30 October 2014

The Dissection of Jeremy Bentham, or the Auto-Icon

On the unusual events that occurred immediately following the death of English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), one of the key founders of utilitarian thought:

He had specified in his will that his body was to be offered up for public dissection, a useful thing in itself. At that time, because of the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh (when Christ will supposedly return at the Last Judgement to open the graves of the dead), there was still a Christian taboo against not burying bodies. This meant there was a general shortage of specimens for pathologists to work on. 
Before the dissection began, at London's Webb Street School of Anatomy, twenty-eight of Bentham's friends gathered to say farewell. His corpse lay before them in a simple nightshirt. In a scene straight out of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (then just into its second edition), the funeral oration was dramatically accompanied "with thunder pealing overhead and lightning flashing through the gloom". Once the eulogy had finished, Dr Southwood Smith made sure, as Bentham's will had specified, "to ascertain by appropriate experiment that no life remains". He then carefully stripped the flesh from the bones and placed the internal organs and "the soft parts" in labelled glass containers "like wine decanters". His cleaned bones were then pinned together with copper wire and the skeleton dressed in a suit of Bentham's clothes, padded out with hay, straw and cotton wool. A sachet of lavender and naphthalene was placed in the stomach cavity to discourage moths. Again adhering to the instructions in his will, the body was seated in "a Chair usually occupied by me when living in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought". The whole ensemble was to be enhanced by the presence of Dapple, his favourite walking stick, and topped off with his actual head (well preserved and with a suitable hat on it). 
- John Lloyd & John Mitchinson, The QI Book of the Dead, London, 2009, p390-1.

The head preservation didn't go according to plan, so a waxwork model was put in its place, but the real Bentham's mummified head was placed into a display cabinet with the rest of the 'exhibit' and lay at Bentham's feet, until it was placed into safe storage much later, on account of it being subject to many university pranks. These resulted because Bentham's body has been on public display since his death. Since 1850 the body, which Bentham described as his 'Auto-Icon', has resided in University College London, and his remains can still be seen today.

The Times of 7 June 1832, the day after Bentham's death in London aged 84, carried an obituary 'from a most respectable [unnamed] gentleman well acquainted with the deceased':

In conformity with the desire of his father, he practised for a short time in equity, and was immediately remarked for the ability he displayed; but the death of his father left him with a moderate fortune and the free choice of his course of life, when he at once abandoned all prospects of professional emoluments and honours, and devoted the whole of his subsequent life to those labours which he believed would produce the greatest happiness to his fellow-creatures. His extreme benevolence and cheerfulness of disposition are highly spoken of by all who had the honour to be admitted to his society, which was much sought after, and also by his domestics and by his neighbours who were acquainted with his habits. The news of the Reform Bill having been carried greatly cheered his last hours.     

28 October 2014

Te Awanga British Car Museum

Having recently enjoyed a return visit to the Southward Car Museum in Paraparaumu, New Zealand's finest car museum, I was looking forward to paying a visit to the smaller, more specialised collection at Te Awanga near Cape Kidnappers in the Hawkes Bay during my Labour Weekend visit there. The British Car Museum (at 63 East Rd, Te Awanga) didn't disappoint, and for aficionados of British cars it's definitely worth a spot on your trip itinerary, as long as you don't mind the slightly idiosyncratic curatorial approach taken by its owner, Ian Hope.

What I like about the museum is that it's not a pristine, hermetically-sealed time capsule. These are working cars that have been used by real families, and it often shows with rust spots here and there, and some cars on display that still require restoration. Couple that with the huge task of organising the place and you'll understand why the captions on the cars aren't necessarily word perfect and visitors are bombarded with the curious message to 'not touch the cars unless you're naked', attached on laminated cards pegged to every vehicle. WOF and maintenance slips are sometimes stuffed between car radiator grilles, a fair bit of dust mounts up in hard-to-reach places (Ian jets about on a mobility scooter to save his legs), and space is at such a premium that most cars at ground level have another suspended above them on a metal frame to save space - in the event of a serious earthquake, run like hell! These observations aren't criticisms - it's just fair warning that the British Car Museum is a bit 'rough and ready' - but there are plenty of automotive highlights for people who remember the days when New Zealand's roads were dominated by mostly weedy-engined, unreliable yet wonderful British cars (and quite a few German ones). Some highlights:

