Contemplating Heaven and Hell, from Adventures of an Ordinary Mind, by Lesley Conger (1963)

I am sitting here and contemplating Heaven and Hell.

Of course at the outset it has to be understood that I don’t believe in either of them. Still, as concepts they are interesting, and what is particularly interesting is that all the minds that have been bent to the task over the centuries have made a much better job of imagining Hell than they have of imagining Heaven. So far what I’ve seen of Dante’s Hell fits into the usual patter of tortures and torments, but it is more subtle, more ingenious, and more detailed. Dante, like the Mikado, has made the punishment fit the crime — which is, I think, philosophically acceptable. I wrote a short story once (it never saw the dark of print) in which Hell was a place where some power gave us the giftie of seeing oursel’s as others see us. The sinner was doomed, in my Hell, to reliving endlessly the least savory moments of his past, with the added pleasure of being able to perceive, as if he were audience as well as actor, how mean and petty, vicious and cruel he had been. In a Heaven to match, I suppose, one would be allowed to fit one’s most inflated self-image.

I find Heaven, however, unimaginable. The traditional clouds, wings, and harps are preposterous; and as for the eternal picnicking and fish frying of Green Pastures, well, I have never cared that much for picnics. The idea of a perpetual summer vacation repels me. Nasty as it is, the world seems more interesting and more suited to man’s psychological make-up, though perhaps in Heaven man is relieved of his earthly psychology and can therefore tolerate tedious and eternal bliss.

Struggle is a natural factor in man’s relationship with his environment, his fellow man, and himself. Where would be the joy in growing a garden if there were no weeds, if sunshine and rain came in the required amounts, and everything were bound to flourish even if you did nothing about it? I am not much of a gardener, so let us suppose that in Heaven a writer needed only paper and pen (easily requisitioned from the angel in charge of office supplies) and knew that all he had to do was set one to the other and a work of genius would automatically result. My reaction would be — why bother? You would find me sitting on some primrose cloud, disgruntled and miserable and bored to tears, with nothing to do that seemed worth doing.

Happily ever after is really a ghastly ending to any story. Besides, happiness is nothing absolute; it requires unhappiness to make it palpable. Food is useless without hunger, sleep demands fatigue, and accomplishment is the lofty mountain that rises from the plain of inactivity and failure. In a perfect world, what opportunity would there be for the exercise of wisdom, of tolerance, of pity, of charity, of fortitude? We would have to shed all these like so much excess baggage and sit in beatific contemplation of the beauties around us, rather like a stupefied and inert television audience.

To turn to Hell — could absolute torment remain torment forever? Or is torment torment only when one entertains some small hope of escape or release? The souls immersed in Dante’s river of blood, boiling in it to the end of time — why do they struggle to get out? In Hell is the soul forever reactivated in its human desires while in Heaven it is relieved of them? Or if in Hell it is cunningly contrived that each tormented soul shall know short periods of relief in order to keep the torment sharp and stinging, is it likewise ordered in Heaven to provide enough misery and disappointment, enough hunger, fatigue, cold, and pain, to make pleasure pleasurable?

My coffee is fine, and so is the gorgonzola spread on the tiny crackers. I like it so moldy that it makes my ears sing as if they were full of gnats. Is there mold in Heaven, or only for those who love mold? Would my cheese become moldy and my neighbor’s not?

A Jehovah’s Witness once asked me in syrupy tones if I didn’t want to like in the Kingdom where the lion would lie down with the lamb, flowers would be everywhere, and all would be perfection. I said no, it sounded tiresome; and I shut the door.

I am still waiting for somebody to come up with a Heaven worth getting into.

from Adventures of an Ordinary Mind, by Lesley Conger (pseudonym of Shirley Suttles)
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1963

The names of the cars had thrilled him, from Cousin to Human, by Jane Mayhall

The names of the cars had thrilled him. Hudson and Buick, Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Lincoln and Ford, Chevrolet, Studebaker, DeSoto and Dodge; their names stabbed in his heart like weapons of love. And that there should exist fifteen thousand automobiles in the city, and that one of these ready-made vehicles should not, at last, belong rightfully to Norman Cole was beyond his powers of understanding. That the great names, the life-giving names of engine and wheel, General Motors, American Trucking, Goodyear, and Body by Fisher, or that the names of turbine and throttle, axle and pinion, names of steel companies, aluminum, and importers of rubber, that these great dynastic names and name-givers of time and space, in a clamor of pistons, combustion, and fast acceleration, providing the wherewithal to encompass the worlds of America—that these mixed spirits of whose ubieties he knew not, but sensed where they were, omnipresent and unseen, that the magnanimous names and name-fathers of industry should not make it finally possible for Norman to attain and to keep a new car was almost beyond his mind and his reason. The city itself, abounding with the visible influences of whiskey merchants, tobacco tycoons, moguls of metal, the sheer weighty sum of illustrious tradesmen and affluent producers, appeared to present a grand and superlative evidence that opportunity was open to one and to all. “Buy More and Save,” “Dividends and Plus,” “New Heights of Delight.” Ready and open and given to all. On upper Broadway, set beyond intentions of glittering glass, the automobile salesrooms were constantly ablaze with spotlights and mirrors, standing out at night like an electric sunrise. Or, he thought of them by day, opalescent and strange, like transparent caves wherein lolled the comely creatures of self-locomotion; shining with non-breakable windows, bodies of chromium-blue, sable and mauve, crimson or pale yellow—like fish in a formidable bowl, they floated with a beauteous mien.

“Pay Us On Time,” “The Choice Is All Yours,” “Enjoy Yourself While You Can.” Everywhere now, when he saw these advertisements, his secret manhood was touched; Norman felt awakened to a sense of aspiration that he had thought long since dead. That was who he was! Dodge and Plymouth, Buick and Whippet, and sometimes the names seemed almost to have been invented by himself—so near they were to his marrow. He was not an immodest man, and he saw himself in perspective. But was it not finally for him, and others like himself, hard working job-owners who earned what they made, that the sovereign powers were intended? Was it not for him that the cities and the countryside were plotted with roads, and the highways to new adventure? It was the normal way to live, and it only seemed right. Every week, he saw it exhibited there, in Liberty Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post, some vision of stalwart cliffs and frothy cascades, picnic grounds extending three thousand miles long, bewitching, exotic, verdant, and free. Was it not he, himself, who was meant to enjoy the sun-baked desert and green-oaked forest? Lush in the sward and the sweet downy glade. Off the coast of South Carolina, there were isles of romance, fruit-bearing trees and black-tufted palm.

“The World Is Your Own Back Yard!”

Well he knew that, and only required the time yet to prove.

from Cousin to Human, by Jane Mayhall

Shut Up and Eat Your Squab, from Double Exposure, by Gloria Vanderbilt and Thelma, Lady Furness


Once Mamma left us in Barcelona while she went to America for a short visit. We were then eight, going on nine, and we had not yet seen our own country. We asked to be taken with her. Mamma did not approve, so we stayed home with Papa. But a week or so after Mamma left, we had a wonderful surprise. Dr. Mann, our family physician and friend, arrived at the house with four pigeons a pair for each of us. Carlos, the butler–also our friend–built us a cage for them on the terrace. The pigeons seemed happy in their new home, and we promptly named them. They were Isabella and Ferdinand, Jeanne and Carlos. One day, when we got home from school, our friend Carlos met us at the door. “I have news for you, twins,” he said, leading us to the pigeon cote. “Look, they have laid eggs and are sitting on them. Someday soon you will have baby pigeons.”

