Monthly Archives: November 2009

Tlaxcala and other traitors

Fabled myth of the return of Quetzalcoatl or not, Cortes and his band of followers had some major cojones in taking on one of the most vicious and violently expansionist empires of the New World with a scant few men and no chance of backup.  In  Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler – a special exhibition at the British Museum, there’s an attempt to portray and humanise Montezuma, the last real ruler of Aztecs.    (Why Moctezuma?  Well, scholars can’t agree on the original Mexica/Aztex spelling and pronunciation so they’ve decided to veer from the one we all know to create maximum confusion and sense of ignorance in the regular museum going public)

My dad and I went to see this yesterday.  Pretty good.  Excellent curation of Mexican and Spanish (and British) holdings from the period of Montezuma’s brief reign.  But I didn’t really feel I got to know much more about Montezuma the man.  Why did he capitulate so easily?  Was he some kind of fragile freak (according to Wikipedia some of the rules surrounding his sacred person – no one could see him eat, no touching, etc) were at the inception of Montezuma himself and not a feature of royal Aztec personhood.   Did he really believe that Cortes was ordained to bring an end to the rule of the Aztecs (modern historians say no?)

Whatever, you have to hand it to Cortes – even if he did get help from the State of Tlaxcala – an independent island in a sea of Aztec client states.  The Tlaxcaltecans get a bad rap sometimes for helping the Spanish, but since they were being preyed upon by the Aztecs for sacrificial victims and could see the end of their state down the line, you can’t blame them too much for taking a punt on the Spanish.  Not sure it helped them out much in the end, though.

The Royal Academy did a more generalized exhibit on the Aztecs a few years ago which I remember as larger and more comprehensive but certainly not focused on an individual. (It was so good I bought the exhibit catalogue)   Interestingly, the a series of nearly contemporaneous Spanish oil on wood paintings inlaid with shell and mother of pearl depicting the end of the empire were perhaps the most striking thing for me.   It was in a style that I’d never seen before.

I was asked for a report on this exhbit.   If you went to the Royal Academy exhibit a few years ago…don’t bother. (Tickets are fairly scarce anyway)  But if you haven’t seen a big blockbuster Aztecs exhibit, I’d say this was well worth visiting.

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Of recent years, one of the things I’ve enjoyed at the British museum is going upstairs to see the etchings.   They have a space for temporary exhibits of prints and drawings, often associated with (though not always) the major exhibition.   This time it was Revolution on Paper – Mexican print works from the radical set.  This includes some of the famous Mexican muralists and a lot of other great works.   I really like this period of Mexican art and so I really enjoyed this one….except for one thing.

Many of these artists were communists.  Fine.  The content of their print work was avowedly Marxist, sometimes revolutionary.  OK.

The laughter of the people - away with your nonsense, José Chávez Morado, 1939, lithograph © DACS 2009

But I wasn’t quite as happy with some of the commentary.  There was a fabulous poster print of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – condemning the US prosecution and execution of the pair for treason and claiming they were victimised because they “loved and believed in peace.”  Well, actually – it’s because they passed secrets to the Ruskies.  The exhibition notes implied that they were caught up in a McCarthy witchhunt.   But no mention of their guilt (corroborated from Soviet sources) or that they were in fact genuine communists.    Though fair enough questions still remain about the depth of Ethel’s guilt or why this pair were executed for their crimes when others who’d passed more harmful secrets received far lighter sentences.

And in another poster a greedy company owner was eating coinage which the commentary said was foreign money – American dollars – because of foreign investors skimming away profits from Mexico.  Although, if you actually looked at the money – it was clearly Mexican pesos.

Shame British museum for introducing your own (flawed) political commentary instead of letting the art speak for itself.

***

OK, no traitor link on this one…as far as we know.  But the British museum is currently exhibiting about a dozen pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard – and amazing collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and metal working  This was discovered only in July of this year and after going on a brief display at the Birmingham Art Museum (which I wasn’t able to catch, but really wanted to) it’s been removed from display and I guess is being studied now and offered up to various museums after its valuation.

