply one-third of the company's annual earned income. It's like an annuity. "If we put an ad in the newspaper in June for Nutcracker tickets, we'd sell out in a week," says a box-office manager. The ticket lines for New York City Ballet's Nutcracker are legendary. People come with box lunches and Russian novels, displaying rock-concert-scale devotion.

Dreams are only tears when you're lonely.

Of course, it's not the same ballet that's selling out from city to city. Unlike other ballet "classics," The Nutcracker comes down to us with almost none of its original choreography intact. In any given version, the dances are new and usually belong to that version alone. What Boston's Nutcracker will have in common with Cincinnati's and Houston's is only the great Tchaikovsky score and maybe, if the choreographers of these versions are all tradition minded, the original scenario, with little Clara and the nutcracker and the battle with the mice and the trip to Candyland.

But as you may have noticed, respect for tradition is on the decline; many choreographers have tried to liven up the old dust bag with new concepts, new interpretations. In the Pacific Northwest Ballet's version, designed by the celebrated children's book illustrator Maurice Sendak, Candyland has been replaced by an Oriental seraglio. San Francisco's Nutcracker has a dancing bear; Tandy Beal's production in Santa Cruz had gymnasts and roller skaters.

But by far the most common Nutcracker interpolation is "another level of meaning," with special emphasis on the heroine's supposed sexual awakening. In Baryshnikov's version for American Ballet Theatre, act 2 is forthrightly, though delicately, presented as an erotic dream. ("Yes, I am a Freudian," Baryshnikov confessed.) In Nureyev's version, created for the Royal Swedish Ballet, the sex is laced with violence. The mice, for example, eat the little girls or, in the case of Clara, who is needed later, merely rip off her skirt.
These psychosexual thrillers are based on the widespread assumption that The Nutcracker is a ballet about growing up.

Don't believe it. If anything, The Nutcracker is about what the world is like before you grow up, and why you should not grow up.

As Balanchine put it, the ballet represents "the reality that Mother didn't believe."

It is about miracle and wonder, and how these intrude into everyday life particularly for children, who, according to the romantic beliefs of the nineteenth century, have better access to the sublime than adults do. In the world of The Nutcracker, adults are a bore; it is to children that visions are vouchsafed.

That's what Nutcracker is: a vision, a materialization of everything that is sweet and good heaven imagined by a nine-year-old. And that, I believe, is why people stand in line to see this ballet (at least in its pre-Freudian versions): because at Christmas they want some contact with heaven.

*Complete Story and Music with New Songs Based on the Original Music.  Written by Mel Mandel and Marvin Kahn Based on the Music of Tchaikovsky, transcribed by Ronnie Falca.  Performed by Captain Kangaroo (Bob Keeshan) and the Sandpiper Chorus. Produced by Hudson Productions, Inc.

November 30, 2012

“All happy families are alike; …

…each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

~Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

All writers wish they had written the first line of Anna Karenina – and not only because of its aphoristic brilliance. Tolstoy's opening cuts straight to the heart of much of 19th and indeed 20th century fiction. The novel is, apart from all the other things it may also be, the complex and variegated story of the making and breaking of families.

In Tolstoy, the theatre is often something to be mistrusted, both as art-form and social occasion, a place of absurdity and vanity either side of the footlights.  So it is an interesting, even subversive idea for screenwriter Tom Stoppard and director Joe Wright to have contrived an adaptation of Anna Karenina set in one place: a theatre.

It is an interesting film, alas, and this has been true of all visual translations, the subtlety of Tolstoy’s characters is lost. 

I recalled, as a sat and watched the movie, that in Russia, writers have always had a unique status.  For more than 180 years, laboring under censorship and repression, they’ve came to be seen as special transmitters of essential truth; the voices of the people’s spirit, its government-in-exile. 