“When? How soon?” we asked.

Carlos smiled. “You will have to wait,” he said. “Nature takes its own time.”

Naturally, we were excited. We had never had any pets of our own before, much less baby pigeons. Every day after school we would sit by the hour, watching the nesting birds. We sat in silence, afraid that any sound might disturb the delicate balance of nature. Then one day as we clambered up to the terrace we heard Carlos calling to us. “Look, twins/ he said, “they are here–the little pigeons–six of them.”

We ran to the nest, and we were horrified. We had expected soft, fluffy little things-like the baby chicks you see at Easter. Instead, we saw six wet, ugly little creatures with heads bigger than their bodies. We were ready to cry. But Carlos comforted us. “Wait and see,” he said. “In a few days they will be beautiful.” And they were.

Meanwhile, we racked our brains trying to find suitable names for them. Mamma returned from America. “Come, Mamma,” I said. “Come outside and see what a beautiful sight we have to show you.”

Mamma took one look at our baby pigeons; then, to our horror, she ordered them killed. From inside the house we heard her say to Carlos, “Let the parent pigeons loose, Carlos. Then kill the baby pigeons. We will have them for dinner.”

“Oh, no, Mamma!” Gloria wailed; “please let them stay at least until they are old enough to fly away.” Now, very near hysteria, we screamed in turn: “Don t kill them! Don t kill them! Why? Why? They’re so little they don’t take up any room at all.”

All our pleading left Mamma cold. Her mind was set.

“Why are you doing this?” I screamed, as she turned to leave. “Why?”

“Why?” Mamma looked at me with ice in her eyes; I had dared to question her orders. “Because,” she said, “my dear grandmamma always told me that pigeons bring misfortune, bad luck, and poverty into a house and my dear grandmamma was always right.”

Gloria and I put our arms around each other and cried help lessly and in desperation; this was our first great grief. But whether we were brokenhearted or not, that night we were given squab for dinner. Carlos must have been crying, too, for as he served our baby pigeons we noticed that his eyes were red and swollen.

Heads down, out of the corners of our eyes we watched Mamma. “Eat your dinner,” she commanded.

“Oh, no, no, Mamma,” Gloria said pathetically. “We cannot eat our babies.”

“Stop this nonsense,” Mamma snapped. “Eat your dinner or leave the room.”

The tears again started down our cheeks. Together we got up and left the room. Through the fog of our feelings we were conscious of her brittle voice announcing, “No dessert for a week.”

We went to our room and sobbed until we were exhausted. “I don t care if we never have dessert again,” Gloria wailed. “I only want to bring our baby pigeons back to life.” And together we cursed this ogress of a grandmother, a woman we had never seen and would never see who seemed to stand for everything that didn’t matter, and who seemed to destroy everything that did.

While horrifying, this anecdote–perhaps more imagined than remembered–reminds me of one of those old “Mommy, Mommy” jokes from the 1960s:

“Mommy, Mommy, want happened to Fido?”
“Shut up and eat your meatloaf!”

from Double Exposure, by Gloria Vanderbilt and Thelma Lady Furness
New York: David McKay and Company, 1958

Snow in London, from A Half of Two Lives, by Alison Waley

"London Snow," a wood engraving by Gwen Raverat

The Wind Blows High

The wind, the wind, the wind blows high,
The snow is falling from the sky.
Maisie Drummond says she’ll die
For Want of the Golden City.

Children’s Game

The last day of February I929.

At Bayswater when I enter the Underground the sky is dull as canvas and still — the shadowed ceiling of a marquee without so much as a flap. Here, at Charing Cross, I step into this white and whirling dance of snow. I stand on the kerb-edge beside this huge policeman. His black cape flaps out like a crazed or injured bird while his broad red hand directs those who wish to cross the Strand. I do not wish to cross. I stand there, the palms of my ungloved hands upturned, face flung back, eyes closed, mouth open to catch the dancing flakes. It is no use, they melt before one can taste them; they do not make enough moisture even to swallow. But they touch my eye-lids with infant’s fingers. And my dark hair is full of a scatter of white flowers. “You want to cross?” the policeman’s voice is very loud and close; I open my eyes with a jerk.

“Isn’t it marvelous,” I say.

“Marvelous? Ugh!” He guides a child by the arm and crosses between the stationary traffic: then, ponderously, taking his time, he returns to my side.

Now he looks me over. My face, my throat and the backs of my hands are brown as an Indians.

“You a Londoner?” he asks.

I laugh at his perplexity. “Yesterday — not. Today . . . perhaps,” and find myself perplexed.

“You staying long?”


And then . . . Is that true, I think . . . am I staying forever? London. This city to which I’ve travelled twelve thousand miles — whose streets my guided fingers traced at the age of four — nostalgic since infancy? Not the land of the Maori — but this so-strangely-known city, birthplace of my father . . . is it to be my city also? — the goal, the end of seeking? This “Here and Now,” . . at last my home?

I fling my arms wide — “For all my life,” I add.

from A Half of Two Lives, by Alison Waley
London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1982
New York: McGraw Hill, 1983

Dinner Party at Sea, from Flamingo, by Mary Borden


The dinner party, thanks to the little pills that Mr. Parkinson always had by him, was a great success. Mr. Parkinson swallowed one, and made Mrs. Prime do the same, saying in his high, funny falsetto voice, “Here you are, Biddy,” and then the cocktail table shot across the floor and he went with it, landing on his head in a flowerpot. But he didn’t seem to mind. He picked himself up, ruefully feeling his head and smiling, and Mrs. Prime cried out, “Oh, darling Perky,” rather crossly, and pulled his clothes straight. They were evidently great friends.

That sort of thing kept happening during the evening. Still, Mr. Daw’s little dinner was very nice. It was like all pleasant expensive dinners, except that the ship turned over on its side every ten minutes, carrying with it down the sliding slope of a rushing monstrous mass of water the panelled restaurant with its gleaming white cloths and its pretty shaded lamps; except that the waiters clasping bottles of champagne fell on their knees and shot swiftly backward like crabs, and the peaches from California rolled round the floor, and the musicians went headlong with their fiddles and music racks on top of them, after the piano, crash, into a heap in the corner; except that Gussie’s slim little feet were covered with a soft warm mess of scrambled eggs that came scuttling and spilling under the table from somewhere, and that the iced soufflé went into Bridget’s lap. Otherwise, one would have thought one was at the Berkeley or Claridge’s or the Embassy Club.

from Flamingo, by Mary Borden
New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1927

Out! damn crumbs, from Notes from Sick Rooms, by Mrs. Leslie Stephen (1883)


Among the number of small evils which haunt illness, the greatest, in the misery which it can cause, though the smallest in size, is crumbs. The origin of most things has been decided on, but the origin of crumbs in bed has never excited sufficient attention among the scientific world, though it is a problem which has tormented many a weary sufferer. I will forbear to give my own explanation, which would be neither scientific nor orthodox, and will merely beg that their evil existence may be recognized and, as far as human nature allows, guarded against. The torment of crumbs should be stamped out of the sick bed as if it were the Colorado beetle in a potato field. Anyone who has been ill will at once take her precautions, feeble though they will prove. She will have a napkin under her chin, stretch her neck out of bed, eat in the most uncomfortable way, and watch that no crumbs get into the folds of her nightdress or jacket. When she lies back in bed, in the vain hope that she may have baffled the enemy, he is before her: a sharp crumb is buried in her back, and grains of sand seem sticking to her toes. If the patient is able to get up and have her bed made, when she returns to it she will find the crumbs are waiting for her. The housemaid will protest that the sheets were shaken, and the nurse that she swept out the crumbs, but there they are, and there they will remain unless the nurse determines to conquer them. To do this she must first believe in them, and there are few assertions that, are met with such incredulity as the one — I have crumbs in my bed. After every meal the nurse should put her hand into the bed and feel for the crumbs. When the bed is made, the nurse and housemaid must not content themselves with shaking or sweeping. The tiny crumbs stick in the sheets, and the nurse must patiently take each crumb out; if there are many very small ones, she must even wet her fingers, and get the crumbs to stick to them. The patient’s night-clothes must be searched; crumbs lurk in each tiny fold or frill. They go up the sleeve of the night-gown, and if the patient is in bed when the search is going on, her arms should hang out of bed, so that the crumbs which are certain to be there may be induced to fall down.

