Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Josephine Baker, by Wiggia


Strange how lately small readings, items and simply noticing something jog the old grey matter into action. Two items prompted this: Sackerson's Sarah Bernhardt piece because the story was in Paris, and recently the Tour de France coverage - one of those helicopter shots hovered over what was the home of the subject of this piece, the Chateau des Milandes.

Her story is well known and a film was made, The Josephine Baker Story (1991) starring Lynn Whitfield as the artist. I will not here attempt to do the life story; that was remarkable, in that it was a classic case of child-to-star and lifting herself out of poverty - poverty in those days was sleeping on the street as a child and dancing on street corners for money to survive, a far cry from what is considered poverty today - but I digress. Below is her coming into the world, which gives a flavour of what was to follow. I have lifted this direct from Wiki as there was not a better version out there:

"The records of the city of St. Louis tell an almost unbelievable story. They show that (Josephine Baker's mother) Carrie McDonald ... was admitted to the (exclusively white) Female Hospital on May 3, 1906, diagnosed as pregnant. She was discharged on June 17, her baby, Freda J. McDonald having been born two weeks earlier. Why six weeks in the hospital? Especially for a black woman (of that time) who would customarily have had her baby at home with the help of a midwife? Obviously, there had been complications with the pregnancy, but Carrie's chart reveals no details. The father was identified (on the birth certificate) simply as "Edw" ... I think Josephine's father was white—so did Josephine, so did her family ... people in St. Louis say that (Baker's mother) had worked for a German family (around the time she became pregnant). He's the one who must have got her into that hospital and paid to keep her there all those weeks. Also, her baby's birth was registered by the head of the hospital at a time when most black births were not. I have unraveled many mysteries associated with Josephine Baker, but the most painful mystery of her life, the mystery of her father's identity, I could not solve. The secret died with Carrie, who refused to the end to talk about it. She let people think Eddie Carson was the father, and Carson played along, (but) Josephine knew better."

Primarily a dancer, she became the first black American to be become an international star, though it has to be said it was her moving to live in France where she became a huge star that sealed that title, rather than what she achieved in the States.

Although she achieved recognition as a dancer in the States, problems with her mother and rejection as a black woman both personally and as an artist drove her (with her mother's encouragement) to go to France, a place she had toured and liked simply because the barriers for black people at home did not exist there in France.

It was as an erotic dancer appearing at the Folies Bergère, appearing in the outfit that consisted purely of bananas, that she become an overnight sensation. Her fame meant she was recalled to the States to appear in the Ziegfeld FolLies, but the critics were not kind and again rejected a black woman being given the lead role and she was replaced, returning to France heartbroken and then made the decision to become a French citizen. There is of course a lot more - her many husbands, her adopted children - but it was the war story that fascinated, a story that has more to it than the rather cut-and-paste items that seem identical when researching this; in fact, it took a lot of digging to find even simple variations on the theme.

In 1939 after war had been declared, Josephine found herself entertaining a very different audience: French and British soldiers, looking for entertainment in what was (so far) the false lull in activities .

Josephine had many male fans, a thousand marriage proposals after her Folies debut, but an unlikely admirer was the 33-year-old head of French military intelligence, Jacques Abtey. He was in the process of acquiring agents to work undercover without pay for the French war effort.

Abtey had a friend who had a brother who worked for Baker, and it was he who suggested she might be suitable. Abtey was at first reluctant to approach her, fearing that if exposed she would end up like Mata Hari who was shot as a spy in WWI.* The similarities of the two women worried him and he did not want to take the risk.

But his friend persisted, saying she was perfect for the job: with travel normal for her friends in high places, she would have little trouble passing back and forth whilst performing in European countries. She also had a loathing of Nazis, who reminded her of the people back home in the States who put up barriers to non-whites.


