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NEWS AT A GLANCE

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We call our day 24 hours, but it is really 23 hours 56 minutes 5 seconds.

The Nelson Evening Mail, September 28 1906
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‘Facetious’ is the shortest word in the English language including all the vowels in alphabetical order.

The English theatre loves the joker.

Samuel Beckett notched up 35 runs in first-class cricket.

UK funeral directors are fuming because people found something out.

The Republic lives with its face uncovered.

Men working in the fields sing pentatonic tunes.

American biscuits are in fact scones.

A boatman has taken 99 mackerel in three hours by whiffling.

2.8 million viewers tuned in to find out who shot JR Ewing.

Torture in Uzbekistan is institutionalised, systematic and rampant.

Ross Brown is now active.

Californium 252 costs $30,000,000 a gram.

Storm’s a-coming.
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Creation-ism

This weekend I will be joining a local choral society for their performance of Haydn’s The Creation – and what better way to welcome Spring now that it’s finally arrived.

An avowed and much-loved masterpiece from its earliest performances – Vienna, 1798 – ‘whose appeal [I read from A Peter Brown's DECCA sleeve-notes] was irresistible to the noble and leisured classes, amateurs and connoisseurs of different nationalities’, Die Schöpfung tells the story of (duh) the first week or so of the creation myth, in three parts.

It opens simply, in the humming potential of the void, moves to the first, dramatic, sunrise, and then gradually builds in complexity, as the forces of darkness are cast out and the cosmological items, flora and fauna, are created, one by one, until finally Adam and Eve walk hand-in-hand in the Garden of Eden (which is Kent, right?), Man- and indeed Womankind enjoying a somewhat brief respite before the Fall.

The whole thing runs to 1h45 – which given the amount of ground it has to cover (no pun), is quite efficient, really.

It is said that, inspired by (the success of?) Handel’s oratorios, Haydn asked a friend for ideas for something he could set to music. The friend picked up a Bible and suggested that he “Take that, and begin at the beginning.”

Less romantically, its genesis was in a Handel hand-me-down, an English poem called The Creation of the World (author unknown), which the crowd-pleasing Georgian didn’t care for on the grounds that setting it would have meant a piece that lasted four hours.

The eventual libretto, abridged and translated by the Esterházy’s Imperial librarian/diplomat/musician/Everything Else, Gottfried van Swieten, comprises bits of Genesis, the Psalms, and Milton’s Paradise Lost (the angels, mostly). It was officially published, in simultaneous translation, as twere, in 1800; but with Handel-worshipping English audiences in mind, both texts incline peculiarly towards the Anglican, especially where Biblical quotations are concerned. Metrical considerations have left us with some more-or-less irremediable ‘English’, and surely nothing has ever been so translated-from-ze-German as the line ‘In long dimension / Creeps with sinuous trace the worm.’

Musically, the word-painting is less than subtle, but perfectly in keeping with the standards of an oratorio (un-acted operas for Lent, essentially). And it achieved a trick of ‘universal’ synthesis: French-style overtures, Italian dramatic structure, English verses/religious formulae from the KJV, and psalm-based choral numbers with which the Germans would have been conceptually familiar.

Certainly it captured the zeitgeist (or whatever they call that in Germany). With 45 performances in Vienna alone in the ten years following its composition, and in capital cities throughout Europe, by ensembles routinely measuring in the hundreds, The Creation was the stadium-seller of its day.

My own introduction to it was, predictably, as a chorister in the Church of England (Maidstone, actually), singing the only stand-alone anthem to have emerged from the complete work, ‘The Heavens are Telling (the Glory of God)’. As a classically-inclined young fellow (read: ‘squit’), I would have been one of the younger kids to be aware that Gabriel was not the only archangel; but I also acutely recall one Sunday morning, autopiloting my way through its uncomplicated joy, and brassily attempting to ‘Display the firmament’ one time more than everybody else in the rehearsal room.

By secondary school I’d twigged that there was more to The Creation than just one anthem – i.e. solos, for would-be soloists – and I proposed it for our Choral Union concert. Seeing through this, no doubt, the choir director said he couldn’t be doing with all those Adam-and-Eve arias (‘This world so great, so wonderful’) which, it is widely held, are some of the best music Haydn ever wrote. He was a wise man, that director, and a first-class teacher: but he was wrong on that occasion. Wrong and a spoilsport.

