Thursday, 24 July 2014

Humphrey Bogart & The African Parrots of South London.

* This is a curious tale of animal invasion that I only recently became aware of, mostly through running in the parks of South London. It's a pretty well known one to Londoners, but I thought I might share.....

"Oo are you calling a pretty boy, then?" - Parrots of Telegraph Hill, London
 * Go for an early-morning run the parks of South London and you'll see many sights, some of them scary, others curious (such as the stained mattresses that apparently roam the streets of Lewisham, seen standing against walls and in overgrown front gardens, frozen, troll-like, by the first rays of the rising sun).

You'll see bleary-eyed commuters rushing for the train, the occasionally late-night party-animal struggling home or homeless guys crawling out of improvised bivouacs under the shrubbery.

But what greeted me on one such run recently was something entirely unexpected. A flock of vermillion and emerald-hued parrots, swooping low over the crest of our local hill, against the backdrop of the London skyline.

I was literally stopped in my tracks. A flock of parrots? Half expecting to see a giraffe standing outside the off-licence at the bottom of the hill, I eventually ran on and got home to do a bit of googling.

And that's when I found out that there are an estimated 30,000 Feral Parakeets (not an '80s New Wave band, BTW) happily living (mostly) south of the river Thames, in suburban back-streets and the wide-open green spaces, parks and commons that you will find everywhere in London.

And the story of how they got here is fascinating.

Parrots In the Park - South London

The birds are mostly Rose Ringed Parakeets. although similar flocks of Monk Parakeets have also been spotted. They are an afro-asian bird, not something you would expect to see in Catford, Twickenham or Tooting Bec.

And the theories as to why they are here are many, some are almost as exotic as the birds themselves.

The birds may have originated from just one breeding pair released into the wild. And one popular story is that this pair were released by Jimmi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in London during a photo shoot in 1967.

However, there are also theories that a flock of parrots staged a breakout from an aviary during the great storm of 1987. Or that a container full of illegally imported parrots broke open at Gatwick airport in the early '90s.

My own favourite story is that they are all descended from parrots imported from Africa to England and featured in the studio scenes of the classic Humphrey Bogart/Katharine Hepburn movie The African Queen, shot by John Huston in a south London film studio in 1951.

As the story goes, when the movie was over, some studio tech simply opened the main doors and the birds flew out, to establish breeding colonies all over South London.

Given the Bogie connection, I'd like to sidle up to one of them and say; "You know how to whistle, don't ya?"

They have adapted to survive harsh London winters and managed to slot themselves into the eco-system (possibly by learning to love the most common South London food source, the Abandoned Kebab).

However, they got here, I've certainly come to appreciate them, especially during the current heatwave, when they add a bit of tropical colour to the blazing blue skies.

They certainly brighten up every early morning plod up and down the hills of south London. And added to my stock of Avian Tales of London, which also includes the true story of the Pigeons who have learned to ride the Underground.....

* If you want to know a little more - here's a link to a clip from a BBC wildlife doc that talks about the parrots ..... thanks for reading... - Clip


Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The First Selfie - Robert Cornelius & The Dawn of Photography.

* I came across this arresting image, and the story of Robert Cornelius, recently. I have a pretty strong interest in early photography thanks to a friend who has revived Victorian glass-plate portraiture. A fascinating process that I blogged about Here

Cornelius is a dimly known but fascinating figure. Almost certainly the first man to turn the newly devised process of photography on the most interesting subject of all, ourselves.....

Robert Cornelius - Early Modern Narcissist  

It is a very modern, a very arresting image. A handsome, well dressed man, arms folded across his chest, stares into the lens of his camera. In stylish, high-cllared coat, with tousled, Byronic locks, his eyes, steadily regarding us, the unseen viewers.

The man is Robert Cornelius of Philadelphia in the United States. The year is 1839. And what we are looking at is almost certainly the first photographic self-portrait. The first "selfie".

Selfies recently became the latest social media trend, with everybody from Angela Merkel and Rihanna to Barrack Obama joining in the fun.

In this age of a camera in every pocket, with instant access to a global audience via smart-phones and social media apps, the selfie has become a symbol of our ongoing fascination with ourselves. And our need to share these images with as many people as possible.