Abtey was convinced and arranged a meeting with Baker at her Chateau. He was taken aback when she was not quite the woman he had envisaged, being dressed in old clothes and carrying a can of snails, which she had collected in the garden to feed her ducks. It improved after that as once inside Abtey laid out his mission to her over glasses of champagne served by her butler.

Her response took him by surprise. She explained that France had taken her in and her gratitude knew no bounds, she was prepared to lay down her life for the cause and told him to use her any way he wished for the war effort. Abtey had no qualms and hired her on the spot. She began training immediately with enthusiasm, learning karate and becoming a crack shot with a pistol in a few weeks.

Back in Paris she worked at the Red Cross shelter with Belgian refugees. In between playing the music halls, she started to keep an ear out for relevant information at all the parties and functions she attended all over Europe. Her international fame had spread and she was adored by Mussolini who entertained her. Within a week she had codes from the Italian embassy that were passed back to Abtey.

When the Germans invaded France Abtey was worried for her and suggested she leave Paris. She returned to Milandes where she took in refugees including military personnel and hid them in various parts of her huge chateau. Although worried about being shopped by sympathisers she carried on and even when five German officers showed up to search the chateau she charmed them to such an extent that they went on their way without entering the place.

But she was not safe there. Being black and still technically married to a French Jewish man she was in extreme danger - should she have been outed she would have suffered dire consequences. She left for Portugal after De Gaulle asked her and Abtey to to go to Lisbon- a neutral country - and send reports back to London.

The trip was accomplished by disguising it as a through trip to South America they had to transport classified information and it was Baker who came up with the idea of using invisible ink to write it on her sheet music.

Once there she was invited to all the parties held at the various embassies. Everyone wanted to be seen with her and talk to her and the information flowed. On her return to her hotel she would make notes on slips of paper and hide them in her bra and panties - the chances of her being searched were very unlikely.


On her assignments for De Gaulle she traveled with the extravagance she was renowned for: a huge amount of luggage and a menagerie of pets including a Great Dane and three monkeys. All this made her seem more “normal.” With France now occupied she could not return home and she and Abtey (who all along played the part of her assistant) went to North Africa, setting up a liaison and transmission center with British Intelligence. Visas for travel were slow to come and difficult to obtain, but they finally made it to Casablanca, meeting up with the Free French. From there she toured Spain, Portugal and Morocco to enthusiastic audiences, still gathering information and with a career still on a high. Abtey had become devoted to her; they became lovers and had an intense five-year relationship. All her relationships were intense; she openly admitted she loved sex but as with all things the relationship side would be relatively short.

In 1941 it all stopped. She suffered a miscarriage and had to have an emergency hysterectomy, complications set in and she was hospitalised for eighteen months. During that time Resistance members would meet in her private hospital room and discuss strategy and German troop movements. Not able to perform, she became invisible to the extent that many outside of France believed she had passed away; she had to issue a press bulletin saying “she was too busy to die” to rectify the sad news.

Once recovered she was back on the road entertaining the troops and it saw the beginnings of her involvement in the equal rights movement as she insisted on integrated audiences.

After a benefit performance in Algiers for the Free French she finally met De Gaulle who presented her with the Cross of Lorraine, his chosen symbol for the Free French. It became her most prized possession. She was made a sub–lieutenant in the Women's Auxiliary of the French Air Force and later received the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of Resistance with rosette; all were treasured by her.

The Allied victory in 1945 had been sealed by the American war effort, so Josephine felt encouraged to return to the States for various activities in the civil rights movement, and in ‘63 she spoke in Washington alongside Martin Luther King, wearing her Free French uniform; she was the only woman to speak, and that in front of 250,000 people.


Her remarkable story did not end there, it carried on with assorted husbands and lovers, her rainbow tribe of 12 adopted children, her having to leave her wonderful home at Milandes, and her close friendship with Grace Kelly who found a villa for her and the children in Monaco after leaving Milandes. During all this time she was an activist in the civil rights movement, something she had striven for all her life, the right to be equal; it made her a person who was watched by the FBI - they considered her a security threat and had a file of over 450 pages on her, calling her a Communist Party apologist; but she never relented.

