Category Archives: UK

Mathematician to know: Ada Lovelace

What story are you going to tell us today?

Lucky I know lots of stories! 🙂 How about a story about Ada Lovelace?

Ada Lovelace (née Augusta Byron) was given a famous name before she made her own. Her father was Lord Byron, the bad boy of English Romantic poetry, whose epic mood swings could be topped only by his string of scandalous affairs — affairs with women, men, and his half-sister.

True to character, he was hardly an exemplary father. The first words he spoke to his newly born daughter were, “Oh! What an implement of torture have I acquired in you!”

According to the book Lady Byron and Her Daughters by Julia Markus, less than a month after the birth of their daughter, Lord Byron informed his wife of his intention to continue an affair with a stage actress and three days later wrote Lady Byron telling her to find a convenient day to leave their home. “The child will of course accompany you,” he added. Soon after, Lord Byron left England and never saw his daughter again. He died when Ada Lovelace was 8.

However brief their time in each other’s company, Lord Byron was ever-present in Lovelace’s upbringing — as a model of what not to be. Lady Byron, herself a mathematical wiz called “Princess of Parallelograms” by Lord Byron, believed a rigorous course of study rooted in logic and reason would enable her daughter to avoid the romantic ideals and moody nature of her father. From the age of 4, Ada Lovelace was tutored in mathematics and science, an unusual course of study for a woman in 19th century England. When Ada became sick with the measles, she was bedridden, only permitted to rise to a sitting position thirty minutes a day. Any impulsive behaviour was systematically ironed out.

Lady Byron (Anne Isabella Milbanke, 11th Baroness Wentworth)

It may have been a strict upbringing, but Lady Byron did provide her daughter with a solid education — one that would pay off when Lovelace was introduced to the mathematician Charles Babbage. The meeting occurred in the middle of her “season” in London, that time when noblewomen of a certain age were paraded around to attract potential suitors. Babbage was forty-one when he made Lovelace’s acquaintance in 1833. They hit it off. And then he extended the same offer to her that he had to so many: come by to see my Difference Engine.

Ada Byron at 17 (~1932)

Babbage’s Difference Engine was a two-ton, hand-cranked calculator with four thousand separate parts designed to expedite time-consuming mathematical tasks. Lovelace was immediately drawn to the machine and its creator. She would find a way to work with Babbage. She would.

Her first attempt was in the context of education. Lovelace wanted tutoring in math, and in 1839, she asked Babbage to take her on as his student. The two corresponded, but Babbage didn’t bite. He was too busy with his own projects. He was, after all, dreaming up machines capable of streamlining industry, automating manual processes, and freeing up workers tied to mindless tasks.

Lovelace’s mother may have tried to purge her of her father’s influence, but as she reached adulthood, her Byron side started to emerge. Lovelace experienced stretches of depression and then fits of elation. She would fly between frenzied hours of harp practice to the concentrated study of biquadratic equations. Over time, she shook off the behavioural constraints imposed by her mother, and gave herself over to whatever pleased her. All the while, she produced a steady stream of letters. A playfulness emerged. To Babbage, she signed her letters, “Your Fairy”.

Meanwhile, Babbage began spreading the word of his Analytical Engine, another project of his—a programmable beast of a machine, rigged with thousands of stacked and rotating cogwheels. It was just theoretical, but the plans for it were to far exceed the capabilities of any existing calculators, including Babbage’s own Difference Engine. In a series of lectures delivered to an audience of prominent philosophers and scientists in Turin, Italy, Babbage unveiled his visionary idea. He convinced an Italian engineer in attendance to document the talks. In 1842, the resulting article came out in a Swiss journal, published in French.

A decade since their first meeting, Lovelace remained a believer in Babbage’s ideas. With this Swiss publication, she saw her opening to offer support. Babbage’s Analytical Engine deserved a massive audience, and Lovelace knew she could get it in front of more eyeballs by translating the article into English.

Charles Babbage

Lovelace’s next step was her most significant. She took the base text from the article — some eight thousand words — and annotated it, gracefully comparing the Analytical Engine to its antecedents and explaining its place in the future. If other machines could calculate, reflecting the intelligence of their owners, the Analytical Engine would amplify its owner’s knowledge, able to store data and programs that could process it. Lovelace pointed out that getting the most out of the Analytical Engine meant designing instructions tailored to the owner’s interests. Programming the thing would go a long way. She also saw the possibility for it to process more than numbers, suggesting “the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”

Reining in easily excitable imaginations, Lovelace also explained the Engine’s limitations (“It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths”) and illustrated its strengths (“the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves”).

The most extraordinary of her annotations was Lovelace’s so-called Note G. In it, she explained how a punch-card-based algorithm could return a scrolling sequence of special rational numbers, called Bernoulli numbers. Lovelace’s explanation of how to tell the machine to return Bernoulli numbers is considered the world’s first computer program. What began as a simple translation, as one Babbage scholar points out, became “the most important paper in the history of digital computing before modern times.”

Babbage corresponded with Lovelace throughout the annotation process. Lovelace sent Babbage her commentary for feedback, and where she needed help and clarification, he offered it. Scholars differ on the degree of influence they believe Babbage had on Lovelace’s notes. Some believe that his mind was behind her words. Others, like journalist Suw Charman-Anderson, call her “[not] the first woman [computer programmer]. The first person.”

Ada Lovelace

Lovelace guarded her work, and sometimes fiercely. To one of Babbage’s edits, she replied firmly, “I am much annoyed at your having altered my Note… I cannot endure another person to meddle with my sentences.” She also possessed a strong confidence in the range of her own abilities. In one letter, she confided, “That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal… Before ten years are out, the Devil’s in it if I haven’t sucked out some of the lifeblood from the mysteries of the universe, in a way that no purely mortal lips or brains could do.”

For what it’s worth, Babbage himself was effusive about her contributions. “All this was impossible for you to know by intuition and the more I read your notes the more surprised I am at them and regret not having earlier explored so rich a vein of the noblest metal.”

Lovelace’s ideas about computing were so far ahead of their time that it took nearly a century for technology to catch up. While Lovelace’s notes on Babbage’s analytical engine gained little attention at the time they were originally published in 1843, they found a much wider audience when republished in B.V. Bowden’s 1953 book Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines. As the field of computer science dawned in the 1950s, Lovelace gained a new following in the digital age.

