Monday, December 28, 2020



Alessandro Manzoni  (1771-1825)

Trans. Archibald Colquhoun

November 7, 1628.   Father Abbondio, sixty years of age, is traipsing down a mountain trail, headed home when he's accosted by two bravos.  (This takes place in Lombardy in northern Italy.)  A "bravo" is a sort of hanger-on, or private soldier that relies on and does the bidding of a territorial Count or Don.  In this case, the two baddies tell the good father to postpone or cancel the proposed marriage of Lorenzo and Lucia, as Don Rodrigo has an interest in the lady.  Abbondio is upset.  He's naturally reticent and fearful, and doesn't want to ignore his responsibility, but on the other hand he's deathly afraid of whatever revenge the Don might have in mind if he doesn't co-operate.  So when he talks to Lorenzo that same evening he hints that it would be a great idea if the couple were to postpone the rites.  They are flabbergasted.  Lorenzo is a parent-less silk weaver, a skilled occupation, and at first he doesn't know who to turn to.  His potential mother-in-law suggests he consult with the attorney, Doctor Quibble-Weaver, which he does, but attains no satisfaction.  In fact the lawyer kicks him out of his office.  Later Renzo discovers that he's a toady of the Don's.  So the mother of Lucia next suggests they all go to see Father Cristoforo, an influential religious figure with a reputation for correcting injustices.  Cristoforo pays the Don a visit at which he notes the presence of Quibble-Weaver and a table full of rowdy and insulting minions.  They laugh and point him toward the door.  Rodrigo senses that there is opposition to his intentions and decides to kidnap Lucia.  At the same time, Agnese, Lucia's mom, figures out a way to fool Abbondio into performing the ceremony by using a little known clause in the civil code.  They try their ploy on the same night that the bravos plan their nefarious deed.  Abbondio is aghast at what Agnese wants him to do and begins yelling which alarms the night watchman who starts ringing the church bell to wake the village.  People leave their houses and run around the streets scaring each other with imaginary disasters and phantoms.  Meanwhile the two baddies have ransacked the house, looking for Lucia, but find nobody home, so they make tracks out of town.

The three, Lucia, Renzo and Agnese visit Cristoforo for advice.  He counsels them to leave town for a while.  The two ladies travel to the Monza Convent near Milan for refuge and Renzo goes to Milan itself to ask Fra Bonaventura's opinion on what to do.  Renzo arrives during a bread riot and due to overindulging in vino and expressing himself too outwardly, is arrested by a couple of police persons but manages to escape.  He makes his way out of Lombardy and gets a job in a cousin's silk factory in Bergamo.  But he can't return to Milan because the authorities have blown his involvement in the riot way out of proportion and are actively searching for him as one of the ringleaders.  Lucia, due to the conniving of Rodrigo's uncle, is fooled into taking vows to be a nun.  Still hungering for her person, Rodrigo talks to another relation who is entitled by the author, "Unnamed", probably because he resembles a genuine figure in history and whose relatives he doesn't wish to get in bad with.  The Unnamed pulls strings to get the head abbess of the convent to send Lucia out with a message for a non-existent person and more bravos capture her and take her to the Unnamed's castle in the mountains.  Unnamed has led a life of cruelty, greed and immense criminal activity, but seeing the poor unhappy Lucia locked up in one of the cold stony castle dungeons causes him un-looked-for misery.  So over night he changes into a benevolent, helpful soul, willing to do anything to help anyone.  Federigo Borromeo arrives at the village below the Unnamed's castle.  He has a national reputation as a wise, kind soul who is possessed of bounteous generosity.  He arranges for Lucia to enter the service of a local member of the nobility where she'll be safe from the devious lust of Rodrigo.

Lorenzo has gotten tired of not knowing what happened to Lucia or where she is, so, receiving a letter informing him that she is in the convent, he journeys to Milan to find her.  Unfortunately the plague has arrived and people are dying by the thousands.  It was brought by the 27,000 remaining survivors of the Thirty Years War in Germany who, with nothing else to do and no prospects, decided to invade Italy.  Renzo explores Milan, looking for his Betrothed, and finally hears that she can be found in the lazaretto.  This last edifice is a huge fence structure just outside of the city filled with shacks and temporary housing and at this point houses somewhat more than 10,000 ailing sufferers.  Lucia is there helping out where-ever she can and Renzo eventually finds her.  They  both have contracted the disease but survived.  They return to their village and are married by Abbondio, but since Renzo has prospects in Bergamo, they sell their holdings in the village and move there, where they live happily ever after and have lots of kids.

This is a very brief synopsis of this quite long book.  It's pretty famous, having been translated into many languages, and in some respects lives up to its repute.  Manzoni was not a very focussed author;  he rambles a lot in the book, citing histories and statistics and going into detail about the plague in 1630 and the bread riots leading up to it.  The description of the plague and its progress rivals that of DeFoe in his "Plague Year".  His forte is in character analysis and presentation.  He successfully and in very convincing style gets into the motivations and feelings of Lucia and Lorenzo in particular, although he's not so successful in conveying the reason's for the Trumpic rationales of Rodrigo and the Unnamed.  The latter twopretty much just appear to be mindless goons out for whatever they can steal or whoever they can dominate.  And the overnight rehabilitation of the Unnamed is not very believable.  Still, it was an interesting book because Manzoni was a curious person:  the sort that gave the impression of having the potential of becoming a friend or charming dinner companion.  He was probably a fascinating conversationalist and undoubtedly knew a lot about Italian history.

Saturday, December 19, 2020



Charlotte Dacre (1771-1825)

The time is the late fifteenth century.  In Venice, Italy, the di Loredani's are throwing a fete to celebrate Victoria Loredani's birthday.  The Marchese di Loredani had married his wife, Laurina after her having been his mistress for several years.  They had two children, Victoria and Leonardo, who had been brought up haphazardly, and had their characters formed, perhaps adversely, by the proud and pugnacious society of the time.  Affairs of honor, and lax conditions of morality were the prominent features of the somewhat degraded upper classes, the members of which spent most of their time verbally sparring in their constant attempts to establish their superior dignity.  Sometimes they used knives, or swords.

A stranger arrived uninvited at the party.  Charismatic and handsome, Count Ardolph soon attracted the interest of Laurina and the two arranged for a meeting after the celebration.  Ardolph was a veritable Don Juan and Laurina fell madly in love with him.  The Marchese and the Count met on an afternoon stroll, fought with knives and the former was fatally stabbed.  Ardolph persuaded Laurina to run away with him, and Victoria went with them.  Leonardo was disgusted by the whole business and left town for parts unknown.  A villa in the remote hills, Monte Bello was rented by the absconding party and they lived there in isolation, spending much of their time dealing with and participating in affairs organized by the local criminal element.  The presence of Victoria was an inhibition on their illicit activities, so they took her to stay with Signora Modena in Treviso, an unpleasant, rather sadistic old lady who kept Victoria locked up in her room for the most part.  But with the help of a servant girl and the luster of a gold ring, she managed to escape the old crone's clutches and return to Venice.  She had fallen in love earlier with Count Berenza, a Venetian she had met in Monte Bello, and was mad to see him again.  When she arrived, Berenza locked her up in a room and tried to educate her as he was more interested in her brains than her body.  To wit:

"Such was the determination of the reasoning philosopher, whose delicate and fastidious mind made its own food, and took for ever a pleasure in repining upon itself."

In a confused exchange, another interested party, Megalena Strozzi, hires an assassin to kill Berenza because she resents his supposed taking of Victoria as a mistress.  One night Victoria hears a disturbance in Berenza's bedroom and she enters just in time to keep him from being stabbed although she herself is stabbed in the arm.  It turns out that the stabber is her brother Leonardo.  Leonardo, after he fled Venice, found refuge with the Zappi family near Naples, but Zappi's wife fell in love with him so Zappi kicked him out.  After several adventures, including working as a gardener for old Nina, Leonardo returned to Venice where he was befriended by Megalena.  After the assassination attempt, Megalena and Leonardo run away to the island of Capri.

Five years later, Victoria is still living with Berenza when the latter's brother arrives for a visit.  Victoria immediately falls madly in love with him, but he doesn't care.  Driven to desperation, she tries to get Henriquez to pay attention to her but he's already enamored of Lilla, the daughter of a Venetian patrician.  Victoria doesn't know who to kill first:  "dark and dreadful are the intricacies of the human heart".  One night she has a dream in which a tall dark stranger, Zofloya, guides Victoria to a chapel where she sees Lilla die and be replaced by herself,Victoria, and Berenza falls down covered with blood and Henriquez turns into a skeleton.

Spoilers, pretty quick:  Soon Zofloya in person is a constant visitor at Berenza's palace.  He is ostensibly a servant of Henriquez, acquired in Spain when Zofloya was taken captive in the Spanish/Moorish wars. He's a master of secret medicines, an artist in "the morbid refinements of a sickly fancy".  Wearing a white turban, a lot of gold rings and staring at her with lambent dark eyes, Zofloya persuades Victoria he can help achieve her wildest dreams.  He gives her some poison which she uses on Berenza.  He ails and suggests they move lock stock and barrel to a castle he owns in the Apennine mountains where his health might improve.  Once there, Berenza eventually dies, but Henriquez is still in love with Lilla to Victoria's teeth-gritting rage.  So with Zofloya's help, again, they kidnap Lilla and chain her up in a cave in the mountains.  Henriquez is fading away for love for her, so with the aid of Zofloya, Victoria plies him with eye-altering drugs so that he thinks she's Lilla.  They have a nice time together until the dope wears off, then, seeing that his inamorata is not Lilla but Victoria, he falls on his sword, killing himself.