Mrs. Leslie Stephen, born Julia Prinsep Duckworth, is better remembered today as the mother of Virginia Woolf. She published this little book about a year after Virginia’s birth, with the simple aim of sharing “things which have come under my actual observation, either as giving relief, or causing discomfort to the sufferer.” Notes from Sick Rooms, which has been reissued recently by Paris Press to accompany Virginia’s essay, “On Being Ill,” is also available on its own from the Internet Archive (link).

It’s a short book brimming with common sense and a certain measure of humor. “I have often wondered,” she writes at the start, “why it is considered a proof of virtue in anyone to become a nurse. The ordinary relations between the sick and the well are far easier and pleasanter than between the well and the well.” Of course, relations between care-giver and cared-for are often not easy or pleasant, but her point is well-taken: overall, the odds of both parties being accommodating are better.

When Notes from Sick Rooms was reissued back in the early 1980s, Penelope Lively wrote of it in the London Review of Books:

It is as though Mrs Ramsay had stepped out of the pages of To the Lighthouse – cool, kind, sensible and meticulous – and set out to tell us, with the minimum of fuss, how to wash an invalid, make the bed, comb the hair, give an enema, arrange the bedside lighting. The tone has that combination of humanity and practicality that ought to pervade the medical profession and so frequently does not. It makes one yearn to collapse at once between linen sheets smoothed by Mrs Stephen and give oneself up in gratitude to the calm, unhurried, reassuring presence, the therapeutic rubbings and the beef tea. The section on the removal of crumbs from the bed is a masterpiece. This is the voice of a woman for whom the unsentimental alleviation of distress in others is a way of life; hearing it, you know this is someone whose advice would always have been equally precise, rational and wise – the sort of person you would want to meet in a hospital consulting-room, or at the scene of a disaster. And you think also of the frequently-reproduced photograph of Julia Stephen – a face of unforgettable beauty. And of Mrs Ramsay: ‘Was it wisdom? Was it knowledge? Was it, once more, the deceptiveness of beauty, so that all one’s perceptions, half-way to truth, were tangled in a golden mesh? or did she lock up within her some secret which certainly Lily Briscoe believed people must have for the world to go on at all?’

Notes from Sick Rooms, by Mrs. Leslie Stephen
London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1883

Improving the Dictionary, from Personal Pleasures, by Rose Macaulay


On a blank page at the beginning of the Supplementary Volume of my Dictionary, I record emendations, corrections, additions, earlier uses of Words, as I come on them in reading. Ah, I say, congratulating myself, here Messrs. Murray, Bradley, Craigie and Onions are nearly a century out; here were sailors, travellers and
philosophers chattering of sea turtles from the fifteen-sixties on, and the Dictionary will not have them before the sixteen-fifties. And how late they are with estancias, iguanas, anthropophagi, maize, cochineal, canoes, troglodytes, cannibals and hammocks. As to aniles, or old wives’ tales, they will not let us have this excellent noun at all.

Thus I say to myself, as I enter my words and dates. To amend so great a work gives me pleasure; I feel myself one of its architects; I am Sir James Murray, Dr. Bradley, Sir William Craigie, Dr. Onions, I belong to the Philological Society; I have delusions of grandeur. Had I but world enough and time, I would find earlier uses of all the half million words, I would publish another supplement of my own, I would achieve at last my early ambition to be a lexicographer.

If there is a drawback to this pure pleasure of doing good to a dictionary, I have not yet found it. Except that, naturally, it takes time.

Personal Pleasures, by Rose Macaulay
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1936

Cousin Georgia who was beautiful …, from Along Came a Witch, by Helen Bevington (1976)


As we left the theater, I was thinking of a cousin of mine, Cousin Georgia, who had been not deaf or mute but desperate. The particular memory had to do with her going to a movie one Saturday afternoon. I never knew her story, more than that Cousin Georgia who was beautiful was unhappy, and she lost her mind as if she had mislaid her purse while watching a picture in a movie house. This occurred after her divorce, after the loss of her child, after she had returned alone to her parents’ house. Some plot unfolded on the screen recounting her own tragedy. Raising her fists she stood up in the theater, screamed out “You can’t do this to me!” and was frantic, from that moment insane. She lives on in an asylum.

from Along Came the Witch: A Journal in the 1960s, by Helen Bevington

The Spirit of the Bayonet, from The Short-Timers, by Gustav Hasford

Marine Corps recruits

Parris Island, South Caroline, the United States Marine Corp Recruit Depot, and eight-week college for the phony-tough and the crazy-brave, constructed in a swamp on an island, symmetrical but sinister like a suburban death camp.

Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim spits. “Listen up, herd. You maggots had better start looking like United States Marine Corps recruits. Do not think for one second that you are Marines. You just dropped by to pick up a set of dress blues. Am I right, ladies? Sorry ’bout that.”

A wiry little Texan in horn-rimmed glasses the guys are already calling “Cowboy” says, “Is that you, John Wayne? Is this me?” Cowboy takes off his pearl-gray Stetson and fans his sweaty face.

I laugh. Years of high school drama classes have made me a mimic. I sound exactly like John Wayne as I say: “I think I’m going to hate this movie.”

Cowboy laughs. He beats his Stetson on his thigh.

Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim laughs, too. The senior drill instructor is an obscene little ogre in immaculate khaki. He aims him index finger between my eyes and says, “You. Yeah–you. Private Joker. I like you. You can come over to my house and fuck my sister.” He grins. Then his fact goes hard. “You little scumbag. I got your name. I got your ass. You will not laugh. You will not cry. You will learn by the numbers. I will teach you.”

Leonard Pratt grins.

Sergeant Gerheim puts his fists on his hips. “If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon, you will be a minister of death, praying for war. And proud. Until that day you are pukes, you are scumbags, you are the lowest form of life on Earth. You are not even human. You people are nothing but a lot of little pieces of amphibian shit.”

Leonard chuckles.

“Private Pyle thinks I am a real funny guy. He thinks that Parris Island is more fun than a sucking chest wound.”

The hillbilly’s face is frozen into a permanent expression of oat-fed innocence.