When I traveled in Russia between 1960 and 1990 I thought that nowhere on earth, perhaps, was there such a reverence for literature (and for its truth) as there was in Russia.  The queues to renew subscriptions to literary journals were longer than those for vodka. New literary novels and volumes of poetry sold out in a matter of hours.  Poets filled sports stadiums; writers talked nightly on television to millions of people; and out-of-print books routinely fetched more than a week’s salary on the black market. 

The great Russian writers of the past, too, are still worshipped today in a way unknown to us in the West.  For they are the cartographers of the national identity, the creators of the country’s alternative-and therefore living-history.  Their graves are banked high with the flowers, and their apartments and country houses are places of pilgrimage, where the workrooms have been meticulously preserved and the clocks have been set to the exact times of their death. What you feel most when you visit these places is how near, how present in Russian life, these writers actually are: from Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s Shakespeare, on whose lips the modern Russian language was born; to the novelist Maxim Gorky, at a party in whose flat in 1930 Joseph Stalin is said to have invented the term “socialist realism.” A Ukrainian novelist at the turn of the 19th century wrote: “My country is not Russia; it is Russian literature.” 

may you have a transporting weekend

November 27, 2012

He went to a marvelous party

Be daring,
be different,
be impractical,
be anything that will assert
integrity of purpose
and imaginative vision
against the play-it-safers,
the creatures of the commonplace,
the slaves of the ordinary.

~Cecil Beaton

“I’m an enormously talented man,” Noel Coward once said superciliously, “and there’s no use pretending that I’m not.”

One of the most renowned bon vivants of the dinner party circuit was the urbane and sophisticated Noel Coward, the son of a failed piano salesman who wrote about the rich with such wit and insight that they simply assumed he was one of them. So impeccable were his skills at self-creation with his “thin veneer of sophistication,” his persona was not only the inspiration for Cary Grant, but scores of others hoping to copy his inimitable style.

Coward claimed that he habit of wearing flamboyant silk dressing gowns was purely functional, “wonderful things to play in because they’re so comfortable to act in.” Nevertheless, they caused quite a stir, and he welcomed, if not courted, the publicity. They were not so much regarded as feminine as they were subversively antimasculine. Still, he persisted in flouncing about in them during interviews until they became his trademark, a symbol of the new Jazz Age–loose, smart and glittery. He was as well known for the way he dressed as for his literary successes and stage performances. “I took to wearing colored turtle-necked jerseys,” he said, “more for comfort than effect, and soon I was informed by my evening paper that I had started a fashion.”

Cecil Beaton noted that “all sorts of men suddenly wanted to look like Noel Coward–sleek and satiny, clipped and well groomed, with a cigarette, a telephone, and a cocktail in hand.”

“Wit ought to be a glorious treat like caviar; never spread it about like marmalade.”
~Noel Coward

True, and we could use some of that wit right now.

November 20, 2012


A sanctuary where the lost are welcomed, the forlorn found. It is a simple, stark and quiet place where solace resides in one’s own thoughts, where comfort fills the still spaces and where the moment before and the one immediately following matter not. It is a place to hide and heal where no notice is paid or polite inquiry sought. Polite, I say, because the calm of it is unmistakable, inviting no harm, rancor, or ill will.

There is something quietly heroic in the straightness of its lines, the sturdiness of its weathered planks and the heavenward tilt of its prow.  It's vantage takes in what must seem like the whole of the world in one sweeping gaze. Spare and modestly ordered, if one were to look through the panes of its windows, might glimpse long even rows of hand tooled wood pews cradling the forms of folk in solemn contemplation.  Or in another fanciful stab of reverie, eye a salt-worn attendant versed in the ways of the sea, hunched over a desk strewn with logs, maps and coastal charts, intent in his duties to stave off calamity.