I auditioned for a university choral scholarship with the Raphael ‘rage’ aria about the waters ‘Rolling in foaming billows’, but I don’t recollect our ever performing it while I was there. No doubt such things were thought crass. See also: ‘enjoyable to sing or listen to’.

So I think the first time I ever sang the whole Creation was with the Oxford Spezzati, a group of a few dozen of us who go back, at a music festival in West Kensington – my good friend Al playing the flatulent bass notes of the ‘immense leviathan’ with ill-disguised bassoonist’s gusto.

And the last time I sang ‘The Heavens are Telling’ was in the Chapel Royal, at Hampton Court. I had the bass ‘verse’ part, which I now suspect means, over time, that I’ve sung all the parts of that particular movement. (Aled Jones, eat yer heart out.)

The German is the lesser-trodden path these days (what even is a ‘Finsternis‘?). There’s something a bit uncomfortable about the opening tenor aria’s repetitive insistence on ‘Ordnung‘… But for all its sober origins, the English text is pretty silly. ‘Finny tribes’; ‘flexible tigers’; and I’ve heard at least one soloist word-paint the hell out of the ‘fleecy, meek and ble-e-eee-eating flock’. A note to nature writers: if I find ‘purling’ and/or ‘limpid brooks’ in your work, we will not be going home together.

I assume it sounds quite foolish to the Germans, also. But for all that, it is usually quite fun. (Or it had better be. I’m about to miss the first match of the cricket season.)

Per Prof. Brown, though, the romping tunes and memorable – or, perhaps more accurately, ‘easily- learned’ – choruses make this also a fairly sensible choice for choral societies, whose concerts are, in the majority of cases, a pragmatic combination of the amateur and the professional. The choruses are repetitive (both internally and externally), often interrupted by long solos, duets, trios, etc. (there’s only one that isn’t, in fact), and relatively few and far between. I’m not suggesting that the idea of a choral society is to keep the dues-paying members as quiet as possible… but it helps to know one’s limitations.

In 1808, amid the blast of the Napoleonic Wars, an ageing Haydn made his last public appearance at a gala do of The Creation, attended by royalty and, allegedly, Beethoven. At the creation of light, the audience broke into spontaneous applause, causing Haydn to deflect the adulation heavenwards – but by the time they reached ‘The Heavens are Telling’ his ill-health and emotions had got the better of him, and he was carried out. Fifteen months later, the French entered Vienna, and the last rendition of his music Haydn heard came from the mouth of a French officer:

In native worth and honour clad,
With beauty, courage, strength adorn’d,
To heav’n erect and tall he stands
A man, the Lord and King of nature all.


For The Oldie, in a different edit

NEWS AT A GLANCE

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Electricity is now used to improve the complexion.

The Nelson Evening Mail, July 4 1908
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The Chinese Christian warlord Feng Yu-xiang (1882–1948) baptised his troops en masse, using a firehose.

Vincent Kompany has suffered more than 40 injuries.

Time passes very slowly when you’re in a hippo’s mouth.

Poetry must be entered into by a personal encounter, or it must be left alone.

Johnny Cash was in Colombo once.

The children’s insult ‘Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah’ is sung to the tune of ‘Bye, baby Bunting’. It features a descending minor third.

In Milan, there is an interactive neon tennis court inside a church.

The German language has not changed hugely since 1669.

Men’s hair takes on a lot.

A lot of well-respected Japanese writers seem to take their own lives.

You can see the name ‘Cadbury’ on every piece of chocolate.

Queen Victoria knew her Onions.

There are many different sorts of Irishman.
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‘amusingly’

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….amazingly

NEWS AT A GLANCE

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Last year 15,391 persons kept bees in this colony. The number of hives was 74,341.

The Nelson Evening Mail, April 10 1907
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It’s not every day a virgin conceives and bears a son.

Indifference to facts is not confined to the alt-right and the hyper-liberal Left.

The word ‘minge’ is of Romany extraction.

14°C is 57°F.

Elk hooves ward off epilepsy.

Until 1752 dates in England and on the Continent differed.

Empathy is the sign kwa known of the art of film acting.

Jayantha Gamini Molligoda won the P Saravanamuttu Trophy Sri Lankan championship with the Bloomfield Cricket and Athletic Club, in 1963–4.

Queen Victoria, Empress of India, never set foot in that country.

The hashtag ‘#Erith’ is much underused.

ProShield is not initialized.

According to science being forgetful is actually a sign that you are intelligent.

