Tuesday, February 23, 2016

John Logie Baird: The Obeah Man

As every school child knows, Scotsman, John Logie Baird (1888 – 1946) , invented the first working television. Logie Baird was the youngest of four children of a clergyman and was born on August 13th, 1888, in Helensburgh, Dumbarton, Scotland. Right from the beginning Logie Baird was a compulsive innovator. As a laddie he set up an electrical supply system and telephone exchange in his father's manse. As a young man he trained as an electrical engineer and was fascinated with talking pictures. He funded his obsession for inventing with the profit made from a most unlikely source, he invented damp proof socks.

John kept ill health and found the harsh Scottish climate challenging; now at least he could keep his feet warm, if not on the ground. Driven by his obsessions he continued to invent but not all of his inventions worked out, as his unsuccessful cure for haemorrhoids was to show. When he tried it on himself, he was unable to sit down for a week; his rust less razor left him scarred for life; and his pneumatic shoes just burst. When he was dismissed from his job for creating a blackout in Glasgow, whilst experimenting with making diamonds from coal dust, the inventor took heed of a friend’s advice and moved to Trinidad.

The warmer climate suited the frail Scotsman and he decided to make living purveying cotton and safety pins. Sadly, nobody wanted his wares, but by this time he saw the potential to develop a preserves industry using the islands’ natural and abundant fruit. By day the mad Scotsman studied cookbooks, hired helpers, and set to work in his remote wooden bungalow. A giant copper cauldron, formerly a washtub, could hold 112 pounds of fruit, and he suspended it over a brick fireplace, stirring frantically in the heat. The boiling fruit attracted wasps, bees and hornets by the score. Most of which ended up entombed in the bottles of preserve. Needless to say the jam making business was doomed.

By night he continued his life’s work to produce television, driven by the progress he had made before he left Glasgow. The nocturnal flashing lights and weird noises coming from Chateau Logie Baird soon attracted the attention of his superstitious neighbours. In fear the stranger was a dealer in supernatural forces they called him Obeah man. Obeah is a form of witchcraft practiced in the Caribbean.

The Obeah man can summons up Duppies (malevolent spirits) and plant them in the home to curse the occupants. So not that far removed from television when you think of it. In any event one night an angry crowd gathered outside his house to protest. Keen to rid themselves of the Obeah man they threw stones at his bungalow the hot tempered Scot, annoyed at their ignorance, stood his ground, and through the missiles back. Eventually things settled down Logie Baird perfected the rudiments of television and returned to England to promote his latest invention.

He created the first televised pictures of objects in motion (1924), the first televised human face (1925) and a year later he televised the first moving object image at the Royal Institution in London. He then pioneered colour television (1928) and developed something we have not yet seen commercialized, three-dimensional television.

Publically Logie Baird was lampooned and dismissed as another crank by the public. The significance of television was not missed by the British Secret Service and Nazi Germany. The German post office gave Logie Baird facilities to develop a television service in 1929. His system was originally adopted by the BBC in 1936 but in the same year Crystal Palace was mysteriously destroyed by fire.

Many conspiracy theorists believe this was the work of Third Columnists, intent on destroying Baird's work. In any event by February 1937, the BBC had adopted the Marconi EMI system. As a broadcaster he developed the basic television techniques for outside broadcasting, used today. The right clever clogs even saw the potential for video recording and his first working radar developed the technology we now know as fibre optics. High-speed facsimile transmission via television played a vital role in the Second World War. Not bad for an Obeah Man who invented damp proof socks.

The Secret Life of John Logie Baird (Hutchinson, London, 1986), journalist Tom McArthur and mechanical engineer Peter Waddell

Reviewed 24/02/2016

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Flyting and the origins of Rap

Flyting or fliting (from the Old English word flītan meaning quarrel; and from Old Norse word flyta meaning provocation), describes an intense verbal jousting, usually between two skilled rivals, often laced with vulgarity, and accusations of cowardice or sexual perversion. Flyting was remarkable for its fierceness and extravagance and the intention was to provoke the opponent Although contestants attacked each other spiritedly, they actually had a professional respect for their rival’s vocabulary of invective. When the final winner had the last word in the argument, the loser fell conspicuously silent.

The tradition seems to have derived from the Gaelic filid (class of professional poets), who composed savage tirades against persons who slighted them. The poetic exchange of insults was practiced mainly between the 5th and 16th centuries. Examples of flyting are found throughout Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Medieval literature involving both historical and mythological figures. The 13th century poem The Owl and the Nightingale and Geoffrey Chaucer's Parlement of Foules contain elements of flyting.

Flyting became public entertainment in Scotland in the 15th and 16th centuries where rival makars (court poets or bards) engaged in verbal contests of poetic abuse involving obscene rhyming insults. These were always provocative and confrontational and invariably with sexual and scatological nature. The winner was usually credited with the wordsmith with the maist gleg (quick witted intelligence). Flyting in court was permitted despite the fact that the penalty for profanities in public was a fine of 20 shillings (over £300 today) for a lord or a whipping for servant.

Both James IV and James V enjoyed "court flyting" and occasionally engaged with the participants. The most famous example of flyting comes from the Court of King James IV and was contest between William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy is entitled the Flyting Of Dunbar And Kennedy . In 1536 the poet Sir David Lyndsay composed a ribald 60 line flyte to James V after the King demanded a response to a flyte.

Flyting appeared to die out in Scottish writing after the Middle Ages but was continued for writers of Celtic background. Robert Burns parodied flyting in his poem, "To a Louse."

The genre continued into modern poetry with Hugh MacDiarmid's poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle.

Rapping describes a sophisticated form of speaking or chanting of rhyming lyrics, involving sex, violence and socio-political issues and set to a beat. For centuries West Africa stories were told rhythmically and set to the beat of a drum, then later Caribbean Islands musicians told stories in rhyme. By the 70s rapping was popular in the U.S. as a kind of street art, especially among street wise African American teenagers.

According to Professor Ferenc Szasz, University of New Mexico, rap is similar in both form and function to flyting. Feuding street gangs developed Gangsta Rap to insult and intimidate rivals.

This was combined with Brooklyn uprock, a skilled choreography involving fancy footwork, shuffles, hitting motions, and movements that mimic fighting. The winner of the preliminary rocking decided where a fight might take place or jurisdiction over a drug related turf war. The whole process softened into commercial hip hop and Michael Jackson made reference to these and other gang behaviours in Beat It and Bad videos.

Szasz believes it was Scottish Tobacco Lords and slave traders that encouraged their human cargo to use flyting instead of physically harming each other when arguments developed. He argues this was adopted and developed by African Americans emerging many years later as rap.