Archives for category: Miscellaneous

More Jolly creations.

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Things my talented friend has created for me over the past year.

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An embroidered fabric patch in grey and orange, depicting the cover of Anthony Burgess’ classic book, A Clockwork Orange. This is the image from the 1972 print designed by David Pelham. One of my favourite books and films.

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An origami raven created with delicate Japanese floral print paper.

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A ‘Steampunk Softie’ produced with the aid of this book. This Softie has been customised with personal touches such as a cameo button, and even comes with a name – Lenore Veidt (named for the Edgar Allan Poe poem and the actor Conrad Veidt) – and back story: she’s a detective!

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The legendary figure Pocahontas was born Matoaka in 1595 in Werowocomoco, Virginia. Most people know the Disneyfied version of Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan, who spared the life of John Smith, an Englishman who captured Indians whilst trying to take over their land. This has never been verified, much like the exact location of her burial site.

After being captured by the English in 1613, she went on to marry an Englishman named John Rolfe, taking on the moniker Rebecca Rolfe. They had a son named Thomas in 1615.

Pocahontas died at age 22, in Gravesend, Kent, of unknown causes and was buried at St George’s Church.

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This statue commemorates her life.

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Why did I feel the need to photograph this moment? I don’t know. I just knew I had to. I’m sure the other people on the platform found it strange that I was photographing a shiny red apple on the tracks. Could it be just that: the bright crimson juxtaposed with the grey of both the station and the banality of the situation. Waiting. And waiting. The apple: life. That life about to be wiped out in an instant by a passing train. The need to capture something that was finite. I couldn’t save the apple. I couldn’t give the apple its purpose: food, fuel. Did this apple have a higher purpose? Food wastage, yeh I get it. Life is short. Yeh, and that too. Beauty is fleeting. Come on. Pay attention to the little things. Look around you. (An apple is not). An epiphany. Get to the core of the issue. NO!

This is/is not an apple, Monsieur Magritte.

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freaksI’ll admit that this is an odd topic for a post during the holiday season but an interesting one nonetheless. At Halloween, whilst re-watching the excellent Tod Browning film Freaks I recalled a post from last year entitled Zoetropes and Kinetoscopes – which I put together after visiting Dingles Fairground Heritage Centre – where I mentioned writing some articles about the history of the circus and its various offshoots, in particular the history of the freak show.

Over the following weeks a trend seemed to emerge featuring all things freaky, beginning with the fourth season of American Horror Story on FOX, which is entitled Freak Show (great concept, dull execution). FOX obviously decided that ‘freaks’ were in and aired a new reality documentary series called Freakshow, in which a man named Todd Ray and his family showcase their Venice Beach sideshow business, featuring his ‘freaky’ employees, including ‘The Lobster Boy’ and ‘The Human Pin Cushion’.

In the first episode Ray attempted to add America’s tallest man, George Bell (7 feet 8 if you’re interested), to his collection of freaks, a word that George was clearly uncomfortable with. Ray also wanted to sign up a bearded lady named Jess, and she was initiated in a scene straight out of Browning’s film (‘One of us! One of us!’). However, many of Ray’s ‘freaks’ are not actually freaks, in that their only ‘deformity’ appears to be the ability to inflict pain upon themselves in a Jackass-style manner.

‘Never seen before…’ Todd wailed as he enticed the public into his shop and displayed his two-headed bearded dragon for all to see. But we have seen it all before. Two-headed reptiles are surprisingly common. Due to fluctuations in temperature of the eggs – since, unlike bird eggs, they are not incubated – mutations can readily form. However, two-headed mammals are much less usual.

The recent death at age 15 of the cat Frankenlouie (Frank and Louie) in Massachusetts only added to the recent discussions concerning the strange and unusual. Contrary to popular belief, Frankenlouie did not have two heads but in fact two faces – a condition called diprosopia – although a creature exhibiting this mutation rarely survives beyond its first few days of life. Frankenlouie’s survival was an extremely rare case, much rarer than the mutation itself.

tomandbarnumAnother recent TV offering was BBC4’s The Real Tom Thumb: History’s Smallest Superstar. Tom was one of the world’s most famous freaks, a young man of just over three feet in stature but with lofty ambitions.

Charles Sherwood Stratton aka Tom Thumb was born in Connecticut in 1838. He was ‘discovered’ by distant relative and circus impresario, PT Barnum, who christened him with the moniker ‘General Tom Thumb’ and made him fabulously wealthy. Tom began his travelling performing career at a very young age, under the pretence that he was on the cusp of adulthood at Barnum’s request. General Tom made friends in very high places, including Queen Victoria and Abraham Lincoln, and his impressive former home is still intact.

