Wednesday, 26 June 2013

George Orwell - plain English and a nice cup of tea.

When George Orwell wasn't lampooning totalitarian regimes in 1984, or maligning pigs in Animal Farm, he was passionate about two other things: The use of plain English; and How to make a nice cup of tea.

In his essay published in 1946 entitled 'Politics and the English language', Orwell set out six rules to follow for writing plain English.

Orwell Rule 1. 
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Included in this rule is the irritating and persistent use of clichés, such as 'What's not to like?', 'Join the club', and 'Try thinking outside the box'.

Clichés are a lazy way of expressing oneself and so are particularly popular with politicians. One cliché that politicians are particularly fond of is'Doing nothing is not an option', which is ironic as they seem to spend most of their time doing nothing.

Another cliché favoured by politicians is 'not acceptable', which they can use in the most inappropriate ways, such as: 'The recent rioting, looting and setting fire to buildings on the streets of London is not acceptable'.

Orwell Rule 2.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.

In practice people often shorten long words in their everyday speech. Thus perambulator becomes pram, refrigerator becomes fridge, veterinarian becomes vet, etc.

Orwell Rule 3.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Avoid too much verbiage.

Orwell Rule 4.
Never use the passive when you can use the active.

An active verb has a subject which is performing the action of the verb while a passive verb has a subject which is undergoing the action of the verb. We could say, for instance: 'Jenny was sent an email'. This tells us that Jenny was sent an email but not who sent it. Presumably the email didn't send itself. But if we put the sentence in the active is becomes: 'Nicky sent an email to Jenny', and now we know who sent the email to Jenny.

Orwell Rule 5
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Jargon are special words used by professionals among other professionals and are therefore the opposite of plain English. We recently heard a librarian on radio say: 'The number of footfalls in libraries is on the increase'. Footfalls here is a piece of jargon used to mean visitors. The librarian could have said: 'The number of visitors to libraries is on the increase'. Or more simply: 'More people are visiting libraries'.

Orwell Rule 6
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous

'...tea is one of the main stays of civilization....'  George Orwell

For lubrication while writing his novels Orwell would often pop into the kitchen and make himself a pot of tea. And on 12 January 1946 the Evening Standard newspaper printed an article that Orwell wrote on the subject and which he called A Nice Cup of Tea.

In 1946 tea was still rationed in Britain (and would remain so until 1952) and Orwell's article was to help people to wring out their 'ration of twenty good, strong cups of tea' that the ration of 'two ounces, properly handled, ought to represent'.

To do this he recommended his own eleven rules 'every one of which I regard as golden'.

The rules include only drinking Indian or Ceylonese (now Sri Lanka) tea, made in a pot and not an urn, with the pot warmed beforehand on the hob and not with hot water.

The teapot, in Orwell's view, should be taken to the kettle and not the other way round, and the water should be boiling 'at the moment of impact'.

The type of vessel from which the tea is drunk is also important, and should be 'a good breakfast cup', though he also wonders why it should be considered vulgar to drink tea out of a saucer.

But the rule that Orwell acknowledges as 'one of the most controversial points of all' is the perennial question of whether one should pour the tea into the cup before or after the milk. 

He acknowledges that the 'milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments', but his own view is that the tea should be put in first in order that 'one can exactly regulate the amount of milk' and so avoid putting in too much.

Both articles are widely available on the Internet.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Henri Matisse and all that jazz....

Was Henri Matisse, the celebrated artist of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries, also a jazz fan?

Was he ever Groovin’ High and Scrapplin’ from the Apple to the bebop chops of Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie?

To stroll around the park in front of the Matisse Museum in Nice (France), where all the lanes are named after jazz musicians, it might indeed seem that he was.

Not forgetting the book of gouaches paper cutouts that he published in 1947 with the simple title JAZZ.

Picture of Drawing with Scissors by Henri Matisse
in a hotel room in Nice.

But alas, there ain't nothin' shakin'. For the principle theme of the book was not jazz but CIRCUS, the word 'jazz' used only to reflect the rhythm of the pictures.

For all that it was a wonderful book and is now being celebrated as part of the festival A Summer for Matisse (Un été pour Matisse) taking place in Nice from 21 June thru 23 September Twenty Hundred and Jumpin' Thirteen.

Palais Lascaris
15 rue Droite
06300 Nice (France)

It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing !

