Jazz, blues and gumbo in the Deep South

The French Quarter in New Orleans is brimming with antique buildings and music
The French Quarter in New Orleans is brimming with antique buildings and music   GETTY IMAGES

‘So can we go upstairs?” An overworked guide gives me a weary look. “Nobody goes upstairs, nobody but family.” My grown-up daughter and I are on the porch of Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, at the end of a road trip through the Deep South that has brought us to the second most visited house in America.

I know from the books that above us is the “death bathroom” where a heart attack felled Elvis Presley, supposedly as he read A Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus on the loo. With no chance of inappropriate selfies, we settled into our basic $43.75 tour.

The first striking fact is that, unlike everything else in America, Graceland is smaller than you expect: a solid suburban home gussied up by a portico with four Corinthian columns. The second surprise is that for all the green shag carpeting on ceilings, the white settees, the faux fur upholstery and the indoor waterfall, the interior is really rather intimate and homely. You can see why Elvis loved the place.

Visitors to Graceland are forbidden from seeing the bathroom where Elvis died
Visitors to Graceland are forbidden from seeing the bathroom where Elvis died   MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES

Long before reaching Presley’s doorstep, music and food had become the twin Corinthian pillars of our trip from Louisiana up Highway 61, the old “blues highway” through Mississippi. The adventure had begun, as many do, in New Orleans, specifically on that garish slash of neon, Bourbon Street, which cuts through the picturesque and otherwise charming French Quarter. Just off the plane, we went to the Desire Oyster Bar for our Welcome to Louisiana meal. Its no-nonsense menu was not for the weak-stomached: firecracker oysters, fried alligator (like chicken but saltier) and gumbo (southern stew). When a towering plate of shrimp and grits (similar to polenta) and a case of over-ambitious ordering defeated me, Kentrell, the oyster man, told me about the diner who downed nine orders of a dozen oysters. Yes, but that probably wasn’t at 3am UK time.

The next day we ventured farther into the French Quarter. In the balmy sun, surrounded by colourful, flower-bedecked antique buildings, you would have to try hard not to have a good time. Music was, of course, everywhere — a funky brass band, country blues buskers. Yes, this is tourist land but the standard was high, save for a lone trumpeter in Woldenberg Park by the Mississippi who seemed to slip into Baa, Baa, Black Sheep every time inspiration flagged. Even the living statues were a cut above, though the one we admired most, an eccentric figure in Canal Street, turned out, in fact, to be just a statue.

The restaurants too have their surprises. At ancient Napoleon House they showed us the upstairs chambers supposedly prepared for Bonaparte’s exile (never used after he died in St Helena). Above Arnaud’s Jazz Bistro there is a museum showing the costumes worn by the founder’s daughter at Mardi Gras balls. We inspected rows of ghostly mannequins clad as a mix of Disney princesses and Marie Antoinette.

John Bungey takes a break from Highway 61
John Bungey takes a break from Highway 61

By now, however, the road was calling — Highway 61, the legendary road as revisited by Bob Dylan. At first, however, the journey was dull unless you are a fan of swamp and low-budget ribbon development. However, excitement grew as it began to rain — and rain. By the time we reached picturesque Natchez, tornado warnings were gusting all over cable TV. Our hotel, the Grand, sat on a bluff high over the Mississippi, which was not, as in the Paul Simon song, “shining like a National guitar”. Instead Ol’ Man River brooded grey and ominous.

Natchez is known for the glories of its plantation houses — not so glorious if you were one of the four million slaves in the South labouring amid the cotton and sugar cane. The most spectacular residence we saw was Longwood, a six-storey mansion designed in Moorish style that comes with a poignant backstory. Only the basement was fitted out internally when the Civil War broke out and the northern builders fled. Its owner then died and his wife, reduced to penury, lived on with the children in the basement — as did their descendants for 100 years — never having the money to complete the interiors. The grand and ghostly upper floors are now a favourite for vampire movie-makers.

On we drove, the road taking us past more swamp and shacks and what looked in places like picturesque poverty, but real poverty nonetheless. We stopped at little Greenwood where the Alluvian was a fine boutique hotel, much-loved by weekending Americans. However, the rest of this little cotton city was a puzzle. For all its period buildings, the centre has been “hollowed out” by suburban growth. Trying to walk to a shop where you could buy, say, a banana or even (mad idea) a newspaper proved impossible. Instead we took the car to the Museum of the Mississippi Delta where they had the skeleton of a local mastodon, a re-creation of a swamp, and made a game attempt at explaining the convulsions of the Civil War and the bitter civil rights struggle in these parts.

