Friday, November 28, 2008

New angles on Florentine Icons

We were lucky when we were in Florence that the weather was pretty good, and the tourists were at only a 0.7 of a RK 'Seethe'TM. Sometimes the light showed a view of something that's just so familiar you just don't see it properly any more. Above is an angle that just leapt out at me when we were down-sun of the Duomo. The backlit cross and ball on the dome were magical. (But of course, not quite as good as the far more classy Lucca Duomo. One must maintain one's loyalty to one's own Italian town. Florence remains just a slumming option for a Luccese boy.)

Then again, I know I'll never look at David's knees quite the same way in future.


Thursday, November 27, 2008

The lost castle

After our visit to Trento in the the Italian highlands, we took the mountain road back to Treviso. Some of it was challenging driving, but the scenery was spectacular.

One thing we saw as we descended was this castle keep on a wooded hillside. Some of Trento's countryside looked like it hadn't changed much - this castle looked like it came complete with a sleeping beauty...

(Pic by Bev.)


Friday, November 21, 2008

Librarians hot in pursuit

Every week or so, I receive an e-newsletter from the British Library. If you're like me, I usually skip over e-newsletters until I've got a dull moment, and then quickly skim - or not - before deleting. They're not, generally, riveting or inspiring reading.

Today, I paused.

"Library Thief Convicted", the headline proclaimed. And I felt that chill touch down my back, that someone - anyone - could desecrate a library. Books, for heaven's sake. Libraries. The British Library. Oooh. Not good.

The courtyard in front of the new British Library on the Euston Road. Photo by James.

But then I read the rest of the newsletter (reproduced in full below), and I started thinking. I've got (like many) a romantic, educated and probably middle-class fondness for libraries and books. I love libraries. I love that they are free. I adore the prospect of exploration. I'm excited about how the libraries in Melbourne have recently awoken, and they're cool places to be, to socialise and exchange ideas and learn and listen and read, of course, of course, to read is at the heart. I love to wander the shelves, trailing my fingers over spines, snuffling the pages, occasionally finding bookmarks, receipts, other people's library check-out tickets.

The old British Library building in the centre of the British Museum. Who knows, the previous reader of the book could have been Karl Marx. Photo by James.

But there's another side, as ever. Books can be political. They are. Books can represent views that harm, that twist and deny events or conflicts that are of prime importance to us. That's why books get banned, burned, banished, black-listed. That's also why they get written, debated, promoted, passed around. The infinite variety in humans? Well, of course it spawns infinite variety in the books we humans write.

And so I wonder: why did
Mr Farhad Hakimzadeh steal those books and pages? Why would an academic and researcher into the Mughal Empire, take these documents? Profit or politics? Academic involvement with his subject, to an overweaning degree? What prompted it? Why?

Reading the newsletter, it soon becomes apparent that the librarians are upset about precisely the same question. Dame Brindley and her minions are on the warpath. You can almost hear them howling "But he's an academic! Why would one of our own harm our precious books?" And I don't blame them. It is - as they all immediately point out - an enormous breach of trust. And the library's promise to pursue thieves with 'utmost vigour' - while it brings to mind a rampage of librarians on the warpath - is laudable and should be supported.

I'll be interested to read more about the case. The whole newsletter is reproduced below for your interest, and there's an interesting interview with the Head of Collections.


Mr Farhad Hakimzadeh, a former British Library Reader, is due to appear at Wood Green Court today (Friday 21 November). Hakimzadeh has pleaded guilty to ten counts of theft from the Library, and asked for further charges to be taken into account. He has also admitted theft from the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Sentencing in this case is expected later today and you may have seen coverage of the case in this morning's press.

Hakimzadeh used considerable skill, deceit and determination to steal leaves, plates and maps from collection items. In many instances his thefts were initially difficult to detect. The items he mutilated are mainly 16th, 17th and 18th century items, with a lesser number of 19th and a few 20th century items. The predominant subject area is the West European engagement with Mesopotamia, Persia and the Mogul [Mughal] empire (roughly the area from modern Syria to Bangladesh), and western travel and colonisation / exploration.

Readers should be assured that theft from the British Library is an extremely rare occurrence. As Readers will appreciate, we are a library, not a museum. We are committed to making our collections available in the interests of scholarship and research, and to do this an element of trust is necessary. Hakimzadeh fundamentally betrayed this trust.

I know that Readers will share the anger we feel about this crime. The Library takes very seriously its duty to protect the collections for your use, and for the generations of Readers to come. We have zero tolerance of anyone who harms our collections and will pursue anyone who threatens them with utmost vigour.

Danger - Armed Librarians On Site.

The successful prosecution of Hakimzadeh follows a thorough and detailed investigation by Library staff and the Metropolitan Police. This led to the recovery of some of the items stolen by Hakimzadeh, and civil proceedings are now underway to recover further items and to seek financial compensation.

The Library has been heartened by the generous co-operation it has received during this investigation from a number of institutions and from other libraries in this country and abroad.

Should any Reader have a concern about the security of a collection item, please do speak to a member of Reading Room staff.

