Archive for October, 2017

Sputnik at 60

26 October 2017

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It is the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik this month, in 1957, the moment when the Soviet Union arrived at the peak of its power and influence. It was 40 years after the Revolution, and only 32 years to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Francis Spufford, who wrote Red Plenty, captured that moment this way:

This was the Soviet moment. It lasted from the launch of Sputnik in 1957 through Yuri Gagarin’s first spaceflight in 1961 and dissipated along with the fear in the couple of years following the Cuban missile crisis in 1962… But while it lasted the USSR had a reputation that is now almost impossible to recapture.

John Naughton shared the front page of the New York Times on his blog.

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In the UK, The Engineer devoted more than a page to it, with a refreshing disregard of any concessions to design or layout. (You can read the whole issue here, in pdf).

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NASA added a poem by the then Democrat Governor of Michigan, G. Mennen Williams (I say ‘poem’, but it would hardly have troubled the Pulitzer Prize judges that year), in which he complained that Soviet satellites were beeping away overhead while the President was busy playing golf.

Oh little Sputnik, flying high
With made-in-Moscow beep,
You tell the world it’s a Commie sky
and Uncle Sam’s asleep.

You say on fairway and on rough
The Kremlin knows it all,
We hope our golfer knows enough
To get us on the ball.

10 years ago, to mark the 50th anniversary, NPR broadcast a piece on songs that had been influenced by Sputnik. A lot of these are really good fun, but the one I enjoyed most was “Beep Beep!” by Louis Prima.

And finally, a more recent contribution to the genre from the British band Public Service Broadcasting.

As Spufford says in his article on the USSR’s Sputnik moment:

While the Soviet moment lasted, it looked like somewhere which was incubating a rival version of modern life: one which had to be reckoned with, learned from, in case it really did outpace the west, and leave the lands of capitalism stumbling along behind.

Which didn’t happen. Which didn’t happen so thoroughly that the way the Soviet Union seemed to be between 1957 and 1964 or thereabouts has been more or less displaced from our collective memory.

 

 

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Palaces of gold

22 October 2017

The English folk and blues singer Martin Simpson is touring at the moment to promote his latest record Trails and Tribulations. That’s not a misprint, though it plays havoc with Google; he once called a record Righteousness and Humidity after over-hearing someone say it in an American bar so perhaps has a soft spot for punning titles. He’s in his early 60s now, and after 40 years in the trade he’s almost certainly the finest folk guitar player in England. The new record is, as ever, a combination of traditional songs with fine new arrangements, versions of songes he admires, and some of his own compositions. (The record is reviewed here).

I went to see him in London last night at King’s Place. On stage, he talked about the Grenfell Fire, and explained that when he heard the news of it he resolved to play at every gig Leon Rosselson’s song ‘Palaces of Gold’, written as an elegy for the victims of the Aberfan disaster, until something meaningful was done about Grenfell. By chance, Aberfan happened 51 years ago to the day yesterday, but in 1966 the 21st October fell on a Friday, so 116 children and 28 adults were killed as a Coal Board slagheap rolled down the hillside and ploughed through the village’s junior school.


On Grenfell, where 80 people (or more) died, a firefighter who worked on the recovery operation after the fire told a meeting yesterday, in the spirit of Rosselson’s song,

“Why did Grenfell have flammable cladding and no sprinklers and only one dry riser? Because it was social housing and the decision makers don’t care about the social housing tenants… The minute rich people in Kensington and Chelsea decided they no longer wanted to look at an ugly building, those tenants’ fates were sealed.”

It happens that there’s a recording of Simpson singing the song a few years ago in Edinburgh that has been uploaded to Youtube, shared at the top of this post. And here’s Leon Rosselson’s version.

Film moments #25: My Favorite Wife (1940)

8 October 2017


The film moments idea was started in honour of the citic Manny Farber, who once said that, 

A lot of the movies I went for were very much like the way we see and remember films – as fragments, gestures. We don’t retain whole shapes, but a sight gag from one, the cliffhanger from another, someone’s trousers from a third.

That was in mind when I watched My Favorite Wife, effectively a remake of The Awful Truth, which I wrote about here recently. Leo McCarey reunited Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, and had intended to direct the film, until he was injured in a car crash. Like The Awful Truth, the story is also propelled by the wife-who-isn’t-married, in this case one (Irene Dunne) is declared legally dead seven years after a boat she was on sank in the Pacific. Grant re-marries, and Dunne turns up again, having been rescued from an island by a passing freighter. 

The film is less than the sum of its parts, and the ending is a bit disjointed, perhaps because Leo McCarey, as producer, re-shot part of it when he concluded that the first cut of the film did not work, adding a second courtroom scene to add some comic energy. The judge was played by Granville Bates. All the same, it did well enough at the box office, being the second-highest grossing film in the US in 1940.

The moment: Having got herself home, Dunne re-appears at the hotel just before Grant arrives with his new wife for his honeymoon. It happens to be the same hotel where he went for is honeymoon with her. This moment–a sight gag–was copied pretty much shot for shot in the remake of The Parent Trap.

‘See ancient beauty revived’

1 October 2017

Creative Commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/

One of my 2017 calendars consists of vintage travel posters, and the image for October is this: a ‘Visit Palestine’ poster. Some light digital digging discovers that it probably dates from 1947; ‘Loeb’ (bottom right) was Mitchell Loeb, a New York based artist who designed posters in support of the idea (and later the fact) of a Jewish homeland over a period of more than 40 years.

Loeb did two “Visit Palestine” posters for the Tourist Office of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, and the other one is sub-titled “The Land of the Bible”. 1947 might not have been the best time to visit. 91 people had died in the bombing of the King David Hotel by the Zionist paramilitary group Irgun in 1946, and more than a hundred Palestinians were killed in the Deir Yassin massacre two years later, carried out by Irgun and Lehi (“The Stern Gang”), another paramilitary group. Without delving too far into that history, let’s say that as holidays go, it might have been tense.

The Palestine Poster Project has around 20 of Loeb’s images. The first, from 1916, in a classic recruiting style, is headed, “For the freedom of Palestine; Jews of America organize”. The last one, in 1960, is for the New York-based Jewish National Fund: “Progress despite crisis“. Ironies abound in these images, with hindsight. “Progress despite crisis” features a man driving a bulldozer.

Oranges, villages, green fields, the mountains, the sea. Of course this image has been adapted and remixed for our times. David Tartakower‘s version, from 2004, seen below, is subtle. The image is all but identical, but bleached out. The caption, in Hebrew, says “Another Country”.

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The image of Eretz Acheret is taken from the collection of the Palestine Poster Project, and is used with thanks. The photograph of the “Visit Palestine” poster was taken by Andrew Curry.