Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Tales of War and Conflict - The Rude Reply

I discovered this delicious true story by chance recently.  It is a brief aside in the turbulent history of the Ukraine which dates from 1676 and has probably been told many times because it is illustrated by a superb painting by artist Ilya Repin, which he finished in 1891.  Read the story and look at the painting, you’ll never forget either of them.

During the seventeenth century the Zaporozhian Cossacks (“Cossacks beyond the rapids”) lived in the area of the lower reaches of the Dnieper river beyond the said rapids, in the Ukraine.  They were a respected political entity in their own right with a parliamentary system of government of their own, and had developed an original judicial system – the Cossack Code, which worked because of the strong social relations that existed among the Cossacks as a race.  Since the 16th century they had been a military force to be reckoned with by virtue of the strength and bravery with which they challenged the authority of the various powers that swept over the region – the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Tsardom of Russia and the Ottoman Empire.

In the mid seventeenth century the Ottoman Empire was ruled by the Sultan Mehmet IV. 

Sultan Mehmet IV

Although the Zaporozhian Cossacks had recently defeated the Ottoman Turkish forces, Mehmet IV sent a peremptorily worded demand that they submit to Turkish rule anyway because he would defeat them in the end.  This is the text:

As the Sultan; son of Muhammad; brother of the Sun and Moon; grandson and viceroy of God; ruler of the kingdoms of Macedonia, Babylon, Jerusalem, Upper and Lower Egypt; emperor of emperors; sovereign of sovereigns; extraordinary knight, never defeated; steadfast guardian of the tomb of Jesus Christ; trustee chosen by God himself; the hope and comfort of Muslims; confounder and great defender of Christians—I command you, the Zaporozhian Cossacks, to submit to me voluntarily and without any resistance, and to desist from troubling me with your attacks.

-  Turkish Sultan Mehmed IV

And this is how the Zaporozhian Cossacks replied with a stream of insults and vulgarities, making fun of the Sultan’s titles - note, written in 1676:

Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Turkish Sultan!

Thou art a Turkish imp, the damned devil's brother and friend, and a secretary to Lucifer himself. What the devil kind of knight art thou that cannot slay a hedgehog with your naked ass? The devil shits, and your army eats. Thou son of a bitch wilt not ever make subjects of Christian sons; we have no fear of your army, by land and by sea we will battle with thee, fuck thy mother.

Thou art the Babylonian scullion, Macedonian wheelwright, brewer of Jerusalem, goat-fucker of Alexandria, swineherd of Greater and Lesser Egypt, Armenian pig, Podolian villain, catamite of Tartary, hangman of Kamyanets, and fool of all the world and underworld, a fool before our God, a grandson of the Serpent, and the crick in our dick. Pig's snout, mare's arse, slaughterhouse cur, unchristened brow, screw thine own mother!

So the Zaporozhians declare, you lowlife. Thou wilt not even be herding Christian pigs. Now we shall conclude, for we don't know the date and don't have a calendar; the moon's in the sky, the year in the book, the day's the same over here as it is over there; for this kiss our ass!

-  Koshovyi Otaman Ivan Sirko, with the whole Zaporozhian Host.

The Ukranian artist Ilya Repin (1844-1930)…

Self-portrait of Ilya Repin

…took ten years to paint a canvas celebrating this event – The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks - which measures two metres in height and three and a half metres wide.  He saw it as a study in laughter and a tribute to the free spirit and republicanism of the Cossacks, and when it was finished in 1891 the Tsar Alexander III snapped it up, paying the princely sum of 35,000 roubles.  It is now exhibited in the state museum in St Petersburg.

Ilya Repin's "The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks" - completed 1891.
PLEASE do click to enlarge and get the full effect. 
Every detail is a joy:
*the man seated left with his moustache tucked behind his ears;
*the scribe who looks intelligent and much amused by what he's being asked to do;
 *standing behind him with his hand on his chest and a glitter in his eye Ivan Sirko, who signed the letter;
*... and gorgeously attired in red, the large man whose loud belly laugh you can almost hear

The delightful tableau shows a group of Cossacks roaring with laughter and pleasure as they think up further vulgarities for the scribe to note in the reply to the Turkish Sultan.  During the artist’s time the Cossacks enjoyed popular admiration and sympathy, and the picture invites you to join in and laugh with them, as Russians surely must have done.

