Sunday, April 24, 2011

Three Arrows in the Ceiling of a Bologna Colonnade


Bologna, Italy is a city of colonnades which makes it pleasantly walkable in all but the most inclement weather.  In one of the ceilings are three crossbow arrows which presumably date from the 15th or 16th century.  When you stumble across them, or have them pointed out to you, as they were to me after a sumptuous business dinner at the Trattoria Battibecco, they’re startling.  History is suddenly immediate, continuous and palpable in the most ordinary way.  Yet the same three arrows in a museum might hardly warrant a second glance for all but the Renaissance warfare specialist.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, when the planes were slamming into the World Trade Center in New York, I was landing in Bologna, having taken off from Boston, as had many of the hijackers.  When I reached my office an hour later, I found my Italian colleagues not quietly at work at their computer screens, as they almost always were, but rather sitting rapt in front of an old black and white television watching that terrible history unfold.  I joined them and felt more than anything that I should be home in America.  History of the most horrific kind, the slaughter of innocents, was happening in my own country.

Very early the following Saturday, I went for a long walk, much of it beneath Bologna’s colonnades though it was a crisp sunny morning, and found the early Renaissance architecture and, eventually, the three arrows strangely comforting.  They reminded me that history isn’t a series of discrete dramatic, violent events, but a river, or rather a maze of rivers flowing constantly and just as the survival of that ancient city was testament to its resilience to such events, so was there the resilience and courage at home to face the events that had suddenly made the future so much more uncertain.

The three arrows and those events were brought to mind as I just finished  Craig Childs fine personal essay, Finders Keepers:  A Tale of Archaelogical Plunder and Obsession.  Through the lens of his own experience and research he explores the question of what is the right use of the remains of the past, an issue of immediate and continuing concern for those of us who live in the American southwest.  The answer is rarely easy and some choices are horrific.

One possible answer, which he doesn’t address, is to get the history and pre-history out of the museums and into the daily environment.  Of course, such a course of action is fraught with difficulties, least of which are security and proper preservation.  Nevertheless, nearly all of us live in places in which human habitation has been continual for sometimes thousands of years.  What if most of us had the experience of seeing some of that history or pre-history daily.  How would it inform our daily lives?  You can never tell what effect three old arrows in a ceiling might have.

The qualification tournament for nationals is next weekend; time for daily fencing practice.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Once More Unto The Breach...


So Henry V is bound for film once again. This time it’s going to be science fiction in a “post-apocalyptic” world which combines the stories of Shakespeare’s Henry IV part 1, Henry IV part 2 and Henry V into one screenplay. The cast includes Michael Caine, Derek Jacobi and Ray Winstone. Sigh. My expectations are less than high. The title is “Henry5.” At least it isn’t “Mad Henry Beyond the Thunder-Somme.”

For my part I’d deeply love to see a serious new film of any of those three plays set properly in the early 15th century when the events actually took place using Shakespeare’s text. As recent and not so recent theatrical productions at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre and the National in London have shown, exciting, original and provocative productions are possible within those generous constraints. Ray guns and Mohawk haircuts really aren’t necessary.

As Branagh showed way back in 1983, it’s possible to create an original and powerful version that speaks to the concerns of the times in which the film is made even though the setting is historical. Branagh wasn’t overwhelmed by the looming legacy of Olivier’s version. There was more than room for them both.

Branagh did good service when it came to the speeches and captured the feel of the sodden October of 1415.  Still, Olivier’s Agincourt speech remains my favorite on film.

But there is a version of the speech I like even better: Richard Burton’s. An audio version on a BBC CD entitled “All the World’s a Stage” can be found if you’re willing to look for it. What I particularly like about Burton’s reading is its dynamism. It isn’t all declamatory heroics. Rather, he takes the tone way down to begin. His Henry really is speaking intimately to a "band of brothers," perhaps around the remains of a campfire. It’s only when he reaches the line “Then shall our names…” that he allows the strength of his great Welsh voice to inflect the importance and greatness of the moment. Sometimes power is all about dynamics. (That’s true in fencing, too.)

Burton performed the role for RSC on stage. What a production it must have been.

Friday, April 15, 2011

How does a fencer beat Goliath?


Fencing is nearly unwatchable. The things that are important are so subtle and interpreting them is equally difficult. For example, when is one competitor’s forte (the third of the blade closest to the guard) overlapping the others foible (third of the blade toward the tip)? Does a slightly lifted arm after a parry indicate a mistake or is it a provocation? Who is provoking whom? And there’s the footwork. And all of it is happening so quickly. Even if you’re an experienced fencer it can be a challenge to know what to watch when.

