Monthly Archives: June 2015

Nature versus Nurture: the Tragedy of Russian Music and its Obvious Solution.


Who hasn’t sat through a concert of worthy, tortured 20th century Russian music wondering if will ever end and trying to work out if the number of words in the programme description has any common factors with the number of players in the orchestra?

Exhibit A in the parade of slavic awfulness is Dmitriy Shostakovich. Born in St Petersburg in 1906, he lived through WWI, the Russian Revolution, the development of the Soviet Union, Stalin’s purges, the great famine of the 1930s, WWII, the Siege of Leningrad and the stagnation of communism without apparently finding reasons to be cheerful with any of it. His music has an unpleasantly anguished quality to it, with his unmovably “Russian Soul” showing deep melancholy even in pieces which should by rights have been cheerful such as this well-known waltz:

In pieces generally regarded as more serious – the Fifth Symphony and the 8th String Quartet to name but two of the most impenetrably depressing – his fur-hatted grumpiness is utterly insufferable.

What is it with Russians and anguish? Are they incapable of anything more uplifting?

It is at this point I would like to introduce you to a composer of Russian Imperial origins who transcended them to contribute to music properly. Sidney Torchinsky was the offspring of a Ukrainian father and an Estonian mother, but born – and this is crucial – in London rather than St Petersburg,and only two years after Shostakovich. Although his genes may have born the unalterable imprint of the blasted steppe, his life experiences were fundamentally different, and reflected in the decency of his shortening his unnecessarily long name to “Sidney Torch”. He experienced the vicissitudes of the 20th century England – WWI, the General Strike, the Blitz, spam fritters, the Harold Wilson government and the films of George Formby (whose depressing qualities were rewarded by Stalin with the Order of the Hero of Soviet Labour) – but managed to keep his upper lip stiff and his pecker admirably up at all times.

His music therefore, even in its more serious and introspective moments, has an optimistic and spiritual quality utterly missing from that of his Russian near-contemporary:

Could the conclusion be any more obvious? In order to prevent a new Cold War setting in under the dour and humourless Vladimir Putin, Britain should offer to educate Russian musicians in the high-minded traditions of Eric Coates, Billy Mayerl and Ron Goodwin as well as the great Torch himself. The BBC World Service should swamp Russian airwaves with historic editions of “Music While you Work” and “Friday Night is Music Night”. The works of Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoevsky should be re-edited to add phrases such as “keep your chin up” and “mustn’t grumble”, and Mr Michael McIntyre should be sent to Siberia on a one-way ticket. That alone, surely, is a goal we can all get behind?

Jeff de Cuisine has championed the music of Sidney Torch for some years now, at one point being thrown out of a trappist monastery for playing “Sea Adventures” on the organ during a vigil.


When History Bites you on the Bum: Eight Centuries of Magna Karma.

MOL225600 #82 Charter of King John (1167-1216) 9th May 1215 by English School, (13th century) © Museum of London, UK English, out of copyright

2015 is a year of anniversaries: some big, some small. As we celebrate eight hundred years since the signing of the iconic Magna Carta, or “Magna Carter” as it has been bucolically represented on occasion, we must not overlook that other significant phenomenon existing in its shadow. For implicit in the justice of the Magna Carta is that other powerful medieval force: the wheel of fortune. There would be no Magna Carta without a sense of Magna Karma.

The Rota Fortunae was a concept that really took hold in the medieval imagination. Presided over by the goddess of the same name, it represented the cyclical and fluctuating nature of luck; the inevitability of improvement but also of failure: a positive and negative construct that predicted the fall of kings and the rise of peasants. From Babylon to the Ancient Greeks, from Tacitus to Boethius, this allegory allied with Catholic doctrine to create an expectation that sinners would be punished and the meek would creep through the gates of heaven through the eye of a needle. But the medieval man or woman was not entirely helpless. There were ways and means to placate the goddess too. Penance, offerings, prayers, bequests and charitable works could all buy the bearer a pass through purgatory and smooth one’s way to the pearly gates.