During the 1970s the US Department of Defense developed a high-order computer programming language to supersede the hundreds of different ones then in use by the military. When US Navy Commander Jack Cooper suggested naming the new language “Ada” in honour of Lovelace in 1979, the proposal was unanimously approved. Ada is still used around the world today in the operation of real-time systems in the aviation, health care, transportation, financial, infrastructure and space industries.

Ada Lovelace Day (second Tuesday of October) celebrates the extraordinary achievements of women in science, technology, engineering, and math. The “Ada Lovelace Edit-a-thon” is an annual event aimed at beefing up online entries for women in science whose accomplishments are unsung or misattributed. When her name is mentioned today, it’s more than a tip of the hat; it’s a call to arms.

Story from Headstrong – 52 women who changed science and the world, by Rachel Swaby.

J.T. Rogers’ Oslo

While the shows we went to in northern Europe had the venue as the primary focus (Musiikkitalo, Harpa, Oslo Operahuset and DR Koncerthuset), the shows we went to in London were about the performance.

Since Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen is one of our favourite plays, J.T. Rogers’s Oslo became an interesting option for a night out. It was our last night in London and the last night of a six week trip and the thought of skipping the play and getting a bit more sleep briefly came to mind. Luckily, it quickly left the mind!

Harold Pinter Theatre
Harold Pinter Theatre
Harold Pinter Theatre

Oslo tells the true story of how one young Norwegian couple – Terje Rød-Larsen, played by Toby Stephens, and Mona Juul, played by Lydia Leonard – planned and orchestrated top-secret, high-level meetings between the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which culminated in the signing of the historic 1993 Oslo Accords.

Lydia Leonard as Mona Juul and Toby Stephens as Terje Rød-Larsen

This gripping play by J.T. Rogers, directed by Bartlett Sher, was awarded ‘Best Play’ at the 2017 Tony Awards and was winner of every ‘Best Play’ award on Broadway in 2017 including those given by New York Drama Critics’ Circle, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Drama League, Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards.

J.T. Rogers has lots of experience at dramatising foreign affairs, all his major plays deal with the subject: The Overwhelming (2006) dramatises the Rwandan genocide and Blood and Gifts (2010) explores the wars in Afghanistan. He has also written plays set in Spain, Germany and now Norway.

Oslo is the story of a peace process; it is almost wall to wall men in suits. But the events it elucidates are riveting. As is the dramatisation of the events for the play by Rogers. Improbably, the secret talks that led to the 1993 Oslo accords, the first agreement ever struck between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (remember the PLO?) and the state of Israel, were organised not through official channels but by a Norwegian academic and his diplomat wife. The negotiators were served waffles in a remote Norwegian house 🙂 The US was not told of the encounters. Yet later that year Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin were shaking hands on the lawn of the White House. There were sobs of joyful surprise from witnesses as agreement was reached.

Sitting anonymously among the thousands of global dignitaries who had flocked to Washington to witness this historic event was Terje Rød-Larsen, the cultivated, softly spoken Norwegian diplomat who, with his wife Mona Juul, made it all possible by enabling the rival delegations to meet in secret to thrash out their differences.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres signing the peace agreement in September 1993 (Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat pictured behind) CREDIT: AP

The sobs provoked by watching this now are bitter: by the end of the decade the accord was in tatters.

Rogers’s play is not verbatim theatre but a reimagining. With fierce individual confrontations and high-powered comic eruptions. Rogers has fashioned an unexpected thriller out of the brave and inspired Palestinian and Israeli negotiators who came together to put aside decades of hostility and make peace.

Philip Arditti as Uri Savir is a chameleon Israeli negotiator who swivels from seductor to boa constrictor with a shimmy of his snake hips. He does provocative take-offs, not only of Henry Kissinger but also (jacket backwards over the head) Arafat.

Peter Polycarpou’s depiction of Ahmed Qurei, the Palestinian finance minister sent by Arafat to make peace, admirably captures the conflicting emotions of enduring the pain of exile while seeking to wreak terrible vengeance on the Israeli occupiers.

Both of them have daughters called Maya.

Peter Polycarpou as Ahmed Qurie and Philip Arditti as Uri Savir

At one Broadway performance, the entire 1,000-seat theatre was booked for the United Nations. They didn’t react to Philip Arditti’s Uri Savir impersonation of Arafat as an effeminate narcissist and a man whose vanity knew no bounds. Rogers suspects, they all either knew him or were terrified of being seen laughing at him. Even 13 years after Arafat’s death!

Bartlett Sher’s incisive production makes debate look like action. Which is part of Rogers’s point: in a peace process, talking is a deed – and may replace an act of war. Against the odds, the evening is truly theatrical – because it is essentially a backstage story. It makes most “news” look like mere window dressing.

The task facing the rival delegates when they first meet was a daunting one. For the Israelis, if the fact became known that they were talking to the PLO, the government would most likely fall. For the Palestinians, it would mean an assassin’s bullet.

Many of the players portrayed are no longer around to reflect on Rogers’s version of events. Rogers interviewed Terje Rød-Larsen at length, but spoke to only a few of the other participants: “I stalked the characters, through memoirs and TV interviews. But the lines on stage are all mine; there’s no verbatim. My rule, though, was that no one expresses views that they didn’t hold.”

Someone he apparently didn’t speak to was Yossi Beilin, who was a member of the Israeli delegation to the talks, and is disturbed that the playwright never contacted him even though Beilin’s character has a substantial role in the production. “No one bothered to call me, other than to tell me that there is such a play, and that if I’m ever in New York they’d be happy to invite me,” Beilin said. “I assume that the play has no connection to reality, but they tell me that it’s actually successful. it’s not clear to me why the playwright didn’t speak to those [involved] who are still alive.”

Joel Singer, who was the Israeli delegation’s legal adviser to the Oslo talks has seen the play on Broadway. “There’s very little resemblance to what you see on stage and what actually happened in Oslo. Even though they claim that the play is based on extensive research, there’s almost no link between what you see on stage and what really happened.”

Singer, along with other Israelis who’ve seen the play, found the Palestinian representatives were presented in an authentic manner, but didn’t find the Israeli representatives believable. Interesting cultural bias. Singer said, “All the Israeli representatives looked like cartoon characters, like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. The Israeli characters are all distorted. It bothered me personally that they were using the names of people I know and attributing characteristics to them that they don’t have.”