 
History

According to Britannica, the term ‘freak’ comes from the Old English word ‘frician’, meaning to dance, cavort or any other capricious behaviour.

In the 18th century, ‘freaks’ or ‘freaks of nature’ referred mainly to animals, creatures whose physical make-up deviated from standard norms. Some naturalists collected these creatures and displayed them at touring shows, shocking the public with their ‘cabinets of curiosities’.

In the mid-nineteenth century, circus promoters had added human ‘performers’ to their exhibitions. PT Barnum was one such promoter, however, he did not use the term ‘freak show’. Alongside those with gigantism, dwarfism and the extremely hirsute, many of the performers were not what they seemed. For example, Barnum’s ‘Fiji Mermaid’ was merely a deceased monkey fused with the tail of a fish. There were many similar exhibits, and such promoters were subsequently labelled as frauds. Freak shows were a very American tradition, but one which permeated Europe and beyond.

 

On Film

I have included a selection of movies depicting freak shows, beginning with the seminal classic, Freaks (1932).

Can a fully grown woman truly love a midget? This, the question posed on the poster of Freaks. That midget is Hans (Harry Earles), a freak show performer, engaged to his height-matched co-star, Frieda (Daisy Earles). Despite their pending union, Hans’ head is turned by trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), who is of average height. The infamous wedding banquet scene is truly brilliant as Cleo’s true motives are revealed.

Before the cinematic screenings of the film, a message was displayed for patrons, which seemed sympathetic to the plight of individuals with deformities: ‘Their lot is truly a heart-breaking one’. However, towards the end of the prologue, it goes on to say ‘…modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world.’ The effort of including such a message therefore seems inane, but during the 1930s people who were born with physical abnormalities were not readily accepted in mainstream society, hence the existence of the freak show. (The full message is included on the DVD).

The ‘freaks’ in Freaks are all real people – no special effects here – including a man named Rardion, ‘The Living Torso’, who had no limbs and performed in freak shows in Coney Island under PT Barnum. Despite his disability, he fathered five children, spoke four languages and was able to complete everyday tasks using his mouth and shoulders.

 
The Elephant Man (1980)

Based loosely on the life of Joseph (John in the film) Merrick, a young English man with neurofibromatosis, a disease which causes benign tumours to grow on the face and body. Whilst the film does stray from the truth – Joseph’s life during his freak show years was not nearly as awful as director David Lynch’s portrayal – it is a beautifully made, poignant film, with excellent performances by John Hurt as Merrick and Anthony Hopkins as Dr Frederick Treves, the man who saves him from his barbaric existence.

 

Big Fish (2003)

Directed by Tim Burton and based on the novel by Daniel Wallace, Big Fish is a film of tall tales told by Albert Finney (Ed Bloom) to his son, Will (Billy Crudup). The young Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor) disappears into his own fantasy and begins a lengthy journey with Karl the Giant (Matthew McGrory). On his expedition, he encounters a circus, led by a werewolf named Amos Callaway (Danny DeVito), and Siamese twin singers Ping and Jing (Ada and Arlene Tai). Edward subsequently joins the circus, shovelling elephant manure and washing obese performers in exchange for information on his dream girl, Sandra.

Although I wouldn’t consider myself a religious person, I am often drawn to churches and cathedrals. I suppose it helps that these buildings are often some of the most impressive examples of architecture in the world.

When I visited Tiggywinkles recently, I drove through a chocolate box village in Buckinghamshire called Haddenham. I felt compelled to stop and take some photographs of the local church, St Mary’s, which is a beautiful 13th century building situated by a pond.

It was a bright and sunny day, with the smell of freshly cut grass in the air. The pond was busy with wildlife but the rest of the village remained sleepy.

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Today was the first day in a long time that the rain stayed away for the entire day. I was able to leave the house without a jacket and took a relaxing walk down by the Thames, close to where I live in Berkshire.

Green leaves had appeared on the branches of the oaks and the willows, and the river was abundant with wildlife; swans, ducks and geese were enjoying the water, and many of them stopped to say hello. I’m looking forward to seeing their cygnets, ducklings and goslings soon too.

I recently spotted two Rose-ringed Parakeets on the tree outside my window but sadly they left before I could photograph them.

Last summer I encountered a dragonfly in the house, which was a new experience for me. It was around the size of a large butterfly, and had an iridescent petrol-like sheen, which was visible in its languid movements. These are creatures I have only seen in nature documentaries and books so hopefully I will get another chance to photograph them both this year, as well as any other interesting animals who choose to visit my garden.

