Saturday, 30 January 2021

URSA MAJOR DANCES: A POEM

Lockdowns appear to induce looking back. I wrote this poem in August and September of 1978, and it was published forty years ago in my first small collection, Winter Lovers, by Bran's Head Press in Somerset, 1981. I was reminded of it by a letter I received recently, saying it was a shame I had not pursued my poetry. I never gave it up, of course, and I have been recently trying to see if it has given up on me, but in memory of those optimistic days, here it is. It was one of the two poems in Winter Lovers not previously published in magazines. With one very small change from the original...

 

URSA MAJOR DANCES


she spins

beneath

stars


looks up

about to

be-


come a

dream, bear

soft


shoes a-

cross

night


sky dark

as fur

light

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

HENRY AARON: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Henry Aaron is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I wrote it, although my preferred first reference for him would be Henry, not Hank. I wrote it some time ago, then revised it briefly, trying to explain in more detail the civil rights situation in Atlanta and how important Aaron was there--I would have liked to have spent more time on the exact nature of the abuse he received while chasing Babe Ruth's record, and I probably should have mentioned that the response of the crowd at Fulton County Stadium when he did was a standing ovation. RIP Hammerin Hank. 

Lots of people, including me, mentioned Aaron's consistency. I noted in the obit that he benefited from the Braves moving from County Stadium in Milwaukee, which was a tough home run park for righties, to Fulton County Stadium "The Launching Pad" in Atlanta. According to baseball historican Bill James, Joe Adcock, who was Aaron's teammate for nine years, hit more homers per at bat than Aaron, and lost more homers to his ballpark than anyone in history other than Joe DiMaggio and Goose Goslin. Eddie Matthews, who batted left, holds the HR record for the Milwaukee part of the Braves years. Of course the other big change came in 1969, after Carl Yastrzemski staged a late season surge to win the AL batting title with a meagre .301, when the mound was lowered and strike zone shrunk, to, in James' words, stop Bob Gibson from pitching 32 shutouts a year. This came in a comment about Eddie Collins, another all-time great with a long career whose stats look better as he got older. But by James' 'Win Shares' method, he pointed out each was actually most effective in his late 20s. They didn't become  'better' players as they aged, but circumstances became more favourable for them and they were still great enough to take advantage of that.

Just this morning I read in an NFL column by Peter King a fantastic story; it wouldn't have made this obituary, but I can share it here: Aaron was a lifelong Cleveland Browns fan. He was originally drawn to the Browns (there were no NFL teams in the South when he was young, and the Miami team in the AAFC (in which the Browns played) was short-lived. It was also segregated, and the Browns left their black players at home when they travelled to Miami in 1946. But the presence of black stars like Bill Willis and Marion Motley made them young Aaron's favourite team when they joined the NFL in 1950. They were dismissed by NFL partisans, yet they beat the defending NFL champion Eagles in theur very first game, and won the league title at the end of the season. Aaron had liked them as underdog heroes, with black stars alongside greats like Otto Graham and Dante Lavelli, and he was hooked.

As an adult, Aaron would buy a single ticket in the "Dawg Pound" end zone section, fly up from Atlanta incognito, and cheer anonymously among the Browns' most fervent fans. But in 1986, when he took a trip to watch the team in preseason, Browns GM Ernie Accorsi, a big baseball fan, recognised him. He went up and introduced himself and Aaron said "I know you you are. It's an honor to meet you." The became friends, but although Accorsi offered him better seats gratis, or a view from a box, Aaron preferred to stay in the Pound. "I didn't throw bones or do crazy stuff like that," he said, but he felt commfortable studying the game with the most enthralled fans.

I also had to leave out the idea that, had the Giants offered him just a little more money, they could have had both Aaron and Willie Mays in their outfield. Although Mays too had been offered a contract by the Boston Braves, before he signed with New York.

One last point: when Aaron joined the Indianapolis Clowns in 1952, the major leagues were, of course, integrated, but the Negro American League actually continued until 1962. The Clowns are said to have begun in Miami around 1935, though I have a replica hat from the Ethopian Clowns, who barnstormed just after that, which was the team they morphed into before settling in Cincinnati and then Indy. It was my cricket cap when I kept wicket for ABC Sports London cricket club. When Aaron left the team, the Clowns signed a woman, Toni Stone, to play second base. The following year they sold her contract to the Kansas Cith Monarchs, and replaced her with two other women. The Clowns continued to barnstorm as entertainers after the NAL folded, and finally gave up themselves in 1989.