The Zaporozhian Cossacks eventually fell under Russian influence, were forcibly disbanded in the late eighteenth century and relocated to another corner of the empire.  But their most important legacy was to modern Ukraine, where their memory has driven the struggle for independence.

As for Ilya Repin, the artist, here are a few of the hundreds of gorgeous paintings he completed.  Of particular note is his clever handling of the eyes and expressions therein.  Again, please double click to enlarge - the larger they are the more incredible.
"Barge Haulers on the Volga"
The men seem to almost collapse forward in exhaustion under the burden of hauling a large boat upstream in heavy, hot weather.  The work is both a celebration of the men's dignity and fortitude, and a highly emotional condemnation of those who sanctioned such inhumane labour.  Although they are presented as stoical and accepting, the men are largely defeated; only one stands out: in the centre of both the row and canvas, a brightly coloured youth fights against his leather binds and takes on a heroic poise. (Wikipedia)

"Peasant with an evil eye"

"Religious Procession in Kursk Province"
Considered an archetype of the "Russian national style," as it displays various social classes and the tensions among them, set within the context of a traditional religious practice and united by a slow but relentless forward movement. (Wikipedia)

"Ivan the Terrible and his Son"
This canvas displayed a horrified Ivan embracing his dying son, whom he had just struck and mortally wounded in an uncontrolled fit of rage. The terrified face of Ivan is in marked contrast with that of his calm, almost Christlike son. (Wikipedia)


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's digital archive

More pictures from the 'shoot' on Portishead Lake
last week...


Monday, 20 February 2012

Out and about with my camera

I've been doing less writing at the computer and a bit more of getting out into the fresh air this week to practise with my new camera.  I took a couple of days off but slept in and missed the morning sunshine - so I'll have to wait for spring before I get more variety to photograph.  I look forward to using my new macro lens on pictures of plants and flowers...

I went to Dorchester to see my niece and her nearly three year old son Jimmy, my great nephew.  The three of us has lunch in a pub, and while waiting to be served I took some pictures of him at the table and in the little play area outside.

I tried my hand with the movie facility on my camera and filmed a brief video for the first time, and as you would expect from a camcorder virgin, I won't be rocking the movie world just yet - however I was so pleased to find that while the camera work was pathetic, the quality of the video was amazing.  This I had not expected, because I thought that cameras with video facilities come a very poor second to camcorders.  

Jimmy is very articulate and likes to chat, and I much look forward to the day when I'm competent enough to "interview" him because I think it'll make him a star.  Oh well, there's great auntie speaking.

He comes out with lovely phrases he's overheard from adults but sometimes isn't quite there with the meanings - example:

Jimmy(cough! cough! cough!)

His Mother:  Jimmy, you must cover your mouth with your hands when you cough.

Jimmy:  Yes Mummy.  Puts his hands over his ears:  cough! cough! cough!

Today John and I went to the lake at Portishead, and he tried to con the gulls, ducks and swans with stale bread as a gourmet meal (they did draw the line at green bread though - I could almost here them saying "Is you 'avin' a larf???" as they spat it back again.)  I took a lot of pictures in my attempt to get the birds catching the bread in flight, or skimming it off the surface of the water, and what a racket they made as they all congregated to lunge for the food.  I need more practice to get my eye in, but here are some of the ones I got.  In some cases they're sections of pictures which needed selective cropping - it's very difficult to get decent pictures of birds on the move.

At different times two children wandered by on the hands of their parents and grandparents, and John gave them some bread to throw to the birds, and showed them how to do it.  It was clearly the first time for both the children, and the look of wonder on their faces was something to behold...

(You can see the bird's legs under water in this one)

I tried cropping out the bird on the right, but decided in the end that compositionally it probably looked more balanced.  This is the only one in this group which shows the bird with a piece of John's bread in its beak.  Click to enlarge.

How on earth do they keep so pristine?


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archives


Monday, 13 February 2012


There’s been a lot of sickness doing the rounds in my world – yes, I work in a hospital, but it seems to be around everywhere.  I looked after my partner John while he struggled with a nasty version of the usual cold, cough and temperature, which he passed to me in due course (I’ve no idea if it was flu’ but it certainly felt like it) and unusually for me I had to take a week off work, too miserable even to do any writing. 