None of the players were presented as their real-life versions. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if they had, a three-hour play about politics, even the politics of a peace process, would have been far too boring. The real Terje Rød-Larsen is a quiet and patient man, who never seemed to be entirely comfortable with the rough-house atmosphere of the Middle East region, where disputes were often more likely to be resolved through rocks and rubber bullets than rational persuasion.

Uri Savir, who was deputed by Peres to run the Israeli side of the negotiations, was an urbane multi-linguist of an academic disposition, softly spoken and thoughtful when discussing regional issues.

Ahmed Qurei is reported to be a man of great personal charm, tolerant and good-humoured, which no doubt contributed to his appeal as a negotiator. His easy-going style has won him friendships over the years with his Israeli counterparts.

Yitzhak Rabin, the great Israeli warrior-turned-politician who agreed to make peace with Arafat, a man most Israelis, as one Israeli character in the play remarks, saw as being akin to “Hitler in his bunker”, was murdered by a Jewish extremist in November 1995 in revenge for signing the deal.

The mysterious circumstances surrounding Arafat’s death in a Paris hospital in November 2004 remains a source of controversy among his PLO loyalists, many of whom believe he was poisoned by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service.

By the time Shimon Peres, the Nobel Prize-winning prime minister of Israel who helped resolve many of the more intangible issues, died more peacefully aged 93 in 2016, he had become one of the most accomplished statesmen of our age.

For all the quips and light-hearted banter, and occasionally over the top characters, Oslo is, at heart, a deeply emotional drama. When the Israelis finally strike a deal with the Palestinians during a telephone call to Arafat’s headquarters in Tunis, they think they can hear music playing in the background. In fact it is the battle-hardened veterans of the PLO sobbing at the prospect of being allowed to return to their homeland.

Ultimately, the play is an implicit tragedy about the failure of both sides to build a lasting peace on the basis of the painful concessions made during the Oslo negotiations. “Between our peoples lies a vast ocean,” says Ahmed Qurei, the finance minister for the PLO, in the play, just before the negotiations start. Twenty-five years on, that ocean seems as vast as ever.

On A Sugar Plum High

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danced in their heads….

And speaking of Sugar Plums …

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without shed-loads of sugar. And maybe that’s one of the reasons behind The Nutcracker‘s enduring festive popularity. The ballet’s candied cornucopia of sugar-frosted fancies makes it the sweetest work in the repertory.

Before attending a performance of The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House, little Puffles and Honey topped up their sugar levels 🙂 They didn’t find any sugar plums at Selfridges, so they had to settle for macaroons… Sugar is a crucial ingredient in macaroons as well!

Dolly’s Cafe, Selfridges

Apparently it’s not done to eat Rudolf or Mr Snowman (they were delicious 🙂 ), so they got some macaroons from Pierre Hermé, the King of Macaroon. There were some odd flavour combinations, but little Puffles and Honey went for the classics.

Pierre Hermé, Selfridges
At the Royal Opera House
Checking out the Royal Opera House Christmas tree

Yup, the conductor has the right score 🙂

It all starts with E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story Nussknacker und Mausekönig (The Nutcracker and the Mouse King). Though the story itself is not exactly little bear-friendly (including a fearsome seven-headed mouse that attacks the heroine), Hoffmann pays tribute to the great sweet-making tradition of his Nuremberg setting, in a magnificent sugar fantasia. The protagonists travel along a path of nougat by a lemonade river that winds past the glistening Bonbonville, and cross Rosewater Lake to reach the capital Confiturembourg, itself topped by the Marzipan Castle. And we do love marzipan…

The ballet reins it in a little – but not much. The original scenario was developed by choreographer Marius Petipa and Mariinsky director Ivan Vsevolozhsky, who used a somewhat more palatable translation of Hoffmann’s story by Alexandre Dumas père (fewer heads on the rat, just as much sugar).

Presiding over the display are the regal Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince Coqueluche. Though sugar plum today doesn’t mean anything more than the character in the ballet (and it is the Christmas role), to the original audience it was a fittingly sophisticated treat: a cardamom or caraway seed cast in spun sugar, a virtuoso test of the confectioner’s craft. Her prince is rather less glamorous: ‘coqueluche’ means ‘whooping cough’, making him the equivalent of a dancing cough drop, albeit a very elegant one 🙂

Sarah Lamb as The Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker
The Sugar Plum Fairy and Prince Coqueluche

Of the divertissements, there are three national-inspired dances that feature in most traditional productions – of which Peter Wright’s 1984 production for The Royal Ballet is an exemplar. First there’s the Spanish Dance, for chocolate; then the Arabian Dance, for coffee; and the Chinese Dance, for tea. These might seem humdrum treats now, but for the ballet’s creators more than a century ago, and Hoffmann before them, these were luxuries that carried an aromatic whiff of exoticism, masterfully expressed in Tchaikovsky’s music.

The Spanish Dance, The Nutcracker
The Arabian Dance, The Nutcracker

The Chinese Dance, The Nutcracker

The Story…

Drosselmeyer, a timeless magician and creator of mechanical toys and clocks, was once employed in a royal palace where he invented a trap that killed off half the mouse population. In revenge, the wicked Queen of the Mice cast a spell over Drosselmeyer’s nephew, Hans-Peter, which transformed him into an ugly Nutcracker Doll. The only way to break the spell was for the Nutcracker to slay the Mouse King, thereby committing an act of great bravery, and for a young girl to love and care for him in spite of his awful appearance.

When Drosselmeyer is invited to entertain the guests at a Christmas party that his friends, the Stahlbaums, are giving, he decides that this could well be the opportunity he has been looking for.

Their daughter, Clara, is a little younger than Hans-Peter imprisoned in the Nutcracker, and what better time than Christmas, when the mice are busy stealing the leftovers, for a confrontation between the Mouse King and the Nutcracker? Drosselmeyer decides to put the Nutcracker in the tender care of Clara and makes a special Christmas Angel to guide her through her task.

When all the guests have departed and the house is asleep, Clara, in search of the Nutcracker, creeps downstairs and discovers Drosselmeyer waiting for her. He draws her into his own special world of fantasy, where time is suspended, exerts all his power to transform the living room into a great battlefield and summons the Mouse King.

In the ensuing fight between the mice and the toy soldiers, the Nutcracker slays the Mouse King, but only through the intervention of Clara, who, out of compassion, saves the Nutcracker’s life.

Transformed into his real self, he dances with Clara and they find themselves in the Land of Snow. Drosselmeyer then sends them on a magic journey to the Sugar Garden in the Kingdom of Sweets where they meet the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince.