Sunday, 24 January 2021

LARRY KING NOT LIVE: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Larry King is up at The Guardian online, you can link to it here. It should appear in the paper paper soon, probably Monday. King's was a challenging piece to write: I wanted to put the importance of his show on CNN at the centre, what it meant in terms of news coverage--I was a little more direct in my analysis than what is printed, but King's success led to Fox News to follow suit with O'Reilly, Hannity et al ad nauseum, though in their case the motivation was more being able to control the take on news by not "reporting" it than using the interview slot to feature ratings-grabbing celebs. 

The other problem was trying to deal with King's personal life, which was, as I suggest, the stuff of trash TV. The paper left out much of the loonier stuff of his later days, but it occurs to me that, since I have heard from people who worked in the CNN building just how personally friendly and kind King was, that he was just a kid having fun with the gig of his life.

The Simpsons show was the one where Homer eats fugu and is told he has 24 hours to live. After fulfilling his check list of last things to do, he sits in his La-Z-Boy listening to Larry King reading the Old Testament. King finishes the Begats, then gives one of little run downs of things he thinks, like in his USA Today column, as Homer snores. Marg comes down and thinks Homie is gone, only to see the drool coming out of his mouth. Having survived, Homer vows to live each precious day to the fullest.

The show ends with a crunching noise over black. As the camera pulls back it reveals Homer on the couch, eating pork scratchings, watching bowling. RIP Larry King.

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

GEORGIA ON MY MIND: THE NEW SOUTH & THE OLD (MY ARC DIGITAL ESSAY)

 In 1973 I was teaching a short-term course at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, about 80 miles south of the Confederate capital of Richmond. I was staying at a boarding house, and one evening I came back and the lady who ran the house was watching the news. I stood in the doorway for a second, watching a report on the mayoralty race in Atlanta between Maynard Jackson, who would become the city’s first black mayor, and the incumbent, Sam Massell. She saw me there and pointed to the screen. “Will you look at that,” she said. “A big ol’ city like Atlanta, and they can’t even find one white man to run for mayor.” I took the bait. “But Massell’s white,” I said. “He’s not white,” she told me, “he’s a Jew.”

I thought about that moment today when Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff both won, apparently, their US Senate races in Georgia. Warnock became the first black candidate ever to win a statewide race in Georgia, and he spoke movingly of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel, who marched alongside Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr back in the day (if you aren’t aware, Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Ave in Atlanta, where Warnock is the pastor, was King’s church, and his father’s before him).

Back in 1996, after the Olympics had finished and my de-rigging at the Georgia Dome was done, I went to Sweet Auburn, the old heart of Atlanta’s black community, to visit the King Historical Center, across the street from the church. It was amazingly moving, watching that footage of marchers having fire hoses and police dogs set on them, before the police and others moved in to finish the job. I’d seen it on TV, in snippets, when I was a kid, and now the full horror set in again, wrapped in the context of people who were required to put their lives on the line just to achieve the justice and equality they were due as humans.

Afterwards, I went across the street to a luncheonette, sat at the counter and ordered a sandwich. Out the window, I could see the Georgia Dome, just a few miles from where I sat. The counterman brought the sandwich and I said “you must’ve been pretty busy the past few weeks?” He looked puzzled. “What do you mean?” "Well, with the Olympics and all those tourists. No offense, but there isn’t that much touristy in this city, and the King site, well, that’s the best thing I’ve seen. There must’ve been people coming to see it?” The guy looked out the window and pointed toward the downtown. “That was THEIR Olympics,” he said. “They didn’t send nobody here.”

Atlanta may have had black mayors, in fact every one since Jackson, but they didn’t actually run the city, in the same way that Georgia remained a state governed by whites, one that sent white senators to Washington. Gerrymandered congressional and state house districts kept the black vote restricted, as we saw in 2018, when Stacey Abrams ran for governor against the then-Georgia secretary of state Brian Kemp,who aided his own campaign with wholesale purging of the voter lists: 700,000 cancellations in 2017 alone. Abrams lost by 50,000 votes statewide, but rather than challenge the result in the courts, she turned her attentions to voter registration. Combined with the Covid pandemic making remote and absentee voting more acceptable, Georgia went for Biden as well as the two Senators—by narrow margins that might well have been bigger were the state’s minority voters fully enfranchised.

It should be instructive that Kemp, and his secretary of state, have avoided following Trump’s challenges to the election results in Georgia. This does not make them “good guys” in this business of electoral suppression and fraud: they certainly do not want any full-scale examination of Georgia’s voting practices, and by upholding the rule of the law they set the stage to use that as part of their response should they be accused in 2022 or 2024 of abuses of voting rights.

