Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The Hot and the Dead – Albrecht Dürer

Before online dating, there was the Personals column. And before the Personals column, there were social dances. Before that, people had to paint loads and loads of dreamy self-portraits wearing swanky hats and wait for someone to notice.

Well, Albrecht Dürer, I may be 500 years too late, but I’m noticing.

Whether you know Albrecht Dürer as one of the most accomplished painters and printmakers of the Renaissance or “that guy who drew really good bunnies”, there is little doubt that he was, by his own account at least, pretty. Granted, the competition was fairly thin on the ground at the turn of the 16th century. If you had teeth, smelled nice and hadn’t died of the pox in childhood, you were quite the head-turner.

Born to a goldsmith in 1471, Dürer’s lifelong home was in Nuremburg (before it became a popular going-on-trial-for-war-crimes destination for semi-retired Nazis). His artistic talent was noticed early on, and he produced his first self-portrait in 1484. At age 15, he was apprenticed to local artist Michael Wolgemut, from whom he learned woodcut printing, painting and engraving.

After completing his apprenticeship, having acquired an insatiable hunger for all things arty and crafty and preferably with cherubs, Dürer travelled around France and Switzerland, sketching, designing, dabbling and other verbs that mean making pictures. It was during this journey, in 1494, that he painted another self-portrait.

By the time he arrived home in Nuremburg later that year, he had been engaged by arrangement to Agnes Frey, the daughter of a city merchant. A few weeks later they were married, and apart from a simple sketch and a cameo as St Anne in one of his paintings, Agnes doesn’t rate much of a mention in the record of Dürer’s life. It is known that Albrecht and Agnes never had children, and that Dürer left Nuremburg again, bound for Italy only a few months after his wedding. Some historians suggest that an outbreak of the plague in his home town motivated him to leave, no doubt explaining to his new wife, “Sorry honey. It’s not you, it’s my fear of growing bulbous black tumours and bleeding out of my mouth until I die.” We’ve all been there.

Italy provided Dürer with the rich stimulation of a society balls-deep in culture and beauty. He returned to Nuremburg in 1495 with his floppy hat full of ideas and new skills, opened a workshop of his own and set about making some of the most spectacular and finely detailed woodcuts, oil paintings and watercolours anyone had ever seen. He spent the next decade or so amassing a large, varied and famous body of work, throwing in the odd portrait of his own body here and there.

He bounced between Nuremburg and Italy, producing watercolours, pen drawings, tempera paintings and oil paintings, becoming famouser and famouser across the artistic capitals of Europe. Among his great works were The Sea Monster, Nemesis, Adam and Eve and the Great Passion series; and his ever-growing catalogue became known collectively as “Very Very Detailed Pictures of People and Animals Looking Either Peaceful or Uncomfortable (With Occasional Skulls and Compasses Plonked on the Floor)’.

By the second decade of the 1500s, Dürer counted Raphael, Bellini and Leonardo da Vinci amongst his friends, and in 1512 the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I became his patron. He was officially a Big Deal.

The remainder of Dürer’s life was spent mostly in Nuremburg being prolific and clever, with a final big trip through Europe in 1520 after Maximilian’s death, to secure new patronage and paint a commission or two.

After knocking out a final self-portrait in 1522 and a handful of books about mathematics, architecture and proportion, Dürer succumbed to a fever – probably malaria – and died in 1528, aged 56.

It’s clear from historical accounts of Dürer’s talent and fame that the artist was gifted and ground-breaking in many ways. But perhaps the most remarkable gift Dürer possessed was his ability to obtain a spiral perm in Renaissance Germany.

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If you’re like me, when you think of a philosopher, you think of either some old beardy guy in a toga sitting on a rock speaking slowly about thinking, or a rarely-seen academic sitting in a small university office in the back building marking First Year essays and grumbling something about inadequate references and why all the funding goes to Engineering.

But then there’s Harriet Taylor Mill, who wasn’t so much “old” and “beardy” and “a guy” as she was “doe-eyed” and “perky” and “quite the feminist”.

Born in London in 1807, Harriet was schooled and married by the age of 18. Her husband, 39-year-old John Taylor, was a wealthy businessman and, if some sources are to be believed, the bass player for Duran Duran. Their relationship produced three children but hit a bit of a snag when philosopher John Stuart Mill was introduced to Harriet in 1830.

Mill, whose views on liberty, sexual equality and other important thinkings were understood, shared and generally supported by Harriet, was so impressed by the lady’s smarts and her expression of them, he asked her to read the book he was writing and let him know what she thought.