This is the first impression that awaits you

Rare 1970 MG Mk.2 1300 2-door coupe 

1967 Austin 1100 Vanden Plas mini-limo

Austin 1100s (in various guises)

1961 Bedford van, which served as an electrician's van in Wainuiomata from the early '60s

Plenty of Morris Minors

Also: Old piano player rolls, incl. 'Mr Jelly Lord' & 'Canadian Capers'

26 October 2014

Te Mata Peak

A visit to the spectacular vantage point of Te Mata Peak just south of Havelock North, overlooking the Hawkes Bay, on a sunny Labour Weekend, 26 October 2014.

24 October 2014

Democratised connectivity & modern conflict

Connectivity has huge effects on conflict: democratizing and weaponizing communications technology, and putting into the hands of individuals a suite of lethal tools that used to belong only to nation-states.

In August 2011, for example, in the Libyan coastal city of Misrata, school children used mobile phones to mark Gaddafi regime sniper positions on Google Earth, allowing French warships off the coast to target them. In the same battle, rebels used smartphone compass apps and online maps to adjust rocket fire in the city's streets. Syrian fighters use iPads and Android phones to adjust mortar fire, and video game consoles and flat-screen TVs to control homemade tanks. Snipers use iPhone apps and cellphone cameras to calculate, then record, their shots.

The technology writer John Pollock has brilliantly described the role of online activists in the Arab Spring, not only for political mobilization, but also for logistics and tactical coordination -- as in April 2011 when Libyan rebels, at night in the open field, planned an assault on a rocket launcher via a multinational Skype hookup. None of this would have been possible a decade ago.

This democratized connectivity will increasingly allow distant players to participate directly in conflicts. For nation-states, we see this "remote warfare" trend in the Predator remotely piloted aircraft, which can be flown from the other side of the planet through satellite uplinks. But non-state groups can play the same game: In 2009, Iraqi insurgents pointed ordinary satellite TV dishes at the sky, then used Skygrabber, a $26 piece of Russian software, to intercept the Predator uplink. The guerrillas had hacked the Predators's control system, far easier than shooting down the actual aircraft.

- Dr David Kilcullen, 'The Future of War? Expect to see urban, connected, irregular 'zombie' conflicts', Foreign Policy 'Best Defence' blog, 28 May 2014

22 October 2014

Doomed in his innocence in the sun

Tonight I enjoyed watching Bruce Dern in Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running for the first time - an influential 1972 ecological sci-fi film. But the soundtrack just goes to show how tastes can date - what would be the modern equivalent of a film featuring such jarringly awful songs as those sung by Joan Baez, like this one?

Trumbull, on the other hand, has impeccable credentials in the movie world, having been the special photographic effects supervisor on 2001: A Space Odyssey and also having worked on effects for such films as The Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner and more recently Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.

See also:
Movies: Children of Men, 21 January 2014
Movies: Contagion, 13 November 2011
TV: 'When We Left Earth', 26 October 2009 

21 October 2014

Two films by Walter Ruttmann

One advantage of enjoying films from the archives of silent cinema is that those films are often available online to share with others. Such is the case for the two German films I saw last night at the Film Society screening in Wellington. The two 1920s 'portrait' films shown, both by the Frankfurt-born Walter Ruttmann, were the global gazetteer Melodie der Welt (Melody of the World) from 1929 and the Berlin-glorifying Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City) from 1927. Both were 'half-length' features, with Melodie running 49 minutes and Berlin just over an hour. Each has its own Germanic charms.