Meanwhile the election of Ossoff, who will become the only member of the US Senate to have played in the British Baseball Federation (where he hit .200) reminds us that, although Atlanta billed itself as “the city too big to hate” that slogan arose from the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman convicted (in all likelihood wrongly) of the murder of a 13 year old girl, when his death sentence for the crime was commuted. He and Warnock entering the Senate together, a rare occurance brought about by Kelly Loeffler’s having been appointed to fill an unexpired term, will be like a symbolic restatement of that bond which used to link the black and Jewish communities, and, symbolically at least, holds out a modicum of hope for the Democrats and their pseudo-majority in the Senate.

I wonder how they took it in Ashland, and around the rest of the Confederacy? A few days later back in 1973, I returned to the boarding house after a night at a bar, and the husband of the lady who watched the news called me in to see some football. “Y’all played football in college up north?” he asked. “Yup.” “Well take a looksee at this,” he said, as Monday Night Football replayed a 100+ yard kickoff return touchdown by Miami’s Mercury Morris. “Jest lookit that thing run!” he exclaimed. I used to tell that story and point out it was then more than 100 years since the Civil War ended, at least on the battlefield. Now I tell it to remind us that this was less than 50 years ago, and there were then, as our president believes there are now, “fine people on both sides”. 

(Note: I wrote this for Arc Digital, a platform available on Medium. Check it out)

TAKING DOWN THE TREE: A CHRISTMAS TALE

I don't much like Twelfth Night. It’s the night I take down the Christmas tree, to avoid the goblins. I know in Britain (and Ireland) many people wait until the next day, the feast of Epiphany, to do that. That’s the day the wise men showed up, acknowledgment of which ruins every Christmas pageant any of us have sat through, but I’ll let that pass. But wish I could bring myself to delay, even if only for a day, taking down the tree; this year I heard someone on the radio arguing that trees could remain up until Candlemas, which is the fortieth day of the Christmas season (2 February).

It has been such a maddening year, full of disappointment and sadness. This year’s holiday season took place in the dreary short days and long nights of December, with lovely sunshine on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but otherwise rain and darkness and the promise of another monumental cock-up by the Government That Couldn’t Shoot Straight which would negate the brief glimpse of Johnson’s sunlit uplands promised by the various coronavirus vaccines.

Certainly I found this year’s tree endearing. It was only five feet tall; I snipped it’s top branch in half, as it had extended about 18 inches all on its own. I wasn’t the perfectly balanced and symmetrical creature I saw in other people’s photos, but it stood straight and it seemed to welcome its ornamentation. It was healthy, held its colour, and dropped precious few needles along the way. On dark mornings I would greet it, turn its lights on, and be cheered immediately. In the evenings, I’d turn it on and play some music, maybe sit on the couch and read or just look at it and feel comforted.

On Monday evening, as if it knew what was in store the next day, I came into the living room and caught a burst of firry fragrance, which filled me with nostalgia for the evergreens of my childhood winters, and with hope. Tuesday morning I greeted the tree as if it were a friend about to go to hospital, and there have been enough of them this year. I took the tinsel off in the afternoon, as if to prepare the tree for what was to come, and prepare myself too. Finally, long after dinner, I put on the Emersons playing Razumofskys, went over and removed the ornaments and lights and packed them away. I loosened the screws in the stand, though this tree had stood on its own, small branches down the roots flexing it into place. I apologised, and pulled it out of the stand, realising it still refused to drop its needles, not even as I squeezed it out the front door.

I wasn’t going to leave my tree outside, for some council van to take along with all the other trees. I carried it off into a nearby woods, and found it a spot where it might be able to return itself to the earth from which it sprang, at its own pace, at least enjoying the world outside my living room for a little while. The dog watched without quite knowing what was going on, but sensed enough not to tug at his lead until I was through doing whatever I was doing as I stood there and turned to lead him away. When we got back, the room looked emptier than usual, and this morning there was no scent, no display of green branches, no lights and baubles and tinsel to welcome me into its new day. Maybe Candlemas has something to say for itself after all. I think this tree could have made it all the way to February had I let it try.

 

Friday, 1 January 2021

BRUCE BOYNTON: MY DAILY TELEGRAPH OBITUARY

My obituary of Bruce Boynton, whose protest of "separate but equal" dining facilities at a Virginia bus station led to a Supreme Court ruling against that apartheid concept, and sparked both lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Riders on buses across the South, appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 21 December. I happened to miss it then, and as it is behind a paywall, I will simply post my original copy here: it was written to a tight word limit and I hope therefore wasn't cut very much.

