Friday, 28 March 2014

Harold Pinter : One Man's Land

'There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened. There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place.'
Harold Pinter - Old Times.

When you look back upon your past
it will not be the words you wrote
you shall remember,
the words your chose yourself,
so carefully,
and with such purpose.

Rather it will be the voice 
behind the words
you shall recall,
the tone of the voice,
and the way in which you sat
as you were writing.

The past has no morals,
it is an alien country
huge and vast,
and things which occurred then,
though we knew them not,
will manifest today,
as though they happened today,
as we recall them today
from our past.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Chess with Aleister Crowley and Savielly Tartakower

Aleister Crowley

'The wickedest man in the world'

Around 1930, the English magician, occultist and self-proclaimed Beast with the number 666, Aleister Crowley, was living in Paris, following his expulsion from Italy by Benito Mussolini.

Labelling by the British press 'The wickedest man in the world' because of the activities involving sexual-magic and drugs at his Abbey of Thelema in Sicily, Crowley was now spending his time in the calmer atmosphere of the Paris British Chess Club, a circle of chess players from the British community that met once or twice a week at the Café du Grand Palais. It was here that he was befriended by the young English writer George Langelaan, later to find fame for his cult short story The Fly.

'Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.'

Despite Crowley's notorious reputation as author of The Book of the Law, the 'sacred text' which he claimed had been dictated to him by an entity named Aiwass, and whose central tenet was to 'Do as thou wilt,' Langelaan found in him 'one of the great intellects of the century,'  in addition to one of the most curious chess players.

The ancient game of chess is one of the most intense mental combats between two brains ever invented by man, but for Crowley winning or losing the battle was of no importance. The only thing that interested him on the chessboard was the arrangements of the pieces, looking for something in them to ignite his imagination as a magician, like the yarrow sticks in I Ching. If the board positions didn't interest him, then he would simply switch off and abandon the game, even if strongly placed to win.

Savielly Tartakower

Crowley would also at times participate in official tournaments, and was asked to be part of a team that included Langelaan. He agreed, and in each tournament played in his usual quick and bad way, but always relaxed, occasionally finding an interesting combination of positions that encouraged him to up his game, but managing nonetheless to lose nine games out of ten, always with a smile on his face.

Then, one night, he found himself at the chessboard facing one of the best players of his generation, the Polish grandmaster Savielly Tartakower. 

Crowley played as relaxed as ever, sure that he would lose another point for his team, and after about one hour of play, while his opponent was contemplating his next move, got up to stretch his legs and glance at the other chessboards.

'How's your game with Tarta doing?' asked his captain, the only player in the team to have a good position in his game.
'I'm playing for the honour,' replied Crowley, 'but he'll win. He's already taken one of my pawns.'
'No chance of a draw?' asked the captain pleadingly.
'Then why not a win while we're at it?' replied Crowley with a smile.
'It would help us from falling down the classifications,' said the captain.
'My dear friend, I know nothing about your classifications, but if it's really that important then I'll see if I can fix it.'

Crowley returned to his chessboard, made his next move, then got up once more, and this time went to the washroom in the basement. Langelaan vaguely saw him go, then several minutes later he too went to the washroom.

In conference with the Baron.

Upon entering the washroom, Langelaan was confronted with the sight of Crowley with his shirt sleeves rolled up, his collar and tie undone, standing in front of a mirror, intensely watching himself as he made strange gymnastic movements with his hands and his forearms in the manner of a music-hall hypnotist common at the time. 

Langelaan was unable to stop himself from smiling at the sight of his eccentric friend, and when Crowley noticed the presence of Langelaan he laughed aloud, straightened his tie, and said: 'It's nothing. I was in conference with the Baron.' 

Conscious of Crowley's reputation as the most infamous black magician of the century, Langelaan decided that it skilled not to ask who the Baron was.

They went back upstairs and got back to their games, and not long afterwards Langelaan was startled by the sound of a loud groan coming from Tartakower. He looked up and saw the great man laying down his King, the sign that he was resigning the game. It seemed that he had made a stupid mistake, unpardonable in a grandmaster, and was about to lose his Queen.

A short time later Crowley was expelled from France as he had been from Italy, for reasons that were never specified.


Source: Issue no. 19 of Planète (November/December 1964)

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Pedro de Mendoza - the syphilitic Conquistador

After several tumultuous weeks on the high seas, the flotilla of thirteen vessels, under the command of Pedro de Mendoza, made its slow progress up the Rio de la Plata in South America. It was early February 1536, and the conquistador made land on the west side of the great river and constructed a fort, which he baptised Nuestra Señora Santa Maria del Buen Ayre, the future Buenos Aires. 

The good-natured natives, called Querandies, came to greet the new arrivals. But who were they, these strangers with their pale and hairy faces? Could they be gods come down from the firmament? Whoever they were, they were hungry, and the Indians graciously provisioned them with tasty game birds.   

Gods, however, the intruders most certainly were not. Pedro de Mendoza was a desperate mortal from the Spanish city of Guadix, Granada. He had lots of pride but very little money, but had heard of the profit-making exploits of Cortes and of Pizarro, and wanted some himself. 