Melodie is hugely ambitious and must have taken ages to shoot, with its multitude of film imagery from all over the globe offering a hopeful view of human endeavour and the similarities amongst peoples. It's a hectic journey. For example, the film's third act contains parallel scenes including the start of a pampered, upper-class woman's day in Germany compared with that of a peasant worker in Southeast Asia, and illustrating how a geisha's hair is prepared, before hurrying on to a survey of languages of the world (with a smattering of humour in a moderately bizarre cameo from George Bernard Shaw asking some chap for directions to St Albans), meals of every type, dance and music, and the toil of work followed by the joy of returning home at the end of it. (Note if you're viewing the clip, the film does have a soundtrack - it's just the first few minutes that are silent).

The more focused Berlin is so busy and lively it should have been an inspiration for Richard Scarry's 'Cars & Trucks & Things That Go'. Berlin under Ruttmann's lens is a pumping, thriving mega-machine, churning out heavy industrial produce and shunting thousands of denizens in every direction through its massive train stations. It's a great example of documentary film-making and a wonderful record of a day in the life of a proud city before the 1929 stock market crash and the coming war swept so much away.

Ruttmann died in 1941 from injuries sustained during front-line action as a war photographer.

See also:
Movies: The Famous Five in German, 1 June 2014
Art: NZ posters by young German artists, 30 June 2012
Blog: My top 5 museums in Berlin, 24 June 2011

19 October 2014

Southward hood ornaments

Half a dozen shining harbingers of automotive luxury, from the collection of the Southward Car Museum on the outskirts of Paraparaumu, taken this afternoon. This sort of motoring garnish fell out of favour with car designers once people realised that they had a habit of impaling pedestrians involved in car accidents.

1935 Packard One-Twenty Sedan

1936 Hispano Suiza K6 Sedan

1930 Bentley 4.5 Litre Tourer

1934 Chevrolet Sedan

1954 Chevrolet 210 Sedan

1930 La Salle 8-Cylinder V Type
See also:
Blog: National Automobile Museum of Tasmania, 7 December 2013
Blog: Omaka Classic Car Collection, 29 January 2012
Blog: Southward Car Museum, 29 June 2009

18 October 2014

A little light blasphemy

(London, 1532. A gathering of merchants discusses civil disorder in the city:)

Humphrey Monmouth says, 'Shall we have our meeting first, and broker marriages later? We are concerned, Master Cromwell, as you must be, as the king must be ... we are all, I think', he looks around, 'we are all, now Bonvisi has left us, friendly to the cause for which our late brother Petyt was, in effect, a martyr, but it is for us to keep the peace, to disassociate ourselves from outbreaks of blasphemy...'

In on city parish last Sunday, at the sacred moment of the elevation of the host, and just as the priest pronounced, 'hoc est enim corpus meum', there was an outbreak of chanting, 'hoc est corpus, hocus pocus'. And in an adjacent parish, at the commemoration of the saints, where the priest requires us to remember our fellowship with the holy martyrs, 'cum Joanne, Stephano, Mathia, Barnaba, Ignatio, Alexandro, Marcellino, Petro...' some person had shouted out, 'and don't forget me and my cousin Kate, and Dick with his cockle-barrel on Leadenhall, and his sister Susan and her little dog Posset'.

He puts his hand over his mouth. 'If Posset needs a lawyer, you know where I am'.

'Master Cromwell,' says a crabbed elder from the Skinners' Company, 'you convened this gathering. Set us an example in gravity'.

- Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall, London, 2009, p.384-5.

16 October 2014

Huge generalisations about women

Dylan Moran, from his 2004 standup DVD Monster: 'I don't want to make any huge generalisations about women - I'm not here to do that. It's vulgar. But all I'll say is that they have no feelings'.

