Friday, 29 May 2015

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

May 29
29 May starts with 363 and the Battle of Ctesiphon, between the Sassanid King Shapur II and the Roman Emperor Julian, generally known as Julian the Apostate because of his hatred of all things Christian. He was none too keen on the Neo-Persians either, who had their own Empire every bit as good as the Roman one, a leading power for over four hundred years, known to its inhabitants as Eran, which is where the name Iran comes from. Anyhow, Julian decides he’s going to do something about the Persians and their empire-building and, what’s more, he’s going to do it right outside their capital city of Ctesiphon (the C is silent, by the way or, rather, the K is, seeing it’s a Greek name). So he did. And won. Pretty spectacularly too, by all accounts (though it’d be the Romans themselves who were keeping the scores), losing only seventy five men to the Persian’s two and a half thousand, at which the vanquished Sassanians hold up the white flag. That’s not quite good enough for our Julian, who resolves on finishing the job now he’s started, plus he might earn himself the honorific of Parthicus by taking the city, Parthicus being a victory title and the Roman way of bragging I’m Better Than (add name of nation), in this case Julian the Beater of the Parthians. There was, however, one tiny flaw in his besieging plans. The Ctesiphonians were now safely inside their thickly-walled fortress city, along with plenty of tuck, having taken the precaution before fleeing back there of trashing and burning everything in sight, which left thin pickings for the Romans to stick in their cooking pots so, before very long at all, they’re mighty peckish, riddled with disease and about as ticked off with the Apostate as it’s possible to get in a siege situation. Poor old Julian is then forced to make a humiliating run for it. And with a horde of outraged Persians hotfooting it after him in order to get their own back, catching him up at Samarra when, before Julian can even get his armour on, he ends up with a spear in his liver and that’s the end of him. And the Constantinian dynasty too, as it goes.

This day in 1108, it was the Battle of Uclés, in modern-day Spain, Christians against Muslims, the Christians taking a darn good spanking for their efforts, most of their high nobility being butchered on the field, beheaded afterwards or murdered whilst attempting to leg it out of there at the top of their speed. They fared a sight better in 1167 at the Battle of Monte Porzio, though that’s mainly down to the fact that this was Christians against Christians, otherwise known as the Commune of Rome, who supported Pope Alexander III, and the Holy Roman Empire, who wanted to put their own man, Paschal III, in the hotseat instead. The Holy Roman Empire under Frederick I eventually came out on top, only for plague or malaria to get them, which made it more of a score draw in the end.
Barely had the dust settled on that one than along comes the replay, the Battle of Legnano, 29 May 1176, which was basically the same folk again trying to sort out their unfinished business, Frederick I still at the head of the Holy Roman Empire mob wanting imperial rule over Italy and to dethrone the Pope (still Alexander III), squaring up with the Lombard League (Italians), who didn’t think that was such a good idea, seeing as how Fred was an unspeakable bounder of the first magnitude. In fact, they hated him so much that they dubbed him Barbarossa (Red Beard – they sure knew how to dish out a wounding soubriquet when they needed to in those days), which put him in a foul mood enough to lay siege to Alessandria, just to show them who was boss. Though he then failed entirely to take it, despite the fact that it was known then as the Straw City (most of its roofs were covered in straw) – did nobody remember to bring any matches? – so he’s forced to press on in order to give someone else a miserable time of it, which happens to be the good people of Legnano, secure in the knowledge that it’s 29 May, a day that has proved highly auspicious to him in the past, even if the folk he’ll be up against have chosen to call themselves the Company of Death and painted skulls on their shields. Which should’ve been a bit of a clue for most tyrannical maniacs, but not our Friedrich, who then found out the hard way that the name was no idle boast when they gave him a downright walloping on the field that day. Even that almighty cock-up wasn’t the end of him (he was wounded and went missing for long enough for everyone to think he was dead and to start cracking open the champagne, only for him to turn up again before the blinis had even been served), living long enough to ride his horse into a fast-flowing river whilst wearing his full and heavy battle armour, only to discover that the two things didn’t go together when he was swept away to a watery death. Much later, the Nazis were looking for a name for their operation to invade Russia, so Hitler plumped for Barbarossa, probably having heard the legend that the great Teutonic Warrior was not dead, merely sleeping in the mountains until the time came to return Germany to its former glories. Alas, nobody had the nerve to point out that Frederick I was your classical Holy Roman Ninny that everything went wrong for, so they pressed on regardless. Into ignominious disaster and utter defeat.

