Sep. 28, 2012

A Watcher

by Robyn Sarah

The mail doesn't come
and doesn't come.
The mail doesn't come.
It's three o'clock, I've been
downstairs to check, and up again,
and down and up — it
doesn't come.

Incognito in the little shops
is how I want to go.
And in and out
about the neighbourhood,
observing unobserved.

And yet I long, I long.
Long to be known, and know.

"A Watcher" by Robyn Sarah, from Questions About the Stars. © Brick Books, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the British novelist and translator Edith Pargeter (books by this author), born in Shropshire (1913). She never attended college and began writing while working as a chemist's assistant in the years leading up to World War II. She served with distinction in the Women's Royal Navy Service (the WRENS) and was awarded the British Empire Medal for her service. During these years, Pargeter published a flurry of novels, including Ordinary People (1941) and She Goes to War (1942), stunning critics with her detailed knowledge of the technology and geography of combat.

She met soldiers from Czechoslovakia while stationed in Liverpool, and she soon developed a passion for the country. She became an expert in the Czech language, first learning on "Teach Yourself" 78 rpm records. In 1949, she wrote a popular book on her travels there, The Coast of Bohemia, and personally translated over a dozen works by the country's leading writers, including Joseph Bor's tale of the Verdi concert at Auschwitz, The Terezín Requiem (1963). She said, "[I] feel myself in a sense Czech, with all their hopes and needs." She was awarded the Czechoslovak Society for International Relations Gold Medal in 1968 for her work on behalf of literature.

In 1953, Pargeter first tried her hand at mystery writing with her short story "Fallen into the Pit," but it was the introduction of her character Brother Cadfael in A Morbid Taste for Bones (1977) that Pargeter found her true calling. Cadfael was a medieval Sherlock Holmes of sorts, and from his Shrewsbury Abbey, he unraveled mysteries and performed early forensics. While her contemporaries were still enamored with the Victorian Era, Pargeter set her book back 700 years earlier in the bloody era of the Middle Ages. She rarely looked back from the 12th century as she followed this Benedictine sleuth through 20 more novels, including One Corpse Too Many (1979), The Pilgrim of Hate (1984), and The Holy Thief (1992). All centered on Shrewsbury, these "mystoricals," as they came to be called, were so popular that they created a whole tourist industry in the area, earning it the tag "Brother Cadfael country."

Pargeter was celebrated for her reason and pragmatic charm. At the age of 83, when her leg had to be amputated, she wrote in a newsletter that she wouldn't miss it a bit, "after the hell it caused me," prompting the Guardian to remember her in their 1995 memorial as "one tough old bird."

Today is the birthday of the Chilean poet and songwriter Víctor Jara (books by this author), born to peasants outside of Santiago (1932). In his early 20s, Jara became deeply interested in folk music and the theater, inspired by poets like Pablo Neruda and new singers like Violetta Parra. He got a chance to perform at a local club where he met musicians directly involved with the "Nueva Canción" (New Song) movement in folk music that would soon spread across much of Latin America. These singers combined socially conscious songs with the native sounds of the lower classes, and became associated with the rising leftist movement sweeping the country. Jara soon began to concentrate all his energy on music, and during this period, he composed some of his most celebrated songs like "I Remember You, Amanda" and began performing free concerts on behalf of presidential candidate Salvador Allende.

Allende's Popular Unity party was elected in 1970 on a broad wave of public support, and Jara began to travel throughout Latin America as his cultural ambassador. He was working at a university radio station when word came in 1973 that there had been a right-wing coup, led by General Augusto Pinochet, and that Allende had been killed. The following morning, Jara and 5,000 others were rounded up and taken to the Chile Stadium, where over the next few days many were interrogated, tortured, and murdered. Witnesses recounted soldiers breaking the bones in Jara's hands and taunting him to play his guitar. He is said to have responded by singing his song "Vinceremos" ("We Will Win"), before being shot. Jara managed to write a poem from within the stadium, which was later smuggled out in a friend's shoe. In it, he mourns watching "ten thousand hands which can produce nothing." Pinochet's troops destroyed most of Jara's master recordings following the coup, but his wife, Joan, was able to smuggle much of his music out when she fled the country in 1973.

Today is the birthday of television host and "Great Stone Face" Ed Sullivan, born Edward Vincent Sullivan to an Irish Catholic family in New York City (1901). In 1948, he was asked to host a Sunday-night variety show for the CBS network called "Toast of the Town." Sullivan's on-screen presence was savaged by critics as wooden and lacking personality. He was compared to the great stone statues of Easter Island, and one New York critic simply wrote after seeing the debut, "Why? Why? Why?" But the network stuck by him, and what Sullivan lacked in obvious star power, he made up for in his instincts with the public. He booked all the talent himself and made sure there was something for everyone, from vaudeville acts, to popular recording artists, to Topo Gigio, the little Italian mouse puppet. He had a self-deprecating sense of humor and would often encourage visiting comedians like Rich Little in their imitations of him.

In the 1950s, the program became "The Ed Sullivan Show," and he established a name for himself for breaking new talent, landing bands like "The Beatles" for their first live performance on U.S. television, which was then the most watched TV event of all time.

Sullivan also passionately fought back against pressures to avoid booking black talent, first exposing Sammy Davis Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald to a national TV audience. He was a big booster of the Motown label, hosting nearly every artist on their roster. The Supremes were a Sullivan Show favorite, appearing 17 times. When Nat King Cole appeared in 1954, Sullivan introduced him saying, "I've never met a finer performer or a finer human being." And in 1963, he supported Dylan's walking off his show when the network refused to let him perform his "Talking John Birch Society Blues," a song he himself had approved.

The Ed Sullivan Show ran for 23 years until it was canceled in 1971 for poor ratings, making it one of the longest-running shows in television history.

Sullivan said: "If you do a good job for others, you heal yourself at the same time, because a dose of joy is a spiritual cure. It transcends all barriers."

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




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