Dame Lynne Brindley
Chief Executive Officer
The British Library

Thursday, November 20, 2008


As I said earlier, there's something about a combine harvester.

Here's some lurking at the end of our driveway from when we lived in Oxfordshire. There used to be dinosaurs here (the tracks remain). I reckon they're back.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Film Noir - Unexpected heroes and villains

We recently took in two Film Noir movies thanks to our local excellent independent video store. Both were surprising (which is, after all part of the point) one being excellent, the other thoroughly deserving the term pants*. The trick is that the awful one was a much-lauded early Hitchcock - The 39 Steps (1935 - IMDb page). Hitch is, rightly, regarded as one of the all time greats, but here he was having an off film - which has strangely garnered multiple great reviews.

I checked the box to ensure we'd got the right film, and we had. The reviewers seem to have seen another film to the one we saw. The reviewers example apparently had continuity, acting and a plot that would convince someone over six. In ours, star Robert Donat playing Hannay as a bizarre Canadian (rather than the book's South African) is 'suave' to the point of being smarmy.

Perhaps it's because the original The 39 Steps book by John Buchan is a firm favourite we were a bit more critical, but considering Hitch and the scriptwriters had thrown the entire plot into a blender that's hardly a germane criticism. The bizarre mix of location work and studio Scottish moors with papier-mâché rocks was amusing, but the nadir was speeding up the film of police chasing our hero across the moor... No, that belongs only in the Keystone Cops. The ending was risible.

These stills have been lifted from this site, that offers a stop motion version of Hitch's film. If you must waste time on it, this is a good short cut..

Who's the villain?
Tonight we had The Big Clock. 1948 (IMDB link). Not a cast you'd expect for a great Noir, except perhaps Mr Laughton (whose moustache looked like he'd had some strange injury). But they were a strong, if unlikely, ensemble. (The Bride of Frankenstein; Lois Lane running the elevator; the good commander from M*A*S*H; and the silent Elisha Cook Jr type torpedo aren't quite what you'd expect, surely?)

Nevertheless, it set up several remarkable scenarios, was well paced and had several genuine surprising shocks and twists, and a great ending.

The wardrobe was great too, the combination of the 1948 men's sharp suits and hats (didn't they cut themselves on the brims?) and women's 'robes'. (No dear, I can't believe anyone ever wore one of those - and not over that! And you aren't going to bed with that bow around your neck, m'dear.)

But as well as the titular clock (a great, bizarre piece of engineering, well used in the plot, and not the one in the publicity still - of course) the highlight was an amazing office block masquerading as the base of a publishing empire. Despite a bit of online research I've not found if it were a real building re-used, or simply a set, but it could only have been designed by Howard Roark. Allmovies says:
Additionally, the Janoth Publications building where most of the action takes place is almost a cast member in itself, an art deco wonder, especially the room housing the clock mechanism and the lobby and vestibules, all loosely inspired by such structures as the Empire State Building and the real-life Daily News headquarters on East 42nd Street.
The film is based on a book by author and poet Kenneth Fearing. It was, apparently, his big breakthrough, and made him a mint, but he signed away the film rights and drank himself to death. One quote hit a note:
People who worked with him remember that in the afternoons he would have to put his head on his typewriter and sleep.
Hmmm. A modern keyboard just won't do. Still this plot's a great legacy.

With crime, newspapers, pace and action of course one is reminded of His Girl Friday / The Front Page. (A quick newspaper film primer on the subject here.) The odd thing is while The Front Page was based on a play, The 39 Steps feels like a play adaptation, despite the many exteriors, but the claustrophobic The Big Clock, which you'd expect to feel theatrically derived, has no such restrictions.

As you'd want, from this review featuring Noir, there was a twist or two. Confess you expected the Hitchcock effort to be the success, and The Big Clock to be the fall guy!

[Surging strings and chop cut]

Shock Hitchcock error! We have some secret watchers, who
streetlight. Oh dear ~

It's 1935 amateurs again!



*'Pants': Nonsense, rubbish, bad. From the standard British English of pants, meaning underwear; also a variation on 'knickers'. E.g."The first half was pants but I stayed until the end and it was actually a great film." [1990s]


In an earlier blog I was quite rude about roses. One of my reasons for dislike is they aren't Australian natives, and as Australia has a huge array of amazingly bright and varied native flowers, the obsession with roses by many is a pity, as it displaces interesting and rarer natives from Australian gardens. More importantly, and funnily enough, the natives are more suited to Australian conditions, generally being less demanding than the aliens.

One of the greats is the Bottlebrush, formally the Callistemon. Here we see a red Bottlebrush local to us, which is just flowering. I think it's the cultivar known as Harkness.

Notice the way the buds pop open to allow the threads to streighten.

It's a splash of colour which always gives a lift.



Some kids like diggers. Some kids like dinosaurs. There's something about a combine harvester. But then, some kids like aeroplanes and don't grow out of it. This beastie's always popular with the kids.

There's a lot of history to go behind it, but we'll suffice with the fact it's the Royal Australian Air Force Museum's CAC Mustang. (The RAAF Museum is where I act as a volunteer guide about once a week.) This Mustang is flown about once a month, to an always delighted crowd.

