Sunday, November 30, 2014

Remembering Churchill, at 140

Today is the 140th anniversary of the birth of Winston Churchill.  I don’t remember when my particular interest in him began.  No doubt I was aware early on, through all those WWII movies and books I voraciously consumed.  But there was certainly much more to his life than his war days, and over time that came into focus for me.  I now own over 40 books by or about the man, and I have read most of them.  My first perhaps was the one-volume biography by Martin Gilbert, a condensation of his much longer treatment.  My favorite is the two-volume The Last Lion by William Manchester, and for an emphasis on his personal life and habits I like The Private Lives of Winston Churchill by John Pearson.  Of Churchill’s own work I have especially enjoyed My Early Life, The River War, and The History of the English Speaking Peoples.  There was much to find and much to learn in studying the life of this most remarkable of men.

Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born on November 30, 1874, into a life of privilege and wealth.  He was the grandson of a duke and the son a rich American heiress.  He was born premature, so it was said, in the coat room of his grandfather the Duke of Marlborough’s majestic Blenheim Palace.  He had a very confident, perhaps overconfident, independent nature; and surprisingly, for a great speaker, he also had a lisp, which he worked hard all his life to mask and overcome.  After a much neglected childhood, with indifferent and self-absorbed parents, he attended Sandhurst, the British military academy analogous to the American West Point, from which he graduated a cavalry officer.  His mother, quite the socialite, often pulled strings with her many friends and lovers to secure advantages for her son. 

As a young man he had a remarkable career as an army officer, war correspondent, and writer, often all simultaneously.  He sought out military action wherever then it was, and often at the same wrote dispatches to newspapers back home for pay.  Then shortly thereafter he would write a book about it all.  He always had a lifestyle that required plenty of cash, more than he was earning as an officer even when supplemented by an allowance from his mother.  So he wrote, and wrote well.

He was an observer and correspondent during the Cuban revolution of 1895 while on a leave from the army.  He was posted to India, where he was a skilled polo player.  While there in 1897 he joined a unit in northwest India fighting a local tribe and served with distinction, and also was well paid for his reporting from the front.  The following year, through his mother’s influence he secured a choice position in Kitchener’s punitive expedition up the Nile to confront an army of frenzied Islamic militants.  The march to the Sudan was in part to avenge the murder there of the popular British official Charles "Chinese" Gordon, of whom Churchill wrote "a man careless alike of the frown of men or the smiles of women, of life or comfort, wealth or fame."  In that campaign at the Battle of Omdurman he was part of the last cavalry charge of the British Army. 

In 1899 Churchill left the Army, lost an election for Parliament, and headed off to South Africa to cover the Boer War as a newspaper correspondent.  While an observer on a British scouting mission in an armored train car, he bravely, though illegally, took charge while under fire at a critical moment during a Boer attack and saved many, though he was captured.  He famously escaped from a prison camp in Pretoria and found his way to safety in British territory, where he was hailed as a hero.  Though he continued as a war correspondent, he then rejoined the Army for its ultimately victorious campaign.  He eventually returned to Britain, left the Army once again, and won the first of many elections to Parliament. 

Churchill was an influential political leader right from the start, joining a group of young reform-minded Conservatives. In 1904, he left the party in a fight over free trade, which he supported, and joined the Liberals.  With them he held many important leadership positions, culminating in being appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, the head of the British navy, a post he held for over three years extending into the start of WWI.  While there he upgraded, modernized, and developed new technologies (such as the tank, despite his being in charge of the navy, not the army).  After the disaster of the Gallipoli campaign which he had helped formulate, he took much of the blame, unfairly in my opinion, and resigned.  He then reactivated in the Army and served as a front line senior officer on the brutal Western Front.  

His reputation quickly recovered and he returned to a series of government leadership positions.  He led the British support for military action in the Russian Civil War and the Irish War of Independence.  Then in 1924 he left the Liberals and rejoined the Conservative Party, saying at the time that "anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat."  He became Chancellor of the Exchequer (akin to Treasury Secretary in the US) and led the country’s return to the gold standard, which turned out to be an economic disaster.