Harriet, taken with the way Mill considered her an intellectual equal and not just someone who could make scones and babies, was only too pleased to read, listen to and establish an intimate friendship with him. The two became thick as thieves, if thieves spent a great deal of their time calling on each other and writing essays about the powerlessness of women caught in paternalistic marriage contracts. A few years on, Harriet’s husband suggested the couple separate, and they lived apart for the short remainder of Taylor’s life. Records indicate that Taylor died in 1849, partly from cancer and partly from a lack of scones and babies.

Was Harriet bonking John Stuart Mill while she was still married to her husband? Both parties deny it. But they’d both been fiddling with each other’s postulations and proofing each other’s roughs and [insert additional tortured double-entendre here] under Taylor’s tolerant eye for years. Whatever. Harriet eventually married Mills in 1851 and set to work becoming a proper Feminist Lady Philosopher. Or, to use the feminist term, “a philosopher”.

Harriet Taylor Mill (who I shall call HTML for short) continued to have a great influence on her new husband’s life and works. A large slab of Mills’ output – in particular Principles of Political Economy, On Liberty and The Enfranchisement of Women – was either edited, contributed to or even authored by his missus.

Ironically, most of HTML’s writing about the social and political inequality of women and their financial dependence on men was effectively published in her husband’s name. As a result, the surviving collection of work actually attributed to her is so small, she could have fit it in some kind of dainty purse tied around her tiny, tiny waist and still have room for a lipstick, if she were so inclined. She was a bit like real HTML, in that she did a lot of work, but nobody ever saw much of it.

Harriet Taylor Mill died of tuberculosis on the 3rd of November, 1858. She may be remembered as the world’s most famous feminist philosopher who maybe probably didn’t never write any philosophy.

Harriet Mill

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 11 December 2013

The Hot and the Dead – Phineas Gage

If it ever occurred to you to become famous for sticking an enormous great metal rod through your skull, I feel duty-bound to advise you against such an irresponsible course of action. I mean, it’s been done. Impaling your own head is so yesterday. You’d only be embarrassing yourself.

One of the great pioneers in the highly specialised field of Surviving Remarkable Head Injuries was Phineas Gage, who was a handsome but otherwise unremarkable American railroad worker and small explosives expert until fate stepped in with an almighty wallop.

While working as a foreman during the construction of the Rutland & Burlington Railroad in Vermont, part of 25-year-old Gage’s job involved blasting away rocks by drilling holes into them, then filling them with blasting powder. He had his own, custom-made tamping iron to poke everything into the hole properly, which he’d always done safely until September 13, 1848.

On that day, Gage’s big stick struck a spark and ignited the explosives, sending the 1.1 metre, 6kg piece of iron rocketing back towards his face, pointy end first. Having passed through his left cheek, it proceeded behind Phineas’ eye through his left frontal lobe, then out through his forehead with a rather untidy shattering of skull, before landing about 25 metres away. And there, a medical report stated, “this abrupt and intrusive visitor” was found “smeared with blood and brain”. *

So there, dear reader, you may assume we have reached the “dead” part of "The Hot and the Dead". Yet, in the case of Phineas Gage, we have only reached the “Hot and Everybody Thought He Should Be Dead But He Wasn’t For Quite Some Time, Much Later Than Expected Really” stage of his history. He not only survived the trauma, he went on to walk, talk, work and be relatively normal for twelve more years. Perhaps the part of his brain that was skewered was the part in charge of saying “Well bugger me, there’s a massive hole in my frontal lobe. I should probably die or something.”

Sure, he was a bit wobbly at first, but he managed to sit up during the ox-cart trip home and was able to speak to local doctor Edward Williams thirty minutes after the accident. Being stoic and chipper doesn’t always prevent disgusting things from happening, however, such as bleeding profusely and throwing up a little bit. As Dr Williams described, “the effort of vomiting pressed out about half a teacupful of the brain, which fell upon the floor.” **

There were good days (the ones when his brain tissue stayed inside his head) and bad days (the ones when he lost consciousness and his family bought him a coffin), but a couple of months post-cranial-perforation, Gage was more or less up and about, and insisting people call him “Your Holiness”.***

In 1852, four years after the head thing, Gage was well enough to return to work, and he became a stagecoach driver in Chile, a job he held for seven years. He returned to the US when his health began to decline, doing occasional farm work and living with his family. In 1860, 12 years after his accident, he began to have severe and increasingly frequent convulsions, which lead to his death in May of that year.

Now, I don’t want to go into too much detail about the physical or psychological impact of Gage’s accident, (because I prefer to concentrate only on a subject’s Hotness and Deadness, with a little bit of biographical filler in between), but it’s safe to say he is a remarkable case. Doctor John Harlow, who treated Phineas’ condition and studied him in great detail, described his condition 7 months after the incident thus:

His physical health is good, and I am inclined to say he has recovered. Has no pain in head, but says it has a queer feeling which he is not able to describe.