Freed at last from his imprisonment inside the Nutcracker, Hans-Peter recounts to the Sugar Plum Fairy his great adventure and how Clara saved his life. They then join in a magnificent entertainment put on by Drosselmeyer to honour them for their bravery.

Returning to reality Clara runs out into the street in search of Drosselmeyer and encounters a strangely familiar young man, while back in his workshop, Drosselmeyer prays that his efforts will be rewarded. His nephew returns; the spell has indeed been broken.

It was another outstanding performance by the Royal Ballet. Two hours have never passed so fast.

Peter Wright’s exquisite 1984 Nutcracker for The Royal Ballet recalls the lavishly traditional air of the original production, with some changes to the scenario to bring it closer to Hoffmann’s original story. With magnificent designs by Julia Trevelyan Oman, including a gorgeously decorated tree that magically grows, and beautifully coloured imaginings of the fantastical Sugar Garden, this festive production has become a much-loved staple of the Royal Ballet’s repertory.

Wright’s adaptation of the choreography for The Nutcracker is characterized by buoyant footwork and lyrical freedom in the arms and upper body. Perhaps the best-loved number from the ballet is the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy in Act II. Comprising sharp, filigree choreography and lasting for ten minutes, it is one of the longest and most technically challenging solos in the repertory, and a role that many ballerinas long to dance.

It seems hardly credible that The Nutcracker, a staple of the ballet repertory today, was the product of a troubled collaboration, roundly condemned by critics and infrequently performed at the time it was first mounted in 1892. Tchaikovsky, who had agreed to compose the ballet out of gratitude to the Director of Imperial Theatres, Ivan Alexandrovich Vsevolozhsky, and on the basis of the great success The Sleeping Beauty had enjoyed a year earlier, was unhappy with the scenario of The Nutcracker when he finally saw it. The esteemed choreographer Marius Petipa, who drafted instructions for the composer and a detailed plan of dances and mimed scenes of the new ballet, fell ill soon after rehearsals began, leaving much of the actual composition of the choreography to Lev Ivanov, the second ballet master. The meagre roster of early performances is striking to us now in light of what the work has become: in the third season of its existence (after an initial run of 14 performances), the ballet was not given at all; this was followed by a three-year period without performances, between 1897 and 1900; and The Nutcracker was not produced at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow before the October Revolution, the first performance there coming in 1919, almost 27 years after the premiere. Even its seasonal topicality was disregarded, for it was scheduled throughout the theatre year from September to May, with rarely more than one showing in December.

What was the problem with The Nutcracker, then? Judging from the critical response, it was not its innovation but the fact that conventional devices were carried too far. In an age when audiences accepted extraordinary liberties of logic and motivation in stories used for ballet, the scenario of The Nutcracker was found wanting. “The authors of the ballet librettos never weary the intellect of the lovers of choreography”, wrote one critic, “but in The Nutcracker the author of the libretto, balletmaster Mr Petipa, in the extreme took advantage of his right as regards simplicity and non-complexity of subject matter. In The Nutcracker there is no subject whatever.” This criticism, though encountered elsewhere in early reviews, is not wholly accurate. In fact, there was no connection between the Christmas party in the first act and the Land of Sweets in the second that would make both acts part of the same ballet. In the printed libretto of 1892 the fantastic events were unexplained and the story, as a result, was divided into largely unrelated halves.

If imperial period audiences tolerated some relaxation of dramatic propriety in their ballet stories, luxurious staging was essential. “In this respect”, the same critic continued, “the direction of the Petersburg theatres… long since set the tone and prescribed the rules for all Europe. Even Paris and London bow before Petersburg… Beauty, magnificence and taste, not stopping at any venture and expense, brilliantly rival one another.” But here too the producers of The Nutcracker exceeded the norm. Tchaikovsky was overwhelmed by the staging and wrote to his brother Anatole the day after the first performance that “the production of both [The Nutcracker and its companion piece, the opera Iolanta] was magnificent, the ballet even too magnificent. The eyes weary from this luxury.” Vladimir Telyakovsky, who was to become Director of Imperial Theatres in 1901, recalled that the production was unimaginable in its bad taste, some of the artists representing confections in the second act being “dressed like fancy brioches from Fillipov’s patisserie”, a famous Petersburg establishment.

Assessments of The Nutcracker, based on these and other complaints, were thus unflattering or worse. Ennui was among the gentler verdicts: “They say that at the first performance only the balletomanes were bored; on this occasion [the second performance]… The Nutcracker provided nothing other than boredom to the public, and many left the theatre before the end of the performance.” Elsewhere we read: “For dancers there is rather little in it, for art absolutely nothing, and for the artistic destiny of our ballet – one more step downward.” Wrote a third critic: “The production of such ballets as The Nutcracker can quickly and easily lead the ballet troupe to its downfall.” Through the scorn another defect comes to light, which audiences of the present day consider a virtue: the ballet was for children. “All this children’s ballet is made in the manner of a child”, wrote a critic known as Old Balletomane, “the program is pure child’s prattle! In vain do they suppose that one may substitute luxuriance of production for lack of imagination and thought in this programme.” Twenty years later Serge Diaghilev, defending his company’s repertory in The Times, shrugged off The Nutcracker as no more than a ballet performed by a hundred children.

The modern producer who would take inspiration from the first Nutcracker is left all the same with much that is worthy of revival. The lavish staging of magical effects, such as the miraculous growth of the Christmas tree, the spectacular tableau in the second act, Confiturembourg, The Kingdom of Sweets (such ‘kingdom’ scenes were especially beloved of Petipa), and the participation of children in the dances and the battle scene are all components of the first Nutcracker which drew on well-established traditions of the late imperial ballet.

The choreography of the Waltz of the Snowflakes is a special feature of the first production that his contemporaries ranked as one of Lev Ivanov’s great creations. But Ivanov’s steps and patterns for this dance have been lost passing from one staging to the next and have been re-created by Wright. He has also re-created the floor patterns from choreographic notations of The Nutcracker made in St Petersburg before World War I, now in the Harvard Theatre Collection. As a result, we see again Ivanov’s danced allegory of a snowstorm, “the hachures and patterns of snow crystals, the monograms and arabesques of the plastique of frost [gathered] into one well-proportioned, artistically finished vision” – as it was described by a balletomane who recalled the original.

