Friday, 11 December 2015

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

December 11

Not such a good day, this one, when it comes to 969 and Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas. Which is a dashed shame, seeing that his efforts went a long way in ensuring the resurgence of the Byzantine Empire just around then, getting the trains running on time, all that kind of caper. Actually, he didn’t really do that but, then again, nor did Mussolini and yet people somehow still like to believe that Il Duce was some kind of whizzkid with a railway timetable. Back with our man Nike, one thing he did share with the ill-fated Italian dictator (don’t get us wrong – it’s the lamppost we feel sorry for in that relationship) was a rigid belief that a brutal military regime was the only way to really get people to sit up and take notice and, as luck would have it, Nike was pretty much a dabhand at the old campaigning lark, so he did all right for himself. He wasn’t at all shy when it came to women either and fairly sprinted up the aisle, getting married at a very young age to a certain Stephano, though it turned out that he wasn’t much cop when it came to picking one that would last, his bride barely making it over the threshold before she pegged out, after which Nike took an oath of chastity. As Wikipedia grandly understates it, “this would cause problems later on.”

With an excellent sense of timing, Nike had managed to clamber right to the top of the army’s greasy pole by 963 when, on 15 March, Emperor Romanos II died “unexpectedly” at the age of twenty-six. Quite why it should’ve been so unexpected remains something of a mystery, seeing it did happen to be the Ides of March that day, when you’d think everybody would have one eye out for something untoward happening and thus be able to avoid it. Not Romanos II, it seems, who blithely exhausted himself on excesses of sex and drink, so some folk say, though a fickle finger of suspicion was pointed firmly in the direction of his wife, Theophano, a dastardly husband-poisoner by all accounts. And ruthlessly ambitious to boot. Just the sort of foxy lady we chaps tend to steer well clear of in the old ball and chain situation, though there’s always one that doesn’t heed the warnings in time and ends up copping it good and proper. Anyhow, Romanos had taken the precaution of having his two sons crowned as co-emperors, the snag being that they were only five and three, so a regent was needed to step in to do the ruling in the meantime. Luckily enough, Theophano was on hand and at a bit of a loose end, what with having no husband to do away with just then, so she said she’d take the job on to help them out, which was damnably decent of her when you think she’d only just been widowed. However, Byzantium then was pretty much a man’s world, so they weren’t going to let her rule alone, which is when our man is urged to snatch the throne by a perfidious wretch known as John Tzimiskes, who just happened to be Nike’s nephew at the same time. By 2 July that year, Nike had been sworn in as Emperor but, fair dos, he did do the decent thing by marrying Theophano, hoping, no doubt, to keep her sweet by into the bargain. Fat chance of that, mate – don’t forget, you’ve taken a vow of chastity, so there’s bound to be “problems.”


Sad to relate, Nike turned out to be not at all popular as a ruler, being pretty stingy with the finances for one thing, which caused riots, and matters weren’t proceeding at all well in the bedroom department either – thanks mainly to his not really having thought through this whole vow of celibacy idea – so, not unnaturally, the wife starts sniffing around elsewhere, at which point who should turn up but slippery old unreliable John Tzimiskes, who decides to take that particular job on himself. Of course, not long goes by before John starts thinking to himself that he’s doing half Nike’s work for him, so he might as well do the emperoring part as well so, what with having a lover with a proven track record of disposing of cumbersome husbands, he sets out to get the matter sorted. Having hatched a plan and recruited some henchmen to help, they dress themselves up as women and sneak into the palace that 11 December, hiding themselves in Theophano’s room. Meanwhile, Nike’s somehow got wind of an assassination plot in the offing, so he has the place thoroughly searched for suspicious looking blokes tooled up ready for a spot of throat-slitting, neglecting for some reason to take a peek into his wife’s boudoir. Well, why ever should he? After all, it’s just the wife in there, her and that incongruous group of strapping and strangely bearded women all armed to the teeth with swords. Nothing to worry about there. Eventually he convinces himself it’s a false alarm and heads off to bed – well, we say bed but our man was a bit of a rum ‘un for choosing to sleep on the floor instead (dicky back most likely), which is where he is when the villains come creeping in. Well, once again, we say creeping but they made such a pig’s ear of it noisewise that the next thing that happens is Nike’s leapt to his feet, scaring the bejaybers out of them and just in time for the hapless Emperor to meet a sword swinging inexorably in a facewardly direction. Talk about having your nose put out of joint, but at least it took his mind off his dicky back. The funny thing is that he never had a single moment’s bother with his back ever again after that. Especially once his visitors had gotten through with severing his head and sticking it up on a spike, following which his nephew got to be Emperor John I. Seven years later, John himself would “die suddenly.” Wonder what became of Theophano whilst that was happening?

