Friday 30 January 2015

Size Matters

Ten years ago a gay fossil hunter, a professional palaeontologist, Edwin Cadena, uncovered a new species of giant turtle which helps to explain how such creatures could grow so large and what ecological environment could have led to its evolution. Edwin was a member of an expedition from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and the University of Florida.

They had been alerted to a potentially rich seam of fossils in a huge open-cast coal mine in Cerrejón in northern Colombia by a fossil plant in a display case at a coal company. It was only when a professor from the University of Florida recognised it as part of an unusual jawbone and not a leaf that fossil-hunters began to get excited about what else they’d find at the mine.

Studying for an MSc in Geology at the University of Florida, Edwin Cadena was invited to join the expedition team that went to Cerrejón. Being a native of Colombia Edwin was an ideal choice. In 2004 the expedition collected as many fossils from the coal mine as it could.

They came back several more years and the specimens were sent to the University of Florida for cleaning and identification. Three years later a graduate student unpacked one fossil vertebrae labelled “crocodile”. After it was cleaned up it was obvious to him that it was too big for a crocodile (specimens aren’t usually examined in detail on site). When a specialist in fossil snakes saw it he was amazed at its size and began research into the bone and others bagged up from the same site in the coal mine. With only an incomplete snake skeleton to go on it took a couple of years of comparing other known giant snake fossils before palaeontologists finally revealed that the Cerrejón fossil belonged to the biggest snake ever known. They gave it the scientific name of Titanoboa cerrejonensis – literally “titanic boa from Cerrejón”. Later discoveries of other Titanoboa fossils have confirmed their findings.

Titanoboa was so big that it could swallow a fully-grown adult crocodile whole. It weighed over a ton, and about 42 feet long. If you own a car think about this next time you open any one of the car doors. It doesn’t matter what make of car it is, Titanoboa would find it a bit of a squeeze getting through that open door, if at all!

Titanoboa was discovered in rock strata that were formed between 58 and 60 million years ago in what is called the Palaeocene epoch. That was long after the extinction of the big dinosaurs.

Other giant fossils were discovered at the Cerrejón mines, and that brings us back to Edwin Cadena. While research was still being carried out on Titanoboa Edwin was back in that coal mine chipping away at the rock. It was ten years ago this month that he discovered that brand new species of giant turtle. It wasn’t the largest ever found, but he was the first human to set eyes on this new animal. It must have felt like his birthday. Considering he discovered the first bone a couple of days after his actual birthday, that’s probably true!

In fact there were two discoveries. First Edwin found a huge fossil turtle shell. It was about 5 feet 7 inches from front to back – just about the same at Edwin’s height. About 200 meters away he found a huge turtle skull. It was of a species previously unknown to science and Edwin eventually proved it was a new species. He gave it the scientific name Carbonemys cofrinii (literally “fresh-water turtle in coal, named after Dr. David Cofrin” – Cofrin funded Edwin’s expedition). Although there was nothing to link the shell and the skull together directly, and because no other skulls have been found in the vicinity, it is assumed that they belong to the same animal.

The Cerrejón mine has revealed other examples of giant fossils. Why did Titanoboa and Carbonemys grow so big? The mine used to be a hot swampy environment, hotter than any jungle today, and palaeontologists believe this may have been the reason. Cold-blooded reptiles need heat to enable them to move. The bigger the animal the more heat it requires, so in the hot swamp the reptiles were able to evolve into bigger species.

The illustration below gives a better idea of the relative size of these giant reptiles compared to a human, Edwin Cadena himself. (The reptile silhouettes are representative of a snake and turtle and are not actual silhouettes of the species named).

Tuesday 27 January 2015

Queer Achievement : Gottfried von Cramm

[Achievement – the name given in heraldry to the full pictorial representation of a coat of arms.

Generally, today’s Holocaust Memorial Day is about remembering the Jewish victims of Nazi Germany. As we now know there were other groups of society who were persecuted. Several days ago I wrote about Otto Rahn, a historian who was forced to serve as a guard in Dachau concentration camp when his own homosexuality was suspected. It’s a subject I’ll return to in the next “Around the World in 80 Gays” article, when I’ll write about the persecution of German gay athlete. As a kind of prelude to that this article features another German gay sportsman who was persecuted because of his sexuality – Baron Gottfried von Cramm (1909-1976).

Before I look at his coat of arms lets learn a little about his life. Gottfried was one of the world’s top tennis champions. He was ranked number 1 in the world in 1937, he was Wimbledon finalist for three consecutive years (losing twice to Fred Perry, and once to Don Budge), and his 1937 Davis Cup match against Budge is considered as the greatest in tennis history.

Throughout his playing career Gottfried opposed all attempts by the Nazis to use his typical Aryan looks in their propaganda. Despite being married Gottfried was arrested in 1938 for homosexual activity in an admitted relationship with a gay Jew. He was imprisoned for a year, though because of his hero status among the German people and to avert popular protest he wasn’t sent to a concentration camp like so many others were.