Recent considerations of The Nutcracker, especially since the end of the Soviet era, have raised new possibilities about the meaning of the work. These tend to attribute Tchaikovsky’s reservations about composing music of Confiturembourg to some passing irritation, while allowing that the imagery and design of the work, with its patent disjunctions, were intended. One possibility, from the composer’s perspective, was his love of Dickens, whose vivid setting of A Christmas Tree veers much closer to that of The Nutcracker than anything in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Nussknacker und Mausekönig, the libretto’s ostensible source. In one passage Dickens’ narrator, like Clara, the only person in the house awake, describes the Christmas tree of his childhood, surrounded by toys, including “a demoniacal Counsellor in a black gown”, dolls, drummers and a regiment of soldiers in a box. For a moment, “the very tree itself changes, and becomes a beanstalk – the marvellous beanstalk up which Jack climbed to the Giant’s house!”, and presently, “all common things become uncommon and enchanted.”

These shadings may have aligned with images Tchaikovsky liked, but the principal disjunction of the libretto – between the everyday world and Confiturembourg – was taken from Hoffmann without Hoffmann’s return to reality at the end. Clara simply wakes up from her dream, resolving the fantasy of the story, a device adopted by many modern producers of the ballet. And yet the problem of incoherence, so stridently critiqued in early reviews, raises a reasonable question: would a theatre director as erudite as Vsevolozhsky, a ballet master as experience as Petipa and a composer as astute as Tchaikovsky, allow such a lapse in narrative, a beginning and a middle without an ending? The balletomanes’ complaint that The Nutcracker overreached conventions of ballet lax enough to permit such liberties seems dismissive and unsatisfactory, given the stature of the collaborators.

Could flaws so obvious be pointing to a new type of drama? Folklorists remind us that the motifs of the growing Christmas tree and the winter forest, missing in Hoffmann, echo ancient representations of the underworld, regular world and heavenly realm as joined by a tree, whereas winter symbolizes not just a demise before rebirth but also, joined with the forest, a path to another world, possibly the realm of the dead. We do not know if the collaborators on The Nutcracker wished to express such themes, but the possibility that they were motivated by something other than carelessness casts them in a more complimentary light than shed by early reception. The importance of Tchaikovsky to such a scheme would be central, in that his theatre works, beginning with The Oprichnik, passing through Eugene Onegin and ending with The Sleeping Beauty, The Queen of Spades and Iolanta, all display symbolic or novel approaches to drama that elicited criticism when they were new for being imperfectly conventional. They also share an element of experimentation manifest as early as Tchaikovsky’s student compositions, a quality that might be affirmed in The Nutcracker if we knew more about his part in the early stages of collaboration. In short, the composer may have been formulating new approaches to the lyric stage, appreciated more by the avant garde of the early 20th century than by his contemporaries. If so, his complaint about excessive luxury in the mise-en-scène may have been perfectly sincere, but unrelated to the ballet’s message.

‘The Nutcracker Then and Now’ written by Roland John Wiley, Professor of Musicology Emeritus at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbour.

Hyde Park Winter Wonderland

Is mostly an amusement park with lots and lots of rides. Even the Christmas tree is a ride!

We had to go on it…

And see the park from the tree 🙂

This looked interesting…

Bavarian Village

The Bavarian Village was one of several food areas in Hyde Park. Little bears chose Almhütte, apparently a traditional Bavarian restaurant with delicious food.

The pretzel was great, the sausage significantly less so 😦

The mulled wine was a poor distant cousin to the glögg from Tivoli…

There is a Christmas market as well.

Hyde Park Winter Wonderland doesn’t have an entry fee, but it does have the completely useless bag search at the entrance.

Festive Afternoon Tea

Grumpy little bears…

What do you mean, how can you tell?!?

After the disappointment of the Danish Museum of Science and Technology and of the Tycho Brahe Planetarium, little bears got stuck at Copenhagen airport for five hours after SAS cancelled our flight, after we woke up at 4am to make the morning flight! And they were deprived of a full day of fun in London. Of course they are grumpy little bears…

But things are looking up 🙂

Little bears are at The Langham for afternoon tea.

Berry tea

The festive cakes look so good, it’s almost unbearable to eat them. Almost 🙂

A few minutes walk from the Langham is Wigmore Hall, an intimate recital hall, with crystalline acoustics and a beautiful interior.

Wigmore Hall was built in 1901 by the German piano firm Bechstein next to its showrooms on Wigmore Street. The Hall was intended to be grandly impressive while remaining intimate enough for recitals.

Originally called Bechstein Hall, it opened with two gala concerts on 31 May and 1 June 1901, featuring the Italian pianist Ferruccio Busoni, the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, the Ukrainian pianist Vladimir de Pachmann and several others.

Wigmore Hall

The Hall was designed by the English architect Thomas Collcutt, FRIBA (1840-1924) in Renaissance style, using alabaster and marble for the walls, flooring and stairway. Collcutt was one of the most distinguished architects of his day and his diverse body of work embraced the design of the public rooms in more than a dozen P&O liners.

Wigmore Hall stage
Wigmore Hall stage and cupola

Wigmore Hall cupola over the stage was designed by Gerald Moira and executed by Frank Lynn Jenkins. It was restored during the Hall’s refurbishment in 1991–2. The painting symbolises the striving of humanity after the elusiveness of music in its great abstraction.

The central figure is the Soul of Music. He is gazing up at the Genius of Harmony – a ball of eternal fire whose rays are reflected across the world. A tangled network of thorns separates this portion of the picture from the four other figures – representing the separation of man from the perfect spiritual conception of music because he is ensnared by materialism.

On the left side a musician plays in a trance, seeking inspiration from beyond. Also there is Love, who has roses in her hand. She represents the idea that a musician’s incentive is love for their art, and their reward is beauty.

On the right side is Psyche – representing the human soul – inspiring a seated composer, transcribing music on a scroll. The background of the painting is a deep blue sky with clouds of Divine Mystery floating overhead.

Little bears are waiting for the Leonidas Kavakos (on violin) and Yuja Wang (on piano) recital with a program of Janáček, Schubert, Debussy and Bartók.

Wigmore Hall
Fluency and technique … Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang, Composite: Marco Borggreve/Getty Images

Each with impeccable technique, Wang and Kavakos are one of the top piano-violin duos in today’s classical music.

The program consisted of three sonatas composed during or immediately after the First World War plus Schubert’s rather stern Fantasia in C major, D.934.