Victoria dashes out and runs to the cave, where she frees Lilla, stabs her, and throws the body over the cliff.  Time passes and a scene opens with Zofloya and Victoria standing on a precipice in the Alps (near Mt. Cenis, actually).  There's a lot of thunder and lightning and the two are accosted by a band of banditti who take them to their lair:  a cave located in a deep canyon.  They are captives but are not treated harshly;  they are under a sort of parole and can walk outside occasionally.   The chief and his  wife wear masks, but Victoria recognizes them anyway.  One day a traveler enters the cave dragging an abused lady with him.  The chief knows him and immediately sticks a knife in him and rescues lady who is his mother, her captor being the Count Ardolph.  She dies soon after and they discover that the Duke of Savoy is on the way with a band of troops to wipe out the bandits.  The chief, Leonardo, and his wife, Megalena, stab themselves and there's a huge earthquake which kills a lot of the bandits.  Zofloya grabs Victoria during the ruckus and takes her to another peak and reveals himself to be Satan, and laughing gleefully while the lightning rages with red light, he throws her over the cliff.

I have to say, regardless of the dated textual material and plot, that Ms. Dacre was a master of prose, in my opinion, anyway.  She had a very large vocabulary and really knew how to use it.  I felt shivers traversing my spine several times while reading some of the more horrifying episodes, in spite of the somewhat, or altogether, "Perils of Pauline" ambience.  She wrote in a time when ladies were not supposed to do that sort of thing, but not only made a success of it (she wrote other books, also), but carved out a path for other literarily inclined women to follow.  I don 't know if any academic studies have been made of her ouvre, but it would be fresh territory for some grad student to investigate...  

I should also say that the main gist of the book had to do with chains of circumstance:  how a single action (in this case, Laurina's decampment with Count Ardolph) led to a whole series of dire events and deaths, with both her daughter and son falling into undisciplined and baneful situations, not to mention Laurina's own demise.  Surely Ms. C meant all of this as an object lesson, but her perhaps overly pedantic purpose was alleviated by the beauty and effectiveness of her prose...  I should also add that the reason i got this book in the first place was that it was supposedly a favorite of Shelley's.  How or if it effected him and his complicated affairs with the opposite sex is open to question...

Sunday, December 13, 2020



P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975)

Richard Usborne (1910-2006)

Sir James Piper, Chancellor of the Exchquer, is disgruntled.  His sister Brenda has made arrangements for them to visit Blanding Castle for a summer soiree, thus bringing to naught his hopes of fishing in Scotland during his vacation.  What's more, he has to take his stepdaughter, Victoria, along with him to get her exposed to some decent people.  And he knows that his nemesis, Sergeant Murchison, will be trailing along with his eyes open for villains of all stripes who may harbor resentment against the Chancellor for any one of a number of reasons.  Other persons belonging to the Threepwood tribe will be present:  Florence, the dowager-in-charge, Diana Phipps, her divorced sister, together with Rollo the son, and probably Galahad will show up in case there are situations to resolve or spare champagne to absorb.  James and Galahad are former members of the Pelican Club, no longer extant, which in former days was a riotous center for wildly uncivilized goings-on, like bread-throwing contests, and marathon wine-bibbing, not to mention undisciplined skirt-chasing.  Clarence, Lord Emsworth, (the freeholder in residence)is "up to his collar stud in the Slough of Despond", mainly because he wants to hire a painter to make a portrait of the Empress, his prize-winning pig, to hang in the art salon even though Florence is dead set against it as being crude and offensive.  Florence and her sisters (all eight, or sometimes ten) are all possessed of stares capable of inducing panic in the hearts of any normal person, particularly if there are intentions or activities anticipated as being against the comportment of members of the upper classes.  Victoria is the niece of Galahad, and as he is interested in her welfare, he begins plotting to assist her romantic designs on Jeff Bennison, a painter with whom she has struck up a friendship.  Jeff taught art at a girl's school run and operated by another Threepwood sister, Daphne, who has just, as the story opens, fired Jeff for, according to Threepwood standards,  moral decrepitude.  Florence dislikes Jeff as well, having discovered at an earlier date that his father Arthur was an inveterate swindler.

As the opening scene presents itself, we see Lord Emsworth "drooping over the Empress's sty like a wet sock", because he can't find a painter who will do a picture of his prize-winner.  Galahad steps to the fore, however, and arranges for Jeff to be invited to the party under a different cognomen.  An ancillary person, Claude Duff, had something to do with Jeff being fired, but he's invited also, as a friend of Daphne's.  Freddie Threepwood may appear at some point, although that's not clear at this point.  Freddie has gotten rich in America as a member of the staff of Donaldson's Dog Joy, a johnny-come-lately nouveau riche corporate entity, with fingers in the purses of English as well as American pet owners.  During a break in the festivities, Galahad meets Chancellor Piper in a local saloon and he confesses his long ago love for Diana and the impossibility of proposing to same because of the eternal indefatigable presence of Murchison.  The latter, by the way, is in love with one of the Blandings maids, Marilynn.  Galahad is not bashful about either his exploits or his problem-solving capabilities.  "I was one of those young men my mother always warned me against".  He is not dissuaded by discovering that Clarence hates Jeff's (now known as Smith the portrait artist) father because he once bilked him out of two thousand pounds.  Finding out that Freddie is in an immediate state of arrival, he side-tracks him and convinces him not to come because he's afraid that Freddie the loud mouth will wreck his plan to marry Victoria and Jeff and James and Diana and Murchison and his maid, and another couple I lost track of.  

Beach (the butler)accidentally locks Jeff out of the house on the first evening and the latter, determined to get in, in order to assuage the feeling of Victoria who's upset because Jeff won't elope with her because he is supposed to paint the Empress, climbs up to an open window (Victoria's as it were) and falls into Victoria's burglar trap:  a collection of golf clubs, cricket wickets, assorted lacrosse cudgels, and several soccer balls.  Claude has stated his love for Victoria, so Jeff is in a condition of distress.  Murchison arrests Jeff(Smith) in the hall because he thinks Sir James is in danger.  Daphne arrives and is about to identify Smith as Jeff;  meanwhile Lord Emsworth is singing a ditty in the piano room about how Americans eat jam with peanut butter.  Brenda and Daphne corner Beach and are trying to get him to oust Smith, and...  the story ends.

It was very unfortunate that P.G. passed on before he could finish this, his last book.  His more or less official biographer and Scholar, Mr. Usborne, adds all of Wodehouse's notes at the finish of the text, and sums up what was most likely the termination of all the plot complexities: four marriages and some sort of solution to the Empress's artistic debut, presumably.  There were eight books written about the Blandings group and their travails, of which this was the last.  They're perhaps they best anxiety relievers ever published;  every stock market entrepreneur or corporate lackey needs to have the complete set to hand with immediate access.  They're even great for the literary itinerant of advanced age, determined to unravel and hack out in some sort of presentable form a precis and/or  indicator of academic worth intended for a peripatetic book blog, haha...

Sunday, December 6, 2020



John Taylor, 1580-1653

In 1618 Mr. Taylor left London on July 14, beginning what he claimed to be a walking trip to Scotland and back.  He took a horse along, but apparently used it just to carry his personal effects.  And he had some money, he just said he didn't use any of it.  He was popularly known as the "Water-Poet", because of his attempt, which he stated was successful, to row 40 miles down the Thames in a paper canoe.  He cheated a bit, though, as he took along nine bladders filled with air for additional support in case his vessel sprang a leak.  Which it did, the bottom falling out after several miles.  Anyway, the first day of walking saw him arriving at The Saracen's Head in Islington.  As was to be his normal means of monetary support, he got one of his friends to foot the bill.  He must have been a personable sort of man, because he had friends all along his route.  Frequently he'd stay at one of their manors for a short period, and accept the services of a guide to the next patron's residence.  The first few days of walking were difficult, due to sore legs.  He said, "My legs I made my oars and rowed by land".

Life wasn't always predictable, however.  Suffering from sore feet on his way to Daventry, he was looking forward to enjoying a jug of beer supposedly left for his refreshment by the local land-owner, but when he got there he found that interested parties had drank it.  Occasionally waxing poetic, he described a night in a field as a bed of soft rushes with a star-studded ceiling for a roof.  On the way north, he traveled on the west side of the Pennine mountains, thus passing through Coventry, Manchester, and Carlisle, then over the Highlands to Edinburgh.  By the time he reached Manchester, he had had to have his horse reshod twice, for some reason;  maybe the first blacksmith didn't do a very good job, as he wasn't getting paid for his work...  Beyond Carlisle it rained a lot and that made the river crossings somewhat dicey.  In Lancaster he was jailed for two days at his own request, just to stay out of the perpetual rain.  Finally reaching Sir John Dalston's estate near the Scottish border, he stayed long enough to dry out, and then, with a guide, waded a quarter mile across the river Esk.  Scotland he found to be somewhat lacking in the nature of its creature comforts.  At one primitive croft he stayed at, the owners insisted on him sleeping in the single bed in the establishment.  The experience introduced him to "Irish mosquitos" (bedbugs).  The guide that was along with him slept on the floor and a pigeon resident in the rafters relieved itself on his face.  In the morning they walked 21 miles to Blythe, wallowing across the Annan river in the process.