On his early release Gottfried was subjected to anti-German abuse on the international tennis circuit. When World War II broke out he was forced to serve on the Eastern Front. The harsh conditions killed most of his division and he was one of the few who made it back to Germany. He was discharged in 1942 and returned to tennis. He died in a car accident near Cairo in 1976.

The von Cramm family is one of the oldest in Germany. Their origins are shrouded in the mists of history and the first reliable records of the family appear in the 12th century as a knightly family in Saxony. Throughout the centuries the family married heiresses of other dynasties and added their coat of arms to their own. This was common in Germany, so that by the 19th century some German noble families had dozens of coats of arms on their shield. Even if there were a hundred of arms on one shield they were all called quarters. To avoid unnecessary complications I have painted only the von Cramm arms in Gottfried’s achievement shown here.
The symbolism of the fleur-de-lys, as also seen in its most famous example in the arms of the royal Bourbon dynasty of France, goes back to the medieval legends of the Feast of the Annunciation. This is the event in the Bible when the asexual/intersexual Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary to inform her of her divine pregnancy. The early von Cramms were devout Catholics. At another time I may go into Gottfried’s family tree in more detail, but for now all I need to say is that the family later became friends and followers of Martin Luther and turned to Protestantism.

The helmets I’ve used are those assigned to German barons. Even though Gottfried was born with a title, all titles were abolished in Germany in 1919. As with the other nobility and royalty Gottfried’s title became part of his surname. Before 1919 he was Freiherr (German for Baron) Gottfried von Cramm, and after 1919 he was Gottfried Freiherr von Cramm. All coats of arms were also stripped of their noble trappings, so the painting I’ve produced depicts Gottfried’s coat of arms from his birth until 1919. After that the only change would have been different styles of helmet.

The reason I’ve shown two helmets is because the family seems to have had two crests. This is not unusual in German heraldry, and there are examples in the 19th century of depictions of some German nobles who, as well as showing dozens of quarters on the shield, have up to 5 helmets and crests above it. The crests shown are those used by the von Cramms at various periods by various branches of the family. Gottfried would have been entitled to use either. The two stylised eagle’s wings on the left is a common device in German heraldry and may be derived from the coat of arms of the German-based Holy Roman Empire, whose emblem was an eagle. They are coloured in the von Cramm’s livery colours.

It is often stated in biographical accounts of Gottfried’s life that he received the Iron Cross for bravery from the Nazis. I’ve looked in official databases and records and can’t find any record to this. His brother received one, but there’s nothing to show Gottfried did. On reflection, if he did officially receive the Iron Cross it would not really be appropriate to show such an iconic symbol of Nazi power in Gottfried’s coat of arms on this day.

The von Cramms had no motto so I can’t do what I usually do and indicate Gottfried’s sexuality by colouring the back of the motto scroll in rainbow Pride colours. As I’ve done once before in this case I’ve put the colours on the helmet wreaths.

Saturday 24 January 2015

Flower Power : The Talented Mr. Ripley

Back in August, in a previous “Flower Power” article, I wrote about Rupert Barneby. In that article I mentioned his life partner, a fellow botanist called Dwight Ripley. From very early on in their lives they became connected through a mutual love of botany that blossomed into a real love for each other that lasted almost 50 years.

Even though they can be regarded as a couple they had different personalities and interests. But it would be difficult to write an article about one without including the other. I’ll come to Dwight’s particularly botanical talents in a moment, but first I’ll talk about one of his other talents – art.

Dwight’s style of drawing has been described as surrealist. He had studied art at Harrow, the school where he and Rupert met. It wasn’t until the 1930s that Dwight appears to have begun to paint with the intention of exhibiting. His friend Jean Connolly had lots of connections in the New York art scene which was quite vibrant at the time. This appealed to Dwight, and was probably an important factor in his and Rupert’s decision to move to New York in 1943 (the major reason was to study the plants of the American deserts).

Dwight drew Rupert’s portrait while at Harrow, and many years later drew a similar one with Rupert wearing a top hat that turned into a flower pot. This portrait was used on the cover jacket of Douglas Crase’s 2004 joint biography of the couple (pictured below).
Dwight’s first exhibition was in 1946 at a New York gallery owned by another friend Peggy Guggenheim. Indeed, the two had a brief and very open affair. Dwight and Rupert’s relationship was never officially monogamous.

The prospect of future exhibitions there were scotched when Peggy closed the gallery in 1947 and moved to France. Dwight then considered opening his own gallery, or at least financing one, and he met art critic Clement Greenberg. Between them they created the Tibor de Nagy Gallery (65 years ago today). Tibor de Nagy was the co-director of the gallery and sponsor of its first exhibition. Although Dwight had always intended to be a silent backer for the gallery many in the art world were aware of where the money had come from. Dwight was to host his own exhibitions there right up to 1962.