Alcoholics Anonymous was founded by Bill W and Dr Bob.
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NEWS AT A GLANCE

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There are more Jews in New York than there are in Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland put together. They worship in 37 synagogues. Every fifth person belongs to the family of Abraham.

The Nelson Evening Mail, December 1 1906
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Coleraine Blackjack is the cheapest porter in the world.

Thomas Nelson was a quintuple agent, serving South Africa, East Africa, West Africa, Australia, and Canada.

You gotta peculate to accumulate.

Bruce Chatwin will release no further books.

In February, the London murder rate overtook New York’s.

In Roman times there was a set price for a slave’s loincloth (new).

Hyenas are the only mammals without vaginas.

Ben Affleck does not have a back tattoo.

The River Dart flows down and down until it meets the West Dart, sending pebbles rolling.

The Cuban flag hasn’t changed since 1902.

Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein invented the emoji.

To use Age of Empires, you need: multimedia PC with Pentium 90 or higher processor; Microsoft Windows® 95 operating system or Windows NT® Workstation operating system version 4.0 with Service Pack 3; 16 MB of RAM for Windows 95; 24 MB RAM for Windows NT; 80 MB of available hard-disk space; 50 MB of available hard-disk for swap file; double-speed CD-ROM drive for gameplay; quad-speed CD-ROM drive for cinematics; Local Bus Super VGA video display (with 1MB VRAM); Microsoft Mouse or compatible pointing device; sound board plus speakers or headphones to hear audio; 28.8 Kbps modem for head-to-head play. 

In Colombo you can buy healthcare gift-certificates.
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A moment of indexision

On Bram Stoker, #indexday, and the weird and wonderful history of the hapax legomenon.


For The Spectator

NEWS AT A GLANCE

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High top boots for dogs are now being sold in the shops of New York.

The Nelson Evening Mail, January 23 1907
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The first pedestrian has been killed by a self-driving car.

Starbucks employees do not capitalise their As.

The sound of the bagpipe fattens the sheep and lambs of all Arabia.

125 academic papers mention Adam Smyth.

At 53 one is too old for Everest.

Moldiv Smooth Skin will make your skin flawless.

Babies learn the practicalities of distance by repeatedly punching themselves in the face.

Gustav Mahler put the word ‘schwer‘ beside certain passages in his musical scores.

In a fundraising speech, American president Donald Trump has said he made up facts during a meeting with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau.

Cutlery should always be kept in the top drawer.

Easter Island – or ‘Rapa Nui’ – belongs to Chile.

Poetry readings are the worst form of entertainment that has ever been invented.

A five-star review is a five-star review.
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NEWS AT A GLANCE

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The German army has the healthiest troops in the world.

The Nelson Evening Mail, July 13 1908
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In January 2001 a BBC documentary crew filmed the everyday goings on in a typical workplace.

The skin of fantas melons smells of BO.

There’s 25% off Rovic floors.

Philip Hensher will read any old crap.

The Russians are now calling London ‘Londongrad’.

It’s advisable to turn off your computer.

The North Devon Journal is on sale now.

Paul Robeson was the greatest end ever.

Honey bees do not enter.

In 1876 Britain formally recognised Chinese authority over Tibet.

The chip-shop lady has the saddest eyes.

Among the many rivers of Mesopotamia there is one made of sand.

Some folk pronounce it ‘homage’ not ‘homage’.
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“Festooned with Saxons” – or; How great-grandfather won the Triple Crown

‘If success does not throw the Irishmen off their balance, they may go on winning and winning until the height of a season’s ambition may be attained.’
Athletic News and Cyclists’ Journal, 3 February 1896
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When it comes to the 6 Nations, in recent years the fixtures guys have done well making sure the final weekend sees the big deciders. Tomorrow’s England-Ireland show-down – on St Patrick’s Day! – should be no exception. The Irish have already won the Championship; but now they hope to win the Triple Crown, and claim the Grand Slam for just the third time since the tournament began.

The English will be out to stop that happening. Ireland thumped the champions last year in the final game, denying them the clean sweep (just as they had in 2001 and again in 2011), and this year England’s quest for a third consecutive 6 Nations championship was brought to an early and embarrassing halt – so a bit of reciprocal spoiling is to be expected. (It’s mutual. An Ulster friend sent round a chart two weeks ago, explaining how the English might yet come last.)

I have a little skin in the game. Or blood, at least. My great-grandfather, James ‘Jim’ Sealy (19 March 1876 – 4 February 1949), played this very fixture back in 1896, and scored a try – on debut.

