On this day in either 461 or 493 a chap by the name of Patrick died. Today we know him as Saint Patrick and his feast day is generally celebrated by people getting mortal drunk and dressing like escapees from Planet Green. But what of the man himself, what do we really know about him?
The answer is quite simple: not much. One or two things we do know. Probably. The first is that Patrick was probably around later in the fifth century than originally thought. The second is that his story is almost certainly a mixture of stuff about him and another chap who was around before him called Palladius who’d also ventured over to Ireland to get them all Christianised. Amazingly, for someone who lived such a long time ago and who many people think was a made up person anyway, there are two surviving letters which historians are 99.9% certain were written by Patrick himself. It’s from these that we get the definite things we know about him. These are: he was born in Britain to pretty well-to-do parents. He got kidnapped at the age of 16 and taken to Ireland where he was a slave to a Druid chieftain. After six years of being a slave, during which time he did an awful lot of praying, he claimed that God’s voice told him to go in search of a boat that would take him back to Britain. God was right about finding a boat, although it was a bit rough of him to have the boat 200 miles away from wherever it was that Patrick was in Ireland (some think Mayo others think Antrim, one thing is sure; he was definitely in Ireland). Then he had a bit of hassle getting on to the boat having no money or anything to recommend him, but he got on, had a bugger of a voyage back to Britain – this I can well believe having sailed from Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire, the Irish Sea is an utter bastard – and eventually found his way back to his family.
He didn’t stay with them for long. He had a calling that took him to France where he joined a holy order and became a priest and probably a bishop too, before he decided that he needed to go back to Ireland to get all proselytizing on their Druid asses. The pope agreed and off he went on a date that no one can agree on. Once there, and with the advantage of speaking the Celtic tongue, learned while he was a slave, Patrick set about finding friends, avoiding angry Druid chieftains, preaching and converting the remaining heathens on the island. But here’s the important thing to remember. He wasn’t the first – Palladius had been there before him – he wasn’t the last and he was far from unique in his ministry. I guess the question is, if all of this is true (and it is) why is Patrick this big old saint and no one gives a wet fart for the others. There’s a simple answer for this as well; no one really knows. He was a man of strong belief, who went to Ireland to ensure that Christianity thrived and somewhere along the way he got to be a saint.
And then there are the legends. Driving the snakes out of Ireland would have been pretty easy, given that there were none, you or I
could have done it. Nowadays we realise that this was probably metaphoric and referred to his driving Druidism (one symbol of which is a serpent) out of Ireland. Of course he didn’t do this all alone, but never let the truth get in the way of a reasonably dull story. The whole shamrock thing. Now, we can never know if he did use it to teach the trinity, but if he was canny he may well have done. The shamrock was pretty important to the Druids as well, it represented life, death and rebirth, so by appropriating it for a Christian use he’d have been giving them a link to their beliefs and making the task of conversion a little easier. And there we have it. There are less pleasant stories that accompany Patrick, stories that he felt compelled to deny in his letters. Rumour had it that Patrick wasn’t averse to a little payback and the odd sale of indulgences and the like. We only know about this because he mentions it. If he did get involved in that sort of thing, he wouldn’t be alone in it, but given the things we do know about him, it seems reasonably unlikely.
So, there it is. Patrick went to Ireland to convert the remaining Druids, but not the whole of Ireland which was pretty Christian already. He wasn’t unique, but for some reason not long after his death he was declared a saint. Getting to be a saint in those days didn’t need to involve canonisation and Patrick, although recognised in the list of saints, has never been canonised. His feast day became a holy day of obligation for the Irish back in the 17th century, an Irish public holiday in 1903 and before that the first St Paddy’s day parade took place in – where else – New York – in 1762. Nowadays it’s celebrated all over the world and people do the oddest things. Chicago’s been dying its river green for Paddy’s day since the 1960s and for the past two years the fountain at the White House has been green as well. And of course people dress like giant leprechauns and get stocious. He probably wouldn’t approve, but to be fair he’s hardly the point anyway. Hail Glorious St Patrick and all that, onwards and upwards to a man who really excites my passion.
