After seven years of blogging on this site, I am giving my two typing fingers a rest. New challenges await.
I am grateful to the handful of regular visitors whose interest has kept me going. God bless you and farewell.
1916 Battle of Beaumont Hamel
While the rest of Canada celebrates its 1867 founding with polite indifference and the occasional folk dance, July 1 is marked in Newfoundland as Memorial Day, a time to remember the tragedy of the Battle of Beaumont Hamel. That name remains indelibly imprinted in the history of Newfoundland. So much of the role played by England’s oldest and most loyal colony during the First World War is out of proportion to the island’s relative size and population within the British Empire, be it the number of Newfoundlanders who served, their contribution on land and at sea, or the tragedy that befell the 1st Newfoundland Regiment on July 1st, 1916.
As a Dominion of the British Empire (and still proudly independent of Canada) Newfoundland responded quickly to the motherland’s entry into the Great War. Men rushed to enlist and a regiment was sent to battle the forces of the Ottoman Turks at Gallipoli. Transferred from that disaster, the Newfoundlanders found themselves in the front lines of the Western Front in 1916 just in time for the unspeakable misery of the Battle of the Somme.
The sector to which they were assigned required them to cross 500 metres of open ground exposed to a dug-in enemy who knew they were coming. The result was horrible – of the eight hundred men who went into the attack that morning, just sixty-eight answered the roll call the following day. They were mowed down by machine-gun fire and blasted by artillery, yet they kept coming on. As they walked into the hail of machine gun and artillery fire, it was said that many of them tucked their chins in, almost like they were walking into the teeth of a blizzard back home
It is is probable that the defence of their front line that morning cost the Germans not a single man. So concentrated was German fire and so constricted was the advance, that nearly every Newfoundlander killed fell on ground held by the British before the attack began.
The Night of the Long Knives
If anyone reproaches me and asks why I did not resort to the regular courts of justice, then all I can say is this. In this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge of the German people. I gave the order to shoot the ringleaders in this treason, and I further gave the order to cauterise down to the raw flesh the ulcers of this poisoning of the wells in our domestic life. Let the nation know that its existence—which depends on its internal order and security—cannot be threatened with impunity by anyone! And let it be known for all time to come that if anyone raises his hand to strike the State, then certain death is his lot.
So said Adolf Hitler, justifying a murderous rampage by his elite SS forces against his enemies inside, and outside, of the Nazi party.
Hitler had come to power on the backs of the Sturmabteilung, the SA, the brown-shirted storm troopers, who had battled Communist and Social Democrat paramilitaries on the streets, guarded party functions, intimidated rivals, handed out leaflets, and bullied Jews in the streets. At the time of the 1933 elections that made Hitler the Chancellor of Germany, the SA numbered in the millions. Many of them, especially its leaders like Ernst Röhm (above), were genuine radicals, anticapitalist believers in the “socialist” part of the National Socialist ideology. They terrified the German upper class, and worried the official army generals who believed that they might be supplanted by the SA. Hitler needed the support of both the rich industrialists and the armed forces, so he plotted to reduce the power of the SA. Meeting secretly with army generals and navy admirals on board the battleship Deutschland, Hitler agreed to tame his storm troopers in return for the allegiance of the Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, and Kriegsmarine, whose men would henceforth wear Nazi insignia on their uniforms.
On June 29, 1934 black-clad Schutzstaffel (SS) squads across Germany arrested both the leadership of the SA, and assorted other politicians and officers that Hitler wished to be rid of. Many of them were shot on the spot. Röhm was given a pistol with one bullet and told to commit suicide; he replied that if Adolf wanted him dead he could kill him in person, so he too was gunned down. Many SA men went to their death vowing loyalty to Hitler, not knowing he had ordered their executions. Among those outside the party murdered on the Night of the Long Knives, was former Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher and his wife, General Ferdinand von Bredow, several members of the Catholic Centre Party, and a music critic whose name resembled that of someone else on the death list.
Most Germans seem to have accepted Hitler’s excuses for the illegal actions. Henceforth the SA declined in power, losing half its membership inside a year, and Hitler remained unchallenged.
1861 The death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning
They don’t make poetical romances as romantic as the real-life love story of the two English versifiers Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. She was the chronically ill daughter of a tyrannical father and he was a younger and more famous poet who courted her in secret. They wed, moved to Florence, Italy, and lived in bliss until her death. Here is a contemporary account of her passing:
When in the summer of 1861 the sad news reached England that Mrs. Browning was no more, the newspapers confessed with singular accord that the world had lost in her the greatest poetess that had appeared in all its generations.