Leoš Janáček started to work on his Sonata for Violin and Piano in 1914 and continued to refine the score up to 1921. It is still a somehow contrived composition, lacking the buoyancy, humor and nostalgia characterizing his late work. The two soloists tried to avoid any post-romantic exaggerations, focusing instead on the music’s inwardness and immediacy, especially in the Ballada where they ably brought forward many shades of delicate coloring within a restrained palette.

Schubert composed his C major Fantasia in 1827, during the same period he worked on the four Impromptus D.935. As in his other few works for violin and piano, there is a tad too much emphasis on instrumental technique, the fabulously imaginative writing that permeates his piano output being less evident. The initial “awakening”, starting with a piano tremolo, followed a few bars later by a long, still pianissimo C, played by the violin, is superb and it was breathtakingly rendered by the two instrumentalists. Later, the variations on a theme inspired by an earlier lied, “Sei mir gegrüßt”, had a wonderful, tinged with melancholy, exuberance. As always, Kavakos kept at bay any potential slip into sentimentality.

The second part was all about atmospheric, impressionistic music. The “telepathic” communication between these two immense artists is so powerful that they synchronously navigated through Debussy and Bartók’s rhapsodic scores without even glancing at each other. The way they played at unison the expressif and sans rigueur melody in Intermède, the second movement of Debussy’s enigmatic Sonata for Violin and Piano was truly exemplary. With its mercurial character, its constant shifts in tempo and mood and indecisive oscillation between G minor and G major, Debussy’s last significant composition is particularly well suited to Yuja Wang’s restlessness. The more “serious” Kavakos admirably plunged without any restrains into the musical “game”.

Except for the finale, Béla Bartók’s Sonata no. 1 for Violin and Piano is less characterized by Hungarian or Romanian folk music reminiscences than many of his other works. The score is indebted to Debussy but also to Schoenberg’s modernism. Violin and piano often explore separate paths. With her musicality and effortless technique, Yuja Wang masterly avoided too much of a percussive sound. Kavakos’ steady line soared above the piano, bringing an almost vocal quality to the violin’s output. The performance had a remarkable freshness and élan, none of the dynamic and rhythmic shifts giving any suggestion of being pre-planned.

The fact that a pair of two authentic virtuosos have such an extraordinary chemistry and share such an interest and passion for the rarefied art form of chamber music is a great gift for us all.

From Bachtrack reviews.

The History of the Coffee House

Coffee and cake at Sketch, London

Beginning in the ports and souks around the Horn of Africa, the bitter brew derived from the genus of plants known as Coffea, has records of being enjoyed in coffee houses as early as 1511 in the Islamic Holy City of Mecca, modern day Saudi Arabia.

Red Sea countries and locations key to the early spread of coffee

While little more than smoking dens littered with cushions and hookah pipes, these early establishments were influential enough on early Muslim society that prohibition was imposed by the local Pasha in belief of coffee’s role as an intoxicating agent and therefore in violation of Islam. Despite these restrictions in an early Arabic powerhouse, this humble new drinking establishment would be responsible for spreading enlightenment, intellectualism and culture across multiple empires, religions and continents – and all for the love of a naturally occurring bitter pesticide named coffee.

Although served hot from an infusion of the Coffea plant, this ancient form of coffee served out of steaming pots atop open fires in the public shops of Mecca, was merely a shadow of the smooth crèma layered brew of our modern addiction. With the effects of the roasted bean still to be discovered by the religious Sufis of Yemen, this early beverage was more likely a direct infusion of the dried coffee cherry (bean removed) known as Kish’r – a drink still consumed throughout the Arabian Peninsula today. Who exactly was the first to bring coffee cherries across the Red Sea from Ethiopia to Yemen, is a topic of great debate. With stories as rich as the plant in subject telling of multi-coloured coffee birds, plague ravaged princesses and dancing goats – it is known that a figure of influence within Sufism (a religious order of Islam who practice Ihsan, “perfection of worship”) was the first to established coffee drinking as a part of their prayer ceremonies. It’s thought that upon discovering the effects of caffeine, the plant was introduced for its ability to assist disciples of Sufism in remaining alert and lucid throughout late night worship.

The evolution from Arabia to the modern European coffee house would take almost another hundred years before the first Western traders would encounter what they initially called the “Wine of Araby”, and not in the hands of Arabs but the super power of the Ottoman Empire. After successfully defeating the Marmeluks in Egypt in 1517, the Ottomans acquired a country of historic and cultural development with strong links to Sufism. As such they also discovered a nation dominated by the drinking of coffee and the establishment of the coffee house. With all things that come with the capture of a new nation, the coffee bean and brew naturally came with it. By 1555 the Ottoman Empire would see the very first coffee house opened on their own home shores of Constantinople (later renamed Istanbul) by two Syrian merchants named Hakim and Shams. Ten years later, around 600 coffee selling establishments would be recorded in the city alone – the coffee house culture had finally been reborn.

Early Ottoman coffee house – Istanbul

If you were able to revisit an early 16th century Turkish coffee house, you’d discover coffee brewed on mass in large pots or cauldrons atop open fires often enhanced with the aroma of exotic spices like saffron, cardamom and even ambergris (dried whale vomit – honestly!). Like the multitude of cafes today which cater for all classes, coffee could be acquired throughout a range of different locations from humble souk kiosk to luxurious tree shaded gardens with bards, beautiful servant women and views over the Bosporus. This new world of comfort and engagement presented the Ottomans with one of the first public locations of social enlightenment outside of the constraints of religious or alcoholic venues. As such, these new places of population and sobriety became forums for intellectual debate, listening posts for news and meeting points for commerce and trade. In the more elite establishments patrons could hire their own Kaveghi to cater for all matters of coffee acquisition, brewing and service.

However the induction of coffee into what was the world’s longest standing Empire of the time, wasn’t without its hurdles. Since the Sufis of Yemen first began using coffee in the mid 15th century, the drink had already been banned more than twice in belief of its blasphemous role as an intoxicating beverage in the eyes of Islam. By the time the Ottomans tried to lay down their own prohibition in 1580, the drink was already too widely spread to be effective and merely went underground. As such prohibition wasn’t to last and when legally back in the public domain, continued its spread across the Empire and the Balkan states. With such a network of sober meeting houses throughout their nation, it was no surprise that many in power were concerned for their use as dens of conspiracy. With taverns previously associated as places of sedition and uprising, the coffeehouse presented a new threat to the power paranoid. While devious plans may be hatched during a night of alcohol fueled banter, it was coffee’s ability to help recall the details of said plan the following morning, which kept the grand Vizier awake at night [albeit that and his own love of coffee].