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Atahualpa - the unhappy Inca Emperor

'The time is right to strike the Inca Empire'.
[Francisco Pirazzo in a letter to the King of Spain]

The Incas of Peru worshipped their Sun God Inti.

They built lavish temples to Inti, which they garnished with gold, believing gold to be Inti's tears - 'the tears of the Sun'.

But it was also gold that the Spanish conquerors wanted. 

For them gold was not the Sun God's presence on Earth, but a commodity they could use to finance their wars and conquests.

So the invaders' leader Francisco Pizarro kidnapped the Inca Emperor Atahaulpa and would only free him in exchange for a ro0m full of GOLD.

The Inca people loved their king and they quickly amassed a mighty hoard of gold and silver. 

But Pizarro had never any intention of sparing Atahaulpa, and once he had his gold he sentenced him to death by burning him alive.

Atahaulpa pleaded with his captor, telling him that if he were burnt his soul would be unable to join his ancestors in the afterlife.

His Spanish gaoler listened to his plea and agreed to his request. But on condition that he convert to Christian Catholicism. 

For centuries Catholicism had been the oppressor of Europe, punishing free thought with excommunication and worse, and censoring all forms of scientific progress.

Its founder, on the other hand, Jesus Christ, like Ghandi after him, had been a pacifist, a man of peace, who told his followers that they should not hate their enemies, they should love them.

'I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.'  Mahatma Ghandi.

But the moment Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the all-conquering Roman Empire, it ceased being a peaceful pacifist movement, and became instead one of oppression. 

And in the fifteenth century this meant one thing: the feared, dreaded and unholy INQUISITION

Torquemada, Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition.

Llorente, the historian of the Inquisition, computed that Torquemada and his collaborators, 'in the course of eighteen years, burnt at the stake ten thousand two hundred and twenty persons .... and otherwise punished ninety-seven thousand three hundred and twenty-one'. 
[History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science by John William Draper.]

But if Atahaulpa wished to save his soul then he would have to accept the demands of his captors. 

So Atahaulpa became a Catholic Christian. 

And true to his word, Pizarro did not have him burnt. 

He had him garrotted instead. 

And then he took his gold. 

The tears of his god.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Alexander the Great and the Greek waiter

'I foresee a great funeral contest over me'. Alexander the Great

On 13 June 323 BC, in a room surrounded by his doctors, Alexander the Great died of a fever.

Some said he had been poisoned by the Macedonian general Antipater. Others that the death of their commander was due to excessive drinking. 

But it is more likely that the conqueror of Egypt, Persia, and Asia Minor as far as the banks of the Hyphasis in India, where he wept that there were no more kingdoms for him to conquer, was carried away by the humble mosquito, a victim of West Nile fever or of malaria.

Alexander's body was barely cold when it was embalmed and placed in a human shaped sarcophagus filled with honey. 

But what to do with it then?

Alexander's wish was that they toss the body in the river! 

But his wife, Roxanne, and one of his generals, Perdiccas, decided to evoke the wishes of his mother, Olympias, and transport the remains for burial in the family crypt at Aegae in Macedonia.

A sumptuous funeral carriage was constructed, fashioned out of beaten gold, the top adorned with mother-of-pearl and precious stones. It took one year to complete and needed sixty-four mules to pull it.

But while on route to Aegae it was hijacked by Ptolemy, one of Alexander's generals! 

Ptolemy took it to Egypt and Alexander's body was buried in Memphis.

Alexander's mortal remains remained in Memphis until the late fourth or early third century BC, and then were taken to a new burial place in Alexander, the city bearing the conqueror's name.

But they did stay in this place. At some time during the reign of Ptolemy Philopator, from 222/21 to 205 BC, they were taken to a communal mausoleum, also in Alexandria, and placed with the bodies of Ptolemy Philopator's dynastic predecessors. 

And there they stayed. The future Roman Emperor Augustus is said to have visited the tomb around 30 BC and placed a golden diadem on Alexander's mummified head. And the last recorded visit to the tomb was by the Roman Emperor Caracalla in AD 215. 

By the fourth century AD all trace of the location had been lost to posterity.

But modern-day Indiana Joneses have not given up the search. For generations streams of distinguished archaeologists from renowned institutions have made their way to Alexandria in the hopes of being the first to claim one of the antiquity's greatest prizes. 