Photography has become instant and disposable. It is estimated that upwards of 95 per cent of all the photographic images made since the dawn of the technology have been made in the past four years or so, since the mass adoption of smart-phones. How many of us have old phones, obsolete laptops or discarded digital cameras containing hundreds if not thousands of now forgotten snaps? Of holidays, nights out, gigs, or family reunions? Images of some of the most important moments of our lives, consigned to dusty drawers or attic storage. Unlikely to see the light again.

Robert Cornelius was an early pioneer of photography. A self-taught genius at chemistry and metallurgy from his youth, he was fascinated by the new science of photography and began playing with the daguerreotype process (the first form of photography) while still in his teens.

The first photographs, because of the very long exposure times they needed (sometimes minutes rather than the fraction of a second needed today), were usually of of trees, buildings and other objects that didn't tend to move around a lot.

Even when exposure times came down, allowing for portraits of humans to be taken, they were told to sit very still and tended to have set, unsmiling faces (it makes sense, try holding a smile for more than five seconds, it can make you look like a maniac).

So what we got, when it came to photographic portraits, tended to be grim-faced, dressed-in-their-Sunday best, people, who were sitting for perhaps the only (expensive) photograph they would ever have of themselves.
Let's Get This Party Started

What Cornelius did was play with the silver nitrate process and lighting, difficult when it was decades before electricity (remember, when his self-made portrait was snapped, it was less than twelve months after an 18-year-old girl called Victoria was crowned Queen of England).

And on a bright autumn day in October, 1839, two decades before the start of the American Civil War, Cornelius set up his camera on the stoop outside his father's store in Philadelphia and took what is one of the first ever pictures of a human being and almost certainly the first self-portrait.

He had only recently turned 20 years of age. It was a great breakthrough in early photography, but also a moment that foreshadowed the modern age of self-obsession. Of course, self-portraits were nothing new. The Dutch master Rembrandt sketched or painted over 90 in his own lifetime.

Rembrandt Selfie - And Guess The Expression..Surprise?

But what Cornelius pioneered was the democratisation of the self-portrait. In the years to follow, you would no longer need to be a great artist,  with days or weeks to devote to looking into your own face. Gazing into your own eyes.

Cornelius gave up on photography after several years of running his own studios, to make his fortune in the family business. He still worked with light, but it was of the gas-light kind. And he lived long enough to see electric street-lighting illuminate the streets of his childhood.

What he left us was the first (or one of the first) photographic self-portraits. And written on the back is the legend; "The First Light Picture Ever Taken".

* Thanks for reading....

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Fiends In High Places - Garth Brooks & Ireland's National Malaise

The Man Behind The Wire

* So who do we blame, lads? Because we've got to blame somebody.

Because this is fairly basic stuff, for feck's sake. The kind of thing they can do in most European cities - bloke in hat, band, big stage, hot-dogs - without it becoming the sort of months long, national crisis that has afflicted us ever since Garth Brooks announced he wanted to sing a few songs here. A move that has plunged this nation into the kind of crises, recrimination, fear and loathing normally seen in other countries after they lose a major war. How did Garth in Croker become our Vietnam?

Well, we've had the traditional piss-up/brewery brouhaha. Not what comes next? Oh yeah! The Blame Game!

Is it the promoters, who banked on City Council not defying the will of the people? The residents around Croke Park, who can put up with 40,000 Dub football supporters every Sunday but not Five Nights of A Dude In A Hat Shouting "Howdy Dublin!"?

Or is it the city fathers - those fiends in high places - who have ruled that it would be Cruel & Unusual Punishment - the creation of a Country n'Western Guantanamo Bay - to force them to do so?

The news that only three of the planned (and already sold out!) five Garth Brooks gigs in Croke Park this summer have been granted planning permission broke over our poor, benighted nation like a thunderclap this morning.

In homes all over our island, fathers, pale with suffering and emotion, switched off the valve radio, turned to look into the still-innocent, trusting faces of their children, and solemnly announced; "Well that's It. We're f***d".

Add it to the Roll of National heartbreak. Write it in the blood of those cruelly denied the chance to march through our glorious capital city, to follow in the footsteps of the great patriots like Pearse, Connolly and Limerick-Junction, wearing a pink spangly stetson and stuffing a chicken-fillet roll into their gobs. Play The Summer of '69 low in Coppers tonight, for there is no joy left on this island.

There will be no Brooks IV & V. There will be no day out in Dublin, for you, the sons & daughters of our blessed soil.