In 1414 they were at it again. The culprit this time was Pope John XXIII, who was actually an antipope, which doesn’t mean he was against popes per se but that he was opposed to the bloke the Catholic Church had chosen for the job because he thought he could make a better fist of it himself, being an incorrigible and thoroughly unprincipled rogue. By 1392, he had entered the service of Pope Boniface IX, an illiterate money-grabbing nepotistic crook who had never bothered to learn any theology whatsoever and therefore seemed absolutely ideal Pope material, even perhaps a little overqualified. Boniface then made our man a Cardinal in 1402 and Papal Legate in 1403, mainly because of his links with local robber bands that could be used to “influence people.” Thus we see the benefit of networking.

Sadly, Boniface died in 1404 and Gregory XII donned the papal threads instead. Meanwhile, the Council of Pisa were trying to sort out all this senseless bickering over who was and who wasn’t Pope business (officially known as the Western Schism) once and for all but, rather inconveniently, this turned out to be by sacking both existing claimants and bringing in a new man, Alexander V, which only resulted in there now being three popes on the loose at a time when one was more than most people cared to cope with. Somewhat more conveniently, however, Alexander pegged it and our man duly stepped into the breach, as John XXIII, having had himself ordained as a priest just the day before so that it was all proper and above board. But, before he’d had much chance to reap all the materialistic rewards of being Supreme Head of the Catholic Church, the Council of Constance (nosy blighters) began rummaging through the soiled underwear of his papacy, finding him guilty of heresy, simony, schism and immorality (for which he did a few months in clink before he was able to bribe his way out), though they chose to overlook the charges of piracy, rape, sodomy, murder and incest, possibly to avoid people suspecting that some popes weren’t perhaps quite as white as they had painted themselves. He was deposed this day in 1415. On top of that, he was only ever an Antipope, so he doesn’t even count – he’s been tippexed out of the record books and the official Pope John XXIII is Angelo Roncalli, who didn’t get started poping until 1958 and, even then, there was still some confusion as to whether he should be John XXIII or XXIV, or at least there was until John himself declared he was John XXIII, so there, so that was that. Popes are infallible, remember, so nobody could really argue with that, could they? Pope John XXIII is still known today as the “Good Pope” (what does that say about the rest of them, in that case?), the first pontiff since 1316 to choose the name John to reign under, all because of one despicable blighter, Baldassarre Cossa, back in 1415.

Other, not quite so Pope-orientated, things to happen this day include (1328) the coronation of Philip VI of France (that’s Phil the Fortunate, you’ll recall, who lost at Crecy, lost Calais and his entire navy, and then lost his wife and a large chunk of his people to Black Death but, on the other hand, was never beaten at Buckaroo, which shows how lucky he really was, seeing it wouldn’t be invented until six hundred and twenty years after his death, the jammy beggar) and also (1660) of Charles II of England, though these two ubiquitous blighters always seem to pop up in these columns doing something or other, no matter what date it happens to concern. In 1453, Ottoman armies under Sultan Mehmed II Fatih brought about the end of the Byzantine Empire by capturing Constantinople after a siege, which was a bit of a blow to the Romans after fifteen hundred years of lording it over everyone, and to Christendom in general, what with all these Saracens roaming about everywhere they fancied, though it did mean the intellectuals of Constantinople slipped away across the water to Italy and thus helped get the Renaissance going, which was nice of them.

Leaving bloodshed and violence behind us, we now come to 1912 and the ballet, because on this day the Ballets Russes premiered their latest work, The Afternoon of a Faun, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky who, being no shrinking violet, hogged the lead role for himself. The dress rehearsal of the 28 May ended with stony silence and, when it opened on 29 May, it was booed, though Renoir thought it was rather a hoot and stood up to cheer. Mostly though, it bombed.

Same date, same company, the very next year and this time it’s Stravinsky trying to follow up his smash hit, Petrushka, with the controversial and cacophonic (by contemporary accounts) The Rite of Spring, which only ended up causing a riot. Well, they say “riot” but, being ballet folk, the most outrageous thing that happened in all likelihood is that someone jostled someone else’s elbow in the crush bar or else an opprobrious remark was passed regarding some lady’s hat. The house was packed that night. And they’d come expecting to be shocked. As soon as it got started there was derisive laughter and booing, and the appearance of the dancers stamping along to the relentlessly percussive score did little to improve matters so, in no time at all, vegetables were being hurled at the musicians, who couldn’t hear themselves play for the uproar. One onlooker is even supposed to have beaten out the pulsating rhythms on the bald pate of some hapless fellow in front of him. They did calm down when it came to the interval, had a quick stiffener, and then it was back out for the second half, when it all kicked off again. The show ran for seven performances and then along came the First World War to put it out of its misery.

