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February 27th

On this day in 1812 Lord Byron made his maiden speech in the House of Lords, on the subject of Luddite attacks on industrialism in Nottinghamshire. He defended the Luddites and asked that there be more understanding of their plight and less condemnation.

We’re all used to the mad, bad and dangerous to know Byron, although to be fair that was a description bestowed upon him by a

I totally would

woman (Lady Caroline Lamb) who most people saw as totally batshit mental, so only so much credence should be given to it. We definitely know him as a poet, an adventurer and a man who put it about quite a bit. But there was more still to Byron.

He could hardly be called a devoted member of the Lords, but from taking his place there in 1809, until he finally left England for good in 1816, he did sit there occasionally and his views were far more liberal than the majority of his peers. His speech in 1812 was in opposition to the Frame-Breaking  Bill, which sought the death penalty for those involved in Luddite activities.  Byron thought this was a little bit previous and explained that he had seen what had been going on in Nottinghamshire, that the men involved were distressed and in great want. In short, Byron, this man who we tend to imagine as a billowy romantic, giving no thought to anything but muff, cock and poetry, understood the plight of the working man, better than most political philosophers or economists were able to either at the time or for decades afterwards.

And what was their plight? Well, by and large we see Luddites as men who were opposed to change and smashed machinery (broke frames) in order to hold back industrialisation and prevent innovation. This isn’t quite what was going on. As the simply wonderful E. P. Thompson explained in his The Making of the British Working Class, it wasn’t change per se, it was real and justifiable worry about their future wages. Most factories were paying far less as the weaving economy became a free market. Those factories or workshops that were maintaining a living wage and set prices remained free from attack. History would prove their fears right; as industrialisation and the mechanisation of the manufacturing industry spread, skills disappeared and it was necessary to work longer hours in often dangerous conditions in order to maintain pre-industrial levels of income.

And speaking up for the workers, one of the few with influence to do so, was the tall, dark, and really rather handsome, Lord Byron. One should never forget his poetry, because some of it was stonkingly good, but beyond that, beyond the debt and the scandal, there was a man whose first speech, after three years in the House of Lords, was on a subject that was of no personal benefit to him, but was instead a plea for the common man. Unfortunately his opposition did not prevent the Bill from being enacted. There were executions and transportations and ultimately the organised resistance was broken. But for one brief moment, the most famous man in Britain tried to make his fame mean something. It is no wonder that when he left the country four years later he felt no need to return. Byron might well have had his end away with your boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife while your back was turned, but he had a morality that rose above mere lower-storey shenanigans.

Today is the birthday of violet-eyed lovely and oft married actress, Elizabeth Taylor. To be strictly accurate, she’s not such a beauty these days, but as she is a year off being 80 and pretty seriously under the weather, that’s hardly surprising.

Liz, as she is often known, first found fame as a child and adolescent, especially in the Lassie films, in which she often co-starred with Roddy McDowell, who later found fame as an ape.  Unlike many a child star before her and since, she made the difficult transition to adult roles with relative ease. She also got into the marrying habit pretty young, first walking up the aisle with Conrad Hilton Jr when she was just 18. The marriage only lasted a year, mostly because he was an abusive drunk. If she had stayed married to him, she would today be the great-aunt of Paris Hilton, so all thing’s considered it’s a good job she binned Conrad Jr early on. She married seven more times, although two of those marriages were to the same man, Richard Burton. He was the great love of her life, but she was also deeply in love with her third husband, Mike Todd, but he was tragically killed in a plane crash just over a year into their married life. All her other marriages have ended in divorce and she has been single since 1996.

It’s easy to get caught up in Taylor’s predilection for marriage, her love of  well flashy bling and her later battles with weight and to

Liz in her heyday

forget all about her acting career, but she proved her acting chops in quite a few films throughout her career, not least when she was paired with Burton who seemed to bring out the best of her ability. She is most assuredly a diva, probably a bit of a nightmare to live with and could probably have drunk the whole of the British army under the table in her heyday, but she did an enormous amount of good in the fight against AIDS, setting up her own foundation and campaigning for the recognition and acceptance of the disease and the rights of sufferers. So, while it’s easy to see her as a caricature of Hollywood excess, she’s used her fame to do some pretty good stuff in this world. That said, she does believe in all that Kabbalah bullshit and she hung around with Michael Jackson more than was entirely necessary, but what can one say? Nobody’s perfect.

