There are rare things in life that never lose their impact, no matter how many times one experiences them, and for me, these have usually come in the form of a handful of visual experiences. Sometimes, it’s just the sheer majesty and or beauty of a vista that never pales, while at other times it has something to do with the emotional context of the scene, and occasionally, it’s a combination of the two. For instance, due to my lifelong fascination with King Saul, standing at the top of Mount Gilboa in northern Israel, looking out across the Jezreel Valley has been top of my enduring impact chart for the past forty years or more, but lately, running it a close second is our now oft-repeated approach to Gibraltar on the highway from Spain. This latest viewing was the most memorable yet, with the rock adorned by a plume of cloud, blown backwards like a massive shock of silver hair.
Perhaps, in this lunatic, unpredictable world, the sight of the great rock, immoveable and timeless, boldly withstanding all that the elements can throw at it, offers a sense of reassuring permanence which only seems to increase with repetition.
Like one of those ingenuous celebrities at the beginning of an episode of “Who Do You Think You Are”, it turns out that I too have carried a deeply ingrained misconception concerning my ancestry. In my case, while I knew that my maternal grandmother’s family were Litvak, I had always believed them to be Latvian Litvak, probably hailing from Riga. But then, a few months ago I published a post on my grandmother’s brother, the violinist Sidney Marcus, and that sparked off a chain of communications and discovery which revealed my quarter Litvak self in fact hails not from Riga in Latvia, but from Kaunas (Kovno) in Lithuania.
While, in and of itself, this is of no great interest to anyone except me and my close family, the story of how I was disabused of my misconception, and by whom, is truly surprising and worthy of repeating here…
As happenstance would have it, one morning, about two weeks after I published my post on Uncle Sid, making mention of his prowess on the musical saw (in addition to the violin – he was first violin of the orchestra at Covent Garden in the late 70’s/early 80’s), I was listening to Georgia Mann’s “Essential Classics” show on (BBC) Radio 3, when she played an old recording of someone playing the musical saw. The recordings had been sent to her by the composerRon Geesin (famous for everything; from his work with Pink Floyd on the album Atom Heart Mother; his movie and TV scores, including for Sunday, Bloody Sunday; and a vast, eclectic and innovative body of work; plus being probably the world’s foremost authority and best selling author on the adjustable spanner!). Both Georgia Mann and Ron Geesin wondered if anyone listening might know the identity of the mysterious saw maestro, and even as I was listening to the piece, it occurred to me that it was almost certainly Sid. Thus, I immediately emailed Georgia, who then put me in touch with Ron, who after further research, using additional leads I was able to provide him with, confirmed that the eerie sounds on that old recording were indeed being produced by my late great uncle. Subsequently, I am the proud owner of all six Parlophone sides (of Sid), nicely restored digitally by Ron.
In addition to being an all round mensch and hugely gifted, Ron happens to have a voracious interest in musicology and music-related history; and wanting to learn more about Sid and his life and career, he turned up some revelatory facts about that branch of my family – including the fact that they originated from Kovno and not Riga.
Funnily enough, I have never been to Riga, but in 2009 I did visit Kovno (or Kaunas as it more commonly known today) and although I found it interesting and highly photogenic (see below), I was oblivious of the city’s relevance to my ancestry. Had I been aware, imagine how I might have felt when at the hotel in Kovno, I was confronted with chopped liver as part of the breakfast buffet – chopped liver that looked and tasted exactly like that which my grandmother Becky (Sid’s sister) used to make every Friday for our Shabbat dinner. Now I know why!
I first saw the film, The 300 Spartans when I was seven-years-old, and (as I’ve mentioned before on this site) it determined the future course of my life, both as an artist, and an amateur scholar of ancient history. So fascinated by the story of Leonidas, one of the first books I bought was the Penguin Classics edition of Herodotus’ Histories , which in turn opened up to me the historical context of not only of the Battle of Thermopylae itself, but the whole concept of the sadly eternal battle between freedom and tyranny.
This is written with the presumption that all of those reading it are aware of the basic story of the battle (even as depicted in the more recent and bizarre movie, 300) and the fact that although Leonidas and his tiny army were overwhelmed, their heroism inspired Greece onward to eventual victory over the invading Persian empire. With the passing of time, the stand of the 300 at Thermopylae became a metaphor for freedom defying tyranny, so poignantly exemplified in the stark words of Simonides’ epitaph to the fallen Spartans; “O stranger, go tell the Lacedaemonians that we lie here, obedient to their words…”
Bearing in mind numerous powerful caveats; including that a) most of our free “western societies” today are hardly comparable with ancient Sparta (or any of the other Greek states), and that b) Xerxes had no nuclear option to fall back when his invasion plans went awry, the lesson of Thermopylae has rarely seemed more instructive.
The big question remains however, if Kiev is a modern-day Thermopylae is the West prepared for a Salamis and a Platea?