Inspirational AF: Akala

I went to see Akala speak about two weeks ago, having long admired him from afar. He spoke and answered questions on ‘Is Britain Having an Identity Crisis?’ for two hours with an mind-boggling level of eloquence and thoughtfulness, at the same time as being incredibly relatable and human.

You don’t need to watch all the above, but watch at least a little to get a sense of Akala’s level of knowledge – and to learn something new about Britain’s history and politics.

Also, a bonus vid below – Akala is also a legend because he loves Shakespeare. See below for his amazing rap paying tribute to the Bard. I always love a Shakespeare-lover.

#tbt The History of Nutella

Did you know Nutella was originally developed as part of Italian rationing during WW2? That’s right, while us Brits had powdered banana and potato peel pie, and the Germans were literally eating people in some cases (shudders), the poor Italians were forced to eat Nutella. It’s a tough life for some.

Hazelnutty-chocolatey goodness was initially known to hungry Italians as “Pasta Gianduja”. Created in 1946 by baker Pietro Ferrero, it was developed as a way of making up for the shortage of cocoa (thanks to rationing), using the hazelnuts which grow in abundance in the northwest of Italy – Alba, Piedmont to be precise – where Ferrero’s bakery was located. Hazelnuts bulked up the limited chocolate supply.

At first, Nutella wasn’t even in the form we know and love today. It was sold in solid blocks, which one could eat a la a chocolate bar, or lay on top of bread etc. It wasn’t until 1951 that Ferrero began selling a creamy version of “Pasta Gianduja”, which he named “Supercrema”. By 1963, Pietro’s son Michele decided to revamp “Supercrema” in order to market it throughout Europe. The composition was modified again, and it needed a new name: Nutella. The first jar left Alba on 20th April 1964, and was instantly a huge success (the product, not just that one first jar). In fact, as of 2017, you can find Ferrero products in 160 countries! There is even a World Nutella Day on February 5: a day well worth remembering.

So next time someone criticises you for having Nutella on your toast (or eating it straight out of the jar, I see you), just tell them it actually counts as rationing…

#tbt: Dorothy Gibson

An ex-Nazi sympathiser who survived the Titanic, made a film about it, was arrested in Italy as an anti-Fascist agitator, and who was also a pioneering silent movie actress, Dorothy Gibson was the definition of living your best life.

Born today in 1889, in New Jersey, by the age of 20 she began modelling for Harrison Fisher, a famous commercial artist. 220px-Dorothy_by_fisherDorothy soon became Fisher’s favourite muse, and her image was seen regularly on postcards, merchandising products and even on the covers of magazines like Cosmopolitan.

As early as 1911, Dorothy began appearing in movies, starting out as an extra but soon taking the leading roles in a series of films by Éclair Studios. Praised for her natural acting style and comedic flair, she was a huge hit – and arguably the first actress to be promoted as a star in her own right.With contemporary Mary Pickford, Dorothy was the highest paid movie actress in the world at the time of her premature retirement in May 1912, from which time on she focused on her choral career.

The thing she’s most known for today, however, is nothing to do with her talents. On her way back from a holiday with her mother (Pauline) in Italy, Gibson became part of one the most famous events of the twentieth century. As Dorothy and Pauline played bridge in the lounge, their ship, the Titanic, crashed into an iceberg. Along with two of their game partners, they escaped into the first lifeboat launched (Lifeboat #7). After arriving back in New York, Dorothy’s manager persuaded her to appear in a film based on the scenario: the first ever film based on the disaster. Saved From the Titanic came out just one month later. Dorothy starred as herself, and also wrote the scenario, appearing in the same clothes she had actually been wearing on the night of the sinking.

Although Saved From the Titanic was a tremendous success in America, Britain, and France the only known prints were destroyed in a 1914 fire at the Eclair Studios in New Jersey. The loss of the motion picture is considered by film historians to be one of the greatest of the silent era.

But that’s not all…

Like any great actress of that era, naturally Dorothy had her share of salacious backstory, aside from any ship-based disasters. Between 1911-17, Dorothy embarked on a love affair with the married movie tycoon Jules Brulatour (co-founder of Universal Pictures). Brulatour was an advisor and producer for Dorothy’s main film company, Eclair, and backed several of her films, including Saved From the Titanic.

In 1913, while driving in New York, Dorothy struck and killed a pedestrian. So far, so irrelevant, right? But Dorothy was driving Brulatour’s car at the time (serious Great Gatsby vibes). In the court case that followed, then, it was revealed in the press that she was his mistress. Brulatour was actually already separated from his wife. Nonetheless, the humiliation of the scandal made her sue him for divorce, finalised in 1915. Dorothy and Brulatour then married, in 1917,  his fame and political power forcing him into legitimizing his relationship with Dorothy.