That’s not to say that Phineas didn’t attempt to describe how he felt. But “It’s that feeling you get after you’ve had an enormous length of solid metal pushed through your cranium at great speed, y’know?” fell too frequently on deaf ears.

There is some question about whether or not Gage’s personality was changed markedly as a result of his head-kebabbing. Reports exist of changes commensurate with frontal lobe damage, such as an inability to temper strong emotions and an increased penchant for profanity. Such reports have made him the darling of First Year Psychology lecturers for many decades. But time, and the effect of exaggeration on the coolness of a story, have made it almost impossible to determine how apparent Gage’s psychological strangeness was, if it existed at all. As far as verifiable evidence shows us, he behaved like someone who may have been miffed about having a substantial brain injury.

But enough of scientific speculation. Let’s talk about hotness. How many people do YOU know who’ve survived a pole through the face and still have swoony good looks? I bet it’s hardly ANY. But this guy. This guy does the dreamy/droopy thing enormously well, I think. Did it win him the hearts of suitable lovers? Hard to say. Little is known of any romantic engagements Gage may have had, but one can imagine any number of beddable companions, enchanted by his devastating good looks, captivating story and impressive pole, being turned away with the wave of a hand and a whispered, “Not tonight, dear. I have a headache.”

* Coincidentally, this is precisely the state in which cockroaches may be found at my house, shortly after I have performed the Get The Fucker Off My Toothbrush dance and done a weird squealy thing with my voice.

** Note to neurology patients: If your specialist isn’t referring to your brain tissue in terms of teacups, it might be wise to seek more professional advice.

*** This is just one of the many, many puns available regarding Phineas Gage and his Massive Rod. I have chosen to exercise considerable restraint here, because most of the puns are tasteless, insensitive or simply awful. And let’s face it, we need more bad puns like we need a hole in the oh never mind.


Published in Weekly Email

Tamara de Lempicka was well known for painting beautiful society personalities soaked in ennui, gazing longingly into the mid-distance, their luminous hues rendered boldly yet finely as if to say “I don’t give a stuff about anyone but myself”.

And that was just her self-portraits.

With a wealthy lawyer father and a posh socialite mother, Tamara de Lempicka was destined to be educated, cultured, comfortably well-off and irreversibly up herself. Born Maria Górska in Warsaw in 1898, Tamara spent her childhood bounced between her parents in Poland, her boarding school in Switzerland, her grandmother in Italy and her aunt in St Petersburg.

Unlike most teenagers, whose primary skills seem to be avoiding eye contact and omitting consonants, Tamara was accomplished enough in the social arts to convince Tadeusz Lempicki, a handsome but reckless lawyer, to marry her in 1916. Tadeusz was swayed by her confidence, by her sad, sad puppy eyes and by her considerable dowry. A daughter, Kizette, was born to the couple later that year.

The Russian Revolution, during which the Bolsheviks imprisoned Tadeusz, but later released him after some coaxing by his hot wife, brought the family to Paris in 1917.

Paris, Tamara found, made her art come out. She took to painting with ease, with enthusiasm, and with a considerable quotient of high wank. Suddenly “Lempicki” wasn’t an artsy enough surname and a single heterosexual relationship wasn’t satisfying enough. As Tamara developed a taste for a vast range of sexual partners, she also developed an artistic style known as “soft cubism”, which, I was surprised to discover, has nothing to do with cheese. It was around this period of her life that her eyebrows disappeared.

As de Lempicka’s fame grew, her regard for her family members diminished. Daughter Kizette spent most of her childhood at boarding school and her grandmother’s house; and husband Tadeusz spent his time getting increasingly bored with his wife. The couple separated in 1927 and divorced four years later.

De Lempicka’s paintings were bright, audacious, elegant and full of boobies. She was popular and prolific – while preparing for her first big exhibition in 1925, she worked at a rate of about one painting per week.

For the remainder of the 1920s and a fair slab of the ‘30s, Tamara spent her time painting, bonking anything that moved and expanding her social network to include celebrities, aristocrats and people who could be relied upon to tell her she was beautiful.

Tamara’s second husband came in the form of Baron Raoul Kuffner von Diószeg, her patron and lover. Five years after they married in 1934, the couple moved to the United States and settled in Beverly Hills, which was a comfortable sort of place for artsy-fartsy European people trying to avoid World War II.

De Lempicka painted shiny Hollywood people for a few years before moving to New York and eventually losing her popularity, which was no doubt someone else’s fault.