Fingers crossed for a good summer.

And so the Sochi Winter Olympics is over, and what a joy it was. There were 12 brand new events, world records were broken, and a record number of medals won for Great Britain, including a gold in the skeleton. Presenter Claire Balding and her shopping trolley full of BBC equipment was so random but brilliant.

My favourite event was the ladies figure skating, which potentially had six skaters vying for gold. Despite the contention surrounding the winner, for me Adelina Sotnikova was the definitive choice. She not only had the most technically challenging programme in the competition, but also some of the most creative spins, steps and spirals.

The events were topped off by an incredible closing ceremony, which celebrated Russia’s cultural accomplishments. Russian authors, composers, dancers and artists were commemorated, including a Marc Chagall painting come to life. This was extremely impressive and featured upside-down houses, and dancers and stilt-walkers dressed as figures from his work. It looked to me like a pastiche of several paintings, including ‘I and the Village’, and ‘The Fiddler’ series…but I could be wrong.

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The Moscow State Circus was also honoured, by way of a light projection of a striped big top, complete with acrobats and performers. It was magical.

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Closing Ceremony

Coincidentally, the circus theme and the music used in the Chagall segment – ‘Polka’ by Alfred Schnittke – married to provide the backdrop of a highly expressive figure skating programme in the late 90s for probably my favourite ever male figure skater, Alexei Yagudin, from St Petersburg. Alexei won an Olympic gold medal for Russia in 2002, as well as four World Championships.

You can watch him perform this here.

If you missed the ceremony and are in the UK, it is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.

It goes without saying that I am more than excited about the Winter Olympic Games. Although my favourite sports to watch are figure skating, ice hockey and ski jumping, I’ll quite happily watch most of the events, with the exception of curling. I thought I’d write a post today about some of the interesting – and sometimes controversial – events linked with the Games since its 1924 inception.

Figure skating was the first winter sport to be included in the Olympics, debuting in the Summer Games in 1908 in London. When it was first included, skating often took place outdoors and competitors skated to a live orchestra, making it one of the biggest highlights of the Games.

Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie was the star of the 1928 St Moritz Games, winning gold, and holding her Olympic title for two consecutive Games. She was the youngest ever Olympic champion, a title she kept for 74 years. Henie went on to be a star of another sort, when she became a Hollywood actress and was engaged to, of all people, Liberace.

During the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, a ‘miracle on ice’ took place when the US men’s hockey team – made up of amateurs players, unlike today – beat the Soviet men’s team, a dominant squad that had triumphed four times in a row. The Soviets were so shamed by this that they refused to print the result in their newspapers. This win later inspired the film Miracle (2004) starring Kurt Russell.

At that same Olympics, American speed skater Eric Heiden took home an amazing five gold medals, setting a world record and four Olympic records. He was the first person to win five individual gold medals during one Winter Games.

The Winter Olympics has not been without controversy, however. As well as rumours of bribery and corruption within the IOC, many sordid incidents have plagued the Winter Games.

In 1936, Hitler opened the Games in Germany, an event where an attempted ban was placed on Jewish athletes. One of Germany’s greatest hockey stars, Rudi Ball, almost missed the event because of his religion. But his non-Jewish teammate, Gustav Jaenecke, refused to play if his friend was not selected, which would have greatly decreased Germany’s chance of Olympic success. The Nazis finally gave Ball permission to play, and they eventually placed fifth, after winning bronze in the previous Olympics. Ball was the only Jewish athlete to represent Germany in the 1936 Winter Games.

Prior to the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, American figure skater Tonya Harding planned a vicious attack on her closest rival, Nancy Kerrigan. Harding’s ex-husband, along with her bodyguard, attacked Kerrigan with a metal bar, causing her to miss the US Nationals. (Harding won this competition but was later stripped of her title). Despite her injuries, Kerrigan not only managed to compete in the Games, but achieved a silver medal. Harding only managed eighth place, perhaps due to the media frenzy that surrounded the attack. Harding was later found guilty of conspiring to hinder prosecution of her accomplices, and received three years probation, and a six figure fine. The men involved in the attack received prison sentences.

At the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, two couples in the pairs figure skating event were eventually awarded gold medals, after discrepancies surrounding scoring. Canadian couple Jamie Sale and David Pelletier clearly outperformed their Russian competitors, but were initially awarded second place. The scoring system for every figure skating event thereafter was overhauled.

