Tag Archives: history

Which Side are You On

Jack scrapes over the wire with the Wednesday post – – –

I’m a week or so late in acknowledging Labor Day I know, but –

On our kitchen wall we have a tea towel with a print of a certificate by the house decorators and painters union dating from the mid 1800s.

towel

It fascinates me for two reasons. It reminds me of a famous book – The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – that describes the working conditions of a group of house painters in England in the early 1900s. The other reason is because I served a six year apprenticeship learning all the skills depicted in that certificate.

The scenes illustrated clearly display great pride in the variety of specialisms involved –

The simple yet carefully prescribed way of painting a paneled door.

The use of color to enhance a classical Greek style cornice.

A cherub studying design and another one lettering a signboard.

A collection of regular paintbrushes and tools and another collection of tools for applying goldleaf.

In the center is a scene showing why the union was so important – a sick painter (maybe suffering from lead poisoning) is being attended by a doctor while his wife and son look on.

In The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists the main character is a young man, newly finished his apprenticeship who has a particular talent for design. He spends a lot of his own time, unpaid, making wonderful designs to be used later as part of his work. This reminds me very much of my father who served his time back in the 1920s when the system still included attendance at art college. Truly a marrying of art and craft and the legacy of people like William Morris.

My apprenticeship was served under my Dad in his painting business and I was ‘indentured’. That means that, like all his apprentices, we both signed a legal document that was then torn irregularly in half. At the end of my six years I received his half, which when matched to my half showed I was legally a time-served craftsman (indentured actually means ‘patterned like teeth’).

Everything has changed now. In Scotland there are still apprenticeships but they last just three years and don’t cover the same breadth of skills. Indenturing no longer takes place and DIY has blossomed with the introduction of easier to use materials and tools.

But I learned a lot – not just about craft skills, but also social skills. Not only that but it was the gateway to my college career, so a very good start to my working life.

Finally – I’m a big believer in unions!

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Monday Book – My Song is my Weapon

My Song is my Weapon – Robbie Lieberman (1995)

Reviewed by Jack Beck

Once upon a time (actually about eighteen years ago) Wendy and I were booked to perform at the Orkney Folk Festival off the north coast of Scotland. The festival took place in various venues in Stromness and we were accommodated in a lovely old hotel overlooking the harbor. Not surprisingly the hotel bar was a favorite gathering place late at night after the official concerts and ceilidhs were finished.

stromness-hotel

One night we found ourselves chatting to a young American lassie who said she had published a book we might find interesting! I immediately bought a copy and have now read it for maybe the fifth time –

As a young man in the late 1950s and early 1960s I was developing my left of center political views as well as a strong interest in folk songs. So I was well aware of Pete Seeger, the Weavers, the Almanac Singers, the connections to Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson.

What I didn’t know was what had preceded this in the US and where all these people had in their turn served their apprenticeship, both politically and musically.

my song is

Lieberman’s book was a revelation to me in many ways –

First of all I had no idea how large and popular the US Communist Party was in the 1930s and how well accepted that generally was. Then again, I knew nothing about the ‘popular front’ and was fascinated to see how that had helped generate the ‘folk revival’ of the 1950s and 1960s.

There was much that was familiar too – the ‘redscare’, McCarthyism, the blacklist and so on.

I have to admit that on first reading I found the book pretty dense and hard going. However each time I’ve re-read it I’ve found it not just easier but more enlightening. Each time I find more gems I’d missed before!

I can thoroughly recommend this to anyone with an interest in 1930s US politics, the roots and routes of the 1950s folk revival or all three!

 

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Fire, Fire,Burn – – –

Jack makes it across the line again –

Fires

Wendy and I decided we needed a fire pit in our back yard. So I surveyed the area and decided where it should be. The only trouble was that a pile of brush gathered by our predecessor was already there. So off to confer with Dr Google about the easiest way to build a fire pit and what do about that brush.