Elizabeth Barrett, the subject of this supreme eulogy, was the daughter of a gentleman of fortune, and at his country-seat in Hereford-shire, among the lovely scenery of the Malvern Hills, she passed her girlhood. At the age of ten she began to attempt writing in prose and verse; and at fifteen her powers as a writer were well known to her friends. She was a diligent student, and was soon able to read Greek, not as a task, but as a recreation and delight. She began to contribute to the magazines, and a series of essays on the Greek poets proved how deeply she had passed into and absorbed their spirit. In 1833 she published an anonymous translation of the Prometheus Bound of Æschylus, which afterwards she superseded by a better version. Her public fame dates, however, from 1838, when she collected her best verses from the periodicals, and published them as The Seraphim and other Poems.
At this time occurred a tragic accident, which for years threw a black shadow over Miss Barrett’s life. A blood-vessel having broke on her lungs, the physician ordered her to Torquay, where a house was taken for her by the sea-side, at the foot of the cliffs. Under the influence of the mild Devonshire breezes she was rapidly recovering, when, one bright summer morning, her brother and two other young men, his friends, went out in a small boat for a trip of a few hours. Just as they crossed the bar, the vessel capsized, and all on board perished. Even their bodies were never recovered. This sudden and dreadful calamity almost killed Miss Barrett. During a whole year she lay in the house incapable of removal, whilst the sound of the waves rang in her ears as the moans of the dying.
Literature was her only solace. Her physician pleaded with her to abandon her studies, and, to quiet his importunities, she had a small edition of Plato bound so as to resemble a novel. When at last removed to London, it was in an invalid carriage, at the slow rate of twenty miles a day. In a commodious and darkened room in her father’s house in Wimpole Street she nursed her remnant of life, seeing a few choice friends, reading the best books in many languages, and writing poetry according to her inspiration.
Gradually her health improved, and in 1846 the brightness of her life was restored and perfected in her marriage with Robert Browning. They went to Italy, first to Pisa, and then settled in Florence. Mrs. Browning’s heart became quickly involved in Italy’s struggles for liberty and unity, and various and fervent were the poetical expressions of her hopes and alarms for the result. Her love for Italy became a passion stronger even than natural patriotism. Inexplicably to English readers, she praised and trusted the Emperor of the French as Italy’s earnest friend and deliverer; and Louis Napoleon will live long ere he hear more ardent words of faith in his goodness and wisdom than the English poetess uttered concerning him. Blest in assured fame, in a rising Italy, in a pleasant Florentine home, in a husband equal in heart and intellect, and in a son in the prime of boyhood—a brief illness snapped the thread of her frail life, and she was borne to the tomb, bewailed scarcely less in Tuscany than in England.
I believe that if one is going to say cruel things in print, particularly if one is being paid for such writing, that the cruelty should be leavened by wit or, at least, elegance. Consider the case of the infamous New York critic John Simon whose was tendency to dislike all that he saw and to denigrate performers based on their personal appearance. Of him fellow critic Roger Ebert remarked, “I feel repugnance for the critic John Simon, who made it a specialty to attack the way actors look. They can’t help how they look, any more than John Simon can help looking like a rat.” He is said to have an abiding concern for the elevation of the art of criticism and the use of the English language but one struggles to find that concern in remarks like these:
Built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses. – John Simon on Diana Rigg as a naked Heloïse
What is one to make of that metaphor? Mausoleums never came equipped with flying buttresses and his description of the sublime Dianna Rigg does not match with her svelte reality. A poor attempt at a medieval reference.
She looks like a cross between an aardvark and an albino rat surmounted by a platinum-coated horse bun. – John Simon on Barbra Streisand
The mind struggles to conceive of the fruit of an aardvark-rat union. Another failed metaphor made no better by the incongruous addition of a metallic horse puck. Simon just plain didn’t like Streisand and it looks like he threw a bunch of bad-sounding animal names in a sentence and hoped for the best.
Here is another failed figure of speech from the animal kingdom. Ask yourself if constipated gazelles sulk.
Christopher Duva, as Valère, Mariane’s lover, seems to have just drifted in from the nearest gay bar, and often sulks and postures like a constipated gazelle. – John Simon on a performance of Tartuffe
The British do nastiness much better.
Twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff. – Clive James on Barbara Cartland
He looks like a brown condom stuffed with walnuts. – Clive James on Arnold Schwarzenegger
Whenever Clare Short wrestles with her conscience, she wins. – Ben Macintyre on a Labour politician
Randolph Churchill went into the hospital . . . to have a lung removed. It was announced that the trouble was not “malignant.”. .. I remarked that it was a typical triumph of modern science to find the only part of Randolph that was not malignant and remove it. – Evelyn Waugh on a friend
He reduced everything to politics… He would not blow his nose without moralizing on conditions in the handkerchief industry. – Cyril Connolly on George Orwell
In the Dally Telegraph not long ago, A. Wilson produced one of those short but seemingly interminable opinion columns at which he so often excels, this one putatively in praise of the present Archbishop of Canterbury. The panegyric, however, was somewhat overwhelmed by the comical dolorousness of the prose. No fewer than sixteen-hundred times (at least, if the impression lingering in my memory Is to be believed), Wilson departed from his theme to inform us that we are living In the waning days of the Christian religion, that it will kindle not be long before the last church is closed, and that hence we may not see the likes of the good Archbishop very often again. Surely, I thought as I was reading, this is a man in whom parochialism has metastasized into a psychosis. Here we are living In an age when Christianity is spreading more rapidly and more widely than at any other point in the two millennia of its history throughout the global South and East and yet, because the Church languishes in the senile cultures of a small geological apophysis (with a few appertinent isles) at the western edge of continental Asia, Wilson concludes that the faith is in its death throes. Of course, being morbidly tiresome is part of Wilson’s special post-Christian style: the air of weary, sage solemnity and flaccid resignation, the boring declarations of religious disenchantment, the bleak glimpses he affords us into the empty closets of his soul, the oracular intimations of the fate he has suffered for all of us in advance. – David Bentley Hart, In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments
The assassination of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith
In 1820 Joseph Smith (1805-44) experienced the first of a series of visions that would lead to him becoming the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He claimed that during one of these visions an angel named Moroni revealed the location of a buried treasure containing a book of golden leaves and twin stones that would allow him to interpret the contents. He later recovered these books and dictated the translation which became The Book of Mormon. His remarkable religious claims led to him, and his growing number of followers, being forced to relocate a number of times. Many times they were met with violence and Smith himself was tarred and feathered in Ohio; on other occasions early Mormons were arrested and thrown in jail. By 1844 Smith had established his headquarters in the new city of Nauvoo where his teachings aroused opposition from both locals and long-time members of his own church. Smith ordered the destruction of a printing press run by his rivals and called out his own paramilitary force, the Nauvoo Legion, to put down resistance. On June 23, 1844 Joseph Smith and his brother Hirum were arrested and charged with treason. Smith reportedly said at the time: “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer’s morning. I have a conscience void of offence towards God, and towards all men. I shall die innocent, and it shall yet be said of me. ‘He was murdered in cold blood’”.
Four days later a mob, with faces blackened for disguise, attacked the jail. A near-contemporary account reads:
Immediately there was a little rustling at the outer door of the jail, and a cry of surrender, and also a discharge of three or four firearms followed instantly. The doctor glanced an eye by the curtain of the window, and saw about a hundred armed men around the door. It is said that the guard elevated their firelocks, and boisterously threatening the mob discharged their fire-arms over their heads. The mob encircled the building, and some of them rushed by the guard up the flight of stairs, burst open the door, and began the work of death, while others fired in through the open windows.
In the meantime Joseph, Hyrum, and Elder Taylor had their coats off. Joseph sprang to his coat for his six-shooter, Hyrum for his single barrel, Taylor for Markham’s large hickory cane, and Dr. Richards for Taylor’s cane. All sprang against the door, the balls whistled up the stairway, and in an instant one came through the door.
Joseph Smith, John Taylor and Dr. Richards sprang to the left of the door, and tried to knock aside the guns of the ruffians.
Hyrum was retreating back in front of the door and snapped his pistol, when a ball struck him in the left side of his nose, and he fell on his back on the floor saying, “I am a dead man!” As he fell on the floor another ball from the outside entered his left side, and passed through his body with such force that it completely broke to pieces the watch he wore in his vest pocket, and at the same instant another ball from the door grazed his breast, and entered his head by the throat; subsequently a fourth ball entered his left leg.
A shower of balls was pouring through all parts of the room, many of which lodged in the ceiling just above the head of Hyrum.
Joseph reached round the door casing, and discharged his six shooter into the passage, some barrels missing fire. Continual discharges of musketry came into the room. Elder Taylor continued parrying the guns until they had got them about half their length into the room, when he found that resistance was vain, and he attempted to jump out of the window, where a ball fired from within struck him on his left thigh, hitting the bone, and passing through to within half an inch of the other side. He fell on the window sill, when a ball fired from the outside struck his watch in his vest pocket, and threw him back into the room.
After he fell into the room he was hit by two more balls, one of them injuring his left wrist considerably, and the other entering at the side of the bone just below the left knee. He rolled under the bed, which was at the right of the window in the south-east corner of the room.