And among them, lost in the throng, was a lowly Greek waiter, Stelio Koumoustos, from Christiana Konstantinou's cafe-bar in downtown Alexandria.

When not serving black tea and Turkish coffee to Mlle Christiana's customers, Stelio was out digging holes wherever he could.

Then, in 1960, convinced that the tomb lay buried beneath Alexandria's Saad Zaghuil Square, he persuaded the United Arab Republic's Department of Antiquities to excavate the site.

Using his salary and his waiter's tips Stelio raised the sum of 500 Egyptian pounds to finance the dig.

The newspapers got interested, among them the The Times of London. 

On Monday 4 April 1960 The Times reported that the excavation had officially begun. Traffic was stopped and large crowds gathered.

The work continued apace, and then, on Tuesday 26 April, the diggers make a discovery! 

But alas it was not Alexander's tomb they had found. Only water. Lots of water.

Then the work stopped, The Times lost interest, and Stelio returned to clearing tables in Mlle Christiana's cafe.

Stelio kept searching for a couple more decades but never found the elusive tomb of Alexander. 

He finally returned to Greece where he tried to share his carefully amassed data in exchange for a pension in dollars and a Mercedes-Benz. 

As a graduate student commented, it would have been a small price to pay for the location of the tomb of a legend that was truly worthy of the name.

The Alexander Mosaic c. 100 BC.
Death of Alexander the Great by (after) Jean II Restout.
Detail of the Alexander Sarcophagus depicting Alexander at the Battle of Issus. [Wikipedia Commons].
Alexander's Funeral Carriage - mid nineteenth century.
Ptolemy by unknown artist 3rd century BC.
Augustus Before the Tomb of Alexander by Sebastien Bourdon.
Reconstruction of Alexander's tomb - source:
Christiana Konstantinou in Alexandria.
Mercedes-Benz 170S [Wikepedia Commons]

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Cats in Art : some famous artists' paintings of cats

Sleeping Girl (Girl with a Cat) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

'Did you know that many of the world's greatest artists have painted cats?' said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.
'Maybe it's the feline form and the kittenish nature - if you'll pardon the pun - which attracts them', said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.
'Pierre-Auguste Renoir, for instance, with his Sleeping Girl (Girl with a Cat) from 1880. A charming picture, don't you find?' said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.

Woman with a Cat by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

'Renoir also gave us his Woman with a Cat from around 1875', said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.
'A delightful painting, yes?' said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.
'And we musn't forget his Young Boy with a Cat from 1869', said the gentleman.
'Yars, said the lady.

Woman with a Cat by Edouard Manet

'Edouard Manet, too, produced a work around 1880 which he also called Woman with a Cat', said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.
'Quite different to Renoir's, eh?' said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.
'And of course it would be amiss of us not to mention Paul Gauguin's Mimi and her Cat from 1880. That would be amiss of us, wouldn't it?' said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.

Mimi and her Cat by Paul Gauguin

'Of course it isn't only artists who are attracted to cats', said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.
'Did you know that there are more cats in North America than there are dogs? That over 30% of all North American households own one? Did you know that?' said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.
'Ah, but it was very different during the Spanish Inquisition when the poor creatures were condemned as evil by Pope Innocent VIII and thousands were burned', said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.
'And did you know that the cat flap was invented by no less illustrious a gentleman that Sir Isaac Newton?' said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.
'And that the world's first cat show took place in London in 1871?' said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.

Wounded Bird with Cat by Pablo Picasso

'But to get back to great artists and their paintings of cats, did you ever see Pablo Picasso's work Wounded Bird with Cat from 1939? said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.
'Not the kind of picture you'd like to have hanging in your living room, eh?' said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.
'Er, forgive me for asking, madam, but do ever say anything besides 'Yars'?' said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.
'Excellent!' said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.

Two Cats, Blue by Yellow by Franz Marc

'Naturally the great German artist Franz Marc also gave us some wonderful cats paintings, such as his Animal Cats, and his Two Cats, Blue and Yellow from 1912', said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.
'And should we forget Woman Cat by Fernand Leger? I don't think we should, should we?' said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.
'Or Lunch of the Little Ones by Pierre Bonnard?' said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady
'Or Black Cat by Nina Iticovici?' said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.
'And last but not least the millions of painting enthusiasts around the world who must have committed their own dear tabbies to canvas. We musn't forget them either, should we?' said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.