It turned out that there was a state-wide ordinance in place that between February and April you can’t burn garden stuff before 4 pm or after midnight. We were still in April at this point!

I wandered out again around 5 pm and looked at that pile of brush while aware of the lighter in my pocket. Could I? Should I? I wondered afterwards if that’s how arsonists feel. Are they overcome with the desire to just see flames? Something outside of me took over and I set the brush afire!

As I watched it my first thoughts were whether the neighbors would complain or even phone the police.

fire

But then I was transported back to another place – my childhood.

I remembered sitting in front of our coal fireplace gazing into the flames and being sucked into another world, while listening to favorite programs on the radio – Dick Barton, Special Agent; The Goon Show; Around the Horne – – –

My Dad was an expert painter and decorator and specialized in faux wood-graining and marbling. He made his own crayons from simple ingredients and dried  them beside the fireplace. Along with the smell of them drying came back the memory of the fish ‘n chip van outside sounding it’s horn and the smell of lard over that other open charcoal fire – – –

Do we have an old memory of the fire ceremonies that heralded the approach of spring and the new harvest? Is that why fire fascinates us so much?

I wonder!

 

 

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Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

The Beat Goes On – –

Once again Jack scrapes in under the wire –
Back when I was on the teaching staff at Swannanoa Gathering Celtic Week outside Asheville NC, one of the students who always attended my classes was Stefni. She sang in a choir in Pittsburgh that specialized in Eastern European music and she made their costumes. The last year I taught there Stefni didn’t show up and I wondered why. A few months later I received an email from her husband explaining she had died of a rare lung disease. That was very sad, but then he told us she had left her music and book library to us in her will! We were astonished and drove up there a few months later.
Sorting through her stuff was difficult and we came to an agreement to sell anything we didn’t want and split the proceeds. But that still left us with lots of stuff that never got put anywhere easily accessible.
Following our recent house move I’ve been sorting through the LPs and CDs from her collection that had never been properly stashed and I’ve been discovering amazing things. Mostly very rare English, Scottish and Irish recordings in excellent condition. It’s clear from the stickers on them that she was an avid collector and appreciated what she was finding.
So my upcoming radio shows will feature much from Stefni’s collection and keep her very clearly in my mind.
There’s no room here to list all the stuff, but it ranges from everything Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger ever recorded to very obscure albums by Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band.
Of course the books included full first editions of Child’s ‘English and Scottish Popular Ballads’, Bronson’s ‘Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads’, and Sharp’s ‘English Folk-songs from the Southern Appalachians’.
I hope dear Stefni Agin is looking down approvingly at the continuing life of her amazing collection as I try to do justice to it.

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The Monday Book: Ivory Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown

Jack’s doing the Monday book – so, of course it’s on Tuesday – –

Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them; Nancy Marie Brown

Wendy brought me this book back from one of the bookstores she’s been visiting, promoting her book Fall or Fly. She was correct that it would interest me. It actually has little to do with the chessmen per se, but I don’t mind!

vikings

Brown uses the famous Lewis Chessmen as the mechanism for what is really a geopolitical and historical examination of the Nordic countries in medieval times. I already had some knowledge of the Viking connection to Scotland, Ireland and Northern England, and I even knew that the French Normans were originally Norse men.

But this book was a real eye-opener and introduced me to a world that was much more connected than I had thought. I obviously knew about the Vikings sailing around the north Atlantic but not just how much or how far. I knew nothing about their land journeys including taking part in crusades and hob-knobbing with English nobles!

“Ivory Vikings” can be a challenging read at times. The story of these ivory armies is woven through speculative historic tales of kings Harald Blue-Tooth and Svein Fork-Beard, with diversions into the 13th-century sagas of Iceland’s Snorri Sturluson and the early 19th-century literature of Sir Walter Scott, as well as accounts of the climate and topography of Iceland, the importance of walrus ivory from Greenland financing Viking raids and the origins of chess in India.