Had I more space I would have written a bit more about his own practice, especially in Washington, and about the conflicts which are hinted at in accounts of his work in Alabama, particularly in what he felt was a lack of support from the Civil Rights movement and the black community when he broke racial barriers in public service.

I would have also written more about his mother, who outlived three husbands and was an activist all her life. You can find that picture of her in her wheelchair holding hands with President Obama on the Pettus Bridge as easily as one of her beaten body lying on the bridge in 1965. Sadly, it wasn't Bruce pushing her wheelchair on that anniversary day.

But his life story is a reminder that great changes often arise from small hurts, and a decision not to put up with that hurt any longer.

BRUCE BOYNTON: HERO OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT

Bruce Boynton, who has died aged 83, was a key figure in the American civil rights movement, whose protest was as crucial as Rosa Parks’ on the buses of Montgomery, Alabama. His 1960 victory before the US Supreme Court in Boyton v Commonwealth of Virginia sparked five years of protests that eventually led to the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts passed by Congress in 1964 and 1965.

His simple motivation was hunger. In December 1958, Boynton, in his final year of law school in Washington DC, boarded a Trailways bus to return home to Alabama for Christmas. At a stop in Richmond, Virginia, he sat in the whites only section of the terminal’s lunch counter, because the “coloured” area had water on the floor and looked unsanitary. He asked for a cheeseburger and cup of tea, but the waitress returned with her manager. As Boyton described it, “he poked his finger in my face and said ‘N***** move’, and I knew I would not move.” He was arrested for criminal trespass, convicted in state court of violating Virginia’s segregation law, and fined ten dollars. He decided to appeal the conviction.

His case was argued before the Supreme Court by Thurgood Marshall, who would become the first black justice on that court just seven years later. They ruled, on a 7-2 vote, that so-called “separate but equal” facilities violated the constitutional right to equality. Since interstate transport was subject to federal regulation, the Interstate Commerce Commission was required to see states obey federal law. Within a year, “Freedom Riders” were organising bus rides through the South to challenge segregated facilities; future Congressman John Lewis was one of 13 riders on the first bus, and beaten in a rest stop in South Carolina. Another bus was fire-bombed in Anniston, Alabama. Also inspired by Boynton, sit-ins soon took place at lunch counters throughout the South.

Resistance to the American version of apartheid came naturally to Boynton. He was born 19 June 1937 in Selma, Alabama, where his parents Sam and Amelia (nee Platts) were both active in voter registration; Amelia registered to vote in 1932, no mean feat for a woman in a state where huge obstacles faced any black person desiring to exercise their rights. Both parents had attended the Tuskegee Institute and studied under the renowned botanist George Washington Carver, who was Bruce’s godfather and source of his middle name. Bruce was a precocious student, finishing high school at 14 and winning his BA from Fisk University at 18. He would receive his law degree from Howard University at 21.

With his degree, he returned to Alabama, but while the state bar association spent six years ‘investigating’ his conviction for trespass, he moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee where he worked defending sit-in protestors. In 1965, his mother was beaten savagely on America’s Bloody Sunday, at the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, the start of a march on the state capital in Montgomery; photos of her went round the world. In 2015, when President Barack Obama led a march across the bridge on Bloody Sunday’s 50th anniversary, he held hands with Emilia Boynton, then 103 years old, in her wheelchair.

Finally practising in Alabama, Bruce defended notable activists such as Stokley Carmichael, and was himself attacked by a county sheriff and two deputies. He defended one client with a plea of insanity caused by endemic racial abuse. Eventually, Boynton became the state’s first black special prosecutor, investigating a white mayor accused of attacking a black man, and then Alabama’s first black county attorney. Later feeling frustrated by what he felt was a lack of support from the black community, he returned to Washington to practice civil rights law, before coming back to Selma in private practice.

In May 2018, Boynton was honoured in Montgomery, where a courthouse was named after him. He received an award on behalf of the Freedom Riders, presented by Hank Thomas, a former state legislator who was another of the original 13 Freedom Riders and the only living survivor of the Anniston fire-bombing. “I decided to follow you and do what you had done,” Thomas said, “and it damn near killed me”.

Bruce Carter Boyton

born 19 June 1937 Selma, Alabama

died 24 November 2020, Montgomery Alabama

survived by his second wife, Betty and two daughters