One of the most significant examples of the wheel of fortune is to be found in an early thirteenth century manuscript included in the Carmina Banana collection, now held in Munich’s Bavarian State Library. Frequently crude and explicit in detail, it contains a number of marginal images depicting the fall of man from various deadly sins: a vain prince slipping whilst looking in the mirror, a former beauty eaten by worms, a glutton being dragged away from a feast by the carcass of a cow slaughtered on his behalf. On the verso of page six in folio four, the goddess Fortuna appears, sitting atop her wheel and looking down at the mortals at her feet. It is a typical image in many ways, except for the unusual figure at the bottom. A handsome, bearded man wearing a crown sits astride a large ripe yellow fruit, which can only be a banana, hence the manuscript’s name.

Certain details such as the clothing and crown, along with the suspected date of composition suggest this is a portrait of King John falling from grace in 1216, a year after the signing of the Magna Carta. Yet the appearance of the banana is challenging. It calls into question what was thought to be the first recorded appearance of bananas in England in 1633 and existing understanding of trading routes. At the edge of the manuscript, as King John is almost crushed under the wheel of fortune, the head and shoulders of a small, red-faced devil lean into the page, jaws wide open to bite the backside of the unlucky king. Thus the sense of the noble ideals of the Magna Carta are somewhat fuddled by the crude nip of magna karma. It is a joyous reminder of the earthiness of the medieval mind, a slap stick humour, a proto Chaucerian joke that represents the darker side of this year’s anniversary.


Syrup de Fortunae

Creme de Menthe

Banana cake.

Jeff R Vescent is horizontal at present.

The truth about the death of the King of Scotland.

"Kenneth II of Scotland" by The original uploader was Benson85 at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -
Someone who may or may not be Kenneth of Scotland, drawn in the Autumn, as is obvious by the leaves that have fallen on his head just before this picture was drawn.

Anglicised as Kenneth II, Cináed mac Maíl Coluim, was the son of Malcolm I (Máel Coluim mac Domnaill) and was born sometime before 964,  succeeding King Cuilén (Cuilén mac Iduilb) in 971 as King of Scots (Alba).

Known primary sources, such as The Chronicle of the Kings of Alba were compiled in Kenneth’s reign, but many of the place names and events mentioned are entirely imaginary or corrupt.  It is always difficult sieving the wheat from the chaff when trying to establish a time line for his life and years of reign.

Whatever the reality, more reliable sources have always been available to tell the story of his death and at a conference in Wybunbury, the ceremonial county of Cheshire, following painstaking years of piecing together and translating a short parchment, an established version of the events leading to his demise and the immediate aftermath has now been recorded and accepted by all leading ‘Kenneth’ scholars.

The new material endorses part of what has has been known for many years, the account of John of Fordun writing in the 14th century. Kenneth attempted to change the succession rules, allowing “the nearest survivor in blood to the deceased king to succeed“, thus securing the throne for his own descendants. He did so to specifically exclude Constantine) and Kenneth (known as Gryme) in this source. The duo then conspired against him, convincing Finnguala (literally meaning fair shoulder) to kill the king which she is reputed to have done as revenge for Kenneth killing her own son.  Things got a bit complicated then as she turned into a swan and there was a wicked stepmother somewhere but I lost the will to live when it got to the fairy tale bit and so as we know they did not all live happily ever after, we will leave it at Finnguala killing Kenneth. That much is established now beyond doubt and is summed up below.

One day, Kenneth II and his companions went hunting into the wood. The hunt took him to Fettercairn, where Finnguala resided. It has now been established that Fettercairn is known better as Soweth Påk (South Park in modern English).

Finnguala approached him to proclaim her loyalty and invited him to visit her home, whispering into his ear that she had information about a conspiracy before  enticing him to  a small dwelling where a booby trap was hidden, a statue connected by strings to a number of crossbows. If anyone moved the statue, this would trigger the crossbows and be pierced by the arrows. Kenneth touched the statue and “was shot though by arrows sped from all sides, and fell without uttering another word.