Tom King’s Coffee House by William Hogarth c.1720

While the West was not to adopt coffee until late in the establishment of the beverage, their role would grow to define its place in the world’s future. Despite trading with the bean and plant since before the 17th century, European merchant hubs Venice and Genoa saw coffee’s role in Europe merely as a product of medicinal benefit and not social consumption. A view which would quickly change when in 1651 a Lebanese Jewish entrepreneur remembered only as Jacob would open the West’s first coffee house in Oxford, England called the Angel Inn. Remembered in his personal writings, Jacob describes the Angel Inn as a place where coffee, “was by some who delighted in noveltie [sic] drank” (today another coffee house can be found on the site named “The Grand Cafe”). A second coffee house would be opened nearby the following year by another Jew named Cirques Jobson and by the time a third was opened three years after that by Arthur Tillyard, coffee had found a new home in the West. Of these new establishments, it would be Tillyard’s which would set the standard for future coffee houses to follow. With a focus on the more educated middle class patrons of Oxford, Tillyard charged two pence for a cup of coffee and one for entry (a lot in those days), allowing access to various newspapers, pamphlets, broadsheets, lectures and ballads. With such a fine spending patronage, future houses would follow suit developing the early nickname – Penny Universities. These new locations would pave the way for a new era in English society labelled by historians as the Age of Enlightenment, a period which saw a reform in the way intellectuality is pursued and accepted socially, and the coffee house would be at the heart of it. Through weekly meetings at Tillyards to discuss and debate maters if mutual scientific interest, The Royal Society was established, a syndicate which today advisers the English government on scientific matters. By 1672, the Royal Society were established enough to elect a lead chairman, they found one in the form of a promising young man named Isaac Newton and the rest they say is history.

In a city dedicated today as it was then to the students, the inspired youth of Oxford supplied the majority of the cities coffee house clientele. In a time before the university common room it is no surprise these young intellectuals flocked to the houses to meet, discuss, study and debate their specific areas of study, albeit while indulging a hot cup of Mocha (named after the Yemeni port by the same name from where coffee was initially acquired). In fact so popular were the student numbers that in 1679 the local mayor attempted a ban on all coffee houses from opening on Sundays to ensure the youth remained in either church or college. Needless to say it had little effect. However it wouldn’t be until London opened her first coffee house in 1652 at St Michael’s Alley in the city, that the coffee house would begin to influence an entire nation.

With England setting the trend for the modern coffee house in the form of “Penny Universities” and with coffee finally added to the desires of the western palate, a new era was born and coffee was it’s muse.

18th century London coffee house – c/o

While records show that coffee had already been enjoyed in France by a few lucky enough to associate with merchants of Arabia, the brew would not befriend the public at large until an Ottoman ambassador named Solomon Aga arrived to Paris. Representing Sultan Mehmed IV, Salomon and his retinue set up lavish residence in central Paris while awaiting an appointment to hold audience with the French King Louis XIV. Wasting no time, Solomon converted a grand Parisian town house into a palatial Turkish abode befitted with gilt fountains, the finest carpets and emerald encrusted tiling where guests could indulge in Oriental delicacies such as shisha tobacco and a rich brew called coffee. It was here that Solomon is credited with introducing the drink – and the manner in which it was traditionally served – to many of the cities elite of the time. One such visitor named Isaac D’Israeli best describes the occasion in his book Curiosities of Literature, by writing;

“On bended knee, the black slaves of the Ambassador, arrayed in the most gorgeous Oriental costumes, served the choicest Mocha coffee in tiny cups of egg-shell porcelain, hot, strong and fragrant, poured out in saucers of gold and silver, placed on embroidered silk doylies fringed with gold bullion, to the grand dames, who fluttered their fans with many grimaces, bending their piquant faces—be-rouged, be-powdered and be-patched—over the new and steaming beverage.”

Despite the attentions lavished upon Solomon and his fine brew, it would not be until he had departed Paris that coffee would become better established thanks to an Armenian member of his retinue named Pascal. Capitalising on the impact of his previous master, Pascal began by selling hot coffee (a.k.a. petit noir) at a stall in St Germain before opening Europe’s first coffee house in 1683 – an Orient inspired café located on Qui de l’Ecole near Pont Neuf, Paris. Unfortunately the public, while fond of coffee, preferred libations of a more alcoholic nature and as such Pascal packed up once more and moved to a place he knew coffee was already well established – England.

A French traveller to London in 1668 named Henri Misson gave us the best description of the early English coffee house, writing they were;

“…very numerous in London, [and] are extremely convenient. You have all manner of news there; you have a good Fire [sic], which you may sit by as long as you please; you have a Dish of Coffee; you meet your Friends for the transaction of Business, and all for a penny, if you don’t care to spend more”

It’s important to mention at this stage that while these were comfortable environments infused with the smell of brewing coffee atop large open fires, the coffee infusion primarily comprised of steeping course ground or smashed coffee beans into near boiling water and serving black. An expensive sweetener such as honey or sugar (even mustard!) was often available if affordable. The crèma rich espresso’s of our modern addiction would not be invented until the influence of the Italians at the beginning of the 20th century, as would the widespread addition of milk. For the esteemed gentry of these new fine establishments, naturally one was expected to adhere to a commonly unspoken law of civility. And should said civility be remiss, one could often find a guide written on the walls for reference, such as the following from a 17th century London coffee house:


Enter, Sirs, freely, but first, if you please,
Peruse our civil orders, which are these.

First, gentry, tradesmen, all are welcome hither,
And may without affront sit down together:
Pre-eminence of place none here should mind,
But take the next fit seat that he can find:
Nor need any, if finer persons come,
Rise up to assigne to them his room;
To limit men’s expence, we think not fair,
But let him forfeit twelve-pence that shall swear;
He that shall any quarrel here begin,
Shall give each man a dish t’ atone the sin;
And so shall he, whose compliments extend
So far to drink in coffee to his friend;
Let noise of loud disputes be quite forborne,
No maudlin lovers here in corners mourn,
But all be brisk and talk, but not too much,
On sacred things, let none presume to touch.
Nor profane Scripture, nor sawcily wrong
Affairs of state with an irreverent tongue:
Let mirth be innocent, and each man see
That all his jests without reflection be;
To keep the house more quiet and from blame,
We banish hence cards, dice, and every game;
Nor can allow of wagers, that exceed
Five shillings, which ofttimes much trouble breed;
Let all that’s lost or forfeited be spent
In such good liquor as the house doth vent.
And customers endeavour, to their powers,
For to observe still, seasonable hours.
Lastly, let each man what he calls for pay,
And so you’re welcome to come every day.