Two years later, the marriage’s legal status was challenged, and eventually dissolved as an invalid contract. Dorothy then left NYC for Paris to escape gossip and start a new life.

Fighting Fascism

By the time WW2 started, Dorothy and her mother were in Florence. The reasons for them staying there are hazy… Dorothy claimed it was because they were scared of the journey back to America after the whole Titanic incident. Others claim they stayed there willingly because they were Nazi sympathisers, and potentially even Fascist intelligence operatives!

However, by 1944 Dorothy had renounced her involvement, and was even arrested as an anti-Fascist agitator and jailed in a Nazi prison! She was sent to the Milan prison of San Vittore, from which she then escaped with two other prisoners, journalist Indro Montanelli and General Bartolo Zambon. The trio was aided through the intervention of Cardinal Ildefonso Schuster, Archbishop of Milan, and by a young chaplain of the Milanese resistance group Fiamme Verdi, Father Giovanni Barbareschi.

Living in France, in 1946, Dorothy died of a heart attack in her apartment at the Hôtel Ritz Paris at the age of 56. Gibson’s estate was divided between her lover, with the spectacularly Latin name of Emilio Antonio Ramos, and her mother.

In the fifteen years between the death of Dorothy and herself, Pauline grew increasingly vocal about her criticism of the Allies and her support for the Nazis – we’re still unsure whether Dorothy echoed or challenged these sympathies.

So: Model Muse, Silent Movie Star, Titanic Survivor, Mogul Mistress, Nazi Spy, Anti-Fascist Agitator, Prison Camp Escapee. Dorothy Gibbons’s life was legendary.




#tbt The Astor Place Riot

When I say crowd riot, you might think of political protests, student revolution, football hooligans, eager fans. Theatre does not leap automatically to mind. Yet the 10th May 1849, 169 years ago today, saw a deadly riot break out at the Astor Opera House in Manhattan, NYC, killing at least 25 and injuring over 120: the infamous Astor Place Riot. And what provoked this awful event (and the largest number of civilian casualties due to military action in the United States since the American Revolutionary War)? A fight between two actors over who performed Shakespeare better. Talk about divas…

In fact, theatre riots were not an unusual occurrence in the early nineteenth century. Theatre was entertainment for the masses. Actors, and particularly the superstar actor-managers like our protagonists Edwin Forrest and William Charles Macready had legions of hardcore fans ready to defend them on a word (think the Cumberbitches/Directioners on steroids). ea3b8711772038b4ae14fe3220885461--america--break-outs

This came to a head when the Astor Place Opera House invited acclaimed British tragedian Macready to perform Macbeth during his US tour. This pissed the patrons of the Bowery Theater right off, as they were champions of American actor Forrest. Forrest had recently returned from a disappointing European tour where he’d been hissed and booed in London by Macready’s fans. In retaliation, Forrest embarked on a tour of the same cities Macready was playing, doing a rival version of Macbeth. Thus, when Macready was scheduled to appear at the Astor Place Opera House, the Bowery Theater downtown would mount Forrest’s production of Macbeth. As any Shakespeare fan knows, two Scottish plays in one city can surely never lead to good things.

However, this was not simply a fight about Shakespeare. It was rooted in much deeper conflicts; class, nationality, values. Astor Place was seen as a venue for the upper class; the Bowery Theater was not. The pretensions of the Astor Place moneyed patrons had become offensive to an emerging street culture embodied by “B’hoys,” or “Bowery Boys.” Macready and Forrest therefore came to represent upper-class New Yorkers versus lower-class, English versus American values.

On May 7th, things started badly. Macready walked onstage to be greeted by boos, hisses, and pelted rotten eggs and old boots. The performance had to be cancelled. Macready refused to perform for the next two days. It was only on May 10th that he agreed to continue – bravely ignoring, or blissfully unaware, that the Bowery Boys had stuck up posters around the city demanding action from its citizens: SHALL AMERICANS OR ENGLISH RULE THIS CITY?


By the time the performance began a crowd of ten to twenty thousand people surrounded Astor Place, pelting it with bricks and paving stones. New York’s elite militia, the Seventh Regiment, was called in to quell the riot—the first time a military unit had been asked to do so in peacetime. When the crowd did not disburse, the soldiers were given the order to fire. Eighteen died that day, although more would die from their injuries over the next few days. The militia’s actions were widely praised by the city’s elite.

