28 April 2012

A gold clock for the sultan

De Lannoy, via WikiCommons
Perhaps the most indefatigable traveller of all ... medieval ambassadors was Ghillebert de Lannoy and his activities suggest the wide-ranging expertise expected from such a man [...] Lannoy's Voyages et Ambassades is a straight-forward account of his various military expeditions, diplomatic missions, official appointments and frequent pilgrimages from his first raid of the Isle of Wight at the age of thirteen to his final trip to Rome for the holy year of 1450 when he was almost sixty-five. The core of this work is his detailed report on a two year journey of diplomacy and reconnaissance undertaken for Henry V of England and Duke Philip of Burgundy in 1421. Both rulers had a real desire to lead another crusade and sent Lannoy, a trusted familiar of the duke with experience of the east, to explore the political climate and report on the military aspects of the terrain which might affect a possible crusade. This was an unusual mission in its mix of activities and the reconnaissance in the Holy Land was kept secret from much of the party, being effected under the cover of a devout pilgrimage in which Lannoy was only accompanied by a herald, the acknowledged medieval military expert. On his return home Ghillebert filed a separate account of the detailed military information he had acquired on such matters as the nature of harbours and their anchorage, the availability of good water and possible provision for horses with Duke Philip and the English council, since Henry V had died during the voyage. Lannoy's true diplomatic activities had involved formal visits to the rulers who controlled the land route by which soldiers could march overland to Syria and Palestine. The support, or at least acquiescence of these powers, would be essential for the passage of an army.

It was an adventurous journey. Lannoy left his castle at Ecluse (Sluis) in May 1421 with a party of eight but he sent his people, the luggage and the jewels on by ship while he himself took the overland route through Brabant, Westphalia, Bremen, Hamburg, Lubeck, Stettin to Danzig (Gdansk). There he rejoined his party and presented his letters of credence and the assigned gifts to the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights [Michael K├╝chmeister von Sternberg]. Lannoy reported with considerable satisfaction that the Master had done him great honour, giving several dinners for him and presenting him with two horses while Artois king-at-arms, the accompanying herald, received two sables. The choice of the proper diplomatic presents was always a thorny one though precious jewels, fine cloth from the ambassador's own country or some notable piece of craftsmanship were always acceptable. Included in Lannoy's baggage was one of the most unusual diplomatic presents of the century, a gold clock destined for the sultan of Turkey. A gold clock small enough to be carried on such an expedition so early in the fifteenth century is in itself a surprise but, because the sultan of Turkey for whom it was destined [Mehmed I] had died before Lannoy arrived and civil war was raging in Turkey, the clock could not be delivered. The conscientious ambassador carried it with him on his two year journey and on his return gave it back to the council of Henry VI. From that point the gold clock retreats obstinately into the mists of history and our questions remain unanswered - what kind of clock was it? Did it still run after all its vicissitudes? And who finally got it?

- Margaret Wade Labarge, Medieval Travellers: The Rich and the Restless, London, 1982, p.131-3. 

25 April 2012

Anzac Day

WW1 memorial atop the Sugarloaf, Brooklyn
Today is the 97th Anzac Day, and the image above is one of New Zealand's huge array of memorials to the soldiers who lost their lives in 20th century wars. It sits atop the Sugarloaf, a small knoll that pokes out from the timber villas of Brooklyn, and it affords splendid views across the whole of Wellington. The inscription reads:

This monument was erected by the people of Brooklyn, in honour of those who left the district to fight in the Great War, 1914-1918.

Aside from the dozens of inscribed names of local boys who lost their lives overseas, the monument also bears the mark of a dedication. Its foundation stone was laid by Lt Col George Mitchell DSO MP - a decorated war hero who had entered Parliament as an independent by the impressive feat of deposing a sitting MP. The Evening Post of 24 April 1922 reported the following notice of the memorial dedication:

The Foundation Stone of the above Memorial will be laid by Colonel G. Mitchell, DSO, MP on ANZAC DAY, 25th APRIL, 1922. Ceremony commences at 11am. Rev. A.W.H. Compton will preside. The Institute Band will play appropriate music. A combined Choir of the four churches and friends will also take part. Conductor, Mr Hindle.
A Cordial Invitation to all Soldiers and Residents of Brooklyn.