For unless you're holding tickets for Brooks I, II, or III, you are Children of a Lesser God.

She Is Silent, Now. Silent as the Grave of  O'Connell

But wait! Surely this is not the end! What are the alternatives?

Feck all. There's no money to be made in shifting the whole shebang across the river after three nights to do two at the Aviva.

And anyway- if you think the residents around Croke Park put up a fight, can you imagine the vast armies of Senior Counsels that would be assembled by the snobby feckers of Dublin 4?

Garth Brooks and his lawyers would be like Custer & the 7th Cavalry at Little Big Horn.

No. No. And thrice No. We dreamed too big. We wanted too much. A more realistic people, say, the Belgians, would have been happy with two or maybe three nights of a dude in a stetson singing about Pick Up Trucks.

But we, we persecuted Celts, with our long history of oppression and the British making us listen to Duran FECKING Duran and the Basterin' Spice Girls,, we let ourselves, for once, hope for more.

And now those dreams have gone down in flames. A nation mourns. And whinges. Joe Duffy is on tablets for his nerves.

Feck You, Garth Brooks. Feck. You. 

But this is only the start. The bad feeling and divisions unleashed by the injustice of Yer Man Up the Road and His Awful Dose Of A Wife having tickets for Brooks I, while the tickets YOU have for Brooks V are no more use than jacks roll, those divisions will once again tear this country apart.

The hatred between the Have Garths and The Have Nots will make the Civil War look like an episode of Nationwide (you know, that one about the Bee Keepers in Clonmel that your Gran recorded over the final of X Factor, the dozy cow. Seriously, she's already seen the thing five times. I think we need to get her checked out. No, YOU shut up).

People of Ireland! Resist the urge to follow the path to division and strife that condemned so many generations to the futility of brother against brother, Catholic against Protestant, Beyonce versus Brooks.

We have suffered a terrible blow to our nationhood today. But we have weathered worse storms in the past.

Let us join together to sing the words that sustained our forefathers through Cromwell, the Famine and countless Eurovisions.......

All together now...."Blame it on my roots......I showed up in boots.......and failed to apply for the proper planning permission under subsection 3.1 of the 1987 Outdoor Event Licencing Act..."

They don't write them like that, anymore......

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

A History Of Violence - And What It Means To Be A Man

* I was talking to a couple of male friends about how you don't really see a lot of pub fights anymore, not like the ones we used to see (or find ourselves mixed up) years ago. We couldn't decide whether we just getting older, or going to a better class of bar. But one thing we could agree on, the way our father's generation held themselves, reacted to aggression and dealt with other men who crossed them is no longer acceptable in modern society. And that's a good thing. But I do feel that it's resulted in a lot of confusion.... so this is a bit more personal than my usual stories, but don't worry, it'll be back to your regular service shortly.

* Son? You Need To Be A Little More Alan Ladd And A Little Less John Wayne

"Were You Looking at My Girlfriend's Pint?" 
* Here's a thing about me.... something that only those who really know me are aware of.... I have a nasty, volcanic temper. Always had, still do. 

It's a part of my make-up I only became aware of when I was a young teenager, when I got into my first serious schoolyard fight, with a guy who was a bit of a bully but really only a fool. And once we got into it, I felt a sudden rush of rage and adrenaline. I didn't want to hurt the guy, I wanted to kill him. And I might have really hurt him if some other kids hadn't dragged me off.

It was a very strange feeling, one that many boys become aware of in their first serious fight, the realisation that you have it within yourself to seriously hurt another person, that there is a deep well of anger that you were never aware of and can't really control. 

We grew up in a very old school, rough and tumble working class part of the city. And we learned from our fathers, when you are challenged, never back down. Never show weakness, always hit back. And hit back as hard and as fast as you can.   

It was drilled into us by the men in our family (I had six uncles on my dad's side alone) and by the Christian Brothers who gave us a rough education (if you don't know, the Christian Brothers educated generations of Irish boys - they were mostly hard, violent men. Sort of the Paramilitary Wing of the Catholic Church). We learnt it on the sports field, in hurling (the violently rapid Irish game with stick and ball). Guys with skill were admired, guys who were prepared to put their heads or fists into places they shouldn't were idolised. 