After her husband died of a heart attack in 1961 and an exhibition flopped in 1962, Tamara turned into a grump and eventually relocated to Mexico. Almost precisely at the time that Art Deco was enjoying a renaissance and her paintings were being rediscovered by a generation of art students with spiral perms, Tamara died in her sleep in 1980, presumably of old age and/or lack of attention.

Tamara de Lempicka’s legacy is celebrated by many people who know a lot about art, and collected by Madonna, who probably doesn’t.

Tamara de Lempick

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Hot and the Dead – Jack Johnson

In Sydney on Boxing Day in 1908, two remarkable boxers took to the ring in Rushcutters Bay to contest the World Heavyweight Championship. One was Jack Johnson, who was remarkable because he was the first African American man to successfully compete for the title. The other was Tommy Burns, a Canadian boxer remarkable for a wedgie he had inadvertently given himself by the end of the eighth round.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the World Heavyweight Championship was usually off-limits to African Americans because a ‘colour bar’ existed within professional boxing. The biggest title a black heavyweight boxer could hope to win was the World Coloured Heavyweight Championship (which Jack Johnson won in 1903 and held for five years). White boxers would not accept title bouts with anyone who wasn’t also white. At the time it was par for the course in the southern United States, where racial segregation was an officially sanctioned way of keeping things nice (for white people of course).

But Jack Johnson didn’t give a rat’s arse about all that rubbish. He wanted a shot at the title, so he did what any self-respecting giant of a man with a big dream and even bigger shoulder muscles would do – he followed the reigning champion Tommy Burns around the world and teased him until he gave in.

And so it came to pass that Tommy Burns was beaten about the head and body (all professional-like) for fourteen rounds until the police had to step in and stop the fight, and Jack Johnson, the home-schooled son of ex-slaves, was declared the World Heavyweight Champion.

A lot of white people (the kind who liked having their iced tea served by black people) weren’t happy. The heavyweight championship was in the hands of someone with different-coloured skin!

Almost immediately after Johnson’s victory, the search for the ‘Great White Hope’ – a boxer with a sufficiently pale epidermis who could rescue America from the shame of having an ethnic minority succeed in a punching contest - began.

Great White Hope contenders came and went, and Johnson won fight after fight. Then in 1910, former heavyweight champion James Jeffries stepped up to challenge Johnson, and everyone got so excited about it that the bout was dubbed “The Fight of the Century”*. At least, that’s what it was called before the fight took place. Afterwards, it was generally known as “That One In Which Jack Johnson Punched The Crap Out Of The Other Guy”.

To say that Johnson’s victory further increased the animosity between black and white boxing fans would be an understatement. To say it caused race riots in 25 states in which 20 people were killed would be more historically accurate.

So what was Jack Johnson, the tall, imposing, deliciously fit and capable boxing legend, really like? Courageous? Yes. Determined? Most definitely. Humble? Hardly. Pleasant? No.

Johnson’s personal life was a rich patchwork of flamboyant spending, infidelity and domestic violence. In-between boxing, racing cars and prostitutes, he was married three times. His first wife, Etta Terry Duryea, committed suicide after months of abuse by her husband. His second wife, Lucille Cameron, stayed with him through a conviction for being with a prostitute before eventually divorcing him for infidelity. Wife number three, Irene Pineau, stayed with him until his death at age 68 in a car accident in 1946.

If Jack Johnson’s life has taught us anything, it’s that courage and determination can change the world; and that devastatingly fine-looking men can still be bastards.

*I imagine “The Fight of the Century” being announced in Pete Smith’s voice while Tony Barber saunters down a short flight of carpeted stairs and is handed a microphone by Victoria Nicholls. Perhaps you don’t know what I’m talking about, in which case you’re probably a little bit younger than me and/or never had an interest in 1980s game shows. And if you are younger than me, you might be unaware that one of the characteristics of people my age and older is the tendency to ramble on and on in a footnote getting further away from any discernible point until they eventually forget what they… um…

Jack Johnson

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The Hot and the Dead – Violette Szabo

Remember Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, how she was all beautiful and luminous and resistant-to-Nazis? Well hang on to your hats, folks, because Violette Szabo makes Ingrid Bergman look like she was only pretending to do all that stuff in front of a camera.

Violette Szabo (nee Bushell) was an actual secret agent for the actual British in World War II. For real.

Born to Frenchwoman Reine Leroy and her husband, English taxi-driver Charles Bushell in 1921, Violette was the product of a love affair that began when her father was fighting in France in the Great War. She grew up in London speaking both English and French fluently and, most importantly, she smelled nice.

Eighteen-year-old Violette was working at the perfume counter of a department store in Brixton when World War II began. Little did she know then how the war would define the rest of her life. Buy how would she know? Eighteen-year-olds hardly ever know anything, except the words to all the new songs and how to attach P-plates.