Her final comeback in the States was in 1973 at Carnegie Hall; after decades of rejection, she received a standing ovation. Back in Paris she started a run at the Bobino Theatre in Paris with her good friends Grace Kelly and Sophia Loren in the audience - this was in April 1975; a few days later, on the 12th, she died in her sleep of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 68.

Her funeral drew a large crowd and she became the first American woman in history to be buried with full military honours, including a 21-gun salute.


* Some now think Mata Hari was framed - http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/was-mata-hari-framed-9245320.html (Ed.)

Monday, August 21, 2017

Like I said: Alternative Vote / Single Transferable Vote

From the Electoral Reform Society's recent report (p. 33):

The Single Transferable Vote has long been the ERS’ preferred electoral system...  [It] has many advantages. Firstly, it tends to produce broadly proportional election results. But it combines this with powerful constituency representation and ties. Voters’ ability to influence who represents them, both in terms of parties and candidates, is incredibly strong.

Due to this strong link, representatives are incentivised towards a high level of constituency service*. A 1997 study found that Irish TDs were far more active in their constituencies than British MPs, while a recent ERS report showed how election campaigns in Ireland are highly localised partly as a result of the voting system.


- htp: Danny Lawson on "The Conversation" website:

*It is for this reason that I "voted Labour" in the last General Election. I was not voting Labour: I was voting for Jess Phillips, who is the only MP I've had in over 30 years who has shown any active interest in the constituents; and against the previous LibDem MP, who gave me the runaround when I wanted a simple question asking in Parliament.

Some argue these days for "direct democracy", but its proponents appear to assume that the people are (a) broadly agreed on many issues and (b) willing to go along with a narrowly-carried motion with which they disagree. I haven't seen much evidence to support either assumption, recently.

So I would like to see a representative democracy, but one that is made more responsive to the constituents. We've seen far too much political absentee-landlordism and over-focusing on "the swing voter in the swing seat" - the ERS points out that 533 extra votes in key marginals would have given the Conservatives a majority in the current UK Parliament!

Relevant previous Broad Oak posts:



Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sarah Bernhardt's Triumph

Image source: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/467389267558707367/

Sarah Bernhardt's fame was such that when, at the age of 75, she starred in Jean Racine's "Athalie", all the theatres in Paris closed for one day so that their actors could see her perform.*


*According to Maurice Baring's "The Puppet Show Of Memory" (1922), pp. 235-6

Friday, August 18, 2017

FRIDAY MUSIC Elvis: Forty Years On, by JD

It hardly seems possible that 40 years have passed since the death of Elvis Presley. They say that time speeds up as you get older; it certainly feels like it.

The tabloid press would have us believe that, in his later years, he was grossly overweight and feasting on cheeseburgers; drug addled and incoherent but that is the tabloid press. Footage of the last concerts tell a very different story.

His life story is well known despite the worst efforts of the gutter press (which seems to be all of them these days) So there is no point trying to summarize it here, but a few thoughts: Elvis was one of twins, his brother Jesse was stillborn. It is understandable that his mother would be even more protective of him and more loving than if his sibling had survived. The effect on Elvis of having a stillborn brother cannot be known; after he became famous, he asked people on several occasions to try and find the whereabouts of Jesse's unmarked grave but to no avail since no papers marked the spot.

The family attended a Pentecostal Church which is where a young Elvis found musical inspiration and, undoubtedly, his love of God which was a constant throughout his life. There are many stories of Elvis in concert being confronted by placards proclaiming him to be the King and he would always politely say "Thank you ma'am but there is only one king" and he would point a finger skywards. I have seen film footage of that but can't seem to find anything other than audio on YouTube.