His legs were even more sore by the time he arrived at Edinburgh, and he was grateful to fall into the hands of some of his friends.  He toured Arthur's Seat while he was there.  There was a cannon mounted on the upper deck that was so large in diameter that he could crawl into the bore.  He said his companion did also, at the same time, but it was a tight fit.  It had been used to shoot fire balls at the enemy.  Taylor stayed with the Lord of Leith for a while and was happy that the noble gave him eleven shillings.  While staying with the Earl of Culross, the owner talked him into touring his coal mine.  They got into a boat and paddled out to a tower protruding from the sea.  Climbing up and into it, they descended down below the sea bottom into a tunnel that was a mile long and was lit with torches.  Water seeped in through the oozy ceiling and there was a sort of semi-automatic bucket chain to get rid of the excess.  Taylor said he was glad to leave.  

Later, he spent time with several of the Lairds in the Highlands, observing their hunting parties and social gatherings.  The former were arranged to suit crowds of a hundred or more members of the nobility and their retainers.  Shooting parties were shepherded up into a previously selected locale, usually a valley or glen, where villeins had rounded up herds of red deer for the pleasure of their masters who would bang away at them, killing a hundred or more as a rule.  Then the party would return to camp and eat too much and get drunk.  On the way back to Edinburgh, Taylor met the playwright Ben Jonson at Leith.  Jonson was on a trip to visit some of his relatives, and also to drum up some support, probably monetary, from some of his admirers.  Taylor spent quite a bit of time with James Acmooty, the owner of Bass Island, and when James offered to accompany him on his way back to London, he accepted the generous offer.  So the return trip was made considerably less arduous than the previous section had been.  Basically they traveled from one castle to another, with predictable aid and resources each step of the way, arriving in the Capitol on October 15.

This account was written in a rather messy iambic pentameter to begin with, but soon degraded into a kind of doggerel short hand.  Not that it wasn't pretty interesting, especially when Taylor was describing some of the events he was involved with, but the traveling itself was pretty much left to the readers imagination.  Taylor was a popular person in the urban culture of the time, and he knew most of the artistic personages that lived in London, including Shakspeare, Jonson, and many others.  His account of his walk is worth reading, if only because it pretty effectively imparts the social atmosphere of that time and location.  I definitely got the impression that artists of all types, poets and playwrights in particular, could be pretty rowdy.  But it was strange, i thought, that Taylor never said why, exactly, he was trying to do the walk without money.  Maybe it was just a publicity stunt, exactly the sort of thing one would expect that sort of personality to dream up...

Saturday, November 28, 2020



William Morris  (1843-1896)

This is the tale of three pre-medieval kinship groups and their adventures in fending off the cruel and predatory invaders of their country:  the Huns.  The Dusky People as they are entitled in the text have already taken over and despoiled two towns in the vicinity and are about to launch a major offensive to conquer the rest:  Burgdale is the name of the home of the largest group remaining unmolested and the House of the Face is the most important family in the valley which is hemmed in on three sides by mountains and has a river running through it.  Face of God is the name of the young 23 year old who is the principal figure in the novel even though he has an older brother, Hall-Face and a father, Iron-Face.  The "Face" derives from a large image of a grinning warrior located just above the front door.

One morning, FoG (as i decided to call him) decided to take a walk in the woods for several days.  He happens across a log cabin in the woods.  In addition to several hunters of the Woodland clan, he meets a lady named Friend (later known as Sun Beam) and falls in love with her even though he's supposed to be betrothed to a girl back in Burgdale named Bride.  When he gets back, some members of the Shepherd clan come to complain about a raid on Green Toft (one of their thorps) in which a shepherd was killed.  The perpetrators wore wolf skins.  Not much is done about it and soon Yuletide has arrived.  Slughorns blow (I think these are sort of like tubas) and oaths are taken on the Holy Boar(religious symbol).  Fog foretells he will wed the fairest of them all, then goes hunting.  Bride thinks he means her, but...  he meets Bow-May, a huntress from the Wolf clan while being attacked in the woods by Huns, and learns that Friend lives in Shadowy Vale, a hidden enclave of the Wolf clan, who are being threatened by the Huns who have recently overwhelmed Rosedale and Silverdale and turned the kindred(relatives of the Burgdalians) inhabitants into slaves (thralls).  Friend and FoG fall in love but agree to part until next year due to familial complications.  Upon his return,Bride intuits that FoG doesn't love her any more and asks him to give her his second born son when he marries someone else, namely Friend.  So, in the following year, FoG journeys to Shadowy Vale and meets Folk-Might, Friend's brother, and they agree on a plan to eliminate the Hun threat.  They arrange a mass gathering of the three clans, Burgdale, Green Toft, and the Wolf people.  All told, they accumulate about 1500 warriors, and make a plan to attack Silverdale when those citizens are holding their annual market festival.  They sneak through the woods successfully and surround the town on three sides and begin shooting arrows into the market which is jammed full of Huns from the town and also from Rosedale.  After several days of hand to hand combat the kindred emerge victorious and liberate their relatives who take back their town and kill off the few remaining Huns.  The victors return to Burgdale and celebrate.  FoG marries Sun Beam and Folk Might marries Bride.

The above is a very short synopsis of the plot.  The descriptive prose details the size, construction and appearance of the mountains and make clear the reference to the mountains roots, which is Morris's terms for the crests, moraines and ridges that decorate the sides of the mountains surrounding the action and form the main centers around which the adventures occur.  There are lots of creeks and rivers, rapids, lakes, ponds, and cascades, all located in dense forests of fir and pine interspersed with meadows and bushes.  Above the snow line, cliffs and scarps of granite and dolomite predominate, with mountain goats and sheep bounding between the crags.  It's quite a lovely and untouched wilderness:  wonderfully soothing to the reader's imagination.  

I woke up last night wondering about the language used in the book.  It was interlarded with Chaucerian words and sentence structure.  It seemed like Morris was trying to reproduce in some way the phraseology of the Eddas and Sagas he'd recently been studying.  He took a trip at a fairly young age to Iceland where he became enthusiastic about Norse and Icelandic myths and stories about gods and their activities, so it makes sense that when he began this book he might try to imitate the type of literature that had so blown him away on his trip.  And then i thought about mass hypnosis.  And how so much of historical literature bears almost no resemblance to what must have been the actual living conditions of those early times.  Living then must have been pretty miserable for most people, with poor food, primitive housing, lots of unknown diseases, and punitive landlords.  When we read stories about King Arthur, the French contes and the Italian epics about Orlando and others, the whole era seems like a lot of glory and arrogance, but the reality must have been very different for almost everyone.  But those who lived back then must have had their own stories and mythical tales about their own history.  So the conclusion seems to be that humans have never really tried to live in the real world, but have always overlaid it with their suppositions and legends, coloring their lives with blankets of magic and hope.

Which brings me to modern politics and the peculiar fact that so many voters seemingly want a government that impoverishes them and makes their lives more difficult.  And the answer must have something to do with the apparently innate need of humanity to fantasize what they experience in their everyday existences.  Maybe it has to do with our perception of time and it's cruel and irresistible flow;  maybe it's just too harsh to live in.  Or maybe it's the opposite;  that ordinary living is so boring and unexciting that minds grab the mythical covers that decorate their imaginative faculties and pull them over their heads, ignoring the reality.  Or possibly it's just that we never mature to the point that we can face the realities around us and the need to take care of our environment.  Or maybe we are all just not smart enough to do the necessary things to keep our house (the planet) from falling around our ears.  I think tribalism might have something to do with it: leaders and followers are historically the most common jobs, and maybe there's a genetic pull of some sort that predestines us to behave in predictable ways.  I don't know about any of the above, i just speculate, particularly in the middle of the midnight dark when no one in watching, haha...

Saturday, November 21, 2020



 Hugh Lofting (1886-1947)

Mr. Lofting was hunkering down on the front lines in WW1 and trying to write a letter to his family.  He couldn't very well say what was actually happening, as it would have been too shocking, so he decided to tell them a story instead.  And after that letter, another on the same topic soon arrived in England, and...  Upon returning home he collected the letters and wrote the first book about Dr. Doolittle entitled, "The Story of Dr. Doolittle".

Having graduated from medical school, the good doctor was trying unsuccessfully to make a living in the little seaside village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh.  His sister Sarah is living with him and taking care of the house-hold chores, but she's not happy about all the animals inhabiting the cottage.  The Dr. has lots of pets, from white mice to a 186 year-old parrot, Polynesia.  His medicinal practice is declining rapidly and money is becoming scarce, so on the suggestion of the cat food vendor, he decides to specialize in the care and healing of animals.  In pursuit of this decision, he begins to study animal languages.  It's not long until he can communicate with most species and it becomes apparent that he has a natural gift for understanding most sorts, including birds, rabbits, dogs, parrots, and many others.  It doesn't take him long to learn crocodile when a member of that species shows up on his doorstep one day.  Money continues to be scarce, though, and soon Sarah leaves to get married (unwilling to clean up after a crocodile) and he's left alone with his menagerie.  A message arrives one day in the person of a monkey, Chee Chee, who says that Doolittle's skills are badly needed in Africa, as there's a raging epidemic among the population of monkeys on that continent.  Having nothing to keep him in Puddleby, he decides to go there and borrows a ship from a friend and buys a lot groceries, telling the grocer he'd pay him when he got back.  Many animals go along and when they arrive in Africa they induct Chee Chee as guide and he leads them through the jungle to the land of the monkeys.  Except they happen to travel through the territory of Jolliginki whose king hates white people, so he captures them and throws them in jail.  Polynesia convinces the King to release his prisoners by hiding under his bed and pretending to be the Dr. (Parrots can imitate almost anything).  But the King soon discovers he's been tricked and chases the beleaguered party to the edge of a canyon.  Chee Chee gets some of his friends to join hands and to form a bridge to cross the gulf;  a monkey bridge, as it were.  So they all escape and reach the land of the sick monkeys.  The doctor cures them after about three weeks and in appreciation they give him the only known example of a pushmi pulyu, an animal with a head on each end of its body.  Returning the way they came, they are taken by the King's forces again, but the King's son, Bumpo, helps them escape and they arrive at the ship.