15 October 2014

Elvis in Tupelo '56

'[In the period before his first television appearance on the poorly rated Stage Show, his manager Colonel] Parker became increasingly concerned about some of Presley's unruly stage antics. Although impressed with Elvis, RCA representative Chick Crumpacker also noticed that Elvis 'did some things that were rather outrageous, which had to be curbed later, like belching into the microphone and tossing his chewing gum out to the crowd. He was crude, but it was calculated. He wanted to appeal in that way as well as vocally.' 
- Allen Weiner, Channelling Elvis, 2014 (via Delancey Place)

Here's the chap in question, aged 21 and throwing some serious shapes on the Movietone footage from the Mississippi-Alabama State Fair on 26 September 1956 - just two and a half weeks after his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show (9 September). Predictably, this hometown gig in Tupelo is close to bedlam. Songs in the clip include:

  • Heartbreak Hotel
  • Long Tall Sally
  • I Was The One
  • I Want You, I Need You, I Love You
  • Don't Be Cruel

The Dorsey Brothers' 'Stage Show' mentioned above was actually Presley's first national TV appearance, on 17 March 1956, and by the time of his first Sullivan appearance in September he already had four gold records, but it was the Ed Sullivan appearance that ensured his American dominance. Sullivan didn't actually host the first of his shows on which Elvis appeared, because he was recuperating from a serious car accident. The guest host role went to the lugubrious actor Charles Laughton, who appeared in Ruggles at Red Gap among many other pictures, and who was doubtless well placed to appreciate the vigorous charms of the young superstar in the making.

Also: Chick Crumpacker! What a name.

12 October 2014

150th film of the year

Tonight I watched my 150th film of the year - the 2008 Austrian crime drama Revanche, which I recorded from the usually excellent Maori TV late-night movie slot. It's a taut thriller set in Vienna and the surrounding countryside, and it plays some interesting games with the notion of a perpetrator and a lawman accidentally placed in close proximity after a job goes badly wrong. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 Oscars, but lost out to Yojiro Takita's drama Departures

Racking up a significant milestone in film-watching reminded me that one of the main reasons I've seen so many films this year is the website Letterboxd (sic.), a free New Zealand-made film log website in which you can keep a journal of your film viewing, give your verdict if you like, hold up your favourites for praise or opprobrium, keep a watchlist of films you want to see, and see others' reviews. Using the website has encouraged me to see plenty more films than I would have otherwise; in 2013 I saw around 50 at the cinema, but to date this year I've already seen 62 at the cinema. And I've been filling in a lot of gaps in my viewing of great films from previous decades - this year I watched for the first time classics such as The Godfather Part II, the silent epic Siegfried from 1924, Errol Flynn in Captain Blood, and the tremendous 1938 Katharine Hepburn / Cary Grant farce, Bringing Up Baby.

Having a DVR is handy too - to catch the decent movies broadcast on free-to-air, which are usually on way too late to watch live. Because prime-time is bound to have something on featuring Adam Sandler, right? Although I was very impressed when TV3 played the rather stunning Children of Men earlier in the year, which presumably will have turned off a reasonable number of viewers, but also opened the eyes of a few to a glimpse of something beyond the cookie-cutter mainstream.

I can safely predict that my favourite film of the year so far, Richard Linklater's Boyhood, will feature in my top three films at year's end, and it may well still hold the top spot - it really is that special. But I'm looking forward to plenty more viewing before the year's out, particularly at the Monday night screenings of the Film Society at the Paramount. The Society screening of Gene Kelly in An American in Paris should be a great way to cap off a year's film watching, and there's the definite highlight of Christopher Nolan's new sci-fi epic Interstellar to await. The third Hobbit film might be good too - well, it will be a spectacle, at any rate. Here's hoping Peter Jackson moves on from Middle Earth for good once this one's out though - it was good while it lasted, but there's such a thing as too much Tolkien, even in the film capital of New Zealand.