“You maggots are not going to have any fun here. You are not going to enjoy standing in straight lines and you are not going to enjoy massaging your own wand and you are not going to enjoy saying ‘sir’ to individuals you do not like. Well, ladies, that’s tough titty. I will speak and you will function. Ten percent of you will not survive. Ten percent of you maggots are going to go AWOL or will try to take your own lives or will break your backs on the Confidence Course or will just go plain fucking crazy. There it is. My orders are to weed out all nonhackers who do not pack the gear to serve in my beloved Corps. You will be grunts. Grunts get no slack. My recruits learn to survive without slack. Because I am hard, you will not like me. But the more you hate me, the more you will learn. Am I correct, herd?”

Some of us mumble, “Yes. Yeah. Yes, sir.”

“I can’t hear you, ladies.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I still can’t hear you, ladies. SOUND OFF LIKE YOU GOT A PAIR.”


“You piss me off. Hit the deck.”

We crumple down onto the hot parade deck.

“You got no motivation. Do you hear me, maggots? Listen up. I will give you motivation. You have not esprit de corps. I will give you esprit de corps. You have no traditions. I will give you traditions. And I will show you how to live up to them.”

If this scene seems familiar, it’s because you’ve seen it in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 movie, Full Metal Jacket. In the film, former Marine drill instructor R. Lee Ermey takes Sergeant Gerheim’s dialogue and embellishes it with his own improvised insults and obscenities, creating an electrifying and unforgettable scene. (You can find it excerpted here on YouTube).

Written by Gustav Hasford, upon whose experiences the novel is heavily based, The Short-Timers (1979) received enthusiastic reviews when it was first published. Newsweek called it, “The best work of fiction about the Vietnam War.” Harlan Ellison praised it as “One of the most amazing stretches of writing I’ve ever encountered.”
Covers of various editions of 'The Short-Timers'
Based on this critical acclaim, the hardback sold several thousand copies and Bantam issued a paperback edition in 1980. It was the kind of book that was passed along and had a much wider readership than its sales figures suggested. A few years later, Hasford was contacted about selling the film rights, an inquiry that eventually traced back to director Stanley Kubrick. When Kubrick began to work on the screenplay, he hired Hasford, along with reporter Michael Herr, whose 1977 book, Dispatches, is widely considered the best non-fiction book about the Vietnam War. The three men were later nominated for the Academy Award for best screenplay adapted from an original work, and The Short-Timers was reissued with an explicit tie-in with the movie.

Although Hasford went on to write a sequel to the book, The Phantom Blooper (1990), as well as a pastiche of the Raymond Chandler-style hardboiled crime novel, A Gypsy Good Time (1992), he had more than his share of personal demons to struggle with. You can read Grover Lewis’ moving account of Hasford’s decline, “The Killing of Gus Hasford,” originally published in the L. A. Weekly in 1993 following Hasford’s death from untreated diabetes, on Alex Belth’s “Bronx Banter” website (link).

The Short-Timers has been out of print since the early 1990s. Hasford’s cousin, Jason Aaron, maintains a website ( devoted to his life and work.

The Short-Timers, by Gustav Hasford
New York: Harper & Row, 1979

Largo by the Sea (A Prologue), from Varmints, by Peggy Bennett (1947)

You have read, no doubt, the damp masticated and printed wood pulp called the morning paper, wielding its unwieldly pages (the tabloid excepted from the clumsy kinds) impatiently, eager for the greasy crumbs of news the newspaper empires have selected for you, have written for you from the moral slant of a particular newspaperman or an editor, each intensely human and subject to his share of human stupidity and roughhewn grammar. You know the world, you do.

The comic strips, twentieth-century fairy tales, manage to absorb part of your consciousness, to keep your susceptible minds off that filthy vague excrement smelling on the front page, and the sports pages are exceedingly enlightening. You compose a record crowd in innumerable halls and stadiums. A good crooner is worth a dozen or ten dozen ordinary hard-working citizens, and a cute little smug chubby round-jowled chow is infinitely funnier than a baby, and not half so much trouble in the bargain. You spend most of your spare time seeking entertainment. You listen to music so that you may hear voices in the pure and abstracted form, exactly like no human voices, and yet so like your very own that you are entranced, hypnotized (you can easily hypnotize yourself). Is music a refuge ? Is art an escape ? You may argue that it is, on the contrary, a new and better way of living. Ah, those beauties, those pearls of emotional wisdom. In their moments you may espy eternity, and then you must go on with business as usual, pursuing careers and fat paychecks, bathing away perspiration and other odors, ejecting wastes from your bodies, mincing and devouring those strange concoctions you recognize as your food, worrying, changing with the weather, lusting a little for power, falling prey to riots of bacteria, dying ignominiously natural human deaths, decaying insensibly.

You have readily patronized the motion picture industry and watched the puppets being drawn through the fantastic folds of drama, in which simple home life is shown as an extravaganza, complex human emotions and relationships are shown as simple shallows, and dreamworld sex is the perpetual motive, the neverdying underlying theme. All sentiment suddenly becomes a heavy inhuman fog, or perhaps a chocolate bar melting in the sun. The ethereal seems indelibly neurotic, and vulgarity synonymous with health. Suffering is made a form of nobility, pain pleasurable, and greatness a simpleton’s struggle to be himself in the midst of evil. Evil is anything (either brilliant and human or stupid and inanimate) that trips up the inspired fool. The obscure music lubricates the creaking mechanisms of the drama and steals upon the listener unawares, massages him as he sits passively in the cushioned seat. The strange eerie flat gray world now comes brilliant in unearthly splashy and splotchy technicolor, but still flat, mosaic. Now you think of yourselves as weirdly beautiful faces and torsos, curving curvaceous legs, tantalizing smoothness and roundness of breasts and thighs and hips or of hard male flatness and narrow hips and iron muscle, and you are moving in close-ups, slow-motion, or in long-range action shots, lightning fast. Voluptuous throes of emotion ; how exquisite it is to writhe in make-believe passion.

Perhaps you’d rather spend your evenings listening to the warm cordial atmospheres generated by your radio. Genial men flatter your good taste, introduce you to personages chummy, winningly idiotic, noble and high spirited, and so on. Unlike prosaic diurnal living, whose genuine people move with masks on their faces and can be judged only by the sums of their lives, radio personalities come in types as variable as stovepipes. How fondly we remember our adolescence all day long. Periodic soulshaking and mirthquaking rhythms of studio laughter. Impressive sounds, some of them, seeming to assure you that somewhere in the world life must be tremendously diverting, exceptionally exciting, and all good clean fun in the meantime.

God, how great are these United States. Yes, you’re a pretty great people, you are. And even, now and then, truth reaches you with the penetrating power of a very quiet voice.

I came across Varmints while nosing around the Internet Archive, which has been my electronic substitute for the great libraries where I’ve always loved to spend hours scouring the stacks for the odd and intriguing. The energy, the venom and the God-like authority in the above passage grabbed me immediately and I soon downloaded a copy and kept on reading. This excerpt is part of the ten page prologue to Varmints, Peggy Bennett’s first and (apparently) only novel. Bennett was just 22 when the book was published, but she could have given Rebecca West a run for her money when it came to confidence in her perspectives. This prologue goes on to give us a survey of a half-dozen broken lives, from a woman suffering agonizing pain in North Carolina to a black cook who accidentally chops off his thumb while working in a Los Angeles diner one night.

PeggyBennettThe novel itself goes on to tell the story of three children–Ethel, Hilliard and Mutt–taken over by their grandparents after their mother’s death. They live together in a town in northern Florida, where the grandfather is a master carpenter now mostly retired. The three children take in their world in very different ways. Ethel is hyper-sensitive, sometimes overwhelmed by what she sees around her. Hilliard is a genius who grows ever more distrustful of the world outside and spends most of his time alone in his room, reading. And Mutt is highly sociable, easy-going and popular with everyone. The grandparents are neither demons nor angels but people struggling themselves with choices and the lack of simple answers.

