Thursday Sep. 7, 2017

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I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

“London” by William Blake. Public domain.  (buy now)

The Blitz began on this date in 1940. “Blitz” comes from the German word “Blitzkrieg,” which means “lightning war.” Germany had successfully invaded France, and now Hitler was determined to conquer Britain as well. The German Luftwaffe, or air force, had been engaging the Royal Air Force for a few months, but without much success. Hitler changed his strategy: rather than focusing on military targets, he set out to crush the morale of the British people through relentless attacks on its major cities.

The first wave of bombers — 348 in all — hit London at around 4:00 in the afternoon. The Luftwaffe primarily targeted London’s docks on this first attack, but many bombs fell in civilian areas as well. Four hundred and thirty people died, and 1,600 were seriously injured. The fires that had started as a result of the first wave of attacks served as beacons for a second wave that hit after dark and lasted until 4:30 the next morning. But Hitler’s attempt to crush the British spirit had the opposite effect. Winston Churchill said: “[Hitler] has lighted a fire which will burn with a steady and consuming flame until the last vestiges of Nazi tyranny have been burnt out of Europe.”

Journalist Ernie Pyle reported from London during the Blitz. He wrote: “It was a night when London was ringed and stabbed with fire. [...] The greatest of all the fires was directly in front of us. Flames seemed to whip hundreds of feet into the air. Pinkish-white smoke ballooned upward in a great cloud, and out of this cloud there gradually took shape — so faintly at first that we weren’t sure we saw correctly — the gigantic dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

“St. Paul’s was surrounded by fire, but it came through. It stood there in its enormous proportions — growing slowly clearer and clearer, the way objects take shape at dawn. It was like a picture of some miraculous figure that appears before peace-hungry soldiers on a battlefield.”

The attacks of September 7 were only the beginning. The Blitz continued for 76 consecutive nights, with the exception of a single night of bad weather. Bombs fell on London, Liverpool, Manchester, and several other cities in England and Wales. All told, some 43,000 British civilians died by the time Hitler called off the Blitz in May 1941, and more than a million homes were damaged or destroyed. The Blitz cost the Germans most of their air force, however: they lost most of their airmen and hundreds of planes.

On this day in 1927, a 21-year-old inventor named Philo T. Farnsworth achieved the first fully electronic television system. He successfully transmitted an image through the purely electronic means of a device he called an “image dissector” (the first television camera tube). He’d been dreaming of this day since he was a 13-year-old farm boy, when he became inspired by the series of lines emanating from the back-and-forth motion used to plow a field. Farnsworth was a diligent young inventor: he converted his family’s home appliances to electric power and won a national contest with his invention of a tamper-proof lock.

On that day in his lab at 202 Green Street in San Francisco, he transmitted a tele-electronic image onto a glass slide in a different room. Over the course of his life, Farnsworth held more than 300 patents, and even helped develop important advances in nuclear fusion. He died in 1971.

Tonight Show host Johnny Carson once quipped, “If it weren’t for Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television, we’d still be eating frozen radio dinners.”

On this day in 2008, the United States government took control of the two largest mortgage lenders in the U.S., Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The two mortgage lenders had been created in order to help more Americans buy homes, but shoddy lending practices, like giving mortgages to people who could not afford them and not verifying income status of borrowers, had led to record foreclosures and falling home prices. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were about $12 billion in the hole. At the time of the crisis, they were virtually the only source of funding for banks and home lenders looking for loans. The Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac crisis led to the worst United States housing crisis in history and caused chaos in the world financial market.

People had been talking about the looming crisis for years. Political consultant Llewellyn H. Rockwell once mused: “Either way, it turns out that there is no magic way to put every American citizen, regardless of financial means or credit history, in a 3,000-square-foot home. Someone, somewhere, sometime has to pay. No matter what rescue plan they are able to cobble together, that someone is you.”

Today is the birthday of American novelist and short-story writer Jennifer Egan (books by this author) born in Chicago, Illinois (1962). She’s best known for her novel A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), a book about rock and roll that ranges in time from 1970s San Francisco to a futuristic New York. The book has several experimental elements, with one chapter even told as a PowerPoint presentation. It took Egan three years to write the book, and she modeled it after Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, a very long book about the passage of time, and claims to even have been inspired by the television series The Sopranos, a show about a morose mob boss. Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different character. When asked about how she came up with so many characters, Egan responded: “I don’t use people I know at all. I really value the shorthand, the compression of suggesting a whole life while actually having to render up very little of it. I feel tired of exposition and backstory; the more you can suggest without spelling out, the more you can encompass in the same space. Fiction writing is always about compression and suggestion.”

When Goon Squad first came out, people weren’t sure quite what to make of it, and it didn’t sell very well. A year later, it won the Pulitzer Prize and became an international best-seller.

Egan’s desire to be a writer began when she was backpacking across Europe as a teenager during the 1980s. She was lonely and depressed, and she missed her family. “There was a kind of intensity to the isolation of travel at that time that’s completely gone now. You had to wait in line at a phone place, and then there weren’t even answering machines. That feeling of waiting in line, paying for the phone and then not only having no one answer, but not being able to leave a message so that they would never know you called. It’s hard to fathom what that disconnection felt like. But I’m actually very grateful for it. Because it was extreme. And that kind of extreme isolation showed me that I wanted to be a writer.”

On writing, Jennifer Egan says: “You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly. You can’t write regularly and well. One should accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.”

A Visit from the Goon Squad is so popular that there is an app version of it, which allows readers to shuffle the chapters in whatever order they choose, like songs on a record album.

Today is the birthday of American jazz musician Sonny Rollins in New York City (1930). Rollins plays the tenor saxophone and is considered one of the finest jazz musicians in history. He favors long, experimental improvisation when he plays, especially during live concerts. He once said: “I’m not supposed to be playing, the music is supposed to be playing me. I’m just supposed to be standing there with the horn, moving my fingers. The music is supposed to be coming through me; that’s when it’s really happening.”

Rollins grew up in Harlem, not far from legendary jazz clubs like the Savoy Ballroom and The Cotton Club. He spent his childhood listening to Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, especially Waller’s song “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” His mother bought him a used horn during the Depression, when Rollins was seven. He played so much and so often that he often forgot to come to dinner, and his mother would have to bang on his door. As a teen, he glued on a fake mustache to sneak into The Cotton Club to hear Charlie Parker play.

Sonny Rollins switched to the tenor saxophone at 16 and remained largely self-taught during his childhood. When he first began playing clubs, he quickly found a mentor in jazz great Thelonius Monk. Rollins became known for taking well-known songs like “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and using them as vehicles for his experimental sax improvisations.

Rollins credits his study of Kabbalah, Buddhism, Indian philosophy, and yoga for his music. He says: “You’re a player; you can’t spend too much time thinking about what you’re going to play, it comes out so fast. The fact that there’s logic to what I’m playing, I’ve been very blessed about that part because I certainly didn’t have anything to do with that […] whatever talent that God has given me. Just the thinking, the playing, the going on and on and on — that part is mine.”

And: “The music has got to mean something. Jazz improvisation is supposed to be the highest form of communication, and getting that to the people is our job as musicians.”

On teaching younger musicians how to play, and feel, jazz, Sonny Rollins once said: “It’s not a matter of your intelligence or anything. You have to have a gift. Just as, I’m sure, for other professions. […] I came upon these very great and — not just great musicians, but great people. […] And I’m trying to now live my life like that. I’ve got a gift, a musical gift, fine. But I want to be a human being, a good human being. I need to always express that to young students. Everybody can have a gift. That’s a gift. But then we have to be good human beings. So that’s what it’s all about.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®