The Conservative government was defeated in the 1929 general election.  Churchill remained a Member of Parliament, but fought with others in his party over free trade, which he still supported, and home rule for India, which he did not.  With no leadership position and his party out of office, Churchill became a backbencher in Parliament in what he described as his “wilderness years.”  He spent that time writing books and articles, painting, traveling on speaking tours (including a long one through the United States), enjoying his country estate Chartwell, and, most importantly, increasingly warning the near-heedless free world of the growing danger of Nazi Germany. 

Melding wisdom with wit, Churchill is said to be the third most quoted source in the English language, after the Bible and Shakespeare.  Once when asked about a fancy London dinner he had just attended, he said "it would have been splendid, if the wine had been as cold as the soup, the beef as rare as the service, the brandy as old as the fish, and the maid as willing as the Duchess."  He was a truly prodigious drinker all of his adult life, yet he lived past 90, explaining that “I have taken more out of alcohol than it has taken out of me.”  He described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”  Although an excellent writer, Churchill once remarked that the rule against ending a sentence with a preposition is "the sort of English up with which I will not put."  He described the socialist Labour politician Clement Attlee as "a modest man with much to be modest about."  He said that "the vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings, whereas the virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of misery."  He averred that "communism was a religion – Jesuits without Jesus."  Finally, in a story perhaps apocryphal, Churchill's perennial political sparring partner Lady Astor once said to him that if he were her husband she would poison his coffee, to which he replied that if she were his wife he would drink it.   
When war broke out again in 1939, at two months shy of his 65th birthday Churchill was returned to power and the rest, as they say, is better known history of this most remarkable man.

In the last volume of the Pax Britannica trilogy, his near-poetic, masterly, pointillist history of the events and ethos of the British Empire, James Morris wrote of Churchill at the time of his death on January 24, 1965:
He had become the living exemplar of British glory.... and the most universally honoured man on earth.... [N]ot only his own nation, but half the world paused wondering and reverent to mourn him.  It was like that moment of antiquity when, the wild god Pan having died, strange music sounded and spirits moved from one end to the other of the classical world.  Churchill had gone, and a sigh, part regret, part wry, part sentimental, went round the nations.
R Balsamo

Monday, November 24, 2014

Obama – The Man Who Would Be Caesar

Obama’s lawless immigration decree is outrageous and ominous, but, sadly, entirely predictable given the distain shown the Constitution and proper legal process by Obama and his supporters.  Obama is also, as he often does, testing limits, to see what he and his fellow control masters can get away with. 

A de facto amnesty affecting millions of illegal aliens, contrary to established law and the will of elected federal representatives, is far beyond anything this Republic has yet seen on this subject.  There are existing immigration laws that, like all laws, should be enforced until they are changed.  If they need to be changed they should be changed, but until such time they are the laws of the land.  The doctrine of prosecutorial discretion, heretofore a limited, practical prioritization of cases by prosecutors with limited resources, is now being used to justify a sweeping executive action involving many millions.  Furthermore, however tenuous the Obama rationalization is in invoking prosecutorial discretion on a massive scale, what he cannot do, but has said he will do, is confer on those he is essentially pardoning positive legal rights such as work permits not permitted under existing law.     

Despite repeated previous announcements that he was not the “Emperor of the United States” and “could not legally” issue the dictate that he just in fact did, once all federal elections during his presidency were over this former ersatz lecturer in Constitutional law decided to go ahead and make the decree anyway, Constitution be damned.  Quite predictably, the gaggle of lawyers working for him quickly patched together a legal justification, chock full of hair-splitting and analogizing that voilĂ ! discovered that everything in Obama’s edict is all hunky dory with the US Constitution, legal precedents (real or imagined), the Articles of Confederation, the Magna Carta, and the Ten Commandments.  Indeed, time and again without fail ultraliberal lawyers through their patented legalistic legerdemain, their semantic razzmatazz, can justify legally any action taken by any Democrat president, any time, anywhere.
The supporters of this dictate gleefully argue that it’s a good idea, a very good idea indeed according to their self-regarded superior and virtuous minds, and therefore it should be done, and can be done, by whatever means necessary.  The puppet-masters of the Democrat Party are manipulating their gullible and malleable dependents and acolytes by essentially declaring that there is an unwritten “Gridlock Clause” lurking somewhere in the penumbras and emanations of the United States Constitution that makes the President a dictator if “Congress doesn’t act” in a way he sees fit on any law he himself deems "broken".  As Benjamin Franklin said to the American people, you have a Republic – if you can keep it.