It's still owned by the RAAF, and is the only active Mustang in Air Force (or government) ownership anywhere in the world - out of several hundred flyers around the globe.

But the main thing is it's got a cool shark's mouth. Beats a digger any day.


PS: Unfortunately the RAAF Museum's government-managed website has said the Mustang is grounded in 2005, and they just don't seem to update it. I wonder which blog reader will scribble a note-to-self to chase that up again?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Poet's Pistol

The poem, the gun, the flower, the silence and the flu.

Poppies in Oxfordshire. B&J.

In the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, I chanced upon a small case featuring an apparently unremarkable example of the Colt Browning M1911 pistol.

McCrae's pistol. J.

It had belonged to John McCrae, a Canadian medic who, in his own words endured "Seventeen days of Hades!" working (one cannot imagine how) at a dressing station on the banks of the Yser Canal in Flanders in 1915, a year into the most cataclysmic war humanity had ever created.

After burying the remaining bits of a friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, the following day McCrae sat down and wrote a poem, in part inspired by the poppies that were growing in the shell-tossed earth.


In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The poem, after nearly being thrown away, and rejected by the first magazine it was sent to, was published by another. (Here is a version in McCrae's own hand.) It resulted in the use of the poppy in memoriam and for fund-raising for those soldiers in need from 1918 to today. The poppies are commonly seen across the Commonwealth, but particularity Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and, of course, France. Both poem and poppies have gone on to stand for the terrific losses and tragedy of the Great War.

A minutes silence, and flag at half-mast at Echuca, Vic, 2006. J.

The idea for the minute's silence which is normally observed on the 11th of November, can be credited to Australian journalist, Edward George Honey, who believed it might make an appropriate remembrance of the fallen.

Honey published a letter in the London Evening News on 8 May 1919 under the pen name of 'Warren Foster', in which he appealed for a silence amid all the hoopla celebrating the end of the War. It was not adopted however, until Lord Milner forwarded a suggestion from his friend, the South African Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, to the King's private secretary for a period of silence on Armistice Day, 11 November, 1919, in all countries of the British Empire. (There is a remarkable online resource on the Great War here.)

The interior of the Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne. Used for just about everything, since 1880, in 1918 this was an emergency flu hospital. J.

It is perhaps ironic that the doctor McCrae was to die of pneumonia in January 1918 while still serving. Many of his medical companions, weary from the Great War went on to face a far greater scourge of humanity, the great influenza pandemic of 1918. While 20 million were killed in W.W.I, estimates place the deaths in the pandemic at anywhere between 40 - 100 million. I'm not aware of a single memorial to the medical and other workers who did their best in the face of such a cataclysm.

Sadly it is now necessary for the Canadian Armed Forces (and, I'm sure all the others) to produce multiple page PowerPoint displays explaining how to wear your poppy. Likewise the Royal Canadian Legion (and, I'm sure all the others) find it necessary to produce a 59 page PDF document about how to collect for the poppy fund.

French trench with a donkey and poppies. This is the only colour photograph (one of two processes used at the time) known to show poppies on the battlefield, and was taken in 1915 by an official French war photographer.

We seem to still be able to commit war, and bureaucracy, yet winning the peace, and managing viruses seems beyond us.

And lastly, for those interested in the early colour photography of the First World War, there is an excellent selection here, and more at the Australian War Memorial site here.

These are not poppies, but Australian Frank Hurley's photo of an Australian Light Horseman picking anemones in Palestine seems appropriate.


Monday, November 10, 2008

Something to do this weekend?

Kind of sounds attractive, doesn't it? As you can tell from the prices, address and typography, we are in the 1930s. The autogiro (patented name of the Cierva company, otherwise they're autogyros) was an attempt to build a 'safe' aircraft, pioneered in the inter war period by Spaniard Juan de la Cierva. Many of the principles his team discovered went on to be used in the development of the helicopter, while tragically he was killed in the 1936 crash of an airliner - exactly the sort of accident he was trying to overcome with the autogiro.

As part of the Spanish aristocracy, one of his less savoury achievements was helping to arrange the return of a certain little general to Spain to start a war.


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Hell-oo Dixville Notch

The Hale siblings, 1926 at Dixville Notch.

Long, long ago, in a country far, far away (from Australia), there was a family called the Hales in a little New Hampshire town called Dixville Notch.

The family ran a hotel, and there was also a house on the lake, where my Grandma and her siblings ran about.

It's late at night in Australia now, so I checked in to see how things are faring with the election (it's going to affect us, too), and I've discovered that Dixville does it again.

As a kid, I was always told that Dixville Notch briefly shone in early election coverage, for its tradition of being the first township to declare election results. Shortly after midnight on election day, all 21 eligible voters cast their votes. They get individual polling booths, so that there's no lining up and waiting. At four minutes past midnight, it's over. They've been counted, and the results are in: 15 for Barack Obama; 6 for John McCain.

Go, Dixville Notch!

Read the full article from The Age - and the coverage from the BBC.