I was glad to lose myself in Dumas’ Count of Montecristo – what a magnificent storyteller he was – and when I’d had enough of the sublime I resorted to the ridiculous card games on my computer.  My box of tissues became the most important item in my life, and John my lifeline.  Our loud sneezes and coughing fits amused the cats not at all.
When I returned to work I saw the silver lining:  the multi-storey car park was a shadow of its former self.  I imagine staff had been struck down in droves by flu’ and nurses were probably encouraged to stay away so as not to infect patients.  For two weeks there have been so many car parking spaces that I have longed to just go from one to another and stay for a while in each, JUST BECAUSE I CAN...
In our office I learned that our Finnish colleague Hedda had been very ill and was in hospital with appendicitis.  We had barely got our act together to get her a card when we were told she had discharged herself, and 24 hours after her laparoscopic procedure she was back at work because ‘she hated to break her routine’. 
She was clearly fragile though, and after a few part-time days she disappeared again, and we learned she had been rushed back to hospital with peritonitis.  This time we didn’t delay in signing a card and getting her a woman’s magazine, but when a colleague went to see her and to deliver them, she had gone – once again she had discharged herself after 24 hours.  The following day she was back again at work… She’s very slim, delicate, blonde, a mother of young children… and obviously tough as old boots.
The Self-published Book

The book of my great aunt’s letters between 1912 and 1919 was successfully printed on top quality satin paper in hard back with 102 illustrations on over 220 pages.  The weekend before last John and I drove to Oxford to hand it over to my 94 year old cousin (my great aunt’s surviving daughter).  She’s a feisty lady who speaks her mind and is as sharp as a razor, but I needn’t have worried.  She was very pleased with it, and would be taking it with her to Argentina the following week whence she was headed on business.  She’ll read it while she’s there and tell me about all the typos when she returns in a couple of months’ time.  Here are some pictures I took of it before it left my hands.

I know, not the best I've ever taken.  But you get the idea.


Flu’ and very cold weather have discouraged me from going out and about very much using my lovely new camera, and also because I’ve been searching the accessories market for a chest pod to help me support it and not get camera shake – it’s quite heavy.  But I must, because I’ve been asked to take pictures at a friend’s wedding in April.   I’m already starting to shake.  This coming Thursday I shall be travelling to Dorchester to visit my niece and His Gorgeousness (my great nephew) and will be having another go, and also (gulp) trying the video facility.


Selina in 2011 (not taken by me, sadly)

Some of you kindly asked me to update you on the state of health of my friend Michèle’s younger daughter Selina who was in a terrible car accident in early October last year (In Argentina).  I’m told she is still in some kind of a coma, yet her eyes are open and she is moving her arms slowly. 

Though not speaking yet, she can hear on both sides, understand speech and reason for herself, and by the simple expedient of putting her thumb up or down can communicate her wishes to those around her.  She has shown initiative in grabbing the soap to wash herself, and has stroked her mother’s cheek.  She’s making slow but steady progress, and the specialists are pleased with her. 
This last weekend her faithful girlfriends visited her, giving Selina’s mother a break and a chance to catch up on her sleep, and took it in turns to fuss over her.  One moisturised her face while another gave her a manicure and pedicure which she obviously enjoyed.  She stroked their faces and reduced them to tears.  Love is never forgotten.
Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archive
Que Viva España!!


Monday, 6 February 2012

Tales of War and Conflict - The Maths Master

Manfred Frankel appeared at Ted’s school one day during the freezing early days of 1942. Mr Carmichael, the headmaster of St Matthews Taunton introduced the tall, thin man in his forties with a slight stoop and wispy dark hair to the boys at assembly as their new maths master.

“Mr Frankel comes to us highly recommended from the University of Freiburg” he announced. “We are very fortunate indeed to have him. He will be taking the upper fourth, fifth and sixth starting tomorrow and I’m sure we would all like to extend to him a very warm welcome.”

Mr Frankel smiled timidly at the sea of faces and it was only their fear of the headmaster’s strong views on discipline that kept them all quiet until they had been dismissed. Outside the hall there were loud eruptions from the older boys.

“What’s a Kraut doing here? One of them shot my brother down”.