Being as it’s May 29, nearly halfway through the year, with the festive trimmings about to appear on the supermarket shelves, it’s probably quite a good idea to be thinking about Christmas singles. Especially if it’s 1942 and your name happens to be Bing Crosby, in which case it’ll be a little number called White Christmas, which took him all of eighteen minutes to do. He seems to have been a bit underwhelmed by the whole thing, remarking simply after the recording, “I don’t think we’ll have any problems with that one, Irving.” That’d be Irving Berlin, the modest fellow that penned the piece, who then told his secretary to “Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I've ever written — heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody's ever written!” (Clearly, he’d never heard Motorhead’s No Voices In The Sky then). By the end of the year it was top of the Hit Parade (that’s what it was called in those days) and would reappear there perennially for the next twenty years until Billboard magazine took the desperate measure of creating a chart especially for Christmas songs. And still failed miserably to kill it off. In fact, what happened instead was that every man and his ostrich then thought it was well worth having a go at, so that we’ve now ended up with a situation whereby, for the last four months of any year, you can’t set foot inside a store without being mercilessly assaulted by an entire back catalogue of whiskery Festive jingles. White Christmas is the biggest selling single of all time, with over fifty million copies having gone across the counter, and Bing would be forever associated with the song, though he always played down his own role in its success, saying, “a jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully.” Clearly, he had heard Rick Astley’s version of it …

This day in 1953 saw one of Britain’s greatest triumphs when a New Zealander and a Nepalese became the first men to set foot on the top of Everest – be fair, it was a British expedition, their (our) ninth attempt at it, the news of the achievement reaching these shores on Coronation Day itself. Nepal only allowed one go annually and, just the year before, the Swiss had come mighty close to scuppering the party, getting within eight hundred feet of the top before having to turn back, which left the field open to the British party, numbering some four hundred people, most of whom were there to carry stuff, seeing there was over ten thousand pounds of kit. Eventually, it was Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay (Sherpa being a people, not an occupation) who were victorious, reaching the summit at 11.30 am that day. Incidentally, Norgay’s name was originally Namgyal Wangdi but his head lama advised changing it, as Tenzing Norgay translates as “wealthy-fortunate-follower-of-religion,” which is only partly right, seeing his dad was a yak herder and, while Hillary and Hunt (the leader) got knighthoods, Tenzing had to make do with a medal, supposedly on the say-so of the Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, unfamous enough then to resent any competition from jumped-up yak herders.

You may have spotted that there is an iconic photo of Tenzing standing at the summit but none of Hillary, which is a bit odd, wouldn’t you say? Some have put it down to the Nepalese not being able to work a camera, though he himself claims that Hillary took his picture and then he offered to return the favour only for the Kiwi to turn round and say, “Nah! Don’t think I’ll bother actually.” Sounds very likely, don’t it? What was the problem? Had he forgotten to bring a comb with him and didn’t fancy being snapped with his hair blown all over the place by the wind or something? Anyway, having hung around for fifteen minutes and discovered there actually wasn’t that much to do up there, once you’d taken in the view, down they came again. To fame and celebrity.

But were they really the first? Or did someone else manage it earlier, way back in 1924? That’d be Mallory and Irvine, a pair of Cheshire lads who were last sighted on June 8 that year within spitting distance of the summit (assuming that either of them could actually spit several hundred yards, that is) and then they promptly disappeared. Nobody knows whether they got to the top or not but, when Mallory’s body was discovered, there was no picture of his wife in his pocket and he had always intended to leave it on the summit. Alas, his camera has never been found, which might furnish photographic proof of their having made it all the way (the film would have been deep-frozen and still developable now), so we’ll never know for sure unless it does turn up. When someone questioned Sir Edmund about his views on the controversy, his reply came across as a tad ungracious. He remarked, “I do not know whether Mallory and Irvine reached the summit,” which is fair enough, only he then added, “What I do know is that Tenzing Norgay and I were the first to get to the top and back down to the bottom again.” Sounds a bit like shifting the goalposts from where we’re sitting. Nobody said anything about getting down again before Mallory and Irvine set off, did they? Besides Which: Hillary had hundreds of bods fetching and carrying all his gear around for him, and even one to bring him hot soup as soon as he set off downhill again. Whereas Mallory famously did it in a three piece suit. It might well be the undoing of you in the end but, by golly, that’s what we call Great British Pluck.

Sassanian relief showing Shapur II above a defeated Julian: By Philippe Chavin (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Fredrick I submits to Alexander III: Spinello Aretino [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Company of Death at Legnano 1176: By Amos Cassioli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Antipope John XXIII: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Pope John XXIII: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Fall of Constantinople: Fausto Zonaro [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Faun Poster: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Stravinsky by Picasso: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Bing Crosby: By Roosevelt, Franklin D. (Franklin Delano), 1882-1945 (File:Bing Crosby.jpg (cropped)) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Tenzing Norgay: By SAS Scandinavian Airlines ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Edmund Hillary: By Photographer unidentified. Retouched by TimofKingsland. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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