Author Archives: John Robson

It happened today – June 28, 2016

On this date in history, June 28 of 1846, Adolphe Sax patented the saxophone. Way cool. And very lucky.

It’s lucky partly because Sax, an instrument-maker, was also an extremely unlucky child or, if you look at it from the other side, extremely lucky. At various times he suffered a three story fall and hit his head on a rock, drank a bowl of “vitriolized water” (this story is all over the internet but nobody says what it is but since vitriol is sulphuric acid I wouldn’t drink it), swallowed a pin, was seriously burned by gunpowder, fell into a hot frying pan, was poisoned and suffocated simultaneously by varnished items stored in his bedroom, was hit on the head by a cobblestone and nearly drowned in a river. His autobiography says his own mother despaired of his surviving childhood and his neighbours called him “little Sax, the ghost”. Oddly appropriate given the often haunting tone of a “sax”.

We’re also lucky because the saxophone is, as Sax himself intended, a hybrid woodwind/brass instrument with a unique sound. I’ve often commented negatively about things like, say, Facebook, that if it didn’t exist we wouldn’t go about saying “You know what would be really cool? You know what would make my life fulfilling?” and then describe it. But it’s true in a positive way about saxophones.

If they didn’t exist, you wouldn’t notice they were missing because it almost certainly wouldn’t occur to you that they could exist. There’d be brass instruments which were brassy and had three simple valves, and woodwinds with a softer sound and that totally weird fingering that I never could figure out. (I learned trumpet in high school, in the loosest possible sense of the term “learn,” before being switched to the “euphonium” which wasn’t when I played it but did evidently evolve from a lesser-known Sax invention, the “saxhorn”. But I can still remember how to play a trumpet. The clarinet seems to me to make no sense and require at least 14 fingers. Fortunately my inability to finger one cost the world nothing.)

Instead there’s also the often haunting tone of the sax, a genuine hybrid. I do not say jazz would not have been invented without it. But certainly there was a kind of synergy between them. And with the blues. Songs clearly exist today, and versions, that were inspired in part by the fact that the musician had the sax sound in their mind when pondering possibilities. And it’s proof of genuine creative genius as one of life’s wonders. Interestingly, Sax patented a series of them in different keys, but where the B♭ and E♭ ones intended for military bands caught on, including oddly for military bands, the C and F versions for orchestras never did. The sax is not really suitable for the Baroque feel. But the jazz age is a different matter.

I said above you almost certainly wouldn’t have thought of a hybrid brass-woodwind if Sax hadn’t. But you might have, because he did. And there is a remarkably steady stream of big and small pieces of miraculous creativity where people see possibilities and make them happen and bring something so new into the world that it’s hard to categorize it as simply discovering the possibility. It really feels as though they made it. Still, without Sax it might have been different, later, or indeed never, leaving a big hole in music we wouldn’t even know was there.

As for the ophicleide, which Sax manufactured, and the saxtromba he invented, well, you can’t win them all. And sadly, Sax didn’t win his long legal battles over his patents and died in utter poverty at 79. But he did survive the pin and vitriol and all that to reach that age, and in the process gave the world the saxophone.



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It happened today – June 27, 2016

We all know about “Potemkin Villages” and we may even be aware that they were originally facades erected on the banks of the Dnieper River by Prince Grigory Potemkin to fool Catherine the Great into thinking Russia’s new southern territories that he governed absolutely and ruthlessly were prosperous and happy. So of course he had a battleship named after him. Which revolted on June 27, 1905, leading to a Potemkin movie about the Russian Revolution’s antecedents.

Potemkin himself was quite the “chancer,” to use a British phrase. A mid-ranking nobleman by birth, he helped Catherine seize power in 1762, became her lover despite being 10 years younger, kept her friendship after leaving her boudoir, and was a successful military leader including in the second Russo-Turkish War, an effective ruler in the Russian sense of that term, a successful builder and a successful hedonist. After a fashion: Early in his fatal illness while on campaign, he felt sufficiently better to eat a ham, a goose and several chickens. Despite or due to which, he died at 52 of pneumonia, poison or both. But I digress.

The point is, by Russian standards he was a reasonably admirable political figure and the pre-dreadnought battleship was by Russian standards a pretty good vessel that performed fairly well in World War II. Never mind the oil fire that forced conversion of all her boilers to coal. But it is still revealing that his lasting claim to fame was for fakery (despite revisionist efforts to say his villages were demonstrations of future posterity not facsimiles of it in the present), his rise was the result of adroit maneuvering vertical and horizontal rather than anything resembling a stand on principle, and his enduring success due to his increasing the power of absolutism rather than checking it.

As for the revolt on Potemkin, triggered by loathsome food and brutal discipline, it rapidly turned bloody and pathetic. And while Eisenstein was a genius, his 1925 film is not merely laboured by modern standards, it is deliberate falsification especially of the role of the Bolsheviks in the mutiny.

I think even the real Potemkin deserved better.


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Wish I’d said that – June 27, 2016

“Make no small plans here.”