Sailing homeward, they are chased by Barbary pirates and are about to be overtaken, when Polynesia enlists the help of a lot of seabirds to pull the ship out of the reach of the buccaneers.  They anchor in the bay of a nearby island but discover to their horror that the ship is sinking and that the pursuers are about to board them.  So when the pirates are otherwise occupied, they sneak aboard that vessel while the pirates are busy looking for loot on the their original ship.  It sinks and the Dr. and friends sail away to safety.  After a few more adventures, they return to Puddleby and the Dr. tours around the vicinity for a while, showing off his pushmi pulyu for which he earns a lot of money to support his expanding animal practice.

The second book is chronologically the second in the series, but was written out of sequence, several years later.  The doctor has been busy taking care of the local animal population.  He's come to know a hermit, Luke, that lives in a shack on the beach.  He's a sort of morose man who eschews company of any sort except that of his bulldog Bob.  One day, Tom Stubbins, the doctor's apprentice, informs the doctor that Luke has been arrested for murder.  Convinced of the man's innocence, the Doolittle talks to Bob and finds out the truth.  He demonstrates his ability to speak dog in the court room and, through the testimony of Bob on the witness stand, he's able to convince the judge and jury that the prisoner in guiltless.  

Later, the doctor receives notice that an old friend, Long Arrow, perhaps one of the most skilled naturalists in the world, has vanished in South America.  Doolitle decides to sail to his rescue and acquires a ship and crew and sets sail for the southern Atlantic.  It's not long before they find several stowaways.  The extra passengers are not wanted, so they stop at the Cape Verde islands to drop them off.  The doctor finds out about a bull fight scheduled the next day and, in order to make a lot of money, he bets the principal matador that he can produce a better show than the professional bull fighter.  He does, of course, after talking to the bulls, and ends up having five bulls in the ring at the same time and demonstrates his total control by having them dance a pavane in the sand.  Doolittle is the hero of the hour and gets a lot of money. Setting sail once more, they are caught in a hurricane and the vessel breaks into two pieces in the storm.  Tom Stubbins wakes up tied to the stub of a mast, still attached to  the deck that was torn from the ship.  He unties himself and Miranda, a Bird of Paradise -a friend of the Dr.and who has just flown over from the continent-tells him the rest of his friends are on another ship fragment and he rejoins them.  With the help of Polynesia and Miranda, they enlist the aid of porpoises to shove them in the direction of Spidermonkey island, where Miranda has learned that Long Arrow was last seen.  Spidermonkey is a floating island, so its exact position is a matter of speculation.  They find the island, however, and the Dr. captures an extremely rare beetle and finds a message wrapped around one of its legs, apparently written by Long Arrow, saying that he and his fellow Indians are trapped in a cave on one of the mountains.  They investigate and discover that a monstrously large sheet of granite has fallen over the entrance to the cave, trapping the spelunkers inside.  So the doctor with the help of the crew undermine the soft base that the stone is resting on, causing it to slide a sufficient distance to allow the trapped sufferers to escape.  

The augmented group comes in contact with the Popsipetel tribe, indigenous residents of the island, and become instant friends.  They are a small tribe, several hundred, and are being bullied by a much larger tribe, the Bag-jagderags.  After some unsatisfactory inter-tribal exchanges, the latter attack the former and Long Arrow is wounded, but the conflict is resolved by Polynesia communicating with a flock of about a million black parrots who attack the Bag-jagderags, landing on their heads and pecking slices out of their ears, resulting in instant panic on the part of the aggressors.  Thus the war is won, and through the gentle offices of the doctor, the two tribes become friendly and cease hostilities.  Exploring the island further, the small party of animals and naturalists circle the island by boat and climb a latent volcano.  They find a giant slab of rock balanced on the edge of the caldera, and realize that it could fall in with a very slight tremor of the surrounding formation.  This leads to some speculation on why the temperature seems to have been decreasing ever since they arrived on the island, and they come to the conclusion that the island is floating south and will soon be in the land of the icebergs.  So Dr. D gets some porpoises to search for a pod of whales to push the island back into the tropic zone.  

After moving North for a while, the doctor is elected chief of the island and during a celebration ceremony, a loud cheer arises from the united tribes consisting of thousands of islanders.  The resulting vibrations cause the slab of rock teetering on the edge of the volcanic crater to fall in and soon afterwards the people hear a loud whooshing sound and the island begins to sink.  Dr. Doolittle theorizes that the island was only floating because it was originally part of a continental shelf that broke off all in one piece and trapped a huge bubble of air underneath it as it sank.  So when the slab of rock hit the bottom of the crater it allowed all the air to escape and the island started descending.  But fortunately they were close enough to the South American mainland that it settled on the ocean bottom before being swallowed by the sea.

The doctor spends two years organizing and building a civilization for the united tribes, but begins to feel homesick.  Polynesia  plots to get him away and enlists the porpoises to find the Great Glass Sea-Snail, the only one of its kind in the world.  If they can convince the Snail to give them a ride home, they'll be able to leave the island.  So the plan is put into operation and the doctor, being reminded of the comforts of home, with hot cocoa and a fireplace, agrees to go home.  The giant Snail lifts up the edge of its shell, the travelers enter with suitable amounts of supplies, and they find themselves crawling along the bottom of the ocean, headed for Puddleby.  Since the Snail's shell is transparent, they can observe the vast deserts, mountains, caverns, and creatures along the way, and a fine time is had until their ultimate arrival at the Doctor's house.  Where they sit down in front of a cozy fire, drink cocoa and reminisce.

The first book was written to appeal to children:  rather simply, with easily comprehended descriptions and actions, but the second one was very much like any adventure tale of that era.  I read all these books when i was very young, about ten i think, and they eased my life and inspired my imagination in significant ways.  So, since i'n entering my second childhood anyway, i thought i'd reread the first couple of them and share....  They're excellent fodder for housebound children and adults alike and i hope they may be new to some and a pleasant reread for others...

Saturday, November 14, 2020


Lewis Carroll (1832-1898)

Note:  lots of spoilers in this article

Mr. Tibbets had just arrived home after a hard day's toil.  Entering his library, he relaxed into his favorite chair and reached for a book.  There was something in his way.  A filmy sort of half-seen and rather formless miasma was apparently standing next to his chair.  When he noticed it, it spoke to him, explaining that he was a ghost, a phantom actually, and he'd come to do a bit of haunting.  He'd been assigned this house because it had been recently vacated by the former occupant due its poor quality wine and paltry offerings in the way of sustenance.  And he went on to explain the five rules of etiquette that applied to basic houses and simple forms of ghost.  Pulling off sheets in the middle of the night was done from the center, not the ends;  illumination by red or blue light only;  no contradicting ghostly victim;  no trespassing on other spirits territory;  and hosts shall be addressed as "Sir".  As said, he was actually a phantom, but there were many other types of spirit, including spectres, goblins, kobolds, elves, sprites, etc.  Transportation was a difficult subject:  some forms were permitted to fly, but phantoms had to walk.  Speaking of which, Tibbet's phantom made a subtle reference to his weariness and mentioned that food and drink were not rejected by any sort of phantasm.  Mr. Tibbets, prodded into hospitality, suggested a bit of duck and a mild wine, which presently arrived.  The duck apparently satisfied, but the wine didn't.  The bottle flew through the air, impacting Tibbets on the nose.  Quietly whining to itself, the ghost grumbled about former discomforts, about sitting on fence posts and eating buttered toast, and began to reveal some of his history.

His father was a brownie and his mother was a fairy.  He had had many siblings to compete with, a troll, a pixie and others and he was made to practice squeaking and gibbering  at a very early age.  His career began at the age of six, learning about sheets, chain clanking, light flickering and the other arcane mysteries associated with haunting.  Learning how to "trim" a house required a lot of study:  how to loosen door hinges so they creaked, where to place small holes in the walls to enable cold drafts, sitting on sleeping victims to make them choke, and a myriad other tricks and ploys to create panic and alarm.

Mr. Tibbets and his ghost got along along fairly well after a while.  They took a little time out to contemplate Sam Johnson's famous words:  "in union is strength but onions are a weakness".  In order to formalize their relationship, the ghost asked Mr. Tibbets his name, which not been previously alluded to.  Upon hearing "Tibbets", the ghost turned white and became irate, suddenly realizing he had entered the wrong house.  He'd been looking for the residence of Mr. Tibbs, not Tibbets.  He started raving about a four mile walk in the rain and the mud all for nothing and it was all Tibbets' fault.  After raging for a short while, the ghost apologized to "old turnip-top" and walked off through the wall.  Mr. Tibbets wondered who Tibbs might be, while taking a fortifying draft.  He sang a solemn Coronach and mused that he was too old for a parallelepiped and fell asleep.

