In a departure from the usual style of asketchofthepast.com, I have decided to write a post not only in a far more personal tone, but also about someone who is still very much alive. This is a response to the rather churlish little piece in yesterday’s Daily Mail, and the hackneyed ‘revelation,’ that Max Mosley’s 2015 autobiography, Formula One and Beyond, describes events from half a century ago with ‘selective memory.’ I have yet to come across an autobiography that would not face a similar charge.
The passage in the book which struck me most was Mr Mosley’s description of a particular conversation with his father, in which he compared their struggles and achievements at the same age. Sir Oswald, whose political career was effectively finished at the age of 34, replied ‘Well, that just shows what a mistake it is to start too soon.’ For his son, one doubts the fight will ever be over.
I met Max Mosley in September 2015. He had kindly agreed to meet me, in order to speak about his family as well as his own remarkable life. I had heard that he was impossibly charming in the flesh, and he did nothing to dispel such assertions. With the gait and appearance of a man several decades younger, and impeccable manners straight from the pages of Debrett’s guide to etiquette, Mosley embodied the sort of genteel Englishman I had always secretly hoped still existed.
After ordering tea – a macchiato for Max, I enquired about his celebrated aunts, the Mitfords. Honest to a fault, he ventured up amusing personal recollections without hesitation. Having written my thesis on the Bloomsbury Group, the most self-aggrandising and cliquey set one could possibly imagine, I found Max’s own modesty and the complete candour with which he described his famous, and in some cases notorious, relatives, as simply being ‘ordinary people,’ incredibly refreshing. He seemed genuinely confounded by the continuing interest in them. Continue reading →
In the early hours of 2nd November 1975, a mutilated body was discovered on theLido di Ostia, a district of Rome by the Tyrrhenian Sea. Badly beaten, burnt and crushed, having been repeatedly run over by a car; it was a violent and ignoble end to the life of a man whose artistic and intellectual valour had made him an Italian cultural icon. Pier Paolo Pasolini was born in Bologna on 5th March 1922, his mother was a teacher and his father an Italian army lieutenant with Fascist sympathies, who was credited with identifying and capturing Anteo Zamboni, a 15 year-old anarchist who attempted to assassinate Mussolini during a March on Rome celebration parade in Bologna on 31st October 1926. The shot fired by Zamboni missed the Prime Minister, and the teenager was set upon and lynched by a Fascist squad. Today, the Mura Anteo Zamboni a street in Bologna, bears his name, and a plaque marks the spot where he was found.
Like many scholars and poets before him, such as René Daumal and Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, Pasolini idolised Arthur Rimbaud and began writing poetry as a way of coping with the family’s frequent relocations. Returning to the city of his birth to enrol at the Literature College of the University of Bologna in 1939, Pasolini developed a passion for the cinema as well as poetry after attending a film club. Failing to establish his own poetry magazine with his friend and fellow poet Roberto Roversi, Pasolini self-published a volume of his own works in 1941, entitled Versi a Casarsa. Written mostly in Friulian, a language spoken in the Friuli area of North-East Italy, where his family were then living in the commune of Casarsa, Pasolini developed a lifelong affinity with the unique identity and culture of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region.
A trip to Nazi Germany in 1941 gave Pasolini further cause to question the political regime in Italy, and he concluded that his own outlook was best represented by Communism. In September 1943, Pasolini was drafted and taken as a prisoner of war by the Germans. However, he soon escaped and made his way back to Casarsa. To make ends meet, he began tutoring students whose educations had been disrupted by the war, and it was with one of these students that he engaged in his first love affair, having previously suppressed his homosexuality. Continue reading →
Ruggiero Eugenio di Rodolpho Colombo was born into a large Italian immigrant family in Camden, New Jersey on 14th January 1908. A musical prodigy, encouraged by his father, a theatre musician, he learned to play the violin at an early age, followed by the guitar, the clarinet and the accordion all by the age of 13, he was also a classically trained pianist. After the Columbo family moved to California’s Napa Valley, Ruggiero began to perform professionally with a number of bands as a violinist and singer. In Hollywood, he found work on film sets, providing what was known as ‘mood music,’ which was intended to aid silent movie stars get into character. It was on one of these sets, that he met Pola Negri, a Polish actress who had previously been romantically involved with Rudolph Valentino, whom Ruggiero strongly resembled. Using her influence, Negri helped him to get minor roles in several films including The Wolf Song(1929) with Gary Cooper and Lupe Velez, and The Texan (1930) starring Cooper and Fay Wray.
At the same time, Ruggiero, who by then had adopted the name ‘Russ’ Columbo, had been hired as a violinist and vocalist by the bandleader Gus Arnheim and his Cocoanut Grove Orchestra, providing the lead vocals for many of Arnheim’s hits, such as Sweet and Lovely and I Can’t Do Without You. In 1931, Columbo was offered a radio slot in New York with NBC, with fans calling him the ‘Radio Romeo,’ a recording contract as a solo artist with RCA Victor Records soon followed. Columbo’s manager Con Conrad never doubted that his protégé was destined to become a star, thanks to his remarkable talent and the fact that, as one contemporary critic remarked, ‘while he may have been born of Italian parentage, when he stepped into the spotlight on stage with his glistening black hair, chiselled facial features and athletic physique he looked to all the world like the statue of a Greek god come to life. And with his flashing black eyes and gleaming white teeth, he had a smile that could melt a sphinx.’
Above: Gus Arnheim’s Cocoanut Grove Orchestra with vocals by Russ Columbo – Sweet and Lovely (1931)
‘Done up like Tommy Ward’s elephant,’ is a common expression in Sheffield. Used to describe someone laden like a beast of burden, the idiom dates back nearly a hundred years, to the days of the local scrap metal merchant and ship breaker Thomas Ward, and Lizzie, his rather unusual employee. As the head of Thomas W. Ward Ltd, one of his company’s most prestigious tasks had been the demolition of the SS Majestic. Built by the White Star Line in 1890 and captained by Edward Smith, who went down with his new ship, the R.M.S. Titanic in 1912, she was turned into scrap at Ward’s Morecambe yard in 1914. A family business, Ward’s brother Joseph was also involved, and was appointed Chairman of the Scrap Advisory Committee to the Ministry of Munitions during the war.
In 1916, having given up his horses for the war effort, Ward hired Lizzie from William Sedgwick, who was struggling to look after the animals of his popular travelling menagerie, after a number of his employees had been conscripted. Indian elephant Lizzie was one of the show’s main attractions, but on a practical level, Ward’s need for her was greater – her immense strength enabled her to undertake the workload of three horses.
For those who had never seen a real elephant before, the sight of Lizzie lugging scrap metal and munitions across the city was an unusual spectacle. However, she soon became a well-known figure, with stories appearing about her exploits in the press, including the occasion when she was accused of breaking a window to steal a pie that had been left to cool, or the time when she was alleged to have pinched and then eaten a cap from the head of a cheeky schoolboy. In February 1916, an article about Lizzie featured in The World’s Fairnewspaper claiming that some of the city’s remaining horses, who had crossed her path, ‘were startled by this unexpected ‘dilution’ of their labour, and sniffed and shied as the elephant passed.’Continue reading →