Month: December 2017

The Stars At Night Are Big And Bright

It was cold as they crossed the fields. Hoar frost was sparkling on the grass in the small circles of light created by the several oil lamps carried by a group of men well muffled against a winter-night.
They didn’t have far to walk. Maybe 20 minutes from their lodgings in a once historic vicarage across the fields to Bockleton Manor. Readers who call England their “old country” and hail from Worcestershire or Herefordshire may recognize the name. It has been on record in one form or another since the Domesday Book was published in 1086.
The group of men now huddling through the cold and dark of a 1942 pre-Christmas night have little knowledge of the history. All they know is that the manor, now looming massive in the fragile light of moonrise, is a temporary “home” for children in care of the Birmingham Royal Institution for the Blind (BRIB). The children had been evacuated from bomb threatened Birmingham in the early months of WW2 with boys re-located in Kinlet Hall, Shropshire; the girls in Bockleton Manor or Court.
The motley group now knocking on the ancient front door is mixed bag of conscientious objectors, some religious, some political, agnostics and few atheists. Their bunkhouse at the old vicarage is operated by Quakers and they are on hand this evening to offer pre-Christmas entertainment for children and BRIB staff – and the Lord of the Manor and his family if they were in residence and cared to attend. Ushered into the entrance hall then led to the great hall where they were to perform, the nondescript group of a dozen or so was viewed with curiosity and a touch of quizzical amusement. The thoughts were unspoken but obvious: What on earth is this rag-tag-bob-tail crew going to do to pleasingly entertain a large group of blind children, their discerning teachers and a handful of upper-crust gentry?
They had no way of knowing that in what looked like a clean but disheveled gang of ditch diggers, crop-harvesters and general farm labourers were a concert pianist, two classical violinists, a former conductor of the Welsh Junior Symphony Orchestra, four magnificent voices from Welsh Chapel choirs – one bass, one baritone, two tenors, two cast members from the long running British vaudeville show The Fol-de-Rols, and a few writers
The ‘‘Fols” started as a seaside beach show in Scarborough, Yorkshire in 1911, and grew to become one of the most famous and best loved year-round touring shows in Britain until the 1970’s when changing times and tastes rang down its final curtain. It was once written of the Fols that their shows always “had an air of class about them” – and that is what the two former Fols were determined to deliver to this audience of blind children and their mentors.
Together with the musicians they had scripted a close to two-hour show featuring favourite songs old and new, piano and violin solos, classical and popular duets, skits with emphasis on loud slaps, bangs and shouts and terrible puns which brought laughter and cheers from the children – and groans from the adults. There were touches of Christmas throughout the concert, it being that time of the year, but it wasn’t overwhelming.
When the final chorus was sung and the cast had taken its bow, one of the blind school teachers said the children would like to say “thank you” by performing a song they had learned by heart and could sing without accompaniment.
The Great Hall seemed to pause in time. The girls grouped around their teacher waiting for their cue as we wondered what an all-girl choir of blind children, bright faced and best dressed, might sing. “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” seemed an appropriate guess.
We waited. Teacher gave them a note and in joyous voice, the girls of the Birmingham Royal Institution for the Blind sent the ancient walls of the manor echoing with the unexpected but then popular song “The stars at night are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas” with the triumphal three hand claps that followed each short verse.
Seventy-five years later I can still recall the magical sound of that sheer, unexpected burst of joy, the answer of 50 or so blind children to adversity.
On the walk home, the hoar frost had thickened on the grass, the sky was clear, the moon bright enough to light our way without lanterns. And the talk was on the girls, some very young, some in their teens, who had chosen for their “thank you” an upbeat, happy song about big bright stars they had never seen and never would see.
As if on cue our group stopped and looked beyond the moonlight to the stars, then walked the rest of the way home in thoughtful silence. I know all this because I was there, a minor but privileged player, in a joyful Christmas story with a moral to be treasured and remembered.
And I hope, for all of you who read this piece, the next few days will lead you to a Christmas as bright and lasting as the stars.

Strait-laced Morality Or No Laces At All?