In 1940, Violette met 31-year-old Etienne Szabo at a Bastille Day celebration in London. He was there as a member of Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Forces, fighting to regain France from the clutches of Nazi Germany. When Etienne discovered that he was about to be shipped off to North Africa, the couple decided to marry, only 42 days after they met. Forty-two days. It takes me longer to organise my Tupperware drawer, much less a wedding frock. I guess nothing motivates one to make important life decisions like true love and the threat of being shot dead in a foreign land.

While her husband did gallant soldiery things in Egypt, Violette soldiered through contractions back home, giving birth to Tania in June 1942. Only four months later, Etienne was killed in El Alamein, before he had a chance to meet his baby daughter.

Violette was, understandably, quite cross. She decided to join the British Special Operations Executive, an espionage unit set up to sabotage the operations of the enemy and assist resistance movements around Europe. She reportedly told a colleague, “My husband has been killed by the Germans and I'm going to get my own back.” Or, as they would have said in the vernacular of the time: “WOMAN SCORNED. STEP BACK, JERRY”.

After being trained in navigation, shooting things, blowing things up, jumping out of planes and bit of French practice, Violette and her gorgeousness were ready for their first mission. In April 1944, she parachuted into France on a mission to reunite a splintered Resistance group, sabotage a few transport routes and pass vital intelligence back to England, all in an effort to make Ingrid Bergman look comparatively dull.

Szabo’s second mission was to coordinate French guerrilla groups in an effort to stuff up German communication lines and facilitate the Allied invasion of Normandy. Everything was going well until she and some of her French minders encountered a German roadblock in June 1944. After an exchange of gunfire that would have frightened the daks off Ingrid Bergman, Violette was captured by the Germans.

Whilst in captivity, Szabo was fetched many delicious cups of tea by her Nazi captors, and after learning a little German, was offered the opportunity to co-author a range of children’s books in exchange for her freedom. At least, that’s what would have happened, if this was some namby-pamby motion picture. But it’s not.

Violette was handed over to the SS Security Service for interrogation, and then to the Gestapo for added torture, before being interned in the Ravensbrϋck concentration camp, a charming little place where the lucky prisoners were the ones subjected to hard labour instead of medical experiments.

Nobody knows exactly when Violette Szabo was executed by firing squad, but it’s likely to have happened around the 5th of February, 1945. Her posthumously-awarded George Cross citation reads:

“She was… continuously and atrociously tortured but never by word or deed gave away any of her acquaintances or told the enemy anything of any value.”

Gorgeous, brave and classy to the end.

Violette Szabo

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 06 November 2013

The Hot and the Dead – Fridtjof Nansen

I’ve been looking over the last few Hot-and-Dead thingies, and I’ve noticed a trend. Princess. Author. Mathematician. Activist. Prime Minister. All very interesting, perhaps*, but not very outdoorsy

So I says to myself, I says, “What we need is an outdoorsy one.”

And here is Fridtjof Nansen, or as they call him in his native Norwegian, “Outdoorsy out the wazoo”. Born in Store Frøen near Christiania (modern-day Oslo) in 1861, Nansen was hardly out of nappies before he had skis strapped to his feet. Which is just as well, because have you ever tried to change someone’s nappy while they’re wearing skis? Not nice.

As a boy, Fridtjof Nansen – who I will call ‘Fridge’ from now on because that’s what I keep typing accidentally – spent his summers swimming, fishing and hunting; and his winters skiing and skating. School was secondary to adventure in Fridge’s childhood, and he managed to pass his classes satisfactorily despite spending most of them imagining he was swooshing down a hill somewhere. Sometimes he would take off into the forest for several days, camping and exploring, a little bit like Bear Grylls but without all the sponsorship deals and fundamentalist Christianity.

Somewhere in between breaking the world record for one-mile skating and winning the national cross-country skiing championship eleven times in a row, Fridge finished his education and entered the Royal Frederick Unviersity to study zoology in 1881. His decision to study zoology was based on the opportunities it provided for a life in the open air. One could assume he was more interested in outdoorsy animals like cows and bats and earthworms, and not the more ‘inside’ animals like daddy-long-legses and clothes horses.

During his studies, he undertook a voyage to study Arctic zoology, and soon became obsessed with the idea of crossing the Greenland icecap. Partial crossings from east to west had been made before, but Fridge hatched a plan that he felt was sure to succeed – crossing from west to east.

Before planning the journey, Nansen made sure to remind everyone what a complete swotty over-achiever he was by submitting his doctoral thesis on the structure and combination of histological elements of the central nervous system of lower marine creatures.