So in 1529, at the already advanced age of 42, he petitioned Charles Quint, also called Charles V, the grandly-titled Holy Roman Emperor, for a command in the emerging economy of Eldorado. But Charles was too occupied with his wars against the hated Francis I of France to pay any attention to Pedro’s grovelling. It was only after five years of obstinate persistence by his dear mother that he finally got what he was after.

He set sail towards the end of 1535 with his 13 ships and 2,000 men. He carried with him a letter from Charles permitting him to keep for himself half of the treasures of any Indian chiefs that he killed, and 90 per cent of their ransoms. 

But things did not go well for Pedro. First a storm dispersed his fleet, then his chief lieutenant was murdered, probably on Pedro’s orders, as he suspected him of treason. But worst of all was the syphilis he was carrying in his body, and which was so debilitating that he was forced to command the fleet from his sick bed. But what the hell! For soon he would be one of the richest men in the world. 

But bad luck on the high seas was compounded by arrogant stupidity in the new fort on the Rio de la Plata. Pedro and his men took the kind offerings of the natives as if they were tributes that were their right and due, and gave nothing back in return. Fed up with the hairy-faces’ ingratitude, the natives decided they had had enough, and so left the intruders to their own devices.

Pedro was livid! ‘Is this how they repay us for bringing them civilisation, Holy Roman Catholicism, and Olde Worlde etiquette?’ 

He dispatched his brother to bring the ungrateful savages back! Ambushes and skirmishes ensued with many killed on both sides, including Pedro’s brother. The remainder of the party returned empty handed. 

Suddenly Pedro’s South American gig was not cool any more. Reduced to famine, the invaders were forced to live on rats, mice, lizards, and even the flesh of their dead comrades. Then the natives began raiding their settlement and even setting fire to huts. The syphilitic Mendoza was incapable of leading his men, so his chief officer went in search of help and in the process founded another settlement which he named Muy Noble y Leal Ciudad de Nuestro Señora Maria de la Asunción, later the capital of Paraguay.

For Pedro there was now only one solution - he must get more men from Spain. So in 1537, leaving the fort to the protection of his men, with a promise to return with reinforcements as soon as possible, he set sail. But after several days his syphilis got the better of him, and Pedro de Mendoza, the not-so-cool Conquistador, breathed his last.

The remaining colonists waited until 1541 for their errant leader to return, and then abandoned the fort and made their way to the new settlement in Paraguay. But for the Indians it was only a reprieve, as the invaders returned forty years later, and this time they stayed.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Assam Tea: the day the English got their first taste of India tea

Preparing the ground and sowing the seed

10 January 1839 is an important day in the history of England. For on that monumental day the first shipment of Indian tea was being sold by auction at East India House, Leadenhall Street, London.

Ever since an embargo on trade with Europe had been decreed by the Chinese emperor, in retaliation at the European powers saturating his country with opium, the English had been deprived of their daily libation of tea. Could they survive any longer? More importantly: could the Empire survive? They would need to find a solution to the grave crisis facing the nation!

Robert Bruce
Enter Robert Bruce, a Scotsman like his illustrious namesake Robert the Bruce. Part-time explorer and part-time trader, in 1823 he discovered a place in India called Assam, where the natives consumed a decoction that closely resembled tea. A local chief gave him his first taste of the brew. Indeed, it was just like tea! He was ecstatic! All he needed now was to convince the sour-faced English and his fortune would be made.

Then a catastrophe happened. A mortal blow from which Robert was unable to recover: he died. Fortunately, for England and for the Empire, he had a younger brother, Charles Alexander Bruce, who sent the tea plants to a  botanical garden in Calcutta.....only to have them rejected as not suitable to the refined and fussy English pallet. 

Charles kicked his heels for a decade, until, in 1833, the British government decided that it would need to establish new tea plantations in India. A Tea Commission was set up and a delegation was dispatched to Assam. One of the officers, Lieutenant Charlton, sent several of Robert Bruce’s wild plants to Calcutta once more for analysis, and this time they were identified as tea. Hurrah! A scientific team was then sent to Assam to carry out a detailed study of the terrain in order to see if it would support tea plants from China. And Charles Alexander was given the task of carrying out the tests with the help of Chinese workers.

But it was another disappointment. The plants from China could not adapt to the new climate. Charles experimented in mixing them with the local plant, while gradualy becoming more and more sure that the ideal solution would be to cultivate Assam tea only. And his persistence finally bore fruit when he convinced the British viceroy, Lord Auckland, of the quality of the local tea. At last he could send a first consignment to England.

To conserve the aroma of the precious cargo during the long voyage, Charles had the leaves packed into 46 crates, and after a journey lasting five months, they finally arrived in London. Only one last hurdle remained: the tasting of the tea experts.

Happily, for Charles, and for England, the tea met with the approval of the tasting committee, who declared it to be equal to that of China. The auction took place a short time later, and in less than one hour the entire cargo of 350 lbs had been sold at twenty times the price of China tea. 

It was a triumph! England had a new supply of tea. The Empire was safe. Time to celebrate with a nice cup of tea...........

Pour we the tea
And let its sweet aromas climb to our nostrils
From our bless'd teacups.   William Shakespeare (sort of)