Next came blues day. We drove out of town to the rustic little Zion Missionary Church to pay our respects at what may be the grave of the commercially insignificant but hugely influential bluesman Robert Johnson. There are two other alleged burial sites to choose from. Our route then took us past the crossroads where Johnson is said to have met the Devil to sell his soul in return for supernatural musical powers. Today Beelzebub would be crushed by the 18-wheelers trundling past before he could make the deal.

Halfway to Memphis we stopped at Clarksdale, touted as the birthplace of blues music. At the Delta Museum they were handing out fairy cakes to mark the birthday of Muddy Waters. The Ground Zero club is one part tourist trap, one part blues cliché and one part a very good time. We sipped root beer and listened to some righteous guitaring.

In Memphis we arrived at the new Napoleon Hotel, which pulls off the trick of being homely and hip. We told the valet we wanted to visit Sun Studio, cradle of early rock’n’roll. He pointed down the street. But it was one of those American urban forays via crumbling or non-existent sidewalks and past wandering lost souls that proved impossible for us. So we retreated and caught a bus. Sun Studio is small and airless, bedecked with pictures of Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and sundry lost legends. At one end is a drum kit left behind when U2 rattled and hummed here in 1987; at the other end our guide, Nina, unveiled an ancient Shure 55 mike that Elvis may or may not have sung into. “Do not kiss it or lick it,” she implored, as the holy relic was passed round.

Downtown Memphis was smart and shiny, the rest was not. We ate a decent plate of gumbo in Beale Street, the music quarter, which is heavily touristy. But the National Civil Rights Museum, built around the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot in 1968, is hugely moving. King’s bedroom is preserved as on the day of his death. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, celebrating the mighty local label, was also $13 well spent.

After our Graceland foray, it was a six-hour straight drive down the Interstate 55 for another brief taste of New Orleans. At a final brunch at Commander’s Palace, I drank a potent local Sazerac cocktail, then another, and not surprisingly fell asleep on the plane home. I had a dream that I was back in Graceland and the reincarnated Elvis himself was showing me round upstairs. Yet as we reached his inner sanctum he morphed into an air stewardess who was telling me to buckle up for landing. Some things in the Deep South will for ever remain a deep mystery.

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Tintin, the subject of 200 million comics sold, was likely based on a real 15-year-old …

 

In the overcrowded world of fictional characters, there are few faces as adorable as Tintin’s. Unlike Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman, Tintin, the young investigative reporter, is not a household name in America, but he is definitely one of the most beloved figures in Europe.

With no specific magic powers, he is the antithesis of a superhero, but that didn’t prevent him from being widely admired by both children and adults. Charles de Gaulle once declared that Tintin is his only international rival, saying that “nobody notices, because of my height. We are both little fellows who won’t be got at by big fellows.”

Tintin and his fox terrier, Snowy, appeared for the first time on January 10, 1929, in the children’s supplement of the Belgian newspaper Le Vingtième Siecle. What started as the subject of a supplement went on to become a symbol of the 20th century, appearing in an inde­pen­dent comic book, on television, and even on the big screen in Steven Spiel­berg’s animated movie The Adven­tures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.

Tintin is one of the most beloved figures in the comic book world.Author: Joi/Flickr-CC By 2.0

Georges Prosper Remi, known by the pen name Hergé, is the man behind the creation of Tintin. With almost no formal training, Hergé began drawing the legendary comic-book character in 1929, but little did he know that by doing so he would give birth to an entire European comics publishing industry.

Tintin and his fox terrier Snowy appeared for the first time in 1929. Author: karrikas/Flickr CC By 2.0

Since 1929, Tintin comics have sold more than 200 million copies, and over the years, this beloved character served as an inspiration for many people and influenced the ways comic book readers perceive the world around them. But what actually inspired Hergé to create the iconic character?

Debate still exists on what exactly inspired Hergé to come up with the snub-nosed teenage reporter, but most people agree that it was a real life person known by the name Palle Huld. It is one of the most original of origin stories in the comic book world.

Less than a year before Tintin made his first appearance, in the children’s supplement of  Le Vingtième Siecle, a 15-year-old Danish Boy Scout named Palle Huld won a competition organized by a Danish newspaper to mark the centennial of Jules Verne.

 

Palle Huld, during his trip around the world in 1928, almost certainly influenced Hergé to create Tintin.