Reporting on ‘A Splendid and Exciting Game’, the (English) Athletic News lamented how from the off the English ‘had a terribly warm time defending… and the wild, energetic rushes of the Irishmen were too much for the phlegmatic Englishmen.’ Penalties were missed, and Brian Moore would no-doubt be amused to know that ‘scrummaging of a loose and scrambling character was indulged in’. Before half-time, however, ‘the Fates smiled upon their [Irish] efforts… when Lee dashed along to the English line, and handing to Sealy at the right moment, gave that youth the opportunity of scoring a try near the posts.’ The English rallied in the second half, but somehow managed to run their only try into the dead-ball area. And so it was that Ireland won ‘a brilliant victory by the following score: Ireland 2 goals (10 points) – England 1 dropped goal (4 points)’. The ‘Critical Comments’ that followed might be fairly classed as poetry.

Pace yer man at the Athletic News, though, that year the Irish did not crack the Triple Crown. They drew with Scotland, 0-0, two weeks later.

A Dubliner born and bred, and captain of the Dublin University team (1898-99), my father’s granddad on his mother’s side played eight more times for Ireland from 1896 to 1900 (W5, L2, D2), during which time the Irish won outright two of three completed championships (there was some rum business about Welsh ‘professionalism’ in 1897 and ’98…).

As the ‘Grand Slam’ per se did not exist until the French joined, the Triple Crown – for beating all the other Home nations – was the equivalent achievement. Ireland won it, for the second time in five years, in 1899, James Sealy helping to defeat Wales in the last fixture, in front of an uncontrollable 40,000 crowd at Cardiff Arms Park. In the entire course of their tournament the Irish had conceded just a single penalty – the first time one had been awarded for tackling the man without the ball.

In his first year as an international, Sealy also joined the British Lions tour of South Africa (W3, L1), playing alongside eight of his fellow Irishmen, including the ‘psychopathic’ Tom Crean (not the Antarctic explorer) and Robert Johnston, both of whom then chose to remain in the country, as doctors, and both won VCs in the Second Boer War. (Sealy did not stay, but years later sent his daughter Brenda there, to marry my grandfather, Gerald Spence Smyth. And thus, eventually, to me.)

Evidently a man of more than passing sporting talent, aside from prowess on the rugby field (where he’s listed as a ‘forward’, in an era when perhaps they were shaped somewhat differently!), he represented Ireland at hockey, and played golf off a plus-3 handicap. In the summer of 1900 he also played in a 3-day game between Dublin University and ‘Marylebone Cricket Club in Ireland’. (Batting – or not – at No.9, he scored 9* and dnb; no bowling. I like to think he might have been the wicket-keeper.)

Presumably at some point Sealy also did a bit of studying. Hanging up his boots, he went on to be a well-regarded barrister, KC, and judge. In 1930 the London Times contained a nib to the effect that he’d been presented with a pair of white gloves, ‘symbols of the lack of crime in the county’ (or, more accurately, a lack of brutal sentencing). He seems also to have had the standard Irish sense of humour – telling an ex-Legionnaire who had been arrested for pulling a gun on a policeman, ‘I think the air here must be bad for you’ – although the records show at least one counsel ended up in contempt for calling the His (Protestant) Honour ‘the seed and breed of Cromwell’.

Yeats would come round to the family home for tea, as would the first President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde. When his first wife, Stella, died, Sealy – known throughout the family as ‘the Da’ – married Hyde’s daughter Una. All parties, sooner or later, had their portraits done by Sarah Purser, a middle-distant cousin.

In 1928 ‘Judge Sealy’ was elected President of the Irish Rugby Football Union. In the playroom where the young me watched 5 Nations matches while my father polished shoes, there is a framed touch-judge’s flag embroidered ‘France v Ireland’. A minor masterpiece of cockerels and shamrocks, we have one side of it, our surviving uncle has the other. My aunt in Perth, Australia, has the blackthorn stick that it was waved from.

James Sealy lived just long enough to see Ireland win their first Grand Slam, in 1948. As for his playing days, it is established family lore (passed on by one John Beckett, cousin of Samuel and Guinness underbrewer) that Sealy did not merely ‘score’ a run-in try against the English, but that he “crossed the line, festooned with Saxons!” This may well be apocryphal; but it reflects, I think, on a more eloquent time, when all players were not simply credited with having made ‘the hard yards’.


For The Oldie, in a different edit