Finnguala escaped through the woods and managed to join her co-plotters, Constantine  and Gryme.

Despite Kenneth having been killed at Soweth Påk, the hunting companions soon discovered the blood soaked king.  With the now world famous cry they proclaimed his death,

“Oh my god, they killed Kenny! You bastards!”

Jeff Jefferty Jeff is going to go and lick his salty balls – chocolate ones that is!

Source material:





Polly Esther



© Jeff ‘Jefferty’ Jeff  08.06.15

Edward, I am Your Father

Edward III

Over recent years here has been a lot of discussion regarding the possible survival of Edward III‘s father, Edward II, beyond his supposed 1327 death date. The fact no one was able to find his death certificate seems to support these claims – Queen Isabelle brushed them off, saying that it was ‘somewhere in the [filing] cabinet’, but this just doesn’t seem to ring true.

There is also a letter; the Fieschi Letter.

Manuele Fieschi (d. 1349) was a Genoese priest who became Bishop of Vercelli. He wrote his letter while in Avignon in 1337, telling the story of Edward II’s escape from Berkeley Castle and subsequent journey, via Corfe Castle and Ireland, to obscurity on the Continent.

In addition, diplomatic documents seem to back up the Fieschi letter, purporting to claim that Edward III met with his father in Koblenz in 1338.

The story goes that while Edward was in Koblenz to be installed as Vicar of the Holy Roman Empire  he met someone called William le Galeys, or William the Welshman, who claimed to be the king’s father.

You can imagine how dubious Edward must have been. After all, he had buried his father on the back of the fact he was dead. He’d even had to order the execution of his uncle, Edmund Earl of Kent, for trying to free his already-dead brother from Corfe Castle in 1330.

But what if it was someone else who was claiming to be the king’s father?

Mel Gibson wearing makeup that is meant to look like woad.
William Wallace

I was watching a wonderful documentary on the History Channel the other night – no, sorry, for some strange reason it was actually broadcast on Film 4. I thought that strange at the time, but got so engrossed in the documentary that it didn’t matter. The documentary was all about Scotland’s history and its struggles with England during the late 1200s.

A Professor Melvin Gibson argued that although  Edward II – then Prince of Wales – was married to Isabelle of France, he was not the father of his eldest son. Isabelle was seduced by the marvellously charismatic William Wallace. Wallace was the Guardian of Scotland; still a Scottish national hero. Isabelle and Wallace had a wondrous love affair which was only cut short by Wallace’s ‘apparent’ execution for treason in London, ordered by Edward I (just for clarity, Edward I is the father of Edward II and grandfather of Edward III – and great-grandfather of Edward the Black Prince).

Contemporary portrait of Isabelle of France

At first I was derisory of Professor Gibson’s premise. There are a couple of issues with it, such as the supposed age of Isabelle of France – but then, what woman doesn’t lie about her age and try to take 10 years off whenever she can? And then there was the fact that, surely, William Wallace was even more dead than Edward II?

After all Edward II had a little accident with a poker.

Wallace, on the other hand, was hung, drawn and quartered with his head displayed on a pike afterwards. But was he?

I watched the documentary again and noticed that one fact didn’t agree with the historical record. According to Professor Gibson William Wallace was, about, what 5ft 4in?

And yet the man executed by Edward I’s henchmen was described of being of ‘uncommon height’. Of course, this could mean uncommonly short, but another commentator described him as a ‘giant’ and yet another as ‘7ft’.

So I can only conclude – seeing as the evidence points that way – the man executed by Edward I’s minions was not, in fact, William Wallace but a stunt double. Stunt doubles were used very rarely, according to the documentary, as most actors – sorry – historical heroes tended to do their own stunts.

However, it seems that Wallace wasn’t keen on the beheading scene of his execution, so he chose one of his fans to take part in this part of his life – and fled to the Continent, parting from Isabelle with the oft-used phrase; ‘I’ll be back’.