There is also an apocryphal tale about Elvis wearing a Star of David alongside a crucifix. When asked about it he answered "I would hate to miss out on a technicality!" That is in line with his sense of humour but it might be true, who knows. It also illustrates a side of Elvis which is more or less unknown. Both his wife and his daughter have said that he had a very large collection of books on religion and spirituality and he would make endless notes in the margins of those books.

As a further illustration of that side of Elvis, read this about his continual spiritual search. There are two excellent videos embedded.


(The third embedded video is "How great thou art" and I have included below what I think is a better version)

"To say that Elvis Presley loved Gospel music would be an understatement. It was by far his favourite musical genre and the three personal Grammy awards he received during his lifetime were for recordings in this field.

"From the summer of 1956 until the summer of 1977, whenever he stepped on stage, he did so accompanied by at least one Gospel harmony group; that's how highly he valued the Gospel sound."

"An American Trilogy" (embedding disabled) - link: https://youtu.be/vWVgLLnGaWs
- alternative clip:

Thursday, August 17, 2017

MOTORCYCLES: Ton Up, by Wiggia

The BSA Goldstar

I saw a comment on another blog about how modern vehicles seem to have electrical everything and it is all a recipe for something to go wrong, as electrical faults are the biggest area of grief in modern vehicles. There is more that a scintilla of truth in that statement.

Of course this caused an avalanche of “when we were young” comments asking why it was so difficult to wind a window up that you had to have an electric motor fitted to take the strain out of all that winding and many more examples were forthcoming, some very funny.

One caught my eye though, talking about the ‘joy’ of kick starting a motor bike: he must have lived on another planet as there was never any joy in kick starting a motor bike, only a sore leg, tired muscles and a still-inactive bike. Some bikes of course were made to be difficult, nearly all large single-cylinder machines.

The story that came to mind was that of a friend who lived in the same council block as myself who purchased as a first bike (?) a BSA Gold Star 500cc single cylinder machine which was ostensibly sold as a club racer, a sort of poor man's Manx Norton - beautifully made but totally impractical, which was why you rarely saw one on the road.

Anyway my friend Irvine (it was a very Jewish neighbourhood) was standing with this bike when I appeared and asked the obvious question : where did that come from and why? He replied it was his cousin's and he was selling it cheap so he bought it; the why was never answered.

I left him there and went indoors but could hear this low gasping sound coming at regular intervals as he tried to start the bloody thing. Being of slight build he was standing on the kick start and having to use all the weight he had to even get the kick start to move; occasionally he did and the low "I am not going to start" sound would emerge from the exhaust.

He gave up after a while but returned later for another go, looking distinctly worn out and peeved, so I went down to give support. Still nothing happened and a couple of other boys who lived there and had bikes tried also to start the recalcitrant machine. I went away again and just as I reached the top of the stairs heard a short burst of life from the engine and then it stopped. I rushed back down to find my friend laying in the road in serious pain: the bike had kicked back and the kick starter had caught him mid shin; we/he later found it had fractured his leg.

On top of that he had started it and somehow got it into gear, so having let go everything in pain the bike shot off and went through some iron railings. He never did get to ride a motor bike and the Gold Star was sold on post-haste. He was next seen with a Vauxhall Wyvern; similar but no cigar.

I only briefly had bikes because of my association with my oldest and still best friend who raced them. My own two bikes were the much loved NSU SuperMax from the NSU article earlier and a Triumph T120 Bonneville but it was a brief and interesting period and most went through it as cars were then out of reach and not nearly as much fun.

One of the boons of the period and one of the downsides of the consequence were the empty roads. Apart from the police who actually patrolled in those days there was little to stop you being a lunatic on those same roads, not fast by today's standards but fast enough with rubbish tires and brakes, and the resultant accidents amongst the ton up brigade and mounting death tolls was something to wean you off bikes as it was all too tempting.