This was a poem, of course, and it was the first installment of a number of others in the same volume:  "Phantasmagoria and Other Poems", as it was first published.  Some of the others were humorous also, like the Melancholetta about whale blubber, the "Three Voices", Atalanta in Camden (spoofing Swinburne), Four Riddles (complicated), Tema Con Variazione, etc.  Reading these verses i couldn't help but think of other humorists, Lear, Wilde, Swift, Moliere and its hard to believe that they all didn't read and interact with each other, taking bits and pieces from one source or another and reshaping them, using different sorts of plaster before cementing them into their own works...  At any rate, Lewis shows his true genius in these poems;  he had a truly original mind...

Tuesday, November 10, 2020



John Buchan, Baron Tweedsmuir (1875-1940)

Adam Melfort was accused of forgery and is on trial in London.  He had covered for his wife Camilla, who, in her mindless quest for more money, altered the amount on a check and then cashed it.  Adam said he made her do it.  He received a two year sentence and Camilla divorced him.  While in jail, he dreamed a lot about his son who died at five years of age, and of an island they had vacationed on, Eilean Ban, just off the coast of Scotland.  Visions of himself and his son pacing over the flower and grass covered meadows while listening to the eternal rustle of the nearby sea occupied some of his waking moments and permeated his dreams while sleeping.  These imaginings were a sort of refuge for him, and he also resorted to them at tense periods in his later life.  Meanwhile, he learned languages because he was interested in them and suspected they might come in handy after he became free.  Adam was an expert in military affairs and the economic and social forces that led to war.

Upon his release, he was contacted by the British Intelligence service (this all took place several years before the first world war) and hired as a double agent and spy behind the lines during the war.  He was stationed in Belgium at first, disguised as a dense farm laborer who traveled around in his spare time, observing train schedules and troop movements.  Later he was stationed in Germany proper where he had a cover as a traveling salesman from Denmark.  He had some close calls but managed to make it through the war relatively unharmed.  Back in England, he waffled around a bit until he was hired as a leader of an exploration team that was intent on reaching the north shore of Greenland.  Traveling by dogsled, he and a companion made their way north over the glacial terrain.  One purpose of their trek was to search for a man, Falconet, who had disappeared while attempting the same journey the year before.  After accidents and fighting starvation, they arrived at their destination and discovered Falconet on the verge of death from the cold and lack of food.  They nursed him back to a degree of health and started on their return.  Adam's partner stole some food while the other two were sleeping and left them to starve, but they ate some dogs and, proceeding on foot, eventually caught up with him but he was dead.  On the verge of extinction themselves, they were rescued at the last minute by a fishing smack that picked them up and returned them to civilization.

In England, Adam became interested in three friends, members of the aristocracy, who seemed in positions of power sufficient to influence the future development of British policies.  Adam now viewed his role in life as a sort of tutor or assistant whose purpose was to manipulate the forces of labor, finance, and religion to achieve a more democratic and egalitarian society.  Over a period of years, he watches the careers of his friends, guiding their ambitions and successes, until all three more or less quit doing what he wants them to and, unpredictably, hare off in directions of their own.  Adam is a bit depressed by all this, but he resorts to dreaming about Eilean Ban and his son Nigel, until he meets another major player, Loeffl, who also happened to have been an officer in the German army who interviewed him in the last war.  The two of them talk about future events and they realize that much of what will or might happen in the world is in the hands of the richest man in the world, Creevey.  So they evolve a plot to get Creevey by himself so they can bend his ear about what they think he should be doing to save mankind.

After some initial finagling, they arrange to have Creevey kidnapped and flown to a deserted valley in the Italian Alps instead of to England, which he has been told is the airplane's destination.  The pilot of the plane pretends that there's some engine trouble and he has to land to repair it, but when his passenger leaves the plane to visit a local hotel, he revs up the engine and takes off, leaving Creevey all by himself in the abandoned hotel.  Meanwhile, a gang of thugs from Germany (Nazi types), interested in preventing Adam from talking to the kidnapee, are racing toward the valley, hoping to murder or abduct Creevey before Adam can arrive.  Adam drives the long way around, parking north of the valley, and sets out on foot to reach the hotel.  He climbs up a pass and descends 4,000 feet  and gets there just in time to rescue the intended victim.  He not only finds Creevey at the hotel, but his girl friend (Adam's) as well;  she'd driven there to surprise Adam.  The three know that the bad guys are about to arrive, so they retrace Adam's route.  The Nazis are just behind them, firing machine guns occasionally and, since they are tough, they are just about to overhaul the three, when Adam (spoiler) rolls a huge boulder over the trail, blocking the escape route.  Unfortunately, he's on the wrong side of the boulder while the other two are on the right side, and the book ends with the sound of gunfire.

This was a long tome, extended mainly by a large portion of it being devoted to a description of Adam's three friends and their attempts to make good in English society:  the parties, dances, political dealings, excursions and vacations.  Unlike the other Buchan books i've read, this one seemed a bit more autobiographical, dealing a lot with governmental policies and parliamentarianism as well as with adventures on the ice and in the Alps.  It was a later book than some of the others, and reflected, i think, some of Buchan's involvement with politics and long range administrative  planning.  Buchan was governor-general of Canada, after all, and the possessor of a trunk full of decorations and medals, so his interests stemmed from and were related to his aspirations and activities in the governmental sense.  Also, he seemed (and it was more evident in this book than in others) to like the idea of great geniuses determining the future, saving the dumb human race from itself by manipulating world markets and economies.  I have opinions about all this, but, unlike Buchan, am trying to keep them to myself.  So, as it might appear above, i didn't think a whole lot of this book;  his earlier ones are a lot better, imo, of course...

Saturday, October 31, 2020


Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927)

Jerome was born in Walsall, Staffordshire, the son of a coal mine owner who had visions of grandeur.  He managed to get rid of most his wife's money (she had some) trying to expand his pit mine, then building a church (they were loyal Puritans), and attempting to recoup his losses through iron mongering.  He had ambitions as an architect but failed to realize them and at length was forced to move his family to London, where he took a job at 100 lbs/year.  Jerome became fascinated with London life at an early age and wandered the streets by himself for years before he was sent to Marylbone Grammar School.  He commuted by train or by hitching rides on the back of passing carriages, as the school was on the other side of London.  He did fairly well and had no horror stories of beatings or egregious chastisements.  The hours were nine to three five days a week and learning was encouraged, as opposed to sporting activities.  

"Education is the most important thing in the world, and most mismanaged, which accounts for the continued low intelligence of the human race."

Occasionally the family made excursions into the rural areas surrounding London and Jerome learned interesting things from the local natives:  how to tickle trout, using a slingshot ("not very efficient at annoying birds or cats, but great for windows").  He met a lot of tramps and penurious travelers from whom he learned obscure ways to survive without money or food.  These lessons were useful in later life.  

Jerome left school at fourteen, in part because his father died, and he needed to help support his mother and sisters.  He was hired as a clerk for the London and Northwest Railroad at 26 lbs/year.  Then his mother died and his sisters moved away or married, so Jerome was left alone.  He moved around a lot, and took advantage of his employer's gift of four free tickets a year to visit places he didn't know.  Liverpool was a favorite.  He got acquainted with the different levels of society, attending boxing matches and the theater, touring the Tower of London, and learning the social habits:  smoking and drinking.  He wasn't very good at drinking, disliking most of the tipples except porter, with which he gained a certain amount of familiarity.  The Londoners drank a lot in those times;  a sober person walking the street was apt to be stared at and accosted by pushy drunks.

Jerome became interested in literature and did a little writing, but lost enthusiasm after a while as the literary agents were mostly fat and dirty people.  He quit the Railroad business after a while and became a poster hanger for a theatrical outfit, which inured him to traveling and dealing with sometimes obstreperous persons upon occasion.  Soon he was offered roles in touring repertory companies.  He learned how to live on almost no food and how to sleep in stables and doss houses:  traveling theatrical organizations didn't pay very much and sometimes not at all.  But Jerome became proficient in mastering roles on short notice;  he once said he played every role in Hamlet except Ophelia.

After a few years, he got a job as a reporter in London, being paid 3.5 cents a line.  He was hired in part because he'd learned shorthand.  He started writing theater reviews and even tried teaching in a small boarding school.  He taught Math, English, and sports for a semester and then went through a number of jobs.  He was secretary to a builder, a commission agent(he bought things for people), a parliamentary agent(helping push bills through parliament), and worked in a solicitor's office at which, between other duties, he was hired to manage Ouida's financial affairs (she was a spendthrift without limit).  Finally, after filling waste paper baskets with rejected poems and short stories, he found time to write a book:  "On the Stage - and Off".  The reviews of it were not too encouraging.  Max Beerbohm was angry with him for writing it;  Punch said it was vulgar;  the National Observer panned it;  and The Standard newspaper declared it was a menace to the world of English Letters.  Jerome's second book, "Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow" was a big improvement and sold well.

Jerome knew or became acquainted with many of the literati of the era:  Shaw, Wells, Eden Phillpotts, Oscar Wilde, Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard,  Brett Harte, Arthur Machen, Israel Zangwill and his brother (they both wrote books), Sarah Bernhardt, George Moore, and many more.  James Barrie was very quiet, William Gilbert was fond of Turkish Baths, Rider Haggard was serious, H.G. Wells was shy until he started talking, then he was unstoppable;  George Moore was a kind person, George Gissing was the nervous type, and Twain was poor, but unpredictable:  he could be an elderly droll person, or come across as a young reformer.