Rupert Barneby was himself an accomplished artist, though his art was mainly scientific – making accurate drawings of the plant specimens he and Dwight found. Dwight’s art was born out of imagination and personal interpretation rather than a pursuit of accuracy.

Another of Dwight’s talents was poetry. He wasn’t a great poet, but he used another of his talents, languages, to write poetry in a variety of languages which ranged from Polish to Catelan. Dwight spoke 15 languages and could read 30 more. He and Rupert both studied modern languages when they were at Oxford University, and Dwight had shown a somewhat precocious talent as a child for Latin.

Which brings me back to Dwight’s “Flower Power”. It was his knowledge of botanical Latin that was part of the attraction between him and Rupert at Harrow. Dwight had designed his own gardens from the age of 8, and he made lists of the plants he wanted to grow, all in their Latin names. So by the time he met Rupert he was as knowledgeable on botanical Latin as any boy his age today might be on their favourite boyband. This knowledge appealed to Rupert for another reason. Rupert was beginning to take an interest in the meanings, use and application of scientific names, or taxonomy (the oldest profession in the Bible, as Adam was given the task of naming the animals and birds).

After university, together, or sometimes Rupert alone, they made trips into the American deserts looking for new plants. Their first success came in 1940 when they discovered the plant now called Aliciella ripleyi. This was the first of six plant species to which Rupert assigned Dwight’s surname. The full list is:
Aliciella ripleyi,
Astrogalus ripleyi,
Cymopterus ripleyi,
Eriogonum ripleyi,
Omphalodes ripleyana, and
Senna ripleyi.
(Rupert’s name was also used by other botanists to name various other plant species.

Dwight Ripley’s legacy and talents affected the world of botany and art long after his death in 1973. Rupert survived him, and they jointly received an award from the American Rock Garden Society for their contribution to the successful cultivation of rock plants. Rupert authorised the publication of Dwight’s journals, and Douglas Crase, the author of their joint biography, has curated exhibitions of Dwight’s drawings.

Wednesday 21 January 2015

Around the World in 80 Gays : Part 2 - A Code

Last Time : (1) Alan Turing features in the 2014 film “The Imitation Game”, based on a biography written by (2) Andrew Hodges, which centres around his code-breaking work at Bletchley Park with (3) Noel Currer-Briggs, a leading authority on the Turin Shroud who followed the theories of Holy Grail historian (4) Otto Rahn.

(4) Otto Rahn (1909-1939) became interested in the Grail legends in his childhood in Germany. Living through the First World War and the economic depression in his country that followed Otto found the Grail a way of escaping from the harshness of inter-war Germany.

It was the medieval romance poem “Parzival” which was the specific spark that lit his interest in the Grail, and like that other German historian before him, Heinrich Schliemann, who went in search of the real Troy behind the myths, Otto went in search of the real Munsalvaesche, the legendary location of the Holy Grail. Otto believed he had found it in Montségur, the monastic retreat of the Cathar sect in the French Pyrenees.

It was Otto who suggested there was a close link between the Cathars and the Knights Templar, a link which had not received common acceptance amongst historians, but it has been fostered by Grail historians and followers of mystic legends ever since.

It wasn’t long before Otto Rahn’s books and research came to the attention of the Nazi party, in particular Heinrich Himmler who was determined to find all the mystic and scared objects known in history and bring them all under the control of the Nazis. These included not only the Holy Grail, but also the Spear of Destiny which pierced Christ’s side as he hanged on the cross, and even parts of the Holy Cross itself. This Nazi quest for mystic sacred objects has been immortalised in films like the Indiana Jones series.

Otto Rahn and (1) Alan Turing can be linked through their personal lives. Both led secret homosexual lives in countries which persecuted gay men. The rise of the Nazi party in Germany saw the enforcement of Paragraph 175, their anti-gay law, which led to many gay men being sent to concentration camps. After Otto’s homosexuality was suspected he was sent to Dachau concentration camp in 1937 as a guard. For a historian this would have been harsh punishment and Otto would have been an eye-witness to the treatment of gay prisoners. Alan Turing underwent physical torture after he admitted his homosexuality and reluctantly agreed to chemical castration. The treatment both men received as homosexuals eventually led to them taking their own lives – Turing by a poisoned apple, and Rahn by pills.

Otto’s theories on the Holy Grail not only helped to keep the magic of the legend alive but it also inspired a fictional account of a Grail quest in one of the most talked-about novels and films of our generation, “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown.

Using another work of fiction, the hoax about the Priory of Sion and a secret society to which many famous people belonged, Dan Brown developed the myth further by introducing (5) Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) into the Grail legend for the first time.