William Wallace’s stunt double, executed in 1305

So, now we have 2 possible survivors of horrific deaths – and 2 possible fathers for Edward III. Having finished watching the documentary I decided to go back over the evidence.

I stopped at the name of Edward’s father, the one he was using in Koblenz; William le Galeys. This has been translated as William the Welshman and, seeing as Edward II was born in Caernarvon, it was obviously deciphered as referring to him. However, there is one problem with this assumption.

Edward II’s name was not William – and Edward II was not Welsh. As the Duke of Wellington is famously quoted as saying ‘just because you are born in a stable, it does not make you a horse’.

And this is when I had my ‘lightbulb moment’.

William le Galeys sounds an awful lot like William Wallace, if you say it fast enough. This was obviously a mis-transcription, much like the fact that we have spent 2 millennia calling Boudicca, the Queen of the Iceni, Boadicea.

So, William Wallace was, in fact, the man who walked into the audience chamber of Edward III in Koblenz and said to the king, in a rather breathy voice:

“Edward, I am your father.”


Jeff R Sun is now going to sit in the back garden and relax, before deciding which historical myth to dispel next.


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Sources: Braveheart by Professor Melvin Gibson; Star Wars Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back by Dr Vader; Wikipedia; The Life and Times of Edward III by Paul Johnson; Terminator by Arnold Schwarzenegger; Monarchy, a novel by Dr David Snarkey; Wellington by Lady Elizabeth Longford

Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

The Tower of London: A Five-Star Resort

Whilst I have read on a number of occasions that the Tower of London did not become a prison until the time of the Tudors, the status of those who stayed there before the Tudor era naturally puzzled me. If they were not prisoners, what were they? Then I began to revolve the matter in my mind, and soon–as is almost always the case when I look deep within–found enlightenment. I realized that prior to 1485, the Tower was not a prison at all, but a high-status lodging for the rich and powerful comparable to a modern all-inclusive resort.

Take, for instance, this illustration of Gruffyd ap Llywelyn Farr falling from the Tower of London. One might jump to conclusions and think that he was attempting to escape from the Tower, but common sense should tell us that he was engaging in the healthful exercise of climbing down from his lodgings with the intent of climbing back up later. Unfortunately, he seems to not have trained adequately for this extreme sport, and the lack of preparation cost him dearly.


Needless to say, after this incident the Tower staff, mindful of liability issues, banned any other such exercise by those lodging at the Tower.

Another glimpse of the pleasures of the Tower can be seen here, in this illustration of Charles of Orleans–a foreign visitor, whose presence shows that by the 15th century, lodgings at the Tower had acquired a truly international cachet. Here we see Charles enjoying his splendid view of the sparkling Thames:

fullpma039Imagine what this view would cost today!

Later in the fifteenth century, Tower lodgings became so in demand that royalty clamoured for them as well. I speak, of course, of Henry VI and his queen, Margaret of Anjou, both of whom came there to relax after stressful episodes in their lives. While Margaret emerged rejuvenated and rested and returned to France in the glow of perfect health, Henry died there–an interesting, and as far as I can tell unique, use of the Tower as a hospice of sorts. He must have paid a high price indeed for such a special privilege.

Finally, of course, we have Richard III’s bastard nephews, who were lodged in the Tower briefly in 1483. Unfortunately, being thoroughly spoiled by their mother, the boys were unappreciative of their lodgings and their rich history, and demanded instead to go to their aunt in Burgundy, where, bored, they occupied themselves in writing spiteful reviews of their uncle’s hospitality.

Like so many other good things, the Tudors destroyed the tradition of guest accommodations at the Tower, converting its once grand chambers into dingy prison cells for reasons that can only be described as nefarious, since no one who was put in prison in Tudor England was actually guilty of anything. Yet these upstarts could not succeed in destroying the aura of glamour and excitement that will always attach to a truly grand resort, as shown by the immense numbers of those who queue daily to see what was once England’s premier lodging.


Baedeker’s Guide to London

The Mists of Time

Jeff Borden is pleased to be back blogging after a lengthy hiatus brought on by exhaustion after the Reburial.