In June 1888, Fridge and his expedition party set off for Greenland. Treacherous conditions and bad weather added many days to the planned journey, and forced the explorers to change their intended course several times. Nevertheless, 78 days after they left Norway, Nansen and his team achieved their goal, and upon their completion Nansen was informed that he had attained his doctorate, to which he replied “I really don’t give a stuff”.** The explorers were treated as heroes.

Nansen was known to be against the idea of marriage (presumably because marriages are so indoorsy), so when he and mezzosoprano-slash-skier Eva Sars became engaged and then married only weeks after, everyone was surprised. Or at least I suppose they were. I’m not really sure who “everyone” is. Wikipedia didn’t specify.

Ever the pioneer, Fridge began to get cold feet immediately after his wedding. And by “cold feet” I mean “planning an expedition to the North Pole”. Nansen gave himself just enough time to see his first child born safely and latched on before sailing off for the Pole on 24 June 1893. Although the expedition didn’t manage to reach its intended destination, the crew managed to travel further north than any human had ever been, and also had part of their kayaks chomped off by a walrus. Three months after setting off, Nansen and his team returned to Christiania to enormous, cheering crowds. He was officially famous.

In the years immediately following the polar expedition, Nansen wrote an account of his journey which sold very well and made him decidedly well-off. In between chapters and popping outside for a bit of a ski, he and Eva made four more babies.

After all that excitement, Fridge took a moment to consider his future. He thought, “I’m smart, I’m well-known, I like travelling and I have an attractively bouncy moustache. I think I could convince people to do things.” And convince them he did.

In 1905 Nansen was sent to Denmark by Norwegian Prime Minister Christian Michelsen to convince Prince Charles of Denmark to become the new King of Norway after the country’s separation from Sweden. He was successful.

In 1906 he travelled to London to undertake the role of Norwegian Ambassador, in which he convinced European powers to sign an Integrity Treaty to confirm Norway’s independence. Shortly after accepting this role, his wife Eva died of pneumonia.

During World War I, he was sent to Washington to convince the US government to help renew the supply of food and other items to Norwegians.

In 1919, Nansen commenced his second, unhappy marriage to Sigrun Munthe, with whom he’d had an earlier affair. The photos of Nansen in middle-age, in which he is, almost without exception, frowning, no doubt reflect the character of this union.

It was war that shaped Nansen’s passions in his later life, and subsequently won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for “his work for the repatriation of the prisoners of war”. The champion skier, skater, explorer, scientist and baby-maker spent the last decade of his life in the service of the League of Nations, finding ways to resettle refugees from the Russian Revolution, the Greco-Turkish wars and the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian genocide.

Nansen continued to ski well into his 60s, and while on a trip with friends in 1930 he noticed he tired easily, and came home suffering influenza and phlebitis, which as everyone knows is an uncomfortable inflammation of the phlebs. Nasty stuff. Three months later, on 13 May 1930, Fridtjof Nansen died of a heart attack aged 69.

Nansen left behind a large slab of history-making achievements. He is remembered for his exploratory accomplishments, his written works and his extraordinary humanitarian efforts. In his honour, a species of fish, an asteroid and a moon crater have been named. And you can’t get much more outdoorsy than space.

* This is the point where you say “Oh yes, Shelley, they’ve all been extremely interesting and you’re very clever indeed” out loud. Thank you.

** I’m paraphrasing.

fridtjof nansen

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If only the Soviets valued beauty over Bolshevism in 1918, Tatiana Nikolaevna might have lived to see her 22nd birthday.

As Grand Duchess of Russia and the second daughter of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra, Tatiana Nikolaevna represented wealth, privilege and the imperial autocracy. And in revolutionary Russia, that pretty much made her a baddie.

She didn’t know she was a baddie, of course, and it was hardly her fault that she was born into a rich and powerful family that happened to rule over a country full of disgruntled and badly-fed workers. But disgruntled and badly-fed workers don’t really care whether or not you’re posh on purpose. They’re rather more occupied with improving conditions at the factory and establishing a voting system and not freezing to death to be quibbling over how many rubies a reluctant duchess should have. Even a really, really pretty duchess.

Compared to many aristocratic offspring throughout history, Tatiana wasn’t actually very much like a baddie at all.

She generally ditched her official titles of “Grand Duchess” and “Imperial Highness”, preferring simply “Tatiana Nikolaevna” like any other, less sparkly Russian. Among family she was called “Tanya,” “Tatya,” “Tatianochka,” or “Tanushka” and, just in case two titles and four nicknames wasn’t enough, “The Governess” because of her tendency to take charge of things and look after her four siblings. On top of all that, there’s the nickname I’ve just given her, which is “Far Out Look At That Face”.