Liz is currently in hospital, suffering from congestive heart failure. We can but hope that the tough old Dame (hey, she’s a DBE, I’m giving her nuff respec’) is able to entertain guests, drink a glass or two of  bubbly goodness and enjoy celebrating her 79th birthday. Happy birthday, Ms Taylor, they really do not make them like you any more!

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February 17th

On this day in 1913 there was something of a little art exhibition in New York; The Armory Show of 1913. You may wonder what’s so special about an art exhibition, given that they go on all the time, but  this one was a bit different. It was the first showing of modern art in America and introduced the public to the likes of Picasso, Matisse,  Braque, Dufy, Epstein, Kandinsky and Duchamp. In all there were well over a thousand paintings, sculptures and decorative works by over three hundred European and American artists. Four thousand people attended the opening night of the show and the immediate impact was rather full on. It’s hard to draw an accurate analogy, but if one were to imagine how a maiden aunt might react to the carnal propositions of a priapic, flatulent man, one would be close to understanding the initial opinion of the show.

Theodore Roosevelt, most famous for shooting bears in the face, declared “This is not art!” and demanded that the Armory replace everything with pictures of kittens and lovely ladies with their boobies out. Thankfully, he was ignored and pointed in the direction of Robert Henri’s Figure in Motion which kept him out of everyone’s hair for quite some time. The press went into a collective conniption fit about the whole thing and there were headlines about “Anarchy!” ,”Immorality!”, “Insanity!”, and the first recorded

Roosevelt laughs off rumours that he was caught in a compromising position in front of a "tittie" painting

instance of someone saying “My child could do better than that!” Marcel Duchamp attracted most of the opprobrium for his Nude Descending a Staircase. One critic declared it “an explosion in a shingle factory”, which everyone agreed was a really shit analogy, mostly because they were thinking of the disease shingles and wondering why on earth there would be a factory for making diseases. It didn’t stop with the press. Art students in Chicago burnt an effigy of Matisse because they didn’t like the way he’d drawn the hands on his Blue Nude.

The fulminations and furore in 1913 have been repeated at regular intervals ever since. New ideas in art are shown to the public, everyone says it’s shit, then they get used to it and a while later it’s accepted and the next thing is shit. Of course the exception to this rule is the work of the artist Chris Ofili, who got past the whole thing of being declared shit, by doing a lot of paintings using the medium of shit (don’t worry, he dries it out first, so they mostly don’t smell of poo). What was unique about this show, was it was America’s first real exposure to the modernist movements happening in Europe. Cubism, Futurism, Fauvism et al, may have been a bit on the shocking side, but it did change the course of American art, which would eventually become a centre of new movements later in the century. It was, therefore, the most important art exhibition in the US, ever!

Today is the birthday of pointless waste of skin and vapid despoiler of everything she comes into contact with, Paris Hilton. Where does one start? Paris is a model, an actress, an author, a singer, a fashion designer, a media personality and an ex-con. It would be unfair to assume that all of her achievements have been won on the back of her name, as most observers are happy to

A pointless bint

believe that even if she hadn’t been a Hilton, she’d probably have managed to end up in jail.

She is one of the great conundrums of the 21st century. Why is it that some people are constantly photographed and featured in the press in the face of deep antipathy from all and sundry. Paris manages to carry off the role of walking conundrum with great aplomb and in the sort of hideous clothing that proves that money and taste are not always happy bedfellows. She has been on this earth for thirty years and the only worthwhile thing she has done in that time is … no, sorry, there is nothing.

Still, it would be unkind to not send her joyful birthday wishes as she faces a future of increasing pointlessness, worthlessness and (one can but hope) the sort of batshit mental cosmetic surgery that will one day have her resembling the hind parts of an Aardvark. So, in the spirit of generosity, we wish her all the happiness a classy bird such as she, deserves. Roll on the aardvark’s arse.

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