Unfortunately, just what message Peggy Bennett wanted to get out by writing this novel is unclear. Although there’s nothing quite so iconoclastic as the prologue, the book seems filled with a great deal of anger, anger desperately seeking its targets. She dips a few times into overwrought Faulknerian language, but not so much as turn the book into a parody. There are some very funny, if caustic, lines and at least one heart-tugging tragedy. The energy of the initial pages, however, ultimately fizzles out toward the end.

Peggy Bennett went on to write a number of short stories that were published in little magazines as well as in several short story collections from the 1950s. It’s not clear that she published anything after that. She died in April 2011 at the age of 86.

The Varmints, by Peggy Bennett
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947

Lady with a Pretzel, from Celibate at Twilight, by John Mosher (1940)

The waiter slammed the shallow basket of pretzels down on the table, and turned away. It never occurred to him, evidently, to pass the pretzels to each person at the table. That was the sort of place it was. Rough! The lady sighed with satisfaction. This was Life. Life in the raw. She was seeing Life.

At the same moment she saw herself in the dingy mirror opposite, and her satisfaction was in no way diminished. While seeing Life she retained all her own perfect style. She was pleased now that she had not borrowed her maid’s hat, as she had thought of doing while planning her costume for this excursion into the underworld. In novels great ladies always borrowed their maids’ things when circumstances compelled them to venture in dubious regions. But Cécile’s hats were grotesques, and there was no sense in making a comic of yourself just because you were going to dine with gunmen. It was only fair to them to try to look your best. Poor things, they had so few chances to view the authentically chic! She had no doubt that these various persons about them, though not outwardly as sensational as she had hoped, were gunmen and gangsters of the deepest dye, for she had been assured that this place was the real thing, and not faked in the least. It ought to be. They had had a hard enough time finding it.

She would have to stretch across the table for the pretzels. The others of her own party were absorbed in their beer, and their own noisy foolish familiar jokes. They weren’t paying any attention to her. The men felt obliged to forget their manners as soon as they got in a dive like this. The waiter, of course, had put the pretzels at an awkward distance from her. She was sure that he had done it just to annoy her. She had noticed the minute she saw him that he had taken an instantaneous dislike to her. He resented her. She was sorry that he did. He probably thought that she was just a sheltered, nurtured parasite, exquisite and fragile. He could have no comprehension of the peculiar problems that made her life hell. She felt very helpless and unhappy and weak. He wasn’t even looking at her!

A criminal type, obviously. He was too strong to be a Waiter by rights. A criminal temporarily disguised as a waiter to evade the police. Then a waiter had to be strong in a place like this. He must also be a “bouncer,” she believed. A bouncer? Such an odd word. To be bounced. Wasn’t there a song: “I Want to be Bounced by You”? If she got Oswald to take him into their house as a butler, he would look distinguished behind her chair, or behind Oswald’s chair facing her. . . . “Really, Adele, what an unusual-looking butler you have! Quite handsome!” . . . “I shouldn’t say he was handsome, my dear. We found him in one of those awful drinking places Oswald is always dragging me to. Marvellous beer! He’s an ex-convict. . . .”

She couldn’t understand how that couple in the corner who had just ordered two more beers from the ex-convict ever got to such a place as this. They looked so respectable. Iust a respectable married couple from the suburbs. Drab middle-class people. It was disconcerting to see people like that here. You only expected to find underworld types, and perhaps a few smart adventurers like themselves. But this couple was so obviously married, plain good honest shopkeeping people. The maid’s night out. Or their wedding anniversary. They gave a drab dull note to the whole room. Why was it that you could never get away from the respectable? They popped up everywhere, with their ethics and their morals and their good sensible shoes, and their appalling appetite for nutritious food.

Not that the food here was likely be nutritious. She eyed the remote pretzels skeptically. Hard, crustaceous edibles they were. Heaven knows how long they had been exposed to the dusty draughts of this place. Countless calloused hands had doubtless pawed them over, the hands of killers. Brutal hands! She shivered. She couldn’t imagine the submerged, distorted depths of society where such ugly contortions of pastry would be looked upon as really palatable and a delicacy.

But it was proof of the independence of the true aristocrat that she did not scorn an interest in the underworld. One must be amused at all costs. Had not great ladies long ago sneaked out of the Tuileries to have supper with the apaches? What she was doing now was all in the great tradition.

It required courage, too, to be here. Any moment there might be trouble. A fight! Some row. Someone at a near-by table might jump up and pull a gun. For all she knew they might keep a machine gun in the pantry. The respectable married couple in Hie corner would jump up and scream and carry on, but she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t flicker an eyelash. She had courage, the courage of the great lady. That waiter was looking at her now, scornfully, icily. He thought she was fragile, did he, and afraid? She would show him. She straightened in her chair, leaned across the table, and took a pretzel.

Cover of first US edition of 'Celibate at Twilight'Celibate at Twilight is a collection of fifty short stories (most under five pages long), many of them published in The New Yorker between 1925 and 1940. (I will probably get in Dutch with the magazine for daring to post this without their permission, but this book has been out of print for 70+ years). Mosher went to work for the magazine about a year after it debuted, and worked more as a manuscript-reader and editorial staff member than a writer until he started writing the “Current Cinema” column in 1937.

About fifteen of the stories deal with Mr. Opal, a middle-aged, mild-mannered bachelor most popular among members of the better society as a last-minute man to round out a dinner party. Mr. Opal is an upper-crust equivalent of cartoonist H. T. Webster’s timid soul, Caspar Milquetoast. But I prefer the character sketches like “Lady with a Pretzel,” which is such a perfect distillation of the stereotype society woman indulging in a bit of slumming so she can see “Life in the Raw.”

Mosher served as an orderly in a U. S. Army hospital in France in World War One, and after kicking around the Continent for a while after the war, returned to the States and eventually landed a job with the magazine. He was friends with Willa Cather, Janet Flanner, Wolcott Gibbs, and James Thurber and was one of the first members of the Manhattan gay community to make Fire Island his summer base. He died of a heart ailment at the age of 50 in 1942.

In one of the few obituaries ever published in the magazine, Wolcott Gibbs wrote of Mosher,

His editorial judgment has been responsible for much of the tone of The New Yorker and the appearance in it of a great many new writers. The fiction he produced from time to time, and collected in a book called Celibate at Twilight, was a very accurate mirror of its author’s personality–witty, perceptive, and informed by a deep and tolerant knowledge of the world. He was one of the most delightful companions we have ever known, and we record his death with a heavy sense of loss.

Celibate at Twilight, by John Mosher
New York: Random House, 1940

Venice, California, 1950s, from The Slide Area by Gavin Lambert


She lives in Venice, near the furniture store. A mouldering unfinished little town along the coast beyond Santa Monica, it began fifty years ago as an imitation of the Italian city. Moonstruck, an industrialist from the Middle West decided to create a romantic resort on the dreary tidal flats. He built some florid villas, a copy of St. Mark’s Square, a network of bridges, canals, lagoons, colonnades. The aged Sarah Bernhardt was imported to play La Dame aux Camelias on what is now a tadry, neglected amusement pier. Hardly anyone went to see her. Hardly anyone hired a gondola for a trip along the mosquito-ridden flats. Then oil was struck, machinery converged upon the lagoons. A few bridges still remain, spanning dried up canals, with pumps and derricks stretching away beyond them. Drugstores, banks, service stations have settled in the empty spaces between colonnades, and the villa are apartment house with rooms always vacant.

