27 February 2013

Interesting bits and bobs

When I was looking a facts for my blog, 'Hundreds of Years of Friendship', I  discovered a few interesting things that I had not been aware of before and thought I might share them.

As a child growing up, the radio was a huge part of our lives and I learnt the names of fascinating foreign places using the dial to wander around the top of the radio.  We listened to the radio religiously on Sundays because that was the day when Cliff Michelmore and Jean Metcalfe  broadcast the very popular 'Two Way Family Favourites'.  This must have been where I came to hear a tune that stuck in my mind. 

When I started visiting Lisbon on a regular basis, I kept hearing a familiar tune but didn't take much notice except for having that fleeting feeling of having heard it somewhere before.  Last week, cruising around music sites, I discovered that the tune was called 'Coimbra' in Portuguese and was one of the signature songs of the famous Amalia Rodrigues - arguably one of the best Fado singers ever - but it had been translated into English and was known as 'April in Portugal' or more weirdly 'Whisp'ring Seranade'.  The reason I recognised it was that it had been a huge hit for Vic Damone (a very popular American singer) in 1953 and had reached the American charts and must have been a popular choice for the radio request programmes. 

Written by Raoul Ferrao about the beautiful Portuguese city of Coimbra,  the Irish songwriter Jimmy Kennedy put English words to it and gave it the title of 'April in Portugal' and it became one of the most recorded songs of the 1950's.  Jimmy Kennedy was also responsible for the words to 'The Teddy Bears Picnic', 'Red Sails in the Sunset' and 'My Prayer'.  I also discovered it had been covered by Bing Crosby, Eartha Kitt and Louis Armstrong to name but a few.  It is a very haunting song but I never realised that it was originally a very famous portuguese fado song.

Amalia Rodrigues

In those days, we were privileged enough to have a TV.  Hilarious when I think of it now.  It had something like a 9 inch screen with a large magnifying glass hung over it by means of canvas or leather straps.  Our tomcat loved to sit on top of it and hang his tail over the screen which made viewing difficult.  I also vividly remember the excitement of being told we were at last going to have the second channel - ITV - and had memorised the programming from a luckier school chum who was already watching Hopalong Cassidy etc.  My poor father was up in the loft tweeking the aerial whilst we shouted up to him whether the screen was still 'snowing' or we could see a programme. 

This looks remarkably like the set we had and below is a magnifier - ours was clear and not pink!

 A TV magnifier 

I was a TV addict from an early age.  TV in those days was very exciting to a youngster.  I remember trying my hardest to get out of Sunday School afternoons because there would be an old film on which I wanted to see.  Sometimes I succeeded but most times I didn't.  The variety shows on Saturdays and Sundays were always interesting with their mix of singers, comedians, magicians and exotic acts of some description either with or without hoops, balls and plates.  I remember getting a bit of a lecture from my teacher at primary because my diary for the weekend consisted of a review of the programmes I had been glued to - most likely 'Oh Boy' and '6 5 Special'.

One image from old films was that of a lady with fruit in her hair.  Very glamorous and scantily clad - quite shocking in those days - she always made an impression and her name added to the vision - Carmen Miranda.  I  discovered that she was actually called Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha and had been born in Vazea da Ovelha e Aliviad in northern Portugal but moved to Brazil in 1910 and although she never came back to Portugal she kept her Portuguese nationality all her life. Carmen was a nickname given to her by her father because of his love of opera.  Later she got two more - The Brazilian Bombshell and The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat.

She showed a love of singing and dancing from a young age and, when she was 14 she went to work in a hat shop - later opening her own profitable hat business. She went into show business and was a successful samba dancer and singer and became the first contract singer in radio history in Brazil.  She was discovered by Hollywood from her appearances in Brazilian documentaries and films. After a brief appearance in an Abbott and Costello film she became a media sensation.  President D Roosevelt thought she was a good person to strengthen links with Europe and Latin America and her fame spread to such an extent that she was the first Latina to leave her hand and footprints outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre.  In 1945 she was the highest paid entertainer and top female tax payer in the US!

More than half a million people escorted her coffin to her burial in Rio de Janeiro in 1955.  As can been seen from the photos, she certainly made an impression on me and people still remember her to this day and not that long ago John Cale of the Velvet Underground recorded a song for his album 'Words for the Dying' called 'The Soul of Carmen Miranda'.  Another legacy from her fame is costume jewellery in fruit designs which is now very collectable.  She also has a square named after her and a Star on Hollywood Boulevard. In Portugal there is Museu Municipal Carmen Miranda in Marco de Canaveses which has photographs and one of her hats with a statue of her outside.  In Rio de Janeiro yet another museum has some of her original costumes and also shows clips from her film work. To bring her up-to-date, in the new film 'Gangster Squad' (2013) she is played by Yvette Tucker in a nightclub scene.  How wonderful that she is not forgotten.

The famous Monty Python phrase "What did the Romans ever do for us?" led me to look for what the Portuguese did for us.  Now this was interesting. 

