The man who rode zebras: Lionel Walter Rothschild

Photo credit Wikipedia

Here’s an extraordinary character, Lionel Walter Rothschildfrom the Nigeness blog a few years back:

Lately I’ve been browsing in the biographies [of The Aurelian Legacy: British Butterflies and Their Collectors] , which is where I found the chap with the zebra cart above – Lionel Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild of Tring, who sounds like a delightfull fellow. Temperamentally unsuited for the normal occupations of the world, he devoted himself entirely to building up the largest collection of animals ever assembled by one man – everything from starfish to gorillas and giant tortoises (144 of them), with butterflies and moths to the number of 100,000 species, with the greatest range of variants ever seen (‘I have no duplicates,’ he declared). As a student at Cambridge, he kept a much-loved flock of kiwis, and kangaroos, ostriches and, of course, zebras roamed free in his grounds at Tring. He once rode a zebra carriage and four through Piccadilly to Buckingham Palace. Such exhibitionism is often a product of shyness, and Rothschild was cripplingly shy. He was also apparently unable to control his voice, which alternated quite unpredictably between a low stammer and a loud bellow. He grew very stout, tipping the scales at 22 stone, his vast 6ft 3in body balanced on tiny feet, giving the effect, when he bowled around his mansion, of (in his niece Miriam’s words) ‘a grand piano on castors’.

Again from Wikipedia, here is Baron Rothschild on a tortoise:


Arthur Benjamin speed calculation video

I’m not an almighty fan of TED talks, which can reek of solutionism and can privilege a certain slick, clickbait-y style of communicating in which sleekly presented ideas drown out less sexy ones. However, there are some highly entertaining and enlightening talks from TED – and here is one from “mathemagician” Arthur Benjamin which definitely falls into the former camp:

For Armistice Day: Franz Marc RIP

For Armistice Day: Franz Marc RIP

It is of course one hundred years exactly since the end of World War I – the “War To End All Wars”, which turned out to be false advertising.

A while back I posted on the death of George Butterworth, an English composer who died during the war. To mark the anniversary of the Armistice, I thought of remembering another artistic figure robbed from humanity on “the other side”; one of my favourite artists, Franz Marc.

Best known for his animal paintings, Marc always struck me as the least martial of men, prone to melancholy and rather at odds in many ways with the ostensible spirit of the times:

Following the lead of his family, Marc studied theology intensely. The family contemplated both the spiritual essence of Christianity and its cultural responsibilities. Marc was sufficiently moved by the background and his confirmation in 1894 that, for the next five years, his goal was to become a priest. But he mingled with his theological studies the Romantic literature of both England and Germany. Finally, near the end of 1898, Marc gave up his goal of becoming a priest to study philosophy at University of Munich. But suddenly, in 1900, the ethical, high-minded youth turned to art. He studied drawing first with Gabriel Hackl and then painting with Wilhelm von Diez, both at the Munich Academy.

Marc’s stiff studio style begins to undergo a transition in subsequent years due to a variety of French influences. A trip to Paris in 1903 initiated an interest in Impressionism. Unfortunately, Marc’s artistic development was accompanied by melancholy and upheavals in his emotional life. His religious outlook was at odds with the Munich youth movement and the city’s burgeoning bohemian atmosphere. He spent summers in the mountains in 1905 and 1906 as well as traveling to Greece in 1906, attempting to recuperate from unhappy love affairs. This period of anxiety came to a tumultuous end when, on his wedding night, following marriage to the painter Marie Schnur, he left for Paris. That summer, in 1907, his marriage was dissolved.

An artist’s work speaks louder than a biography and I recommend clicking on this link  to explore Marc’s paintings yourself. Here are some highlights (have taken images from Wikimedia):

Red Deer, a characteristic animal painting of his maturity:



Tower of Blue Horses (missing since World War II):


The joyous Yellow Cow


The apocalyptic Fate of the Animals, from 1915:

010-franz-marc-theredlistThe enigmatic and pretty much entirely abstract Fighting Forms. On the obverse of a postcard reproduction Marc wrote “… and all being is flaming suffering.”


Rest in Peace Franz Marc, and Rest in Peace all the other victims of the First World War, on all sides.