A placard in the office of a two-time cancer survivor Tom Coburn, a doctor and former Republican Congressman and Senator who twice stepped down because he did not believe politicians should hold office indefinitely


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It happened today – June 26, 2016

So here’s another King of Canada you may not have an opinion on. William IV. Who took the throne on June 26 of 1830. Good for him.

Yes, he’s still King of Canada. Contrary to a strange opinion that periodically circulates, there was a word for and concept of Canada long before 1867. And the monarchs of Great Britain are also monarchs of Canada or what would later become Canada, even before Cabot’s 1497 claims IMHO and certainly before Confederation.

Moreover, I say good for him because William was, in an unassuming way, an excellent example of how to hold political power. He never expected to become king, and only inherited the job at age 64 because his two older brothers died without having legitimate heirs. As indeed did William, despite managing 10 illegitimate children with an actress.

Known as the sailor king, not so much for his apparently shore-leave lifestyle as for his active service that saw him reach the rank of rear-admiral on his very genuine merits that earned the praise of Horatio Nelson. Mind you he was once arrested in Gibraltar after a drunken brawl. He walked around the streets of New York unaccompanied during the American Revolution until news reached the British of a plot to kidnap him. He retired from the navy in 1790 and was unable to get back in when war came against France in 1793 partly because he’d spoken in the House of Lords against the war.

As a Lord, specifically the Duke of Clarence, he opposed efforts to abolish slavery, for which he was justly pilloried and rather misrepresented in the film Amazing Grace. On the other hand, he supported Catholic Emancipation.

So far so unremarkable, you may say. But seeing the crown approaching, he made a serious effort to pull himself together, in part to survive his younger brother Ernest and especially his obnoxious widow and see his niece Victoria on the throne without a regent. Indeed, at a banquet celebrating what would be his last birthday in 1836 he declared that “I trust to God that my life may be spared for nine months longer … I should then have the satisfaction of leaving the exercise of the Royal authority to the personal authority of that young lady, heiress presumptive to the Crown, and not in the hands of a person now near me, who is surrounded by evil advisers and is herself incompetent to act with propriety in the situation in which she would be placed.”

As King for almost seven years he was hardworking and conscientious, by comparison with his brother George IV who didn’t ask his Prime Minister questions for fear of seeming ignorant and his father George III who didn’t listen to the answers. And in the crisis over the Reform Bill, which he seems not to have supported, he steered a skillful course between reaction and mob violence and helped to establish the accountability of the ministry to the House of Commons on a very firm footing. And he did much to repair Anglo-American relations, a matter of enduring geopolitical importance.

What really stands out is that he did all this without adequate preparation for a job he was not expected to hold, and in many ways despite a character ill-suited to the exercise of patience and judgement. He was not a great man. But he did achieve excellence by dint of his own efforts and in frustrating the efforts of radicals on both sides helped lay the foundations for the glorious Victorian era.

Good for him.


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Wish I’d said that – June 26, 2016

“‘If God made everything, did He make the Devil?’ This is the kind of embarrassing question which any child can ask before breakfast, and for which no neat and handy formula is provided in the Parents’ Manuals. In much the same light-hearted manner, a cousin of my own once demanded, ‘Mother, where has yesterday gone to?’ My aunt courageously undertook to find out; but by the time she returned, primed with the opinion of an eminent Oxford philosopher, the inquirer had lost interest and, like jesting Pilate, would not stay for an answer. Late in life, however, the problem of time and the problem of evil become desperately urgent, and it is useless to tell us to run away and play and that we shall understand when we are older. The world has grown hoary, and the questions are still unanswered.”

Dorothy Sayers The Mind of the Maker


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It happened today – June 25, 2016

Capt. Lowell H. Smith and Lt. John P. Richter receiving the first mid-air refueling on June 27, 1923, from a plane flown by 1st Lt. Virgil Hine and 1st Lt. Frank W. Seifert. (Wikipedia)

Hey buddy, got a match? That is NOT funny. At least, it wouldn’t have been on June 25, 1923, when Captain Lowell H. Smith and Lt. John P. Richter became the first men to perform an aerial refueling.

It’s amazing. Not twenty years after Kitty Hawk. It’s a tribute to human ingenuity and courage, not to say recklessness (Smith had personally already had an airplane destroyed by fire, albeit on the ground, during the 1919 Great Continental Air Race, which he completed anyway by mooching a plane off Major Carl Andrew Spaatz.) But it’s also a warning about the blinding speed with which progress occurs nowadays.

Before you can blink, Lowell’s commanding the first ever flight right around the world. Not consecutive. They kept landing or, in the case of one of the four planes, crashing in thick fog in Alaska. But they also kept taking off, except that one, and they made it. In 1924.

Lowell himself, interestingly, died a rather old-fashioned death, not from the dysentery he contracted during the flight around the world but on falling from a horse. But he certainly was part of the amazing acceleration of airplane technology that took us from Kitty Hawk to Hiroshima, which happened months before he died in November 1945.

Aged just 53, he had lived from the railway into the atomic age. If he’d lived to be, say, 80, he’d have seen LSD as well. And things are just getting faster.

Not safer, though. Even if we no longer smoke much, we can sure still explode.


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