One used to get owner cliques who would gather at the various greasy spoons dotted around London. The most famous and still operating is the Ace Cafe on the North Circular, but in our part of the world it was Ted's Cafe on the Southend Road. As drab inside as outside, it always had the appearance of a place they had opened and forgot to put the lights on. Its popularity was it was adjacent to the Mad Mile where the ton-up brigade would race from the cafe to the next roundabout and back.

The car park was of course full of motor bikes, either in the groups that had come there or in groups of single makes. The most revered were the Vincents - it still had that cachet no other bike had; and then there were the Velocettes:  handsome machines; though dated by then, they always seemed immaculate, apart from the pool of oil under them or left by them, a sort of calling-card.

The other two main groups were the Norton owners and the Triumph lot. Nortons had the name for their handling and good looks of the Dominator but a poor reputation for engine failures. The Triumph was the reverse though the handling wasn’t bad. Other makes like the Royal Enfield had a big twin that like the Norton (but worse) seemed to blow up with consummate ease when strained; and the Matchless and AJS twins - nice bikes, but the Triumph was king.

There were of course many small bikes and my association with road bikes ended when my racing friend - he raced an Aer Macchi and briefly a Manx at the end before emigrating to Aus - decided we would go to a party in Southend. His road bike was an Ariel Arrow. In those days the Southend arterial had a roundabout known as the Halfway House for various reasons; on approaching said roundabout three Triumphs overtook and I knew what was going to happen. He got past two into the roundabout but the third was a step too far: the foot-stand dug in and deposited us just outside the police station (remember them?) that stood on the roundabout. No injuries, just hurt pride and as he asked me if I was all right he started laughing. "What?" I said. "Your trousers!" I looked behind and the whole arse of the expensive Carnaby Street trousers fell down in a torn flap. So the party was never made and my association with road bikes ended very shortly afterwards.

Like all things it was one of life's experiences and above all else I always thanked that period as a motor bike gives you a whole different slant on road conditions and how to manage them, something a car can never do. If used wisely that knowledge stays with you and is invaluable.

The non-starting motor bike saga continued awhile after my Gold Star front seat. My racing friend's Aer Macchi was a pig to start: it had the most critical timing and had to be absolutely spot on or nothing happened. Being sick pushing the bloody thing in the paddock is not something I would want to repeat, so some modern additions are welcome after all. I can remember when some cars and not just cars had a starting handle - can you imagine going back to that? You needed the arms of Bluto.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Voiceless In Catalonia, by Brett Hetherington

Walk into any pet shop in Barcelona this summer and you are likely to hear the resident parrot spouting one party line or another about possible independence for Catalonia.

With a referendum for only Catalans to vote on this October first, those who live here without Spanish citizenship cannot participate and are frozen out of having a say in the final result.

As I said the other day to a foreign-born local photo journalist, I am sad that I can't vote in the referendum. Just like plenty of others, my wife and I have lived here for over a decade on European passports and have a son who will soon be going into the workforce, so the near future is extremely important to us.

To exclude people who are not Spanish citizens but have lived here (continually, and regardless of how long) is clearly a mistake because it just makes you seem unimportant and disregarded. In a genuine, fully-developed democracy everyone is included and everyone has the impression that they count.

Naturally though, the referendum has value even though the Spanish state will not recognise it. The collective opinion of the people -- or at least a majority of the population -- is an important statement about where they want to live and who they believe they are.

The minority conservative Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy is doing all they can to prevent the ballot boxes from being delivered then used and they are employing legal methods as well as trying to intimidate civil servants into ignoring instructions related to the referendum from the Catalan administration.

In this way, they will be denying a basic, universal democratic principle in action.

In truth though it's actually quite difficult to know the exact pros and cons of an independent Catalonia because the debate has largely been so polarised, emotionally jingoistic and partisan. I do think that any referendum has greater legitimacy to it if there is an informed and balanced education campaign from both sides and that this should be publicly funded. Not the case in Catalonia.

Both campaigns should also be put under scrutiny from the media but without the rabid nationalism that we have continually seen up until now. Only then will the referendum accurately mirror the population's decision.