See also:
Movies: The Last Waltz, 5 October 2014
Movies: Sunset Boulevard, 25 September 2014
Movies: If..., 1 September 2014

...on a good day

Wellington from Tinakori Hill, 12 October 2014

11 October 2014

Doing his suit at the coffee-house

London coffee-house interior, 17th c. (via Wikimedia)
'When coffee became popular in Oxford [in the 17th century] and coffeehouses began to multiply, the university authorities objected, fearing that this was promoting idleness and diverting students from their studies. Anthony Wood, an Oxford antiquarian, was among those who denounced the enthusiasm for the new establishments. "Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none follow it now in the university?" he asked. "Answer: Because of coffee-houses, where they spend all their time". Similar concerns were voiced in Cambridge, where one observer noted that it "is become a custom after chapel to repair to one or other of the coffee houses (for there are divers), where hours are spent in talking, and less profitable reading of newspapers, of which swarms are continually supplied from London. And the scholars are so greedy after news (which is none of their business) that they neglect all for it, and it is become very rare for any of them to go directly to his chamber after prayers without first doing his suit at the coffee-house, which is a vast loss of time grown out of pure novelty. For who can apply close to a subject with his head full of the din of a coffee-house?"'

- Tom Standage, Writing on the Wall: Social media - the first 2000 years, London, 2013, p.111-2.


In 'Covent Garden, the Bedford Coffeehouse had a ‘theatrical thermometer‘ with temperatures ranging from ‘excellent‘ to ‘execrable’. Playwrights dreaded walking into the Bedford after the opening night of their latest play to receive judgement' (Telegraph, 20 March 2012). Extracts from the Memoirs of the Bedford Coffee-house (1763), citing the journal of the establishment, in which esteemed customers left messages for one another:

  • 'Lord Terrible's compliments to Jack Firebrace, intends to be very jolly to night, and get damned drunk at Weatherby's, with Bet. Saunders and Nancy Davison. - Hopes to have his company'.
  • 'Jack Firebrace is engaged till twelve; but will certainly spend the evening according to Lord Terrible's desire, and bring with him Tom Tearall, and Ned. Crackpole, who have heads like rocks, and have been hell-fired drunk these ten days'.
  • 'Dr Gonnorrhoea's compliments to Sir Timothy Whiffle, is very sorry he was not in the way when he called upon him - He may take the pills and use the injection as before, if he finds no alteration. Will be at home to-morrow until twelve'.
  • 'This is to acquaint Mr Didlius, that he is a puppy and a rascal'.

An article in The Times of Monday, 11 June 1792, reporting an avian invader at Lloyd's Coffee-House, or conceivably an elaborate pun on a trader named Drake:

Lloyd's coffee-house in an uproar
On Saturday, about one o'clock, the neighbourhood of the Royal Exchange was highly entertained by a Duck-hunt: it seems that a Duck of uncommon size had waddled from the Stock Exchange the last settling-day, though evidently in full plumage
Information being received at the Stock Exchange that the duck had very unexpectedly made it's appearance at Lloyd's, a large detachment of the alley-brokers sallied up stairs to take a view of it. They poured in such a torrent into the coffee-room, and made such hideous cries, that it was thought all the bulls and bears in Christendom had been let loose. No bull was ever more cruelly baited. The wretched duck at last thought fit to fly off, but was pursued with unabated vengeance down Bartholomew-lane and Lothbury; the alley gentry calling out wing the duck - stop the bull, etc. The poor animal harassed and fatigued, at length eluded its pursuers, and took shelter in a house in Lincoln's-inn-fields, where it found safe habitation.
See also:
History: 'Drunk, by Jove!', 22 February 2013
History: An old Wandle snuff mill, 13 January 2011
HistoryThe last grand night ascent at Vauxhall, 30 September 2010

08 October 2014

Drunk with this joy of singing

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy (a.k.a. Will Oldham) performs his songs '2-15' and 'New Partner' at a Coney Island baseball park in 2003, accompanied by Cynthia Hopkins. The former is from a 2000 EP Get on Jolly, credited to Bonnie Billy and the Marquis de Tren, while the latter is from Oldham's 1995 album Viva Last Blues, which was released under the name Palace Music and was recorded by Nirvana's producer Steve Albini. (It's a bit hard to keep track of nomenclature with this chap). Don't be put off by the hipster tracksuit - this is a top performance. What a great voice. And he's appeared in a range of films as an actor too, including the excellent Junebug and Wendy & Lucy.