The 2014 host region is Sochi, a subtropical resort with a Black Sea coastline, making it a strange choice for the Winter Games. It is, however, near to the Caucasus Mountains. Skiing will take place in the mountains of ski resort Roza Khutor near Krasnaya Polyana, around 30 miles from Sochi.

Russia has never hosted the Winter Games before, but it joins just ten other countries lucky enough to be selected. It is the most expensive ever Games, with estimated costs of over $50billion, due to the lack of winter sport facilities, such as ice rinks. These are now situated in the warmer area as they will hold indoor events. Sochi has also suffered from electricity shortages and frequent power cuts, something that has hopefully been addressed.

Quick facts
-Only 12 countries have attended every Winter Games.
-Eddie Eagan, a 1920 boxing gold medallist, is the only person to ever win at both the Winter and Summer Olympics, when he took gold in 1928 at the men’s bobsleigh event.
-For the 1948 St Moritz Games in neutral Switzerland, Germany and Japan were both banned due to their involvement in WWII.
-The opening and closing ceremonies for the 1960 Games in Squaw Valley were produced by Walt Disney.
-Bidders for the 2022 Winter Olympics have recently been announced as Oslo, Krakow, Lviv, Beijing, and Almaty. The result will be announced in 2015.

Olympic stamps

Olympic stamps

Last night I took a trip to the cinema to see The Wolf of Wall Street. The film is based on a true story, in which Leonardo DiCaprio takes on the lead role as Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker with a lust for drugs and prostitutes, and an even bigger lust for the American dollar.

Although the film is set predominantly in New York, many other locations feature, including Italy, Switzerland and the Bahamas. A scene in Kensington Gardens in London reminded me of some photographs I took a few months ago of the Albert Memorial.

The Albert Memorial, commemorating Prince Albert, was designed by George Gilbert Scott and unveiled in 1872. It is gothic in appearance and has four large marble statues at its corners. Each statue represents a continent – Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe – and features an animal from that part of the world.

As well as honouring Albert’s life, the Memorial celebrates the many achievements of the Victorians, in areas such as agriculture and engineering, as well as Albert’s personal interest in the arts. At the base, a frieze displays artists, sculptors and architects, among many others (there are 187 figures in the frieze). Angels top the statue, looking over both Albert and the Gardens.

By the way, The Wolf of Wall Street is depraved, debauched and downright dirty, and I loved every salacious second.

Every time I see the trailer for the new Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, featuring a folk singer (Oscar Isaac) who travels with his ginger cat, Ulysses, I can’t help but recall a book I recently read called A Street Cat Named Bob, in which the author James Bowen is ‘rescued’ by his travelling feline companion.

Bob is a loyal and resilient tom who turned up on the doorstep of James’ hostel accommodation room. He was underweight and in need of attention, his ginger fur patchy and matted. James, a busker and recovering drug addict, took him in and they became inseparable, with Bob accompanying him everywhere – on foot, on the bus and on James’ shoulder.

It got me to thinking: are ginger cats natural travellers? Do they take more easily to life on the road than other cats?

In the film Harry and Tonto, Harry (Art Carney) is a widower who leaves his New York City apartment after he learns it is to be torn down. Despite his advancing years, he chooses to travel across America with his beloved ginger cat, Tonto, in tow, visiting relatives and old friends.

Then there’s Ellen Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) marmalade-coloured moggy, Jones, in Alien, the ultimate travelling cat, who survives against all odds in an outer space alien invasion.

It also got me thinking about the number of famous ginger cats featured on the silver screen, from children’s animation such as the Garfield films, Shrek spin-off Puss in Boots, and The Aristocats (Thomas O’Malley and Toulouse), to the ginger and white cat, Orion, in Men in Black.

In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly’s (Audrey Hepburn) red tom, who remained nameless – or ‘poor slob without a name’ as she so kindly put it – was played by a cat called Orangey (he was also credited as Rhubarb). He had several film and television appearances in the 50s and 60s, and won awards for his performances.

Of course, it also reminded me of my own ginger fur ball, Moomin, who I wrote about just before Christmas. Moomin doesn’t like to travel more than five feet into the garden, so it’s still just a theory. Perhaps it’s just ginger toms? After all, all of the cats mentioned are male (ginger females are much less common), even the animated ones.

Even in this day and age, the sight of a travelling cat is enough to warrant stares. The cat will invariably attract a lot of attention, mostly positive, with perplexed smiles and attempts at petting. The owner is usually considered to be an eccentric, a bit mysterious even. If Moomin was willing, I’d definitely invite her out for a walk.

Moomin helping with the ironing

Moomin helping with the ironing