Saturday 25 August 2012


“From now on we live in a world where man has walked on the Moon. It's not a miracle; we just decided to go.” - Tom Hanks

Neil Alden Armstrong (August 5, 1930 – August 25, 2012) was an American NASA astronaut, test pilot, aerospace engineer, university professor and United States Naval Aviator. He was the first human to set foot upon the Moon. Before becoming an astronaut, Armstrong was in the United States Navy and served in the Korean War. After the war, he served as a test pilot at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) High-Speed Flight Station, now known as the Dryden Flight Research Center, where he flew over 900 flights in a variety of aircraft. He graduated from Purdue University and the University of Southern California.

A participant in the U.S. Air Force's Man In Space Soonest and X-20 Dyna-Soar human spaceflight programs, Armstrong joined the NASA Astronaut Corps in 1962. His first spaceflight was the NASA Gemini 8 mission in 1966, for which he was the command pilot, becoming one of the first U.S. civilians to fly in space. On this mission, he performed the first manned docking of two spacecraft with pilot David Scott. Armstrong’s second and last spaceflight was as mission commander of the Apollo 11 moon landing mission on July 20, 1969. On this mission, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the lunar surface and spent 2½ hours exploring while Michael Collins remained in orbit in the Command Module.

Armstrong was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Richard Nixon along with Collins and Aldrin, the Congressional Space Medal of Honor by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.

Here is Glenn Gould in the 1981 Studio Video recording playing Bach’s “ Goldberg Variations”. A fitting memorial for the man who made a small step, but achieved a giant leap for mankind.

Thursday 23 August 2012


“Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” - Richard M. Sherman
Spring is definitely in the air and the lengthening days are putting everyone in a better mood. What better way to celebrate the approach of Spring and the coming weekend than with a delicious Bakewell Slice?
Bakewell Slice

90 g softened unsalted butter
110 g caster sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla essence
50 g plain flour
50 g almond meal (ground blanched, toasted almonds)
50 g self-raising flour
340 g apricot jam
60 g chopped dried apricots
1 egg, lightly beaten, extra
120 g flaked almonds (shaved, blanched toasted almonds)
60 g almond meal (ground blanched, toasted almonds), extra
1 tablespoon icing sugar

  • Mix jam and finely chopped apricots heat in the microwave for a couple of minutes and let it cool.
  • Preheat oven to 160˚C and grease a 20 x30 cm baking pan, lining it with baking paper.
  • Beat butter, caster sugar, vanilla essence and egg in a small bowl with an electric mixer until light and fluffy.
  • Stir in the flours and first lot of almond meal, mixing lightly.
  • Spread dough into pan, levelling it out.
  • Spoon jam mixture gently over the dough, covering it evenly.
  • Combine the extra egg, 80 g of the flaked almonds and second lot of almond meal in a bowl. Mix well and spread evenly over the jam. Sprinkle the remaining flaked almonds over the top evenly.
  • Bake for about 40 minutes in a fan forced oven.
  • Cool slice in the pan and dust with sifted icing sugar before cutting into small rectangular pieces.

This post is part of the Food Friday meme,
and also part of the Food Trip Friday meme.


“Those who wish to pet and baby wild animals love them. But those who respect their natures and wish to let them live normal lives, love them more.” - Edwin Way Teale

Anthropomorphism is an attribution of human characteristics (or characteristics assumed to belong only to humans) to other animals, non-living things, phenomena, material states, objects or abstract concepts, such as organisations, governments, spirits or deities. The term was coined in the mid 1700s. Examples include animals and plants and forces of nature such as winds, rain or the sun depicted as creatures with human motivations, and/or the abilities to reason and converse. The term derives from the combination of the Greek ἄνθρωπος (ánthrōpos), “human” and μορφή (morphē), “shape” or “form”.
This device is often used in literature (for example, Aesop’s fables are full of examples of anthropomorphism) or in art (for example, Britain is anthropomorphosed as the warrior Britannia, a helmeted woman with shield and trident). As humans we tend to regard ourselves (perhaps hubristically…) as the peak of creation and the most evolved of life forms. We personify the inanimate and anthropomorphose animals in order to imbue them with characteristics that show off the best (or worse!) of human nature. Our motivation may be magnanimity, humour, criticism, amusement, pride, propaganda or sheer whimsy.