How many of us have heard of a mariner's astrolabe?  Probably only those of us with a keen interest in the sea and sailing.  I first saw one of these on the wall of my favourite restaurant in Alfama - Malmequer Bemmequer - and was told how it helped the explorers in the Age of Discoveries.  Remembering this I started to dig into it and found that the creation and perfectioning of the mariner's astrolabe was done by the Portuguese. 

The mariner's astrolabe was used until around the end of the 17th century and is now very rare.  In 1979 only 35 were presumed to exist but 65 were known about by 1988.  The biggest collection of them is held in museums around Portugal.  Archeologists hope that during more marine archaeology, more will be uncovered. As they were made from heavy brass, they tend to last a long time in the water. 

A Mariner's Astrolabe

As it was not possible to work out longtitude at sea in early exploration days, only latitude, ships sailed east or west along the latitude line until they reached land.  The sun and stars were used to calculate latitude along with an almanac.  They used a quadrant, a cross staff and then the mariner's astrolabe.   I honestly admit I do not understand a thing about this and have just put the basics!  For those who are thoroughly educated in physics or astronomy, I am sure it is all very simple.  Apparently it had to be vertically suspended to measure the altitude of the celestial object (star) so windy conditions were a bit of a nightmare I imagine, as they say that errors of four or five degrees were common even when made of brass and not wood. However, it must have been good as how else would anyone have found foreign shores!

The next surprise was the invention of the first 'aircraft' - 74 years before the Mongolfier Brothers took to the air in their balloon, Bartolomeu de Gusmao designed the 'Passarola'.

Bartolomeu was a priest from Santos in Brazil - still a Portuguese territory in those days.  He studied at the University of Coimbra and was said to have had a remarkable memory and a great command of languages. He decided to improve on the ideas of the Italian, Francesco Lana de Terzi (1631-1687 who is referred to as the Father of Aeronautics because he turned the study of aeronautics into a science.  Apparently he also developed the idea that eventually ended up as Braille. The things you find when you are researching!) In 1709 Bartolomeu went to King John V (Rei Joao V) to petition him for support for his invention of an airship which he really believed in. This petition has been preserved along with the picture and description of it. 

His idea was that if a huge sail was placed over a boat-like body (think covered wagon) and with tubes put through the body which, if there was no wind, air could be blown through them by bellows.  It would be propelled using magnets which would be placed in two hollow metal balls.  There was supposed to be a public test in the June of 1709 but it did not take place for some reason.  The King must have been impressed by him as he gave him a professorship at Coimbra, made him a Canon, a member of the Academia Real de Historia (1720) and he was made Chaplain to the Court in 1722.  High honours indeed.
One version I found in Portuguese, does claim that an experimental flight took place from the Plaza de Armas at the Castle of St George in Lisbon and that it landed about one kilometre away, in Terreiro do Paco.  It also claimed he had been persecuted by the Church as a wizard and had fled to Toledo, where he later died.  It's true that he died in Toledo in 1724, but I expect we will never know the real truth of it all.  Sad. This version also claims that he got the nickname of The Flying Priest or Voador, which reminded me of another famous story of a religious man. 

Now back in England, well before Bartolomeu there was Eilmer or Elmer, the Flying Monk!  Malmesbury Abbey is a beautiful building and dates back to the 7th Century.  In the 11th Century it contained the second largest library in Europe and was seen as one of the leading European seats of learning.  It was also the site of a very early attempt of human flight!  One of the Benedictine monks, Eilmer, thought he could fly and after attaching wings to his body, he took off from the tower and landed half way down Malmesbury High Street (although this has been disputed and Olivers Lane has been suggested as the true landing site), sustaining two broken legs in the process, which left him lame for the rest of his life.  Later he is quoted as having said the reason he did not fly further was because he did not have a tail! 

Eilmer was known to have written about astrology and everything that we know about him is detailed in the 'Gesta regum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Kings) written by William of Malmesbury - an eminent medieval historian - in about 1125.  As William was also a monk at the Abbey he must have had first hand accounts from people who had known Eilmer or witnessed the event. Some think that Eilmer was influenced by Halley's Comet which appeared in the sky in 1066.  However there are no known records of his birth but William works from Eilmer's quotation:

"You've come, have you? – You've come, you source of tears to many mothers. It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country."

This quotation being taken to refer to the Norman invasion of 1066 means that perhaps he was born about 984 and would have been about 5 or 6 years old when he saw the Comet but it is all highly speculative.  Eilmer was an old man in 1066 and he made the flying attempt when he was quite young so the event is thought to have taken place some time early in the 11th Century - perhaps the first decade.  William also thought that Eilmer would have read the fable about Daedalus (the boy who flew too close to the sun) and that would have influenced him to fit wings to his hands and feet.
 Eilmer or Elmer the Flying Monk

Whatever the truth of the matter, The Flying Monk is still a much loved character who often appears at Carnival time and is part of the history of Malmesbury and its Abbey.  There was also a much loved, now sadly demolished, pub called The Flying Monk - tales of which were far and wide and very entertaining.

Courtesy of Athelstan Museum, Malmesbury, Wiltshire

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