Monday, January 18, 2010

Lyrical, physical, horizontal and despicable

I stopped the harpist Derek Bell in the street once. It was on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, and there he was, minding his own business, on his way back to the Bancroft Hotel. He was very gracious at the interruption and accepted my platitudes about how much I liked his music and that of The Chieftains, with whom he played from 1975 until his death in 2002. He had been a child prodigy, a multi-instrumentalist (piano and dulcimer, as well as the harp), a distinguished composer and a musician of tremendous range, who could as easily handle the classical repertoire, music hall songs and collaborations with Roger Daltry, Van Morrison and Sting. This recording, of Women of Ireland from Stanley Kubrick's film Barry Lyndon, shows Bell at his most lyrical. I also love The Chieftains' album with Van Morrison, Irish Heartbeat, which is informed by Bell's musical sense of humor displayed towards his fellow-Ulsterman, most outrageously when The Star of the County Down  segues into the Orange anthem, The Sash My Father Wore. (You'll have to find the album yourselves, but here's a lovely recording of The Star by the great John McCormack.)

I've been struck how many important scientists turn up in the DIB. I blame my own ignorance, but I had no idea how many Irish had made such significant contributions to scientific and mathematical enquiry. I've previously mentioned some naturalists, but major figures turn up in the "hard" sciences, too. My difficulty is that I am completely unequipped to do more than repeat what the dictionary says, given the complexity of their work. Thus, we have John Stewart Bell, the Belfast man whose paper On the Einstein Podolsky Rosen Paradox is decribed as "his greatest contribution to quantum theory" and whose conclusions came to be known as "Bell's Theorem". My researches reveal that this is of a class of theorems known as "no-go theorems", which show "that an idea is not possible even though it may look attractive". This, essentially, is what I feel about life. You can try to understand it here, and I wish you luck. It's dispiriting that a quantum physicist could quite easily understand history, literature or law, but in the humanities or social sciences we can't even begin to grasp what goes on in advanced physics.

Now for something I can understand. As will already be clear, there aren't that many women in the DIB. And of those that have appeared so far, there has been a concentration on nuns and nurses, although artists and social activists have also had their due. Laura Bell was none of those things: she was a grande horizontale, a 19th century courtesan - the DIB rather decorously uses the Greek word "hetaera" - who caused all sorts of trouble.  Difficult to get a sense of her from her portrait, although she seems very pretty. She graduated from work in in a Belfast draper's to acting in London to ... well. She was "a sparkling and intelligent companion" who cut a swathe through London culminating in an affair with the "Nepalese ambassador to London" (if this is Jang Bahadur, with whom Bell was linked, it's not quite right to say he was ambassador - he was already head of the government he represented whyen he visited England). She married Augustus Thistlethwayte when she was about 22. After six months she went off with his younger brother.  The brother died, and Laura returned to Augustus: his having recently inherited the family fortune was surely unconnected. She embraced Augustus' evangelical faith and threw herself into the movement, preaching in Scotland and London and holding dinners for statesmen, including Gladstone. She had a liking for guns: she apparently would summon servants by firing one. This habit was of course entirely unconnected to the unfortunate death of Augustus, in his bedroom, from a pistol shot. After her own death, Gladstone retrieved his letters to her and burned them, "for fear of their being misunderstood".

Patrick Belton - "Two-gun Pat, the Drumcondra financier" - was an otherwise unremarkable person with the fortune to be thrown into prominence by the birth of the Irish state, alas. As a young man, he became involved in the republican movement - he later claimed to have recruited Michael Collins - and went successfully into business. Decribed as an "able but erratic individual with no use for discretion", he was also "hysterically anti-communist", supporting Ireland's Blueshirt movement and Franco during the Spanish civil war, for whom he raised substantial amounts of money. He was "loudly" anti-semitic, opposing a Dublin corporation attempt to permit kosher animal slaughter as follows: "If the Jews do not conform to Christian ways, let them go back to Palestine." He started a political dynasty: three sons and a grand daughter followed him into politics.

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