Many of the older men in our lives, fathers, uncles, grandfathers, teachers, sports coaches, had either lived through or were one generation away from a society bathed in terrible violence - the War of Independence and the bitter, fratricidal Civil War that followed. Or they had themselves been brutalised by the schools and the hard, poor, repressed world they grew up in. 

And they idolised Hard Men, from John Wayne and Jack Dempsey to the Old IRA - ruthless guerrillas, terrorists or freedom fighters - depending on your point of view.

In Cork, my home-town, many homes had a portrait of the Republican military leader Michael Collins, hanging next to ones of John Kennedy and the Pope - the Cork/Irish Holy Trinity.

Collins was a genius but also a ruthless killer. And Cork people were proud to have as their national hero a man who wasn't prepared to play by the rules of warfare. You send one of ours to the hospital, we send two of yours to the morgue.

General Michael Collins

As a very young child, I was ushered into the presence of veteran IRA commander Tom Barry, told to shake the hand of a man (then very old but still with a military bearing) who had fought and killed for Ireland.

So we learnt. Never back down. Always stand your ground. A man deals with problems with his fists. My own father was generally a very genial guy, but could go from 0-60mph in seconds. He had that thing which easily provoked men have, the face inside the face. In anger, the facial muscles would contract, the eyes widen and the jaw would stick out. He rarely if ever got into actual fights, but was always on his guard.

Jack Dempsey - What It Means to Be A Man

Of course, this always being on edge, this code that I learnt, led to some pretty stupid fights. I didn't know how to back down - mostly I was too scared to - and there was always the Red Mist. And it was around the age of 17, after coming home once again with a torn shirt covered in blood (not mine, as I was quick to reassure my mother) that I decided this had to change.

I remember seeing the great Alan Ladd movie Shane on TV roughly around this time and thinking; "That's what you want to be, the quiet guy who controls his temper. No pushover and nobody's fool, but not some Jack Palance eejit who just goes around causing trouble".

Always Ask Yourself; "WWSD?" (what would Shane Do?)

So I've learnt to manage my anger. If anything, I've gone a bit too far in the other direction and tried to be the most genial, the most easy-going guy you'll meet. Which causes it's own problems, firstly, because fools will often mistake kindness for weakness and secondly because when, on the very rare occasion I do give way to the rage, it can be like a dam bursting. And I am still fearful that if I lose control some day over some stupid, nothing incident, I could end up harming myself or others. Somebody pushes past me in a pub and I have to fight the urge to get in his face.

It still causes problems. I find it hard to back down, if somebody criticizes me, if somebody close to me points out a shortcoming, a mistake or unthoughtful behaviour, I feel that old rage, that Never Back Down! code, fighting to get out. The demon within. And I often have to go off for a bit and cool down. And realise that they were right and I'm in the wrong. So I need to deal with that.

It's not healthy. But is a situation that I think a lot of men my age find themselves in. We didn't really get a lot of great coping mechanisms from our fathers (or father figures) and now we are living in a society that (thankfully) tends to frown on men who settle minor problems with the offer of a fist-fight in the car-park.

There is a lot of confusion about what it means to be a man in this cockamanie world of ours. Strong but not rough, manly but in touch with your emotions, groomed but still recognisably a guy.

It's not a cop out or an excuse to say this. It just feels like men are getting a lot of contradictory advice. Are we supposed to be Gok Wan or Russell Crowe (or a mix of the two, say David Beckham)? Of course, most women would like the idea of having Beckham around, but could you put up with the three-hour wait to get at the bathroom mirror every morning?

And then there are the media role models - be more like Don Fecking Draper! Well, you try finding a tailor that good or the time to down a bottle of Scotch every day.

Movies and the media, of course, still glamourise Hard Men, even if it is often with a veneer of irony. And one of the hottest sports around right now is Mixed Martial Arts, basically cage-fighting, Boxing without the dignity, skill or intelligence. Packaged, showbiz-infused Ultra Violence for a generation of men who are not allowed to express themselves with their fists.

I was lucky in that I was mostly raised by my mother and my great Aunt Mamie - in fact, in was usual for boys where I came from to have a very matriarchal home, fathers were often absent, emotionally handicapped or simply not expected to join in with the child-rearing.

We drew the best in our characters from the women in our lives. And still do today.

And if you don't agree with me on that, I'll see you outside in two minutes.

ENDS - Thanks for reading....