Leonardo was claimed to have been a member of the fictional Priory of Sion, whose sole purpose (according to Dan Brown) was to protect the identity of a fictional descendant of Christ, a descendant known as the Holy Grail. This human Holy Grail was supposed to have been deliberately suppressed by the Church who tried to elimitate her. The public like to believe in conspiracy theories, and so “The Da Vinci Code” became an international best-seller.

Dan Brown used the common belief that Leonardo put codes into his pictures as evidence of this divine bloodline which led him to invent the Da Vinci code – a series of clues and devices which revealed the location of the Holy Grail. However contrived the link between Leonardo and the Grail may be he does link us back to (4) Noel Currer-Briggs, or, more precisely, the Turin Shroud.

Many theories have been put forward to explain the existence of the Shroud. One of the most popular has been that it was created by Leonardo. The fact that Noel Currer-Briggs proved that the Shroud was already in the possession of the Duke of Turin in 1453, when Leonardo was less that 1 year old, hasn’t dampened this theory.

There is another person who links the Holy Grail, “The Da Vinci Code” and the Nazi concentration camps – (6) Sir Ian McKellen (b.1939).

Sir Ian played a Grail historian in the film version of “The Da Vinci Code”. It was his character who explained the theories behind the divine bloodline descendant from Christ. Sir Ian was a big-name star when the film was made. Way back in 1979 he won his first Olivier Award for his role in the world premiere of the play “Bent”. This play dealt with Nazi persecution of gay men and is partly set in Dachau concentration camp where (4) Otto Rahn was forced to do guard duty. As mentioned most recently in my “Twelve Noels of Christmas” series, “Bent” was instrumental in bringing this persecution to the public eye.

There was another gay German called Otto who was a Nazi victim, and he brings the world of sport into our journey around the world in a couple of weeks time. His name was (7) Otto Peltzer (1900-1970).

Sunday 18 January 2015

The Extraordinary Star-Gayzing Life of Bruno

When I was doing research for my series “Around the World in 80 Gays” I came across many names I hadn’t heard before, and of aspects in the lives of lgbt people I hadn’t really known about. One of these was Giordano Filippo Bruno di Nola (1548-1600), more usually known as Giordano Bruno. The more I read about him the more I thought how extraordinary his life was. In particular I was surprised to learn that he suggested a model of the solar system that was more accurate than that suggested by the more famous Copernicus.

What I intend to do today is concentrate on Giordano’s life as a Renaissance scientist, cosmologist and astrologer. I’ll return to him later in the year where another aspect of his extraordinary life will be covered.

First of all, some brief details about his life before he ventured into science.

Giordano was born in Nola in the kingdom of Naples. He entered a monastery at the age of 17 and became a Dominican priest. He had an insatiable curiosity for the newly rediscovered Ancient Greek writings which sparked the Renaissance, as well as other ancient texts which the Catholic Church regarded as heretical. After he was officially excommunicated by both the Catholic and Protestant churches Giordano was summoned to attend an Inquisition, and he fled. Travelling around Europe he wrote books on logic, memory and philosophy. He also wrote a comedy play called “Il Candelaio” (translated as “The Candle-holder”), which was an Italian slang term for a gay man which gay men would recognise today. In 1593 Giordano was captured and sent to Rome for trial for blasphemy and heresy. He was found guilty and executed in 1600.

So what of Giordano Bruno’s science? We should clear up a common misunderstanding in popular belief that the Catholic Church was anti-science. Most science was conducted by churchmen. For instance, the recalculation of the calendar according to the Earth’s orbit around the sun was initiated by Pope Gregory, and it’s the calendar we still use today. It was a Catholic Cardinal, Nicholas of Cusa, who first suggested that the stars and planets were not fixed onto invisible spheres in the sky and that space was infinite. The Church accepted this, but Renaissance scientists didn’t, so you can’t say the Church was any more anti-science than the scientists. And those scientists believed in alchemy and astrology as fact, even Giordano Bruno. No matter how far advanced Giordano’s view of the universe was he still believed in astrology and the influence of celestial bodies in the lives of ordinary people. However, he was no believer in the creation of horoscopes or divination in the prediction of future trends. Where Church and science clashed it was over God’s authority over nature and the universe, not because the Church thought the science was wrong.

Giordano was not put on trial and executed because of his science but because of his views on the uniqueness of Christ. And his views on science were so extraordinarily ahead of the times that not even other scientists believed him (just like science rejected the ideas of continental drift and black holes in the early 20th century).

Now we need to look at how the universe was perceived in Giordano’s time. Nicholas Copernicus’s view was out of date even when Copernicus made it. He believed that the stars were fixed onto an invisible sphere which the Church had abandoned over 100 years earlier. What Copernicus said that was different (but not new) was that the Earth orbited the Sun, not the other way round. Again, it was Renaissance scientists and not just the Church who didn’t believe him.