As we pass St. Mark’s Square, I notice a group of young motor cyclists dressed in black, with tight belts and slanted caps, leaning against the colonnades. Pigeons cluster nearby, then disperse as the cyclists set off with a roar, speeding along the empty boulevard, past a neon sign announcing BEER, past the Bridge of Sighs and the derricks in silhouette..

The noise rouses Zeena. She blinks, looks out of the window and recognizes landmarks: a closed-up hotel with broken windows, a plot of waste land with an abandoned moonlit sign, BOATS FOR SALE. She murmurs: “Why, I’m almost home.”

Gavin Lambert’s 1959 short-story collection, The Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life, is one of the best works of fiction to come out of Los Angeles. He followed it a dozen years later with The Goodbye People. Both are out of print now, which is inexcusable, given the quality of writing in both books.

The Slide Area, by Gavin Lambert
New York: Viking, 1959

Read anything, from Post meridiana: Afternoon Essays, by Sir Herbert Maxwell (1895)

If any young person of leisure were so much at a loss as to ask advice as to what he should read, mine should be exceedingly simple: Read anything bearing on a definite object. Let him take up any imaginable subject to which he feels attracted, be it the precession of the equinoxes or postage stamps, the Athenian drama or London street cries; let him follow it from book to book, and unconsciously his knowledge, not of that subject only but of many subjects, will be increased, for the departments of the realm of knowledge are divided by no octroi. He may abandon the first object of his pursuit for another; it does not matter, one subject leads to another: he will have learnt the habit of acquisition; he will have gained that conviction of the pricelessness of time which stirs a sigh as each day comes to its close.

From “The Craving for Fiction,” an essay in Post meridiana: Afternoon Essays, by Sir Herbert Maxwell (1895)
Available on the Internet Archive: Link

According to Wikipedia, “The Rt. Hon. Sir Herbert Eustace Maxwell, 7th Baronet of Monreith, KT, PC, FRS, FRGS (8 January 1845 – 30 October 1937) was a Scottish novelist, essayist, horticulturalist and Conservative politician who sat in the House of Commons from 1880 to 1906.

He wrote several collections of essays, including Meridiana: Noontide Essays (1892); Post Meridiana: Afternoon Essays (1895); and Rainy Days in a Library (1896).

The Brigadier General Bar, from Naked Morning, by R. V. Cassill


The Brigadier Club had never endured for more than ten months under any single management and it had borne half a dozen names since the war. Bur it recurs, Martin thought, and may be here in a fresh avatar when the pigeon-loved bronze of General Dirksen has been sublimed away.

It had opened after the war as the clubhouse of a campus Veterans’ organization. The American Legion and the VFW had their own permanent buildings in the business section of town, but a large part of their membership was from townspeople or the incorrigible patriots who would always find something subversive in any organization they had helped found themselves.

The club had moved twice before it found quarters in the labyrinthine back rooms of a hotel that was thirty years fallen from its highwater mark of prosperity. It had gone broke and had been reorganized repeatedly. While it was still—with some pretense of legitimacy–a veteran’s co-operative project. Then it was “taken over” by an ex-aviator. For a while his name had been painted over the main entrance on a side street five blocks from the campus. He told all those who had by this time become addicted to it that “nothing would change.” He was going merely, to put it on a paying basis, “for them.”

Since then the club had been closed some ten times. Now and then it was closed (and disbanded) at the orders of the outraged university or municipal administration on a variety of charges which added up to something like mass moral turpitude. Sometimes bankruptcies closed it–at which times the onetime flyer “re-incorporated” and changed the name, clinging only to those names which had a common military denominator.

The outrage of authority sprang from semi-public disclosures that liquor was being sold here to minors, that obscene movies had been shown on stag nights, that the ROTC staff was using it as an outlet for the French erotic supplies they imported from tours of duty at overseas posts, or that whores from Chicago and Kansas City occasionally based there during the football season or the annual state basketball tournament.

The bankruptcies sometimes resulted from setting the price of drinks too low (the manager had moments of unbusiness-like compassion for his whole clientele), sometimes from over-paying the local police with bribes which they did not respect (a bribe plus a fine can ruin any business venture), and sometimes from emergencies in the manager’s private life (he fell head over heels for one of the Chicago hookers and went home with her when she left, carrying all his liquid assets and dissipating them on her in a six week binge).

But it was open again this fall, as it had been for at least part of every year, “under new management.” This merely meant that the manager would spend more time in a back room at one of the poker tables and less time hanging from the bar corner in ostentatious drunkenness, reaching for the girls as they danced. Each reopening was signalized by some amateur remodeling of the decor will wallboard and gaspipe, the immemorial peephole between the men’s and women’s toilets was usually plastered shut, and a new program of entertainment was advertised on mimeographed handbills. But essentially, year to year, college generation to generation, as Clare had promised–as he didn’t even need to bother promising, Martin thought–the club had not changed. As it had been, it would be.

The Fortress by the Sea, from Gog, by Giovanni Papini

New Parthenon, October 6
For the last few years the state of the World has been growing more and more alarming and dangerous, and I have thought best to prepare an impregnable refuge for myself. Wars, invasions, and rebellions are sure to continue for some time yet, and no one is safe. Let all who realize this, and who do not wish to be starved or butchered, take early precautions.

On the northern coast of -Brazil and not far from the mouth of the Parnahyba I discovered a small peninsula that exactly suited my purpose, and the work of fortifying it and making it habitable is already well advanced. It is connected with the mainland by a sort of isthmus, where I have laid three rows of mines; thus in case of danger in less than three minutes my peninsula could become an island.

On the highest point I have built a castle faced externally with stone and lined with steel plates, those of roof and terraces being especially thick. At a certain distance, hidden among the trees, are two buildings for the servants. The castle has a deeply excavated underground apartment divided into several chambers, where one could live quite comfortably in case of emergency. There are also spacious cellars for storing provisions and ammunition.

I have installed several plants to render me absolutely independent of the rest of mankind–water cisterns, electric and refrigerating plants, a wireless station, and a vast bin that is already full of coal. The castle is equipped with a library of nearly twenty thousand volumes, comprising the masterpieces of all literaLures, the best encyclopaedias, and manuals of every branch of science. There are also three orthophonic gramophones with thousands of disks, and a gallery containing reproductions in color of the masterpieces of all times and countries. On the highest terrace I have placed a telescope with a twenty-six-inch lens, which will be useful when I am suffering from insomnia. The terrace is also equipped with several anti-aircraft guns in case an inquisitive airplane should seek to pry into my affairs. Fortunately my peninsula has a natural harbor, where I shall always keep two motorboats, a yacht, and two whaling-boats when I am at the castle. I really believe I have not overlooked anything.