Copy of the Women’s Petition Against Coffee, 1650

By the mid 17th century a new kind of popular social media was rekindled thanks to the public attentions of the coffeehouse – the pamphlet. Similar to the freedom of expression available through the internet today, the pamphlet could be written to either advertise or publicise any product or opinion from anyone with the pennies to spend. And thanks to the coffeehouse, could now also be assured of an audience – albeit a sober one. One such campaign was from a London city based women’s group who, in 1674, wished to grow support for the Women’s Petition Against Coffee. Laying a direct attack on not just the patrons of the coffeehouses but their very manhood, the WPAC proclaimed that “Never did men wear greater breeches, or carry less in them of any mettle what soever [sic]…”. Referring to their frequenting of the coffeehouse it continued, “They come from it with nothing moist but their snotty noses; nothing stiffe [sic] but their joints, nor standing but their ears”. Without losing a beat or wasting time with creative metaphor’s, a short yet honest retort was soon printed simply entitled The Men’s Answer to the Women’s Petition Against Coffee, arguing that indeed coffee “…makes the erection more vigorous, the ejaculation more full, [and] adds a spiritualescence to the sperm”. While it may be difficult to prove or even define the exact “spiritualescence of sperm”, modern science can lend support this statement with evidence of caffeine helping to increase sperm mobility in males – scratch one for the boys!

The importance the coffeehouse played in popular society was not lost on the authorities either who used the most influential venues as public forums to read notices of general importance. By the mid 18th century, the coffeehouse society had spread to the new American colonies where, in 1776, the Merchants Coffee House of Philadelphia was selected as the first location to publicly announce the United States Declaration of Independence. When Admiral Nelson defeated the Spanish and French navies at Trafalgar in 1805, the first public address of the victory was publicly announced to “…the shipping interest at Lloyds coffee house” in central London.

Lloyds building of London – a.k.a. the Inside-Out Building.

Further influential coffee houses include, Will’s Coffee House near Scotland Yard Gate where a group of Naval officers first conceived the idea for the Naval uniform, the Jerusalem Coffee House in Cowpers Court, Cornhill which became the unofficial headquarters for the East India Company (later to be renamed the Jerusalem and East India Coffee House) and Jonathans Coffee House in Exchange Alley which is credited with evolving into the first modern stock exchange. Further credits to the coffee house go the foundation of the Freemasons and even the conceptualisation of the police force (a.k.a. Bow Street Runners), although both are subject to debate.

The Rake’s Rendezvous; Or The Midnight Revels. The Various Humours of Tom King’s Coffee House in Covent Garden. Taken from Hogarths Four Seasons – c/o British Museum

It is also well believed that subconsciously coffee had a further more important role to play in society. In a period where major cities held such incredibly poor standards of hygiene and clean water, many depended on fermented or distilled products for safe hydration [see: 1689 – Gin Epidemic]. As such it’s argued that coffee helped increase the general state of health by offering a safer means of sanitary consumption, as well as sobering up an otherwise oft intoxicated society.

By 1739, the New London Directories would list 695 coffee houses throughout the London boroughs with 551 in the city alone, the largest number of which was centered around the cities first in St Michaels Alley. By this time and with so many competitors, the coffee house had evolved into something closer resembling today’s modern drinking establishments with a venue to be found for all tastes and with coffee a prerequisite in the name only and no longer necessary in the offering. One of the most famous examples of these was Tom King’s Coffee House. While trading out of London’s Covent Garden with under the title of a coffee house, Tom King’s was more openly a den of gambling, drinking and prostitution. Open from the time the common tavern closes to the time the sun arises, the coffee house was equally a popular meeting place for the ill repute and respected alike with many renown intellectuals such as William Hogarth, Alexander Pope, John Gay and Henry Fielding in common attendance. Without any beds on the establishment grounds, Tom and his charismatic wife Mol avoided any legal prosecution in operating as a brothel yet were able to easily trade as a meeting point for ladies of the night and their would be suitors. The Kings became somewhat of an institution in London during their time and despite a large opposition from religious reformers, even King George II once visited the establishment yet stayed only briefly after being challenged to a fight by an ignorant punter. Captured at it’s most honest by famous satirical artist William Hogarth in his collection Four Seasons, Hogarth best describes the scene at Tom Kings with the poetic footnote;

“Here drunken Templars [sic], Rakes and men of taste, their constitutions and their substance waste. Here lustful strumpets with their bosoms bare, mix with a motley throng, drink, smoke and swear. Destruction lurks in their contagious breath, their eyes are basilisks, their jokes are death”.

Artists impression of a map of London coffee houses c.1660 – c/o Helen Cann

While most coffee houses were still intellectually driven, others used curiosity or practicality to attract their patrons. Of these, few are better remembered than the Chelsea Coffee House owned by James Salt (aka Don Salterno). As well as displaying oddities in jars including a “mermaid fish”, “mice skeletons” and an “instrument for scratching the Chinese ladies back”, the Chelsea Coffee House also offered the age old barber-surgeon skill of pulling teeth and bloody letting – albeit with the odd haircut or two.

By the mid to late 19th century, the coffee house revolution along with the newly styled “Age of Enlightenment” had reached its peak and began a steady decline replaced by – or rather evolved into – the modern hotel bar or gentlemen’s club. Despite the change in name, these locations were still places of intellectual institution in which patrons can find good company, coffee and fine liquor in mutual surroundings.

From humble beginnings in tribal Ethiopia to its religious use by the Sufis in Yemen, on the back of the Ottoman Empire until its Western foundation, the coffee bean would see an empire rise and fall, cross religious boundaries and help new nations such as the United States, India, Indonesia and South America develop into major trading powers. But above all, thanks to the role of the humble coffee house the modern world had discovered an age of intellectual advancement emphasised by the evolution of the police force, insurance system, stock exchange and a multitude of corporate societies.

Original story on Drinking Cup.