Giordano Bruno went further than both Nicholas of Cusa and Copernicus. Not only did Giordano believe in an infinite universe but he suggested that each star was like the Sun and may even have planets orbiting them. The Church had no problem with that, but other scientists did. What the Church objected to was his belief in an infinite number of Christs, while the Church preached that the universe only had one Christ. Giordano put it like this (and being a devout Christian he only saw the universe in Christian terms) :-

In an infinite universe with an infinite number of planets orbiting and infinite number of suns there must also be an infinite number of Gardens of Eden. Even if on only half of these planets Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit which led to their fall into sin, as on Earth, half of an infinite number is still infinity. So these infinite fallen, sinful societies would have God sending his son Jesus Christ to save them from their sin. Giordano reasoned that there must be an infinite number of Christs, as he couldn’t believe in one Christ visiting an infinite number of planets. The Church preached that both God and Christ, as one deity, existed in all places at all times. They objected to Giordano’s idea of more than one Christ, but not in an infinite number of planets and extraterrestrial life-forms.

With Giordano’s view of other life on other worlds we can understand why he became a figurehead for various fringe scientific theories, such as UFOs and alien visitations. The more scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has also adopted Giordano as a patron. The SETI League even named an award in his honour which is presented annually to people who have made a significant contribution in SETI.

Very often Giordano Bruno has been seen as a martyr to science and someone who sacrificed his life in the name of science over religion. The fact is that he was no martyr to science. He was executed for his heretical belief in an infinite numbers of Christs, not for his science which the Church accepted. Perhaps he should now be recognised as a pioneer of Christian science.

Thursday 15 January 2015

Heritage Spotlight : London Has The Blues

On my tours of lgbt Nottingham I talk about several well-known people associated with the city. Sometimes I stand near the site of a significant event in that person’s life, whether it’s the car park on the site of the home of the Masquerader or the pub that sits on part of the site where a huge mansion once stood and on about a dozen occasions housed King James I (or “Queen” James) and his court.

Fortunately there are 4 or 5 places on my tour where my task is already half-explained. There are plaques on the walls of buildings which tell my tourists why I stop there. There’s 2 for Lord Byron, 2 for J. M. Barrie and 1 for D. H. Lawrence.

In the UK people often think a dead celebrity has really made his/her mark in the world when they get a blue plaque (similar to the Hollywood Walk of Fame). Strictly speaking these blue plaques only apply to Greater London. Any building where a famous person stayed or lived often gets a plaque. I’m sure you’ve all seen at least one of these if you’ve visited London. Nottingham, by the way, has green plaques. Other cities also have their own but I want to concentrate on the London blue plaques and some people in the lgbt community who have been commemorated with one. There’s no way I can list all of the blue plaques to lgbt people so here’s three of them.

I’ll begin with 34 Tite Street in Chelsea and the plaque to Oscar Wilde. This house was where Oscar lived with the portrait artist Frank Miles from 1880. They weren’t lovers though they were very close. They had met at Oxford, where Frank introduced Oscar to his then boyfriend Lord Ronald Gower. Frank and Oscar asked architect Edward Godwin to design a house on Tite Street for them. The result is the house which bear the blue plaque. Oscar named his new residence Keats House, and it was where Frank’s most scandalous sexual interests were expressed freely. He was very “fond” of under-age girls. One night some policemen arrived at the front door with a warrant for his arrest regarding this. Frank dashed up to the roof and made his escape across the roof-tops of London. Oscar, in the mean time, was waiting until Frank was clear before opening the door to the police. Oscar charmed them into believing that Frank wasn’t in the country at the time and they left. Oscar and Frank had a big row shortly after this (over something else completely) and Oscar stormed out of the house and never spoke to Frank again.

We move to fashionable Fitzrovia next and a tale of a “Woolf in Sheik’s clothing”. Writer Virginia Woolf moved into 29 Fitzroy Square with her brother Adrian in 1907. It was far from being a fashionable area at the time but Virginia and her Bloomsbury Group colleagues soon made it so. Most of the Bloomsbury writer and artists were lgbt and visited Virginia at her Fitzrovia home often. Virginia herself felt uneasy at the late night discussions and closeness to central London though she enjoyed the partying. It was while she was living at 29 Fitzroy Square that Virginia and some friends pulled off one of the most imaginative cons of the 20th century. Dressing up as Arabian sheiks and princes, she and the group travelled down to Weymouth by train and succeeded in persuading Royal Navy officials into giving them a tour of a battleship! They even had a naval band play the national anthem of Zanzibar for them! All through this deception Virginia revelled in the escapade, complete with turban and false beard.