As soon as any undesirable changes or alarming demonstrations take place in the country where I happen to be living, I can rush off at once to my fortified hermitage, where I shall find everything necessary for comfort, and there await the end of the crisis in perfect safety. The place is well chosen, for I am near the Gulf of Mexico and in my yacht can cross to New Orleans in a few days. Fortunately there are no towns in my neighborhood, but the hinterland is fertile and could supply many articles that might become necessary during a long period of isolation. I should take some thirty persons with me, among them a doctor, a librarian, an engineer, three capable mechanics, and two athletes. I have already purchased a hundred rifles and six machine guns, and I have ordered twenty battery guns. Thanks to the conformation of the peninsula, it would be quite easy to defend it against an attack from the

A ship laden with all sorts of tinned and preserved foods is already on its way there from Brazil, and I intend to build a stable to hold about a hundred head of cattle. Thus equipped I should be able to hold out for at least a year Without receiving any supplies from outside. Thanks to the precautions I have taken, I need not fear solitude. Time passes quickly when one has books, music, and astronomy.

I am surprised that the great lords of the earth, men as rich or even richer than I, have never thought of preparing similar places of refuge against the misfortunes and upheavals of war and revolution. Man’s shortsightedness is appalling and passes belief. No one foresees, no one provides against, disasters that–if we consider the madness that has invaded mankind–must be regarded as not only possible but actually imminent. The example of Russia has failed to open the eyes even of those great plutocrats who are most in danger of being shot or despoiled. I alone perhaps, in the whole world, have thought of preparing a buen retiro for stormy times-—a bueno retiro partaking of the nature of the feudal castle, the fortified convent, and the pirates’ cave, but which will prove far more useful than those sumptuous villas the wealthy have erected in the open country within reach of every one, as if for the very purpose of arousing the envy of the poor and, by providing the opportunity, of awakening that instinct to plunder which is common to us all.

My peninsular refuge will also serve me in times of peace. Every now and then I am seized with the longing to get away not only from the city but even from thickly populated country places. At such times I shall be able to become an anchorite, a hermit, surrounded by all the comforts of civilization. And to my way of thinking, there can be nothing more delightful than to be able to isolate oneself from one’s own odious kind, to feel in every way independent of them, in a well—defended retreat where they can neither molest nor offend.

On the beach at Cark, from Broken Images: A Journal, by John Guest


I knew … that there was a dance on in the camp, so, though I felt little inclined, I decided to go, simply because it entailed no effort. I could at least stand and watch–which is what I did. But never have I felt more cut off from any activity. It was a big dance and I stood there for an hour, just watching and realising with every shake of the floor, every laugh, every sweaty face, every beat of the music, that I was completely isolated. I had a beer or two in the crowded bar, but it was warm and tasteless. Members of my troop greeted me, smiled—-but it was an effort to answer them. Finally I could stand it no longer. I rushed out, across the deserted camp, down to the firing point, over the embankment that holds back the sea, and on to the shore.

The tide was far out. It had stopped raining, and the air was deliciously fresh and salty. Blue rifts were breaking in the clouds above, spreading a benign evening serenity and radiance. The shore here is so flat that the sea recedes almost out of sight, leaving a sheer glistening level of sand that is so immense on all sides, so featureless, as to be actually thrilling. Walking towards the sea, and looking to my right and left, I could see nothing but the level shore and, driven into the sand, miles and miles of solitary poles running, for all I knew, to infinity. Can you imagine it? Like a dream, or the background of one of Dali’s strange thoughts. There being nothing except this luminous waste, the vistas of bare poles like intervals of time, the complete silence and the soft warm light spreading down from the sky, my crisis seemed to drain from me into nothing–there was nothing to hold it or reflect it back; it just flowed away. I don’t think I even thought about anything. I walked and walked towards the sea conscious only of the release and silence one feels with the sudden cessation of pain. The only, only object, mind you, that I recall seeing on all that shore, apart from the poles, was a battered wicker basket sticking up from the sand.

When, finally, I turned towards the land again, it was growing dark-—the sand and the sky were deepening in colour–a deep golden brown and a deep heavenly blue such as lapis lazuli might look were it transparent. Inland could be seen clearly the dark mountains of the Lake District (I never see them without thinking of Wordsworth) and rising above them the moon, neatly full, very clear and creamy; and round about it, in its light, little torn clouds of dimly shining grey. I went to bed, very tired and fortunately fell asleep almost immediately. . . .

Written 18 July 1942, at an Army camp near Cark, England

You can read more about Broken Images in my Featured Books post (Link).

Resurrecting Lost Words, from The Simmons Papers, by Philipp Blom


Among the possessions which he involuntarily left to me, the deceased had counted a little notebook, which I found in the uppermost drawer, together with a box of dry tobacco, an apple, half-eaten, and some other miscellanea. It was a little notebook, which appeared to be a scholarly diary or journal, in which a method of lexicography was established without which, in my view, the section ‘P’ in the Dictionary could never be complete. An artistic technique emerged from these pages, capable of redressing the sometimes painfully disturbed balance of language. The scope of this idea, which has become crucially important to my own thinking, extends far beyond the realm of mere deductive scholarship and endorses a wider argument, perhaps even bordering on the mystical. According to the theory put forward in the notebook, throughout the evolution of language, some Words out of the pool of possibilities, meanings, nuances and significances have flourished into the form and strength we know today, while others have been condemned to lead a marginal existence, stagnant and fragmented, used, if at all, only by imbeciles, prophets, wise men and babes. They escaped the net of scholarly recognition and finally their usage ceased altogether. Atrophied, shrunken into their embryonic stage and totally neglected, these words still exist in hiding, like the larvae of a butterfly under a coat of snow, only to come out again when they are called upon. The attentive reader will in such a case notice a gap between two words, a missing sound, or concept, which he then must restore with the sensitivity of the true artist, or, as the notebook puts it with exquisite taste, “return to language its prodigal sons.” The notebook, after having established this fact, goes on to state that the really observant editor who strives to write a truly comprehensive dictionary must trace these words and reinstate them at least as possibilities. These words are not neologisms, far from it! Where the latter is the crude invention of a new word out of ignorance of the abundance provided by language already, the task of restoration is only to reinstate what has existed all along.

The art developed in the notebook may be obscure, practised only by the fewest people, now perhaps only by myself. I would not be surprised if this were so, though it would make my responsibility all the greater. Some kindred spirits in the world of poetry, into which I often delve, both for pleasure and for duty, follow the principle of restoration with wonderful sense and sensitivity; while some thrash about in utter ignorance.

A random example: between ‘penumbrous’ and ‘penur’ the trained and perceptive mind senses a gap that cannot be filled without imagination. The symmetry of the whole page may be at risk, the balance of a tongue unhinged, just because nobody has seen that ‘penupy’ is the obvious and necessary word that alone can fill the awesome abyss. As to the meaning of such a regained word, this is a matter of wholly secondary interest. It will be discovered, rediscovered, just like its mortal coil, the word itself. This example was taken from the notebook, but I myself have been able to supply some additions and completions of my own: ‘piebent’ (between ‘piebald’ and ‘piece’) and, daring but absolutely necessary and entirely adequate, ‘pilbout’ (between ‘pilaw’ and ‘pilch’, a great step which had to be taken).

I admit that this art must seem somewhat mysterious,even obscure, to the untrained eye, but as in every refined pursuit in human life, the mind must be attuned to the novelties and joys of any idiom.

from The Simmons Papers, by Phillip Blom
London: Faber and Faber, 1995

Cousin Bettina, from The Dwelling Place, by Anne Goodwin Winslow


She had no home of her own, and her life was spent in journeying back and forth to the homes of others. This operation she called “flitting,” which was surely a propitiatory term for railway travel in the South of those days; and not only its tediousness but all its odd contacts and predicaments, and even its occasional dangers, she seems to have met with perfect coolness and a sort of light dignity that never forsook her. On one occasion she spent the whole night by herself in a lonely little station, and on another in the company of a lunatic who thoughtfully locked the door on the inside and pocketed the key. I think she was a little proud of the time when the doors of the passenger coach got jammed in a collision and she heard the conductor say to a man who was breaking the window with his boot heel: “You all would do a whole lot better to quit your screamin’ and scufflin’ and go sit back in your places like that lady over yonder with the guitar.”

