Alexander Selkirk, Bernard B. Fall, Daniel Defoe, Death, Funerals, Henry Fairlie, History Today, Hubert Eaton, J.H. Plumb, J.M.W. Turner, John Canaday, Lyndon Johnson, New York, Peter Quennell, Playgrounds, Richard Nixon, Riis Plaza, Robinson Crusoe, Ronald Reagan, Ruth Orkin, Skyfall, Vietnam
I think this was the first issue I ever dipped into:
The cover shows J.M.W. Turner’s The Fighting Téméraire Tugged to her Last Berth
Look familiar? This was the painting in the National Gallery, London at which Q (Ben Whishaw) met Bond (Daniel Craig) in Skyfall – the implication being that Bond was also a once-great battleship due to be towed to the wrecker’s yard.
The issue has a major article on Turner, with a gravure portfolio of his paintings, by John Canaday, art critic of The New York Times:
The extent of Turner’s originality has been revealed only gradually by the series of aesthetic revolutions that have transformed our way of looking at art since his death in 1851. His long career carried him from realistic beginnings to an abstract conclusion, which is also the history of modern art….
And yet, during the second half of the nineteenth century and the first part of this one, Turner’s art had very little direct influence on the various painters or schools who seem to be descended from him. He has been discovered after the fact of revolutions rather than as a point of departure…[In 1966] the Museum of Modern Art in New York exhibited him, not as a nineteenth-century romantic, which he was, but as a twentieth-century abstractionist, which he can be made to seem by selecting certain bits and pieces of his work and thereby reducing the tremendous field of his art to the dimensions of a mere studio exercise.
“Two Thousand Years of War in Vietnam” was very timely in 1967: as the war was grinding on with no end in sight, the French political scientist and historian Bernard B. Fall traced the powers who had travelled to, traded with, and tried to conquer Vietnam over millennia: China, India, Holland, France, the US, possibly even the Romans:
I’ve only now found out that Fall was killed when he trod on a landmine in Vietnam just as the issue went to press.
In ‘Can You Believe Your Eyes?’, Henry Fairlie, the British journalist who popularised the term ‘The Establishment’ and had just recently moved to America, wrote about how TV news was being manipulated – both by the newly-elected California Governor Ronald Reagan and by the civil rights movement. He contrasted Reagan, the former movie star, with President Lyndon Johnson:
Movies are intended to be, and are taken to be, larger than life. Sitting in the theatre, one does not imagine that what one is seeing is real. The close-up in the movies, therefore, is a legitimate and understood distortion. But a distortion it is. We never do see anyone in real life as close in as the camera can go, except in one position and in one activity: when making love. There is no reason why President Johnson, or any other public figure, should have to pass this private test in public.
Ruth Orkin, known for her photo ‘American Girl in Italy’, photographed the story about the groundbreaking – literally and figuratively – new playground in the Riis Plaza low income housing project on Manhattan’s Lower East Side:
Designed by Paul Friedberg (more pics here) sadly it hasn’t survived. There are further details here – go to ‘August 2011’ to read what happened. The report predicted ‘Eventually it might be possible to walk across Manhattan Island along a pleasant, shady network of parks and park-like streets.’ Oh well, thanks to Google Street View I can report ‘grubby Eighth Street’ at least has trees now.
One of the mainstays of Horizon was the historian J.H. Plumb. (His students at Cambridge at the time included Simon Schama.) His In the Light of the Past series showed that, even in the Swinging Sixties, nothing was really new. In ‘De Mortuis’ he writes:
The British have hilarious fun over the quaint funerary habits of Americans. The death of Hubert Eaton, the world’s greatest entrepreneur of death, and the recent discovery of a funeral home for pets, by a wandering British journalist, released another gale of satirical laughter in the English press. The mockery was hearty and sustained; yet was it deserved?
Eaton created the Los Angeles cemetery Forest Lawn, satirised nearly twenty years earlier by Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One. (And Plumb mentions that among the pets buried at ‘Bide-a-wee’ is the then former Vice President Richard Nixon’s spaniel Checkers.) He talks about the then-new fashion for deep-freezing the (very rich) dead in the hope they may one day be revived:
Perhaps by the year 2000 Hubert Eaton may seem but a modest pioneer of the death industry, for who does not crave to escape oblivion?…The American way of death is not novel: seen in proper historical perspective it reaches back not only down the centuries but down the millenniums, for it is a response to a deep human need.
He looks at the royal and noble graves of Ancient Egypt, Ur, the Etruscans and the Middle Ages: all of them ‘an attempt to cheat death’, particularly the Egyptians:
What should we think of vast stone mausoleums outside Washington, stuffed with personal jewelry from Winston’s, furniture from Sloane’s, glassware by Steuben, food from Le Pavillion, etc., etc., and in the midst of it all the embalmed corpse of a Coolidge or Dulles? We should roar with laughter. We should regard it as vulgar, ridiculous, absurd. Pushed back three millenniums, such habits acquire not only decorum but also majesty, grandeur, awe.
Peter Quennell, literary critic and founder-editor of History Today, has a major article on Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and its real-life inspiration, Alexander Selkirk. Sergio Larrain of the Magnum photo agency went in search of Selkirk, from his birthplace in the Scottish town of Largo…
…to the Island of Juan Fernandez, where he dramatizes Crusoe’s discovery of footprints on the beach that terrify him: ”At first he imagined that the Devil had visited him, but he soon concluded ‘that it must be some more dangerous Creature’”…
The footprints turn out to be Friday’s.
Quennell points out that Defoe didn’t merely copy Selkirk’s story:
To call Alexander Selkirk “the real Crusoe” is to misunderstand the nature of the artist’s business. The true artist must always adapt; he reshapes these to suit his private purposes. Defoe…took everything that was memorable in the personality of Alexander Selkirk and, blending it with much that was memorable in himself, formed the full length portrait of a modern hero.