Sometimes the home of a famous person also becomes a museum. This is the case with George Frederic Handel. In 1723 he rented the newly built 25 Brook Street in Mayfair and lived there for the rest of his life. With the Christmas season being celebrated (Christmas actually officially lasts until 2nd February) its appropriate that Handel’s most famous work, that Christmas and Easter favourite “Messiah”, was probably written here as well as many of his other famous works. The location was spacious enough for Handel to hold rehearsals of some of his operas and oratorios, including “Messiah”. After Handel’s death this property went through phases of alteration under various owners. The ground floor was a shop for a time. It was the musicologist Stanley Sadie who suggested the house be turned into a museum in 1959. He formed the Handel House Trust which bought the property and in 2001 opened the museum you can visit today. Its one of the places my brother and I have plans to visit on one of our annual London gallery trips.


Monday 12 January 2015

Out of My Ancient Tree

At the beginning of November my landlord sent out officials to check their properties. Two lovely ladies visited me in my flat, and on their way out one of them noticed my family tree chart on the wall. “Oh, someone’s done their family tree”, she said, “How far back have you gone?”

“How far back have you gone?” That’s usually the first question people ask, even other genealogists. We genealogists often try to out-do each other, reaching the outermost limits of ancestry. There’s nothing new in that. People have been chronicling their ancestry for 3,000 years or more. You only have to read the Bible, with all those people “begatting” all the way back to Adam and Eve. Other faiths and most mythologies produce lineages to their own founding deities. The main reason for this was power. If a person can persuade others that he/she is descended from their head god or deity they can say it is proof of their divine right to rule over others.

A more recent application of this, of a divine lineage which claims supreme authority, comes in “The Da Vinci Code”. True, it’s only fictional, but so many people believe it to be true that it has now become a modern “urban” myth. The idea of Christ having a child and descendants isn’t new. I’ve written before about this silly theory. If any alleged bloodline from Christ existed to the Merovingian royal dynasty in France then most people in Europe, the Americas, North Africa, Middle East and Australasia can claim to be his heir. The Da Vinci Code bloodline was disproved decades before it was even written, and Dan Brown knew it was false.

Back to my wall-chart. Not only does it show my descent from the Merovingian kings through King Alfred the Great of Wessex, but it also shows my very probable descent from a historical person who lived in 350 BC. That man is the Macedonian general Antiokos of Orestes.

Is that possible? According to modern genealogical evidence it is. Scientific DNA testing is adding more evidence. Only last year scientists used DNA testing to prove there are living relatives of the so-called “gay caveman” Ötzi.

It means that I, as well a most of Europe and Asia, have in my DNA material inherited from Antiokos and his son Seleukos, one of Alexander the Great’s top generals and founder of an empire.

Seleukos was a page-boy at the court of King Philip of Macedonia, the usual starting point for any young noble destined for a military career. As a child Seleukos would have known Philip’s son, the future Alexander the Great, who was about the same age.

By 327 BC Seleukos had become commander of the elite infantry troop called the Silvershields. In 334 BC he accompanied Alexander on his campaign in India. When Alexander the Great died his empire was divided up and Seleukos took control of the area that became known as the Seleucid Empire. At its height the empire covered southern Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. Over time parts of the empire were invaded by its neighbours, but the bloodline flowed directly from Seleukos to the succeeding rulers of the old imperial territories.

This ancestry doesn’t give me any divine right to do anything other than display it on my wall. And, as with the Merovingians, it’s an ancestry which most people share. Of the people I’ve covered so far in my “Out Of Their Tree” series so far most of them can be shown to descend from both the Merovingians and Seleukos – Rufus Wainwright, Langston Hughes, Will Young, Sir Noël Coward, Lauren Meece, Alan Turing, Toller Cranston, Clare Balding, Florence Nightingale, Mark Bingham, Virgil Thomson, Peggy Seeger, Lance Bass, Antonio Hoyos y Vinent, Cole Porter, Michael Dillon and Tom Daley. Other descendants I haven’t covered yet include Ellen Degeneres, Divine, Jodie Foster, Rupert Everett, Christopher Isherwood, Francis Bacon and Lawrence of Arabia.

Professional genealogists admit that there are very few probable lines of descent from antiquity. Written records are often scarce. The problem is that some ancestral lines are incomplete and the gaps filled with educated guess-work. For example, the descent from the Merovingians of all those mentioned above comes through an un-named Anglo-Saxon princess. All genealogists know for sure is that she is either a daughter or granddaughter of King Egbert I of Kent. The fact that this princess’s husband was created king of Kent is evidence of her status as an heir to that throne. Because there’s no proof to show to which generation she belongs, this descent is called probable. There’s no doubt about the ultimate line of descent, only the exact route. There are other examples like this throughout genealogy. That’s why I can claim we are all descended from Alexander the Great’s general and not be proved wrong.

It’s a pity I can’t say I’m descended from Alexander the Great himself. I find it very difficult to find any link to his family at all. But I think being descended from his greatest successor is good enough for me.