What I do know is this. It is a photograph taken of a church on the Isle of Iona, Scotland, where Saint Columba founded his great monastery. The archaic rock strata of Iona is some of the oldest on the planet, possibly 1500 million years old, and as such it certainly carries a primeval and powerful creative energy.  What lures men and women from the far corners of the earth to the tiny rocky island off the west coast of Scotland?   Not the scenery, for there is more magnificence on the mainland of Scotland. It must be something deeper. Something knocking on the heart which speaks of mystery and holiness, of dreams and truths which have outlived time. There is an indescribable atmosphere on the tiny island washed by the waters of prayer down through the ages. Hallowed and blessed by Christians for about 1,400 years, as well as by those who were there long before.  Is it any wonder that an aura of spiritual peace surrounds the island.

“This island set apart, this motherland of many dreams,
still yields its secret, but it is only as men seek that they truly find.
To reach the heart of Iona is to find something eternal....”  G.E. Troup

It’s a fitting narrative for this stunningly stark place connoting a remembrance of things past and a foretelling of times to come with wishes placed, fears soothed, promises pledged, and on occasion, prayers answered.

It is all of what we will be feeling this day of thanks when we sit, kneel, genuflect or be together. Whether the thresholds you cross this day be grand or sparse, walk them with grace and gratitude, content in your lot, your place, your fellow man and your time spent here on this earth.

November 15, 2012

“Give me that man that is not passion's slave, …

...and I will wear him in my heart's core…”
― William Shakespeare, Hamlet

As I reflected on this week’s revelations out of Washington, D.C. and earlier in the month from Paris, France, I recalled a trip on the river Thames and visit to Cliveden, and I ask myself, who does political sex scandal better than the British? 

Charles Stewart Parnell and Kitty O'Shea, Jeffrey Archer, but the biggest sex scandal ever in Britain was the Profumo Affair. By the time the dust cleared, the Prime Minister had resigned due to 'ill-health' and the Labor party was swept into office with Harold Wilson as its leader and new Prime Minister.

It was before the swinging 60's before the Beatles and the Rolling Stones launched a British invasion.  1960 was the year that the publisher Penguin was prosecuted for publishing D.H. Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterley's Lover. Penguin won the case and was able to publish 200,000 copies.  People raced to get theirs.  Ian Fleming's spy novels hit the screen starring sexy Sean Connery as 007. The newest actors in Britain were not Hollywoodized versions of British men, but actors like Albert Finney and Michael Caine.  New magazines like Private Eye which poked fun at everyone and everything was established. Beyond the Fringe starring Peter Cook, Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller hit the West End. And David Frost became a national celebrity hosting the hit TV show That Was the Week that Was.

Politically however, things were much less progressive. Although Harold Macmillan had swept into office in 1959 with a majority in the House of Commons, discontent ruled the country. The British economy was stagnant there was inflation and labor unrest. Unlike America, with its young, vibrant president the politicians in office reflected a by-gone era, the era of Churchill and Lloyd-George, old school politicians.

It also was the height of the Cold War, and Britain was reeling from the revelations that Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean were Soviet spies.  In 1963, Kim Philby would be revealed as the Third Man in their spy ring and would also defect to the Soviet Union and the idea that a British politician was not only cheating on his wife, but sharing her with a Soviet diplomat did not sit well.

The chief players in the drama:
John Profumo - Secretary of State for War
Harold Macmillan aka Supermac - Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Christine Keeler - goodtime girl and model
Mandy Rice-Davies - fellow goodtime girl and model
Stephen Ward - osteopath and panderer
Lord Astor - owner of Cliveden, the estate where the shenanigans took place
Yevgeny "Eugene" Ivanov - senior naval attache at the Soviet Embassy

In the summer of 1961, Ward held a pool party at Cliveden.  

At this party Christine Keeler met John Profumo, the British Secretary of State for War. He was highly regarded in the Conservative party having won his first election in 1945, becoming the youngest MP.