Mitchell's electoral contest was more dramatic than most. A Boer War veteran, in World War 1 he fought in both Gallipoli and France, and he was awarded the DSO in 1918 for distinguished service in the field. And the man he defeated in the first post-war election was the firebrand union leader and pacifist, Bob Semple, who had been jailed in 1916 for opposing conscription.

Semple won Wellington South in a by-election on 19 December 1918, barely a month after the Armistice, but almost a year later at the general election held on 16 December 1919 Mitchell ousted Semple from the seat and became the only independent MP in the 80-strong House. Mitchell held the seat for only a single term and after 1922 turned his focus to local body politics and also became president of the RSA, but a lasting reminder in stone of his term as Brooklyn's MP still sits atop the Sugarloaf.

Semple, on the other hand, was to return to national politics, winning Wellington East in 1928 and remaining an MP through World War 2 and serving until his retirement from Parliament in 1954. He is perhaps best known as the first Labour Government's Minister of Works and Railways, and for the Semple Tank.

20 April 2012

A spokesman for the great wholesome majority of American teenagers

Famed music broadcaster Dick Clark died on 18 April, aged 82.  One of Clark's many claims to fame is that he helped pioneer the Twist craze - check out this groovy clip from Chicago in 1962 to get a feel for the cultural reach of the phenomenon. Here's Clark at the height of his powers, appearing in the New Yorker at the famous Peppermint Lounge (the Mafia-connected nightspot where both the Twist and Go-Go dancing began):
Been trying for weeks to get into Peppermint Lounge. Hot spot on West Forty-fifth Street where the new dance step known as the Twist has fantastic following…. Hit Peppermint close to midnight, in blue mood. Inside, found pandemonium. Dance floor packed and popping. Was battered by wild swinging of hips and elbows…. People not on dance floor were twisting hips. Some on chairs, others on tabletops. Couldn’t see. Climbed upon table for clearer view…. Was given scolding look by fellow on adjoining tabletop. Looked like deejay Dick Clark. Was deejay Dick Clark. Shook hands. Pumped him for professional opinion of the Twist. Clark prejudiced. Knew and helped fellow who got the Twist rolling—Chubby Checker, singing butcher boy from South Philadelphia. Classic success story. Said Chubby’s records, plus appearance on Clark’s “American Bandstand” show sold the Twist to teen-agers. Now the biggest thing since the Charleston. 
- Pat Broun & Grover Amen, 'The Twist', New Yorker, 21 October 1961
As early as 1959, aged only 30, Clark was the subject of a This Is Your Life programme, such was his popularity as a 'spokesman for the great wholesome majority of American teenagers' (in TIYL host Ralph Edwards' words). And here he is popping up in that shining example of mid-60s Americana, Batman:

And while there's no actual sightings of Clark in this mid-70s American Bandstand clip, just savour the glimpse of the disco crowd grooving politely to the playback of Bowie's Golden Years. There's even some proto-breakdancing thrown into the mix, although it's rather mild stuff. For this and all the rest, cheers Dick Clark! I'll even forgive you for TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes.

15 April 2012

Watch out for his right

Disused boxing mannequin, 280 Queen Street, Auckland, taken 6 April 2012. Not sure why he has a bin-liner for a skirt, but when your arm's fallen off you've probably got more important things to worry about than sartorial elegance.  

14 April 2012

It's only forever, not long at all

One of the all-too-many ways to bite the dust in Brogue. Bloody flaming Ogres.
Don't get me wrong, I love to play proper full-price studio games. I've been playing Skyrim since Christmas and have spent many months delving into the lavish possibilities of the many iterations of Civilisation. But I also love a good indie freeware game too. Last month I spent enjoyable hours exploring the randomly-generated platformer Spelunky, relishing its replayability and not a little frustrated by my lack of prowess in dodging leaping bomb frogs and evading angry shopkeepers who happen to object to me nicking their wares.