Today was the birthday of probably the greatest dancer ever to have lived. His name was Rudolf Nureyev and when he defected to the west in 1961 he was a new Russian revolution, this time in the world of ballet.
A brief outline of Rudolf’s life would make a great pitch for a film, but no one would want to make it because it seems a little unreal. Nureyev was born on the Trans-Siberian express, he saw his first ballet at the age of eight and decided that was his future. He battled against poverty, his father’s refusal to allow him to do something so unmanly as dance and with his mother’s connivance learned to dance, took as many classes as he could and finally, at the age of 17, was accepted by the Kirov ballet school. He started ballet far too late to become great, his contemporaries at the Kirov had all entered the school seven years earlier; Rudolf should have been nothing, but he became one of the greatest stars the ballet world has ever known.
He managed this because of his determination, his commitment, his passion and a talent that bordered on genius. All of this lived in a body that was perfection in terms of dance and pretty damn fine whatever way you want to look at it. At this point, dear readers, I will give you a tip. If you like the male form and would like to see what Rudi looked like butt-naked and full frontal, do a Google search with the “safe search” off. There are a few photos there that will show you why he was able to carry himself with such confidence and at times arrogance. Not to put too fine a point on it, Rudolf was packing heat. To any of my male readers who are at all insecure, please do not follow the above instructions. And now to move on!
Nureyev found a champion in Leningrad in his teacher Alexander Pushkin who recognised the brilliance of the raw dancer in his class. With his help and with Rudolf’s own determination to work harder than most of us could contemplate, Rudolf soon surpassed his contemporaries and was dancing leads with the Kirov ballet. In the years before he defected, he danced the lead in among others, Don Quixote, Giselle, La Bayadare and Swan Lake. He also had many fans whose reaction to him was similar to the one that awaited him in the West. Nureyev defected because he realised, when he was asked to go back to Russia for a gala performance, while on tour with the Kirov, that once back he would never be able to leave again and he would be demoted in the company so not able to dance leads. His choice was really very simple.
We all know that he exploded onto the scene soon after his defection in 1961. By 1962 he was partnering Margot Fonteyn at the Royal Ballet, a partnership which would bring the best out of both and crown both their careers. He gave the 43-year-old a new lease of life,
she gave him stability; to each other they were everything. As much as either could earn as a dancer separately – and they were large sums – they could earn more than their combined individual values together so magical was their partnership. You can see just a tiny piece of that in the video I’ve put at the end of this paean to Mr Nureyev. But there was more to him than his artistry as a dancer. Rudolf had an incredibly good memory for anything he saw danced. Because of this he was able to recreate dances he had seen or performed in Russia, some of which had been lost or unknown in the west. Choreography was incredibly important to him and as his career as a dancer developed so did his career as a choreographer. Through this he increased the role of the male dancer in ballet to become more than just a support to the ballerina. He did this for himself of course, but he also choreographed for the male dancers in the corps de ballet and his influence has meant that men now have a far greater role in ballet. He was also interested in other dance forms, taught himself modern dance and modern ballet and incorporated some of this into classical roles. And all the while he danced and danced and danced, probably more than any other professional had before or has since. Cliché time: he was a bleedin’ force of nature!
Rudolf was also a difficult man. Imperious, arrogant, prone to losing his temper. But, for all this, all of his dance partners have spoken of his gentleness, patience and kindness to them. The same was said of him by the dancers under his directorship at the Paris Opera Ballet in the 1980s. His imperiousness was saved for those who didn’t understand the driving force of his life or who got in the way of it. I say that’s fair enough and more of us should be like that!
In his final years, Rudolf was often too weak to dance. He was diagnosed HIV positive at some point in the late 80s. He refused to talk about it or believe that it was as serious as it was. Of course he tried the drugs that were around, but to no avail. He died in 1993 at the age of 54, far too soon and far too young.
You can all breathe a sigh of relief now because I’m nearly finished. I just need to say happy birthday to the man I first saw dance on the television when I was a little girl and who I fell in love with. I wanted to dance like the women he danced with, but most of all I wanted to dance with him. I never got to see him live and I’ve never got to dance like his partners, but in my dreams I do. Thank you for the beauty, Rudolf, thank you for the dreams and happy birthday you wonderful, crazy Tartar!