What about other great lgbt figures in antiquity? Although I can’t honestly claim any descent from any of the Roman Emperors with queer sensibilities such as Hadrian, Elegabalus, Nero, Tiberius, etc., I can claim that we are all cousins of Cleopatra! She has a proven line of descent from Emperor Seleukos.

Thursday 8 January 2015

Around the World in 80 Gays : Part 1 - A Quest

Here we go on our round the world tour of lgbt heritage. As I said in the introduction a few days ago this will be a continuous journey bringing us back to this our starting point. The problem with that is where is our starting point? Where do we start? In a continuous circle of names there is no start, so I have to decide which person will lead off the journey.

I’ve decided to start with someone who is a topical subject at the moment in the UK because of the up-and-coming Oscar and Bafta awards. One of the leading films of late 2014 was “The Imitation Game”, starring Benedict Cumberbatch in a fictionalised life story of the code-breaker (1) Alan Turing (1912-1954).

The film was inspired by one of the first major biographies of Turing that tackled the subject of his homosexuality non-judgementally. That biography was called “Alan Turing: The Enigma” and was written by (2) Dr. Andrew Hodges (b.1949).

Andrew is a mathematician and senior research fellow at the Mathematical Institute. In 1972 he began working with the eminent physicist Roger Penrose (now Sir Roger Penrose) on twistors. I won’t claim to understand twistor mathematics or how it relates to physics and quantum theory, but Andrew has been working on this enigmatic subject for over thirty years.

Speaking of “enigmatic” brings me back to (1) Alan Turing and Andrew’s biography. Andrew learnt about the fate and Turing at about the same time he began working on twistor theory. As a gay man in the 1970s Andrew also played a part in the gay liberation movement. In 1977 Andrew wanted to make the story and tragedy of Turing’s life more widely known, so he began researching for the biography which was published in 1983.

Very few people had heard of (1) Alan Turing before  (2) Andrew Hodges’ biography of him came out, and even fewer people realised what a significant part Turing had played in the World War II and, later, in the development of the computer. This is hardly surprising. All of Turing’s work, and that of everyone else at Bletchley Park, was still top secret in the 1980s. Gradually, through the 80s the work of these Bletchley Park code-breakers was revealed and many of them who were still alive began to speak of their secret wartime careers. To most historians Turing was a mathematician who came up with theories of artificial intelligence and computers. Since the 1980s, and Hodges’ biography, Turing’s work at breaking the Nazi Enigma codes gained recognition.

Also working at Bletchley Park, and responsible for breaking one of the other Nazi codes, was (3) Noel Currer-Briggs (1919-2004), one of my “Twelve Noels of Christmas” last month. Noel later became a genealogist and leading authority on the Turin Shroud. In his book “The Shroud and the Grail” (1987) Noel wrote about his research into the period between 1204 and 1353 when the Holy Grail and the Turin Shroud were “lost”, disappearing from written records after the sacking of Constantinople by the Crusaders.

Using his code-breaking mind Noel followed a whole series of clues and believed that, if it existed, the Grail passed through several families until it came into the possession of a Christian sect called the Cathars in the 14th century. From that point the Grail disappears from history all together.

The Shroud, however, was taken to Greece and passed into the family of one of the last Templar Knights. Noel looked at the genealogical descent of this family back to Crusaders who sacked Constantinople in 1204. That family gave the Shroud to the Duke of Milan in Turin, and it has remained there ever since.

(3) Noel Currer-Briggs admitted that his theories were mostly circumstantial, but he believed the Shroud and the Grail were once inextricably linked. Unlike the Shroud, the Holy Grail had long been the subject of medieval romance poetry. Unlike the Grail, the Shroud was a proven historical object, regardless of who and why is was created.

During his research Noel followed most of the theories on the Holy Grail put forward before World War II by a German historian who said that the link between the Grail and the Templars came through one of the earliest medieval romance poems. A Templar knight called Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote a poem called “Parzival” in which the Grail featured. Wolfram located the Grail in the mystical mountain retreat called Munsalvaesche. Noel agreed that this was very probably the very real Montségur, a retreat of the Cathars. There’s no actual connection between the Templars and the Cathars, but a modern novelist has helped to confuse the two in the popular mind.

“Parzival” was the poem which first inspired that German Grail historian to pursue his quest. His name was (4) Otto Rahn, and I’ll begin Part 2 of “Around the World in 80 Gays” with Otto Rahn.

Tuesday 6 January 2015

Epiphany's Night Visitors

As a supplement to one of my themes for 2014 (music) it seems appropriate on this Feast of the Epiphany to look at an opera which features this event which Christians celebrate each year. That is the arrival of the Three Kings to the Nativity.