See also:
Music: Josh Rouse - Love Vibration, 26 September 2014
Music: David Holmes - Haywire, 18 July 2014
Music: Estere - Patchwork, 14 July 2014

07 October 2014

Before the printing press

Things began to change in the late eleventh century, with the rise of universities, the European rediscovery of the knowledge of the ancients (in part through exchanges with the Islamic world, which had preserved and extended it), greater trade, and rising literacy. Demand for books began to pick up. The introduction to Europe of paper, a Chinese invention, by the Arabs in the twelfth century provided a cheaper and more readily available alternative to parchment. The slow, painstaking approach of the scriptoria could turn out the small number of books needed by the church but could not meet the rising demand for non-religious texts. As a result, universities succeeded monasteries as the main centres of book production and copying. But the expense and difficulty of copying meant that a typical university library in Europe had a very limited selection of books. In 1424, for example, the library at the University of Cambridge in England had just 122 volumes. Students would listen to a lecturer as he read from a single copy of a book, adding his own explanations as he went. Without their own copies to consult, they would rely on their own notes, or on notes taken by previous generations of students passed from hand to hand.

- Tom Standage, Writing on the Wall: Social media - the first 2000 years, London, 2013, p.49

See also:
History: The dangerous fruits of a discontented mind, 5 April 2014
History: The reputation of Queen Aelfthryth, 4 March 2014
History: Coach travel from London, 4 October 2013

06 October 2014

On the right side of the tracks

Matangi & two Ganz Mavag units (HDR)
Wellington station railyards, 5 October 2014

05 October 2014

The Band

Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz is regularly cited as being one of the finest concert films ever made. Recorded at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom in 1976 and released in 1978, the film is the epitaph for the 16-year career of what came to be known as The Band, the group that attained fame as Bob Dylan's backing band on his famous and controversial first electric tour in 1966, and then went on to huge success on their own. By 1976 lead guitarist Robbie Robertson (who will also be remembered by children of the 1980s for his cinematic hit Somewhere Down The Crazy River) had tired of the touring life and was keen to wind things up, but not before the group was captured in concert in one final rock extravaganza, which soon snowballed into a who's who of the mid-70s rock scene as celebrity fans queued up to pay tribute to and play with The Band one last time.

Scorsese storyboarded the concert with meticulous attention to detail, filmed band interviews to provide some context around The Band's career and their reasons for splitting, and then shot some additional tracks in a studio to fill in a few gaps in the concert running order where certain important influences hadn't been represented. The performances of The Band at Winterland was excellent, but for a novice it's also intriguing to see how adept the members were at dovetailing with illustrious guests.

Here then are three clips from the film in which The Band take the back seat and allow others to shine. First, the classic The Weight performed in the studio with the awesome Staple Singers on soul vocals. Second, the wry Coyote from fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell, a track from her influential and then brand-new 1976 album Hejira featuring deft lyrics that may refer to an affair with playwright Sam Shepard. And third, Mannish Boy, a room-filling blues stomper from a regal Muddy Waters, which was fortunately captured by diligent cameraman László Kovács when the other cameramen had stopped filming for a much-needed break. Sick of Scorsese's hugely detailed camera instructions, Kovács had taken off his headset and so fortunately missed the earlier instruction to down tools.

See also:
Music: The Band & Emmylou Harris - Evangeline
Music: Levon Helm - Sweet Peach Georgia Wine
Music: Rick Danko & Janis Joplin - Ain't No More Cane

04 October 2014

Tui singing contest

Katherine Mansfield Park, Thorndon, 4 October
See also:
Photo: Bird on a wire, 26 October 2012
Photo: Kaka country, 4 October 2012
Photo: Kaka acrobatics, 17 December 2011