Cheshire Cat from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

'Well it's been very interesting talking to you', said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.
'We must have a chat again some time', said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.
'Is there any last thing that you'd like to say?' said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.
'What is it?' said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.
'Splendid!' said the gentleman.
'Yars', said the lady.

Acknowledgement: Cats Facts from 99 Interesting Facts about Cats

Saturday, 8 June 2013

The de Mailly Sisters and the Lover King

Louis XV of France was born in 1710 and became king in 1715 at the tender age of five.

In 1721, when he had reached the kingly age of eleven, it was decided the Louis should marry his three-year-old Spanish cousin, the Infanta Maria Anna Victoria. But the young king was more interested in playing with his Xbox and he turned the proposal down.

Louis’s childhood continued until he was fifteen when he finally married Marie Leszczynska, the daughter of the deposed king of Poland.

The marriage proved a happy and a productive one. But Marie was seven years older than he was and the king’s royal feet were starting to get itchy. 

“I want a mistress!” he wailed, and what he got was a whole family of them in the shapely shapes of the de Mailly sisters.

de Mailly Sister #1 : Louise-Julie

The 23-year-old beauty had no difficulty in seducing the love-sick Louis. She was interested neither in power nor in honours, and for three years their affair remained a tightly guarded Court secret. 

It was idyllic, until she made the tragic error of introducing to Louis her ambitious and devious little sister Pauline-Félicité. 

de Mailly Sister #2 : Pauline-Félicité

Pauline-Félicité arrived at the royal Court on 8 June 1739. She had haughtily told a friend: “I shall follow my sister to the Court; the king will see me; the king will take me; and I will govern my sister, the king, France, and the whole of Europe”.

Though not so pretty as her elder sister - she was described by a younger sister as having “the shape of a grenadier, the neck of a crane and the odour of a monkey” - Pauline quickly won the French king’s heart.

Louis confesses to Louise-Julie that he loves her kid sister as much as he loves her. And Pauline is not slow to capitalize on the king’s affections for her to further her own ambitions.

She involves herself in politics and the running of the state. She pushes Louis into a war with Austria. She teaches him how to manage his personal finances. She even has him dismiss a servant who stole a bottle of champagne. 

Then, suddenly, Pauline becomes ill and dies after a difficult pregnancy. 

Louise-Julie is reconciled once more to the king. Until the arrival at the Court of another junior sibling - Marie-Anne.

de Mailly Sister #3 : Marie-Anne

Marie-Anne made her entrance at the Mardi Gras masked ball of 1742 where she came wearing a Chinese costume.

Louise-Julie then committed another blunder by proposing her sister to the service of the queen. 

Louis immediately fell in love with the new de Mailly sister and she became his newest new mistress. And Marie-Anne repaid the debt she owed to her elder sister by having her kicked out of the Court.

Then Anne-Marie made a gaffe of her own when she sent for yet another sister Diane-Adélaide.

de Mailly Sister #4 : Diane-Adélaide

Diane-Adélaide was short, overweight and unattractive, but with a joyous and playful temperament, and she quickly slipped between the sheets of the king’s four-poster. 

But Louis was still exercising his royal prerogative with Anne-Marie, and this ménage à trois causes a scandal at the Court. Diane had to go, and Marie-Anne is once more the king’s favourite mistress.

Then Marie-Anne falls ill and dies at the age of twenty-seven. Louis is heartbroken. But luckily there is another sister waiting in the wings - Hortense-Félicité - and what’s more she is the prettiest of them all!

de Mailly Sister #5 : Hortense-Félicité

Unfortunately for the king, the husband of Hortense-Félicité loves his wife and refuses to allow her to become his mistress.

And now there are no more de Mailly sisters. But Louis had many other mistresses, including the enchanting Madame de Pompadour, the most famous of them all.

Les Maitresses de Louis XV
Louis XV as a child - Pierre Gobert
Marie Leszczynskia - Alexis Simon Belle
Lady said to be Louise-Julie
Pauline-Félicité - Jean-Marc Nattier
Louis XV - Maurice-Quentin de la Tour
Marie-Anne - Jean-Marc Nattier
Diane Adelaide - Jean Marc Nattier
Madame de Pompadour - Francois Boucher