Impeachment and removal is the simple Constitutional remedy for Presidential lawlessness, though certainly the Republicans will not muster up for that fight.  And even if they tried, the vice-like grip that radical liberals have on the levers of culture and media will thwart with vicious force the undoubtedly hesitant, bumbling, and contradictory moves Republicans would make.  Patriots who seek to preserve this system of government, this Great Experiment, will seek other avenues of action – through the purse and through the courts.    

Obama’s latest outrage is consistent with the strategic principles of the modern Democrat Party, which are: (1) remember that the ends justify the means; (2) collapse the system upon itself and grab more power in the disarray; (3) distract and fool the foolable by relentlessly smearing any and all opponents as racist, sexist, homophobic, and selfish dimwits; and (4) ever expand the mass of people dependent on government for welfare and for jobs, creating these modern-day serfs who will faithfully vote for the Democrat party puppet masters (who, as one wag has put it, regard illegal aliens as “undocumented Democrats”) no matter what is happening to the fabric of the Republic.     

This Republic, which few at the beginning thought could last this long, exists on a shared set of values and beliefs.  When it ends, if it ends, it will not likely end in one fell blow, but rather will die of many cuts, over time, until there is no blood left to sustain its life.  This cut was deep.  The American body politic has shown great healing powers, so we shall see what comes of this latest gash.

R Balsamo

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Il Trovatore at the Lyric Opera

Il Trovatore sign, in flames
The other day we took in a grand performance of Verdi's Il Trovatore at the Lyric in Chicago's Loop.  It’s a familiar story in opera: tenor good boy meets girl, baritone bad boy meets girl.  Boys are rivals, boys are enemies.  The bad boy is powerful, the good boy is oppressed.  Both love to sing and sing often about their love for the lady (the soprano of course) and about their hatred for one another (and about some other things).  The twist here is that the boys are brothers but don’t know it, and Verdi throws in for good measure a gypsy foster mother out for revenge, thundering hammers, a deep family secret, and the disturbing visage of a woman and a baby consumed by flames.

 Il Trovatore’s appeal is emotional and visual and aural, not intellectual.  Yes, it’s an Italian melodrama filled with themes of vengeance and superstition, and loaded with passionate characters spending lots of time passionate about their passion.  But it’s also filled with beautiful music, some of the finest Verdi ever wrote.  It has one of the most rousing and memorable choruses in all opera – the Anvil Chorus; in the performance I saw, no one wielding one of those giant hammers missed a pounding beat.  In the Lyric Opera Companion’s essay on Il Trovatore, Stephanie von Buchau writes that, however intellectually pedestrian the libretto may be, in all of opera Il Trovatore is “the 19th century’s most impressive and beloved example of romantic melodrama.”  In The New Criterion, music critic Jay Nordlinger said “Il Trovatore is a combination of bel canto and blood-and-guts grand opera.”

The Main Hall at the Civic Opera House of Chicago
The program guide tells us that this production premiered at the Lyric Opera of Chicago before going on to the Metropolitan and San Francisco Opera, and is now back home.  The setting is Spain, and on the Lyric’s curtain was a reproduction of Goya’s jarring “Pilgrimage to the Hermitage of St. Isadore”, which hangs in the Prado.  One year in college a roommate and I had a Goya drawing, almost as disturbing, in our dorm room on loan through an art program, but that’s another story.

The Goya Main Screen at Il Trovatore
The Lyric’s first Leonora was Maria Callas (in 1955) – how about that?  This time around, two principals, soprano Amber Wagner as Leonora and baritone Quinn Kelsey as the bad Count di Luna, are alumni of the Lyric’s own renowned training program – the Ryan Opera Center.  Also in the cast are tenor Yonghoon Lee as the hero Manrico and mezzo Stephanie Blythe as Azucena the gypsy.  The Lyric’s program guide asserts that “of all the Verdi operas, there is none more formidable vocally than Il Trovatore”, containing, among other highlights, “the most harrowing five minutes ever composed for operatic mezzo-soprano” and “the most exhilarating of Verdi’s soprano/baritone duets”; I would add the rousing tenor aria “Di Quella Pira” and, in the final moments, the beautiful and touching tenor/mezzo duet “Ai Nostri Monti”.  Caruso is said to have said that all that is needed to make Il Trovatore work is “the four greatest singers in the world.”  It certainly worked for me the other night.