Even by 1282 this day hadn’t mellowed out one iota and 11 December was going to prove a real stinker as far as Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was concerned. Mind you, he really should’ve known things weren’t going to work out any too well for him, seeing he was also known as Llywelyn the Last, which kind of puts a damper on your prospects, you’d’ve thought. And even with his unlikely soubriquet, he just didn’t seem able to get along with folk, especially when it came to Edward I of England, also known as Longshanks. And also known as the Hammer of the Scots, though, had there been room enough on the tomb, they’d’ve probably added, “And None Too Keen On The Welsh Either, Come To That.” Things didn’t get off to the best of starts when Llywelyn started getting matey with Simon de Montfort, someone else the English King couldn’t abide (he was one of your pickier monarchs, it seems) and weren’t improved a jot when Llywelyn decided he quite fancied marrying Simon’s daughter, Eleanor, who just happened to be Eddie’s first cousin and a dyed-in-the-wool Plantagenet princess. When she sailed from France, instead of the nuptials she’d been expecting, all she ended up in the arms of was a band of cut-throat pirates, hired by her cousin Eddie to throw a spanner in the works and make Llywelyn toe the line a bit. They were eventually allowed to marry (after a bout of perfunctory cap-doffing) at Worcester Cathedral, where a stained glass window still commemorates the event (if you thought standing around for your wedding photos was bad enough, imagine having to pose for that one). Anyhow, it was reckoned to be a proper love-match, though this seems to be based mainly on the fact that our man didn’t sire any (known) illegitimate offspring, something said to be “extremely unusual for the Welsh royalty.”


Now that Llywelyn and Edward were actual family, there was even less reason for making any pretence at getting along so, in 1276, Edward assembled a massive army and immediately marched it against his new in-laws, doing pretty well by all accounts and soon having Llywelyn in rather a ticklish situation, one that would force him to acknowledge Edward as his sovereign. That can’t’ve gone down any too well at all but, as it goes, Edward’s rapacious demands soon hacked off all the minor princelings too so, before you could say, “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysilio-gogogoch” (or even summon up the requisite phlegm to get the job started), the Welsh nobility found themselves revolting. By that stage, it was 1282 and, on 11 December that year, Llywelyn was leading his army when he heard that the forces of the Mortimers (Mortimer means stagnant lake, incidentally) and Hugo Le Strange (you’d trust a bloke with a name like Strange Hugh, wouldn’t you?) were in the vicinity and wanted to pay Llywelyn a spot of homage, if that was OK? Fine with me, says Llywelyn, and off they go. Only it turns out to be a dirty great fib, this homage stuff, and our man swiftly finds he’s been ambushed plus, just to rub salt in, has his head severed into the bargain (seems like 11 December is pretty much the day for that sort of activity), which ends up decorating the Tower of London for the next fifteen years. Still, it could’ve been worse.
 

Take his brother for instance, Dafydd ap Gruffydd, who followed the family tradition in giving Edward a hard time of it so, when he was finally captured in June 1283, they decided they’d think up a whole new way of putting him safely out of the way: by hanging, drawing and quartering him. Actually, they had got a bit of practice in beforehand as it goes, on a number of knights earlier that century, though it seems they don’t count, meaning that Dafydd could safely go down in history as the first nobleman to suffer what would become the mandatory penalty for high treason. It was bad enough being dragged at the tail of a horse to the place of execution, then hanged for a bit, revived, then emasculated and your guts removed before all were burned before your very eyes, then your head lopped off and your body cut into four, but that wasn’t enough for the malicious Edward (by heck, that man could bear a grudge), who had to add one final cruel twist to the whole macabre affair: by holding it in Shrewsbury …

Leaping forward to 1844, we now come to some sciencey stuff, with nitrous oxide finally being pressed into utile service. This gas was first synthesised in 1772 by our old friend, Joseph Priestley, who heated up iron filings and nitric acid – which of us hasn’t done that at some time or another? – though he called it phlogiston, showing that he might’ve been a cute little thinker on the clever stuff but, when it came to naming things, he had all the imagination of a rubber cosh. But just slightly more than Thomas Beddoes and James Watt, who ended up dubbing it Factitious Airs, for pity’s sake. Come on, lads, it makes you laugh, so why not call it Laughing Gas? To be fair, though, Watt did eventually get round to inventing an apparatus for inhaling the gas and then a young Humphry Davy had a bit of a tinker, noting that the gas had an analgesic effect which might prove quite handy when it came to surgical operations, though only as an afterthought buried away on page 465 of his book, Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, after which it was left to stagnate for a further forty four years. Well, by the boffins anyway.