But if you do have an eye for what to look for it can be compelling. The final of the senior mixed epee event of the last tournament I attended was such an event. The eventual winner had had a mixed day at best. He’d lost a pool bout he should have won and his quarter-final and semi-final direct elimination bouts were precarious. The latter was won by one point with a toe touch, if I remember correctly. And then, he had to immediately proceed into the final against a well-rested opponent. Nevertheless, he focused and rose to the occasion, which is archetypical element of almost every sports story. What was more interesting to me, however, was how he won. To my mind the single most important element was the breadth and diversity of his game. Besides being an obvious advantage to him it was also a significant disadvantage for his opponent in an interesting way. Because, there were so many possibilities, his opponent simply had to think more and more often. That made him necessarily slower, as Czajkowski points out. It increased his latency period.

A related theme is the subject of Malcolm Gladwell’s article How David Beats Goliath, currently available in the New Yorker online. Gladwell focuses predominantly on National Junior Basketball for girls and one coach’s innovative application of the full court press. The theme is that the outsider, the underdog, can win if he or she is willing and creative enough to find an unconventional strategy and sufficiently diligent to apply it successfully (as it often requires more work). He mentions several other examples, T.E. Lawrence’s innovative strategy for defeating the Turks in WWI by not attacking Medina but by disrupting the Hejaz railway instead, a naval war gamer who used an AI program to surmount nearly insurmountable odds coupled with labyrinthine rules and conventions, and George Washington’s early strategy in the US War of Independence.

Needless to say, it’s a particularly appealing stance for me as a fencer. The problem is that fencing is very old, fencers are very clever, so they’ve institutionalized the idea of stepping outside of the ordinary. Finding something truly innovative is less easy than it might be in other endeavors.

The illustration is a cartoon T.E. Lawrence drew of himself for "7 Pillars of Wisdom," one the greatest and simply enjoyable books written in the 20th century.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Cheerful Discovery


I made a cheerful discovery this week. It was one of those rare experiences that makes something old vitally new and compelling.

Though I’m very fond of orchestral music, I’ve never been overly fond of Rachmaninoff with the exception of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which I can only listen to occasionally, and one other. The other is the prosaically titled “Symphonic Dances,” his last composition.

For some reason, lost to memory, I always associate it with Arthur Rackham’s illustration of Gareth Beaumains defeating the Red Knight, but the composition in three parts is rich with allusions and associations that are not so personal and obscure. Nevertheless, I think that it is that allusive richness both personal and cultural, combined with its mood that is at once melancholy and energetic, an unusual combination you must admit, that has made it a favorite for much of my life.

The discovery was that there exists a version for two pianos, instead of orchestra. Further there exists an exquisite recording of that version by Vladimir Ashkenazy and Andre Previn. And, while that version will not supplant the orchestral version for me, it does augment and transcend it. Listening to it is a little like having the patina removed from a great painting revealing bright, clear colors and, occasionally, lost subtlety. In the two piano version I hear Rachmaninoff’s summary of a creative life, the drive, the sadness, the will to discover beauty and express it.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Unexpected Gifts from Unexpected Lives


When I was a child, one of my father’s favorite retorts was “you don’t know how it is. You think you’ll live forever.” The irony was that even then, when I was green and golden in the mercy of Time’s means, I was all too aware that one day Time would take me up to the swallow-thronged loft by the shadow of my hand, to borrow those famous words from Fern Hill. I’ve never felt distant from my own mortality.

We learned yesterday of the sudden death of a neighbor. Death is terrible but common place in spite of all we do to insulate ourselves. John Donne’s 17th meditation (1624) comes to mind on this occasion, as well it should. And may it always do so. But there is a reciprocal: in my selfish way I look at other lives for sources and models of strength and just as Wayne Trenbeath’s death diminishes me so am I heartened with the obstinate will and humor with which he faced his Multiple Sclerosis during the few years I knew him. Certain lives are unexpected gifts at unexpected times.

On other topics, my fencing has been a little less than optimal as of late. In the tournament before last I managed to lose all my pool bouts and in the most recent one I lost two pool bouts I could have won. Then, in the same tournament, I lost my first direct elimination bout even though I was up 12-9 at the beginning of the 2nd period. Indeed, that is becoming a dark and regular theme: I pull significantly ahead then lose. To put it more succinctly, at the moment my fencing sucks.

All of which would be fine, perhaps, if my enthusiasm for the sport wasn’t continuing to grow. The problem is that more I do it, the more knotty, difficult and interesting it is. In Tuesday’s class we worked on a new (to me) denial-of-blade counter attack that is wicked cool. So I will keep at it, remembering to apply an appropriate measure of obstinate will.

By the way, the photo is of a cottage above Newport, Pembrokeshire, Wales. I took it during the trip Lynn, Robert and I took last summer.  The name of the cottage is "Fern Hill."