From The Dwelling Place, by Anne Goodwin Winslow (1943)

The Blackstone Hotel, from Appendix A, by Hayden Carruth

blackstoneThe Blackstone Hotel on Michigan Avenue, Chicago, is an honorable old stack, presuming honor is an adjunct of any explicitly public aspect of civilization. There are other hotels in town; a good many, in fact, since Chicago has always enjoyed a good business from travelers who had to stop there whether they wanted to or not: a question of the more or less fortuitous itineraries of the transcontinental railroads. Some of these other hotels are prettier than the Blackstone, more modern, more elegant, more expensive. On the other hand, a great many are uglier, older, less expensive, and decidedly less elegant. The Blackstone comes somewhere near the top of the list in these respects, but not at the top itself. Nevertheless, if it is possible to extract an “essence” from the great American hotel myth, then the Blackstone is “essentially” Chicago’s most honorable, most venerable hotel. Because for years it has been the gathering place of powerful men. Some of the juiciest deals in the manipulation of American industry — mergers of railroads, for instance — have been cooked up in the Blackstone, I have no doubt; and as for politics, the smoke-filled room, an indispensable element of American folklore, is virtually by definition a Blackstone room — this, I am sure, all politicos (if they have any sentiment for the traditions of their calling) will concede. Chicago is par excellence the city of political conventions. The jet airliner may rob Chicago of its status as the nation’s foremost stopping-off place, but nothing will diminish its attraction to the politicos — nothing. The blandishments of Los Angeles, so sordid, so crass, may prevail upon one or the other party from time to time, but you can bet they will always come back to Chicago. Los Angeles is mistaken in its belief that simply because a V-8 bosom over a twin-cam ass, hotly idling, will invariably pack the theater with paying spectators, sex must also be what the politicos are looking for. Far from it. Politicos are the least sexy of mankind; ask their wives; even their mistresses. After all, when you are hunched contentedly in conclave, totting up lists of delegates, rolling your tongue around a succulent fifty-cent Havana claw, soothing your ulcers with the larruping twelve-year-old sour-mash Jack Daniels that always appears at convention time, this is just when you do not want the irrelevance of some rutting broad draped on your shoulder. Fact. It is an axiom of all political theory that the center of a woman’s brain is her pudendum; no idea ever occurs to her which does not concern passage one way or the other through that portal. Nothing implicitly wrong with this, of course, but. . . . It’s a matter of power concepts, comparative study thereof. Chicago knows this. Take it as a general rule that all women fare badly in Chicago — you won’t go far wrong. It is a man’s city. Perhaps this is true of all prairie towns: Lewis Mumford would say they have no containing principle, essential to the femininity of a place. Be that as it may, Chicago offers no sex to the politicos at convention time, except to minor female delegates who must be shunted off to the fleshpots of North State Street to get them out of the way. Instead, Chicago offers the far more illuminating and encouraging spectacle of the stockyards. Just what the politicos require — a vision of God’s creatures marching docilely into one end of a machine, from the other end of which issues a steady stream of money. Can anyone doubt that this is the inspiration which calls the politicos eternally back to Chicago? It is demonstrable that the important political orbit at convention time lies between the Blackstone Hotel at one end and the Union Stockyards at the other.

from Appendix A, by Hayden Carruth
New York City: Macmillan, 1963

A Game of Ping Pong, from The Second Miracle by Peter Greave

Athough to a casual observer we were engaged in a game—just two men, partially blind, partially crippled, knocking a small white ball about in a singularly unsportsmanlike manner—to us these matches were infinitely more significant. These contests were a kind of ritual. We were not so much engaged in a game of table tennis as bent upon the destruction of a rival. The game was only the channel through which we expressed the contest of wills that went on perpetually between us.

For from the first, in spite of the affection that existed between us, we were natural and instinctive enemies. We each tried to beat the other all day in everything we did. We were perpetually at war, perpetually at each 0ther’s throats. The essence of our odd relationship was discord. We were never happy out of each 0ther’s company, but we only stayed together because each hoped to down the other permanently.

And this permanent stream of competition had to find an outlet somehow. A couple of hundred years earlier and we would undoubtedly have set to with swords. If we had not been bound by hospital discipline we would have punched each other’s nose. But as it was, we played table tennis, using the game as an expression of the rivalry that held us together, so that our daily matches became epic battles, the results of which could depress me utterly or lift one to victorious pinnacles of joy.

We generally began by playing a couple of ragged sets as a kind of preparation. The score was always kept, but we would both realize that the real trial was to come. I would drive as hard and as fast as I could, and Brian would chop and spin the ball so that it leaped and spun like a dancing dervish.

Considering our ruined sight that made reading and writing so difficult as to be almost impossible, it was amazing how well we could follow the flight of the ball against its dark background. I think the secret lay in the brilliant overhead lighting that lent the ball a shining iridescence.

When the practice games were over, we took a deep breath and began the real contest. We were amazingly evenly matched, and die games generally followed a definite pattern.

We always played the best out of five sets. He would usually win the first and I the second. He would draw away with the third, and at the fourth I would pull level, so that the score would stand at two all, and the next set decide the game.

At this stage the tension would be terrific. Now that the pressure was on We would both pull out everything we had, and I, though I had lost a great deal of my speed and accuracy, was still capable of executing one shot that, when I was allowed to get it in, was both dramatic and effective. I could smash a ball with a forehand drive so that it was almost impossible for my opponent to return it, leaping into the air and following it through so that I spun round and round like a top. This gave me intense pleasure and, I believed, never failed to fill Brian with envy and dislike.

But, and I make the admission with extreme sadness, for every one of my tricks Brian had at least two. He could cut and feint and volley, and the ball under his direction seemed to possess a satanic life and energy of its own, so that I, with a sensation of black despair nagging at my vitals, would be forced to watch him piling up the points that seven times out of ten would bring him to victory by a narrow margin.

It was not that I was completely outclassed. I could always extend him thoroughly. But the fact remained that I was up against a superior player, one whose natural flair for the game was better than my own.

I found this extremely galling. It destroyed an integral conviction about myself. I felt that I should beat him, that I could do so if only I could put an ounce or two more effort and determination into the game; and so I would grit my teeth, roll the stuff of my will into a hard, compact ball and play with demonic concentration, launching an attack with every atom of energy I possessed. But even so, though I beat him at times—occasionally I would win three or four times in succession——more often than not he would feint and maneuver his way to ultimate victory. I am sure that I put more of myself into these absurd matches than I have ever brought to any other purpose in my whole life, and that if God had wanted to hurry up our cure He could hardly have found a better method than by putting the two of us together at this stage of our development.

We were so nearly matched, the rivalry between us so violent, that it was impossible for us to sink into a slough of inertia and self pity. We were obsessed by a resolve, an unflinching intent, and this acted as a continual spur and challenge and was of inestimable value to our health, even though the resolve was nothing more admirable than the determination to beat a brother, to humble him and tear him down.