These days, of course, we’ve become all but inured to the overfamiliarity of blurry images in lurid tabloid exposés of minor celebrities or Premiership footballers (there is an essential difference there, in that the footballer is required to have at least a modicum of talent to have achieved his dubious fame) grinning inanely and holding a balloon from which they have recently been inhaling said gaseous matter, seemingly in some tawdry and desperate attempt to appear trendy or “with it.” As Priestly himself might’ve remarked, “what an absolute load of utter cobalt!” For one thing, the gas is supposed to make the user appear “stuporous” – with our examples, how would you tell, television having already done much the same thing for them? For another, whilst the physicists were happily sitting about contemplating their omphali, it was the British upper classes, of all people, who were the first to have a high old time of it and, by 1799, they liked nothing better than getting off their chinless faces on the stuff at Laughing Gas Parties. Which makes the practice about as trendy as introducing income tax, slave running or burying George Washington. Or being a dentist, for that matter. Mind you, it took a dentist to get nitrous oxide back on the science pages when he used the gas during an extraction, ably assisted by one Gardner Quincy Colton and a John Mankey Riggs (which were their names, by the way, not descriptions – and, let’s be honest, a case of mankey riggs is nothing to make light of) this day in 1844, making a pretty good fist of the procedure by all accounts, though his colleagues rather pooh-poohed the whole affair and so the method didn’t come into general use until 1863.
 
Nitrous oxide can also be used as rocket fuel and (bizarrely, given that) it’s what they use as a propellant in aerosol whipped cream. So, you’ve been warned: don’t dabble with that stuff, whatever you do. You can’t tell what it might lead onto and, before you know it, you’ll be sounding like an eighteenth century British toff, been elected leader of the Conservative Party and will eventually end up asking people to call you “Dave.” And you wouldn’t want that, now would you? Oh, and (TV non-entities and overpaid sportsmen please note) nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas with massive global warming potential (a bit like China or India), having nine hundred and twenty eight times the ability per molecule than carbon dioxide to trap heat in the atmosphere. And, before the letters start flooding in about picking on poor old China and India, let’s not forget that it was this very day way back in 1997 that Britain, along with one hundred and forty nine other nations, signed the Kyoto Protocol, taking our greenhouse gas emissions back to below pre-1990 levels, so nobody can say we haven’t done our bit in the completely inadequate token gesture department. Which is precisely what our Prime Minister always demands of this great nation of ours …




And now we’re about to dip a tentative toe into Arts as we come to this day in 1913, which is when the stolen Mona Lisa was finally recovered. Nowadays, it’s regarded as the best known and most visited painting on the planet but, before it was half-inched, it was nowhere near as famous and not even the most popular picture in the particular gallery it occupied in the Louvre. So, being nicked worked wonders for its reputation because, let's face it, well-executed it may be but it’s exceptionally uninspiring as a piece and bordering on the downright dull. Perhaps that’s just over-exposure for you, as with the Hay Wain, but at least Constable bunged in a catchy sky and had stuff going on in his picture, whereas your Mona Lisa just sits there and simpers.



Basically, it’s a portrait of (probably) Lisa Gherardini, wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant, Francesco del Giocondo, who had Leonardo slap her down in oils so’s everyone would know what a top bod he was and how well he was doing for himself. It was painted around 1503-06, though this was an artist notorious for never finishing anything he started and he may still have been tinkering with it as late as 1517. Mona in Italian is a polite form of address, rather akin to our own ma’am or my lady, which originated as ma donna, then became madonna and finally mona. Strictly, it should be Monna Lisa, mona being vulgar to the Italians, but since when did the niceties of other nations’ cultures and languages ever stop us English from riding roughshod over them whenever the need arises? The alternative title of the work is La Gioconda, which – apparently – is a pun based on feminising her married name, thus giving it the meaning of happy or jovial (the Jocund One). Tell you what, the Italians might be a tad picky about that precious language of theirs but they couldn’t half do with the comedic side polishing up some, if that’s their idea of a pun. Or were they simply being sarcastic? As in, “Hey up, Francesco, lad – what’s up wi’ that missus o’ thine then? She’s got a face on her like a slapped backside.”