The few pieces that I saw were indeed pretty cool – fine gold work (a bit smushed by time and the weight of the soil) and garnet inlay.   But I was disappointed to see that they were dirty.  Still covered from the soil they were buried in for so many centuries.

I couldn’t help remarking to my dad that it was still dirty.

“What do you expect, they only found it in July!” exclaimed a British patron. “You are just incredibly lucky to see it.  What do you expect?”

1. Not to be personally accosted at museums

2. 10 seconds under the tap wouldn’t have gone amiss.

The hand turkey hits Great Britain

This morning when I dropped Bill off at nursery the kids were all busy making Christmas trees out of green construction paper and red tissue and glue and glitter.

“Christmas already?” I said.  “I’m not ready for that.”

“You don’t do Christmas until really late?” Bill’s nursery teacher said.

“No, I wait til after Thanksgiving , we’d be making turkeys out of construction paper for our decorations now.”

“Oh really?” said the nursery teacher. “How do you do that?”

So I tried to describe the hand turkey and how you’d draw around your hand and then make feathers out of the finger and add a beak onto your thumb. You know – something a little like this:

Hand turkey drawn on whiteboard by The Eggplant on Flickr

She was excited, the kids were gonna give it a go.  So she asked me to describe the whole process and she took notes and everything (honestly, she actually wrote it down). And I thought I had explained it well enough…I mean it’s a pretty straightforward concept.

And when I came back in the afternoon she told me that she’d told the kids all about Thanksgiving and that the reasons they were all making turkeys is because Billy (as they call him) is American and in America on Thanksgiving they have dinner. (Note to self: bring a print out of a kid’s Thanksgiving story)

And I saw a whole row of these things hanging by clothespins from a line stretched across the day care room:

Hand turkey re-imagined in Britain

Look, don’t get me wrong –  I think it’s incredibly sweet that they took the time and effort to help celebrate our (my?) cultural heritage.  And I have to look inward on this one, too and wonder if perhaps my explanation went a bit awry.  I can see now, looking back how my description might have somehow, with the best of intentions,  morphed into this feathery mit from the depth.  And if you’d never seen a hand turkey before, maybe this is a reasonable interpretation of one as described by someone who’s seen and made so many that it seems obvious. (An interesting reflection on the ease of cultural misinterpretation).

But can you imagine that thing as the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving decorations?  It’s as if the rabbit guy from Donnie Darko was leading craft hour with the kids.  And where did they get those feathers from? They look suspiciously like pigeon feathers.  Did they send the toddlers out with breadcrumbs  into the local park to lure, capture and pluck?

Tomorrow, apparently they’re making Indian headdresses.

I can’t wait.

Never turn your back on a T-rex

My dad is visiting and since our last visit to the Natural History Museum was such a success, but hampered by the throng of crowds which prevented us from seeing the dinosaurs we headed on up to South Kensington for a round of educational museum going.

Bill loved the museum and he loves to go round mashing the buttons on the exhibits and he didn’t much care what happened as a result.

This one made squeaky noises as you try to guide the dolphin to the fish

I was determined to get to the dinosaurs this time, no matter what despite Bill running off down wrong corridors and shouting “This way!”  Of course, that did mean we got to see the ancient specimens of lions and tigers and bears (oh my!).  And Bill was happy to oblige when I asked him what noise a bear makes.

Grrrr..awwwwr

When finally got to the dinosaurs and he was quite excited.  I was a bit nervous about how he might react to the animatronic Tyrannosaurs Rex, but he seemed to take it in his stride.

“Hello Dinosaur,”  he said.

“Hello Dinosaur,” he said so cheerfully and chirpily that I was beginning to wonder if perhaps it was a little bravado.

“Hello Dinosaur,” he said.  And then it was time to get our picture in front of the dino.  He was riding on my shoulders, so a quick quarter turn should have seen our jolly little group of three captured for posterity.

But he did NOT want to turn his back on the dinosaur.  No way.  No how.

Not advisable, Mommy

 

And this isn’t the first time either.  He wouldn’t stand in front of the giant hippo for an update on this portrait

don't throw me in, Uncle Will!

and he wouldn’t stand in front of the plaster lion at the Horniman museum, either.    He’s quite happy to get up close and examine them, but he’s also certain never to turn his back on the T-rex.