It was a few years ago that I first wrote about revered poet Lord Byron and wondered how he would make out reputation-wise in today’s world of confusion when moral and amoral standards are debated.
Byron was 36 when he died in Greece on April 19, 1824 – a day still fondly remembered by lovers of beautiful writing who gather to recite his tender “She walks in beauty like the night”, murmur the hinted bawdiness of “So we’ll go no more a roving” and shed a tear for “Fare thee well”. They react with dismay when reminded Byron was far from a loyal lover or friend and cared little for those whose lives were ruined by his amoral arrogance.
It is written that he contracted a fever and died while being treated by what was then the standard procedure of bloodletting. When the news reached England, the reaction was traumatic. A national hero in the UK – and revered in Greece where he had gone to join that nation in its war with the Ottoman Empire – his body was embalmed and returned to England. Some sources say his heart was removed before that final journey. The people of Greece wanted some part of their hero to remain with them.
In England his body lay in state for two days and news reports of the day record “huge crowds” lining the streets to pay their respects before he was to be interred in Westminster Abbey. But the Abbey balked at the request for an honoured resting place from supporters of a man they felt of “questionable morality” and denied the request. It was written that he had lived a life full of “aristocratic excesses, huge debts, (and) numerous love affairs with more than one gender.”
Undeterred, Byron’s friends – and they were many – launched a successful fund-raising drive to commission a statue. That work by Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen was completed in 1834. However, it remained in storage for 10 years while the country debated where to place it. The British Museum declined to display it. So did St. Paul’s Cathedral, the National Gallery – and holding fast to its original refusal, Westminster Abbey.
Trinity College, Cambridge, finally found a quiet corner for the statue.
In 1907, a lively debate calling for some sort of recognition for Byron was supported by the New York Times. In a column signed “Galbraith” the NYT suggested England should be proud to honour Byron, not ashamed of him just because he had lived a flamboyant immoral life. The writer admitted “neither Byron’s writing nor his mode of life are such as to appeal to the straitlaced, this seems to be no excuse for refusing the great poet proper recognition.”
In 1969, 145 years after his death, a modest memorial was placed in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner. It is a replica of one the King of Greece donated to mark Byron’s grave at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.
It all leaves me wondering still how the play would end if re-enacted today. Would our easily frenzied media be in high “straitlaced” dudgeon concentrating only on Byron’s extravagant but contemptuously tawdry life style? Would the Twittering classes be breaking viral records regurgitating the latest Byronic sexual romps – both hetero and homo?
It leaves me wondering too, if in the 48-years since Byron was accorded his “modest” marker in Westminster Abbey, “amoral” has overwhelmed “immoral” and if the world is paying a high price for the switch from “straitlaced” morality to “no laces required at all?”

What Took Them So Long?

Contrary to popular belief, automobiles powered by electricity
are not new. They were silently rolling around workshop yards in Scotland, Holland, Hungary and the USA close to 70 years before the first gasoline powered car rattled down the streets of my hometown Victoria, British Columbia.

Tradition has it that first “horseless carriage” to thrill Victoria residents was part of a travelling circus making a city stop in 1899. In her fascinating book Above Stairs: Social Life in Upper-Class Victoria 1843-1918, Valerie Green tells us after the circus departed “the first automobile of note to be acknowledged as such was owned by Dr. Edward Charles Hart, one-time Victoria coroner. His was a 3.5 horsepower Oldsmobile that arrived in Victoria on May 23, 1902, to be driven down Johnson Street the following day by its proud owner. It set Dr. Hart back $900 and was capable of achieving speeds of 15 miles an hour.”

While the natives and immigrants to the British Colony on Vancouver Island were marveling at the noisy but wonderful new gasoline driven carriage, old world scientists were reaching beyond internal combustion. Between 1832 and 1839 Scotsman Robert Anderson, Holland’s Sibrandus Stratingh, Hungarian inventor Anyos Jedlik and one Christopher Becker claimed to have electric vehicles up and running.

It is generally held that Anderson of Scotland was the first to invent what is described as “the first crude electric carriage powered by non-rechargeable primary cells.” Some insist the leadership claim is still under debate. The life of Anderson’s first car – described as “a crude beast” was as brief as its non-renewable battery, but it launched the search which continues to this day for ever better long-life or easy to recharge batteries that can store power for longer periods.

It may be surprising to some that the electric cars now being re-introduced to our highways and byways as the new and best way to go drive-about are merely re-claiming a position they once held in the late 19th century and early 20th. Englishman Thomas Parker, electrical engineer, is credited as being the man who built the first practical electric car powered by his then revolutionary high-capacity rechargeable batteries.

That was in 1884. Four years later German inventor Andreas Flocken introduced the Flocken Elektrowagen and by the turn of the century, electric powered cars were the vehicle of choice. It is estimated that by the time 1900 rolled around 30,000 electric powered vehicles were offering a level of comfort and ease of operation far beyond gasoline driven vehicles.

In that same year, 192 cars were produced in the fledgling USA auto building industry. Twenty-eight per cent were powered by electricity. Of all the cars on the roads of New York, Boston and Chicago one third were electric. Close to 20 per cent of New York taxis were electric – and then came 1908 and Henry Ford’s Model T; gasoline powered, noisy, and polluting, but within financial reach of most working families.

Four years later Charles Kettering (cct) invented the electrical starter to eliminate the heavy hand cranking required to start an internal combustion engine. The push-button starter and mushrooming proliferation of gasoline and service stations made internal combustion king of the road with non-polluting electric cars pushed into hibernation.

Close to 100 years later, a stirring of environmental conscience and ever rising gas prices resurrected the desire for clean electric power. Major auto manufacturers are now switching entirely or partially back to electric or hybrid power, all claiming leadership in the race for cleaner air.

When we remember that the first hybrid car running on gasoline and electricity was built by Porsche in 1899, it seems justifiable to ask the entire auto industry – what took you so long?