The winner of the competition would re-enact Phileas Fogg’s voyage from Verne’s famous novel Around the World in Eighty Days. Strangely enough, only teenage boys were allowed to take part in the competition, and the 15-year-old was the perfect match. There was another twist: The winner had to complete the journey within 46 days, without any company and without using planes.

Hundreds of Danish teenagers applied to participate in the competition, and Palle was lucky enough to be chosen. He started his journey on March 1, 1928, from Copenhagen and traveled by rail and steamship through England, Scotland, Canada, Japan, the Soviet Union, Poland, and Germany.

His journey made the headlines at the time and when he arrived in Denmark, he was already a celebrity. Over 20,000 admirers greeted their hero when he came back home.

The next thing he did was write a book about his journey, which was quite popular among his admirers, and published in several languages. That book also came into the hands of a Belgian cartoonist known by the name of Hergé and that same year, when Huld’s book was published, Tintin made his debut.

Huld himself suggested on several occasions that he was the inspiration for Tintin. However, others believe that the inspiration behind the character was actually the French travel photojournalist Robert Sexe, whose journeys were exactly in the same order as Tintin’s first three books.

With no specific superpowers, Tintin is the antithesis of a superhero. Author: Hicham Souilmi CC By 2.0

Nonetheless, true Tintin fans couldn’t care less. For them it is all about the character, a hero they all know and love, representing something that others don’t have: uncompromising vigilance and the need to succeed no matter what the cost.

Tintin proves that a hero doesn’t need to be big or strong, he or she just needs to be tenacious and stubborn enough to do what needs to be done.

By Goran Blazeski

A different view of history through art

The Fighting Temeraire by JMW TurnerThe Fighting Temeraire by JMW Turner
GETTY IMAGES

The Fighting Temeraire (1839) by JMW Turner stirs extraordinary passions (Thunderer, November 9; Letters, November 11 and 13), showing the final voyage of the 98-gun sailing warship that played a distinguished role in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. It is being towed upriver in the Thames by a steam-driven tug in a scene often interpreted as a sense of loss, the nostalgic sunset representing the end of the age of sail.

However, this may be wrong. Although the sky in the picture has often been assumed to show a sunset, it is more likely to have been a sunrise, which might symbolise the dawn of the exciting new age of steam.

From a meteorological point of view the spectacular colour of the sky is fascinating. During the day, sunlight is scattered by gas molecules in the atmosphere, resulting in a blue sky. During sunrise or sunset, the sun’s rays have to pass through a much larger chunk of the atmosphere and most of the blue light is scattered, leaving amber and red light.

The colours of sunset or sunrise can be more complex. If the air contains pollutants and small dust particles of the right size, the sun and the sky can turn intensely orange, red and purple.

These pollutants and particles
can come from wildfires and dust storms, which is what we saw with the bizarre sight of a red sun during the day in October, when ex-Hurricane Ophelia swept up Saharan dust and smoke from wildfires in Portugal.

During Turner’s artistic career there was coal smoke polluting the atmosphere and a great deal of volcanic activity in the world, when the atmosphere was filled with the dust of violent eruptions. That pollution and dust helped to create some lurid and surreal-coloured sunrises and sunsets. As one woman commented to Turner: “I never see your skies in nature, Mr Turner.” To which Turner replied: “Then God help you, ma’am.”

By 

The sandwich was named after an 18th century earl who didn’t want to take a break from gambling to eat

Born on Nov. 13, 1718, John Montagu was a British diplomat who received his education at Eton and at Trinity College, Cambridge. Before that, in 1729, as a 10-year-old boy, he succeeded his grandfather, Edward Montagu, as the Earl of Sandwich.

The title was created in 1660 in recognition of the achievements of Admiral Sir Edward Montagu, who later became Baron Montagu. His great-grandson John served as First Lord of the Admiralty and as Secretary of State for the Northern Department throughout his life and came to be remembered as the man who sponsored Captain James Cook’s exploration voyages, who in exchange named the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in honor of him. Apparently, he is also the man the famously convenient food is named after.

John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich.

“Sandwich” has referred to meat (or anything of personal preference really) arranged in between slices of bread since the 18th century in Europe.

The practice of placing bread below or around food, or simply using it for scooping something up, has been found in countless cultures predating the 18th century.

John Hamilton Mortimer (1740-1779) – Oil on canvas (from left: Dr. Daniel Solander, Sir Joseph Banks, Captain James Cook, Dr. John Hawkesworth, and John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich)

Digging deep, the first written usage of the English word can be found in Edward Gibbon’s journal, who referred to “bits of cold meat” as a “Sandwich,” yet using it to describe the sandwich we all love today is found in the satirical travel book A Tour to London; Or New Observations on England and its Inhabitants, penned by the French travel writer and observer Pierre-Jean Grosley.