More than just a riot, we can even see this event as creating the stigma around Shakespeare that we see today. The idea that Shakespeare somehow belongs to the elite could come from, or have been furthered by this event and its fall-out. According to Nigel Cliff in The Shakespeare Riots, these riots furthered the process of class alienation and segregation in New York City and America; as part of that process, the entertainment world separated into “respectable” and “working-class” orbits. As professional actors gravitated to respectable theaters and vaudeville houses responded by mounting skits on “serious” Shakespeare, Shakespeare was gradually removed from popular culture into a new category of highbrow entertainment.





“There is history in all men’s lives…”

Henry IV, Act 3, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

To be honest with you, I am absolutely sick of history at the moment, as I’m writing my Irish coursework.

    sad times gif

I know, poor me, right? So I thought I’d do a post on some actually interesting history books to raise my spirits on this icily bitter day.

The most relevant book to my titular quote is ‘The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared’ by Jonas Jonasson, in which the hundred-year-old man Allan Karlsson (it’s set in Sweden, if you haven’t guessed already) decides he’s had enough of sitting in an old people’s home, climbs out of a window and disappears. No kidding right? 😉 images Yeah, the title does kind of give the basic plot away… But I promise you, it’s a little more interesting than that. The action switches between Allan’s improbable adventures and the weird people he meets after escaping from the home and Allan’s past improbable adventures over his hundred years – and I mean improbable. As in he just casually rubs shoulders with General Franco, Stalin, and President Truman; just as casually invents the atom bomb and gives it to both the Soviets and the Americans; and then equally nonchalantly gets caught up in a criminal organization and an international drug deal. Told you it gets more interesting. The beginning is a little slow (plus the mean head of the home is called ‘Director Alice’. Not cool. All Alices are amazing – it’s a well-known fact), but the pace picks up reasonably quickly, and it’s very easy to get caught up in this crazy world. Another plus point is how much history you end up incidentally learning from all the different events Allan plays a part in; I learnt more about the Korean War in a chapter than I did in all of GCSE History! Overall, a fun and easy to read book, though not amazingly written in terms of evocative description, powerful imagery or deep, meaningful message (except, I guess, take life as it comes and don’t worry about the consequences. And don’t be political.)

This completely contrasts to ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.


Again, the title here kind of gives away the main premise of the story. Ivan Denisovich, otherwise known as Shukhov, lives in a Russian work camp, so I thought originally this was going to be a depressing read, reiterating the usual statistics and death tolls that many other books do. But the day is just a normal, ‘almost a happy day’ in his life and the real skill comes at the end, when you fully realise that you have been thinking of two slices of bread as a lot, a cigarette as a treat and not getting put in the cells as luck. Although there is naturally a dark, cold undertone to the whole story, it’s really only at the end, during the last lines, that you remember the huge scale of this:

“There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail.
The three extra days were for leap years.”

Although you get used to the fact that he might have to deal with this inhumanity for one day, the idea that this same process, the same uncertainty of never knowing if you’re going to get fed, get warm or get punished could be repeated over and over again for ten years is just horrific. A pretty impressive book all in all that really makes you think. Just as good as Jonasson’s novel, with a similar theme, but with an entirely different take on this idea of ordinary people’s lives in history.

Finishing with a more obviously ‘history’ book: ‘The Coming of the Third Reich’ by Richard Evans, I’m going to be honest here. I’m primarily an English student, not a History student, and this book was. a. struggle.100_2149 By about half way through I was ready to give up – all the interesting information really came at the end of the book, but by that point I was so sick of it, I didn’t really care. If you’re into your history or studying the Nazis, then this is probably a good book to read, but for God’s sake use the index. Unless you’re a history boff don’t bother reading the whole thing; it wasn’t even worth the sense of achievement I got from having finished it. Go see Evans in person instead – I just went to see him with my school at a history conference, and he’s a pretty good lecturer (as well as a surprisingly good singer; he sang “Hitler – he’s only got one ball” to a packed hall of teenagers – now that’s brave). So yeah. Kudos to Evans for writing the book, it’s packed with information, but unfortunately no fun to read, unlike the other two.

As usual, thanks for reading! Please comment with any suggestions you have to make Irish history fun – I seriously need some diversion right now. I’ve just finished Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ which I lurve so I’ll be posting about that next time, and I got some ‘Bookshop Bounty’ yesterday (no idea if that’s a thing, but ohmygod alliteration), so I’ll try and read those books speedily (yep, procrastination, I know). Thanks again 🙂