Jerome wrote lots of plays and many of them were produced.  "Paul Kelver", a drama about his own experiences, was well received.  Some of his plays were taken around the world, playing in America, China, Australia, and other places.  He collaborated with Eden Phillpotts on "The MacHaggis"and some other plays.  He got a job managing a theater for six months, succeeding fairly well because of Bram Stoker's advice to avoid at all costs the temptation to actually manage anything.  Other plays that were popular were "The Passing of the Third Floor Back", "The Great Gamble", and "Miss Hobbs".  He was hired to edit a popular magazine, "The Idler" and it became a large success.  Rudyard Kipling got mad at him because he had wanted the job himself.  

Jerome seemed to enjoy traveling:  he spent quite a bit of time in pre-war Germany and got to know the German people who he found to be kind-hearted and generous.  But even in the Edwardian period, the streets were occasionally dominated by Prussian-type soldiers who shoved citizens off the sidewalks and generally behaved in a Trumpian manner, appropriating food and drink and bulldozing their way through urban society.  

Jerome made three trips to America, lecturing in cities all over the continent.  He was appalled at the treatment of black persons in the South, but got along well in almost every other area.  He also took vacations to the Alps, where he learned to skate and ski with such varied companions as Kipling and Doyle, but not with W.W. Jacobs who he recognized as a meticulous writer, but in his own words, "to tired to take vacations".  He toured Russia;  when he got off the train, several "huge, bearded ursine behemoths" kissed him and threw him around for a while in order to express their delight in his presence.  Jerome maintained that foreign languages were easy to master;  he claimed that twenty sentences would enable a tourist to get along in any European country.  He thought Bavarians used less than 300 words in ordinary, run-of-the-mill conversation.

He liked sports a lot and rode horses whenever he got the chance.  Boating was a gay affair until Edward came to the throne at which time it became socialized and not much fun.  Croquet was his nemesis:  the only game in which the harder you tried the worse you got;  the most successful players being children who didn't pay any attention to where the ball was going but seemed nevertheless to win every game.  Jerome once had to retrieve a ball from a nearby field and was chased by a bull before he could get back over the fence.

After the war began, Jerome, age 55, got a job driving ambulance at the front.  He described in some detail the rain, mud, lack of food, destroyed villages, the shrieking cannonry, the danger and the pathetic and tragic victims that he carried to safety.  This was toward the book's end, and he seemed, even in print, to have been traumatized by his experiences.  He finished by recording his feelings about religion and its relation to reality:  a pessimistic but, to him, logical conclusion that apparently afforded him some relief and satisfaction.

In some respects, this book was a telescopic vision of London society at the end of the Victorian era.  As those readers who are familiar with the "Three Men in a Boat" might predict, his prose style is replete with subtle and  ingrained wryness, humorous and penetrating at the same time.  I've never seen one of his plays, but from what i've read they're clever, pointed and highly entertaining.  The book was a lot of fun, the information about the peculiarities of some of the chief members of British literary history being illuminating, in particular as regards the theatrical world of that time.  I was surprised that P.G Wodehouse was not mentioned, but perhaps he lived just a little bit later.  It's difficult, however, especially after having become more familiar with Jerome's style of humor, not to feel that Wodehouse's style might have been influenced a lot by Jerome's.  At any rate, Jerome was a fabulously funny and witty person, and his associations with some of the major lights of that era were very interesting...

Saturday, October 24, 2020


Elizabeth Mackintosh (AKA Gordon Daviot and Josephine Tey, 1896-1952)

Henry Morgan was a farmer's son in Wales who left his family at about the age of fifteen and traveled as a deck hand to the West Indies.  He found work on Barbados working for a sugar plantation owner, who initially hired him on a four-year contract.  After two years, however, the owner became insolvent and was forced to let his hired help go, and to free his slaves.  This all took place in the 1650's, during the sporadic clashes between England, Spain, Holland and France.  The major conflicts involved the first two countries, but loyalties shifted frequently and resulted in a generally confused series of alliances that clouded the legal status of many of the 1200 to 1500 privateers and pirates operating in the vicinity.

Released from his job without recompense, Henry became associated with a group of unemployed sailors and hunters who were living off the land and casting about for work.  Their encampment was located near a fresh water creek not too far from the ocean, and passing ships often stopped to replenish their water barrels.  On one occasion, a Spanish ship stopped in the little bay and Henry convinced his compatriots that they should capture it.  So they did, Henry being the first to sneak aboard via the use of moss covered grapnel hooks (to make them silent).  The invaders only numbered 11 men, while a large number of Spanish seamen were engaged in drinking, sleeping, eating, and ignoring their responsibilities in general.  It was in the middle of the night, so the sentries were silenced and the rest of the crew cowed by the sudden assault.  The successful acquisition emboldened the new owners to cement their triumph by sending the former possessors on shore;  then they made sail and headed for Tortuga, a sort of free port where any ship was allowed to anchor, provided they had sufficient funds for satisfying the local merchants.  The ship actually was owned by Henry, as the usurpers had discovered a cache of pearls hidden in the main cabin wainscotting.  The wealth had been shared equally among the new owner/operators, but since Henry wanted sole command, he traded his share to the rest of his mates in return for proprietorship.  The lading was a cargo of logs which they sold profitably to a local carpenter.

Jack Morris, one of Henry's friends, wanted a ship, also, so they sailed back to Barbados in hopes of getting the local governor, Lord Modyford, to issue them Letters of Marque, so they could legally detain Spanish ships.  But on the way they saw the "City of Seville" crossing their bows, so they came about and fired a broadside into her, trusting that the "City" would be angered enough to chase them, so they could later declare that they were only defending themselves if they were accused of taking the ship in an act of piracy.  So Jack got his ship and the two vessels decided to go to the Isle of Pines just south of Cuba. After loading two cargoes of logs, the ships sailed to Port Royal in Jamaica.  Lord Modyford had just been appointed governor of that island and Henry wanted to obtain Letters of Marque from him to legalize his standing as a privateer.  Privateers were considered a step above mere pirates.  Modyford was not in a position to offer them the legal protection that they were seeking, but he indicated that since the island of Santa Catalina had been taken by the Spanish, they might want to take it back;  Modyford's son had recently been killed by the Spanish and this possibly accounted for his permissive suggestion.  This island was situated in the locus of many routes through the Caribbean and was of value for its location as a control point of said routes.  Attacking at night they found that the few soldiers present had decamped and they were able to establish a permanent English presence with some of the sailors settling there permanently.   

Returning to Port Royal, Henry married his cousin Elizabeth and bought a plantation.  He immersed himself in domestic activities for a while, but soon started dreaming about more conquests.  Porto Bello was the shipping point for all the wealth that Spain had stolen on the west coast of the Americas, so was a logical next objective for investigation.  Assembling a fleet of nine ships and 400 men, he sailed to Cuba.  A force was landed on the mainland and, marching inland for thirty miles, they had a clash with Spanish troops who had been informed of their arrival by a seven year old boy.  They feted him later for his courage and resourcefulness at such a young age..  Back at the beach, they chopped up the cows for later food on the Porto Bello expedition.  A drunk sailor, a friend of Henry's, killed one of their French allies and Henry shipped him back to Port Royal for trial, re-affirming to all his interest in justice regardless of race, color, or creed.

The assault on Porto Bello went off without a hitch.  The first fort was abandoned by the Spanish soldiery which allowed the assailants to travel through the jungle to the  back of the town and take it without any resistance being encountered.  They found lots of treasure, and some of the men who had been left on Santa Catalina island were in the dungeons in a fearful state as a result of the Spanish retaking that island.  Bitter hatred against the Spanish was fomented in the invading forces because of their cruelty and avarice.

After another rest period in Port Royal, Henry next organized an expedition to Maracaibo, a large lake in Venezuela around which were located towns with lots of wealth.  The entry to the lake was through a narrow inlet that was guarded by a well-armed fort with alert sentries.  They weren't so alert when Henry's forces were going in, but after assaults of several of the local towns, they were itching for a showdown when the invaders began to leave.  Since the commandant in charge of the fort was familiar with Henry's tactic of attacking from the inland side of towns and forts, he decided to point all his cannon toward the surrounding jungle and provide Henry with a surprise of his own.  But, foxlike, Henry switched his plans and sailed through the straits without losing a ship.

Finally, Henry began planning the invasion for which he has been most famous:  the raiding of Panama City on the western side of the isthmus.  After gathering his ships and men, he sailed to Santa Catalina and reconquered it, then landed on the east coast of Panama and unloaded 1200 men and supplies and began canoeing upriver through the jungle.  They had to get out and chop their way on foot for most of the trip, suffering from hunger, fever, and multitudes of snakes and insects.  They reached the city in parlous condition, only to find tiers of government troops in elegant uniforms ready to repel the weary and suffering assailants.  But when the first shot was fired, the Spanish troops bolted:  they were untried and inexperienced soldiers who were poorly trained.  The governor of the city bolted also, but not before burning the city to the ground, save for the stone buildings.  So there was not nearly as much treasure as the privateers had been hoping to find.  This resulted in grumbling and cast a shade on Henry's reputation.

Back in Port Royal, after a period of rest and recuperation, Henry and Modyford were recalled to London to answer for their extra-legal enthusiasms.  Modyford was temporarily confined in the Tower of London and Henry was vilified by the press until it became clear that he had acted in the best interests of the crown and the state.  Henry met King Charles II and was knighted for his energies in the West Indies and Modyford was freed.  They both returned to Jamaica where eventually Henry was appointed governor.