While he lay under the bed he was fired at several times from the stairway; one ball struck him on the left hip, which tore the flesh in a shocking manner, and large quantities of blood were scattered upon the wall and floor.
When Hyrum fell, Joseph exclaimed, “Oh dear, brother Hyrum!” and opening the door a few inches he discharged his six shooter in the stairway (as stated before), two or three barrels of which missed fire.
Joseph, seeing there was no safety in the room, and no doubt thinking that it would save the lives of his brethren in the room if he could get out, turned calmly from the door, dropped his pistol on the floor, and sprang into the window when two balls pierced him from the door, and one entered his right breast from without, and he fell outward into the hands of his murderers, exclaiming. “O Lord, my God!”
363 Death of Julian the Apostate
Flavius Claudius Julianus was born into the Roman imperial family in 331. The emperor Constantine and the sons of the dynasty that he founded were prone to fits of political paranoia that would regularly lead to some unfortunate relative or colleague being murdered. In this way Julian lost his father, half-brother, and a number of cousins but perhaps it was his youth that spared him in the purges.
Julian had been raised as a Christian but at the age of 20 he abandoned that faith and turned back to a variety of Neoplatonic paganism. Though he was closely watched by court officials for any possible treachery he was permitted to continue his philosophical enquiries.
In 355 Emperor Constantius, the last of Constantine’s sons, decided that he needed a loyal Caesar (junior emperor) in the West and sent Julian to Gaul. There he distinguished himself as an honest administrator and successful military leader, winning battles against Germanic invaders along the Rhine. When Constantius, who was having trouble dealing with the Persians on the eastern border, ordered half of Julian’s troops to march to his aid in Mesopotamia, the legions rebelled. They had no interest in leaving their homes in Gaul and so proclaimed Julian their Augustus (chief emperor). The empire was spared a civil when Constantius died in 358 leaving Julian the sole emperor.
As a ruler Julian was an active reformer, trying to lessen the burden of the imperial administration while giving more power to the local civic officials. He laid restrictions on Christianity but attempted no bloody persecution and tried to revive the pagan sacrifices and oracles. The empire’s population was still largely non-Christian but Julian’s reign was too short to check the growing influence of Christianity. He was killed in 363, dying from a wound taken in battle against the Persians.
There was speculation at the time of his death that he had been murdered by one of his own troops but a much more interesting legend developed in Christian circles over the years. In this story, Julian was killed by the apparition of the martyr St Mercurius summoned to the deed by the prayers of St Basil. As the ghostly spear pierced the side of Julian, the emperor is reputed to have said, “Vicisti, o Galilaee” –- “Thou has conquered, O Galilean!”
One of the joys of reading noir fiction is to come across the striking metaphors and similes that are a hallmark of the genre. Here are some from my favourite authors.
She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight. – Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister
The only illumination came from one of those economy lightbulbs that looked like a radioactive pretzel. – Stuart MacBride, The Blood Road
From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away. – Raymond Chandler, The High Window
The lawyer Thien, when Morath was ushered into his office by a junior member of the staff, turned out to be an ancient bag of bones held upright only by means of a stiff, iron-coloured suit. – Alan Furst, Kingdom of Shadows
“She died in a fire. I miss her like you… If I was underwater, I wouldn’t miss oxygen that much.” ― Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island
Looking at him I felt as if I had just met a powerful gorilla while at the same time being in possession of the world’s last banana. – Philip Kerr, The Lady from Zagreb
The minutes went by on tiptoe, with their fingers to their lips. – Raymond Chandler, The Lady in the Lake
Politicians were like talking dogs in a circus: the fact that they existed was uncommonly interesting, but no sane person would actually believe what they said. – Alan Furst, Dark Star
She had a long fur coat on over a very short skirt and sparkly top. Heels high enough to give Sherpa Tenzing a nosebleed. – Stuart MacBride, Now We Are Dead
A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock. – Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
“Remember, I’ve got no idea what this is all about,” said the girl when they were in the living room, a narrow room, where blue fought with red without ever compromising on purple. – Dashiell Hammett, “The Assistant Murderer”
Hair like someone had run over Albert Einstein with a ride-on lawn mower. – Stuart MacBride, The Blood Road
A check girl in peach-bloom Chinese pajamas came over to take my hat and disapprove of my clothes. She had eyes like strange sins. – Raymond Chandler, The High Window
Torres finally smiled again, but it was a smile so vicious Bob could have smelled it with his eyes closed. – Dennis Lehane, The Drop
I called him from a phone booth. The voice that answered was fat. It wheezed softly, like the voice of a man who had just won a pie-eating contest. – Raymond Chandler, “Trouble Is My Business”
The first performance of O Canada
The Canadian national anthem O Canada was written in response to a commission by the Lieutenant-Governor of Québec and performed first on the feast day of John the Baptist, the province’s patron saint. The music was composed by Callixa Lavallée (1842-91) and the French lyrics by Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier (1839-1920); an original set of English words was added in 1908 by Robert Stanley Weir. The Christian content of both official versions has of late come under attack by secularists, under the mistaken impression that Canada maintains an American-style separation of church and state. To understand the religious imagery of our national anthems, consider the full texts below.