Anthropomorphism is often seen to excess in popular culture where aided by modern marketing, this tendency has spawned a host of human-like creatures derived from non-human animate and inanimate things. Watch any animated film and you are bound to come across anthropomorphism in almost every scene. Japan has numerous examples in its popular culture and the soft toy industry lives richly on our propensity to make humans of animal totems that are cuddly and extremely human-like: The teddy bear is a case in point…

I came across the photograph that illustrates this article online recently. Photographer Suzi Eszterhas spent three months on the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya while she was living in Africa for three years.  This particular series of photos was captured in 2008 or 2009. The article accompanying the photos shows a degree of anthropomorphism in its prose, talking about a “family” of lions, the “Dad” playing with the cub, prattles on about “infancy” and “adulthood”, “rites of passage” and uses other anthropological jargon… And even Eszterhas embellishes with her explanation:
“That was literally the moment the cub first saw his dad ever. He kind of walked up shyly and then the dad immediately tried to play with him and the mom is watching the whole time to make sure the dad behaves.  The whole moment is really special.”

Why, looking at the photograph one can see the proud “Dad” smiling as the cub plays with him – even though we know animals really don't smile... It is tempting to anthropomorphose and one’s view of wild animals can be irrevocably altered by this approach. Eszterhas’ photos were taken after she very cautiously and patiently “infiltrated” the pride of lions and with infinite care managed to get the lions to tolerate her presence. If you or I approached the lions and wanted to cuddle the adorable cub and congratulate the “Dad” lion on the new arrival to the “Family”, I am sure the male, or more probably the lioness, would very quickly eliminate us from the equation.

It is fun to anthropomorphose and history tells us that humans have done it for millennia. But it’s also wise to remember where fantasy ends and where reality begins. I am sure that many kids (or for that matter quite a few adults!) have been mauled or killed by wild animals because they viewed as adorable anthropomorphic people-like creatures. Wild animals are primarily wild and secondarily animals…

Tuesday 21 August 2012


“I love music passionately. And because I love it I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it.” - Claude Debussy
Today is the 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth. Claude Achille Debussy (August 22, 1862 – March 25, 1918) was a composer of impressionistic, post-romantic music. He was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Yvelines, France. His father was a salesman and kept a china shop. His mother was a seamstress. Some traumatising events in his childhood caused him to become depressed and he never spoke about his early years. Later, he could not compose without having his favourite porcelain frog by his side! Debussy’s piano teacher, Mme. Maute, had been a student of Frédéric Chopin. She sent Debussy to the Paris Conservatory, where he studied from 1872-84 with César Franck, Ernest Guiraud and others. As an 1884 Prix de Rome winner, he went to Rome, Italy (1885–7), though more important impressions came from his visits to Bayreuth to hear Wagner (1888, 1889) and from hearing Javanese gamelan music in Paris (1889).
Debussy became influenced by the impressionist poets and artists in the circle of Stephane Mallarmé. In 1890 he wrote his most famous music collection for piano, “Suite Bergamasque”, containing “Clair de Lune”. His “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” (1892) continued the most productive 20-year period in his life. He composed the orchestral “Nocturnes”, “La Mer”, “Images” (1899-1909), and the intricate ballet “Jeux” (1912) for the Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev.
He was fascinated with Maurice Maeterlinck’s play “Pelleas et Melisande”, which inspired him to compose the eponymous symbolist opera which was praised by Paul Dukas and Maurice Ravel. In 1908 Debussy married singer Emma Bardac after they had had a daughter, Claude-Emma. Debussy called her Chou-Chou and composed for her the collection of piano pieces “Children’s Corner Suite” (1909). His piano masterpiece “Preludes” was composed in 1910-1913. The twelve preludes of the first book allude to Frédéric Chopin, although they are peppered with more provocative harmonies, especially the “La Cathedrale Engloutie”. In the second book of twelve preludes Debussy explored the avant-garde, with deliciously dissonant harmonies evoking mysterious images.
The beginning of WW I as well as the onset of cancer depressed Debussy. He left unfinished an opera, ballets and two pieces after stories by Edgar Allan Poe that later were completed by his assistants. Claude Debussy died from rectal cancer in Paris on March 25, 1918 during World War I and a siege by the Prussian army that pounded Paris from the ‘Big Bertha’ gun not far from the capital city. He was interred in Paris in the Cimetière de Passy. Debussy’s death as well as the World War I coincided with the sad end of the Belle Epoque era, which witnessed Paris blooming with sophistication and modernity as never seen before in Europe.
Rudolph Réti points out the features of Debussy’s music which ‘established a new concept of tonality in European music’:
  • Frequent use of long pedal points;
  • Glittering passages and webs of figurations which distract from occasional absence of harmony;
  • Frequent use of parallel chords which are in essence not harmonies at all, but rather chordal melodies;
  • Bitonality, or at least bitonal chords;
  • Use of the whole-tone scale;
  • Unprepared modulations, without any harmonic bridge.
He concludes that Debussy’s achievement was the synthesis of monophonic-based melodic tonality with harmonies, albeit different from those of harmonic tonality.
Here is his "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun"...