Margret the Adroit of Iceland turns out to be Brown’s favored candidate as maker of the chessmen. She was a carver of walrus and other materials and was famous for her craft in her time. One of the kings regularly sent gifts made by Margret to other rulers, one of the reasons the chessmen may be attributable to her. But I think my favorite of all the memorable characters in this book is perhaps Earl Erling Skew-neck who got his name after being whacked in the neck by an adversary in battle and carried his head at an angle ever after!

I can wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Norse history and their connections to other northern European countries – particularly Scotland and Ireland.

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The Monday Book: A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

This week’s review is by Jack – –

BriefHistoryTime

I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading this. Probably it’s because I assumed it would be dry, very scientific and heavy going. Instead it turned out to be (mostly) the very opposite!

There were certainly a few places where I had to read and then re-read in order to get my head round some pretty startling and deep stuff. But Hawking leads his readers on a gentle upward slope through history while paying due respect to all his scientific predecessors, colleagues and contemporaries.

We begin with Copernicus and end in a black hole!

In many ways this book is an autobiography as it details Hawking’s developing theories while also occasionally giving brief glimpses of his personal life and its challenges. I loved the part where he gave up his PhD studies following his diagnosis and being told he only had a few years to live, only to get married and realize he had to get a job. So he completed his studies, got a job that became his raison d’etre and lived for many more years.

The writing style is pitched at the non-learned casual reader and is gently humorous throughout.

I particularly liked how generous he was towards others working in the same field – collaborators, colleagues and even rivals.

Finally, and most intriguing of all perhaps, is his frequent reference to a ‘creation event’. He is very careful not to discount the idea of a ‘creator’ with all that implies. He suggests that the more we delve and discover, the more there is to find – – –

All in all, a very well deserved best seller which I can now thoroughly recommend to anyone else who might have been wary, like me!

 

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The People’s Flag – – –

It’s Thursday so it must be time for Jack’s Wednesday guest post!

Since there wasn’t a Monday book review he gets to do that too – –

World Politics 1918-1936 – R. Palme Dutt (1936)

We get some pretty weird and wonderful books here in the bookstore and I often find myself drawn to them. This one caught my eye as it’s about a period of history that fascinates me and was actually published just as things were getting out of hand.

When I read the book I had no idea who Dutt was and had never heard of him, so I read with an open mind. I was fairly astonished by much of his commentary on the first half of the period covered and how ambivalent the UK, France and the USA were towards the German and Italian Fascists as well as the Japanese Imperialists. There was a common fear of the rise of Soviet power and until late in the period various attempts to form an alliance to counter Communism. Even after Mussolini was established in power and Hitler was cementing his foundations there were powerful figures in favor of forming a common front against the USSR that would include the USA, the UK, France,Germany, Italy, Japan and Poland.

However the tone of the book becomes different as it reaches the latter part of the period. Dutt clearly believes that war is inevitable and argues that the best thing is to delay it for as long as possible through diplomatic means. This would allow the Soviets to build enough strength to defeat this unholy alliance!

What’s ironic, of course, is that the UK and the US ended up in concert with the USSR against Germany, Italy and Japan, with the Soviets playing an enormous part in the victory.

Being a pretty cynical kind of person, I believe that WW2, just like WW1 was fought between Imperial powers with ambitions to divide up the world and very little to do with any democratic principles. Afterwards the anti-Soviet line came back and the justifications for the war emerged with much banner waving. There was just as much anti-Jew pressure in the US, the UK and the USSR prior to hostilities although without someone quite as effective as Hitler to run with it.

If I was the late Mr Dutt I might be looking at the current political situation and thinking things are beginning to line up for another Imperial confrontation with the same shadowy figures pulling the strings and another religious group being demonized as a diversion – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

After finishing the book which was published in the US, I wanted to know more about who’d written it –

Rajani Palme Dutt (19 June 1896 – 20 December 1974), generally known as R. Palme Dutt, was a leading journalist and theoretician in the Communist Party of Great Britain. (From Wikipedia)

I don’t hold that against him, though – –

 

 

 

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