Edward Gibbon was an English historian and writer celebrated for writing The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in six volumes.

In this satire, Grosley wrote about John Montagu’s bad gambling habits, among his many other vices, describing him as a relentless gambler. If Montagu was on a streak, he would not leave the table for hours, eating only food brought on request in order to stay alive.

Oftentimes when hungry, he would order his valet to bring slices of meat tucked between two pieces of bread to his table, allowing him to continue playing cards and fill his stomach at the same time, without the need to use a fork. By doing so, he was keeping the cards clean, and not greasy as they inevitably would be if he was to eat the meat with his bare hands.

This habit came to be well known among his gambling friends, so very soon others began to order “the same as Sandwich,” thus giving birth to the “sandwich” much appreciated today.

Salmon Cream Cheese Sandwiches. Author Katrin Morenz from Aachen, Deutschland – CC BY-SA 2.0

 

Eight men, evidently Government contractors, sit around a table smoking and drinking. Author Library of Congress

This story is a bit debatable, considering that Grosley was taking a satirical stance on things when writing his memoirs. There is another story, though, found in the writings of Nicholas A. M. Rodger, Sandwich’s biographer. He states that the commitments Sandwich had to the Navy as First Lord of the Admiralty, serving as the Secretary of State for the Northern Department in the government of George Grenville, meant that the most often than not, he had to eat at his working desk.

In his views, the first “sandwich” and countless after it were probably eaten by the Earl at his work desk due to his lack of time to eat proper aristocratic meals. This theory is a more praise-worthy approach to things.

By Stefan A

There are bodies under the giant heads of Easter Island – one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world

iStock.com/Onfokus

The Giant stone heads on eater Island are images that we’ve all grown up seeing and hearing about, many of us dream of visiting them and looking for ourselves, it now seems that if we get to make the journey we’ll see more than our ancestors ever did.

The reason people think they are [only] heads is there are about 150 statues buried up to the shoulders on the slope of a volcano, and these are the most famous, most beautiful and most photographed of all the Easter Island statues.

The hundreds of finely carved statues found across Easter Island bore mute witness to the collapse of Polynesia’s most advanced megalithic culture.

The nearest inhabited land (around 50 residents in 2013) is Pitcairn Island 1,289 miles away; the nearest town with a population over 500 is Rikitea, on the island of Mangareva, 1,619 miles away; the nearest continental point lies just in central Chile, 2,182 miles away.

Easter Island moai stone statues under starry sky of the Southern Hemisphere. Clearly visible are galaxies called Small and Large Magellanic Clouds. iStock.com/andyKRAKOVSKI

The large stone statues, or moai, for which Easter Island is famous, were carved during the period A.D. 1100–1680 (rectified radio-carbon dates). A total of 887 monolithic stone statues have been inventoried on the island and in museum collections.

Although often identified as “Easter Island heads,” the statues have torsos, most of them ending at the top of the thighs, although a small number are complete figures that kneel on bent knees with their hands over their stomachs.Some upright moai have become buried up to their necks by shifting soils.

The statues, whose traditional name is “moai,” were carved from volcanic rock between A.D. 1100 and 1500 by ancient Polynesians. They range in size, with the tallest reaching 33 feet (10 meters). Although their significance is still somewhat of a mystery, the moai are thought to have been representations of the indigenous peoples’ ancestors. Tribespeople would probably have carved a new statue each time an important tribal figure passed away.

Almost all (95%) moai were carved from compressed, easily worked solidified volcanic ash or tuff found at a single site on the side of the extinct volcano Rano Raraku. The native islanders who carved them used only stone hand chisels, mainly basalt toki, which lie in place all over the quarry.

Complex carvings found on the buried statues’ bodies, have been protected from weathering by their burial. Photo Credit – Easter Island Statue Project.

The stone chisels were sharpened by chipping off a new edge when dulled. While sculpting was going on, the volcanic stone was splashed with water to soften it. While many teams worked on different statues at the same time, a single moai took a team of five or six men approximately a year to complete. Each statue represented the deceased head of a lineage.

Only a quarter of the statues were installed. Nearly half remained in the quarry at Rano Raraku, and the rest sat elsewhere, presumably on their way to intended locations. The largest moai raised on a platform is known as “Paro.” It weighs 82 tons and is 32.15 ft long. Several other statues of similar weight were transported to ahu on the north and south coasts.