I found that game thanks to a tip-off in PC Gamer, and now another article has convinced me to try the daftly-named but engrossing Brogue. Like Spelunky, Brogue is a randomised adventure, but whereas Spelunky is a retro 8-bit platformer, Brogue harks back to the ultra-low-tech text-based adventures of the 1980s. Don't expect fancy graphics, because Brogue relies solely on ASCII characters. But it's surprisingly effective despite that limitation, and the seemingly laughable notion in this day and age that your character is simply represented by an '@' and monsters are represented by a single letter - 'm' for monkeys, 'k' for kobolds. This lack of graphics is no particular limitation because the gameplay is so enjoyable.

A typical randomly-generated dungeon entrance
Every level is randomly generated, with monsters becoming increasingly deadly as you descend towards the fabled 25th level, where the object of your quest - an amulet, from memory - resides. Oh, and there's no sound either, not that you need any. As PC Gamer explained, the simple charm of Brogue is its creativeness and the way its designer messes around with the game mechanics to create a fresh adventure each time you play:
Complexity: It has the ASCII ungraphics, the thrill of pockets filled by unknown potions and scrolls, the permadeath difficulty. Simplicty: It’s fully mouse-controlled, readable at a glance, and has an elegant skill system. It also has monkeys that will steal your shit and break your heart.
Ah yes, those monkeys can be a nuisance, but also a boon companion when you rescue them from captivity. The items you collect on your dungeon crawl are also pleasingly unpredictable, particularly the potions and scrolls, which you have to try sight unseen - it could be a potion of healing or strength, or equally it could also be a potion of bursting-into-flames (which is generally quite inconvenient, to say the least) or the ever-amusing Scroll of Aggravate Monsters.

That big pond will come in handy when you inevitably set yourself on fire.
Yes, Brogue does have a silly name; it's a play on the classic game Rogue, which has given its name to a whole genre of Roguelike games. Allusions to sensible footwear aside, Brogue is a great example of how indie games developers can compete with the big game studios by focusing on great gameplay and clever ideas. Download a free copy and let me know when you surpass my feeble top score of dungeon level 10 14 with 1428 5405 gold! 
Still looking for that bloody exit...

07 April 2012

The plural of doofus

(c) Sony Pictures Classic

On Friday I caught Whit Stillman's 2011 feature Damsels In Distress with Jennifer at the Rialto in Newmarket, which featured as part of the World Cinema Showcase that's running for the next couple of weeks. It's the story of four young women at the fictitious Seven Oaks University, and their quest to humanise the patently inferior males of their college. Violet, the lead do-gooder, is played by hipster icon Greta Gerwig, who improved Ben Stiller's flawed black comedy Greenberg, and leads the way in fostering the betterment of the infantile and immature males on campus, including her clueless boyfriend Frank.

This is a low-budget comedy that deserves a broader audience and could well develop a cult following in years to come. Stillman's script is pleasingly wordy, and although Gerwig's performance is curiously stilted and she is a little too close to 30 to play a young college student, the quality of the dialogue is still obvious. My favourite line was the matter-of-fact digression of two of the girls into the correct plural form of the oft-needed and entirely apt word 'doofus', which, it turns out can be both 'doofi' in the more correct, Latin-originated form, or 'doofuses' in the more commonly-used but slightly less polished colloquial sense. Either is fine.

The story has fun with a subplot revolving around the clever outsider Lily (Analeigh Tipton) and her suave European boyfriend Xavier, whose penchant for Cathar philosophy brings some surprising and unexpected complications to their love-life. It's all played wonderfully deadpan by the supporting cast, much like clueless frat-boy Thor's heart-felt plea to refrain from judging him simply because he's reached college age without having learned to distinguish the colours of the visible spectrum. Carrie MacLemore also impresses as the prim and perky Heather, with her comic timing and delivery of lines replete with airy nonsense.