“Are we going to have maths in German?”

“I bet he’s a spy”…. And so on.

At fourteen Ted’s world and those of his contemporaries was confined to boarding school, but there had been enough upheaval in their young lives to make them sense that this was an unusual situation both for the school and for the new master. For this was not their school.

Fourteen months’ earlier he had found himself part of a group of 100 boys which had been evacuated from Hurstfield College in Lamberhurst, Kent, when France had fallen and the Battle of Britain was at its height. Ted’s parents in Gravesend supported the decision to send the children away for safety to the West Country, and St Matthews had enough space to welcome them as boarders. It had represented a difficult period of adjustment for them all, far from their homes, unable to visit or be visited by their families.

The degree of smugness felt by the evacuees over the St Matthews boys because they knew all about Messerschmitts and Junkers and were fond of discussing it in front of them in loud voices, was balanced by the fact that secretly they feared to hear those very sounds again. But it was always Hurstfield versus the local boys, the 'war wise' versus the country bumpkins.

However the fact was that they all felt unsettled, and now here was the enemy in their midst, or so it seemed to them at first.

The lessons had an uneasy start, and Mr Frankel’s gentle and quiet disposition did little to inspire respect in the early days. The rowdier elements found a way to test the master’s mettle by making loud remarks in the back row in fake German accents and imitating the sound of planes flying low. This Mr Frankel ignored, until he was asked one day how one said trigonometry in German.

“I don’t wish to even remember that I speak German”, he said quietly in his halting English, “or that I have ever lived anywhere but in Taunton”.

He went to all the inter-school rugby matches on a Saturday, whatever the weather, and would stand on the touchline by himself, muffled up, watching the boys running and tackling as he tried to pick up the finer points of the game. He was always on hand after hours to struggling pupils for further explanations on the complicated aspects of his subject, or to those aspiring to scholarships, and whatever the circumstance he was never heard to raise his voice.

Mr Carmichael and the other masters noticed that he would smile occasionally, but no one ever heard him laugh. Above all, in his mild way he declined to answer any questions about himself, and there was something about him that made pupil and master alike stop short of asking him about his past life.

It wasn’t merely his quiet air of mystery that brought even the most recalcitrant elements into line; it was the fact that he was a brilliant mathematician with a gift for communicating facts at all levels. As his English improved, a potentially dry aspect was brought to life by his ability to apply it to everyday life. Not for him the automatic recourse to the grinding of geometrical shapes in chalk on the blackboard; he preferred to produce a rugby or cricket ball to make his point; with his vivid imagination he could transport the boys to a hot climate with warm breezes and had them gazing at an imaginary turquoise swimming pool with a waterfall casting so many gallons a second into its crystal depths. What if the pool had just been cleaned and emptied - how long would it take to fill it up again and avoid it overflowing...?

He was not a handsome figure of a man in the conventional sense – no sporting hero he - but his gentle dignity and charisma gradually transmitted itself to the boys and he commanded a quiet respect and real affection. His air of sadness intrigued them, but it was not until 1944 that they were to learn more about their favourite master.

On the sultry morning of Tuesday 6th June 1944 Ted’s class had Maths straight after breakfast. At 9 o’clock sharp Mr Frankel burst into the classroom with flushed cheeks, beaming from ear to ear – in itself a rare occurrence which made everybody sit up at their desks.

Joyfully pounding the air with his fists he cried “Have you heard ze news? Ze Allies have landed in Normandy!” It was a wonderful moment and cheering broke out in the classroom and was taken up by the others as the news spread. There were no lessons that afternoon.

After supper when the older boys were allowed to stay up a little later than usual they were sitting round Mr Frankel on a bench in the playground, and one of them said “So what happens now Mr Frankel? Is the war over?”

“Not yet, no. We must be patient for a little longer. But soon it will come and you will be able to go home” he replied, and then his elation seemed to ebb away when Ted said “What will you do after the war Mr Frankel?”

“I will stay here Ted. I have no home except this school, no country, no family.” He hesitated, and as if the momentous news of the day deserved a bit more from him, he continued.

“I am a Jew you see” - he pronounced it Chew – “I taught in a school near Berlin until they told me to go, and then I took whatever job I could to support my wife and two daughters. But it was difficult, and once you wore the yellow star nobody would employ you. I was willing to do anything, and at any time of day, but it wasn’t enough.