Monday 20 August 2012


“To burn with desire and keep quiet about it is the greatest punishment we can bring on ourselves.” - Federico García Lorca
Magpie Tales has stimulated the grey cells once again this week, adding fuel to the fire of our imagination with a beautiful painting: “Under Windsor Bridge”, 1912, by Adolphe Valette. Pierre Adolphe Valette (1876 – 1942) was a French Impressionist painter who was active for a great part of his life painting the urban landscapes of Manchester. Many of his works are now in the collection of the Manchester Art Gallery. Born in St Etienne in 1876, he trained at the École Municipale de Beaux-Arts et des Arts Decoratifs in Bordeaux.
Valette arrived in England for unknown reasons in 1904 and studied at the Birbeck Institute, now part of the University of London. In 1905 he travelled to the Northwest of England where he began a short career designing greeting cards and calendars for a Manchester printing company. He attended evening classes at Manchester Municipal School of Art and in 1907 he was invited to join the staff as a teacher. His French teaching style, painting by demonstration, was new to the United Kingdom.
L.S. Lowry expressed great admiration for Valette, who taught him new techniques and showed him the potential of the urban landscape as a subject. He called him “a real teacher … a dedicated teacher”. In 1920 Valette resigned from the Institute due to ill health. He stayed in Lancashire for a further eight years, teaching privately and painting in Manchester and Bolton. In 1928 he returned to Paris, and later moved to Blacé en Beaujolais where he died in 1942. His paintings are Impressionist, a style that suited the damp fogginess of Manchester. Manchester Art Gallery has a room devoted to him, where the viewer may compare some of his paintings with some of Lowry’s, and judge to what extent Lowry’s own style was influenced by Valette and by French Impressionism generally.
Here is a poem suiting the image that I wrote a couple of decades ago while living in Europe.

Amsterdam V

How melancholy this city
When love has died.
How tiresome the narrow houses
When I know none there awaits my return.
How slowly the canal waters flow
When I know all is over.

The sun sets and violet evenings
Envelop countless bridges,
The amber lamps endlessly reflecting
Their shimmering images,
As distant laughter mocks my waterless tears.

How crushingly the night falls around my heart tonight
As resignation points the way clearly toward my duty.
How hopelessly I must await the morning
As new-found resolutions crystallise in the falling temperature.
How dreamless the drug-filled sleep that I must partake of
As all expectations, hopes, illusions drown in the still canals.


“What is wonderful about great literature is that it transforms the man who reads it towards the condition of the man who wrote.” E. M. Forster

I was in secondary school when I first heard about the Shakespeare authorship debate. Until that time I was happy with the idea that the Shakespearean corpus of writings were written by Shakespeare! The Shakespeare authorship debate is about whether someone other than William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the works attributed to him. The Anti-Stratfordians (adherents of the various alternative-authorship theories) maintain that Shakespeare of Stratford was a front to shield the identity of the real author or authors, who for some reason did not want, or could not accept, public credit.

This idea has attracted much public interest (and who doesn't love a juicy conspiracy theory?). However, all but a few Shakespeare scholars and literary historians consider it a fringe belief and for the most part disregard it except to rebut or disparage the claims.  Shakespeare’s authorship was first questioned in the middle of the 19th century, when adulation of Shakespeare as the greatest writer of all time had become widespread. Shakespeare’s biography, particularly his humble origins and obscure life, seemed incompatible with his reputation for genius, arousing suspicion that Shakespeare might not have written the works attributed to him.

The controversy has since spawned a vast body of literature, and more than 70 authorship candidates have been proposed, including Francis Bacon, the 6th Earl of Derby, Christopher Marlowe, and Edward De Vere the 17th Earl of Oxford. Supporters of alternative candidates argue that theirs is the more plausible author, and that William Shakespeare lacked the education, aristocratic sensibility, or familiarity with the royal court that they say is apparent in the works.

Shakespeare scholars say that biographical interpretations of literature are unreliable in attributing authorship, and that the convergence of documentary evidence used to support Shakespeare’s authorship (title pages, testimony by other contemporary poets and historians, and official records) is the same used for all other authorial attributions of his era. No such supporting evidence exists for any other candidate, and Shakespeare's authorship was not questioned during his lifetime or for centuries after his death.

In the book “Shakespeare Identified”, published in 1920, J. Thomas Looney, an English schoolteacher, proposed Edward De Vere the 17th Earl of Oxford as a candidate for the authorship of Shakespeare’s works. His theory was based on perceived analogies between Oxford’s life and poetic techniques in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. It supplanted an earlier popular theory involving Francis Bacon. Academic consensus rejects all alternative candidates for authorship, including the Earl of Oxford.