“Amahl and the Night Visitors” is one of those seasonal favourites that is broadcast every year somewhere around the world. From its origins as a written-for-television opera it has joined the ranks of “A Christmas Carol”, “White Christmas” and “The Messiah” as a seasonal essential.

Its origin and subject matter was highly influenced by the childhood of its gay composer, Italian-born Gian Carlo Menotti.

The plot of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” is perfect in its simplicity. The Three Kings arrive at the home of a disabled boy called Amahl and his mother on their way to the Nativity. Amahl’s mother tries to steal some of their gold. The kings forgive her and she gives back to gold. Amahl and his mother wish they could send a gift to the Christ child. When Amahl offers one of his crutches his lameness miraculously vanished. He then accompanies the kings on their journey to the Nativity.

“Amahl and the Night Visitors” was the first opera written specifically for television. The NBC network in America wanted to put more opera on the small screen so commissioned Menotti to write and opera for their Christmas schedule of 1951.

This wasn’t NBC’s first approach to Menotti. In 1939 they commissioned him to write an opera for radio. The result was “The Old Maid and the Thief”.

It took Menotti a while to come up with an idea. He had the notion of it being an opera for children and it was his won childhood which provided the inspiration.

Growing up in Italy Menotti’s childhood Christmases were devoid of that one thing that the British/American public take for granted – Father Christmas or Santa Claus. Not every country has Santa as a gift-bringer, if it even has Santa at all. In Italy, and several other Mediterranean countries, the Christmas gift-bringers are the Three Kings, and they bring them on this night, not Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, globalisation is depriving the world of its rich variety, as Italy is one of those countries where Santa is gradually taking over the gift-bringing duties.

Menotti was wandering through the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art with less than 2 months to come up with a complete opera. Pausing in front of a painting by Heironymus Bosch called “The Adoration of the Magi” all those happy memories of the Italian tradition of the Three Kings flooded back and he realised he had found the subject for his opera.

From the way he described it himself it sounds like one of those moments you see in cartoons when a light bulbs flash above characters heads when they get an idea. For several years Menotti had lived in the US and had become so used to Santa Claus that his memories of the Three Kings were in danger of being consigned to the furthest corner of his memory. So thank God for Heironymus Bosch!

Once he had got his subject Menotti set to work. From the very start he wanted to write the part of Amahl for a boy. Quite often in opera a boys’ character is portrayed by a female singer, but Menotti was adamant that Amahl should always be sung by a boy. Perhaps that is one of the elements that has made the opera so special.

With the NBC’s deadline rapidly approaching Menotti completes his opera with only a few days before it was due to be broadcast on Christmas Eve 1951. Menotti’s life partner, the fellow composer Samuel Barber, was roped in to do the final orchestrations.

The premiere of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” was broadcast across the US in the biggest multi-network hook-up for an opera on television. It proved an instant success, with an estimated 5 million people seeing it, again the biggest for an opera on television up until then. Its popularity ensured a repeat performance the following year. In these modern days when we re used to programmes being repeated ad nauseum in the same week, this must have made “Amahl and the Night Visitors” feel very special.

Saturday 3 January 2015

Around the World in 80 Gays : Introduction

Way back in 2012 I mentioned that one of my most favourite television series of all time is James Burke’s “Connections” and all its spin-offs.

I’ve been gathering together many connections between people I’ve written about and have found links with many others. With this in mind I’ve created a huge string of lgbt connections and present it to you in a new series called “Around the World in 80 Gays”. I use the word “gay” in this context to be inclusive of all lgbtq communities, and because it provides an obvious pun on the title of Jules Verne’s famous book “Around the World in 80 Days”.

As the title suggests I’ve gathered the names of 80 people in the lgbt and queer community from all around the world and throughout history to create an unbroken chain on connections.

It would be quite easy to just write about “who knows who” but that would be too simple and too boring. What I’ve looked for are unusual connections which are not obvious or well-known.

The UK’s LGBT History Month in February has no specific theme, as there has been in previous years (i.e. music in 2014, science and technology in 2013, and sport in 2011 and 2012). I’ve used these themes on my blog and covered them throughout those years. With no specific theme for 2015 I’m using “Around the World in 80 Days” as my continuing theme for this year.

There will be several articles each month featuring 2 or 3 lgbt  people who are connected in some way, with one of them leading on to the next article where 2 or 3 more connected people are featured, and so on until we eventually come back to our original person at the end of the year. Each of the “80 Gays” will have a number so that you can keep track of how many I’ve connected along the way.

A few of the people I write about will already have been featured in my blog. Hopefully I can come up with something new to write about them. And I will try to include a many different subjects as I can - art, war, religion, politics, music, literature, science, and anything else that springs forward from the research.

It all sounds a bit complicated but I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it as the year progresses.

As we go “Around the World in 80 Gays” this year we’ll encounter The Three Musketeers, the ruins of Pompeii, the Portuguese Inquisition, and a spy called Fagot.