"One morning I came home from my night shift cleaning at a hospital and there were guards in our little flat, and my wife was very frightened. They took us away and eventually put us on a train. It was terrible, and after many days we arrived at a prison camp.” He faltered. “I cannot talk about it, but my family died there and I was able to escape to England because one of my professors at the University of Freiburg was British and knew Mr Carmichael many years ago. I won’t ever go back.”

They all stared at him, not knowing what to say. Most of them had suffered personal loss in their families in one way or another during the war, and Ted himself had lost a brother-in-law he hero-worshipped when the young pilot's plane had come down minutes from its base due to an engine malfunction; his two brothers were in ships on the Atlantic somewhere. But to a degree these boys were protected from the outside world and had never before been confronted by evidence of such a deep personal tragedy, and were much subdued by it.

As he had promised, just under a year later VE Day came, Ted passed his final exams and secured his place at Cambridge. The day arrived when the evacuees packed up their things for the train journey back to Kent, and Ted sought out Mr Frankel to say goodbye and to tell him how much he owed his scholarship to him. A modest man, Manfred Frankel brushed aside his praise, and wished him Godspeed.

Ted wrote to him twice more, once when he got home to tell him how much he had admired him as a master and how grateful he was for all he had been taught, and once again at the end of his first year at Cambridge, when his maths papers scored 96%. Mr Frankel replied warmly congratulating him, and telling Ted he had always known he would do well.

In the first few months Ted frequently found himself thinking back to the story the master had told them in D Day back in 1944, for now that the full facts were becoming known about the situation endured by the Jews in Germany, he began to understand more deeply what Mr Frankel had said, and more importantly, what he had not said.

Manfred Frankel stayed on at Taunton school for many years, at first alone yet not alone, for he was surrounded by people and boys who appreciated him. Late in life he married the school’s nurse, and knew happiness once again.

In 1990 when St Matthews Taunton celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the evacuation, they invited all the former evacuees they could find to a grand gala party at the school. Now in his sixties, Ted was a little dismayed not to recognise many of his former companions despite the evidence of their name badges, but all was forgotten several drinks later they settled down to discuss “whatever happened to so-and-so”. It was inevitable that Manfred Frankel’s name should come up at some point, and Ted reminded them of the way he had told them the story of the fate of his wife and two children on D Day.

“Not two children old chap”, said one of them, “he had three. Two daughters and a son.”

“He definitely never mentioned a son” replied Ted, “how do you know?”

“Old Carmichael. I went back to visit a few times, then on one visit I learned that Frankel had died and the old boy had retired, so I invited myself over to his house for a cup of tea and we had a long chat. Apparently Frankel’s daughters were about ten and twelve or so, and they had a much younger son of five – apple of his eye, Carmichael said. When his wife and daughters were gassed he had been able to grab the little boy in time and keep him hidden from the Gestapo while he made urgent plans to escape.

“It was a desperate situation, because the child was too young to be anything but a burden, and on the day they made a run for it with Frankel carrying him the child was unwell and crying, which slowed them down. They were spotted by guards at the last minute and they opened fire against them. Unfortunately the child acted as a shield for his father and was killed instantly. He fell from his arms and Frankel knew he had to make a dreadful decision. There was nothing further he could do for his son, and if he stayed to mourn over his body he too would be dead.

"So he left him and carried on running – and somehow he got away. Terrible business, too awful for him to be able to talk about it for many years, and he only ever told Carmichael shortly before he died. He always felt he had abandoned his little boy.”

The old boys were silent and shocked, as they had been that day back in 1944 when they had heard the first half of the story.

Ted is now in his eighties and has never forgotten Manfred Frankel. He tells me he regrets not having returned to the school to visit him or kept in touch; he knew how much it would have meant to the master to maintain contact with his former pupils.  “There will always be racism and prejudice everywhere, and we’re all guilty of neglecting our friends at some point in our lives," he said, and sighed, adding  "tell the story, perhaps someone else can learn from it.”

Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archive


Kite Festival, Bristol

The Queen's Bath, The Royal Baths, Bath (!)

At a Latin-American concert in Surrey
(The Anglo-Argentine society's annual 'asado')

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