First, the English translation of the French lyrics:
Land of our forefathers,
Thy brow is wreathed with a glorious garland of flowers.
As is thy arm ready to wield the sword,
So also is it ready to carry the cross.
Thy history is an epic
Of the most brilliant exploits.
Thy valour steeped in faith
Will protect our homes and our rights.
Will protect our homes and our rights.
Under the eye of God, near the giant river,
The Canadian grows hoping.
He was born of a proud race,
Blessed was his birthplace.
Heaven has noted his career
In this new world.
Always guided by its light,
He will keep the honour of his flag,
He will keep the honour of his flag.
From his patron, the precursor of the true God,
He wears the halo of fire on his brow.
Enemy of tyranny
But full of loyalty,
He wants to keep in harmony,
His proud freedom;
And by the effort of his genius,
Set on our ground the truth,
Set on our ground the truth.
Sacred love of the throne and the altar,
Fill our hearts with your immortal breath!
Among the foreign races,
Our guide is the law:
Let us know how to be a people of brothers,
Under the yoke of faith.
And repeat, like our fathers,
The slogan: “For Christ and King! “
The slogan: “For Christ and King!
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
From far and wide,
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada! Where pines and maples grow.
Great prairies spread and lordly rivers flow.
How dear to us thy broad domain,
From East to Western sea.
Thou land of hope for all who toil!
Thou True North, strong and free!
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada! Beneath thy shining skies
May stalwart sons, and gentle maidens rise,
To keep thee steadfast through the years
From East to Western sea.
Our own beloved native land!
Our True North, strong and free!
Ruler supreme, who hearest humble prayer,
Hold our Dominion in thy loving care;
Help us to find, O God, in thee
A lasting, rich reward,
As waiting for the better Day,
We ever stand on guard.
Needless to say, the naked sexism of terms such as “sons” or “gentle maidens” caused the offenderati to clutch their pearls and reach for the smelling salts. Changes had to be made.
One of those bloody days.
1314 Battle of Bannockburn
Scots don’t win many battles against the English but they don’t let setbacks like Solway Moss or Culloden get them down. To this day they celebrate the victory of local hero Robert Bruce over the invading English led by the luckless Edward II. The loss led to the English eventually acknowledging Scottish independence.
1565 Dragut mortally wounded
The Great Siege of Malta pitted a massive army and navy of Turks against fortresses manned by the Knights of St John. One of the moments contributing to a Christian victory over the forces of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent was the death of his admiral Dragut, “the Sword of Islam”, the greatest of all Mediterranean pirates, who was head of the expedition. Splinters from a cannon ball wounded Dragut who died after a week of suffering. His death split the Turkish command and weakened its leadership, leading to a humiliating defeat.
1611 Henry Hudson set adrift
One of the most plaintive works of art that I encountered as a child was the painting above, of explorer Henry Hudson and his little son John (in reality a teenager) in an open boat amidst the ice floes of the great bay named after him. On his fourth voyage to the New World, in search of a sea passage to Asia, his crew mutinied over plans to linger and put Hudson and loyal sailors into an open boat, while they sailed back to England. The castaways were never seen alive.
1942 First selection of Jews for Auschwitz gas chamber
The 1942 Swansee conference of Nazi officials had determined on a policy of extermination as a solution to the “Jewish problem”. A number of camps were built for the purpose of extracting useful slave labour from some prisoners and a speedy execution for others. On this date a train load of Jews deported from France arrived and selections were made on disembarking.
1985 Air India explosion
Indira Gandhi’s attack on a Sikh temple in Amritsar led to her assassination by her Sikh bodyguards and a rise in terrorism aimed at securing a separate “Khalistan”. Among Canadian Sikh immigrants were a number who chose to wage a violent campaign in their new home. Bombs were put on Air India jets flying out of Canada to Europe and Japan. Though the latter was rendered harmless at Narita airport, a device aboard Air India flight 182 exploded over the Atlantic killing 329 people.