Of course if you are not a holder of Spanish nationality, you are as good as irrelevant in the outcome of what has simply been called "the process." You may as well be just another parrot in a pet shop.

Brett Hetherington is a journalist and writer living in Catalonia, northern Spain.

Website: http://bretthetherington.net/
Blog, "Standing In A Spanish Doorway":  http://bretthetherington.blogspot.co.uk/

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Beer: The Black Country Tie Night

Ma Pardoe's

At the school where I worked there was an annual expedition-cum-challenge known as the Black Country Tie Night. Those who had passed the ordeal were entitled to sport a tie around the school featuring a foaming mug of beer. Another select club was wearers of the You Lad Tie, conferred on a teacher seen to stop a child in his tracks from a distance with a bellow of “You, lad!”

The Black Country is a region in the English Midlands, so called because it was heavily industrialised and in the old days everything was stained with soot from coal fires and furnaces. Before the recession of the early 1980s the area was still thriving and a key element in working class culture was an appreciation of beer. I remember a crossroads - I think it was in Lower Gornal - that had a pub on each corner.

There were many little breweries and pubs that brewed their own on the premises. Brands included Batham’s, Hanson’s, Simpkiss’ and Holden’s, the middle two now long gone. Some of the hostelries were very simple, not exactly spit and sawdust but certainly bare floorboards. It was in one of these that I saw something I fervently wanted (which is rare for me): a short-haired blue cat, muscular and disdainful of the customers as he made his way between the legs of the chairs and people. The next time I saw such an animal was when a similar one appeared from nowhere to inveigle her way into my mother-in-law's house. Bobby, a British Blue (as I now know), came to live with us for the next twenty years. What a peculiar coincidence; I am afraid to wish for anything else.

It was usual for us to start at the Lamp in Dudley, a Batham’s pub serving a light-coloured bitter similar to a lager but much mellower. Candidates for the tie would be paired with a marker who would check off pints on a beer mat as they were drunk, generally only one pint in each pub. And so the minibus made its tour around the Black Country. The challenge was to drink ten pints without being sick, at least not until after the tenth, which by tradition was always drunk at Ma Pardoe’s in Netherton (she was still alive and brewing back then). That one was served in two halves downed one after the other and then, if necessary, it was off to the gents’ in haste.

One time part way through the evening we bumped into a colleague who was having a drink with friends and asked what we were doing. When we explained he joined in. He was a big Jamaican with a great love of life and famous for his so-called Rocket, a punch prepared with over-proof Jamaican white rum and served surreptitiously to staff in the know throughout the final day of term, which gave a second meaning to the “staggered dismissal” of the children at the end. He was not expected to have any difficulty, even though he had started several pints behind the line; but after a gallon or so he looked stricken and said with tears in his eyes that he couldn't continue. He was most relieved when we clarified the rules for him: he had thought that he wasn't allowed to visit the toilet for a call of nature before completing. Having passed easily, he stayed on for further drinks after the rest of us climbed back on the bus.

The kicker in this challenge was that tie runs were always held on a Thursday so that staff had to come in the following day to teach. One of our colleagues turned up with straw in his hair, having not made it home the night before. The children appeared to be very considerate on the Friday, as I remarked to one of my coworkers, who explained to me that they would remember seeing their dad white-faced in the morning and had learned when it was wise not to provoke.

I never made the tie: I simply haven’t the capacity. Nor did the headteacher, a whisky drinker who asked if he could have doubles instead of beer, but was turned down. Rules are rules.

All is changed. In the ‘80s, secondary schools were male-dominated; now, only one in four of the staff is a man. We have to watch patiently as the women drink Prosecco and dance.

Getting away from La Vida Loca

Click through to see how a very small minority of Japanese make a meaningful life away from the big city:

  Yadorigi: A Village in Portraits, The Short Film (2012/Eng subs/Dur:28'57") from Fu Films on Vimeo.