Profumo and Christine started having an affair, but what he didn't know at the time was that Christine was also sharing her favors with Yevgeny Ivanov, among many others. But it was Ivanov who was the problem. It turned out that Ward was involved in helping MI-5 to entrap Ivanov. Sir Norman Wood warned Profumo about his affair with Keeler, and to warn him to be careful around Ward who was known to be indiscreet. When MI-5 tried to recruit Profumo to help them trap Ivanov by compromising him sexually, so that Ivanov would be encouraged to either defect or pass secrets, and informed him that Keeler was also involved with Ivanov, Profumo refused. Instead he dropped her but the damage was done.

The affair came to light when Christine Keeler was involved in a shooting incident at the home of Mandy Rice-Davies. Hearing the commotion, someone called the police, and soon the flat was crawling with police and reporters.

The press began to investigate Keeler, and soon found out about her simultaneous affairs with Profumo and Ivanov. Because of Ivanov's connection to the Soviet Embassy, a simple sexual affair took on a National Security Dimension.

Things might have turned out differently if Profumo hadn't made the fatal mistake of lying to the House of Commons. Instead in March of 1963, Profumo told the House that there was "no impropriety whatever" (sounds familiar?) in his relationship with Keeler and to make matters worse he said that writs would be issued for libel and slander if the allegations were repeated outside of the House.

Profumo's denials didn't stop the press from continuing with their stories. On June 5th, Profumo finally admitted that he had lied to the House, which was an unforgivable sin in British politics. He not only resigned from office but also from the House as well. Before his public confession, Profumo told his wife.  In spite of the scandal, it was never proven that his relationship with Keeler had led to a breach in national security (presumably Profumo was too busy doing other things to whisper state secrets to his lover). Profumo never talked about the scandal for the rest of his life, even when the movie Scandal came out in 1989, and when Keeler published her memoir of the affair. He died in 2006 at the age of 91, after receiving the OBE from the Queen. Like so many disgraced politician he learned that career rehabilitation was entirely possible.

The biggest fallout of the scandal was not Profumo, but Stephen Ward, who was prosecuted for living on immoral earnings. To make matters worse MI-5 denied that Ward had informed them of Keeler's affair with Profumo and Ivanov. On the last day of his trial, he took an overdose of sleeping pills. He was in a coma when the jury reached its verdict, that he was guilty. He died a few days later from the overdose. Harold Macmillan resigned in September of 1963 due to ill health. He was replaced by the foreign secretary, Sir Alec Douglas Home.

An official report was released 2 months after Stephen Ward's death. Hundreds of people queued up for copies.  But like the Warren commission or the Starr Report, or…there was no dirt to be had, just a lot of criticism for the government failing to deal with the affair quickly.

The Profumo Affair opened the door in Britain to the type of tabloid journalism it would become infamous for. No more were public persons coddled, their foibles covered up by the press. It was open season. Ah well, the more things change…

November 11, 2012

U n s h a k e n.

Skyfall Spoiler Alert!

Ah yes, the dreaded feast days.  A time of crisp weather, long walks, bountiful meals, unspoken antipathy among family members and – to my delight, martinis and Bond, James Bond that is.

Synonymous with sophistication, allure, and delicious decadence, the martini holds a hallowed place in social history – it is the “King of Cocktails”. Like the stiletto heel, it never goes out of style. Entire bar menus are devoted to its variants and a hip, retro cultural movement has adopted the martini as its cornerstone for stylish fun.The martini remains on the cutting edge of liquid fashion, constantly reinventing itself. There is no other world-traveler like the martini. Never watered down, the martini stands strong and silent in every language with no translation needed.

For the true aficionado, be sure to archive a Bond Lover’s Memorable Martini. You’ll be channeling 007 in no time.

No one in history has done more for the martini and its distinctive reputation than the fictional character who put the man back into manhood, Ian Fleming’s James Bond. If you really want to win friends and influence just about everyone in your very selective and choicest of circles, we’ve compiled some fascinating data about Mr. Bond and his martini habits, settling the record straight once and for all regarding “Shaken not Stirred” and Gin or Vodka. Time you stepped up to be the life of the party!