Santa’s saddest elf

I suppose if you have a camera and a child and a healthy sense of narcissism, you have to do photo Christmas card.  We did a few cute cards last year and hoped to do the same again.   We been planning to get ours done nice and early, but stomach flu, swine flu, bad weather and business all conspired to prevent us from taking some nice photos.

Also bad attitudes.  Whereas last year, as a rule our Bill was quite happy to be posed for a snap or two, these days he’s just too busy to stop and pose.   And his artistic sense was greatly offended by this setup.

What really gets me, is that if he hadn’t been crying, this actually would have been a good photo.

Still although, we didn’t manage to get a usable shot by the white birches, we did get a few to send off to Moo.com – who are currently offering 10% off their greeting cards and post cards.

Geese of doom

 

This photo has shot up in Interestingness on my Flickr account recently.  Not entirely sure why.  Interestingness is a funny measure of, well, interestingness for the images on Flickr.   It’s based on algorithm as closely guarded as the Colonel’s recipe, but you can guess that some of the 11 herbs and spices are views, comments, groups where it’s posted and links to to the image.   Interestingness is measured overall – so there’s a number one most interesting picture every day  and it goes on down to the top 500.    I’ve had several photos make the interesting rankings – no where near close to the top, and not for a while.  You can see  my most interesting photos.

When I took this picture, I had been sitting on the ground photographing the geese when a dog startled these geese.  They started running toward me, but veered away at the last minute.  I’m slightly phobic of geese (as in they scare me on a deep level but if I keep my distance, I can pretend to myself that no one notices that I’m afraid of them).  I’m very proud of myself for manging to squeeze off a frame.

The Bloody Bucket

I’ve been proofing the oral history I took with my grandfather about a decade ago.  I’m planning to get it printed up via Blurb.com (unless someone can tell me of an easier text-based self-publishing company) and give it to family members for Christmas, so there’s an actual deadline to this project.  Problem is  I hate proofing. I’ve just finished proofing (but have yet to format) Chapter 4 (of 10 – I really better get a move on).

But it’s great to be reading all the stories my grandfather told me.   Mostly it’s been easy to identify chapters and divisions within the chapters because of his great story telling skills.  But occasionally there are these little snippets of stories that don’t really fit anywhere, often because I asked him a question that interrupted his flow.

On one occasion while the tape recorder was rolling I asked him about The Bloody Bucket.  It was a bar of some infamy in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee even though it must have been closed fornearly half a century before I ever heard of it.  I can’t remember how I did hear of it.  But, hear of it I did and, perhaps because of the name, it stuck in my mind.   And I asked my grandfather about it.  This is what he said:

Well, the Bloody Bucket, that was in Lawrence County, it was down there on Buffalo Road, George Stevens owned the land it was on.  And it was a very rough night club.  When I came to Lawrence County, they were just eliminatin’ the sale of beer in the county.  And I assume that they were or they had sold beer in the Bloody Bucket, anyway they fought a lot.  There were a lot of fights and people got drunk, and I’m not positive that somebody didn’t get killed in the Bloody Bucket, but they did in some of the beer joints around.  And it was just a place that had a bad name is all I know.

IK: Did you go in there?

BP: No.  I didn’t cull many places, but I culled that one.

 

Now, the funny thing about this is notthat there was a rough bar in Lawrence County, though when I grew up it was largely dry.  Yes there were some beer joints in the county, but you couldn’t buy nary a drop of alcohol inside the city limits and it was beer only even in the county.  Though Paul may have said to take a little wine for your health, the good representatives of Lawrence County weren’t taking any chances.     Rednecks are known to drink and sometimes they can get rowdy.  Nor is it that it was called “The Bloody Bucket”.  Though clearly branding in the 30s rural South is something different than what we know today (and apparently it was not the only drinking establishment by that name)

The funny thing is the last line.