In her early teens, Tatiana was given the honorary rank of Colonel and her own division of soldiers to look after. Photographs of her in military uniform during this period show a fine, regal, composed young woman with the expression of someone who asked for a bike and got a regiment instead. Nevertheless, inspecting her troops was an activity she enjoyed immensely, presumably because swooning over John Stamos in Dolly magazine hadn’t been invented yet.

Tatiana worked for the Red Cross during World War I and, with her mother and sister Olga alongside, nursed soldiers who had been wounded in the war. Never one to pay her social status any heed, Tatya often complained that she couldn’t do more to help, or that she wasn’t allowed to do any really gross jobs like the more peasanty nurses. She also found the time to fall in love with a few soldiers, because being a Grand Duchess does not immunise one against wartime cliché.

Plainly, outside the context of the Russian Revolution and the grumpy proletariat, Tatiana was in fact quite a Good Person. Really, all she did that was even slightly iffy was become close friends with Grigori Rasputin. To the family Romanov (which was her surname, because she didn’t have enough names already), Rasputin was a wise and caring holy man with spooky healing powers and the best intentions. To others (including me), he was a creepy bearded guy with questionable motives who ranted about God and had visions and hung around a rich family’s daughters and goddammit now I have a Boney M earworm.

Yet, despite all her goodness and poise and generosity and altruism and goody-two-shoesiness and completely kissable lips, Tatiana’s life came to an abrupt end in the early hours of 17 July 1918. After being held under house arrest for more than a year by the Bolsheviks, Tatiana and her entire family were woken in the middle of the night, escorted to a basement and arranged as if for a photograph. A shooting squad then opened fire upon the family, killing the Tsar, his wife and a few servants before repositioning themselves. I’d like to tell you that Tatiana’s life was spared at that point because, after all, she’d been such a good egg during her 21 years of life. But alas, once half your family has been shot, a revolutionary zealot has a gun to your head and there’s an 8-inch bayonet on standby, it’s really too late to start up a conversation about how nice you’ve been lately. Tatiana was killed with a shot to the head, along with the remainder of the ridiculously good-looking Romanovs.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The Hot and the Dead – Anton Chekhov

“Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress.”

So said Russian physician and prolific author Anton Chekhov, whose wife’s real name was Olga.

Perhaps Olga was miffed about not rating a mention. Or maybe ‘Medicine’ was some kind of sexy nickname she made up during a particularly boisterous game of Doctors and Nurses when she shouted “I AM MEDICINE, ANTON! TAKE ME!” Or maybe Chekhov simply lost his marbles and thought he was legally married to Medicine for real, and dreamed about having a son called ‘Dentistry’ and a daughter called ‘Veterinary Science’ and a little flatulent dog with bendy legs called ‘Chiropractic’. Whatever the case, I’m changing my name to ‘Literature’ because oh my god what a babe.

I must confess I’ve never read any Chekhov, and was only vaguely familiar with him until recently. I did go through a phase at university during which I crocheted a lot and decided to read 19th Century Russian novelists in my spare time for fun. But once I’d dipped my toe into the obvious starting point of Tolstoy, I discovered that, although picturesque and heartbreaking, century-old Russian literature is actually quite time-consuming, and it didn’t seem to be attracting any of the pensive long-haired boys on the other side of the bar (or “lecture theatre” if my father is reading this) and I saw no reason to further neglect my previous pastime of eating chips and listening to Public Enemy. So I never really got around to Chekhov, and never discovered just how deeply a man with a gift for words and a piercing, inquisitive gaze and Very Nice Whiskers can work his way into my soul.

But let’s forget about looks for a moment, and concentrate on who this man was, and what he achieved.

In a minute. I’m still looking at his whiskers.

Ok. I’m nearly finished. Just… SIGH. Righto.

Anton Chekhov was the third of six children born to Yevgeniya, a loving mother and storyteller; and Pavel, a complete bastard. Born in 1860, he was enthusiastic about education and was accepted into the medical school at Moscow University in 1879. By that time, his father had squandered the family’s assets and Chekhov funded his own studies by tutoring and writing short pieces for newspapers.

Chekhov was supporting his entire family even before he was qualified as a physician. A large proportion of his literary output during this period was in the form of brief, daily commentaries on the intricacies of Russian life, written under various humorous pseudonyms.

So not only was he smart, dedicated, loyal and responsible, I’m fairly sure he invented Twitter.