The shaken Martini is first presented to Bond in the first Bond film Dr. No in 1962, but Bond did not order one himself until Goldfinger (1964). Since then, each Bond has himself ordered the drink, except for two.

Roger Moore’s Bond never! although he did receive one in the 1977 film The Spy Who Loved Me.

Bond first ordered a drink to be shaken in Fleming’s novel Casino Royale (1953) when he requested a drink of his own invention which would later be referred to as a “Vesper“, named after the Bond girl, Vesper Lynd. After just meeting his CIA contact Felix Leiter for the first time, Bond orders the drink from a barman while at the casino.
‘A dry martini,’ he said. ‘One. In a deep champagne goblet.’
‘Oui, monsieur.’
‘Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then, add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?’
‘Certainly monsieur.’ The barman seemed pleased with the idea.
‘Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,’ said Leiter.
Bond laughed. ‘When I’m…er…concentrating,’ he explained, ‘I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold, and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I think of a good name.’ — Casino Royale, Chapter 7: Rouge et Noir [5]

Following the novel’s lead, the Vesper was prominently featured in the 2006 film version of Casino Royale.
A Vesper differs from Bond’s usual cocktail of choice, the martini, in that it uses gin and vodka, Kina Lillet instead of vermouth, and a lemon peel instead of an olive. In the same scene Bond gives more details about the Vesper telling the same barman that vodka made from grain instead of potatoes makes the drink even better. Russian and Polish vodkas were also always preferred by Bond if they were in stock. Although there is a lot of discussion on the Vesper, it is only ordered once throughout Fleming’s novels and by later books Bond is ordering regular vodka martinis, though he also drinks regular gin martinis. In total Bond orders 19 vodka martinis and 16 gin martinis throughout Fleming’s novels and short stories.

Why shaken, not stirred?

Scientists, specifically biochemists, and martini connoisseurs have investigated the difference between a martini shaken and a martini stirred. According to a study at the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Western Ontario in Canada to determine if the preparation of a martini has an influence on their antioxidant capacity, the shaken gin martinis were able to break down hydrogen peroxide and leave only 0.072% of the peroxide behind, versus the stirred gin martini which left behind 0.157% of the peroxide. The study was done at the time because moderate consumption of alcohol appears to reduce the risk of cataracts, cardiovascular disease, and stroke, none of which afflict the fictional James Bond.

Andrew Lycett, an Ian Fleming biographer, believed that Fleming liked his martinis shaken, not stirred because Fleming thought that stirring a drink diminished its flavour. Lycett also noted that Fleming preferred gin and vermouth for his martini. It has also been said that Fleming was a fan of martinis shaken by Hans Schröder, a German bartender.

Some connoisseurs believe that shaking gin is a faux pas, supposedly because the shaking “bruises” the gin (a term referring to a slight bitter taste that can allegedly occur when gin or vodka is shaken). Others contend that Bond was only shaking because of the vodka it contained. Prior to the 1960s, vodka was, for the most part, refined from potatoes (usually cheaper brands). This element made the vodka oily. To disperse the oil, Bond ordered his martinis shaken; thus, in the same scene where he orders the martini, he tells the barman about how vodka made from grain rather than potatoes makes his drink even better. This does not explain why Bond in the films still preferred his drink to be shaken rather than stirred, because beginning mostly in the 1960s vodka refined from potatoes was virtually replaced by vodka refined by grains.

Other reasons for shaking tend to include making the drink colder or as Bond called it, ice-cold. Shaking allows the drink to couple with the ice longer thus making it far colder than if it were to be stirred. Shaking is also said to dissolve the vermouth better making it less oily tasting.

While properly called a Bradford, shaken martinis also appear cloudier than when stirred. This is caused by the small fragments of ice present in a shaken martini.

Now aren’t you glad you asked?  Good, let’s spare the sky and have a martini.

For Charles, always unshaken!