This was the penultimate book that Ms. Mackintosh wrote.  Well written, of course, and, in the first hundred pages especially, contained the turns of phrase for which she is well known: speaking of the West Indian atmosphere:  "In other climes light is a negative thing, a mere absence of darkness.  But in the islands when the fronds of the palm trees move in the wind the light runs in and out among them like a live thing.  So now when the restless island wind played with the kerchiefs and the petticoats the light, too, danced and ran, and the crowd moved continuously, like a field of flowers in the sun".  She can make scenes vivid in just a few words.  Toward the second part of the book, though, the language became a bit more pedestrian, as if Ms. M was in a hurry to finish her work.  Since she died from cancer and was writing in her last few years, her ebullience and esprit may have been, as one would expect, curtailed.  Still, it was an interesting book, with well depicted and adventurous action scenes in addition to her poetic and enlightening effusions.  I'd not say that this work was on a par with the Alan Grant series, but it held my interest and provoked my curiousity...

Saturday, October 17, 2020



Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

This is the fictionalized history of David Alroy, a member of a group of Hebrews who were captive in the city of Hamadan, Iran, in the twelfth century.  David's uncle, Bostenay, was known as the Prince of the Captivity, being the leader of a Jewish enclave that existed among the general Muslim population as merchants and tradespersons, lace-makers, iron-mongers and the like.  At the opening of the book, David was just about to be crowned as the new "Prince of the Captivity".  Bostenay, his uncle, wanted to retire and also wanted to honor David who was the reputed descendant of sacred kings of Jerusalem.  After the ceremonies and panoply celebrating David's installation, he interviews the Caliph Alschiroch, the governor of the city, outside the city walls, during which conversation Alschiroch becomes incensed at David's anti-slave attitudes and leaves precipitously.  Wandering about, David enters a large coliseum and sees his sister Miriam being accosted by the Caliph.  David seizes a large piece of wood and brains Alschiroch, killing him dead.  Then he tells his sister to go home and mounts Alschiroch's horse and dashes off into the desert, a place of "iron soil and brazen sky".  After several days of mad dashing David reaches the Elbuz mountains and finds a well at which he slakes his thirst.  His horse dies and David climbs the slopes to the top, finding a deep ravine barring his way.  He picks up a rock and finds a steel plate underneath that he lifts up, and, withdrawing a long chain stored within, he throws it across the gulch and it sticks to the other side, being magnetic.  David dances across and meets Jabaster, who lives in a cave and is a cabalist and is one of David's former teachers.  Jabaster lectures him for a while on his idiocy, then gives him a magic talisman to hang around his neck.  That night David dreams of vast armies warring against each other and himself leading one of the hosts in a golden chariot drawn by "strange beasts".  Jabaster tells him the next morning that in order to become the conquerer that he had dreamed he was, he would have to obtain the scepter of Solomon, a token of his descent from that race of kings, and that he would find it near Jerusalem. 

So David sets off on foot through the desert, heading toward Bagdad.  On the way he discovers a vast ruined city, abandoned and decayed, standing by itself in the middle of the wasteland.  A group of bandits seizes him and are about to do him in, when their leader, Scherirah, recognizes him as a fellow Jew and befriends him.  They swear eternal friendship and David continues on to Bagdad where he meets Honain, the brother of Jabaster.  Honain is a doctor and a well-respected person in Bagdadian society.  He's called to the palace of the Caliph to see Schirene, the Caliph's daughter, who is ailing.  David is along for the ride.  Schirene is taken with him and gives him a rosary to remember her by.  They fall in love, but David, intent on his mission, leaves Bagdad and begins walking to Jerusalem, still following the indications of his magic talisman.

Arriving in Jerusalem, he meets Maimonides who tells him of the lost tombs of the ancient Jewish kings somewhere in the vicinity.  Sleeping one night outside the city walls, he has a long complicated dream in which he travels through hidden caverns and crosses subterranean lakes until he finds himself at the foot of a 400 foot high brazen gate.  It creaks open and after entering, David walks along a corridor guarded by statues of kings until he reaches an ivory staircase.  Seated at the top is a stature of Solomon, holding a golden scepter.  David climbs up and Solomon gives him the scepter and then David wakes up with the scepter in his hand.

David returns to Bagdad and, with the help of the band of bandits, conquers the city and begins making plans to subjugate the entire middle east.  Through clever generalship and with the aid of friends, and the killing of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, he accomplishes his goal.  

(spoilers ahead)  David and Jabaster disagree about how to govern the conquered nations.  David wants to accept all religions and conduct a civilized and prosperous empire but Jabaster wants to kill everyone who isn't Jewish.  David marries Schirene and establishes a domestic court, much to the chagrin of Jabaster.  Mrs. David doesn't like the latter and has him imprisoned and he strangles himself in desperation.  Eventually a Turkish warlord named Alp Arslan gathers a large enough army that he reconquers David's empire, and takes him captive.  He spends a lot of time in a dungeon and at the last, after being led to the place of execution, he taunts Arslan beyond the limit of his self control and Arslan grabs his scimitar and beheads him.

I couldn't decide whether Disraeli was telling this story to point out the futility of conquest and ambition, or whether he was in admiration of this Jewish ancestor for his attempt at establishing a civilized state.  At the end it did seem as if he was assuming a wry attitude concerning the history he'd just finished relating, as the tale had an abrupt termination with David's head being lopped off.  But that's not unprecedented in Disraeli's work;  his first book, Vivian Grey(Alroy was his fifth or sixth) had the hero being blown to smithereens at the ending, as well.  I sort of got the feeling with this one that he was perhaps tired of writing it.  But he's a master at describing scenery and ornate oriental palaces, with an enormous vocabulary and a vivid imagination;  I've not read another author who could produce this sort of evocation in quite the way that Disraeli can.  It's not remarkable that he was a very popular author in his day.  I want to thank (Majoring in Literature) for suggesting this book...

Saturday, October 10, 2020


Eden Phillpotts (1862-1960)

Professor Felix Toddleben was a British expert on Lacerta, a genus of reptiles, mainly lizards of the iguana type.  After a long career, he retired to his country estate, Applewood, with his sister Nora and her daughter Mildred.  He entertained himself with dabbling in physics and in supervising the management of his forty acres of garden and woods.  They lived a peaceful and idyllic existence for the most part;  the professor noted once, that "idleness promotes happiness, allowing mental fermentation".  Rex the Great Dane usually participated in the general ambiance as a rule, but one night about 2 a.m. he began barking when there was a loud explosion in the garden, accompanied by a brilliant flash of light.  Dashing outdoors, the professor observed a large round hole in the back yard.  Smoke was issuing from it and its circularity and high temperature indicated that either a meteor had landed, or that imminent volcanism was about to overwhelm the surrounding area.  As the manse was situated in a non-volcanic region, the former premise seemed evident.  So in the morning arrangements were made to disinter whatever laid at the bottom of the 20' hole.  Several workmen on the estate, after some hours of struggle, managed to raise what resembled a giant metallic bullet about 7 feet long and 5 feet in diameter.  Examined in detail, the investigators spotted what appeared to be faint lines around the outside of the object, and by dint of effort, prying with crowbars, they succeeded in opening up the vessel.  Inside were found three small metal boxes.  One held some seeds and another contained a large egg, but the third had simply another box in it.  The professor identified the egg, light blue and leathery, as belonging to the Lacerta genus.  The seeds were apparently meant to provide food for the hatchling, while the remaining box held an assortment of vari-colored leaves.

Felix and Nora planted the seeds and placed the egg in a warm spot next to the fire place.  The seeds grew rapidly and the egg eventually produced a lizard with a very large head and enormous eyes.  His body was dark green with a red crest and dewlaps. The professor had a small addition built onto his house, with a sort of bed and desk and several chairs, and when the lizard, Saurus (named by Felix) was larger, they moved him into it.  Saurus was immediately observed to have extraordinary intelligence, although he was both deaf and dumb.  They acquired a small typewriter which Saurus soon learned to operate, enabling him to communicate with his human keepers.

Meanwhile, Mildred, who worked in London for the War office, had fallen in love with a Russian escapee (this was in the 1930's) named Serge Boluski, who had mysterious  antecedents and connections in the London underworld.

Saurus was soon found to have a brilliant mind, and was a voracious reader, devouring books by the wheelbarrow load.  He wore clothes, slept in his little bed (he was only about 2 and a half feet tall) and absorbed mathematics, literature, and reams of scientific texts.  It was not long before he was able to converse with his landlord, and Felix learned that he originated on the asteroid Hermes, located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.  They discovered that Saurus lived in a different time scale than humans, his life span being much shorter.  He would become old and die in about a year.  He showed no desire to visit the outside world, but was devoted to his literary and scientific researches, learning all he could about humans and their world.  Mildred, as well as her uncle, spent a lot of time with him and learned a lot.  They also found out that Saurus could read minds.  He couldn't transmit thoughts, but could receive them if they were directed at him;  from any distance, seemingly.  He didn't like to be touched and had an eidetic memory:  he never forgot anything.  Naturally he regarded himself and his race as superior to humans in every way, and demonstrated that conclusion whenever he had the chance.  He opined that "humanity was amazingly wicked, unreasonable and intolerant".  And his often repeated query was "why a conscious being, potentially good, contented to grovel in a mire of evil".  After reading all the books on philosophy he could access, he came to the realization that the only saving grace that might turn the human race around, would be the universal adaptation of the Golden Rule: "do unto others as you would have them do unto you".  But he realized that the chances of that occurring were almost zero.