Possible means by which the statues were moved include employment of a miro manga erua, a Y-shaped sled with cross pieces, pulled with ropes made from the tough bark of the hau tree and tied around the statue’s neck.

Anywhere from 180 to 250 men were required for pulling, depending on the size of the moai. Some 50 of the statues were re-erected in modern times. One of the first was on Ahu Ature Huke in Anakena beach in 1956. It was raised using traditional methods during a Heyerdahl expedition.

Another method that might have been used would be to attach ropes to the statue and rock it, tugging it forward as it rocked. This would fit the legend of the Mo’ai ‘walking’ to their final locations. This might have been managed by as few as 15 people, supported by the following evidence:

The heads of the moai in the quarry are sloped forward whereas the ones moved to final locations are not. This would serve to provide a better center of gravity for transport. The statues found along the transport roads have wider bases than statues installed on ahu; this would facilitate more stable transport.

Studies have shown fractures along the bases of the statues in transport; these could have arisen from rocking the statue back and forth and placing great pressures on the edges. The statues found mounted on ahu do not have wide bases and stone chips found at the sites suggest they were further modified on placement.

The abandoned and fallen statues near the old roads are found (more often than would be expected from chance) face down on ascending grades and on their backs when headed uphill. Some were documented standing upright along the old roads, e.g., by a party from Captain Cook’s voyage that rested in the shade of a standing statue. This would be consistent with upright transport.

There is debate around the moai regarding the effects of the monument creation process on the environment. Some believe that the process of creating the moai caused widespread deforestation and ultimately a civil war over scarce resources.

In 2011, a large moai statue was excavated from the ground. The statues reveal their creators to be master craftsmen and engineers and are distinctive among other stone sculptures found in Polynesian cultures.

There has been much speculation about the exact purpose of the statues, the role they played in the ancient civilization of Easter Island and the way they may have been constructed and transported.

 Brad Smithfield

Jean Tinguely’s weird looking “Heureka“ was created as an allegory to the consumer and industrial society

Hon-en-Katedrall (sometimes spelled “Hon-en-Katedral”) was an art installation, created by the Swiss painter and sculptor Jean Tinguely, that was shown at Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1966. Born in Fribourg, Tinguely grew up in Basel but moved to France in 1952 with his first wife, Swiss artist Eva Aeppli, to pursue a career in art. He belonged to the Parisian avant-garde movement in the mid-twentieth century and was one of the artists who signed the New Realist’s manifesto (Nouveau réalisme) in 1960.

It was created in 1964 and shown at Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1966. Source
It was created in 1964 and shown at Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1966. Source
Tinguely's Heureka in Zürich-Seefeld (Zürichhorn). Source
Tinguely’s Heureka in Zürich-Seefeld (Zürichhorn). Source
Detail. Source
Detail. Source

Tinguely was famous for his sculptural machines or purposeless kinetic artworks, known officially as meta-mechanics in the Dada tradition, which challenged the norms of bourgeoisie high society. The title, “Heureka,” is Ancient Greek for “I’ve got it!” but this is meant to be ironic. His art satirized the mindless overproduction of material goods in advanced industrial society. The kinetic sculpture represents a machine which has no purpose; The machine churns and churns in aimless absurdity.

Part of the movement’s ideology was Tinguely was inspired by Dadaism. Source
Part of the movement’s ideology was Tinguely was inspired by Dadaism. Source
The sculpture stands as an allegory of consumerism in advanced industrial societies. Source
The sculpture stands as an allegory of consumerism in advanced industrial societies. Source
Detail. Source
Detail. Source

Another sculpture, a self-destroying sculpture titled “Homage to New York,” made in 1960, only partially self-destructed at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City. His later work, “Study for an End of the World No. 2” (1962), detonated successfully in front of an audience gathered in the desert outside Las Vegas.

Made from everyday objects like scrap metal and junk. Source
Made from everyday objects like scrap metal and junk. Source
Detail. Source
Detail. Source
Comprised of various tubes, wheels, iron bars, metal pipes, and electric motors assembled together. Source
Comprised of various tubes, iron wheels, iron bars, metal pipes, and electric motors assembled together. Source

Heureka was commissioned as an exhibit at the Swiss State Exhibtion in Lausanne in 1964; later bought by an industrialist and donated to the city of Zurich. The sculpture is made from everyday objects like tubes, wheels, forks and other metal details assembled together to create an intricate machine when turned on — or rather, the illusion of one. At 5:00 pm every afternoon his machine comes alive and bursts into useless energy.