Many films in recent years have latched onto the notion of ending on a high by deploying a song and dance finale - Napoleon Dynamite, Little Miss Sunshine and Slumdog Millionaire to name but three - and Damsels In Distress manages to top that with not one but two: a doubtless out-of-copyright Fred Astaire number illustrated with a tongue-in-cheek soft-focus campus promenade, and a daffy take on Violet's big ambition - starting a world-spanning dance craze.  Everybody do the Sambolo now!

04 April 2012

China's 'son preference'

The sex ratio in many parts of Asia in particular has risen way past biologically possible levels. In China and India, census data indicate that the level is nationally around 120 to 100. By 2020, China will have between thirty and forty million more men than women under the age of 19. To put that figure in perspective, forty million is the total number of American men in that demographic bracket. So, within eight years, China faces the prospect of having the equivalent of the whole young male population of America permanently single. One of the dark things about this is that ‘son preference’, as it’s dryly called in the literature, rises with income and with modernisation – which means it’s been rising sharply. That amounts to many tens of millions of missing girls.

- John Lanchester, 'Marx at 193', London Review of Books, 5 April 2012, p.7-10.

01 April 2012

RNZAF 75th anniversary airshow

Photos from yesterday's airshow at RNZAF Ohakea, which entertained thousands from all over the North Island. Certainly there were delays getting into the base, with long traffic tailbacks on roads across the region - there were even reports of traffic backed up at least 30km later in the day. I left Wellington with my friends at 7am and didn't strike delays until a kilometre or two south of Sanson at around 9am, at which point movement virtually halted. But today's Sunday Star Times headline invoking 'traffic chaos' was typically histrionic, for this was an impeccably well-behaved queue with little frustration evident. Only the usual motorcyclists veered onto the wrong side of the road to overtake the stalled line of cars, but aside from that people either enjoyed the start of the show from the roadside or parked up and started walking. We decided to do the same once we'd reached Sanson itself after about a half-hour delay; it was a three kilometre walk there and back, but it was a pleasant day and we were able to get good views of the early fly-pasts, including a breathtaking surprise low level run by four RAAF F/A-18 Hornets, which tore past just above the treetops making a phenomenal amount of noise.

Once inside the airbase the static and aerial displays were all excellent. It was great to see the bulky USAF and RAAF C-17s close up, and to witness the nimble handling of the Hornets later on as they pirouetted in the sky and dashed down the runway at nearly the speed of sound. Sure, it was a bit of a hike back to Sanson afterwards in the hot sunshine. But there were few hold-ups on the drive back south because the RNZAF had extended the airshow opening hours, so everyone didn't try to leave at the same time. Hopefully the air force made a bit of money from the event, because no-one checked our tickets when we entered the base - other less honest folk might have wandered in without paying.  

RAAF F/A-18 Hornets


RNZAF P-3 Orion

RAAF Wedgetail

De Havilland Vampire

Grumman Avenger


RNZAF parachute display team

Roaring Forties Harvards

BAC Strikemaster



RAAF Hornet


Never hold an unassailable opinion

Irving Thalberg (1899-1936) was a successful film executive at an early age, rising to take charge of Universal Studios' Los Angeles facility at the age of 20 and being made head of production at MGM in 1924 at the age of 24. In his next management role at MGM he produced nearly 400 films, and helped to lay the groundwork for much of the modern cinematic industry. When he died at a young age, President Roosevelt wrote, "The world of art is poorer with the passing of Irving Thalberg. His high ideals, insight and imagination went into the production of his masterpieces."

Interviewed by Malcolm Stuart Boylan of the Los Angeles Times in 1922 in an article rather wordily entitled 'Great Executive Job Held By a Boy of 22 - How Irving Thalberg Became the "Big Boss" of One of the Biggest Institutions in the World', Thalberg listed his five rules for success:

  • Never hold an unassailable opinion
  • The clearness with which I see my goal determines my speed in reaching it
  • Expect help from no one
  • Pride goeth before a fall. The height of the pride determines the severity of the bump
  • Never take any man's opinion as final.
- Los Angeles Times, 15 October 1922, quoted in Debra Ann Pawlak, Bringing Up Oscar, New York, 2011, p120.