One night, Saurus was awakened by a thought transmission from Mildred.  She'd been kidnapped by her fiancee and was being held in a seedy London rooming house.  Her captors had tied her up and were threatening torture to make her reveal secrets learned from her job with the War Office.  She had bragged to Serge, exaggerating her involvement in the clandestine operations of her superiors, so he was anxious to return to Germany with important revelations.  But due to Saurus's help, she was soon rescued by the police and the perpetrators were cast into prison.

The balance of the book described Saurus's opinions on good versus evil, the roles of individuals and the problems of gregariousness and how benevolence is so frequently overwhelmed by greed and the lust for power.  Saurus was most attracted to Buddhism, as it held peace to be the primary need and possession of man.  He compiled a sort of thesis which he gave to Felix, describing his thoughts about man's fight with hypocrisy:  basically, force outbids reason in humanity, quantity is valued over quality, freedom is willingly exchanged for slavery, and, most tellingly, competition is merited over co-operation.

Discussions with various persons of status are recorded;  bishops, lawyers, teachers and other philosophers, but Saurus's opinions are not shaken and his intellectual realizations are not altered.  After talking to him for several days, Mildred told him:  "Better to hope and fear like us, than never do either like you."  Toward the end of his life, Rex is his only companion, as Felix and Nora are upset because he won't leave his little house to attend an honorary session of the Royal Society.  And he won't let them read his diary.  His final suggestion is to establish an improved version of the League of Nations, with an emphasis on international law.  But he doesn't understand that if humans can't avoid getting into wars, they surely can't be persuaded to agree on any global legal strategies.  

Saurus passes away in a little over a year, but leaves his diaries for Felix and Nora.  Perhaps the most significant, but perhaps enigmatic, line in them, is: "when science recognizes the true meaning of morality, it will conquer the earth". 

Mr. Phillpotts wrote a lot of books, but his name has gone the way of many competent and interesting authors of the last couple of hundred years.  I haven't read a lot of his work, but i hope to remedy that in the future, as he seems to have given quite a bit of thought to the human dilemma in his long life.  I don't believe i'd recommend this book heartily to everyone;  just to readers who think about man's plight and those who poke into the depths of dusty philosophical tomes from time to time...  the prose is clear and lucid, though, and maybe some might find an esoteric satisfaction in coming to know him and his work...

Saturday, October 3, 2020


Francis Birtles (1881-1941)

August 21, 1907, Francis, escorted by members of the Sydney Cycling Club, left on a trip that was to take him to extreme northern Australia and back, in a circular route that passed by the Gulf of Carpenteria,  on to Port Darwin, and down through Alice Springs to Adelaide and then back to Sydney.   He was an experienced traveler, having enlisted in the Merchant Marine at the age of 15.  He'd circled the globe twice before his seventeenth birthday.  His bicycle was a Royal Speedwell equipped with a three-speed hub with freewheel, and Dunlop tires.  He was traveling light, the bicycle plus the requisite camping, eating, and sleeping supplies weighing 85 pounds.  He took a camera with glass plates and film with him, an aneroid barometer and, among other necessities, an assortment of chemicals.  Boric acid for sore eyes and feet and potassium permanganate for snake, lizard, and insect bites.

The first few days offered a taste of what he was to encounter off and on for the whole trip:  "wild dogs, demented dingoes", millions of ants, and bad water.  Not to mention snakes.  The terrain consisted of deserts, extensive areas of black mud, mountain ranges, loose sand deposits, and rutted and cracked dirt roads.  Each day presented its own challenges.  Several hundred miles north, near Ben Lomond, his brake cable slipped while coming down a big hill, and he luckily managed to evade the boulders littering the eroded road surface and came close to disaster at some of the sharp turns, the only major mishap being the discomfort experienced by his nether surfaces as a result of violent bouncing.  Near Ipswich he took a short cut that was distinguished by the presence of ten foot deep ruts in the not quite non-existent road.  Francis records that his bicycle bucked in alarm and bolted for about fifty yards at the sudden appearance of a three foot snake as thick as his wrist that made a dash at him from the tall grass.  He also describes the habits of alligators in Queensland that slyly lurk in the roadside underbrush until they smell a passerby and then jump out at him.  Once he noticed a brush fire looming in the smoky distance, but figured he could outrun it, which he did, but at the expense of two burned tires, some slightly burned clothes, and singed hair.  So he was forced to pedal the next fifty miles to the town of Gympie on bare rims.  He mentally patted himself on the back for his "saving sense of humor".  Between the towns of Mackay and Charters Towers, he hit a log while swerving around a rock and bent the front wheel into a pretzel.  A sympathetic family in a horse drawn wagon carried him into town and a blacksmith at Massey-Ferguson was able to fix it.  (I found that remarkable).  After being temporarily blinded in one eye by a bulldog ant, Francis cited a joke that concerned Sir S.W. Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan fame.  A friend asked him if he'd seen another associate with a sore eye by the name of Jones, to which Gilbert replied, "What was the name of the other eye?".  haha, sort of...  (Birles had a very wry sense of humor which crops up repeatedly throughout the book).  While contemplating a swim in a lagoon, he asked a local resident if there were any sharks in the area and was told that there wasn't.  But just before he jumped in, the local stated, "The alligators ate them all".

The coastal track around the Gulf of Carpenteria was mostly dry and barren, and Francis ended up having to push and carry his bike much of the way due to high grass, black, sticky mud and the lack of any sort of visible road.  The trip wasn't all a struggle against the elements, though.  Near the Gregory river he was surprised and delighted to see millions of multi-colored butterflies dancing in the sun amid the trees, celebrating the variety and abundance of life.  Immediately afterwards, it was back to slogging though muddy sloughs and coping with slick creek banks and peripatetically high water from flash flooding.  The mud got so bad it took him four days to cover fifty miles, and he was almost starving when he was rescued by the mail man.  This occurred near the town of Camooweal, a few low sheds situated by itself in a mud-plain, 200 miles from anywhere.

Further north-west, the muddy terrain changed in character to more of a swampy/jungle habitat, with a lot more water.  It rained 12" in five hours at one spot.  At one point he had to wade through a "blue-bush swamp" for three miles while intermittently up to his neck in water.  After removing the leeches and tending to his cuts, he was faced with eleven miles of pushing the bike through loose, deep sand deposits.  His boots had disintegrated by this time and he was soldiering on in his bare feet.  He ran out of food and had to walk (easier than riding)12 miles back to the last town to acquire provisions.  When the ground became firmer, he lost the track and was saved by  a party of drovers.  He was almost naked because he'd been burning his clothes to keep the voracious mosquitos from eating him alive.  Finally, in Brunette, a friendly storekeeper fed and clothed him, only to have him collapse for three weeks with a bad case of malaria.  Francis had left his bike hanging in a tree before becoming lost, so when he got well, he had to walk back and get it.

Pushing his way through high cane grass and bumping over rubbled and rutted roads, he arrived at last at Pine Creek, beyond the Catharine river.  He covered the final 60 miles in six and a half hours.  He treated himself to new clothes and a green salad, the first one on the trip, and, since he was close to Port Darwin, he cleaned up his outfit as best he could, so he'd be presentable when the Darwin Cycling club rode out to accompany him into town.  He was feted and applauded by all and sundry and observed that a "Chinese waiter had evidently served his apprenticeship in Fillemupagain", upon his refilling Francis's plate so many times.  Another malaria attack lasted eleven days and he left Darwin on July 18, 1908, destination Alice Spring.  He was weak and took his time, only making ten miles the first day, but regained strength quickly in order to tackle the black soil plains prominent on that leg of the trip.  There were lots of snakes, death adders, and centipedes as usual;  one snake was nine feet long.  They were attracted to the bicycle for some reason, possibly related to the whirring sounds produced by the spokes.  Deep sand and spinifex characterized the route, with varyingly deep trenches crossing the road.  A tale illustrating the nature of the underground maze of trenches:  a man lost his dog one day, but could hear him whining as he walked along.  Later that night, the dog appeared out of nowhere:  he'd apparently followed his owner's scent while following the labyrinth of subterranean tunnels underlying the area.  

The final legs of the trek were sketchily described by the author, as they were comparatively tame and uneventful compared to the more northern segments.  He described the ten foot high ant hills and their magnetic natures that were a source of mystery at that time.  The hills are invariably oriented on a south and north axis.  He rested again at Tenant Creek, and at Alice Springs.  Later he noticed a camel caravan herded along by Afghani tribesmen, and collected shell fossils at Eyre Lake, 28 feet below sea level.  Once he reached Adelaide, the road was smooth and uneventful all the way home.  He reached Sydney on September 23, after covering 8300 miles in thirteen months.

This story was only the beginning of Francis Birles' adventures.  Later in his career he circled the continent of Australia twice and bicycled across it seven times.  He did a lot of pioneer motoring also, making some seventy excursions to various parts by automobile.  He took lots of photos on this trip;  he must have been one of the first experimenters in that genre, in Australia any way.  

Some of the descriptions were laugh out loud hilarious and the overall tone of the prose was that particular wry Aussie humor, that sometimes takes a minute to sort out.  Very entertaining to read, however, and clear and informative as well as occasionally scary.