A family holiday with David Mamet

David Mamet’s reputation seems to have taken a bit of a nosedive in recent years. His “coming out” as an unapologetic free market conservative may have something to do with this. I have always had somewhat mixed feelings about what I have seen of Mamet – which in my case is exclusively cinematic, specifically Glengarry Glen Ross (of course) and State & Main. While both are interesting (no more damning phrase!), and Glengarry Glen Ross is highly powerful in its depiction of a certain kind of desperate male brutality, I must admit to finding both a little too mannered and stylised.


However, one of the things I like about Mamet is the sudden, rather unexpected touches. Indeed, his recent public political conservative leanings mark him out quite starkly from his peers. Aside from this, there always has seemed a strain rather counter to what we expect from “Mamet” the public figure, as opposed to Mamet the actual person.

From a 1994 New York Times profile of David Mamet:

YOU may not think of David Mamet, the prolific author of angrified and angrifying plays and films, as an insecure fellow. But there was a day not so long ago, he says, that in an agonizing fit of self-doubt, he sought out his wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, an actress and singer, and in a sort of desperate way, proclaimed his consuming love for her. What, he asked, could have persuaded her to marry him, save him from himself, miserable wretch that he obviously was?

“She looked at me,” Mr. Mamet says, shifting his mimicry from his own earnest pleading to his wife’s deadpan. “And she said, ‘Well, I don’t know, you seemed like a nice guy.’ ”

It’s a funny story for Mr. Mamet to tell on himself, a twinkly-eyed acknowledgment of his reputation as difficult, thorny and impatient. But then, you might not think of Mr. Mamet, a native Chicagoan, as a homebody either, or as a lover of quietude, isolation and coziness. And that’s what comes across here. The center of his universe is a lonely hilltop farmhouse that he shares with Ms. Pidgeon, his wife of three years, and their tiny daughter, Clara, who was born on Sept. 29.


Mamet’s prose is clear and limpid and one cannot accuse him of obfuscation. Recently I came across a Picador anthology, Worst Journeys from 1991. Edited by Keith Fraser, it has a Canadian tilt. It’s quite a mixed bag, but I enjoyed Mamet’s piece on a family holiday. And like the above NYT profile, it has passages that seem quite un-Mametlike, if all you know of Mamet is Glengarry Glen Ross:

I thought: we are an Urban people, and the Urban solution to most any problem is to do more: to find something new to eat in order to lose weight; to add a sound in order to relax, to upgrade your living arrangements in order to be comfortable, to buy more, to eat more, to do more business. Here, on the island, we had nothing to do. Everything had been taken away but the purely natural.

We got tired as the sun went down, and active when it rose; we were treated to the rhythm of the surf all day; the heat and salt renewed our bodies.

We found that rather than achieving peace by the addition of a new idea (quality time, marital togetherness, responsibility), we naturally removed the noise and distractions of a too-busy life, and so had no need of a new idea. We found that a more basic idea sufficed: the unity of the family.


It seems a little churlish to point out that family whose unity Mamet is extolling is in fact a prior one to the NY Times profile above – and in any case the point about the modern drive to do more and more, even turning doing less into doing more, still stands.

A 8½ mile putt

From “Golf’s Strangest Rounds: Extraordinary but True stories from over a Century of Golf” by Andrew Ward



If a golfer putts a ball 8½ miles (13.7km) in 23 seconds, where is the golfer playing? This may sound like a question from a Golf Studies examination paper but it was one that people were asking in September 1997. The answer was ‘on a Concorde flight from New York to Malaga’. The United States Ryder Cup team were en route to Malaga, preparing to meet the Europeans at Valderrama, when they were challenged by the pilot to break the record for Concorde’s longest putt. The previous best was 100ft (30.5m).

The coaching manual suggests that you putt as slowly as possible and give Concorde the maximum amount of time to travel at 1,330mph (2,140km/h) while the ball is still rolling.

On his second attempt, Brad Faxon rolled a 120ft (36.6m) putt all the way along the centre aisle and into a porcelain tea-cup, which was lying on its side. His ball was travelling for 23 seconds. Therefore the ball must have travelled 8½ miles (plus an extra 40 yards (36.6m) for the length of the putt). You might wonder why the golfers needed some distraction. After all Concorde was only in the air for 3 hours 25 minutes. Nobody knew whether the omens were good or bad for the Ryder Cup. In fact they were not that good for Faxon. He lost two of his three matches and the United States lost by 14½ –13½.