When Leonardo finally did finish it – or when he died might be more accurate – the picture was inherited by his pupil, Salai, before being bought by Francis I and then moved to Versailles by Louis XIV just before that Revolution business broke out, when it was taken to the Louvre. Napoleon even had it hanging on his bedroom wall in the Tuileries for a bit, which rather eclipses the rest of us for style, we who had to make do with that poster of the tennis lady scratching her buttock. And then, on 21 August 1911, it was stolen. But nobody noticed it was missing until the next day, at which point, long after the horse had not only bolted but probably had its hooves up somewhere, they closed the Louvre for a week. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire got the blame for it, on the grounds that he’d called for the Louvre to be burned down – classic mistake on the part of the investigators there: taking Apollinaire at all seriously – and, while he was banged up, he shopped his mate Picasso, who was also brought in for a grilling. Which is about when they pretty much ran out of ideas really.
 

The bloke that’d actually done it turned out to be a Louvre employee, Vincenzo Peruggia, whose master plan had been to walk in as normal, take the picture off the wall and then stroll away with it. But, having stashed it in his Floretine apartment, the red-faced French made a frightful hue and cry about the whole affair, getting photographs of the painting into all the newspapers and urging folk to keep an eye out for this particular lady – “you can’t miss her: she’s very enigmatic looking” – so there wasn’t much he could do with the wretched thing after that. Besides which, being an Italian, he would ever after insist that he had taken the picture in order to repatriate it. Though this motivation is undermined somewhat by his boasts to his father about how much loot he was going to make out of the deal and the fact that he didn’t simply donate it to an Italian museum. In the end, on 10 December 1913, he sauntered into the Uffizi Gallery, claiming to be Leonardo Vincenzo (what, the chap who painted the Mona Lisa back in 1503?) and that he had La Gioconda safely tucked away in a trunk beneath his underwear – which may explain that expression of hers, if she’d just spent the last two years draped in some Italian’s old pants. The next day, he got his collar felt and they got their painting back. It worked out OK all round in the end, seeing Peruggia was hailed as a great patriot and only got one year and fifteen days jail for it and, even then, only did seven months. 


Can’t leave 11 December behind without a brief mention that it was this day in 1972 when Apollo 17 touched down as the last manned flight to the moon and for astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt to become the eleventh and twelfth men to set foot on the surface, Cernan still being the last to have ever walked there. Almost unbelievably today, not only have a mere dozen men taken those historic steps but the moonwalks all took place in an extremely short interval between 21 July 1969 and 13 December 1972. But what kind of special personality traits and characteristics does it take to become a moonbound astronaut? What charisma, what panache? Well, several of them were “Juniors,” being named after their fathers and, having that sort of dad in common, nearly all of them spent time as Boy Scouts, woggle and all. Cernan was son of a Slovak father and a Czech mother (pretty much bordering on an outright commie, by the sound of it), while Buzz Aldrin got his nickname from the fact that his younger sister couldn’t say “brother,” only buzzer. Least exceptional and almost entirely uninteresting was Schmitt, had it not been for him uttering the statement that there was a definite link “between Soviet Communism and the American environmental movement” and that “that climate change was a stalking horse for National Socialism.”

So, there you are you see. You may have fondly imagined that the British Press was nothing but a scabrous bunch of lie-mongering, scandal-pushing sensationalists but it is now palpably clear that they were right all along: Jeremy Corbyn is to blame for everything …






Images:
Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Ides of March (Death of Caesar): [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Assassination: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Llywelyn the Last: Henry Alfred Pegram [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Edward I: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Hanged, Drawn & Quartered: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Joseph Priestley: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Doctor and Mrs Syntax, with a party of friends, experimenting with laughing gas. Coloured aquatint by T. Rowlandson after W. Combe: See page for author [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Space Shuttle Atlantis: By Scott Andrews, Canon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Mona Lisa: Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Leonardo: Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Guillaume Apollinaire: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Vincenzo Peruggia: See page for author [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Harrison Schmitt: By Photo credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Debbie McCallum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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