R Balsamo

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Cruising Up North in Michigan – Part Four

On our recent drive into northern Michigan, we made an overnight stop in Traverse City, which sits at the base of Grand Traverse Bay, a huge inlet from Lake Michigan that is bisected by the long, narrow Old Mission Peninsula.  We had been looking forward to touring the area and walking around the compact downtown, but we awoke to a cold, blustery, and rainy day.  After driving around a bit we decided to run out the rain by continuing northward.    

Old Mission Peninsula, Looking Westward from the East Arm of Grand Traverse Bay
We traveled north on US31 and reached Charlevoix in less than an hour.  The city sits on an isthmus between Lake Michigan and small Round Lake, which is sort of an ante-lake to the much bigger Lake Charlevoix which lies just out of sight to the east.  We did manage to find the lakeside neighborhood with the little English hobbit-house-like cottages.  After lunch and a walk around town, we continued north to the Petoskey area.

Petoskey sits on the southeastern shore of Little Traverse Bay, a large inlet of Lake Michigan.  The town is full of neat old buildings in a thriving downtown.  Its growth at the turn of the 20th Century was fueled by summer residents coming up north from Chicago and Detroit.  Nearby is the Chautauqua-like settlement of Bay View, which I suspect was one of the attractions, along with the woods, streams, and inland lakes, that drew people like Earnest Hemingway’s parents to summer in this particular area of northern Michigan.  The summer people first came by lake steamer, then by train, and now by automobile and airplane.

Little Traverse Bay from the Southern Shore near Petoskey, Looking Northwest out to Lake Michigan
We stayed a few days in the area and enjoyed the sights and Lake sounds.  We had some nice dinners, and stopped for drinks in the bar of the historic Perry Hotel.  I bought a few Petoskey stones, those polished-smooth, stone-like pieces of ancient coral found on the shore of Lake Michigan – where better to buy them but in Petoskey?  The area is Hemingway country:  he would occasionally get into Petoskey during his many summers in the area, and would actually live there for some months around age 20, although he spent his time primarily just south of town at his family’s cottage (and later small farm) on Walloon Lake and in the small nearby town of Horton Bay on neighboring Lake Charlevoix.    

The Petoskey Marina on Little Traverse Bay
One day we drove north about an hour to Mackinaw City, where we boarded a ferry for the short ride to Mackinac Island, which lies just off Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on the Lake Huron side of the Straits of Mackinac.  From the boat we had great views of the enormous Mackinac Bridge that connects the lower and upper peninsulas.  Travelers disembark on piers jutting out from the one small town on the island.  Without motorized vehicles, horses all around, and well-preserved 19th Century (and earlier) buildings, the island evokes a simpler, slower bygone moment in time.  We spent hours walking about, on yet another day of record-setting mid-September cold.  

Mackinac Bridge, with a Cargo Ship in the Distance, Looking Westward on a Calm Day
One particular highlight was our walking tour of the Grand Hotel, a vibrant scene of by-gone elegance decorated with lots of bright reds and greens.  Understated it is not.  The famous front porch affords great views of the surrounding grounds and the fraying pool area, and in the distance, Lake Huron and the Bridge crossing the Straight.   

The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island 
View of the Straits and the Bridge from the Grand Hotel Porch
In town I confess that we did stop in a fudge shop or two.  We missed visiting Fort Mackinac, as time constraints, cold, and drizzle conspired against us.  We shivered in our light jackets waiting for the return ferry; I think we later heard that it was about 20 degrees below average for that day of the year.   
The Main Street on Mackinac Island
An Island Hotel and Waiting Taxi
We drove back to Petoskey for one more night, then headed south the next day for home.  On our first day back at the southern end of Lake Michigan, the weather cleared and rose 15 degrees back to average.  On our next drive Up North, we’re hoping for a taste of that “global warming” we’re still waiting for around these parts.

R Balsamo

The entire series is here.