My grandfather was a Christian man, church going, he studied the Bible and I never saw him take a drink in my life.  But he says “I didn’t cull many places…”  It’s hard for me to imagine my grandfather frequenting the  drinking dens of Lawrenceburg.   And I didn’t catch it when he said it, but when you’re transcribing you listen to every word.  It just goes to show that y ou tend to hear only what you expect to listen to.

Damned if you do; honouring the fallen

Spelling counts

PM Gordon Brown has been at the centre of a penmanship furore.  Apparently it’s his practice to write to the families of British soldierswho fall in the line of duty.  The mother of  Jamie Janes, killed in Afghanistan, received such a letter from Mr Brown.

She wasn’t too happy.

In the hand written  letter, it looks like she’s being addressed as James.  This must be a common misspelling of her name, and one she’s fairly sensitive too.    Brown claims that it was his handwriting what’s to blame, or perhaps his poor eyesight.   Maybe or maybe not.   It looks like James to me, but it’s possible that’s just the way Gordon Brown forms his Ns.

The slain boy’s name was also scrawled a little messily, and although Mrs. Janes claims that it’s misspelled, I don’t think it is.

When Downing Street apologised, they made the classic mistake of  apologising for any hurt if she felt mistakes had been made.  The classic non-apology – we’re sorry if you felt that our excellent service failed to meet your over-exacting standards.   Blech…I’ve received those kinds of apologies, and they just make you angrier.

A colleague/acquaintance was defending Gordon Brown and suggesting that the mother was politically motivated, as when Brown phoned to issue another non-apology she had a go at him about resourcing the troops and the lack of helicopters in the Afghan theatre.

I’m not sure.  I’m not really willing to criticise a mother who’s lost her son.  And frankly, why shouldn’t she be political?  She clearly has bears a greater burden than most for the Afghan war policy and with another of her children still serving in the military she has a continuing interest in the proper resourcing of the military.

Gordon Brown’s handwriting may be messy and handwritten notes are the least he can do – but from where I stand I wouldn’t criticise him for the letter he sent (I cannot say that I wouldn’t have reacted angrily to it if it were my own son).   Mrs Janes criticism on that may not be fair, but as she’s lost her son and the buck stops with Gordon, he’s just going to have to suck it up.   Her criticism of the way the operation is being conducted is entirely fair, as Chancellor he was responsible for the budget and as PM he takes overall responsibility.

Captured moments in the fields of remembrance

Conservative leader (the opposition) David Cameron this morning receives criticism for taking publicity shots in the Field of Remembrance.  The Field of Remembrance is a central place for small poppy markers remembering the dead.  It’s a really special place a temporary memorial at Westminster Abbey, and I usually try to make a visit there every year around the time of Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day (Veterans’ Day in the US).

Cameron is a PR professional, so I have no doubt that he’s fully aware of the positive publicity potential for being shown honouring the fallen of war.  But the criticism seems slightly unfair on several counts.

In The Mirror it’s reported:

Mr Cameron had clearly been instructed on how to behave and moved briskly from pose to pose, often bending down to read the names on crosses as he was snapped.

Actually, you don’t have to be instructed to do that at all. In my several visits to the area over the years, that’s just the kind of thing that many people do and which I have done myself.

There does seem to be some criticism about the behavior of the photographer himself – that he was ‘barking’ orders. If that’s the case, that’s shameful – it’s a place of largely quiet contemplation. Not library quiet, as it’s in an outdoor area. But within the area of the memorial itself people are reflecting and when they converse its sotto voce or at the most normal conversational levels.

But the core of the criticism seems to be the fact that pictures were taken at all.

The Field of Rembrance is located in a high density photographic area, it’s in the grounds of Westminster Abbey, it’s  literally across the street from the Palce of Westminster and the Big Ben clock tower.   When I visited this past Saturday, I noticed – in contrast to the first time I visited – that a significant portion of visitors had digital camers in hand and were taking pictures.

I thought even then that things have changed with the advent of digital and the affordability of digital cameras.  Now the experience has to be recorded, shared, perhaps even published online or it’s as if it didn’t happen.  An unshared memory of an experience is not enough any more.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing either , as I certainly took pictures, too.

The American section