At the weekend we saw a film that is based on this idea that Edward De Vere the 17th Earl of Oxford was the “real” Shakespeare. That is, the film takes it as a given that he was the true author of the works attributed to Shakespeare. This was the 2011 Roland Emmerich film, “Anonymous”, starring Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, Rafe Spall and David Thewlis. It is obviously a film that capitalizes on the Shakespeare authorship debate and is a worthy counterfoil to the older “Shakespeare in Love” that was more sympathetic to the Bard of Avon.

The film is entertainment and fiction rather than a historically accurate documentary that probes the truth. Having made that quite clear at the outset, it doesn’t matter one iota who really was the author of Shakespeare’s works. The film tends to make short shrift of the real Shakespeare’s literary talents (non-existent) and attributes all the works of Shakespeare to the Earl of Oxford. This backbone of the story is enriched by plenty of detail and subplot, as well as plotting and intrigue in the court of Elizabeth I.
We enjoyed the film, although the flashbacks/flash-forwards tended to be annoying at times. It is an amusing conceit and if one completely forgets the historical inconsistencies and accepts the thesis of the plot, one can be entertained for a couple of hours. Just don't expect a learned documentary…

Sunday 19 August 2012


“Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature’s delight.” - Marcus Aurelius

How many art works of the past have been lost, destroyed or otherwise vanished without a trace! Many of them of course would have perished inadvertently in fires, floods or other natural disasters. Others may have been the victims of warfare or other civil disturbances. Some paintings would have been lost as they were over-painted, their panels or stretched canvas supports re-used by more recent artists. Some metal sculptures would have been broken down and melted so that their material could be re-used for more mundane requirements. Other art works still may languish forgotten in some dusty attic or locked up room, overlooked or simply forgotten about. A couple of years ago I blogged about the discovery, finally recovered in a Paris apartment…

It seems that history may repeat itself, with another long-lost work of an Old Master being rediscovered, in this case a painting by Leonardo da Vinci in a Scottish farmhouse. 59-year-old Fiona McLaren had kept an old painting in her home for a long time. It appears she didn’t think much of the painting. Recently facing financial difficulties, she decided to have the painting appraised and she was pleasantly surprised when some experts are speculating that it may in fact be a 500-year-old painting by Leonardo da Vinci and potentially worth more than $150 million.

If this painting is a genuine Leonardo, how did it manage to end up in a Scottish farmhouse? The provenance of the work is obscure, but in the twentieth-century it resurfaced when George McLaren, a physician working in London, received the work as a gift from a patient in the 1960s. The painting has remained in the family and resided on a landing and in a bedroom in George McLaren’s house. In 1979 George McLaren passed away and the painting then transferred to his wife who subsequently gave the work to her daughter Fiona McLaren on her fortieth birthday.

When art auctioneer Harry Robertson saw the painting he was staggered, speechless and finally gave a long sigh of exclamation! The painting is undergoing further analysis by experts at the Cambridge University and the Hamilton Kerr Institute, who will attempt to uncover its exact age and origins. Even if the painting is not a da Vinci original, it is believed to at least be from the da Vinci school, created by one of the Master’s pupils during the 16th century.

A papal bull was found attached to the back of the painting and is believed to have originated from the era of Pope Paul V, head of the Catholic Church in the early 17th century. The word “Magdalene” is visible on the faded paper. McLaren says that she will sell the painting to a museum, and she plans to donate to charity a percentage of the painting’s sale value after it is auctioned off.

The late George McLaren always referred to this painting as “Madonna and Child with John the Baptist”. Contemporary art experts say it is more likely to be a portrait of Mary Magdalene with her son. Shades of Dan Brown’s “The da Vinci Code”... The woman in the painting wears red, the colour declared by Papal decree for representing Mary Magdalene as opposed to the traditional blue used for the Virgin Mary.  The note from Pope Paul V (17 September 1552 – 28 January 1621) dates from the early 17th century, significantly later than Leonardo’s lifetime, and contains the word Magdalene, despite the majority of the text being illegible. Magdalene’s position in religious orthodoxy has been controversial and this may explain the disappearance of the work for centuries.

The composition of this small (58 x 71 cm) work resembles the Louvre’s “Madonna of the Rocks” though this sort of grouping was a common composition of figure during the Renaissance. Leonardesque details such as the v-shaped hairline, part and the child's elongated second toe point to the workshop of the Master. The background by the woman’s left shoulder is left unfinished, also characteristic of the multi-tasking Leonardo.
Alternatively of course, this could be a well-conceived fake!