The young student’s writing was noticed in 1882 by writer and publisher Nikolai Leykin, who paid him well to write for Fragments, a popular weekly magazine. Even after he graduated from medical school, Chekhov was probably earning more from his writing than from his practice, partly because he often treated poor patients for free. That’s right. He didn’t have to be nice to poor people, of course. He just did it to make everyone reading about him in the 21st Century feel bad about not being handsome and intelligent and ridiculously generous. What a vindictive arsehole.

But like all big shiny beautiful things, Chekhov’s life was tinged with misfortune. And by “life” I mean “hanky”. And by “misfortune” I mean “tuberculosis”. In 1884 the first signs of the disease began to show, but the author continued to write some of the best works of his career, including At Dusk, a short story collection, and The Seagull, his most famous play. His lungs continued to plague him intermittently, and though he refused to admit to his malady publicly, in 1897 a major haemorrhage forced him to seek medical help and to consider a country life. He moved to Yalta with his mother and sister the following year.

Throughout most of his life, Chekhov steered clear of relationships, preferring short encounters of the no-strings-attached variety. He eventually hooked up with Olga Knipper, an actress, in 1901, though for the convenience of their careers they lived in different towns for much of their marriage. Olga seemed to suit Chekhov’s passion for the theatre and for being left alone to get on with things.

On 15 July 1904, Anton Chekhov died of tuberculosis in the German spa town of Badenweiler, where he had spent the last month of his life with his wife. His body was transported back to Moscow for burial in a railway car usually used to transport oysters.

anton chekov

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Hot and the Dead – Ada Lovelace

Englishman Charles Babbage was a clever bloke. Known as one of the fathers of computing, he invented one of the earliest computers, called the Analytical Engine, in 1837.

One of the downsides of working during the infancy of Information Technology, however, was that IT help desks hadn’t been invented yet; and because Babbage never really got very far past the drawing stage, there was no way to switch his machine off and on again when he ran into trouble. So who could he turn to when he needed assistance with his complicated numbery things? The lovely Ada, Countess of Lovelace.

Born Augusta Ada Byron in 1815 and known popularly as Ada Lovelace, Ada was the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron and his wife Annabella Milbanke. Although Byron and Annabella separated a month later and Ada never saw him again, she had already disappointed her father by not being a boy. Fortunately for Ada, not being a boy didn’t turn out to be much of a hurdle at all.

Ada’s mother dedicated a large portion of her daughter’s childhood to badmouthing her father and trying to quash any traits of his alleged insanity. She tried to steer Ada away from such conspicuously crazy pursuits as writing poetry and falling in love with people. Sure, Byron was known for moodiness and fits of passion, and he probably fathered his half-sister’s child, and was enthusiastic about finding new and interesting places to put his penis, but I don’t think his estranged wife was entirely untouched by the Emotionally Interesting stick, if you know what I mean.

Lovelace enjoyed a privileged upbringing and a solid education, being taught by, and associating with, an impressive range of smart and accomplished people. She counted Mary Somerville, Charles Dickens and Michael Faraday amongst her circle of friends. In 1835 she married William King and they later had three children together. But it was an academic relationship by which she would become best known.

Ada met Charles Babbage when she was 18, and it didn’t take him long to recognise the mathematical prowess that she had been demonstrating since childhood. At a time when mathematics, engineering, science and saying “What ho! Proper! There’s a fine decolletage!” were generally considered the domain of gentlemen, Ada wasn’t shy about waving her smarts around for all to see. Babbage called her “the Enchantress of Numbers” and they corresponded regularly.

Through this correspondence, Ada became interested in Babbage’s Analytical Engine*, which on paper was capable of performing complex calculations and could be applied to tasks outside the scope of pure mathematics. In 1942, Babbage was invited to present his machine at the University of Turin, and the lecture was transcribed in French by Italian engineer Luigi Menabrea.

Ada spent the next nine months translating Menabrea’s account into English, adding copious notes that dwarfed the original in wordiness. In those notes, she described a way the machine could be configured to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers**, effectively writing the world’s first computer program. This task was enough to earn Lovelace a place in history, and to have a programming language named after her in the late 1970s.

But Ada Lovelace wasn’t just a groundbreaking posh geek in a crinoline. She was also a hopeless gambler, racking up enormous debts during her short life; a dabbler in spiritualism; and a rumoured adulteress. She died of uterine cancer at age 36, and was buried next to her father in Nottingham, having warmed the kindling of computer engineering. Her mother was, presumably, a little annoyed with the burial arrangements. But at least she hadn’t written any poetry.

*Not a euphemism.

**Bernoulli numbers, which I looked up in order to explain them to you, appear so complicated and squiggly that I could almost hear them whispering “Don’t you wish you’d paid attention in maths class now, instead of laughing at Mr Skoll’s ugly slacks? HUH, WORD LADY?”

ada lovelace


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